When Camille Paglia was an “obnoxious adolescent” of 15, she had what she describes as “this huge fight with a nun” in upstate New York. Ms. Paglia, 72, remembers the incident with a clarity that suggests a lifetime of unresolved umbrage.
“We were released from school for religious instruction on Thursday afternoons,” and teen Camille posed a question: “If God is infinitely forgiving, I asked the nun, is it possible that at some point in the future he’ll forgive Satan?” The nun—a doctrinaire Irish Catholic without any of the “pagan residue” of Ms. Paglia’s Italian culture—“turned beet red. She was so enraged that she condemned me in front of everybody for even asking that question.”
That was the day Ms. Paglia left the Catholic Church. It was not the last time she asked an awkward, even incendiary, question. Such provocations are the stock-in-trade of this most free-spirited of America’s public intellectuals.
Ms. Paglia is a professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where she has been a tenured—and occasionally embattled—faculty member since 1984. This April, mutinous students demanded her firing over public comments she’d made that were not wholly sympathetic to the #MeToo movement, as well as for an interview with the Weekly Standard that they called “transphobic.” That denunciation, with its indignant dogmatism, is particularly slapstick, since Ms. Paglia describes herself as “transgender.”
The protests were unsuccessful, largely thanks to a robust defense of Ms. Paglia by the university’s president, David Yager. “Artists over the centuries,” he wrote in an open letter to students, “have suffered censorship, and even persecution, for the expression of their beliefs through their work. My answer is simple: Not now, not at UArts.”
Over lunch at a Greek restaurant, Ms. Paglia tells me she belongs to the “pro-sex, free-speech wing of feminism,” which she says had its heyday in the 1990s. That was the decade in which she herself emerged from academic obscurity. In 1990 she published her first book, “Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, ” an erudite yet pugnacious account of the competing roles of male and female in Western civilization. It was rejected—she never tires of saying—by seven publishers and five agents before Yale University Press picked it up.
The book vaulted Ms. Paglia into the American imagination as a bluestocking gone deliciously rogue. The same year, she published an op-ed article lauding the pop singer Madonna as “the true feminist,” who “exposes the puritanism and suffocating ideology of American feminism, which is stuck in an adolescent whining mode.” The op-ed incensed the “prudish” feminist establishment. Ms. Paglia has since soured on Madonna, who she says was “once refreshingly sane in her teasing affection for men” but has now undergone a “collapse into rote male-bashing.”
Ms. Paglia laments that the “antisex and repressively doctrinaire side of feminism is back again—big!” She calls it “victim feminism” and complains that “everything we’d won in the 1990s has been totally swept away. Now we have this endless privileging of victimhood, with a pathological vulnerability seen as the default human mode.” Everyone is made to cater to it—“in the workplace, in universities, in the demand for safe spaces.”
As a teacher of undergraduates, Ms. Paglia despairs at how “bad it is for young people, filled with fears, to be raised in this kind of a climate where personal responsibility isn’t spoken of.” Since her own youth, she says, college students have devolved from rebels into skittish supplicants, petitioning people in authority to protect them from real life. Young adults are encouraged to look for “substitute parent figures on campus, which is what my generation rebelled against in college. We threw that whole ‘in loco parentis’ thing out.”
There’s an undeniable irony in hearing a septuagenarian, from a generation that was famously preoccupied with youth, deplore the state of today’s young people. “Our parents were the World War II generation,” Ms. Paglia says, “so they had a sense of reality about life.” Children now “are raised in a far more affluent period. Even people without much money have cellphones, televisions, access to cars. They’re raised in an air-conditioned environment. I can still remember when there was no air-conditioning.” She shudders as she sips her cold beer, adding that she suffered horribly in the heat.
Capitalism, she continues, has “produced this cornucopia around us. But the young seem to believe in having the government run everything, and that the private companies that are doing things for profit around them, and supplying them with goods, will somehow exist forever.”
Ms. Paglia asks me to note that it was “because of capitalism” that her forebears “escaped the crushing poverty of rural Italy,” emigrating to Endicott, N.Y., to “work in the Endicott-Johnson shoe factories, whose vast buildings, tanning pools and smokestacks dominated my childhood.”
Although she doesn’t use the phrase herself, you can call Ms. Paglia a feminist capitalist. “While I believe that boom-and-bust capitalism is inherently Darwinian and requires moderate regulation for the long-term greater good,” she says, “I insist that capitalism has produced the glorious emancipation of women.” They can now “support themselves and live on their own, and no longer must humiliatingly depend on father or husband.”
So why do young women feel victimized? Ms. Paglia cites the near-extinction of “body language” among the young and its impact on sexual relations on campus. The “loss of body language” starts in middle and high school, “where there’s total absorption in social media and projected images on Instagram, and so on. So they don’t know how to read each other, physically.” When they get to college, this social deficiency is exacerbated by the effects of “that stupid law, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, that was passed in 1984.” It effected a nationwide ban on alcohol sales to adults under 21.
“When I got to college,” Ms. Paglia says, “you could go out for a beer, you could talk with a drink in a public place, in an adult environment.” That’s how 18-year-olds away from home for the first time learned the “art of conversation, of looking at each other, reading facial expressions and body language.” After the ban on drinking, “instead of a nice group of people conversing and flirting, you got the keg parties at fraternities on campus, this horrible environment where women milled about with men in this huge amount of noise, with people chugging beers down.”
Ms. Paglia is distinctly animated now and—body language!—claps her hands for emphasis. “So almost immediately, by the late 1980s, you get this date-rape extravaganza, and the hysteria, and the victimage.” Ms. Paglia has urged a repeal of the drinking-age law but “cannot get any traction on this. No one will listen to me.”
By contrast to her flaming public persona, Ms. Paglia is positively conventional in the classroom. “As I constantly stress,” she says, “my base identity is as a hard-working, no-nonsense schoolmarm—like the teaching nuns of global Roman Catholicism.” Despite her avowed atheism, she confesses to keeping a Mass card of St. Teresa of Ávila in her den at home.
This fall semester, she will teach two classes, “Art of Song Lyric” and “Style in Art.” She asks me to “stress that I do not teach ‘my’ ideas in the classroom.” Instead, she teaches “broad-ranging” courses and considers herself responsible for her students’ “general education—in which there are huge and lamentable gaps, thanks to the tragic decline of public education in this country.”
She recalls a “horrifying” example from her classroom a few years ago. She was teaching “Go Down, Moses, ” the famous Negro spiritual. “The whole thing is about antiquity,” she says, “but obviously it has contemporary political references.” She passed out the lyrics and played the music, “and it suddenly hit me with horror—none of them recognized the name ‘Moses.’ And I thought: Oh my God, when Moses is erased from the West, what is left of Western civilization?”
Judging by last semester’s protests against Ms. Paglia, today’s college students seem better versed in the polemics of gender identity than in Judeo-Christian history. This prompts me to ask Ms. Paglia, perhaps intrusively, why she regards herself as transgender. “There’s no doubt whatever,” she responds, “that I have had a radical gender dysphoria since earliest childhood. Never once in my life have I felt female.” Nor did she feel male, “except when wearing my fabulous Halloween costumes as a Roman soldier, toreador or Napoleon.”
“This strange alienation from standard human life certainly helped sharpen my powers of social observation,” she says, “and eventually made me a writer.” Her many years of researching and writing “Sexual Personae,” she adds, “exorcised a lot of my accumulated hostility toward the gender system.”
These days, she says, “there is only one occasion when my old turbulence returns—when shopping for clothing.” When she was in college, styles were “gender-bending,” and she wore “ Tom Jones shirts, flared pinstriped trousers, Navy pea coats and Beatles boots with Cuban heels.” No more. Now she makes an annual “pilgrimage” to the sprawling King of Prussia shopping mall outside Philadelphia.
“I cannot express too strongly my overwhelming sense of existential alienation and horror when confronted with those lavishly stocked stores,” she says. There is nothing she can identify with in the women’s department, or the men’s. “It is completely inconsequential that I have attained a certain status as professor and author of eight books. At King of Prussia, my identity is completely wiped out—erased!”
In a new book, Steve Kornacki looks back at the 1990s — and finds the roots of today’s polarization in the Clintons’ ascent.
.. the 1990s was until recently an invisible decade. “The holiday from history,” it was called, a “lull” where nothing much really happened, a candy-colored coma between the Berlin Wall’s fall on 11/9 and the 9/11 attacks less than a dozen years later.
.. The Red and the Blue, is a political procedural that sets out to explain how we went from giga-landslides in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s to Electoral College squeakers today, how Republicans disappeared from the coasts and Democrats died their final deaths in the South and Midwest.
.. it benefits from the context provided by Trump’s ascent, which has clarified that one big reason we’re seemingly reliving the 1930s today is because both the Left and Right spent the 1990s and early 2000s rehashing the culture wars of the 1960s and early ’70s.
.. Because cable and the Internet have so completely transformed American culture over the past two or three decades, it’s easy to forget (and younger people can’t even remember) just how norm-shattering Bill Clinton was, compared to the Greatest and Silent Generation leaders who came before him. To social conservatives and foreign-policy hawks, Clinton’s election was downright triggering, and deserved nothing less than full-on #Resistance. Historian Steven Gillon famously interviewed one who succinctly fumed that Clinton was “a womanizing, Elvis-loving, non-inhaling, truth-shading, draft-dodging, war-protesting, abortion-protecting, gay-promoting, gun-hating Baby Boomer!”
.. aside from Gary Hart, whose ill-fated career was recently reexamined in the Jason Reitman movie The Front Runner, America hadn’t had a youthful, truly sexualized major-party presidential nominee since JFK — until Clinton came along.
- .. The Federal Reserve’s preference for financialization and neoliberalism was at its very peak under the influence of Paul Volcker and Alan Greenspan.
- Nearly half of Americans still thought “sodomy” — never mind same-sex marriage or civil unions — should be illegal.
- And while America was pro-choice, huge percentages of voters demanded restrictions to abortion-on-demand.
The Red and the Blue gives an excellent Gen-X-plaining of just how systemically, institutionally, and culturally impossible it would have been for Democrats to move even farther leftward than they did back then — of how much damage their “too far left” brand had done to the party in the ’80s and of the disastrous political consequences of Bill Clinton’s attempts to govern from the left in 1993–94, as epitomized by Hillary’s attempt at health-care reform. He reminds his readers with his trademark aptitude for facts and figures that America in the 1990s was still very much living in what Sean Wilentz called The Age of Reagan.
.. He manages, for example, to nail the most salient point of the abusive relationship between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich: that it was at heart a love story, and/or a co-dependency worthy of Dr. Phil. One man could simply not have managed to stay in office without the other.
.. It was Clinton hatred on the social right that gave us Gingrich, and it was Gingrich’s surefire ability to trigger the libs that protected Clinton year in and year out. “Do you want him – or me?” became the basic campaign pitch of both men.
.. his Officer Friendly approach to the media is just too naïve by half, especially for someone who is a cable-news host with considerable experience in online journalism. In Kornacki’s telling, reporters merely report, offering just the facts or serving as quickie Greek choruses and footnote sources. This might work for a tenth-grade term paper, but for a book that seeks to illuminate the decade that saw the rise of the Internet, the birth of Fox News, unprecedented media consolidation, and what Eric Alterman called “the punditocracy” at the height of its influence, it’s entirely inadequate.From highly influential anti-Great Society “Atari Democrats” like
- Michael Kinsley,
- Joe Klein,
- Sidney Blumenthal, and
- Robert Samuelson and proudly un-PC pundits like
- Camille Paglia,
- Ben Wattenberg,
- Bill Maher, and
- Andrew Sullivan to donor-funded think tanks like
- Heritage and
- Cato, an entire intellectual infrastructure was shaping the national narrative for what became Third Way Clintonism well before the Clinton era began. Yet most of these people and institutions do not even appear in Kornacki’s index, or if they do, they’re curtly dispensed with in one or two lines.
.. It’s possible that with Donald Trump’s attacks on the press (and with some people using criticism of “the media” as an anti-Semitic dog whistle), Kornacki didn’t want to even go there.
.. But a book on 1990s polarization that omits Steve Jobs, Roger Ailes, and Bill Gates from its index? One that effectively ignores the O.J. trial, Maureen Dowd’s gendered, campy, sexist (certainly by today’s standards), Pulitzer-winning coverage of Monicagate, and Clarence Thomas vs. Anita Hill?
.. writers as far apart as Ann Coulter and Eric Alterman blamed Al Gore’s loss in 2000 on the media’s hatred of him (and his hatred of them)?
.. Limbaugh’s pioneering tactic (soon perfected by Gingrich, Coulter, and Karl Rove) of branding anyone whose politics were even slightly to the left of, say, Sandra Day O’Connor or Dianne Feinstein, as a Loony Liberal, Radical Leftist, or Femi-Nazi. From Clinton and Dubya well into the Obama years, red-meat conservatives intentionally fuzzed the line between corporate social-liberals and the true hard left of Michael Moore, Pacifica Radio, and Thomas Frank, and Kornacki captures their strategy perfectly... Aside from the Obamas themselves, no other politician would even remotely disrupt or challenge Clintonistas’ hold on the Democratic party for another ten or 15 years. But Clintonism could only continue as long as the true far-left remained repressed, and as long as the economy kept humming... When a fist-shaking socialist senator from Vermont lined up an army of Millennials in formation behind him eight years after the dawn of the Great Recession caused in no small part by Clinton-era financial policy, it became crystal clear that Newt Gingrich had won the war... When they exited the White House, the Clintons left behind a Democratic party that working class, rural, and/or religious whites had become almost allergic to, one more dependent on African-American and Latino voters than ever... Donald Trump cruised to triumph in 2016 using all of the dog whistles and wedge issues that Gingrich, Rove, Buchanan, and Ross Perot had refined to perfection... And just as education-conscious, socially liberal white professionals reacted against Gingrich’s and Buchanan’s reactionary rhetoric in the late ’90s, Trump’s Republican party has now been effectively evicted from places as once-synonymous with the GOP as Long Island, Maine, New Jersey, San Diego, and Orange County.
Hugh Hefner absolutely revolutionized the persona of the American male. In the post-World War II era, men’s magazines were about hunting and fishing or the military, or they were like Esquire, erotic magazines with a kind of European flair.
.. Hefner reimagined the American male as a connoisseur in the continental manner, a man who enjoyed all the fine pleasures of life, including sex. Hefner brilliantly put sex into a continuum of appreciative response to jazz, to art, to ideas, to fine food. This was something brand new. Enjoying fine cuisine had always been considered unmanly in America. Hefner updated and revitalized the image of the British gentleman, a man of leisure who is deft at conversation — in which American men have never distinguished themselves — and the art of seduction, which was a sport refined by the French.
.. Hefner’s new vision of American masculinity was part of his desperate revision of his own Puritan heritage. On his father’s side, he descended directly from William Bradford, who came over on the Mayflower and was governor of Plymouth Colony, the major settlement of New England Puritans... What Playboy doesn’t know about well-educated, upper-middle-class women with bitter grievances against men could fill a book! I don’t regard Gloria Steinem as an expert on any of the human appetites, sexuality being only one of them. Interviews with Steinem were documenting from the start how her refrigerator contained nothing but two bottles of carbonated water. Steinem’s philosophy of life is extremely limited by her own childhood experiences. She came out of an admittedly unstable family background. I’m so tired of that animus of hers against men, which she’s been cranking out now for decade after decade. I come from a completely different Italian-American background — very food-centric and appetite-centric. Steinem, with that fulsomely genteel WASP persona of hers, represents an attitude of malice and vindictiveness toward men that has not proved to be in the best interest of young women today... Gloria Steinem, Susan Faludi, all of those relentlessly ideological feminists are people who have wandered away from traditional religion and made a certain rabid type of feminist rhetoric their religion. And their fanaticism has poisoned the public image of feminism and driven ordinary, mainstream citizens away from feminism... I hugely admired the early role that Steinem played in second-wave feminism because she was very good as a spokesperson in the 1970s. She had a very soothing manner that made it seem perfectly reasonable for people to adopt feminist principles. She normalized the image of feminism when there were a lot of crazy feminists running around (like Valerie Solanas, who shot Andy Warhol). That was Steinem’s great contribution, as far as I’m concerned. Also, I credit her for co-founding Ms. magazine and thereby contributing that very useful word, Ms., to the English language, which allows us to refer to a woman without signaling her marital status. I think that’s a tremendous accomplishment.But aside from that, Steinem is basically a socialite who always hid her early dependence on men in the social scene in New York.
.. I have always felt that feminism should transcend party politics and be a big tent welcoming women of faith and of all views into it. Also, I hold against Steinem her utter, shameless hypocrisy during the Bill Clinton scandal. After promoting sexual harassment guidelines, which I had also supported since the 1980s, Steinem waved away one of the worst cases of sexual harassment violation that can ever be imagined — the gigantic gap of power between the President of the United States and an intern! All of a sudden, oh, no, it was all fine, it was “private.” What rubbish! That hypocrisy by partisan feminist leaders really destroyed feminism for a long time.
.. hat Hefner espoused and represented — the art of seduction, where a man, behaving in a courtly, polite and respectful manner, pursues a woman and gives her the time and the grace and the space to make a decision of consent or not
.. Instead, what we have today, after Playboy declined and finally disappeared off the cultural map, is the coarse, juvenile anarchy of college binge drinking, fraternity keg parties where undeveloped adolescent boys clumsily lunge toward naive girls who are barely dressed in tiny miniskirts and don’t know what the hell they want from life. What possible romance or intrigue or sexual mystique could survive such a vulgar and debased environment as today’s residential campus social life?
.. Today’s hook-up culture, which is the ultimate product of my generation’s sexual revolution, seems markedly disillusioning in how it has reduced sex to male needs, to the general male desire for wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am efficiency, with no commitment afterwards. We’re in a period of great sexual confusion and rancor right now. The sexes are very wary of each other. There’s no pressure on men to marry because they can get sex very easily in other ways.
.. What Hefner’s death forces us to recognize is that there is very little glamour and certainly no mystery or intrigue left to sex for most young people. Which means young women do not know how to become women. And sex has become just another physical urge that can be satisfied like putting coins into a Coke machine.
.. But if feminism means anything, it should be encouraging young women to take control of every aspect of their sex lives, including their own impulses, conflicts and disappointments. That’s what’s tragic about all this. Young women don’t seem to realize that in demanding adult inquiry into and adjudication of their sex lives, they are forfeiting their own freedom and agency.
.. there are so many hugely rich women stars in movies and music who should be using their millions to fund the creation of production companies precisely for the kind of hiring that they want. All those wealthy performers with their multiple houses — how about selling one of them? And let them do whatever feminist projects they want and see if they can sell it to the general public.
.. Multiplying like bunnies: Hefner was making a strange kind of joke about the entire procreative process.
.. I think feminism is wildly wrong when it portrays men as the oppressor, when in fact men, as I have argued in my books, are always struggling for identity against the enormous power of women.
.. Hefner created his own universe of sexuality, where there was nothing threatening. It’s a kind of childlike vision, sanitizing all the complexities and potential darkness of the sexual impulse. Everybody knows that Hefner’s sexual type was the girl next door, in other words, the corn-fed, bubbly American girl who stays at the borderline of womanhood but never crosses it.
.. Hefner’s women may have been uncomplex as personalities, but they were always warm and genuine. I never found them particularly erotic. I much preferred the Penthouse style of women, who were more femme fatales. Hefner’s bunnies were a major departure from female mythology, where women were often portrayed as animals of prey — tigresses and leopards. Woman as cozy, cuddly bunny is a perfectly legitimate modality of eroticism. Hefner was good-natured but rather abashed, diffident, and shy. So he recreated the image of women in palatable and manageable form. I don’t see anything misogynist in that. What I see is a frank acknowledgment of Hefner’s fear of women’s actual power.
In a wide-ranging interview Paglia talks about Donald Trump’s successes, how Chuck Schumer emboldened the “resistance,” why the left can’t condemn Islamist terrorism, and “the cold biological truth that sex changes are impossible.”..Camille Paglia: Some background is necessary. First of all, I must make my political affiliations crystal clear. I am a registered Democrat who voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary and for Jill Stein in the general election. Since last Fall, I’ve had my eye on Kamala Harris, the new senator from California, and I hope to vote for her in the next presidential primary... What seems forgotten is that everyone, including the Hillary Clinton campaign, thought that Marco Rubio would be the Republican nominee. The moment was ideal for a Latino candidate with national appeal who could challenge the Democratic hold on Florida... Trump’s frankly arrogant self-confidence spooked and crushed Rubio—it was a total fiasco... My position continues to be that Hillary, with her supercilious, Marie Antoinette-style entitlement, was a disastrously wrong candidate for 2016 and that she secured the nomination only through overt chicanery by the Democratic National Committee, assisted by a corrupt national media who, for over a year, imposed a virtual blackout on potential primary rivals... Bernie Sanders had the populist passion, economic message, government record, and personal warmth to counter Trump...Despite his history of embarrassing gaffes, the affable, plain-spoken Joe Biden, in my view, could also have defeated Trump, but he was blocked from running at literally the last moment by President Barack Obama, for reasons that the major media refused to explore... the election results plainly demonstrated that Trump was speaking to vital concerns (jobs, immigration, and terrorism among them) for which the Democrats had few concrete solutions... How do Democrats imagine they can ever expand their electoral support if they go on and on in this self-destructive way, impugning half the nation as vile racists and homophobes?.. I see no more chaos than was abundantly present during the first six months of both the Clinton and Obama administrations... Trump seems to be methodically trying to fulfill his campaign promises, notably regarding the economy and deregulation.. Many highly educated, upper-middle-class Democrats regard themselves as exemplars of “compassion” (which they have elevated into a supreme political principle) and yet they routinely assail Trump voters as ignorant, callous hate-mongers... The laborers who build and maintain these marvels are recognized only if they can be shoehorned into victim status... Liberalism of the 1950s and ’60s exalted civil liberties, individualism, and dissident thought and speech. “Question authority” was our generational rubric when I was in college. But today’s liberalism has become grotesquely mechanistic and authoritarian: It’s all about reducing individuals to a group identity, defining that group in permanent victim terms, and denying others their democratic right to challenge that group and its ideology. Political correctness represents the fossilized institutionalization of once-vital revolutionary ideas, which have become mere rote formulas. It is repressively Stalinist, dependent on a labyrinthine, parasitic bureaucracy to enforce its empty dictates... Knowledge of the great world religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Judeo-Christianity, Islam—is the true multiculturalism. Everyone should have a general familiarity with the beliefs, texts, rituals, art, and shrines of all the major religions. Only via a direct encounter with the Qu’ran and Hadith, for example, can anyone know what they say about jihad and how those strikingly numerous passages have been interpreted in different ways over time... she argues among other things, that the pharmaceutical industry, having lost income when routine estrogen therapy for menopausal women was abandoned because of its health risks, has been promoting the relatively new idea of transgenderism in order to create a permanent class of customers who will need to take prescribed hormones for life... The cold biological truth is that sex changes are impossible. Every single cell of the human body remains coded with one’s birth gender for life. Intersex ambiguities can occur, but they are developmental anomalies that represent a tiny proportion of all human births.