Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Uncommon Sense

Ellen Willis cuts through the inanities of the '90s

By Michael Bronski

NOVEMBER 29, 1999: 

Don't Think, Smile! Notes on a Decade of Denial by Ellen Willis. Beacon Press, 193 pages, $25.

Reading Ellen Willis feels like a great discussion with a witty, politically perceptive friend over Sunday-morning bagels and endless cups of coffee. She is that rare thing -- a social journalist with leftist and feminist politics whose mind and political framework are open enough to reach often surprising conclusions. (And that's not a slam on "political correctness": there may not be many progressive journalists who fit this description, but there are almost no conservative ones who do.) Though her work is, at heart, ideological -- that is, she sets forth clearly articulated political positions -- it never succumbs to knee-jerk cant or holier-than-thou posturing.

Willis has been a beacon of sanity on the cultural and political scene since the late 1960s, when she wrote about rock, sex, and the counterculture for the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and the New York Review of Books, among other publications. At the Village Voice -- where she wrote about feminism, politics, and the left -- she became a weekly fixture. Often, she was so far ahead of the curve that what seemed at the time to be around the bend now looks like simple common sense. In a harsh 1973 review of the misogynistic Deep Throat, for example, Willis sounded like a utopian or a crackpot when she called for a new feminist pornography; today, there is an entire industry of female-centered and feminist porn.

Willis's essays of the 1970s and '80s have already been collected in, respectively, Beginning To See the Light: Pieces of a Decade (1980) and No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays (1992). Now, in Don't Think, Smile!, she takes on the '90s -- the decade of The Bell Curve and Monicagate, Anita Hill and Karen Finley, O.J. Simpson and the Million Man March. For Willis, it's been 10 years of political, sexual, racial, and social crises that have been met, on both the right and the left, with a sheer refusal to question received wisdom or engage in substantive deliberation. Most Americans, she suggests, approach events of the day with the attitude that former Speaker of the House Tom Foley expressed on the eve of the US invasion of Panama: "This is not the time for a lot of complicated debate."

Willis pegs conservatives, of course, as the worst offenders when it comes to blindness about economic crises, which they ignore in favor of "cultural politics" -- specifically, a determination to maintain traditional social structures that keep women, people of color, and homosexuals in their place. (It's especially satisfying to watch her demolish Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein's The Bell Curve, which attributed the majority of social problems to supposedly inherent differences in intelligence among classes and races.) But she points out that many progressives play the denial game too, rejecting cultural issues as mere "identity politics," a perilous distraction from the "real" work of social change (namely, economic and class issues). For Willis, the idea of wide-scale social change is inseparable from personal change and, ultimately, personal autonomy. On the subject of sexual-harassment law, for example, she argues that women will not truly be liberated until they can freely choose sex, not just be protected from it.

Willis's bold analysis cuts through easy political and moral posturing. She deconstructs the assumptions of one conservative, David Boaz of the right-libertarian Cato Institute, noting that he "complains of unmarried welfare mothers' 'long-term dependency' on government, as if it were unquestionably preferable that mothers be forced into long-term dependency on husbands." And she lucidly exposes the way the right conflated the private and the public spheres by treating the Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones affairs as part of one undifferentiated sex scandal. She also has a remarkable capacity to reframe politically or emotionally confusing realities so that they become understandable. On African-American support for the Million Man March, for instance: "It's hardly surprising that black men flocked to a Farrakhan march . . . any more than it's surprising that whites voted for the Gingrich Congress. Most blacks don't subscribe to Farrakhan's more extreme views, but then most whites don't subscribe to the Republican right's more extreme views. It's just that there is no serious competition out there."

Willis forges her way through thorny debates without losing subtlety or measure -- balancing anti-porn feminist Catharine MacKinnon's "obsessive erotophobia," for example, against her obvious concern for the safety of women. Always, she returns to her touchstones of compassion and common sense. "My own vision of what I want . . . has at its center the conviction that freedom and equality are symbiotic, not opposed," she writes. "[M]y measure of a good society is the extent to which it functions by voluntary cooperation among people with equal social and political power." In a time when politics and political writing have degenerated into sound bites and sensationalism, Ellen Willis reminds us that integrity and human dignity, a quick wit and a dead-on style, offer the hope that we can make sense of -- and maybe even change -- the world.

A conversation with Ellen Willis

Q: In Don't Think, Smile! you imply that the politics of the 1990s are predicated on repealing the progressive gains of the 1960s. How did we get to this point?

A: I'm saying that '90s politics have involved both a continuing reaction against the '60s and a concerted assault on the whole structure of economic regulation, public goods, and social benefits developed since the 1930s. Politically, the corporate revolt against the liberal welfare state has actually been far more successful than the anti-'60s backlash. The black, feminist, gay, and environmental movements have transformed the culture in many ways that can't easily be rolled back. On the other hand, moral panics about sex, attacks on unconventional art, the war against drugs, and demands for a draconian work ethic, whether for poor people or for schoolchildren, have escalated in the '90s. Economic anxiety is part of the reason.

Q: In the essay "Freedom, Power, and Speech," you maintain that the left's attempts to censor racist, misogynistic, and homophobic speech are wrong-headed. You suggest that, instead, speech should be fought with more speech. But how much access can progressive or minority groups actually have to mainstream media venues?

A: Well, it won't happen automatically. Part of my point was that it's far more difficult to fight for access than to repress the speech of others, hence the temptation to do the latter. The problem is, censoring oppressive speech doesn't change anything -- it merely reinforces a repressive climate that in the end hurts social dissidents more than anyone else. There's no way of knowing whether minority voices can overcome their marginalization in the media until they make a point of confronting and challenging it at every opportunity. The fact is that before the second wave of feminism, women's voices were almost totally excluded from the public sphere. And we changed that -- through organizing and militant agitation.

Q: The influence of feminism has always been one of your major concerns. Here you write at length about the Clinton sex scandals. Are conservative attacks on Clinton (and the Clintons as a couple) simply a means of attacking feminist gains?

A: For the right the Clintons are, as Newt Gingrich so memorably put it, "counterculture McGoverniks" -- symbols of everything conservatives hate about post-'60s culture, feminism included. I don't see this all-encompassing hatred as calculated to advance any particular policy objective -- it is visceral and irrational. On the other hand, in pursuing the Paula Jones case and then the Monica Lewinsky affair, conservatives were clearly hoping to injure the credibility of feminists and get revenge for Clarence Thomas and Bob Packwood. And they succeeded, because the liberal feminist establishment had been subservient to the Democrats for so long that it was very difficult for them to attack the Lewinsky witch hunt. Besides which, their politics on sexual issues, especially the issue of how to distinguish consensual from coercive sex, is, to put it kindly, incoherent: deeply influenced by a view that sees sex as a male imposition on women and prima facie coercive.

Q: Progressive feminism often has been attacked by women who claim to represent a more modern brand of feminism -- Camille Paglia and Katie Roiphe being two of the most visible and vocal. Are they unique to this historical moment of feminism or simply new voices in a long line of women who have attacked traditional feminist principles?

A: There has always been a tension within feminism between women who embrace feminism as a movement devoted to collective action against a male-dominated society, and those who see feminism as an individual rebellion, a validation of the "liberated woman" -- and often have contempt for women who are, as they see it, not strong- or independent-minded enough. The latter stance is particularly appealing now, when the belief that social movements, especially radical movements, can change society is at a very low ebb. The conventional wisdom is that this is the end of history, that any kind of utopian vision is at best silly, at worst totalitarian. An anti-libertarian, "politically correct" feminist orthodoxy does exist -- it's not something the Paglias and the Roiphes made up. To me, of course, the remedy is not to give up on feminism as a radical social movement but to insist that personal and sexual freedom is essential to women's equality.

Q: Much of your writing has had to do with the role of pleasure in people's lives -- often embodied by rock, drugs, sex. American culture has always been conflicted about pleasure -- glorifying it while preaching and passing laws against it. This has been one of the main undercurrents in the so-called culture wars. After a decade of denial, where do you see the "problem" of pleasure today?

A: Americans take for granted a level of sexual freedom, and a degree of choice in personal style and conduct and expression, that didn't exist before the '60s. The variety of food, fashion, pop-music genres, cable TV programs, the mixing and matching of cultures -- all of this is a gain in pleasure. Yet there is a strong strain of joylessness and anti-eroticism in the culture, of continual exhortation to duty, sacrifice, corporate efficiency, order, control, and putting one's nose to the grindstone. Today it does seem that our pleasures are embedded in a framework of repression. I've always thought that a taste of pleasure, however compromised, leads to the desire for more and rebellion against the obstacles to having it; but I don't see that happening right now. I've argued against the left's puritanical distaste for consumption, but our current emphasis on getting and spending has an obsessive and even hysterical edge. And there's a lot of sex, but I'm not sure passion is in such good shape. That doesn't mean things won't change, but it's a strange and contradictory moment for me.

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