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!”
Suffering is inevitable, they said, but how we respond to that suffering is our choice. Not even oppression or occupation can take away this freedom to choose our response.
As our dialogue progressed, we converged on eight pillars of joy.
Four were qualities of the mind:
- humor, and
Four were qualities of the heart:
- compassion, and
When we practice a generosity of spirit, we are in many ways practicing all the other pillars of joy. In generosity, there is a wider perspective [italics mine], in which we see our connection to all others. There is a humility that recognizes our place in the world and acknowledges that at another time we could be the one in need, whether that need is material, emotional, or spiritual. There is a sense of humor and an ability to laugh at ourselves so that we do not take ourselves too seriously. There is an acceptance of life, in which we do not force life to be other than what it is. There is a forgiveness of others and a release of what otherwise might have been. There is a gratitude for all that we have been given. Finally, we see others with a deep compassion and a desire to help those who are in need. And from this comes a generosity that is “wise selfish,” a generosity that recognizes helping others as helping ourselves. As the Dalai Lama put it, “In fact, taking care of others, helping others, ultimately is the way to discover your own joy and to have a happy life.”
Thank you, Madiba, for pardoning my family, me, the whites of South Africa. You’re 100, so let’s celebrate your example... Anyone harboring the dangerous illusion of humanity’s perfectibility should remember: A tourist stole Nelson Mandela’s spoon... The spoon-stealers are out there. Sometimes it seems these thieves with their airs, their acquisitive self-importance and their capacity for cruelty to children, are taking over the world... The 27 years stolen from Mandela by people with white skins, the suffering inflicted on tens of millions of black South Africans over decades, would not be repaid in blood.
Perhaps white South Africans, like my family, got off too lightly. Theirs was a “picnic in a beautiful graveyard,” as Nadine Gordimerwrote.
.. They could say, “I never voted for torture!” and forget their complicity in South African policing by pigment — the segregated schools, the forced removal of blacks from their homes, the banishment of blacks to invisible townships of dust and drudgery... A cry rises from young blacks directed at whites — “Expropriation without compensation!” It’s popular enough to have an acronym, “EWC.”.. Yet most Jews went along with apartheid — by no means all, however, including several of Mandela’s lawyers. There are more bystanders than heroes in times of oppression. That’s part of the survival gene — even if humanity’s ultimate survival depends on the few who will resist... Then I ask him if whites got off too easily.
“Mandela forgave them,” he says. “We must trust him. If the people who suffered most forgave, why shouldn’t we?” You feel no anger? “None whatsoever.”
.. Don’t worry, you’re 100, we’ll find that spoon thief. Their kind will not inherit the earth.
The mystery of forgiveness is God’s ultimate entry into powerlessness. Withholding forgiveness is a form of power over another person, a way to manipulate, shame, control, and diminish another. God in Jesus refuses all such power.
If Jesus is the revelation of what’s going on inside the eternal God (see Colossians 1:15), which is the core of the Christian faith, then we are forced to conclude that God is very humble. This God never seems to hold rightful claims against us. Abdicating what we thought was the proper role of God, this God “has thrust all our sins behind his back” (see Isaiah 38:17).
For eight years they watched you relentlessly demonize a black President; a man faithfully married for 26 years; a doting father and husband without a hint of moral scandal or the slightest whiff of infidelity.
They watched you deny his personal faith convictions, argue his birthplace, and assail his character—all without cause or evidence. They saw you brandish Scriptures to malign him and use the laziest of racial stereotypes in criticizing him.
And through it all, White Evangelicals—you never once suggested that God placed him where he was,
you never publicly offered prayers for him and his family,
you never welcomed him to your Christian Universities,
you never gave him the benefit of the doubt in any instance,
you never spoke of offering him forgiveness or mercy,
your evangelists never publicly thanked God for his leadership,
your pastors never took to the pulpit to offer solidarity with him,
you never made any effort to affirm his humanity or show the love of Jesus to him in any quantifiable measure.
You violently opposed him at every single turn—without offering a single ounce of the grace you claim as the heart of your faith tradition. You jettisoned Jesus as you dispensed damnation on him.
And yet today, you openly give a “mulligan” to a white Republican man so riddled with depravity, so littered with extramarital affairs, so unapologetically vile, with such a vast resume of moral filth—that the mind boggles.
And the change in you is unmistakable. It has been an astonishing conversion to behold: a being born again.
With him, you suddenly find religion.
With him, you’re now willing to offer full absolution.
With him, all is forgiven without repentance or admission.
With him you’re suddenly able to see some invisible, deeply buried heart.
With him, sin has become unimportant, compassion no longer a requirement.
With him, you see only Providence.
They see that pigmentation and party are your sole deities.
They see that you aren’t interested in perpetuating the love of God or emulating the heart of Jesus.
They see that you aren’t burdened to love the least, or to be agents of compassion, or to care for your Muslim, gay, African, female, or poor neighbors as yourself.
They see that all you’re really interested in doing, is making a God in your own ivory image and demanding that the world bow down to it.
They recognize this all about white, Republican Jesus—not dark-skinned Jesus of Nazareth.
And I know you don’t realize it, but you’re digging your own grave in these days; the grave of your very faith tradition.
Your willingness to align yourself with cruelty is a costly marriage. Yes, you’ve gained a Supreme Court seat, a few months with the Presidency as a mouthpiece, and the cheap high of temporary power—but you’ve lost a whole lot more.
You’ve lost an audience with millions of wise, decent, good-hearted, faithful people with eyes to see this ugliness.
You’ve lost any moral high ground or spiritual authority with a generation.
You’ve lost any semblance of Christlikeness.
You’ve lost the plot.
And most of all you’ve lost your soul.
What is going to happen to American Evangelicalism in the wake of the Roy Moore defeat? Christianity Today editor Mark Galli, in an editorial, says nothing good.Excerpts:
No matter the outcome of today’s special election in Alabama for a coveted US Senate seat, there is already one loser: Christian faith. When it comes to either matters of life and death or personal commitments of the human heart, no one will believe a word we say, perhaps for a generation. Christianity’s integrity is severely tarnished.
.. The Christian leaders who have excused, ignored, or justified his unscrupulous behavior and his indecent rhetoric have only given credence to their critics who accuse them of hypocrisy.
.. David Brody, a correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network, has noted the desperation and urgency felt throughout much of conservative Christianity. “The way evangelicals see the world, the culture is not only slipping away—it’s slipping away in all caps, with four exclamation points after that. It’s going to you-know-what in a handbasket.” The logic is then inexorable: “Where does that leave evangelicals? It leaves them with a choice. Do they sacrifice a little bit of that ethical guideline they’ve used in the past in exchange for what they believe is saving the culture?”
.. If evangelical means that, it has serious ramifications for the work of Christians and churches.”
That notion is bewildering to evangelical leaders who see Mr. Trump as their champion. They say that Mr. Trump has given them more access than any president in recent memory, and has done more to advance their agenda, by appointing judges who are likely to rule against abortion and gay rights; by channeling government funds to private religious schools; by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel; and by calling for the elimination of the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits churches and charitable groups from endorsing political candidates.
.. “I believe that God answered our prayers in a way we didn’t expect, for a person we didn’t even necessarily like,” said Stephen E. Strang, author of “God and Donald Trump” and founder of Charisma Media, a Christian publishing house.
“Christians believe in redemption and forgiveness, so they’re willing to give Donald Trump a chance,” said Mr. Strang, who is a member of the president’s informal council of evangelical advisers. “If he turns out to be a lecher like Bill Clinton, or dishonest in some kind of way, in a way that’s proven, you’ll see the support fade as quick as it came.”
Mr. Strang said that those who talk about Mr. Trump tarnishing the evangelical brand “are not really believers — they’re not with us, anyway.”
.. You cannot underestimate the impact of being raised to think that morality was so important that impeachment was justified, and then see the very same people who instilled that belief in you to jump into bed with Donald Trump–a man just as morally debauched as Clinton, but without the advantage of competency or even enough of a sense of decency to know that his lecherous behavior isn’t something to brag about.
.. The key problem is in, as Galli says it, “the desperation and urgency felt throughout much of conservative Christianity.” The New Testament tells us repeatedly, in many different ways and through the examples of the apostles, that Christians should not fear or worry — and certainly not feel desperation! — even in the face of persecution. I was glad to see that he addressed the proper scriptural ways of dealing with such situations: turning the other cheek, forgiving, and doing good to our enemies.
Christians who rationalize compromising our testimony out of desperation are simply not trusting the one they claim to follow.
.. for the first time I can remember, the appearance of Danielite and Johannine apocalyptic imagery in both sermons and discussions on the left. (This isn’t entirely unwelcome, and I think it’s totally appropriate about environmental stewardship, but I am more interested in seeing the left pull the right out of their foxhole than in the left digging our own.)
.. “evangelical” seems to have been co-opted as a political label and makes no distinction between a theological disposition and a cultural identifier. It seems, anymore, to simply mean “non-mainline Protestants,”
.. The older Evangelicals are treading on dangerous ground and alienating their next generation by putting political power over living by Christ’s example.
.. The fault line in the schism is whether one takes a culture war-dominionist posture or faithful minority counterculture posture. This fault line — which also divides Christian generations — has lain hidden for a while, but Trump has exposed it, because the dominionists think they can use the Strongman for their own purposes and, maybe, by being his chaplaincy, even make a true believer of him.
The counterculturalists — usually younger evangelicals — think that’s a delusional misreading both of Trump and of the actual standing of Christianity in our nation, and that in the meantime going all-in with this Administration means shredding theological clarity and moral credibility.
.. In terms of Trump he is politician and in a rare moment of listening to his advisers, Paul Manafort was right that Mike Pence was correct choice for VP to ensure the evangelical vote came out for him.
.. But as they explain it, it was because of the supreme court, lesser of two evils, etc. Fine. I get that. What I don’t get is people trying to make Trump out to be the last best hope for the evangelical church.
.. In this sense, Trump and Roy Moore are in the tradition of the Emperor Constantine, whose interest in Christianity was purely for its use as a political tool. Ever since Constantine, there have always been Machiavellian leaders who used the Church for their own cynical purposes, and there will always be such leaders.
.. I suspect “evangelicals” were among the many “Christians” a few years ago who professed to see no contradiction between Christianity and the ideas of Ayn Rand. In other words, many self-identified “evangelicals” are really just identifying their cultural background, not their theology. (And they don’t know their theology.)
.. However, I think that evagelicals were already hated by elite culture
.. “There is no way we can please them, they are going to hate us no matter what. We might as well support the bad ass who will fight for us, or at least not ramp up the persecution of elite culture against us.”
.. This strategy will also most likely fail, since Trump is likely to fail, and horribly. But I understand the despair and desperation that motivates it.
.. I’m one such libertarian, who recently left the PCA for the ECUSA. I felt that the social conservatives were becoming a professional liability for me. If I agreed with them, that would be fine. But I don’t. I don’t believe in criminalizing early-term abortion and I’m fine with civil same-sex marriage. And I’m not willing to suffer socially for views that I don’t hold and that IMO represent bad policy.
The forgiveness we truly need goes beyond forgiveness for this or that transgression. Ultimately, we each need universal, cosmic forgiveness for being who I am and for reality being what it is.
.. And, remember, in that inspired story of Adam and Eve, it is God who “made tunics of skins to clothe them” and take away their shame and sense of separateness (Genesis 3:21). God reminds them of the unified field, or “the house of belonging” as poet David Whyte loves to call it , even as they depart the garden of innocence and naivety.