There’s Nothing Funny About Turning Women Into a Punchline

Earlier this month, yet another story surfaced of a famous man abusing his power. In the Hollywood Reporter, actress Kathryn Rossetter described serial sexual harassment behind the scenes of a 1983 Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman, at the hands of her co-star, Dustin Hoffman. At parties after the performances, she writes, when posing for pictures with Rossetter, Hoffman would grab her breast just before the picture was taken and drop it right away, so the image wouldn’t show up on film: “Everyone around always laughed when he did this.”

At one point during the play, Rossetter had to stand backstage and laugh on cue into a microphone. Her costume was a slip with a garter belt and no bra, and she writes that, for six to eight performances a week, Hoffman would sit behind her and slip a hand under her skirt, groping the inside of her thigh. One night, she noticed there were more crew members backstage than usual. Hoffman reached for her leg, again, and Rossetter began her ritual of batting him away while looking out for her cue. “Suddenly he grabs the bottom of my slip and pulls it up over my head, exposing my breasts and body to the crew and covering my face,” she writes. “I missed one of my laugh cues. Dustin had spread the word to the crew to come backstage at that time for a surprise. What a jokester. Mr. Fun. It was sickening.”

Sickening, and revealing. This year, as men and women have confronted long-suppressed evidence of sexual abuse so pervasive it’s simply the air we breathe, we’ve also begun to reckon with a kind of toxic humor that so often excuses such behavior — the ways in which humor is used as both sword and shield, and women as cannon fodder. As Rebecca Traister recently wrote in New York magazine, this moment is not just about sex, but about work. In the context of the comedy industry, it’s about how women have been and continue to be shut out of professional opportunities and the chance to shape cultural narratives because of the adolescent prurience of the men who run the show.

Women in comedy have long reckoned with an industry that by and large considers them props first, performers second, and writers a distant third — passive recipients of humor, rather than active creators of it. Ten years ago, Christopher Hitchens wrote an infamous Vanity Fair article titled “Why Women Aren’t Funny” that conflates humor with sexual appeal. His underlying assumption — that men are funnier than women — is offered as an empirical claim, from which it follows that men have developed this superior sense of humor in order to appeal to women. “The chief task in life that a man has to perform is that of impressing the opposite sex,” Hitchens writes. “If you can stimulate her to laughter…well, then, you have at least caused her to loosen up and to change her expression.”

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The argument is absurd for reasons beyond the gross generalization of half of our species (those who aren’t interested in women, apparently, have no need to be funny; we all know how stodgy and humorless the gays are). Tying the impetus to be funny to the impetus to get laid isn’t just a lazy generalization; it also pushes women out of a market they helped create in the first place, and implies female spectators of comedy are participating not in culture but in a mating ritual in which they may or may not want any part.

Reading Hitchens’s piece is particularly infuriating, and instructive, at a moment when one of our most celebrated comic minds, Louis C.K., has been exposed as a sexual harasser, and when the entertainment world is beginning to reckon with its pervasive sexism. As Yael Kohen documents in her 2012 oral history, We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy, women have not just performed alongside men for decades, but have been instrumental in shaping the comedy industry as we know it. As performers, writers, and bookers, women played key roles in the stand-up boom of the 1950s and ’60s, which was largely concentrated in New York City but also owed a debt to Chicago’s improvisational theater scene; Amy Sherman-Palladino’s new Amazon series, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, is a fictionalized account of this time, centering on a housewife-turned-aspiring-stand-up who works out her confessional material in Greenwich Village clubs.

As the #MeToo movement has shown, 42 years after feminist scholar Lin Farley coined the term sexual harassment, women still struggle, constantly, to earn professional respect in a society that sees us primarily as a collection of body parts. It strikes me as especially difficult for the comedy industry to reckon with its gendered power dynamics because this is a business that attracts the kinds of men (and women) who never considered themselves as particularly powerful to begin with. Like the Silicon Valley billionaire who looks in the mirror and sees a pimply-faced underdog nerd, even the most successful comedian may not think of himself as a titan of industry — especially if, like C.K., he’s built his career around a comic persona that squeezes laughs out of his self-perceived weaknesses, like his shameful eating habits. But, like those tech industry overlords, when these guys “make it” in comedy, they only become a new iteration of the oppressive jocks they grew up resenting.

From Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer to Judd Apatow’s early-Aughts man-boys, the pathetic, put-upon dude is a stock character of modern comedy. The funniest, and weirdest, iteration of this type in recent years is Nathan Fielder, who plays a version of himself on the Comedy Central reality-parody show Nathan for You. The show premiered in 2013 as a business-makeover spoof in which Fielder, who really does have a business degree, proposes wildly idiosyncratic improvement ideas to the owners of independent shops. As the series went on, however, it became less about the business owners and more about Nathan himself, or at least the persona presented on the show — a friendless loner so socially inept he makes Napoleon Dynamite look smooth.

Critics and fans fawned over Nathan for You’s season four finale, a two-hour special called “Finding Frances” that aired in November and that centers on Fielder helping a weird old man named Bill track down a former girlfriend that he wishes he’d married. But, as a I wrote back then, the episode left me feeling queasy, and called to mind other moments throughout the show’s four-year run that wring laughs out of the spectacle of a woman in an uncomfortable, even potentially dangerous, situation.

My reaction to the episode wasn’t the first time this year I’ve found myself the lonely skeptic in a crowd of chortling men; in March, I sat in a small theater with a room of men watching a press screening of Dave Chappelle’s first new stand-up specials, for Netflix, in over a decade. I was the only one who didn’t laugh through Chappelle’s bit comparing Bill Cosby to a hypothetical superhero who “rapes, but he saves,” a routine that requires the viewer to weigh Cosby’s accomplishments and advocacy for the African American community against the nearly sixty women who’ve accused him of drugging and raping them. I suspect it’s a calculation that’s a lot easier for a man to compute, even in the context of a joke.

I’m also continuously struck by how much easier it seems to be for men to dismiss claims of impropriety or discomfort when defending jokes that come at the expense of a woman’s dignity. On the New Yorker’s website, filmmaker Errol Morris wrote a fawning appraisal of “Finding Frances,” which he calls “my new favorite love story.” True to form, Morris’s piece is mostly a series of apparently unanswerable questions, a celebration of the unknowable: “Can one fall in love with nothing? With the desire to be in love?”; “Who am I really? To what extent are we all play-acting through our lives?” The very real women at the center of the episode — Frances and Maci, an escort Fielder hires and “falls in love with,” although, as ever, it’s unclear where the real Fielder begins and his character ends — are barely considered.

Morris’s effusive abstraction reminded me of the Netflix documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, released in the fall. The doc features archival footage from the set of the 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon, for which star Jim Carrey immersed himself so fully in the role of the cult comic he was apparently forever changed. Carrey, in the present day, reflects on Kaufman’s old routine of wrestling women, and publicly taunting and disparaging them, at the height of the women’s movement in the late 1970s — all part of an act that was intentionally difficult to separate from the “real” Andy Kaufman. “It was like when Jesus said, ‘Eat my body and drink my blood,’” Carrey remarks. “It’s a way to weed out the crowd. Those people who don’t see anything past the literal — they don’t bother to look for the absurd truth behind it — he’s not interested in them.”

Carrey assumes that those who look for the “absurd truth” behind a man who gets onstage and claims that women are only slightly above dogs in the hierarchy of living things are allies — art freaks and comedy nerds who are undoubtedly progressive in their politics and surely don’t really believe that women are inferior to men. But in the past year, we’ve seen a presidential candidate wage a successful campaign in part by casting his patently misogynist comments about women as a joke, all in good fun — while winking to his chortling MAGA minions who view their leader’s sexism as proof of his manhood. We’ve also seen the mainstreaming of the alt-right, a political movement that can, at least in part, trace its roots back to a nebulous group of trolls who viciously target women and minorities in the name of preserving the so-called purity of geek culture. This year, we learned a lot of those guys weren’t joking at all.  

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“Finding Frances” reaches its climax when Fielder drives Bill to Frances’s house and, having dissuaded him from approaching her door trailed by cameras, watches as he phones her and confesses his regrets — knowing all the while she’s married with children and grandchildren. That didn’t feel abstract to me. My pulse quickened, my body tensed, and I couldn’t wait for the scene to end, for these men to drive away and leave this old lady alone. Morris’s and Carrey’s stance, the equivalent of a shruggie emoji, sidesteps the very real feelings of the very real people who participated in Fielder’s show and Kaufman’s antics — including the women who are often visibly uncomfortable with the scenarios they’re put in. I guess it’s all worth it if it makes Errol Morris scratch his head and think deep thoughts.

The truth is, comedy as we have always known it relies, to some extent, on the exploitation of women. Humiliating women is a safety net for male comedians; I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen a male stand-up who’s ever so slightly flailing pick on a woman or two in the audience, often with sexual overtones, because he knows it’s a surefire way to get a laugh. There’s scarcely a more predictable argument in this industry than the knee-jerk defense of a comic’s right to call a bitch a bitch.

We allow male comics a kind of breathing space between art and output, while constantly demanding that women answer for their work. Remember the instant, unrelenting outrage over Tina Fey’s “sheetcaking” bit? Or the frequent condemnations of Amy Schumer’s tone-deafness around race? Or the never-ending barrage of criticism any time Lena Dunham opens her mouth? And how many female comics, over how many years, were asked about the rumors surrounding Louis C.K. before the truth finally came out — as if their silence, and not C.K.’s, was the problem?

I don’t know what kind of impact the #MeToo movement will have in the years going forward, but one thing it’s certainly done already is shine a blinding, fluorescent light on the baseline situation for women going through their daily lives. As correspondent Michelle Wolf put it on an October episode of The Daily Show, “It’s like a Tough Mudder, but instead of mud, it’s dicks!” My hope is that this moment will also make us stop and think about the baseline of what we consider funny, and why. Loud farts? Sure. A woman being groped in public with no recourse? Not even as a joke.

There’s a moment from a recent episode of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, with The Office star Jenna Fischer, that I can’t stop thinking about. Fischer is talking about her post-Office career, when she fielded offers for much racier roles than Dunder Mifflin receptionist Pam Beesly. “They thought I wanted to blow up the image of Pam,” Fischer says, so she’d get scripts where “she gets bent over a car and fucked in the ass, and her tits are flying but no one will expect it! And I’m like, what the fuck script is this? Why are you raping Pam on a car?” We’re talking about an Emmy-nominated comic actor fresh off a nine-season run of a wildly successful sitcom. And yet the producers who sent Fischer those scripts saw in her the potential not to make people laugh, but to re-enact a fantasy straight out of a porno — the good girl gone bad.

I hope #MeToo can take on another meaning besides the claim, “I, too, have been a victim of assault.” I’ve come to think of the term in a broader sense, as the collective cry of generations of stepped-on women to the men who call the shots: We, too, are people. We are not your mothers or your wives. We are human beings with a full range of emotions, experiences, and ways to appreciate and express humor — whether it’s Tiffany Haddish building her exuberant debut stand-up special around her foster care upbringing, or Tracey Ullman doing a goofy song-and-dance number as Angela Merkel, or the wonderfully weird Cocoon Central Dance Team’s “dance comedy space odyssey” Snowy Bing Bongs Across the North Star Combat Zone. We are so much more than a place to put your dicks.

In 2009, two years after Christopher Hitchens’s joke of an essay was published, Vanity Fair ran a piece about the dearth of women writers in late-night TV by Nell Scovell, one of the few women who was on the writing staff of Late Night With David Letterman. Scovell wrote that part of her motivation for the article was to “pivot the discussion away from the bedroom and toward the writers’ room.” It apparently took a sex scandal to prompt the magazine to publish such a piece in the first place; it was written in the wake of Letterman’s on-camera confession that he had slept with women who worked on his show. And it looks like it’s going to take a torrent of lurid stories about potted plants and shuttered window blinds and hotel bathrobes to really complete that pivot. The irony’s not lost on me. Maybe one day in the not-so-distant future, we’ll look back on all this and laugh.


Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia is an Idealized Yet Galvanizing Portrait

In his last years, Gore Vidal flawlessly played the role of elder statesman-as-curmudgeon; director Nicholas Wrathall’s documentary captures him in fighting form — witty, incisive, and coolly dismissive of his foes and lessers. His elegantly low-key dis of the late Christopher Hitchens at a book signing is masterful bitchiness. Immensely enjoyable from its wistful opening (Vidal leaning on a cane, standing over the burial plot he planned to share with longtime partner Howard Austen, who died in 2003), the film’s strength is the way it uses Vidal’s life (illustrated in vintage photos, newsreels, home movies, and title cards stamped with his epigrammatic sayings) to catalog 20th-century America’s sweeping political, cultural, and social changes. Interviewed in the sprawling, nearly packed up Italian home he shared with Austen, the elderly Vidal pays tribute to some family (his grandfather), eviscerates others (his mother; JFK), and disembowels prepackaged patriotism and contemporary conventional wisdom on queer identity. Wrathall lays out news clips of iconic interview moments across the decades: “The whole point to a ruling class,” he says with mild exasperation to one TV host, “is that they don’t conspire, they all think alike unless you get out, which is what I did. I defected.” And his withering dismissal of a conservative talking head in the ’60s might come as close as possible to a sound-bite summation of Vidal’s political and philosophical stance. After the man yammers that homosexuality is an assault on core American values, Vidal — a blueblood class traitor — retorts, “Why not begin by saying that our basic values are wrong?” It’s an admittedly hagiographic film, an unabashed celebration of the man and his work and worldview. The few mild naysayers are largely set up to be knocked down, but as such the film is invigorating.


Robert Hughes, Giant

Few things count so much for a critic as style—it binds readers together with writers like epoxy. Consider, for example, the tenacious Robert Hughes, the legendary writer who died a few weeks ago. Not just “the world’s most famous art critic,” Hughes was far and away the trade’s best prose stylist. Now that the eulogies and the disparagements have rolled past (and appear those slights did, like nasty little razor blades slid in between encomiums), it’s time to celebrate Hughes not only as the most important art critic of his time, but also perhaps the best critic of our age in any form.

Martin Amis was right: “Style is not neutral; it gives moral directions.” A judgment Amis would have likely preferred to reserve for himself (self-love) or his Oxford pal Christopher Hitchens (still more self-love), the sentence fits no one in contemporary writing so well as Hughes, a lion of letters who combined encyclopedic knowledge with a rhetorical momentum few other professional scribblers could muster. I recall Hughes’s ringing, clear-eyed reviews from the chaotic 1980s with a young man’s awe. To read them currently is to still shift between passages of grace (Caravaggio’s pictures of rough trade are overripe “with yearning mouths and hair like black ice cream”), hilarity (Jeff Koons is “the baby to Andy Warhol’s Rosemary”), and what British footballers call the hair-dryer treatment (“What strip mining is to nature the art market has become to culture”). His was and will remain an epic voice, shot through with Virgilian blow by blow.

A large part of Hughes’s irresistible lucidity rested on his rational and expansive worldview. His vast knowledge knew few bounds, veering at different times into Western art, the art of ancient civilizations, architecture, literature, science, and cultural history. Yet, the Australian-born critic was fundamentally an Enlightenment man, one of the first liberal intellectuals (along with Noam Chomsky and Fredric Jameson) to clearly see that the claims of 1980s postmodernism—with its irreconcilable relativisms and victimhoods—were irredeemably fraudulent. Hughes pegged Baudrillard brilliantly as “the patron saint of those who wish to turn affectlessness into a commodity,” and the faux-French patois that came to dominate graduate programs as “a thick prophylactic against understanding.” His own language, on the other hand, was just the opposite—direct, open to comprehension, and brimming with common usage. For many cub critics coming up during the 1980s and ’90s, the choice was clear: There was Robert Hughes and art criticism and then there was some slouching beast in Elvis Costello specs called “criticality.”

Hughes tilted with pen in hand against the growing philistinism of the Right and the freewheeling charlatanism of the Left during a deeply conservative time (Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton). His assaults, therefore, were carried out on two fronts simultaneously—excepting, that is, when the whole of the cultural world converged on the funhouse maze that is the art market. Hughes’s sharp nose for cant—it was like a sensitive bloodhound’s—immediately sniffed out the popular delusions of the day, including the ones that art historian Leo Steinberg had previously tagged as mendacious “feats of language.” These conceptual-commercial games fundamentally legitimated the emerging alliances between art and high finance. In the auction houses, artistic experimentation became “speculative growth stock,” and quality was transformed into “market attractiveness.” Not surprisingly, Hughes called bullshit. In the lingo of one esteemed cultural theorist: “Ludicrously high art prices . . . became subversive by showing the unreality of capitalism in ‘an ecstatic state of exchange.'” For Hughes, the judgment was at once less circular and more lapidary: “The entanglement of big money with art has become a curse on how art is made, controlled, and above all—in the way that it’s experienced.”

The let-them-eat-cake masquerade that eventually became today’s auction market—booming in the middle of a worldwide recession—is something Hughes decried early and often, earning him as many fans as it did detractors. “The auction room, as anyone knows,” he wrote by way of explaining that club’s inner mysteries, “is an excellent medium for sustaining fictional price levels, because the public imagines that auction prices are necessarily real prices.” The 15th century’s tulip mania became a repeated touchstone. Whether in books, articles, lectures, or through his powerful trio of television series—The Shock of the New (1980), American Visions (1997), and The Mona Lisa Curse (2008)—Hughes increasingly called popular attention to a single overriding cultural phenomenon: The relationship between art and commerce, he argued, was ruining art. Of course, he was right as reason. As a contribution to the critical discourse, his judgment proved a triumph—but also, in a way, his undoing.

“Apart from drugs, art is the biggest unregulated market in the world,” Hughes intoned while leaning on crutches in The Mona Lisa Curse—”with contemporary art sales estimated at around $18 billion a year, boosted by regimens of new-rich collectors and serviced by a growing army of advisors, dealers, and auctioneers.” Quoting with despair both Warhol (“good business is the best art”) and Sotheby’s Tobias Meyer (“the best art is the most expensive art because the market is so smart”), an aging, broken-down Hughes looked out from his BBC documentary on a landscape that he knew intimately, but no longer recognized. There was everything heroic about Hughes’s appeal that art says something more profound about our lives, but you could literally see his patience wear thin at the popular insistence on sticker price. As Hughes wrote four years ago, “Not everything of value is self-evident and there is no reason in the world why art should be.” In the end, it was cruelly, heartrendingly tragic to be out of step about such a thing.

Hughes at his best was an Orwell-like figure, a writer inflamed by brilliance and opinion to communicate his enthusiasms and aversions as he saw them (he championed, among others, Gerhard Richter and Bruce Nauman, while dubbing Damien Hirst “a pirate” who manufactured “vicarious spectacle for money groupies”). But he could also turn churlish and, more damagingly, inattentive. Arguably, Hughes checked out critically following his near-fatal car crash in Australia in 1999, and after he stopped contributing regularly to Time around 2002. Fame and age blunted his judgment, which eventually decanted toward classic painting, sculpture, and motorcycles, and away from the art of today. Yet, as Pauline Kael said, people read critics for their insights, not for their judgments. To this I would add style’s moral moxie. No better sentence-builder has ever graced this bastard discipline, and I doubt anyone as good will again.

Datebook Events Listings VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To


They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but in the case of the PEN American Center, which is turning 90, that’s simply not true. At this year’s PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, the organization dedicated to protecting free expression is exploring new and creative ways to engage audiences with the written word. Expect unique collaborations between selected writers and performing artists including the Kronos Quartet, Elevator Repair Service, and Processional Arts Workshop (which will host puppetry workshops on the High Line). Of course, there will still be plenty of great literary discussions and readings all week. Highlights include tonight’s tribute to the late Christopher Hitchens and Friday’s lecture by Pulitzer winner Jennifer Egan (A Visit From the Goon Squad) on “how to create your own rules.”

Mondays-Sundays, 10 a.m. Starts: April 30. Continues through May 6, 2012


Truth Matters: On Christopher Hitchens, Movie Critic

In a testy exchange with The King’s Speech screenwriter David Seidler earlier this year on Slate, Christopher Hitchens wrote, “All other considerations to one side, would the true story not have been fractionally more interesting?” Hitchens was referring to the false impression given by the wildly popular, Oscar-winning film that Churchill’s sympathies in the mid 1930s were more with King George than his führer-fancying brother, Edward VIII. When Seidler conceded that a more accurate Churchill scene had been written but that it “sagged,” Hitchens’s reply was unsympathetic: “Why not craft a scene . . . that does not sag?”

This was not the first time the prolific writer took on a film for its historical inaccuracies. When Hitchens died last week, he left behind not only a persona to dissect but also a massive and diverse body of work, including a substantial, if comparatively minor, volume of film writing. The master prose stylist frequently had occasion to apply his polymathic mind and inflexibly journalistic sensibility to the latest Hollywood sausages. Complementing his combative turnout on politics, religion, and literature, Hitchens consistently attacked critical and box-office winners for deviating from the historical record.

This stance set him apart from the view long ago espoused by esteemed film critics such as Vincent Canby and Roger Ebert and today regarded as commonsense: that fiction features are not reliable vehicles for fact. It would be fair to call Hitchens the film-critic contrarian—hardly a surprising posture. For him, a film that failed to meet a punishing standard of accuracy was insulting its audience, even if it also entertained.

Striking this pose in a 2003 piece on the naval epic Master and Commander, Hitchens scoffed not only at the simplified friendship between Captain Aubrey and his surgical Watson, Dr. Maturin, but also, as with The King’s Speech, at the assumption that accuracy is a secondary concern for films set in the distant past. He bemoaned an anachronistic lack of gore in an already gore-sloshed film and derided the shipboard mateyness, which he saw as a poor substitute for the carnal eruptions well attested to in naval lore. “Not so much as a sight gag about the vulnerable presence of preteen midshipmen among the scrotum-like swinging hammocks,” he lamented.

And that was just for a dumb Russell Crowe movie. The more recent and raw the history, the more uncompromising was his demand for unvarnished truth. During a 1993 panel discussion on Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, Hitchens expressed frustration with the film’s airbrushing of the “hard, sharp question” of Louis Farrakhan and voiced agitation with Lee’s decision to dramatize Malcolm’s famously blunt refusal of organizational assistance from a young white woman but not his later expressions of regret for the act. Lee’s refusal to close that “quotation” was for Hitchens one of several instances in which directorial license clouded the truth.

At the same panel, Hitchens made a cinematic prediction that he ultimately lived just long enough to witness: “I think we’ll see J. Edgar Hoover in a nice little black number, strutting up and down,” he told the crowd. “It will happen. And the reason I’m saying this is I do think [things like that] are not only possible, but probably necessary.” That belief in the necessity of reality over hagiography meant studio portrayals of American leaders rarely, if ever, met his standards. (He accused Oliver Stone of “romancing Camelot” in JFK and called Nixon unwatchable.)

Hitchens’s film criticism was sometimes inseparable from his superseding political arguments, as with his unpeeling of the anti-war documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 and dismissal of its director, Michael Moore, as a less talented Leni Riefenstahl. But the filmmaker for whom Hitchens reserved his most special ire was Mel Gibson, and not simply because “Braveheart and The Patriot are two of the most laughable historical films ever made.” In Gibson’s case, offenses against history were compounded by charges of rank indecency. His documented venom toward Jews was, according to Hitchens, never more undisguised than in The Passion of the Christ, and his serial intolerance was evidence of the extent to which those who stew in their own religious zeal are bound to be—to use one of the author’s favorite phrases—contents under pressure.

So what did pass the Hitchens test? In a 2009 Vanity Fair piece, he praised The Baader Meinhof Complex, a terrorism drama and feast for history buffs that packs its leisurely runtime with a bewildering array of names, places, and happenings drawn from real life. He also wrote gushingly about The Battle of Algiers, applauding the vérité style that allowed Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterpiece to unspool “like revolutionary reality projected straight onto the screen.” So, basically, Hitchens applauded films that portrayed history without the gloss of a distracting auteurist or commercial agenda. Meaning, he didn’t like much.


Christopher Hitchens’s Contradictory Legacy

It seems entirely possible that Christopher Hitchens will be primarily remembered in America for his public atheism. I suspect Hitchens himself was surprised at how wildly popular God Is Not Great became, giving much-needed voice and ammunition to thousands of godless heathens in the land of the drive-through church.

Yet it’s an inadequate way to remember the man, and not because Hitchens did little more in that book than to lay some tracing paper on the Enlightenment’s best thinkers and draw giddily (though with acidic and often very funny ink), or because—this is not an exaggeration—the American public regards atheists on about the same level as rapists.

The problem is that splitting the atheism away from the body of Hitchens’s work debases it into a kind of rascally parlor trick—”Uncle Christopher, say the mean thing about Mother Teresa again!“—and distracts from the thorny paradox at the heart of Hitchens’s thinking. Which is: While certainly an enemy of superstition and an eager chronicler of the sins and idiocies of the world’s religions, Hitchens was actually a lifelong believer, if strictly in man-made gods. It is impossible to contemplate his prodigious and passionate writing without recognizing that it was always animated by crusades, holy men, and devils.

Indeed, the Hitchens universe was long populated by notions of absolute good and evil, stretching back to his days as a student Trotskyite. This tendency was tempered by a love of literature and the cocoon of irony that writers wrap around themselves. But Hitchens himself spoke of the struggle between the literal and ironic minds, and it is an aptly Hitchensian contradiction that the episode, I think, that created his own brand of fundamentalist was in defense of the ironic mind—in 1989, when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa on Salman Rushdie for the supposed blasphemy of The Satanic Verses.

The importance of the Rushdie saga on Hitchens’s thinking cannot be overstated. “I felt at once that here was something that completely committed me,” he wrote in his splendid memoir, Hitch-22. “It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved.” This is of course a functional definition of evil and good. And there were obviously implications for the future, once Hitchens learned that among the Western left, it is entirely possible for well-meaning people, in the name of multicultural “understanding” or “tolerance” of non-Western societies, to overlook and even excuse atrocities and barbarism that would never be acceptable if perpetrated, say, by the Republican Party and its allies.

Few today would find fault with Hitchens’s stance or actions on behalf of Rushdie. But he began to apply the moral purity he derived from it to situations where the good-versus-evil ledger was not so neatly visible. From the mid- to late-’90s on, when the books on Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton, and Henry Kissinger were published, the absolutism had pretty much taken over his work.

The fervent animosity of Crusader Hitchens could produce searing and hilarious prose. Of Bill Clinton he wrote: “His prolixity remains stubborn and incurable, yet it remains a fact that in all his decades of logorrhea Clinton has failed to make a single remark (absent some lame catch phrases like ‘New Covenant’ and of course the imperishable ‘It all depends on what the meaning of “is” is’) that could possibly adhere to the cortex of a thinking human being.”

But the crusading mind-set also created a moral measuring tape that could trip or even strangle Hitchens’s later views. The most obvious example is that the war in Iraq produced crimes and tragedies at least as venal as those that make up Hitchens’s persuasive indictment of Henry Kissinger. And yet on such subjects—Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Haditha, etc.—Hitchens was either silent or tortuously defensive. Double standards are hardly unique to him, but perhaps they sting more because the strength of his rhetoric provided such succor to those who wanted to believe he was right.

Including himself. Writing about Iraq in Vanity Fair in 2003, Hitchens predicted that “it will emerge that Saddam always intended to reconstitute his WMD program.” That this prediction did not come true does not mean that Hitchens was wrong, exactly. But then in the memoir published last year, he wrote: “If I was ever naïve about anything having to do with Iraqi WMD, it was in believing that the production of evidence like that, or indeed any other kind of evidence, would make even the most limited impression on the heavily armored certainties of the faithful.” By “the faithful,” he meant supporters of radical Islam. But when Hitchens was in holy-warrior mode, belief in the absence of evidence was a trait he shared with his sworn foes.


Phil Ochs, Folkie, Back Home in the Village

Protest singer-songwriter Phil Ochs, with just a guitar and a vibrato tenor, found the sources for his lyrics in daily and weekly periodicals, titling his 1964 debut album All the News That’s Fit to Sing. Rich in archival material, Kenneth Bowser’s documentary traces his subject from handsome, skittishly affable troubadour in a turtleneck to a mentally ill ranter puffy from too much drink and irrevocably broken after the Chicago ’68 riots (Ochs hanged himself in 1976, at age 35). Fans Christopher Hitchens and Sean Penn praise the sting of Ochs’s songs like “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” (particularly when compared with the anodyne offerings of folkies like Peter, Paul, and Mary), but the more illuminating anecdotes come from those who knew and worked with the performer closely. Gaslight Café manager Sam Hood dismisses Bob Dylan, with whom Ochs had a friendly rivalry if pathological attachment, as a “prick”; journalist Lucian Truscott IV recalls of the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and RFK, “I think Phil was a big enough egomaniac to take it all personally.” Though hewing to a too-conventional structure, Bowser’s film is densely researched enough to yield insights not just into its overlooked subject, but also into his overly analyzed era.


Meet My Booger: Lawrence Shainberg’s Crust

Walter Linchak, the somewhat irritating narrator of Lawrence Shainberg’s Crust, is a writer, a public intellectual, and the decorated author of The Complete Book of AIDS, The Complete Book of 9/11, and The Complete Book of Terrorism—”The Completes,” for short. Half DeLillo’s Jack Gladney, professor of Hitler studies at College-on-the-Hill, and half Christopher Hitchens, Linchak is a model pundit for a post-9/11 age: death-obsessed, long-winded, addicted to Googling himself, and, on the sly, an inveterate nose-picker.

He’s also creatively stanched, with the exception of a blog he keeps: “an account of writer’s block which, for candor and anguish, surpasses any we have on record.” On the morning that Crust begins, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author awakes with a “crust,” one that’s “large and dense and high” in his right nostril. Its eventual extraction, in full view of his naked and sleepy wife, Sara, will prove to be the revelation that unblocks Linchak and sets Shainberg’s novel into motion.

Crust, which takes place in the near future, posits a world in which scholars across the globe study “Nasalism,” as if it might one day cure cancer. “Each of our nasal secretions,” writes Linchak’s eventual mentor, Robert Fawck, of the esteemed MIT Rhinology Department, “is an opportunity to confront the essential ambiguities of self and identity.” In Sara’s case, the confrontation with her husband’s nasal secretion sends her vomiting to the bathroom. Afterward, pondering the encounter on her way into work, she has a sudden orgasm. Soon, both Linchak and his wife are snorting, and then shooting, a crust-generating drug called Rhinobate—first discovered by a Central American tribe, the Coribundi, for use in a nose-picking ritual known only as the “Extracto Sancto.”

Unsurprisingly, for a book so relentlessly steeped in late-20th-century paranoid lit (Crust is studded with footnotes, diagrams, illustrations, exegeses on neurological theory and informational glut), there is, inevitably, a conspiracy afoot. The mega-conglomerate Murgate, Linchak’s publisher, devises a plan to use its various properties—which include MTV, Microsoft, and the New York Knicks—to “legitimize the product,” in an attempt to market nose-picking to the masses. Nicole Kidman is brought on as the face of the campaign; George W. Bush, a crony of Linchak’s since the days when the two shared a room and “at least one girlfriend” at Yale, gives an impassioned testimonial to Larry King. “This thing in your nose . . . it’s attacking you!” the ex-president tells a live television audience. “What’s more natural than fighting back?”

But the target here is elusive: Murgate’s scheme is revealed, then abandoned and banished from the novel, never to be heard from again; Shainberg’s ambitiously large frame shrinks as Linchak researches the minutiae of picking for his newest project, to be titled The Complete Book of Nasalism. Sara becomes obsessed with the practice, engaging in constant, ritualistic probing. A confrontation is surely coming between the two of them, some crucial, devastating indictment of Linchak’s patently empty intellectualism and Sara’s helplessly avid addiction. But when their showdown arrives, at the book’s end, it’s pointedly anticlimactic.

Crust is about mindless compulsion, or the digital stretch for oblivion, or a comment on the jaded habits of a citizenry that’s had its private domain annexed by omnipotent admen. Judging from the whimpering way his book subsides, even Shainberg doesn’t seem to really know. Pick one.


Hitchens on Spitzer’s Lust

Eliot Spitzer missed one question on his SAT. He missed none on his law-school admissions test. He went to Princeton, Harvard Law. This was a guy who could not only understand securities fraud but could prosecute it, too, often under arcane laws that nobody had looked up since Prohibition. In other words, he was a bright dude.

So what in the wide world was Eliot Spitzer thinking?

“Oh, that’s easy,” Christopher Hitchens said from his Washington apartment last week, as word of Spitzer’s morning resignation buzz-sawed through the Beltway.

Hitchens—a former contributor to the Voice—has written the obituaries of more than a few political careers, and he has a theory about the ones with poor coital judgment: They just don’t see illicit sex as an obvious threat to their political survival. In fact, they see it as a primary reason to seek higher office in the first place.

“You wouldn’t be doing any of this if one of the objectives was not to increase the amount of pussy that was available to you. That is what you do,” Hitch says. “You don’t do it to be, ah, the most approval-rated governor of New York, for fuck’s sake.”

During the 1992 presidential primary season, Hitchens pointed out, the day that Bill Clinton won the endorsement of the Democratic Leadership Council—”which, in fact, meant it was overwhelmingly probable he would be the nominee”—was the very day he hit on Paula Jones.

“He said, ‘Wait—I could be the next president of the United States. Now, where’s the next cutie? Because I need that now, much more than I did 10 minutes ago,’ ” Hitchens speculated.

And likewise with JFK: “With Kennedy, it’s really all over the guy for everyone to see,” Hitchens said. “From dawn till dusk, from soup to nuts, from everything he does to the last day he dies: ‘I do this to get laid.’ “

Hitchens is at work on a new memoir, but he couldn’t get away from politics on Wednesday, working on a bottle of Pinot Noir as he talked.

Returning to Spitzer, he added that the man’s moral grandstanding and bullish style of governance should have been a dead giveaway to his boudoir habits: “What’s the point of all this if I don’t get an orgasm now? What’s the point of being an alpha male?

“Anyone who doesn’t get this,” he concluded, “doesn’t know diddly-squat.”


Women and Badness

“A recent WBAI program that was one hour devoted to hating me—it’s very sad—called me the Christopher Hitchens of the feminist movement, and I said yay! I said yes!” Talking with the Voice in her Upper East Side apartment, Phyllis Chesler emits a hoot. Like Hitchens, who morphed from a Nation columnist into an Iraq hawk, Chesler arouses the vitriol reserved for traitors. A founding mother of second-wave feminism, she now contributes to the right-wing Web magazine FrontPage, gets glowing notices in the National Review, and, perhaps most unforgivably, voted for Bush in 2004. Her new book, The Death of Feminism, assails American feminists as “cowardly herd animals” who are ignoring the epidemic oppression of Muslim women. Chesler, a professor emerita of psychology and women’s studies at CUNY, points her finger in particular at “the one-sided feminist academy.”

For Chesler, raising hackles is nothing new. She has, of course, long made trouble for what used to be known as “the patriarchy.” As a young professor at CUNY’s College of Staten Island, she helped to spearhead a class action suit (ultimately successful) that charged the university with discrimination against women. But she hasn’t limited her confrontations to ideological enemies; some feminists chafed when, in Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman (2003), she challenged the feel-good myths of sisterhood. Along with this contrarian streak, what most complicates Chesler’s political allegiances is her pro-Israel stance. Raised Orthodox in Borough Park and currently a “multi-denominational” observant Jew, she’s a lifelong Zionist. She dates her break with the left to the Palestinian Intifada of 2000, and her 2003 polemic The New Anti-Semitism made the rift clear.

Still, she insists, “I’m not recanting any feminism.” Rather, she argues that
mainstream American feminists, especially those with faculty positions, have subordinated feminism’s ideals to political correctness. “You have feminist awareness of the plight of women under Islam, but then you have a feminist multiculturalism which says, Oh, we can’t judge. We’re sinners, we’re racists, we’re colonialists; who are we to say? I’m saying, Wait—as feminists, we have the right to say.”

Firsthand experience led to Chesler’s diagnosis of the sickness plaguing Islamic societies. In 1961, just married to a Western-educated Afghan, Chesler spent several months in Kabul, an odyssey she revisits in The Death of Feminism. In his native country, her college sweetheart metamorphosed, she recalls, into an abusive husband. She also describes her hatred of wearing a veil and the cruelty she witnessed between wives of the same man. Liberals today, Chesler believes, are loath to acknowledge the perniciousness of Islamic culture—unless they can blame it on U.S. policies. Obsessed with the sins of Bush, America, and Israel, she says, they refuse to engage in dialogue with people who dissent from any items on their political checklist. Nowhere are these tendencies more pronounced, in Chesler’s opinion, than on university campuses.

Although we’re more used to hearing it from dead white male loyalists than from pioneers of women’s studies, much of Chesler’s academy bashing is familiar. Muddleheaded cultural relativism has replaced a sense of right and wrong; catering to students raised on MTV has led to entertainment in lieu of education. But then, some of her other complaints are unlikely to be shared by canon nostalgists. Zeroing in on women’s studies departments, she laments that this originally politicized field has lost its activist orientation. “You’ll have dissertations that now deconstruct the veil, or deconstruct polygamy, as if the drama is all on the page,” she says. “They’re not jumping out of airplanes to rescue women.” A large chunk of her new book catalogs the crimes routinely committed against Muslim women: female genital mutilation, violent abuse of daughters and wives, “honor killings” as punishment for sins such as wearing eyeliner or getting raped.

While her book’s title elegizes feminism, its first chapter begins, “Is feminism really dead? Well, yes and no.” Such juxtapositions are characteristic: Chesler goes for sensational gestures, but in serious discussion her tone is unexpectedly reasonable, nothing like the sneering of Christopher Hitchens. In person, she speaks and listens thoughtfully. In her writing, she is given to caveats like “I may be overstating this, but . . . ”

Still, the measured argumentation indeed strays into overstating and antagonizing; she is fond, for instance, of the adjective Stalinist . Reviews of her recent work often note that although she raises important questions, her style will turn off those she wants to persuade. Whether due to her provocations or to the closed-mindedness she decries—or an unfortunate synergy—feminists don’t seem to be listening. Ros Baxandall, a professor at SUNY–Old Westbury who is mentioned in Chesler’s book, responded to my request for an interview with a warning. “Beware,” she wrote in an e-mail, “Phyllis loves being attacked . . . She [is] a professional victim.” Baxandall could not read Chesler’s book, she told me; she had given it away.

Conversations with other feminist professors bore out, for better or worse, some of Chesler’s characterizations. Patricia Clough, director of the Center for the Study of Women and Society at CUNY, asked rhetorically, “On what grounds do we know what is wrong?” She declined to call female genital mutilation wrong. When asked about the war in Iraq, however, she was willing to unequivocally declare it wrong.

Women’s studies professors with Muslim and Middle Eastern backgrounds tend to challenge the obsession with “brown women” as victims. “There’s a lot of injustice all over the world,” Harvard scholar Leila Ahmed told me. “This sounds awfully like battles we had in the 1970s, when white feminists thought we had to save black women.” Lila Abu-Lughod, a professor at Columbia, has analyzed the cultural significance of the veil, disputing that it has to mean a lack of agency.

That women are some of the most adamant supporters of these customs—genital mutilation and honor killings as well as the veil—certainly complicates matters. But Chesler believes that feminists are universalists and therefore interventionists; at the least, women should be free from systematic violence and compulsory veiling. Her ambitions are grand, if murky in the particulars. She hopes to enlist “feminists who are far more skilled than I in crafting foreign policy initiatives. I would like
feminist intellectuals to be thinking as if we could control the world.”