The paranoid withdrawal fantasy

Why Iraq is not Cambodia, Mr. President. Plus: Britney's challenge, the Who's real magic, and lesbian bathroom sex.

Published October 10, 2007 11:19AM (EDT)

Dear Camille:

To end the Vietnam War fiasco, the U.S. did exactly what you are calling for in this Iraq fiasco: Get out now! We did get out in Nam and immediately, and nearly 3 million innocent souls were slaughtered by Pol Pot.

Question: Are you not even a bit concerned that another "killing fields" situation will occur, as will surely come to pass this time in much larger numbers?

Frank Baldino
New Haven, Conn.

Withdrawing U.S. troops and equipment from Iraq will be a complicated and dangerous process that will take many months. But it should be launched on a massive scale immediately. Iraq's fate needs to be decided by Iraqis, whose quarreling ancient tribes and factions have little motivation to compromise as long as the U.S. military is planted there to keep the peace. A democratic Iraq would be desirable in the best of all possible worlds, but it may be a desert mirage -- not worth the loss of thousands of American lives or the investment of hundreds of billions of dollars desperately needed for U.S. social services and infrastructure.

If there are parallels between Cambodia in the 1970s and Iraq now (as President Bush asserted to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in August), they simply prove the folly of current U.S. policy in the Middle East. We will never know how many horrific deaths can be traced to the ruthless dictator Pol Pot (it could have been half the number you cite), but they were not always due to "slaughter" per se. Hundreds of thousands of peasants died from starvation and untreated illness in Pol Pot's madly unrealistic plan to turn Cambodia virtually overnight into an agrarian communist utopia.

But the destabilization of Southeast Asia was in fact the result of Western colonialism and intervention in the region by France and then (with all the best intentions) by the U.S., leading to the First and Second Indochina Wars. Cambodia's leader, Prince Sihanouk, who had warned that the U.S. could not win in Vietnam, was ousted in a 1970 coup that had American approval and perhaps covert support. A month later, the U.S. invaded Cambodia to clean out North Vietnamese guerrilla bases -- an incursion that sparked protests on American campuses, including Kent State University, where four students died after being fired on by the National Guard.

American bombing of eastern Cambodia had been going on since the prior year, killing Cambodian civilians and inciting a refugee problem that would disorder the entire country. Thus U.S. actions strengthened Pol Pot's revolutionary movement by driving former Cambodian opponents (such as Sihanouk supporters) to him and by facilitating an alliance between his embryonic Khmer Rouge and Communist North Vietnamese insurgents. Pol Pot seized control of Cambodia in 1975, after the U.S. exit from Vietnam, and was deposed three years later by a Vietnamese invasion. After 17 more years of waging guerrilla war, he was arrested but died while awaiting trial.

Thus President Bush's allusion to Cambodia was grossly simplistic. The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq has itself caused a massive and underreported refugee problem. America's removal of the aging dictator Saddam Hussein (whose regime was in economic decline because of U.N. sanctions), followed by the disbandment of the Iraqi military, played right into the hands of Iraq's volatile, meddling, next-door rival Iran, which now aspires to regional dominance. Our ally Turkey, a nation with a long, tough history, is also likely to respond harshly to any attempt by its Kurdish minority to break away and join the Kurds of northern Iraq in forming an independent Kurdistan. How would the U.S. respond to a Kurdish bid for freedom?

Whatever its rationale for the invasion of Iraq (arguments rage over the relative weight of Israel, oil, Halliburton, al-Qaida or none of the above), the Bush-Cheney administration seems to have been blinded by its own naive idealism, provincialism and abject ignorance of history. The continued American presence in Iraq is not a solution but an obstruction to regional cooperation. Saudi Arabia certainly doesn't want Iran gobbling up its neighbors. But the shrewd Saudis, rolling in riches, have no incentive to take responsibility so long as the U.S. goes on playing policeman and footing the bill.

Iraq is ringed with nations more economically and politically developed than Cambodia ever was in the 1970s. Geography and climate also play a role: Insurgents in the Middle East don't have thick canopies of tropical forests to hide under. Yes, there will be civil disturbances and loss of life when American forces exit Iraq -- whether now or 10 years from now. But order will gradually be reasserted from within, even if Iraq itself (originally a British fabrication) fragments. Only the Iraqis, not American soldiers with their barriers of language and culture, can identify and expel any rogue al-Qaida intruders in their midst.

The idea that millions of Iraqis would be slaughtered in a new Holocaust is a paranoid fantasy promulgated by the Bush administration to manipulate popular emotion in the U.S., where knowledge of world geography and history has shrunk decade by decade, thanks to our mediocre public education and our shallow, timid and increasingly frivolous mainstream media.

Frankly, I have greater respect for Osama bin Laden than for any of the Democratic senators. Finding myself between al-Qaida and the DNC/ Kos in a war zone, I would be hard-placed to know which way to shoot.

Phillip J. Hubbell
Omaha, Neb.

Surely you don't really mean what you say. Surely this bloody scenario is a rhetorical sally, meant to shock and amuse.

The senators of my party, with a few stellar exceptions like Dianne Feinstein, may be a pack of vain, spineless, poll-puking, strutting peacocks, but they are not mass murderers. They did not coolly plan an amoral strike on American landmarks and cause the unspeakable suffering, death and incineration of nearly 3,000 people, U.S. citizens as well as foreign nationals.

As for the Democratic Party's governing committee or the combative, impudent left-liberal activist groups, they are just as committed to their altruistic vision of a future America as are conservatives, who base their values on tradition and faith. Both sides deserve respect.

However, I must confess my own exasperation with the Democratic leadership, who spout tiresome platitudes but achieve little and who stampede off on puerile publicity stunts that alienate potential voters across party lines. The latest example is the near-delusional campaign to turn popular radio host Rush Limbaugh, who has unwaveringly supported the military for nearly 20 years, into an anti-military antichrist. If Democrats are serious about ideology-based government regulation of talk radio, then the party is fast abandoning its fundamental principles, central to which should be constitutionally protected free speech.

To return to your war zone hypothetical, I doubt that the sociopaths of al-Qaida would be moved to mercy by your extermination of (probably pacifist and fumblingly unarmed) fellow Americans. Wouldn't you be next in the terrorists' line of fire?

This kind of partisan rancor and mutual recrimination are the sad legacy of two self-destructive administrations in a row. Bill Clinton's lies about his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky paralyzed the government and tainted his legacy, while George Bush's poor judgment and managerial ineptitude have mired us in an endless, brutal war with little chance for a happy ending.

I find it hard to believe that my fellow Democrats want to backtrack and relive every tedious scandal from the Clinton era. But that's what we'll get if Hillary is the nominee -- a long, sulfurous night of the walking dead, with chattering skeletons tumbling out of every closet. I've been discouraged by the clumsy missteps of the Edwards campaign, but I'm still hopeful about Barack Obama, who had the guts and good sense to publicly oppose the Iraq war from the start and whose ascent promises a clean, invigorating break from the sordid past.

I too grew up in upstate New York. I am an environmental groundwater geologist (who almost majored in fine arts). Your take on the Al Gore/global warming pseudo-catastrophe was right on target. Anyone can read up on Holocene geology and see that climate changes are caused by polar wandering and magnetic reversals. It is entertaining, yet sad to read bloviage from Leonardo DiCaprio, who is so self-centered that he thinks the earth's history and climate is a function of his short personal stay on this planet. Still he, Al Gore, Prince Charles and so on, ad nauseam, continue with their jet-set lifestyles. What hypocrisy!


Thank you for your input on the mass hysteria over global warming. The simplest facts about geology seem to be missing from the mental equipment of many highly educated people these days. There is far too much credulity placed in fancy-pants, speculative computer modeling about future climate change. Furthermore, hand-wringing media reports about hotter temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere are rarely balanced by acknowledgment of the recent cold waves in South Africa and Australia, the most severe in 30 years.

Where are the intellectuals in this massive attack of groupthink? Inert, passive and cowardly, the lot of them. True intellectuals would be alarmed and repelled by the heavy fog of dogma that now hangs over the debate about climate change. More skeptical voices need to be heard. Why are liberals abandoning this issue to the right wing, which is successfully using it to contrast conservative rationality with liberal emotionalism? The environmental movement, whose roots are in nature-worshipping Romanticism, is vitally important to humanity, but it can only be undermined by rampant propaganda and half-truths.

I was interested to see you claim in your Salon column to be a supporter of multiculturalism and was wondering if you could say more about what you mean by "multiculturalism."

Personally, I feel that what most liberal multiculturalists mean by "multiculturalism" is really monoculturalism. For example, Japan is an extremely sexist society. I doubt any self-described multiculturalists would want sexist cultures included in their list of acceptable cultures. The same goes for female genital mutilation practiced in Africa or forcing women to wear the burqa in the Middle East.

So-called multiculturalism is really a Western upper-middle-class liberal monoculturalism. It mostly amounts to urban hipsters and yuppies desiring many choices of restaurants. Furthermore, what is the relationship between multiculturalists and the multiple cultures they purport to love? Clearly a multiculturalist purports to like all of the multiple cultures that make up the diversity they demand to be celebrated, whether they be Muslim, Japanese, Chinese, Somali, African-American, etc. Oddly enough, however, none of these cultures are themselves multicultural. Japan, for example, is fiercely protective of its culture, as are most other cultures in the world.

So do multiculturalists advocate we all adopt multiculturalism as our ethic? If so, multiculturalism advocates changing the cultures they purport to respect.

My suspicion is that liberal multiculturalists really want everyone else to remain monocultural, while they aristocratically float above them all and reserve the multicultural perspective and arrogant, elitist moral and aesthetic superiority and sense of freedom for themselves.

Michael Toynbe

This is a delightful skewering of p.c. pretensions! Multiculturalism has become politicized in Great Britain and to a lesser extent Canada. But I can speak only from my own experience: Multiculturalism is an academic shibboleth to which many give lip service but which few honestly try to follow. Like "diversity," multiculturalism became a convenient rubric for the turf wars of identity politics, which began nearly four decades ago with women's studies and African-American studies and which generated one seceding fiefdom after another.

All these new subjects were important and worthy ones, but whether universities should have accommodated them by splintering the curriculum into fiercely autonomous mini-majors is a completely different matter. I myself felt, from my college years in the mid-1960s on, that American higher education urgently needed a cosmopolitan broadening of perspective -- a dissolution of existing departments (such as English) into a few overlapping interdisciplinary fields. Identity politics worsened the provincialism, as suggested by the paucity of significant culture critics to emerge from the generation of academics now in their late 30s and 40s.

Multiculturalism for me means the imperative for students and professors alike to learn about the art, literature, history and religion of every major civilization. We cannot understand our own culture fully until we juxtapose it with that of others. The gifts, limitations and repressions of each society come into focus through comparative analysis. For example, I want Judeo-Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam taught in every school.

My portrait of Western culture in "Sexual Personae," however, was not value free. I argued that the grand achievements of the West are inextricable from its restless egomania and its perverse phobias. I accepted the worst things said about the West but connected them to the birth of brilliant, world-changing ideas -- individualism, democracy, civil liberties and feminism, among others.

Too many multiculturalists subscribe to a glib anti-Americanism and constantly sneer at the very European tradition that invented and shaped their mental tools. It's wearisome and amateurish and has seriously degraded scholarly standards in the U.S.

You said in your latest article: "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."

After the Hillsborough disaster and the subsequent Taylor Report, I believe England eliminated these standing-only areas ("terraces"), at least in the largest stadiums. So they can't quite pack them in like they did in the 1980s. How much that has changed things in reality I couldn't say.

Blake Krass
Pflugerville, Texas

Many thanks to you and to a fellow Texan, Dave Brett Wasser of Austin, for citing the Taylor Report, published in 1990, which examined an incident the prior year at Sheffield's Hillsborough stadium where 96 Liverpool fans died through overcrowding. In 1985, British soccer teams were banned from European play for five years after a riot by Liverpool fans resulted in 39 deaths and 350 injuries at a stadium in Brussels.

The government's abolition of standing-only areas at sports stadiums in England and Scotland evidently did result in a radical reduction of violence among British soccer fans, who had become notorious for hooliganism. So British brawling, amid all those rivers of urine flowing merrily down the terraces, may indeed have been fueled by testosterone intoxication!

Yes, some women do seek sexual relief and excitement in the public bathrooms. During my four years in the Marine Corps, it was well understood that women Marines, bi and lesbian, sought out sexual encounters in the bathrooms on Marine Corps bases and military airports. Especially airports because of the enticement of different women coming through and it being a one-time event. Meanwhile, the gay male marines kept their sexuality pretty concealed and secret. It goes without saying the Marines have a long tradition of a gay-bisexual subculture that involves many career Marines.

Kasmir J. Zaratkiewicz
Richmond, Calif.

I appreciate this diverting glimpse of subterranean military life!

Naturally, I accept your testimony about uniformed gals gone wild in the loo. But it seems as if such behavior is a temporary, makeshift measure, predicated on soldiers' distance from their own homes. It doesn't totally parallel the lifelong cruising style of so many gay men who haunt public toilets as an active erotic choice or preference.

With its acrid hormonal smells, brisk traffic and mundane ritual of furtive self-touch, the men's john stimulates gay lust -- while the ladies' room is just another place to jabber and powder your nose!

I have a quick question about your reference to Barbara Steele in "La Dolce Vita." I could be wrong, but I didn't think Barbara Steele (one of my two top cult actress favorites; the other is Kim Novak) was in" La Dolce Vita."

I thought she was in "8 1/2," playing Gloria Morin. Now, she may have been in Italy at the time "La Dolce Vita" came out, because 1960 was the year of her breakthrough movie, "La Maschera del Demonio" ("Black Sunday"), but I don't remember seeing her in "La Dolce Vita."

Tom Nassisi
Valley Cottage, N.Y.

May Aphrodite forgive me! Of course you're quite right -- Barbara Steele (whom I compared to Lady Caroline Lamb and Edie Sedgwick in "Sexual Personae") does her charismatic, manic turn in "8 1/2." I apologize for the way that the peak Fellini films, united by Nino Rota's sprightly scores, dreamily run together in my mind.

I'm delighted to hear from another Kim Novak fan. Her eerily seductive performance as a languid, wistful witch in "Bell, Book, and Candle" made a huge impression on me in childhood. In fact, it probably marked me for life!

Alfred Hitchcock was of course disgruntled that he had to use Kim Novak instead of one of his more refined blondes in "Vertigo," but now it's hard to imagine anyone but Novak in that role. As the false Madeleine swathed in her shimmering green cape, she floats like a baroque apparition into Ernie's restaurant; as the slangy shop girl, she's sensuously beefy ("I'm gonna have one of those big, beautiful steaks!") and yet wears her hurt on the surface.

Who today in Hollywood is capable of that hypnotic combination of the mystical and the concrete?

I was thrilled to see your mention of "Absolutely Fabulous." I've watched the episodes on DVD more times than I care to mention.

But I know you didn't neglect to mention the utterly brilliant Jane Horrocks in your listing of all the actresses who made the series so great! Come on, now. That's a fairly grievous omission.

Daniel Enoch

As Ann Landers might say, 20 lashes from a wet noodle!

My hasty omission of Jane Horrocks was appalling. Please attribute it to the rigors of full-time teaching (I do have a day job!).

Horrocks' priceless turns as Bubble, Edina's daffy, incompetent secretary with a Northern accent, are engraved in my brain. Her line readings and physical bits of business are ultra-sophisticated. And her surreal interchanges with her frustrated, distracted or coke-addled boss are glorious to behold -- through repeated viewings without number. Thanks to Horrocks, the elfin Bubble will live forever!

Since you (and Alison) love "AbFab" and you wrote about Bergman's death in Salon, I just wanted to make sure you've seen the French & Saunders satire of Bergman. I also love the SCTV satires as well as the brilliant "De Düva." Go to and scroll down the page to the parodies section.

Stephen Ludwig

No, I hadn't seen this French & Saunders episode -- thanks so much!

However, "De Düva" ("The Dove") will never be surpassed as a Bergman satire. I found it utterly hilarious when I first saw it in 1968, and I never forgot it. Over the decades, I performed snatches of its fractured pseudo-Swedish in my classes. So it's wonderful to be able to encounter the film again via the Web. I still admire its classy cleverness.

The site you kindly sent also has one of my favorite moments in Woody Allen -- the finale of "Love and Death" where two Bergman films ("Persona" and "The Seventh Seal") are parodied. Diane Keaton is terrific with her mordant, deadpan delivery. What comedic intelligence!

I adore the Who. What are your thoughts on that extraordinary band?

Tim Eimiller
Orchard Park, N.Y.

Pete Townshend, the Who's virtuoso lead guitarist and composer, is obviously one of the preeminent geniuses of modern popular music. While I always preferred the Rolling Stones, with their sinuous covers of African-American blues, the Who had a galvanizing impact on me in college and graduate school. I loved their raw power -- Townshend's crashing chords, Roger Daltrey's soaring vocals, John Entwistle's deft singing bass, and Keith Moon's crazed, even chaotic drumming.

My favorite Who songs were the defiant manifesto "My Generation" (here it is from the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967), and the darkly magical "I Can See for Miles" (lip-synced on this vintage clip from a "Smothers Brothers Show"). Two years ago, the ingenious Petra Haden did a phenomenal a cappella version of the latter song.

The Who's rock opera "Tommy" (1969) seemed to prefigure a renaissance of rock, where this once despised teenage genre would rise to the level of classical music. Alas, that never happened, and some of us '60s relics are still in the dumps about it. There are many marvelous songs on "Tommy," but my all-time favorite is "I'm Free" (here's the Who performing it at Woodstock in 1969).

From the Who's later repertoire, there's a major standout for me: "Eminence Front" (1982), which I think is a masterpiece. In the original video, I've always loved the contrast between Townshend's punk intensity and Entwistle's cordial, magisterial reserve. Don't miss the look of ecstatic abstraction in drummer Kenney Jones' eyes. Daltrey looks tasty, but why is he clutching that guitar? Here's the grizzled band performing it (somewhat unsteadily) this year.

I could go on and on about the poetic implications about identity (the persona as mask) and power politics in the lyrics of this song: "Eminence front -- it's a put-on!"; "Come on, join our party/ Dressed to kill." It's all coming from Townshend's own passionate spiritual quest for meaning, which has taken him from the violent mean streets through stratospheric fame to his present status as a near-deaf bard and sage.

As I watched the quick disintegration of Britney Spears on the latest unwatched MTV Music Video Awards show in Las Vegas (she looked like Pillsbury Crescent Roll dough popping out of the tube while wearing an outfit that looked like the love child of Annette Funicello's bathing suit and Norma Desmond's shower cap), I have to ask what has happened to the showmanship of singers like this? Where, oh where, are the Ann-Margrets of today?

C.F. Cantavero

I haven't given up on Britney, despite the maelstrom of trashiness that she compulsively creates around herself and, worse, her children. To recover, she would need to ally herself with an ace team of producers, choreographers and stylists. But Britney obviously lacks Madonna's workaholic Italian-American drive as well as her shrewd instinct for finding and collaborating with cutting-edge talent.

Your invocation of the feisty yet sweet-tempered Ann-Margret is well-taken. She was a hardworking singer and dancer who had performed in cabarets before she became a star. She benefited from the vitality of American musical comedy in the post-World War II era -- a razzmatazz spirit that explodes from the screen in "Viva Las Vegas" (1964), where she co-stars with Elvis Presley.

It's no coincidence that Ann-Margret was discovered by George Burns, with his rich vaudeville past. American music, movies, TV and stand-up comedy benefited enormously from ex-vaudevillians, who learned their chops through seat-of-the-pants crowd-pleasing live performance. That tradition has now been broken. Britney Spears' pathetic free fall is partly due to her lack of basic professional skills. She's like a hologram vibrating in the depthless space of modern media -- a figment of our imagination who has lost her way in Wonderland.

Postscript: I tartly assessed the current state of gender studies in a review of three new books about male sexuality in the Sept. 21 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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.

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

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