The Essential Ellen Willis

A collection of Ellen Willis’ writings, curated by her daughter to show the breadth of Willis’ interests, to pull her out of the label of music critic to a broader social critic. Broken into sections for each decade, you’re continually bowled over, pick yourself up, and bowled over again. She eviscerates politics and culture, slamming the left for its weak-kneed capitulation over the last 40+ years. By the time I reached the 90s and 2000s chapters, I could barely keep reading, having to be reminded all over again of things I witnessed like the Lewinsky/Starr/Tripp entrapment, OJ Simpson verdict, the rush to war post 9-11. She captures the decline of journalism, specifically in Village Voice’s office but echoed throughout the country. Not having been alive or thinking during much of these decades, I learned about the 1975 bankrupcy of New York City and Jimmy Carter’s anti-feminist stance among psychological dissections of an evolving culture. Her defense of daytime talk shows as the only means available for the underclass to have their voice heard. Having lived during the heyday of the 1960s, she is well placed to give us a full lament of what has been lost. You better believe that I dog-eared a caboodle of pages. Emphasis in the below is mine.
From Up from Radicalism, published in 1969 in US Magazine:

1968, November… New women keep coming in, women who are just discovering their oppression… For a while I feel that now I understand and love all other women. It’s a great high until I realize that it’s mostly a defense against the fear and antagonism of a lifetime, a compound of superiority (“Oh, I’d rather be friends with men, they’re much more stimulating!” Translation: I’m not like them, I’ve made it out of the ghetto) and sexual competitiveness. Revise: I’m starting to be interested in other women. To feel warmth and sympathy. To recognize a new loyalty. To realize other women are not the enemy. To understand as a gut reality the phenomenon of rulers setting the ruled against each other.
1969, April: consciousness-raising has one terrible result. It makes you more conscious. I can’t walk in the street anymore. I used to be fairly oblivious to the barrage of comments from men on my anatomy and what they’d like to do with it. I didn’t even realize that I generally stare straight ahead because if I catch the wrong man’s eye he’ll think I’m encouraging him… most men who ogle us on the street, especially the ones who feel the need to say something, or even touch, aren’t digging us. They’re showing hatred and contempt… Think of a Black man in a southern town. A white man makes a jocular, insulting comment and he can’t answer back. A white woman passes and he knows he’d better point his eyes elsewhere. Straight ahead, and stay out of trouble. That’s powerlessness…. I stop to buy a hot dog and the counterman talks baby talk to me… calls me “dear” (cf. “boy”). I conceive an experiment in self-liberation… “you don’t have to talk to me as if I”m five years old.” The counterman is enraged. He raves, not to me, but to the other (male) customers… I feel like an idiot. A certified crank. No sense of humor. Another discovery: a lot of men, especially working-class men, won’t get out of the way for a woman on the street. They walk in a straight line and expect you to move. I develop a policy of confrontation. I walk straight too and bump into them. They don’t quite understand what’s happening and mutter something like “Lady, watch where you’re going.”

From Abortion: Is a Woman a Person?, published March and April 1979 Village Voice, one comment from Ken Kesey that turns him into Ken Queasy in my mind, forever marring my respect for his writing:

Years ago, in an interview with Paul Krassner in The Realist, Ken Kesey declared himself against abortion. When Krassner asked if his objection applied to victims of rape, Kesey replied– I may not be remembering the exact words, but I will never forget the substance– “Just because another man planted the seed, that’s no reason to destroy the crop.” To this day I have not heard a more eloquent or chilling metaphor for the essential premise of the right-to-life movement: that a woman’s excuse for being is her womb.
Actual Kesey quotation: “You don’t plow under the corn because the seed was planted with the neighbor’s shovel.”

From The Family, published September 1979 Village Voice:

Capitalists have an obvious stake in encouraging dependence on the family and upholding its mythology. If people stopped looking to the family for security, they might start looking to full employment and expanded public services. If enough parents or communal households were determined to share child rearing, they might insist that working hours and conditions be adapted to their domestic needs. If enough women refused to work for no pay in the home and demanded genuine parity on the job, our economy would be in deep trouble. There is a direct link between the conservative trend of American capitalism and the backlash on so-called cultural issues. During the past decade, the loss of the Vietnam War, the general decline in American influence, and the growing power of the oil industry have led to an intensive corporate drive to increase profits by reducing social services, raising prices faster than wages, and convincing the public to have “lower expectations”; in the same period blatant family chauvinism has become official government policy. Under the circumstances it is not surprising that most people are less inclined to demand change–with all the risk and uncertain such demands entail–than to cling to what they have and defend it against attack. These days “my family first” is only a slightly less insular version of the “me first” psychology the insecurity of capitalism provokes. Both are based on the dismaying knowledge that if you and your family are not first, they are all too likely to be last. People who are clinging are never eager to share their branch, nor do they look kindly on anyone who insists it’s rotten wood.

From that same issue, the martyrdom of parenting:

Children are a twenty-four-hour-a-day responsibility, yet parents have legitimate needs for personal freedom, privacy, and spontaneity in their lives… Child rearing is too big a job for one or even two people to handle without an unnatural degree of self-sacrifice, destructive for both generations.

Selections from Willis’ 2000 book, Don’t Think, Smile! Notes on a Decade of Denial:

High on my list of petty urban irritations are those signs posted by smug possessors of driveways: “Don’t Even Think About Parking Here.” I fantasize about plastering their premises with superglued bumper stickers that say “Down with the Thought Police” or “Don’t Even Think About Telling Me What To Think.”

Willis goes on to say that despite the roaring economy, there’s a problem looming, “call it the euphoria gap.” Because this bubble will be a’sagging. So how to pacify the public? She suggests reissuing Samuelson’s The Good Life and Its Discontents: The American Dream in the Age of Entitlement, 1945-1995.

Americans are unhappy, Samuelson argues, not because we’re really doing badly, but because we’re hooked on unrealistic expectations. The post-World War II economic boom led us to envision a utopian future of ever rising incomes, stable jobs, personal freedom and fulfillment, and government solutions to all social problems… Samuelson has a point about the naivete of American optimism. The extraordinary affluence of the postwar years and the liberal social compact that allowed most people to share it were the product of a unique set of circumstances. Not only did the United States emerge from World War II an economic superpower, but business, labor, and government were resolved, in the wake of depression and war, to save capitalism both from its own tendency to crisis and from the socialist threat represented most concretely by the Soviet Union. The translation of phenomenal economic growth into high wages, job security, and social benefits was a formula for buying people’s loyalty to the system, neutralizing potential radicalism, making genuine economic equality seem unnecessary. For capitalists, who relinquished some of their profits but never their power, collaboration with labor and the welfare state was strictly a temporary marriage of convenience. For most Americans, it was a historical shortcut to the pursuit of happiness. As with our abuse of the environment in the name of growth, and our abuse of antibiotics in the quest to “conquer disease,” the bill for that complacency is now coming due.

More from this book, the Villains and Victims chapter:

One of the great successes of the antifeminist reaction is that there is now no socially acceptable public language in which women, particularly young women, can directly and explicitly express anger at the “mundane kinds of sexism,” or what I’ve called the sexism of everyday life–that is, men’s ubiquitous, culturally sanctioned, “normal” expressions of dominance. To be sure, such expressions are documented in a large body of pop-psychological/sociological literature; but, as in Deborah Tannen’s best-selling You Just Don’t Understand, they are presented as neutral cultural differences that hinder communication between the sexes– not as strategies, however reflexive or unconscious, for preserving male power.

And finally, Intellectual Work in the Culture of Austerity:

Since the early ’70s, the symbiosis has been working in reverse: a steady decline in Americans’ standards of living has fed political and cultural conservatism, and vice versa. Just as the widespread affluence of the post-World War II era was the product of deliberate social policy–an alliance of business, labor, and government aimed at stabilizing the economy and building a solid, patriotic middle class as a bulwark against Soviet Communism and domestic radicalism–the waning of affluence has reflected the resolve of capital to break away from this constraining alliance. In 1973, as the United States was losing both the Vietnam War and our position of unquestioned economic dominance in the world, the formation of OPEC and the resulting “energy crisis” signaled the coming of a new economic order in which getting Americans to accept less would be a priority of the emerging multinational corporate and financial elite. By then the reaction against the culture and politics of the ’60s was already in progress. With the end of cheap, freely flowing gasoline–the quintessential emblem of American prosperity, mobility, and power–the supposed need for austerity began to rival law and order as a central conservative theme.

From Ending Poor People As We Know Them, December 1994 Village Voice, where Willis talks about the welfare debate in Newt Gingrich-era Congress, how people want to give money to poor children but punish their parents (“The Orphanage: Is it Time to Bring it Back?” cover story on Newsweek):

[The discussion of welfare is] less a debate in any meaningful sense than an argument among undertakers about how to dispose of the body. At bottom, the logic of the attack on welfare mothers… is that the poor should stop breeding altogether, and solve the problem of the underclass by disappearing… Nonetheless, most people, whatever their class, have a powerful desire to reproduce, and communities are unlikely to assent to their own annihilation on moral grounds. What happens when we cut the poor off welfare and they still won’t go away?

From Bring in the Noise, published in The Nation, April 1996:

… our problem is not the excesses of talk shows but the brutality and emptiness of our political culture. Pop bashing is the humanism of fools: in the name of defending people’s dignity it attacks their pleasures and their meager store of power. On talk shows, whatever their drawbacks, the proles get to talk. The rest of the time they’re told in a thousand ways to shut up.

From Dissent, Fall 2005, Ghosts, Fantasies, and Hope:

How did the sixties happen in the first place? I’d argue that a confluence of events stimulated desire while temporarily muting anxiety. There was widespread prosperity that made young people feel secure, able to challenge authority and experiment with their lives. There was a vibrant mass-mediated culture that, far from damping down the imagination, transmitted the summons to freedom and pleasure far more broadly than a mere political movement could do… There was a critical mass of educated women who could not abide the contradiction between the expanding opportunities they enjoyed as middle-class Americans and the arbitrary restrictions on their sex. There was the advent of psychedelics, which allowed millions of people to sample utopia as a state of mind.
Those were different times. Today, anxiety is a first principle of social life, and the right knows how to exploit it. Capital foments the insecurity that impels people to submit to its demands.