How secure are you?

Petraeus' empty words and the real terror threat. Plus: Larry Craig's libidinal misstep is grounded in modern male sexuality.

By Camille Paglia
Published September 12, 2007 3:04PM (UTC)
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Six years after the attack on the World Trade Center, what is the state of national security in the U.S.?

The Bush administration assures us that, thanks to its invisible hand, we are far safer than we would have been with a bleeding-heart Democrat at the helm. I suspect this is true: The lack of scruple about constitutional guarantees that has been openly flaunted by Vice President Dick Cheney might well have nipped nascent conspiracies in the bud -- though at the price of the massive surveillance and targeting of innocent citizens.


Should there be another major attack on U.S. soil, even Democrats suspicious of Republican hype would snap into survivalist mode, where defense of hearth and home is an elemental instinct. What Bush and company puff as the "war on terror" is no mirage: radical jihadism, exacerbated by the arrogant stupidity of our invasion of Iraq, does indeed threaten the very existence of Western civilization, whose peace and prosperity depend on a complex infrastructure and communications system vulnerable to catastrophic disruption by small bands of ruthless saboteurs.

But if some Democrats too facilely dismiss the gravity of the threat, Republicans have not helped their cause by their propagandistic conflation of shadowy al-Qaida with the authoritarian regime of Saddam Hussein, who held Iraq together, as his fascist forebears in Assyria and Babylon had done, through brutal repression. Some conservatives can go off the deep end: earlier this year, for example, I heard New York radio host Steve Malzberg deride Barack Obama's cautious caveat that, after another attack, we would need to learn "whose fingerprints are on the bomb." Malzberg flatly proclaimed, "If we're hit again with a dirty bomb, we should immediately tactically nuke Tehran and Damascus." Welcome to World War III.

Psychological survival seems to demand mental erasure. The liberal mainstream media censor the raw footage of the burning and collapsing WTC towers out of contorted deference to the victims' families, while conservatives block out the horrific suffering and devastation inflicted on innocent Iraqis through our bombing and occupation of Iraq. Noble motives cannot excuse injustice.


A moment that will surely live in political infamy was the confident declaration by the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Christine Todd Whitman, that the air was safe to breathe in lower Manhattan -- a statement that, only a week after 9/11, seemed bizarrely premature to me but that was blatantly designed to restore faith in the viability of the financial district. Meanwhile, the acrid fumes from subterranean fires kept pumping out their toxic brew, whose delayed effects are still unknown. It isn't simply the selfless, tireless search-and-recovery workers at ground zero who need be concerned about their long-term health. Whitman was a vigorous, genial former governor of New Jersey who seemed primed for an eventual presidential run, but her career was shipwrecked amid the blinkered partisanship and general managerial mediocrity that have characterized the George W. Bush White House. Whitman's fall was a loss for feminism.

I had no interest whatever in Gen. David Petraeus' predictable report this week of the success of the troop surge in Iraq. Words and more words -- what's new? Just get our troops the hell out of there -- now! A phased withdrawal, requiring the removal of massive amounts of supplies and equipment, will take months. But there isn't the sketchiest plan because Bush is dug in to the bitter end and will toss this hot potato to the incoming president -- who (no matter which party wins) won't dare to act. And of course Iraq needs to remain neutralized when American or Israeli bombs start dropping on Iran, which I have little doubt they will do by next year. Bush-Cheney, lacking a clear record of achievement, want to go out with a bang.

Apropos of other news, it's unclear whether the prize for worst performance of the past month should go to slatternly Britney Spears (who bombed at the Video Music Awards) or to ultra-whitebread Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, who got caught with his pants down in a Minnesota airport restroom. During the wave of ribald reaction to the latter flap, it was remarkable how few radio hosts and their callers (including on sports shows) had been aware of the cult status of toilets as a pickup joint for gay men.


I certainly recall my own surprise when informed by a fellow Yale graduate student that a certain john in the stacks of august Sterling Library (the third floor?) was a renowned hot spot for man-on-man action. I found it a bit de trop: When I wanted an erotic break, I simply riffled through the volumes of Paris Match for photos of Catherine Deneuve.

I'm of mixed mind: On the one hand, consensual sex, even if anonymous and faceless, should be a fundamental liberty. On the other hand, public restrooms are shared spaces, especially in airports or train stations, where children may be present. Therefore policing (though not entrapment) is justified. Without reasonable borderlines, sex automatically expands to the max.


In the polemical first chapter of "Sexual Personae," I attributed such male behavior to the "compartmentalization or isolation of male genitality," which can be both boon and curse. (That passage contains one of my most notorious pronouncements: "Male urination really is a kind of accomplishment, an arc of transcendence. A woman merely waters the ground she stands on.") The p.c. squad wasn't pleased with my observation that "the modern male homosexual has sought ecstasy in the squalor of public toilets, for women perhaps the least erotic place on earth."

But of course it's true! Oh, don't give me that crap about drug-dazed hot girls getting it on in the stalls of hip lesbo clubs. No women, except for muttering psychotics, are hanging around in grungy bus-station ladies' rooms hoping to score. It's not just furtive, closeted gay men who frequent toilets: Flamboyant pop star George Michael, who eats up stranger sex like a pastry cart of eclairs, got nailed for soliciting a cop in a public john right across from his posh Los Angeles hotel. The sleaziness is a turn-on, probably inflamed by the hyper-distillation of testosterone smells. A hormonal factor has been theorized in outbreaks of violence among lager-swilling British soccer fans, who are packed in like sardines in the seatless stands and who freely piss in place.

What most fascinated me about the Craig case, however, was the circuitous audiotape of his police interrogation. The senator's affectless banality was classic WASP, and his archaic diction and tone evoked the 19th century. Craig was born on an Idaho ranch that had been homesteaded by his grandfather. Until relatively recently, that vast state has been far removed from the ethnic or racial infusions that transformed other regions of the country, to which people once migrated en masse to work in factories. I found Craig's mild voice (embarrassingly negotiating about fallen squares of tissue paper) alarming and suffocating: It took me back to my early childhood in the small towns of upstate New York's Southern Tier, where immigrant Italians were still seen as alien interlopers.


I was recently intrigued by an archaeology article, "Ritual Killing at Mochlos," written by Jerolyn E. Morrison and Douglas P. Park for Kentro (Fall 2006), published by the University of Pennsylvania Museum. The killing is oddly of ceramic jugs, whose handles or spouts were crisply sheared off before they were buried in a Bronze Age tomb on Crete. A bronze dagger was also found ritually snapped in half.

To discover the method as well as "the social meaning of the act of ritual killing," the study team borrowed a Cretan ceramic studio and produced their own clay vessels, which were then efficiently "executed" on different surfaces and with various tools. This patient gathering of experimental evidence of ceramic fracture patterns wonderfully demonstrates the scientific spirit of contemporary archaeology at its best. Too often defamed these days as racist, imperialist piracy, archaeology has more scholarly soul than, well, most of the Ivy League's humanities departments ensconced in their plush, airless tombs.

On the pop front, I've been mesmerized as always by "Absolutely Fabulous," currently being rebroadcast by BBC America. The latest episode, "Magazine," was first aired 15 years ago but seems fresh as a daisy. I regard Jennifer Saunders as a genius -- not only an ace performer and astute social observer but a brilliant artist whose work has far more substance and staying power than the glitzy rubbish turned out by her fine arts contemporaries of the '90s, notably that overpraised, overpriced pack of Young British Artists whose balloon, except for the redoubtable Tracey Emin, has slowly sagged.


My partner Alison and I know virtually all of "Absolutely Fabulous" by heart -- its phrases echo in my brain like vintage poetry. Saunders was blessed with a fiendishly gifted collaborator, Dawn French, as well as a crackerjack ensemble -- Joanna Lumley, June Whitfield, Julia Sawalha, and director Bob Spiers. The series is a dazzling marriage of verbal and physical humor, with even minor or cameo roles (Germaine Greer, Suzi Quatro) wonderfully cast. "Magazine" has satirical surreal flashbacks (starring the formidable Eleanor Bron as Patsy's daft bohemian mother) produced and edited with the inspired verve of a European art film.

Speaking of classic comedy, I nearly fell out of my chair while eating lunch recently when Turner Classic Movies broadcast a 1952 black-and-white film I had never heard of, "Never Wave at a WAC," with Rosalind Russell. Alert, all "Auntie Mame" fans! (That sparkling 1958 movie, starring Russell and based on Patrick Dennis' witty book, was one of the central, formative experiences of my youth -- a taste inexplicably shared with battalions of gay men worldwide.)

The opening of "Never Wave at a WAC," where Russell as a Washington society hostess gaily descends her curving staircase, is a drop-dead rehearsal for the posh Prohibition party where we first meet Auntie Mame, floating down her own curving Beekman Place staircase. Even Russell's broad gestures and arch banter with her guests stunningly prefigure "Mame."

So the history of "Auntie Mame" needs to be rewritten. Never mind Dennis' real-life madcap aunt, his alleged inspiration. Rosalind Russell was Mame before that book was ever published. And with her 1930s-era feisty spirit, the rat-a-tat, motor-mouthed Russell was a superb model of no-excuses, can-do feminism.


My discovery du jour is "I Feel Like Saying a Beatnik Poem 1950s B Movie Style" (from "High School Confidential," 1958), where a deliciously insouciant gal does a terrific cafe reading improbably backed by a peppy honky-tonk band. "Tomorrow's dragsville, cats. Tomorrow is a king-size drag! ... Dig the vacuum," she drones. She's in the Juliette Greco ("Orphée") or Barbara Steele style ("La Dolce Vita"), broodingly smart and very high-maintenance. The uncredited bit role is vivaciously played by Phillipa Fallon.

I've been startled and delighted to hear Byrds music returning to radio after a very long absence. This aboriginal California folk-rock group has unfortunately been overshadowed by its cofounder David Crosby's epochal later work with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. The Byrds have always been dear to my heart: Their ecstatic, silvery lyricism permeated my early college years in the mid-1960s.

Check out "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better" (distractingly peppered with manic go-go dancers on NBC's "Hullabaloo!") or "It Won't Be Wrong" (a blurry, wavering video of the group awkwardly standing around at a ranch). Heavy metal, disco and hip-hop successively made the Byrds' brand of idealistic melodic charm unfashionable. Let's bring it back!

The Byrds' masterpiece, "8 Miles High," released in 1966, crudely stereotyped them as hippie-dippie druggies smuggling pot into the Los Angeles airport. But as a non-drug taker, I indignantly protest: "8 Miles High," with its eerie earthquake rumble and seductive, melismatic, sitar-flavored riffs, is about the clash between nature and culture, seen from a height through the visionary power of art.


Editor's Note: On October 10, Camille Paglia will be announcing the finalists for the 2007 National Book Awards at the Library Company in Philadelphia.

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Camille Paglia's column appears on the second Wednesday of each month. Every third column is devoted to reader letters. Please send questions for her next letters column to this mailbox. Your name and town will be published unless you request anonymity.

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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