June 24, 2004,
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article appeared in the November 23, 1998, issue of National Review.
When you melt away the practiced iconoclasm, the predictable liberalism, and the pure arrogance of President Clinton's defenders in the culture industry almost all of which has now weighed in on the scandal you are left with an irreducible core. When Clinton defenders say it's "all just about sex," they are almost right. It is all about sex, but not "just."
Something remarkable has happened to the cultural Left in the 1990s. Sex is everything. Sexuality has become the linchpin of human identity, replacing race as the chief source of activism and passion in discussions of civil rights, politics, and public morality. In a calculated maneuver, the Left has decided to brand Clinton's sexual behavior with Monica Lewinsky private despite all of the evidence that Clinton dragooned the country into the most public illicit affair in modern history and then compounded his misdeed with other crimes. Yes, the affair was metaphysically tacky and bordered on the deviant, but the more unconventional the expression of sexuality, the more comfortable the Left is in defending it.
Obviously, this represents a tectonic shift in feminist dogma. It is a shift that was occurring well before the Lewinsky scandal. Today, the most provocative academic feminist isn't a sex hater. She is Jane Gallop, Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin. When asked about her sexual preference-at a conference entitled "Flaunting It"-she responded, "Graduate students." On talk shows and on the op-ed pages, the sex-is-rape school is in full retreat while the sex-is-a-passport-to-a-cushy-job school is attracting adherents in droves. Katie Roiphe in the New York Times says of Lewinsky, "There is nothing inherently wrong . . . with her attempt to translate her personal relationship with the President into professional advancement."
Clinton has become the sex-and-identity-politics poster boy, the beleaguered President whose troubles stand for so much more than questions of legality or partisan politics. Consider Andrew Sullivan's interpretation. The former editor of The New Republic (who now devotes much of his energy to making gay life mainstream), Sullivan recently launched a broadside against the "new" conservatism in the pages of the New York Times Magazine. The quixotic conservative has argued powerfully for Clinton's resignation elsewhere, but not in the Times, where he creates an army of straw men called the New Conservatives-"the scolds"-who are little more than a band of church ladies concerned only with squelching sexual rights and everybody's fun.
Sullivan's piece shows how seriously even the most thoughtful sexual liberationists are about making Clinton a sex-rights Rosa Parks. "For the new conservatives," writes Sullivan, "the counterattack on homosexual legitimacy is of a piece with the battle against presidential adultery." Indeed, the article bundles divergent issues more craftily than Microsoft does its browsers. Not only is the argument against Clinton an argument against gay rights, says Sullivan, it is an assault on abortion (here and abroad). The "Lewinsky obsession," Sullivan writes, and the "anti-gay crusade" are bound together by the "anchor" of abortion.
Sullivan is hardly alone in his belief that Bill Clinton is a martyr in the battle against the sex cops. The refrain has been repeated relentlessly in elite magazines and newspapers. Clinton "has been mortified, subjected to an Orwellian intrusion by the gumshoes of the state," writes Richard Cohen in the Washington Post. Starr's prosecutors "sound like a crowd at an auto-da-fe, a burning at the stake in the Inquisition," says Anthony Lewis in the New York Times. Frank Rich, also in the Times, writes that the American people would rather support Clinton than "lend any vindication to the crusade of a zealous prig out of The Crucible." And just in case anyone missed the reference to the Salem witch trials, the Times trotted out the author of The Crucible himself, Arthur Miller, to make the tortured analogy, in an op-ed piece entitled "Salem Revisited."
The Crucible, of course, was a thinly veiled indictment of the crimes, real and imagined, of McCarthyism. Now it seems like something else. In The Crucible, a decent man cheats on his wife with a manipulative young woman. The affair then unleashes a flood of Puritan rage, along with a zealous and exacting judge, who is invited to determine the facts. What more powerful morality play could there be for this scandal? Of course, in the story, the Puritans believe the sex exposes a conspiracy of witches. Ken Starr believes it exposes a conspiracy to obstruct justice, suborn perjury, and abuse power.
As it happens Miller rewrote the play for the screen in 1996, even as the Clinton-Lewinsky relationship was sputtering toward its conclusion. In a New Yorker article about The Crucible, Miller says he realized that, without the Cold War, the only believable political theme and personal motivation remaining for his work was . . . sex. The Crucible was conceived, according to Miller, as a political play, but in the 1990s a remake could run only on sex. This wasn't always so. When Jean-Paul Sartre authored the first screenplay of The Crucible in 1957 The Witches of Salem he envisioned the story as a brutal war between the proletariat and the ruling classes. Now the prevailing dogma is no longer dialectical materialism but sexual expression.
The Left takes it farther. If The Crucible is now about sex, so is the original "witch-hunt" from which it was born. No joke: when the Left says this scandal is McCarthyite, they don't simply mean that Starr's tactics are somehow similar to Tailgunner Joe's. No, they mean that Ken Starr is just like McCarthy because McCarthy too was interested only in sex.
One of the first writers to make this argument was none other than Sidney Blumenthal. One of his last pieces for the New Yorker before he was upgraded to a paid position in the White House was a review of Sam Tanenhaus's magisterial biography of Whittaker Chambers. Blumenthal barely mentioned the book or Tanenhaus, except to criticize the author for not answering "the question of what motivated the drama's principal characters, and especially its lonely and tormented witness." Tanenhaus, wrote Blumenthal, "made no effort to explain how Chambers's homosexuality informed his Communism or his conservatism. That context is crucial to understanding both Chambers and the evolution of Cold War conservatism."
Blumenthal wrote of Chambers's "true legacy," that "he helped to transmute an external threat into a moral panic, and to encourage a new generation of Cold War conservatives to do the same." For "a pantheon of anti-Communists . . . conservatism was the ultimate closet," a way of disguising their latent homosexuality. "Conservative anti-Communism," Blumenthal lamented, is "an anachronism. What endures is the fear of the enemy within: the homosexual menace." So, he goes farther even than Sullivan. For Blumenthal, there is nothing to conservatism except homophobia.
Nor is Blumenthal alone. On October 17, the Times ran a fawning profile of a leading light in academia, Ann Douglas. According to the Times, she argues in her forthcoming book that "Starr has picked up where Senator Joseph R. McCarthy left off." For Douglas, the criminalization of sexual behavior began in the 1950s, "[w]hen you had senators saying that basically homosexuality was an indicator that someone was a Communist." According to Douglas, Starr's investigation reflects "the victory of Cold War aims revamped for the 21st century."
Diane McWhorter, writing in Newsday, pushes this line as well: "Perhaps the most striking theme connecting the witch-hunts including the original 17th-century depredations in Salem is masculine insecurity. McCarthy railed against 'Communists and queers' in the State Department. Yet, he also doted on his subcommittee counsel, the young homosexual Roy Cohn . . ." McWhorter continues, "the Army-McCarthy set to fairly bristled with phallic tension, punctuated uncannily by the senator's trademark giggle." She then ties the knot: "Today's McCarthyism is also about embattled manhood. Starr's constituency is the Christian right. . . . His supporters smugly cast the blame for the witch-hunts on 'radical feminists' an updated version of the Cold War's stereotypical female Communists . . ."
In September, at a press conference organized by loyal feminist groups in support of Clinton, Betty Friedan declared, "I want to warn against sexual McCarthyism. . . . Sex is going to take the place of the Cold War." Alan Dershowitz has just written a new a book entitled Sexual McCarthyism. Every day, in leading cultural and academic journals, the past is being rewritten as prologue to the Clinton sex scandals.
As an argument, of course, this revisionism is ridiculous. Untold millions died under Communism, millions more spent their lives virtually enslaved. Some people believed and believe that this a morally serious fact. McCarthy did not head every committee looking into Communist infiltration; there were many others. Were they all homophobes? Were all of the committee members homophobes? Their staffs? What about the CIA and the FBI? Were they gay to the core, too? How about the AFL-CIO?
In the New York Observer's "super gal" symposium on the Clinton scandal, "the consensus was . . . that a Presidential 'f about' was far better than a 'fascist pig' like Ken Starr." This highlights the closest similarity of this scandal to the McCarthy era. For decades in America, to say that you believed Communists might be a real threat or that they existed at all was to invite a determined campaign by left-wing intellectuals and celebrities to discredit you as a fascist and a zealot. And there is, of course, one last similarity to the McCarthy era: This time, too, the alleged "fascists" are correct.