Camille Paglia: Interview

Salon has an interview with their “favorite intellectual,” Camille Paglia. She is a politically ruthless commentator who is capable of offering sharp critiques of both Republicans and Democrats (more against the latter, her own, than the former), but she has incredible range, even lamenting the lack of artistic appreciation among the general public as demonstrated in the recent Andy Warhol documentary.

There is a lot to digest in this interview. Here a several choice quotations:
So what [the Democrats have] done, in this rabid orchestration of the Foley case, is to risk energizing the Republican base again. Are they mad, or just dumb? They've handed the Republicans a reason to go to the polls -- to register their contempt for Democrats! And this was at a moment in the campaign when we needed to keep the fiasco in Iraq on the front pages. For the Democrats to have stolen the headlines and forced the major media to switch subjects has been a tremendous boon to Bush. What kind of disproportion of scale are we talking about here? The Foley case is nothing compared to the disaster in Iraq and the innumerable lives that are being lost or ruined on both sides.

Every feminist who wants to smash the glass ceiling should realize she has a stake in Condi Rice's success. Rice is a brilliant woman, but diplomacy is an art. Preaching in steely tones sends the wrong message. This administration lacks deftness in international relations. Worst of the lot is Dick Cheney, with his lumpish provincialism. What a narrow, limited mind! His geopolitics is a vintage-1870s version of frontier Americanism, but he managed to impose it on the over-credulous new president when this Bush took office. It's all so simple to them: The majority of Iraqis and Iranians want peace and modernization, so let's impose democracy at the barrel of a gun. But what ignorance of history: The mass of the population always want to live their own lives; change is always driven by small, committed groups of ideologues and fanatics -- even in our own revolution.

I'm not a Bush hater. I've always viewed him as a decent fellow who was pushed into the presidency because he was his father's son. But he's been out of his depth in foreign affairs from the start. He certainly lacks the basic verbal skills for the presidency -- reading speeches authored by others is no substitute. But I've become concerned about Bush's mental state in the past few months. Sometimes in his press conferences or prepared statements (which I listened to on the radio), I heard a sort of Nixonian tension and hysteria. His vocal patterns were over-intense and his inflections impatient, lurching and sarcastic. There was this seething quality to his speech that worried me and that seemed to signal that something major is being planned -- perhaps another military incursion.

I'm worried about the future of America insofar as our academically most promising students are being funneled through the cookie-cutter Ivy League and other elite schools and emerging with this callow anti-American, anti-military cast to their thinking. How are we ever going to get wise leadership or sophisticated diplomacy from people who have such a distorted, clichéd view about everything that's wrong with the United States?

Whenever Clinton speaks, it throws into dramatic relief the inarticulateness of our current president, who sometimes can barely get through a sentence.

There are people like me who want immediate withdrawal of all American forces from Iraq. Every war goes on and on because more and more blood has to be spilled to prove the value of the lives already lost. It's an endless cycle of insanity. Withdrawal would probably plunge Iraq into civil war, and the Democrats don't want to be blamed for the blood bath. But it's going to be nasty whether we stay or go.
I wish more people had her kind of clear, level-headed thinking. She has an ability to cut through the (pardon me) bullshit spouted out by both the media and Washington. She is a realist, and that is a necessary perspective in a world caught between fascist and liberal idealism. I am a stronger opponent of Bush than she appears to be, in that I think Bush knows exactly what he is doing in the Middle East. I have no qualms calling Bush an imperialist. In fact, I think the facts supporting such a designation are indisputable. This is a stinging criticism from my perspective; it is a compliment to the likes of Ann Coulter. And that is precisely the problem in this country.

However, I do have criticisms of Paglia, primarily because I hold to strong Christian convictions. Thus I cannot support statements like the following:
I supported the retaliatory attack on Afghanistan but strongly opposed the invasion of Iraq. Such incursions can only create more terrorism insofar as they inspire disaffected young men around the world to be drawn to a cause. Now we have a splintering of jihadism into these hard-to-track small cells of copycats. Every nudnik out there aspires to be a junior bin Laden. What was needed -- but which may now be impossible -- was to gain the trust of people worldwide at the local level. So that on small islands in Indonesia, let's say, neighbors will turn in the stranger who's gathering followers around him. Without that cooperation, we're never going to defeat world terrorism.
No Christian can be sincerely identify with the Jesus who commanded us to “turn the other cheek” and support a foreign policy of retaliation. One might try to justify such a military program by appealing to a Lutheran two-kingdoms doctrine. But this is a dead end. By resorting to this kind of theological reasoning, one not only goes far astray from what Luther was arguing for originally (simply a proper distinction between God and the world) but one ends up compartmentalizing the reign of God as an inward, non-bodily, non-political, and individualistic religion that has little to do with the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed and realized in himself. No, the church must be resolute: retaliation is antithetical to the gospel. If one wishes to engage in retaliation (or in torture, for that matter), one must forswear one’s Christian identity.

Paglia also writes:
What's broadened the appeal of conservatism in recent years is that Republicans stress individualism -- individual effort and personal responsibility. They're really the liberty party now -- I thought my party was! It used to seem as if the Republicans were authoritarians and the Democrats were for free speech and for the freedom to live your own life and pursue happiness. But the Democrats have wandered away from their own foundational principles.
Now she is absolutely correct to identify the success of contemporary conservatism in its doctrine of individualism. I think there is much here to unpack from a Christian perspective. However, as a faithful believer, I cannot accept the term “my party,” even if I generally agree with a Democratic platform. A Christian cannot have a “party” because she has a Lord.

Finally, she also writes:
The more liberal parents are, the less contact their children have with religious ideas.
I wish she had not made such an oversimplification. I will be a liberal parent, and yet my children will never know themselves as anything but Christian. Their identity will be shaped by the church through and through. I sincerely hope the church refuses to surrender the word “liberal” to atheism. If anything, the church needs to recover that word and place it in its proper context: the infinite liberality of God’s love overflowing to all people in Jesus Christ. Liberalism belongs to the Christian faith. We need to remind the rest of the world of this fact.


Anonymous said…
thanks for linking to this interesting article.
in regard to your statement about retalitation and "turning the other cheek". you seem to be claiming that the entire just war tradition (which includes appropriate retaliation with proper aims) is giving up ones christian identity. do you think that pacifism is a necessary part of christian identity? aren't there options beyond luther (historically augustine and more recently the work of o'donovan and ramsey)?
timcoe said…
Even Kurt Vonnegut thinks the use of force was necessary in WWII.
Erin said…
I found your blog via

Your analysis points out exactly what I find disturbing about this interview. I've like Paglia's work in the past, but here she's just plain nasty. She's always been prone to overgeneralizations of certain groups, but never the way she has here. Although I agree with her criticism of "the left" to a point, her overgeneralization of Liberals not understaning Christianity (or being Christian, for that matter) is plain embarassing.
Anonymous said…
This was a while ago now.
Paglia isn't merely accusing liberals of being non-Christian. She's a self-declared atheist who worships science and nature. But religion is a part of human nature.
She's accusing liberals of being poor students of world religions. Liberals seem to be rejecting the Church and all religion not as a matter of belief and rebellion, but as a cultural framework. They just don't know nothing about religion and they don't care. Paglia suggests that Americans have a responsibility as pragmatic citizens in the earthly dominion to understand their international position. How can they do that if they are ignorant of world religions which are so fundamental to life in so many other countries?
To put it in a cheesy fox news phraseology, they're satisfied with Starbucks cafe latte and prozac, never heard of stigmata, thankyou.
But such complacent atheism only weakens atheists. Materialists can only survive if they heed the material (like spiritual beliefs as well as mineral ore) of everyone, including non-materialists (the religious groups around the world and in the USA). If they lose a battle, they assume they won't survive to go to any kind of afterlife. So why are they living in lala land pretending their enemies aren't spiritual, dangerous, or interesting. If liberals assume they can forget religion, that's a huge part of their own civilization they're discarding. Their children will grow up ignorant, intellectually hungry for spiritual thoughts, and just choose ultra conservative religions which feed that hunger, because they'll know no greater variety. They'll be fake Christians, spouting slogans like "Jesus saves", but not even feeling or thinking deeply about the ideas in the Bible. Like Bush, "Jesus wanted me to be president".
Sorry, I tend to go on.