Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Camille Paglia on Islam

Camille Paglia writes the only thing worth reading at, but her recent column, "Obama's Hit -- and Big Miss" was not a good example of this. It definitely had a phoned-in quality about it.

One weird sentence was of special interest to medievalists, though. She wrote:
But the now widespread stereotyping of Islam as medieval and inherently violent and intolerant ensures eternal war.*

What's the word "medieval" doing in there? In point of fact, Islam is medieval, in origin anyway. As someone particularly interested in 1st-century Christianity, I would probably be particularly interested in 7th-century Islam were I muslim. I take her meaning there to mean something like "still medieval."

Again, though, what's the word "medieval" doing there? Wouldn't the sentence "But by now the widespread stereotyping of Islam as inherently violent and intolerant ensures eternal war" communicate much the same idea? I'm assuming she's being redundant, and using the word "medieval" to mean something like "anachronistically inherently violent and intolerant," since, as we all know, the modern era has been one of inherent peace and understanding.*

If we break this sentence down, it seems that stereotyping Islam (or anything else, I suppose) as medieval (among other things) ensures eternal war. Note that she isn't saying that Islam is medieval, and therefore ensures eternal war, but that the false stereotype of Islam as medieval ensures eternal war. She seems to be saying that war eternally comes to Islam from without, a symptom of false "secular professional class" and Christian stereotypes about Islam as medieval and inherently violent and intolerant.

Now, this makes really little sense. Even if we were to give her all the camels she wants us to swallow and all the gnats she wants us to strain here, is the West really eternally at war with the medieval? I think it would be more accurate to argue that we stereotype the medieval as violent, but it isn't like the US military shells Renaissance Faires, or the SCA is branded a terrorist organization, or the police hassle scholars at medieval conferences. A certain class of person (probably her "secular professional class") uses medieval as an insult, but I've yet to have a bunch of bobos like Obama beat me up in a dark alley because I'm a medieval scholar.***

The more I look at it, I don't think she really has any idea why she threw the word "medieval" in there. Paglia probably was just looking for a third negative trait for the sentence, and settled on medieval because it sounds bad in the ears of Salon readers. A pity.

*Now that I've written this post and ruminated on this sentence, I find it appallingly ugly. Starting with "but" makes it technically a fragment, which I'm not necessarily against if it's done for good stylistic purposes, but in this case it adds nothing. The phrase "now widespread" should have a hyphen in it, only serving to emphasize that the word "now" is out of place here, and doesn't balance well with the word "eternal" later in the same sentence. The modifier "inherently" is weirdly-placed as well -- is she saying the stereotype is that Islam is stereotyped as inherently violent, but not inherently intolerant, or that it is inherently violent and intolerant, but not inherently medieval? Yuck. This reads more like an off-the-cuff blog post (like this one) than a polished article. Paglia, you're a better writer than this.
** Insert sarcastic tone here. Isn't it so delightful that we live in the Age of Aquarius?
***OK, true, bobos are probably too wimpy to actually succeed at beating me up, but I would think if you got enough of them together, they might try.


  1. I have been noticing this 'Islam = medieval' theme cropping up regularly in the mainstream media, but I would have expected Camille Paglia to give it a bit more thought before chucking it in there.

    By the way, I just recently discovered your blog and have been enjoying your writing.

  2. Anonymous10:01 PM

    What a bloated puss bucket of flatulent pedantry !