Identity Crisis (1992)

Ellen Willis. From mediad.publicbroadcasting.net.

The following is the introduction to Ellen Willis’s No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays (1992), copyright The Estate of Ellen Willis and courtesy of Emily Books, which we’re posting along with a series of essays on Willis by the n+1 Research Collective. Essays to follow.

That Ellen Willis’s No More Nice Girls (recently re-released as an e-book by Emily Books) shares its name with the abortion rights group Willis founded in the early 1980s sheds light on the wonderful seamlessness of her activism and writing. You can call bullshit on so many cultural critics for observing their world at a safe distance, or critique activists for their lousy writing, but Willis succeeded at both and let the two roles inform each other. Her thoughtfulness and thoroughness, her refusal to sacrifice nuance or discount real life experience for the sake of an argument, is something that both activists and authors could learn a lot from. Too often people get caught in their own heads, falling in love with their own arguments so much that they lose touch with reality. Willis never did that–not in her political work, not in her music criticism (collected in last spring’s Out of the Vinyl Deeps). Her refusal to subsume her personality to a movement, or to ignore the things that were important to her, remains an inspiration. Feminism should help us become the people we want to be, not the people we think we should be in order to fight the man, or to serve him.

—n+1 Research Collective


Last year I attended a feminist conference in Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia, amid preliminary rumblings of the civil war that would break up the country and mutilate the city in the name of nationalism. The conference, which brought women from all over Eastern Europe and the United States, was the first gathering of its kind in the East, a historic event. We introduced ourselves by name and place. For the women of what was still officially Yugoslavia, this was no casual moment; their various self-identifications were deliberate and pointed: “Yugoslavia”; “Croatia”; “Ljubljana”; “Europe.” Most of the rest spoke as unproblematic Poles, Bulgarians, Americans and so on. But when it was my turn I said, “New York.”

I recalled this scene months later, as I sat reading the New York Times Book Review. Ensconced in morning torpidity, dosing it with coffee, I came upon Morton Kondracke’s review of two books by conservative sociologist Paul Hollander about the reactions of the American left to the fall of Communism. I woke up right away. In the first paragraph Kondracke lays out his (and presumably Hollander’s) basic assumption: that finding systemic flaws in American society (racism and sexism are mentioned specifically) is equivalent to hating America and defending Communist dictatorships—in other words, any and every form of radical social dissidence is, for Americans, both self-hating and totalitarian. Now that the Cold War is won, Kondracke’s tone as much as his words suggests, it’s time for a mopping up operation against the domestic collaborators, in the form of “a political and intellectual reckoning” with unrepentant Communist sympathizers “and their soul mates” (!) still spewing their poison— where else?—”on college campuses, from pulpits, and in books and magazines.” “No one should be lined up against a wall,” he ominously assures the reader, in a maneuver known to psychotherapists as the gratuitous denial. And a few lines later, “The First Amendment protects their right to rant, but the rest of us have a right to question their premises.”

Since liberal, let alone radical, premises have already been the target of a decade-long jihad, it is hardly paranoid to wonder what beyond intellectual wrist-slapping Kondracke might have in mind (perhaps those colleges, churches, and publishers should stop giving aid and comfort?). But the real giveaway is his rhetoric of us and them. There I was, reading the mainstream book review of record, like thousands of other people of varying political persuasions, yet I was not part of its audience as this writer conceived it—I was at best an eavesdropper on a conversation in which “the rest of us “were engaged at my expense, just as if the NYTBR were, say, the Conservative Digest. In this peculiar role I nonetheless kept reading, till I got to Kondracke’s parting shot: “And, one should note, for all their raving against America, few America-haters ever leave.” That was when I thought of Dubrovnik. “Some of us left years ago,” I muttered. “We live in New York.”

For my generation, formed equally by the liberating exuberance of rock and roll and the imperial brutality of Vietnam, the question of where we stood on America was inescapable. Was this nation (it!) the enemy, tyrannical abroad, hopelessly racist at home, and in the process of choking to death on a glut of consumer goods? Or were we (we!), however corrupted by various forms of power, still the source of a vital democratic impulse that fed cultural dissidence and subverted authoritarian values all over the world? I took the latter position, and through the ’60s and ’70s, exploring its paradoxes was a central concern of my writing. The essays in this book are different. While all of them are, in one way or another, about American cultural politics, the question of what it means to be American, as a cultural and political identity, rarely arises—and when it does, it’s in the context of loss. There is, for instance, my obituary of Andy Warhol, which is also, in a sense, an obituary for an American moment; or my comment on the Challenger disaster, another resonant death. And then there is “Escape from New York,” a piece about a transcontinental bus trip I took in the pre-Reagan summer of 1980.

I didn’t make up the title, but the editor who thought of it must have been aware of its irony. My trip had been a counterphobic move to combat my impulses toward isolation and connect with some larger community; after many ambivalent encounters I had escaped to New York, relieved to be back yet uneasy, knowing that while isolation could be an act of will, connection was a more complicated matter. Through my account of meetings and failed meetings with friends and strangers runs the contrapuntal theme of my tentative and wary involvement with a new lover back home. I see the piece as a parable about the end of the ’70s, the exhaustion of the counterculture and its utopian version of the American dream, the beginning of a relentlessly privatized age. Granted that this interpretation comes long after the fact—at the time I wasn’t sure what this odd mess of material amounted to—I think my unconscious knew what it was doing.

The New York versus America subtext also proved prophetic. My sense of national identity had depended on a conviction that America as a real and imagined collectivity had room for people like me, that indeed we affirmed and expanded its promise—a notion that seemed increasingly quixotic, perhaps even delusional, as the ’80s wore on. Though as far back as the 1975 fiscal crisis I had begun to think of New York as a colony (“We are being governed by a junta of bankers,” I wrote at one point), as late as the summer of my bus trip I was arguing that polls or no polls, Ronald Reagan would not win the election because “The American people aren’t ready for this guy.” To stretch my metaphor a bit further, it turned out that as far as the American trip was concerned, I was off the bus. After Reagan’s 1984 landslide, my friend Ann Snitow noted in the Village Voice that she knew very few people who had voted for him. “What does this say about me?” she mused. I knew no one at all who had voted for him, and I had a pretty good idea of what that said about me.

Even now that the Morning-in-America a.k.a. New-World-Order coach is wandering aimlessly, getting lower and lower on gas while the passengers yell and throw spitballs at the driver (when they can find him), my sense of dislocation remains. The rich have been robbing us blind for twelve years, and where does America’s anger go? Toward punishing House members who overdrew their checking accounts and propelling into presidential contention a billionaire man-on-a-white-horse manque. (Of course, there are also the rioters in Los Angeles, but they aren’t on the bus either.) Meanwhile, the cultural right has redefined the American project as closing the frontier. Frustrated that their political power has not translated into cultural hegemony, conservatives are methodically attacking cultural institutions—particularly the universities and the arts—ostensibly for being subverted by radicals, but actually for their persistent liberalism, especially that mushy pluralistic habit of allowing cultural dissidents on the premises. The right, very simply, wants us out of America’s public life: the First Amendment may protect our right to rant, but only if we can do it without money and without space. These essays, then, come from New York: the real and imagined city where feminist sexual liberationists, rootless cosmopolitan Jews, not nice girls/boys/others, loudmouth exiles of all colors are an integral and conspicuous part of the landscape; the pariah community Dan Quayle lambasted as a failed welfare state shortly before making his inspired leap from Murphy Brown’s baby to L.A. lawlessness; the refuge of my polymorphous heroine Ruby Tuesday, the nation’s Last Unmarried Person.

If this counter-American identity defines the sensibility of my book, the question of identity as an organizing principle of politics is a defining theme. This issue has gotten steadily more urgent as the decline of Marxism, with its universal class subject, has—depending on one’s point of view—liberated or unleashed a politics of particularist identities in both East and West. In the former Communist countries—most dramatically in the devastated fragments of erstwhile Yugoslavia—ethnically-based nationalism threatens to drive governments from socialist to fascist dictatorship with at best a pitstop at democracy. Here, identity politics has mostly come from left social movements; neoconservatives and centrist liberals have celebrated American nationalism as universal—on the grounds that it is defined not by ethnicity but by democratic ideals—and therefore the legitimate basis of a “common culture,” as opposed to the divided and contentious society implied in the notion of “multiculturalism.” For Kondracke and his, ah, soul mates, it’s above all the refusal of that universal claim that puts radicals beyond the American pale. In reaction to this brand of false universalism, as well as the Marxist variety, the social movements have regarded with suspicion—when not rejecting outright—the very idea of universal principles. Yet it’s increasingly clear that particularism has not delivered what it seemed to promise.

In the American context the term “identity politics” is often used loosely—I’ve used it this way myself—as a collective rubric for the liberation movements of women, blacks, gays and other subordinate or marginal groups. But in fact the phrase means, or is more usefully taken to mean, something more specific: the idea that one’s experience as a member of such a group determines the authenticity and moral legitimacy of one’s politics. This idea, first laid out by black power advocates and greatly elaborated by feminists, has pervaded ’60s-and-after social activism; yet within the black, feminist, and gay movements there have also been bitter fights about its meaning, its consequences, its limits, and its dangers.

Identity politics arises from a radical insight—that domination is structured into the relations between groups, in part because members of dominant groups, however well-intentioned, tend to perceive the world—and to act on their perceptions—in ways that reinforce their status. Black radicals and women’s liberationists saw that white liberal dominance in civil rights organizations and male dominance in the new left recreated the oppressive relations of the larger society; it followed that they had to take control of their own movements. The problem, as I put it in the first of these essays, is that “the further this principle is extended, the sharper are its contradictions. Though self-definition is the necessary starting point for any liberation movement, it can take us only so far.”

The most obvious drawback of identity politics is its logic of fragmentation into ever smaller and more particularist groups: the fracturing of the radical feminist movement along class and gay-straight lines (the racial divide having kept most black women out of the movement to begin with) is the sobering paradigm. What’s at stake here, however, is not only the pragmatic question (crucial as it is) of how to avoid being divided and conquered, but our understanding of what it means to be a principled radical. Most of us, after all, have complicated, mixed identities, partaking of both dominant and subordinate groups (indeed, from a global perspective we are all privileged Westerners). If our experience by definition makes whole areas of our political judgment suspect, on what moral basis can we act? Do we simply defer to the authority of whoever is more oppressed, relinquishing our own moral autonomy (and what if the more oppressed change their minds, or disagree with each other, as they have the inconvenient habit of doing)? Do we refuse to make certain kinds of political choices (and isn’t such refusal in itself a luxury of the privileged)? For late-’60s and early-’70s activists grappling with the fallout of black nationalism, an increasingly atomized feminism, and gay liberation, such dilemmas were by no means abstract. Various agonized and predictably futile efforts to storm the ramparts of our own white, middle-class and/or male psyches soon gave way to widespread hysteria, depression, immobilization, and retreat.

As the left collapsed and the conservative backlash gained momentum, identity politics evolved in two directions. In the academy, feminists, neo-Marxists, and other cultural leftists turned their attention to analyzing the interrelations of difference, power, and subjectivity, in terms that came to be heavily influenced by French poststructuralist theory. While this line of inquiry has produced a rich body of scholarship and criticism, one of its more dubious results was the emergence, in the ’80s, of a cultural politics that redefined fragmentation as postmodern pluralism, not a problem to be resolved but on the contrary, a condition of freedom and power. Meanwhile, in what was left of the social movements, disappointed hopes for equality were increasingly displaced onto affirmation of group identity as an end in itself, a form of community and a ritual moral protest. Identity politics congealed—at worst into racial and sexual orthodoxies built on the notion of intrinsic (and morally superior) black or female values; more commonly into a stale, pious rhetoric of comparative victimhood. None of this, of course, is either radical or new. While the moralists indulge in the American left’s longstanding habit of substituting righteousness for thought, the pluralists, in their fear that universal claims or “totalizing” theories of any sort are inherently repressive, replicate the aversion to “ideology” that has always made liberals incapable of understanding the social system as a whole—or organizing an effective opposition to the frankly ideological right.

Almost from the beginning, second wave feminism was a study in the limits of the identity politics it did so much to promote. As I try to show in “Radical Feminism and Feminist Radicalism,” the attempt of working-class feminists to create their own identity politics foundered on their lack of a class analysis or strategy that transcended the women’s movement, while lesbian feminists—having largely rejected the identity of an oppressed erotic minority in favor of the claim that lesbianism meant female bonding and was therefore the purest form of feminism—in effect redefined the movement as a countercultural enclave. Black feminists, in contrast, were faced with defining their relationship to two forms of identity politics, neither of which truly represented them; they were the invisible term in the cultural equation of “black” with male and “female” with white.

The painful and explosive character of black women’s dilemma erupted in public in 1978, when Michele Wallace’s Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman forthrightly criticized black men’s—and the black movement’s—sexism: the book was championed by Ms., well-received by white radical feminists, and reviled by most black critics, male and female alike. Despite the rage directed at Wallace, the ultimate result was a much freer debate. When I wrote “Sisters Under the Skin?” in the early ’80s, the question political black women were asking was no longer whether or why they should be feminists, but what feminism meant in light of their dual identity and white women’s racism. The dominant view among black feminists was that racial concerns had to take precedence because black people, male or female, were worse off than white women; others—lesbians, especially—refused to make such a choice, stressing black femaleness as an identity in its own right. (Ironically, my piece fails to take note of black lesbian feminist politics, betraying my own unconscious identification of lesbianism with whiteness.) Both groups were heavily invested in the idea of the black woman as ultimate victim, an idea that, as I’ve suggested, offered moral prestige as a substitute for elusive social change. But among black feminist intellectuals, yet another current was emerging: an effort to analyze the social and psychic space where race and gender converge.

Exploring the “racial-sexual nexus,” as I call it in my article, was a compelling alternative both to victim politics as usual and to the kind of pluralism that had led the authors of one of the books I wrote about to talk evenhandedly of “Black” and “White” feminisms. At the time, my interest in this project was mostly centered on its potential for reconstructing “woman” as a political identity, and feminism as a movement for “women,” along lines that were genuinely inclusive. But during the past decade, in which a burgeoning literature on feminism and multiculturalism has greatly expanded the discussion, my attention has increasingly shifted away from identity questions, toward the issue—only hinted at in my piece—of how the racial-sexual nexus shapes the overall politics of culture. “Like sexuality,” I wrote, forays into this territory “radiate danger and taboo.” I might have added that this was hardly surprising, given the volatile cultural association of blackness and femaleness with sexual desire, terror, and anarchy.

Nor is it a coincidence that concern with racial-sexual politics intensified around the same time as the feminist sex wars that occupy several of my essays. As with race, cultural and religious differences centering on sexual morality and “family values” had posed a particularly embarrassing public rebuke to feminists’ visions of universal sisterhood. Many women refused to identify with feminism or were vociferously anti-feminist—on these grounds, even when they did not embrace male dominance per se. By the beginning of the ’80s, it was clear that feminists themselves were sharply divided on these questions. Even on abortion, where feminist consensus across political and demographic lines had been remarkable, there was a spectrum—from militant advocates of women’s personal and sexual freedom, to defenders of “choice” (content cautiously unspecified) and “reproductive rights” (shorthand for making an end run around those sticky moral questions by tacking abortion on the social-welfare laundry list), to those who allowed that abortion was indeed a terrible thing, if not quite terrible enough to be outlawed, to a small group of “pro-life feminists” who saw abortion as encouraging male irresponsibility. Liberal and culturally-conservative feminists distanced themselves from radical critiques of the family, melding rhetorical approval of monogamy, motherhood, and “long-term relationships” (as opposed, in their view, to hedonism, careerism, and individualism) with the argument that feminists are the family’s true champions because they espouse social and economic reforms that “help families.” And the anti-pornography movement, whose sexual conservatism had been proclaimed and widely accepted as the feminist view, found itself challenged by feminist sexual radicals. Such conflict, on the most central issues of male-female relations, did not merely fragment female identity but threatened to rob the concept of all political meaning. It was the perception of that threat, as much as anything else, that reduced anti-pornography activists to vituperative hysteria when confronted with what they saw as betrayal of feminism from within. Pro-family feminists, on the other hand, were in a position to make common cause with non-feminist women and brand recalcitrants as isolated extremists (read man-hating, child-hating dykes).

The anti-heterosexual ideologues of the anti-porn movement were hardly in the pro-family camp—if anything they were targets of the latter’s caricatures. But in terms of the larger culture these tendencies cohered: both strengthened the right. On the family, debate is now virtually nonexistent, at least in the mass media; the idea that the problems besetting contemporary families might have something to do with the structure of the institution itself—that domestic life may need to be transformed, rather than shored up with one or another palliative—has dropped from public view, a mind-boggling feat of collective repression. While feminist sexual radicals remain critical of the family and actively defend the right to lead unconventional personal lives, in recent years most have not made a major issue of family relations as such. Rather, they have focused on sex itself as a separate question.

My own view, argued in “Toward a Feminist Sexual Revolution,” is that this separation doesn’t hold up, that sexuality cannot be understood apart from familial ism and its discontents. Ironically, I’m more in tune with the right on this point than with my closest political allies. The feminist sex debate has taken a different turn; following the contours of identity politics, it has to a large extent unfolded as an argument between moralism and pluralism. The first highly publicized clash between the two sides took place at Barnard College in 1982, at a controversial conference on sexuality organized by feminist sexual libertarians—myself included—and picketed by anti-porn activists (who also prompted the Barnard administration to confiscate conference literature). Opposing the anti-porners’ attempts to prescribe, in the most judgmental of terms, a “feminist sexuality,” the conference planners argued that sexual orthodoxy in the name of feminism was indistinguishable from the patriarchal kind. As feminists sensitized to the politics of difference, we rejected the idea of a unitary female sexuality, and emphasized the complex construction of erotic identities; we proposed to examine the varieties of female desire and sexual imagery from a standpoint that, as Gayle Rubin had once put it, presumed sex innocent until proven guilty, rather than the other way around. At the conference, and at a speakout planned to coincide with the event, lesbian sadomasochists and other practitioners of “politically incorrect” sex brandished the erotic-minority banner abandoned by mainstream lesbian feminists.

This confrontation set the tone of the debate that followed, and in crucial ways defined its terms. Within those terms, the libertarian argument has been able to expose the profoundly anti-sexual and sexist assumptions of the anti-porn movement, as well as its vulgar literalism in conflating images, fantasies, and acts. As genuinely radical feminism has always done, “pro-sex” feminism affirms women’s right to be sexual without shame. But its pluralist framework does not encourage a systemic analysis of sex. What is the relationship of sexual morality to the larger social structure? Why do fear of sex, and contempt for it, have such a strong grip on people that these attitudes constantly reappear in covert forms? Why is sex in this culture so closely associated with violence? Unless radicals engage such questions, they can’t effectively refute the conservative answer that lust is fundamentally destructive, the enemy of civilization or its anti-porn feminist variant—that sexual liberation is a male supremacist plot.

What I’m suggesting is that the left has taken identity politics as far as it can go (not to mention some places we would have done better to avoid), and that this suggestion comes not from any presumption of objectivity but from the logic of my own particular standpoint in the world. (That is, I speak as a woman who does not represent “women”—and as a Jew convinced that the fundamental bond among Jews is neither Zionism nor the 613 commandments but our historic commitment to the ever-unpopular position that the Messiah is yet to come.) I also see members of other groups moving toward the same conclusion: that radicals need to recreate a
politics that emphasizes our common humanity, to base our social theory and practice on principles that apply to us all. This doesn’t mean rewriting history. We know too much to attempt to dissociate the political from the personal, or discount the fateful clashes of worldviews shaped by difference and disparity of power—the “you just don’t get it” factor. Nor can we ignore the lessons of the Communist debacle: while systemic social theory and absolutist ideology are not synonymous (as the pluralists would have it), slipping from one to the other is far too easy for comfort. Yet finally, if we really hope to change our condition, there’s no escape from the admittedly risky, admittedly arrogant project of reimagining the world.

The chief principle I invoke in these essays is democracy, in the most radical sense of that word: a commitment to individual freedom and egalitarian self-government in every area of social, economic, and cultural life. Democracy, as I envision it, assumes that the purpose of community is to foster individual happiness and self-development; that the meaning of life lies in our capacity to experience and enjoy it fully; that freedom and eros are fundamentally intertwined; and that a genuine sense of responsibility to other human beings flows from the desire for connection, not subordination to family, Caesar, or God.

This is a universalist philosophy—one that has often been criticized, from the standpoint of identity politics, as parochially “Western” or “upper-middle-class.” The premise of that charge, I argue in my piece on Salman Rushdie, is the self-contradictory idea that while no group has a right to impose its values on another, each group has the right to dominate its own members. Similarly, I reject the relativism implicit in current attempts to proscribe racist and sexist speech; I find it a galling and dangerous irony that the right, with its attack on “political correctness,” has staked out the moral high ground on the issue of free expression. It’s tempting to be distracted by the brazen bad faith of the p.c. campaign, with its attempt to stifle all leftist dissidence in the name of combatting a new totalitarianism—this from the same characters who have tried to ban flag-burning, promoted censorship of “obscene” art, denied grants to artists and scholars on political grounds, forbidden federally-funded clinics to mention abortion, and generally shown as much respect for the First Amendment as for teenage welfare mothers. But the campaign has hit a nerve because it gets at something real. Coercion and guilt-mongering—the symbiotic weapons of authoritarian culture—inevitably provoke resistance; when the left uses these tactics it merely encourages people to confuse their most oppressive impulses with their need to be themselves, offensively honest instead of hypocritically nice. Perversely, racism and sexism become badges of freedom rather than stigmata of repression, while the roots of domination in people’s rage and misery remain untouched.

My vision of democracy depends on the belief that it is, in fact, human unhappiness and not original sin that is our heart of darkness. Unhappiness is not the same as suffering or adversity; it is chronic estrangement from our capacity for pleasure. And so pleasure—its attainment, its blockage, its meaning—is another preoccupation of this book. My final essay, “Coming Down Again,” is part manifesto, part elegy on the subject. When this piece was first published in 1989 it had a subtitle, “After the Age of Excess.” I was referring to the ’60s, of course, but not long afterward there was a media wave of upper middle class breast-beating about “the excesses of the ’80s.” For the times, an all too typical irony: a word that for me meant embracing—for better or worse—the quest for an ecstatic existence had been recast to refer to compulsive money-making. These days ecstasy is indeed out of fashion; it’s become conventional to trivialize, when not simply condemning out of hand, the romance of sex and drugs that carried so much of my generation’s transcendental baggage. Yet the power of the ecstatic moment—this is what freedom is like, this is what love could be, this is what happens when the boundaries are gone—is precisely the power to reimagine the world, to reclaim a human identity that’s neither victim nor oppressor, to affirm difference not as separation but as variation on a theme. We can’t live in such moments, and it’s usually disastrous to try. But we need them to make sense of our politics and our lives—to be our compass—as we camp out on the border where New York and America meet, along with so much else.

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