The Merchants of Shame
Two weeks ago my restorative slumber was rudely aborted by the shattering opening chords of “Search and Destroy” by the Stooges, the ringtone I have assigned to CounterPunch’s intrepid co-editor Joshua Frank. This must be serious, I said to Boomer the Aussie as I stumbled for the iPhone. Josh is a committed texter. He only calls during a moment of crisis or after he’s caught a big wave down at Bolsa Chica, which all-too-often amounts to the same thing.
“Have you checked your email recently?”
“You know my rule, Josh, no emails before coffee or after Mojitos.”
“Well, have a drink. We’re under siege.”
“Tequila will do in a pinch.” I pour and swallow. Pour again and swallow. “Who is it now? The ADL again or the Sierra Club?”
“Neither. It’s the Trotskyists. Trots of the ISO subspecies to be exact.”
“Remind me what ISO stands for?”
“International Socialist Organization. Up in Chicago.”
“Right, right. Are we Trots?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Doug Henwood just wrote that we were Edward Abbeyists.”
“Sounds good to me.”
“He didn’t mean it as a compliment.”
“What does he know? He hasn’t left his apartment in the last 12 years.”
“What’s our crime?”
“Sexism, insensitivity and crudeness of mind.”
“How did we provoke this indictment?”
“By the use of the word ‘tit’ in a subhead.”
“Did we use the word ‘tit’ in a subhead?”
“No. But Ruth Fowler did.”
“In her caustic takedown of Angelina Jolie, the CIA’s favorite action hero?”
“So why is that our problem?”
“Because we allowed her to use that word.”
“What did they want us to do?”
“Change the word ‘tit’ to another word.”
“They don’t say.”
“Why can’t we use the word ‘tit’ in a subhead? Or even a full-blown headline, if we feel like it?”
“Because it sexualizes Angelina Jolie.”
“More than Angelina sexualized herself in ‘Gia’ or ‘Original Sin’?”
“But why can’t Ruth use the word ‘tit’? She’s a big time writer. Sold more books than any of those ISOers. Maybe all of them combined.”
“Fowler can use the word, but we can’t print it. Because we’re, well, men.”
“So, we’re supposed to correct Ruth Fowler’s word choice for her?”
“The two of us, both male editors, are supposed to commit an editorial intervention on her prose? She’s from Wales, right?”
“She has a Master’s Degree from Cambridge, right?”
“Her vocabulary is probably twice ours combined, Josh. We’re just a couple of hicks from Montana and Indiana.”
“I’m reminded of that every day.”
“Sounds damn presumptuous to me, Josh, even, dare I say, sexist.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“What the fuck do the Trots want us to do?”
“Apologize to whom? Angelina Jolie? Does Angie still read CounterPunch after that piece Alex and I wrote about her rather peculiar relationship with Billy Bob?”
“Not exactly. They want us to apologize to all women.”
“All of them?”
“That’s what it says.”
“Including Ruth Fowler?”
“So it seems.”
“Tequila might not be enough tonight, Josh.”
Over the next few days a surreal spectacle unfolded on, where else, the internet, as a series of increasingly ludicrous articles appeared in the Socialist Worker, the arthritic house organ of the ISO, castigating the co-editors of CounterPunch with mounting huffiness and indignation. The screeds scolded our brutishness for publishing essays by three radical women writers (Ruth Fowler, Kristine Mattis, and Julian Vigo), who eviscerated Ms. Jolie’s elitist editorial in the New York Times regarding her pre-emptive double mastectomy. These women used the searing lens of class-analysis to flay Jolie’s use of a privileged platform like the Times to boast about a privileged medical procedure that is far beyond the economic reach of 60 percent of American women. The Socialist Worker writers ignored this unpleasant fact and erupted in fury over our editorial decision not to redact Fowler’s use of the word “tit.”
This sounds ironic, right? Well, the Socialist Worker types don’t do irony. They actually identify with Angelina Jolie, the woman who shops for babies in the developing world, the woman who backs interventionist wars, the woman whose films glorify the CIA and the looting of indigenous cultures. They identify with Angelina Jolie because they share her elite position in American society. They are rich and well-educated at elite schools, such as Brown and Northwestern. Many of them live off of trust funds. Most rarely converse with poor people and have only a vague, theoretical notion of what life is like when you are indigent, black and have just been diagnosed with breast cancer (if you can even afford to get diagnosed). They can’t connect with that experience, but they can be viscerally aroused by the word “tit.” The use of this word transgressed decorum.
So denunciations of CounterPunch were posted. A petition was circulated. A boycott of CounterPunch was launched. Yet, perhaps all of this sturm-und-drang may have passed you by. That’s because most of the virtual war was waged on Facebook (where all of the ISO’s ‘activism’ seems to take place these days), a cyber-playpen whose sexist origins are the stuff of Hollywood docudramas.
One of the most vitriolic voices in this shaming campaign was an ISOer from Ohio. She was familiar to me as the same woman who several weeks earlier had posted a demented note on the CounterPunch Facebook page calling for the execution of two high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio who had been convicted of assaulting and finger-raping an inebriated teenage girl at a party. This was a revolting crime by any measure, but the death penalty? Really?
This bloodlust is symptomatic of how quickly the prosecutorial mindset of those possessed by a poisonous manifestation of identity politics can congeal into a lynch mob. It’s something that my old pal Alexander Cockburn knew intimately. In 1990, Alex was invited to speak by a gang of puritanical Trots at Reed College in Portland, a city almost paralyzed by the conventions of political correctness. (In spite of this laborious self-consciousness about its place as a hipster utopia, Portland hosts more strip clubs than any other city its size and lissome Earth First!ers are often glimpsed pole-dancing at Mary’s Club during the winter months to fund their high-wire activism in defense of ancient forests when the snows melt and the chainsaws fire up. For them, stripping is a much less humiliating experience than applying for a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.)
The invitation was a setup. Instead of a lecture, a self-appointed tribunal had been convened to put Alex on trial for his series of provocative columns in The Nation, which denounced the sexual witch-hunts sweeping the country in the wake of the McMartin pre-school case. Along with the great Debbie Nathan, Alex was one of the very few journalists to slash through the toxic hysteria and expose the accusations as fraudulent claims cooked-up by politically-motivated social workers and therapists. At the time, Alex was derided as an “anti-feminist,” but he was proved right. There were no apologies from his accusers.
That case was deadly serious. L’affaire Jolie is comically absurd. Josh and I are being accused of failing to conform to the rigid rules of the Trot’s editorial stylesheet, featuring dull prose and flatlined ideas. Of course, we’d never signed a loyalty oath. Never even subscribed to their rag. For those who are interested, the CounterPunch stylesheet derives from our close reading of Zap Comix, Mad Magazine, the Realist, Creem and Ed Sanders’ venerable Fuck You: a Magazine of the Arts. When in doubt about a particularly troubling issue of word choice in a subhead, I call Paul Krassner for editorial advice.
As is the case with most censorship campaigns dating back to the bonfires of Savonarola, this one blew up in the censors’ faces. The shrill condemnations of CounterPunch only served to drive thousands of curious minds, almost all of them Socialist Worker readers, to devour the very stories the Trots sought to expunge. It was ever thus. Just ask Ed Meese or Tipper Gore.
The dirty secret about the brain trust that oversees the Socialist Worker is that few of them are socialists and even fewer are working class people or even identify with them. And how could you, really, when you’re the heiress to a cruise-liner fortune or you issue your editorial communiqués from a mansion in one of the elite neighborhoods of upscale Evanston, Illinois.
The dogma of the ISO is notable only for its intellectual aridity and rock-solid immunity to innovation or evolution. Their political thinking, such as it is, remains lodged like a fossil in the strata of the early 1930s. Humiliated by their own political impotence, the Trots have lashed out at nearly every popular uprising of the last 50 years for being doctrinally impure, from the Cuban Revolution to the Zapatistas, from the street protests at the WTO to the Bolivaran Revolution.
These days the finicky ISO has more in common with Scientology than any real revolutionary movement. It recruits heavily on American campuses, targeting young idealists, many of them psychologically vulnerable and politically naïve. They sedulously indoctrinate them into a stale and anachronistic ideology and exploit their human labor as raw material to fuel an organization that is going nowhere by design. This kind of enterprise is a perfectly rational and perhaps even desirable adaptation to the current neoliberal dispensation.
So the pseudo-Socialists have become neo-McCarthyites. How Marx (and perhaps even old Leon himself) would have loathed them.
Exasperated by this tedium, Kimberly and I decamped from dreary Oregon for a long weekend at our customary haunt in San Francisco’s Chinatown. We had a welcome rendezvous with our daughter, who over the past few months has waged a fierce battle against a rare form of lymphoma. Her condition was diagnosed only a few weeks after we buried Alexander Cockburn under the arching eucalyptus trees in Petrolia. I will pause here only briefly to note my profound revulsion at being smeared for “trivializing cancer” by a cadre of self-aggrandizing prudes and shame merchants, especially after the savage toll cancer has inflicted on all of us at CounterPunch this last year.
Near the top of our agenda in the Bay Area was a close-up encounter with Johannes Vermeer’s famous pierced girl, the one with the pearl earring and exotic turban, which was on a rare leave of absence from her normal chamber at the Mauritshuis in The Hague. Not being a huge fan of Dutch painters and their customary palette featuring fifty shades of umber, I made some deprecating comments about the Sphinx of Delft on our long ride down Geary Avenue to foggy Golden Gate Park. His paintings, I professed, were rather too stuffy, prim and tidy. I declaimed my preference (though no one seemed to be listening) for the messy brushstrokes and convivial bar room scenes of Jan Steen, the Master of Rosacea.
I’ve inspected a few Vermeers over the years: the napping maid at the Metropolitan, the officer with the wide-brimmed hat and smiling girl hanging in that small room of masterpieces at the Frick, the woman writing a letter now residing in the National Gallery in DC. These are all delicate, meticulously rendered paintings of everyday life, most of them featuring young women. There is a strange quality of voyeurism to Vermeer’s paintings. His work, unlike the sprawling historical canvases favored by the wealthy patrons of the Dutch renaissance, capture discreet and intimate moments—milk being poured into a pan, a globe being gently spun, the reading of a letter near a sunlit window–which can make the viewer seem like a secret intruder.
Born in Delft in 1632, Vermeer was the son of a silk merchant and art dealer. He was apprenticed as a painter and spent his entire life, short though it was, in the guilds, agitating for the rights of painters, engravers and artisans. Vermeer was elected three times to serve as dean of the Guild of St. Luke. Despite this esteemed position, when Vermeer died in December of 1675 at the age of 43, he was destitute. Part of his financial distress was certainly attributable to his glacially slow pace of work. Over the course of his brief career, Vermeer produced less than two paintings per year. By contrast, Rembrandt, working as feverishly as Picasso, completed nearly 600 paintings, 2,000 drawings and 400 etchings in his 45-years wielding a brush.
As far as we know, Vermeer (unlike Rembrandt, Hals, Steen and the Brueghels) never once painted a naked breast. In his 36 surviving works, there’s not the faintest hint of a nipple. Even in Vermeer’s dark early painting, “Diana and Her Nymphs,” subjects normally depicted as nudes (indeed mythological scenes were often pretexts for painting nudes), the figures of the young women are thickly swaddled in dresses and robes, drained of any erotic charge.
Vermeer’s “The Procuress,” another early work, captures a transaction for sexual congress outside of a brothel. A young woman stands in front of a large carpet, draped over a balustrade. She is being presented to two men by a much older woman, wrapped in a black nun-like habit, her face fissured with wrinkles. In one hand the girl grips a glass of wine, while the other is out-stretched to receive coins from a patron. The man is dressed in a red coat. He wears the hat of a cavalier. One of his large hands gropes the young woman’s chest, as his friend (perhaps a self-portrait of Vermeer) looks toward the viewer with a leering grin. But the young prostitute is primly attired in a white headpiece and a tightly-corseted yellow dress that seems anything but carnal. It is a strange, unsettling canvas that should be read as an early critique of the corrupting nature of capitalism.
Now it is time for my confession. Don’t say I can’t admit when I’m terribly, even grievously wrong. No, not about Tit-gate; but about Vermeer. We arrived outside the stark, industrial edifice of the DeYoung at noon and elbowed our way through Japanese tourists and bored San Francisco trophy wives and trophy husbands, past Hobbema’s bleak landscapes, Steens’s salacious “Woman Eating an Oyster,” Franz Hals’s austere portraits and Fabritius’s glowing “Goldfinch.”
Finally, we entered the room where she hangs on the western wall. The portrait is shockingly small, intimate. It glows out of the half-darkness. People in her presence were swooning, gasping. A young Asian girl near us shouted, “Oh, Mother, isn’t she lovely!” Others were weeping. I even felt a dewy moistness in my own cynical eyes. She is beautiful and real and present. Her gaze holds you, a chilling goodbye look.
Vermeer, I repent!
Jeffrey St. Clair is the editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book (with Joshua Frank) is Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).