The big political news of recent weeks has been the slow slippage in national poll numbers toward the Republican presidential candidate, Gov. George W. Bush. While Democratic spokesmen are putting on a brave face and predicting a reversal after this summer's conventions, the most startling movement has been on the part of married women and young people away from Vice President Al Gore.
As a biology-minded social analyst, I had one of my usually reliable "click" moments last week as a TV camera caught Bush trotting jauntily down the steps of an airplane and literally swaggering, hands dangling like a gunslinger, across the tarmac. The same primal principle of animal vitality that gave a still-raw Bill Clinton the juice to rout an aging, waffling, lackluster president in 1992 and then a burnt-out, snappish, half-mummified Senate majority leader in 1996 is starting to favor Bush.
Gore, meanwhile, for all his showy chest-puffing, is coming across as an effete, pretentious, mealy-mouthed candy man on the licorice umbilical from feminazi Big Mamas.
Last Sunday's Million Mom March, the gun-control protest organized (as the major media is finally admitting) by the sister-in-law of Hillary Clinton's longtime lawyer pal and hatchet woman, surly Susan Thomases, may not do the Democrats much good this year, when the electorate is in a mood, as during the humiliating 1979-81 Iran hostage crisis, to restore military credibility to the U.S.
It doesn't take a weatherman to figure out that the average citizen doesn't want national policy determined by packs of weeping women led by a shrill, dimwitted talk-show host (Hillary sycophant Rosie O'Donnell).
Yes, there are terrible problems with random violence in the U.S., though the incidents are not nearly as numerous as inflammatory media accounts make it seem. But are guns the problem or merely the symptom?
The Million Moms would do much more for this country if they would focus on the breakdown of family and community ties that produce sociopaths like the goons who shoot up schools and day-care centers. It was parental irresponsibility and neglect, and not simply the availability of guns, that were ultimately at the root of the Columbine massacre, where home-barbecue propane tanks had been converted into bombs.
The problem with gun-control laws is that they only work on already law-abiding citizens. Although I don't own guns, I respect those who do. And I venerate the armed woman as a transcendent symbol of independent female power -- from ancient goddesses like the Venus Armata or the knife-wielding Hindu Kali to the pistol-packing babes of "Charlie's Angels."
Neither do crime statistics from other countries carry much weight with me. Only the U.S. has a complex Bill of Rights with a First Amendment guaranteeing "freedom of speech" and a Second Amendment guaranteeing "the right of the people to keep and bear arms," which remain our protection against government tyranny. It's no coincidence that this most heavily armed nation in the world is also the most individualistic and entrepreneurial, with incandescent creativity in the high-tech field that has transformed the economy.
While the Millions Moms' demand that citizens be prevented by law from buying more than one weapon per month seems to me blatantly unconstitutional, I'm not so clear about why the gun lobby feels that pro forma registration of all firearms would necessarily be a first step toward government confiscation. And surely the production and sale of heavy-duty, military-style automatic weapons should be better tracked. But the general discussion has been so clouded by kneejerk, urban-liberal media bias that trying to achieve national consensus seems more remote than ever.
As I file this, Mayor Rudy Giuliani still hasn't withdrawn from the New York Senate race, which he should ethically have done two weeks ago to allow his party to get its act together before its May 30 convention. I've always felt that the quick-witted, dynamic, fresh-faced Rep. Rick Lazio, with his practical congressional experience, would make a much more formidable opponent to the cynical, jaded Hillary Clinton, whose only way to win would be to inflame racial passions against Giuliani, tearing up my home state in the despicable way now par for the course for Democratic operatives.
By the way, I thought the mayor's wife, Donna Hanover, acted like a horse's ass in her melodramatic press conference last week, as she hammily keened about past acts of "personal intimacy" with her spouse. Eve Ensler's off-Broadway "The Vagina Monologues" (a p.c. squawk fest where white ladies exorcise their bourgeois pudeur) has evidently gone to her head.
The disconnect between Giuliani's Mr. Clean public image and his chaotic private life has certainly taken the bloom off his reputation as a tough, efficient executive. But Giuliani deserves credit for the kind of affairs he's evidently had: Unlike the predatory Bill Clinton, who riffled through vulnerable women like playing cards and demanded mechanical servicing from them like nameless plumbers, Giuliani has conducted authentic, long-term relationships with mature, intelligent, feisty career women.
Speaking of the current administration, the most sickening spectacle of the year has to have been the delusional behavior of the Washington press corps at last month's black-tie White House correspondents' dinner, where most of the overwhelmingly liberal guests hooted and hollered like baboons at a video of the leader of the free world performing childish stunts like raiding ice cream machines and riding a bicycle down the corridors of the Old Executive Office Building.
Evidently there is no shame left in the nation's capital and no sense whatever of the dignity of the presidency. Why should my fellow Democrats be surprised that a purging Republican tide is rising?
Reader response to my support of the government's forcible removal of Elian Gonzalez from his great-uncle's Miami home was extraordinarily negative: Despite national polls indicating a majority of Americans agreed with the government's action, at least 75 percent of mail sent to me via Salon took the opposite position and often in terms more virulent than anything I have seen since the date-rape wars of the early 1990s (when feminist fanatics from around the country called my university to try to get me fired).
In analyzing this explosive reaction, I tried to sort the most intemperate letters into groups. One faction conflated the Easter weekend INS raid with the 1993 ATF assault on David Koresh's ranch at Waco. This column has consistently deplored the government's atrocious behavior at Waco, but I see few parallels between the two incidents, except for Attorney General Janet Reno's procrastination and bungling.
The Northeastern media treated Koresh, a religious zealot who nevertheless had constitutional rights, like a crackpot hillbilly, while in stark contrast, they allowed the family and friends of Lazaro Gonzalez to rant and grandstand for the cameras for months, as a small boy, a Cuban national, was held hostage and amorally used as a stage prop. As a teacher, I was sickened by the crazed environment that that child endured virtually from the moment he was rescued from the sea last November.
Uncritical supporters of the egomaniacal Lazaro and his unstable daughter Marisleysis (who is reported to have been hospitalized for stress and anxiety three times last summer, long before Elian arrived) may have been relying primarily on print accounts of the standoff. If not, then they lack the ability to "read" information fully from visual images on TV. The Gonzalez household and street scene looked like an anthill on dope. That family was given more than ample warning, week after week, to comply with INS regulations, which they flagrantly defied.
The second group of negative letter writers claimed that their experience, or that of their parents, under past totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union gives them special knowledge that Elian would be far happier with distant relatives in the U.S. than with his father, grandparents and school friends in Communist Cuba.
As I have made clear, I am no admirer of Fidel Castro and look forward to the day when he's gone and impoverished Cuba inevitably democratizes. But it seems foolish to portray that slow-paced, backward Caribbean island in garish, apocalyptic terms based on the violent overthrow of the Batista government 40 years ago.
The third group of irate letters were of the my-America-right-or-wrong variety, coming from those who, as far as I could see, have rarely, if ever traveled beyond their native shores and have little sense of how the rest of the world lives. In the crassest terms, they equate America's cornucopia of material goods with personal happiness and fulfillment.
As someone only one generation (on my mother's side) and two generations (on my father's side) removed from the Italian countryside, may I suggest that, in a sunny climate amid the fertile operations of nature, it's possible for villagers who own very little to achieve a contentment not necessarily guaranteed in the frenzied, careerist U.S.
Several liberal readers wrote to upbraid me about my past praise for radio host Rush Limbaugh, who has repeatedly and vehemently condemned the government raid in Miami. Surely now, they crowed, I would admit that Limbaugh, in comedian Al Franken's words, is "a big fat idiot"?
How absurd! What this Salon column has stood for from the start is independent thought -- freedom from dogma and from insular partisanship. Rush Limbaugh is a conservative Republican, and I am a libertarian Democrat; of course we will disagree on many things. But nothing in the forceful position Limbaugh has taken on the Elian Gonzalez issue makes me respect him any the less.
And as a football fan, let me add my two cents to the ABC Monday Night Football debate: After a decade of listening to his show when I can (I do have classes to teach!), I think that Rush Limbaugh would make a terrific addition to the broadcast booth. He knows his stuff and in fact has a sharper command of hard-nosed sports strategy than did the often annoyingly self-intrusive Howard Cosell.
The cover story of the May issue of the Atlantic Monthly is a lengthy excerpt from Christina Hoff Sommers' book, "The War Against Boys," to be published next month by Simon & Schuster. Sommers debunks one flimsy study after another claiming that girls are oppressed by a male-dominated, sexist system. But her socko revelation is the shiftiness and shrinking from scholarly accountability of Harvard's Carol Gilligan, one of the queens of campus gender studies. No neutral observer could fail to be dismayed by Gilligan's evasive behavior as well as by Harvard's irresponsibility in impounding archival data.
The Roman emperor Caligula never made his horse Incitatus a consul. This is another academic myth (cf. Nero, the violin and the burning of Rome). In the two surviving sources Suetonius (LV. 3) and Cassius Dio (LIX 14.7), Caligula only plans to make the horse a consul, but does not in fact carry out this plan. Apparently this misconception began with Gladstone and Disraeli and mutual slanders. I hope this helps.
Thanks very much, Prof. Johnson. The tall tale about the senatorial promotion of Caligula's horse has become very widespread, as I pointed out, because of the popular public-television series based on Robert Graves' novel, "I, Claudius." Peter Bartl, writing from Rodenbach, Germany, contributes this about the emperor Diocletian:
Diocletian did reestablish the Roman Empire as something resembling a Hellenic monarchy, with himself -- and his three "colleagues", Maximian, Constantius and Galerius -- far removed from their subjects and with the Senate, indeed, reduced to irrelevance.
However, Diocletian was consolidating and strengthening trends rather than inventing them. The Roman Senate was continuously losing influence and status since the reign of Septimius Severus (A.D. 193-211).
During the so-called period of "military anarchy" between Alexander Severus and Diocletian (A.D. 235-284) when emperors were constantly elevated and murdered by the soldiers, the Senate lost even its formal prerogative of appointing the emperor: The emperors recently appointed by the soldiers no longer bothered to ask the Senate to confirm their powers. At most, they wrote to merely inform the Senate of their appointment. There were periods when the Senate did recover some influence, but they were short-lived.
The decline of Roman traditions, I think, must be seen in the context of the loss of economic, military and political influence on the part of the traditional elites of Italian origin. It started when Septimius Severus became emperor -- the first for whom Latin was a foreign language, and whose family had strong eastern connections.
Thank you for that lucid overview, Mr. Bartl. I find nothing more fascinating or more pertinent to contemporary politics than study of those two huge transitional periods in the ancient Mediterranean world -- from the decline of Athens to the rise of Rome; and from the rise of Christianity to the decline of Rome and the interrelated rise of Byzantium at the dawn of the Middle Ages. Erron Silverstein has more troubling things to say about Diocletian:
Diocletian entirely changed the administrative structure of the Roman empire. He doubled the number of provinces (to stop any provincial governor from having enough military forces to mount a successful rebellion), and the bureaucracy mushroomed. The military was stronger than ever, resulting in the imposition of crushing taxes.
The Edict of Diocletian of A.D. 301 probably had more destructive force against the Roman Empire than the Visigoths or the Huns. It essentially froze prices, capped salaries and made jobs hereditary. This was enforced by a reign of terror that wasn't confined to Christian persecution. This destroyed the curial class in the provinces -- the city elite whose job it was to be the local administration.
Essentially, Diocletian was the Stalin of the third and fourth century. People fled to the countryside to escape forced conscription and the horrible taxes. As a natural consequence, the Senate was effectively neutered. Consuls were chosen, but they had little real power.
Diocletian destroyed many vestiges of Roman tradition (government, taxation, justice, commerce, and military) to make a super-state that would be easily recognizable to Mao, Hitler or Stalin. In part, the achievement of Diocletian was possible because of 50 years of civil war and chaos (starting after Maximinus Thrax and running through Probus) making people tolerate anything that was stable.
I appreciate your remarks, Mr. Silverstein. This is just the kind of nuts-and-bolts political history that ambitious young women should be immersing themselves in if we are ever to get a female president. (Women's studies courses in excess are a solipsistic dead end.) Greg Bayan has an amusing parting shot for our classics excursion:
Whenever Bill Clinton sends Janet Reno on a mission, I recall the behavior of that mischievous rascal Nero, who sent his mother Agrippina on a doomed cruise aboard a vessel rigged to fall apart on the open sea. At least Nero quickly put Agrippina out of her misery when she managed to swim ashore, mercifully truncating her interval of grief and shame. But Clinton appears to have an illimitable appetite for casting Reno into waters way over her head.
From Waco to Miami, Reno knows the ordeal by heart. She knows the sickening vertigo when solid footing vanishes beneath her and she plunges into the murky depths. She knows there will be no miraculous intervention by dolphins or passing fishermen. She knows she can count on nothing more than the air bubble in her panty hose to keep her ass from sinking to the bottom.
Yet the old girl makes it to shore, flopping and gasping, every time. Hardly is the brine cleared from her lungs, and she's being sent on another fool's errand to divert public scorn and ridicule away from her master and onto herself.
Now I ask you: Between the two autocrats, Clinton and Nero, who is clearly the more accomplished sadist?
You leave me breathless, Mr. Bayan! This could be the pilot for an action-adventure TV series, "Justice Gal," with Reno trekking into jungles and parachuting onto glaciers to bring the hellzapoppin' law where no man has gone before.
As we careen forward on the pop front, here's a diverting message from George M. Hook:
Could I make a nominee to your pop culture pantheon? Anne Francis. I recently purchased the "Twilight Zone" episode where Anne portrays a haunted woman in a spooky department store. It turns out that she is a mannequin come to life! Talk about insights into the modern female persona.
Anne was, of course, the one and only "Honey West" [a 1965-66 ABC detective drama] -- which they should be remaking instead of "Charlie's Angels." She was sexy, she was witty and she took bubble baths with her pet ocelot, Bruce. And she kicked butt. I believe Anne was also one of the first female independent filmmakers: She directed a documentary about rodeo life.
Who would I want next to me in my foxhole? Not Gloria Steinem, but Anne "Honey West" Francis!
In its original half-hour incarnation on CBS (1959-62), Rod Serling's "The Twilight Zone" had a staggering effect on me as an adolescent. Serling (who hailed from the same upstate New York towns as I do) has always been vastly more important to me than any "serious" novelist since World War II. He was, in my view, the supreme American Surrealist.
The program you mention, "The After Hours," was written by Serling and aired June 10, 1960. It remains my absolute favorite of all "Twilight Zone" episodes -- so eerie that it still gives me the chills. And yes, Anne Francis was terrific -- here and in the science-fiction classic "Forbidden Planet" (1956).
Finally, I was bemused and pleased to read in the May 22 Time magazine that Septime Webre, the new artistic director of the Washington Ballet, premiered a work at the Kennedy Center this season called "Fluctuating Hemlines," which, according to reviewer Terry Teachout, was "inspired by Camille Paglia's iconoclastic 'Sexual Personae.'" The article is illustrated by a sprightly production photo.
This is my last column before summer hiatus, when I must focus on my book projects. The column will resume when school begins in September, but I'll definitely be on call for Salon if major news breaks over the summer.