Camille Paglia, art historian, culture critic, founding Salon columnist and expert provocateur, has a new book out, “Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars” that looks closely at 29 wide-ranging works — paintings to sculpture to performance art to digital art — that she sees as defining works of art. And for the voluble and volatile Paglia, the lean precision of the book is a marvel.
Each work is paired with a relatively short and compulsively readable essay, a format she writes was inspired by “Catholic breviaries of devotional images, like Mass cards of the saints.” Her choices range from the classic and expected to the obscure and the startling (she proclaims “Star Wars” creator George Lucas our greatest living artist). It’s Paglia at her best. Even her explorations of the more familiar works will have you marveling anew — her chapter on Picasso’s notorious “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” had me wanting to run to the MoMa to see it again with fresh eyes. She even manages to breathe new life into an overexposed, coffee-mugged work like “Irises”:
If “Irises” has any theme, it is the beauty and fertility of nature. Monet’s trees seem packed with orange fruit, but those bursts are simply green leaves touched by solar fire. The thronging irises, with their personalized heads, are as lively and sociable as the bustling pedestrians of Monet’s early Paris scenes. The blossoms have a spirit of their own — like the host of dancing daffodils that enraptured the Romantic poet William Wordsworth on a lakeside walk.
Ah, but as Salon readers know very well, Paglia’s never contained herself to the art world. A feminist critic of feminism, a Democrat frequently infuriated by Democrats (now is one of those times), she thrives at being a bomb-thrower from the inside. And she’s at it again! During an interview last week about her new book, she held forth on subjects as varied as the state of the arts, Bravo’s addictive “Real Housewives” franchise, her old nemesis Naomi Wolf and, yes, politics — where she gave us her surprise pick for president.
You’ve been studying and teaching the arts for decades now. How do you decide what artwork to include in a book like this?
Well, one of the things I’ll be doing on my book tour — that is, in large venues like art museums with installed screens — is to show some of the images that got cut and didn’t make it into the book, to show how hard that process was. I’ll be showing 30 images from a much longer original list. As it is, the book took five solid years of work. There were so many things I had to eliminate, it was really wrenching. For example, the High Gothic style — I planned to show a great rose window from Notre Dame or Chartres. And there were a staggering number of possibilities in classical antiquity — it was overwhelming.
But the whole point was to try to produce a very slim, handy book. My original idea was that it would be a paperback small enough to just fall open in someone’s hands. I wanted to induce general readers, and especially young people, to buy or at least look at an art book that they could carry around with them. It’s because I’m so appalled by that coffee-table book syndrome. I mean, every issue of Architectural Digest — a magazine I adore for its gorgeous visuals — shows every posh home with stacks of these coffee-table art books — obviously unread — in every corner and on every shelf. Well, who the heck wants to look at art in those gigantic, unwieldy things? How can you even hold it? Those monstrosities are just paged through and quickly forgotten. And then the decline and vanishing of bookstores because of competition from Amazon.com — which I’ve collaborated with, because I love Amazon, so I’ve contributed to the murder of the bookstores — but those bookstores, especially the chain bookstores in the shopping malls, would often have tables of remaindered art books, published at $50 and reduced to $7.98 or something. People could just leaf through them; there was a presence of art there. Even if you didn’t buy them, you could learn a lot by browsing. Now it’s a disaster — the bookstores are gone. It means that people outside the major metropolitan centers have no means of direct contact with the great history of art. And everyone who lives in New York or Washington or Boston has this very complacent view of the state of the arts because their major newspapers do in-depth articles about the new [museum or gallery] show or latest acquisition.
You’re helping parent a young child now, too, and seeing this firsthand must drive you bonkers.
We live in the suburbs of Philadelphia, so my son goes to museum shows. His mother is an art teacher and worked as a gallery owner and independent curator, and his grandmother founded a publishing house, Archetype Press, that produces award-winning architectural books, specializing in Frank Lloyd Wright.
He has a big leg up.
That’s right. So the point is, if you happen to have parents who are interested in the arts, then you will be exposed to the arts. But if your parents don’t have that background, then what? When I was in college in the ’60s, there were all these fabulous, cheap paperbacks, many of which I still have, which were published in England and were about artistic style. They were little glossy books of mostly pictures, hardly any text, about the Pre-Raphaelites, Art Nouveau, Symbolism, Futurism, the Bauhaus, and so on. What happened to that?
So what I’m trying to do is fill that gap. I’m providing a handbook to anyone — to people who never took an art history course or who haven’t thought about art since college. I want to do something very inviting, readable and non-threatening, with each chapter as short as possible. Then while writing it, I thought, oh my God, I’m trying to do an art book in the age of the Kindle — am I out of my mind? This is never going to work! So another reason I wanted to keep it short was I was in anguish that it was going to end up way too expensive, and by the time this book was done, they weren’t going to want to do it. But to my absolute amazement, once the book was submitted last fall, I suddenly realized that Random House was going to put its full force of production and design into this book. I really had no idea! Precisely because of the Kindle, they now wanted to show the world what a book can be as an object — to re-intoxicate people with the beauty of books. Random House has devoted so much energy and expense into the high-quality printing and glossy paper. This very slim book is so heavy, you have to worry about mailing it, because it will fly out of the package! I’ve collaborated on all the covers of my Random House books — such as the “Vamps and Tramps” cover, where I’m in Diana Rigg “Avengers” mode. For this book, I suggested an Art Deco motif — because Art Deco is still very marginalized, and gay guys love Art Deco! As I say in the book, the entire reason Art Deco has survived is because of gay collectors!
That was a fascinating point you made about Tamara de Lempicka’s “Portrait of Dr. Boucard” — that Deco died until gay collectors brought it back.
Oh, it was totally swept away! Art Deco seemed very superficial, very glitzy as the 1930s went on — with the aftermath of the Depression, the rise of fascism and Nazism and then the war. Studio-era Hollywood movies were very influenced by Art Deco — as in Cedric Gibbons’ sets. Most people don’t realize how avant-garde Hollywood set design was in that period from the late 1920s into the ’30s. Like you’d see an office that was very fuddy-duddy, with old dark walnut or mahogany furniture, showing that person belonged to the old guard. And then the hip set with a fabulous modern office in a beautifully minimalist, clean-lined office in the Art Deco style. It’s aggravating that Hollywood has never gotten credit for the role it played in promoting modern design. At any rate, Art Deco is still marginalized in academe. It’s considered decorative and elitist and therefore doesn’t fit into the Marxist paradigm of social relevance for that period.
So I asked my publisher to go in an Art Deco direction for the cover. And they tried this and that. I sent them links for travel posters from the 1930s. I was thinking of an angular sweep into the distance to give depth. Then all of a sudden out of nowhere came this cover — which I think is one of the most brilliant cover designs in recent publishing history! I got out of class and went to my office to check emails, and there was a message from my editor saying, what do you think about this? And I nearly fell on the floor! It is a truly inspired cover that combines the motifs of an Egyptian pyramid, the road of spiritual journey toward a distant horizon, and a fading sun that looks like the Death Star of “Star Wars.” Then the simple, mathematical Art Deco font of the title. It’s gorgeous! It magically invokes what I was trying to achieve in the book — to get people to be still, to recover contemplative stillness in front of a great image — instead of the mania of jittery, flashing, fragmented images we’re immersed in today. Web design of major news sites as well as camera work on TV have become simply awful.
What does inspire you that’s out there now?
Bravo’s “Real Housewives” series! Whoever is doing the photography and editing for “Real Housewives of New Jersey” and also for “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” and “Real Housewives of Orange County” — this is absolutely cutting edge. I can watch the same episode — while I’m cooking and eating dinner – five, six, or seven times. I savor how visually interesting they are — how long each shot lasts and how much information it contains. This is intelligent and sophisticated documentary filmmaking that really needs to be honored.
Documentary? Isn’t it just pop spectacle?
The early episodes of that series were bland and dull, even amateurish. Through trial and error, they eventually found a technical groove. It’s not just the sensational drama. As a soap opera fan, I’ve been in the depths of gloom for over 20 years as TV soaps declined. I was already lamenting this in a piece for TV Guide in 1992. I always adored soap operas. I was listening to “The Romance of Helen Trent” on the radio when I bicycled home for lunch in fifth grade. My grandmothers watched soaps, even though they barely spoke English. In the 1970s, I wrote down great lines from TV soaps. That’s when they were aimed at stay-at-home moms — all the tear-jerking emotion from the women’s pictures of the Lana Turner era. But there was this terrible decline when soaps suddenly wanted respectability — so then came the socially conscious message scripts and the crime drama. And they really missed the boat, because in the ’90s, drag queens got big! It was “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” and everything else – that flamboyant drag queen style was exactly the way the great soap opera queens used to behave. But the soap operas played it prim and safe. They receded and receded, and now they’re dead. The producers didn’t catch what was happening. The mass audience wanted theatricality and flamboyance! And that’s what this Bravo “Real Housewives” series is supplying in spades. I don’t like reality shows and have never watched them, but I’m addicted to “Real Housewives” because it’s authentic old-time soap opera reborn!
But beyond that, the shows are all about glamour — make up, hair, fashion. And sex! They show women trying to balance being sexy with being mothers. Most of the women on “Real Housewives of New Jersey” never went to college. So it’s great to see strong and outspoken women who are outside the elite zone of attaché-carrying careerists working their way up on Wall Street.
And these shows are archetypal bitch fests! I read a few months ago that Gloria Steinem hates “Real Housewives of New Jersey” and would be glad to picket it. Well, there’s the big difference between Steinem and me. She sees the show as a distortion of women, while I see it as a revelation of the deep truth about female sexuality. Right there is the proof of why feminism has faded. Those second-wave feminists had a utopian view of women — they constantly asserted that anything negative about women is a projection by men. That’s not what I see on “Real Houswives”! It’s like the Discovery Channel — sending a camera to the African savannah to watch the cheetahs stalking the gazelles! What you’re seeing is the primal battles going on among women. Men are marginalized on these shows — they’re eye candy, to use Obama’s phrase, on the borderlines of the ferocity of female sexuality.
The criticism is that the shows are heavily scripted and staged, though I would guess the pressure to create drama creates its own reality.
Well, there is no doubt that many scenes are staged. Women arrive at a restaurant and are clearly cued to talk about some topic or prior clash. But the conflicts and emotions are real — ending up with people walking out on each other or almost coming to blows. And there are real-life consequences from the eruption of hostilities.
And it’s being filmed, which raises the stakes.
Yes, the whole world is watching. I’m such a private person that I just can’t imagine this kind of intrusion into my private life. But “Real Housewives” is authentic about a stratum of New Jersey Italian life that was badly done in “The Sopranos,” which I hated.
You did, I remember. And you hated the sort of assumed Mafia ties and exaggerated accents. So how does “Real Housewives of New Jersey” compare?
I loved the first two “Godfather” films, which I think are masterpieces. It’s really not the Mafia theme per se that offended me in “The Sopranos” — it’s just the inaccuracy with which Italian-American culture was depicted. To me, it was out of date — it was by a guy who had left there and had vague memories of what it was like in the ’60s. I loathed it; I could never watch it for more than two minutes. The same thing with “Mad Men,” by the way, which everyone at Salon adores so much. I was there! I lived through that period. “Mad Men” doesn’t capture one single thing about the décor, costumes, or sexual interaction. It is a total projection of contemporary snarky attitudes into the past. If you want to see what women were actually like in that period of sexual repression, just put in a DVD of “Psycho” and watch the phenomenal Janet Leigh as a secretary in a Phoenix office at the start. That is it!
I remember turning “The Sopranos” on once and within two minutes nearly throwing a brick through the screen. It was a dinner-table scene where the daughter had just been admitted to Columbia! And everyone is going, “Oh, isn’t that great,” and they’re actually applauding. And I’m going, oh my God, are they kidding? It was like porn for the upper-middle-class of Manhattan! Oh, right! Yeah, the whole world just wants to get into Columbia! All those poor people over the river are dreaming about Columbia! Get out of here! The reality was in a recent episode on “Real Housewives of New Jersey,” where Kathy Wakile’s daughter was applying for college and wanted to go away. Go away? What do you mean, go away? You can’t live at home? So they go down to the University of Maryland to take a tour. And then, it turns out, forget it! The daughter decides to stay at home and go to college in New Jersey.
So which of those “Real Housewives” characters do you like the most?
Well, on “Real Housewives of Orange County,” I love Tamra Barney, who is such a tomboyish mischief maker and very sexy. And then on “Real Housewives of New Jersey,” I really like Jacqueline Laurita, who describes herself as “a Vegas girl,” because she was raised in Las Vegas. I think she’s very hot and also very soulful. Her feelings are always being hurt.
What do you mean yes? You’re acting like you watch it.
Sure, I watch it.
Oh, my God! You watch that show?
Absolutely — I understand everything you’re talking about.
I’m staggered! So Jacqueline is always sort of tearing up or breaking down because she feels so deeply for her broken friendships. There was this incredible moment in this season’s culminating episode where they’re all fighting in the parking lot after the Posche fashion show at a Cuban restaurant in West New York. And there’s Jacqueline standing there alone in her sparkly black outfit and drop-dead strappy gold high heels. She looks like a Polynesian idol with her face frozen and tilted upward. It’s a classic Hollywood moment, all internal turmoil under that mask. She looks magnificent! They keep cutting back to her — which is another great example of editing. Whoever is editing those shows has a tremendous sense of drama. These are great soap opera moments!
The class issues on those shows fascinate me. They’re all aggressive climbers. Some seem to be making a lot of money, others are constantly going bankrupt. They’re trying to figure out how to live as big as they possibly can.
And the McMansions!
Those crazy houses. But then you look at the other end of TV obsessions — it’s “Mad Men,” with a sort of cool Manhattan new money, or a show like “Downton Abbey,” which celebrates old-fashioned aristocracy.
I can’t watch them — they’re claustrophobic. I feel they’re dead visually as well as in terms of their scripts and content. We’re trapped in a derivative period of remakes and retro-this and retro-that. It’s all over “cool” — which is exactly what’s affecting the fine arts, too.
You’ve always said that. That a cool, jejune kind of urban sensibility ruins art.
Right! I can’t stand it. Now Andy Cohen, the executive producer of the “Real Housewives” series, is like an old-fashioned vaudevillian. The vaudeville era fed into Hollywood all those character actors who fleshed out movies for decades — like Thelma Ritter or Jack Benny. Vaudeville was live entertainment, often without microphones, where you had to go out there with a positive attitude and sell yourself. You had just a few minutes to entertain a noisy crowd and try to get rehired by the manager. As the host of “Watch What Happens Live” (which follows the “Real Housewives” episodes), Andy Cohen has that kind of exuberant energy. And it’s so amazing how openly and militantly gay he is!
I have to ask: What have you made of the commotion about your old nemesis, Naomi Wolf, and her latest book?
It’s certainly very strange and even uncanny that, once again, I’m following Naomi Wolf around on a book tour! This is exactly what happened in 1991, when Naomi debuted with “The Beauty Myth” and Random House sent me on tour for the Vintage paperback of “Sexual Personae.” I certainly got an earful at the time from media escorts and drivers who had had to put up with her!
I detested “The Beauty Myth” because I felt it was such a poorly researched and argued book. To address the topic of beauty required research into aesthetics and the history of modern media and Hollywood. But she just waded into the subject with the most PC second-wave feminist ideology — even though she herself was profiting enormously from her own good looks. If Naomi Wolf didn’t look the way she did, she would never have gotten any attention for that book. So it seemed hypocritical of her to be denouncing the beauty myth even while she was profiting from it.
When I first read about Naomi’s forthcoming book, called “Vagina,” I assumed it would be a big bestseller for her. So I’ve been extremely surprised not only at the flood of negative reviews from fellow feminists but at the book’s commercial failure, which even made me feel sorry for her. She simply did not do the necessary hard research required into history, anthropology and science. The book is basically anecdotal — like an article in Glamour magazine. But beyond that, I was troubled by the reviews themselves, which I followed via Google News. The avalanche began in the UK, where the book was released two weeks earlier. They had some wonderful headlines, which burned themselves into my memory — all for reviews by women. I loved the headline from a Scottish newspaper, “Why are so many female authors trapped in me-me-me terroritory?” The Independent said, “We deserve better than this claptrap.” Then I think it was the Evening Standard that said, “Say no to Naomi Wolf’s latest hair-tossing hokum!” Another of my favorites was in the Guardian, which said, “Naomi Wolf’s orgasms: What have we learned?” — as if they were a terrorist attack in Syria! I thought that was hilarious.
First of all, the sheer number of negative reviews, as well as the tone of derision and contempt coming from fellow feminists, was unprecedented. As a matter of fact, I can’t remember in my entire career any book receiving more negative reviews than this book has — and yet all that press space not resulting in sales. It was as if feminism was shaking itself and reassessing itself and reconsidering its history. Because while Naomi Wolf is often considered representative of third-wave feminism of the ’90s, her ideology is basically second-wave — from her mother’s generation. Even when Wolf tries to celebrate sex, she remains prudishly anti-porn — which is a completely illogical position. But that illogic was repeatedly echoed by most of the prominent feminist journalists in New York who negatively reviewed the book. They did the same thing: “We’re pro-sex, but we’re anti-porn.” Well, I’m sorry, but that’s specious! You are not authentically pro-sex until you can deal with all the visual language of sexuality. The anti-porn feminists have always been visual illiterates. If you’re used to looking at nudes in Greek sculpture and Renaissance, Baroque, and nineteenth century French painting, you’re not going to be that alarmed by what’s called pornography. How silly! It’s just sexual imagery of varying quality – from good to bad. And by the way, these PC gals don’t even realize I invented the now widespread feminist term “pro-sex” — which, when I first used it on the road in 1990 (in a litany that went “I’m pro-sex, pro-porn, pro-art, pro-beauty, pro-pop”), would provoke startled laughter from audiences.
I found many of the major U.S. reviews of Wolf’s book to be oddly naive in the way they forcefully critiqued her failures of research and reasoning and yet gullibly accepted everything she said about herself. They swallowed wholesale her tall tales of her fabulous sex life and didn’t seem to notice how viciously castrating to men the entire book is. And the reviewers revealed their own historical ignorance in their failure to call Wolf on her absurd portrayal of ancient vagina-worship — where it was brute procreation and never women’s pleasure that was being honored.
Those chatty, snippy reviews revealed how watered down and banal feminist discourse has become in the decades since Freud was first rejected as sexist by second-wave feminists. There was a brief spate when Freud snuck back into academic feminism via the jargon-ridden Jacques Lacan, but that phase is dead as a doornail. The near-total lack of psychological insight in the Wolf reviews amazed me. Because the first thing I said when the Australian contacted me (while the book was still under embargo and I had only seen a short summary in Publishers Weekly) was that I was shocked at the grotesque sexual exhibitionism here of a woman who is turning 50 this year and who is the mother of two teenagers. Why would anyone do this to herself and her family? Shouldn’t it be obvious that anyone who is genuinely enjoying a wonderful love life would never expose those tender intimacies to the harsh spotlight of the world?
Yet that basic common sense was missing in the major reviews. Not until the tail end of the review process did I see in a relatively obscure British blog a woman saying, “In this book Naomi Wolf is having a nervous breakdown.” And I thought, finally! Someone with insight! What the Wolf reviews showed me was why I have had so much trouble communicating with fellow feminists for four decades. It’s because, when it comes to authentic critique of sexuality and of themselves, they draw a blank.
Next: I know you’ve got thoughts on the election.
You’re getting an exclusive, because I haven’t said a word about this publicly. Journalists have tried to get me to comment, and I’ve refused, because I’ve been saving it for Salon!
OK: Who are you going to vote for?
I am voting for the Green Party.
Oh, you are? I don’t even know who the Green candidate is. Who is it?
Jill Stein — a doctor from Massachusetts. Now, I wouldn’t be voting Green if Roseanne Barr had won the nomination, but Stein is a solid and sensible candidate. I don’t agree with everything the Green Party says, but I’m in tune with many of its basic positions. I’m remaining a registered Democrat because I still hope for the reform of my party. If the Republican candidate were Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich, I would certainly not be voting Green; I would be voting for and contributing to Obama again, as I did in 2008. There are three people on the political landscape whom I absolutely loathe — Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Dick Cheney — that delusional and mendacious war-monger. But I think that Mitt Romney is a moderate — like Nelson Rockefeller, who as governor of New York poured money into the state university system that educated me. Romney is an affable, successful businessman whose skills seem well-suited to this particular moment of economic crisis. Hence I want to use my vote to make a statement about my unhappiness with the Democratic Party and the direction it has taken. The biggest issue for me is the Obama administration’s continuation of endless war, war, war. I denounced the Iraq incursion before it even happened.
I remember that — it was in an interview with David Talbot for Salon.
It was when the cowardly major media were totally accepting the government line and the flimsy evidence that Colin Powell presented at the United Nations. It was only after the invasion had been launched — and the non-discovery of any weapons of mass destruction — that the media woke up and began its way-too-late critique. I have been revolted by the silence of the liberal mainstream media about Obama’s expansion of war — even beyond our pointless continued presence in Afghanistan. After 9/11, I was for bombing the hell out of the mountains of Afghanistan until Osama Bin Laden was caught or blown to smithereens. I certainly never believed that land troops should be used in Afghanistan. Good lord, look at the evidence of history — how ridiculous! Not only the defeat of the Soviet Union there — it goes all the way back to Alexander the Great! But the Libyan incursion is another example. The mainstream media behaved like robots as Hillary Clinton and Samanatha Power and who knows who else put pressure on Obama to go into Libya. What are we doing there? It’s absolutely madness! Then, all of a sudden, when the whole thing blows up and our ambassador is killed, Hillary is in a funk. Oh, dear, how could this have happened? In a country that we helped!
And what is the administration’s response to the murder of our ambassador? Nothing. Do we have a presidency or not? The ambassador’s journal was lying on the floor for CNN to find, and it took weeks for the FBI to get there and spend a day — after sensitive documents were stripped long ago. The State Department has clearly become a morass of political correctness. Hillary and U.N. ambassador Susan Rice should resign. Of course the mainstream media were mum for weeks about the Libyan scandal. And that just empowers the right-wing in the country. The media’s pampering and protection of Obama over the years simply led to his weakening — which was on excruciating public display at his first debate with Romney, who landed blow after blow.
So, the first reason I’m voting Green is the state of endless war. Second is the appalling rise in the military and domestic use of drones. I bought Medea Benjamin’s protest book about drones, and I agree with her. There is reason for great concern about the use of drones for police surveillance in the United States. This Democratic administration has gone very deep into the weeds here in offering incentives to local police departments to acquire drones, which are a serious threat to our civil liberties and right to privacy — which liberals should be defending. We’re on our way toward a Big Brother society.
My third reason for going Green is the creeping totalitarianism of Obamacare, which Jill Stein as a physician is rightly skeptical about. I began denouncing the Obamacare bill in my Salon column within two months after Obama’s inauguration. And I was also criticizing the President’s imprisonment within an insular circle of advisors who were not of sufficient quality and experience as administrators or strategists to sustain his presidency. If Democrats and their cohorts in the mainstream media had listened to me and begun criticizing the administration early on, there would have been ample time for a course correction and Obama would now be sailing into reelection.
But the childish naivete of so many supposedly well-educated liberals was shown by their complete failure to notice or remark on the most glaringly obvious deficiency in Obamacare: You cannot possibly expand medical coverage to millions of people without also expanding medical training and funding new clinics and hospitals. The total absence of that in the bill was ludicrous. And you still hear mush-minded liberals saying all the time in the media, “Oh, what about this nice provision or that?” When any of those things could have been easily dealt with by free-standing bills passed with bipartisan support.
The way liberals lay down flat to accept this massive, totalitarian takeover of the American medical system was shocking to me. Let’s remember how Bob Dylan broke out of folk music into the public sphere with his great song, “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” which was about the fascist intrusion of Big Brother government. It was about the FBI and the CIA and the police — faceless bureaucracies — intruding into our private lives. What in the world has happened to the Democratic Party? Its passivity towards this awful takeover of our lives by a know-it-all government, as shown by the way Obama has governed by constantly going around Congress — appointing czars and one new layer of bureaucracy after another. And hardly a peep of protest from liberals. It’s like the movie of H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” — Democrats have turned into the Eloi; they’re like sheep. They hear a signal, and it’s like pre-programmed spin in their heads — they just trot like sheep in one direction. I am voting Green in protest against the systemic corruption of my party.
Well, thanks for the exclusive. Totally agree on two subjects, Afghanistan and the growing surveillance state. But it seems like those are issues brought up — we raise them, other progressives raise them a lot — but part of why it never comes up is because the Republicans are completely complicit and would likely be worse in both of those areas.
Wait a minute, hold it, no! Listen — a huge point I want to make is that the protest against the surveillance state has, with only a few exceptions, been mainly coming from the Right and not from the Left! Talk radio has been seething with this issue for years. A good example is talk-show host Mark Levin’s “Liberty and Tyranny,” which was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller three years ago and yet got very few mainstream reviews. Democrats have got to wake up! This is why the Republican Party has gained and why the Democratic Party is in disarray — because the Democrats have lost one of their key signature issues from 1960s leftism. Why has the GOP become the freedom party?
A lot of the people who were critical of the growth of surveillance under Bush no longer care about it under Obama. That’s true. But you’re saying that it’s up to the Left, and the Democrats, to change that?
Yes. The Left must retake this issue of personal freedom and civil liberties. Over the last 20 years, freedom has become a conservative watch word, and liberals have lost their claim to it. There is a huge difference between contemporary upper-middle-class bourgeois Democratic liberalism and the fire-breathing 1960s leftism that was the mood of my college years. After all, it all began with the free speech movement at Berkeley! But liberals have now been trained to be docile and obedient. Last month, I was the featured speaker in a debate about gender roles at the Yale Political Union. At the dinner at Mory’s beforehand, the very bright and talented student organizers were telling me about how every academic year begins with a counseling session where they are instructed about the nature of sexual “consent.” So I said to them, do you understand that there is a level here of surveillance and control of your private lives that at the University of Paris would be considered grotesque? Why should the administration of any college be telling young people the way they should be interacting with each other? But these very able and promising students have been brought up in a culture of smothering paternalistic observation and control. It’s so authoritarian! But the students have been taught not to question it. To a ’60s libertarian dissident like myself, it’s really alarming.
But don’t you think the two parties have converged, have moved in the same direction, on surveillance and authoritarianism?
As someone who listens to talk radio, I must tell you that the issue of personal freedom and resistance to a swollen totalitarian government has become primary on the Right. Yes, the two parties have converged in their support of Wall Street and the military. But as with Richard Nixon going to Communist China, it may be only a Republican president who could close our excess number of military bases around the world. Why is there never a public review of our obscenely costly global presence? I believe in a strong military and in adequate funding for training and armaments, but we are seriously over-extended right now. This is where I completely agree with the Green Party. We are still stuck in a hopelessly outdated Cold War model.
And all that foreign aid — I’m sick of it! We go on and on throwing money down every corrupt rat hole in the world! Our tax dollars should be going to upgrade inner-city schools or paying for medical care for the elderly. Why aren’t Democrats in the forefront of proposing budget cuts in unnecessary government expenditures? They’ve sure made it so easy for Republicans to tag Democrats as reckless tax-and-spend liberals. And too many Democrats have fallen for the administration’s canard that we can restart the economy through more government spending.
So then, why not vote for Romney?
I cannot cast a vote for a party that cast so many votes in the primaries for the vile Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum! The Democrats may be naive about institutions and economics, but the Republicans seem to be culturally and psychologically naive in imagining for a single second that Newt Gingrich is a deep and erudite thinker! I watched that boomlet happen, and I thought, “What world do Republican voters inhabit if they mistake Gingrich’s glib, snickering, tittering snarkiness for depth and learning?”
No, the Republican Party has become very provincial in terms of culture. Nelson Rockefeller, in contrast, was a collector of first-rate abstract art! That’s one of the things I’m trying to remedy with my book. One of my target audiences is home-schooling moms — whose powerful voices I heard calling into conservative talk radio at the dawn of the Tea Party. They are formidable and capable personalities whom feminism has foolishly ignored.
I don’t like the situation where the Democratic Party is the party of art and entertainment, the party of culture, while the Republicans have become the party of economics and traditional religion. What that does is weaken both sides. One of the themes in my book is the current impoverishment of the art world because of its knee-jerk hostility to religion, which is everywhere. That kind of sneering at religion that Christopher Hitchens specialized in, despite his total ignorance of religion and his unadmirable lifestyle, was no model for atheism. I think Hitchens was a burden to atheism in terms of his decadent circuit of constant parties and showy blather. He was a sybaritic socialite and roué — not a deep thinker — whose topical, meandering writing will not last. And I’m no fan of Richard Dawkins’ sniping, sniggering style of atheism, either.
A responsible atheist needs to be informed about religion in order to reject it. But the shallow, smirky atheism that’s au courant is simply strengthening the power of the Right. Secular humanism is spiritually hollow right now because art is so weak. If you don’t have art as a replacement for the Bible, then you’ve got nothing that is culturally sustaining. If all you have is “Mad Men” and the Jon Stewart “Daily Show,” then religion is going to win, because people need something as a framework to understand life. Every great religion contains enormous truths about the universe. That’s why my ’60s generation followed the Beat movement toward Zen Buddhism and then opened up that avenue to Hinduism — which is why the Beatles went to India with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Then it all disappeared, when people became disillusioned with gurus. But spiritual quest was one of the great themes of the ’60s that has been lost and forgotten — that reverent embrace of all the world religions. This is why our art has become so narrow and empty. People in the humanities have sunk into this shallow, snobby, liberal style of stereotyping religious believers as ignorant and medieval, which is total nonsense. And meanwhile, the entire professional class in Manhattan and Los Angeles is doping themselves on meds and trying to survive in their manic, anxiety-filled world. And what are they producing that is of the slightest interest? Nothing. Nothing is being produced in movies or the fine arts today (except in architecture) that is not derivative of something else.