Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Scalia and Paglia: Intellectual affinities

You should definitely take the time to read Jennifer Senior’s interview with Antonin Scalia and Dalia Lithwick’s reaction to it. Regarding the former, to paraphrase Art Linkletter, Supreme Court justices say the darnedest things. A sampling (Senior’s words are in bold):

  • "[I]f a state enacted a law permitting flogging, it is immensely stupid, but it is not unconstitutional."
  • "I’m a damn good poker player."Do you have a tell? "What?" A tell. "What’s a tell?" What’s a tell? Are you joking? "No."
  • "I even believe in the Devil." You do? "Of course! Yeah, he’s a real person. Hey, c’mon, that’s standard Catholic doctrine! Every Catholic believes that.My God! Are you so out of touch with most of America, most of which believes in the Devil? I mean, Jesus Christ believed in the Devil! It’s in the Gospels! You travel in circles that are so, so removed from mainstream America that you are appalled that anybody would believe in the Devil!"

Lithwick highlights a part of the interview in which Scalia says he suspects he has gay friends, but that none have come out. “Stop and consider,” she writes, for a moment, how difficult it would be in a major American city in 2013 to construct a social world in which you might not know anybody who’s openly gay.” (I wonder, by the way, if this aspect of Scalia’s world has changed as a result of his comments.) 

Lithwick quotes Senior as saying of the interview:

“It's embarrassing, but the overlap between our worlds is almost nonexistent. It explains why the left and the right both responded so enthusiastically to this piece. Each side sees its own view, affirmed. One sees a monster and the other sees a hero. It's extraordinary, actually. The O'Reilly constituents think he's speaking sense; the Jon Stewart vote thinks virtually everything the guy says is nuts.”

I commented on Facebook yesterday that Scalia’s interview style reminded me of Camille Paglia. I was not entirely joking. There’s the commonality of style: Both of them dogmatically assert preposterous notions with great brio – Paglia, that there is a worthwhile distinction to be made between Madonna’s Great Art and Miley Cyrus’ debased juvenility; Scalia, that voting rights are a “racial entitlement.” Both clearly enjoy twitting conventional wisdom, both relish their iconoclasm.

I think there is also a commonality of substance. Both are fundamentally anti-Enlightenment thinkers, whose views strike at key contemporary assumptions about civil society. Scalia believes Catholic dogma is literally true, and that anyone who doesn’t realize this is misguided and a danger to social order. Paglia believes the Enlightenment-inspired projects of present times (e.g., liberalism and feminism) stifle thinking and prevent people from seeing clearly the roiling storms of sex and violence that percolate through Western art and, in her view, largely define what we are. Both, in short, believe the Enlightenment dramatically misjudges and shortchanges the passions.

After that, to be sure, they diverge; Scalia believes passions must be channeled by religion, while Paglia believes they'll find expression in art and culture, whether you want them to or not. 

I happen to think they push their premises far past the point of plausibility. (Camille, do you really believe the Marquis de Sade understood human nature more deeply than Hume and Locke? You want "argle bargle," Antonin, try parsing the doctrine of the Trinity.) But those are the premises they have, and they're the reason they say what they do. 

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