What Paglia got wrong

What Paglia got wrong August 31, 2022

10 things that Camille Paglia has said that I disagree with

1. She tends to brush too swiftly over the obstacles posed by structural inequalities, especially when it comes to race. She highlights cultural influence that blacks have had in the US, but insists that the racism has dramatically diminished and is largely a thing of the past, and relies too heavily on a pull yourself up by your bootstraps mentality. Further, she insists that within her broadview of world history, the current “fixation” on white supremacy is a result of the myopic “presentism” that ignores other examples of supremacy/oppression at the hands of non-Europeans. While this may be true to an extent, she is too quick to dismiss the very real and morally disturbing forms of white supremacist oppression that still exist in the US and beyond.

2. As a “pro-porn,” “sex-positive” feminist, she highlights how porn displays the beauty and cosmic power of women, while eschewing critiques of “sex-negative” feminists who say that porn denigrates women. Surely one who ascribes to a pagan (or a strictly post-lapsarian) worldview can celebrate the aesthetic beauty of porn and the ways that it displays women’s sexual power…but when considering man’s pre-lapsarian nature, porn objectively denigrates the dignity of the person, especially the woman, who–despite her sexual power over men–is ultimately more vulnerable to abuse and emotional damage due to her physically and ontologically receptive/dependent proclivities. Further, Paglia seems to assert that all nude depictions of people are inherently pornographic. John Paul II in the Theology of the Body draws a helpful distinction between depictions of nude bodies that are designed to incite lust and instinctive responses vs. to highlight the creativity and goodness of the Creator, and thus incite a sense of modest reverence and gratitude. Also her skepticism toward the sexual innocence of pre-pubescent children and measured approval of child pornography (she’s fine with pornographic drawings and stories of or about children, as long as no actual children are involved) is needless to say disturbing. She claims, as a faithful freudian, that children do have a form of sexuality of their own, contrary to “puritans” who believe children are totally devoid of any sexual feelings. While perhaps this may be true in a symbolic sense, downplaying the vulnerability of children, especially when it comes to sexuality, is quite scandalous. 

3. She argues that “liberated” women who enter into mixed gender spaces alone without the protection of a male (father, brother, significant other)–whether in the workplace, the nighclub, or the streets–are by default consenting to receive sexual attention from men, and thus ought to be prepared to defend themselves when receiving unwanted attention. While she believes rape is a heinous crime that ought to be severely punished, she thinks that women should not be able to appeal to bureaucratic committees to punish sexual attention and touching that doesn’t reach actual intercourse. She frequently boasts about growing up around physically and emotionally tough Italian women who would beat a man up for disrespecting them. Because of most women’s physical and ontological make up, self-defense doesn’t always come naturally, and requires the intervention of another entity or person. While many accusations of sexual harassment get exaggerated and could be handled in more common sensical ways, she trivializes the struggle that many women have to protect themselves from unwanted attention from men.

4. As a pagan and a libertarian, she believes humans have the right to transgress the boundaries of nature (Natural Law). She acknowledges that abortion is murder, homosexuality is unnatural, and transsexualism is a form of mutilation. But because she doesn’t acknowledge a transcendent deity at the origin of nature/creation, she asserts that humans aren’t obliged to obey the order/design of nature. Her position is consistent, but most monotheists will recognize the moral and practical dangers of this standard pagan amoralist position, especially when it comes to the effects it has on the most vulnerable, whose needs monotheists are obligated to put first.

5. Politically she calls herself a libertarian and a traditional Democrat (and voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary). Economically, she believes capitalism–despite its flaws–is the most ideal system, and has afforded individuals the highest possible autonomy, especially women. This position overlooks the moral flaws and deceptiveness at the origin of capitalism and the violence it has spawned.

6. She denounces poststructuralist philosophy and critical theory for its eschewal of aesthetics and metaphysics, and for its overt focus on sociopolitical power dynamics. As much as her critique has merit, I don’t think it’s fair to totally dismiss the value of poststructuralist critiques of the effects that oppressive power structures have on underprivileged communities. Though critiques that focus solely on power and ignore aesthetic and metaphysical realities can only “deconstruct” and are largely incapable of proposing or building actual solutions, poststructuralism does have to ability to ask important questions and bring awareness to the suffering of the marginalized, which can too easily be ignored by those who ascribe too strongly to a pull yourself up by your bootstraps mentality. As much as bureaucratic structures and welfare systems should never replace the role of local communities and personal responsibility, monotheists ought to recognize the extent to which poststructuralist thought overlaps, even if only slightly, with the principles of mercy and preferential option for the poor.

7. Though she acknowledges that the sexual revolution was destined to implode on itself, that fact that she maintains a “pro-sex” attitude reveals how little she understands the extent to which this position is morally compromised and how dangerous its consequences are. This is due to her lack of acknowledgement of a creator god to whose design humans owe obedience, and the destructive role of original sin. To say that libertine sex is liberating ignores the slavery that original sin imposes on us, especially on those who are vulnerable and marginalized. Once again, it can only be liberating within a postlapsarian world.

8. She believes that AIDs is nature’s punishment to gay men for their unfettered deviant sex practices in the 1960s and 70s. Perhaps this might be true in a biological or in a vaguely cosmic sense. But ultimately the Chrisitan God doesn’t punish humanity for our sins…to think so would be more akin to an Old Covenant understanding of God or to superstitious “natural religiosity.”

9. She insists that Catholicism merges monotheism with classic greco-roman paganism, and especially highlights the way that Italian and Spanish Catholic art preserve a sense of pagan sensuality. This insistence is rooted in her belief that monotheistic religions are grand cultural institutions that tap into cosmic archetypal categories of metaphysical significance, but doesn’t acknowledge the claims that a personal deity revealed himself in time and space to human beings. Thus she avoids addressing the facticity of the claims of those religions, and instead insists that the monotheistic “Apollonian” sky-cult is in a constant, deterministic back and forth with pagan “Dionysian” earth or fertility-cults. She doesn’t see Catholicism’s pagan elements to be an integration or purification of paganism in light of the full revelation of the Truth through Jesus Christ, but as a covert attempt to preserve and push pagan ideals in medieval and Renaissance Europe. Take for example, her comparison between the pagan god Adonis and the Christian Saint Sebastian. She claims that the cult of Sebastian was the Church’s attempt to preserve the cult of the beautiful boy within a more orderly Apollonian framework, whereas Sebastian is the purification of said cult, the transformation of it to the ideals of charity and virginal self-sacrifice. Further, Catholic depictions of the body celebrate its capacity to suffer and sacrifice for the sake of Another as the climax of its beauty, rather than its aesthetic beauty as ideal forms and sensual appeal (blood and wounds are considered more beautiful than orderly musculature and sensual curves).

10. Her critiques of her intellectual and cultural opponents often lack charity. Her hyperbolic criticisms, ad hominem take downs, and witty sense of humor–which borrow from the style of Oscar Wilde and her many gay male friends–run the risk of falling into prideful egotism and overt decadence. She lacks the patience and humility to give others the benefit of the doubt and to acknowledge the glimmers of truth in her opponents’ positions.

Other things I think she’s gotten wrong include her critiques of Rihanna, the Sopranos, and Lady Gaga, and I think she can be overly simplistic in her understanding of the 1960s hippies’ interest in Hinduism and Buddhism, and is naive about the influence of freemasonry and about New Age-ism’s ties to occultism.

Some topics she should have written more about include Fellini, cigarettes, James Dean, James Franco, Georges Bataille, Quentin Crisp, Yukio Mishima, Federico Garcia Lorca, Caribbean music, Beyonce, Ariana Grande, and Mariah Carey.

I also suggest people pick up Helen Andrews’ Boomers for an interesting critique of Paglia (thought I don’t totally agree with it).


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