Camille Paglia on Freethought, Feminism, and Iconoclasm

By Madigan, Timothy J. | Free Inquiry, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Camille Paglia on Freethought, Feminism, and Iconoclasm


Madigan, Timothy J., Free Inquiry


One does not really interview Camille Paglia - author of the best-selling works Sexual Personae; Sex, Art, and American Culture; and Vamps and Tramps - one gives her a forum to express her free-wheeling opinions in machine-gun delivery style on whatever issues she wants to address. What follows is a prime example of what might be called her "in-your-face feminism."

FREE INQUIRY: You're one of the few public intellectuals whose work is discussed both on college campuses and in working-class bars. Why do you think you've touched such a nerve?

CAMILLE PAGLIA: It's pretty amazing. Don't forget by the time I burst on the scene five years ago, I was in my forties, and I'd gotten absolutely no attention whatsoever. I couldn't get published. Not only was Sexual Personae rejected by seven major publishing houses, but parts of it had been rejected for years by magazines.

But by the beginning of the 1990s, the culture seemed to change, and suddenly people were listening to me. There was a big shift. I represent the best of the 1960s, which was all about freethought and free speech. I hate dogma in any form. I hate it in the Roman Catholic church, which is why I left it twenty-five years ago. I hate it in gay activism and feminism now. Dogma has also taken over the humanities departments in elite schools - poststructuralism and so forth. I think people are sick of the ideological and cliched ways in which cultural issues were approached in the 1980s. So I came like a breath of fresh air.

People who are interested in ideas welcomed me, and people who cling to a fixed belief system find me threatening. There's nothing more dangerous to a liberal democracy than fixed dogma. I don't like coteries. I have struggled to maintain my outside position, which is very rare in America.

FI: In Vamps and Tramps, you state that "the silencing of authentic debate among feminists helps the rise of the far right."

PAGLIA: That's right, and the fruits of this are now being seen. I've warned about this for years - the suppression of debate by the liberal wing has moved the entire nation to the right. People who were surprised by the Republican sweep have simply not been listening to me. It happened not because of any right-wing conspiracy; it happened because of a spiritual vacuum on the left. The left became too removed from the people. Leftism began 150 years ago supposedly to speak for the silent majority, for the people. True sixties radicalism really was populist. I'm a Clinton supporter and I'll vote for him again (God help me), but he has surrounded himself with these white, upper middle class elite professionals who speak about "the people" from a very great distance and, in a very paternalistic, condescending way, as "victims." It is insulting - I'm remembering my background in an immigrant family when I say this - they are totally removed from the people they pretend to speak for. These false progressives are merely voices of reaction, clinging to outmoded, broken-down liberal ideas. After all, a lot of sixties radicalism was critical of the liberal establishment, like Leonard Bernstein having the Black Panthers over for tea - radical chic. Liberals were the worst hypocrites in the 1960s. I despise "limousine liberalism."

FI: You also say, "To rescue feminism, we must give religion its due, but require it to stay in its place."

PAGLIA: That has to be done to rescue all progressive politics. One of the major crises that the heirs to the left have received is the neglect of spiritual values. I'm an atheist, but we people of the sixties were very spiritual in our own ways. That is, we abandoned organized religions, but we sought out Hinduism and Buddhism. We were very interested in cross-cultural spiritual experiences. A passage to India, as it were.

Now what's happened as part of the collapse of the progressive left is a descent into social constructivism, which says that everything that we are is made by society.

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