Waiting to Inhale: Culture Wars or Unfinished Gratification?

David Roediger

WITH THE END of the impeachment proceedings, it is surely time for the left to offer analyses of the crisis which press far beyond those on offer in the mainstream press, and which do considerably more than offer a hold-your-nose defense of the President’s “privacy.” Here is one such attempt.

As O.J. Simpson and “William Jefferson” Clinton vied for the dubious distinction of being the accused in the “trial of the century,” an odd connection between them threw light on the fascination and horror with which we watched the Oval Office affairs of state.

The media studies scholar Leola Johnson and I happened on the connection in writing an article on the Simpson case for Toni Morrison’s Birth of a Nation `Hood. Our research sent us back to a long Playboy interview with Simpson from 1976.

At one point, the interviewer quizzed Simpson regarding marijuana use. Simpson, positioning himself to be an icon suitable both for Playboy and for squeaky clean rental car ads, ingeniously signalled an All-American hipness in his reply.

He had, he explained, once been offered marijuana, after seeing it smoked in Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. He faked smoking it, but “didn’t inhale.”

We will never know whether Clinton fashioned his split-the-difference response to questions regarding marijuana use from knowledge gained via a close reading of Simpson in Playboy two decades before running for president. However, the coexistence in both cases of a winking humor and an earnest desire to distance oneself safely from the cultural rebellions of the 1960s does matter.

This ought to bother those, left and right, who have wanted to see Clinton’s impeachment as an unambiguous “culture war” pitting the new puritans against the inheritor of the spirit of an aging youth revolt. Clinton, after all, regularly brandishes a Bible as big as Lyndon Johnson’s dog. And the new puritans mostly sleep around.

If impeachment was in part a culture war, its battle lines were poorly drawn and the parties in the conflict were themselves deeply conflicted. Nowhere does this anguish show itself more clearly than in the sad details of Clinton’s sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

Through half of the encounters described in the Starr Report, Lewinsky frets over why the President will not let her help him to “finish” by having an orgasm. The executive decision early in the affair was that sex without gratification—for him, of course, since Lewinsky’s gratification seems never to have been a concern —was not sex. The celebrated rationale that oral sex was not sex came later.

Neither of these tortured positions represent anything like sexual freedom descending on the White House. Indeed Clinton’s private and then public moral contortions, thoroughly familiar to most teenagers, suggest that the ambivalent attitude toward gratification which runs through his “didn’t inhale” response is not only a public relations pose.

Repulsive Attraction

Unconvincing as a combatant on one side in the alleged culture wars, Clinton is perfectly cast as a repressed, but cruising, double agent in them. Lewinsky told Barbara Walters just that.

Those of us who watch and listen have likewise, and necessarily, been double agents. It is in this reality that Clinton’s troubles do speak eloquently to the state of U.S. society.

It is not just that audiences are attracted and repulsed by coverage of the scandal. They are both. Televisions are turned on and disgustedly off and then back on to reports which promise to be salacious but aren’t.

That weathervane of popular moods, Geraldo Rivera, lavishes nightly attention on the case, all the while denouncing the media’s “obsession” with it. We are sick and tired of hearing about the President’s sex life, and yet Lewinsky’s first post-impeachment TV interview somehow draws 70 million U.S. viewers.

Of course this guilty fascination with Clinton’s affairs and with those of leading Republicans draws on old stories: glee in exposing the pious hypocrite; pleasure in knowing that the philistines, of maybe all of us, have feet of clay; separating the elect from the sinners.

But to see the behavior of the fallen, and the reaction of the public, as simply a reflection of timeless patterns of human behavior misses how fully modern this round of scandals is.

U.S. capitalism at the millennium’s close asks, indeed demands, that its worker/consumers seek new and immediate gratification even as they are regimented in workplaces where their steadiness, productivity and even personality come under constant and unprecedented scrutiny.

Today’s good economic news consists, at least for stock market analysts, in the fact that consumers are “confident” enough to undertake new rounds of debt and in the glad tiding that the work week has lengthened yet again. Getting satisfaction and postponing it are constantly paired.

Furry mascots and bikini-clad models can at one moment recruit young drinkers and in the next encourage teenagers to “Just say no.” $40,000 Jeeps are marketed to young professionals (and pimps) who are constantly on the job.

The ads stress that the liberating vehicles make it possible to ignore the very confines of the roadway. Citizenship requires both enlisting in an army of consumers and being conscripted into the struggle for “competitiveness” in the global economy.

Amidst these contradictory imperatives, the division into camps of those emphasizing discipline and those stressing the grabbing of instant gratification does certainly occur. Movies and talk shows in which Jerry Falwell and Larry Flynt square off have their resonances.

But far more interesting are the ways in which this system pulls people in both directions at once. With abstinence and indulgence equally unlikely and equally obligatory, much of the nation follows its leader in knowing about unfinished gratification and in waiting to inhale.

ATC 80, May-June 1999