Don’ t Think, Smile: Notes on a Decade of Denial by Ellen Willis. Beacon Press, 192 pp., $24.00.
October 1, 1999        

For thirty years, in a wide arc from the Village Voice and Social Text to the New Yorker and Mirabella, Ellen Willis has been the Sixties’ best exponent and a savvy interpreter of American politics and culture. Her output thus far is small – two sterling collections, Beginning to See the Light (1981) and No More Nice Girls (1992) – so one eagerly welcomes her new book (notwithstanding the false note struck by its title, which insinuates cluelessness on the other side – always a polemical dud move).

What do the Sixties have to say to the Nineties? In essays on crime, race, censorship, globalization, Bosnia, the Republican ascendancy, the culture of austerity, Zippergate, and right-wing libertarianism, Willis advocates left-wing libertarianism. The left should contend for the maximum of individual development and expression; and what it has to contend against are external constraints imposed by gross economic equality and internal ones arising from the inculcation early in life of a rigid, self-denying morality. Among the tenets of left libertarianism: “that the point of life is to live and enjoy it fully; that genuine virtue is the overflow of happiness, not the bitter fruit of self-denial; that sexual freedom and pleasure are basic human rights; that endless work and subordination to bosses are offenses to the human spirit; that contempt for the black poor is the middle class’s effort to deny that we are next; that Mom is not going back home again and so we need to rethink domestic life, child rearing, and the structures of work; that democracy is not about voting for nearly indistinguishable politicians but about having a voice in collective decision-making, not only in government but at home, school, and work.” Naturally this vision should be accompanied by tough-minded analysis, in the first instance “a thoroughgoing critique of the new economic order and its accelerating class war.”

Attention to the internal as well as the external yields much astute commentary. Willis’s discussion of crime, “Beyond Good and Evil,” takes note of its obvious roots in material deprivation but also links the “psychopolitics of crime” to the “dynamics of domination” subtly and rigorously. “The Ordeal of Liberal Optimism” addresses the liberal critique of affirmative action, suggesting persuasively that it takes too little account of racial psychodynamics. Both essays are notable for lucidity, fairmindedness, and sureness in getting at the marrow of bitterly contested questions.

An essay on censorship and free speech starts out, like most feminist approaches to the anti-pornography debate, considering the “politics of sexual representation.” But Willis moves quickly to “the politics of speech as such,” where “the case against the censors is not so obvious after all.” There turns out to be more substance to the critique of First Amendment absolutism than one might have supposed. Catherine MacKinnon and others argue with some plausibility that the boundaries of speech protected by the First Amendment can only be specified by taking no less seriously the Constitutional mandate of equality set out in the Fourteenth Amendment. Speech undeniably has consequences, sometimes entirely predictable ones. “Distinguishing talk about inferiority from verbal imposition of inferiority may be complicated at the edges,” MacKinnon writes, “but it is clear enough at the center with sexual and racial harassment, pornography, and hate propaganda.”

Willis avoids the untenable absolutist rejoinders: that the First Amendment is unambiguous and that speech can infallibly be distinguished from action. She acknowledges, as one must, that speech is a particular kind of action; and of course she does not deny that legally actionable harassment can sometimes be purely verbal. But while MacKinnon’s argument stops there, content merely to demote speech from categorical uniqueness, Willis goes on to root a defense of controversial speech in a theory of freedom, which is in turn derived from a theory of moral psychology. It’s not that speech is never wounding, she argues, but that freedom is healing. “Symbolic expression, however forceful, leaves a space between communicator and recipient, a space for contesting, fighting back with one’s own words and images, organizing to oppose whatever action the abhorred speech may incite. Though speech may, and often does, support the structure of domination, whether by lending aid and comfort to the powerful or frightening and discouraging their targets, in leaving room for opposition it falls short of enforcing submission. For this reason the unrestrained clash of ideas, emotions, visions provides a relatively safe model – one workable even in a society marked by serious imbalances of power – of how to handle social conflict, with its attendant fear, anger, and urges to repress, through argument, persuasion, and negotiation (or at worst grim forbearance) rather than coercion. In the annals of human history, even this modest exercise in freedom is a revolutionary development; for the radical democrat it prefigures the extension of freedom to other areas of social life.” I think this takes the debate a step beyond Stanley Fish’s There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech – no small achievement.

Throughout these essays it’s a pleasure to watch the deployment of Willis’s extraordinary dialectical skills. But not all her targets are equally deserving. A good deal of the book is devoted to rebuking the “economic” or “populist” or “majoritarian” left for insufficient attention to the psychocultural roots of inequality and domination. To those who suggest that perhaps a thoroughgoing demystification of truth, beauty, objectivity, morality, authority, law, and love can wait until the minimum wage goes up a dollar or two and not quite so many American households (currently one in three) are only a major illness away from bankruptcy, Willis replies that freedom and equality are indivisible. If Americans “do not feel entitled to demand freedom and equality in their personal and social relations,” she insists, “they will not fight for freedom and equality in their economic relations.” Furthermore, “people are not ‘distracted’ by the moral and cultural issues that affect their daily existence as much as the size of their paychecks; they care passionately about those issues.”

Isn’t there a non sequitur here? A popular majority might, after all, agree broadly with the left about freedom and equality in economic relations but disagree broadly about freedom and equality in personal relations. People no doubt care passionately about both economic issues and moral/cultural ones, but their views about the former may be much closer to those of economic leftists than their views about the latter are to those of cultural leftists. Actually, these are not merely logical possibilities. According to Alan Wolfe in One Nation After All, they’re the way things are. Needless to say, Wolfe’s book is not the last word, but he offers plenty of evidence.

And if this is the way things are, what follows? Would economic populists then be entitled, and inclined, to show cultural libertarians the door? I’m not nearly so sure as Willis. Which door, anyway? A little comradely recrimination may be good for the ideological blood pressure; but beyond that, I don’t see what’s at stake in this strategic debate. There is no left-wing party or other organization awaiting its outcome, ready to carry the approved word far and wide. It won’t and shouldn’t lead anyone to drop one kind of political activity and take up another. Economic radicals and cultural radicals can pretty much count on each other’s handful of votes, and neither has any resources or patrons to be raided by the other. The masses rarely peruse the Nation (even less frequently, alas, Dissent); they’re busy or tired or glued to the screen, and we’re not on the local newsstand anyway. So by all means let’s fire away at one another, but with popguns rather than heavy artillery.

In any case, economic democracy is surely the best thing that could happen to cultural radicalism. During his quixotic 1968 mayoral campaign, Norman Mailer won over an emphatically skeptical Bella Abzug by roaring back at her: “I can tell you that regardless of my views on women as you think you know them, women in any administration I could run would have more voice, more respect, more real opportunity for argument than any of the other candidates would offer you.” Just so. A little (or better, a whopping) redistribution of wealth would put cultural radicals – most of whom, I suspect, inhabit the lower four-fifths of the income scale – in a much stronger position to ignore the rest of society, press their claims on it, or construct alternatives to it.

Willis’s quarrel with the “culturally conservative” or “pro-family” left is more substantial. In recent years public discussion of abortion, divorce, welfare, and crime has been marked by near-universal deference for words like “virtue,” “responsibility,” “self-control,” “discipline,” “stability,” “community,” “family,” and the like. Willis is deeply suspicious of this rhetorical tendency. It serves, she argues, to shore up a familiar system of domination and hierarchy based on self-denial and the subordination of women. The premise of traditional morality is some version of original sin; it “assumes the need to combat the human inclination toward evil by imposing coercive social controls as well as the internal controls of conscience and guilt.” The agency of this repression is the family: “it is the parents’ job to suppress their children’s evil impulses and assure that they develop the requisite inner controls.” These “evil impulses” are erotic: desires for bodily satisfaction and pleasure, which are imagined as potentially limitless and progressively consuming in later life if not firmly curbed in infancy and then, in childhood, channeled into forms of expression (i.e., maleness and femaleness) that allow for social order and continuity. The cost of these “inner controls” is a pervasive, largely unconscious unease: fear and submissiveness alternating with rage and resentment. “In demonizing children’s desire, the family provokes the very destructive impulses it must then imperfectly repress.”

The child’s thwarted impulses persist in adulthood, this argument continues, where they are countered by an array of external controls – religious, legal, medical, economic, etc. – that teach and enforce one or another version of hierarchy. They are also countered by the need to repress the acutely painful memories of rage and humiliation that an open acknowledgment of long-unsatisfied desires would provoke. In addition, social, sexual, familial, economic, and other hierarchies are less oppressive for some (males, whites, parents, employers) than for others – an incentive for the more fortunate to make the best of a bad but apparently natural and inevitable situation.

Hence, according to Willis, our society’s precarious equilibrium. “A moral system based on repression and coercion, on the stifling of desire, generates enormous stores of anger and frustration that can never be totally controlled. When those emotions find expression in destructive behavior, it is seized on as proof of intractable human evil and the need to maintain or increase repression. The result is a closed circle, a self-perpetuating, self-reinforcing system of tragic dimensions.”

The way out of this circle is the conquest of scarcity. As long as societal survival was not assured, hierarchical subordination and the disciplining of individual desire were self-evidently necessary. Over the last two centuries, however, it has become possible to see traditional morality as a strategy of social self-preservation, a strategy bound to be superseded and indeed already in retreat. When pleasure – or at least its material prerequisites – is more abundant, self-denial can cease to be the foundation of all collective life, and morality as a structure of internalized coercion, along with the patriarchical family that reproduces it, will wither away.

And what might come after? The only place Willis hints at an answer is a passage in her well-known 1979 essay “The Family: Love It or Leave It.” “The logical postpatriarchial unit is some version of the commune. Groups of people who agreed to take responsibility for each other, pool their economic resources, and share housework and child care would have a basis for stability independent of any one couple’s sexual bond; children would have the added security of close ties to adults other than their biological parents (and if the commune were large and flexible enough, parents who had stopped being lovers might choose to remain in it); communal child rearing, shared by both sexes, would remove the element of martyrdom from parenthood.”
A little sketchy, this. But even those who are dubious about Willis’s postpatriarchical alternative must acknowledge that her libertarian-socialist utopianism is based on something more than a sentimental attachment to Sixties slogans. It is, on the contrary, a highly plausible deduction from the prevailing conception of modernity, which defines the good life in terms of leisure and abundance and envisions history as continuous moral and material progress, made possible by the spread of scientific and social rationality. Nearly all secular thinkers of both left and right subscribe to this conception, and in their case Willis’s exasperated exhortations to “think radically” are very much to the point.

At least one secular leftist, however, thought quite as radically about modernity as Willis and came to different conclusions. Christopher Lasch was not a believer in original sin but in what might be called original limits. These are limits imposed not by material scarcity or political inequality but by the process of individuation itself. Lasch’s account of psychic development, like Willis’s, focuses on the infant’s response to frustration, but more convincingly. (Willis’s fullest account is in “Toward a Feminist Sexual Revolution” in No More Nice Girls; I have outlined Lasch’s ideas at considerable length in “A Whole World of Heroes,” Dissent, Summer 1995.) Willis’s “demonizing of desire” implies parental intent, a contingent matter. But as Lasch points out, some – in fact a great deal – of infantile frustration is inevitable, as are the outsized fantasies with which the infant typically responds. These fantasies, of omnipotence or terrified helplessness, of annihilating rage or undifferentiated union, of perfectly benevolent or implacably threatening parents, must gradually be mastered, reduced in scale, if the child is to assume the contours of a self.

Living down these otherwise disabling fantasies is the essence of psychological maturation. It requires the continual experience of love and discipline, gratification and frustration, from the same source. This can best – arguably can only – be done in the constant presence of the fantasied objects, i.e., the child’s parents. Until the last two centuries, it usually was. But the displacement of household production by mass production drastically altered the child’s relation to its father; and the centralized, interventionist state, overshadowing and sometimes replacing parental authority, complicated maturation still further. The result was frequently a weak self – which is the clinical meaning of “narcissism.” (It has nothing to do with an excess of self-love, the popular meaning of the word.)

The essence of modernity is mobility and choice; the essence of premodernity was immobility and ascription. It looks, vexingly, as though successful individuation requires an irreducible minimum of the latter. The bearer of this bad news was understandably greeted with something less than grateful enthusiasm by many of his political comrades. But when Lasch criticized modernity, he had in mind mass production and the centralized state, not sexual equality. He believed that the family needed to be defended, not against feminism but against the effects of the separation of home and work. He was skeptical of “progress,” not from a dislike of equality or pleasure but from a preference for the genuine rather than the ersatz articles. He maintained that freedom meant overcoming emotionally-charged dependence on individual or local authorities, not taking for granted an abstract, universal dependence on distant, bureaucratic authorities.

Culture and psychology are central to politics; Willis is right about that. But cultural politics must reckon with our psychic ecology: the sum of our adaptations, over the course of two million years, to infantile dependence, territoriality, scarcity, mortality, and the other hitherto inescapable limits of human existence. We are organisms; we cannot flourish at just any tempo, pressure, or scale. Imagination itself is, as I have suggested, an evolutionary adaptation, whereby we master a threatening environment when young by binding or investing fantasy within nearby entities – parents, neighborhood, church, ethnic group. These intense primary identifications can and should be gradually left behind, but they cannot be skipped, on pain of shallowness, instability, and – paradoxically – an inability in later life to stand firm against authority.

Cultural politics should aim to reform rather than abolish marriage, the family, hierarchy, authority, morality, and law. These institutions and practices evolved to serve essential purposes. They are not purely, or even primarily, strategies of exploitation. To consider them prisons rather than temporary outposts is not radical but superficial, like considering religion and myth mere lies rather than inadequate attempts at explanation. Cultural radicals will sometimes, in fact, need to defend these institutions; i.e., insist that some way be found to achieve their formative or protective purposes. As the global economy and mass culture lay siege to inwardness, plow up our psychic root system, and alter the very grain and contour of our being, conservation increasingly becomes a radical imperative.

Foucault remarked sourly: “We must not think that by saying yes to sex, one says no to power.” There are, of course, plenty of other good reasons for saying yes to sex and to pleasures of (nearly) every other kind, as well as for demanding a fairer distribution of pleasure’s prerequisites – money and leisure. But the strength to persevere in such demands and also to pursue the sublimer, more strenuous pleasures – of craft, of thought, of devotion, of emulation – is not only, as Willis contends, “the overflow of happiness”; it is also the “bitter fruit” (tart, anyway) of self-discipline. Premodern cruelties and superstitions still bulk large; left-wing libertarianism is still the best answer to them. To recognize the subtler entrapments of modernity requires, however, another variety of radical imagination.