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Heiresses on the Barricades

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Heiresses on the Barricades

From Jane Fonda to Clara Kraebber, spoiled rich children find it easy to play at rebellion. September 19, 2020
Politics and law
The Social Order

Whatever Clara Kraebber may do with the rest of her life, the 20-year-old Rice University student won’t outdo the publicity she’s received since her recent arrest by the NYPD for felony vandalism. Reading in the New York Post about young Clara, who lives with her father, a child psychiatrist, and her mother, an architect, in a $1.8 million Upper East Side luxury condo and a pre-Revolutionary War Connecticut mansion, I asked myself: Whom does this girl remind me of?

And then it came to me. Of course: she’s a modern-day Jane Fonda.

While Clara is a Manhattan princess, Jane was Hollywood royalty, daughter of one of the great actors of the movies’ golden age. While Jane was a poster girl for the hordes of well-off kids who protested the Vietnam War and looked down their noses at “hardhats,” Clara is the face of BLM/Antifa rioters who sneer at cops and other inferiors.

Raised in privilege, the beneficiaries of capitalist success, both these young women turned against the system that had given them so much. Clara trashed downtown Manhattan businesses and, according to reports, wanted to commandeer upper-class New York apartments of the sort she lives in and hand them over to the poor. It’s not quite up there with climbing on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun, as Jane did back in 1972, but it’ll do for these days of diminished expectations.

What motivates such extreme acts of rebellion? To ask the question is, at once, to challenge it. For neither Clara nor Jane is a real rebel. Clara might want to play Robin Hood with other people’s properties, but not, I suspect, with her family’s. The same goes for Jane, who, while singing the praises of Communism in North Vietnam, had no intention of staying there and living under the system; she had, after all, just won an Oscar for Klute and had a career in pictures to get back to.

Not that either Clara or Jane was entirely play-acting. A charitable interpretation of their conduct would be that both women—raised in wealth but innocent of the laws of economics, and perhaps insufficiently conscious of just how exceptional their own lives were—simply found it unfair that everybody couldn’t live the way they did. Having, presumably, been pampered since infancy, moreover, perhaps neither possessed sufficient humility to recognize that her efforts to undermine the American system of government might be immodest, if not ill-advised. (As Jordan Peterson would say, learn to make your bed before you try to change the world.)

The parallel with Fonda occurred to me in part because she has been in the news a lot lately—not for acting, but for activism. Jane has not given up the fight. Indeed, you can’t really call Clara the young Jane Fonda because the old Jane Fonda—she’s 82 now—is still, in heart and mind, the young Jane Fonda. Which is to say that she hasn’t learned a damn thing.

This has come through clearly in the interviews she’s done to promote her new book, What Can I Do? My Path from Climate Despair to Action. Uniformly, she has been treated like an oracle. Trevor Noah told her: “You’ve been causing . . . ‘good trouble’ for the better part of fifty years.” Howard Stern praised her “level of commitment.”

But for first-class superstar slathering, you had to turn to Maureen Dowd’s 4,500-word puff piece in the New York Times Magazine. Though Dowd is a purportedly serious political columnist for what was once considered the nation’s Paper of Record, she, like Noah and Stern and others, refused to engage seriously with Fonda’s lifetime of politically themed performance art.

On the contrary, Dowd piled on the superlatives, describing Fonda, in her opening sentences, as “a glam Forrest Gump who has popped up on the front lines of culture, fitness, politics and Hollywood for more than half a century.” Dowd held out to readers the tantalizing prospect of a full-bore profile of Fonda, “from bad vibes over Hanoi Jane to good vibrators.”

The North Vietnam episode, in this formulation, is simply a matter of “bad vibes” and is, in some way, of a piece with the octogenarian’s current battery-fueled sex life. Unlike Henry Fonda—who, we learn here, told Jane, to his credit, “If I ever find out you’re a Communist, I’ll be the first to turn you in”—Dowd gives every impression of viewing even the most appalling chapters of Fonda’s life, from her gushing praise of Ho Chi Minh to her calumnies against U.S. troops, from her involvement with the Black Panthers to her friendship with Angela Davis (the judge-killing conspirator and Lenin Prize winner), as a series of colorful escapades in the life of this ever-fascinating “intergalactic sexpot.”

Living in a cultural bubble in which screaming about climate change is a mark of virtue, Fonda “considered herself an environmentalist before this year,” but she hadn’t, in her own words, “really put my body on the line for it.” Then she heard Greta Thunberg speak and read a book by Naomi Klein—and devised a stratagem. She’d stride into the Oval Office with Pam Anderson, Sharon Stone, and a few other “beautiful, sexy, smart, climate-interested women,” and “kneel and . . . plead and beg” Donald Trump to change his environmental policies. He’d be so popeyed by the sight of these luscious dames on their knees that he’d rewrite the laws right then and there.

She even proposed the idea to Ivanka Trump, who laughed.

So instead of leading a cougar assault on the White House, Fonda started taking part in Fire Drill Fridays, a weekly climate protest at the Capitol. She racked up five arrests. (Think of it: two Oscars, two BAFTAs, and now five arrests!)

Jane detects “a feeling of love” in the BLM protests. At this late date, is she really so obtuse? How does she square this view with the vandalism, arson, beatings, and killings committed by BLM rioters? Did she learn nothing from her enthusiasm for a Communist regime whose victory eventuated in genocide? Dowd doesn’t ask.

Now an environmental heroine, Fonda boasts that these days she has only “two closets full of clothes,” including “clothes that I wore 30 years ago.” This, she notes, is a far cry from life during her 1990s marriage to CNN mogul Ted Turner, when they had 23 homes, with “clothes at each place.” This state of affairs obliged her “to buy in bulk,” so that “very often at Saks Fifth Avenue, the sales girl would say ‘Are these gifts?’ And I’d say, ‘No, they’re all for me.’”

What was she thinking back then? How did she manage to reconcile that life of cartoonish luxury with her professed radical convictions? Did it ever occur to her, as she took private jets from one Turner spread to another, that she was living a life of greater waste and self-indulgence than pretty much anyone else on the planet? Does it occur to her now, given her personal history, to be even slightly embarrassed to be preaching to anyone about consumption?

Or could it be that today’s Jane Fonda, the newly minted climate queen, is, quite consciously, doing penance for her previous behavior? It doesn’t seem so. There’s not a word here that even hints at such. Throughout the Dowd interview and others that she’s done for her book, Fonda presents herself as a woman who, throughout her life, has been a selfless crusader for the greater good. The problem is always elsewhere.

Maureen Dowd doesn’t ask about any of this, either. You don’t ask Jane Fonda about such things. Nor do you hold a mirror up to the hypocrisies of Al Gore or Laurie David (Larry David’s fanatically eco-conscious ex) or any of the other rich climate scolds whose carbon footprints exceed that of a small town. To be a certain kind of child of privilege, like Jane Fonda or Clara Kraebber—that is, to be less than gifted with self-knowledge and the capacity for shame—is to be above such petty calculations.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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