Review This Book or Else
Illustration by Geoff Grahn
ABOUT A YEAR AGO, A MAN CALLED with important news: "Rush Limbaugh just said something smart on the radio." Back then, the Chinese were dismantling and studying one of our spy planes before considering whether to return it. And Limbaugh, in a remarkable flash of wisdom, told his listeners that maybe that wasn't so bad. After all, observed the contentious conservative talk jock, we in the U.S. would do the same thing.
Coming from Limbaugh, this seemed like a humane, upstanding thing to say. It's not every day that a professional jingoist ascribes the same impulses to short, Asian people as he does to the mostly dough-faced heads of his own party. But if the same words had come from Ralph Nader or even Bob Kerrey, you'd wonder why either man wasted his breath -- obviously the U.S. military would do the same thing with a Chinese spy plane that found its unfortunate way to our soil. Only when Limbaugh has such a twitch of global noblesse oblige does the insight merit attention. For liberals, Limbaugh is like the dog who learned to dance: It doesn't matter whether he dances well, it's enough that he dances at all.
I think of Limbaugh's dance every time someone asks why anyone in the world publishes Norah Vincent's editorial copy -- leaving aside the possibility that someone in the not-so-liberal media has a diabolical wish to make lesbians look silly. Vincent writes about being a lesbian, about her diagnosis with multiple sclerosis and about the postSeptember 11 mood of the country ("Be Still, and Feel America's Oneness") with all the depth and originality of a high school newspaper's gossip column. And yet she commands frequent space in one of the nation's largest urban daily newspapers, the Los Angeles Times. She calls herself a feminist, yet writes not a word about any pressing feminist issue; she calls herself a libertarian (her sentences sometimes begin, "As a libertarian"), but does not blanch at the Bush administration's recent efforts to clamp down on civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism.
In the past few months, Vincent has used the combined "downsizing of the two Barbies" Martha Stewart and Tina Brown, as an argument for national defense; praised George W. Bush, whom she had previously dismissed as "a vote slut," by likening him to Hamlet; and chided viewers of Fear Factor for exacerbating the predicament of Daniel Pearl, who was then still presumably alive.
Beyond the superficial, divining what Vincent really thinks from her strange arrays of mildly sarcastic adjectives is nearly impossible. But this much I have figured out: She opposes abortion. "Ours is a country," she wrote in a column last spring, "in which you are ill-advised to be a fetus." And yet, she doesn't argue her point; she declares she's "decided" life begins at conception. She wears her anti-abortion stance as blithely as her women's libertarianism -- which is to say it might as well be a slogan on a T-shirt: Foundation Feminists for Fetuses.
Of course, the rewards for this style of political thought are great indeed. ExNew Republic editor and frequent New York Times contributor Andrew Sullivan has exploited the media's hunger for gay commentators willing to piss off other gay people; Camille Paglia built a career spouting pithy but regressive one-liners about sexual identity. But at least Sullivan and Paglia are smart, sometimes even brilliant writers with genuine journalistic and intellectual credentials. Vincent's sole qualification for punditry seems to be that she is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank concerned with fighting terrorism led by Jack Kemp and Jeane Kirkpatrick whose goal, as near as I can determine, is to extend the war into Iran.
Seven years ago, Vincent's career was "in the toilet," she writes; since she's come out as a pro-lifer, however, she has earned herself a profile in The New York Times, regular assignments from the Village Voice and airtime on the Fox News show Hannity & Colmes. Nevertheless, Vincent protests that she's not getting enough attention, because some people, including fellow Voice writer Richard Goldstein, don't like her. As she told Alan Colmes, "I guess I'm saying things that some people don't want to hear."
HERE'S THE OTHER THING VINCENT stands for: The liberal media are conspiring to keep her and people like her -- such as self-described "gun-toting lesbian" Tammy Bruce, the former president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women -- out of the dialogue. According to Vincent's February 14 column in the L.A.Times, Bruce's book The New Thought Police: Inside the Left's Assault on Free Speech and Free Minds has sold 40,000 copies, and yet "the illiberal apparatchiks [are] having their way again, dispensing their chits of pillory and slander." For two women who have joined forces to assail the culture of victimhood, they have startling little trouble defining themselves as victims of everyone from "the liberal media" to that shadowy bloc they and men's rights advocate Lionel Tiger like to call "the feminists." Led by Betty Friedan -- whom Bruce insists on referring to as "a former Communist Party member" -- and brought up from the rear by Gloria Steinem, these feminists have come to represent for Bruce and Vincent a sort of estrogen-fueled Illuminati, hell-bent on silencing whoever falls out of their lines. The most censorious feminist of the modern age, however, Andrea Dworkin -- who has long pursued legislation to ban all dirty books -- comes off in Bruce's book as a noble crusader. This can be explained with a glance at Bruce's dust jacket, on which Dworkin declares Bruce "brilliant." It's that simple.
It's not so unusual to reward the people who tolerate you and condemn those who don't; it's just strange to write a book -- with an index, even -- in an attempt to make that attitude sound mature. The New Thought Police is a train wreck of bad logic; it's sickening to behold, but for perverse reasons you can't stop looking. Bruce denounces Dr. Laura Schlessinger's persecution by gay activists -- who lobbied to have her television show canceled after she declared them "a biological mistake" -- but defends her campaign against Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho, arguing that because she only called for a one-year boycott of Knopf as opposed to a cancellation of the book, she was not "policing" its publishing decisions. She carps bitterly about the way people treated California Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante after he accidentally uttered the word nigger, but brags gleefully about her organized telephone harassment of Ellis' agent, whose protests she quotes at length. She says she loves free speech, but hates Howard Stern, and blames "the left" for "lionizing" the rapper Eminem. She does note that the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation did in fact conduct an anti-Eminem telephone campaign against Vivendi-Universal and picketed the MTV Video Music Awards, but she complains that wasn't enough. And yet had the organization done more, it would have been guilty of thought policing, and Eminem would be Bruce's new cause.
As it happens, I have some sympathy for Bruce's central thesis, that the establishments on the left control their message a little too tightly. But it also seems pretty obvious that GLAAD and NOW aren't holding the reins of power in this country, but still fighting madly for legislation that will guarantee the rights of the groups they represent. Bruce had the misfortune of publishing her book before legislators passed the USA PATRIOT Act, expanding the surveillance powers of the federal government, but her suggestion that some looming "establishment left" poses this country's greatest threat to personal liberty is just too silly to be reprehensible. Bruce's book isn't good enough to be wrong; it reeks of such a desperate need for attention it feels churlish to slam it.
And Vincent's weird defense of Bruce's book in the Los Angeles Times suggests an equally craven bid to attract tabloid-minded readers -- or at least to know readers exist. Perhaps editors like Vincent because she gets letters, both from astonished critics and supporters happy to be freed from the constraints of cultural sensitivity imposed by "the special-interest bureaucrat," which Vincent maintains "is almost exclusively the property of the complainant left." In this age of Enron, one might imagine a statement like that one too absurd to appear in newsprint; instead, Vincent seems to be heralded as an outrageous rebel. But rebellion takes more than blind insensitivity, and shock is a poor excuse for a genuine social critique.
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