Lewis Lapham: Conquerors, tap that booty

Rapt of the Sabine Women or Rape of the Sabine...

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It’s Earth Day, and I should join the green media in writing about the big climate bill that’s coming down the pipe. But I find myself interminably distracted by Lewis Lapham’s latest.

Lapham links the New Puritanism to the commodification of sex, and bravo! on that score. Leaving off from the orgiastic 1960s, he writes:

To regulate the suddenly overabundant supply of sexual energy running around half-naked on suburban lawns, it was classified as a commodity somehow akin to breakfast cereal or unleaded gasoline….

The glittering invitations to everlasting orgy pour forth at all hours of the day or night from every orifice of the media (movie and television screen, newsstand, cosmetic counter, Internet), but as [Tiger] Woods sorrowfully informed his mother, it’s “foolish” and “wrong” to think that they mean what they say, to mistake the sales pitch for a tourist destination. One is supposed to look, not touch; to abandon oneself to one’s passion not in a cocktail lounge but in Bloomingdale’s, in a BMW showroom, not in the back seat of the car.

via Doing the laundry—By Lewis H. Lapham (Harper’s Magazine).

Take that, Puritans! All your righteous indignation is commercial, not moral, Lapham concludes, just a symptom of an unconscious drive to direct our sexual energies away from natural outlets where they would be wasted in a lot of non-fiduciary bumping and grunting and toward more profitable pursuits like shopping.

That’s how an ancient and august history of powerful men “seizing” the love of women has come to this–a sex saturated culture buttoned all the way up to the collar and outraged over dalliances by the likes of Tiger Woods, Elliot Spitzer, and Bill Clinton. The sexual excesses of the 1960s became the marketing forces of modern capitalism. And before our marketing forces, even our amorous kings must bow.

But as he gropes toward this smart explanation, Lapham seems to wax nostalgic over those lost centuries of male “enjoyment.” He compares women to fruit, golf balls, and room service. And he seems to minimize rape as a spoil of war:

For as long as historians have been keeping score, the spoils of war and stock-market killings include the objects of affection plumped on the cushions in the other hero’s tent, wearing feathered hats in Paris, perched on bar stools in Las Vegas. The wrath of Achilles in Homer’s Iliad springs from Agamemnon’s taking from him the trophy of a captive concubine; Genghis Khan was of the opinion that “the greatest joy a man can know is to conquer his enemies” and “to clasp their wives and daughters in his arms.”

History eventually turns even its worst villains into cartoon heroes–see Vlad the Impaler or Ronald Reagan for examples–but one ought not to encourage that kind of forgetting, nor dismiss so easily the suffering of those “clasped” wives and daughters.

It’s too convenient to regard them all as willing, as Lapham does–that’s just how the clubs and courts of good old boys defend their “indiscretions.” And while Genghis Khan may have raped and plundered long enough ago that no one remains to bear witness to the pain, his legacy echoes quite recently from Bosnia, from Rwanda.

To celebrate such a history–to do anything less than condemn it–Lapham skips merrily along this path, clubbing and dragging the girls he encounters along the way, advising the moralists to lighten up, until his very last paragraph, when he reaches for the ring of feminism, too. And then he claims it’s some other guys, not him, who treat women as objects:

Under the current arrangement they [women] arrive in the arena of the tabloid press in the manner of the exotic booty dragged behind the chariots of imperial Rome.”

It’s the tabloid press, in LL’s account, and certainly not his Broadway glossy that treats women as “objects of affection.” But this prophylactic gesture to egalitarianism arrives post flagrante delicto. As if Lapham has been joking around with his pals in the locker room for three pages, and now he steps into the light of day whistling Alanis Morrissette.

It gives the argument quite a twist: moral tolerance might save women the indignity of being dragged behind the chariots of imperial Rome, Lapham argues, and restore them to the glorious liberation they once enjoyed plumping the cushions in some hero’s tent.

I think LL makes excellent points about the commodification of sex and the sexism of Puritans. Even feminist Puritans reduce women to choiceless vessels. But I’m not sure the splendid tradition of men like Genghis Khan–reducing women to chosen vassals–quite supplies the enlightened alternative.

But perhaps I’m misreading him. Help me out. I’ve got Earth Day to attend, quite possibly a climate bill to read.

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