Crying wolf

Ashcroft is a Confederate! Bush will outlaw abortion! It's easy to see why the public is tuning out the Democratic Party's tiresome hysteria.

Published February 7, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

With the confirmation by the U.S. Senate last week of all of President George W. Bush's Cabinet nominees, the nation's business may finally be lurching back to relative normalcy after the agonizing civil wars over the Florida count in last fall's election. The campaign by a coalition of liberal special-interest groups to block former Sen. John Ashcroft's confirmation for attorney general collapsed when they failed to produce credible evidence for their claim that he is a dangerous reactionary who threatens democracy.

Whether Ashcroft is simply an old-fashioned, Bible-toting Christian or a bloodless, puritanical inquisitor (like Roger Chillingworth in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter") remains to be seen, but I think that for most Americans trying to conduct their daily lives, Democratic activists have cried wolf once too often. The saturation point has long been reached for hysterical, rote charges about racism, sexism and homophobia -- particularly when they issue from a party that professes populist ideals but has just elected the detestable, money-grubbing Terry McAuliffe, a Clinton henchman, as head of the Democratic National Committee.

If the party doesn't get its act together after the lies, mess and celebrity glitz of the Clinton years, disaffected Democrats like me will vote Green again in 2004. The Democratic Party needs to regenerate itself and recover its ethical center. As a member of Planned Parenthood, for example, I am outraged by the obscene waste of assets by abortion rights organizations whose leaders have become shills for the Democratic Party. The funds diverted to endless "emergency" ads and mailings calling for political action should directly support women's health care instead. If all the pro-choice men and women in this country would donate their money to needy women instead of to politicians and fancy fundraisers, government support for abortion services would be less critical.

Bush's cutoff of funding for overseas abortion counseling, virtually the first act of his presidency, hardly made a ripple in public consciousness (though the Philadelphia Inquirer tried to whip things up by making it the lead headline). If national support for choice is starting to slip, as has been reported, it's because of the arrogant insularity of the feminist elite, who for 20 years have ridden roughshod over the legitimate ethical objections and arguments of abortion opponents. Though I firmly support unrestricted access to abortion, I feel the nation has been polarized and doctors endangered by an intolerance and extremism that began on the secular left.

Lingering impressions from the three weeks since my last column: Bush, even at high alert on Inauguration Day, not managing to get through the oath of office without mangling syntax or rather dropping an entire phrase -- reminiscent of Diana inauspiciously reversing Charles' names at their 1981 wedding. Then the tacky, phony signs waved along the Inauguration parade route by cynical Democratic operatives who in calling a duly elected president a "thief" demeaned a day that honors history and belongs to the nation.

Next, the ineptly designed reviewing stand that sheltered everyone but Bush from a driving rainstorm, followed by the comic, befuddled dithering of the new president and his ex-president father with the stunted handles of pocket umbrellas while no one came visibly to their aid for a quarter of an hour. Finally, the grim, clenched-jaw faces of outgoing Cabinet members like Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Attorney General Janet Reno, humiliatingly dragged out to a cold hangar at Andrews Air Force Base to serve as stage props for a puerile send-off rally for Bill Clinton -- who vaingloriously reviewed troops he no longer legally commanded and who callously avoided mentioning the name of his vice president, Al Gore, whose defeat at the polls was partly due to Clinton's own misdeeds.

But the most astounding recent event has been the mass recantation by liberal journalists of their eight years of Clinton idolatry. As Bush movingly called on the new White House staff to maintain the highest possible ethical standards, Bill and Hillary Clinton were slipping and sliding down the exit chute to their new base of operations in New York, where they are currently sorting through a mammoth trash heap of greasy pardons, purloined furniture, jacked-up book contracts and gilt-edged leases.

For the New York Times (in a lead editorial last weekend) to call on Hillary to end her "bunker mentality" is hilarious, since both the Times and the Washington Post let her get away with that for years, including during her Senate campaign, when she appeared only on entertainment shows with fawning hosts and evaded real questioning in a hard-news format. If only Margaret Carlson, whose scathing critique of Hillary appeared in the Feb. 5 issue of Time, would fully admit the role she and other liberal woman journalists played in the creation of the "St. Hillary" cult of the mid-1990s. It was because she was so pampered and coddled by her cooing apologists that Hillary is now disastrously ill-prepared for public life. Stripped of her White House entourage last month, she began her Senate committee work looking like a bug-eyed, droopy derelict flushed out of a train tunnel.

Onto other matters: The Philadelphia Inquirer published a front-page article on Feb. 2 about the decline in prestige of the liberal arts in American colleges. The headline: "Liberal-arts educations decline as students grease career paths: Small private colleges on the financial brink." The article begins: "Freud and Marx have been downsized. Homer and Cicero are dethroned."

A professor at a small college in Allentown, Pa., told the Inquirer, "Many students and their parents come to college believing that they want a high-paying job as a reward for their hefty investment in a college education." But this legitimate concern is exactly why so many families bankrupt themselves to put their children through Ivy League schools. It isn't that the education there is necessarily superior (certainly not in the humanities these days), but an Ivy League degree does indeed materially enhance job prospects over a lifetime through college contacts as well as the alumni network.

What the Inquirer article does not point out is that the waning of the liberal arts over the past two decades happened simultaneously with their politicization. When the humanities began to be about political correctness rather than art, they lost their soul. Poorly prepared literature professors do politics very badly. And thanks to their reduced frame of reference, they've lost the ability to do literary or cultural criticism well too.

I had to face this anew in searching for textbooks for the new course on gender images in film and popular culture that I'm offering at the University of the Arts this semester. The amount of sheer rubbish out there is appalling. Cultural studies, as practiced by American and British academics, is showy and shallow -- just a slick varnish over a milange of postmodernist clichis with little feeling for either art or pop. Disorganized, choppy, jargon-ridden, ponderously political yet affected and jokey, these books invariably misuse and distort photographs and artworks to make clever points without regard for the images' design or history.

I am waiting impatiently for the day when beleaguered, like-minded academics can order James Wolcott's collected essays for their classes. Wolcott is the supreme American culture critic, and a massive survey of his work is urgently needed as a corrective to the French foppery and German molasses that have mucked up so many student minds. Future scholars, I predict, will recognize that Wolcott's creative evolution, from his early days at the Village Voice, was that of American imagination itself in the last four decades of the 20th century.

Wolcott, unlike today's pretentious academic theorists, is in the mainline of American pop. He's sharply observant and vividly descriptive -- empathic and acerbic rather than abstract and ironic. He feels the rhythms and captures the vitality, eroticism, choreography and hallucinatory imagery of pop. His work has guts and soul. I wrote his name on the blackboard in class this week. Let the American style rise and flourish!

Now for the Paglia pop bulletin board: I've been enjoying TNN's rebroadcast of NBC's "Miami Vice" (1984-89) with its portentous, moody rock score and glamorous, posturing stars. Don Johnson as Sonny Crockett was then at his taut, golden-skinned, stylish best, while Philip Michael Thomas as Ricardo Tubbs set a standard for hip, pugnacious yet debonair African-American panache that has been lost in today's tedious gangsta vulgarity, aped by so many white suburban teens. A trace of Tubbs' glowing, panracial appeal can currently be seen in Johnny, the 25-year-old "singer/poet" on Fox TV's "Temptation Island." Get that man a contract!

Mel Brooks' "High Anxiety" (1978), in constant rotation recently on HBO, always gives me a kick because of its Hitchcock send-ups, particularly the parody of the shower murder in "Psycho," reimagined as assault with a rolled-up newspaper by a flipped-out bellboy. My favorite line is when that comic chameleon Cloris Leachman, playing the sadomasochistic, pretzel-mouthed Nurse Diesel, deflects a question about the sudden departure of the sanitarium's former director by sternly croaking, "He wanted to change the drapes in the Psychotic Game Room."

Brilliant movie moment of the past week: the credits to Edward Dmytryk's "The Carpetbaggers" (1964), broadcast by AMC cable channel. We are admiring a dazzling, Technicolor blue sky when suddenly, rocketing like warplanes out of a bank of wispy clouds, flies name after name in sizzling neon-red, the letters hugely expanding and separating as they whiz past our heads. Behind it all is Elmer Bernstein's brassy, blaring score, all jazz trumpets and popping bongo drums -- befitting the raw Harold Robbins bestseller on which the movie is based. Damn, I wish I'd seen that in a theater.

Lifetime cable channel deserves huge praise for last week's "Intimate Portrait" profile of Indira Gandhi, the first woman prime minister of India. The archival footage of the awkward young Indira and the description and documentation of her early family conflicts and steely rise to power were superb, although the coverage of her later years and of the rivalry between her ill-fated sons was rushed and patchy.

However, Lifetime's profile of Gloria Steinem the night before was a disaster -- a scandalous piece of propaganda obviously engineered by Steinem and her girlishly squeaky-voiced friends to whitewash her career after a decade of slippage in her reputation. Steinem was hailed as a "major figure of the 20th century" by a chum apparently unaware that Steinem is virtually unknown outside the United States and has had no impact on world feminism. If any American feminist is that major figure, it would be Betty Friedan -- whom the program shockingly left unmentioned.

The program ostentatiously drafted and foregrounded every African-American in Steinem's circle to recast her as the Mother Teresa of racial politics -- in order to divert attention, apparently, from the fact that in the 1960s the once-brunette Steinem was a man-hungry party gal in a see-through plastic dress who played the blond card to the max in socialite Manhattan (a fact that Friedan herself famously commented on).

An ex-boyfriend proclaimed on camera that all criticism of Steinem, particularly by radical lesbian feminists who mysteriously indicted her in the 1970s as a false leader and media hound, was based on "jealousy" by "ugly" women who resented Steinem's beauty, intellect and "literary" mastery (loud guffaw from me here -- Steinem's sense of literature is earnest Soviet Realist).

As someone who was viciously attacked by Steinem and her cohorts in the feminist establishment (Steinem said of me in 1992, for example, "Her calling herself a feminist is sort of like a Nazi saying they're not anti-Semitic"), I actually enjoyed this program for what it inadvertently revealed about the pathology of Steinem's unstable childhood, when she was abandoned with a mentally ill mother and bitten in bed by a rat.

There's a direct connection here to Steinem's adult pose as serene Madonna of the Nations: Her honeyed speech patterns are tense with repressed aggression and, like her wavy, Ali Baba hand gestures, are a technique of seduction to bring starry-eyed women under her spell. Steinem is a cultist, using good works for mind control.

Young feminists have been sold a bill of goods about American feminism. The enormous changes in women over the past 40 years are constantly and falsely attributed to the organized women's movement of the late 1960s and '70s. But that movement was merely a symptom or corollary of a profound transformation in American society after World War II. My generation of bossy, confident, baby-boom women were something brand new in history. Our energy and assertiveness weren't created by Betty Friedan, unknown before her 1963 book, or by Gloria Steinem, whose political activism, as even the Lifetime profile admitted, did not begin until 1969.

Popular culture -- above all rock 'n' roll, with its African-American R&B roots -- did far more to radicalize us than did any feminist leader. The forceful, dynamic women who were my fellow college students at the State University of New York at Binghamton (1964-68) were untouched by feminism. My own brand of Amazon feminism predated Friedan (I've written elsewhere about my Amelia Earhart research project, which began in Syracuse in 1961 and was reported on by the local newspaper).

An honest profile of Gloria Steinem, who in the 1970s and '80s closed Ms. magazine to pro-sex feminists like myself, would examine her role in helping create the present unholy marriage of Democratic activism with celebrity cash and flash. She is at the center of a sanctimonious, genteel feminism that operates by clique and thinks that good intentions trump sleazy means. Steinem's spiritual stepsister is Hillary Clinton.

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

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