Skip to main content

Camille Paglia, writer and firebrand, is in a category of her own. She first made waves in the early 1990s with her book Sexual Personae and her denunciations of "political correctness," but in a unique way: As a feminist who hates affirmative action; an atheist who respects religion; a Democrat who thinks her party doesn't get it. She believes global jihadism is a threat to the West and also believes the invasion of Iraq was a reckless mistake. She is a bisexual who celebrates military ideals, heroic culture and manly men.

Named one of the world's "Top 100 Public Intellectuals" by the journals Foreign Policy and The Prospect in 2005, Ms. Paglia is speaking this week in the Grano lecture series in Toronto about American politics and Hillary Clinton's run for the presidency. Margaret Wente spoke with Ms. Paglia by phone at her office at Philadelphia's University of the Arts, where she teaches a full course load.

Let's start with Hillary. She's the first serious female candidate for president. She has proved she can play in the big league of U.S. electoral politics. She's very smart. Feminists should be rejoicing. But you once said, "That woman should not be anywhere near our government." Why?

Hillary is having trouble with educated women of her generation. We seem to be the hardest sell for her right now because we've observed her, admired her, embraced her - and then become disillusioned. There's a sense that she doesn't possess core values. One feels she's uncentred in some odd way. And the chaos of her domestic life is not reassuring.

On the campaign trail, she doesn't make an emotional connection with her audience because she's always parsing language. She's a rhetorician. You get these parsings of the Iraq war - "Well, if I knew then what I know now, I wouldn't have voted that way." What does she mean? That she wouldn't have voted that way if she'd known it would cost her politically?

There's an over-clever, over-conceptualized political personality there who has trouble being an ordinary person.

For someone with so much international exposure, she's not great on the stage. She's well prepared with her sound bites. But when she has to play outside her sphere of preparation, she seems taken by surprise. When someone asked her, "Do you think homosexuality is immoral?" she just shunted it off. She said, "I'll leave that for others to decide." She's essentially a policy wonk. She has no vision.

Then there's the sense of her espousing feminist ideals on the one hand, but also tolerating gross exploitation and insult from her womanizing husband. For me, the worst was her campaign of defamation against the working-class and lower-middle-class women her husband solicited. She has tremendous powers of denial to block out what is going around her in her own family life. But she's also able to perceive herself as an ethical, God-fearing, Bible-reading Methodist who is quasi-saintly for her commitment to ethical causes. She will not admit a mistake. She has no power of self-analysis. She thinks all her problems are due to her enemies.

And we don't want a situation when Bill Clinton is acting as proxy president in the White House.

But wait. You've got to admit she's done pretty well on her own as a senator.

She was able to succeed as a carpetbagger in New York State because she's the very image of the corporate-legal meritocracy of Manhattan. I cannot stand the snobbery and elitism of this lawyer-heavy superclass. Hillary and her friends are symptomatic of that class. She can glide through those corridors extremely well. But one feels that she has no real pleasures. There's something about Hillary that's anhedonic - the inability to take pleasure in the moment. Everything for her is this beady-eyed scheming for the future, combined with this mass of resentments for the past, the people who have done them wrong.

So, will she get the nomination?

She has a powerful machine. But many, many other candidates will be draining off support. The Democrats around me all have their fingers crossed that [Barack]Obama can develop complexity and stature on the road. This is our hope right now. We want to turn the page. We don't want to go backward into the Clinton years, which is what will happen if she's nominated.

Given the disaster in Iraq, it seems from up here that the Democrats can't lose no matter who they run. Do you agree?

I don't know where people are getting the idea that the Democrats are a shoo-in. I don't see them gaining the White House unless there's a third-party spinoff, like Ross Perot. I listen to conservative talk radio, because the callers really do give one a sense of where popular sentiment is at the moment. And I just don't see how any of the Democratic candidates is going to be able to present the national-security credentials that will be crucial in this election. The Republicans have [Mitt]Romney, [Rudolph]Giuliani, [Fred]Thompson, even [Mike]Huckabee - a series of candidates who would be way more credible than Hillary, if only because of the projection of strength they give.

You're saying that Fred Thompson would project as more credible than Hillary?

I'm not a fan of his - we don't need another actor in the White House - but he's highly articulate and he's a gut fighter and debater. Every one of those guys is twice as articulate and twice as masterful in give-and-take as she is, and they are able to project a geniality and a humour that she is unable to.

The Bush-Cheney regime is coming to an end, and the Republicans are in no way going to be running on the record of George Bush. I pray it is not Thompson - he's kind of a flâneur - but Romney does have a record of achievement as a manager and a governor. Giuliani has sort of fascist tendencies, and I find it hard to believe the Republican Party would nominate a man in his third marriage with so many skeletons in his closet.

You thought Iraq was a terrible mistake from the start. What's the right course now?

We should withdraw. My attitude is there is no moment when the withdrawal of forces will not create a vacuum into which chaos will rush. It's time to get out and let the Iraqis settle their own mess. We cannot be having American forces occupying countries around the world.

Switching the subject, where have you been the past few years? You're not in the public eye much these days.

In the early nineties, when political correctness was an enormous issue and feminism was in the process of radical change, I was one of the leaders of the pro-sex movement and so I was on television all the time. I helped found [the online magazine] But really, I'm a private person. I don't hang with the smart set. In 2000, I resigned from Salon in order to focus on Break, Blow, Burn [a book of selected classic poems, with commentary written for a general audience] And for five years I was absolutely invisible.

Anything new in the works?

A companion book to Break, Blow, Burn - a book on the visual arts, directed to a general audience. I will choose a series of images and talk about them. Our scholars aren't interested in writing this type of book. They're way too specialized. They believe they're too good to speak to the general audience, for whom art was, in fact, intended. That's why there's been a waning of survey courses. No one wants to teach them. That just shows you what's wrong with universities today.

For years now, you've been contemptuous of the postmodern intellectual climate in the elite universities. Is it as bad as it was a decade ago?

It's improved. The prestige of the leading poststructuralists and postmodernists has vanished. But they still have genuine power and they have destroyed the next generation of scholars. There is not a single new interesting voice among the younger generation of literary critics. It's a tragedy! Here we are in 2007 - I have just turned 60, for heaven's sakes! - and I'm looking for the generation to succeed me. Why am I the only literary critic who is writing interesting and lively prose about the world and politicians and pop culture?

Wherever I go, people come up to me and tell the same story - they entered graduate school and left it or staggered through it and could not get a job because of their refusal to spend their time on [French social theorist Michel]Foucault. All they wanted to do was immerse themselves in great literature and great works of art. They were treated as naive, or as traitors, and driven out. The most lively and interesting minds have been driven out of American academe.

History will show that my generation, at Harvard, Princeton, Berkeley, has not produced a single work of criticism that will stand the test of time. There's no learning left! It's trash! It's gobbledygook! When my generation retires from the Ivy League, their names will be forgotten! There's something mentally diseased about an attitude that puts me so outside the pale of the literary establishment. The highly remunerated establishment, I should add. All these leftists are retiring as millionaires! Parents across America have bankrupted the family budget so these professors can spend their retirement years in Boca Raton.

I'm glad to see you haven't mellowed. But your personal life has really changed. You have a son now. What's that like?

His name is Lucien Maddex and he'll be 5 in November. He's the son of my partner, Alison Maddex. It's been fabulous for me. I've enjoyed every step of it - SpongeBob SquarePants, the whole thing. I've always said I have no maternal instincts, but I've always liked children. I was born with an entertainment gene, a comedy gene, and small children have always gravitated toward me because I seem like a sort of cartoon character to them.

I very much enjoy having a son. I think I would have been uncertain with a daughter. I wouldn't have been that good buying Barbie dolls, but I know exactly what a boy wants - the little soldiers and all.

I am not a mother. This Heather has Two Mommies stuff is terrible. The thing about the "two moms" or the "two dads" is a terrible thing to impose on a child. Parents should be in two roles. Lucien has one mother and that is Alison. I am his parent, and I have adopted him legally. I've enjoyed it greatly not least because I see what it's like to be immersed in the world of moms. I've had a chance to observe them ... like an anthropologist. They get on fabulously with each other. And I can say every single statement I made about gender in Sexual Personae - about gender differences, child rearing and so on - has proved true.

Tell me about the kids you're teaching today. Have they resolved the gender conflicts our generation struggled so hard with?

It does seem that the inflammatory gender issues have subsided. This generation - especially post-9/11 - lacks the brash assertion and arrogant naiveté of the 1960s. They're much more interested in collaborative enterprise. They don't have the fiery gesturalism of my generation - which came to wrack and ruin, of course - or the megalomania and the misjudgments and the lack of realism about what it takes to make change.

They don't tend to argue or orate at each other. But they are in constant contact through computers and cellphones. They don't necessarily verbalize to each other - it's all through the medium of technology. I think they're going much more to be team players, which is a positive.

But can team playing and self-effacement meet the challenge of global terrorism and jihadism? Is this generation willing to go to war if necessary? Are they willing to die for democracy and freedom? They have no modelling of idealistic self-sacrifice. Even the best humanistic impulses may not be able to survive a clash with determined terrorists.

In other words, we'll always need a warrior class to keep us safe?

I keep coming back to that parallel with Imperial Rome. No one can believe that all this prosperity, this sophisticated culture, could fall through a series of determined attacks from bands of barbarians. It could fall from within as well as without. I feel my side - the liberal democrats - really don't take seriously the possibility that such a complex international structure can fall, perhaps not only through terrorism but through some cataclysmic event, an asteroid, or another Krakatoa.

The middle and upper-middle class of the Western world assumes that what's true today will be true tomorrow. I think they're living in a glass bubble. All great empires eventually fall.

Margaret Wente is a columnist for The Globe and Mail.