Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Ready, Aim, Paglia

In this radio interview with Camille Paglia, who the host calls "a culture war waiting to happen," the professional firebrand (and firm atheist) makes an argument that certain intellectuals should ease up on anti-religious sentiment:
Art, in particular, is suffering right now because people in the art world tend to be either atheist or agnostic, and there is very little spiritual content to the art that is being produced or being taught, except in art history courses that are dealing with overtly great religious art of the past. I'm trying to bridge the divide between the two sides ... My fellow Democrats tend to be, in my view, rather sneering, snide secular humanists who, in fact, have a kind of disdain for people of faith. I, as an atheist, feel that it's perfectly possible to be deeply moved by religion. In fact, without that, a person is going to be unable to respond to the world history of art, so much of which has been religious.
She continually refers to her career as a teacher, and is most upset by the effect of secular humanism in the classroom:
It's that vastness that is missing from poststructuralism and postmodernism, which focus on the social, the political -- they think that nothing exists but political power, and that we are all passive victims of that. ... I so detest the major professors at Harvard, at Princeton, at Yale, Duke, Berkeley -- name them all -- who have destroyed and limited the minds of their students by confining them to these tiny little political paradigms.
Um. Amen?

As an agnostic myself, I'm certainly not in favor of strictly religious education, but I do have a healthy level of hatred for poststructuralism, and probably an unhealthy level of hatred for those "tiny little political paradigms." And I think attempts to eradicate any kind of space for acknowledgment of mysterious vastness -- a school was recently castigated for allowing children a "moment of silence" in the morning -- is absurd, not to mention just as fascistic as some elements of the religious right. Paglia describes those so opposed as people who "don't have a spiritual idea from one week to the next."

Paglia contradicts herself a few times, and is as polemical as ever, but she gives good polemic. One minute, she's talking like the most nostalgic hippie about how the '60s had real heroes like Jimi Hendrix, and the next she's raging against the hedonistic principles that guided that decade. Maybe it's not such a contradiction. Nostalgia and self-recrimination being what they are, maybe we're all bound to alternately cuddle and upbraid our former selves:
As a student of history, I have to say that... when cultures -- as in the Roman Empire, or even earlier, in the Hellenistic period and so on, as they become more secular, as they become tolerant, as they become les religious, they begin to sag, they begin to lose their trade of drive and their sense of identity. The end result is that those cultures collapse. This is the terrible irony -- that what most liberals, or Democrats, on my side of the political spectrum, don't seem to realize is that tolerance has never been a prescription for cultural strength, and that it's usually a symptom of the imminent decay and disintegration of that particular society. That's why, as a career educator, I feel that I have a mission, and all teachers should ... to try to remedy this and try to identify the deficits in the culture and supply what's missing, to try to strengthen it. Instead, the Ivy Leagues and the elite schools spent 30 years in that disgraceful enterprise of poststructuralism and postmodernism to try to knock the pillars out from everything that students believed in, in terms of culture and so on. ... What have we bequeathed in our secular humanism to the young? It is a debased cultural environment that we have bequeathed, a nothingness. If you are not concerned by what the young have -- which is nothing -- then you are irresponsible.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. That is totally awesome. I couldn't agree more. I have got to read me some Camille Paglia. (Didn't she write "The Wind In The Willows?" Or am I thinking of Bertrand Russel?)

Seriously: that is really moving. It gibes completely with my experience in college and grad school. Go Camille!-


6:28 PM  
Anonymous Kevin Longrie said...

I went through a brief period (I think around 9th grade) where I was really anti-religion, overtly aggressive about it. It got to the point where I'd almost go out of my way to tell people why they were "wrong." I quickly got over that, and started to cringe at it happening all around me. I went from being a staunch atheist to an agnostic, and recognized that the bitterness and hatred really wasn't solving anything. I mean, that's not how you change someones mind, and that's not even really my place.

End Rant

3:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree, it was nice to see someone from that side actually take a look at their side's own arguments critically for a change. As an agnostic who leans towards a belief in at least "something" out there greater than us and beyond our comprehension, I too cringe at the strident attacks on religious faith these days from the Left.

The rise of the Religious Right was given fuel by precisely the issues discussed by Paglia. It was this attack on Faith from the Left that drove so many formerly unpolitical religious folk to become politicized in the first place. To each action that steps over the line of reason there is an equal overreaction. Good job, pinko atheist Leftists. You gave us Pat Robertson.


10:14 AM  
Blogger Dianna said...

Paglia is all over the place with her intolerance of tolerance and tolerance of intolerance. I really don’t know what loss she is bemoaning. I can appreciate that she misses the exploration of the great mystery. Even as a foundationless secular humanist, I am moved by faith and spirituality. But if she misses the structure of religion because it helps people define themselves, then I think her pendulum has swung too far. There are other things, perhaps better things, to base your cultural identity on than religion.

There are plenty of intolerant, religious cultures that exist within our current society. Somehow I doubt she would want to live within those societies. I’ll keep my debased cultural environment, if it means I can define my spirituality rather than be defined by it.

As for attacks by leftist atheists, not that it matters, but somehow I don’t think those folks started the war. And formerly apolitical religious people never existed. If they didn't have the secularists to fight with, they'd just be fighting over whether a Catholic qualified as Christian enough to lead.

5:32 PM  

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