I should in all likelihood just ignore this, a dialogue that Peter Beinart and Jonah Goldberg are having (part of a regular series called "What's Your Problem" on NRO that's mostly, sadly, kind of dull) about Pam Anderson and Madonna and the War on Culture critics of the right. And I would, except that I majored in Madonna, as most weboys my age did (Go, Webo Girl), and I want J in Baltimore to see this too.
Jonah's so wrong on so much of this it's hard to know where to begin, but let's start with Pam - Pam recently married Rick Salomon, who used to be married to Shannon Doherty, but then had a fling with Paris Hilton that was famously videotaped and distributed and which served as the cornerstone of Paris' future fame. Salomon, as Goldberg notes, is nobody's idea of a gentleman, and probably speaks more to Pam's poor choices in spouses, but never mind. (Actually, let's do mind: What is Goldberg saying? That girls will, on the basis of this third marriage, run out and sleep with total strangers? Like nobody knows Pam's history with Tommy and Kid, never mind Rick's sordid past? That it's cool to marry sleazebags? What's his point, anyway?) Pam apparently told Ellen DeGeneres that she fell in love with him after one of those celebrity poker matches in Vegas, where instead of paying him what she owed, she paid with sex. Goldberg says, fairly, isn't this reprehensible and why should we celebrate it, and isn't this like Madonna.
We'll get to Madonna in a moment, but first, let's just note that Jonah's winking, leering description of Pam alone undermines his outrage - you can't really berate your lust object for being sexual and then lust away guilt free; Pam's life as a sexual being has everything to do with her image... But even so, why take this as true? It sounds apocryphal, a Penthouse Forum fantasy date that Pam's all too happy to play into. And this could easily be more PR hype than real.
And, by the way Jonah, Pam's work on VIP is much more fun than Baywatch. Now, about Madonna:
Goldberg's indictment comes down to a high schoolish whine, as so many conservatives do these days, of "why do the cool kids get away things we don't"? He complains that when cultural critics took Madonna to task for pushing "Slutty Chic" (his term) at the start of her career, they were lambasted; but when Madonna renounced her past (she does this a lot, by the way), she was met with sighs of approval and a pass for her past. And the cultural critics are still criticized.
This is pretty much backwards from start to finish. First, critics like Bennett and others were a good 15 to 25 years older than Madonna, and the hallmark of their criticisms was that They Just Didn't Get It. Whether it was missing the irony of the post-modernism in her "Boy Toy" like posing, or the fact that what she embodied most was a woman's freedom to act sexually independent, it was clear that the backlash against Madonna was too anti-woman to be valid. More perceptive critics took Madonna to task for being glib, for her calculated outrageousness that was much more about publicity than any real political espousing of positions. She played the naughty Catholic girl in public, but in private (what there was of it) clearly developed a taste for classy, tasteful things that belied her image. By the time she "renounced" her past, she'd long since given up on the Boy Toy stuff, the "Sex" book and such for a classier, if still confrontational approach - everything from Ray of Light on has had the "higher calling" elements that led to her renunciation. And really, Madonna, is no slouch for knowing what sells - Confessions on a Dance Floor and its videos and tour were meant to trade on her sexed up past while trying to reshape it into something upscale - campy, ft, and machine-like in its approach.
And despite Jonah's grumblings, almost no one will let Madonna pretend her past didn't happen, or that we weren't there; no one is "forgiving" her that past, and however much she wants to wear tasteful woolens, cavort in the English countryside and trot out her fake accent, we know that underneath is that brassy hoyden whose wearing of the classy costume is all pretense. Which is to say, she isn't fooling anyone. Except, maybe those cutural critics, who still can't see the trees in the forest, just their broad-brush depictions of dirty girls who deserve to pay for their sins. It's that Madonna has never paid that gets them, and Jonah... something he makes all too plain.
Peter Beinart is right that part of this is a patriarchal notion of dirty girls and moral approbation for women that is unequal for men; but he's not culturally savvy enough himself to really take on Jonah's misreading of the whole story. And while he's right that some Democrats have made mileage doing just what Bennett did, he's missing that why the left has won the Culture War is because we're not, really, the enemy. The people who glorify the Paris Hiltons and Lindsay Lohans know no party or ideology. What they know is that sex sells and people like to watch. And the reason the right's culture trolls can't win is because they're the watchers. And the way to stop this stuff is not to look; calling attention to it just sells more copies of Papa Don't Preach (a song, really, that Jonah almost completely mis-remembers to fuel his weak point). That's why Madonna's not sorry, and why she'll never, really, pay.