Our Kosovo idiocy: Expensive bombing won't change this slaughterhouse of medieval hatreds

Plus: Have S.F. drag queens gone too far in mocking Catholicism?

Published April 14, 1999 9:24AM (EDT)

Dear Camille,

Are you as frustrated as I am by the grouping together of women and children when military men talk shop about the atrocities of war? For example, "In Kosovo, many unarmed people are being massacred, including women and children." I hear this on television all the time during this crisis, and wonder at the phrase's survival in our enlightened time.

Laura Zander

Dear Ms. Zander,

Yes, there is a repellent vestigial sexism in treating "women and children" as a separate, helpless category of being. The political situation in ravaged Kosovo has reduced both men and women to the primitive stage of human life, when we were nomads barely surviving hand-to-mouth in a condition of passivity and fear. How fragile civilization is, and how little our dominant leftist or liberal theories respect it. Law and order are our barrier against savagery.

The American news media are, as usual, exploiting garish images of misery to whip up popular emotion. One of the worst examples yet was the cover photo of the April 12 issue of Time, which outrageously violated the privacy of a fleeing Albanian woman as, with bared breast, she nursed her infant child. Poking a camera at her on the open road was no different from spying on Diana's death car in Paris.

Now of course the rape card is being played by U.S. government spokesmen who want to keep war fever running high. As American warplanes make their hideously expensive bombing runs to Yugoslavia from the continental United States, we are being asked to see the current conflict in Manichaean terms of Serbian demonism and Albanian saintliness, the old chestnut of oppressors and victims. Inflammatory allegations of rape do not justify NATO destruction of Yugoslavia, which is impoverishing and brutalizing the very people we're supposed to be leading toward democracy.

The historical roots of this cycle of violence, where there were mass crimes and land grabs on both sides, are obscured from the American public, which didn't give a fig about the Balkans until the posturing Christiane Amanpour began her one-sided recitatives on CNN in the early 1990s. War-torn Bosnia became a convenient sob story for American intellectuals who didn't want to think about grave social problems right here at home after the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which signaled a major crisis in race relations.

What galls me about our undeclared war on Yugoslavia is that the other members of NATO are not footing their fair share of the bill and that American tax dollars are being thrown down a sewer -- or rather into a shambles, a slaughterhouse of medieval animosities that we cannot solve. Every bomb or missile that falls is a gross waste of money that should be going to the restoration of America's inner cities; to primary education and vocational training; to day care, health care and elder care for the economically disadvantaged.

Political leadership means prioritizing in a world of endless crises. America has much more to fear from a turbulent Russia and a rising China -- whose leaders cannot guarantee the security or aim of their nuclear weapons -- than Europe does from a minor local despot. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, playing out her childhood scenarios (when she was the Czech ambassador's little princess in Belgrade), has systematically misinformed her distracted White House boss and the American people about the ancient, cold realities of Serbian nationalism. Albright's conceit and deceit have damaged the cause of women everywhere who aspire to high office and public responsibility.

Dear Camille,

I'm interested in your opinion of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence's Easter Sunday block party in San Francisco.

The Sisters, a group of resplendent drag queens and their friends, party hearty each year to raise money for AIDS research and awareness. A good cause, and even good fun ... to a point. The mockery of Catholic traditions and beliefs that ensued struck me as a calculated insult that would never have been tolerated if the Sisters had "celebrated" Kwanzaa or Passover with the same disrespect. And this year, the festivities involved closing streets in the Castro, which meant that the Sisters were sanctioned by the City of San Francisco -- and the city coffers.

I have a keen appreciation of camp, and a healthy sense of humor about my Catholicism, but I think the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence crossed the fine line that divides parody from bigotry. What are your thoughts on this topic?

A gay Catholic from San Francisco

Dear Catholic,

I sympathize with your discomfort, but I envy your propinquity to the fabled Sisters, whom I've never seen in person but revere from a transcontinental distance. How I long to belong to their troupe, which seems to have a commedia dell'arte flair. When I vamped satirically around Greenwich Village with drag queen Glennda Orgasm (Glenn Belverio) for our joint film in 1993, I'm sure the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were in the back of my mind.

But you're quite right that it's open season on Catholics among a jejune brand of gay activist whom I loathe. If the sacrilegious disruption in St. Patrick's Cathedral -- where an Act-Up protestor threw the Communion host on the floor during Mass -- had occurred in a synagogue, the outcry from the major media about bigotry and hate crimes would have been deafening. As a lapsed Catholic who grew up under the gigantic bat-wings of the Legion of Decency (America's anti-Hollywood Inquisition), I yield to no one in my resistance to authoritarian surveillance and intrusion. But current gay life is culturally so shallow that old-style Catholicism looks better and better every year.

It's interesting that the persona of the imperialistic nun has lingered with such imaginative strength, since real-life nuns, committed to self-effacing social work, have largely abandoned their full, flowing regalia and repressive, disciplinary stance. Nuns seem to be mainly media creatures now -- from flitty Sister Wendy and grumpy Mother Angelica on TV to lounge singer Whoopi Goldberg hiding out in a convent in "Sister Act" (1992). The pop shift of nuns into comedy was probably heralded by Sally Field in "The Flying Nun," the ABC program (1967-70) that oddly ran concurrently with NBC's "I Dream of Jeannie" (1965-70) -- two polarized visions of female levitational magic, the winsome, candied angel versus the pliable, prankish odalisque.

Successful lampoons need taboos to transgress. Since I haven't observed the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in action, I can't critique their humor. But perhaps today, when divas of the thunderous dimensions of Marlene Dietrich and Bette Davis aren't available for parody, nuns are a vestige of the Bitch Goddess Triumphant. I mean, just how many laughs can you wring out of a Mariah Carey or a Celine Dion, once you get past their Oscars fashion howlers? Drag queens aping nuns may be obscurely miming a myth of the Bad Mother, the sour or impacted mammary whose plumbing has gone dry. What a metaphor for our sexually dyspeptic culture!

Images of nuns used to be powerful, even menacing, rather than buffoonish -- for example, the rustling pack of Furies who haunt the edges of Giulietta Masina's consciousness in Fellini's "Juliet of the Spirits" (1965). And Audrey Hepburn's brilliantly focused performance in "The Nun's Story" (1959) gave my adolescent psyche quite a zap, let me tell you. I didn't see Deborah Kerr as a glamorous Himalayan nun in "Black Narcissus" (1947) until much later, but the sensual Anna Karina as Diderot's drafted nun in "La Religieuse" (1965) certainly transfixed me (the film's decadent, party-till-you-drop convent was of course my special favorite).

In a way, "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" (1969), in which Maggie Smith plays a mesmerizingly flirtatious but frigid Scottish schoolteacher, is also a kind of nun's story. Should I be concerned that two of the major women in my romantic history are obsessed with this film? Well, as Scarlett O'Hara says, I'll think about that tomorrow -- tomorrow is another day!

Note: A letter signed "Longing for Honesty," which I received too late to include in last week's discussion of the recent report on discrimination against women faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is so compellingly argued that a central excerpt simply must be seen. I agree with every word of it:

"The premise of the report is that since women compose only a tiny fraction of MIT's math and science faculty, then there must be discrimination of some kind. I find it hard to believe the report's unstated assumption that there are women scientists doing brilliant (or at least competent) work who are passed over for hiring and promotion because they are women.
Affirmative action programs and civil rights laws place enormous pressure on universities to hire minorities and women. The reason that MIT has hired and tenured few female scientists is that so few of them exist. Very
few blacks and women earn even bachelor's degrees in math, science and engineering, let alone go on to become research professionals.

"Affirmative action programs have been far less successful at putting more minorities and women in academic jobs in math and science than they have been in the humanities and the social sciences because math
and science have fairly objective criteria for deciding who's competent and
who's not. Math has right and wrong answers. If an engineer builds a bridge that collapses, people are unimpressed by claims that the concrete was sexist or Eurocentric. In contrast, the humanities and social sciences
have more subjective standards. This makes it easier to declare by bureaucratic fiat that someone is competent to be admitted, graduated, hired
and tenured. Consequently, universities cannot find qualified blacks and women to hire in their science departments and tend to 'make up'
for this dearth by hiring even more blacks and women in disciplines like English and Sociology, where black and female PhDs abound -- putting white men at a real disadvantage for getting jobs in those fields.

"When will it not jeopardize an academic career to publicly acknowledge
that in part of America's black subculture, scholarly erudition is viewed as effeminate and 'white,' so that young black men who show an interest in
scholarship risk being branded by their peers as emasculated traitors to
their race?"

Postscript: For its May issue, London-based Harper's & Queen magazine asked me for a commentary on Madonna's portfolio of Japanese-style photographs (which appeared in the United States in the February Harper's Bazaar). This is the first article I've written on Madonna since 1993. And yes, despite many stresses and strains, I'm still a fan!

By Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.  Her most recent book is "Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars." You can email her at askcamille@salon.com.

MORE FROM Camille Paglia

Related Topics ------------------------------------------