The politics of misery and resentment
Don’t you love it when you argue something and then someone comes along to prove your argument? That happened to me this morning. My column at RH Reality Check to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the pill focused on how legal and available contraception freed women to make a variety of choices, instead of being trapped into having all their choices made for them. And in it, I wrote:
Easily accessible legal contraception has laid waste to the shotgun marriage, for instance, and anti-choicers really love shotgun marriages. And it’s this freedom for single women that drives much of the angst about contraception and abortion to this day.
And the very same day, Ross Douthat writes a column where he conjures up a picture of noble red state women who will sacrifice their own happiness, marital hopes, careers, education and children’s well-being in order to avoid being evil sluts who have abortions, which is how he imagines liberal yuppies live. (I refute his assumptions here.) Basically, Douthat celebrates the shotgun marriage. Not because it improves human happiness, or because it’s good for children, or because it improves the institution of marriage—he concedes that shotgun marriages are actually bad for women, bad for men, and bad for children. But he’s still for ’em, because…..well…… Hey, look, they’re more noble because they’re not a bunch of elitist yuppie sluts! Or that’s the implication anyway.
Boiled down to its essence, the argument seems to be that feminism is immoral because women are happier and healthier because of it, that suffering and misery are signs of moral purity. I suppose it’s a very Catholic argument, but in this piece it functions in another way—it’s about hitting that same note that culture warriors hit over and over again, which is breeding tribal resentments. I just so happened to read Digby’s post on the Kent State shootings after I wrote my post about Douthat at XX, and in it, she reminds readers of how vicious people were to the victims of the shooting after in happened. She quotes Rick Perlstein’s remarkable book Nixonland:
A rumor spread in Kent that Jeff Miller, whose head was blown off, was such a dirty hippie that they had to keep the ambulance door open on the way to the hospital for the smell. Another rumor was that five hundred Black Panthers were on their way from elsewhere in Ohio to lead a real riot; and that Allison Krause was “the campus whore” and found with hand grenades on her.
Douthat speaks fluent Resentmentese, and it doesn’t take him a lot of time or energy to paint a picture of the villains of his piece—liberal yuppie feminists who want (and get) an education, a career, a fun youth, a hot sex life, a husband, and a family that sticks together. In other words, the “it all” that we’re routinely told only men get to have. The reader is expected to instinctively understand we are to hate these women. Why? Part of it is just scratching the same envy itch that you get when people are a tad too eager to hipster-bash. But honestly, I think the resentment at their good fortune has a cyclical relationship with the hatred we’re supposed to feel towards them. We’re to hate them because they’re Bad Women and yet all these good things happen to them, and that they have good fortune is why we’re supposed to hate them, because it proves that they’re cheating somehow and Bad Women. (Douthat implies that they “cheat” by relying on abortion, but that’s just to give his column a veneer of reason so that he can stoke this irrational resentment and hatred.) Women who have benefited tremendously from feminism are Bad Women for the same reason that liberals who like to drink wine are Bad People or foodies who really know how to work an organic eggplant are Bad People. You can rationalize it all day, but at the end of the day, it’s just because.
And let’s be clear—it’s really not that conservatives are taking a swipe at privilege. They don’t have a problem with privilege per se. Privilege is only wrong in their book if more people get to partake of it (such as women or racial minorities getting into elite universities or getting elite jobs), or if the people who have privilege care about others who have fewer privileges than they do. That goes double if privileged people actually work to expand opportunities for all.
What bothers me is that Douthat didn’t even have to work that hard at invoking this misogynist stereotype of the slutty yuppie. He painted with subtle strokes, knowing that his audience will fill in the gaps on who it is they’re expected to hate. But I will say his conclusion is revealing in a way he probably didn’t intend, when he basically admits that he can’t be bothered with the fact that his preferred social strictures create so much heartbreak and misery. In the end, that was probably the point anyway.