Monica Lewinsky made me think of my 1990s childhood

Monica Lewinsky made me think of my 1990s childhood May 13, 2014

Last Thursday was the feast day of the fourteenth-century visionary and theologian Julian of Norwich. That was the day that Monica Lewinsky published an article in Vanity Fair to set the record straight.

I was eleven in 1998. That means that I was old enough to hear all the uncles and aunties at my Chinese church, as well as all the teachers at my Pentecostal elementary school, talk about what a terrible example Bill Clinton had set for our country’s youth.

In fact, I was old enough to have to do an assignment for a church-related children’s program that tried to make young Christians more civically engaged. I had to write a letter on any subject to our local Congressional representative. As it happened, I wrote about impeaching Clinton. I got a nice reply from our Democratic Congressman, which I still have somewhere; it said that Clinton’s private life shouldn’t be anybody’s business.

It also means that my friends and I were just old enough to tell dirty jokes. I won’t recount them here, but suffice it to say that because Titanic had come out and the infamous pencil drawing scene had already sent more than one person at both school and church into puberty, we didn’t need Clinton to set an example either way. He was a convenient punchline, though.

You’ll understand, then, that it was a bit of a shock to my system when I discovered during my PhD that the 1990s were not just the insignificant bygone years of my sheltered childhood. Some of my key informants in the San Francisco Bay Area — key players, I might add, in the Proposition 8 ballot initiative in 2008 to get California voters to amend the state constitution to only recognize opposite-sex couples as legally married — told me that as the lawsuits began to pile up in the wake of Prop 8’s success, Kenneth Starr was one of their lawyers. Starr did defend Proposition 8 successfully in the California State Supreme Court case, Strauss v. Horton. My informants stressed to me, however, that this was the same Starr who had written the infamous Starr Report when he headed the Office of Independent Counsel. That’s why I ended up reading the whole Starr Report to see if I could glean anything out it.

I didn’t end up using the Starr Report in my dissertation — the links were too tenuous to the Cantonese Protestants I was studying — but I did get some insight into how Starr’s mind worked. Believe it or not, the beginning of the report is arguably more fascinating than the sexually explicit reconstructions of Clinton and Lewinsky’s encounters. That’s because Starr uses a good chunk of the beginning to defend why he’s probing these details of the president’s life. Here’s the kicker:

The Narrative is lengthy and detailed. It is the view of this Office that the that the details are crucial to an informed evaluation of the testimony, the credibility of witnesses, and the reliability of other evidence. Many of the details reveal highly personal information; many are sexually explicit. This is unfortunate, but it is essential. The President’s defense to many of the allegations is based on a close parsing of the definitions that were used to describe his conduct. We have, after careful review, identified no manner of providing the information that reveals the falsity of the President’s statements other than to describe his conduct with precision. (Office of Independent Counsel, “The Contents of the Referral”)

This paragraph reveals a lot about how the logics of Clinton’s opponents worked. It was a war of precision, of facts, of private secrets entered into the record as public evidence, and the way to win this war was to assemble all the evidence possible by any means possible. This resonated with how I had been taught to think as a conservative Christian growing up, both in church and school. The Christian faith was based on facts, and the way to defend the faith against, say, evolution, liberal biblical criticism, and progressive morality was to assemble the facts. That’s why we had Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict and Lee Strobel’s Case for Christ. These were the fact books – the truth with evidence to take down the idle speculations and armchair theories. Good Christians used facts. You could say that I read Starr as encoding into the report that he was simply being a good Christian. That’s why he had to apologize to his readers that it was ‘unfortunate,’ but ‘essential,’ that he had to be so ‘sexually explicit.’ In other words, the kind of stuff in the Starr Report is material over which Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, and the Traditional Values Coalition would cry foul. But Starr still keeps his Christian credentials because he’s not being voyeuristic – he’s doing apologetics.

That’s all the baggage that I brought into my reading of Monica Lewinsky’s Vanity Fair piece. By now, readings of the piece have proliferated all over the media, prompting Bill Maher to apologize to Lewinsky for his blowjob jokes while ushering in a raging debate over whether ‘capital F‘ Feminism had really ‘failed in articulating a position that was not essentially anti-woman during the witch hunt of 1998’ while Lewinsky was ‘being passed around like gender-politics cocktail food.’ There’s no need for me to provide a synopsis.

What I will say, however, is that Lewinsky does not come across as a ‘narcissistic loony toon.’ Again, as Bill Maher will tell you himself, she’s correct when she says, ‘It may surprise you to learn that I’m actually a person.’ Couple that with, ‘We all remember the second-wave feminist rallying cry The personal is political,’ as the drum that Lewinsky keeps beating, and what we have is in fact a sophisticated feminist rebuttal to Kenneth Starr. Lewinsky is very clear about the feminism that betrayed her — it was the ‘capital F‘ liberal Feminism in cahoots with the Clintons for policy gains. It didn’t just have a certain ideology; it had its own political apparatus. But the kind of feminism that Lewinsky is owning in this piece is a non-ideological sort of feminism, the kind that says, I am a person, but you don’t hear me because I am THAT woman. It turns out that facts do not a person make. It turns out that evidence does not interpret itself. It turns out that what is stated to be the truth can be used for ideological ends. If Starr was articulating a sort of ideological apologetics with the Starr Report, then Lewinsky’s Vanity Fair piece is the anti-ideological feminist rebuttal.

It struck me last Thursday that so much of the that woman ideological discourse was circulating in the 1990s as I was growing up. I went to a talk after I read the Lewinsky piece at the Catholic Newman Center given by Pia de Solenni called, ‘Does the Church hate women?’ De Solenni’s talk came from the Catholic right, attempting to promulgate the ‘new feminism’ of John Paul II and his Cardinal Ratzinger-run Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF):

In transforming culture so that it supports life, women occupy a place, in thought and action, which is unique and decisive. It depends on them to promote a “new feminism” which rejects the temptation of imitating models of “male domination”, in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society, and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation. (Evangelium Vitae 1995, 99).

Citing CDF document after papal encyclical after CDF document, and littering all of that with Scriptural references, de Solenni made the case that John Paul II’s ‘new feminism’ was a modest alternate proposal to the sort of Catholic feminist theology that sought women’s ordination and what Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza called a new, separate ‘ekklesia of women.’ In de Solenni’s analysis, Schüssler Fiorenza’s feminism was all about power; the hierarchical Church, however, worked on an existence of love.

Here’s what I was thinking during the talk, though. That afternoon, I had read Lewinsky’s piece and thought about the very particular bone she had to pick because of very particular circumstances in the 1990s. I was then sitting at de Solenni’s talk listening to the Catholic debate over feminism in the 1990s. Someone did ask a question about the recent CDF investigation into the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). To her credit, de Solenni didn’t typecast the LCWR as operating with a logic of power while the CDF was trying to conserve an ontology of love; she said that it was very complicated, with lots of complex political issues on both sides known only to the insiders. What that answer did make me think about was how important the 1990s was to the present political landscape.

What this has caused me to do is to spend the last week thinking about how important it is to get a handle on the 1990s for my postdoctoral project on younger-generation Asian American and Asian Canadian Christian publics. Conveniently, the piece right next to Lewinsky’s in the same Vanity Fair issue was about how O.J. Simpson’s trial launched the celebrity culture of the Kardashians and the Hiltons today (Kimye hermeneutic, anyone?). That’s public stuff, but probe deeper, and I think what I’m seeing is that the political feminisms of the 1990s, from Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations against Clarence Thomas to the murder of O.J. Simpson’s ex-wife to the Clinton affairs, are crucial for me to get a handle on. There’s also an Asian American angle that I could get into as well: who remembers, after all, that the Clinton-Lewinsky thing was the next scandal after a 1996 campaign finance scandal involving ethnic Chinese transnational donors?

What I’m saying is that reading Monica Lewinsky’s piece last Thursday prompted me to think seriously about the decade in which I was a child. There’s so much to parse in relation to feminisms. There’s so much to understand about the constantly shifting boundaries between the public and the private. There’s so much to wrap my head around with how public discourse became an arena of revisionist rearticulation used to silence people before they even started talking.

And if that’s the case, then it makes it all the more important that last Thursday (or yesterday, depending on who you ask) was Julian of Norwich’s feast day. I’ve written elsewhere about my own faith journey, and I’ll emphasize here that I am quite unhappy to be ideologically pegged as a Christian because of the theological diversity that I’ve encountered since the 1990s. But if there’s someone good to think with as I process the feminist confusions and public-private convolutedness of the 1990s, it’s Julian of Norwich. Julian was a fourteenth-century visionary who, when she was thirty-three years old, experienced a set of divine revelations while lying very sick in bed. Many were visceral, and all were important to the formation of English Christianity, as I’ve written about here.

But in the interest of seeing power and the feminine come together, Julian’s fourteenth revelation is that the Son, Jesus Christ, is like a sovereign lord over a field. Yet he isn’t clothed as a lord, but as a laborer, working hard in that field. As a lord, he is supposed to be sitting, but he isn’t — he’s standing and working. By the sixteenth revelation, Julian sees Jesus take up sovereignty in the city of God. Yet as Julian meditates on the sovereign reign of God, she suggests that this image of the lord working in the field is like a love that encloses the people that he labors over. This is a maternal image, and Julian goes as far as to call the Son ‘our Mother.’ What this means, though, is that the sovereignty that Julian describes isn’t a masculine sovereignty. It’s a feminine, maternal one, sovereign in the sense of not exerting power, but powerfully embracing and nourishing her children. Julian is famous for her optimistic dictum, ‘All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’ That’s the feminine, maternal sovereign speaking to her, telling her that everything will be OK in the end.

I can’t help but think that Julian looks over the 1990s — looks into the humiliation that Anita Hill, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Monica Lewinsky endured — and says, ‘All shall be well.’

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