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Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Camille Paglia on Palin and Obama

As I see it, the Palin Effect is a double-headed hydra. On one side you have Todd Palin, who is clearly a vibrant, macho force in his family’s life. Just as clearly, he has effectively embraced the role as a primary caregiver. What does it say that he and Sarah have a mutually aggrandizing partnership/marriage? A successful professional woman who embraces a masculine male rather than castrate him? Heaven forfend! Personally I see it as the benign (and noble) conclusion of the feminist movement. I guess fish don’t need bicycles, but some of them want one. And they’d rather it come with some cojones.

Discussing the Sarah Palin effect is quickly becoming a national psychosis, to which I doubt I could add much. The only thing I haven’t seen discussed is a comparison between her popularity and what Rush Limbaugh hilariously and intuitively called Bill Clinton’s “Arousal Gap." I think we’re seeing that Todd Palin isn’t the only man’s man out there who has a healthy appreciation for a strong member of the opposite sex. Here is another benign and admirable consequence of the feminist movement.

Steve Gurney
Niceville, Florida

Yes, both Todd and Sarah Palin, whom most people in the U.S. and abroad had never even heard of until six weeks ago, have emerged as powerful new symbols of a revived contemporary feminism. That the macho Todd, with his champion athleticism and working-class cred, can so amiably cradle babies and care for children is a huge step forward in American sexual symbolism.

Although nothing will sway my vote for Obama, I continue to enjoy Sarah Palin's performance on the national stage. During her vice-presidential debate last week with Joe Biden (whose conspiratorial smiles with moderator Gwen Ifill were outrageous and condescending toward his opponent), I laughed heartily at Palin's digs and slams and marveled at the way she slowly took over the entire event. I was sorry when it ended! But Biden wasn't -- judging by his Gore-like sighs and his slow sinking like a punctured blimp. Of course Biden won on points, but TV (a visual medium) never cares about that.

The mountain of rubbish poured out about Palin over the past month would rival Everest. What a disgrace for our jabbering army of liberal journalists and commentators, too many of whom behaved like snippy jackasses. The bourgeois conventionalism and rank snobbery of these alleged humanitarians stank up the place. As for Palin's brutally edited interviews with Charlie Gibson and that viper, Katie Couric, don't we all know that the best bits ended up on the cutting-room floor? Something has gone seriously wrong with Democratic ideology, which seems to have become a candied set of holier-than-thou bromides attached like tutti-frutti to a quivering green Jell-O mold of adolescent sentimentality.

And where is all that lurid sexual fantasy coming from? When I watch Sarah Palin, I don't think sex -- I think Amazon warrior! I admire her competitive spirit and her exuberant vitality, which borders on the supernormal. The question that keeps popping up for me is whether Palin, who was born in Idaho, could possibly be part Native American (as we know her husband is), which sometimes seems suggested by her strong facial contours. I have felt that same extraordinary energy and hyper-alertness billowing out from other women with Native American ancestry -- including two overpowering celebrity icons with whom I have worked.

One of the most idiotic allegations batting around out there among urban media insiders is that Palin is "dumb." Are they kidding? What level of stupidity is now par for the course in those musty circles? (The value of Ivy League degrees, like sub-prime mortgages, has certainly been plummeting. As a Yale Ph.D., I have a perfect right to my scorn.) People who can't see how smart Palin is are trapped in their own narrow parochialism -- the tedious, hackneyed forms of their upper-middle-class syntax and vocabulary.

As someone whose first seven years were spent among Italian-American immigrants (I never met an elderly person who spoke English until we moved from Endicott to rural Oxford, New York, when I was in first grade), I am very used to understanding meaning through what might seem to others to be outlandish or fractured variations on standard English. Furthermore, I have spent virtually my entire teaching career (nearly four decades) in arts colleges, where the expressiveness of highly talented students in dance, music and the visual arts takes a hundred different forms. Finally, as a lover of poetry (my last book was about that), I savor every kind of experimentation with standard English -- beginning with Shakespeare, who was the greatest improviser of them all at a time when there were no grammar rules.

Many others listening to Sarah Palin at her debate went into conniptions about what they assailed as her incoherence or incompetence. But I was never in doubt about what she intended at any given moment. On the contrary, I was admiring not only her always shapely and syncopated syllables but the innate structures of her discourse -- which did seem to fly by in fragments at times but are plainly ready to be filled with deeper policy knowledge, as she gains it (hopefully over the next eight years of the Obama presidencies). This is a tremendously talented politician whose moment has not yet come. That she holds views completely opposed to mine is irrelevant.

Even if she disappears from the scene forever after a McCain defeat, Palin will still have made an enormous and lasting contribution to feminism. As I said in my last column, Palin has made the biggest step forward in reshaping the persona of female authority since Madonna danced her dominatrix way through the shattered puritan barricades of the feminist establishment. In 1990, in a highly controversial New York Times op-ed that attacked old-guard feminist ideology, I declared that "Madonna is the future of feminism" -- a prophecy that was ridiculed at the time but that turned out to be quite true. Madonna put pro-sex feminism on the international map.

But it is now 18 years later -- the span of an entire generation. The instabilities and diminishments for young women raised in an increasingly shallow media environment have become all too obvious. I had grown up in a vibrant pop culture with glorious women stars of voluptuous sensuality -- above all Elizabeth Taylor, sewn into that silky white slip as the vixen Manhattan call girl of "Butterfield 8." In college, I feasted on foreign films starring sexual sophisticates like Jeanne Moreau, Anouk Aimée and Catherine Deneuve. Sex today, however, has become brittle and superficial. Except for the occasional diverting flash of Lindsay Lohan's borrowed bosom, I see nothing whatever that is worth a second glance. Pro-sex feminism has worked itself out and, like all movements, has degenerated into clichés. And even Madonna, with her skeletal megalomania, looks like a refugee from a horror movie.

The next phase of feminism must circle back and reappropriate the ancient persona of the mother -- without losing career ambition or power of assertion. Betty Friedan, who had first attacked the cult of postwar domesticity, had long warned second-wave feminists such as Gloria Steinem about the damaging exclusion of homemakers from their value system. The animus of liberal feminists toward religion must also end (I am speaking as an atheist). Feminism must reexamine all of its assumptions, including its death grip on abortion, if it wishes to survive.

The hysterical emotionalism and eruptions of amoral malice at the arrival of Sarah Palin exposed the weaknesses and limitations of current feminism. But I am convinced that Palin's bracing mix of male and female voices, as well as her grounding in frontier grit and audacity, will prove to be a galvanizing influence on aspiring Democratic women politicians too, from the municipal level on up. Palin has shown a brand-new way of defining female ambition -- without losing femininity, spontaneity or humor. She's no pre-programmed wonk of the backstage Hillary Clinton school; she's pugnacious and self-created, the product of no educational or political elite -- which is why her outsider style has been so hard for media lemmings to comprehend. And by the way, I think Tina Fey's witty impersonations of Palin have been fabulous. But while Fey has nailed Palin's cadences and charm, she can't capture the energy, which is a force of nature.

Oct. 08, 2008 | Dear Camille,

I was actually leaning towards Obama before he stated his willingness to enter negotiations with Iran with no pre-conditions. This is frightening stuff here. My wife and I lived in Germany for five years until late 2006, and I worked in Baghdad during the better part of 2006. His offer is reminiscent of Neville Chamberlain, but I don't think Obama's motives are as sincere as Chamberlain's. Like most politicians, I believe Obama says what the people want to hear. He doesn't come across as a change agent.

Philip Steelman

Your concern about the foreign-policy world-view of liberal Democrats is certainly justified. The university culture at Columbia and Harvard through which Obama passed has been drenched in a reflexive anti-Americanism for several decades. Armchair blame-America-first leftism is the default mode. Disdain for the military is rampant, and conservative voices are rarely heard.

However, your invocation of Neville Chamberlain may be a bit alarmist because there is no Hitler on the horizon -- just a series of regional petty dictators who, in my view, can be contained or neutralized through joint international efforts rather than open war. But the Chamberlain parallel cannot be entirely discounted, because British and European artists and intellectuals during that highly creative first generation of avant-garde modernism did indeed drift away from national affiliation into a chic, passive cosmopolitanism.

As an Obama supporter, however, I was not particularly troubled by his rather carelessly phrased response about negotiation without preconditions during a primary debate with Hillary Clinton. I don't believe that would in fact happen during an Obama administration, when the new president would have time to reflect and to absorb State Department briefing books. Surely the standard, prudent diplomatic protocols would kick into action.

I am well aware of the widespread conservative view of Obama's naivete and lack of preparation (Rush Limbaugh stingingly calls him a "man-child"). But I am one of the many who regard Obama as authentically inspirational -- as a leader appealing to our better nature rather than armoring us in eternal fear and paranoia against our fellow human beings. I remember how John F. Kennedy (the first politician I ever campaigned for) electrified young people and transformed our political reality, which was about to emerge from the long, grey slog of the Cold War.

What would concern me more about an Obama administration, given these rampant doubts, is the possibility that he would jump more readily toward war in order to prove his toughness. We don't need more foolish military incursions, bogging us down in regions whose vicious factionalism has boiled irresolvably for 3,000 years. Where our national interest is not directly at stake, we should mind our own business. Israel, on the other hand, whose very survival might be menaced by a nuclear Iran, would always have the right of preemptive self-defense.

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