How PC Can You Be?

How PC Can You Be?

Camille Paglia takes a jab at the birthplace of free speech.

The origins of Camille Paglia’s anti-feminist feminism can be traced to her Yale grad school days in the late 1960s when she mentioned that the Rolling Stones were the world’s greatest rock band. Feminists found the band’s lyrics sexist. Paglia found their reasoning dogmatic: The only art they’ll allow is one that portrays a positive image of women. “That’s like the Soviet Union,” she has said. We all became aware of Paglia in the early ’90s with the publication of her first book, Sexual Personae, which amongst many inflammatory ideas, endorses pornography and prostitution. Paglia’s new book, Break, Blow, Burn (Pantheon, 2005), finds this Philadelphia University of the Arts humanities professor interpreting 43 of the world’s best poems. I rang Paglia up to see if I might get her to say something politically incorrect. I wasn’t disappointed.

Paul Kilduff: Thanks for taking some time to talk to all your friends in Berkeley.

Camille Paglia: (Laughs) Oh, I wish.

PK: Are you persona non grata here?

CP: Oh totally. Oh my gosh.

PK: So you can’t set foot in the city limits.

CP: Listen, well I was in Oakland. I gave a talk in Oakland.

PK: How did that go over?

CP: It went extremely well and I was somewhat concerned that being, as I put it, in the Berkeley toxic zone, but the audience was extremely receptive. But of course I could see as a speaker there were these little pockets of glum faces. They were in pairs. These like humorless faces peering around the edge of a bookshelf or whatever. And there weren’t that many of them. But I think that they were overwhelmed by the audience response and they made no attempt in the Q&A to be spoil sports or to make any kind of disruption. So I think that my opponents are there but they’re demoralized (laughs). And it’s a scandal that the whole Berkeley campus has ostracized me because, you know, for havens sakes, anyone from the 60s who was on the progressive side regards the free speech movement at Berkeley as the beginning of it all and I feel when I came on the scene in the early 90s that I was just in the direct line of that. It was my libertarian positions against the campus speech codes and so on. I think Berkeley itself has forgot about it’s own progressive roots.

PK: So has political correctness squelched free speech in its very birthplace?

CP: Absolutely. It’s really shocking that there’s all this talk about diversity for the last decades but the conservatives alas are quite right when they say there’s a total lack of intellectual diversity in the college campuses in the humanities departments as well as in the sort of soft sciences. Not in the hard sciences obviously, PC has never affected them because they rely on objective facts.

PK: You can actually get a job with one of those degrees too.

CP: There’s an another thing. That’s right. But yeah, it’s really a scandal that it’s taken a conservative opposition to raise this issue. For heavens sakes, when I arrived on the scene in 1990 with this book that was very delayed (Sexual Personae), that book was done in 1981 but I couldn’t get published. Seven publishers rejected it and five agents rejected it so finally it got into print and then I was unknown. I mean there was no publicity for that book. My picture wasn’t on the book. I was totally obscure. And here I have a dissident view of sex but it’s still very out there. The Marquis de Sade looms large. Everything about drag queens and homosexuality, androgyny. The whole book is dissident, but yet I didn’t toe the line in terms of what the prevailing ideology was and so I was immediately tagged as a neo-con(servative). I had just voted for Jesse Jackson in the 1988 primary. That is how viscous PC had become. That without any inquiry into the actual facts about a person there was a campaign of vilification and slander and defamation of character. It was on the front of the Village Voice, “Wanted for Intellectual Fraud.” My picture’s there along with a couple of conservative men, okay? And again it’s ignorant. It was ignorant, it was sloppy, it was totalitarian, and this is why I got so much support actually because a lot of people were out there who are on the progressive side who also had been slapped down and repressed and it was like a huge movement that just rose up. But you wouldn’t know that from the continuing behavior of the humanities departments at these major schools. They’ve gone right on with the post-structuralist and post-modernist thumb twiddling which is now so passe. It’s like so moribund, please.

PK: Are your enemies primarily dogmatic feminists?

CP: Well, when I came on the scene, okay, it was like this explosion. People never heard of me. I was 43 years old you have to realize. But then all of a sudden my whole personality was out there and at that time in the PC period of the 70s and 80s and into the early 90s you were either pro-feminist or anti-feminist. That’s it. There was nothing else. It was totally polarized. Totally simplistic. So the idea that there could be a feminist whose roots were back in 1960s as mine did (with some of the flaming in the face behavior), that there could be a feminist who could criticize prevailing feminist ideology for rigidity. And could criticize an entrenched feminist establishment in the mainstream media like Gloria Steinem’s organization or programs on campus, it was just people were scandalized. They couldn’t get their minds around it. That they might have to think. That they couldn’t just accept dogma the way they had in this very comfortable way. There’s us the hip people and then there’s them the right-wingers. It’s how people thought. It was like so pathetic. And it’s a reflection of the way the parties are in this country. You have the Republicans and the Democrats. Whereas in Europe or anywhere in the world, you have many parties. There are many political parties, which is why they can never form a government. But then it turned out that all this stuff was flung at me. Gloria Steinem, without reading my book of course, compared me to Hitler and my book to “Mien Kampf.” And I counter attacked, but it turned out there was a huge wave that I represented. It was wing of feminism that had been silenced and exiled since the 60s. It was like this pro-sex, pro-art, pro-beauty, pro-pleasure wing and throughout the 70s and 80s with Catherine McKinnon and Andrea Dworkin all that anti-porn and male bashing had ruled. So all of a sudden it turned out, thanks to Madonna — I credit Madonna here because it’s Madonna who laid the groundwork in the 80s — a whole young generation of women now could like shake their booty and wear underwear as outerwear. Suddenly to be assertive and sexual was in and young women understood what that was about so my wing of feminism rose with a vengeance and we won. We won. In the 90s it’s so obvious.

PK: What is the new feminism anyway? You don’t have to be this truck driver lesbian, you can be lipstick lesbian?

CP: In the early 90s it became obvious that women were reapropriating makeup. In the 70s and 80s you could not be considered seriously if you wore makeup. Because that said that you were buying into society’s messages about what makes you attractive to men. And so it was a tremendous anti-fashion thing. Incredibly the fashion industry was responsible for all female ills. For example Naomi Wolfe’s book “The Beauty Myth” in the early 90s claimed that the fashion industry, the fashion magazines caused anorexia in young women. And I went out there in the early 90s, and I’m not a fashionable person, okay, I’m just dressed down all the time, but I always have respected fashion as a craft industry and also because that it offers beauty and I pointed out that beauty is at the heart, as a principle, of the Western art tradition at least down to modernism which moved against it. It’s at the heart, for example, of gay male culture. In fact some of the great writers on beauty have been gay like Oscar Wilde and so on with the art for arts’ sake movement in the 19th century. And I said why are feminists constantly saying that beauty is an instrument by which men keep women in their place? I said this is not true at all. Every culture has a principle of beauty even if we can’t see what that is. You could have African tribes who believe beautiful is a very elongated neck and put all those rings on their necks to get these incredibly elongations that to us look weird but to them are beautiful. Or very, very long extended earlobes.

PK: What about the lack of acceptance of size variations for women in this country? So many American women view themselves as fat and ugly if they’re not a size 12 or smaller.

CP: I think that there are issues there, but I do not blame the fashion industry or fashion magazines.

PK: You don’t blame gay, male fashion designers for that?

CP: Oh okay, see. This is exactly what Susan Faludi’s argument was in “Backlash” which is a huge, huge, mega-feminist best seller of the early 90s and I’m an opponent of hers. She argues in a chapter there that (fashion designer) Christian Lacroix and male fashion designers hate women. I said why are feminists indulging in this gay bashing? The Lacroix period was one of weird novelty and character. But here’s my point. I was simply talking about the fashion magazines. Every woman has free will. And the idea that women are just these passive receptors of social signals, that they unlike men, are incapable of resisting signals from their cultural environment, I felt was infantilizing about women and what I was saying is that the fashion magazines are enormous best sellers around the world. It isn’t just in America. What I said was this was extremely snobbish of feminists to say that these things were brainwashing women. Women were taking their hard-earned money and going out there and buying these magazines. Why? It’s because there’s some pleasure. There’s a pleasure for them in looking at beautiful images. And it’s not just the pictorials; it’s also the ads. They’re beautiful to look at. They’re sensuous to look at and feminists in my view are notoriously unable to respond to visual images. I said these are artbooks for the masses. It’s like saying about men. Look at men. When men watch sporting things whether it’s football or weightlifting or whatever it might be, do men sit there and go oh no I’ll never be that big. I’ll never be that strong. Do men do that? No. Men sit there with like five beers and the pretzels and they admire strength and beauty in what they’re seeing, okay? Now why is it that we can’t allow that maybe women can do the same thing? That women can look at a fashion magazine and enjoy the beautiful and know that they’ll never be like that. So, of course, you don’t want a situation where young women are given the impression that you have to look like that or you’re a nothing. So, I’m saying stop blaming the fashion magazines. You should be blaming their lousy education and the way they’re raised by their parents who are not supplying intellectual and cultural pursuits for them or interests for them that could be a counterpoint to the quite innocent industry of fashion magazines.

PK: Do you find that this lack of body acceptance is primarily a problem for white women? African American women seem to be more than happy to wear the tightest outfits even if they’re a size 18.

CP: Thank you for bringing that up. It’s exactly my point. I’ve always said that one of the main problems with feminist theory is that it’s so geared to white middle class assumptions and customs – that a lot of the problems the feminists are often complaining about are just white middle class customs including their inability to take charge of a date they’re having on a campus. It’s like, well did you say no to him? No, I was afraid he might hurt me. Well excuse me, African American women and Latino women know how to handle themselves in a very forthright way. They’ll tell you off to your face. They don’t go around like ghosts in the street so afraid if someone says something to them. They turn right around and they’ll ream you out. That kind of attitude. Exactly. African American culture and Latino culture is extremely forthright and has the street-smart feminism that I’m talking about. And they’re very beauty-oriented. And you’re absolutely right. It’s Jennifer Lopez who we can credit for starting to break this logjam about what the appropriate female silhouette should be. When she posed for Vanity Fair, I believe it was around 1998, and it was like this enormous booty, well that has been a huge feature of eroticism in Mediterranean cultures and in African cultures for a very long time. A woman who has some meat on her.

PK: As the unofficial spokesman for white males let me just say that we don’t prefer anorexic women – give me some of that booty you’re referring to.

CP: Yeah. I agree with you. Look at what the stars look like these days. They’re doing all that Pilates. They’re all dieting down to bones. I find them utterly unerotic. They’re wearing sexy designer gowns when they arrive at the Oscars for the awards and I think they look terrible. I just wrote an article on plastic surgery for Harper’s Bazaar (May ’05), there’s another problem that’s going on in this country. Sometimes I’ll agree with many conventional feminist positions, but what I’m saying in this article is not that I oppose plastic surgery. I’m saying that what I oppose is the trend in America for plastic surgeons to make middle aged women look like Barbie dolls. The paradigm that they’re modeling plastic surgery on is very parochial and unreal. Whereas in Europe women have plastic surgery but the surgeons are sophisticated. They’re basing the model on art. On classical art. On painting. On good sculptures and so on. So they make a woman whose middle aged look fabulous. They make her look like a fabulous, sexy middle aged woman. Over here in America they try to make a 55-year-old woman look like she’s 25. Well forget that. You’re never going to be able to compete with a 25-year-old sexy nubile young woman. Come on. Get over that. All you’re doing is undercutting the whole power of the older woman. This needs to be at the forefront because young people are not seeing older women faces. I’m a fan of soap operas and the older women actresses; they’re all off. They might have a couple of minutes per week. It used to be whole plotlines were devoted to both things – the younger and then the older, right? I’m very worried. It’s not as if I don’t take feminist complaints seriously. What I’m saying is they’re blaming the wrong thing. They’re blaming the fashion industry; they’re blaming fashion magazines. I’m saying blame the way education is structured. You’re not being given enough to spiritually develop you. This is why I wrote this book. I wrote this book to try to present examples of art that I regard as spiritually sustaining. And that will allow you to resist the pressures from outside to conform to whatever is the ideal model of either manhood or womanhood. I first experienced this in the 50s growing up. I wasn’t a conventional young woman. There was no feminist movement out there to help me or to pretend to help me. I had to do it on my own. I had to develop my own ego and my own sense of self confidence and so a lot of the problems I’ve chosen for this book (“Break, Blow, Burn”) speak to the need to make decisions on your own against outside pressure. Like for example there’s a poem in there by George Herbert, he’s a religious man who lived in the 17th century whose work is really not known very much in this country at all and in there he’s tempted by a whole series of these personifications. There’s money that goes by, there’s beauty that goes by, power, all these things go by. And he has to resist, okay. And be content to himself. And of course he’s speaking of God. But what I’m saying is that’s wise. Life is a whole series of pressures from the outside. Everyone has known this for thousands of years and it’s up to you, the individual to develop a way to resist it and to make your own way. And stop blaming. That’s the problem with the feminists. Blame men. They want to male bash. They want to blame everything but take responsibility for themselves. Take responsibility is sort of my principle.

PK: You commend Joni Mitchell’s lyrics in the song “Woodstock” in your new book. What’s your stance concerning hip-hop’s take on the occupation of Iraq? Do you see this movement addressing war in any serious way just as poets and rock stars did during the Vietnam War era?

CP: I’ve been strongly opposed to the war since the whole build up to it. I’m definitely on the record about this. I have opposed it from the start. I oppose it just as strongly now. A great disappointment to me as I was gathering the material for this book (I spent five years on this book), was that I was just shocked at how little really strong political poetry I was finding in looking for things to put in this book. I thought there would be strong poems because obviously the arts community as a whole seems to be opposed to the war and you raise a very good point about hip hop. Hip hop has been a very vital genre of popular culture for over 25 years now and it has a reputation for addressing social issues. I said actually on the book tour in my talks when is hip hop, the rap masters, when are they going to try and address the nation as a whole with some song in this new style about some really important issue? And they haven’t done so. They certainly had the platform to do it. What have they been doing all this time? It’s been a number of years. No one seems to have tried to make a cross over song to appeal to the nation on this. And by the way, a great disappointment to me also in gathering the material for this book was that I remembered those antiwar poetry readings in the 60s and I attended them. I assumed when I started doing this book that I would go back and find these and put them in the book because they’d have relevance to the antiwar movement internationally and I was shocked at how weak they were once I saw them on the page. As I heard these poems being performed to packed readings of like minded students and faculty and so forth I realized that very little quality antiwar poetry had been produced by the 60s. I was amazed at that. Now, with so many decades past, it seems so weak. It seems ideological. Making just simple antiwar gestures. The model for me of political poem writing has to remain Yeats’ poetry. I have a few examples in the book of the “Second Coming” and “Leda and the Swan.” Now these are responses to the horrors of World War I, to the problems in Ireland, to the problems of the British imperialistic ambitions in Ireland and the religious sectarianism in Ireland, which still is going on, still is roiling. But the way Yeats wrote the poems they haven’t dated. He used imagery that’s drawn from the myth and legend and he made them universal so that we don’t need footnotes to read those poems. He didn’t make the mistake of making contemporary references toward their politicians or things that would not allow the poems to travel in time. So those poems are still very strong and I’m saying to contemporary poets I saw some terrible, I mean embarrassingly bad anti-Bush poems in gathering material for this book. And I thought this is so juvenile. There was one that was written in the last few years that was so silly that it was obvious that the poet was getting a big rise out of his audience. It was about Dick Cheney. And it was like so stupid. It was sort of like Dick Cheney came to the White House today, Dick Cheney came to the White House today. And you thought is this person 15 years old writing for a high school newspaper? You’re missing a tremendous opportunity to make some sort of passionate statement. I say to artists and writers, you’ve got to get out of this ghetto you’re in. You’re all in a partisan ghetto. You are so addicted to addressing the people who agree with you politically that you’ve lost all ability to really communicate and to produce something that’s going to last. Get over this. I don’t say amend your views. No, make your views even stronger, but I’m saying start addressing the people. Start addressing those who did not vote with you. In other words what I’m looking for is antiwar poem addressed to the people who supported the war. I didn’t find anything like that.

Suggestions? E-mail Paul Kilduff at

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