Our unimpressive president

The China crisis showed that presidential eloquence does matter. Plus: Is goofy, stork-legged Julia Roberts really what passes for Hollywood elegance?

Published April 11, 2001 7:11PM (EDT)

A potentially dangerous standoff with China was resolved today over the detention of 24 U.S. Navy personnel after the collision a week and a half ago of their surveillance plane with a Chinese warplane, whose pilot was killed. Though it is loaded with seasoned veterans of international and military affairs, the new administration of President George W. Bush was surprisingly unimpressive in its day-to-day response to this crisis. There was an initial appearance of muddle and indecision, followed by awkward changes of tone from a flurry of official spokesmen.

While most loyal Republicans, on the evidence of letters to this column, want to give Bush the benefit of the doubt so early in his White House tenure, surely it is not partisan on my part as a Democrat to observe that Bush's unsettling lack of basic communication skills contributed to this past week's political problems. As I listened to his first public statement about the incident over the car radio last week, I felt a mixture of frustration, despair and teacher's pity at Bush's inability to read a simple text in a convincing way. In this era of mass communication, a president should sound like he understands what he's saying. Misplaced speech rhythms, illogical pauses and labored articulation have no place in government service at so high a level and in situations of such gravity.

A primary reason for the closeness of last fall's election was Bush's inability to communicate either his principles or his character to the country at large, which barely knew him. He blew a strong early lead and nearly delivered the White House to that weightless schizophrenic, Al Gore. And his diffidence is currently allowing the most strident, narcissistic, socialite-liberal wing of the Democratic Party -- e.g., Hillary Clinton, Barbra Streisand and Jay Leno -- to regroup and sharpen its rhetoric. (Compliments to Christopher Buckley for his hilarious satire in the Wall Street Journal of Streisand's daffy authoritarian memo to Democratic Party leaders.)

It has been both refreshing and reassuring, in contrast, to listen to analysis of the China crisis by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a member of the Select Committee on Intelligence. Their command of the facts and geopolitical strategy, their sensitivity to language and intonation, and their sophisticated demeanor (cordial but tough) show exactly what's missing in our current commander in chief. Something is very wrong with a political system that keeps women of such talent and experience from serious consideration for the highest office in the land. Nevertheless, Rice and Feinstein are helping create the paradigm for what I fervently hope will be our first woman president.

In other news, New York's Mayor Rudy Giuliani announced the appointment of a 20-member Cultural Affairs Commission (dubbed the "decency panel" by the press) to review standards for exhibitions at local arts institutions partly supported by public funding. While this column has been scathing about the puerile decision-making at the Brooklyn Museum that was the immediate irritant for this panel, Giuliani's stacking of the latter's membership with cronies and allies rather than with New Yorkers expert in art history or public policy has simply reinforced the impression that he is self-absorbed and hypocritical. (Not only has Giuliani flaunted a mistress in Manhattan, but he flirted with the idea of a U.S. Senate campaign for so long that he crippled the eventual Republican candidate, Rick Lazio, and helped push Hillary Clinton into office.)

The intellectual stagnancy and monolithic liberalism of the present arts establishment are issues that deserve serious exploration from both sides of the political spectrum. Last month, during the question period after my slide lecture on the Romantic "sublime" at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, I severely criticized the American art world for its arrogance and insularity. It has no one but itself to blame for the low opinion or indifference with which artists are held by much of the general public, whose support is crucial if funding is expected from government. In this nation dominated by popular culture, artists cannot automatically expect the prestige enjoyed by the fine arts in Europe, which is crowded with majestic monuments from the past.

On to another controversy: Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues, which this column has rejected as a reactionary piece of victim-obsessed paleofeminism. I was delighted to receive a response from one of the leading figures of the sexual revolution, the artist and sexologist Betty Dodson, a foremother of the pro-sex wing of feminism that revived in the 1990s. Dodson agreed with my statement that Ensler is the new Andrea Dworkin: "Eve is the Barbie Doll version of Andrea. It's so very toxic, and no one sees it." She kindly gave permission for me to quote from her review of "The Vagina Monologues," available in full on her Web site.

Dodson first saw "The Vagina Monologues" as an off-off-off Broadway play in 1996. She had been told that the author and one-woman performer, Eve Ensler, was mentioning Dodson's pioneering sex workshops. But when she attended the play, Dodson heard only "a distorted view" of what she had been doing in her Bodysex Workshop for over 25 years. Ensler called it "The Vagina Workshop." Dodson insists, "Never in my wildest nightmares would I have ever considered using the word 'vagina.'"

Dodson calls "one of the great sexual tragedies in history" Sigmund Freud's theory "that the clitoris is an infantile source of pleasure and that as a woman matures her sexual sensations are transferred to the vagina." From her practical experience as a counselor, Dodson feels that this theory has kept untold numbers of women from becoming orgasmic. Dodson maintains that the clitoris, with its "8,000 nerve endings," is woman's "primary sex organ."

After the 1996 performance, Dodson confronted Ensler backstage about never mentioning the word "clitoris." Two years later, Dodson received two complimentary tickets from Ensler for the Ms. Foundation benefit performance of "The Vagina Monologues" at a New York ballroom. Now movie stars were part of the performance. Ensler again mentioned Dodson's name onstage and had also added "clitoris" to the text. But something had gone wrong:

The format for "The Vagina Monologues" had dramatically changed. The audience was brought to a delirious high during the first half only to be dashed into hopeless despair during the second half. We were plunged down, drowning in a sea filled with the horrors of sexual violence against women.

So what did I expect with the Ms. crew on board? They have never been able to talk about sex without bringing up rape, abuse, beatings, and genital mutilation. It was dij` vu. In the seventies, Ms. had held up publication of my article "Liberating Masturbation" for more than two years, fearing they'd lose subscriptions. Also it was Ms. who supported Woman Against Pornography in the eighties. The idea that feminists were pushing for the censorship of sexual entertainment forced many of us to feel the need to identify ourselves as pro-sex feminists.

Now in the nineties they had done it again. "V" no longer stood for vagina. It stood for violence. Sex and violence, never sex and pleasure. Talking about sexual pleasure when there is so much sexual violence against women would be inappropriate, insensitive and politically incorrect. And who is to blame for all the sexual violence against women? According to Ms. and other fundamentalist feminists, it's still the patriarchy.... That night I wondered how men in the audience felt after being nailed as "the enemy." It's my bet that the men attending V-Day were all staunch supporters of equal rights for women. But here they were, faced with the same old male-bashing of the sixties and seventies.

It's very difficult to criticize V-Day without sounding anti-woman or pro-violence. Dare we ask why so many feminists think women have cornered the market on being victimized by violence? Will we sound too insensitive in mentioning the violence caused by poverty, hunger, and wars that affect women, men and children of both genders? Are we to ignore all the wives who verbally abuse and dominate husbands? Shall we pretend there are no mothers who all too frequently raise a hand to punish their children?

This past February, Dodson attended the V-Day benefit held at New York's Madison Square Garden, where Ensler's monologues were read by 100 women, including stars like Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda, Glenn Close, Claire Danes and Marisa Tomei. There was now "big corporate sponsorship," and the play was being performed "in hundreds of colleges and universities here and abroad." Dodson declares:

That night at Madison Square Garden I felt violated when I realized "The Vagina Monologues" and V-Day had become a bait and switch operation. The ruse is to get everyone excited about hearing famous women saying the words "vagina," "clitoris," and "cunt," only to bring us down with statistics about rape and the sexual abuse of women ... This powerful venue, Madison Square Garden, sends us home feeling guilty about all the women in Africa, Bosnia and Afghanistan who are being raped, tortured and genitally mutilated. Many leave with the false belief that all the millions raised will actually end sexual violence against women ... ..

Eve is no longer the disarming young woman delivering her monologues. She has become an evangelical minister shouting and gesturing and admonishing us to demand an end to violence against women, as the crowd roars in agreement. Toward the end of the evening, Eve asked everyone who'd ever been raped to stand up. There was a smattering of women standing where I was sitting. Then she asked for those women who had been beaten to stand. Many more stood up. Finally she asked all those to stand who knew any woman who'd been raped or beaten, which included most of the audience. I refused to stand as an insignificant protest, knowing she would never ask those of us who had never been raped or beaten and who loved having orgasms to stand.

That's the main problem with V-Day. Women end up celebrating sexual violence and not the creative or regenerative pleasures of erotic love. Ending violence is a worthy cause, and I'm all for it. But consistently equating sex with violence offers no solution.

Thanks to Betty Dodson for raising her powerful voice against the perversion and exploitation of pro-sex feminism in "The Vagina Monologues." A sense of feminism's exhilarating early days was well conveyed by last weekend's TV profile of tennis champion Billie Jean King on A&E's "Biography." The dramatic climax was King's 1973 stunt match with the obnoxious, aging Bobby Riggs, which got huge publicity as a classic battle in the sex wars. King's pugnacious energy and pioneering work for women's sports were vividly captured by this program, which showed what things were like when the women's movement was still relatively unified in its zeal for social reform.

It was after that, alas, that women's studies programs, with their anti-male, anti-science, anti-art, anti-beauty, anti-porn ideology, began to spread on campuses. Today's young women have been given a false picture of feminist history of the past 35 years. The dissident feminists with whom I am allied were never "anti-feminist" (my record as a flamingly militant feminist at my first teaching job in the 1970s is well documented). We were rebels against a rigid feminist orthodoxy that over the past decade has been gradually losing power but that is still miserably entrenched in the curriculum of too many colleges and universities. Educational reform is my top priority.

Two weeks ago at Philadelphia's annual The Book and the Cook Festival, my partner Alison and I were very pleased to meet again two women whom we regard as superb examples of an enlightened feminism: Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, chef-owners of the Border Grill restaurants in Santa Monica, Calif., and Las Vegas and of Ciudad in Los Angeles. The authors of three cookbooks, they are best known as the "Too Hot Tamales" from their popular TV Food Network show (which I celebrated in a 1996 column for the Advocate).

Milliken and Feniger are craftsmen, artisans, entrepreneurs and practical proponents of a progressive multiculturalism. (Their cuisine is based on their own research in rural Mexico.) Milliken is married to the Los Angeles architect Josh Schweitzer and is the mother of two small sons. When we saw her in Philadelphia, Feniger was eagerly anticipating a three-week trekking adventure with her partner in the wilds of Mongolia.

With their exuberant warmth and down-to-earth values (it's no coincidence they were both born and raised in the Midwest), Milliken and Feniger show what feminism could and should be as a social movement. Perhaps working with the sensory dimension of food, responding to customers' primal desire for pleasure, creating a daily performance space, and managing intricate supply and scheduling demands give those in the restaurant business a greater sense of reality than that shown, let's say, by academic theorists. Contact with the trades would benefit not only young people trapped in their boring schools (as I argued in my last column, which produced a flood of amazing reader letters), but it would liberate teachers too. All theory must be tested in the concrete realm.

Speaking of teachers, I was saddened to hear of the recent death at age 90 of the critic Maynard Mack, one of the last of an illustrious generation of literary scholars whose like, given the present state of campus philistinism, we may never see again. Mack's reputation was built on his studies of Shakespeare and Alexander Pope. He was a model of selfless scholarship whose lineage extended backward to British and German classical studies and beyond that to the monks of the Middle Ages.

Though no one could be farther across the cultural divide than that courtly WASP gentleman, Mack was unusually kind to me in graduate school at Yale University. I will never forget his telling our small 1969 seminar on the Augustan Age about the moment when he had finished laying out on his living-room floor the thousands of note cards for just one volume of his canonical editions of Pope: So overwhelmed was he by the mammoth task before him that he broke down crying.

It was devoted scholars like Mack -- or the distinguished specialist in Old English, John Collins Pope, who exuded the sacred serenity of a golden-skinned pharaoh -- who gave us a sense of history and calling. All that is gone, of course, with today's showy crowd of smirky academic careerists, ripping off inflated salaries for mouthing postmodernist platitudes. I owe my first scholarly publication to Mack, who despite his record of resisting Freudian interpretations of literature loved my term paper, "Lord Hervey and Pope," and urged me to try to get it published. (It eventually appeared in the spring 1973 issue of Eighteenth Century Studies.)

Well, I grimly suppose I must make some comment about the Academy Awards, whose broadcast last month had all the excitement of a turgid river of molasses. That the peevishly pursed and clunky Russell Crowe and the goofy, grinning, stork-legged Julia Roberts now hold Oscars is one of the many tacky ironies of current popular culture. How far Hollywood has fallen from the era in which (as I recently remarked to my media class) Marlon Brando in "A Streetcar Named Desire" could lose the Oscar to Humphrey Bogart in "The African Queen."

As a huge fan of pagan movie epics of the 1950s and early '60s, I found "Gladiator" boring, badly shot and suffused with sentimental p.c. rubbish. It would be difficult to say whether Crowe or Joaquin Phoenix (nominated for best supporting actor) gave the worst performance. Julia Roberts owes her Oscar for "Erin Brockovich" to director Steven Soderbergh's skillful editing, which gave the illusion of continuity to what was a shockingly obtuse reading on her part of what she condescendingly believed was a working-class character. (The real Brockovich is middle class in background and job experience.) For Juno's sake, Roberts didn't even know how to hold a baby in that film.

Let us contemplate, in contrast, the inspiring example of Nadia Sawalha, a star of the long-running British TV series "EastEnders". Of Arab lineage, Sawalha (sister of Julia of "Absolutely Fabulous") has everything Roberts lacks -- not only acting talent but intelligence, animation and authentic sensuality. Roberts merely mimes these things; her mannerisms are calculated and her sexuality manufactured. Roberts' buffoonish hogging of the stage after she won the award was the most ridiculous performance by a woman since Gwyneth Paltrow, another untalented luminary, sobbed and hiccuped her thanks to the world and her dear, dear family two years ago.

The best media moment in recent weeks was in my view American Movie Classics channel's superb two-hour "Backstory" documentary on the making of "Cleopatra," the studio-busting extravaganza starring Elizabeth Taylor and released in 1963 that remains one of my favorite films. The program was filled with revelations about the technical production of the film and illustrated by stunning archival footage and candid stills. This fascinating program demonstrated what scholarly examination of popular culture ought to be -- not twisted, pretentious European theory plopped onto works of imagination but traditional, historical techniques deftly deployed for maximum accessibility to the mass audience, for whom great Hollywood movies were always intended.

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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