Camille Paglia FTW

I’ve never read much by or about Camille Paglia before. But then I read this interview in the Wall Street Journal, and my head totally exploded.

But no subject gets her going more than when I ask if she really sees a connection between society’s attempts to paper over the biological distinction between men and women and the collapse of Western civilization.

She starts by pointing to the diminished status of military service. “The entire elite class now, in finance, in politics and so on, none of them have military service—hardly anyone, there are a few. But there is no prestige attached to it anymore. That is a recipe for disaster,” she says. “These people don’t think in military ways, so there’s this illusion out there that people are basically nice, people are basically kind, if we’re just nice and benevolent to everyone they’ll be nice too. They literally don’t have any sense of evil or criminality.”

The results, she says, can be seen in everything from the dysfunction in Washington (where politicians “lack practical skills of analysis and construction”) to what women wear. “So many women don’t realize how vulnerable they are by what they’re doing on the street,” she says, referring to women who wear sexy clothes.

When she has made this point in the past, Ms. Paglia—who dresses in androgynous jackets and slacks—has been told that she believes “women are at fault for their own victimization.” Nonsense, she says. “I believe that every person, male and female, needs to be in a protective mode at all times of alertness to potential danger. The world is full of potential attacks, potential disasters.” She calls it “street-smart feminism.”

Ms. Paglia argues that the softening of modern American society begins as early as kindergarten. “Primary-school education is a crock, basically. It’s oppressive to anyone with physical energy, especially guys,” she says, pointing to the most obvious example: the way many schools have cut recess. “They’re making a toxic environment for boys. Primary education does everything in its power to turn boys into neuters.”

(Read the rest here)

I love this article. I love what she says about everything, basically, and the way she defends men without slamming women. I’m particularly taken with this line from her book Sexual Personae: “If civilization had been left in female hands, we would still be living in grass huts.”

I don’t think that’s the insult that it seems to be at first glance. If you think about the history of civilization, for centuries women in their childbearing years were wholly occupied with, you know, bearing children. We can wring our hands and whine about the injustice of it all (which I do on a regular basis, just so we’re clear), but biology is biology and having kids is exhausting, all-consuming work. It’s not that women aren’t capable of building grand civilizations…my theory is that they’re just too damn tired. There are phenomenal female artists and scientists and doctors, but I think we needed men to build a world in which there could be.

I’m not sure if that’s what Paglia is saying or not; I’ll have to read the whole book. I do know, though, that all this childbearing and raising is really exhausting work, and while there are a thousand things I’d like to do, I’m way too tired to do most of them right now. I only have time to write because my husband understands how important writing is to me and believes it’s a gift that shouldn’t be shelved until the kids are grown. He encourages me to leave the dishes for him and write in the evenings. He makes sure I have a working laptop and leaves open articles (like this one on Paglia!) that he thinks might interest me.  He makes my writing a priority for our family. If he didn’t, I wouldn’t write.

The Ogre and I really work well together. It’s kind of a surprise to me, because I spent the beginning of our marriage engaged in a bitter power struggle against him. It was mostly one-sided and I’m pretty sure he was totally confused about the ways it played out. Like when I would refuse to get him a glass of water when I was getting myself one. (Patriarchal oppression, that’s why! He has his own legs, dammit!) Also, it was stupid. He’s actually the one in our relationship who is more willing to make sacrifices so I can write.

It’s just stupid, this battle of the sexes. And it’s even stupider that it has now devolved into an insistence that there is no difference between the sexes. I mean, come on. You know we’re really standing amidst the rubble of Western Civilization when our greatest thinkers are trying to insist that men and women are pretty much the same.


  • Guest

    I was particularly struck by this comment:

    “The entire elite class now, in finance, in politics and so on, none of them have military service—hardly anyone, there are a few. But there is no prestige attached to it anymore. That is a recipe for disaster,”

    What I believe has happened is that our elite—specifically elite men—see profiteering from civilization as being more honorable than building it. The “best and the brightest” seek prestige in starting wars to be fought by someone else, creating new schemes to grab a larger share of the financial pie, and using government power as a tool of social engineering. These are things that are either anti-social, or if pro-social, can be done at least as well, if not better, by women.

    Put another way, elite men denigrate manhood because they aren’t very manly. Their frat boy sexism comes from seeing women’s accomplishments as a threat to their own self identity. It’s insecurity. Because they live only for themselves, they cannot understand why anyone would risk their life for something greater than themselves. This is, indeed, a recipe for disaster.

    Likewise, it is no coincidence that elite white women make the most strident feminists—the elite white men who are their social peers give men a bad name.

  • Ruth

    I saw this article a few days when it popped up on my Facebook feed and I immediately sent it to my husband. I have already reread it several times. I never thought I would read a feminist perspective I largely agreed with!

  • dicentra

    People who say that marriage is primarily for procreation get it
    only half right: the foundational purpose of marriage is to domesticate
    men, irrespective of whether children are produced.

    Male energy is a formidable thing. When men are bound to women and children through law and custom, we get skyscrapers and transcontinental railroads and footprints on the moon.

    When men are not grounded by familial ties, we get the gangs and drugs and predation that are evident in the inner cities and anywhere else that male energy is left to run wild instead of being harnessed to society’s good.

    Like fire, male energy is essential and life-giving when properly bounded and destructive when not. We dismiss it at our peril.

    • craig

      I don’t like the phrase ‘to domesticate men’ — like so many feminist writings, it expresses that men are to be trained like work animals or pets, instead of subjects in their own right.

      Better to say that marriage exists to give men a reason to be domestic. We as a society have forgotten that men are supposed to get something out of marriage; we have spent fifty years escalating the responsibilities assigned to men within marriage and stripping away the rights and expectations. Most young men now have been drilled with the expectation that any potential wife will cook, clean, consent to sex, care for children, or contribute to domestic tranquility only to the extent that it pleases her to do so at that moment. And we complain when men don’t want to get married!

  • moronuki

    She doesn’t bash women, but I don’t think she sees the male/female relationship in its whole complementarity. It is true that men built most of the amazing things we take for granted in society. It is equally true that they would not have and could not have without the work women did (and to a much lesser extent continue to do), and I don’t think she really acknowledges that.

  • lemang01

    “It’s just stupid, this battle of the sexes”

    Amen. ht @TheAnchoress

  • scallywag

    Does anyone get the impression that Camille Paglia as a feminist (who traditionally have no love for males) is really just looking for an excuse to beat up on men and maybe pretend to be one whilst waiting to see if us males will call her on it?

    What do you think Camille? Do you want to be a male or a female but then again why does gender assignment have to feed into the way we relate to each other and importantly to ourselves in the first place?

  • Manny

    Camlle Paglia is great. I may not always agree but her understanding of art and culture, especially in their historical context, is very perceptive. I always consider her thoughts and opinions to be of the highest quality. She’s no pop culture hack.

  • Josh

    Paglia is an expert at the contrarian interview and the perfect-zinger excerpt.

    Here’s a similar talent:

    The problem with Paglia (and Berlinski) is that it’s all “here’s the fault with this argument” and no positive argument. Paglia is a deft critic of society’s mistakes in all things gender, but I’ve never found her to be a trustworthy source otherwise. Mainly because of the incessant genital metaphors and unabashed Freudianism.

    If you tackle Sexual Personae, it might prompt a post on vagina dentata themes in right-wing criticisms of Pope Francis…which would be pretty great.

  • Stefanie

    Have always enjoyed Paglia’s writing — she retired from her monthly column about two years ago and has been missed. A true cosmopolitan-observer-philosopher, she is in the vein of the late-great Christopher Hitchens (may his soul rest in peace). As Manny remarked, she puts everything in historical context as well as holding lightly the strings of our current media obsessions. She is a word artist-extraordinaire.
    However, nothing makes you question ‘how things are going in the world’ more than having a son. Now that her son is 12, she may feel as many Catholic moms do when their sons have reached that age. (Yes, I know she does not profess a religious faith) Perhaps she feels she raised her son with great thought and care, but he will now be going forth into a world ‘at large’ that does not have his classical upbringing or philosophical foundation.
    Interestingly, I’ve had recent ‘holiday-conversations’ with many of my atheist-agnostic-or non/practicing Catholic friends…and all of them are saying exactly what Paglia is writing/saying — the ‘lack of maleness among males’ is a current lament. These friends are teachers in public and private schools and colleges so they have access to the young beyond their own families/friends/neighbors. They tell me that the emphasis on a college-education vs. ‘skilled work’ (mechanics, electricians, carpenters, plumbers, craftsmen) has driven up the cost of college so that now students are drowning in debt before they even begin their college-based careers. This is delaying the acceptance of adult responsibilities — independent living without parental assistance…in other words, delaying the necessity of becoming an adult.
    Remember when boys had middle school and high school classes in woodwork, electric repair shop, mechanic shop, drafting? And girls had classes in child development, cooking, and sewing? Due to the women’s lib movement, these classes first became co-ed in the mid-1970′s and then were cancelled altogether by the 1980′s. All monies went towards ‘teaching to standardized tests for college-entry’ and that was that. I’m not saying that is the disease, but it’s certainly one of the symptoms.

  • familysnodgrass

    I too read this article and was surprised to agree with so much of what she said!