Camille Paglia Doesn't Understand How Civilizations Commit Suicide

In a war-torn nuclear world on the verge of designer bioweapons, the cultural critic is more worried about neutered males.
U.S. Armed Forces

Camille Paglia says the end may be near. "What you're seeing is how a civilization commits suicide," she said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. 

The interviewer supplies the necessary context. "Her indictment may be as surprising as it is wide-ranging," Bari Weiss writes. "The military is out of fashion, Americans undervalue manual labor, schools neuter male students, opinion makers deny the biological differences between men and women, and sexiness is dead."

I submit that she is exactly wrong.

While I'd hardly say the military is out of fashion, given its gargantuan budget and esteemed place in the culture, it is my belief that overvaluing military virtues is a far greater threat to modern civilization than undervaluing it. 

Perhaps it would be helpful to compare the health of western civilization at the present moment, flaws and all, with its health at times when the military was in fashion. As yet, our civilization hasn't actually offed itself, else we wouldn't be here, but its suicidal tendencies were certainly on display during World War I.

WWI killed 1.8 million Germans.

It killed 1.7 million Russians.

It killed 1.3 million Frenchmen.

It killed 1.2 million Austrians and Hungarians.

It killed almost 1 million Britons.

In sum, World War I killed 8,528,831. The wounded numbered 21,189,154. 

Many of these men fought and died in an attempt to take inches of land. They charged into barbed wire and clouds of mustard gas. They charged into machine-gun fire. They were slaughtered in purposeless charges that could achieve nothing. And sometimes, when they made it to the enemy's trenches, this is what they found:

It was 9 a.m. and the so-called trench was full of corpses and all sorts of equipment. We stood and sat on bodies as if they were stones or logs of wood. Nobody worried if one had its head stuck through or torn off, or a third had gory bones sticking out through its torn coat. And outside the trench one could see them lying in every kind of position. There was one quite young little chap, a Frenchman, sitting in a shell-hole, with his rifle on his arm and his head bent forward, but he was holding his hands as if to protect himself, in front of his chest in which there was a deep bayonet wound. And so they lay, in all their different positions, mostly Frenchman, with their heads battered in by blows from mallets and even spades, and all around rifles, equipment of all kinds and any number of kepis. The 154th had fought like furies in their attack, to revenge themselves for the shellfire. A heap of five corpses lay just this side of the barrier; we were constantly having to tread on them to try to squash them down in the mud, because, in consequence of the gunfire, we couldn’t get them out of the trench.

In World War II, the Axis committed a kind of suicide that ended in the division of Germany and unconditional surrender in Japan, coerced by nuclear devastation. In that war, it can at least be said that Nazism and Japanese imperialism lost. Like most of my countrymen, I am glad that America fought in WWII, and glad that we won the war, but Paul Fussell's remembrance is a useful reminder of what fighting and winning WWII meant for civilizational health:

Marines and soldiers could augment their view of their own invincibility by possessing a well-washed Japanese skull, and very soon after Guadalcanal it was common to treat surrendering Japanese as handy rifle targets. Plenty of Japanese gold teeth were extracted—some from still living mouths—with Marine Corps Ka-Bar Knives, and one of E. B. Sledge’s fellow marines went around with a cut-off Japanese hand. When its smell grew too offensive and Sledge urged him to get rid of it, he defended his possession of this trophy thus: “How many Marines you reckon that hand pulled the trigger on?” ... In the Pacific the situation grew so public and scandalous that in September 1942, the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet issued this order: “No part of the enemy’s body may be used as a souvenir. Unit Commanders will take stern disciplinary action.”

Among Americans it was widely held that the Japanese were really subhuman, little yellow beasts, and popular imagery depicted them as lice, rats, bats, vipers, dogs, and monkeys. What was required, said the Marine Corps journal The Leatherneck in May 1945, was “a gigantic task of extermination.” The Japanese constituted a “pestilence,” and the only appropriate treatment was “annihilation.” Some of the marines landing on Iwo Jima had “Rodent Exterminator” written on their helmet covers, and on one American flagship the naval commander had erected a large sign enjoining all to “KILL JAPS! KILL JAPS! KILL MORE JAPS!” Herman Wouk remembers the Pacific war scene correctly while analyzing ensign Keith in The Caine Mutiny: “Like most of the naval executioners of Kwajalein, he seemed to regard the enemy as a species of animal pest.” And the feeling was entirely reciprocal: “From the grim and desperate taciturnity with which the Japanese died, they seemed on their side to believe that they were contending with an invasion of large armed ants.” Hiroshima seems to follow in natural sequence: “This obliviousness of both sides to the fact that the opponents were human beings may perhaps be cited as the key to the many massacres of the Pacific war.” Since the Jap vermin resist so madly and have killed so many of us, let’s pour gasoline into their bunkers and light it and then shoot those afire who try to get out. Why not? Why not blow them all up, with satchel charges or with something stronger? Why not, indeed, drop a new kind of bomb on them, and on the un-uniformed ones too, since the Japanese government has announced that women from ages of seventeen to forty are being called up to repel the invasion?

With all that in mind, Paglia's diagnosis of civilization today verges on the absurd. WWI occurred in the last century. The Holocaust happened in living memory. Mutually assured destruction was core to geopolitics for the last half-century. Yet Paglia would have us believe that western civilization is in danger of committing suicide by way of insufficient sexiness and an unfashionable military.

The best column Charles Krauthammer has ever written concerns the apparent dearth of planets with intelligent life on them, even in an enormous universe:

So why the silence? Carl Sagan (among others) thought that the answer is to be found, tragically, in the final variable: the high probability that advanced civilizations destroy themselves. In other words, this silent universe is conveying not a flattering lesson about our uniqueness but a tragic story about our destiny. It is telling us that intelligence may be the most cursed faculty in the entire universe — an endowment not just ultimately fatal but, on the scale of cosmic time, nearly instantly so.

This is not mere theory. Look around. On the very day that astronomers rejoiced at the discovery of the two Earth-size planets, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity urged two leading scientific journals not to publish details of lab experiments that had created a lethal and highly transmittable form of bird flu virus, lest that fateful knowledge fall into the wrong hands.

Wrong hands, human hands.

This is not just the age of holy terror but also the threshold of an age of hyper-proliferation. Nuclear weapons in the hands of half-mad tyrants (North Korea) and radical apocalypticists (Iran) are only the beginning. Lethal biologic agents may soon find their way into the hands of those for whom genocidal pandemics loosed upon infidels are the royal road to redemption.

And forget the psychopaths: Why, a mere 17 years after Homo sapiens—born 200,000 years ago—discovered atomic power, those most stable and sober states, America and the Soviet Union, came within inches of mutual annihilation.

 That is how civilizations commit suicide. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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