The Essential Ellen Willis
Publication Year: 2014
Out of the Vinyl Deeps, published in 2011, introduced a new generation to the incisive, witty, and merciless voice of Ellen Willis through her pioneering rock music criticism. In the years that followed, Willis’s daring insights went beyond popular music, taking on such issues as pornography, religion, feminism, war, and drugs.
The Essential Ellen Willis gathers writings that span forty years and are both deeply engaged with the times in which they were first published and yet remain fresh and relevant amid today’s seemingly intractable political and cultural battles. Whether addressing the women’s movement, sex and abortion, race and class, or war and terrorism, Willis brought to each a distinctive attitude—passionate yet ironic, clear-sighted yet hopeful.
Offering a compelling and cohesive narrative of Willis’s liberationist “transcendence politics,” the essays—among them previously unpublished and uncollected pieces—are organized by decade from the 1960s to the 2000s, with each section introduced by young writers who share Willis’s intellectual bravery, curiosity, and lucidity: Irin Carmon, Spencer Ackerman, Cord Jefferson, Ann Friedman, and Sara Marcus. The Essential Ellen Willis concludes with excerpts from Willis’s unfinished book about politics and the cultural unconscious, introduced by her longtime partner, Stanley Aronowitz. An invaluable reckoning of American society since the 1960s, this volume is a testament to an iconoclastic and fiercely original voice.
Published by: University of Minnesota Press
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When a collection of my mom Ellen Willis’s rock criticism, called Out of the Vinyl Deeps, was released in the spring of 2011, it fell into open arms. Veteran music writers rediscovered forty-year-old writings, while brand-new cultural critics reblogged her photos and quotes on Tumblr. It was a multigenerational outpouring of appreciation, a sense that this collection really did fill a void, really had revised the lineup of Important Rock Writers...
The Sixties Up from Radicalism
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Ellen Willis often wrote about the legacy of the sixties, unwilling to let its meaning and memory be defined by those who would dismiss its most transformative ambitions as utopian nonsense. She didn’t properly hit her stride as a writer until the last three years of the ’60s, but she took up a wealth of material in that short span of time, and the pieces included in this part of the book show a sophisticated young writer starting to work out many of the themes and concerns that would occupy her for the rest of her life...
Up from Radicalism: A Feminist Journal (US Magazine, 1969)
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This journal should really start at the beginning of my life, because that’s when the struggle starts. Black kids find out they’re Black, little girls find out they’re female. By the time I was six or so, I must have discovered the awful truth, because I made a big point of despising boys—on the grounds that they were stupid and unadventurous. But when I playacted with my girl friends, I always wanted a boy’s part. And my model was my father, who drew me diagrams of magnets and the digestive system, not my mother, who intruded on my life of the mind by making me dry the dishes. Later on things got more complicated...
Dylan (Cheetah, 1967)
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Nearly two years ago, Bob Dylan had a motorcycle accident. Reports of his condition were vague, and he dropped out of sight. Publication of his book, Tarantula, was postponed indefinitely. New records appeared, but they were from his last album, Blonde on Blonde. Gruesome rumors circulated: Dylan was dead; he was badly disfigured; he was paralyzed; he was insane. The cataclysm his audience was always expecting seemed to have arrived. Phil Ochs had predicted that Dylan might someday be assassinated by a fan...
The Cultural Revolution Saved from Drowning (The New Yorker, September 1969)
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You have to give the producers of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair this much credit: they are pulling off a great public relations coup. They have apparently succeeded in creating the impression that the crisis in Bethel was a capricious natural disaster rather than a product of human incompetence, that the huge turnout was completely unexpected (and, in fact, could not have been foreseen by reasonable men), and that they have lost more than a million dollars in the process of being good guys who did everything possible to transform an incipient fiasco into a groovy weekend...
Women and the Myth of Consumerism (Ramparts, 1970)
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If white radicals are serious about revolution, they are going to have to discard
a lot of bullshit ideology created by and for educated white middle-class males.
A good example of what has to go is the popular theory of consumerism.
As expounded by many leftist thinkers, notably Marcuse, this theory maintains that consumers are psychically manipulated by the mass media to crave more and more consumer goods, and thus power an economy that depends on constantly expanding sales...
Talk of the Town: Hearing (The New Yorker, February 1969)
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In each of the past three years, the New York State Legislature has defeated proposals to liberalize the state’s eighty-six-year-old criminal-abortion statute, which permits an abortion only when the operation is necessary to preserve a pregnant woman’s life. Now a reform bill introduced by State Assemblyman Albert H. Blumenthal, of New York County, appears likely to pass. It would amend “life” to “health,” and give relief to women who are physically or mentally unequipped to care for a child or who risk bearing a deformed child, to victims of rape and incest, and to the very young...
The Seventies Exile on Main Street
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The world had changed only so much for her. The world has changed only so
much for us.
Reading the Ellen Willis of the seventies feels too painfully like having our latter-day lives described. Such are the spasms of a revolution, which doesn’t necessarily happen in linear fashion, which sometimes goes backward before it goes forward, and which requires all too much work in between...
Beginning to See the Light (Village Voice, 1977)
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On November 7, I admitted I was turned on by the Sex Pistols. That morning I had gone from my shrink to my office and found that a friend who takes an interest in my musical welfare had sent me a package of British punk singles and albums. He had been urging me to listen to the stuff, and I had been resisting; I was skeptical about punk, in both its British and American versions. The revolt against musical and social pretension, the attempts to pare rock to its essentials, the New York bands’ Velvetesque ironic distance had a certain déjà vu quality: wasn’t all that happening five years ago? ...
Janis Joplin (The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock ’n’ Roll, 1980)
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Janis Joplin was born in 1943 and grew up in Port Arthur, Texas. She began singing in bars and coffeehouses, first locally, then in Austin, where she spent most of a year at the University of Texas. In 1966 she went to San Francisco and got together with a rock band in search of a singer, Big Brother and the Holding Company. The following summer Big Brother performed at the Monterey Pop Festival; Janis got raves from the fans and the critics and from then on she was a star...
Classical and Baroque Sex in Everyday Life (Village Voice, May 1979)
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There are two kinds of sex, classical and baroque. Classical sex is romantic, profound, serious, emotional, moral, mysterious, spontaneous, abandoned, focused on a particular person, and stereotypically feminine. Baroque sex is pop, playful, funny, experimental, conscious, deliberate, amoral, anonymous, focused on sensation for sensation’s sake, and stereotypically masculine. The classical mentality taken to an extreme is sentimental and finally puritanical; the baroque mentality taken to an extreme is pornographic and finally obscene...
Memoirs of a Non–Prom Queen (Rolling Stone, August 1976)
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There’s a book out called Is There Life after High School? It’s a fairly silly book, maybe because the subject matter is the kind that only hurts when you think. Its thesis—that most people never get over the social triumphs or humiliations of high school—is not novel. Still, I read it with the respectful attention a serious hypochondriac accords the lowliest “dear doctor” column. I don’t know about most people, but for me, forgiving my parents for real and imagined derelictions has been easy compared to forgiving myself for being a teenage reject...
The Trial of Arline Hunt (Rolling Stone, 1975)
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Jewel’s is one of a cluster of singles bars on Union Street near San Francisco’s fashionable Pacific Heights district. The canopy over the door is stamped with the bar’s motto, “Where Incredible Friendships Begin.” At the entrance a sign warns that “blue jeans, T-shirts, collarless jerseys, tank shirts, transvestites, etc.” are “taboos.” The doorman wears a suit. Inside, the middlebrow, stainedglass- and-wood-paneling decor seems a perfunctory attempt to disguise the stark functionalism of the place, which is dominated by two bars, one sitdown and one standup, surrounded by lots of space...
Abortion: Is a Woman a Person? (Village Voice, March and April 1979)
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If propaganda is as central to politics as I think, the opponents of legal abortion have been winning a psychological victory as important as their tangible gains. Two years ago, abortion was almost always discussed in feminist terms—as a political issue affecting the condition of women. Since then, the grounds of the debate have shifted drastically; more and more, the right-to-life movement has succeeded in getting the public and the media to see abortion as an abstract moral issue having solely to do with the rights of fetuses...
Feminism, Moralism, and Pornography (Village Voice, October and November 1979)
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For women, life is an ongoing good cop–bad cop routine. The good cops are marriage, motherhood, and that courtly old gentleman, chivalry. Just cooperate, they say (crossing their fingers), and we’ll go easy on you. You’ll never have to earn a living or open a door. We’ll even get you some romantic love. But you’d better not get stubborn, or you’ll have to deal with our friend rape, and he’s a real terror; we just can’t control him...
The Family: Love It or Leave It (Village Voice, September 1979)
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When I talk about my family, I mean the one I grew up in. I have been married, lived with men, and participated in various communal and semicommunal arrangements, but for most of the past six years—nearly all of my thirties—I have lived alone. This is neither an accident nor a deliberate choice, but the result of an accretion of large and small choices, many of which I had no idea I was making at the time. Conscious or not, these choices have been profoundly influenced by the cultural and political radicalism of the sixties, especially radical feminism...
Tom Wolfe’s Failed Optimism (Village Voice, 1977)
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My deepest impulses are optimistic, an attitude that seems to me as spiritually necessary and proper as it is intellectually suspect. In college and for some time afterward, my education was dominated by modernist thinkers and artists who taught me that the supreme imperative was courage to face the awful truth, to scorn the soft-minded optimism of religious and secular romantics as well as the corrupt optimism of governments, advertisers, and mechanistic or manipulative revolutionaries...
The Velvet Underground (Stranded by Greil Marcus, 1979)
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A change of fantasy: I have just won the first annual Keith Moon Memorial Essay Contest. (This year’s subject was “Is Ecstasy Dead?”) The prize is a fallout shelter in the bowels of Manhattan, reachable only through a secret entrance in CBGB’s basement. It is fully stocked: on entering the contest I was asked to specify my choice of drugs (LSD), junk food (Milky Way), T-shirt (“Eat the Rich”), book (Parade’s End), movie (The Wizard of Oz),1 rock-and-roll single (“Anarchy in the U.K.”), and rock-and-roll album...
Next Year in Jerusalem (Rolling Stone, April 1977)
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In the spring of 1975, my brother Michael, then 24, was on his way home from his third trip through Asia when he arrived in Israel, planning to stay a few weeks before heading back to New York. On April 28th, he wrote to our parents: “I’ve been staying at, of all things, an Orthodox Jewish yeshiva—when I got to Jerusalem I went to visit the Wailing Wall and got invited—they hang around there looking for unsuspecting tourists to proselytize. It’s sort of a Jewish Jesus-freak type outfit—dedicated to bringing real Judaism to backsliding Jews...
The Eighties Coming Down Again
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If the seventies were the hangover after the heady days of revolution, the eighties were when sobriety really began to set in. Drug experimentation had led to a wasteful national war on narcotics and, on a personal level, very real addictions. The sexual revolution had trailblazed uneasy relationship terrain that didn’t necessarily leave women more fulfilled. Racial equality remained surprisingly elusive, even in most activist spheres. Pregnancy was becoming almost as heavily regulated as abortion. And parenting? Virtually neglected by earlier iterations of the feminist movement...
Toward a Feminist Sexual Revolution (Social Text, Fall 1982)
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It’s perhaps some indication of the complex, refractory nature of my subject that this is the third version of my preface to the article that follows—itself the third revision of what began as a talk at a feminist conference in 1981. At that time, feminists were just beginning to engage in a passionate, explosive debate—or rather, a series of overlapping, intertwined debates—about sex. The arguments crystallized around specific issues: pornography; the causes of sexual violence and how best to oppose it; ...
Lust Horizons: Is the Women’s Movement Pro-Sex? (Village Voice, June 1981)
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My nominations for the questions most likely to get a group of people, all of whom like each other and hate Ronald Reagan, into a nasty argument: Is there any objective criterion for healthy or satisfying sex, and if so what is it? Is a good sex life important? How important? Is abstinence bad for you? Does sex have any intrinsic relation to love? Is monogamy too restrictive? Are male and female sexuality inherently different? Are we all basically bisexual? Do vaginal orgasms exist? Does size matter? ...
The Last Unmarried Person in America (Village Voice, July 1981)
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The great marriage boom of ’84 began shortly after Congress passed the historic National Family Security Act. Though most of its provisions merely took care of old, long overdue business—abolishing divorce, enabling local communities to prosecute single people as vagrants, requiring applicants for civil service jobs to sign a monogamy oath, making the interstate sale of quiche a federal offense, and so on—two revolutionary clauses cleared the way toward making a reality of what had until then been an impossible dream: universal marriage...
Teenage Sex: A Modesty Proposal (Village Voice, October 1986)
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What else is new? The Schools Chancellor and the Board of Education President, those liberal do-gooders, want to make sex education compulsory and give out contraceptives in the high schools; outraged board members, parents, and bishops denounce this blatant promotion of Teenage Sex. The so-called compromise: no contraceptives will be dispensed, only prescriptions, and local boards can choose whether or not to teach baby-killing. Meanwhile, in New York City alone, some teenager commits a sexual act every two-and-a-half seconds...
Sisters under the Skin? Confronting Race and Sex (Village Voice Literary Supplement, June 1982)
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Recently, at a feminist meeting, a black woman argued that in American society race is a more absolute division than sex, a more basic determinant of social identity. This started an intense discussion: if someone shook us out of a deep sleep and demanded that we define ourselves, what would we blurt out first? The black woman said “black woman.” Most of the white women said “woman”; some said “lesbian.” No one said “white person” or “white woman.” ...
Radical Feminism and Feminist Radicalism (Social Text, Summer 1984)
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I was a radical feminist activist in the late 60s. Today I often have the odd feeling that this period, so vivid to me, occurred fifty years ago, not a mere fifteen. Much of the early history of the women’s liberation movement, and especially of radical feminism (which was not synonymous with the w.l.m. but a specific political current within it) has been lost, misunderstood or distorted beyond recognition. The left, the right and liberal feminists have all for their own reasons contributed to misrepresenting and trivializing radical feminist ideas. To add to the confusion, radical feminism in its original sense barely exists today...
Escape from New York (Village Voice, July 1981)
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For Americans, long-distance buses are the transportation of last resort. As most people see it, buses combine the comfort of a crowded jail cell with the glamor of a liverwurst sandwich. Though I can’t really refute that assessment, I don’t really share it, either. As a student with lots of time, little money, and no driver’s license, I often traveled by bus. Un-American as it may be, I feel nostalgic about those trips, even about their discomforts...
Coming Down Again: After the Age of Excess (Village Voice, January 1989)
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“That Blake line,” said my friend—for the purposes of this article I’ll call her
Faith, a semi-ironic name, since she is a devout ex-Catholic—“It’s always quoted
as ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.’”
“That’s not right?” I said.
“It’s ‘The roads of excess sometimes lead to the palace of wisdom.’ Very different!”...
The Drug War: From Vision to Vice (Village Voice, April 1986)
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Wandering through the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens on the first expansively warm day of the year, snatching some time out from my work-ridden, pressured, scheduled dailiness, my daughter asleep in her stroller, I found myself thinking, “This would be a beautiful place to trip.” A weirdly anachronistic thought—I haven’t taken any psychedelic drugs in 15 years and have no serious desire to do so now. Even if I could negotiate the unencumbered 24 hours or so I always needed to go up, stay up, and come down again, it’s the wrong time. The vibes, as we used to say, are not to be trusted—there’s too much tension, anxiety, hostility in the air...
The Drug War: Hell No, I Won’t Go (Village Voice, September 1989)
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At last the government has achieved something it hasn’t managed since the height of ’50s anti-Communist hysteria—enlisted public sentiment in a popular war. The president’s invocation of an America united in a holy war against drugs is no piece of empty rhetoric; the bounds of mainstream debate on this issue are implicit in the response of the Democratic so-called opposition, which attacked Bush’s program as not tough or expensive enough. (As Senator Biden—fresh from his defense of the flag; the guy is really on a roll—put it, “What we need is another D-Day, not another Vietnam.”)...
The Diaper Manifesto: We Need a Child-Rearing Movement (Village Voice, July 1986)
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The other day I ran into a woman I hadn’t seen in a long time, a veteran feminist, and within minutes we were talking about child care problems. Her horror story reminded me, as if I needed reminding, of how precarious, really, are our arrangements, so crucial to a household’s ecology, so vulnerable to changes—in the caretaker’s situation, the parents’, the child’s—that we can never quite relax even when things are going well...
To Emma, with Love (Village Voice, December 1989)
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Tyranny is joyless. Freedom is pleasurable. Liberation from tyranny is ecstatic. Pleasure, joy, ecstasy—all are forms of the erotic, which is to say the delight one’s bodily, sensory being takes in freely moving toward, plunging into, engulfing the world. Freedom in pleasure, pleasure in freedom—dancing and fucking (yes, Emma), and having visions (with or without the aid of chemicals), and doing work that engages and matters to us, and living in an atmosphere of cooperation, friendship, and love among free, self-respecting people, and having the opportunity to be truly responsible for our own lives, to put our visions into practice—are at the core of all real revolution...
The Nineties Decade of Denial
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I wish Ellen Willis were no longer relevant. That’s not to knock the quality of her work, which is equal parts poignant, dynamic, scathing, and sharp like a scalpel. Rather, it is her targets that I find so contemptible—pernicious because of their resilience: sexism, racism, classism, craven politicians and journalists, greedy businesspeople, hypocritical liberals lacking in guts. The divisions in society continue to outlive those who have spent entire careers trying to destroy them, leaving us where we are today: without Willis yet still surrounded by her foes...
Selections from “Decade of Denial” (Don’t Think, Smile!, 2000)
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High on my list of petty urban irritations are those signs posted by smug possessors of driveways: “Don’t Even Think about Parking Here.” I fantasize about plastering their premises with superglued bumper stickers that say “Down with the Thought Police” or “Don’t Even Think about Telling Me What to Think.” It occurs to me, though, that the signs are an apt metaphor for the one-way conversation carried on by driveway guards who call themselves journalists: “Don’t even think about questioning the need to balance the federal budget.”...
Ending Poor People As We Know Them (Village Voice, December 1994)
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In the Sunday Times’s Week in Review, Jason DeParle points out a central contradiction in the discussion of welfare reform: “It is hard to imagine a less popular word than welfare. . . . But shift the conversation to the fate of ‘poor children,’ and the psychic landscape is transformed. . . . These twin forces— disdain for welfare, concern for poor children—are the seismic forces beneath the debate over public assistance. . . . It is the age-old conundrum of welfare reform: The more one seeks to punish the parent, the greater the risks to the child.”...
What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about The Bell Curve (Don’t Think, Smile!, 2000)
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Around the same time that an insurgent right-wing Congress was taking charge of American politics, a parallel cultural event occurred: the publication of Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve. This massive work was really two books. One was a media event designed to fill a conspicuous gap in public discourse—while the figures on crime and “illegitimacy” had long served to release sensitive white people from their pesky inhibitions about calling blacks violent and hypersexual, in recent years there had been no comparable statistical outlet for the sentiment that blacks are dumb...
Rodney King’s Revenge (Don’t Think, Smile!, 2000)
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Call me the last innocent in America, but the day the O. J. Simpson verdict came in, I thought a conviction was possible, even likely. Paradoxically, it was Detective Mark Fuhrman’s lurid tape-recorded spew that made me think so. Here was this guy, the personification or nightmare caricature of the law gone rotten, the cop as racist vigilante (with a name from the same root as “führer,” no less), and yet his exposure had failed—or so it seemed to me—to make a serious dent in the prosecution’s case...
Million Man Mirage (Village Voice, November 1995)
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For the obvious antiseparatist, antisexist, anti–family values, antireligious, anti–moral uplift, antibootstrap, anticapitalist, antifascist, and anti-Simpson reasons, I hated the whole idea of the Million Man March. But as celebratory reviews kept coming in from marchers and onlookers—some of whom had been skeptical or even hostile beforehand—I had to conclude that either a sizable portion of the black community had been taken over by pod people, or something significant had happened that wasn’t covered by my social and political categories...
Monica and Barbara and Primal Concerns (New York Times, March 1999)
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From the day the Monica Lewinsky story burst from the recesses of the Internet into the mainstream press, it has been trailed by a Greek chorus of high-minded journalists and media critics lamenting the saturation coverage of the affair. In their eyes, it has displaced the O. J. Simpson trial as the ultimate symbol of a deplorable trend: the devolution of news into entertainment. As I watched Ms. Lewinsky’s interview on “20/20,” I could almost hear the chorus mutter: “It’s bad enough we had to pay attention to That Woman when grave questions of state were involved...
Villains and Victims (Don’t Think, Smile!, 2000)
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When Marx amended Hegel to specify that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce, he could have been talking about the history of American sexual politics from Anita Hill to Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky. From the beginning conservatives used Jones’s case not only to attack Bill Clinton but to accuse feminists of a hypocritical double standard. “Paula Stunned by Feminists’ Silence,” a headline in the right-wing New York Post observed, while in the New York Times Maureen Dowd offered such tidbits as that redoubtable neanderthal, Representative Bob Dornan, suddenly converted to the cause of fighting sexual harassment, sporting an “I believe Paula” button...
’Tis Pity He’s a Whore (Don’t Think, Smile!, 2000)
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As Bill Clinton looked me straight in the eye, tightened his jaw, and denied having sexual relations with “that woman,” I had a fantasy: suppose, on that historic 60 Minutes episode in 1992, he had said, “Yes, I had an affair with Gennifer Flowers.” And suppose Hillary had added, “Not every marriage is monogamous. Relationships are complicated, and ours is no exception.”...
Is Motherhood Moonlighting? (Newsday, March 1991)
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News correspondent Meredith Vieira lost her job on 60 Minutes recently after taking her doctor’s advice not to work full time during her pregnancy. A few days later, the New York Times reported the story of a woman denied unemployment benefits on the grounds that she had been fired for misconduct— taking too many days off to care for her sick baby. Her case is now before the Minnesota courts...
Say It Loud: Out of Wedlock and Proud (Newsday, February 1994)
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I’m an unmarried mother, one of those miscreants recently denounced in these pages by former education secretary William Bennett and Peter Wehner of Empower America. I am not and have never been on welfare; rather, I’m the sort of affluent Murphy Brown type Dan Quayle thinks sets a bad example for the lower classes. Nor am I functionally a single parent: I live with my daughter’s father, my companion of 14 years. I’ve always hoped we would join or start a communal household, but it hasn’t happened...
Bring in the Noise (The Nation, April 1996)
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Whenever the right and the left agree on some proposition about culture, I know it’s time to grab my raincoat; and so it is with the incessant demonizing of popular culture and media. Everywhere they look—tabloid television, MTV, Married . . . with Children, Pulp Fiction, gangsta rap, saturation coverage of O. J. Simpson/the Bobbitts/Amy Fisher—politicians and high-minded journalists see nothing but sleaze and moral degradation...
Intellectual Work in the Culture of Austerity (Don’t Think, Smile!, 2000)
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On the crudest level, the lives of American intellectuals and artists are defined by one basic problem: how to reconcile intellectual or creative autonomy with making a living. They must either get someone to support their work—whether by selling it on the open market or by getting the backing of some public or private institution—or find something to do that somebody is willing to pay for that will still leave them time to do their “real work.”...
The Aughts Our Politics, Ourselves
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It was fitting that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 caused the Twin Towers to collapse on themselves, because the attack would make American intellectual culture perform a similar maneuver. The monolith of dread that defined the Cold War returned to destabilize America through an onslaught of historical analogy. The terrorists hated freedom and could not be reasoned with; this war required new methods and new recalibrations of the balance between liberty and security; and writing was the act delineating loyalty from treason...
Why I’m Not for Peace (Radical Society, April 2002)
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During the war in Bosnia, in an attempt to express my impatience—if that’s the word—with fellow leftists who opposed American intervention in the Balkans, I wisecracked, “Some people would oppose intervention if New York were invaded.” Little did I know: this is an age when absurdum outstrips all efforts at reductio. Yes, my title is a provocation. I’m not really against peace; what I’m against is Peace as a mantra—Anti-Imperialism being another—that wards off thought...
Confronting the Contradictions (Dissent, Summer 2003)
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For me the event that most clearly represents the fecklessness of our hijacked government took place after the fall of Baghdad: the looting of Iraq’s historic museum and burning of the national library in full view of American troops, who looked on and did nothing. The loss of life in war is terrible, yet the loss of a cultural legacy is arguably worse, for it negates the enormous amount of human energy devoted, over thousands of years, to the activities that make life meaningful—creating, preserving, remembering, passing on...
The Mass Psychology of Terrorism (Implicating Empire, edited by Stanley Aronowitz et al., 2003)
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The symbolism of the Twin Towers has been much remarked on: they are said to have represented the forces of modernity in general and global capitalism in particular. Yet oddly, it has been more or less ignored that the towers were also and quite obviously sexual symbols. What might it mean for men to commit mass murder by smashing symbols of desire—desire that in terms of their religious convictions means impurity, decadence, evil—and at the same time destroy themselves? ...
Dreaming of War (The Nation, September 2001)
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You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to surmise that war has a perverse appeal for the human race, nor is the attraction limited to religious fanatics committing mass murder and suicide for the greater glory of God. Among the socalled civilized it takes many insidious and sublimated forms. In the week after September 11, one of the more disturbing themes to surface in the press was the suggestion that as devastating as this attack has been, something good may come of it: an improvement in the American character or, at any rate, a salutary blow to our purported complacency and self-indulgence...
Freedom from Religion (The Nation, February 2001)
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George W. Bush’s creation of a federal office to coordinate public financing of euphemistically labeled “faith-based” social services is a bold assault on the separation of church and state; it is also, ironically, a triumph of bipartisanship. During the presidential campaign, the religious right’s long-running crusade against “secular humanism” achieved its Nixon-in-China moment. Rushing headlong from the mythical anti-Clinton backlash,..
Our Mobsters, Ourselves (The Nation, March 2001)
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Midway through the first season of The Sopranos, the protagonist’s psychotherapist, Jennifer Melfi, has a not-exactly-traditional family dinner with her middle-class Italian parents, son and ex-husband Richard. She lets slip (hmm!) that one of her patients is a mobster, much to Richard’s consternation. An activist in Italian anti-defamation politics, he is incensed at the opprobrium the Mafia has brought on all Italians. What is the point, he protests, of trying to help such a person? In a subsequent scene he contemptuously dismisses Jennifer and her profession for purveying “cheesy moral relativism” in the face of evil...
Is There Still a Jewish Question? Why I’m an Anti-Anti-Zionist (Wrestling with Zion, edited by Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon, 2003)
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Early ’90s, post-Bosnia conversation with a longtime political friend I’ve met by
chance on the street: “I’ve come to see nationalism as regressive, period. I can’t
use phrases like ‘national liberation’ and ‘national self-determination’ with a
straight face anymore.”
“You know, Ellen, there’s one inconsistency in your politics.”
Ghosts, Fantasies, and Hope (Dissent, Fall 2005)
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For most of my politically conscious life, the idea of social transformation has been the great taboo of American politics. From the smug 1950s to the post- Reagan era, in which a bloodied and cowed left has come to regard a kinder, gentler capitalism as its highest aspiration, this anti-utopian trend has been interrupted only by the brief but intense flare-up of visionary politics known as “the sixties.” Yet that short-lived, anomalous upheaval has had a more profound effect on my thinking about the possibilities of politics than the following three decades of reaction...
Escape from Freedom: What’s the Matter with Tom Frank (and the Lefties Who Love Him)? (Situations, 2006)
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The American left loves Thomas Frank’s latest book. A few quotes from the jacket of What’s the Matter with Kansas? capture the general adulatory tone. Barbara Ehrenreich: “The most insightful analysis of American right-wing pseudo-populism to come along in the last decade.” Michael Kazin: “The second coming of H. L. Mencken, but with better politics.” Molly Ivins: “A heartland populist, Frank is hilariously funny on what makes us red-staters different from those blue-staters (not), ...
Three Elegies for Susan Sontag (New Politics, Summer 2005)
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When I was finding my voice as a writer in the thick of the sixties, Susan Sontag loomed large: she was among the relatively few literary intellectuals who were seriously trying to grapple with a new, rich, and, for many, disconcerting cultural situation. The title essay of her first collection, Against Interpretation, combined a formidable erudition about the avant-garde with a manifesto-like plea that critics end their one-sided emphasis on teasing out the meaning of art and embrace their pleasure in it...
Coda: Selections from “The Cultural Unconscious in American Politics: Why We Need a Freudian Left”
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Shortly after the publication of her essay collection Don’t Think, Smile! in 2000, my partner, Ellen Willis, began working on a book-length project tentatively called “The Cultural Unconscious in American Politics.” The central argument was that our understanding of cultural and political crises would be incomplete without a psychoanalytic dimension. The three draft chapters she wrote integrate many of these elements with a nuanced and persuasive account of the salience of radical psychoanalytic thought...
The Cultural Unconscious in American Politics: Why We Need a Freudian Left
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Slouching toward the end of the 20th century, American society is in a state of economic upheaval, political paralysis, and cultural panic. After 50 years of domestication by the corporate liberal state, laissez-faire capitalism has revived with a vengeance, on an unprecedented worldwide scale. The emergence of a global labor market, combined with the wholesale replacement of human labor by computers, has transformed the American economy, steadily eliminating the well-paid, secure jobs on which a solid middle class depends...
About the Authors
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Page Count: 536
Publication Year: 2014