Camille Paglia on identity politics

Camille Paglia is a feminist, which I am not. She is also an atheist, which I am not — although I like her observation that “God is man’s greatest idea.”

But she and I have some common ground on Identity Politics. The WSJ quoted this over the weekend. Here’s a link to the full interview, at

reason: For you, what is the essence of feminism? Is it using the lens of gender to explore every given issue? Is it a formal gesture? Is it a methodology, or is it a set of political positions that can’t change?

Paglia: I am an equal opportunity feminist. I believe that all barriers to women’s advancement in the social and political realm must be removed. However, I don’t feel that gender is sufficient to explain all of human life. This gender myopia has become a disease, a substitute for a religion, this whole cosmic view. It’s impossible that the feminist agenda can ever be the total explanation for human life. Our problem now is that this monomania—the identity politics of the 1970s, so people see everything through the lens of race, gender, or class-this is an absolute madness, and in fact, it’s a distortion of the ’60s. I feel that the ’60s had a vision, a large cosmic perspective that was absolutely lost in this degeneration, in this splintering of the 1970s into these identity politics.

I like people who refuse to fit in boxes, whose thoughts range beyond them. I may not like them all over — I’m less enchanted with the “vision” of the 60s, if I’m understanding her correctly — but in spots.

48 thoughts on “Camille Paglia on identity politics

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yeah, I know — yet another good thing about her.

      She seems to think too much to be any kind of an “-ist,” femin- or otherwise…

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        Or even any feminist whom others recognize as feminist, even freethinking, tailored ones.
        But it’s too hot to fuss with you about this. Nobody but Camille Paglia considers her a feminist.

        But why are you not a feminist? Do you not believe women are entitled to equal rights?

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Women are already entitled to equal rights.

          But that aside, I am not a feminist because I’ve read too many things written by people who claim that THEY are feminists, and I almost always find the things they say to be off-putting. Obviously, my mind doesn’t operate the way theirs do. So I must not be one.

          Back in the heyday of feminism (the 70s), wanting (like most people who embraced the movement) to be seen as having the correct sensibility, I used to say that I was all for feminism, except for the abortion thing — which I saw then and now as a fascist position, putting a sociopolitical goal ahead of valuing human life.

          But I’ve read way too many jargon-infested diatribes since then to want to have anything to do with it.

          And I just can’t accept, intellectually, anything that seems based in the notion that there are no differences of any importance between men and women.

          I could go along more if what I heard was this: Men and women are different, but they are of equal worth as human beings. That’s what I believe, and what I see of life continues to affirm it. Vive la différence, and so forth.

          My good friend Claudia Brinson, meaning to be kind, once told me that meant I was a “difference feminist.” And she may have been right. I just looked it up and it’s almost exactly what I just said.

          But hey, that strain is out of favor, and I find it simpler to say that I’m just not any kind of feminist.

          1. Kathryn Fenner

            Where is in written that women are entitled to equal rights? Certainly not in the Equal Rights Amendment…R.I.P.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              Where is it written that they are NOT?

              But if you want a citation, here’s one from the first place I looked, the 14th Amendment:

              All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

              I’ve not heard anyone assert that women are not “persons.” And anyone who DID would have a lot of ‘splainin’ to do.

              1. Pam Wilkins

                Well, Justice Scalia specifically takes the position that the Equal Protection Clause does not bar unequal treatment of women (doesn’t include them), and he’d be happy to ‘splain it. As Kathryn pointed out, the 19th Amendment arguably wouldn’t have been necessary if judges (and politicians) had thought the 14th Amendment (equal protection etc.) included women. The ERA wouldn’t have been necessary (not that it happened, obviously), and the tireless work of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and others might not have been necessary either.

                Diss feminism and feminists all you want, but your children and grandchildren are direct beneficiaries of the women’s movement, probably in more ways than you realize. Furthermore, feminist thought is more varied and less doctrinaire and simplistic than you seem to realize, although I might be willing to concede that much of what hits the popular media is lowest common denominator stuff that might be a turn off.

                1. Bryan Caskey

                  Pam, to be fair to Justice Scalia, I think it’s the case that he simply disagreed that on whether the exclusion of women from VMI is “substantially related to an important governmental objective.”

                  His dissent is here.

                  I don’t believe he ever said the 14A doesn’t apply to women.

              2. Brad Warthen Post author

                Pam, thanks for acknowledging that much of feminist thought that I’m likely to see is a turnoff.

                And in fact, when I went back to see the last time I mentioned Ms. Paglia here, I saw that I contrasted something sensible that she was saying to the rebuttal by one of those sophomoric feminists who are so common on Slate’s XXfactor and other web publications.

                Now, as to you and Kathryn suggesting I’m not going to find respectable feminism in mass media… well, then, I’m just not going to find it, then.

                As a journalist, I agree with you that media DO dumb down everything, especially politics — and of course feminism is a political idea. The cartoonish left-right dichotomy that media give us, trying to force us to choose, is anathema to me, as readers of this blog will know.

                BUT, in defense of journalism, if a political idea cannot be fully and convincingly set out in, say, a magazine article, then you might as well give up on it.

              3. Brad Warthen Post author

                Hey, did any of y’all follow that link to XXfactor? Today’s lede item is headlined, “Cersei’s Walk of Shame and Game of Thrones’ Evolution on Sexual Violence.”


                Here’s a sample of this pop-feminist analysis:

                Cersei’s walk of shame capped off a season that inspired controversy over sexual violence on the show—but it also demonstrated why the critics were so off the mark. More than any other in the show’s history, this season showed the writers’ deep understanding of sexual violence: that it’s not about titillation or sexual gratification, but about dominance…

                Yeah, boy, when I want me some “deep understanding” of human sexuality, I’m gonna run to the writers of “Game of Thrones,” the guys who have redefined the term, “boob tube.”

              4. Brad Warthen Post author

                I’m picturing a GOT fan sitting at home and saying, “Huh-huh. Hey, Butthead, she said ‘titillation’! Huh-huh, huh-huh-huh…”

              5. Doug Ross

                I don’t get Game of Thrones. The whole concept of fantasy and science fiction is lost on me. Other than Peter Dinklage, I find the rest of the cast to be seriously over-actors.

              6. Brad Warthen Post author

                Doug, while I enjoy Peter Dinklage, he’s at least as hammy as anyone else on the show.

                I’m often distracted by his bogus, trying-too-hard British accent that he affects for the show.

                I mean, it doesn’t matter — theoretically, he’s trying to sound like a Westerosi, not a Brit. But it still grates. It’s like 95 percent right, maybe even 99 percent, but there are some words where he’s obviously trying hard to do Received Pronunciation, and not… quite… making it…

              7. Pam Wilkins

                Bryan, point taken about the VMI case–thanks–but per Huffington Post, he HAS said it (or is attributed as having said it) in an interview for California Lawyer. My larger point was just that Brad’s invocation of the 14th Amendment as an obvious guarantee of gender equality may not be, well, quite as obvious as he thought it was.

                As for Scalia, I quote:

                In 1868, when the 39th Congress was debating and ultimately proposing the 14th Amendment, I don’t think anybody would have thought that equal protection applied to sex discrimination, or certainly not to sexual orientation. So does that mean that we’ve gone off in error by applying the 14th Amendment to both?

                Yes, yes. Sorry, to tell you that. … But, you know, if indeed the current society has come to different views, that’s fine. You do not need the Constitution to reflect the wishes of the current society. Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn’t. Nobody ever thought that that’s what it meant. Nobody ever voted for that. If the current society wants to outlaw discrimination by sex, hey we have things called legislatures, and they enact things called laws. You don’t need a constitution to keep things up-to-date. All you need is a legislature and a ballot box. You don’t like the death penalty anymore, that’s fine. You want a right to abortion? There’s nothing in the Constitution about that. But that doesn’t mean you cannot prohibit it. Persuade your fellow citizens it’s a good idea and pass a law. That’s what democracy is all about. It’s not about nine superannuated judges who have been there too long, imposing these demands on society.

                1. Bryan Caskey

                  Well, I guess that’s not wrong, is it? His position does have the particular virtue of being logical. One of my favorite Scalia passages is:

                  What makes all this relevant to the bothersome application of “political pressure” against the Court are the twin facts that the American people love democracy and the American people are not fools. As long as this Court thought (and the people thought) that we Justices were doing essentially lawyers’ work up here–reading text and discerning our society’s traditional understanding of that text–the public pretty much left us alone. Texts and traditions are facts to study, not convictions to demonstrate about. But if in reality our process of constitutional adjudication consists primarily of making value judgments; if we can ignore a long and clear tradition clarifying an ambiguous text, as we did, for example, five days ago in declaring unconstitutional invocations and benedictions at public high school graduation ceremonies, Lee v. Weisman, 505 U. S. ___ (1992); if, as I say, our pronouncement of constitutional law rests primarily on value judgments, then a free and intelligent people’s attitude towards us can be expected to be (ought to be) quite different. The people know that their value judgments are quite as good as those taught in any law school–maybe better. If, indeed, the “liberties” protected by the Constitution are, as the Court says, undefined and unbounded, then the people should demonstrate, to protest that we do not implement their values instead of ours. Not only that, but confirmation hearings for new Justices should deteriorate into question and answer sessions in which Senators go through a list of their constituents’ most favored and most disfavored alleged constitutional rights, and seek the nominee’s commitment to support or oppose them. Value judgments, after all, should be voted on, not dictated; and if our Constitution has somehow accidently committed them to the Supreme Court, at least we can have a sort of plebiscite each time a new nominee to that body is put forward.

                  Emphasis mine.

            2. Bryan Caskey

              Justice Ginsburg wrote the opinion in US v. Virginia which held that the 14A prohibited VMI from discriminating against chicks…I mean young women. 🙂

            3. Kathryn Fenner

              well, since women could not vote until 1920, well after the passage of the 14th Amendment, you might want to hit the law books. There’s a lot of SCOTUS jurisprudence, some, but not all, discredited, that the 14th Amendment does not apply to women.

              1. Mark Stewart

                Like society, the law is an ever-evolving thing.

                If I had to argue one side or the other, I would take the position that the courts (any of them) are overly “fair” to women – abortion laws in some states notwithstanding.

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    It’s sort of hard to explain, but as I read that, and other portions of the interview, I felt a sort of kinship with her, in terms of the way she frames issues — in spite of the fact that we’re wildly different and disagree on some real fundamentals.

    I mentioned the way an ideologically correct feminist piece sets my teeth on edge — as did that piece about race recently, or doctrinaire pieces from the Democratic or Republican parties. They have this smug, cozy presumption of the absolute correctness of the really unlikely (to me) things that they believe. And they’re smug and cozy because they KNOW there’s a set of people who will nod their heads and pat them on the back for regurgitating these things. Makes them feel all warm and secure.

    And that tone or style or whatever it is is like fingernails on a blackboard to me, even more than the substance of anything being said. I feel it even when they’re saying something I agree with.

    Whereas, reading what she said, I seemed to recognize a kindred mind. Not necessarily because of the substance of positions she takes, although I thought she did say some sensible things. It’s more like, “Yeah, my mind works that way, too, even if I reach different conclusions.”

    Maybe it’s that she’s an iconoclast, someone who insists on being an outsider to those who accept prepackaged sets of thoughts. And I get weary sometimes precisely because there IS no party or movement of people with whom I can bring myself to broadly agree.

    I’m seeing here someone who takes each issue, or each facet of an issue, and looks at it as a fresh thing, a thing that will lead to conclusions that are not predetermined by conclusions reached in other instances. I like that…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      For instance…

      Just today, I saw a piece in the WashPost by a teacher that set out to argue that we should stop teaching high school kids Shakespeare. I was prepared to disagree, but I read it with interest because I thought maybe this person was going to make some really fresh arguments that might cause me to think maybe it WAS time to abandon that portion of the canon. I was INTERESTED. Much as I love the Bard, I thought the discussion would be stimulating.

      And then it quickly devolved into stuff about Shakespeare being a dead white guy who is not relevant to anyone who is not dead, white and a guy, and the triteness washed over me like a tsunami…

    2. Kathryn Fenner

      She’s a professional bomb thrower, an iconoclast for the sake of iconoclasm. She’s Bill Maher with better credentials.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          No, there’s nothing terrible about my familiarity with her.

          But seriously, she’s just one of those people who grabs my attention from time to time, and I am momentarily intrigued. Haven’t read a book by her or anything. Probably never will, given that there are more books I WANT to read than I’m likely to get to in my lifetime, and nothing by her is on the list.

          I mean, I still need to finish, after multiple false starts, reading Moby Dick…

  2. Harry Harris

    There are enough shades, sizes, and tones of “feminism” to allow a straw woman to be made and attacked by anyone who wishes. That’s one of many reasons I find most labeling to be a convenience for intellectual laziness – shirking the need to examine issues in detail and also a convenient tool for folks who want to mislead. I call myself a “women’s liber” with that being just a branch of human liberation (crediting my former pastor Ralph Cannon). I make most women sick with my diatribes against everything from high-heeled shoes to leading-off our comments about somebody’s daughter with how pretty she is. I adamantly and openly oppose the gender formulations our long male-dominated history has ingrained into us, and am encouraged by the progress I’ve witnessed – but none of it without struggle, leadership, and sometimes strife. Taking a look at the Philemon-Paul relationship and counsel in the NT book, I strongly suspect that becoming an equal may very often require breaking away and declaring independence before reuniting as equals can be well accomplished. The civil rights movement in our country demonstrated to me that equality – legal or personal is usually gained by struggle and sacrifice, not the good grace of the oppressor – though it confers freedom and increased graciousness to both.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        You ever notice how Kathryn only says “hear, hear,” when someone is saying something that differs from what I have said?

        Harry, I don’t construct straw women. I read actual arguments presented as feminism and see them as grating and often nonsensical.

        What else do I have to go by? Is there a feminist church, recognized by all, that has set out doctrine and ruled which writings are canonical and which are not?

        No, of course not: That would smack of the Catholic Church, which so many feminists despise.

        As you say, there are many “shades, sizes, and tones.”

        My favorite part of your comment was that you put “feminism” in quotes. Indeed. I often find it difficult to define it — what it means seems to depend upon the whims of the individual self-proclaimed feminist. Or perhaps “whim” is the wrong word. The definition tends to be whatever seems to suit whatever point the individual writer is bent on making. And that’s frustrating.

        1. Doug Ross

          “Harry, I don’t construct straw women.”

          Which makes Ray Bolger unhappy. (That is a deep reference worthy of Dennis Miller).

        2. Doug Ross

          It all comes down to people seeing things through their own lens of personal experience. I’ve had a career that has allowed me to spend time in dozens of different work environments across the country. I’ve been on a project for a large company in California that was almost solely run by women (senior manager, managers, project leaders, technical leads). It was a different experience – why? BECAUSE WOMEN ARE DIFFERENT THAN MEN. Is that really up for any debate? Women tend to be more collaborative and less political (note I said TEND). They also TEND to be less focused on technology and more on communication. They TEND to be more forgiving of mistakes.

          Currently I am on a project at an old school manufacturing company in the South. As you can expect, the attitude toward women is much different — to the point of marginalization in some cases.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Yep, and my personal experience is in journalism, where at NO time in my career did I see women held back. I had women as bosses several times. Which was good for me, because in general, I’ve had better, smoother (and more enjoyable) working relationships with women throughout my life.

            Because, as you say, women are different.

        3. Harry Harris

          If Brad felt gored by what I stated, it was not because I aimed anything at his comments. My point is that the variety found among persons and statements labeled feminist makes the label itself as problematic as most are in the political arena.
          Disrespecting feminism because of “grating” or “nonsensical” comments or arguments by feminists reminds me of despising Republicans because I think Donald Trump is an empty blowhard, and Jim DeMint longs for a return to feudalism.
          As to “straw women” in Brad’s piece, I didn’t see any though I think Brad’s recent caricature approach to Bernie Sanders and thinly-veiled attacks on Hillary Clinton don’t measure up to his usual reliability as an opinion-writer.
          Oh. And on the Catholic/feminist issue, I find that it’s just the patriarchal, women in their place stuff that most object to, maybe coupled with the long history of men making moral policy about birth control and such. I think recent progress is notable, but have you seen the Southern Baptists?!!

      2. Kathryn Fenner

        Well, Brad, I find myself disagreeing with you more and more. Write something about the virtues of community and I’ll hear, hear that.

        Women are different *from* men in sex characteristics. Otherwise, there exists one man who exhibits characteristics you’d attribute to women, and there exists one woman who exhibits characteristics you’d attribute to men. The rest is largely cultural conditioning, of the sort the sites like XX and Jezebel try to unpack for millennials who think women are equal since Title IX and all, etc. etc.
        That you, Brad, cannot be bothered to investigate feminism beyond mass media hype, is one huge reason why I don’t hear, hear you. Talk to the hand.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          So which is it? That “sites like XX and Jezebel” do a decent job of explaining feminism, or that’s just “mass media hype” that I should ignore?

          I’m really not clear on what it is you want me to do here, or whom you want me to believe. Which leads me to think that you are the one being dismissive, suggesting that what I have to say can’t possibly be valuable…

            1. Doug Ross

              But, seriously, if you can assess your interactions with women and feel comfortable that you treat them fairly and with respect (which as the father of daughters I expect you do), what more is there to do? How much more self-flagellation is required for not “understanding” how a woman thinks?

              Do you dare ask your wife, daughters, female friends, and female co-workers for an assessment of your feminism? I’d be willing to take that challenge.

              1. Kathryn Fenner

                Women have been socialized from birth to be accommodating and kind to your feelings. It is very hard for most women to say, “Actually, you make me uncomfortable when you ___.”
                Often you guys personally treat women very well, but you downplay the disadvantages women are, as a whole, at. That’s what privilege blindness is all about. #notallmen

              2. Doug Ross

                Pure b.s.

                Where and does this socialization for women to be accommodating occur? In schools? In homes? When were you indoctrinated?

                As as husband and father of a daughter, I guarantee you that accommodation isn’t part of their vocabulary.

              3. Kathryn Fenner

                Privilege blindness
                It occurs everywhere! Girls in my time were required to wear dresses to school, until I was in the 5th grade. We were scolded if our panties showed–but the boys got to wear shorts. We were counseled to act like “ladies”–code for quiet, demure. There’s no saying “girls will be girls”–I could go on, but it’s like talking to a wall.
                I don’t care if you flagellate yourself. Being aware of all the subtle ways girls are discouraged to sell themselves short, not make trouble, certainly not “lead boys astray”….would be enough.

              4. Doug Ross

                You’re talking about the past not today. There has never been a time in American history where women have had more power, more opportunity, more legal advantages. And it will only continue to expand going forward. Our next President might be a woman… one of the most powerful people in the entertainment industry is a woman – Oprah.

                And please explain to me how after 50+ years of feminist activism, the two most popular book series of the past decade are about women who are subservient to/obsessed with a man (Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey) — both written by women! Men aren’t buying these books.

                One mistake made in the feminist movement was trying to market the message that women are the same as men. They aren’t. Thank God. As long as women bear the children, their role in society will be different. And that’s okay. The other mistake feminists made was marginalizing those women who were fine with being stay-at-home mothers.

                1. Bryan Caskey

                  The other mistake feminists made was marginalizing those women who were fine with being stay-at-home mothers.

                  This. A million times. The mommy-wars are a real thing. My wife always feels guilty for working, and not being at home with our children more, even though she’s a phenomenal lawyer. Stay-at-home moms make her feel this way. Conversely, I know stay-at-home moms who feel like they’re looked down upon by mothers who choose to work.

                  The mommy wars are real.

                  Oh, and for all the talk about men oppressing women, I think that sometimes women are harder on each other than men are on them.

              5. Doug Ross

                And every time you use the phrase “privilege blindness” it demonstrates that you’re just parroting a liberal marketing message. I am not blind to the fact that people are different. That phrase becomes a rallying cry for those who aren’t capable of doing something to improve themselves. Blame the mythical all-powerful middle class white guys.

                I shouldn’t be revealing this, but when we middle class white guys get our monthly newsletter from the Fraternal Order Of White Privilege, there are no instructions on how to oppress women and minorities. It’s mostly BBQ recipes and advice on how to tie a tie.

          1. Kathryn Fenner

            Sites like XX and Jezebel are not for you. They are trying to reach a totally different audience, through irreverent, over-the-top accessible-to-millennials pieces.
            If you truly want to know what to look at, there are plenty of thoughtful sources. You don’t seem genuinely interested in considering feminist points of view ab initio, so….Maybe most feminists dislike the Catholic Church, in no small part b/c of their perceptions of its treatment of women, nuns and laypeople alike, but that doesn’t mean feminism isn’t a valid point of view. Maybe most feminists believe that a fetus is not a baby yet, and a woman should have the right to choose a safe, legal termination prior to viability. This does not render feminism beyond the pale.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              Actually, it kinda does. It’s an absolutist, irretrievable thing. It’s like…

              You know that passage in 1984, when Winston thinks Wilson is a leader in the resistance, and Wilson asks him a litany of question probing what he is willing to do to fight IngSoc?

              The moment that Wilson loses himself is when he says “yes” to the question of whether, if it were necessary to advance the cause, he would be willing to throw acid in a child’s face.

              When feminism becomes so fixated on women not having ANY disadvantage in comparison to men, economically or otherwise, that it is willing to kill children before they are born, and then try to rationalize it by saying that before this or that arbitrary point in the development process, they are not human, then it indeed has gone too far.

              All of that said, I used to try to embrace the rest of it while rejecting that, but it just became impossible for me.

              And contrary to your convenient belief about “blindness,” I see a lot more than you think — including the beam in my own eye…

              A friend of mine who is a committed feminist acknowledged something to me a number of years ago. She said that yes, the fetus is a person — she couldn’t rationalize that away. But the goal of women’s self-determination was important enough to her that it outweighed that fact.

              I really respected what I perceived as her clear perception — her lack of “blindness,” if you will. But the fact that she was willing to make that calculation chilled my blood.

              But even as I was feeling that, I was aware that many people are equally chilled by my apparent acceptance of innocent people becoming “collateral damage” in a military action that I favor.

              I DON’T accept those casualties. I think each and every one of them is an incalculable tragedy, a loss to the world that can never be recovered. But there are cases in which I believe that even greater tragedies will occur, even more innocents suffer, if action isn’t taken to stop evil people from doing what they will.

              But I see the contradiction. And I am NEVER comfortable with it…

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