Shrill and Over the Hill

Okay, here’s a considered response to the Paglia interview in Salon.

I agree with her assessment of Bernie Sanders, which is tucked away at the end of the piece. Other than that, it’s pretty much a farrago of nonsense by an over-the-hill media figure who is trying to get back in the spotlight by stirring up some shit.

First paragraph: She goes out of her way to insult her fellow atheists, based not on any specific things they have said, but because she has a deep respect for “the great world religions.” Does that strike anyone as even slightly self-contradictory?

It’s certainly the case, as she then points out, that cultural values have changed over the past century. It’s true that “the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles … no longer have the central status they once had in education, because we have steadily moved away from the heritage of Western civilization.” Apparently her objection to Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris is that they show insufficient respect for religion as a central part of “the heritage of Western civilization.” The difficulty with this line of attack is that their criticism of religion has nothing whatever to do with its importance as part of the heritage of Western civilization. Their criticism of religion is on other grounds entirely. They’re concerned with the negative impact that religion can and often does have on ordinary people’s lives. Culture doesn’t enter into it.

In essence, she’s criticizing them for failing to do what she would have done; yet she fails to address in any way what they are doing. The fact that they have spent years chronicling and railing against the dire abuses of religion is not even on her radar.

She waxes nostalgic about the Sixties, and indeed she’s right that there was a lot more attention being paid (at least in the media) to Eastern religions in the Sixties than there is today. Two observations need to be made about this. First, interest in Eastern religions is still very much with us today — it’s just that she isn’t aware of it, because it’s not in the media the way the Beatles were when they visited the Maharishi. Contrary to her assertion, sitars were not “everywhere in rock music.” There were a maybe three or four hit records that had sitar. Hinduism and Indian influences were a fad, that’s all. And second, who was it that derailed what she calls “this great period of religious syncretism” that was supposedly in the offing? It was the conservatives. She would rather blame pop culture, of course. And hip-hop is not blameless. But who controls pop culture, after all? Multinational corporations, which are the bastion of conservatism.

“There are no truly major stars left,” she complains. Could this possibly be the nostalgic lament of a woman who is getting old, who doesn’t understand what young people are up to these days? Is it possible that pop culture has moved past the need for major stars, or that young people are savvy enough not to trust major stars? Hmm.

She doesn’t like snark. Okay, it’s part of pop culture, and she feels alienated by pop culture, but let’s give her that. She then dismisses God Is Not Great as snark. “He appears to have done very little scholarly study,” she cries. And that’s true enough — but it’s entirely beside the point. Hitchens did not set out to do a scholarly study. His book is frankly a polemic. It was written for the purpose of stating his opinions in a way that would force people to consider them. But Paglia has no interest in actually entering into a dialog with Hitchens’s opinions. She only wants to complain because he didn’t write the scholarly book she would have written.

Paglia claims to be a scholar of pre-Christian religions. Let’s accept that description at face value, though not without noting that her best known book was published 25 years ago, and was as much a polemic as a work of scholarship. It should also be noted that some of the quotes on that are attributed to Paglia seem less scholarly than polemical in the manner of Christopher Hitchens. “The prostitute is not, as feminists claim, the victim of men, but rather their conqueror, an outlaw, who controls the sexual channels between nature and culture.” One might be forgiven for wondering whether she actually interviewed any prostitutes before writing this. And this: “Gay men are guardians of the masculine impulse. To have anonymous sex in a dark alleyway is to pay homage to the dream of male freedom. The unknown stranger is a wandering pagan god. The altar, as in pre-history, is anywhere you kneel.” This is a shocking stereotype — not at all the sort of thing one would associate with a scholar.

In congratulating herself on her scholarly tendency to do “the necessary research into religion,” she says this: “In the last few years, I’ve been studying Native American culture, in particular the Paleo-Indian period at the close of the Ice Age.  In the early 1990s, when I first arrived on the scene, I got several letters from Native Americans saying my view of religion, women, and sexuality resembled the traditional Native American view.” This is a bit odd on two levels. First, it’s not possible to study culture as it existed at the close of the Ice Age. There are no written records of the culture. All we can study are the artifacts that were accidentally left behind. We can make guesses about the culture based on the artifacts, but any reputable scholar will tell you how error-prone such a procedure is. How reliably could an archeologist reconstruct the culture of the Sixties (of which Paglia has such fond memories) based on a hash pipe, a bowling trophy, the chassis of a Dodge Dart, and the rabbit ears from a TV? Second, it’s very much open to question whether modern Native American women really know what their own cultural traditions were in the pre-Columbian period, much less ten thousand years ago. Are “a few letters” from unnamed sources whose views may have been contaminated by Anglo writers in the Sixties a reliable indicator that Paglia’s scholarship is solid?

She then turns to Jon Stewart. Okay, she doesn’t like his snarky style of comedy. She thinks he compares unfavorably with Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, and Joan Rivers. We might be forgiven for asking whether Paglia’s scholarly research into pre-Columbian Native American culture has made her an expert on modern comedy … but let’s not go there. Let’s look instead at this. Jon Stewart, she says, “has debased political discourse…. As for his influence, if he helped produce the hackneyed polarization of moral liberals versus evil conservatives, then he’s partly at fault for the political stalemate in the United States.”

Let’s deconstruct that startling assertion a bit. What she’s saying is that if Stewart weren’t criticizing Dick Cheney, Mike Huckabee, and other conservatives (or were criticizing them more in the manner that Mort Sahl would have done) there would be less polarization in our political discourse. It’s not what they’re actually doing that matters, ordering up trillion-dollar wars and all. It’s Jon Stewart’s tone that is to blame. Or possibly the fact that he has the temerity to bring these issues to our attention at all.

She tells us explicitly that she doesn’t “demonize Fox News.” No matter how consistently they lie, no matter how vociferously they skew the political discourse, they’re not demons in her book. No, it’s Jon Stewart who is to be blamed.

And then this: “Historically, talk radio arose via Rush Limbaugh in the early 1990s precisely because of this stranglehold by liberal [media] discourse.” Liberals had a stranglehold on the media until Limbaugh came along? Really? That must have been why Ronald Reagan’s candidacy was so decisively trounced in 1980 and again in 1984.

The essence of her rant, and the main reason a few folks have been commenting on it on Facebook, is this passage: “Liberals think of themselves as very open-minded, but that’s simply not true! Liberalism has sadly become a knee-jerk ideology, with people barricaded in their comfortable little cells. They think that their views are the only rational ones, and everyone else is not only evil but financed by the Koch brothers. It’s so simplistic!”

Let’s dissect this a little. First we have to ask, what liberals is she talking about? All liberals, or only some of them? Implicitly, she’s talking about all liberals, since she doesn’t bother to qualify her accusation. This is hardly a scholarly analysis, is it? Second, it can hardly be said that Occupy protesters or Black Lives Matter protesters are “barricaded in their comfortable little cells.” She’s not talking about political activist liberals at all — she’s talking about the supposedly liberal professors at universities whom she has encountered. Earlier in the interview, she put it this way: “[I]n the 1990s, I was saying that the academic leftists were such frauds — sitting around applying Foucault to texts and thinking that was leftism! No it wasn’t! It was a snippy, prim, smug bourgeois armchair leftism.” There may be a lot of truth in that; I wasn’t there at the time. But that’s her experience of liberals, in a nutshell, and that seems to be all she knows about liberals.

Given the diversity of opinion in liberal circles, it’s a bit hard to take seriously the idea that she’s talking about “comfortable little cells” in a doctrinal sense. I have liberal friends who love Occupy Democrats. I have liberal friends who despise Occupy Democrats. What “knee-jerk ideology” is she referring to, exactly? We’re not given a clue. She’s not discussing ideas at all; she’s just slinging insults. She has no interest in specifics, or in reasoned discourse. She’s a troll.

She brings up the recent Planned Parenthood video, and slams “liberal thought in the media” for not giving it a big play in the news. She calls this “censorship.” And she complains about this even though she claims to support Planned Parenthood. Does she mention that the video has since proven to have been deceptively edited, or that the practice described in the video is entirely legal and goes to covering their operating costs? It wasn’t news at all, it was a Swift Boat attack. No, she doesn’t bother to mention that. Her real agenda is to slam the supposedly liberal mainstream media for ignoring yet another pointless Benghazi hoo-hah.

The supposedly liberal mainstream media has, meanwhile, given Donald Trump an enormous amount of undeserved coverage. She says, “So far this year, I’m happy with what Trump has done, because he’s totally blown up the media!” She has just contradicted her own view of the media — and now she’s praising Trump (whom she correctly characterizes as “a carnival barker”). She thinks he’s “more of a comedian than Jon Stewart is.” Never mind how dangerous the emotions may be that Trump stirs up among right-wing voters. She doesn’t mind that. It’s not even on her radar.

In sum, Camille Paglia is very, very dishonest intellectually. She’s happy to attack people she doesn’t like without bothering to examine or even mention the content of their ideas. Also, she’s living in the past.

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1 Response to Shrill and Over the Hill

  1. Jeff Hasselberger says:

    This is a well-thought piece, Jim. Paglia has been a provocateur for her entire career and has a love/hate relationship with critics since “Sexual Personae”. Her libertarian stance angers both the left and right, but my opinion is that she gives them both what they deserve. She is very knowledgeable about the history of art and culture and much of her analysis reminds me of a wise-ass version of Joseph Campbell — seeing the inalienable threads of human nature in myth and culture. As a libertarian myself (without the paranoia, thanks) I too abhor the power of victimhood that has afflicted our public discourse. Stand up, take your hits like an adult and always remember that life isn’t fair (and that Obama and Bernie aren’t going to fix that for you).

    She doesn’t insult atheists as much as demand that they justify their position and explain their hatred of religion. I agree. I’m not religious, but I understand the importance of religion’s role in the structure of human belief systems. Atheism is a free-for-all that adheres only to an ever-shifting “humanism” as its benchmark. It’s not enough to parrot the hackneyed “religion is the cause of all wars” and then dismiss religion as worthless or evil. You have to give credit to religion for its role in preserving western culture through the Dark Ages and its many other positive contributions.

    Paglia is my age, so I have a hard time disagreeing with her evaluation of the ’60s. It was a time of turmoil, expressed primarily through music. The musicians of the time were breaking new ground in a way that accurately reflected their generation’s attitudes towards their elders and their conventions. Looking back, there is plenty to criticize about the phenomenon, but the context of the times is the key issue. The Mona Lisa is a fine, but unremarkable painting on its own See it in the Louvré among the contemporary overwrought religious imagery, and it’s magical and brilliant.

    She hits Stewart on the chin. His impact on discourse has certainly been negative, not that he started snark, but that he took it down to the next level. His whole game is the simple-minded mocking of the political opposition for the entertainment of his audience. They get their ego stroked and walk out feeling good about themselves (“At least we’re not THEM!”). Now it’s coming out that he has had several White House meetings with Obama. It’s clear that he’s been a political tool. He started out satirizing the media for its over-simplified and inaccurate reporting, but frankly, he was too nuanced. He quickly discovered that lefty snark was his wheelhouse and off he went. Decades ago, Neil Postman warned of how television would end political discourse in “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” Stewart lowered the casket for us and we’re just throwing dirt on it.

    As to her attack on liberal groupthink, she’s merely hitting lefties where it hurts. The entire Democrat political strategy is to discredit the opposition. From Obama on down, all they do is blame everything on the GOP. It works, so they keep doing it. There is far more diversity of thought an opinion on the current right than on the current left. That goes double for the academic left that she is addressing in particular. Leftists rule academia and what do we have? Not the free exchange of ideas that the brochures claim, but the systematic eradication of any idea or action outside of the narrowly-defined boundaries of political correctness. I would hope that the rest of the country never looks like a 2015 college campus.

    As to the PP video, the full-length unedited version was released simultaneously with the edited version. And here’s a question: Do we ever see any video that is not edited? The issue is that representatives of a “non-profit” that gets half a billion dollars of taxpayer money are selling baby parts. I don’t care where you stand on abortion, the video is horrific. The media is running cover for PP, because they feel that the good that the organization does outweighs the bad. That’s a dangerous stance to take.

    The media loves Trump. He sells papers and gets ratings and clicks. The added bonus is that he makes the GOP look crazy. If Jon Stewart declared his candidacy, he, too would get wall to wall coverage and Bernie would be off the radar. It’s just the media doing what they do — entertainment. For you to say that Trump stirs up “dangerous emotions” among voters is silly. Allow me a generalization about lefties: The average lefty activist is no more nuanced and thoughtful than the average Tea Partier and is no less dangerous. The political left treats anyone who doesn’t swallow their Kool-Aid as a knuckle-dragging, mouth-breather who is inches away from a mass murder at any given time. All they need is the right signal from Rush Limbaugh and they’ll wipe out a schoolroom. Remember the Gabby Giffords shooting? Within minutes, some lefty blogger claimed it was undeniably the result of a Sarah Palin map with registration marks on it. Nobody recalls that the shooter was actually a liberal.

    In sum, your Paglia attack is equal parts thoughtful and ad hominem (ad feminem?) She is always provocative and always lands her punches on a sore spot. She doesn’t let the right off the hook, either. Did you read installment 3 at Salon. She takes on the GOP field. Enjoy.

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