A beady-eyed McCain gets a boost from the charismatic Sarah Palin, a powerful new feminist -- yes, feminist! -- force. Plus: Obama must embrace his dull side.
By Camille Paglia, Salon
Sept. 10, 2008 | Rip tide! Is the Obama campaign shooting out to sea like a paper boat?
It's heavy weather for Obama fans, as momentum has suddenly shifted to John McCain -- that hoary, barnacle-encrusted tub that many Democrats like me had thought was full of holes and swirling to its doom in the inky depths of Republican incoherence and fratricide. Gee whilikers, the McCain vampire just won't die! Hit him with a hammer, and he explodes like a jellyfish into a hundred hungry pieces.
We need a new generation of leadership with fresh ideas and an expansive, cosmopolitan vision -- which is why I support Barack Obama and have contributed to his campaign. My baby-boom generation -- typified by the narcissistic Clintons -- peaked in the 1960s and is seriously past it. But McCain, born before Pearl Harbor, is even older than we are! Why would anyone believe that he holds the key to the future? And why would anyone swallow that preening passel of high-flown rhetoric about "country above all" coming from a seething, short-fused character whose rampant egotism, zigzagging principles, and currying of the gullible press were the distinguishing marks of his senatorial career?
Having said that, I must admit that McCain is currently eating Obama's lunch. McCain's weirdly disconnected persona (beady glowers flashing to frozen grins and back again) has started to look more testosterone-rich than Obama's easy, lanky, reflective candor. What in the world possessed the Obama campaign to let their guy wander like a dazed lamb into a snake pit of religious inquisition like Rick Warren's public forum last month at his Saddleback Church in California? That shambles of a performance -- where a surprisingly unprepared Obama met the inevitable question about abortion with shockingly curt glibness -- began his alarming slide.
As I said in my last column, I have become increasingly uneasy about Obama's efforts to sound folksy and approachable by reflexively using inner-city African-American tones and locutions, which as a native of Hawaii he acquired relatively late in his development and which are painfully wrong for the target audience of rural working-class whites that he has been trying to reach. Obama on the road and even in major interviews has been droppin' his g's like there's no tomorrow. It's analogous to the way stodgy, portly Al Gore (evidently misadvised by the women in his family and their feminist pals) tried to zap himself up on the campaign trail into the happening buff dude that he was not. Both Gore and Obama would have been better advised to pursue a calm, steady, authoritative persona. Forget the jokes -- be boring! That, alas, is what reads as masculine in the U.S.
Conservative though she may be, I felt that Palin represented an explosion of a brand new style of muscular American feminism. At her startling debut on that day, she was combining male and female qualities in ways that I have never seen before. And she was somehow able to seem simultaneously reassuringly traditional and gung-ho futurist. In terms of redefining the persona for female authority and leadership, Palin has made the biggest step forward in feminism since Madonna channeled the dominatrix persona of high-glam Marlene Dietrich and rammed pro-sex, pro-beauty feminism down the throats of the prissy, victim-mongering, philistine feminist establishment.
In the U.S., the ultimate glass ceiling has been fiendishly complicated for women by the unique peculiarity that our president must also serve as commander in chief of the armed forces. Women have risen to the top in other countries by securing the leadership of their parties and then being routinely promoted to prime minister when that party won at the polls. But a woman candidate for president of the U.S. must show a potential capacity for military affairs and decision-making. Our president also symbolically represents the entire history of the nation -- a half-mystical role often filled elsewhere by a revered if politically powerless monarch.
Feinstein, with her deep knowledge of military matters, has true gravitas and knows how to shrewdly thrust and parry with pesky TV interviewers. But her style is reserved, discreet, mandarin. Sarah Palin is like Annie Oakley, a brash ambassador from America's pioneer past. She immediately reminded me of the frontier women of the Western states, which first granted women the right to vote after the Civil War -- long before the federal amendment guaranteeing universal woman suffrage was passed in 1919. Frontier women faced the same harsh challenges and had to tackle the same chores as men did -- which is why men could regard them as equals, unlike the genteel, corseted ladies of the Eastern seaboard, which fought granting women the vote right to the bitter end.
One reason I live in the leafy suburbs of Philadelphia and have never moved to New York or Washington is that, as a cultural analyst, I want to remain in touch with the mainstream of American life. I frequent fast-food restaurants, shop at the mall, and periodically visit Wal-Mart (its bird-seed section is nonpareil). Like Los Angeles and San Francisco, Manhattan and Washington occupy their own mental zones -- nice to visit but not a place to stay if you value independent thought these days. Ambitious professionals in those cities, if they want to preserve their social networks, are very vulnerable to received opinion. At receptions and parties (which I hate), they're sitting ducks. They have to go along to get along -- poor dears!
It is certainly premature to predict how the Palin saga will go. I may not agree a jot with her about basic principles, but I have immensely enjoyed Palin's boffo performances at her debut and at the Republican convention, where she astonishingly dealt with multiple technical malfunctions without missing a beat. A feminism that cannot admire the bravura under high pressure of the first woman governor of a frontier state isn't worth a warm bucket of spit.
After that extravaganza, marking the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s epochal civil rights speech on the Washington Mall, I felt calmly confident that the Obama campaign was going to roll like a gorgeous juggernaut right over the puny, fossilized McCain. The next morning, it was as if the election were already over. No need to fret about American politics anymore this year. I had already turned with relief to other matters.
Pow! Wham! The Republicans unleashed a doozy -- one of the most stunning surprises that I have ever witnessed in my adult life. By lunchtime, Obama's triumph of the night before had been wiped right off the national radar screen. In a bold move I would never have thought him capable of, McCain introduced Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as his pick for vice president. I had heard vaguely about Palin but had never heard her speak. I nearly fell out of my chair. It was like watching a boxing match or a quarter of hard-hitting football -- or one of the great light-saber duels in "Star Wars." (Here are the two Jedi, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn, going at it with Darth Maul in "The Phantom Menace.") This woman turned out to be a tough, scrappy fighter with a mischievous sense of humor.
Perhaps Palin seemed perfectly normal to me because she resembles so many women I grew up around in the snow belt of upstate New York. For example, there were the robust and hearty farm women of Oxford, a charming village where my father taught high school when I was a child. We first lived in an apartment on the top floor of a farmhouse on a working dairy farm. Our landlady, who was as physically imposing as her husband, was another version of the Italian immigrant women of my grandmother's generation -- agrarian powerhouses who could do anything and whose trumpetlike voices could pierce stone walls.
Here's one episode. My father and his visiting brother, a dapper barber by trade, were standing outside having a smoke when a great noise came from the nearby barn. A calf had escaped. Our landlady yelled, "Stop her!" as the calf came careening at full speed toward my father and uncle, who both instinctively stepped back as the calf galloped through the mud between them. Irate, our landlady trudged past them to the upper pasture, cornered the calf, and carried that massive animal back to the barn in her arms. As she walked by my father and uncle, she exclaimed in amused disgust, "Men!"
Now that's the Sarah Palin brand of can-do, no-excuses, moose-hunting feminism -- a world away from the whining, sniping, wearily ironic mode of the establishment feminism represented by Gloria Steinem, a Hillary Clinton supporter whose shameless Democratic partisanship over the past four decades has severely limited American feminism and not allowed it to become the big tent it can and should be. Sarah Palin, if her reputation survives the punishing next two months, may be breaking down those barriers. Feminism, which should be about equal rights and equal opportunity, should not be a closed club requiring an ideological litmus test for membership.
Here's another example of the physical fortitude and indomitable spirit that Palin as an Alaskan sportswoman seems to represent right now. Last year, Toronto's Globe and Mail reprinted this remarkable obituary from 1905:
Farmer and homemaker born in Frontenac County, Upper Canada, on March 14, 1830
A tall, handsome woman "who feared God greatly and the living or dead not at all," she married a widower with six children and settled in a trapper's cabin on Long Point, Lake Erie. On Nov. 23, 1854, with her husband away, she single-handedly rescued the crew of the schooner Conductor of Buffalo, which had run aground in a storm. The crew had clung to the frozen rigging all night, not daring to enter the raging surf. In the early morning, she waded chin-high into the water (she could not swim) and helped seven men reach shore. She was awarded medals for heroism and received $350 collected by the people of Buffalo, plus a handwritten letter from Queen Victoria that was accompanied by £50, all of which went toward buying a farm. She lost her husband to a storm, raised 17 children alone and died at Walsingham Centre, Ont.
Frontier women were far bolder and hardier than today's pampered, petulant bourgeois feminists, always looking to blame their complaints about life on someone else.
But what of Palin's pro-life stand? Creationism taught in schools? Book banning? Gay conversions? The Iraq war as God's plan? Zionism as a prelude to the apocalypse? We'll see how these big issues shake out. Right now, I don't believe much of what I read or hear about Palin in the media. To automatically assume that she is a religious fanatic who has embraced the most extreme ideas of her local church is exactly the kind of careless reasoning that has been unjustly applied to Barack Obama, whom the right wing is still trying to tar with the fulminating anti-American sermons of his longtime preacher, Jeremiah Wright.
The witch-trial hysteria of the past two incendiary weeks unfortunately reveals a disturbing trend in the Democratic Party, which has worsened over the past decade. Democrats are quick to attack the religiosity of Republicans, but Democratic ideology itself seems to have become a secular substitute religion. Since when did Democrats become so judgmental and intolerant? Conservatives are demonized, with the universe polarized into a Manichaean battle of us versus them, good versus evil. Democrats are clinging to pat group opinions as if they were inflexible moral absolutes. The party is in peril if it cannot observe and listen and adapt to changing social circumstances.
Let's take the issue of abortion rights, of which I am a firm supporter. As an atheist and libertarian, I believe that government must stay completely out of the sphere of personal choice. Every individual has an absolute right to control his or her body. (Hence I favor the legalization of drugs, though I do not take them.) Nevertheless, I have criticized the way that abortion became the obsessive idée fixe of the post-1960s women's movement -- leading to feminists' McCarthyite tactics in pitting Anita Hill with her flimsy charges against conservative Clarence Thomas (admittedly not the most qualified candidate possible) during his nomination hearings for the Supreme Court. Similarly, Bill Clinton's support for abortion rights gave him a free pass among leading feminists for his serial exploitation of women -- an abusive pattern that would scream misogyny to any neutral observer.
But the pro-life position, whether or not it is based on religious orthodoxy, is more ethically highly evolved than my own tenet of unconstrained access to abortion on demand. My argument (as in my first book, has always been that nature has a master plan pushing every species toward procreation and that it is our right and even obligation as rational human beings to defy nature's fascism. Nature herself is a mass murderer, making casual, cruel experiments and condemning 10,000 to die so that one more fit will live and thrive.
Hence I have always frankly admitted that abortion is murder, the extermination of the powerless by the powerful. Liberals for the most part have shrunk from facing the ethical consequences of their embrace of abortion, which results in the annihilation of concrete individuals and not just clumps of insensate tissue. The state in my view has no authority whatever to intervene in the biological processes of any woman's body, which nature has implanted there before birth and hence before that woman's entrance into society and citizenship.
On the other hand, I support the death penalty for atrocious crimes (such as rape-murder or the murder of children). I have never understood the standard Democratic combo of support for abortion and yet opposition to the death penalty. Surely it is the guilty rather than the innocent who deserve execution?
What I am getting at here is that not until the Democratic Party stringently reexamines its own implicit assumptions and rhetorical formulas will it be able to deal effectively with the enduring and now escalating challenge from the pro-life right wing. Because pro-choice Democrats have been arguing from cold expedience, they have thus far been unable to make an effective ethical case for the right to abortion.
The gigantic, instantaneous coast-to-coast rage directed at Sarah Palin when she was identified as pro-life was, I submit, a psychological response by loyal liberals who on some level do not want to open themselves to deep questioning about abortion and its human consequences. I have written about the eerie silence that fell over campus audiences in the early 1990s when I raised this issue on my book tours. At such moments, everyone in the hall seemed to feel the uneasy conscience of feminism. Naomi Wolf later bravely tried to address this same subject but seems to have given up in the face of the resistance she encountered.
If Sarah Palin tries to intrude her conservative Christian values into secular government, then she must be opposed and stopped. But she has every right to express her views and to argue for society's acceptance of the high principle of the sanctity of human life. If McCain wins the White House and then drops dead, a President Palin would have the power to appoint conservative judges to the Supreme Court, but she could not control their rulings.
It is nonsensical and counterproductive for Democrats to imagine that pro-life values can be defeated by maliciously destroying their proponents. And it is equally foolish to expect that feminism must for all time be inextricably wed to the pro-choice agenda. There is plenty of room in modern thought for a pro-life feminism -- one in fact that would have far more appeal to third-world cultures where motherhood is still honored and where the Western model of the hard-driving, self-absorbed career woman is less admired.
But the one fundamental precept that Democrats must stand for is independent thought and speech. When they become baying bloodhounds of rigid dogma, Democrats have committed political suicide.
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.