At Harris Theater, Lebowitz’s politics take no prisoners

The gloves come off when Fran Lebowitz brings her cultural criticism to the political arena.

By Alexandra McInnis

“What is my greatest criticism of the current generation?” Fran Lebowitz, esteemed author and culture critic, asked herself onstage at the Harris Theater on Tuesday night. “They are the worst pedestrians I have ever encountered. They don’t move out of the way for anyone. So even if they’re playing on their phones and don’t see me, I choose to walk into them anyway.”

Young pedestrians were just one of Lebowitz’s cultural woes vocalized at the “A State of the Union Conversation” as part of the Broadway their Way series held at the Harris Theatre, but her stance was emblematic of her famed take-no-prisoners approach to public speaking and the world in general. Since the release of her collection of essays, Metropolitan Life, in 1978, Ms. Lebowitz has been derailing popular beliefs on issues ranging from pop culture to family dynamics to smokers’ rights (despite the current hyper-emphasis on health, she remains a dedicated smoker). The subject of the 2010 Martin Scorsese documentary Public Speaking, Lebowitz has unapologetically strong opinions, and seemingly no concerns as to who she offends.

Onstage, Lebowitz is a fearsome and hilarious force of nature. Perched on a plush white armchair, she dove with unrelenting wit into every comment from moderator Martha Lavey, who mostly served to feed Lebowitz opportunities to be her sardonic self. Each question garnered a clever response delivered in a sharp, mile-a-minute voice, all without a moment’s reflection or a pause for breath. Ms. Lebowitz regaled the audience with comments on a variety of issues, ranging from life as a New Yorker (“I live in the West Village, also known as NYU-stan”) to fashion shows (“They’ve become sporting events. When you start seeing heterosexual male models on the runway, you know the economy really does have problems”) to her own life (“I prefer to read than to live”). She never missed a beat, and displayed the type of spontaneous humor that rivals that of the best professional comedians.

However, when the conversation turned to the impending presidential election, Lebowitz revealed a sense of conviction that lies beneath her bravado and sarcasm. She referred to Mitt Romney as “truly, profoundly, a horrendous choice for president” and equated his claims of self-made success with strolling on an automatic moving walkway at an airport. “You say, ‘I am walking, therefore I am working,’ but you’re also speeding past these people walking on the regular floor. That’s the kind of advantage he’s had in his life. Mitt Romney doesn’t think this is a country, he thinks this a country club.”

According to Lebowitz, the difference between Governor Romney and President Obama is so great that “anyone who calls themselves undecided at this point really has problem. They’re the ones who shouldn’t be allowed to vote.” She described Obama as one of the most moderate presidents in history, almost too moderate for her own taste, and stated that the vehement opposition he faces is almost incomprehensible. At the heart of the matter, she claimed, is “racism, pure and simple. But of course no one admits that, since we now live in a country where it is apparently worse to call someone a racist than to be one.”

During the question and answer session, Lebowitz had no qualms shutting down questions she judged to be unimportant, or offering blunt responses for comic effect (“Why are there female Republicans? I do not know”) but she did shed some light on some of her views on various other political issues. Of abortion, she said, “No country can go forward if every 30 years it keeps fighting the same fight.” Additionally, Lebowitz referred to gay marriage as a “distracting issue, something that is not centrally important.” She then added, “I don’t think anyone should be allowed to get married anymore,” possibly to lighten the effect of her comment.

With regard to the Republican Party, Lebowitz described a culture that hates elitism in terms of intelligence, but not necessarily wealth. They have been enabled, she claims, by “by 35 years of truly awful public education, which is probably why they don’t want to fund public schools, because they thrive on the ignorance of others.” She labeled ignorance as the most deplorable quality of voters, Republicans or Democrats, since it prevents them from understanding what they’re actually voting for.

“There’s a real problem when people dismiss politics as ‘complicated’ and allow someone else to dumb it down for them,” Lebowitz concluded on the matter. “The fact is democracy is complexity, which is why we are losing it. Simplifying politics only enables plutocracy, because it allows people not to tell the truth. The simpler the situation looks, the more dangerous it becomes.”

The best summary of Lebowitz’s views of contemporary America arose when describing what she considers to be an overabundance of writers. “There is too much democracy in culture and not enough in society. We live in a plutocracy, but everyone writes a book.”