Yet another masculine symbol of American authority has failed since my last column -- the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which by its mishandling of files relating to the trial of Timothy McVeigh for the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City has managed to delay the well-deserved execution of that despicable mass murderer and give him one more month of free publicity. The editors who glamorize these criminals (and surely inspire others) by splashing their pictures on front pages and magazine covers should be pilloried themselves.
Meanwhile, as the 4-month-old administration of President George W. Bush moves forward in proposing legislation and submitting judicial nominations, the American political scene is depressingly re-polarizing, with flacks of both parties reverting to the tedious clichis and strident overkill that repulsed the electorate in the two endless years cranking up to the 2000 election. If the American audience is tuning out political-chat TV shows (I certainly have), it's because they have become tediously, pompously predictable.
A good example is the current debate over Bush's decision to grant commercial leases for limited oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The question of America's energy supply is on the front burner after recent spikes in gasoline prices as well as the threat of rolling blackouts in California, evidently because of that state's failure to build additional power plants over the past decade. Partisan rancor only makes matters worse -- particularly when fiats and bromides issue from the lips of pampered Northeastern pundits who have clearly never thought for three seconds about the complex production and distribution system supplying gasoline and jet fuel for their vacation jaunts.
The history of modern energy is visible everywhere here in Pennsylvania, where torrential rivers and streams (now a third of their former strength because of diversion to municipal water supplies) once turned the mills that powered early factories. Stone coal was found in central Pennsylvania in 1791; anthracite was used for the first time to heat houses here in 1808. Eventually, 40 percent of the world's coal, more efficient than wood, came from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton region -- whose economy faltered when coal use declined.
The modern petroleum industry was born in 1858 in Pennsylvania when a derrick was constructed at an oil spring near Grove City and drilling, modeled on salt-well operations, was begun. (Crude oil had always been skimmed from surface water by Indians and was even traded at Niagara.) The following year, oil was struck at a depth of 69 feet. The experimental use at that site (now called Titusville) of an iron pipe to stop the shaft from caving in would become a worldwide technique in oil drilling.
Far larger American oil fields were later discovered in Oklahoma, California and Texas. Petroleum, composed of decayed microorganisms liquefied by geologic pressure, is the basis not simply of fuels like gasoline and kerosene but of road materials like asphalt and myriad petrochemicals used in drugs, synthetic fibers, dyes, household cleaners and lubricants. Much natural gas is a collateral product of oil drilling.
The southern tip of Philadelphia, once sacred Indian territory marking the union of the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, is a dizzying mass of turreted oil refineries and giant holding tanks, replicated in a mammoth site at the old 17th century pirate town of Marcus Hook near the state border. By day and night, these futuristic complexes spout steam and blaze with spires of electric lights and infernally flaming exhaust pipes. Huge oil tankers sitting low in the water and flying cagily mysterious national flags make their way up river past Philadelphia International Airport from Delaware Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, and beyond.
This elaborate international system, vulnerable to mishap or political instability, has given us the plentiful, relatively cheap gasoline that has fostered Americans' love affair with cars. But a heavy price has been paid in pollution, introducing contaminants into the air and water supply whose long-term health effects are still unknown. The environmental movement has thus far failed to significantly reduce our over-reliance on petroleum, partly because too many post-'60s environmentalists openly espouse a socialist hostility to capitalism -- an economic system that is in fact the foundation of modern democracy and the engine of social mobility, empowering women and racial and ethnic minorities alike. Surely the Green Party (for which I voted in 2000) must rethink its fundamental premises.
"Big oil" is demonized by the Northeastern media partly for cultural reasons. The dramatic development of the rich East Texas oil field in the 1930s fused the persona of the frontier macho man with that of the ruthless oil tycoon -- an image spread round the world through bestselling novels, epic movies like "Giant" (1956), and hit TV shows like "Dallas" (1978-91). Now with veterans of the Texas oil industry serving the nation as both president and vice president (and with the latter having made millions of dollars as a businessman in a brief period), the political debate is being strangled by preconceptions -- some of them psychosexual. For cloistered scribes and armchair leftists, the oilman who drills is nature's rapist.
Thirty years ago, even before the disruptive oil embargo of 1973, this country should have launched a systematic search for alternative energy technologies and created a master plan for public transportation that would make Americans less dependent on the automobile. That the production of wind and solar energy remains cumbersome or that the safety of nuclear power plants is still questionable is a testament to national lethargy. The Bush administration has needlessly compromised its own reputation by reducing funding for alternative-energy development at the same time as it approved drilling in the Arctic Refuge. Are there no politicians with the long view? Business prosperity and environmentalist ethics are both critical for the U.S. and need not be mutually exclusive.
Now on to educational reform, a preoccupation of this column to which so many readers have eloquently responded. I recently finished reading "Worshipping Athena: Panathenaia and Parthenon" (University of Wisconsin Press, 1996), edited by Jenifer Neils, a book blessedly free of the poststructuralist doubletalk and hackneyed political correctness that are rampant in the humanities.
This collection of essays shows what scholarly speculation can and should be -- weighing what is known against what is possible or probable. Theory is always tempered by fact, as best as the latter can be determined with evidence so ambiguous and fragmentary. This fine, patient, precise methodology is not only rarely taught these days but has been abandoned wholesale by the most prominent or rather showiest humanities professors of my generation in the elite schools -- for which they have yet to be held accountable by cultural commentators (an increasingly mundane and maleducated lot) in the major Northeastern newspapers and magazines.
My favorite essay was "Athena's Shrines and Festivals" by Noel Robertson, a professor of classics at Brock University in Ontario who has an engaging, pugnacious style of argumentation. There are countless intriguing details, such as that the six voluptuous caryatids (columns in human form) of the Erechtheum's Ionic south porch are carrying either baskets or water jars on their heads, which gracefully support the architrave. Apropos the Doric temple of Athena Parthenos ("the Virgin"), Robertson describes a nearby altar built over natural fissures in the Acropolis rock: "Liquid from the sacrifice was meant to run into the cracks -- perhaps the blood when the victim was slaughtered, perhaps the bile from the gall bladder when it was examined for omens."
Weighing Pausanias' first-hand account, Robertson proposes there was once an impressive, unroofed, walled shrine on the Acropolis that sheltered a well or basin containing seawater: "Whenever the south wind blew, it gave out a sound of waves, a marvelous sign." The fierce statue of Athena Promachos, shown armed and striding into battle, "gave the Athenians a terrible omen in the war between Antony, whom Athens favored, and Octavian, who won." According to Cassius Dio, the statue "turned round to the west and spat blood."
Robertson's etymological analysis of the strange name of Erechtheus, legendary king of Athens, reveals the agrarian ancestry of culture (which poststructuralism so misunderstands because of its blindness to nature). Erechtheus "typifies the threshing," a crucial harvest operation. His name is the noun of the verb erechthô, related to ereikô, which means to "split" or "rend" or "smash": "Its original sphere is 'cracking' or 'bruising' or 'grinding' vegetables, especially legumes." Hence erechthô means "'flail', 'thresh', as with repeated blows," and "Erechtheus" means "Thresher."
To "thresh" meant to "smite": Robertson concludes, "The prehistoric threshers who inspired the Erechtheus story were a file of men wielding sticks or some more special implement." I would appropriate this to support my theory in "Sexual Personae," inspired by passages in the early 20th century Cambridge school of anthropology, that sadomasochism, as embodied in the novels of the Marquis de Sade, the erotic poetry of Algernon Charles Swinburne and today's bondage underworld, is an atavistic remnant of ancient nature-cult.
A footnote in Michalis Tiverios' essay also proved piquant. Plutarch's profile of Alcibiades, the beautiful aristocrat who sweeps into Plato's "Symposium" to tease and tempt Socrates and who in real life led Athens into the imperialist disaster of the Sicilian expedition, claims Alcibiades had a "gilded shield" that, "instead of bearing a device of his ancestors, displayed an Eros bearing a thunderbolt."
This set me daydreaming: I wondered whether any film has yet been made -- perhaps some lurid Italian-Spanish co-production of the late 1960s? -- that features the charismatic, bisexual Alcibiades. His story should have been dramatized in all its destructive, narcissistic glory by Oscar Wilde, who wrote "The Picture of Dorian Gray" instead. Of course we've been missing the ideal actor, but I think that Gale Harold, who plays Brian, the swashbuckling bitch-king stud of Showtime's "Queer as Folk," has both the intoxicating arrogance and the flawless Greek profile to play Alcibiades. Get on it, Hollywood!
Which brings us to another subject, the furor this past month over a report by psychiatrist Robert Spitzer of Columbia University that, from his rather cursory interviews with 153 men and 47 women, the "reparative therapy" endorsed by conservative Protestant groups can in some cases change sexual orientation from gay to straight. That Spitzer had helped to persuade the American Psychiatric Association to drop the classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973 makes his current study harder to dismiss.
Nevertheless, screeching gay activists immediately descended on the media to denounce and defame Spitzer as a tool of the far right. This was a good example of the fascist policing of public discourse in this country by nominal liberals who have become as unthinkingly wedded to dogma as any junior member of the Spanish Inquisition. Why should the fluidity of sexual orientation threaten any gay secure in his or her identity?
What gay ideologues, inflated like pink balloons with poststructuralist hot air, can't admit, of course, is that heterosexuality is nature's norm, enforced by powerful hormonal cues at puberty. In the past decade, one shoddy book after another, rapturously applauded by p.c. reviewers, has exaggerated the incidence of homosexuality in the animal world and, without due regard for reproductive adaptations caused by environmental changes, toxins or population pressure, reductively interpreted bonding or hierarchical behavior as gay in the human sense.
Because of the unblushing dishonesty of strident activists and campus "queer theorists," whose general knowledge of science would fit into Marie Antoinette's thimble, we are ironically further from understanding homosexuality than we were in 1970, when popular culture was moving into the seductive gender-bending era typified by the brilliant David Bowie. With the emphasis on external "politics," all respect for psychology has been lost. Did no one notice the grotesquely misogynous dialogue put into gay men's mouths on "Queer as Folk"? That kind of catty aversion to the female body is learned, not inborn, and it can be partly traced to early family relations, before personal memory has even gelled.
My political philosophy as a libertarian says that government has no business intervening in any consensual private behavior. My professional ethic as a thinker and writer, however, says that self-knowledge is our ultimate responsibility. In vicious attacks like the one on Spitzer, gay activists, with all their good intentions, are aligning themselves with the forces of ignorance and repression. Too little reliable work is currently being done in homosexuality because free inquiry cannot be conducted in a politicized atmosphere of harassment and intimidation.
On to another, lesser matter of media groupthink, HBO's series, "The Sopranos," which has been wildly over-praised by middlebrow commentators whose critical judgment is clearly bankrupt. I have yet to watch a single entire episode of that show, which I find vulgar and boring as well as rife with offensive clichis about Italian-Americans that would never be tolerated were they about Jews or blacks.
What I find especially repugnant about "The Sopranos" is its elitist condescension toward working-class life, which it distorts with formulas that are 30 years out of date. Manners and mores have subtly evolved in the ethnic world that "The Sopranos" purports to depict and that extends from South Philadelphia to central New Jersey and metropolitan New York. The critics who have raved without qualification about "The Sopranos" have simply exposed their own bourgeois removal from real life as well as their reactionary attachment to "plot" -- which is so mechanically and even neurotically obtrusive in that show that it betrays the authoritarian tendencies of its confused creator, David Chase, who has no instinct for psychology, his own or anyone else's.
It's not the Mafia theme that I detest, tired and pointless as that is after its canonical treatment in masterpieces like the first two "Godfather" films, directed by Francis Ford Coppola. It's the sickening combination of effeteness in conception and crudity in execution that no major media article on "The Sopranos" has even noticed much less analyzed. Last week's panel discussion at the New York Hilton about "The Sopranos," sponsored by the National Italian-American Foundation and featuring James Wolcott and Bill Tonelli as well as myself and others, is tentatively scheduled to be broadcast by C-Span on June 2.
Favorite media moments since my last column: Pam Grier showing more charisma, energy, classy style, molten sensuality and Amazonian panache in the exhilarating psychedelic credits to "Foxy Brown" (1974), broadcast on Black Entertainment Television, than a whole tangled truckload of today's blithering, porridge-cheeked Hollywood inginues who, even when flinging their stick limbs around in canned martial arts moves, can't summon up the personality of a turnip.
The fresh, fabulous, pinpoint dancing of the raffish James Cagney in his absorbing new profile, narrated by the annoyingly bland Michael J. Fox, on Turner Classic Movies. The comedic charm and sylphlike vitality of Maureen O'Sullivan in an eye-opening series of films broadcast back-to-back by TCM including "Hide-Out" (1934), "Woman Wanted" (1935) and "The Bishop Misbehaves" (1935). O'Sullivan may have retired in 1942, but her quirky intelligence and dramatic timing obviously lived on in her daughter, Mia Farrow, who used them masterfully in films like Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby" (1968).
The blazing heterosexual heat and tension -- which puerile p.c. Hollywood is evidently no longer capable of -- emanating from three enduring movies of the late 1980s: "White Mischief" (1988) on the True Stories Channel, with the delectable Greta Scacchi as an upper-crust blond vixen preserving her perfect makeup and coiffure in Kenya; "Scandal" (1989) on Bravo, with Joanne Whalley-Kilmer doing a bang-up job as feisty Christine Keeler shaking the pillars of British government; and "Fatal Attraction" (1987) on UPN, with Michael Douglas and Glenn Close smoking up Manhattan with their ill-fated adulterous fling. Lust of that compulsive high charge is a vanishing commodity on the silver screen these days.
Laurie Metcalf doing her priceless comic turn as a bossy, sarcastic New Jersey diva (heroine Rosanna Arquette's sister-in-law) in Susan Seidelman's now classic "Desperately Seeking Susan" (1985) on Comedy Central Channel, a delightful film with a splendid cast and a great sense of place and mood. Yes, Madonna, who outshines poor Arquette, can at times even be said to be acting! In retrospect, the director should have gotten an Oscar for that alone.
As a trained dancer, Madonna is superb in simple or complex movements: in "Desperately Seeking Susan," she's riveting just strolling down the street, grandly stepping clothed into a bathtub, or languidly flopping over in her garters on a suburban bed. It's when she opens her mouth that we're in trouble. How interesting that Jennifer Lopez, in contrast, has been able to make the transition from pop singer to movie star with such silken ease. Lopez seems composed and at home with herself, while Madonna is still tearing up the landscape looking for that ultimate persona. Discuss among yourselves!
Question: when will there be a rebroadcast of that entertaining 1977 TV drama "In the Glitter Palace"? It was Diana Scarwid's debut: She played a rich, depressive teen, if I recall correctly, who falls in love with Barbara Hershey, who once dated Chad Everett, who gets beat up by bulldykes.... Well, you get the picture! It's also puzzling that PBS has never rebroadcast "The War Widow" (1976), a quiet, skillful story starring Pamela Bellwood as a proper wife who falls in love with another woman during World War I. Both those programs dealt maturely and fairly with homosexuality without today's smug, in-group preachiness.
A final note before I go off as usual on summer hiatus: my homage to Bob Dylan appears in the "Dylan at 60" tribute in the June 7 issue of Rolling Stone. See you in September!