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Almost every week, it seems, we get
to read about some state execution, performed or imminent, wreathed
in the usual toxic fog of race or sex prejudice, or incompetency of
counsel, or prosecutorial misconduct.

Take the recent
execution in Ashcroft country, February 7, of Stanley Lingar, done in
the Potosi Correctional Center in Missouri, for killing 16-year
-old
Thomas Allen back in 1985. In the penalty phase of Lingar's trial,
prosecutor Richard Callahan, who may now be headed for the seat on
the Missouri State Supreme Court recently vacated by his
mother-in-law, argued for death, citing Lingar's homosexuality to the
jury as the crucial factor that should tilt poison into the guilty
man's veins. Governor Bob Holden turned down a clemency appeal and
told the press he'd "lost no sleep" over signing off on Lingar's
fate.

Is there any hope that the ample list of innocent
people either lost to the executioners or saved at the eleventh hour
will prompt a national moratorium such as is being sought by Senator
Russell Feingold of Wisconsin?

A year ago it seemed
possible. On January 31, 2000, Illinois Governor George Ryan
suspended imposition of the death penalty in his state on the grounds
that he could not support a system "which, in its administration, has
proven so fraught with error."

By June a Field Poll
reported the sensational finding that in the state with the most
crowded death row in the nation, Californians by nearly 4 to 1
favored stopping state executions to study how the death penalty was
being applied. The Field Poll respondents were told about wrong
convictions, also about appeals to Governor Gray Davis by religious
leaders for a moratorium. A poll at the end of last year, in which
California respondents were not offered this framework, put support
for a moratorium at 42 percent, just behind those opposed to any such
move. A national poll last fall found 53 percent for a
moratorium.

The discrepancy in the California polls
actually affords comfort to abolitionists, since it shows that when
respondents are told about innocent people saved from lethal
injection, often at the last moment, support for a moratorium soars.
It's a matter of public education.

But where are the
educators? Many eligible political leaders have fled the field of
battle, convinced that opposition to the death penalty is a sure-fire
vote loser. In the second presidential debate last fall Al Gore
wagged his head in agreement when George W. Bush declared his faith
in executions as a deterrent.

A few years ago Hillary
Clinton spoke of her private colloquys with the shade of Eleanor
Roosevelt. Their conversations left La Clinton unpersuaded, since she
stands square for death, as does New York's senior senator, Charles
Schumer.

Indeed, the death penalty is no longer a gut
issue, or even a necessary stand, for those, like Schumer, who are
associated with the Democratic Party's liberal wing. On February 12
the New York Post quoted Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, long known as a
leading death-penalty opponent, as saying that "it would be futile"
to try to repeal capital punishment in New York.

Mrs.
Cuomo, daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, told the Post that she
believes her husband, Andrew, a contender for the Democratic
nomination for governor, shares her views. "To tell you the truth, on
the death penalty, it's not as big an issue in the state as it was a
few years ago." Mrs. Cuomo's father-in-law, Mario, repeatedly vetoed
death-penalty measures during his years as governor.

In
line with Kerry Kennedy Cuomo's spineless stance, many liberal or
what are now cautiously called "human rights" groups have also found
it politic to sideline capital punishment as an issue. No better
illustration is available than the recent tussle over John Ashcroft's
nomination as Attorney General. Scores of groups flailed at him on
choice, racism and hate crimes, but not on the most racist
application of hatein the arsenal of state power: the death
penalty.

Return for a moment to the fight to save Lingar's
life. Privacy Rights Education Project, the statewide Missouri gay
lobby group, endorsed Holden in his gubernatorial race. PREP,
however, was quite muted on Lingar's fate, taking little action
except to send a letter to the governor the day before the execution.
Another gay organization, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against
Defamation, the folks who want to shut down Dr. Laura, is a national
group but happens to have an office in Kansas City, Missouri. Surely
what prosecutor Callahan did to Stanley Lingar is well beyond
defamation. Where was the Gay and Lesbian Alliance on this case? Not
a peep from them. Noisy on hate crimes but silent on the death
penalty is the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest
gay-advocacy group.

The issue of capital punishment is
drawing much more attention these days. Just when help could really
make a difference, where are all these (ostensibly) liberal and
progressive groups? The Anti-Defamation League (all right, strike the
word "ostensible"), whose national director, Abraham Foxman, pulled
down $389,000 in 1999, was busy writing letters for Marc Rich. The
death penalty? The ADL endorsed Bill Clinton's appalling
Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.

The
impetus given by Ryan last year could fall apart. Governor Ryan
himself faces difficult re-election prospects in 2002, and a
successor could rescind the moratorium. Liberals should abandon their
absurd and dangerous obsession with hate crimes and muster against
this most hateful excrescence on the justice system. Let them take
encouragement from the district attorney of San Francisco, Terrence
Hallinan, who told a San Francisco court on February 6 that he would
not participate in the capital sentencing of one Robert Massey since
"the death penalty does not constitute any more of a deterrent than
life without parole" and, among other evils, "discriminates racially
and financially, being visited mainly on racial minorities and the
poor.... It forfeits the stature and respect to which our state is
entitled by reducing us to a primitive code of
retribution."

The recording
industry has been celebrating the supposed defeat of Napster. The
Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has affirmed the grant of a
preliminary injunction that may well have the effect of closing the
service down completely and ending the commercial existence of
Napster's parent (that is, unless the record companies agree to an
implausible deal Napster has proposed). But despite appearances, what
has happened, far from being a victory, is the beginning of the
industry's end. Even for those who have no particular stake in the
sharing of music on the web, there's value in understanding why the
"victory"over Napster is actually a profound and irreversible
calamity for the record companies. What is now happening to music
will soon be happening to many other forms of "content" in the
information society. The Napster case has much to teach us about the
collapse of publishers generally, and about the liberative
possibilities of the decay of the cultural oligopolies that dominated
the second half of the twentieth century.

The shuttering of
Napster will not achieve the music industry's goals because the
technology of music-sharing no longer requires the centralized
registry of music offered for sharing among the network's listeners
that Napster provided. Freely available software called OpenNap
allows any computer in the world to perform the task of facilitating
sharing; it is already widely used. Napster itself--as it kept
pointing out to increasingly unsympathetic courts--maintained no
inventory of music: It simply allowed listeners to find out what
other listeners were offering to share. Almost all the various
sharing programs in existence can switch from official Napster to
other sharing facilitators with a single click. And when they move,
the music moves with them. Now, in the publicity barrage surrounding
the decision, 60 million Napster users will find out about OpenNap,
which cannot be sued or prohibited because, as free software, no one
controls its distribution and any lawsuits would have to be brought
against all its users worldwide. Suddenly, instead of a problem posed
by one commercial entity that can be closed down or acquired, the
industry will be facing the same technical threat, with no one to sue
but its own customers. No business can survive by suing or harassing
its own market.

The music industry (by which we mean the
five companies that supply about 90 percent of the world's popular
music) is dying not because of Napster but because of an underlying
economic truth. In the world of digital products that can be copied
and moved at no cost, traditional distribution structures, which
depend on the ownership of the content or of the right to distribute,
are fatally inefficient. As John Guare's famous play has drummed into
all our minds, everyone in society is divided from everyone else by
six degrees of separation. The most efficient distribution system in
the world is to let everyone give music to whoever they know would
like it. When music has passed through six hands under the current
distribution system, it hasn't even reached the store. When it has
passed through six hands in a system that doesn't require the
distributor to buy the right to pass it along, it has already reached
several million listeners.

This increase in efficiency
means that composers, songwriters and performers have everything to
gain from making use of the system of unowned or anarchistic
distribution, provided that each listener at the end of the chain
still knows how to pay the artist and feels under some obligation to
do so, or will buy something else--a concert ticket, a T-shirt, a
poster--as a result of having received the music for free. Hundreds
of potential "business models" remain to be explored once the
proprietary distributor has disappeared, no one of which will be
perfect for all artistic producers but all of which will be the
subject of experiment in decades to come, once the dinosaurs are
gone.

No doubt there will be some immediate pain that will
be felt by artists rather than the shareholders of music
conglomerates. The greatest of celebrity musicians will do fine under
any system, while those who are currently waiting on tables or
driving a cab to support themselves have nothing to lose. For the
signed recording artists just barely making it, on the other hand,
the changes are of legitimate concern. But musicians as a whole stand
to gain far more than they lose. Their wholesale defection from the
existing distribution system is about to begin, leaving the music
industry--like manuscript illuminators, piano-roll manufacturers and
letterpress printers--a quaint and diminutive relic of a passé
economy.

The industry's giants won't disappear overnight,
or perhaps at all. But because their role as owner-distributors makes
no economic sense, they will have to become suppliers of services in
the production and promotion of music. Advertising agencies,
production services consultants, packagers--they will be anything but
owners of the music they market to the world.

What is most
important about this phenomenon is that it applies to everything that
can be distributed as a stream of digital bits by the simple human
mechanism of passing it along. The result will be more music, poetry,
photography and journalism available to a far wider audience. Artists
will see a whole new world of readers, listeners and viewers; though
each audience member will be paying less, the artist won't have to
take the small end of a split determined by the distribution
oligarchs who have cheated and swindled them ever since Edison. For
those who worry about the cultural, economic and political power of
the global media companies, the dreamed-of revolution is at hand. The
industry may right now be making a joyful noise unto the Lord, but it
is we, not they, who are about to enter the promised land.

Failing public schools violate state constitutions, new court decisions say.

Back during the
presidential campaign, George W. Bush called Clarence Thomas and
Antonin Scalia his favorite Supreme Court Justices--a remark widely
interpreted at the time as just smoke-blowing in the direction of the
right. Guess what--it's time to start taking Bush at his word,
especially when it comes to Thomas.

Just weeks after the
inauguration, Justice Thomas has emerged as the new Administration's
judicial patron saint. The top three officials of the Bush Justice
Department--Attorney General John Ashcroft, Solicitor
General-designate Theodore Olson and Deputy Attorney
General-designate Larry Thompson--are all close Thomas friends.
Thomas even officiated at Olson's wedding (also Rush Limbaugh's) and
Ashcroft's swearing-in. While Thomas's wife, Virginia, shovels
Heritage Foundation résumés into the 1600 Pennsylvania
Avenue personnel department, his former clerk Helgard Walker sits in
the White House counsel's office.

After the Court's Florida
decision, Thomas told a group of high school students that his
famous, baffling reluctance to ask questions on the bench grows out
of his childhood fear of being mocked for speaking Gullah (a black
language) in an all-white seminary class. Maybe, but the vindicating
presence of so many friends in the White House seems to have given
the Supreme Court's Garbo new confidence: After nearly a decade on
the sidelines, in mid-February Thomas emerged into the Washington
spotlight at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) with a
Castro-length jeremiad on what he views as continuing liberal efforts
to stifle him and other conservative culture warriors.

When
Thomas was nominated for the Court, some African-American and liberal
voices argued that his biography as a black man gave hope that with
time he would moderate his far-right views on affirmative action,
welfare and civil rights. His rulings make their own testimony, of
course, but if that AEI dinner speech is any indication, what is most
remarkable about Thomas is that he has scarcely changed at all,
either in preoccupations or politics. The themes of his speech--a
hodgepodge of cherry-picked libertarian quotes from the likes of
Hamilton, Montesquieu and Thomas Sowell--were instantly familiar to
anyone who waded through his preconfirmation writings as the Reagan
Administration's dismantler of equal opportunity enforcement. Back
then, he praised sports and business as the great crucibles of
character in a free society. In his AEI speech he told of how "the
great UCLA basketball coach JohnWooden taught his players how to play
the game by first teaching them how to lace up and tie their shoes."
Back in 1991, Thomas dodged uncomfortable questions about his friend
Jay Parker, a flack and registered agent for the apartheid-era South
African government. In his speech he went out of his way to praise
Parker as his mentor.

Most of all, what has remained
consistent about Justice Thomas is his swirling hornet's nest of
resentment--that strange combination of megalomania and self-pity
embodied in his famous denunciation of his confirmation hearings as a
"high-tech lynching." At AEI he favorably compared himself and other
conservative culture warriors to Dimitar Peshev, a heroic Bulgarian
civil servant who during World War II secured the rescue of Sofia's
Jews at considerable personal risk. Thomas remains obsessed with the
idea of conservatives as persecuted victims--which, since those
conservatives now run the White House, Justice and Congress, raises
questions about his hold on reality. But the question currently being
floated in Washington judicial circles is whether Thomas, not the
oft-mentioned Scalia, is Bush's favored successor to Chief Justice
William Rehnquist.

We have many male authors known for loving women, fewer known for loving men. Love that is not overtly homoerotic--resolutely heterosexual, in fact--can take on an intimacy and purity untroubled by sex, even if still troubling for its intensity, its incoherence and frequent confusion, violence or aggression, its exclusionary quality. And so it is no surprise to find it so often in novels of war, or the military. In the last half-century American practitioners of this form have included Heller and Mailer, Ward Just, Tim O'Brien and, perhaps most overlooked, James Salter, who is interested in more than the camaraderie among men in uniform but also its inverse as well, the case of the solitary, perhaps a newcomer breaking in. Here is his description of the fighter pilot Robert Cassada from his new novel of that name:

It was his beauty, of course, a beauty that no one saw--they were blind to such a thing.... By beauty, nothing obvious is meant. It was an aspect of the unquenchable, of the martyr, but this quality had its physical accompaniment. His shoulders were luminous, his body male but not hard, his hair disobedient. Few of them had seen him naked, not that he concealed himself or was modest but like some animal come to drink he was solitary and unboisterous. He was intelligent but not cerebral and could be worshipful, as in the case of airplanes.

"They" and "them" are his colleagues, the men of a fighter squadron stationed in Germany in the 1950s. The men--Dunning, Isbell, Wickenden, Godchaux, Phipps, Dumfries, Ferguson, Harlan, Grace--lead restless, incurious, exalted lives, flying every day in the skies above Western Europe, waiting for the conflict that never comes. So conflict comes from within and among the men, who are arrogant, competitive, bored, cussedly suspicious yet trusting, too. They are not alike. Major Dunning is a Southerner and former college football star; Harlan is a rustic, an overgrown farm boy. Wickenden, or "Wick the prick," Cassada's nemesis, was "born in the wrong century. The cavalry was what he was made for, riding in the dust of the Mexican border with cracked lips and a line edged into his hair from the strap of a campaign hat." Cassada is from Puerto Rico, which leads Harlan to wonder what he's doing in the US Air Force. "Puerto Rico's part of the United States," replies Godchaux.

"Since when?"

"I don't know. A long time."

"I must of missed hearing about it."

The banter may not recall Catch-22--while sharp, it is seldom witty--but Salter's particular genius is for the inexpressive man. He saves his tenderest regard for Cassada, about whom there is "an elegance...a superiority. You did not find it often." It is perhaps his gravest mistake, for to a reader with less invested in the project, Cassada is the least present, most flattened out, of all the men, the one who never steps out of the page despite being so beautiful or unforgettable as all that. Cassada, which is a revision of an early, out-of-print novel, The Arm of Flesh, should instead be titled Isbell.

In interviews Salter has dismissed The Arm of Flesh as a "failed book," and he says the same in his preface to Cassada. Admitting that the new venture might be "a mistake," he cites "the appeal of the period, the 1950s, barely a decade after the war; the place, the fighter bases of Europe; and the life itself." Cassada, then--in words that I have seen repeated in every notice--is "the book the other might have been."

I think in fact it is the same book, although better turned out for some crucial changes. The Arm of Flesh is a novel in alternating voices--seventeen altogether--some of which are hard to figure out, others appearing only briefly, even once. Several could be cut entirely, as their narrative distracts from the general thread, which is about the ordeal of two pilots (one whose radio is out) trying to make it home in terrible weather, while interspersed are episodes from lazy days on base and elsewhere. Cassada is told in the third person, but the structure is much the same--if the two books are laid side by side, one sees in Cassada a succession of loose little chapters that more or less correspond to an individual voice's narrative in The Arm of Flesh. Major Clyde is now Dunning. Lieutenant Sisse from the earlier book does not appear at all in the second. In The Arm of Flesh Cassada never speaks with his own voice. In both works his words are reported to us through the perspective of others; and so he is always at least once, often twice, removed from a reader.

"Something was usually beginning before the last thing ended." This is Isbell, and the words seem to me to be the key to the book. Cassada is a new arrival at the wing in Giebelstadt, but the rivalries, the ennui, the excitements of a life in the air, at speed, have been going on as long as men have been assembled to fight. Salter, who was a pilot himself in Korea--with the advantage, unlike many of the pilots in Cassada, of actually having seen combat--has written of this elsewhere, in his first novel, The Hunters, and in his memoir Burning the Days. A pilot, it seems, becomes obsessed with doing something remarkable, with being remembered and spoken about even after he's gone. "In the end there is a kind of illness," Salter writes in his memoir. "A feeling of inconsequence, even lightness, takes hold. It is, in a way, like the earliest days, the sense of being an outsider. Others are taking one's place, nameless others who can never know how it was." Cassada is driven relentlessly to prove himself; his immediate commander, Wickenden, thinks he has a death wish. Isbell, who grows to love Cassada, acknowledges his own part in stirring him up. "It was true [he] had sometimes opposed him. It had been essential to. It was part of the unfolding." Earlier we have learned of Isbell's mysticism, his sense of his role among the men as "biblical." "It was the task of Moses--he would take them to within sight of what was promised, but no further. To the friezes of heaven, which nobody knew were there."

In this kind of outfit, Cassada never stands a chance. It is he who is one of the pilots in trouble as they try to reach home. The other is Isbell. The bond between the two is the strangest in the book, yet critical to its success. I don't think Salter has convinced us that it is true. Isbell is decent, perceives Cassada's isolation; pencils himself in to fly with him once, on an early morning training mission over Germany. It is a matchless day, the kind fliers dream of. They hardly speak.

The earth lay immense and small beneath them, the occasional airfields white as scars. Down across the Rhine. The strings of barges, smaller than stitches. The banks of poplar. Then a city, glistening, struck by the first sun. Stuttgart. The thready streets, the spires, the world laid bare.

Afterward Isbell's body is "empty," his mind "washed clean." Cassada asks about a city they flew over, Ingolstadt. "It's not as great as it was this morning," Isbell replies.

"You could say that about everyplace," he commented.
      It was true, Isbell thought, exactly. He felt a desire to reply in kind. It was not often you found anyone who could say things.

It is worth reprinting Salter's original language from The Arm of Flesh. The speaker is Isbell:

"The whole world's like that," he said.
      A chance remark that entered my heart. I didn't know what to say. Suddenly he was not what he seemed--as wise as a schoolboy who knows sex--he was entirely different. Yes, I thought. The whole world is. And early we rise to discover the earth. I felt a sudden desire to bequeath him my dreams, to offer them up. All of the searching is only for someone who can understand them.

This seems to me rather better, nearly perfect, in fact. While terseness can suggest all the things that must remain unspoken in life, a writer striking at the essence of character must occasionally open himself up, like a pilot his engines. Earlier in the same passage, in The Arm of Flesh, we have the measure of Isbell that is stripped from its revision in Cassada--excitable, aroused, ready for risk: the risk of loving a fellow flier: "We stealthy two. Streaming like princes. Breathing like steers," he thinks while aloft. Over Stuttgart:

Watch out, Stuttgart. Watch out. We're at God's empty window. We can see everything. The thready streets. The spires. It's all apparent. We can stare through the roofs. Right into the first cups of coffee. Your warm secrets, Stuttgart. Your rumpled beds.

None of this is in Cassada. None of it says much about Cassada, but it says everything about Isbell. The end of the chapter is the same in both books, except for the following sentences from The Arm of Flesh: "He could have told me what he was going to be. I might have believed him." And later on, when the two men's mission has met its tragic end, a lengthy Isbell monologue is sharply cut, in which his obsession with Cassada again comes to the fore: "There is so much I almost told him. I can't understand why I didn't. I was waiting for something, a word that would fall, an unguarded act." Of course, there are no unguarded acts from the embattled Cassada, but more surprising is the sense--retained in Cassada--that the young pilot actually had something to say. Both versions ascribe uniqueness to him, the phrase "the sum of our destinies." Yet Cassada doesn't even pretend to understand Isbell in those moments when their communion is said to be greatest: "You amaze me, Captain.... We're talking about two different things. I don't know. I just don't understand, I guess."

In Burning the Days--the eponymous chapter of which, thirty pages long, is a true anticipation of the story told in The Arm of Flesh and Cassada--Salter invokes briefly a pilot named Cortada: "He was from Puerto Rico, small, excitable, and supremely confident. Not everyone shared his opinion of his ability--his flight commander was certain he would kill himself."

And that's it for Cortada. Another cipher, with too much in common with Cassada to be a coincidence. Salter has kept the story of both men to himself, which is why a reader turns more attentively to the lonely and appealing Captain Isbell, standing between the men and Major Dunning. It is no surprise, of course. Failing to attach ourselves to the protagonist for whom the book is named, we look elsewhere, and find our longing met in the author's substitute.

The end of Cassada is beautiful. It is only four pages. Isbell and his family are leaving Germany; they are on a train along the Rhine, his daughters rambunctious, his wife solicitous, Isbell alone with his thoughts, which include Cassada. For the first time he senses himself as the romantic figure readers have seen all along, joining the ranks of the eternals, "the failed brother, the brilliant alcoholic friend, the rejected lover, the solitary boy who scorned the dance." Isbell is Salter; and one turns to Burning the Days, where the author takes his own solitary farewell to the flying life:

When I returned to domestic life I kept something to myself, a deep attachment--deeper than anything I had known--to all that had happened. I had come very close to achieving the self that is based on the risking of everything, going where others would not go, giving what they would not give. Later I felt I had not done enough, had been too reliant, too unskilled. I had not done what I set out to do and might have done. I felt contempt for myself, not at first but as time passed, and I ceased talking about those days, as if I had never known them. But it had been a great voyage, the voyage, probably, of my life.

"I would have given anything, I remember that," Salter adds, remembering the pilot's terror ("none of it mattered"), including separation from his leader. Isbell mouths nearly those words in remembering a Cassada who "stands before him, fair-haired, his small mouth and teeth, young, unbeholden." In Burning the Days Salter recalls a beloved figure from West Point who fell in the war: "He had fallen and in that act been preserved, made untarnishable. He had not married. He had left no one...he represented the flawless and was the first of that category to disappear."

Reading Salter's memoir, or recollection, as he prefers to call it, one senses that much of his life has been a mourning. The list of the dead is long and unfolds over pages and pages--many are pilots, men Salter flew with--and it becomes easy to see what he hopes is evident from his preface to Cassada: "the fact that it was sometimes the best along with the worst pilots who got killed." All of Salter's novels--including The Hunters, A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years--are beautiful elegies in which a survivor tries to go on, somehow make sense of it all, knowing the task is futile but that perhaps peace can be achieved. Why should his memoir be any different? Cassada will take a few hours to read, in which time there is exquisite suspense, some lovely sentences, a tender portrait of a hero--Isbell, I still believe, not Cassada--and a lot of shoptalk about flying. But the flying talk is better, more exactly described and sustained, more rapturous--"exalted," to use a favorite Salter word--in Burning the Days, and the memoir has the advantage of tracking the two held-apart strands of Salter's emotional life--the chaste love of men, the unsatiable desire for women--more closely than is possible for a book about fighter pilots. The following sentence sounds like Isbell recalling Cassada, but in fact it's Salter standing in the wreckage of all who have died: "You are surviving, more than surviving: their days have been inscribed on yours."

Young women, who've never lacked abortion rights, are tough to mobilize.

Imagine Madison Square Garden brimming over with 18,000 laughing and ebullient women of every size, shape, age and color, along with their male friends, ditto. Imagine that in that immense space, usually packed with hooting sports fans, these women are watching Oprah, Queen Latifah, Claire Danes, Swoosie Kurtz, Kathleen Chalfant, Julie Kavner (voice of Marge Simpson), Rosie Perez, Donna Hanover (soon-to-be-ex-wife of New York's bigamous mayor) and sixty-odd other A-list divas put on a gala production of The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler's theater piece about women and their mimis, totos, split knishes, Gladys Siegelmans, pussycats, poonanis and twats. Imagine that this extravaganza is part of a huge $2 million fundraising effort for V-Day, the antiviolence project that grew out of the show and that gives money to groups fighting violence against women around the world. That was what happened on February 10, with more donations and more performances to come as the play is produced by students at some 250 colleges around the country, from Adelphi on Long Island--where it was completely sold out and where, sources assure me, the v-word retains every bit of its shock value--to Yale.

And they keep saying feminism is dead.

The Vagina Monologues, in fact, was singled out in Time's 1998 cover story "Is Feminism Dead?" as proof that the movement had degenerated into self-indulgent sex chat. (This was a new departure for the press, which usually dismisses the movement as humorless, frumpish and puritanical.) In her Village Voice report on the gala, Sharon Lerner, a terrific feminist journalist, is unhappy that the actresses featured at the Garden event prefer the v-word to the f-word. ("Violence against women is a feminist issue?" participant Isabella Rossellini asks her. "I don't think it is." This from the creator of a new perfume called "Manifesto"!) Women's rights aren't what one associates with postfeminist icons like Glenn Close, whose most indelible screen role was as the bunny-boiling man-stalker in Fatal Attraction, or Calista Flockhart, television's dithery microskirted lawyerette Ally McBeal. Still, aren't we glad that Jane Fonda, who performed the childbirth monologue, has given up exercise mania and husband-worship and is donating $1 million to V-Day? Better late than never, I say.

At the risk of sounding rather giddy myself--I'm writing this on Valentine's Day--I'd argue that the implied contradiction between serious business (daycare, abortion, equal pay) and sex is way overdrawn. Sexual self-expression--that's self-indulgent sex chat to all you old Bolsheviks out there--was a crucial theme of the modern women's movement from the start. Naturally so: How can you see yourself as an active subject, the heroine of your own life, if you think you're an inferior being housed in a shameful, smelly body that might give pleasure to others, but not to you? The personal is political, remember that?

The Vagina Monologues may not be great literature--on the page it's a bit thin, and the different voices tend to run together into EveEnslerspeak about seashells and flowers and other lovely bits of nature. But as a performance piece it's fantastic: a cabaret floor show by turns hilarious, brassy, lyrical, poignant, charming, romantic, tragic, vulgar, sentimental, raunchy and exhilarating. In "The Flood," an old woman says she thinks of her "down there" as a cellar full of dead animals, and tells of the story of her one passionate kiss and her dream of Burt Reynolds swimming in her embarrassing "flood" of sexual wetness. A prim, wryly clever woman in "The Vagina Workshop" learns how to give herself orgasms at one of Betty Dodson's famous masturbation classes. At the Garden, Ensler led the cast in a chorus of orgasmic moans, and Close got the braver members of the audience to chant "Cunt! Cunt! Cunt!" at the climax of a poetic monologue meant to redeem and reclaim the dirtiest of all dirty words.

How anyone could find The Vagina Monologues antimale or pornographic is beyond me--it's a veritable ode to warm, quirky, affectionate, friendly, passionate sex. The only enemies are misogyny, sexual shame and sexual violence, and violence is construed fairly literally: A poor black child is raped by her father's drunken friend; a Bosnian girl is sexually tortured by Serbian paramilitaries. None of your ambiguous was-it-rape? scenarios here. Oprah performed a new monologue, "Under the Burqa," about the horrors of life for Afghan women under Taliban rule, followed by Zoya--a young representative of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA)--who gave a heartbreaking, defiant speech. Three African women spoke against female genital mutilation and described ongoing efforts to replace cutting with new coming-of-age rituals, "circumcision by words."

I hadn't particularly wanted to see The Vagina Monologues. I assumed that it would be earnest and didactic--or maybe silly, or exploitative, or crude, a sort of Oh! Calcutta! for women. But I was elated by it. Besides being a wonderful night at the theater, it reminded me that after all the feminist debates (and splits), and all the books and the Theory and the theories, in the real world there are still such people as women, who share a common biology and much else besides. And the power of feminism, whether or not it goes by that name, still resides in its capacity to transform women's consciousness at the deepest possible level: That's why Betty Friedan called her collection of letters from women not It Got Me a Raise (or a daycare center, or an abortion) but It Changed My Life. Sisterhood-is-powerful feminism may feel out of date to the professoriat, but there's a lot of new music still to be played on those old bones.

Besides, if feminists don't talk about sex in a fun, accessible, inspiring, nonpuritanical way, who will?

* * *

Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics and Culture, a collection of columns originally published in this space, is just out from Modern Library as a paperback original. It has a very pretty cover and a never-before-published introductory essay, and contains most of the columns I still agree with, and one or two about which I have my doubts.

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