In Passing: Playing with fire

Camille Paglia is a contemporary social and cultural critic who defies categorisation by any terms which our dazed and confused post modern world has at its disposal. This is what makes her so interesting – and important.

Mark Bauerlein, who is senior editor of First Things, describes her as “an idiosyncratic mix of liberal and conservative convictions—or perhaps we should say that she, like any person of serious understanding, has an intellectual makeup more complex than our current political simplicities can absorb.”

He doesn’t try to unravel Paglia’s whirlwind mind but he does observe that there is one profound traditionalist point that she maintains repeatedly, and it is one of the first truths of the conservative disposition.

She announced it, he explains, a few months back in an interview with the New York Observer. In the very first question of that interview she was asked about comparisons which have been made between President Trump and Adolf Hitler. She replied: “‘Presentism’ is a major affliction – an over-absorption in the present or near past, which produces a distortion of perspective and a sky-is-falling Chicken Little hysteria.” In the fable, Chicken Little caused widespread panic when he mistook a falling acorn for a piece of the sky. Presentism is defined as an uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts.

Ignorance of history, ignorance about the conditions of humanity in past ages, is crippling the minds of millennials in Paglia’s view. She is appalled by how little knowledge of history young Americans actually possess. Paglia believes there is a causal connection between young Americans’ ignorance of history and their dim view of present conditions. On this side of the Atlantic, with the devastating and destructive work being done by Irish and British curriculum designers just now, we will soon be in the same place.

At a conference in Oxford early in 2017, Paglia stated again, in response to a student who criticised her and others for telling young people not to be so sensitive and snowflaky, “There is much too much focus on the present.” Thanks to the (presumed) sensitivity of modern youth, Paglia says, students have not had a “realistic introduction to the barbarities of human history…. Ancient history must be taught…. I believe in introducing young people to the disasters of history.”

When people judge the present solely in present terms, not in relation to the past, diversity becomes not the pursuit of knowledge of other cultures, religions, and civilisations. It becomes, Paglia says, a “banner” under which we presume to “remedy” contemporary social sins. At that point, we should realise, education has turned into indoctrination.

That’s not what education is supposed to do, she continues. Education is about “opening the great past…” She wants more focus on knowledge. But we should not be afraid of knowledge about the things which were hard, difficult and even downright barbaric – knowledge of the god, the bad and the ugly. Clearly an academy which creates spaces for student in which they will be “safe” from this knowledge is to her an anathema.

She argues that we have allowed the classroom to devolve from the pursuit of knowledge to the pursuit of “cures” for social problems. That approach is “wrong,” Paglia insists, a job for social welfare agencies, not post-secondary learning. We should return to the vision of education as the “abstract and detached study of the past and of the global present.”

If historical illiteracy is bondage, the moral variety is even more so. Paglia’s has her own controversial view of that too. The moral illiteracy of our age is astounding. It was revealed yet again some months ago in an Irish context in the controversy surrounding a well-known radio journalist, George Hook, who found himself suspended from his job for asking a simple question with insufficient delicacy.

In fact, the delicacy was not the real issue. It was that he asked the question at all.

But what exactly did he say? In the context of a rape charge involving a drunken threesome, he had no doubt that, if guilty, the rapist had committed a horrible crime. However, Hook’s undoing was that he then had the temerity to ask a universal question: “But is there no blame now to the person who puts themselves in danger?”

Mr Hook then began to think out loud – perhaps a little incoherently because this was talk radio after all: “There is personal responsibility because it’s your daughter and it’s my daughter. And what determines the daughter who goes out, gets drunk, passes out and is with strangers in her room and the daughter that goes out, stays halfway sober and comes home, I don’t know. I wish I knew. I wish I knew what the secret of parenting is.”

“But there is a point of responsibility. The real issue nowadays and increasingly is the question of the personal responsibility that young girls are taking for their own safety.”

No sooner than he said this, the alarm bells went off around the country. Noeline Blackwell, CEO of an Irish Rape Crisis Centre, said Mr Hook’s comments were problematic, wrong, and entirely irresponsible. “When someone is raped the only person responsible is the rapist.”

Chris Donoghue, the group political editor at Communicorp, the media company that owns the station Hook works for, tweeted about his colleague saying, “Someone needs to go to town on Hook. It’s disgusting.” A day or two later he tweeted again saying: “Thanks for msgs, I’m not trying to be a hero or outspoken. It’s a basic thing for everyone to stand for. Rape is never a victim’s fault.” Clearly the journalistic “ethic” that dog refrains from eating dog doesn’t apply anymore.

This is moral illiteracy – showing a total and wanton ignorance of the rational concept of moral culpability, or lack of it.

Put simply and taken out of the sordid context of rape, if I see a “Beware of the dog” sign and, after ignoring it, get badly bitten, at best I am a fool, at worst I am morally culpable of negligence relating to my bodily integrity. If I get into a car with a drunk behind the wheel do I not have to ask myself some questions about my common sense, my moral sense and certainly my sense of responsibility with regard to my own safety and well-being? If my companion drives off the road I will not be culpable for his crime and folly – but my injuries and possibly my death will be a witness to my gross imprudence as well as to the driver’s criminality. Perhaps the moral ignorance which makes people think otherwise comes from the widespread equating of legality with morality.

Camille Paglia and Laura Kipnis, cultural critics and feminists who talk a lot of sense about drinking on campus have made themselves very unpopular with the moral illiterates.

“If you’re to going drink eleven ounces of liquor, that’s destructive on a lot of levels. In terms of self-protection, you just cannot know what’s going to happen when you’re comatose,” Kipnis argues in her new book, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus. She also makes the point: “To say that women don’t have to be part of the solution is almost perverse.”

Paglia’s new book, Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism, reprises her previously published essays. A professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, she suggests less boozing and more “take-charge attitude” might spare young women from rape – or what she described in a 2014 Time article as “oafish hookup melodramas arising from mixed signals and imprudence on both sides.”

Then we had an older and a wiser Chrissie Hynde, founding member of the rock band The Pretenders telling us in her 2015 memoir, Reckless, that she’d been raped by a biker gang member at the age of 21. The moral illiterates found it incomprehensible that the singer blamed herself for “playing with fire.”

Poor George Hook thought he might get away with adding his tuppence-worth of moral wisdom to all that. Little did he know the depth of ignorance he would have to contend with as the moral illiterates bayed for his blood and attempted to destroy his career with relish?