Camille Paglia has briefly appeared on my radar a handful of times in the last twenty years, though I admit I never before paid much attention to her. For some reason, I vaguely associated her with post-modernism and deconstructionism, which of course made me suspicious; while at the same time I have seen a few soundbites and blurbs by her that made me go, “Hmmm.” She was at UCI for a while when I lived in Costa Mesa.
The following video interview is from a few years ago, but it is the first time I’ve ever seen her talk, and the first time I have really gotten a feel for her opinions and attitudes. And I must say hers is certainly one of the most refreshing voices I have heard in many years. In fact, she is a passionate critic of deconstructionism and I wish I had given her more attention earlier.
Here, you should watch the video, it’s definitely worth an hour for any thoughtful American:
She is clearly more comfortable lecturing to a class than engaging with an interviewer (sometimes the best ideas are offered by the worst presenters), but I have to admit that after a short time I found myself getting impatient with the interruptions by Nick Gillespie (who is otherwise an excellent interviewer), and I wanted to hear her just go on with her thoughts for a while. He also kept trying to steer the interview in bizarre directions; I think a subject like Paglia should simply be primed with a few general questions and allowed to go off in whatever direction she wants. Of course, you could end up with a very long video if you did that.
I was shocked that she was repeating so many ideas I have embraced myself, some of them concepts I’ve never heard expressed anywhere else. For example, she is the only other person I have ever heard suggest that the growth in student loans in the last 35 years has led directly to the inflation in college tuition, through greater market liquidity; that’s something I’ve been saying for years (I’m not saying I’m the only person who ever came up with that idea, simply that I have never seen it repeated anywhere else, not that I’m an omnivorous consumer of economic and academic commentary). And she is one of the very few public figures I have seen who seems to have the same problems with Hillary Clinton that I have, and who addresses the fact that Clinton gets her principles, if you can call them that, from focus groups.
She seems to be an example of what I might call a “thoughtful leftist,” or at least a “thoughtful feminist;” people from the last century who were trying to nudge society in a more liberal and tolerant direction. But leftism and feminism got co-opted by ideological sheep who want to tear down 2,500 years of Western culture. As she says, by the 1970s, none of the smart ones ever bothered with graduate school, which is the root of the intellectual crisis we are seeing today (though her explanation that 1960s idealism was destroyed by drugs is a little too pat for me). The promise of the radicalism of the 1960s was stunted by the rise of mediocre intellects who increasingly focused not on the world, but on personal identity, resulting in an intolerant solipsistic worldview that is tearing modern society apart and making millions of people very, very confused and unhappy.
Some of her petty irritations have big ramifications, like the (claimed) extinction of college survey courses. I loved my survey courses. I always assumed survey courses were necessary so that engineers and microbiologists could still acquire an education with their degrees and certificates. Why would survey courses disappear? Who was behind that? The students or the faculty?
Another thing I got out of the video was the pronunciation of “hegemony” and “academe.” I’d never before heard those words spoken aloud.
I found myself wondering whether Paglia ever met Gore Vidal. I think they would have had a lot to talk about; but on the other hand they probably would have hated each other. Vidal was a patrician to the bone who knew and admired Hillary Clinton; while Paglia revels in her being one generation from Italian peasant farmers (and she loathes Clinton). I strongly suspect she enjoys beer. I would love to share a few beers with her.