Buyer's remorse? Not me. At the North American summit in Guadalajara this week, President Obama resumed the role he is best at -- representing the U.S. with dignity and authority abroad. This is why I, for one, voted for Obama and continue to support him. The damage done to U.S. prestige by the feckless, buffoonish George W. Bush will take years to repair. Obama has barely begun the crucial mission that he was elected to do.
Having said that, I must confess my dismay bordering on horror at the amateurism of the White House apparatus for domestic policy. When will heads start to roll? It's rumored that the White House counsel may be booted, following Michelle Obama's chief of staff, and I hope it's a harbinger of things to come. Except for that wily fox, David Axelrod, who could charm gold threads out of moonbeams, Obama seems to be surrounded by juvenile tinhorns, bumbling mediocrities and crass bully boys.
Case in point: the administration's grotesque mishandling of healthcare reform, one of the most vital issues facing the nation. Ever since Hillary Clinton's megalomaniacal annihilation of our last best chance at reform in 1993 (all of which was suppressed by the mainstream media when she was running for president), Democrats have been longing for that happy day when this issue would once again be front and center.
But who would have thought that the sober, deliberative Barack Obama would have nothing to propose but vague and slippery promises -- or that he would so easily cede the leadership clout of the executive branch to a chaotic, rapacious, solipsistic Congress? House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whom I used to admire for her smooth aplomb under pressure, has clearly gone off the deep end with her bizarre rants about legitimate town-hall protests by American citizens. She is doing grievous damage to the party and should immediately step down.
There is plenty of blame to go around. Obama's aggressive endorsement of a healthcare plan that does not even exist yet, except in five competing, fluctuating drafts, makes Washington seem like Cloud Cuckoo Land. The president is promoting the most colossal, brazen bait-and-switch operation since the Bush administration snookered the country into invading Iraq with apocalyptic visions of mushroom clouds over American cities.
You can keep your doctor; you can keep your insurance, if you're happy with it, Obama keeps assuring us in soothing, lullaby tones. Oh, really? And what if my doctor is not the one appointed by the new government medical boards for ruling on my access to tests and specialists? And what if my insurance company goes belly up because of undercutting by its government-bankrolled competitor? Face it: Virtually all nationalized health systems, neither nourished nor updated by profit-driven private investment, eventually lead to rationing.
I just don't get it. Why the insane rush to pass a bill, any bill, in three weeks? And why such an abject failure by the Obama administration to present the issues to the public in a rational, detailed, informational way? The U.S. is gigantic; many of our states are bigger than whole European nations. The bureaucracy required to institute and manage a nationalized health system here would be Byzantine beyond belief and would vampirically absorb whatever savings Obama thinks could be made. And the transition period would be a nightmare of red tape and mammoth screw-ups, which we can ill afford with a faltering economy.
As with the massive boondoggle of the stimulus package, which Obama foolishly let Congress turn into a pork rut, too much has been attempted all at once; focused, targeted initiatives would, instead, have won wide public support. How is it possible that Democrats, through their own clumsiness and arrogance, have sabotaged healthcare reform yet again? Blaming obstructionist Republicans is nonsensical, because Democrats control the White House and both Houses of Congress. It isn't conservative rumors or lies that are stopping healthcare legislation; it's the justifiable alarm of an electorate that has been cut out of the loop and is watching its representatives construct a tangled labyrinth for others but not for themselves. No, the airheads of Congress will keep their own plush healthcare plan -- it's the rest of us guinea pigs who will be thrown to the wolves.
With the Republican party leaderless and in backbiting disarray following its destruction by the ideologically incoherent George W. Bush, Democrats are apparently eager to join the hara-kiri brigade. What looked like smooth coasting to the 2010 election has now become a nail-biter. Both major parties have become a rats' nest of hypocrisy and incompetence. That, combined with our stratospheric, near-criminal indebtedness to China (which could destroy the dollar overnight), should raise signal flags. Are we like late Rome, infatuated with past glories, ruled by a complacent, greedy elite, and hopelessly powerless to respond to changing conditions?
What does either party stand for these days? Republican politicians, with their endless scandals, are hardly exemplars of traditional moral values. Nor have they generated new ideas for healthcare, except for medical savings accounts, which would be pathetically inadequate in a major crisis for anyone earning at or below a median income.
And what do Democrats stand for, if they are so ready to defame concerned citizens as the "mob" -- a word betraying a Marie Antoinette delusion of superiority to ordinary mortals. I thought my party was populist, attentive to the needs and wishes of those outside the power structure. And as a product of the 1960s, I thought the Democratic party was passionately committed to freedom of thought and speech.
But somehow liberals have drifted into a strange servility toward big government, which they revere as a godlike foster father-mother who can dispense all bounty and magically heal all ills. The ethical collapse of the left was nowhere more evident than in the near total silence of liberal media and Web sites at the Obama administration's outrageous solicitation to private citizens to report unacceptable "casual conversations" to the White House. If Republicans had done this, there would have been an angry explosion by Democrats from coast to coast. I was stunned at the failure of liberals to see the blatant totalitarianism in this incident, which the president should have immediately denounced. His failure to do so implicates him in it.
As a libertarian and refugee from the authoritarian Roman Catholic church of my youth, I simply do not understand the drift of my party toward a soulless collectivism. This is in fact what Sarah Palin hit on in her shocking image of a "death panel" under Obamacare that would make irrevocable decisions about the disabled and elderly. When I first saw that phrase, headlined on the Drudge Report, I burst out laughing. It seemed so over the top! But on reflection, I realized that Palin's shrewdly timed metaphor spoke directly to the electorate's unease with the prospect of shadowy, unelected government figures controlling our lives. A death panel not only has the power of life and death but is itself a symptom of a Kafkaesque brave new world where authority has become remote, arbitrary and spectral. And as in the Spanish Inquisition, dissidence is heresy, persecuted and punished.
Surely, the basic rule in comprehensive legislation should be: First, do no harm. The present proposals are full of noble aims, but the biggest danger always comes from unforeseen and unintended consequences. Example: the American incursion into Iraq, which destabilized the region by neutralizing Iran's rival and thus enormously enhancing Iran's power and nuclear ambitions.
What was needed for reform was an in-depth analysis, buttressed by documentary evidence, of waste, fraud and profiteering in the healthcare, pharmaceutical and insurance industries. Instead what we've gotten is a series of facile, vulgar innuendos about how doctors conduct their practice, as if their primary motive is money. Quite frankly, the president gives little sense of direct knowledge of medical protocols; it's as if his views are a tissue of hearsay and scattershot worst-case scenarios.
Of course, it didn't help matters that, just when he needed maximum momentum on healthcare, Obama made the terrible gaffe of declaring that, even without his knowing the full facts, Cambridge, Mass., police had acted "stupidly" in arresting a friend of his, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. Obama's automatic identification with the pampered Harvard elite (wildly unpopular with most sensible people), as well as his insulting condescension toward an officer doing his often dangerous duty, did serious and perhaps irreparable damage to the president's standing. The strained, prissy beer summit in the White House garden afterward didn't help. Is that the Obama notion of hospitality? Another staff breakdown.
Both Gates and Obama mistakenly assumed that the original incident at Gates' house was about race, when it was about class. It was the wealthy, lordly Gates who committed the first offense by instantly and evidently hysterically defaming the character of the officer who arrived at his door to investigate the report of a break-in. There was no excuse for Gates' loud and cheap charges of racism, which he should have immediately apologized for the next day, instead of threatening lawsuits and self-aggrandizing television exposés. On the other hand, given that Cambridge is virtually a company town, perhaps police headquarters should have dispatched a moderator to the tumultuous scene before a small, disabled Harvard professor was clapped in handcuffs and marched off to jail. But why should an Ivy League panjandrum be treated any differently from the rest of us hoi polloi?
Class rarely receives honest attention in the American media, as demonstrated by the reporting on a June incident at a swimming pool in the Philadelphia suburbs. When the director of the Valley Swim Club in Montgomery County cancelled its agreement with several urban day camps to use its private pool, the controversy was portrayed entirely in racial terms. There were uninvestigated allegations of remarks about "black kids" made by white mothers who ordered their children out of the pool, and the racial theme was intensified by the director's inept description of the "complexion" of the pool having been changed -- which may simply have been a whopper of a Freudian slip.
Having followed the coverage in the Philadelphia media, I have lingering questions about how much of that incident was race and how much was social class. Urban working-class and suburban middle-class children often have quite different styles of play -- as I know from present observation as well as from my Syracuse youth, when I regularly biked to the public pool in Thornden Park. Kids of all races from downtown Syracuse neighborhoods were much rougher and tougher, and for self-preservation you had to stay out of their way! Otherwise, you'd get knocked to the concrete or dunked when they heedlessly jumped off the diving board onto our heads in the crowded pool.
In general, middle-class children today are more closely supervised at pools because the family can afford to have a non-working parent at home -- a luxury that working-class kids rarely have. What happened at the Valley Swim Club, whose safety infrastructure was evidently also overwhelmed by too many visiting kids who were non-swimmers, may have been a clash of classes rather than races. Were the mothers who pulled their kids out of the pool that day really reacting to skin color or what they, accurately or not, perceived to be an overcrowded, dangerous disorder? The incontrovertible offense in all this, which went unmentioned in the national media, was the closure for budgetary reasons by the city of Philadelphia this summer of 27 of its 73 public pools. There is no excuse for that kind of draconian curtailment of basic recreational facilities for working-class families, sweltering in the urban summer heat.
Now on to art and pop. Highlight of the month for me was definitely a recent performance by Alo Brasil, a local Brazilian music and dance ensemble, at Philadelphia's World Cafe Live. I positioned myself smack in front of the stage to bathe in the magnificent, hypnotic drumming, a Bahian style with West African roots that takes one into another reality -- sublime and trans-historical. Of course, then there was the sensory overload of the beautiful, nimble, long-legged samba dancers in their jeweled bikinis and high heels! But all the dancers of Alo Brasil, male and female, are absolutely brilliant -- it was mind-blowing. Anyone born and raised in Bahia (such as Daniela Mercury) has obviously been immersed in these rhythms from earliest childhood. They are surely profoundly transformative, reshaping the neural synapses and opening the mind toward ecstatic group communication. To be continued!
Our pop medley for this column begins with the Algeria-born Etienne Daho, whose three-disc set, "Dans la Peau de Daho" (2002), I have been working my way through. Last year, I posted two other videos featuring Daho -- his quietly compelling duet with Charlotte Gainsbourg and his moving tribute to Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick. This song, "Paris le Flore," is a hauntingly atmospheric ode to random encounters in the streets and cafés of Paris. In the narrative superimposed by the video, two notable French performers do their thing -- Virginie Ledoyen (who appeared with Catherine Deneuve in "8 Women" and with Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Beach") and singer/actor Benjamin Biolay, ex-husband of Chiara Mastroianni, the daughter of Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni. I love the way Daho's shimmery song re-creates the meditative mystique of French eroticism, shown in a thousand films. And that liquid, stuttering bass line -- divine! (Hey, Salon readers, if you don't have good speakers on your computer, you're missing the cultural riches of the Web.)
Next on the docket is Sharon Stone, exploding in all her topless glory on the cover of Paris Match. Now there's a gal who knows how to work the gym while still keeping the sacred flame of sexiness alive! Yes, you know who the Big Bad Example is of obsessive gym culture gone to seed -- that increasingly artificial construction of paraffin and chicken wire, our Madonna of the Shallows. Jesus Luz must be blessedly myopic. (Cue the Contours' 1965 R&B hit, "First I Look at the Purse.")
Caught HBO's 1998 movie "Gia" for the umpteenth time on cable the other day. My admiration remains boundless for the 22-year-old Angelina Jolie's bravura performance as the Philadelphia-born fashion model Gia Carangi, a heroin addict who died of AIDS in 1986. I've often recommended Stephen Fried's excellent 1993 biography, "Thing of Beauty: The Tragedy of Supermodel Gia," but this time I hit the Web to see what else I could dig up.
Mother lode! I found Gia's original nude fence photos, shown in the movie being shot by the perverse fashionista Chris von Wangenheim. I was startled to learn that Wangenheim was killed in a car accident in 1981, another blow for Gia. In trying to find his obit, I discovered that New York Times files of the World War One era are filled with references to his noble German ancestors, many of whom were barons killed in battle. Another German decadent artiste, like the incomparable Helmut Newton.
Here are some wonderful photos of Wilhelmina (stylishly played in the movie by Faye Dunaway), the Dutch fashion model veteran of 300 covers who founded an agency that hired the scrappy Gia but who then tragically died of cancer at age 40 in 1980, leaving Gia bereft. And here's Gia's ever-patient, real-life girlfriend, Sandy Linter, who turns out to be a more in-your-face urban type of the Deborah Harry school than she was portrayed in the movie.
Interested parties should check out this pastiche of clips, with a great song, which ingeniously conflate Gia with Patricia Charbonneau in that lesbo classic "Desert Hearts" (1985). This is a good chance to appreciate anew the charming eroticism of the car-in-the-rain first kiss between Charbonneau and Helen Shaver, which proves the point I made in my last column about the best lesbian scenes on film having ironically been performed by straight women. Finally, here is Gia herself -- a late clip showing her in surly, rambling butch mode, with druggy speech and tics, and then a dazzling collection of her peak high fashion images, which whiz by too fast but still reveal what an astonishing, almost supernormal presence she was.
Oh, one last note. Gay trivia: The 17-year-old hustler who in 1975 murdered the gay film director Pier Paolo Pasolini by repeatedly running him over with his own car on an Italian beach was named Giuseppe Pelosi. Hmm ... Hustling must run in the family.
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.