What Ever Happened to Camille Paglia?

And then came 9/11. After the Twin Towers fell, some American writers woke up, took a good look at Islam, and started trying to figure out what we were up against. One of the major aspects of Islamic reality that began to receive widespread attention was the brutal oppression of women and girls in the Muslim world and in the fast-growing Muslim communities in Europe and North America. One gutsy woman after another -- some of them Muslims, some ex-Muslims, and some non-Muslims -- stepped forward and shone a harsh spotlight on the way Islam treated members of their sex. Oriana Fallaci wrote two blistering, unforgettable books. Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote The Caged Virgin, Infidel, and Nomad -- not to mention the film Submission. Wafa Sultan wrote A God who Hates. Irshad Manji wrote The Trouble with Islam Today. Chahdortt Djavann wrote Bas les voiles! (Down with the Veils!) Nonie Darwish wrote Now They Call Me Infidel. And Hege Storhaug wrote Tilslørt. Avslørt (Veiled, Unveiled). Surely one might have expected that Paglia, who had so vociferously claimed to “speak for the ordinary woman out there,” would feel moved to join this swelling chorus.

But no. On this all-important subject, Paglia was all but silent. Although every now and then she served up a sentence or two that hinted at something less than total approval of Islam, she was plainly unwilling to take it on with the kind of vigor she had devoted to combating Steinem and company (or, for that matter, to singing the praises of Madonna and Elizabeth Taylor). It was as if Islam was just too grave, too momentous, a topic for her. It was also a topic that did not easily lend itself to her self-referential, self-celebratory approach -- a topic, in other words, into which she couldn’t easily inject herself. And so she just kept on writing about Madonna. And as a result she very quickly came to look like a back number, a defining figure of the 1990s, that decade between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11 -- a decade that, viewed from a post-9/11 perspective, can seem to have been preoccupied largely with frivolous nonsense.

For some years now, Paglia’s chief forum has been a monthly column on the salon.com website in which she’s combined pop-culture commentary with political opinions. Though she continues to try to sound boldly irreverent, her schtick is old, her voice is tired, and her politics are more consistent with the official liberal line than any Paglia enthusiast of twenty years ago would ever have expected. In an interview on Canadian TV earlier this year, the once feisty, vivacious Paglia looked sad and exhausted, and came off as an old grouch, carping that Christopher Hitchens and other critics of religion are “cynics” who “just sneer. ... I don’t want young people learning how to sneer” -- this from a woman who became famous for sneering at icons and ideologies. Her Canadian interviewer had just taped a talk with Hitchens, whose fiery denunciation of religion in general and of Islam in particular formed a dramatic contrast with Paglia, whose admission to the same interviewer that we in the West “need to be concerned about the passion in jihadism” was itself curiously, uncharacteristically dispassionate, and whose focus was, in any event, not on jihad but on what she described as the failure of secular humanism.

Then, on the Sunday before last, the London Times ran what seems to be the longest essay Paglia has published in years. It was touted by the newspaper as “explosive.” What was it about? Banning burkas? Suicide bombing? Female genital mutilation?  No, it was about Lady Gaga. Paglia, who had once celebrated Madonna -- and herself -- as products of savvy marketing, now attacked Lady Gaga as a “manufactured personality.” If Madonna embodied sensuality, Lady Gaga, Paglia charged, is plastic and post-sexual. The essay bore the absurdly overblown title “Lady Gaga and the Death of Sex.” Online, most of it was behind the Times’s pay wall, but more than enough of it was available for free -- nine hundred-odd words -- to give readers a fair idea of where Paglia was going. The piece reeked of desperation: one had the impression that she was going all-out to appear with-it, to communicate to the world that she was still, as the Times put it, “America’s foremost cultural critic.” But instead, all her Lady Gaga piece accomplished was to affirm her irrelevance.

It’s a sad development, for Paglia’s voice is one that has been sorely missed in the genuinely important public conversations of the last nine years. It’s truly lamentable that the woman who claimed to be the spokesperson for the ordinary woman has been virtually AWOL from discussions of Islamic gender oppression. It’s grimly ironic now to look back at her 1992 interview with Bob Costas. Commenting on leading members of the women’s movement “who should have developed and evolved in their thinking,” Paglia told Costas that “celebrity seems to have stopped their development.” Would she be willing now to consider that her own celebrity has perhaps limited her growth? Similarly, Paglia told Costas that Susan Sontag had “been living for twenty years off a reputation that’s completely gone.” Twenty years after Paglia herself stepped onto the international stage -- and nine years after the destruction of the World Trade Center -- what can we say about the state of her own reputation? Is there still hope that Paglia will step up to the plate and produce anything remotely resembling a major work about the religion that represents the greatest threat to women’s equality in the world today? Or is it time to write her off as a trivial-minded sniper at vapid celebrities, a has-been who, quite simply, has nothing useful whatsoever to say about the most serious issues of our time?