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Channelling Molly, Pt. 1: An Unbowed Feminist Confronts Popular Idiocy - Camille Who?

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Molly Ivins 1

Please note the second installment is up of MJS's photo essay on Sunday's protest march in Hollywood; don't miss it, or the first, and the comment thread it elicited. Molly would have approved; Molly would have been at one of them.

Technical difficulties of an, as yet, unknown origin kept me from posting, as promised here, our first installment of a new weekend series, featuring our attempt to bring to bear Molly Ivins' words on the week to week reality we now face, tragically, without her actual presence in her midst. So much seemed to be happening the last two days, I decided not to post it. Still a lot going on, (grinning, she rubs her hands), but I decided to throw it into the mix anyway.

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Molly's encounter with Camille Paglia happened years ago, when Paglia was just gaining notoriety for her book "Sexual Personae," and her avowal of exactly the kind of knee-jerk anti-political correctness contrariness, which assured any writer the approval of the SCLM through-out the late eighties and well into the nineties, and, in fact, which still works pretty much the same way to this very day.

Camille wasn't bashful about making the Whitmanesque claim of containing multitudes, although it's hard to think of any writer who continues to share less of Whitman's embracing Americanism; a self-identified lesbian, Paglia had never met any group of lesbians numbering more than one of whom she approved, the one accepted "one" being Camille, of course; a self-proclaimed feminist, she had nothing but contemptuous words for any and all aspects of feminist thought, other than her own, natch; a self-described Democrat/liberal, what she expressed toward both Democrats and liberals was loathing, while her praise for Limbaugh and right-wing talk radio was fulsome, (in both meanings of the word); a proud daughter of the working class, as she never fails to stress, Paglia has always seemed oblivious to the actual travails of working folks, and as for labor unions, I mean, name anything in the eighties and nineties less cool than organized labor.

I'll give this to Camille Paglia, she figured out earlier than most would-be media celebrities that coolness was henceforth to be defined by the right-wing conservative movement.

Molly Ivins was mainly silent on the Paglia phenomenon. Until she wasn't.

As she explains, it was an editor who suggested she do a column on Camille, like more "normal" columnists were all doing. Molly has to be told who Paglia is.

Big cheese in New York intellectual circles. The latest rage. Hot stuff. Controversial.

But I'm not good on New York intellectual controversies, I explained. Could never bring myself to give a rat's ass about Jerzy Kosinski. Never read Andy Warhol's diaries. Can never remember the name of the editor of this "New Whatsit," the neo-con critical rag. I'm a no-hoper on this stuff, practically a professional provincial.

Read Paglia, says he, you'll have an opinion. So I did; and I do.

Did she ever.

One of the delights of Molly's work is the way she always gets straight to the core of what needs laughing at, even while she is also clarifying what's not so funny, after all is said and laughed at, about the subject she is unwrapping for your delight. Thus, her first words on her own reaction to Paglia-speak is to highlight what it took Molly to make me see - that Paglia's rather bizarre affect, that fidgety loquacity, the words flying out of Camille's mouth faster than you can hear them, jet-fueled by a kind of narcissistic pique at the world for never being equal to Paglia's greatness, has its equivalence in her thinking and her prose style.

Rereading Molly, I'm struck anew by her professional skill, the writing chops she displays; it isn't just a question of being soulful, or of our gratitude for her unabashed, unembarrassed, unapologetic liberalism and feminism; it's the technique, stupid. Nor is her humor haphazard; she builds the laughs like a master comedic artist.

Read and watch her do it:

Christ! Get this woman a Valium!

Hand her a gin. Try meditation. Camille, honey, calm down!

The noise is about her "oeuvre" as we always say in Lubbock: "Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson." In very brief, for those of you who have been playing hooky from the New York Review of Books, Ms. Paglia's contention is that "the history of western civilization has been a constant struggle between ... two impulses, an unending tennis match between cold, Apollonian categorization and Dionysian lust and chaos." Jeez, me too. I always thought the world was divided into only two kinds of people --- those who think the world is divided into only two kinds of people, and those who don't.

You think perhaps this is a cheap shot, that I have searched her work and caught Ms. Paglia in a rare moment of sweeping generalization, easy to make fun of? "Au contraire," as we always say in Amarillo; the sweeping generalization is her signature. In fact, her work consists of damn little else. She is the queen of the categorical statement.

Never one to dodge a simple dichotomy when she can set one up, Ms. Paglia holds that the entire error of western civilization stems from denying that nature is a kind of nasty, funky, violent, wet dream, and that Judeo-Christianity has been one long effort to ignore this. She pegs poor old Rousseau, that fathead, as the initiator of the silly notion that nature is benign and glorious and that only civilization

Right away, I got a problem. Happens I have spent a lot of my life in the wilderness, and also a lot of my life in bars. When I want sex and violence, I go to a Texas honky-tonk. When I want peace and quiet, I head for the woods. Just as a minor historical correction to Ms. Paglia, Rousseau did not invent the concept of benign Nature. Among the first writers to hold that nature was a more salubrious environment fro man than the corruptions of civilization were the Roman Stoics --- rather a clear-eyed lot, I always thought.

Now why, you naturally ask, would anyone care about whether a reviewer has ever done any serious camping? Ah, but you do not yet know the Camille Paglia school of I-am-the-cosmos argument. Ms. Paglia believes that all her personal experiences are Seminal. Indeed, Definitive. She credits a large part of her supposed wisdom to having been born post-World War II and thus having been raised on television. "Damn me, so was I."

From here, Molly places front and center an episode Paglia has often referred to over the years, a wholly unconvincing anecdote in which she is lectured by nameless, faceless feminists on why she can't call "the Stones" the greatest rock and roll band of all time.

It is this, Paglia has often told us, which made her realize that she was the only true feminist in America, and that the movement and all who clung to it were phonies, or worse, Stalinists; thus, in Paglia's mind, having someone confront you with an opposing opinion is somehow the same as being sent off to a gulag. Oh well.

Molly brings an historian's intelligence to the matter of this episode, as well as to Paglia's claim that it was feminism which imposed on American women the awful ethos of dressing for success:

In addition to the intrinsic cultural superiority Ms. Paglia attributes to herself from having grown up watching television ("It's Howdy-Doody Time" obviously made us all smarter), she also considers her own taste in music to be of enormous significance.

"You see, right from the start it was impossible for me to be taken into the feminist movement, okay? The only art they will permit is art that gives a positive image of women. I said, `That's like the Soviet Union; that is the demagogic, propagandistic view of art.' "

Well, by George, as a First Amendment absolutist, you'll find me willing to spring to the defense of Camille Paglia's right to be a feminist Rolling Stones fan any hour, day or night. Come to think of it, who the hell was the Stalin who wouldn't let her do that? I went back and researched the '69 politburo, and all I could find was Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, and Gloria Steinem, none of whom ever seems to have come out against rock music.

I have myself quite cheerfully been both a country-music fan and a feminist for years --- if Camille Paglia is the cosmos, so am I. When some fellow feminist doesn't like my music (How could you not like "You are just another sticky wheel on the grocery cart of life?"), I have always felt free to say, in my politically correct feministfashion, "Fuck off."


Paglia's view of sex --- that it is irrational, violent, immoral, and wounding --- is so glum that one hesitates to suggest that it might be instead, well, a lot of fun, and maybe even affectionate and loving.

Far less forgivable is Paglia's consistent confusion of feminism with yuppies. What does she think she's doing? Paglia holds feminists responsible for the bizarre blight created by John T. Molloy, author of "Dress for Success," which caused a blessedly brief crop of young women, all apparently aspiring to be executive vice-presidents, to appear in the corporate halls wearing those awful sand-colored baggy suits with little floppy bow ties around their necks.

Why Paglia lays the blame for this at the feet of feminism is beyond me. Whatever our other aims may have been, no one in the feminist movement ever thought you are what you wear. The only coherent fashion statement I can recall from the entire movement was the suggestion that Mrs. Cleaver, Beaver's mom, would on the whole have been a happier woman had she not persisted in vacuuming while wearing high heels. This, I still believe.

Imagine a world in which the SCLM had been smart enough, energetic enough, and ethical enough to have called out a Paglia, or an Ann Coulter, or a Rush Limbaugh, or an Independent Women's Forum on their various idiocies?

Paglia's still at it, mirroring the rightwing movement, giving it's various spokespersons legitimacy, and not only about their anti-female stance, and let's be clear here, it isn't just feminism they despise, it's women, (women with degrees, women athletes, women plumbers, women as they exist in the twentieth century), and it's black folks, and other "others," especially "gay" folks.

Could Molly, writing over a decade ago have been any more relevant to what Rick Pearlstein is talking about in this post by CD Nor does Molly mince words:

What we have here, fellow citizens, is a crassly egocentric, raving twit. The Norman Podhoretz of our gender. That this woman is actually taken seriously as a thinker in New York intellectual circles is a clear sign of decadence, decay, and hopeless pinheadedness. Has no one in the nation's intellectual capital the background and ability to see through a web of categorical assertions? One fashionable line of response to Paglia is to claim that even though she may be fundamentally off-base, she has "flashes of brilliance." If so, I missed them in her oceans of swill.

One of her latest efforts at playing enfant terrible in intellectual circles was a peppy essay for Newsday, claiming that either there is no such thing as date rape or, if there is, it's women's fault because we dress so provocatively. Thanks, Camille, I've got some Texas fraternity boys I want you to meet.

There is one area in which I think Paglia and I would agree that politically correct feminism has produced a noticeable inequity. Nowadays, when a woman behaves in a hysterical and disagreeable fashion, we say, "Poor dear, it's probably PMS." Whereas, if a man behaves in a hysterical and disagreeable fashion, we say, "What an asshole."

Let me leap to correct this unfairness by saying of Paglia,
Sheesh, what an asshole.

There's more in Molly's original, including discussions of Madonna and Catholicism. You can read Molly's entire essay here.

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