True thinkers are those capable of provoking in their readers and listeners the ability to think outside of ordinary life, to look beyond the merely conventional, and to understand that tensions, contradictions, and nuances are part of the process of growing. Camille Paglia gets it all and much more in the new collection of her essays in Provocations (Pantheon, 2018), a title that could not have been better chosen.
Paglia is a feminist, atheist, and lesbian arts professor, sympathetic to Bernie Sanders, and with a Catholic blue-collar background — which she loves. But make no mistake, what Paglia says or writes would not give you a hint of her politics, and nothing she thinks could be attributed to a self-identified leftist in the age of political correctness — which she hates. Paglia achieves this feat because she is an endangered species: a rigorous intellectual.
I encountered Paglia for the first time when she gave a controversial interview to a Brazilian magazine. The headline could not have been more catching: “Feminist writer says feminine values have triumphed and this is awful for our civilization.” Since then I have read practically all of her books — all but Break, Blow, Burn — and follow her videos on YouTube. It may seem a contradiction for a conservative Catholic to appreciate a libertarian feminist writer, but how many of you have ever seen an atheist write the following about the Bible?
I respect the Bible as one of the world’s greatest books, based on a magnificent body of oral poetry. It is a fundamental text that everyone, atheist or believer, should know. It speaks profoundly to everyone at each stage of life. And of course, its hero sagas, from Moses to Christ, have been absorbed into the Western fine arts tradition. (Provocations, p. 495)
Keep in mind that nowadays many are those who want to exclude the Bible (and other books) on the charge of being homophobic, sexist, racist or whatever.
Paglia has a lot to say about everything, but let me give you a summary of her thoughts.
Paglia considers herself an old-style feminist who believes in equal freedoms for men and women but also believes that biological reality imposes insuperable gender differences. In other words, women and men are essentially different and there is nothing wrong with that. Modern feminism for her is an exercise in social engineering pushed by spoiled daughters of the bourgeois middle class, who aim to replace their biological fathers by state paternalism. These feminists do not want freedom, they want serfdom.
Provocations has 74 different essays and interviews dealing with a multitude of subjects. Politics, arts, gender, religion are all treated with humor and from a unique perspective. Nonetheless, it is as a free speech advocate that Paglia excels.
As a veteran of more than four decades of college teaching, almost entirely at art schools, my primary disappointment is with American faculty, the overwhelming majority of whom failed from the start to acknowledge the seriousness of political correctness as an academic issue and who passively permitted a swollen campus bureaucracy, empowered by intrusive federal regulation, to usurp the faculty’s historic responsibility and prerogative to shape the educational mission and to protect the free flow of ideas. The end result, I believe, is a violation of the free speech rights of students as well as faculty.(Provocations, p. 369)
Although I believe that Paglia is sincere when she claims to be a “libertarian Democrat,” I think she is right about being libertarian and not so much about being a Democrat, which is a wholly collectivist party.
As I have always suspected, and as she implies in On Ayn Rand, she belongs to the American female libertarian tradition, unique in the world, which had names like Ayn Rand, Suzanne La Follette, and Isabel Patterson – who, by the way, was in the first edition of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind.
Paglia is above all a scrupulous individualist who, while believing that individuality is the best expression of the inner self, does not despise the religious and communal dimension of the human existence. Quite the contrary, her view of art is almost traditionalist in following an anti-structuralist and anti-post-modernist perspective, which nowadays abounds in universities.
Paglia spares no criticism of these nihilistic philosophies imported from Europe which, in her view, are destroying the study of the arts and hijacking the legacy of the 1960s, which she sees as essentially libertarian experience.
The philosophic tradition behind the post-structuralist was bankrupted even before their books arrived on these shores (…) Marxist theory has never been able to adjust the astounding success of the capitalist mass media, but snobbish, censoring, and now hackneyed Marxist formulations like ‘commodification’ are still being drilled into students by followers of the Frankfurt School.
A fundamental problem with the post-structuralist is that they were narrowly French thinkers who were struggling with the limitations of French discourse as, significantly, French political power was waning around the world. (Provocations, p. 424)
According to Paglia, the ideological totalitarianism of political correctness is driven by these European schools which took over American liberalism and, consequently, her own party became captive to bad ideas:
I loathe the grotesquely inflammatory language used for 50 years by many abortion organizations (…) Today’s Democrats have become hypocrites and Pharisees, a smug, clubby establishment concerned with showy, sanctimonious rituals rather than self-critique (…) All fear of ‘offensive’ speech is bourgeois and reactionary. (Provocations, p. 479)
And impetuously she defends the anti-gay icon, Anita Bryant.
The moment when authentic liberalism turned delusional may well have been the Anita Bryant controversy of 1977, when a perky, all-American, over-the-hill singer who hawked orange juice was hounded and destroyed because she said, amid a Florida fight over gay rights, that the Bible condemns homosexuality. The latter point – which seems to me as an atheist historically incontrovertible – was never honestly dealt with by liberals. For years Christian ministers addressing the issue on talk shows were screamed at and silenced by gays, egged on by liberal hosts. The strategy of intimidation was stupidly shortsighted since religious fundamentalism was gaining ground worldwide. (Provocations, p. 480)
What I missed most in this wonderful collection of essays was one or two thoughts about Lionel Trilling, whose work seems to me to be in tune with Paglia’s worldview, or about Harold Bloom, who was her professor at Yale. What annoys me the most is her irrational admiration for Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique travesty. Friedan was a mythomaniac and her work, sheer charlatanism. Paglia, on the other hand, is a rigorous and honest thinker.
An intellectual firebrand like Paglia reminds me of geniuses with a progressive background like Christopher Lasch or Hannah Arendt. Her bold stance against the political correctness and feminist Jacobinism of a political movement like #MeToo immediately refers me back to the days when Arendt bravely published Reflections on Little Rock in the far-left Dissent Magazine, a harsh criticism towards Brown v. Board.
What a conservative can learn from Paglia is how to shed ideological blinkers and embrace freedom of thought. Unlike many on the right, especially neoconservatives, she does not believe in easy answers to problematic human existence. There is nothing authoritative or delusional in her writings. Her struggle for freedom is with irony, humor, wit, and a little pessimism.
The iconoclast Paglia does not advocate stupid and destructive ideas like increasing government power vis-à-vis individual freedoms and does not believe that overcoming prejudice justifies an all-powerful government. Her position is wholly opposed to the aberrations proposed by Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West, for example. Paglia’s love for freedom also prevents her from falling into the ludicrousness of Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, a totalitarian manifesto that seeks to exclude from civic life all those who do not praise liberal democracy.
Read Provocations for love of the contradictory. Read it for love of the controversial. Read it to be challenged. Read Paglia’s new book to honor your own intelligence.
Homepage photo credit: Convidado: Camille Paglia, escritora norte-americana Data: 16 de setembro de 2015 Local: Teatro Cetip – São Paulo Crédito: Greg Salibian. WikiCommons.