Who is being smuttier?

Posted: Nov 01, 2006 12:01 AM
Who is being smuttier?

The charge by assorted gentry that James Webb is not qualified to serve as a U.S. senator from Virginia because there are lewdnesses in his published fiction rattles one's faith in democracy. A few questions need to be examined, beginning with the primary charge: smutty passages in Webb's fiction.

I have no plans to run for senator from Connecticut, but if I did I suppose my opponent could make such charges as James Webb is confronting, citing passages from my 18 novels. Both of us dwell in high church elevation: Webb, because he wishes a seat in the Senate; I, because I have been the editor of a conservative journal of opinion that speaks out on moral questions.

James Webb's principal defense -- made on his behalf by independent observers -- has been that in his novels he writes about war and the military. And he saw these at first hand. One former naval officer wrote in to say: "Anyone who writes sex-free military fiction either doesn't know what he's talking about or doesn't have the guts to write the truth. These passages prove nothing except that Webb writes the military as he knew it, warts and all. It doesn't mean he approves of all the things he writes about (whether or not he ever did); he's certainly not the same guy now that he was when a midshipman or a second lieutenant."

Another commentator wrote: "I hate to break it to you folks, but the military -- especially the Marine Corps, the service that Webb knows best -- is largely composed of macho young men with foul mouths and an unhealthy obsession with all things sexual. It's a giant locker room. No one who's been in the naval service beyond boot camp ... hasn't heard a story or two about a Filipino stripper dicing a banana with her vagina. ... If I wrote a book that involved some junior Marine officers deployed to Spain, and if I were as brutally honest as Webb is, I might write a scene in which the characters watch a live sex show. More than once. Because that's what my fellow lieutenants and I did when we were deployed to Spain. Am I proud of it? Not especially. But it happened -- and it was by no means unusual."

More generally, the novelist writes to explore the human being. One did not need to await Freud to discern that the sexual drive is, if not the dominant impulse in human nature, at least a subdominant, making way for love, family, political allegiances, vocations, patriotism and treachery. In order to illustrate these human drives it is required that authors explore manifestations of sexual interest, and these involve scenes and thoughts that inform us, whether we are reading "Romeo and Juliet" or "The Merchant of Venice."

Now these disclaimers do not excuse violations of taste. But critics are there as full-time posses to hunt down aggressors in fiction. In politics, aggression at every conceivable level is positively workaday. No sex scene begins to rival dank exposes of human behavior when tempted to debauch not at brothels, but at polling places.

Sen. George Allen, who has subscribed to the criticism of the fiction of his opponent, Mr. Webb, has to know these truths. To begin with, he knows that to have written a sex scene in a piece of fiction is not as dangerous to a person's character as is competing for public office. A month ago John Grisham co-hosted, along with Stephen King, a fund-raiser for Webb in Charlottesville. Last Friday Grisham said, on the question of Webb's fiction, "This is a clear sign of a desperate campaign, if they plow through novels trying to find evidence of character."

At a practical level, Sen. John McCain, than whom no one is better qualified to judge war and writers who describe war, commented about one of Webb's novels: "It captures well the lingering scars of the war. A novel of revenge and redemption that tells us much about both where Vietnam is headed and where it has been."

Some say that the mere publication of smutty, erotic, realistic passages from Webb's fiction will undermine his claim to credentials to serve in the Senate. There are many reasons to vote for the Republican incumbent, but anyone who votes for him in protest against Webb's fiction needs to -- grow up.