Camille Paglia: How Bill Clinton is like Bill Cosby

In exclusive Salon interview, the cultural critic finds parallels between Cosby and Clinton, takes down modern p.c.

Published July 28, 2015 10:00AM (EDT)

Camille Paglia        (Michael Lionstar)
Camille Paglia (Michael Lionstar)

Camille Paglia, the political and cultural critic, has been a brave and brilliant provocateur on Salon for almost 20 years now. Paglia seemed to be on the winning side of the wars over feminism and political correctness in the 1990s, but recently those battles have been reopened. Suddenly we’re talking again and in very different ways about sexual culture on campus. Comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher talk about the return of a stifling political correctness. And we’re staring at the potential rematch of a Clinton and a Bush.

There were so many stories that we wanted Paglia’s take on: Bill Cosby, Donald Trump, the state of the Democratic Party. So we spent two hours discussing all of them on Monday, and we’ll present her thoughts over the next three days. Stand back: Paglia does not hold back on anything.

Over the next two days, she’ll hold forth on the GOP presidential field in devastating ways, and offer surprising thoughts on how she thinks Clinton vs Sanders will end. We start today with thoughts on Bill Cosby, Bill Clinton, campus political correctness and modern feminism.

The banner on the Drudge Report this morning is that Kathleen Willey is starting a site to collect harassment claims against Bill Clinton. New York magazine, meanwhile, has the stories of 35 women who say they were raped or assaulted by Bill Cosby. I wonder if you see a connection between the two stories: Would Bill Clinton’s exploits be viewed more like Cosby’s if he was in the White House now, instead of in the 1990s?

Right from the start, when the Bill Cosby scandal surfaced, I knew it was not going to bode well for Hillary’s campaign, because young women today have a much lower threshold for tolerance of these matters. The horrible truth is that the feminist establishment in the U.S., led by Gloria Steinem, did in fact apply a double standard to Bill Clinton’s behavior because he was a Democrat. The Democratic president and administration supported abortion rights, and therefore it didn’t matter what his personal behavior was.

But we’re living in a different time right now, and young women have absolutely no memory of Bill Clinton. It's like ancient history for them; there’s no reservoir of accumulated good will. And the actual facts of the matter are that Bill Clinton was a serial abuser of working-class women--he had exploited that power differential even in Arkansas.  And then in the case of Monica Lewinsky--I mean, the failure on the part of Gloria Steinem and company to protect her was an absolute disgrace in feminist history! What bigger power differential could there be than between the president of the United States and this poor innocent girl? Not only an intern but clearly a girl who had a kind of pleading, open look to her--somebody who was looking for a father figure.

I was enraged!  My publicly stated opinion at the time was that I don’t care what public figures do in their private life. It’s a very sophisticated style among the French, and generally in Europe, where the heads of state tend to have mistresses on the side. So what? That doesn’t bother me at all!  But the point is, they are sophisticated affairs that the European politicians have, while the Clinton episode was a disgrace.

A cigar and the intern is certainly the opposite of sophisticated.

Absolutely! It was frat house stuff!  And Monica got nothing out of it.  Bill Clinton used her.  Hillary was away or inattentive, and he used Monica in the White House--and in the suite of the Oval Office, of all places. He couldn’t have taken her on some fancy trip? She never got the perks of being a mistress; she was there solely to service him. And her life was completely destroyed by the publicity that followed.  The Clinton’s are responsible for the destruction of Monica Lewinsky! They probably hoped that she would just go on and have a job, get married, have children, and disappear, but instead she’s like this walking ghoul.

Fifteen years later, that’s still the sad role left for her to play.

Yes, it’s like something out of "Wuthering Heights" or "Great Expectations"--some Victorian novel, where a woman turns into this mourning widow who mopes on and on over a man who abused or abandoned her.  Hillary has a lot to answer for, because she took an antagonistic and demeaning position toward her husband's accusers.  So it’s hard for me to understand how the generation of Lena Dunham would or could tolerate the actual facts of Hillary's history.

So have the times and standards changed enough that Clinton would be seen as Cosby, if he was president today?

Oh, yes!  There’s absolutely no doubt, especially in this age of instant social media. In most of these cases, like the Bill Clinton and Bill Cosby stories, there’s been a complete neglect of psychology. We’re in a period right now where nobody asks any questions about psychology.  No one has any feeling for human motivation.  No one talks about sexuality in terms of emotional needs and symbolism and the legacy of childhood. Sexuality has been politicized--“Don’t ask any questions!”  "No discussion!" “Gay is exactly equivalent to straight!” And thus in this period of psychological blindness or inertness, our art has become dull. There’s nothing interesting being written--in fiction or plays or movies. Everything is boring because of our failure to ask psychological questions.

So I say there is a big parallel between Bill Cosby and Bill Clinton--aside from their initials!  Young feminists need to understand that this abusive behavior by powerful men signifies their sense that female power is much bigger than they are!  These two people, Clinton and Cosby, are emotionally infantile--they're engaged in a war with female power. It has something to do with their early sense of being smothered by female power--and this pathetic, abusive and criminal behavior is the result of their sense of inadequacy.

Now, in order to understand that, people would have to read my first book, "Sexual Personae"--which of course is far too complex for the ordinary feminist or academic mind!  It’s too complex because it requires a sense of the ambivalence of human life.  Everything is not black and white, for heaven's sake!  We are formed by all kinds of strange or vague memories from childhood. That kind of understanding is needed to see that Cosby was involved in a symbiotic, push-pull thing with his wife, where he went out and did these awful things to assert his own independence. But for that, he required the women to be inert. He needed them to be dead!  Cosby is actually a necrophiliac--a  style that was popular in the late Victorian period in the nineteenth-century.

It's hard to believe now, but you had men digging up corpses from graveyards, stealing the bodies, hiding them under their beds, and then having sex with them. So that’s exactly what’s happening here: to give a woman a drug, to make her inert, to make her dead is the man saying that I need her to be dead for me to function. She’s too powerful for me as a living woman. And this is what is also going on in those barbaric fraternity orgies, where women are sexually assaulted while lying unconscious. And women don’t understand this! They have no idea why any men would find it arousing to have sex with a young woman who’s passed out at a fraternity house.  But it’s necrophilia--this fear and envy of a woman’s power.

And it’s the same thing with Bill Clinton: to find the answer, you have to look at his relationship to his flamboyant mother.  He felt smothered by her in some way.  But let's be clear--I’m not trying to blame the mother!   What I’m saying is that male sexuality is extremely complicated, and the formation of male identity is very tentative and sensitive--but feminist rhetoric doesn’t allow for it. This is why women are having so much trouble dealing with men in the feminist era.  They don’t understand men, and they demonize men. They accord to men far more power than men actually have in sex.  Women control the sexual world in ways that most feminists simply don’t understand.

My explanation is that second-wave feminism dispensed with motherhood. The ideal woman was the career woman--and I do support that. To me, the mission of feminism is to remove all barriers to women’s advancement in the social and political realm--to give women equal opportunities with men. However, what I kept saying in "Sexual Personae" is that equality in the workplace is not going to solve the problems between men and women which are occurring in the private, emotional realm, where every man is subordinate to women, because he emerged as a tiny helpless thing from a woman’s body. Professional women today don’t want to think about this or deal with it.

The erasure of motherhood from feminist rhetoric has led us to this current politicization of sex talk, which doesn't allow women to recognize their immense power vis-à-vis men. When motherhood was more at the center of culture, you had mothers who understood the fragility of boys and the boy’s need for nurturance and for confidence to overcome his weaknesses. The old-style country women--the Italian matriarchs and Jewish mothers--they all understood the fragility of men. The mothers ruled their own world and didn't take men that seriously.  They understood how to nurture men and encourage them to be strong--whereas current feminism simply doesn’t perceive the power of women vis-a-vis men.  But when you talk like this with most men, it really resonates with them, and they say “Yes, yes! That’s it!”

Currently, feminists lack sympathy and compassion for men and for the difficulties that men face in the formation of their identities. I’m not talking in terms of the men’s rights movement, which got infected by p.c.  The heterosexual professional woman, emerging with her shiny Ivy League degree, wants to communicate with her husband exactly the way she communicates with her friends--as in "Sex and the City." That show really caught the animated way that women actually talk with each other.  But that's not a style that straight men can do!  Gay men can do it, sure--but not straight men!  Guess what--women are different than men! When will feminism wake up to this basic reality? Women relate differently to each other than they do to men. And straight men do not have the same communication skills or values as women--their brains are different!

Are we letting the behavior of straight men off the hook here? They’re just wired differently?

Wherever I go to speak, whether it’s Brazil or Italy or Norway, I find that upper-middle-class professional women are very unhappy. This is a global problem! And it's coming from the fact that women are expecting men to provide them with the same kind of emotional and conversational support and intimacy that they get from their women friends.  And when they don't get it, they're full of resentment and bitterness.  It's tragic!

Women are blaming men for a genuine problem that I say is systemic.  It has to do with the transition from the old, agrarian culture to this urban professional culture, where women don’t have that big support network that they had in the countryside.  All four of my grandparents and my mother were born in Italy.  In the small country towns they came from, the extended family was the rule, and the women were a force unto themselves.  Women had a chatty group solidarity as they did chores all day and took care of children and the elderly.  Men and women never had that much to do with each other over history!  There was the world of men and the world of women.  Now we’re working side-by-side in offices at the same job.  Women want to leave at the end of the day and have a happy marriage at home, but then they put all this pressure on men because they expect them to be exactly like their female friends.  If they feel restlessness or misery or malaise, they automatically blame it on men.  Men are not doing enough; men aren't sharing enough.  But it's not the fault of men that we have this crazy and rather neurotic system where women are now functioning like men in the workplace, with all its material rewards.  A huge problem here is that in America, we have identified ourselves totally with our work lives. In most parts of southern Europe, on the other hand, work is secondary to your real life. It's often said that Americans live to work, as opposed to working to live.

Are we back in the 1990s? We’re talking about Clinton scandals, about a potential Clinton/Bush presidency. We’re debating sexual codes on campus again, political correctness in comedy. There’s a would-be “billionaire” populist. Have things circled back around to 1992 all over again? I thought we’d settled some of these debates.

Yes, and it seems so strange that we’re having to argue everything all over again! When I burst on the scene in the early 1990s, one of the things that made me notorious was my attack on the date-rape rhetoric of the time. The date-rape issue had been heavily publicized since the late 1980s: there were date-rape victims on the cover of People and being treated like heroines on CNN's Larry King Show. So my statements on the topic, such as my 1991 op-ed in New York Newsday, caused a firestorm. I wasn’t automatically kowtowing to the standard rhetoric that men are at fault for everything and women are utterly blameless.  I said that my 1960s generation of women had won the right to sexual freedom--but with rights came personal responsibility.  People went crazy! There was this absurd polarization where men were portrayed as demons and women as frail, innocent virgins.  It was so Victorian!  And there was also a big fight about pornography, which I strongly supported.  In the 1990s, pro-sex feminism finally arose and took power.  It was an entire wing of feminism that had been suppressed by the Gloria Steinem power structure--by Ms. Magazine and NOW-- since the 1970s.  It had been forced underground, but it started to emerge in San Francisco with the pro-sex and lipstick lesbians in the mid to late 1980s, but it got no national attention.  Then all of a sudden, there was this big wave in the early 1990s.  I became one of the outspoken figures of it after "Sexual Personae" was published in 1990.  My views had always been suppressed, and I had had a lot of difficulty getting published--"Sexual Personae" had been rejected by seven publishers and five agents.   So we fought those fights, but by the late 1990s, the controversies subsided, because my wing of pro-sex feminism had won!

Take Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon-- you would not believe how lionized those two women were. MacKinnon was splashed on the cover of the New York Times Magazine and hailed as the enlightened future of the world. Meanwhile they were fanatical sex phobes. Dworkin was a raving hysteric about sexuality, so overtly anti-male.  So anyone who took the pro-sex stance really had to fight hard for years.  Everywhere I went to speak there were organized pickets, often fomented by the Village Voice, which organized a fax campaign against me wherever I went. It was insane. And I had been a student of the Village Voice!  I had subscribed to it for years during its great high point.  But things had gotten so stupidly p.c. that instead of being hailed as a product of that publication, I was viciously defamed and libeled by it. You would not believe what it was like!

Now, of course, everything has gone full circle. But how? What the heck has happened? It’s very bizarre.  There's been a reactionary reversion. Like that woman at Columbia hauling around her mattress!

I wanted to ask you about that. If Emma Sulkowicz were a student of yours, in an art class you were teaching, how would you grade her work?

[laughs] I'd give her a D!  I call it “mattress feminism.” Perpetually lugging around your bad memories--never evolving or moving on!  It's like a parody of the worst aspects of that kind of grievance-oriented feminism. I called my feminism "Amazon feminism" or "street-smart feminism," where you remain vigilant, learn how to defend yourself, and take responsibility for the choices you make.  If something bad happens, you learn from it.  You become stronger and move on. But hauling a mattress around on campus? Columbia, one of the great Ivy League schools with a tremendous history of scholarship, utterly disgraced itself in how it handled that case. It enabled this protracted masochistic exercise where a young woman trapped herself in her own bad memories and publicly labeled herself as a victim, which will now be her identity forever.  This isn't feminism--which should empower women, not cripple them.

It's yet more evidence of the current absence of psychology. To go around exhibiting and foregrounding your wounds is a classic neurotic symptom. But people are so lacking now in basic Freudian consciousness--because Freud got thrown out of mainstream feminism by Kate Millett and Gloria Steinem and company. So no one sees the pathology in all this. And for Columbia to permit this girl to carry her mattress onstage and disrupt the commencement ceremony was absolutely ludicrous. It demonstrates the total degradation of once eminent and admirable educational institutions to caretaking nursery schools. I prophesied this in a piece I wrote in 1992 for the Times Literary Supplement called "The Nursery-School Campus".  At the time, nobody understood what I was saying.  But I was arguing that the obsessive focus by American academe with students' emotional well-being was not what European universities have ever been concerned with. European universities don’t have this consumer-oriented view that they have to make their students enjoy themselves and feel good about themselves, with everything driven by self-esteem. Now we have people emerging with Ivy League degrees who have no idea how little they know about history or literature.  Their minds are shockingly untrained. They've been treated as fragile emotional beings throughout their schooling.  The situation is worsening year by year, as teachers have to watch what they say and give trigger warnings, because God forbid that American students should have to confront the brutal realities of human life.

Meanwhile, while all of this nursery-school enabling is going on, we have the entire world veering towards ISIS--with barbaric decapitations and gay guys being thrown off roofs and stoned to death.  All the harsh realities of human history are erupting, and this young generation is going to be utterly unprepared to deal with it. The nation is eventually going to be endangered by the inability of several generations of young people to make political decisions about a real world that they do not understand. The primitive realities of human life are exploding out there!

By David Daley

David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon, is the author of the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”

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