I am always happy to read a new piece by Camille Paglia. Few American academics have her intellectual courage and integrity.
At times, her views coincide with mine. At times, they are diametrically opposed. But, they are always well-thought out and well expressed.
When it comes to the general condition of today’s college student, she, an active professor, has a much better immediate take on the situation than I do.
For me, her views are something of a reality test.
Yesterday, Reason Magazine released a video in which Paglia was interviewed by Nick Gillespie. For those who have less time, the magazine included a transcript after the video.
Many of Paglia’s most salient remarks concern today’s college students.
She opens with a discussion of the current furor over rape culture. Dare I say, she is not sympathetic to the notion that women, in particular, should not feel responsible for the consequences of their behavior.
She is not saying that women should not be able to do foolish things. She is saying that they should understand that sometimes more foolish actions lead to very bad outcomes.
In Paglia’s words:
I'm talking about this new reclassification of people getting drunk, going on a date, going to fraternity houses, and women not taking responsibility for their own behavior. I said that gay men for thousands of years have been going out and having sex with strangers everywhere. They know they can be beaten up. They know they can be killed. What is this where women are, "Oh, we must be protected against even our foolish choices. It's up to men to…" This is ridiculous. This is an intrusion into the civil liberties of young people that have this kind of vampiric parent figures and the administrators hovering, watching, supervising people's sex lives. In Europe, there's nothing like this. There's no idea that the University of Paris is concerned about the dating lives of damn students.
Well, in my point of view, no college administration should be taking any interest whatever in the social lives of the students. None! If a crime's committed on campus, it should always be reported to the police. I absolutely do not agree with any committees investigating any charge of sexual assault. Either it's a real crime, or it's not a real crime. Get the hell out. So you get this expansion of the campus bureaucracy with this Stalinist oversight. But the students have been raised with helicopter parents. They want it. The students of today—they're utterly uninformed, not necessarily at my school, the art school, I'm talking about the elite schools.
If universities should not be in the business of policing student behavior, they should be in the business of forming young minds. There, according to Paglia, they have failed miserably:
Now, I've encountered these graduates of Harvard, Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, and Princeton, I've encountered them in the media, and people in their 30s now, some of them, their minds are like Jell-O. They know nothing! They've not been trained in history. They have absolutely no structure to their minds. Their emotions are unfixed. The banality of contemporary cultural criticism, of academe, the absolute collapse of any kind of intellectual discourse in the U.S. is the result of these colleges, which should have been the best, have produced the finest minds, instead having retracted into caretaking. The whole thing is about approved social positions in a kind of misty, love of humanity without any direct knowledge of history or economics or anthropology.
A wondrous image: minds like jello. Insubstantial, unstructured, incapable of dealing with ideas … quivering with deep feeling about nothing in particular.
I can feel the vacuum and the nothingness of American cultural criticism at the present time. It is impossible—any journalist today, an American journalist, you cannot have any kind of deep discussion of ideas.
Of course, Paglia, a self-professed lesbian has been deeply involved in the debate over sexuality. As it happens, she is none too pleased with today’s open discussion and debate about everyone’s sexual proclivities, propensities and behaviors.
To her decidedly un-jello-like mind, it’s not about what people do in the privacy of their boudoirs but the fact that the topic of sexuality is so openly discussed in public. She does not say it, but she implies that people should be identified by their face, not by the shape of their genitalia.
She sees it as a sign of decadence, of a civilization in decline:
But over time, what's happened, I think, is that gender identity has become really almost fascist. It's to me a very shrunk and miniaturized way of perceiving your position in the world and in the universe. There [comes] a time when these fine gradations of gender identity—I'm a male trans doing this, etc.—this is a symbol of decadence, I'm sorry. Sexual Personaetalks about this, that was in fact the inspiration for it, was that my overview of history and my noticing that in late phases, you all of a sudden get a proliferation of homosexuality, of sadomasochism, or gendered games, impersonations and masks, and so on. I think we're in a really kind of late phase of culture.
And so what's happening is everyone's so busy busy busy with themselves with this narcissistic sense of who they are in terms of sexual orientation or gender, and this intense gender consciousness, woman consciousness at the same time, and meanwhile…
Quite correctly, Paglia understands that the current sense that you can choose your gender identity has nothing to do with reality. It lacks a biological referent:
But I think most of the problems as I perceive them in my students and so on, is that there's this new obsession with where you are on this wide gender spectrum. That view of gender seems to me to be unrealistic because it's so divorced from any biological referent. I do believe in biology, and I say the first paragraph of Sexual Personae that sexuality is an intricate intersection of nature and culture, but what's happened now is that they way the universities are teaching, it's nothing but culture and nothing's from biology. It's madness! It's a form of madness, because women who want to marry and have children are going to have to encounter their own hormonal realities at a certain point.
As for education, she, as I, believes in the canon, the great works of literature and philosophy. And she bemoans the fact that the pogrom called deconstruction has made it impossible to teach them any more:
The humanities destroyed themselves with veering toward postmodernism and post-structuralism. It's over. They've been completely marginalized by deconstruction, by questioning, undermining, and throwing out the whole idea of the genius, of the master of great works of art. I believe that there are great works of art. I do not believe that the canon is produced by critics sitting in a room testifying to their own power. I believe the canon is created by other artists. You identify the canon by who had the greatest influence on other artists over time. That is the story. The whole historical tradition, the linear line, which I absolutely believe in in terms of art history, has been discarded. The survey courses are being abandoned. Graduate students are not being trained even to think in large terms anymore. They have no sense of history.
The results, she continues, are on display in the kids of cultural criticism you see in the media:
I've tried to find interesting pieces of cultural criticism on the web and in the magazines and so on, and I find them horribly written, verbose, meandering all over the place, solipsistic, and so on. I read the comments, and now and then, there will be some very sharp comments diagnosing exactly what was wrong, but overwhelmingly, the comments are stupid as well. There's an absolute degeneration of American culture that is speeding up.
For good measure, and to brighten up our day, Paglia offers a few choice remarks about Hillary Clinton:
Hillary is a mess. And we're going to reward the presidency to a woman who's enabled the depredations and exploitation of women by that cornpone husband of hers? The way feminists have spoken makes us blind to Hillary's record of trashing [women]. They were going to try to destroy Monica Lewinsky. It's a scandal! Anyone who believe in sexual harassment guidelines should have seen that the disparity of power between Clinton and Monica Lewinsky was one of the most grotesque ever in the history of sex crime. He's a sex criminal! We're going to put that guy back in the White House? Hillary's ridden on his coattails. This is not a woman who has her own career, who's made her own career! The woman who failed the bar exam in Washington! The only reason she went to Arkansas and got a job in the Rose law firm was because her husband was a politician.
It’s always a special joy to read Camille Paglia.