The Intellectual Situation
Historically, the right wing in America has favored force and manliness. Extremists like Goldwater and silver-tongued liars like Reagan at least looked solid. George W. Bush was the best jogger we’d ever had as President. Mitt Romney, this election season’s candidate, is a crash test dummy fitted with a strong jaw and impressively realistic hair. (Bonus: interchangeable beliefs.) Yet flying in the face of this preference for the Strong Man is the personality type and cultural style of the contemporary right-wing commentator. The real standard-bearer of Republican discourse in the past decade, he has turned juvenile, impish, and wounded. In short, he is Big Baby.
It’s not news. But in the past six months, the babyishness has taken a new turn for the malevolent with the intensifying Republican war on women. We know that the right can be psychosexually perverse, and these days its depths are most visibly reflected on shiny, blubbery surfaces. Newt Gingrich seemed to be the first Big Baby in 1994, but then his divorces, affairs, and violation of every Congressional ethics rule during his few years as House Speaker temporarily made him seem like an adult. Rush Limbaugh was definitely the second Big Baby and real founder of the line. He seemed sui generis until Glenn Beck proved that whistle-cut, chubby, racist megalomaniacs — Dennis-the-Menace mischievous unless they were suddenly on the verge of self-pitying tears — defined a new right-wing style. Bear in mind that Big Baby is strangely moving in both his euphoria and his mawkishness; it’s hard not to feel the emotional tug beneath his hatefulness. As if Big Baby were America’s collective, clumsy, retributive, asocial child, we can’t help but think: Big Baby may be reading Birther apocalyptic conspiracy tracts, but at least he’s reading.
Big Baby behavior has coalesced with the new rhetorical style of the right — whining, entitlement, and victimization, a bad-faith aping of how the old regime understood the demands of anti-racism and the women’s movement — to give a mashed-carrots color to the politics of our era. Tantrums are in fashion. Are you ever at a loss now, flipping through the channels, to know what policies a TV commentator will advocate if he is boyish but old, thin-haired but incapable of growing a mustache, soft, truculent, khakied and floppy-collared, wide-eyed on a sugar rush and shouting for more candy? (In his case, the Pez will be prescription drugs and alcohol: there is a curious tie between Big Babies and abuse of painkillers.) Big Baby is easier to picture sitting than standing. Man-boobs shape his polo. Big Baby has wee little feet and appears on the cover of Cigar Aficionado. Big Baby issues insults, but only at a safe distance. You sense that, up close, he might smell like milk.
Or Milk of Magnesia — for there is an important elder variant of Big Baby. Old Baby throws his weight around on television, where he is typified equally well by little Lou Dobbs and hulking Bill O’Reilly. Each was probably once an adult but now, retired to fake news, has Babyfied. Suit sleeves flopping, he seems a high-pitched Autocrat of the Senior Center, well into his “second childhood.” The sine qua non is the illusion of power in powerlessness, knowledge in ignorance, the entitlement to stir up dinner table tempests that others must endure. Old Baby feels he is at once an invited lecturer, a club president, and a CEO. He is unaware of how little he actually knows, how little he does, how much of the 21st century he fails to understand, since the equivalent of wife and children (Fox News producers, sycophantic guests, makeup artists) take care of the world for him. He is against help for others while somebody wipes his spills. In this, Old Baby encourages the most poisonous kind of retiree politics. He leads our elder Americans to believe that incubating a tiny nest egg in mutual funds (after cashing their Social Security and Medicare checks) makes them laissez-faire capitalists and “job creators,” at war with the welfare state that keeps them out of poverty. Just like real baby, Big Baby — knowing that Mommy gave birth to him — wants to believe he makes his own baby whenever he makes a tiny financial poo. Vive l’empereur — Napoleon in Depends! A week ago, trying to find cable weather, we were reminded of the exquisite weirdness of it all when we came across the spectacle of Dobbs and O’Reilly senilely congratulating each other for knowing the meaning of the dollar word puerile.
It helps to linger here on one of Big Baby’s most specific traits: the compulsion to replay grade school while calling for the abolition of the Department of Education. Big Baby evinces a strange love of easy vocabulary words — first rung on the grammar school ladder of superiority. He likes to feature himself with a blackboard and chalk, “teaching.” He reviles the university professor but worships the first-grade classroom, or at least its Little Tikes replica. Only among Big Babies do calls for immigrant internment camps and barbed wire coexist so naturally with a dropout’s nostalgia for classrooms and school exams he could pass. This chase after blue ribbons that no one can take away (origin, one feels, of anti-immigrant venom: at least Big Baby was born! in this country!) would be touching if the rote lists to be memorized didn’t enshrine nonfacts and counter-expertise: junk science, neutered history, Christmas tales. It’s no surprise that Fox News looks like politics for people who don’t know much. What’s surprising is that so much airtime is given to the simulation of knowledge. Easy Words of the Day, nonsensical diagrams, low bars from which only the ignorant and forgetful can gain confidence — these are the tests that underlie Big Baby’s forged report card.
For some time, the fantasized enemy of Big Baby has been the Nanny State. This is a vision of government as a woman, and not just any woman, but the rule-reminding mother or hired mother substitute, the female restrainer of baby’s desire. Big Baby want cookie! “You’ll have to wait until dinner time.” NOOOOO BIG BABY WANT COOOOOKIE NO DODD-FRANK REGULATION! Contemporary Big Baby conservatism relies on the conceit that there is someone who wants to legislate against trivial and immature pleasures, who doesn’t want you to have fun — a giant Nanny (with Nancy Pelosi’s face) who regulates for regulation’s sake. Again, as with real babies, it’s only the rule standing between Me and cookie that seems real — not the rationale, nor the collective good that could come of mutual restraint. The future can’t be kept in view. Cookie is too big! This is a recipe for stupidity. On the small scale it’s harmless and in fact potentially liberating (let’s remember, the left should be the permanent champion of personal choice — what’s wrong with cookies? nothing is wrong with cookies!), until finance and industry pander to Baby, helping to fabricate the Mrs. Doubtfire bodysuit that gets fastened onto the State to mask its real indifference. Even well-intentioned Michelle Obama, with her carrot snacks and kitchen garden, doesn’t care if you, personally, barbecue with asbestos mittens and refuse to wear your seatbelt. By mixing the critique of bureaucracy with the critique of bedtime, however, contemporary demagogic conservatism has found it possible to attach the anti-regulatory needs of extractive, predatory, and just plain hazardous businesses to a banal desire to celebrate the fun of farts and Slim Jim. Nanny doesn’t want you to smoke fat stinky cigars or eat from the deep fryer? Well, we’ll show her, by exacerbating global warming and kicking the props out from under our 401ks!
Would Nanny State rhetoric be equally effective at getting Americans to shoot themselves in the foot with their assault rifles, metaphorically speaking, without its intense current of misogyny? Hard to say.
Lately, this psychological vagrancy has taken a turn for the worse — from vilifying Nanny and playing dress-up in the bow ties of teacher to, of all things, waging war on actual adult women and their use of contraception. Yet this has a certain pathological logic, too.
All Big Babies know in their hearts that their own confusion and impotence are someone else’s fault. Usually someone who can be feminized — government employees, teachers, African Americans — but often someone genuinely, biologically female. The Nanny is government reimagined in one way, as a frustrating mother (mother who won’t give baby the breast when baby demands, mother who has a life or will of her own, mother who works outside the home — in short, any mother who isn’t baby’s exclusive possession). But the ultimate target for Big Baby’s rage is the Adult Woman.
Anti-contraception is a really good issue for Big Baby, a core issue that reaches deep into Big Baby psychology and passion. That’s because of a certain edge always present in the mother–whore dyad of infantile, and Big Infantile, thinking: the hostility to adult female sexuality and reproduction that comes from ambiguous feelings about Baby’s own arbitrary origins. Big Baby definitely does not like the idea that women might have sex who are not mommies, or for purposes other than mommying. Yet, likewise, it has never really been acceptable to Big Baby that Mommy herself might have sex, even with what the conservative commentator is thought from the outside to be — an adult, heterosexual man, Daddy — or that she did have sex, at least once, to make Baby, while not thinking about Baby at all. It’s true that Big Baby commentators seem to have reached this anti-contraception moment after years of parroting the anti-abortion line — that strange master issue of our age ever since conservative strategists in the 1970s, sensing an incipient scapegoat in the women’s movement for all sorts of woes, had the bright idea of convincing American Protestant Evangelicals that they were actually Catholic, and making women (a third of whom will have an abortion at some time, evangelicals included) into Murderers. But the contraception turn seems different, deeper, and worthy of the widespread intuition that the Republican Party, purged of moderates and sane people, has really opened a new war on women beginning in 2011.
The closest the current conservative mind had been able to come to the idea of an adult woman in her prime was something like “Sexy Mommy,” or the Republican candidate as MILF, whom we saw in 2008 in the elevation of Sarah Palin. This is the woman-as-Mommy whose precise appeal is that, whatever sort of merciless neoliberal destruction she will undertake, she will do it as a mom — never any more competent, independent, or threatening than a hockey mom or a Mama Grizzly — while also being discreetly offered up as a fuck-friendly sex object in a rightist fantasy, conveying the subtle promise, in an atmosphere of male domination, that if Big Baby is good she might tickle his winkie. American party politics should expect many more of these Sexy Mommies in the future, as the blushing fruit of an American complex, abounding to replace the Barbara Bushes and Liddy Doles of the Grand Old Party.
The issue about contraception is of course really an issue about sex, and relies on a causal mistake that’s definitive of child-logic. The Big Baby attack argues that contraception causes sex. Recall what happened when law student Sandra Fluke was allowed to testify before Congress, speaking up for a federal requirement that pharmacy insurance plans cover the Pill. Rush Limbaugh responded:
What does it say about the college coed Susan Fluke [sic], who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex, what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.
This is the kind of thinking you can definitely pick up on the playground. Contraception must not be paid for by insurance, lest adult women have sex. You could draw this idea from Viagra or Cialis, which does seem closer to a cause of sex. With Viagra, you’re wanting to get busy, but nothing can happen without that little blue pill and a glass of water (or Dom Perignon, player!). And of course insurance pays for Viagra, since impotence (an eternally comic, permanently familiar part of the human condition) was successfully rebranded a decade ago as “ED,” erectile dysfunction, a made-up syndrome lobbied for by Pfizer. So, no pills, no sex; no insurance payments, no sex. (O’Reilly: “Viagra comes under the government’s guidelines for a medical condition. Contraception doesn’t.” That is, he’ll appeal to Big Government regulations when his own penis is on the line: But Nanny State said so!)
The conservative baby is unwilling to face the fact that adult women have sex because they are adult women, as a prerogative of adulthood (never mind that the Pill doesn’t work as the act-specific dose Limbaugh seems to imagine). It’s because not every act of sex should end in a baby that the Pill is a steady part of life. In this sense, contraception is an effect, a necessity analogous not to Viagra, but, you could say, to adult diapers, whose existence is an effect of senile incontinence. Maybe it would help Bill O’Reilly to have the issue framed this way.