The Odd Couple?

Surprisingly, Paglia and Mansfield Have Much in Common

When Camille Paglia addressed a packed auditorium at the Kennedy School last Thursday night, she was introduced by Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr.--literally. "Camille," said Mansfield, "meet Harvard... Harvard, meet Camille Paglia."

But something was amiss. Here was a radical Sixties left-Libertarian being introduced by Harvard's tenured Fifties conservative. Openly lesbian, Paglia (pronounced PAH-lee-yah) supports the complete legalization of abortion, sodomy, prostitution, pornography and drug use. Mansfield, on the other hand, renewed his notoriety this year with his testimony that homosexuality undermines civilization. Pagila thinks our society needs more sex. Mansfield thinks we need more shame.

How could they be friends? What could they have in common?

Paglia and Mansfield both believe that something's wrong with today's liberals. Mansfield, who calls himself a "friend of liberalism," wants to "save liberalism from liberals." Paglia thinks we should revive "pragmatic liberalism." What are they talking about? Let's break it down:

Today's liberals have naively bought into too many bad European ideas. Paglia and Mansfield point to two fundamental ideas in particular--both with bad consequences. The first is the presumption that "human nature" is a fiction and that man is a complete product of society. This idea, which came from Europe and was promulgated by Rousseau, has ultimately infiltrated the American university and is now taken for granted in many intellectual circles. On this view, bad things--like rape and homophobia--have been socialized into good people by a bad society. The solution? More socialization: With the right combination of re-education programs, seminars, and speech codes, every person can be completely made over into a sensitive, attuned and caring individual.

The other bad European idea that liberals now accept uncritically is idealism, which came to us from Kant. Idealism refuses to accept the existence of non-ideal facts about human behavior, like prejudice and sexual aggression. According to this system of belief, only rational beings are morally worthy and deserving of respect. An idealistic enterprise like political correctness therefore refuses to compromise with reality or to stop proselytizing until every trace of irrational prejudice--esp. racial, sexual, and homophobic--is eradicated. Idealism leads to the desire to make real people into ideal people, no matter what the costs.

There is such a thing as human nature. Paglia and Mansfield agree with the time-worn proposition that there are intractable facts about human behavior that we would be stupid to ignore and naive to try to change. This includes the fact that people tend to be selfish, that people tend to hold prejudices and that there are fundamental differences between women and men.

Paglia, for one, sees men and women for what they are--not for what we'd like them to be.

Men, in particular, were never noble savages--they're natural savages. "Hunt, pursuit, and capture are biologically programmed into male sexuality," Paglia writes. "Generation after generation, men must be educated, refined, and ethically persuaded away from their tendency toward anarchy and brutishness. Society is not the enemy, as feminism ignorantly claims. Society is woman's protection against rape." Men's natural biological instincts--not society--tell men to ravish women.

Prudence is better than idealism. Mansfield and Paglia reject the naivete of idealism and advocate prudence instead. Prudence is a political and personal virtue suited for real humans who inhabit a world filled with danger, risk, irrationality, prejudice, conflict and instability. Other words for prudence are realism, common sense and street smarts.

What does prudence entail? Let's start with the prudent position on free speech. Prudence settles for toleration instead of insisting on the radical elimination of prejudice. It's true that politically-correct types like to pass themselves off as old-fashioned liberals by claiming that what they're doing is "promoting tolerance."

But as Manfield pointed out in his recent Crimson commentary, "the difference between eliminating prejudice and eliminating heresy impresses me less than their similarity. I prefer the middle position of toleration, which I think is safer and more humane."

Being tolerant is not the same as lacking any prejudices, or even lacking just the bad ones. To the contrary, the virtue of toleration is tailored for prejudiced people (which includes most of the people in the world).

Toleration implies self-restraint in the presence of someone you find hard to tolerate--i.e. someone you think deserves harm, hurt, damnation, etc. To the shock of the politically correct, this means that most racists, anti-Semites, and homophobes--the civil, law-abiding ones--are perfectly tolerant people.

We all agree that we should prosecute intolerant individuals who acton their repulsions and violate others' rights. But with everyone else it should be "live and let live." Any thing more leads us down the road to thought-control and totalitarianism.

Of course we might decide to outlaw sexist or racist speech. But then, to be fair, we would also have to outlaw saying the Lord's name in vain. If a fundamentalist Christian can maintain civility in the presence of infidels in her classroom, why can't we show the same forebearance toward those we consider racist and sexist? There is no good reason why the state--and by extension the university--should treat bigots, evangelical fundamentalists, and politically-correct proselytizers any differently.

What does prudence say about rape? Paglia says it succinctly: "Sex, like the city streets, would be risk-free only in a totalitarian society." Given certain intractable facts about men and sex, there is an inevitable trade off between safety and freedom. There is no way women will be able to "take back the night" completely. Individual prudence and responsibility will have to take up the slack. Paglia blasts feminists for blinding women to the this simple fact. "A girl who goes upstairs alone with a brother at a fraternity party is an idiot," She writes. "Feminists call this 'blaming the victim.' I call it common sense."

Paglia and Mansfield teach us that the purpose of justice should not be, as some would have it, to make the world ideal. Given human nature and the fact that people don't agree on what the ideal society should look like, making the world ideal would entail an unacceptable amount of coercion. It's true that liberty has its own costs and hazards, including risk, conflict, hostility, insecurity--even rape. But like the very first liberals, paglia and Mansfield both think the price of freedom is worth paying.