July 31, 2008


Sex in Crisis: The New Sexual Revolution and the Future of American Politics. By Dagmar Herzog. Basic Books. $26.95.

Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922—The Destruction of a Christian City in the Islamic World. By Giles Milton. Basic Books. $27.95.

      Oral and anal sex are okay. Quickies are a good thing. It’s fine to read about a woman with “long legs in heels, and full breasts crowning a silky-thin, miniskirt sundress.” No, this is not Sexual Revolution stuff – it is, according to Dagmar Herzog, anti-Sexual Revolution stuff. Herzog, a professor of history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and a frequent writer on sexuality, argues in Sex in Crisis that the religious right has co-opted the Sexual Revolution by creating an entire industry dedicated to the idea that only heterosexual, marital sex is permissible for both religious and health reasons. And this insidious conspiracy, Herzog believes, has combined with the Bush administration’s religiously driven abstinence-only and other anti-Sexual Revolution stances to produce a juggernaut of ignorance that liberal believers in empowerment and individual choice barely understand and have found no way to counter.

      Wow. Well, Herzog certainly writes entertainingly and with intensity. “Wives are told to have sex with their husbands more often, no matter what it feels like for them. (All in the name of his sexual purity.)” Men “should practice and learn to look away immediately when confronted with a sexy image in the same way one would immediately yank a hand back from a hot stove.” Herzog finds everything being pitched by evangelicals to be insidious. For example, she acknowledges that these writers are torn, that they “want to assure men that they really have powerful sexual motors and raging ‘mustang minds,’ and yet they also want men to know that they can win the battle against improper lust.” Do internal contradictions like this dilute the, err, potency of evangelical appeals for “soulgasmic” sex? Oh, no: “These contradictions, far from undermining the power of the advice-writers’ messages, are central to evangelicism’s ideological effectiveness.” In fact, evangelicals are so effective and such a well-oiled machine that everyone else might just as well give up and march to the narrowest of biblical tunes. Herzog is right, and powerful, in showing how evangelical influence has caused enormous sexual and health problems in the United States and the world during the Bush administration. But she downplays or ignores evidence that the evangelical community seems to be, at least to an extent, withdrawing from active political involvement; and she never shows effectively how evangelically motivated narrowness of sexual viewpoints somehow magically, err, penetrates the minds (and bodies) of nonbelievers. Sex in Crisis is so hyped on its own rhetoric that it makes evangelicals seem like all-powerful demons, capable of warping hundreds of millions of minds at a single bound. True, some evangelicals might like to do that, and certainly the narrow view of sex as appropriate only within heterosexual marriage has had a political field day for almost a decade. But Herzog, seeking to make political points of her own, overstates her case to such an extent that the book would be almost comic if it did not contain so many substantial truths. Americans do remain woefully ignorant about the many expressions and complexities of human sexuality; but that does not necessarily mean that they are destined to become mindless robots of the evil evangelical empire.

      More than 80 years ago, another empire was on the march, and it represented a far greater threat to life in the city of Smyrna, Turkey, than evangelicals do to life today. Historian Giles Milton, in a book whose title must have given him and his publisher tremendous pleasure (“Milton’s Paradise Lost”), looks back at what happened in Smyrna in 1922 and what lessons can be drawn for the modern world from those long-ago events. What happened was horrific: the city, a multicultural haven for Greeks, Armenians and Jews despite its location within Muslim Turkey, was invaded and nearly destroyed by Turkish troops seeking revenge for the Greek invasion of Turkey three years before – an invasion countenanced by the powers of the time in the wake of World War I and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. Although humiliated and defeated during the Great War, Turkey would not allow reestablishment of a Christian Empire in its region, and fought back against the Greek invasion so successfully that Greece was beaten. Then Turkey, led by the revered Kemal Ataturk (then known as Mustafa Kemal), turned its forces on Christian-majority Smyrna. Greek troops retreated, and the European and American warships nearby were under strict orders not to intervene as the Turkish army burned the city, killed at least 100,000 people, turned half a million into refugees, and left the survivors desperate and impoverished. This was a horror of the 20th century – one of many – but it is one that has been little reported until now. Milton’s book, clearly aimed at Western audiences, emphasizes the multiculturalism and peaceful coexistence within Smyrna, giving short shrift to Turkish beliefs – reasonable at the time – that the city could be seen as an outpost of the resurgent Christian Empire that the victors in the Great War made it clear they wanted. First-person interviews and extensive use of primary sources make the story of Smyrna in 1922 come alive in Paradise Lost. But the title, however attractive to author and publisher, is a misnomer, making it seem as if Smyrna was a perfect city – a gross overstatement. That the Turks were vicious, brutal and unprincipled in what they did to Smyrna is clear in this book; that they felt sufficiently aggrieved to overreact is less so. That the Western powers, notably including England under Lloyd George, were outmaneuvered both on the battlefield and in peace talks afterwards, is certain. Whether there are lessons in all this for today’s world is less than sure: Milton ends his book with signs both of reconciliation and of continued Greek-Turkish enmity. Paradise, it seems, has yet to be established.

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