Ellen Willis Is Essential

Ellen Willis, 1977 Ellen Willis, 1977

A bout a year ago there was a very dismissive review written by Lisa Levy published in the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB) of the essay collection The Essential Ellen Willis (“Irritated Critics“) . Ellen Wills is a wonderful writer who will teach you so much–especially if you’ve never heard of her; especially if you are young; especially if you are a woman; especially if you are a man. She is a social critic who readily critiques her own perspective. That’s one attraction of this collection is that you see Willis re-thinking, re-stating, adjusting for her own errors and misunderstandings (and copping to them!). I commented on this review and tried to take the author to task. I bring it up here because the review stands as an authoritative slap at the book, its author and editor, and even though I commented and hopefully “balanced” this situation with a slap back, I have to concede that my comment does not really count against the reviewer’s public position of respect. Which is to say this dismissive review stands and will continue to come up in Google Searches.

This is my comment.

UPDATE BELOW: This review is odd, frustrating, and dismissive–shallow perhaps. The author seems to want to praise Willis and yet for the most part disparages her and her daughter, the editor of this selection. Willis is disparaged as “strident” and somewhat one-note: “40 years of her dilating” on the same issues; the daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz, is disparaged for not offering everything and/or needing to offer less, and for not offering a life-chronology. I will admit to wanting a life-chronology also, but Levy also complains that blending Village Voice pieces with Social Text pieces is confusing–rather she assumes that a reader won’t know the contextual difference between the two. This is surely not true and seems an insult to readers. I found the Social Text pieces fascinating for their insight as historical review from a person in the midst of living it. And they seem to me to provide an excellent anchor to the occasional pieces, making them into much more than “piece work” but a constant conversation with the cultural moment. What this book makes clear to this reader is that there WAS a moment when this country had possibilities–breathed radical change into its lungs–only to lose them in the crucible of Right Wing backlash, and that this is the world we inhabit. And yes, the book does offer a frustration we must all feel, even those of us reading Ellen Willis as history, when we encounter texts from the 50s and 60s that show that the promise of the country was perhaps true, only to remember we are living in times that are demonstrably worse in terms of equality and social justice (look at police murders of black citizens, infant mortality rates, prison populations, etc.). In the essay, “Abortion: Is a Woman a Person?” Willis writes, “In 1979 it is depressing to have to insist that sex is not an unnecessary, morally dubious self-indulgence but a basic human need, no less for women than for men.” All you need to do is replace the date. The rest of what Willis writes is equally current. As Levy notes, the Tom Wolfe piece is a wonderful praise and takedown at the same time–deftly detailing how Wolfe’s strengths are entirely contextual and that his work is expose’ and that expose’ has intention (and thus, ideology) motivating it–animus against the subject. His is a conservative pen; but she turns to another Tom to show us the other side of that same coin–Tomas Frank and his “What’s the Matter with Kansas” analysis is equally motivated by a perspective of political privilege that is “center-right” (and white) at best.

Ultimately, this is a book that makes me sad. Ellen Willis, does frequently hit the same notes, but it’s necessary to repeat, over the decades, that the Right is consistent and coherent–it is the politics of Power and White Male Supremacy–and any appeal to “good” and “bad” people/acts/movements is an appeal based in hierarchical dominance (Tradition). Willis’s Radical Feminism is about challenging this social dominance; but it’s also about challenging all positions of privilege, including her own. The “left” is never “liberal” enough simply because the people with world enough and time to organize against particular oppressions are often too white and are fearful of losing their own privileges. This is why “revolutionaries” make their cozy homes in the Academy; and it’s why the Academy is being destroyed now. The Right is relentlessly aggressive and the left is irremediably frightened. Anyone radically oppressed KNOWS how radical that oppression is–it makes police killings of black Americans normal; anyone who is aware of this radical violence BUT not party to the violence, simply does not want to be subject to the same violence. Thus, the Weather Underground becomes Professor Above-ground and goes on Democracy Now! to talk about constitutional violations. [see her brief piece on Marcuse--not collected here--for a very concrete explanation of the liberal's contextual fears.]

Willis writes out of this “middle ground” fear and knows the failure of liberal politics. The Left likes coffee that costs 5 dollars while making political arguments against worker exploitation. Which is to say, the left is comfortable. That makes for collusion not revolution. This book tells that story from the inside. It is a very valuable lesson especially 40 years beyond the first and last glimmers of hope for change.

UPDATE: I pulled Willis’s collection Beginning to See the Light off the shelf immediately after writing this and discovered that she had imagined Lisa Levy’s dismissal. Levy writes above of “Essential”: “At its worst, it is monotonous and overwhelming, all width and no depth: Willis is that person who keeps yammering about politics at a dinner party when the subject has been politely changed to restaurants.” In “Glossary for the Eighties” (this is a “devil’s dictionary”) there is this entry, “Ideological Fanatic: a compulsive purveyor of an ideology [to really follow the sarcasm here you'd need the previous entries, for ideology, bias and dogma]. In particular, one who can’t resist bringing up pet dogmas at awkward or inappropriate moments, such as during a sensible discussion of more important issues or at a social gathering where someone has unwittingly offended the fanatic’s beliefs (see SUPERSENSITIVE, below). The term is often applied to women who drag feminism into everything, as when they make a fuss because some terrific populist politician thinks abortion is murder. Also used of people who make themselves into terrible bores by repeatedly criticizing the same social evil, simply because nothing has been done about it.”

There you have it. Lisa Levy is an 80s-era Reaganite critic who is just too tired of all this!

For more of my thoughts on Ellen Wills you can check out this podcast of my interview with Willis’s daughter, and the editor of The Essential Ellen Wills, Nona Willis Aronowitz: Interchange – What Makes Us Vulnerable: The Essential Ellen Willis

And tomorrow night (8/4/15) I will chat with Jen Maher about some specific essays by Willis on Interchange.

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Strangely, as I am writing this my youngest child is watching an episode of “30 Rock” about Valentine’s Day. “Liz Lemon” (Tina Fey, who is apparently a “feminist” by media standards) is asked to buy heart-shaped cookies by a colleague’s daughter. Liz goes into a rant about the made-up holiday and her own failed relationships, and at the end of this characteristic “roaring” of her self-reliance (which is of course not true of Liz Lemon) she proclaims that instead of Valentine’s she celebrates “Anna Howard Shaw Day” (a suffragist). As I have no idea who that is, I looked her up and found that this episode has an entire entry on Wikipedia! But after that I found Shaw: “Anna Howard Shaw (February 14, 1847 – July 2, 1919) was a leader of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States. She was also a physician and one of the first ordained female Methodist ministers in the United States.” Pete, the colleague, is rolling his eyes and acting impatient and he eventually drags away his confused daughter (who is also making a distasteful face). Truly, the show has taught me something–but I’m afraid Liz is NOT Tina Fey and her character is made pathetic. Does anyone watching “30 Rock” look up it’s references? The episode’s Wikipedia page does link to Shaw at least!

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Douglas Storm is a host and producer for Interchange on Bloomington, Indiana's community radio station WFHB. "Why then do you try to 'enlarge' your mind? Subtilize it..."

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