Friday, February 18, 2005

Charlotte Allen: The Public Intellectual

Christine on ms. musings linked to an article by Ms. Allen in the Los Angeles Times. The article begins thus:

Feminist Fatale
Where are the great women thinkers? Thinking so much about women has shrunk their minds.

The gist of the article is that there once used to be great women thinkers but now there aren't, except for Camilla Paglia, and the reason is feminism. Feminism shrinks women's minds so that they are only interested in topics that have to do with women and especially with women's bodies, and feminism is so rigid that it doesn't allow interesting alternative thinking to flourish. And everybody knows that women as a topic is narrow and special-interest and not something that deserves a great mind to ponder over it. Even if the majority of the world's people happen to be female.

Ms. Allen is an active member of the Independent Women's Forum, a rightwing organization largely funded by Richard Mellon Schaife. I bet you a zillion dollars that the IWF would not fund me, because my thinking doesn't follow their rigid rules. Neither would they publish any of my rants even if I gave them over for nothing.

Ms. Allen's use of evidence is interesting. She labels Susan Sontag as a great thinker because she refused "to embrace ideological feminism". It seems that Ms. Allen has not read very many of the great writings of Sontag to argue this, or perhaps she has a very odd definition of ideological feminism. But not to worry, the men that Ms. Allen label as great public intellectuals leave me less than impressed:

Still, there is no shortage of well-known male intellectuals. Besides Wolfe and Wills, we have Richard Posner, Louis Menand, Francis Fukuyama, Ian Buruma and Henry Louis Gates Jr., to name some, along with scientists who write provocatively for a general readership: Stephen Hawking, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins and Jared Diamond. In books and magazines, these intellectuals, who represent a wide variety of ideological perspectives, debate a broad spectrum of topics: science and politics, high and low art, literature, evolution, the Iraq war, campus sexual mores, the origins of the universe.

A few names on that list explain why Charlotte thinks that Camilla Paglia is a great thinker. Francis Fukuyama! And Steven Pinker has his odd quirks, I'd think. The list of women who have failed to become great thinkers in Charlotte's book includes most famous American feminists of the last thirty years, but excludes many columnists who indeed write on various topics. Molly Ivins is not mentioned, Katha Pollitt is not mentioned and so on. Barbara Ehrenreich is mentioned but her work on other than feminist topics is belittled, and other feminist writers who also write on other topics (Robin Morgan, for example) are omitted altogether.

What to say about all this? I think the idea of the public intellectual is a teeny weeny bit silly, considering the quality of thinking most public intellectuals offer us. But if we need such creatures there are plenty of good women writing for the general audience, and women's issues should be of general interest if men's issues are. Ms. Allen is trying a magician's trick here: Look! No great woman thinkers. Look here! Feminism is to blame! Which may be funny but isn't a real argument.

In any case, if Francis Fukuyama had been born a girl he would write somewhat differently if at all. Charlotte wants women to rise above their lives whereas she doesn't hold the men to the same standards. Fukuyama writes about the things which interest him: how to keep the world conservative and people like Francis Fukuyama the winners, but Charlotte doesn't see this as limited and of only special interest.

I also suspect that Charlotte applies a conservative male lens to the whole question. What sort of a thinking woman would a wingnut guy find impressive? Certainly not a feminist thinker, but that doesn't mean that feminist thinking isn't important. I happen to think that it has been one of the most interesting aspects of the twentieth century intellectual history.