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reason: It's more reeducation camp now, right? Camp Wo-Chi-Cha?
Paglia: It's, "Let us hold your hand. Let us give you the incredible gym with exercise equipment. Let's give you the thousand choices in the cafeteria." This has nothing to do with education anymore.
reason: You talked about how in the '90s, your view of feminism, getting rid of legal or de jure restrictions on women's ability rise or fall, cultural equality, things like that burst out, and Madonna is one of the great change agents for you. Talk a little about Madonna's effect on the culture, which we're still feeling. One of the more interesting things that comes up is that before and after Madonna, every popular movie and many popular and artistic novels, it's all about the "Virgin-Whore Complex." A woman can only be a virgin or whore, and in Madonna's wake, it seems the virgin-whore complex, which bedeviled Western Civilization for decades, doesn't seem to really matter anymore.
Paglia: Madonna's great period was 1983 to 1992. She absolutely changed the world. There's no doubt about it. And since then, it's cringe-making when the current Madonna… it's embarrassing.
reason: I think you'll agree that when she started faking the English accent, the real Madonna died (laughs), every bit as much as Elvis died the day he went into the Army.
Paglia: But what Madonna did was to allow young women to flirt with men, to seduce men, to control men. She showed that you could be sexy but at the same time control the negotiations and territory between male and female, and that was really powerful. So now, we're in a period, this is what I don't understand, where women on campus—the institutionalized whining now—that's what it's turned into.
reason: Clarify what's the difference between a legitimate gripe and whining?
Paglia: 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.
reason: So it's those kids over at that other school.
Paglia: It's the grade grubbers, the bright overachievers. I'm not at that kind of school [here at University of the Arts in Philadelphia] . I'm at a school of arts and communication where people already have a vocational trend. To be admitted here, you have to already have demonstrated a vocational aptitude. I'm talking about the Ivy League. 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.
reason: Maybe the university is not the place where that sort of stuff is happening anymore. So, for instance, you have think tanks that do a lot of economic or policy work. You have popular historians who are not academic. Fiction and poetry, even as there's been a rise in for decades now of creative writing programs and what not. Nobody looks to the university to be cutting edge on almost anything really, so maybe it's just that you picked the wrong hors. Maybe you should have followed the campus radicals' suggestion and not gone into academia?
Paglia: [As a] writer of cultural criticism, I find that I'm happiest when I'm writing for the British press, and I write quite a bit for The Sunday Times magazine in London. I find that the general sense of cultural awareness means that I can have an authentic discourse about ideas with international journalists from Brazil or Germany or Italy or Norway or Canada even—somewhat, but they have a P.C. problem themselves. 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.
reason: Is that just a kind of hyper-exaggeration of the American disease, which goes back to early American literary criticism, that we're people who come from nowhere and we don't care about the past. We're freed from the burdens of the past, but we don't care about the past.
Paglia: Yes, I think this is true. The past is always present in Europe. To the extent that you're in Berlin, you can still see the bullet marks on buildings from World War II. And it's a terrible burden to have that there. I think Americans are far more ingenious and open and daring. On the other hand...people abroad have a much more sophisticated idea about [politics and ideology in] Europe because they'll have 13 parties conflicting in parliament and so on. So I think that's been a problem over here—it's either-or. You're either a liberal or a conservative, and what?!? You're combining things from both sides? Then obviously you're a traitor! It's become some sort of religion whether you're a Democrat or a Republican over here. And as you had the first conservative challenge coming from talk radio in the early '90s to the liberal hegemony in the mainstream media, I thought that was a very exciting period, because you start to get the clash of ideas, but now the right itself has become a victim of its own insularity, and I no longer feel that dialogue anymore.
reason: You did not exist in the mid-'60s. Your cultural identity did not exist. And now, there's a million types of people that you can be. You can be a conservative lesbian, you can be polyamorous, you can be bisexual, you can be this, you can be that…
reason: Would you agree that there's been just a massive proliferation of legitimate cultural identities out there? Is that a good thing or a bad thing, and what's driving that move forward?
Paglia: At first, I was very excited about the ethnic identity movement, because I feel very Italian American and have always been in revolt against the WASP style that dominated academe—Leslie Fiedler himself was a victim of this, Harold Bloom was—there weren't any Jews hired in the Yale English department in the mid-1950s, there were quotas on Jewish students admitted to Harvard, all things like that. 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 Personae talks 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.