Welcome to my world

Why we need to cut taxes deeper, reexamine American education and tune out "The Sopranos."

Published March 21, 2001 7:45PM (EST)

Since my last column three weeks ago, the stock market has plunged, high-tech Seattle was rocked by an earthquake, two high school students were shot to death and 13 others wounded by a cherubic classmate in San Diego, pestilent livestock were slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands in Europe and a rogue Islamic regime ordered the violent destruction of ancient colossi of Buddha in Afghanistan.

In short, welcome to my world! Whether it's by chance or by the cold operations of the planets, recent news has vividly illustrated both the fragility of social institutions and the barbarism of nature -- the central themes of my work. The privileged, professional class in the West, as I have constantly warned, is sitting on the edge of a volcano. Its humanitarian liberalism is a sentimental dogma, rejecting traditional religion but then blindly blocking out nature's cruelty and indifference.

Back in Washington, the 2-month-old administration of George W. Bush is still getting its bearings. For every advance in order and dignity (compared to the vulgar antics of the money-grubbing Clintons) there's been an unsettling false note -- like the weirdly muted handling of Vice President Richard Cheney's cardiac episodes, which certainly look like emergencies and threaten to have a destabilizing effect abroad.

Cheney's intelligence, experience and political aptitude are unquestioned. But Bush showed poor judgment and lack of independence in selecting him for vice president in the first place. Cheney should properly have been a Cabinet secretary or principal White House advisor. His weary, phlegmatic, public manner gives a dispirited aura to what should be a vigorous new administration.

As for Bush himself, I continue to lament his lack of communication skills, which has let Democratic aspersions about his intelligence and preparation gain steam. When news first came of the Seattle quake, it was embarrassing to witness Bush's stark inability to address the nation in a simple, natural way. At a podium hastily set up on the tarmac before he boarded Air Force One, Bush bowed his head like a desperate schoolboy as he read off generic expressions of sympathy and concern from a small square of white paper. "Oh, for heaven's sake, just wing it!" I sputtered at my TV set at home.

On the other hand, criticisms of Bush's "light" work schedule are misconceived. A leader should have the long view. Chief executives who drown themselves in detail (like the wonkish Bill Clinton or Al Gore) lose perspective and make dumb, insular decisions. Bush's announced plan for regular family weekends at Camp David and his Texas ranch gives one much more confidence that this guy has his head on straight. Both nature and home rhythms restore the mind.

Meanwhile, I'm baffled by the demagogic rhetoric of my own Democratic Party about Bush's proposed tax cut, which is rather minimal. It may be my libertarianism talking, but surely the people who create the income should have the benefit of the doubt when it comes to disposition of their wealth. Government has become a fat, lazy behemoth, spawning parasitic bureaucracies resistant to reform. Democrats seem addicted to the dole.

We need a more radical reduction in taxation as well as a stripping down of government agencies to essential social services. Funding is imperative for public education, public transportation, repair of roads and bridges and free medical clinics for the poor. But hundreds of millions of dollars are being wasted on boondoggle projects (like p.c. "gender equity" surveillance) and on unnecessary foreign-aid allotments that get diverted to middlemen and corrupt politicos overseas.

If the rich pay most of the taxes, isn't it logical that they would get a bigger share of any across-the-board tax cut? When more money is available to private individuals, investment increases in businesses large and small, the number of jobs multiplies, and employers must compete for workers. The wider the range of job opportunities, the greater the quantity of social happiness at every income level. When jobs are scarce, people are forced to work in companies they dislike and in locations and at times that eat up downtime and crimp and sour family life. And when there is severe competition for working-class jobs, racial and ethnic animosities dangerously flare -- a fact of history illustrated in the American South during Reconstruction after the Civil War and in inflation-ridden Germany after World War I, when Hitler rose to power.

On another matter, a good illustration of the biases of the liberal major media was the New York Times' failure to question or critique Sen. Hillary Clinton's claim in her Feb. 22 press conference that her brother, Hugh Rodham, had already paid back the money he had accepted to pitch two successful pardon applications to President Bill Clinton in his waning weeks of power.

The political reporters of the Times, whether out of amateurish naiveti or partisan guile, went right on repeating in print that the money had been fully paid back for weeks after everyone else knew from Web news sites that this was not the case. (As of this date, a month later, $100,000 of the original $400,000 paid to Rodham remains to be reimbursed.) Too much of the affluent, white, upper-middle class of the Northeast (representing finance, media, publishing and academe) still gullibly thinks of the Times as America's newspaper of record -- a reputation regrettably 20 years out of date.

Anyone who gets his or her political news primarily from the New York Times (which made the ethically challenged carpetbagger Hillary a senator) is a fool. The Web today is a vital tool for self-education. Current events need to be filtered through comparatist lenses -- yes, the New York Times but also the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post as well as anti-establishment sites like the Drudge Report and Lucianne.com, with its hot-off-the-skillet reader postings from periodicals all over the world.

Education has returned to the front pages: In the wake of the most recent school shootings, state legislatures are debating bills outlawing bullying, while the president of the University of California, concerned about low academic performance by minorities, has called for dropping the SAT exam as a criterion for college admission -- as if that would solve the problem instead of merely masking it. Authoritarian intrusion and social engineering seem to be the order of the day.

The entire American school system needs to be stringently reexamined from primary grades through college. If high school has turned into a seething arena of boredom and competitive tension erupting in mayhem, it's partly (as I told Interview magazine after the Columbine massacre two years ago) because modern schools have become dungeons for active young men at their most hormonally driven period of life.

Forcing restless teens of both sexes to sit like robots in regimented rows in crowded classrooms for the better part of each day is a pointless, sadistic exercise except for those with their sights on office jobs. This school system is not even 200 years old, yet most people treat it as if the burning bush floated it down from Mount Sinai. Too often, school has become a form of mental and physical oppression.

Exactly what is being taught? Certainly not wisdom or perspective on life. Can anyone honestly claim that current high school students know more about history, science, language and the arts than students 40 years ago? As for college students, the shallowness of their training in the humanities has become all too evident as graduates of the elite schools have entered the professions and the media over the past 20 years.

A gigantic, self-perpetuating school system is forcing students along a pre-professional track whether they want it or not. Perhaps as many as half the college students currently enrolled in the elite schools may not really want to be there but have just numbly followed along in the track of their parents' and peers' social expectations. They have no other options. If our pampered students have the best of all possible worlds, why are so many of them binge-drinking and anesthetizing themselves with brain-wrecking designer drugs?

As I've argued in the past, there's no way that the daughter of prosperous, successful, white upper-middle-class parents could decide to drop out of an Ivy League school in her sophomore year to get married and be a stay-at-home mom. She would be upbraided and shamed, accused of "wasting" her education and betraying her "real" talents -- and embarrassing her status-conscious parents.

Similarly, it's scarcely imaginable that the son of such a family could opt for the career of auto mechanic or trucker instead of physician, lawyer or businessman. There was a time when most high schools offered shop classes and when technical institutions gave practical preparation in the trades to non-college bound students. As the service sector expanded in the U.S. economy after World War II, such choices became fewer.

The boys who are collecting guns and fantasizing about shooting up their schools need a more constructive outlet for their energy -- which working with their hands would partly satisfy. As for the misfits who are being "bullied" into homicidal rampages, those who find school life unbearable or useless should be permitted to leave at age 14 (as was legal during the immigrant era) to try to live life on their own. Let them return to school when and if they so desire; the presence in the classroom of adult students would infinitely improve both primary and secondary education, since it's grade segregation by age that perpetuates and aggravates the tyranny of social cliques.

You say the young are far too immature to survive at 14? Well, that's proof positive that they've been infantilized by their parents in this unctuously caretaking yet flagrantly permissive culture that denies middle-class students adulthood until they are in their 20s and later -- long after their bodies are ready to mate and reproduce. The Western career system is institutionalized neurosis, elevating professional training over spiritual development and forcing the young to put emotional and physical satisfaction on painful hold.

The trades need to be revalorized. Young men and women should be encouraged to consider careers outside the effete, word-obsessed, office-bound professions. Construction, plumbing, electrical wiring, forestry, landscaping, horticulture: Such pursuits allow free movement and require a training of the body as well as the mind.

The intellectual repressiveness of the current college environment in the elite schools has been recently exposed by Salon columnist David Horowitz, whose Web base is FrontPage magazine. Controversy continues to escalate over the ad opposing reparations for slavery that Horowitz tried to place in some 50 campus newspapers. The most recent episode is the organized theft of an entire edition of the newspaper containing the ad at ultra-p.c. Brown University -- a fascist tactic that every free-speech proponent should denounce.

Of course I'm not surprised, since the most viciously intolerant campus I ever visited as a lecturer was Brown, where the humanities program has been gutted by a jejune brand of feminist theory and cultural and media studies. (There's a description of my tumultuous 1992 visit in my book "Vamps & Tramps"; see the entries for Brown University in the index.) Horowitz has conclusively demonstrated how limited the campus discourse has been on major issues since the mid-1980s. His courage in confronting personal abuse and unjust vilification must be admired. He is doing important work for authentic democracy.

As for the substance of Horowitz's claims, I agree with most of it. The campaign for apologies or reparations for slavery in the remote past is impractical and will only sharpen racial differences and tensions in the U.S. I argued this point in Salon in a 1997 column that was reprinted in "When Sorry Isn't Enough: The Controversy over Apologies and Reparations for Human Injustice," edited by Roy C. Brooks and published in 1999 by New York University Press. Too many college students are unaware of the world history of slavery as well as of the medieval African origins of the modern slave trade. Neither do they fully grasp that the noble concept of human rights and indeed the abolitionist movement itself were creations of white Europeans in the 17th and 18th centuries.

On another campus issue, I was pleased by the positive reader response to my remarks on Eve Ensler's "Vagina Monologues," which is indoctrinating students with the hoary, victim-obsessed delusion that there is a world epidemic of violence against women (male victims of violence are conveniently ignored). Only crabbed ideologues could fail to be impressed with Christina Hoff Sommers' clarity of expression and force of mind in her Salon cover story interview with Amy Benfer about Jane Fonda's daffy gift of $12 million to another p.c. morass, Harvard University, to perpetuate the slippery gender-studies methodology of that sentimentalist, Carol Gilligan. (Couldn't Fonda's money be put to better use funding the arts?)

Over the past 20 years, thousands of women students have been fed a chaffy diet of feminist writing that wasted their time with third-rate critics, muddled theory and blatant propaganda. But feminism is institutionalized in American higher education in ways that would startle foreign observers. It began with an abuse of affirmative action and has ended with the elevation of an extraordinary number of laughable lightweights and scam artists to overpaid prominence on elite campuses from coast to coast.

This week on the pop front, I was saddened to hear of the death at age 65 of John Phillips, brilliant founder of the Mamas and the Papas, the folk-rock group whose arrival on the scene in 1966 was one of the major cultural events of my college years. The persistence in radio play of their debut hit single, "California Dreamin,'" inspired me 20 years later to design my course, HU 417 "The Art of Song Lyrics," for the student musicians at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

Why exactly, in technical terms, has that song remained amazingly fresh for so many decades? This is the first question posed in my course, where the lyrics, melody, harmony, rhythms and performance of "California Dreamin'" have been analyzed and dissected over the past 15 years by composition majors, instrumentalists and vocalists with choral expertise. Even now, played around the clock after Phillips' death (I caught it crackling at midnight from a French-language station in Quebec), that 35-year-old song has amazing vitality. By studying what lasts, we can seek the secrets of all great art.

Several of my favorite Phillips songs are rarely if ever played on the radio: for example, "Got a Feelin'" (with its hypnotic, tick-tock beat) and "Strange Young Girls" (an eerie, psychedelic saga of debauched teens on the Sunset Strip) from the first two albums, both released in 1966. And the Mamas and the Papas also gave us the spirited, opinionated, stylish actress Michelle Phillips, who (like Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane) was a cardinal example of the New Woman of the 1960s -- ballsy, bawdy, in your face and untouched by feminism. These sassy rock chicks liked men and knew how to handle them.

Continuing with music: It was such a relief to listen to the Metropolitan Opera's live broadcast last weekend of its superb production of Giacomo Puccini's "La Bohème," starring Miriam Gauci and Frank Lopardo. Here is the best of Italian culture -- as opposed to the worst, currently promulgated by HBO's vile series, "The Sopranos," no episode of which I've been able to watch for more than a minute. (What ham acting! What crude stereotypes! The critics deliriously praising this factitious tripe are presumably the same urban elitists who thought the crappy, condescending 1999 film "American Beauty" told the bold truth about suburban American culture.)

"La Bohème" was so passionately performed that the entr'acte breaks seemed especially unbearable -- all that smarmy nattering by opera experts whose wordiness contradicts the emotional intensities of Italian opera. To escape the guest quizzes and jokes between the third and fourth acts (particularly after the galvanic power of the four lovers' interwoven, overlapping duets, which inspired my polyphonic argumentation in key passages of "Sexual Personae"), I turned on the TV and was rewarded with a beautiful segue.

At that moment "Thank God It's Friday," a kitschy disco romp from 1978, was being broadcast by the Black Entertainment Television channel, and Donna Summer, playing an aspiring singer, was shyly paying her entrance fee as the gorgeous opening notes of "With Your Love," composed by Giorgio Moroder, were being piped into the club. "Heart to heart ... .heart to heart": The lyric sheen of Summers' high range, shrewdly displayed by the gifted Moroder, was a melancholy reminder of how popular music, the supreme art form of my '60s generation, has failed to reach full potential as a challenger to the magisterial classical music tradition.

Outstanding movie event of the past weeks was the Independent Film Channel's broadcast of Roman Polanski's "Repulsion" (1965), another of those defining works of the decade. I feel so lucky to have been educated at a time when art films of such quality were common coin. In this case, it was ideal to have seen Catherine Deneuve as a psychotic manicurist adrift in London when her blond-mane style was absolutely au courant and not a historical artifact.

Polanski's distortions of space and manipulation of time, his precise lighting and deft variation in range, angle and movement of the camera -- all of it is so impressive compared to today's shoddy, hackneyed movie work. "Repulsion" is chic expressionism, part Jean Cocteau, part Alfred Hitchcock, dreamy, witty, erotic and horrifying.

I immensely enjoyed A&E's ebullient, fast-moving documentary, "It's Burlesque," which was one of the most well-crafted, historically rich, limits-testing and fun shows about sex that has yet appeared on mainstream American television. Executive producer Angie Brown deserves enormous credit for her deft treatment of this controversial material. I am happy to have been a part (as an interview subject) of this wonderful program, which is sure to be enduringly popular in rerun.

Other notable recent shows were the profiles of Shelley Winters and Maureen O'Hara on A&E's "Biography" and those of Joan Rivers and Diane Keaton on Lifetime's "Intimate Portrait." The fact-based profile format, with its family photos, emotional depth and compelling narrative line, is a stellar feature of current popular culture, where quality has otherwise disastrously slid. Case in point: next Sunday's Academy Awards telecast, once the glorious high point of the show-biz year. But these days, who cares?

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 askcamille@salon.com.

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