In her new book Don't Think, Smile!: Notes on a Decade of Denial (Beacon Press, 196 pages, $25), Ellen Willis casts a jaundiced eye back on the 1990s from her perspective as a longtime feminist, leftist and self-described "cultural radical." A veteran of the original New Left and antiwar movements in the 60s?and, arguably, the first important female rock critic?she seems just as dismayed by the failures of today's left (where her arguments for a politics of personal liberation and pleasure go against the current groupthink anti-fun mode)
as she is with the rise of the right. Don't Think, Smile! is her third collection of essays (Beginning to See the Light came out in 1981, No More Nice Girls in 1993).
Give us the short bio.
I was born in the Bronx, raised in Queens, went to Barnard, went to California?tentatively to go to graduate school at Berkeley but was not really interested in graduate school so I dropped out after a year. Eventually winded my way back to New York in the early 60s, lived in the East Village, started freelancing. My first sort of serious, long critical essay was published in Commentary, a piece that I wrote on Bob Dylan. It was 1967. Then I worked for Cheetah, a short-lived youth culture magazine, and wound up writing a column on pop music for The New Yorker.
When was that?
That was 1968, and that continued sporadically until 1975. But during that period I also did a lot of other things. In 1969 I moved to Colorado. I was working on an antiwar project out there. And of course I became very active in the women's liberation movement, so started writing a lot about feminist issues. I came back to New York in the early 70s and started a book review section for Ms. for a while. Then in the late 70s I had a column in Rolling Stone for a while on social issues, feminist issues. I never got more hate mail in my life. (laughs) I had done some freelancing for the Voice, but I actually started writing for the Voice as a columnist and a staff writer in 1979, and then became an editor there in 1983, and was there until 1990, when I quit and went to NYU. And I'm on the journalism faculty at NYU. I run a concentration in the graduate program in cultural reporting and criticism.
Why did you leave the Voice?
I left the Voice basically because the editor-in-chief at the time was corporatizing the paper and making it extremely boring.
Who was that?
It was Jon Larsen. I thought he was anti-intellectual. We had a lot of personal conflict which basically had to do with conflicting sensibilities, and I think it was a larger issue than just me. I mean, the Voice was a place where people had a lot of autonomy over their jobs. That was one of the things that made it a really vital place, that the writers and editors pretty much had autonomy over their own projects. The editor-in-chief was in charge of the whole paper, but would rarely butt in and micromanage what the editors and writers were doing. And Jon?I think this did not come from him alone?there was an impulse in management to rationalize the paper more. The staff was out of control, they felt. And if I couldn't have autonomy over my job and over my own projects, then it wasn't fun anymore. So I left.
What were you editing?
Mostly I was editing feature pieces on cultural and social issues, like Donna Gaines' pieces on youth culture and the suburbs. And one of the things I am very proud of was that I got Debbie Nathan started on her exposés of the ritual sexual abuse trials.
What do you think of the Voice today?
Well, it's not that I want to write an ad for you guys, but I think that the Voice has been a really important institution, and I still have a lot of warm feelings for the Voice, because I feel like it was a place where I was really able to develop my writer's voice, to an extent that I couldn't any place else. But I do think that the era where it was important is basically over. Not that it doesn't publish some good things, but it's become just a very ordinary publication. The world is full of alternative papers now that were modeled on the original Voice, but only have the appearance of taking risks and doing things the Voice used to do. The irony is now that the Voice is imitating its imitations.
Let's talk about the book. I hold the belief that what happened to the New Left is that some point in the 70s the "revolutionaries" scared themselves?between Weathermen blowing themselves up, Kent State, the violence among the Panthers, etc.?and then the end of the Vietnam War took the New Left's major reason for being anyway. So the radicals retreated back to the campus and became the ineffectual, marginalized campus-leftists of today, arguing increasingly minute points of identity politics among themselves, completely outside real-world concerns.
You say no, that social change always starts with radical outsiders and then it moves toward the center, so that what were once very radical ideas eventually become mainstream. So radicals have always been marginal. In the book you have that happening with the radical left, while I think it also happens from the far right, that in the 80s and 90s what were once completely whack conspiracy theories and nutcase libertarian ideas on both the left and the right move into the mainstream and become Reaganomics, Clintonism and so forth. Am I getting you right?
Well, I wouldn't characterize it entirely as "nutcase." I do think that there are some really good ideas that start out as minority ideas, like that black people are equal to white people and so on and so forth. I think that radical change, social change, always does start with minorities who are willing to stick up for their beliefs. I think there were all different strands of the New Left in the 60s, and the strand that I identified with was a cultural radical strand that you saw in the women's movement, where people were actually talking about the quality of their own lives, and what ways bureaucratic and hierarchical institutions were crushing their spirit. The criticism of sexual morality, the criticism of bureaucracy in the university, and so on. I think there was also a competing strain in the left which was moralist and altruistic, which is "We are doing this for people less fortunate than ourselves," which I always think is never a good basis for radicalism. The main impulse in that is to feel morally superior. Real change happens when you recognize your commonality with other people. When you start to be in touch with your own desires and what you want, that can be projected on the social, collective level?when you start to make a critique based on your own discontent. Which certainly doesn't mean that you are supposed to be insensitive to how other people are being suppressed, but finally radical movements come out of people organizing themselves and people making other groups organize themselves.
What happened in the late 60s was that the feminist movement starting organizing itself, which was really an outgrowth of that cultural radical and particularly a libertarian stream. The idea that freedom was a core issue?not only equality, but freedom. I think a lot of men on the left simply freaked out about feminism?if this is what being a cultural radical meant, they couldn't deal with it at all. Part of the reason that the left went off the deep end in the late 60s was not only frustration at not being able to end the war, which I think was a big part of it, but because feminism was challenging all of their suppositions and they just didn't know what to do about it. I think black nationalism too played a part in this, but among the men with whom I was most in touch, it was feminism. Feminism was affecting the ways they thought about things and affected their most personal relationships in their own lives and they simply couldn't deal with it.
Then I think what happened in the 70s was that, first of all, men, who would come out of this background and sort of themselves be very deeply wounded by these culture wars, became quite socially conservative. Whereas on the other hand the feminist movement, the black movement, the gay movement, went from the radical understanding that in order to change anything you have to make your own voice heard and break the monopoly, in the case of feminism, of men telling women what they were, who they should be, what they should be doing. Demanding to be included in that conversation, women went from that to what I think is the fallacy of identify politics, which is that only women can speak about women's problems, and that feminism, which is really about a universalist movement for freedom and equality, is really the property of the group. You know, working class women challenging middle class women to speak, challenging black women to speak?a lot of the debate on social issues became who had the right to speak about what, who was more oppressed than whom and so on. Again, instead of being a political movement aimed at challenging the structures of society, an awful lot of energy got displaced on being a moral movement aimed at improving woman's character. It became a question of morality instead of a question of politics.
And so now what I see in a lot of the left is an argument by socially conservative men, who are using the mistakes of identity politics to try and discredit cultural politics all together. One of my arguments is that cultural radicalism actually has a critique of identity politics?you know, cultural radicalism is really about putting freedom and pleasure right at the center of one's political goals.
But that is hardly where the movement seems to be now. You seem a lonely voice to me. Most radical feminism is full of separatist lesbian one-legged women of color, one-upping others. It's certainly not what I would consider liberating. It's very rules-oriented, limiting behavior, policing behavior.
I think you would be surprised at how many people there are who actually disagree with those politics, but at the moment there's no real organized expression of it.
Except that the mainstream and the right reject it. I think in general America rejects it, and that's why it has become very marginalized. You say somewhere in the book that the right marginalized the movement, and I think the movement marginalized itself when it became a lesbian separatist one-legged movement.
No, but this did not happen in a vacuum. It's part of my whole analysis of this whole development that when there started to be a major conservative fight back, around the middle of the 70s, this was when feminism changed. For instance, I think the dominant attitude in feminism before that had been, on sexual matters, more libertarian?although there was always this tension, there was always this fight among feminists about whether sexual freedom was good for women or just a male plot to oppress women. And of course this idea that sexual freedom is a male plot is not just a crackpot idea. I think it comes from a lot of women in the sexual culture that it exists. Men do use sex to oppress women. But the libertarian view had a whole analysis of that, which basically puts it in the context of the repression of women's sexuality, and the ways in which sexual violence and sexual oppression are used to reinforce women's lack of freedom. So you can't separate it out, you have to change the whole sexual culture.
Ultimately, the bottom line is that we have an antisexual culture in the United States. That's what creates predatory sexuality and sexual violence. The libertarian view presupposed that social change is going to continue to happen, women are really going to be able to move toward equality, the right is really going to change. And around the mid-70s, after all the progress that women had made, people sort of felt that they were coming up against a stone wall. There was a backlash and so on, and I think a lot of women got very pessimistic and despairing. That had a lot to do with the kind of circling-the-wagons [mentality] that developed, and the hardening. Group politics is always defensive. it's like, "We have to have unity against the enemy out there."
So I don't think you can separate any of that from the rise of the right. I also think that social conservatism on the left and in the feminist movement?and by that I mean feminists who started to say, "We have to be more pro-family, we have to stop criticizing the family so much, abortion is terrible, I think it should be legal but it's terrible"?this was also a response to a powerful conservative trend in the society, which was not only making people more fearful about rebelling, but was tapping the conservative impulses in them. Because I do think that everybody, and I would include myself in this, we have a deep ambivalence about freedom. Conservatism is basically saying freedom is a disaster, freedom is only going to lead to anarchy and rapine and lust, we can't have a functioning society if we have freedom. I think that's something that is deeply rooted in everybody's upbringing. You know, my father was a policeman. I feel like I have a lot of my father in me. There are plenty of times when I woke up at three in the morning and thought perhaps my radicalism is crazy.
Clearly the left is just as repressive of personal freedoms as the right. They target different freedoms to repress, but I think both sides, when they have the power to repress, are pretty quick to repress.
Yeah, I think, unfortunately, in some ways the left has been even less interested in freedom than the right, which is what really depresses me. I think that the right, or certain sections of the right, appeal to a view of freedom that I disagree with, that I think encourages as freedom the right to bash other people upside the head, whether that's economically or through racial invective, and provides an outlet for people's impulses that I think ultimately is not socially productive. However, at least it does have freedom as a priority. And I feel that for a lot of the left, freedom is not really a priority. They can't see that freedom means equality for social groups. My conception of equality is that the kind of equality we really need is an equality of freedom, in the sense of people having genuinely equal opportunity to participate in, as the old language would have it, helping to make the decisions that govern their lives. And, paradoxically, to get that kind of freedom is a collective effort, because one has to negotiate what is freedom and what is license. Where does my freedom end and yours begin? I think you can only negotiate those if you feel that freedom is a good idea.
There is an argument that 60s people take a lot of credit for things that they might have helped along, but that they shouldn't actually take credit for. Like the notion that we ended the war in Vietnam by marching in Washington, when in fact that had little if anything to do with ending the war. I think someone named Ho Chi Minh gets to claim at least some of that credit. This has been raised in terms of the women's movement and feminism as well?that 60s feminists like to think that they made a lot of huge changes that in fact date back to the suffragists, and that a lot of what changed for women in the 20th century changed because of larger economic and social changes?more women entering the workplace in the 1920s and again during WW II, giving them an autonomy they hadn't had before, so men didn't have as much chance to say, "Get in the kitchen and do the dishes," because Rosie the Riveter would hit them upside the head.
I would certainly agree with you there. I think it's a whole process by which feminism itself in the 19th century was an extension of democracy?you know, "Hey, the Enlightenment should apply to me too!" Feminism also always thrives more at a time when there is a general expansion of freedom, when there are general challenges to authority. Sixties feminism certainly had an awful lot to build on...
I think the distinctive contribution of 60s feminism?and this could only have been done because women had much more economic opportunity, because birth control was widely available and a lot of things that had not been the case for earlier feminists?was to tackle very directly the issue of male/female relations in everyday life, and to make a critique of those situations, to argue against the view that women were fundamentally a resource that was here for the benefit of men and children, and to argue for women's self-determination in their personal and sexual relationships. Everything from equality in housework and child-rearing to equality in having our emotional needs considered, instead of always being the emotional support system.
I think the tragedy of what happened to feminism at a certain point?and again I see the turning point as the mid-70s, with the backlash?was that there was a critique of heterosexuality, which was originally aimed at changing the conditions of male-female relations in general, but then the dominant voice in radical feminism became "Heterosexuality and men are hopeless, and we just have to get out of there." I think that was a disaster.
But another myth about feminism that I've found repeated a lot is that liberals made all the [pragmatic, political and social] changes, and radical feminists were separatist, marginal and didn't have much to do with it. And that wasn't really true. It was radical feminists, really radical feminists, that pressed all these issues of reforming personal relationships between men and women. They were the lead in the abortion rights fight. It was radical feminism that really put all these issues on the table. And when radical feminism devolved, and when the separatist faction of radical feminism became the dominant factor, then these issues went out of the public conversation, because liberal feminists were never all that interested in taking them up. I mean they did so under pressure from radicals. But in the beginning Betty Friedan always said, and has continued to say, "It's the economy, stupid. We are about equal equality for women in the workplace." Which is certainly important. But I think it was a major accomplishment?certainly it changed my life, and I can see the results of it in my daughter's life, who in high school just takes for granted a certain sense of entitlement and assertiveness in her relationship with guys that I like never would have dreamed of?that we challenged a whole common sense of what men's relationship to women should be that was simply taken for granted. Now, whatever else you say about it, it is not taken for granted, it's a public question. It's a matter of debate.
What about the Helen Fisher/Lionel Tiger argument that in fact things have changed so radically and are continuing to change so radically that in the next century women will dominate? That the next century is the century for women, and that all the major changes in economics and in the corporate structure of the world will make innately feminine qualities the more valued, while males become the vestigial organs of the society, lying about watching I Love Lucy Show reruns while women run this new feminized, horizontally organized world.
Well I have a lot of trouble with the idea of "innate feminine" and "innate masculine." I mean, on the most basic level I am sort of an agnostic about what biological differences there may be between the sexes, beyond the obvious ones. In the real world, the claim that certain qualities are innately feminine or masculine has always been blatantly used for certain kinds of political purposes. And in the second place, have always proved to be false. Women having jobs will not destroy women's child-bearing capacity, and women are as smart as men, and so on and so forth. So I wouldn't place to much credence in those... (laughs) I think whatever qualities are necessary to run the world of the future, whether on a corporate basis or not, there will always be all these tasks that need to be done to keep the enterprise going, and people of both sexes are flexible enough to develop them. The question of who runs things is a political question. And that has to do with our ideas about power. And if you're a democrat, small d, what's important again is sort of that everybody's need to participate in society on behalf of their own needs. To cooperate with other people is a sexless thing. It doesn't have to do with gender, it has to do with human enterprise.
You make the point, regarding the whole Monica thing, that there is a difference between sexual privacy and sexual secrecy. Can you elaborate on that?
To me, genuine sexual privacy comes out of the idea that sexual relations?individual, consentual sexual relations?are a personal matter that society does not and should not police. If one really had respect for people's privacy on that basis, you wouldn't even need to have sexual secrecy. I quote Orson Bean, who once made the comparison that if you had people who had grown up in a society where eating was a shameful act, they might grow up to be rebels and break that taboo, but they would never be able to understand Americans' nonchalance at eating in a restaurant in public. It's obvious that if people genuinely believed that sex was a personal, individual matter, they would not be so pruriently interested in other people's sex lives. You could have sex in Central Park and nobody would pay any attention to you, because who cares, right?
Whereas sexual secrecy is fundamentally based on shame, and the idea, which is quite realistic, that you always have to protect yourself against people's prurience about what you are doing. You have to maintain a facade not only of sexual morality, that you are conforming to the moral precepts of your community, but also of sexual dignity. So in a society where sex is considered kind of undignified, infantile and shameful, there is always this terrible feeling of exposure of one's sexual activities...
The way I began this discussion was, I had basically been arguing that Clinton could have done wonders for both himself and for the American socialsexual atmosphere if he had simply said, in the beginning, on 60 Minutes, "Yes, I had an affair with Gennifer Flowers, so what?" And if Hillary had said, "Look, this is our business, not your business, so butt out." Then everybody would have been better off. A lot of liberals were saying, "No, no, no, our sex lives are none of anybody's business, therefore it's perfectly all right to lie about it." But what I am saying is that to defend the right to do as one pleases and not have this be a public issue is a challenge to conservative sexual mores, whereas simply lying about it and trying to keep your activities secret is ultimately a defense of the status quo.
I thought what was very interesting was when the press changed the minute that Clinton actually admitted what he had done. First he is lying, and everybody basically knows he is lying, and all these reporters say he should come clean so that we can move on. But as soon as he did admit what he had done, grudging as it was, the press started to holler for his head, and their excuse was he wasn't honest enough, he wasn't apologetic, he wasn't this, he wasn't that. But I think the real reason was that secrecy is one way of controlling or maintaining public lip service to a certain kind of morality. If people keep their transgressions secret, then the official morality can just go on as it is, pretending that these transgressions are a form of exceptional deviance. But if people all start admitting what they are doing, then the emperor has no clothes. So as soon as Bill Clinton admitted what he was doing, I think there was the impulse of that in order to maintain these morals we now have to punish him.
But two people having sex in Central Park?isn't there a difference between that and a president of the United States getting a blowjob in the Oval Office?
I think it's tacky, but I don't think you impeach the President for being tacky. I completely reject the idea that this was any kind of sexual harassment or abuse. I think that's completely insulting to think that a 21-year-old woman doesn't know what she is doing. The whole idea that relationships between older, more powerful men and younger, less powerful women are inherently to be considered nonconsensual I think is wrong. So I think what Clinton was basically indulging in was bad taste.
It didn't signal for you, as it did for many people, some deep character flaws?
I think his deep character flaws have been eminently shown in his public policies. One does not have to delve into his sex life for this.
As a self-identified radical, what stake do you have in presidential elections today? Do you care, for instance, if it's Gore or Bradley running for the Democrats?
Sigh! (laughs) I guess Bradley is marginally better, although his proposal to abolish Medicaid certainly doesn't thrill me at all. No, I think the state of electoral politics in the U.S. is extremely depressing for somebody like me. There are very narrow lines of debate and seemingly no opportunity for somebody with genuinely different ideas to have a major voice. The Reform Party has become basically a joke, not that I ever agreed with Perot's politics or the Reform Party's politics in the first place, but at this point they seem to have no politics at all.
It strikes me that this is where "cultural radicalism" is particularly impotent. That arguing about cultural politics on the campus can do nothing to change mainstream, real-world politics.
I think what happens in mainstream electoral politics is the result of social movements. Today's mainstream politics, as you yourself have remarked, is very much a function of the conservative movement, which was a grassroots social movement that assiduously promoted certain kinds of ideas and got support for them. In that sense I think the right has been exemplary. One of my big complaints about the left has been that they don't support ideas. They don't understand the importance of ideas the way the right understands them. Granted the right has a lot more money and all kinds of corporate support that the left does not have access too, but even those leftist individuals and foundations who do have money are refusing to spend it on subsidizing books and think tanks and journals, all the things you need to change the climate of ideas. Ultimately the future of politics depends upon how many people get disgusted and rebel against the current state of affairs.