Paglia’s “Presentism” and the spread of Chicken Little hysteria


Camille Paglia is a contemporary social and cultural critic who defies categorisation by any terms which our simplistic modernism has at its disposal. This is what makes her so interesting – and important.

Mark Bauerlein who is senior editor of First Things describes her as “an idiosyncratic mix of liberal and conservative convictions—or perhaps we should say that she, like any person of serious understanding, has an intellectual makeup more complex than our current political simplicities can absorb.”

He doesn’t try but he does observe that there is one profound traditionalist point that she maintains repeatedly, and it is one of the first truths of the conservative disposition.
She announced it, he explains, a few months back in an interview with the New York Observer. The very first question asked her about comparisons between President Trump and Adolf Hitler, to which she replied: “‘Presentism’ is a major affliction—an over-absorption in the present or near past, which produces a distortion of perspective and a sky-is-falling Chicken Little hysteria.”

Ignorance of history, ignorance about the conditions of humanity in past ages, is crippling the minds of milennial in Paglia’s view. She is appalled by how little history young Americans actually possess.

Paglia believes there is a causal connection between young Americans’ ignorance of history and their dim view of present conditions. At a conference in Oxford, Paglia stated again, in response to a student who criticized her and others for telling youths not to be so sensitive and snowflaky, “There is much too much focus on the present.” Thanks to the (presumed) sensitivity of modern youth, Paglia says, students have not had a “realistic introduction to the barbarities of human history . . . . Ancient history must be taught . . . . I believe in introducing young people to the disasters of history.”

When people judge the present solely in present terms, not in relation to the past, diversity becomes not the pursuit of knowledge of other cultures, religions, and civilizations. It becomes, Paglia says, a “banner” under which we presume to “remedy” contemporary social sins. At that point, we should realize, education has turned into indoctrination.

That’s not what education is supposed to do, she continues. Education is about “opening the great past . . . . More knowledge, more hard knowledge.”

She argues that we have allowed the classroom to devolve from the pursuit of knowledge to the pursuit of “cures” for social problems. That approach is “wrong,” Paglia insists, a job for social welfare agencies, not postsecondary learning. We should return to the vision of education as the “abstract and detached study of the past and of the global present.”

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