Paglia, Obama, and the Resurrection of the Culture Wars

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Camille Paglia and I most likely have little in common, but nonetheless she remains one of my favorite writers on the contemporary scene today. Although she is a college professor living in Philadelphia, I believe she would be quite comfortable mixing it up with the women who are in Garrett County, Maryland, where I now live, not because she "shares" their "values," but rather because she understands them, and accepts them — and herself — for what they are. Paglia may represent a different culture, but she is not at war with others who live differently than does she.

In modern American politics, however, it always seems to come down to the Culture Wars, whether or not we even want them in the mix. Interestingly, until about two weeks ago, the "Culture Wars" really did not take a prominent place in this election campaign, whether it be the U.S. Presidential election or the thousands of other elections that will be taking place this November. In the presidential race, that situation was due to three reasons.

The first is that Obama Barack did not want to be seen as running a campaign based upon cultural "liberalism." Like John Kerry, he was Ivy-league educated, but did not want to look like another wealthy and cultured "snob." In fact, Obama has reached out to evangelicals in a way that candidates like Kerry, the Clintons, or even Michael Dukakis never could have — or would have done. The last Democrat I know who tried to reach out to cultural conservatives — Howard Dean — had his hands slapped so hard that he gave up the effort.

One can say that typical urban Democrats regard cultural conservatives and evangelicals the same way that the Pharisees regarded "tax collectors and sinners" in the Christian gospels. They are people to be marginalized and ignored, and if one can undermine them with legislation — or the welfare state — all to the better.

Yet, Obama really made what I believe was a good-faith effort. Could anyone imagine John Kerry being questioned by Pastor Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church? Kerry would have regarded Warren as someone perhaps worthy of cleaning his toilets or sweeping his stables, where as Obama treated him with real respect, and even deference. I liked that, and even if I disagreed with some of his points, nonetheless, I appreciated what Obama did.

And while Obama might support abortion on demand (whereas I do not), nonetheless I could admire his own lifestyle and the fact that he clearly does not have the reputation of being a skirt-chaser (unlike John McCain 30 years ago). Instead, he seems to be the decent and loving father and husband and provides a good "role model" to all married men, and if he gains the White House, I believe he will be as upright as anyone who has walked those halls.

Second, while liberals tend to be against the Iraq war and cultural conservatives are more likely to support it, nonetheless, the many troublesome aspects of this war were enough to give the Democrats a landslide in Congressional elections two years ago. To put it another way, American dissatisfaction with this war and all of the misery and economic ruin it has helped to bring was something that Democrats could tap, and Obama wisely drank from that well early and often. I believe that the fact he had not supported the war at all and that Hillary Clinton had done so at the beginning provided that crucial margin that he needed to defeat her in the Democratic Primary.

In fact, I found myself much more sympathetic to Obama than to McCain precisely because of my own opposition to the war, of which I was on the record even before the first invasions of March 2003. The third reason — and perhaps the one I think was (I emphasize was) most important — was that Obama is not John McCain. For all of the “maverick” talk of McCain, I do not forget that his crowing piece of legislation, the McCain-Feingold Act, has criminalized some political speech, and there is no statute of limitations on my contempt for McCain, Feingold, George W. Bush, who signed the bill, and the courts that signed off on this abomination.

Yet, as of today, all of those advantages either are off the table for Obama or have been severely curtailed. Why? John McCain chose Sarah Palin for his running mate, and that has turned the entire campaign upside down, all of which brings me back to where I started with Camille Paglia.

Paglia might not be a "cultural conservative," but she does not regard such people with the hate and animosity that I have seen exploding onto the Democratic Party blogs like Daily Kos, Moveon, Pandagon, and Huffington Post. One would have thought that Palin was from Mars or a different solar system altogether, and the Democratic establishment has reacted in a way that makes it clear that women like Sarah Palin have no place anywhere in this country.

In her latest column, Paglia lays out the issues in a way that only she can do:

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.

She adds:

Over the Labor Day weekend, with most of the big enchiladas of the major media on vacation, the vacuum was filled with a hallucinatory hurricane in the leftist blogosphere, which unleashed a grotesquely lurid series of allegations, fantasies, half-truths and outright lies about Palin. What a tacky low in American politics — which has already caused a backlash that could damage Obama’s campaign. When liberals come off as childish, raving loonies, the right wing gains. I am still waiting for substantive evidence that Sarah Palin is a dangerous extremist. I am perfectly willing to be convinced, but right now, she seems to be merely an optimistic pragmatist like Ronald Reagan, someone who pays lip service to religious piety without being in the least wedded to it. I don’t see her arrival as portending the end of civil liberties or life as we know it.

Indeed, as I pointed out recently, the outpouring of anguish from the Usual Suspects like Maureen Dowd and Gail Collins has been playing right into Republican hands. Instead of dealing with Palin’s continued support for the Iraq war, of which she says wrongly that “victory is within sight,” they go off on her hair, or five children, or something else that to them shrieks of going to Wal-Mart. Lest one think I am joking, read the following from a female professor at the divinity school of the University of Chicago, supposedly a place of "highest" learning:

Her greatest hypocrisy is in her pretense that she is a woman. The Republican party’s cynical calculation that because she has a womb and makes lots and lots of babies (and drives them to school! wow!) she speaks for the women of America, and will capture their hearts and their votes, has driven thousands of real women to take to their computers in outrage. She does not speak for women; she has no sympathy for the problems of other women, particularly working class women.

And as for religion, I’d love to know precisely how the Good Lord conveyed to her so clearly his intention to destroy the environment (global warming, she thinks, is not the work of human hands, so it must be the work of You Know Who), the lives of untold thousands of soldiers and innocent bystanders (He is apparently rooting for this, too, she says), and, incidentally, a lot of polar bears and wolves, not to mention all the people who will be shot with the guns that she thinks other people ought to have. An even wider and more sinister will to impose her religious views on other people surfaced in her determination to legislate against abortion even in cases of rape and in her attempts to ban books, including books on evolution, and to fire the librarian who stood against her.

Except, it turns out that she did not ban books, and there was no situation in which the "heroic" librarian stood like Horatio at the Bridge. (One has to dig to find the information, as Google has put all of the rumors well ahead of the facts on this one. It seems that some of the books that she wanted "banned" had not even been written at the time when the alleged incident occurred, but that did not keep Time Magazine and others from printing the rumors.) The main complaint that Wendy Doniger seems to have in this screed is that Sarah Palin is not like her, and if someone is not like her and does not think like her, then she is not a "real woman."

Thus, the very Culture War scenario that Obama tried to avoid has been shoved back at him not by McCain or even Sarah Palin, who certainly has not campaigned like a culture warrior, but rather by his own supporters who apparently cannot help themselves. Palin is not like them, so she must be destroyed. However, they are finding quickly that Sarah Palin also is a good political street fighter, much better, in my opinion, than Hillary Clinton or even Nancy Pelosi.

Barack Obama cannot win this election by championing abortion rights, speaking about pigs wearing lipstick, or parsing Palin’s penchant for earmarks. Indeed, a presidential candidate cannot under any circumstances devote almost his entire campaign toward discrediting the vice presidential candidate of the other party. It is not just unseemly, but it also is very bad political strategy.

All of this reminds me of an encounter I had with a female Frostburg State faculty member from the College of Education in Wal-Mart. She is a dear friend, and when she saw me, she had a look of horror on her fact as if to say, "OMG! Someone I know has seen me at Wal-Mart! What do I do?"

So, she quietly told me that Wal-Mart gave her the creeps, but that she had to pick up something there. I assured her that it was perfectly permissible to shop at Wal-Mart, and that I would not rat her out to other faculty, and she seemed to be somewhat relieved.

To her, the people at Wal-Mart that day might as well have been space aliens or shoppers from Afghanistan. They represented a culture that to her was so foreign that its very existence was proof of its illegitimacy, something that either had to be stamped out by the state or at very best marginalized.

Unfortunately, the presence of Palin on the campaign has energized not only the Republicans, which means that John McCain really might attain the White House and give us a presidency that could be as disastrous as that of Teddy Roosevelt, or maybe even George W. Bush. It also has energized the people who believe that Wal-Mart and NASCAR are Crimes Against Humanity, and that people who support either of them should not be permitted ever to be seen in public. The other sad thing is to watch Barack Obama, a candidate who had sought the high ground in this campaign (or as much high ground as a political campaign will permit these days), spend his time on the stump going on and on about someone putting lipstick on a pig.

Obama’s supporters have been like my friend at Wal-Mart. They cannot conceive that people might be pro-life or like to hunt moose. They cannot understand that wolves in Alaska attack and kill caribou, and that some Alaskans actually depend upon caribou for a living. Instead, they demand protection for animals they never will see and an end to a way of life for others who very existence simply bothers them.

Furthermore, I don’t believe Barack Obama can win this election by running against culturally conservative people, the very ones whose votes he was seeking just a few weeks ago. The reaction of his campaign and his supporters have reminded me that while I was sympathetic to him and even have considered pushing the button next to his name, they really don’t believe that my neighbors or me really have a right to exist at all, or, at best, we can be seen but not heard.

For a candidate who started out on a high road to "unite" people and to end a destructive war, his end has been a sad story. The simple pick of Sarah Palin has led him and his supporters to demand marginalization of whole groups of people — and now the Obama campaign is coming up with excuses to support the fighting overseas. A sad end, indeed, to what had been a most promising campaign, and even if he wins, his presidency never will recover from resorting to a strategy based on being a cultural leftist and marginalizing a large segment of the population.

September 12, 2008

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He also is a consultant with American Economic Services.

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