Radical Realism

It rarely occurs to me anymore to pick up The Village Voice, but when I was growing up the paper had talismanic powers. I was stuck in a grim suburb, miserable and alienated in ways that were no less painful for being completely cliché; the Voice was my window into the scintillating downtown of my dreams, a promise of a future life worth living. (This was before the Internet made bohemia accessible to everyone.) My favorite writer was Ellen Willis, though I didn't know enough to understand how original she was. I just knew that everything she wrote made a powerful sort of sense and that she was who I wanted to be when I grew up.

Willis, who died in 2006, should be a lot more famous than she is. The first rock critic at The New Yorker, she wrote with equal passion about politics, sex, and pop culture. As a strong, principled feminist who reveled in the often-sexist and satiric counterculture, she was always cognizant of the way our desires can detour from our political ideals. She was alive to tragic ironies but still held fast to a vision of a much better world. As she once wrote, riffing on Antonio Gramsci, "Optimism -- of the will and, if possible, the intellect as well -- is the engine of emancipation."

Her two most fundamental commitments were to democracy and pleasure. In the introduction to her 1992 collection No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays, she laid out a kind of credo: "Democracy, as I envision it, assumes that the purpose of community is to foster individual happiness and self-development; that the meaning of life lies in our capacity to experience and enjoy it fully; that freedom and eros are fundamentally intertwined; and that a genuine sense of responsibility to other human beings flows from the desire for connection, not subordination to family, Caesar, or God."

This cultural libertarianism allowed her to navigate the feminist sex wars of the 1980s with a grace and good sense that stands up particularly well. In No More Nice Girls, Willis mounted an impassioned defense of free speech, civil liberties, and, importantly, lust, at a time when many feminists were ready to make common cause with the Christian right against pornography. But she did it without any of the brittle bravado that later marked much so-called pro-sex feminism. Willis understood why women were turning on the sexual revolution. "Male libertarians," she wrote, "intensified women's sexual anxieties by equating repression with the desire for love and commitment, and exalting sex without emotion or attachment as the ideal. From this perspective, liberation for men meant rebelling against the demands of women, while liberation for women meant the opportunity (read obligation) to shuck their 'hangups' about casual sex."

Though written decades ago, this is an apt description of women's predicament in our current sex-drenched, emotionally frigid culture. Indeed, rereading No More Nice Girls, I am amazed at how much of it still feels relevant. Willis' writing on abortion rights, Israel, Islamic fundamentalism, right-wing populism, and the drug war remains insightful and brave. She grounded herself in lived experience and was honest even when her perception of truth contradicted her ideology.

In "Putting Women Back in the Abortion Debate," published in 1985, Willis called out waffling progressives who frame abortion as an "agonizing moral issue with some justice on both sides." (Sound familiar?) "As I see it," she wrote, "the key question is 'Can it be moral, under any circumstances, to make a woman bear a child against her will?'" Yet Willis didn't try to bury messy emotion under political absolutism. She described how having had a child changed her feelings about what it means to kill a fetus: "If I had an abortion today, it would be with a conflict and sadness unknown to me when I had an abortion a decade ago," she wrote. Willis always acknowledged complexity but was never paralyzed by it.

In a way, the tension between her utopian social vision and her wry, sober view of the world gave her work much of its energy. She tried to resolve this tension through psychoanalysis, positing human cruelty as the result of trauma, alienation, and sexual repression contained in current modes of living. That allowed her to dream of a thoroughly repaired society. Ultimately, I'm much more pessimistic about human nature than she was, which is why, unlike her, I'm a liberal rather than a radical.

The closest thing I can imagine to earthly paradise is the New York City Willis hymned at the beginning of No More Nice Girls: "the real and imagined city where feminist sexual liberationists, rootless cosmopolitan Jews, not-nice girls/boys/others [and] loudmouth exiles of all colors are an integral and conspicuous part of the landscape." Her prose sprang from this glorious intellectual milieu, and for me it lit the way there.