With the center of gravity in the presidential campaign having shifted abroad due to rising tensions and open conflict in the Middle East, the United States is in a very dangerous position. The lax military oversight and poor strategic planning shown by the vulnerability of the Aegis destroyer, the USS Cole, to a small boat in the harbor at Aden, Yemen, significantly increased the probability that President Bill Clinton, already fretting about Al Gore's sluggish showing, would order military action somewhere in the world before Election Day. We can only hope that, should it occur, it will be a measured and rationally directed strike and not another example of this administration's abuse of the military for domestic political advantage.
The sudden Mideast crisis has also destabilized the campaign season by resurrecting the long-vexed question of how much of a role Jewish Americans have or have not played in influencing U.S. support of Israel. At the Million Family March organized by the Nation of Islam in Washington last week, a Syrian Muslim jurist blamed what he called (according to the Washington Post) the "Zionist-controlled media" in the U.S. for partisan treatment of the Palestinian cause. While most observers would categorically reject that inflammatory formulation, it must be said that the new medium of the Web has allowed Americans to sample and monitor the far more balanced reportage of Mideast issues in the British, European and Canadian press.
"Conversion to Islam is rising among African-Americans," stated the headline of a report by Monica Rhor in the Oct. 14 Philadelphia Inquirer. Over the past 40 years, this trend has fostered pro-Arab and occasionally anti-Semitic sentiments among a community that the Democratic Party has come to take for granted as part of its base. Gore's selection of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, for his running mate was enormously popular among white middle-class professionals and academics of the Northeast but appears to have exacerbated tensions among working-class urban blacks, whose turnout on Election Day is crucial for Gore as well as for Hillary Clinton in the New York Senate race. Unease about the Lieberman nomination was inevitable given that the Gore campaign left blacks off the shortlist of finalists it floated the week before the announcement.
The power of the pro-Israel lobby -- which certainly does not include all American Jews, who on the academic left are often Palestinian sympathizers -- is demonstrated by Hillary's embarrassing behavior since she began actively campaigning for the Senate. This longtime supporter of Palestinian statehood who was once on huggy-kissy terms with Suha Arafat has been frantically backpedaling and re-tailoring her words and views to win the support of Jewish voters, who represent between 10 and 12 percent of New York state voters. That there were very few blacks (aside from Hollywood stars) on the official list of 404 "friends" who were invited for discreet White House sleepovers from July 1999 to last August says everything about where the Clintons think the real power lies.
Many Americans, myself included, have wondered for years why our safety and security are compromised by an inflexible foreign policy that has set the entire Muslim world against us. From the 1988 destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, to the 1993 bombing of New York's World Trade Center, the American mainstream media has been in denial, blaming those heinous acts of terrorism on small cadres of madmen funded by outlaw regimes -- as if the attacks were unrelated to decisions made in Washington. The U.S. is rightly seen by Arabs as the principal guarantor of Israel's military might, which Americans have underwritten with billions of tax dollars for which there are pressing domestic needs. The media rarely allow Arab views to be heard unfiltered and unframed, and too often, Arabs are portrayed as irrational or medieval, clamoring cartoon figures of no interest until they begin to adopt Western ways.
But pictures tell a thousand stories, breaking through press censorship. The horrors and irreconcilable passions of the Mideast were recently dramatized by the death of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy, caught in a crossfire as he huddled with his father in a stony street. Then the massacre and barbaric mutilation of two Israeli reservists by laughing, taunting vigilantes at a police station in Ramallah stunned the world. The mob's frenzy and its use of metal poles and even a window screen to savage the corpses recall the bloody denouement of Tennessee Williams' "Suddenly Last Summer," where a pack of Spanish beggar boys hack a rich aesthete to pieces with shards of rusty cans and metal scrap from the dump. It's the rage sparked by abject powerlessness, the revenge of the exploited and dispossessed that ultimately dehumanizes both sides.
What passed with little commentary by the American media was the widely rebroadcast video footage of what happened later that day, when Israeli helicopter gunships raked the deserted village of Ramallah with pinpoint rocket strikes. The damage was to property, not persons. Nevertheless, it was profoundly disturbing and illustrated better than anything I have ever seen the degree to which the Israelis' superior firepower, provided by the U.S., has intimidated and brutalized unarmed Palestinians and diverted Arab hatred and rage toward Americans abroad. Those monstrous, high-tech machines, hovering impersonally over Ramallah's ancient hills packed with simple, square, white houses, reminded me of the terrifying, apocalyptic scenes in the 1953 film "The War of the Worlds," when Martian airships sweep slowly and unstoppably over Earth's cities.
Given the intractable sentiments of hard-liners on both sides, from armed Islamic militants who want to obliterate Israel to fundamentalist religious Jews who believe God deeded them the land, I've never been optimistic about the "peace process" launched with great fanfare seven years ago by the Oslo accords. If Jews remembered Jerusalem over 1,900 years of diaspora (caused by my own ancestors, the imperial Romans), how could Palestinians be expected to forget, in just 50 years, the land and property they were robbed of by European powers making guilty reparation for European crimes committed against the Jews? To blame Arab nations for failing to make things easier for the West by absorbing the Palestinians into their populations is both futile and ethically problematic.
But Israel is now a fait accompli and remains our most reliable democratic ally in the Middle East, upon which too much of our policy converges because of our overdependence on foreign oil (and fossil fuels in general). It's difficult to see how the U.S. could ever substantively modify its commitment to a nation with so many intricate connections with high-placed American citizens. On the other hand, Israel's confidence in American support and economic aid has made its changing governments arrogant and perhaps prolonged the conflict by giving them little reason to compromise. At any rate, much more open debate is necessary about the history of America's alliance with Israel. Too often, criticism of Israeli policy is punitively policed and treated as if it were rank anti-Semitism.
Now back to domestic politics. A number of Salon readers complained that I ought to have posted prompt assessments of the presidential debates; however, because of my duties as a teacher, this column is now on a triweekly schedule. I did contribute to a Salon roundtable on the first debate, where I felt that the sneering, sighing, compulsively paper-tearing Gore came off as juvenile and weird. About the dull second debate, where a subdued Gore was still too supercilious, I have little to add except that the very vague George W. Bush, with his pursed lips and oddly upright, stock-still posture (to increase his height?), reminded me alternately of Ross Perot and Whistler's mother.
About the third debate, however, I have a lot to say. The run-with-the-pack commentary by professional journalists about that event was woefully off the mark. The St. Louis debate should go down in history as one of the most stunningly successful uses of TV by a candidate (in this case Bush) since Sen. John F. Kennedy's charisma overshadowed another experienced, knowledgeable vice president, Richard M. Nixon, in 1960.
Those who thought that Gore won the third debate evidently know little about TV and its relation to the mass audience. After over two decades in politics, Gore showed that neither he nor his advisors fully understand live TV either. Vainglorious about the "1000 town meetings" he claims to have conducted, Gore plunged into the debate thinking he had to impress and convert the immediate audience of allegedly undecided (but suspiciously liberal-sounding) voters sitting in front of him. But after his poor showing in the prior debates, it was the great, invisible array of TV viewers nationwide that he needed to reach.
Gore and his team (including, presumably, his simpering daughter Karenna) made a massive misjudgment about presentation. Gore's pirouettes, finger-pointing and constant crossing and recrossing of the pit between the bleachers may have struck in-house observers as dynamic and dominant, but his choreography was not keyed to the camera, of which he showed little awareness except when he was prissily sitting or stiffly standing. Gore's "blocking" of physical space in the circumscribed arena was inept and incoherent. Hence his movements seemed to the TV audience awkward, erratic, febrile, disconnected and chaotic, leaving the viewer with a lingering impression not of presidential authority but of psychological instability.
Add to this Gore's dreadful failure to modulate his voice for the microphone to communicate effectively with TV viewers, most of whom at that hour were sitting at home or (on the East Coast) preparing to retire for the night. So implacably determined was Gore to score big with the small group in St. Louis that he boomed away at top volume with a forced, monotonous, near-breathless pacing more appropriate to a rah-rah partisan rally. While Bush often seemed like he might not make it to the end of his sentence, Gore seemed to be reciting by rote and muffed some key moments, such as when he couldn't switch into a convincingly conversational tone to describe being called back to the White House the prior week to be briefed on the Mideast crisis.
The big news, surprisingly, is how Bush reacted to Gore's hammy, manic affectations. It's not clear whether this was the result of superb coaching or his own gut instinct, but when it was Bush's turn to speak, he treated the camera as if it were an intimate, as if he and the viewers at home were in league against a hectoring wind machine. Gore's deafening, indiscriminate blather became so annoying after a while that whatever Bush said, no matter how disjointed or tottering the syntax, came as a palpably physical relief, like cool rain after a broiling sun. Bush was so sly and deft in undercutting Gore that at one point I said to myself, "This is like Zen!" That is, Bush made himself a reed bending to the wind. He projected modest self-containment -- but it was the strategy of a fox.
It's very difficult for hot-button speakers -- as well I know from my own experience with TV production -- to mesh live performance with a made-for-TV style. What ebulliently works in person and fills a room comes across as much too strident on the small screen. That my initial reading of the third debate was correct is suggested by Bush's rise in the polls afterward -- to the astonishment of Democratic consultants and their media allies, who have never grasped how Americans choose their presidents. No one wants a glib, smug, smart-alecky elitist in the White House. Professional writers like reporters and academics always overestimate the value of words, which are an unreliable medium for conveying either emotional truth or the grit of concrete reality. (Hence the universal power of the visual arts.)
As I said in my last column, I will be voting for Ralph Nader, since I continue to believe that empowerment of a strong, third-party alternative is the best medicine for the atrophied, programmatic political discourse in this country. The refusal of the liberal major media to cover the Nader campaign -- even when historically significant, violent clashes between Democratic union activists and Green Party supporters occurred in the streets outside the first debate in Boston -- shows just how repressive things have become.
A Gore victory would simply perpetuate the corrupt, incestuous interconnection of the Democratic National Committee with the major media and with the cash cow Hollywood elite, whose product has not coincidentally become increasingly provincial and mediocre. Limousine liberalism, with its preening ostentation and fatuous complacency, is a threat not only to a genuine progressive politics but also to the future of the American arts. Mawkish p.c. sentimentality is still strangling creativity in too many fields.
As a member of Planned Parenthood who is, as I stated in my last column, fervently committed to unconstrained abortion rights, I must protest the blinkered behavior of fellow Democrats who have let themselves be stampeded by the DNC into thinking that every vote at the local, state and national levels must focus on abortion. This is hysteria and superstition. There should be no shibboleths, no litmus test in weighing the many attributes that a president or a Supreme Court justice should have. Liberals should stop slapping a neon abortion sticker over every political race and start reading and thinking more deeply about the historical complexities of governance and public policy.
As a libertarian, I must also express my opposition yet again to hate crimes legislation, which is not progressive but authoritarian. The government should enforce and even reduce existent laws, not pile on more and more regulation and surveillance, which increase the size and intrusiveness of the state. Hate crimes bills formalize ideological inquiries into motive that smack of the totalitarian thought police. In a democracy, government has no business singling out one or several groups as more worthy of protection than any other individual or group. Justice should be blind.
Speaking of preachy thought police, I'm getting fed up with members of the Libertarian Party who think they own the word "libertarian." Get off my back, please, and focus your attention on the failures of your party to fine-tune and convey its philosophy credibly to the national electorate. In prior columns, I've indicated that the Libertarian Party, which once invited me to submit my name for its presidential nomination, is too conservative for my thinking and also too drearily removed from cultural issues. If and when the Libertarian Party nominates someone like the brilliantly analytical Virginia Postrel, I'll reconsider my support for the Green Party, whose current brand of socialism is indeed excessive. (See Postrel's latest --"Ironic Processing," a fascinating dissection in the November issue of Reason magazine of Gore's chillingly depersonalized worldview.)
In this home stretch of the campaign, it's wonderfully ironic to see how Democratic strategists are implicitly admitting that last May's gun-control gambit, the Million Mom March, was a great big flop. It simply outraged and energized the Republican base and alienated gun-owning Democratic union members, whom Gore is now courting with late-in-the-game, pro-hunters talk. Because of its openness toward its readership, Salon was literally the only forum in the national media that gave the articulate voices of law-abiding gun owners the space and respect they deserve. Yes, it was in this column, on Feb. 2, Feb. 23, March 15, May 17, and June 7 ("The Gun Letters").
Since this is my last column before the election, I am nurturing a tiny flame of hope that when we meet again, Hillary Clinton will be yesterday's news -- whipped off by the wind like the pungent, oily wrap of a fish-and-chips takeaway on the Thames Embankment. If that ruthless woman, with her checkered history of deceit and incompetence, is elected to the Senate, it's only through the collusion of the major media. A fresh example: Last weekend, the New York Times finally (16 months too late) published a probing article about Hillary's 1993 healthcare fiasco. But what curious timing: The very next day, the Times formally endorsed her.
There are so many squalid examples of media manipulation that I do wonder about the odd allegations that come in to this column over the transom. For instance, several letters this month questioned the authenticity of the well-known photograph of Gore that his official Web site claims was taken in Vietnam. They insist that his gear is nontropical and would be issued only at a training site on the American mainland. They also argue that Gore was not entitled by rank to wear the dress uniform he sports in his wedding photo. I would be very interested in clarification of these matters from readers with special knowledge of military technicalities.
On the pop front, I was most gratified by the letters that poured in from readers enthusiastically agreeing with my admiration for Meredith Baxter's performance in Lifetime cable channel's "The Betty Broderick Story." Because it has principally been on TV, Baxter's work has never received the critical respect it deserves.
On the other hand, I was taken aback by the many letters upbraiding me for taking Madonna seriously, despite my reservations about her new album. Showbiz today is built on sand. Young people have little sense of the pop revolution wrought by Madonna in her glory years (1983-92). But why should they? It's all ancient history to them, even if we Madonna fans will never lose the faith. (Will the aging Madonna turn into Bette Davis? I've joked about Davis, "They had to beat that woman into the grave with a shovel!") Perhaps my most reprinted article worldwide is "Venus of the Radio Waves," a survey of Madonna's rise that was commissioned in 1991 by London's Independent and is available in my first essay collection.
I was saddened three weeks ago by the death at age 53 of Benjamin Orr (born Orzechowski), bassist for the Cars. Orr's yearning lead vocal on the Cars' 1984 hit, "Drive," combined with his dreamy performance on the ingenious, sinister video, was a high-water mark in American pop. What depth of feeling Orr had, what complex layers of artistry. The "Drive" video (where Orr sometimes resembled one of my favorite poets, Samuel Taylor Coleridge) was released at a magic moment when the now-debased MTV was cutting-edge and when rock videos were a revolutionary new art form.
Readers keep asking my opinion about the controversial white rapper Eminem. My first remarks about him appear in the current issue of TV Guide, where Eminem's devil tail amusingly ends up on the next page pointing at my picture -- quite appropriately for a lifelong fan of Their Satanic Majesties, the Rolling Stones. I also got a chuckle out of being paired with Boy George on the table of contents page. (Now there's an odd couple! I see us in a revival of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" with me as the crabby professor.)
Further items on the TV desk: For a brief, somewhat hokey moment on last week's profile of Annette Funicello on A&E's "Biography," a fortuneteller deals tarot cards from the gorgeous "Aquarian" deck designed in 1970 by David Palladini. Reproductions of Palladini's cards were once on sale everywhere as posters and postcards. The first one shown in the Funicello program (where it dramatized a childhood prophecy that she would be a famous entertainer) was "Fortitude," whom Palladini depicted as a mustached warrior in elegant, art deco armor. That very poster, along with oversize posters of the Rolling Stones, hung in my office at Bennington College throughout the tumultuous 1970s. Who, I still wonder, is the mysterious, oracular, gifted Palladini?
More on TV: I'm disappointed I couldn't follow through on comedian Joy Behar's tantalizing invitation to serve as her "lifeline" two weeks ago on ABC's "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?" Alas, the six-hour time blocks required to be on call ate prohibitively into prior commitments. Readers of my work know what a longstanding fan I am of Behar's razor-sharp, Italian-American wit, which she now exercises to often daringly bawdy effect on ABC's hit daytime show, "The View." Behar is a master of the dying art of improv.
I happily confessed my religious devotion to Joseph Mankiewicz's classic film "All About Eve" in an Oct. 13 "diary" piece for the Times of London. Every week, a different writer comments on the week's public and private events. By chance, my assigned date followed Columbus Day, so of course I waxed furious at the impugning of Christopher Columbus by leftist activists in the U.S. -- the kind of defamation that the National Italian-American Foundation will no longer tolerate.
Two weeks ago, in a talk about the history of sex at the Gotham Center of the City University of New York, my companion, Alison Maddex, announced the formation of her own organization to build an international museum devoted to sex. She has severed ties with her former business partner, Daniel Gluck. I too have terminated all professional connection with him. Let this serve as public notice that my name may not be used in conjunction with any enterprise by Gluck, nor do I endorse or recommend any project or proposal with which he is associated.
Postscript: On Nov. 11, I will be giving a lecture called "The Internet Revolution" at the Chicago Humanities Festival.