Monday, May 15, 2006

A Fine Willis Read

Although I've lost track of her work of late, there's no doubt one of the most influential books on me as a thinker (no snickering) and writer (hey! quit it!) was Ellen Willis' Beginning to See the Light: Pieces of a Decade. Some of the best writing of the '60s and '70s lies in those pages--ripe, witty, wise, still totally relevant on rock and roll and religion and how those two types of varying fanaticism might coincide with a feminism that's decidedly Dionysian. So it was great to see a comment on Eric Alterman's blog today point to Willis' response to What's the Matter with
, not surprisingly called "What's the Matter with Tom Frank?"

The whole essay is worth living with for awhile, but here's one stellar passage that jumped out:

The public’s continuing ambivalence about cultural matters is all the more striking given that the political conversation on these issues has for 30 years been dominated by an aggressive, radical right-wing insurgency that has achieved an influence far out of proportion to its numbers. Its potent secret weapon has been the guilt and anxiety about desire that inform the character of Americans regardless of ideology; appealing to those largely unconscious emotions, the right has disarmed, intimidated, paralyzed its opposition. From the time the evangelical right’s “pro-family” movement arose and joined forces with Catholic right-to-life organizers in the mid-`70s, the broad left, including liberal feminists, adopted a strategy of appeasement rather than militant defense of feminism and abortion rights. Many men on the left had supported the women’s movement only reluctantly and in response to tremendous political pressure at the height of the feminist surge; they jettisoned this baggage with relief. But plain sexism was only part of the story. It could not explain why Betty Friedan attacked feminist radicals and proclaimed herself “pro-family”; why feminist leaders insisted that the Equal Rights Amendment had nothing to do with abortion or lesbian rights or a critique of traditional sexual roles; why advocates of legal abortion began apologizing, praising the moral commitment of their opponents, and talking about “choice” in the abstract rather than the procedure that dare not speak its name. The appeasers argued that they needed to soften their stands to avoid alienating traditionalist voters from the ERA campaign, the “pro-choice” movement and the Democratic Party. But in truth their lack of conviction that a majority of Americans could be won over—if not immediately, then in the long run—to a politics of equality, freedom and pleasure reflected their own deep doubts about the legitimacy of those values. They were appeasing themselves as much as anyone else.

Predictably, the strategy of pandering to the right was an abject failure: Reagan was elected; the ERA lost. If an ambivalent public hears only one side of a question, the conservative side, passionately argued—if people’s impulses to the contrary are never reinforced, and they perceive that the putative spokespeople for feminism and liberalism are actually uncomfortable about advancing their views—the passionate arguers will carry the day.

Why would anyone support a movement that won’t stand behind its own program? But the left did not learn the obvious lesson—that to back away from fighting for your beliefs on the grounds that you have no hope of persuading people to share them is to perpetrate a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the contrary, the appeasers could see in their defeats only a confirmation of their pessimism. This scenario has been repeated countless times as the country has moved steadily to the right, yet it appears to have inspired no second thoughts. The stubborn failure to rethink a losing strategy can’t help but suggest that its proponents on some level do not really care to win.


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