Salon Interview: Camille Paglia

Our fave pop intellectual weighs in on the Dems' gift to Ann Coulter (Foley), why Condi's success matters to feminists, and Bob Woodward (yawn).

Published October 27, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

It's been a while since Salon last heard from our favorite intellectual and one of our founding contributors, Camille Paglia. But with so much tumult in the air, we felt the need to ask her to survey the strange tectonic shifts in our political and cultural landscape, and interpret as much as she could. As usual she didn't disappoint, sounding off to Salon's Kerry Lauerman about the Foley follies, the Bill Clinton blitzkrieg, the amazing Republican meltdown and a most consistent object of her love and scorn: the Democrats.

What are you working on these days?

My new book, which is under contract to Pantheon, is about visual images. It's a companion book to "Break, Blow, Burn" and is addressed to the general audience. As a longtime fan of talk radio, I'm very worried about the low opinion that conservative hosts and callers have of the American artist. Art is portrayed as a scam, a rip-off and snow job pushed by snobbish elites.

I was warning about this for years in my Salon column. I was virtually alone on the pro-art side in criticizing the Brooklyn Museum's 1999 "Sensation" exhibit for its needless provocations, which I foresaw would damage support for arts funding at the local level nationwide. Now the cold reality seems to be sinking in.

But I was still amazed at all those servile TV reviewers who raved about the recent four-hour PBS documentary about Andy Warhol. What a tedious, pretentious program -- with its funereal music and preening, jargon-spouting talking heads. Shows like that do incalculable damage to the reputation of the fine arts in the U.S. And this was about one of the most populist artists ever! Warhol, who came from working-class Pittsburgh, spoke directly to the mass audience with his Campbell's soup cans and Brillo boxes. And where was the protest about [director Ric] Burns' censoring out of Warhol's pioneering drag queens? It was outrageous, but the cowed reviewers didn't utter a single peep.

What has been your reaction to the huge uproar over Rep. Mark Foley, which was on the front pages of newspapers in Europe as well as the U.S. for two straight weeks?

Foley is obviously a moral degenerate, and the Republican House leadership has come across as pathetically bumbling and ineffectual. But the idea that this is some sort of major scandal in the history of American politics is ludicrous. This was a story that needed to be told for, you know, like two days.

Mark Foley was never on the radar of anyone outside the small circle of news junkies. So his fall and banishment from Washington were nothing but a drip in the torrential flood of current geopolitical problems. The way the Democratic leadership was in clear collusion with the major media to push this story in the month before the midterm election seems to me to have been a big fat gift to Ann Coulter and the other conservative commentators who say the mainstream media are simply the lapdogs of the Democrats. Every time I turned on the news it was "Foley, Foley, Foley!" -- and in suspiciously similar language and repetitive talking points.

After three or four days of it, as soon as I heard Foley's name, I turned the sound off or switched channels. It was gargantuan overkill, and I felt the Democrats were shooting themselves in the foot. I was especially repulsed by the manipulative use of a gay issue for political purposes by my own party. I think it was not only poor judgment but positively evil. Whatever short-term political gain there is, it can only have a negative impact on gay men. When a moralistic, buttoned-up Republican like Foley is revealed to have a secret, seamy gay life, it simply casts all gay men under a shadow and makes people distrust them. Why don't the Democratic strategists see this? These tactics are extremely foolish. Gay men through history have always been more vulnerable to public hysteria than are lesbians, who -- unless they're out there parading around in all-leather bull-dyke drag -- simply fit more easily into the cultural landscape than do gay men, who generally lead a more adventurous, pickup-oriented sex life.

Not only has the public image of gay men been tarnished by the over-promotion of the Foley scandal, but they have actually been put into physical danger. It's already starting with news items about teenage boys using online sites to lure gay men on dates to attack and rob them. What in the world are the Democrats thinking? We saw the beginning of this in that grotesque moment in the last presidential debates when John Kerry came out with that clearly prefab line identifying Mary Cheney as a lesbian. Since when does the Democratic Party use any gay issue in this coldblooded way as a token on the chessboard? You'd expect this stuff from right-wing ideologues, not progressives.

It's also been interesting how both sides -- but the Democrats early on -- characterized Foley as a pederast. He's a dirty old man in the classic Washington tradition, going after teenagers. But there's no proof that he's a child molester.

I kept hearing on the radio the stentorian voices of Democratic women politicians saying that Foley was "preying on children." When will this stop? This blurring of the line between teenagers and children -- who should be vigilantly protected by any society.

And in Washington, the age of legal consent is 16.

Exactly! Therefore if it wasn't absolutely clear at the start who exactly Foley was flirting with, the Democrats should have been far more cautious about what they said. All that's been accomplished by this scandal is to call into question one of the central erotic archetypes of gay male tradition -- the ephebic beauty of boys at their muscular peak between the ages of 16 and 18. It goes back through Western iconography from Michelangelo's nudes to Hadrian's Antinous and beyond that to Greek sculpture. It's a formula at the heart of Plato's dialogues, as in the Symposium, which shows Socrates in love with but also declining sex with the handsome young Alcibiades. In ancient Greek culture, an adult man could publicly profess his love for a young man without necessarily having sexual contact with him.

The Foley scandal exploded without any proof of a documented sex act -- unlike the case of the late congressman Gerry Studds, who had sex with a page and who was literally applauded by fellow Democrats when they refused to vote for his censure. In the Foley case, there was far more ambiguous evidence -- suggestive e-mails and instant messages. Matt Drudge, to his great credit, began hitting this issue right off the bat on his Web site and radio show. What does it mean for Democrats to be agitating over Web communications, which in my view fall under the province of free speech? It's a civil liberties issue. We can say that what Foley was doing was utterly inappropriate, professionally irresponsible, and in bad taste, but why were liberals fomenting a scandal day after day after day over words being used? And why didn't Democrats notice that they were drifting into an area which has been the province of the right wing -- that is, the attempt to gain authoritarian control over interpersonal communications on the Web? It's very worrisome and yet more proof that the Democrats have lost their way.

It also advances a line the far Christian right has employed for years -- to make a connection between gay men and child molesters. It's one of the most despicable smears imaginable.

And with the Democrats' record of sex scandals, what the hell were they thinking of? For heaven's sake, after we just got through the whole Clinton maelstrom! What Clinton did with Monica Lewinsky was far worse than any evidence I've seen thus far about what Foley did with these pages. Clinton, whom I voted for twice, used his superior power as an employer to lure Monica Lewinsky, who was perfectly willing, into these squalid sexual assignations on the grounds of the White House. There was a time when feminists were arguing, in regard to sexual harassment in the workplace, that any gross disparity in power cannot possibly produce informed consent. All of a sudden, all of that was abandoned for partisan reasons in the Clinton case. I take the European view that any government official has the right to conduct as many sexual affairs as he wishes -- off government property. But Clinton, with all his power, somehow couldn't figure out a way to discreetly meet his chosen women at the mansions of his many friends. I can understand why hotels and motels might have been difficult to manage, with the telltale Secret Service presence. But to use the hallway off the Oval Office for those encounters -- to be serviced by a young woman to whom he gave no other dignity and whom he used like a washrag -- he turned that hallway into a sleazy mosh pit! The Democrats are being extremely imprudent to arouse all those sleeping tigers again -- particularly if their next presidential nomination is Hillary Clinton. They've reignited the endless series of charges about Clinton's allegedly abusive physical encounters with women, beginning when he was governor of Arkansas. The Foley case shrinks in comparison to Clinton's rumored history of hitting on women in subordinate positions.

But what if by jumping on and making a big deal out of this, it delivers the Democrats the House and the Senate? Will it have been worth it?

I completely disagree that the Foley case has helped the Democrats. There's been so much fudging of the polling data, which long before the Foley case already indicated that many Republicans nationwide were turned off by the direction of their party and were planning to sit home on Election Day. It's a boldfaced lie that the Foley case caused this. Bedrock Republicans have been dismayed by the Bush administration's overspending and by its inaction on illegal immigration, among other things. These trends were already quite visible before the Democrats inserted themselves into the Republicans' slow drift away from the polls. So what they've done, in this rabid orchestration of the Foley case, is to risk energizing the Republican base again. Are they mad, or just dumb? They've handed the Republicans a reason to go to the polls -- to register their contempt for Democrats!

And this was at a moment in the campaign when we needed to keep the fiasco in Iraq on the front pages. For the Democrats to have stolen the headlines and forced the major media to switch subjects has been a tremendous boon to Bush. What kind of disproportion of scale are we talking about here? The Foley case is nothing compared to the disaster in Iraq and the innumerable lives that are being lost or ruined on both sides.

Let's talk about how the Republicans have drifted so off course.

It's been building for the last year. The radio hosts have been apoplectic about the White House's passivity on immigration issues. And angry callers from California, the Southwest, and even the Rocky Mountain and Midwestern states have been threatening a grass-roots revolt against the national Republican leadership.

The administration has been distracted by international crises, which it's now merely reacting to, despite all its high-flown oratory about decisive action. Condi Rice looks lost lately. She's overstretched and on a learning curve. Her training (by Madeleine Albright's father) focused on the Cold War era when the world was polarized between two superpowers. It didn't prepare her for the baffling and frustrating complexities of the highly sectarian and factionalized Middle East. You need to know the turbulent history of the ancient Near East to understand what's going on there now. It's always been a roiling cauldron -- wars and more wars and massacres from the Egyptian, Assyrian and Roman empires down to the fascist rule by the Ottomans.

Every feminist who wants to smash the glass ceiling should realize she has a stake in Condi Rice's success. Rice is a brilliant woman, but diplomacy is an art. Preaching in steely tones sends the wrong message. This administration lacks deftness in international relations. Worst of the lot is Dick Cheney, with his lumpish provincialism. What a narrow, limited mind! His geopolitics is a vintage-1870s version of frontier Americanism, but he managed to impose it on the over-credulous new president when this Bush took office. It's all so simple to them: The majority of Iraqis and Iranians want peace and modernization, so let's impose democracy at the barrel of a gun. But what ignorance of history: The mass of the population always want to live their own lives; change is always driven by small, committed groups of ideologues and fanatics -- even in our own revolution. Representative democracy is a great ideal, but major shifts are rarely achieved by majority rule, which prefers the status quo.

Everything that's happening now in Iraq was prophesied in Salon before we ever waded in there. The idea that the Democratic senators were somehow misled by the intelligence given to them by the administration is such rank nonsense! It was already obvious this enterprise was pure folly. This administration doesn't seem to realize that the world is much larger than the United States. I hear on conservative talk radio the constant assertion that America is the destined leader of the world, that America is blessed by God and the best place on earth, where everyone wants to live. Therefore anything we do is automatically good, and the only problem is the people who hate us because we're free. Now I'm very pro-American -- my entire family escaped poverty in Italy because they rightly believed in the American dream. My father and five of my uncles proudly served in World War II. But uncritical American boosterism -- automatic endorsement of every government action -- is myopic and self-defeating. I don't think too many people at the top of this administration -- or too many conservative radio hosts, for that matter -- have traveled much outside the U.S. or had contact with other languages. They've had minimal exposure to other worldviews or lifestyles. It's unsettling that politicians with such constricted vision will have been in charge of public policy for eight years of this presidency.

So you don't think that any of the intelligence reports in Bob Woodward's new book are feeding the growing sense that the war is a disaster.

Oh, Woodward, what a big yawn! Who the hell cares about Woodward? I mean, at this point, he's just an inside-the-Beltway figure. I certainly don't need him to clarify my view of the Iraq debacle.

A big problem is that in the minds of too many Americans, Iraqi culpability for the disaster of 9/11 is still pretty deeply rooted. It's because of the vagueness with which most Americans perceive the map and peoples of the Middle East. It shows how bad education has been in geography and international history at both the high school and college levels. It's highly alarming. The reflex mind-set after 9/11 was, "We've got to do something!" So there was this lashing out at whatever seemed Arab or Muslim.

I supported the retaliatory attack on Afghanistan but strongly opposed the invasion of Iraq. Such incursions can only create more terrorism insofar as they inspire disaffected young men around the world to be drawn to a cause. Now we have a splintering of jihadism into these hard-to-track small cells of copycats. Every nudnik out there aspires to be a junior bin Laden. What was needed -- but which may now be impossible -- was to gain the trust of people worldwide at the local level. So that on small islands in Indonesia, let's say, neighbors will turn in the stranger who's gathering followers around him. Without that cooperation, we're never going to defeat world terrorism.

The notion that terrorism could be confronted through conventional military means -- by sending in troops as if it were D-Day -- was such a colossal stupidity. That Donald Rumsfeld is still employed as the secretary of defense is a living testament to the managerial incompetence of the current president. If Rumsfeld had been booted out early on, Bush would have gotten more of a pass. It could have been argued that he had merely been misled by bad advisors.

I'm not a Bush hater. I've always viewed him as a decent fellow who was pushed into the presidency because he was his father's son. But he's been out of his depth in foreign affairs from the start. He certainly lacks the basic verbal skills for the presidency -- reading speeches authored by others is no substitute. But I've become concerned about Bush's mental state in the past few months. Sometimes in his press conferences or prepared statements (which I listened to on the radio), I heard a sort of Nixonian tension and hysteria. His vocal patterns were over-intense and his inflections impatient, lurching and sarcastic. There was this seething quality to his speech that worried me and that seemed to signal that something major is being planned -- perhaps another military incursion.


What else? Yet another folly -- creating more generations of hatred against America. The feckless behavior of the Bush administration has been a lurid illustration of Noam Chomsky's books -- which I've always considered half lunatic. Chomsky's hatred of the United States is pathological -- stemming from some bilious problem with father figures that is too fetid to explore. But Chomsky's toxic view of American imperialism and interventionism is like the playbook of the rigid foreign policy of the Bush administration. So, thanks very much, George Bush, you've managed to rocket Noam Chomsky to the top of the bestseller list!

I'm worried about the future of America insofar as our academically most promising students are being funneled through the cookie-cutter Ivy League and other elite schools and emerging with this callow anti-American, anti-military cast to their thinking. How are we ever going to get wise leadership or sophisticated diplomacy from people who have such a distorted, clichid view about everything that's wrong with the United States? Neither the intellectuals nor the Democrats have any answers to the problems we face. It's not as if the Democrats are offering a coherent and persuasive foreign policy -- they have no foreign policy! They just come across as small-minded politicos jockeying for power.

And we do face an international crisis of mammoth proportions. What should we do in the face of this ruthless and barbaric Islamic fundamentalism? Is there an answer to the problem of Israel? There was a time when the left's call for a transnational Israel made sense to me, but at this point does anyone really think that, if Israel stops calling itself a Jewish state and opens its borders to all Palestinians who wish to return, there would be instant peace? Because of the shocking upsurge in anti-Semitism in the last few years -- exacerbated by the American incursion into Iraq -- surely such a development would mean suicide for Jews who reside in Israel. Passions have become too inflamed among young Muslims all over the world. I think it will be a century before any of this is resolved.

That leads to the next topic -- the Democrats. They look like they're facing a breakthrough midterm election, but what about 2008?

I was so distressed when I heard that Mark Warner had dropped out of the presidential race. I thought he was going to bring fresh blood into the primaries. Are we really left with the same old tired nags and with robo-Hillary leading the pack? It's extremely discouraging because we would have won the last election if we'd had a better candidate than John Kerry, with his droning hauteur and his Boston-run campaign that made one gaffe after another. It was very close because the country was already getting tired of the Iraq war.

But what candidate do we have to offer when national security is the No. 1 item on the front burner? Democrats became so distracted by their focus on domestic issues over the past 25 years that they're weak on national defense. I started talking about this when I was trying to reform feminism in the early '90s: If we want a woman president, we need to start training ambitious young women not in women's studies, with its myths of universal male oppression and female victimage, but rather in military history and national security issues. That's why Hillary, after she arrived in the Senate, began doing her homework by getting on the Armed Services Committee. But my generation of baby-boom Democrats hasn't done much deep thinking about international issues except in terms of postmodernist fragmentation or fuzzy, smiley-face multiculturalism. We desperately need better candidates.

As for Warner's departure helping John Edwards' candidacy -- good Lord, that guy is such a lightweight! Are we really going to put America's national security in Edwards' hands? He has no relevant experience whatsoever. At least John Kennedy, the first person I ever campaigned for when I was an adolescent, had seen military action in World War II. Except for Charles Rangel, who served in Korea, few Democratic leaders have military experience, so their rhetoric isn't likely to convince this skeptical and apprehensive electorate. The country is being asked to take a gamble with the disordered Democrats or to choose nascent fascism on the Republican side -- the intrusion into personal files and phone records, the shadowy sweeps that may have imprisoned innocent people along with genuine terrorists. The electorate could be ready to accept abrogation of basic constitutional rights in a time of war. In this anxious atmosphere, the Democrats look addled and self-absorbed, with their handmaiden major media and showbiz sermonizers and celebutantes. All that vulgar posturing -- Barbra Streisand trotting out a Bush impersonator at her concert, then being surprised when she gets heckled and cursing the heckler? Streisand is a great artist, but the superficiality of the Hollywood elite's understanding of politics is embarrassing to me as a pro-Hollywood Democrat!

You expect Republicans to be Brahmins, to be self-interested and not affected necessarily by the decisions they make  it's really part of their appeal. Don't you think Democrats' alliance with moneyed elites hurts them more than the GOP?

The Democrats' portrayal of Republicans as fat cats out of touch with ordinary Americans just doesn't fly anymore, and they should drop it. I think the center of the Republican Party really is small-businessmen and very practical people who correctly see that it's job creation and wealth creation that sustain an economy -- not government intervention and government control, that suffocating nanny-state mentality. The Democrats are in some sort of time warp in always proposing a government solution to every problem. It's like Hillary's philosophy that it takes a village to raise a child. Well, does it? Or does it take a strong family and not the village?

What's broadened the appeal of conservatism in recent years is that Republicans stress individualism -- individual effort and personal responsibility. They're really the liberty party now -- I thought my party was! It used to seem as if the Republicans were authoritarians and the Democrats were for free speech and for the freedom to live your own life and pursue happiness. But the Democrats have wandered away from their own foundational principles.

The Democrats have to start fresh and throw out the entire party superstructure. I was bitterly disappointed after voting for Ralph Nader that he didn't devote himself to helping build a strong third party in this country. When the American economy was still manufacturing based, the trade unions were viable, and the Democrats stayed close to their working-class roots. But now the Northeastern Democrats, with their fancy law degrees and cocktail parties, have simply become peddlers of condescending bromides about "the people."

Bill Clinton was always able to seem as though he was connecting with people outside of his realm. What have you thought about his latest media incarnation?

Whenever Clinton speaks, it throws into dramatic relief the inarticulateness of our current president, who sometimes can barely get through a sentence. After a career teaching in art schools, I've seen many examples of highly intelligent performers and artists who weren't naturally verbal, so I always gave Bush the benefit of the doubt. But now I feel that he really doesn't perceive subtleties and that his thinking is schematic and reductive. Clinton's range of reference and his ability to think out loud and to mesh the large idea with the small detail is remarkable.

On the other hand, I think, what the heck is Clinton doing? I used to assume he was campaigning to be the next secretary general of the United Nations, but he's turning into a compulsive blabbermouth who is compromising his own dignity as a former president. He was unusually young after two terms in office, but no former presidents have tried to hog the spotlight. He acts like he's the shadow president. This isn't Great Britain, where the leader of the opposing party is ready to step in if the government falls. It's a bad precedent, because we wouldn't want a disgruntled Republican ex-president bouncing around the map bad-mouthing a sitting Democratic president. Why is Clinton undermining the authority of the president when national security is so sensitive?

It doesn't really look like it can help his wife's political career.

Right! If Hillary is a serious presidential candidate, to have her husband constantly careening around the landscape like an unguided missile and stealing the limelight is disastrous. It may betray his own ambivalence and his desire to return to power. He's undermining her -- if we vote for her, are we going to be stuck with him? How will she be able to govern? Are we going to have co-presidents? It's probably too late for her to dump him.

I thought that Bill's recent performance on Fox News was very ill-advised. I know many Democrats loved it: Oh, finally someone going toe-to-toe with Fox! Well, what is this shibboleth about Fox as some sort of satanic force in American politics? Get over it!

It came at a time when Fox's ratings numbers have finally cooled off a little bit. It seemed more calculated.

It may have been mixed. It began as a challenge to the right-wing media, but I think Clinton got out of control and went embarrassingly too far. It was a perfectly civil and reasonable question from one of Fox's most neutral commentators. But Clinton went off on a tirade, waved his finger in Chris Wallace's face, and accused him of sitting there with a "smirk." That was over-personalizing the interview by any standard. And to charge Wallace with setting his guest up, with ambush journalism -- good heavens, the problem with American journalism is hardly that it's too severe and punitive. Our reporters' questioning of politicians is pallid and wimpy compared to what goes on in Britain and Europe. BBC journalists jump right in the face of every political figure from the prime minister on down. So for Clinton to make a huge fuss about a mild question about his administration's record in dealing with Osama bin Laden was a bullying of our journalists -- an act of war, in fact, on American journalists, saying, "Don't you dare go off our agreed-to list of questions!" Every Democrat who was disgusted by the American media's cowering passivity leading up to the Iraq war should have gone red-hot over this episode and said, "Clinton, back off! We want journalists to be bolder, ruder in challenging authority. Put more spine into our reporters!"

This overblown fear of Fox News is such a sentimentality on the part of too many Democrats. Talk radio is infinitely more powerful than Fox. Radio hosts are blanketing the country with round-the-clock conservative ideology -- not because they're dastardly conspirators manipulating the media but because they've achieved their success, market by market, in creating programs that millions of people want to listen to. The recent filing for bankruptcy by Air America dramatizes my party's abject failure to produce shows that are informative and entertaining and that systematically build an audience -- the way all the top radio hosts did who climbed the ladder from obscurity to their present prominence. Aren't we the party of Hollywood? The fact that we've failed so miserably at this central medium of communication shows how something has gone very wrong in Democratic sensibility.

Do you have any good candidates? You used to be a fan of Ron Kuby on New York's WABC.

Yes, I always enjoy him. He's very radical in his politics. But he has to fight for airspace with Curtis Sliwa, who wrongly regards himself as the dominant partner. Kuby is a trained lawyer and dazzlingly articulate. That man talks in full, syntactically complex sentences. But I'm not sure he could carry an entire show on his own.

I had great hopes for Randi Rhodes for a while, but she drove me away with her monotonous kvetching. Radio is an entertainment medium and requires variety of tone. Rhodes constantly sneers -- it's the shallow Maureen Dowd syndrome, turning political players into babies. Well, come on, we're dealing with issues of life and death on a global scale. You can't constantly reduce politicians to cartoons.

I'm sorry that Joy Behar is stuck on ABC's "The View." She's scathingly liberal. I was a huge admirer of her stand-up routines in the early '90s, when she also had a radio show. Now she's got this very well-paid sinecure on "The View," where she just sits there and reacts now and then. She still tours, but I wish she was more engaged in aggressive political satire.

And where's Sandra Bernhard? She's always boiling over with ideas and attitude. Look at how she got a hit at Republican women into her recent lip-gloss commercial -- which the cosmetics company immediately censored. Matt Drudge is on the radio once a week, and Sandra Bernhard can be too. She has the mind and the wit to do a great show. But forget the satellite route -- it has to be free AM radio to really reach millions. Don't even mention Al Franken -- I can't listen to him for 30 seconds without falling asleep. A voice like molasses and never a fresh idea.

It seems like religion has never been a bigger issue in American politics, recognized on both sides of the aisle as something that needs to be addressed. Have the Democrats changed the longtime Republican characterization of them as godless?

Well, as long as the Democrats are perceived as the anti-religion party, we're going to lose the culture wars. That's why Hillary has made such a show of churchgoing and wearing crucifixes -- even while there seems to be little connection between her Christian ideals and her backstage activities as a politician and money raiser. But religion is absolutely central to this country in ways that Europe's secularized intellectuals fail to understand. I'm speaking here as an atheist who studies religion and respects it enormously. In the history of mankind, the benefits that religion has brought to society in shaping behavior and moral choice are overwhelming in comparison to the negatives, which anyone can list -- like religious wars and bigotry. Without religion, we'd have anarchy.

Religion is also a metaphysical system that honors the largeness of the universe. It's that sense of largeness, which my generation used to call cosmic consciousness, that is missing in the cynical ideologies promoted by the elite universities -- like post-structuralism, which is obsessed with politics and language and has a depressingly debased view of human experience. Post-structuralism doesn't see the stars or the enormity of nature, which for religious people symbolizes God's power. So I think that the constant sniping at religion coming from liberal Democrats is really a dead end.

But there's reason for alarm at the right-wing intertwining of religion and politics, where the Bible is seen as the prophetic master plan of the universe and where Israel as the Holy Land must be protected at all costs from Muslim infiltration -- duplicating the agenda of the medieval crusades. But to claim, as Democrats often do, that there has always been a separation of church and state in America is misleading: The U.S. simply has no official state religion. The formative influence in our intellectual heritage came from Puritan dissidents in New England. Major universities like Harvard and Yale were founded on religious principles.

The more liberal parents are, the less contact their children have with religious ideas. That will surely disable our future American leaders from being able to understand the religious commitment of Islamic fundamentalists. Liberal journalists often seem incredulous about how anyone would seek death for religious principles. But that was the entire history of early Christianity, when the saints willingly sought martyrdom. We're heading into that world again.

What do contemporary intellectuals have to offer anyhow? What passionate engagement do they have to appeal to young people? Liberal secularism has become bourgeois and materialistic. It's snide, elitist, and politically marginalized. The chattering class clearly has no effect whatever on decision-making in Washington. Conservative radio hosts have been claiming that liberal criticism of Bush's decisiveness in invading Iraq mirrors the shilly-shallying of 1930s intellectuals during Hitler's rise. The intellectuals, with their cultivated internationalism, always counsel procrastination and leave it to the men of action to deal forcefully with fascist regimes.

Of course Democrats are genuinely divided about how we should proceed. There are people like me who want immediate withdrawal of all American forces from Iraq. Every war goes on and on because more and more blood has to be spilled to prove the value of the lives already lost. It's an endless cycle of insanity. Withdrawal would probably plunge Iraq into civil war, and the Democrats don't want to be blamed for the blood bath. But it's going to be nasty whether we stay or go.

I doubt withdrawal has ever been a possibility for this administration. Bush sees Iraq as a staging station to safeguard the oil fields by democratizing the Middle East. Our military bases may be permanently planted in Iraq. It will require a very strong and visionary future president of either party to get us out of this mess.

By David Talbot

David Talbot, the founder of Salon, is the author of New York Times bestsellers like "Brothers," "The Devil's Chessboard," and "Season of the Witch." His most recent book is "Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke."

MORE FROM David Talbot

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Camille Paglia