Somewhere between the end of my spring semester at Penn State on April 29 and the beginning of my month-long guest-teaching gig at Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa (founded over a decade before that Johnny-come-lately Cornell in upstate New York) on May 2, I found some time to speak at this totally awesome conference on the work of Ellen Willis. Just glad to be on the bill, you know. Anyway, here’s a slightly expanded version of what I said that morning. Why slightly expanded? Because I’m including 15 percent more of Ellen Willis’s prose, which makes my remarks 15 percent better. That is why.
Ellen Willis took freedom seriously: “I believe that the struggle for freedom, pleasure, transcendence, is not just an individual matter. The social system that organizes our lives, and as far as possible channels our desire, is antagonistic to that struggle; to change this requires collective effort” (No More Nice Girls 266). And she was deadly serious about pleasure, too: “does it sound like a dirty word to you? No wonder, given how relentlessly it’s been attacked not only by puritanical conservatives but by liberals who uncritically accept the Reaganite equation of pleasure with greed and callousness…. Yet life without pleasure—without spontaneity and playfulness, sexuality and sensuality, esthetic experience, surprise, excitement, ecstasy—is a kind of death” (NMNG 272). It’s probably too much (or too cliché?) to say that her life was saved by rock and roll, but I do think she found in the music the rhythm of a social revolution she could dance to—and I think her willingness to think about freedom and pleasure rigorously served her well throughout her intellectual career.
That’s easy enough to see when you look at her writings on the drug wars of the 1980s, which Willis was right to see not just as an extension of state power and the carceral society in which we are all required to piss on demand, not only as a war on some classes of people who use drugs, but also as a frontal assault on the very idea that an illegal drug could have a beneficial effect on one’s being in the world. (By the mid-80s it was damn near impossible to say such a thing in public, so, of course, she went ahead and said it, more than once.) And it’s easy to see in Willis’s scathing critiques of antiporn feminism and so-called pro-life leftism, as well. But I see it suffusing every aspect of her work at every stage of her career, even in her writings on race, on The Satanic Verses, on “class first” leftism, and on the world after 9/11. It wasn’t just that she had one of the most accurate bullshit detectors known to modern science, as her essay on Woodstock demonstrates:
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. Incredibly, instead of hiding from the wrath of disappointed ticket-buyers and creditors they are bragging that the festival was a landmark in the development of youth culture and have announced that they plan to hold it again next year. But before history is completely re-written, a few facts, semi-facts, and strong inferences are in order….
It was a bit creepy that there was such a total lack of resentment at the Fair’s mismanagement, especially among those who had paid from seven to eighteen dollars. People either made excuses for Woodstock Ventures (“They couldn’t help it, man; it was just too big for them”) or thought of the festival as a noble social experiment to which crass concepts like responsible planning were irrelevant. For the most part, they took for granted not only the discomforts but the tremendous efforts made by the state, the local communities, and unpaid volunteers to distribute cheap or free food and establish minimum standards of health and safety. No one seemed to comprehend what the tasks of mobilizing and transporting emergency food, water, and medical personnel, clearing the roads, and removing garbage meant in terms of labor and money. Ecstatic heads even proclaimed that the festival proved the viability of a new culture in which no one worked and everything was free. And in the aftermath anyone who has dared to complain has been put down as a crank.
Publication date: September 6, 1969. Buy Out of the Vinyl Deeps and read the whole damn thing.
And it wasn’t just that Willis had an addiction, as she once wrote, to being right (so that explains why she was right so often!). It’s also that she always knew that freedom is not a matter of not paying taxes, not a bourgeois illusion, not an optional side dish on the political menu, and certainly not just another word for nothing left to lose.
Sometimes I like to wonder what kind of alternate universe we would be living in if Ellen Willis’s arguments had carried the day in cultural politics. They certainly didn’t prevent the re-writing of history with Woodstock, and I see that pattern repeating itself over the ensuing three decades of her work. I don’t mean to say that her ideas had no influence; but I do think that her battles against antiporn feminism and varieties of left cultural conservatism were Sisyphusian. Here’s the opening of Don’t Think, Smile!, responding to the Gitlin-Tomasky-Rorty left of the 1990s:
When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, a wide assortment of liberals and leftists called for unity around a campaign for economic justice. Since then, as the country has moved steadily rightward, I have heard this call repeated countless times, along with many hopeful announcements of projects designed to put it into practice. Each time the right wins an egregious victory (as in the congressional elections of 1994), dozens of lefty commentators rush into print with some version of this proposal as if it were a daring new idea…. You would think that if economic majoritarianism were really a winning strategy, sometime in the past eighteen years it would have caught on, at least a little. Why has it had no effect whatsoever? Are people stupid, or what? (ix)
Sure enough, the same damn argument got trotted out again in 2004, in Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, and though Willis’s response to Frank was brilliant, I have to imagine she wrote it with a sense of profound exasperation. But in “Escape from Freedom,” she not only repeated her critique of economic majoritarianism; she restated her conviction that for some figures on the left—the most egregious offender is Christopher Lasch, but I find similar motifs cropping up in the work of George Scialabba and Robert McChesney—the critique of capitalism comes wrapped in a nostalgia for an old order:
another left rationale for rejecting cultural politics is rooted in the historical connection of cultural movements to the marketplace. The rise of capitalism, which undermined the authority of the patriarchal family and church, put widespread cultural revolt in the realm of possibility. Wage labor allowed women and young people to find a means of support outside the home. Urbanization allowed people the freedom of social anonymity. The shift from production- to consumption-oriented capitalism and the spread of mass media encouraged cultural permissiveness, since the primary technique of marketing as well as the most salient attraction of mass art is their appeal to the desire for individual autonomy and specifically to erotic fantasy.
Left cultural conservatives have argued that feminism and cultural radicalism, in weakening traditional institutions like the family, have merely contributed to the market’s hegemony over all spheres of life…. [T]his mindset puts a progressive political gloss on what is really a form of puritanism, offended by the fleshpots of the market, not just the profits. What it ignores, or denies—as Marx never did—is the paradoxical nature of capitalism. In destroying the old patriarchal order, in making all that was solid melt into air, in fomenting constant dynamism and change, capital made space for the revolutionary ideas that would challenge its own authority. In letting loose the genie of desire in the service of profit, consumer culture unleashes forces that can’t reliably be controlled. (17-18)
As I noted in The Left At War, this lines up rather nicely with Stuart Hall’s work:
Consumer capitalism works by working the markets; but it cannot entirely determine what alternative uses people are able to make of the diversity of choices and the real advances in mass production which it also always brings. If “people’s capitalism” did not liberate the people, it nevertheless “loosed” many individuals into a life somewhat less constrained, less puritanically regulated, less strictly imposed than it had been three or four decades before. Of course the market has not remained buoyant and expansive in this manner. But the contradictory capacity, for a time, of the system to pioneer expansion, to drive and develop new products and maximize new choices, while at the same time creaming off its profit margins, was seriously underestimated. Thus the left has never understood the capacity of the market to become identified in the minds of the mass of ordinary people, not as fair and decent and socially responsible (that it never was), but as an expansive popular system. (Hard Road to Renewal 215)
As Willis put it a bit more viscerally in the introduction to Beginning to See the Light (1981),
By continually pushing the message that we have the right to gratification now, consumerism at its most expansive encouraged a demand for fulfillment that could not so easily be contained by products; it had a way of spilling over into rebellion against the constricting conditions of our lives. The history of the sixties strongly suggests that the impulse to buy a new car and tool down the freeway with the radio blasting rock-and-roll is not unconnected to the impulse to fuck outside marriage, get high, stand up to men or white people or bosses, join dissident movements.
Had these arguments won the degree of assent they deserved on the left, we would conceivably have been spared three decades of progressives pitting cultural politics against “real” politics—just as if Willis’s arguments about sexuality had determined the course of feminism in the 70s and 80s, the movement would have been spared a disastrous detour from the defense of reproductive freedom to the campaign against smut, and the English-speaking world would have been spared one decade of anti-antiporn backlash in which “liberal” thinkers and publications actually took Camille Paglia seriously.
But Ellen Willis’s work was never a simple matter of taking sides. Even in her critique of the antiporn wing, she did not flinch from turning a critical eye to the sex-positive wing, as when she asked of Pat Califia, “does the need to act out fantasies of debasing oneself or someone else really require no further elaboration? Does it have nothing to do with buried emotions of rage or self-hatred? Nothing to do with living in a hierarchical society where one is ‘superior’ to some people and ‘inferior’ to others, where men rule and women serve?” (NMNG 11) Likewise, in her fearless 1982 essay, “Sisters Under the Skin? Confronting Race and Sex,” she did not hesitate to temper her admiration for bell hooks’ Ain’t I A Woman with an insistence that hooks had gotten a great deal wrong about the feminist trajectories of the previous 15 years; and she concluded by more or less predicting what the worst forms of “identity politics” would look like over the next 15 years. Taking her distance from the notion that it is somehow useful to enumerate a hierarchy of oppressions, Willis wrote,
this kind of ranking does not lead to a politics of genuine liberation, based on mutual respect and cooperation among oppressed groups, but instead provokes a politics of ressentiment, competition, and guilt. Black men tend to react not by recognizing the sexual oppression of black women but by rationalizing their antifeminism as a legitimate response to white women’s privilege. White women who are sensitive to the imputation of racism tend to become hesitant and apologetic about asserting feminist grievances. As for white women who can’t see beyond their own immediate interests, attempts to demote them from the ranks of the oppressed do nothing but make them feel unjustly attacked and confirmed in their belief that racial and sexual equality are separate, competing causes. The ultimate results are to reinforce left antifeminism, weaken feminist militance, widen the split between the black and feminist movements, and play into the divide and conquer tactics of white men…. Insistence on a hierarchy of oppression never radicalizes people, because the impulse behind it is moralistic. Its object is to get the “lesser victims” to stop being selfish, to agree that their own pain (however deeply they may feel it) is less serious and less deserving of attention (including their own) than someone else’s. Its appeal is that it allows people at the bottom of social hierarchies to turn the tables and rule over a moral hierarchy of suffering and powerlessness. But whatever the emotional comfort of righteousness, it’s a poor substitute for real change. (NMNG 115-16).
I have the very strong feeling that Willis would take a similarly dim view of people who think they are advancing the cause of justice and equality by festooning the comment sections of feminist blogs with demands that everyone own their privilege.
And in the matter of Salman Rushdie, Willis took pains to point out that “the argument that people have a right to have their religious beliefs ‘respected,’ i.e., not challenged in any way … is claimed only for the absolutists, who are presumed to be incapable of tolerating, let alone respecting, heretical views. The champions of authoritarian, patriarchal religions offend my most cherished beliefs every time they open their mouths, yet I don’t hear anyone agonizing about my hurt feelings” (NMNG 231). At the same time, though, she did not summarily dismiss Rushdie’s critics on the left: “there’s some substance to the claim that the fervor in support of Rushdie contains an element of Western chauvinism, raising the specter of a monolithic mass of Oriental barbarians beleaguering us enlightened folks. But the remedy is not to apologize for Rushdie’s book, or qualify the protests. It’s to keep emphasizing that the struggle against our own brand of fundamentalism is far from won—ask any American librarian, science teacher, or abortion clinic head—and that the virulence of Khomeini’s atttack on Rushdie reflects, among other things, conflict between fundamentalists and modernists within the Moslem world” (NMNG 233). The resonance of this argument for the world after 9/11 should be obvious—for the events of that day did not convince Ellen to moderate her critique of religious fundamentalism abroad or at home, just as she was not persuaded to stop caring about the status of women living in fundamentalist societies simply because Laura Bush spoke of it.
I want to close, though, with another passage from the 80s that continues to make claims on our attention today. It’s from the essay “Exile on Main Street: What the Pollard Case Means to Jews,” and in it Willis pursues a difficult argument all down the line:
[F]ear has induced most Israelis to support a government that equates survival with military power and no territorial concessions; and this government’s policies, along with the right-wing chauvinist ideology that rationalizes them, are undermining Israel’s reason for being—to alleviate the oppression of Jews.
Zionism as a philosophy, even in its leftist versions, doesn’t appeal to me. I’ve never envisioned sovereignty over a piece of land as a solution to anti-Semitism, a negation of the Diaspora, a necessary focus of Jewish identity and culture, or the basis for building a socialist utopia. I see nationalism of all sorts, including national liberation movements, as problematic—an understatement when applied to the Middle East. Yet I support the existence of Israel because Zionism is, among other things, a strategy forced on Jews by a particular historical situation. What it comes down to is that Israel has given Jews something whose lack cost millions of lives: a place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.
These days, however, the Israeli government seems to believe that, far from the state’s existing to insure the survival of Jews, Jews exist to insure the survival of the state. Its resentment of Jews who choose to live elsewhere took a grotesque form when, around the time the Pollard case was approaching its denouement, Yitzhak Shamir demanded that the U.S. deny Soviet Jews special refugee status, thereby forcing them to go to Israel. Though Soviet Jews can get exit visas only by claiming they want to join relatives in Israel, most emigrants have chosen to come here. In the interests of a “strong Israel,” Shamir wants to change that, and freedom for Jews be damned. Apparently, unsatisfied with maintaining Israeli rule over unwilling Palestinians, he’s after a captive population of Jews as well. Let my people go, indeed! (NMNG 215-16)
It is stunning, I think, that the woman who wrote those words 24 years ago could have been dismissed, on one wing of the left, as having “an unfortunate Zionist streak.” But so it goes. Ellen Willis was simply so much smarter and so much braver than most of her critics. What would the world be like today if her work were central to it? I know it would be a better, more pleasurable place—and I think the left would have a richer and more challenging rhetoric of freedom.