Obama's early stumbles

Readers ask, Camille dishes: On Democratic woes, the Weather Underground, Kanye West, Freud, alleged gay genes and "the long sleep."

By Camille Paglia

Published January 14, 2009 11:33AM (EST)

Dear Camille,

When Obama is reading off a teleprompter or in a scripted environment like a debate (where the game is to plug in your prepared sound bites regardless of the question), he comes across as a magnificent and inspiring speaker. But there were several times during the campaign where he appeared to trip all over himself when off script.

Now in his comments about the Blagojevich mess, he comes across badly and makes it look like we are in for another four (or eight) years of people having to carefully parse every word. Do you get that same impression to any extent, and if so, does it cause you concern?

Blake Krass
Pflugerville, Texas

Because my support for Obama was based on his steady, tempered performance in the debates rather than on his soaring but rather vague speeches, I have never been troubled by any gap between his mundane and rhetorical selves. The widespread notion that Obama is inarticulate came from stunt tapes broadcast on conservative talk radio where his occasional hesitations on the road were stitched together to make him sound like a stuttering Bugs Bunny.

Who wouldn't misspeak from fatigue on the long, brutal national campaign trail? Only candidates popping pep pills or relying on a Versailles-like staff of flunkies to feed them talking points and buzzwords. Considering what a relative newcomer he is, Obama endured that punishing trial by fire amazingly well. Since the election, he has also projected a cordial dignity and thoughtful reserve that seem to have impressed and reassured observers across the political spectrum.

However, you are quite right to call the controversy over the indictment of buffoonishly sly Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich a "mess." That the normally deft Obama team mishandled its rapid response to it was obvious from the get-go. Obama's first statements about his and his staff's communications with Blagojevich were inadequate at best and misleading at worst. Then there was a second stage of needless blunders when Obama opposed the tarnished Blagojevich's perfectly legal appointment of Roland Burris to fill Obama's vacated Senate seat -- a foolishly hard line that the president-elect inevitably had to reverse.

The usual tranquil transition period between an election and inauguration has certainly been overshadowed by the murky Blagojevich scandal, but I think most reasonable people would give Obama a pass on it. Any new president must learn crisis management the hard way. No evidence to date directly implicates Obama in Blagojevich's follies. But Obama's future chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, the arrogant Chicago scrapper who was reportedly a conduit to the governor, already seems like an albatross who should be thrown overboard as soon as possible. Nobody wants a dawning presidency addicted so soon to stonewalling, casuistry and the Nixonian dark arts of the modified limited hangout.

I wish to present an observation, of sorts, from an evil conservative view.

I am not in the least bit surprised that the Obama crew is shaping up to look like a Clinton retread crew because it seems to me that the Clinton years are the only real benchmark of accomplishment that Democrats today can look to. Sure, they wiped up the Republicans in '06 and '08, but they haven't done much of anything of substance except torpedo Congress's already historically abysmal approval ratings and piss off their own Capitol Hill staffers. If anyone ought to be allowed (or encouraged) to smoke, it would be these D.C. staffers, and are you really willing to screw with that?

It is going to be interesting to see how the Democrat Party is able to hold up in this first year or so internally. In my humble opinion, Obama is not the leader of this party -- Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are -- and to see how Obama grabs hold of Dem leadership responsibilities, if at all, will be interesting. I think that the party is at a crossroads, with political posturing at the top (Obama's rapidly backpedaling policy plans), power and ego struggles (Hillary, Harry, Nancy, etc.) and a voter base that is starting to look and sound more like British Labour and that grows less tolerant of electoral posturing and only more restless in its pursuit of what I can only describe as radical change.

Obama will certainly have his hands full with his band of bozos, and because they control Congress and the White House, whichever way they pull themselves, so go the rest of us. Oh well, in God I trust, and in his faithful servant, John Browning.

Daine Zaccheo

469th FMC Info Sys Support Spc

Palm Bay, Fla., by way of Balad, Iraq

Thank you for your tart perspective on the travails of my party! In invoking God's "faithful servant" John Browning, I assume you are referring to the innovative Mormon gunsmith (1855-1926) who invented a staggering number of weapons and who is considered the godfather of today's automatic and semiautomatic firearms.

Surely both parties should be rooting for Congress to dig in its heels and assert its constitutional authority vis-à-vis the White House. The U.S. was meant to have a vigorous tripartite government, which has been weakened by the post-Nixon slide toward an ad hoc imperial presidency. The legislative branch shouldn't roll over and play dead like a cutesy pound puppy.

On the other hand, I agree with you that Congress has come across lately like a clumsy, flea-bitten bunch of "bozos." Its poll ratings are lower than stinking swamp mud. I have a soft spot for the nimble Nancy Pelosi, a master of the ladylike stiletto thrust, but Harry Reid is a cadaverous horse's ass of mammoth proportions. How in the world did that whiny, sniveling incompetent end up as Senate majority leader? Give him the hook! As for the "radical change" that you fear, it's hard to imagine (short of a crisis-driven imposition of martial law) how that will ever happen in our sluggish, consensus-driven political system.

Dick Cavett is someone whose column I almost always enjoy very much. But I agree that he put down Sarah Palin's use of language for no good reason. The example he cited (she was discussing Darfur and what Alaska had done in view of events there) was an almost perfect example of coherent thought on her part if you recognize that a longish sentence includes a parenthetical aside.

Here is the bit he cites in his column: "My concern has been the atrocities there in Darfur and the relevance to me with that issue as we spoke about Africa and some of the countries there that were kind of the people succumbing to the dictators and the corruption of some collapsed governments on the continent, the relevance was Alaska's investment in Darfur with some of our permanent fund dollars."

Here is my own very minor rework of her sentence (rework in italics): "My concern has been the atrocities there in Darfur and the relevance to me with that issue (as we spoke about Africa and some of the countries there where we see the people succumbing to the dictators and the corruption of some collapsed governments on the continent), the relevance was Alaska's investment in Darfur with some of our permanent fund dollars."

When she spoke, the sense of what she meant was clear, and a minor edit makes the sentence good enough for a print medium.

No doubt she can be attacked in several areas on substance, but it is interesting and strange that instead people engage in elitist attacks on her for being a hunter or for the way she talks. In point of fact, she is a very able communicator, as time will bear out, I am sure, and yet the number of people on the left who recognize her political gifts is very small.

Cavett will come back and entertain me again soon, I am sure, but this is one case where he's just lost his objectivity and comes off sounding like a prig.

Blaine Walgren

Excellent analysis! You have cut the entire ground out from beneath Dick Cavett's lofty claim of grammatical superiority to Sarah Palin by exposing his inability to sense a simple parenthesis in a spoken passage. I laughed heartily at your e-mail, for which I am most appreciative.

As I have repeatedly said in this column, I have never had the slightest problem in understanding Sarah Palin's meaning at any time. On the contrary, I have positively enjoyed her fresh, natural, rapid delivery with its syncopated stops and slides -- a fabulous example of which was the way (in her recent interview with John Ziegler) that she used a soft, swooping satiric undertone to zing Katie Couric's dippy narcissism and to assert her own outrage as a "mama grizzly" at libels against her family.

Ideology-driven attacks on Palin became clotted liberal clichés within 24 hours of her introduction as John McCain's running mate. What a bunch of tittering lemmings the urban elite have become in this country. From Couric's vicious manipulations of video clips to Cavett's bourgeois platitudes, the preemptive strike on Palin as a potential presidential candidate has grossly misfired. Whatever legitimate objections may be raised to Palin on political grounds (explored, for example, by David Talbot in Salon) have been lost in the amoral overkill that has defamed a self-made woman of concrete achievement in the public realm.

And let me take this opportunity to say that of all the innumerable print and broadcast journalists who have interviewed me in the U.S. and abroad since I arrived on the scene nearly 20 years ago, Katie Couric was definitively the stupidest. As a guest on NBC's "Today" show during my 1992 book tour, I was astounded by Couric's small, humorless, agenda-ridden mind, still registered in that pinched, tinny monotone that makes me rush across the room to change stations whenever her banal mini-editorials blare out at 5 p.m. on the CBS radio network. And of course I would never spoil my dinner by tuning into Couric's TV evening news show. That sallow, wizened, drum-tight, cosmetic mummification look is not an appetite enhancer outside of Manhattan or L.A. There's many a moose in Alaska with greater charm and pizazz.

Longtime listener, first-time caller. Although I wasn't yet alive in the times it describes, I too was blown away (pun intended) by "The Weather Underground" film, not so much by the namby-pamby William Ayers -- who for all his scandalous reputation, was never charged with more than throwing a few rocks and helping to blow up a statue -- but by steel-jawed, unrepentant Bernadine Dohrn.

In reading about this (dis)organization from various contemporary sources, it becomes clear that despite the credit granted to male figures, and despite the sexism of the era and the organization overall, Dohrn was in fact its primary leader and one of the main reasons for its success in eluding capture for many years. Even more interestingly, the males in head leadership positions within the Weathermen -- Jeff Jones, Ayers -- seemed to derive their leadership from their relationships with her, much as, to use a musical metaphor, the Jefferson Airplane's musical leadership depended on whom Grace Slick was sleeping with!

Putting aside the extremity of their ideals, the close bonds and sexual radicalism of the Weather Underground did seem to produce a new model of the family and community, with woman at the head. When Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert went to jail for their extended sentence, Dohrn and Ayers adopted their child without a thought. And now, Chesa Boudin is a Rhodes scholar. Amazing!

If you have not already read it, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Jane Alpert's autobiography of her own '60s terrorist activities, and time on the run, "Growing Up Underground."  Not only does it include both warm and not-so-warm memories of Dohrn and other famous Weather figures, but it's a refreshingly candid and honest look at the interplay between sexual repression/desire/neurosis and radical political action. Alpert also provides thoughtful critiques of the emerging feminist movement of the time, which she embraced and later modified her worship of. I think it's worth a look for those who lived through the times, and certainly worth deep study for those who didn't.

K. Lenz

I've been haunted by that upsetting "Weather Underground" documentary ever since I saw it two months ago. Like you, I was simply stunned by Bernardine Dohrn and have come to view her as one of the central and paradigmatic figures of my '60s generation. No history of the time will be complete without examining Dohrn and trying to explain the mystery of her motivation. In her heyday, she was such a singular hybrid of criminality and idealism. You make a powerful point about the bold sexual dynamics at work in her matriarchal milieu.

No, I never read Jane Alpert's terrorist memoir -- thanks for the tip, which I'm sure will interest many Salon readers. I love the parallel you draw to Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane, a group that loomed very large for me during college and grad school, when rock was still thought to be a revolutionary agent. I played the 1969 Jefferson Airplane version of "Wooden Ships" for my art of song lyrics class this past semester and was full of admiration once again for Slick's unique sound and artistry. What an extraordinary song -- a vision of post-nuclear devastation and human reconstruction, treated not with angry sermonizing or bombast but with floating, lyrical atmospherics. 

I am a conservative lesbian living in New York. I would love you to address how the Fairness Doctrine has become a viable possibility for the liberal agenda, given that it is simply modern-day censorship, and also taking into account the undeniably left-leaning media. How can the left not see its hypocrisy?

Kara McGee

If there's anything that demonstrates the straying of the Democratic Party leadership from basic liberal principles, it's this blasted Fairness Doctrine -- which should be fiercely opposed by all defenders of free speech. Except when national security is at risk, government should never be involved in the surveillance of speech or in measuring the ideological content of books, movies or radio and TV programs.

Broadcasters must adhere to reasonable FCC regulations restricting obscenity, but despite the outlandish claims of Democrats like Sen. Charles Schumer, there is no analogy whatever between pornography and political opinion. Nor do privately owned radio stations have any obligation to be politically "balanced." They are commercial enterprises that follow the market and directly respond to audience demand. The Fairness Doctrine is bullying Big Brother tyranny, full of contempt for the very public it pretends to protect.

As a fan of AM radio since childhood, I adore the proliferation of political talk shows spurred by Rush Limbaugh's pioneering rise to national syndication in the late 1980s. It represented a maturation of the late-night coast-to-coast radio programs that I had been listening to in the 1970s, such as Herb Jepko (broadcasting from Salt Lake City), Long John Nebel (from New York) and Larry King (from Miami).

However, I do lament the gradual disappearance of small, quirky local shows due to the trend toward national syndication. And I often get bored and impatient with the same arch-conservative message being drummed out 24/7. But let's get real: Liberals have been pathetic flops on national radio -- for reasons that have yet to be identified. Air America, for example, despite retchingly sycophantic major media coverage, never got traction and has dwindled to a humiliating handful of markets. The Democrats are the party of Hollywood, for heaven's sake -- so what's their problem in mastering radio?

Instead of bleating for paternalistic government intervention, liberals should get their own act together. Radio is a populist medium where liberals come across as snide, superior scolds. One can instantly recognize a liberal caller to a conservative show by his or her catty, obnoxious tone. The leading talk radio hosts are personalities and entertainers with huge rhetorical energy and a bluff, engaging manner. Even the seething ranters can be extremely funny. Last summer, for example, I laughed uproariously in my car when WABC's Mark Levin said furiously about Katie Couric, "What do these people do? Open fortune cookies and read them on air?"

The best hosts combine a welcoming master of ceremonies manner with a vaudevillian brashness. Liberal imitators haven't made a dent on talk radio because they think it's all about politics, when it isn't. Top hosts are life questers and individualists who explore a wide range of thought and emotion and who skillfully work the mike like jazz vocalists. Talk radio is a major genre of popular culture that deserves the protection accorded to other branches of the performing and fine arts. Liberals, who go all hushed and pious at Hays Code censorship in classic Hollywood, should lay off the lynch-mob mentality. Keep the feds out of radio!

Have you noticed how much the call for combating global warming crusade has in common with how we got into the Iraq war?

In both cases, there are "experts" who tell us that evidence justifying action is undeniable. They say, "The risk of doing nothing is too great for us to do nothing." And as a fallback position they say, "Even if we're wrong, we'll still be doing some good in the world."

Kind of makes me think man-made CO2 emissions will turn out to be the biggest case of nonexistent WMD since Saddam Hussein's nukes. (Or maybe even bigger!) What do you think?

Jim Carroll

Wonderful letter! I became a vocal opponent of the onrushing Iraq incursion when I was shocked by the flimsiness of evidence presented by Secretary of State Colin Powell to the United Nations in 2003. Similarly, I have been highly skeptical about the claims for global warming because of their overreliance on speculative computer modeling and because of the woeful patchiness of records for world temperatures before the 20th century.

In the 1980s, I was similarly skeptical about media-trumpeted predictions about a world epidemic of heterosexual AIDS. And I remain skeptical about the media's carelessly undifferentiated use of the term "AIDS" for what is often a complex of wasting diseases in Africa. We should all be concerned about environmental despoliation and pollution, but the global warming crusade has become a hallucinatory cult. Until I see stronger evidence, I will continue to believe that climate change is primarily driven by solar phenomena and that it is normal for the earth to pass through major cooling and warming phases.


I'm a right-wing, pro-life, Christian, Republican extremist, and also one of Rush Limbaugh's "Mind Numbed Robots." In your column, you said you were an atheist. The Old Testament of the Bible predicted the coming of Jesus as the Savior of all mankind, and all of those detailed predictions, written hundreds of years before, came to pass. What if the Bible is true? Where would you spend eternity?

Thanks and may God bless you,


Thank you for your challenging question. I respect the Bible as one of the world's greatest books, based on a magnificent body of oral poetry. It is a fundamental text that everyone, atheist or believer, should know. It speaks profoundly to everyone at each stage of life. And of course its hero sagas, from Moses to Christ, have been absorbed into the Western fine arts tradition.

But I do not accept the Bible as divinely inspired. Indeed, most scholars would agree that the New Testament was purposefully written as a point-by-point response to the Old Testament to prove that Jesus was indeed the Messiah whose arrival had been forecast for centuries. Therefore the details of Jesus' life and experiences were tailored and shaped to echo the language and imagery of the Old Testament.

Personally, I do believe there was a historical Jesus. The evidence is fragmentary but, to me, convincing that a charismatic, itinerant preacher of his name was swept up into the cruel politics of the Roman occupation of fractious, rebellious Judaea. Furthermore, as a literary critic, I hear a very distinct speaking voice in the sayings attributed to Jesus. This was a brilliant poet who was able to find simple, universal metaphors (a coin, a tree, a mustard seed) to convey spiritual truths to the masses. He was also a performing artist with startling improvisational gifts. Whether or not he himself thought he was the Messiah is unclear. A solid general education today should include Siddhartha (the Buddha), Jesus and Mohammed, all of whom radically changed the world.

In regard to your question about eternity, I am a naturalist who reveres the cosmos and the vast organic cycle. Despite their superior consciousness, human beings, like plants and animals, simply decay to revitalize the earth. I see nothing depressing in that; on the contrary, it is an affirmation of the life force. My philosophy is very similar to that of Amerindians, who saw godlike forces in every rocky outcropping and storm. I also like the attitude of feisty, progressive Katharine Hepburn, who said, "I don't fear death. It must be like a long sleep -- delicious!"

There has been a lot of discussion (though not much lately) of whether homosexuality is inborn or caused by outside factors. Whatever happened to the Electra and Oedipus complexes of Freud, of which so much was heard when I was in college way back when? And what do you think?

This is from a hetero male happily married to a hetero female. The question is one of intellectual curiosity.

Henry Delahunt

Shreveport, La.

Yes, the intellectual climate of the 1950s and '60s, during which I was educated, was saturated with Freud, even at the level of stand-up comedy (as in Lenny Bruce or Mike Nichols and Elaine May). I loved it! But the Freudian style of lacerating self-examination would pass from the scene after the politicized '60s, which promoted a new worldview where everyone is a victim of oppressive external power.

In clinical psychology, pharmaceutical intervention became the norm. Long-term Freudian psychoanalysis, which probes childhood memories, began to seem too protracted and expensive. Practical, short-term help with current problems was now sought. Freud was also turned into a cartoon sexist by feminist philistines like Gloria Steinem, who dismissed his entire body of work merely because of a few passages they didn't like. French poststructuralist readings of Freud became a campus fad in the '70s and '80s but sank in a sludge of their own gobbledygook.

After the American Psychiatric Association, responding to activist pressure, removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1973, psychological inquiries into homosexuality slowly became verboten. To even ask about the origins of homosexuality was automatically dubbed homophobic by gay studies proponents in the '80s and '90s. Weirdly, despite the rigid social constructionist bias that permeated the entire left, gay activists in and out of academe now leapt on the slightest evidence that could suggest a biological cause of homosexuality. The very useful Freudian concept of "family romance" (typified by the Oedipus and Electra complexes) is almost completely gone. Yet the intricate family dynamic of every single gay person I've ever known seems to have played some kind of role in his or her developing sexual orientation.

The widespread desire to find a biological basis for homosexuality seems to me very misconceived. It will inevitably lead to claims that gays are developmentally defective at the prenatal level. I myself believe (as I argued in "No Law in the Arena" in "Vamps & Tramps")  that everyone is born with a potential for bisexual responsiveness and that exclusive homosexuality is an adaptation to specific social conditions. When a gay adult claims to have been gay since early childhood, what he or she is actually remembering is the sense of being different for some reason, which in boys often registers as shyness or super-sensitivity, leading to a failure to bond with bumptious peers. This disjunction, with all its painfully stifled longings, becomes overt homosexuality much later on. But retrospective psychohistory is out these days, and the only game in town is pin the tail on the oppressor.

"Revalorization of the trades": You've perfectly articulated what I've thought for years. Time to remove the stigma and recognize trades for the skilled and professional work they are (and to bring that level of professionalism to them).

As a college writing professor, I see many students who clearly don't want to be on the university path but are there because their parents want them to be and are willing to foot the bill. It's all so misdirected. Wouldn't our society and citizens be better served if we quit thinking of vo-tech types as "flunkies" and second-stringers?

Marna Krajeski

I agree with you completely! The American system of higher education has become an insane assembly line -- bankrupting families to process hapless students through an incoherent, haphazard and mediocre liberal arts curriculum. In the '60s, there was a brief moment when middle-class young men were dropping out of college to become silversmiths or leather workers in San Francisco or Greenwich Village. As the product of an Italian-American immigrant family where the crafts were honored, I cheered that development and prayed that it would continue. But it sputtered out -- probably because the recession of the 1970s was a cold dose of reality.

Perhaps there's hope of change because of the tens of thousands of liberal arts graduates with expensive degrees who are finding themselves out of work and depressingly marginalized in a society where the manual trades offer guaranteed employment at relatively high wages. A dose of Buddhism might do people good: Sweeping garden sand into oceanic designs around ornamental rocks is considered a spiritual exercise in Asia. I say that landscaping, construction, carpentry, metalworking and all the other trades should be promoted by primary education as worthy careers for both men and women. The pre-college rat race is a sadomasochistic imposition on the young that robs them of free will and saps their vital energies. When will they rebel?

Our professors of humanities seem to trip over themselves in praise of Pierre Bourdieu's 1984 scholarly study "Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste." I trudged through his garbled, inflated prose like Katharine Hepburn's Rosie Sayer slogging through the labyrinthine muck of a dissipated river, the African Queen in tow. Their determination to undermine the evaluative standards of the great Western art tradition borders on pathological -- born out of the nihilistic defeatism of their self-imploding, French-theory-bound careers. Why are so many Ivy League teachers determined to reduce art to a means of shoring up class distinctions or a mere manifestation of educational capital?

Tom Joudrey

Mansfield, Ohio

Any teacher who assigns Bourdieu's groaning gasbag of a book to American undergraduates should be charged with fraud. Any student who takes a course where Bourdieu's book is assigned should be charged with naivete. Yet the book still regularly appears on many elite school library reserve lists.

The subject is a good one. I too believe that taste is defined by changing social assumptions, depending on place, period and class. But wasn't that obvious to any student of culture 50 years ago? Bourdieu's book is an embarrassment -- a lot of constipated straining for chapter after chapter until you get to the appallingly simplistic questionnaire at the back that was the basis for the whole antique project. What a joke!

Why are American professors forcing American students to plow through a boneless blob of a book that is predicated on now totally passé French manners and mores? Why is egregious theoretical verbosity being force-fed to cyber-savvy, text-messaging young people who barely read as it is and who still haven't found their own writing voices? The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind -- yes, the big wind of elite school flatulence, which may be the true cause of global warming.

I'm sick of you championing "Titanic" in any way. It has to be one of the most lame-brained movies ever made, and I hope, upon review, the Academy will ask for those best picture and best director Oscars back.

Don't get me wrong; I am a big James Cameron fan. I think "Aliens" has to be one of the most perfect action movies ever made -- not an ounce of fat on it and terrific performances all around. But with "Titanic," if it weren't for that ship going under, there'd be no reason to watch that waste of celluloid. I remember sitting in the theater, incredulous at the idiocy unfolding in front of me. Most offensive was the misuse of its stars. DiCaprio was laughably miscast as a man, and Winslet was given nothing to work with. (A friend of mine says he always remembers Kate running down the hallway carrying Leo in her arms!) I think Winslet is one of the most talented actresses working today, but if you're going to booster one of her performances, why not the one in "Heavenly Creatures"?

And give me a break with that "Kate Winslet's Oscar" crap! Yes, anyone would have been better than Helen Hunt (she should never have been nominated, and thankfully, she appears to have been banished from the universe for the offense). The award was more suited to Judi Dench or Julie Christie that year.

One final note: I refuse to accept "Titanic's" "most successful movie ever" moniker as evidence of its relevance. "Gone With the Wind" still beats it when adjusted for inflation and stands the test of time. "Titanic" today? Not lookin' so good. It's only because of young girls that "Titanic" did the box office it did -- the same type who drove the Miley Cyrus movie to a $30 million box-office weekend. Like training bras and first periods, what was exciting to teenage girls soon becomes an embarrassing memory, to be discarded like a used maxi pad.

Signed, I Hate "Titanic"

Oh, dear, I'm afraid I do deserve this drubbing. I agree with you about Leonardo DiCaprio being as weak as a tea crumpet in "Titanic," but Kate Winslet was phenomenal. She was luscious, vibrant and athletic and carried the whole film. True, she and Leo seemed like mother and son sometimes, but what the heck? Her period high-class Philadelphia accent was all wrong (bad speech coach), and the film's special effects were dismayingly uneven -- the glorious North Atlantic stars, for example, were nothing but tacky, generic dots. But the Titanic story in any version will always entrance because it's a morality play about the hubris of Western culture, in love with its own frail technology. In this case, it also had Celine Dion's mega-operatic theme song, which I still find moving and riveting.

I have to agree with you about Kate Winslet. There's a scene midway through "Titanic," after you've gotten caught up in the characters, with her just sitting at a dining table. She doesn't say or do anything, but her presence in that blue dress is so powerful and overwhelming. It's like a classic painting coming alive and whacking you in the brain.

Jack Greenhalgh

Oh, thank you, thank you! After being chastised for my "Titanic" campaign, I am delighted to find a fellow admirer of Kate Winslet's Rubensian period, when she looked like a voluptuous basket of ripe fruit. She's still handsome, but I loved her early opulence. We need to rethink our current harsh standards of female beauty, which have driven even that apostle of sexuality, Madonna, to morbidly skeletal extremes.

I enjoyed your discussion of Jim Morrison and the Doors pushing the boundaries of the sexual and sonic envelope. However, I would, like your opinion of Frank Zappa.

I was born in 1960 and had brothers who were 10, 8 and 5 years older than I was. As I grew into a teenager, I remember how my musical taste was shaped by listening to what they were listening to, which was more interesting than the tripe that was on the radio at the time. The Yardbirds, Beatles, the Who, Deep Purple and so many more became embedded in my gray matter.

My late brother, Bill, was a huge Frank Zappa fan. In those days, there were no such things as personal entertainment devices, so much of what I heard was played on the stereo in the den. Now Frank could be a little intense, language- wise. However, the steady diet of "200 Motels," "Weasels Ripped My Flesh" and one of my favorites, "Hot Rats" (top that for a song title), burned their way into my brain. The cover of "Zoot Allures" had a picture of Frank standing up with what looked a kielbasa taped to his inner thigh, creating a huge bulge in his pants.

One of the most interesting things about him was his strong libertarian leanings, and his vociferous defense of the First Amendment. He was not your standard American weeping liberal rock star, though if he were still with us today, I wonder if Laura Ingraham would want him to "shut up and sing."

Rick Wakefield

With his fusion of rock, jazz and avant-garde music, Frank Zappa should be ranked among the principal American artists of the last half of the 20th century. Here is my positive review of Barry Miles' biography of Zappa in the New York Times Book Review four years ago.

I am writing to advise you of a fantastic music video that leaves me breathless each time I watch it: Kanye West's "Love Lockdown."

I can't quite be sure that it's your sort of thing, but at the very least I thought you might appreciate the imagery.

Cath Gulick

New York

Thanks so much for this! No, I hadn't seen the West video, which I found very skillfully directed by the British artist Simon Henwood. The bleak, washed-out hues and the editing and pacing of images are superb, although I wish, given that assembly of talent, there was more footage of actual dancing. The spectacular African body-painting that leaps into hypnotic color at the end is reminiscent of early Grace Jones in her downtown New York period.

I like the candid simplicity and sonic distortion of West's melancholy lyric as well as the viscerally potent, stripped-down ensemble of bass, drums and piano. But I do find a bit unsettling the director's use of "primitive" tribal motifs as a reference point for a sophisticated black man in a coolly modernist setting. Is the video saying that the African diaspora is at the root of every black man's heartache? Is it saying that contemporary professional men, frustrated by sex and romance, long to return to the reassuring sexual polarities of the ancient savanna? Or is it merely saying, as did everyone from Petrarch to Pat Benatar, that love is a battlefield? Then take up your spears and arrows with abandon!

My heart skipped a beat when I saw Toni Braxton's "Unbreak My Heart" in your Paper Cuts playlist in the New York Times Book Review.  Your short but apt analysis (the influence of African-American church music; the song as an example of musical theater) added new levels of admiration for a song that my friends and I still talk and laugh about regularly.

For me, Braxton's virtuosic performance in this recording is also an example of high, melodramatic camp at its very best, especially in her vocal modulations -- numerous, expertly timed and wonderfully over-the-top. All you need is a man lip-syncing in drag or to watch the ridiculously amazing music video  to give the song a camp stamp of approval (bare-chested Tyson Beckford doing tai chi! Toni and Tyson playing Twister!).

Strangely, the performance reminds me of Dorothy Malone's mad, patricidal dance in Douglas Sirk's "Written on the Wind." Both are examples of a climactic, melodramatic response to heartbreak, even if they differ vastly in tone.

I really love this kind of melodrama -- a strange mix of over-the-top emotional gesturing and deep sincerity -- but I don't know where to find it in contemporary American culture. The '90s were full of great R&B artists who embraced melodrama in their musical performances, but most of them ended up in bankruptcy court, Las Vegas, or "Aida" on Broadway! The only semblance of this kind of performance I can still see is in the self-posturing of some reality TV stars, like Tiffany Pollard of "Flavor of Love" and "I Love New York" fame. Where else can I find it?

Nick Ross

Brooklyn, N.Y.

Wow, this is great! I am fascinated by your linkage of Toni Braxton's knockout song to the wild Dorothy Malone scene in "Written on the Wind." Long before the Douglas Sirk revival (expedited by his German admirer, the gay director Rainer Werner Fassbinder), I had spotted that movie on late-night TV and become obsessed with it. This was at Yale Graduate School in the late '60s, when all I had was a small black-and-white TV set. I was so enraptured with the film that I invited a fellow grad student over to view it when it was scheduled again. She was mercifully polite but could barely conceal her disdain and incomprehension. (Of course she went on to dazzling career success as a poststructuralist -- there's a theme here.) Hence my joy at the way "Written on the Wind" has become a canonical American film, celebrated on cable TV on Turner Classic Movies.

You're so right about the sad decline of American melodrama -- which was once a staple of postwar "women's movies" and TV soaps -- including the prime-time variety like "Dynasty" and "Knots Landing." I had hoped that the drag queen renaissance of the 1990s (with one drag film after another) would bring all that back, but it didn't. Melodrama is like Kabuki or Italian grand opera -- a lavish, highly stylized emotional and choreographic expressionism. But we're in a period of shallow, cynical irony -- all those "knowing" shrugs and winks that populate satirical shows from David Letterman to Jon Stewart (whom I avoid like the plague). If popular culture is to revive, it will have to take lessons from African-American church services, where intense, surging music remains the vehicle of spirituality and profound emotion.

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 askcamille@salon.com.

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