Saturday, March 21, 2009

What Katha Pollitt doesn't get about Ross Douthat's sexual conservatism

Katha Pollitt has an article in The Nation that begins:

Liberal blogger men are thrilled with the New York Times's appointment of 29-year-old Atlantic blogger Ross Douthat to replace William Kristol on the op-ed page.
Why "liberal blogger men"? Because Pollitt thinks that these "men" wouldn't be so "thrilled" about Douthat if they were women. Why? Because Douthat says things like this (quoted by Pollitt — I couldn't find the original source):
[I]t . . . makes adaptive sense for women to have a certain amount of difficulty having orgasms, because then they're more likely to seek out a long-term monogamous partner who knows their body well, which in turn dovetails nicely with the general female interest in having only one partner, the better to keep that partner around when the children come along.
If you Google this quote, you'll see it's been frequently ridiculed on the internet. But I haven't seen anyone, including Katha Pollitt (who sarcastically calls it "thoughtful commentary"), actually explain what's wrong with it.

That passage is an attempt to give an evolutionary explanation for a human trait. I don't know if Douthat is right or wrong, but you don't show that he's wrong unless you give some kind of specific argument beyond sarcastic sneering.

But are the liberal blogger men somehow slanted against women in praising Douthat? I'd say no. A few points:

1. By observing a fact about the world and then providing an evolutionary explanation of it, you're not approving of that state of affairs.

For instance, I can observe that a lot of men commit rape, and I can give an obvious evolutionary explanation for it: men, unlike women, have the physical potential to reproduce as many times as they can have sex. Since women tend to resist consenting to sex, men will have an easier time reproducing if they're willing to violate women's lack of consent. But does giving this explanation mean that I in any way approve of rape? Of course not.

I've previously blogged Robert Wright's broader point in his book The Moral Animal:
[W]e're all puppets, and our best hope for even partial liberation is to try to decipher the logic of the puppeteer. . . . Just because natural selection created us doesn't mean we have to slavishly follow it's peculiar agenda. (If anything, we might be tempted to spite it for all the ridiculous baggage it's saddled us with.)
2. I doubt many "liberal men" are "thrilled" about this observation by Douthat, from his highly publicized article entitled "Is Pornography Adultery?":
As we try to make sense of the brave new world that VHS and streaming video have built, we might start by asking a radical question: Is pornography use a form of adultery? . . .

[A]dultery is inevitable, but it’s never been universal in the way that pornography has the potential to become—at least if we approach the use of hard-core porn as a normal outlet from the rigors of monogamy, and invest ourselves in a cultural paradigm that understands this as something all men do and all women need to live with. In the name of providing a low-risk alternative for males who would otherwise be tempted by “real” prostitutes and “real” affairs, we’re ultimately universalizing, in a milder but not all that much milder form, the sort of degradation and betrayal that only a minority of men have traditionally been involved in.
Now, I'm a liberal blogger man, as Pollitt might put it. And I disagree with Douthat's take on pornography. Yet, reading the pornography article makes me glad the NYT chose him as their new columnist. It's possible to learn from people you disagree with, or at least admire their willingness to take unpopular positions.

3. As Matthew Yglesias (one of the liberal blogger men Pollitt criticizes) points out, he can endorse Douthat as the columnist without endorsing everything Douthat has written:
I think that conservatives such as Ross Douthat are regularly wrong about a wide variety of important topics. Thus, instances of them being wrong can be easily produced. . . . That said, . . . I don’t think it makes one a traitor to progressive politics . . . to think it’s a good thing when conservatives-who-offer-more replace conservatives-who-offer-less.
Pollitt openly disagrees with Yglesias on that point: she wishes Bill Kristol had stayed at the NYT because he's "a dull, complacent apparatchik who set forth the Bush line in all its fact-free glory." The problem is, it's hard to have a useful debate when one side doesn't make the best possible case for itself. If you're a liberal and you really believe in the merit of your liberal views, you should want them to be pitted against the most thoughtful conservatives, even if (especially if) they sometimes take positions that make you uncomfortable.