A wide-ranging interview with the iconoclastic professor
29 October 2016
Talking to Camille Paglia is like approaching a machine gun: madness to stick your head up and ask a question, unless you want your brain blown apart by the answer, but a visceral delight to watch as she obliterates every subject in sight. Most of the time she does this for kicks. It’s only on turning to Hillary Clinton that she perpetrates an actual murder: of Clinton II’s most cherished claim, that her becoming 45th president of the United States would represent a feminist triumph.
‘In order to run for president of the United States, you have to spend two or three years of your life out on the road constantly asking for money and most women find that life too harsh, too draining,’ Paglia argues. ‘That is why we haven’t had a woman president in the United States — not because we haven’t been ready for one, for heaven’s sakes, for a very long time…’
Hillary hasn’t suffered — Paglia continues — because she is a woman. She has shamelessly exploited the fact: ‘It’s an outrage how she’s played the gender card. She is a woman without accomplishment. “I sponsored or co-sponsored 400 bills.” Oh really? These were bills to rename bridges and so forth. And the things she has accomplished have been like the destabilisation of North Africa, causing refugees to flood into Italy… The woman is a disaster!’
Not that Paglia was always opposed to the Clintons. She voted for Bill Clinton twice before becoming revolted by the treatment meted out to Monica Lewinsky: ‘One of the very first interviews I did here — the headline was “Kind of a bitch — why I like Hillary Clinton”. My jaundiced view of her is entirely the result of observing her behaviour. And last election, I voted for Jill Stein’s Green party. So I have already voted for a woman president.’
As far as most feminists are concerned, such a view is unconscionable. Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright made it their business to castigate American girls who wanted Bernie Sanders, while Madonna has promised a blowjob for every Clinton vote. Professor Paglia does not seem to mind much if she makes herself violently unpopular with her contemporaries — she’s an expert at it. Currently professor of the humanities at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, she first shot to fame in 1990 with the publication of Sexual Personae — a manuscript turned down by seven publishers before it became a bestseller.
Paglia’s feminism has always been concerned with issues far beyond her own navel and the Hillary verdict is typical of her attitude — which is more in touch with women in the real world than most feminists’ (a majority of Americans, for example, have an ‘unfavourable view of Hillary Clinton’ according to recent polling).
‘My philosophy of feminism,’ the New York-born 69-year-old explains, ‘I call street-smart Amazon feminism. I’m from an immigrant family. The way I was brought up was: the world is a dangerous place; you must learn to defend yourself. You can’t be a fool. You have to stay alert.’ Today, she suggests, middle-class girls are being reared in a precisely contrary fashion: cosseted, indulged and protected from every evil, they become helpless victims when confronted by adversity. ‘We are rocketing backwards here to the Victorian period with this belief that women are not capable of making decisions on their own. This is not feminism — which is to achieve independent thought and action. There will never be equality of the sexes if we think that women are so handicapped they can’t look after themselves.’
Paglia traces the roots of this belief system to American campus culture and the cult of women’s studies. This ‘poison’ — as she calls it — has spread worldwide. ‘In London, you now have this plague of female journalists… who don’t seem to have made a deep study of anything…’
Paglia does not sleep with men — but she is, very refreshingly, in favour of them. She never moans about ‘the patriarchy’ but freely asserts that manmade capitalism has enabled her to write her books.
As for male/female relations, she says that they are far more complex than most feminists insist. ‘I wrote a date-rape essay in 1991 in which I called for women to stand up for themselves and learn how to handle men. But now you have this shibboleth, “No means no.” Well, no. Sometimes “No” means “Not yet”. Sometimes “No” means “Too soon”. Sometimes “No” means “Keep trying and maybe yes”. You can see it with the pigeons on the grass. The male pursues the female and she turns away, and turns away, and he looks a fool but he keeps on pursuing her. And maybe she’s testing his persistence; the strength of his genes… It’s a pattern in the animal kingdom — a courtship pattern…’ But for pointing such things out, Paglia adds, she has been ‘defamed, attacked and viciously maligned’ — so, no, she is not in the least surprised that wolf-whistling has now been designated a hate crime in Birmingham.
Girls would be far better advised to revert to the brave feminist approach of her generation — when women were encouraged to fight all their battles by themselves, and win. ‘Germaine Greer was once in this famous debate with Norman Mailer at Town Hall. Mailer was formidable, enormously famous — powerful. And she just laid into him: “I was expecting a hard, nuggety sort of man and he was positively blousy…” Now that shows a power of speech that cuts men up. And this is the way women should be dealing with men — finding their weaknesses and susceptibilities… not bringing in an army of pseudo, proxy parents to put them down for you so you can preserve your perfect girliness.’
In an hour’s non-stop talking, Professor Paglia is only lost when asked which younger feminists she would pass the baton to. ‘I would love to inspire dissident young feminists to realise that this brand of feminism is not all feminism…’ she says, before citing Germaine Greer as the woman she admires most alive, and Amelia Earhart and Katharine Hepburn as heroines alas dead.
As with Greer, it is Paglia’s power of speech that utterly devastates. Her collected works read like a dictionary of vicious quotations. (Leaving sex to the feminists? ‘Like letting your dog vacation at the taxidermist.’ Lena Dunham? ‘She’s a big pile of pudding.’) Paglia is pro-liberty, pro–pornography, pro-prostitutes and anti- any and all special treatment when it comes to women in power: ‘I do not believe in quotas of any kind. Scandinavian countries are going in that direction and it’s an insult to women — the idea that you need a quota.’ Which brings us back to Hillary and the so-called victory her re-entering the White House would represent: ‘If Hillary wins, nothing will change. She knows the bureaucracy, all the offices of government and that’s what she likes to do, sit behind the scenes and manipulate the levers of power.’
Paglia says she has absolutely no idea how the election will go: ‘But people want change and they’re sick of the establishment — so you get this great popular surge, like you had one as well… This idea that Trump represents such a threat to western civilisation — it’s often predicted about presidents and nothing ever happens — yet if Trump wins it will be an amazing moment of change because it would destroy the power structure of the Republican party, the power structure of the Democratic party and destroy the power of the media. It would be an incredible release of energy… at a moment of international tension and crisis.’
All of a sudden, the professor seems excited. Perhaps, like all radicals in pursuit of the truth, Paglia is still hoping the revolution will come.
Camille Paglia was a speaker at the Battle of Ideas in London last weekend. Her book Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism will be published next year.