Greetings, Salon readers! My column returns, as promised, after summer hiatus when I worked on book projects.
Politics was, of course, the season's main event. Americans are staggering under the weary load of a presidential campaign that seems to have been going on for years -- which it has, ever since Monica Lewinsky's snapped thong shook the foundations of the White House.
Since I live in a must-win swing state (Pennsylvania) that could determine the election, I've been bombarded with ads, which began during July's Republican Convention here in Philadelphia with the Democrats' well-crafted but brazenly defamatory assaults on Gov. George W. Bush and his Texas record. But all's fair in love and politics. It was up to the Republicans to respond with ads bolstering Bush's accomplishments (are there any?) and introducing him as an authoritative and well-rounded presence to a Northeastern electorate that doesn't know him from Adam.
Alas, the principal distinction between the political parties these days seems to be that Democrats are media-savvy -- and indeed incestuously intertwined with the Hollywood glitterati -- while Republicans are still living in the dinosaur age of communications, where good intentions are s-p-e-l-l-e-d out as tediously as in a one-room schoolhouse. In this age of the image, Republican operatives have the visual sense of Mr. Magoo.
The first Republican counter-ad, which is still running and running here and may lead to mass suicide by maddened voters, bizarrely resembles a Democratic attack ad. Ostensibly promoting Bush's commitment to educational reform (one of his few solid positives), it shows him standing stiff as a department-store dummy during his convention acceptance speech, as he squints and mush-mouths through a few sentences while inept cutaways flash generic children in generic classrooms. Never in my political memory has there been a major ad so amateurish and self-destructive, fixing a view of the Texas governor as stolid and stupid in the minds of Pennsylvania voters.
Hence I'm not surprised in the least by the Republican nominee's recent slide in the polls. Actually, Bush would probably make a competent, if not great president. He's no verbal whiz, but as I said in this column last spring, much of the national electorate is sick and tired of the glib, smartass Ivy League establishment and its alumni network of casuistic lawyers and snide media coteries. Maybe the country could use a nice, stiff dose of West Texas dust and the old, strike-it-rich romance of black crude. (See "Giant," the 1956 film now a TV staple, where the oil baron is played by rebel icon James Dean.)
While I strongly agree (evidently with a plurality of male voters) that the U.S. military urgently needs rebuilding after its gutting and demoralizing misuse by the Clinton administration, there is little else in the Republican platform that I as a pro-choice feminist Democrat can identify with. There is something very wrong with a party that has stifled and stunted one of its brightest stars, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, because of her moderate views on abortion. Whitman, whose articulateness and command of the issues far surpass Bush's, should have been our first female president.
On the other hand, despite having voted twice for Bill Clinton, I loathe the present leadership of the Democratic Party, which has been corrupted by the ruthless Clinton sleaze machine. I'd like to put the entire Democratic National Committee out to sea without an oar (see Giricault's "Raft of the 'Medusa'"). What a bunch of slimy hypocrites, proclaiming the cause of "the People" while condescending to them. Al Gore's convention acceptance speech last month nauseated me: the shameless demagoguery and chicken-in-every-pot false promises; the amoral use as stage props of pre-selected persons in the audience, including a near-hysterical couple with a baby with a birth defect; the shockingly cursory attention paid to national defense and international affairs -- which shows exactly what's wrong with the Democratic Party, with its unctuous pose as Mother of Many Teats to the suffering masses.
My dilemma as a voter is that while I endorse the populist principles of the Democratic Party at its best (Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Jimmy Carter look awfully good at this distance), the present party is overrun by slick, white, upper-middle-class bureaucrats, lawyers and flacks spouting divisive identity-politics propaganda. At the start of the primary season, when I supported Bill Bradley (for whom I voted), I still felt that Gore was superbly prepared to assume the presidency, despite his troubling record of exaggerations, fibs and unnecessarily sycophantish endorsements of the disgraced Bill Clinton. But Gore's manic, undignified scramble for a persona and his ruthless lies about Bradley's record have poisoned my view of him, perhaps irreparably.
At this time, I don't think it's necessarily in the best interest of the country to protract the Clinton-Gore scandals for another four years. While it's theoretically possible that Gore could still convince me that he's fundamentally a person of character and integrity, I am currently planning to vote for Ralph Nader. This country's political dynamics and discourse would be vastly improved by a strong third-party alternative -- which neither the Reform nor Libertarian parties, or even the present Green Party ticket on which Nader is running, has yet been able to provide.
As for Gore's vice presidential choice, Joseph Lieberman, I was at first very impressed with his intelligence, sobriety and forthrightness but have turned skeptical over his eager, bouncing-puppy abandonment of his former centrist convictions. Though the Northeastern media has been predictably rapturous about Lieberman, a Connecticut senator with the learned yet whimsical demeanor of a college professor, I'm not so sure how he'll go over in the rest of the country, where he may look like a Howdy Doody doll. The flat, laconic, no-crap style of the Republican vice presidential nominee, phlegmatic Dick Cheney, plays better in the rural West and Midwest.
From day one, I suspected that the media's giddy triumphalism over Lieberman's Jewishness, combined with his own over-the-top thanks to God for the alleged "miracle" of his nomination, may end up depressing Election Day turnout in working-class African-American neighborhoods, where blatant anti-Semitism persists. It remains to be seen whether Hillary Clinton's senatorial bid in New York has been helped or hurt by the Lieberman nomination, since the gain in Jewish support may be offset by voter apathy among urban blacks, the only group where her poll numbers are vastly higher than those of her home-grown Republican opponent, Rick Lazio.
Lieberman's pompous, vainglorious religiosity hasn't bothered me too much as an atheist, though I believe faith should be kept private except when it directly affects a politician's reasoning about a public-policy issue. Hence I think it quite legitimate for conservatives to cite the Bible or Koran in debates over abortion or gay rights, as long as the final decision is left to the voters and as long as the government itself never privileges or "establishes" a single religion.
Given the grotesque dependence of the Democratic Party on Hollywood cash and flash, I question how seriously a Gore-Lieberman administration would pursue government scrutiny and control of excessive sex and violence in mass media. However, it's not immorality but a disastrous decline in artistic quality that's the real problem with the entertainment industry. Considering the appalling mediocrity of the Academy Awards show this year, there may be a direct correlation between Tinseltown's Democratic socialite liberalism and its ignorance of the country at large.
Violent pop doesn't spawn violence in most kids anyhow; it's their adrenaline oasis in the banal suburban desert. As for sex, viva Britney Spears and her "stripper chic"! Mass media should not be blamed for the failure of busy, selfish parents to provide high culture and intellectual stimulation at home. As I've said in the past, if the ultra-p.c. National Endowment for the Arts had done its job, classical music radio stations would be thriving in every town in America.
Whatever my ambivalence about Joe Lieberman, I love his wife Hadassah. From the moment she was introduced by Tipper Gore in Nashville and began emotionally gesticulating and invoking the spirits of her murdered ancestors, I was captivated. Hadassah reminds me of the intense, brilliant, hip, vivacious Jewish girls of the 1960s who were my classmates from downstate New York at the State University of New York at Binghamton. Tipper, whom I've always liked, was also at her best that day -- saucily whipping out her camera like Liv Ullmann in "Persona" to snap the audience before she opened the proceedings.
The same cannot be said of the Gores' over-promoted eldest daughter Karenna, the most fatuous product of the Ivy League since -- well, her pal Naomi Wolf, who has the same smug, head-tossing, tooth-baring narcissism. Despite the breathless media huzzahs, Karenna's speech introducing her father at the convention was so dopey and ludicrous that I practically fell out of my chair with laughter. It was like a drag parody of the classic "I stepped on the Ping-Pong ball" routine by the airhead, country-club blond (skillfully played by Joanna Barnes) in "Auntie Mame." Karenna may perversely help the Republicans if the Gore campaign is dumb enough to send that simpering WASP princess out to stump among African-American women voters.
The strongest performance by a woman at either convention this summer was certainly by Condoleezza Rice, rumored to be the top candidate to head the National Security Council in a Bush administration. The media betrayed their Democratic bias by the networks' refusal to broadcast the first night of the Republican Convention, when two prominent African-Americans, Rice and Colin Powell, spoke and by their disgraceful failure to document afterwards the grace and power of Rice's presentation. She was also terrific offstage with her cool, crisp way of putting journalists in their place. I knew little about Rice before that night, but I'm now convinced that this geopolitical analyst and former campus administrator could be on track for the presidency.
If the Age of Clinton is truly, blessedly over -- which would require the defeat of both Al Gore and Hillary Clinton in November -- the big winners would be ambitious women politicians with their eye on the White House for 2004. A Bush victory would give international stature and experience to Rice and encourage other moderate Republican women to move up, as the present fagged-out generation of bad-toupee, good-ole-boy philistines vacates the Republican leadership.
On the Democratic side, with Gore and Hillary out of the picture, there would be strong candidates for the presidency like Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Blanche Lincoln of, yes, Arkansas. The quiet, reserved Lincoln, who has thus far deferred to senior colleagues, positively exudes the calm composure that would be ideal for our first woman commander in chief. Anyone watching the Democratic Convention with both eyes open (not always easy) could see that Barbara Boxer, the strident senator from California, is already packaging herself for a presidential run.
Holy Hecate, is Boxer (whose daughter wed and shed Hillary's brother) an obnoxious piece of work! Comic turn of the season may have been when poor Hadassah Lieberman could barely stagger to the convention podium with Boxer dragging on her arm to keep herself in camera range. It reminded me of that priceless piece of farce in "What's Up, Doc?" (1972) when a befuddled, tuxedo-clad man limps heavily into a hotel ballroom with Madeline Kahn, face down on the floor, gripping him tenaciously by the ankle.
Considering how many thousands of journalists were credentialed by the Republican and Democratic conventions, the quality of American reportage was abysmal. The American media have turned into a schmoozing herd of sappy clones, rarely deviating from the cocktail-hour party line lest they compromise their future job prospects. In my opinion, top honors for political commentary this summer unquestionably go to Jonah Goldberg, online editor of the National Review. His deftly written pieces were always fresh, smart, independent and often scathingly funny.
The Goldberg clan is flourishing: Lucianne.com, sponsored by Jonah's formidable mother, Lucianne, is one of the most fascinating reads on the Web. Whenever I go online, the first thing I check is the Drudge Report (I respect Matt Drudge as a pugnacious American original and Web pioneer), and the last thing is Lucianne.com, which I reserve as a special pleasure for its cornucopia of political articles culled by readers from newspapers all over America and the world. It's an essential antidote to the overt partisanship and devious news management of the New York Times, whose standards have slipped alarmingly over the past 20 years.
Of course I cheered when George W. Bush recently called a New York Times reporter a "major league asshole," and I immediately began a mental list of major and minor league assholes not only at the Times but at the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the New Yorker, the Nation, the Village Voice, etc. After a decade as a controversial public figure, I've seen them all! Their flatulence may be a major factor in global warming.
Other summer matters: Given the verve with which this column has waxed acrimonious over Anne Heche's parasitic attachment to the hapless Ellen DeGeneres, some might well wonder about my reaction to the breakup last month of that publicity-addled pair. Was it a giggle, a guffaw, a horselaugh? OK, all of the above -- mostly at the image of the delirious, scantily clad Heche wandering like a pixie-cut John the Baptist in the California desert.
Yes, it was as if Heche were reliving Marion Crane's flight from Phoenix in "Psycho" (in the very bad remake of which she very badly starred). But maybe Heche was hunting for the crop-dusting plane of "North by Northwest" to hop to Toronto for her next film gig and love victim. Ms. d.t.'s sure splatted a mushroom cloud of DDT over DeGeneres' extraordinary comic gift -- which is barely twitching these days in its suffocating cornfield of messianic p.c. clichis.
Given the virulent antipathy of the West Coast gay establishment to me and my views, it was ironic that Anne and Ellen imploded and Melissa Etheridge spilled the beans about her abusive upbringing just as the September issue of the San Francisco lesbian magazine Girlfriends, with me on the cover, was arriving at newsstands. Editor in chief Heather Findlay deserves enormous credit for pursuing the feature on me against resistance from inside and outside her staff. ("Are you nuts?" was among the more charitable things said to her, according to the editor's note.)
That it took 10 years for any lesbian magazine in the U.S. or U.K. to deal honestly with my life and work shows exactly what's wrong with the insular gay world, where outdated Foucault flacks and toadying campus careerists are mistaken for intellectuals. Too many gays who demand "tolerance" and "diversity" these days are viciously intolerant when it comes to opinions differing from their own. The Girlfriends interview (titled "Paglia 101: Confessions of a Campus Radical") explores hot-button issues like the genesis of homosexuality and the campaign against Dr. Laura Schlessinger. I hope that Findlay's editorial courage marks a turning point in the attitude of the gay press toward dissent and free thought.
Pop talk: two summer highlights. First was the riveting profile of Ingrid Bergman on Lifetime's "Intimate Portrait," where her fiercely glamorous daughters minced no words about her indifference to family relationships and her devotion to her art. The program wonderfully showed how Bergman (one of Alfred Hitchcock's favorite stars) lived for the camera. Her hieratic concentration is exactly what's missing from today's Oscar-gathering mouse herd of girly-girls and dough boys.
Second was the documentary "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," which made a sensation at this year's Sundance Film Festival and which I was lucky enough to see in a tape sent me by producer-directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. I think this is the best film about American culture in years. It puts Hollywood productions like the specious "American Beauty" to shame. Bailey and Barbato's international production company, World of Wonder, is one of the most creative ateliers at work today. I have followed their accelerating careers with great interest ever since they were perhaps the very first to interview me on film at my university in the early 1990s. (It was for a documentary for British television on New York's drag festival, Wigstock, when few academics would go on camera to defend drag queens.)
Salon reader Jeff Percifield writes from Oakland, Calif.:
Like you, I'm a longtime soap fan but have finally been driven away by the networks' switch to sappy teen trauma storylines. "The Days of Our Lives," "All My Children," "One Life to Live," and your fave, "The Young and the Restless," have all sunk under a wave of adolescent angst that couldn't be less interesting. Even ballsy Jill on "Y&R" is reduced to fretting about the kids' prom. Give me a grown-up catfight any day between Nikki, Diane and Ashley over this watered-down "90210" dreck! Think this is the end of the line for soaps?
Mr. Percifield, you express my own angst with painful eloquence. I've been exasperated all summer by the boring, picayune, molasses-slow non-plot on "The Young and the Restless" -- though of course I always perk up when feisty, sensual Nikki or smoldering, high-testosterone Victor is onscreen. Have "Y&R" producers gone into suspended animation, like the ill-fated, crystal-casket travelers in "2001: A Space Odyssey"? How idiotic to bring back that redheaded tigress, the abundantly talented Michelle Stafford, and then make her hunker over a computer screen in trivial service to a passel of teenage dimwits. Soaps have steadily lost their emotional soul as well as their flamboyant high camp. Fans, let's storm the networks!
Thanks to the Salon reader calling herself (or himself) Greta Hohenzoellern, who alerted me to the very amusing feature by Lisa Whipple in McSweeney's, which ingeniously extracts and lists the self-describing appositional phrases and Iliadic epithets from my Salon columns over the years. May all believers in wifty "Grrrlpower" hear the true voice of the Amazon!
Postscript: I have been promoted to university professor at the University of the Arts, where I've taught since 1984. I have also left the Department of Liberal Arts to join the new College of Media and Communication, where I will focus on the development of interdisciplinary, inter-arts courses. However, I will retain the title professor of humanities and media studies.