Everything's Awesome and Camille Paglia Is Unhappy!
Growing up as "a gender nonconforming entity" during Eisenhower's America wasn't easy for cultural critic and best-selling author Camille Paglia. Her adolescence in small-town, upstate New York was marked by rejection, rebellion, and cross-dressing—all in reaction to the stultifying social norms of the 1950s and early '60s.
So what does Paglia think of contemporary culture, with its openness to a wide variety of ever-proliferating gender, racial, and sexual identities?
"I do not feel that gender is sufficient to explain all of human life," Paglia tells Reason TV's Nick Gillespie. "This gender myopia, this gender monomania, has become a disease. It's become a substitute for religion. It is impossible that the feminist agenda can ever be the total explanation of human life."
Whether the subject is feminism or the fate of Western civilization, Paglia is no Pollyanna. In this wide-ranging discussion, she says higher education is going to hell, the Fourth Estate is an epic FAIL, millennials are myopic, contemporary criticism has croaked, and Hillary Clinton might singlehandedly destroy the universe. Even Madonna, once Paglia's ideal of sex-positive feminism, seems to have lost her way.
Does the celebrated author of Sexual Personae and Break Blow Burn have any reason to get out of bed in the morning? Does she have any hope for the universe at all? Watch the video to find out.
2:55 – Growing up as a "gender nonconforming entity" in Eisenhower's America.
7:50 – What is feminism? The limits of identity politics.
14:35 – Rape, paternalism, and Madonna on the university campus.
19:30 – How the country club model of university life has debased contemporary cultural criticism.
24:38 – The decadent obsession with cultural identity in the modern world.
29:13 – Authentic multiculturalism and critical theory.
32:42 – Is there any hope for the humanities?
37:25 – Contemporary journalism is bad and it makes politics even worse.
45:18 – What sort of image does a great president project?
47:27 – The importance of "working class people".
51:08 – Hillary Clinton is a disaster. Dianne Feinstein is presidential.
54:46 – What are you optimistic about? Students are more ignorant than ever.
58:16 – Paglia's upcoming work: religion and the paleo-Indian period.
Runs about one hour.
Produced by Todd Krainin. Cameras by Meredith Bragg and Krainin.
Scroll down for downloadable versions and subscribe to Reason TV's YouTube Channel to receive notification when new material goes live.
Reason interviewed Paglia in 1995. Go here to read that conversation with Virginia Postrel.
INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT: This is a rush transcript. Check against video for accuracy.
reason: Let's talk about the state of contemporary feminism. You have been in a public life or in an intellectual life since the late 1960s, a proud feminist, often reviled by other feminists. Gloria Steinem most famously said you were an anti-feminist and that when you denied that, she said that would be like a Nazi saying they're not anti-Semitic. You're mixing it up. What is going on with the state of "professional feminism" in this country. It seems if you look at from, say, the early '70s, things have gotten better for women. Men are less uptight about gender roles. Women are more in the workforce, they get paid equally, sexual assaults and sexual violence are down. In so many ways, things are going better than ever, and yet from sites like Jezebel or Feministing, all you hear is that things have never been worse.
Paglia: Feminism has gone through many phases. Obviously the woman's suffrage movement of the 19th century fizzled after women gained the right to vote through the Constitutional amendment in 1920. Then the movement revived in the late 1960s through Betty Freidan co-founding NOW in 1967. Now, I preceded all that. I'm on record with a letter in Newsweek, I was in high school in 1963, where I called for equal rights for American women and so on. I began thinking about gender, researching it, I loved the generation of Amelia Earhart and all those emancipated women of the '20s and '30s, and because I had started my process of thought about gender so much earlier, I was out of sync with the women's movement when it suddenly burst forth.
reason: It became a huge kind of cultural moment in the late 60s—it had been percolating before…
Paglia: It was literally nothing. There was no political activism of any kind from women getting the right to vote in 1920… when Simone de Beauvoir wrote her great magnum opus, The Second Sex, published in the early 1950s, she was thought to be hopelessly retrograde. Nobody could possibly be interested again in gender issues.
reason: You were living in upstate New York. Did you already know what your sexuality was? What was it like to be a woman, a lesbian, in 1963?
Paglia: Well, the 1950s were a highly conformist period. Gender had repolarized after really great gains it seems to me in the '20s and '30s, and one must be more sympathetic to the situation of my parents' generation. They had known nothing but depression and war throughout their entire lives. My father was a paratrooper, when he got out of the army, everyone married, and I'm the baby boom. They wanted normality. They just wanted to live like real people, man and wife in a home. I found the 1950s utterly suffocating. I was a gender nonconforming entity, and I was signaling my rebellion by these transgender Halloween costumes that were absolutely unheard of. I was five, six, seven, eight years old. My parents allowed me to do it because I was so intent on it.
reason: What were you dressing up as?
Paglia: A Roman solider, the matador from Carmen. My best was Napoleon. I was Hamlet from the Classics Comics book. Absolutely no one was doing stuff like this, and I'm happy that this talk about medical sex changes was not in the air, because I would have become obsessed with that and assumed that that was my entire identity and problem, so this is why I'm very concerned about the rush to surgical interventions today. At any rate, I was attracted to men—I dated men—but I just fell in love with women and always have. Yes, there's absolutely no doubt. I was on the forefront of gay identification. When I arrived at graduate school at Yale 1968-1972, I was the only openly gay person, and I didn't even have a sex life. To me, it was a badge of militance. And I was the only person doing a dissertation on a sexual topic. It's hard to believe this now.
reason: What was the topic?
Paglia: Sexual personae, which was the book finally published in 1990 after being rejected by seven publishers and five agents, and that was unheard of again. I'm delighted I had the sponsorship of Harold Bloom that pushed the topic through the English department, I think possibly that they allowed me to do such a thing on sex was actually kind of amazing.
My clashes with other feminists began immediately. For example, it was 1970 or 1971, there was a feminist conference at the Yale Law School, and major feminists were there including [the author] Rita Mae Brown, who said to me, "The difference between you and me, Camille, is that you want to save the universities, and I want to burn them down." How can you have dialogue with these people? Later she became a rich lesbian novelist and has a horse farm in Virginia. And then I had a screaming fight with the New Haven Women's Liberation Rock Band over The Rolling Stones, because at that time, hard rock was seen as sexist. Now, this argument seems so retrograde.
reason: Although it's true, right? The guitar's a phallus. The rock god is Dionysius. He's not a woman.
Paglia: But at that time, there were no woman musicians. That's why Patti Smith was so radical when she appeared in her Frank Sinatra garb for [photographer and lover Robert] Mapplethorpe on the front of Horses. We had a screaming fight about [the Stones' song] "Under My Thumb." I said, "Yes, yes, the lyrics are sexist, but this is a great song. This is a work of art." And these feminists cornered me with my back against the wall practically spitting in my face saying, "Nothing that demeans woman can be art." Now, as a student of art history, how can you have any dialogue with these people? That is the Nazi and Stalinist view of art, where art is subordinate to a pre-fab political agenda.
Next was the argument over hormones. Again, screaming argument over hormones, which I was told by the founding members of the Women's Studies Department at the State University of New York at Albany, that I had been brainwashed by male scientists to believe that hormones even existed, much less had any role in the shaping of our identity and character. So I was banned from the women's movement from the start, but I kept going on. I was pro-pornography, pro-prostitution on libertarian grounds. For years, my wing of feminism—which had been silenced and ostracized all time by the Steinem wing, the establishment wing, partisans of the Democratic party, my party, but nevertheless, I don't feel that feminism should be subordinated to any party—finally, we rose in the '90s and the pro-sex wing of feminism won in the '90s thanks to Madonna having changed the culture.
reason: For you, what is the essence of feminism? Is it using the lens of gender to explore every given issue? Is it a formal gesture? Is it a methodology, or is it a set of political positions that can't change?
Paglia: I am an equal-opportunity feminist. I believe that all barriers to women's advancement in the social and political realm must be removed. However, I don't feel that gender is sufficient to explain all of human life. This gender myopia has become a disease, a substitute for a religion, this whole cosmic view. It's impossible that the feminist agenda can ever be the total explanation for human life. Our problem now is that this monomania—the identity politics of the 1970s so people see everything through the lens of race, gender, or class—this is an absolute madness, and in fact, it's a distortion of the '60s.
reason: You're not saying that those things—race, class, and gender—which is kind of the holy trinity of contemporary cultural studies, but all of those things are important, and they all intersect in many ways.
Paglia: They are important.
reason: But you're essentially arguing that none of these explain things totally.
Paglia: That's right. These are techniques of social analysis I find very useful. That's the way I teach and write. Race, class, and gender? Absolutely! But the point is that Marxism is, as I argue in the introduction to my last booklet, is not sufficient as a metaphysical system for explaining the cosmos. It is very limited. Marxism sees only society, but we are much greater than that. There's nature, there's eternity, there's questions of mortality, which Catholic theology of the Middle Ages addresses far more profoundly then Marxism ever has.
reason: And of course, one of the foundational texts in feminism, The Dialectic of Sex, but Shulamith Firestone, literally just took class out of the Marxist idea and put in gender and then did the same thing. So you're saying there's some power in those moves, but they're limited.
Paglia: Yes, that's right. They're simply tools. But we should have a large toolbox.
reason: Is that the lesbian in you talking, that you want a large toolbox?
Paglia: No, it's actually ex-Catholic. I'm an atheist, but there's no doubt that I see things theologically, and I was profoundly influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism when I was in college at Harpur College in upstate New York [at SUNY-Binghamton]. These ideas were everywhere. I feel that the '60s had a vision, a large cosmic perspective that was absolutely lost in this degeneration, in this splintering of the 1970s into these identity politics.
reason: Was it just that the revolution eats its own, or is it that there's a shrinking economic pie, so people started grabbing for whatever they could before the Titanic goes down? What explains that kind of narrowing of the cosmic vision?
Paglia: My explanation: I actually wrote an entire essay about the religious vision of America in the 1960s in "Cults and Cosmic Consciousness," and I feel that the real visionary thinkers of my generation destroyed their brains on drugs. I think that LSD just leveled all the truly talented people of my generation.
reason: I have to say that this conversation is over! (laughs) So who were the people who destroyed themselves on drugs?
Paglia: My classmates. I think the authentic imaginations, the really innovative people of my generation, the most daring of my generation took the drug. Now I, for some reason, felt that the LSD was untested, and I did not want to experiment with it. But I was very interested in it. I was interested in all types of "vision quests" at the time. I went up with fellow students [from SUNY-Binghamton] to see Timothy Leary speak at Cornell. I saw him, and it made me uneasy that he the guru with such a crowd around him, but his face was already twitching. I could see that this was not going to end well, and it did not. So when I got to graduate school in 1968, I can attest to the fact that no authentically radical student of the 1960s ever went to graduate school so all that were left were the timeservers, who parasitically [inaudible] on the achievements of the 1960s for heaven's sake. Here's an example: When I had applied to graduate schools, I applied to six or seven schools…
reason: And you didn't get into the one you wanted so you went to Yale?
Paglia: I made the choice for Yale because of the library. I felt that I needed the library. But I also applied to Buffalo and thought of going there. Leslie Fiedler was there. Norman Holland was there, so I could have easily gone to Buffalo. At any rate, I was confronted by the leader of the campus radicals on the quad who said, "I heard you're going to Yale." He said, "You don't do that. In graduate school, that's not worth happening." He did allow that if I were to go to graduate school, I should go to Buffalo. That was the only thing that he permitted. But these people, the idea that there were any tenured radicals—Roger Kimball's phrase—this was not true. Todd Gitlin was the absolute only one.
reason: Todd Gitlin, who was the leader of Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s. So there weren't tenured radicals. There were tenured bureaucrats is essentially what you're saying?
Paglia: So here's the thing: Any authentic leftist, who had a job at a university in the 1970s or '80s or '90s, should have been opposing the entire evolution of the university—that is, toward this administrative bureaucracy that has totally robbed power from the faculty. The total speciousness and fraud of academic leftism is proven by the passivity of these people in every department of the university to that power play that happened. My first job at Bennington, we rose. 1976, we rose, the faculty voted no confidence in the president and to fight back against the board, we rejected the power of the board. And where has there ever been after that any such uprising?
reason: Two things: One is that I actually think you're right that universities travel on their faculty, and various studies have shown that there has not been a growth in the number of faculty, certainly not of tenure-track faculty, but the big growth of employment in universities is in administration.
Paglia: Absolutely. The salaries soared.
reason: If you went to college up through the late '60s to mid-'80s, there was no in loco parentis. There were fewer and fewer required courses. It was a kind of temporary autonomous zone. Then it started getting ratcheted down. And then you hear about the student experience, and it's about required courses and making people think certain things or not express certain things. So much of the focus of undergraduate education seems to be on kind of indoctrinating people into the proper ways of thinking.
Paglia: That's right.
reason: How does this play into this passivity on the part of the faculty? Is it that the faculty wants to see this happen, and so they're happy to have bureaucrats run things?
Paglia: All I can say is that once again, the people who went into teaching, who went to graduate school, are just fowl or sheep as far as I'm concerned. When you look back at the '60s, one of the organizers of this rebellion at Bennington was a veteran of the Columbia University uprising where they took over the president's office and so on. When you look back, there were all these movies made in the '60s and even early '70s about campus uprisings; all the time you have students and faculty occupying the president's office, breaking into the board meeting… Where do we find this? All these radical leftists battening off the universities all these years, decade after decade after decade.
Let me just say something about the in loco parentis because when I arrived in college in 1964, in loco parentis was operative. I was in a girl's dorm. We had a sign-in at 11:00 at night. The boys could run free. They had panty raids. We threw water at them out the windows and so on. My generation of women rose up and said, "Get out of our private lives!" And the university said, "No, the world is dangerous. We must protect you against rape and attack and all those things." And we said, "Give us freedom! Give us freedom to risk rape! That is true freedom!"
reason: Isn't it as true that what they were trying to restrain was not rape, but rather your sexual appetite?
Paglia: I think that they believed they were acting for the parents, that it was their obligation to protect, and this is why I went so much against the grain of contemporary feminists, and when I wrote about the date rape hysteria, I wrote this inflammatory piece for Newsday in 1991 that still I'm still being persecuted about it everywhere. People are still angry about it, and basically what I said was free woman must take personal responsibility for their own sex lives, and keep the authority figures out of your sex life.
reason: And to be clear, in no way is this sanctioning sexual violence.
Paglia: Absolutely not.
reason: What you're talking about is cases where people retroactively reclassified something of a regrettable sexual experience that they would rather not have consented to as rape.
Paglia: I'm talking about date rape, what everyone is talking about right now, about this so-called "rape culture." But that essay that I wrote begins, "Rape is an outrage that cannot be tolerated in any civilized society." That's not what I'm talking about. 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.
reason: Well, they also don't have sports teams, and they don't have dorms.
Paglia: Exactly. It's this residential college thing, this vision of college as this summer camp, this Club Med. This is the folly of American education.
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.
reason: So that the proliferation of cultural identities, the proliferation of all sorts of possibilities is actually a sign that we're…
Paglia: On the verge of collapse? Yes! Western Culture is decline. There's absolutely no doubt about it, in my view, looking at the history of Egypt, of Babylon, of Byzantium, and so on. 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…
reason: Is that also racial or ethnic consciousness as well?
Paglia: Well I think right now, to me, the real obsessions have to do with gender orientation. Although I think there's been this flare-up [regarding race]. I voted for Obama but I've been disappointed. I think we had hoped that he would inaugurate a period of racial harmony, and I think the situation has actually become even worse over recent years. It seems to be overt inflammatory actions by the administration to pit the races against each other, so I think there's a lot of damage that needs to be healed. 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.
reason: Do you see your personal liberation as having helped to grease the skids for decadence, for the collapse of Western Civilization?
Paglia: I have, yes.
reason: Do you feel at all ambivalent about that?
Paglia: I've defined myself as a decadent. One of my first influences was Oscar Wilde. I stumbled on a little book called The Epigrams of Oscar Wilde in a secondhand bookstore in Syracuse, New York when I was like 14 and I was fascinated by his statements. So I am a Wildean, and he identifies himself as a kind of decadent in that period of asceticism.
reason: And certainly he was toward the end of the great hegemony of England as a world power, at least in a cultural sense.
Paglia: Yes, that's true too, the decline of an empire. Absolutely.
reason: So somebody like Leslie Fiedler, who taught for years at Buffalo and before that at the University of Montana, he literally wrote about freaks [and the great widening of American culture]. He did not seem to see it as a sign of decadence, though. Wasn't it kind of a delivery on the promise of an America where you could be an individual and where you could kind of create new forms of existence and new forms of identity?
Paglia: Well, to me, Fiedler was one of the myth critics. Northrop Frye was a huge influence on me, and the myth critics had this enormous view of history and of culture, and it's partly influenced by Jung.
reason: We're talking archetypes here.
Paglia: Yes, and this kind of synchronism, seeing all the religions and cultures of the world, so that broad vision to me is the authentic multiculturalism. Leslie Fiedler had it. There's the formula. He honored also the great writers. He worked in Chaucer, for heaven's sake. He worked in John Donne. He didn't have any fetish about the dead white European myths. He understood that vitality had switched over to America, but he was omnivorous. The people today, what they practice, [versions of New Historicism], I call it this yuppie buffet style—we take a little here, a little this, you juxtapose them, you make cutesy remarks, and that's it. There's no deep learning any longer. That's a Jewish style! The Jewish style of Fiedler or of Harold Bloom is deep erudition.
reason: The movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey is out. It's been accused and valorized for mainstreaming BDSM. It is always remarked upon as, "This is sub-literary. You take Ayn Rand and dumb her down, and you're still a mile above where E.L. James is." Fiedler in particular—and this seems very distinct from someone like Harold Bloom—was famous for talking about the effects [popular and low-brow] texts had on audiences. [Fiedler praised] Gone With the Wind, which was dismissed by "real" critics as chick lit: "It's not really literature, it's certainly not Faulkner, it tells us nothing of the South, etc." Fiedler said, "No, actually, you need to look at a book as meaingful that makes you cry every time you read it" and that has a hold on millions of people. Obviously Sexual Personae, which is a book much like [Fiedler's encyclopedic] Love and Death in the American Novel, which is this incredible work where you're grabbing from high and low… it's an incredibly learned book.
Paglia: Well I've said that Love and Death in the American Novel is the book immediately behind Sexual Personae. This is the next step into the gender area.
reason: You have standards. Your last couple of books, particularly Break, Blow, Burn, which is about great poems. How do you square a great poem with high and low…
Paglia: Bloom absolutely rejects the writers in the last part of my book. Bloom has never accepted the Beats. I was heavily influenced by the Beats, and I love a certain kind of poetry that Bloom thinks is garbage.
reason: And I'm guessing that he's not a big Joni Mitchell fan.
Paglia: (laughs) Probably not. But the point is that I call for standards. In great art, but also popular culture, I say, "This is good. This is not good." I don't think that there's any difference for me from the Fiedler way. I respond to both. I always respond to both. Great art and also Elizabeth Taylor and so on, at a time when she wasn't taken seriously. And I always follow my instincts and the pleasure principle. So I don't see any contradiction.
reason: What would be a way forward for colleges or other institutions to start making a defense of the humanities?
Paglia: Oh, that's hopeless. It's absolutely hopeless. 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. I find there's more sense of history in southern evangelicals who didn't even finish high school because their knowledge of the world is based on the Bible, so they're thinking in terms of, "What happened 2,000 years ago? What happened 2,500 years ago?"
reason: So you think it's impossible to revivify the humanities?
Paglia: How is it going to happen?
reason: Well, I'm asking you. You're making a pretty good case that it's helpful.
Paglia: I want parents to rebel and stop paying these obscene prices. The government is like, "Put all that loan money flush into the colleges and drive up the tuition obscenely, etc." I want to return to vocational education, with people being trained for real jobs.
reason: But that is also totally at odds [with intellectualism]. Isn't that a capitulation to the worst kind of element [that sees college only in terms of job preparation]?
reason: Where then do people talk about ideas?
Paglia: Then it forces universities to pare down this ridiculously overinflated curriculum to what is necessary. I had a very wonderful experience when I was finishing Sexual Personae living in New Haven in the early 1980s. I was teaching these freshmen basic great books literature courses to night classes at the Sikorsky helicopter factory. These are adults who are married with children—some of them were middle-aged. Just getting additional credits. These were night classes—I had to have all these badges to get in with security and whatnot. It was fantastic. This is what should be done. People have to live, to have some way of supporting themselves. This is ridiculous, graduating kids with these crushing debts. And what are we doing? We're releasing them into what? They're going to be working for McDonald's? We should think in terms of careers. We should be about preparing people to get jobs, and not just getting jobs as the Ivy League does in finance or in law, these high-tech professions and so on. No! Right now, it's expected that you go to college. Why? My generation, the baby boomers, were the first where people are talking about college as a "right." It used to be very few people went to college. My father was the first member of his family to go to college. He did it on the G.I. bill. And I am the direct beneficiary of it. But the abandonment of the core curriculum for this cafeteria-style way of education today, where people are just picking out these crazy names for courses…
reason: Yet there's no question that virtually every undergraduate has a much more structured curriculum now. They don't have a lot of options. If you talk to a typical English major, they have many more required courses for just general ed requirements, there are many more required courses than there were in the '70s.
Paglia: Honestly, you're able to graduate with degrees in literature without having read several of the major authors. I just don't think that's true. The survey courses are gone. There are very few places that have the survey courses any longer like an art history course that went two semester starting with cave art and ending with abstract modernism and so on—those have been abandoned, and these are some of the best courses that were ever offered in the American university with this great vision of things, moving chronologically over time, showing influence, and so on. They've been abandoned. And I'm encountering the graduates, and again, their minds are mush! 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.
reason: Talk a little bit about Salon. This offers a kind of fascinating vantage point. We're 20 years on from the beginning of Salon essentially. You were writing for Salon at a time when people like David Horowitz, the left-wing-turned-right-winger, was there. It was a much more kind of ecumenical place. The idea was that people should be interesting. Now, we've hardened into what might be called the politics of exclusion and exhaustion, where you're either a right-winger or a left-winger—you're a Weekly Standard neo-con or a Salon P.C. warrior. You were talking about Democrats and Republicans and how never-the-twain-shall-meet. What is driving that kind of intensification of difference and unwillingness to brook any sort of overlap between political and ideological categories?
Paglia: First of all, what I want to say about Salon is that in its great period, you still had David Talbot, the main founder of Salon, in charge, and David Talbot's mind was very sophisticated and cosmopolitan, and he was interested in the full range of ideas. He had tremendous prescience. This was a great editor. And at a certain point, he retired from management, and I had several very sympathetic editors after that I worked with happily, but what had the sense of the pressure coming as the turn toward this kind of hysterical and one-dimensional political rhetoric came in. It was coming from a few of the co-founders of the magazine.
reason: Who are you talking about?
Paglia: I'd prefer not to mention names. David Talbot's imprint on Salon gradually faded, and what happened was today Salon—it's like a collegiate magazine to me. The headlines are strident. It's like knee-jerk and predictable, and I think it's very sad. I think one of the most tragic declines in the history of the contemporary media is what's happened to Salon.
reason: A libertarian may be poorly defined as socially liberal and fiscally conservative or as socially tolerant and fiscally responsible. Is that a political or ideological position that can actually offer something good to the future?
Paglia: Well it appears that Rand Paul is drawing excited college crowds. It would be interesting to see whether young people have the kind of old style of sense of identification with Democrat or Republican. I have the sense—it's not an entirely comfortable one—that my students have slowly morphed away from even paying attention to politics over the past let's say 15 years. It's worried me, because the crises around the world are actually intensifying, and how are they going to cope as a generation.
reason: Well to go back, you had mentioned that you're a Democrat. I'd assume your parents were Democrats? But you have an intense brand of loyalty.
Paglia: My grandfather's generation was Democrats. My grandfather worked in a factory and they loved Roosevelt and so on, and then that generation, my parents' generation, shifted during the disorders of the 1960s and there was a shift toward the Republican in the '70s and so on, and I've always been a Democrat myself, and I voted for Obama. I remain a registered Democrat. But I voted Green in the last election, so I voted for a woman president already, Jill Stein. And I contributed some money to the Green Party, even though people might think that since I'm a skeptic about global warming, what am I doing, but I honestly still believe that the Green Party is closer to the vision of the 1960s that I remember than what the Democratic Party has become.
reason: When you're talking about students now, is it a bad thing that they forget politics? Because there was a huge element of the '60s revolution, which was like, "Politics? That's old men duking it out and trying to throw our bodies in front of each other." Is it a bad thing? Because one of the promises of libertarianism, really, is that we squeeze politics down to the smallest sphere possible so we can get on with more meaningful parts of our lives.
Paglia: I'm just concerned if you're not interested at all in the news or in political sparring and maneuverings and so on, then how can you possibly have any influence on the future? I'm worried that we're heading toward a kind of Big Brother empire where you have the career politicians at the top in league with the puppet masters of the media, the ability manage the news, the complete drop of journalistic standards now that the newspapers are vanishing. No young person reads a newspaper. That's on the way out. So without staff of investigative reporters, how are you ever going to be able to get in depth stories that might take a year or two to research? So we're in a period now where the people who are reporting and writing the news don't even bother to investigate; they just report what the government official says as if it's the truth. You don't even have a disclaimer like, "Such and such official claimed." The media is acting as a total mouthpiece, and that bothered me in the run up to the Iraq War. I was like the only person who spoke out in Salon at length against the Iraq War. Everyone fell down flat in front of what the government was saying.
reason: But don't you think there are lots of non-traditional news sources? How much of this is that your reading habits are attuned to a previous era's. You have groups like ProPublica, you have The Marshall Foundation, which is headed up by a former New York Times editor that looks at sentencing reform and is doing long-form reporting on criminal justice. You're so relentlessly negative.
Paglia: What you're saying has nothing to do whatever with the main forum of the news! I am constantly monitoring the main forum of things, and it could be this, it could be that… What affects the way the news is being reported on the radio, on the web—AOL putting the main ideas out there, what's on Google News—I'm constantly monitoring the main arenas of things. Then I pursue my own interests in certain areas. I have certain personal interests and so on, but as a teacher, I also am constantly monitoring what my students have heard of and what they know. Constantly. Every day I enter class, I try to start with something that's in the news and I'm able to monitor how aware the students are. And I'm telling you that over the last 15 years, step by step by step, it's getting worse and worse and worse. If I were at Yale or at Harvard, I'm sure the pre-law students are constantly monitoring the news, and they would know exactly what I'm talking about. But I'm not…
reason: And you would hate them…
Paglia: These are the arts! This is the future of the arts and communication here! That's the future of law and finance.
reason: During my tenure at Reason, and I started in 1993, I know that our venue, our audience has grown. Our influence—people at The Washington Post call us up, people at NPR—so in those main forums, it seems that alternative news sources, which do long-form reporting, are actually growing in terms of our influence. Not necessarily on every issue, but in many ways, when you look at the transformations in things like marriage equality, pot legalization, skepticism about war. On many issues, it seems as if you're right. Certainly before the Iraq War, there was nothing from the mainstream media, but now people, there seems to be a skepticism forming, which has to be coming from somewhere.
Paglia: Ok (laughs), all I can say is that when Hillary and her Valkyrie warriors got us into Libya, I didn't notice anything. I was absolute in my Salon column to condemn that, and here's the end result—the total destabilization of Libya. Everyone fell down flat in front of that one too. I think what libertarianism needs is a strong candidate. Rand Paul is just not taken seriously. If he really wants to run for president, he's just not taking anything seriously. The presidency is not just a boast of power; it's also symbolic. And you have to look a certain way and act a certain way.
reason: Whether it's a Democrat or Republican, what should a candidate look like whether it's male or female?
Paglia: The huge impact for me was when I was 13 and John F. Kennedy was running. You can't imagine what it was like coming out of these sleepy Eisenhower years—we didn't know why Eisenhower was a great war hero. We knew nothing of that. And this incredible, charismatic man, who had accomplished nothing, but his whole ability to speak. For a while I'd been disillusioned by JFK, but when I look back at some documentaries that show him speaking on the road when he was campaigning, that was a smart guy. In fact his management of press conferences was incredible. Of course, he created the genre. But wow, he was just pinpoint sharp, and he just put everyone to shame with their managed questions and their planned call lists, etc.
reason: Ok, his sense of sprezzatura is important. What else goes into the perfect candidate?
Paglia: He had been in the military. He had been in the Navy. So that's another thing that's a problem now with contemporary politics is that in America now, a whole generation of men that had experienced the realities of war, been abroad, and experienced the horrors of war—it's going. So we have all these guys that are products of Ivy League schools and this Harvard and Yale concentration—this is not good. Whereas in England, there's a tradition of course of the upper class, including the royal family, going into uniform. So the sense of commitment, the ruling class has a sense about war and military history and of sacrifice and so on. Now we have an entire country of either the governing class having no… We have this professional army so the sufferings and the losses are being subjected onto others. This is very dangerous to me, because war is your encounter with historical reality and with elemental realities of life and death. [This is the problem] with the left, too. This transformation, this slow change into this middle class culture that we inhabit now, this shrinking of the industrial base, the migration of factors overseas, what is meant is that leftism has become totally armchair rhetoric with no direct contact with real, working class people.
reason: Is it a bad thing if we don't have as many working class people?
Paglia: Well, I think that it gives me this sense of grounding…
reason: But you didn't work in a factory, right?
Paglia: My grandparents' generation—all four grandparents were born in Italy, in the countryside—they were farmers. My mother was born there too. They came over here—one grandfather worked in a shoe factory, and I was living in their home. The other was a barber.
reason: You're free riding! All of our parents were factory workers.
Paglia: This is the difference to me: The leftists that I know in academe, they've never had any direct experience with working class life, most of them almost overwhelmingly. But the leftists of the '60s did. Their parents, like mine, had experienced social mobility. So all of a sudden, my father was in college, and I lived in this factory town as my first home. My grandfather came back from the factory every day. The factories dominated—for [people such as] Andy Warhol, who experienced a very similar thing in Pittsburgh. And so you get this populist feeling when you emerge from that. Then my father became a high school teacher, and eventually he became a college professor. I didn't have a television or telephone until I was 12 for heaven's sakes! We didn't have any money. So the point is that this gives you reality and a sense of practicality. I'm just one generation removed from the farmland, and this is what's missing in the middle class academic leftist. All these people know nothing, actually. They have this distant sense of the working class, very condescending, and they are somehow empowered. They are destined to help from the point of view of an intrusion of state authority, this vast complex, this octopus of state authority that's going to help the poor people.
reason: Does a similar dynamic work, or how does that work on the right? Or you're not that interested in it because you're coming out of the left?
Paglia: I feel there has definitely been a kind of fossilization of authentic analysis, a kind of jibing, joking, snide thing about Obama. I hated that about Bush, and I hate it about Obama. This is the president. I don't care what errors they make—and both of them have made huge errors—the positions of presidents should be treated with some dignity. This is degradation of prestige of our institutions. It's very bad, the cynicism, the snarkiness.
reason: You're from the 1960s, and you're upset at people taking pot shots at institutions?
Paglia: No, I believe you attack. You criticize. You don't demean. It fatigues me to read—and I love to read the commenters, because I think it's a whole new genre—and the jokes with Obama's name, "O-bummer" and "O-bennie" or Romney is "Mittens," and all this stuff coming from the Tea Party and so on. By the way, I respect the Tea Party. I don't demonize them. Now I enjoy anti-Hillary jibes (laughs). I think that's a whole art form in itself. I collect those.
reason: What is it about her? Is Hillary Clinton kind of your worst nightmare as a woman?
Paglia: No, she's exactly my age. I feel I know her completely. Our accents are kind of the same. I understand her completely. So I see all the games and falsehoods and so forth. So I've enjoyed it. I've made an entire career practically—in fact I wrote the cover story for The New Republic "Ice Queen, Drag Queen"—that was 1996, it was way back there.
reason: So what is it about Hillary that bothers you.
Paglia: She's a fraud!
reason: Explain how.
Paglia: She can't have an opinion without poll testing it. She's a liar. This is not a strong candidate for our first woman president. To me, Dianne Feinstein, should have presented herself…
reason: Ah! Are you kidding?
Paglia: No. I don't care what her views are. What I'm saying is, for the post of president, that's commander-in-chief of the military. It's got to be a woman with a familiarity with military matters and also has gravitas, and Dianne Feinstein, I first became aware of her after those murders that occurred in [San Francisco's] City Hall…
reason: She certainly never let you forget that she was there.
Paglia: No, but I have never forgotten, because it was one of the great moments where a woman took charge in absolute chaos in barbarous murder, and the whole government was falling apart, and she came to the media and gave the news and was steady, and I said, "That's it. That's the formula for the first woman president." So what I'm interested in is that it's very important in this modern era: How do you use the media to communicate? So if you're going to be a woman president, she must communicate strength, reserve, and yet compassion. Once that formula—and I've been waiting, and waiting, and waiting for it—the only person in America who's had it as far as I'm concerned was Dianne Feinstein, and she didn't put herself forward for whatever reason as president. But Hillary does not have it. 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.
reason: Because I'm an optimistic person and this is an optimistic country, what are you excited about or optimistic about in this twilight of the American century?
Paglia: What am I optimistic about?
reason: Is there any reason for us to be getting up other than to fight an existential battle against darkness?
Paglia: (laughs) Well, we're so isolated here in the United States geographically that…
reason: We defintiely don't have to worry about the Japanese bombing us again. But what's good? Is anything good in your life?
Paglia: I enjoy living in America. I could only live in America because I feel that you can feel accepted in academe, you can think whatever you want, and I think it's still a very fertile area for entrepreneurship. I think people with new ideas can come out of nowhere and become millionaires overnight, and some of our most interesting people did not even graduate from college. Matt Drudge didn't go to college.
I'm an educator, so I want the reform of education, and I just feel that there should be more vocational training at the high school level to offer jobs and training in the trades for people in the inner city. Directing people to college makes absolutely no sense considering the utter delusion of the current college curriculum. I don't see what the point of that is unless somebody is already showing talent or an interest in going into law or medicine or something like that. I'm interested in that. Primary school education is an absolute hash now. I can see what the students don't know when they arrive in college. The people who are teaching at Harvard and Yale are getting the products of private schools and all kinds of private tutoring. They are not in tune with what's happening in the culture. I believe I am because the students that come to this arts school are from every possible social level. They're very talented, working class jazz musicians and dancers that I get in the classroom. I have occasionally, there might be a student from private school like every five years, but mostly they're good suburban schools. So I know what they're getting in school, and it's basically zero. What they're getting is they're being taught is "Don't bully. Like everyone. Negotiate and compromise." They've never been taught geography. They know nothing about history.
reason: So what are you optimistic about?
Paglia: America is, to me, full of fresh and creative energies. But we're being saddled with an incompetent government that's sort of sapping… I think the less you think about the government maybe the better. I still feel I wouldn't live anywhere else but the U.S. I adore nature. My current project is about Native American Paleo-Indian culture. That's where I am right now.
reason: Let's end with that. What are you working on?
Paglia: I'm interested in the actual Native American history that predates all the theological warfare over genocide and so on. I'm talking about the period as the glaciers withdrew from the United States, the Paleo-Indian period, which is about 10,000 to 13,000 B.C. I'm very interested in the worldview, the metaphysics, the religion of that period, and I think I have some instinct for it because of my interest in history of religion. I'm very interested in religion as an atheist. One of my ambitions is to restore the prestige of religion to secular humanism, which I think has gotten very cynical and has gotten less and less creative the less it thinks about religion.