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A child's view of the world.

It seemed a happy coincidence when Ken Burns's two-part series, "Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony," began its brief run on PBS (where else?) on the same day that Naomi Wolf appeared on "This Week" on ABC to explain a report in Time magazine that she had been hired by the presidential campaign of Vice President Gore at $15,000 a month (later reduced to $5000) to advise him on how to look more like an "alpha male." This he was to do by (among other things, presumably) wearing suits in "earth tones." The juxtaposition was too delicious. What, one wondered, would Mrs. Stanton and Miss Anthony have thought about the seemliness of this young celebrator of female "promiscuities" explaining the principle on which the hard-won women's ballot is to be cast in the next presidential election? More recent feminists have told us that the personal is the political, but even they can hardly have foreseen just how personal the political was to have become by the end of the millennium.

Indeed, loose talk about "alpha males" suggests that it has become not so much personal as animal, as if it were perfectly natural to think of the democratic politics of a highly developed human society as if it were homologous with the hierarchical disposition of a pack of wolves (or Wolfs?) or a troop of baboons, as this was generally thought to be the nearer parallel. The "alpha male" in politics seems to date from the Monica Lewinsky affair of last year, when Gene Lyons sought to apologize for President Clinton's behavior with Miss Lewinsky by saying that "if you take someone like the President, who a lot of women would find attractive if he came to fix their garbage disposal, and you make him the President of the United States, the alpha male of the United States of America, and you sexualize his image with a lot of smears and false accusations so that people think he's Tom Jones or Rod Stewart, then a certain irreducible number of women are going to act batty around him."

By acting "batty" he meant making up stories about a sexual relationship with the president, as at the time it was being hinted Miss Lewinsky had done. Needless to say, this was before Clinton was driven to confess that the allegations about his behavior, more goatish than ape-like, were all true. But Lyons's point doubtless did not depend on the actual falseness of the "smears and false accusations." On the contrary, it was strengthened, as many subsequent feminist commentators implicitly recognized when they took up the comparison with the same end in view. Not the least odd thing about the whole Lewinsky business was the spectacle of feminists rushing forward to affirm that, as in the animal kingdom, it should be regarded as the privilege of a putative human alpha male to engage in coitus with the unattached females of the pack. Or troop.

Not that they did so with any scientific authority. As Rebecca Mead wrote in The New Yorker about this latest outburst of amateur ethology, "psychobabble's out; biobabble's in."
 The trouble with grade-school animal behaviorism [she wrote] of the kind
 Wolf tossed at Gore, it turns out, is that, scientifically speaking, the
 alpha male is not all he has been cracked up to be, and probably isn't whom
 you want leading your country anyway. According to Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, a
 distinguished primatologist and the author of the recently published book
 Mother Nature, the popular notion of the alpha male as the ape who gets to
 have sex with all the females and swagger past all the other males is
 something of a myth, a projection of the hopes and wishes of evolutionary
 biologists--who, at least in the early days of the science, were mostly
 elite males. "The male hope is that there is one `best male,'" Hrdy said
 the other day. "And, of course, in the back of his mind, there is always
 the fantasy `It's me.'"

That last is a typical feminist put-down (You're so vain!), but we shouldn't forget that those women who gathered at the now-famous New York Observer dinner at Le Bernardin in early 1998 to discuss the Lewinsky affair did so largely in terms of the president's personal attractiveness. Feminist philosophers from Erica Jong to Elizabeth Benedict to Nancy Friday to Nicole Miller agreed that Clinton was hot--that, in short, It's him. "This virile president is suddenly fulfilling this forbidden fantasy of this old-fashioned taboo aggressive male. I think women are finding that appealing," said Katie Roiphe. Patricia Marx, a former writer for "Saturday Night Live," put it more directly: "All my women friends and I would be happy to have sex with Clinton and not talk about it."

If such charming female members of the human troop feel this way, perhaps the "alpha male" is not quite so mythic or ideological a character after all. At any rate, the sudden prominence of Miss Wolf in our national life seems to suggest that we shall find it henceforth impossible to elect a president until we have consulted with the likes of her as to whether he is sexually desirable and, hence, "alpha" enough. Perhaps this regrettable tendency is a kind of feminist revenge upon the electorate for electing so many men to high office. If they are to be ruled by men, at least the feminists of the media can confer upon themselves the enjoyable privilege of occasionally treating those men as Hollywood producers might treat a bevy of young starlets auditioning for a part.

But it is also true that traditional views of male-female differences, some of which can be documented as having survived into this century, found it natural to associate femininity with the animal side of human nature, masculinity with the spiritual. Aristotle classed women with children and slaves as possessing the virtues of submission, not of command, and the Christian and ascetic tradition is shot through with references to women as temptations to men's lower nature and obstacles to their communion with higher things. As Katharine M. Rogers wrote in The Troublesome Helpmate: A History of Misogyny in Literature (1966), "the idea that women are animals hostile to man's idealism" is a natural outgrowth of the "patriarchal tradition" of regarding woman as "a creature weak in mind and morals who must be kept in check if society is to survive and man to progress."

Surely no one believes such seeming nonsense today? And yet an honest feminist would have to admit that among the many wonderful consequences of women's suffrage over the last eighty years, the most recent to come to our attention is Naomi Wolf's somewhat less than wonderful speculation as to the vice president's sexual desirability among America's fabled "soccer moms." It is at least arguable, is it not, that this kind of sexual politics is rather a derogation from "man's idealism," even if it is not to be considered actively hostile to it? Could it be that the opponents of Mrs. Stanton and Miss Anthony in their long and inspiring struggle for the vote had something to say that might still be worth listening to?

If they did, you wouldn't know it from Mr. Burns's treatment of the subject, which is in a style now as recognizable as anything on television. Coleridge once said of some lines of Wordsworth that if he had encountered them running wild in the desert, he should have known them at once as having sprung from the pen of his friend. In the same way, it is impossible for anyone to mistake that slowly moving camera circling around old, sepia-toned photographs while mournful violin and piano arrangements of hymn tunes and popular and patriotic songs of the last century accompany a lugubrious narration. The narration on this occasion was by Sally Kellerman, whose most distinguished role in an otherwise less-than-distinguished acting career was as Major Hot Lips Houlihan in Robert Altman's M*A*S*H. She is also remembered for baring her breasts at an Academy Awards Ceremony.

Obviously, the Burnsian style, even with such a mouthpiece, is not suited to controversy, though controversy there was in plenty about the lives of his heroines. As a result, we have the sense of a stereophonic presentation with only one channel working. Again and again we are asked to admire the struggles of Mrs. Stanton and Miss Anthony without ever being told what, precisely, they were struggling against. True, we are told (by one of the centenarian suffragettes, interviews with whom begin the show) that in the bad old days, "Women were in the kitchen, in the home; men did the voting." But there is no hint as to what obstacle there might have been during the first 133 years of the republic (to say nothing of the other nations, numbering no less than all of them in which there was any voting, in which such disfranchisement was also the case) to the remedying of so obvious an injustice.

The nearest we get to an adumbration of the opposition's case is a mention of something called "The Cult of True Womanhood," which is erroneously described as "the ideology of that era." An ideology, however, is to be distinguished from an ex post facto justification of traditional behavior whose true origins are lost in the mists of time. No nineteenth-century ideologue persuaded contemporary males to be mean to women and deny them the ballot. It was taken for granted by all and sundry, not least by women themselves, that public affairs were the province of men and not women. By the time that this assumption became in any sense an "ideology," its days were already numbered. Thus it is in a way appropriate that the only explanation of "The Cult of True Womanhood" in Burns's film comes in Susan B. Anthony's scathing dismissal of it: "The old idea that man was made for himself and woman for him, that he is the oak, she the vine, he the head, she the heart, he the great conservator of thought, she of love, will be reverently laid aside with other long-since exploded philosophies of the ignorant past."

Actually, there is a subtle misrepresentation of "the old idea" here. No one ever said that man was made for himself, or at least no one who based the subordination of women on biblical authority. Man was made the servant of a Higher Power. As Milton put it, "He for God; she for God in him." How this "philosophy" could be "exploded," as if it were a scientific theory which was found no longer to fit the available facts, is never explained. Either you believe as Milton believed--as, in fact, nearly everybody we know of in all of human history up until the last century believed--or as Miss Anthony did, whose view has held sway almost since her death in 1906. But both are professions of belief and not of knowledge. Why we exchanged one belief for the other is a question that might have been, even on television, of absorbing interest, but it is of no interest to Ken Burns, nor to any of the panel of female historians (he says there are no men who know this history) he consulted.

This is because Burns is not really interested in history itself. As Christine Stansell wrote in The New Republic,
 the obdurate nature of the history--everything about these truculent women
 and their truculent ideas, everything that aroused so much fury and so much
 passion--has faded into the autumnal tones of a past that will give trouble
 to nobody.... In a word, Burns seduces; and the name for his seduction is
 nostalgia. He is in the nostalgia business. His films are winning and (as
 they used to say) educational, but finally they are the historio-graphical
 equivalent of Restoration Hardware.

But this is to give Burns rather less than his due. A production like "Not For Ourselves Alone" is more than just nostalgia; it is mythmaking in the fashion and in the medium of our times. The better comparison of such a reverential history of the prevailing progressive view is with Parson Weems's life of George Washington. It is certainly likely to be known by quite as many schoolchildren too.

Well, well, all ages need their myths. But the wide promulgation of this one is a pity in one sense because it makes the feminism of Miss Wolf rather a mystery to us. Her appearance on "This Week," for instance, must have been almost incomprehensible to a great many viewers accustomed to a hagiographical approach to the female elector. True, she did her best to look sober and serious. Like Monica Lewinsky in her interview with Barbara Walters last spring, she had her flowing mane of thick, dark hair pulled back into a much more demure, even severe-looking, style than we were accustomed to. Nor, alas, was her hair all that she had in common with Magnificent Monica. Here, for example, is how she replied to Cokie Roberts's question: "What about those three things? His clothes, his alpha beta-ness, and the money?"
 Gosh, where do I begin? There's been a lot that's been not correct in the
 reports over the last week. And as I was saying earlier in the Green Room,
 as a citizen, I guess, I'm mostly disappointed. Because I think the
 American people are much more focused on--if they knew the substance of the
 reason I'm at the table of the Gore campaign, they'd be pleased and
 interested and glad to know, because they're the substance of what American
 families are concerned about.

 Everything from the wage gap that women face, to how to make a better
 balance between work and family. But two of the points you raised that have
 been distorted in the press: alpha beta, taken out of context. I was making
 a random point in passing--well not a random, but a common point, that any
 vice president is in a supporting role, meaning he's supporting someone
 else's agenda, obviously. And any presidential candidate is in an
 initiatory role. Rolling out his own vision and agenda for the country,
 which is what Al Gore was doing.

 It was an obvious political point that pundits had been making for months.
 And it's unfortunate that there's been a misinterpretation. And I'm glad to
 set the record straight.

The rest of the interview is of a similar level of subtlety and thought. It would be tempting to think that such stunning inarticulacy as this was owing to the unwonted constraints on her hair cutting off the blood supply to her brain, but the evidence from Miss Wolf's writing is overwhelming that this is the true, the native Wolf-note wild. In fact, she is said to have come to Mr. Gore's attention in the first place because of something she wrote in George magazine in June 1998, an article advising the vice president to "let his defenses down and allow his inner oddness out." This he may seem to have done merely by hiring her, since her suggestion to him of a winning strategy was to adopt the unashamed and triumphant one-worldism that she sees as the ineluctable wave of the future:
 A recent ad for Benetton [she wrote], the global fashion corporation, shows
 four attractive young people of suitably diverse ethnicity--from, say,
 Cameroon, Korea, Finland and Niger--with a paraphrase of the "All men are
 created equal" language of the Declaration of Independence. The secret of a
 successful Campaign 2000 for Gore lies in that ad.

Although this is a desperately silly statement, a perfect illustration of why Camille Paglia said on a rival talk show the same morning that Miss Wolf is a "kind of Seventeen magazine level of thinker," it is little if any sillier than the level at which national political campaigns, presumably designed with people like Miss Wolf in mind, are conducted these days. Gore, after all, has won national office twice on the ticket with Clinton, and he presumably picked Miss Wolf for his team in order to be supplied with just such ineffable nonsense. Before him, Dick Morris picked her to advise him on Clinton's campaign in 1996--when she advised him to make the president look like "the Good Father."

That this advice was followed must hardly need saying. And having established that the voters were to be treated like children by Clinton, she was subsequently picked up to supply some suitably childish thinking for Gore. Like Ken Burns, Naomi Wolf is not just an advocate of childish thinking; she has a child's view of the world. There are the good people (Gore, the suffragettes) and the bad people (Republicans); the good people are always right, if somewhat ahead of their time, and the bad people are always wrong. There are no serious differences in politics because the path of progress (visible to those who can "see beyond the horizon" as she says Gore can) is already mapped out for us, whether to women's suffrage or to one-world government. Opposition to these things is therefore ipso facto wrong and vicious, and those who oppose them must be deemed capable of any enormity.

Somehow, though Burns forbears to remind us of it, one cannot quite forget that those old anti-suffragists used to argue that women were to be debarred from participation in government, except as adjuncts of their fathers, husbands, or sons, on the grounds that they were weak-minded and childish. That was why, like children, they had to be guarded and protected and insulated from the world's harsher realities while men were left to do the hard work of wielding power. It also used to be said, of course, that insofar as this was true it was because women had been cossetted, treated like children, and denied the right to train themselves up to grown-up affairs. But now we have in Naomi Wolf a proud young feminist at the heart of political power in this country, a Yale graduate and former Rhodes Scholar who has obviously never been protected from acquiring an unseemly knowledge of the way this world works--and she thinks exactly like a child.

Could it be that it is time for us men to reconsider the spirit of injudicious generosity in which eighty years ago we gave women the vote?

James Bowman is the American editor of the London Times Literary Supplement.
COPYRIGHT 1999 Foundation for Cultural Review
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Bowman, James
Publication:New Criterion
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 1999
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