So I pay a weekend visit to Brown University, and Camille Paglia is giving a lecture. (She's the "post-feminist" whose book Sexual Personae irked feminists by suggesting that gender and art are rooted in nature rather than mere patriarchal social codes.) It turns out Paglia's not only against the intervention of the state in matters of sex, drugs, and economics but is actively "pro-pornography and pro-prostitution." ("Post-porn" performer Annie Sprinkle defended pornography and prostitution a few days later at Brown—in keeping with the politics-and-bisexual-women theme of my weekend—but for some reason she doesn't seem to anger the leftists.)
Naturally, I was delighted with Paglia, but I probably shouldn't have been surprised—and I don't just mean because Paglia praises capitalism within the first three pages of Sexual Personae. I should have expected great things from Paglia because she has so many enemies at Brown University. Brown has been functioning as a useful detector of greatness in this way at least since the anti-P.J. O'Rourke protest there in 1988.
Paglia's opposition included angry, sometimes hissing, feminists in the audience, whose jeers she in some sense deserved, tending as she did to shout at her opponents and call them brainwashed toadies. What she didn't deserve—and what was far stranger—were flyers from the International Socialist Organization and Teachers for a Democratic Culture that were distributed outside the lecture hall by students who called Paglia a token "voicebox for the right, like Dinesh D'Souza." One student suggested Paglia is simply one more tool of the Reagan-Bush establishment, bent on denying equal access to health care, education, and employment for women and people of color, which is interesting, since she spends all her time talking about art and literature.
What would the meeting where the conservative establishment plotted to unleash Paglia sound like? I wonder. Perhaps John Sununu was sitting at a White House staff meeting a year ago and said, "What we need is a bisexual literature professor who loves Nietzsche, Oscar Wilde, and the Marquis de Sade, who compares herself to Madonna and a gay man in a woman's body, calls herself a 'vampire resurrected from the dead to take revenge' on academic feminism, deplores semiotics and French literary theory, praises our society's latent paganism, and calls on us to examine the cthonian nature of gender construction. Send a memo to Quayle—I think someone on his staff might fit the bill."
Actually, I think Paglia embodies two trends, neither of them Republican plots: the tendency of people who can't take either the right or the left seriously (like humorist Dave Barry) to end up as libertarians and the growing tendency of people to look to nature and biology, instead of ideology, to explain society. Examples of the latter trend include not only the book Bionomics and several works on the idea that ethics have evolved from instincts but also the films of David Cronenberg and David Lynch, both of whom take heat from feminists for their attempts to depict the brutal organic matrix at work beneath the veil of society. (And you thought those scenes of exploding heads and deformed babies were strictly there to horrify—shows what you know.)
In any case, I think it's valuable to have a libertarian among us who has opinions on cultural matters instead of just economics. Paglia gives one hope that diverse cultural threads, from the psychedelic '60s to conservatism to avant-garde art can be claimed by libertarians, that political libertarians can appeal to a broad cultural spectrum the way F.A. Hayek's work appeals to a broad philosophical spectrum.
On the down side, Paglia can be as nuts as Nietzsche and has some unsympathetic things to say about date-rape victims. And even libertarians aren't necessarily going to embrace her—look at the review Sexual Personae got in the December REASON, or worse, at the letter in the April issue that says no libertarian should be interested in reading Sexual Personae anyway.
Well, I'll just point out that she's getting more press coverage than, say, California's pollution-trading program or privatization in Sweden. Could it be that the public is more interested in art and sex than in property rights?
Todd Seavey is a writer in New York City.