Hillary, Naomi, Susan and Rush. Sheesh!

Clinton requires emergency intervention; Wolf's mind is amazingly slack; Faludi's "Stiffed" is a stiff. Meanwhile, Limbaugh brings a genuine intellectual service to American culture.

By Camille Paglia

Published November 17, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Hillary Rodham Clinton continues to stumble and bumble along the long and winding campaign trail, her latest gaffe being her slow-as-mud response last week to Suha Arafat's startling charge that Israelis have been poisoning Palestinian women and children with carcinogenic gases.

While I support Palestinian statehood, as Hillary has in the past, I was appalled that Arafat would compromise the stature and autonomy of an American first lady by forcing her, in effect, to sit captive on a speaker's platform while an anti-Israel litany was being recited.

But Hillary demonstrated what an embarrassing neophyte she is at seat-of-the-pants improvisation, the rat-a-tat style of banking, swooping and counterattack that her prospective senatorial opponent, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, is such an ace at. No, Hillary shouldn't have walked out -- that would have been undignified and disruptive. But her double kiss and hug for Arafat, whether they occurred before or after the incident, were excessively effusive for that charged climate. And her speech should have been delivered in a sterner or more neutral tone, preparing the way for a later, more carefully considered, direct rebuke.

That Hillary Clinton constantly requires emergency intervention and marching orders from her far-flung team of consultants -- above all the detestable, twisted Harold Ickes (who looks like a character out of "Faust") -- should be a warning to New York voters about her basic lack of talent as a politician. Hillary is as preprogrammed as Elizabeth Dole: Both these women lawyers are smart and polished when they prep and plan, but they're clumsy and off-balance under sudden, high-stakes pressure. It's preposterous that the Democratic Party of my home state can't come up with a better, more seasoned local candidate.

The funniest political pratfall of the month has been Al Gore's bizarre entanglement with yuppie feminist Naomi Wolf, a favorite target of mine from early this decade. (In my published 1991 lecture at MIT, for example, I notoriously called Wolf "little Miss Pravda" -- as well as "the princess of the system," a "twit" and "a parent-pleasing, teacher-pleasing little kiss-ass.")

Salon readers Charles E. Lincoln and Jacqueline A. Burns write from New Orleans to ask my view of the Gore campaign secretly paying $15,000 a month to Wolf for her advice, which included trying to inflate his malleable maleness from beta to alpha status. Frank Francomano, in a second contribution to this column, declares, "Naomi is perfect for Al Gore. She plays directly to the core of what the Democratic Party has become: a haven for the loose left-hand thread nuts in the great American Machine."

What can I add to my remarks on the Nov. 7 broadcast of CBS's "Face the Nation"? I called Wolf a "lightweight" ("She was too lightweight even for the lightweight magazine George, for heaven's sakes!") and decreed that she's "a Seventeen magazine level of thinker."

Well, first of all, I think Naomi Wolf's parents should sue her alma mater, Yale University, for malpractice. If we judge by her clarity of reasoning and command of language at age 37, her education was a fraud. She was injected with passi feminist and post-structuralist doctrine at an impressionable age, and she never received the kind of disciplined training in high-level philosophy and intellectual history that she desperately needed.

Wolf has energy and ambition, but her mind is amazingly slack. It's as if she's frozen in the precocious but superficial brightness of adolescence, with her thoughts tumbling out in what a reviewer of her last book (Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times) rightly called "narcissistic babbling and plain silliness."

There was a priceless extravaganza last week on Rush Limbaugh's radio program (which I was listening to in my car): For almost 40 minutes, Limbaugh played and replayed individual sentences from Wolf's appearance the day before on ABC's "This Week" with Cokie Roberts and Sam Donaldson. It was an excellent example of the genuine intellectual service that Limbaugh has done for American culture. No other print or electronic media source gave such instructive, microscopic attention to the murky labyrinth of Naomi Wolf's thought, for which the Gore campaign is still paying a very high price ($5,000 per month, as busted down by new campaign manager Donna Brazile).

I laughed uproariously as Limbaugh heaped scorn on Wolf's "literary" pretensions by demonstrating the redundancies, clichis, contradictions, convolutions and pompous, self-interrupting mini-clauses in what he called her "nonsensical" patter. A male caller dismissed Wolf as a "pseudointellectual" vainglorious about her "credentials" and went on to express incredulity that she was ever a Rhodes Scholar (though Wolf evidently never completed her degree at Oxford University).

Limbaugh asked why Tipper Gore couldn't teach her husband "how to be a man" in the first place: "Instead he has to go out and hire a true crackpot." That Wolf was embraced by the Gore campaign, which can't seem to shake her, should signify to Republicans, Limbaugh concluded, that "we're up against a wigged-out bunch of New Agers who don't have a grip!"

While I resent the damage that Gore's seamy, under-the-table affiliation with the ditzy Wolf has done to my party (I'm keeping my fingers crossed that Bill Bradley's still-nebulous candidacy will gel), I'm pleased with the way the Wolf brand of me-first, upper-middle-class, Rolodex feminism has been exposed for its preening sense of privilege and entitlement. Wolf's career has in fact always benefited from backstage connections, covered up by feminist sympathizers in the media who seem finally to have turned on her.

There was the friend-of-her-father agent and the roomful of editors and advisors who pulled the meandering manuscript of "The Beauty Myth" into semi-coherent shape. There was the older male relative (reportedly an uncle) conveniently positioned at the New York Times. Then arrived the talented editor/speechwriter husband whose precise, sober voice can be detected with questionable regularity.

If many professional writers have disdain for Wolf, it's partly because her byline, as I've sometimes joked, should be "Team Naomi" -- contradicting her public posture of feminist independence, not to mention her stratospheric financial demands. The cloud of hype in which Wolf has enveloped herself (about her U.S. book sales, for example) appears to have turned delusional, as when she gratuitously confided to Cokie and crew that she had "taken a pay cut" to work for Al Gore -- at which a thousand horse laughs undoubtedly resounded up and down the Eastern seaboard.

The baroque pay-cut gambit has now taken pride of place in the Wolf sculpture gallery of brazen claims, which was formerly dominated by her much-circulated assertion that her daughter Rosa was named after civil rights heroine Rosa Parks -- when it's oddly enough the name of Wolf's grandmother. (See the entry on Wolf's father Leonard in the multi-volumed reference work "Contemporary Authors.")

When asked by foreign journalists about the tortuous scandal preceding last year's impeachment crisis, I often mentioned the striking physical and psychological similarities between Monica Lewinsky and Naomi Wolf, who arrived on the scene tossing her hair and thrusting her bosom at hapless male journalists even as she denounced the cult of beauty as a sexist plot against women.

Lewinsky and Wolf typify the bankruptcy of the liberal bourgeoisie in this country. Pampered, over-praised, yet neglected by busy, professional parents, they learned to use bratty flirtation and girly glibness to get attention from daddy. No nation in the world has ever produced shiny, hysterical, depthless women quite like these, who as they age find themselves in pitiable free fall.

The feminist chickens sure have come home to roost this season. In separate messages, Salon readers Tony Austin and June Fabiani ask me to review Susan Faludi's book "Stiffed," which was released with thunderous P.R. in late September and rapidly receded into the cultural shadows within a few weeks. Lesson No. 1 for publishers: A million-dollar advance (what the neo-Marxist Faludi reportedly received) does not necessarily translate into a quality book.

Faludi is the product of a very bad Harvard education: She has no feeling for culture, high or pop, and her grasp of history seems weak. She operates from a banal set of a priori theses borrowed from the old-hat Frankfurt School and from post-structuralist academic feminism ("writing from the margins," done to death in the late 1970s and '80s). Her view of working-class and lower-middle-class life is uncomprehending and grotesquely condescending.

I've remained discreetly silent about "Stiffed" for several reasons. First, the book seemed, on the basis of a page-by-page scan conducted while I was casually perched on a footstool at Border's, just too tedious to actually read. (I'd rather be watching a Hedy Lamarr movie.) The second is that Faludi's failure to give due credit to a far better book on the same subject, Warren Farrell's "The Myth of Male Power" (which I favorably reviewed for the Washington Post in 1993), is outrageous and dishonest.

Third, I suspected that "Stiffed" would flop without any help from me, so I stepped back up on the curb, as it were, and let the rickety, rattletrap Faludi hippie bus hurtle down the hill into the shrubbery and bougainvillea on its own. Of course, I'm gratified that mainstream feminism is finally catching up to me: I forced men back onto the gender agenda in my first book 10 years ago, and many were the piggy squeals from aggrieved feminist special interests on campus and off.

But that Newsweek -- whose alienated "back of the book" female staffers were once credited by Faludi as the core cabal who pushed her first book, "Backlash," toward the bestseller list -- had the gall to devote a cover story (Sept. 13) to the commercial work of a newly hired contributing editor is a sign of the utter debasement of journalistic standards. Is it any wonder that the major media have lost power and credibility to online magazines and to fiercely independent Web news sites? (Stand tall, Matt Drudge!)

There's no need for a review of "Stiffed" from me since there are such fine ones already out there: Walter Kirn's witty trouncing in the Oct. 4 New York magazine; Christina Hoff Sommers' even-handed dissection in the Oct. 4 Weekly Standard; and last but not least, James Wolcott's tour de force in the Nov. 15 New Republic, a remarkable performance by the leading American culture critic at the height of his formidable powers.

Another point in my Faludi communiqui for Salon readers: "Backlash," a book filled with jumbled facts, rash overstatements and distorted reasoning, has become the bible of world feminism, notably in Scandinavia, where its dreary socialist undertone rings a bell. Faludi belongs to a smug clan of press divas like her former Wall Street Journal colleagues, Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson (now of the New Yorker and New York Times respectively and the authors of "Strange Justice," a propagandistic 1994 account of the Anita Hill controversy), whose partisan work is wildly overpraised by their pals in the liberal media elite.

The fallout continues from the controversy over the "Sensation" show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, which I discussed in an earlier column. On Nov. 1, Judge Nina Gershon of the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn ruled that Mayor Giuliani was unjustified on constitutional grounds in withholding city funding from the museum and in threatening to evict it because of the distasteful or sacrilegious nature of some works in the exhibit.

I support the court's decision: No matter how noxious the apparent offense, civil authorities may verbally condemn but not harass or materially interfere with the activities of arts institutions, whether the latter rely on public funding or not. But fundamentally, Giuliani was right to make a stink, and he has risen in the polls because of it.

My contempt for Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman intensified with a surprise report about the court documents in the Oct. 31 issue of the normally p.c. New York Times. They proved not only that Lehman had lied to the press but that he had been involved in coercive manipulation during financial planning. The Times editorialized on Nov. 2 that the show's funding made it look like "an ethically dubious enterprise."

That Lehman had already been accused of anti-Catholic bias during his tenure as director of the publicly funded Baltimore Museum of Art was revealed by Rod Dreher in the Oct. 5 New York Post: In 1996, Catholics protested Lehman's co-sponsorship of a film series containing a British TV program attacking Mother Teresa of Calcutta as a "ghoul" and a collaborator with totalitarian regimes.

As an arts educator, I hope Lehman gets canned. His shallow, unprofessional behavior at the Brooklyn Museum has enormously increased the animosity against art and artists in this country, just when it appeared that the wounds were healing after the National Endowment for the Arts flap over Robert Mapplethorpe a decade ago.

That the sole religious image in "Sensation," with its childish ad campaign about nausea and vomiting, was of the Catholic Madonna and that no curatorial context whatever was provided about the history of iconoclastic art suggests, in my view, the low, snide motivation of both Lehman and the owner of the show, British ad man Charles Saatchi. I heartily agree with Salon reader Jim Colucci, who writes, "I doubt that a seder plate made of swastikas would ever have seen the light of day at an American museum, nor should it, if the museum is public."

Deb Yost cheered me up with her letter from Lincoln, Neb.:

Why do you think the East Coast-West Coast illuminati have refused to see that the need for shock art is so long past? It seems to me that in having no originality, discipline or humility (to learn from the past), they wallow in a stubborn desire to try and bask in the ever-receding light of Picasso and Jack Kerouac. I have an urge to say to '90s shockies, "Sir, I have seen Picasso -- and you ain't him."

If you're ever in Nebraska, refresh yourself at the University Place Art Center in Lincoln or the Willa Cather Museum in Red Cloud, or any of a dozen places here devoted to the Arts better than most of what you see on the coasts (outside of the established classics museums). A well-kept secret!

Thanks, Ms. Yost! Your point is quite congruent with my lecture on art and beauty last week for the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington (as well as with my remarks on C-Span's "Washington Journal" the next day), where I fulminated against the "irresponsibility" of the NEA and the chichi arts establishment, which has so damaged the cause of art in America. I called for practicing artists to get out of their hip ghettos and evangelize for art in public libraries and primary schools to win respect for the great artistic tradition at a time when commerce and new technology are sweeping to total triumph.

On the pop desk, Mark Potts in Columbus, Ohio, asks what my reaction was to the much-hyped lesbian kiss on the Nov. 1 episode of Fox's "Ally McBeal." Answer: loud catcalls of derision and disgust. My partner Alison and I were revolted by the scene's general ugliness and ineptitude in staging and photography. (Callista Flockhart, with that auto accident of a revised nose, appears to think that acting consists of archly widening the eyes. Dunce cap, please!) The penis-waving dialogue of the finale, nullifying the lesbian intrigue, was an insulting cop-out. Holy Hermes, do I loathe that show!

Finally, I was very amused by a letter from Bob Rothery about the
Kinsey Sicks, a San Francisco drag troupe that advertises itself as "America's Favorite Dragapella Beautyshop Quartet." The four gay men, who call themselves Trixie, Winnie, Rachel and Trampolina, do risqui song satires like "Beaver" (instead of "Fever"), "I Will Swallow Him" and "Titanic: Why Must Celine Go On?" Rothery says of the Kinsey Sicks, "They give Bobbie McFerrin a Jewish mother's spin with 'Don't Be Happy -- Worry.'" A New York gig is in the offing.

As a devotee of Glennda Orgasm (Glenn Belverio's immortal drag alter ego), I am of course delighted to hear that, at the dawn of the new millennium, drag creativity still booms!

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.

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Al Gore Hillary Rodham Clinton Robert Mapplethorpe Rudy Giuliani The New York Times