One of them

I was a bit perplexed by this Brad DeLong entry, which purports to criticize Ross Douthat for expressing reservations about hooking up with a girl in college:

From Ross Douthat, Privilege, bottom of p. 184:

One successful foray ended on the guest bed of a high school friend’s parents, with a girl who resembled a chunkier Reese Witherspoon drunkenly masticating my neck and cheeks. It had taken some time to reach this point–“Do most Harvard guys take so long to get what they want?” she had asked, pushing her tongue into my mouth. I wasn’t sure what to say, but then I wasn’t sure this was what I wanted. My throat was dry from too much vodka, and her breasts, spilling out of pink pajamas, threatened my ability to. I was supposed to be excited, but I was bored and somewhat disgusted with myself, with her, with the whole business… and then whatever residual enthusiasm I felt for the venture dissipated, with shocking speed, as she nibbled at my ear and whispered–“You know, I’m on the pill…”

What squicks me out is (a) that the real turnoff for Ross Douthat is that she has taken responsibility for her own fertility and gone on the pill, and (b) that Ross Douthat does not take this to be a learning moment–is not self-reflective enough to say “Hmmm… If there are other men like me who are turned off by women who take responsibility for fertility control, isn’t that likely to be a cause of more abortions?”

Combine that with what Ross Douthat’s dismissal of Belle Sawhill’s point that free-as-in-beer (but not free-as-in-no-hassle) birth control appears to prevent 1/5 of abortions–and there is an awful lot here not to like, and an awfully good reason to think that Tyler Cowen or Kerry Howley or Virginia Postrel or any of a large number of other candidates would be an infinitely better choice for the job.

And, of course, there is the other point: here is a Reese Witherspoon look-alike who has offered Ross Douthat the extremely precious gift of wanting to make love to him, and he writes her into his book in this way with what look to be sufficient identifying details.

Perhaps I’m misreading the excerpt DeLong highlights (I haven’t read Privilege), but it seems to me that Douthat is giving voice to a fairly common sentiment on college campuses across the country – that is, the regret and disillusionment that inevitably follow any ill-conceived hook-up. Given the context, I don’t think this is an attack on female contraception as much as it is an attempt to grapple with the problems of devaluing sexual relationships. It’s particularly ironic that DeLong refers to the encounter as a “precious gift” – I’m quite sure there’s nothing special about drunkenly fooling around in an absent parent’s bedroom.

Now, I’m not sure how I feel about all this, but I’m glad that someone out there is at least trying to grapple with these issues in an intelligent and sensitive manner. I should also mention that discussions like this one were noticeably absent from my (recent) college experience, and I don’t think any of DeLong’s proposed replacements at the Times – all writers I admire, by the way – offer a comparable cultural perspective.  A lot of people have suggested that Douthat’s brand of reformist conservatism is a bit too close to Brooks’ big government tendencies, but one of the reasons I look forward to reading his column is that it provides a platform for a brand of cultural conservatism that rarely gets mentioned in the major metropolitan dailies (much less discussed respectfully).

Over the past few years, many of the most interesting and challenging writers I’ve encountered have all shared certain socially conservative tendencies (or at least attempt to engage cultural traditionalists with some regularity). I’m not particularly religious and I don’t share a lot of their core assumptions, but I’m consistently challenged by their writing and now regret that it’s taken me so long to discover such a rich vein of argumentation. Many people, I think, would benefit from at least being exposed to this intellectual tradition, and giving a New York Times column to a smart young social conservative is a strong first step in that direction.

(Hat Tip: Andrew Sullivan)



Filed under Conservatism, Culture

2 responses to “One of them

  1. Joseph

    The sentiment Douthat expresses there is not so much the problem as the fact that it comes across as drenched in misogyny. Yes, he was “trying to grapple with the problems of devaluing sexual realtionships”, but doing so in a way that exonerated himself from any responsibility while dumping derision on this young woman. He’s devaluing his own experience here, and lashing out at her for tempting him, and it’s squicky.

    But I still applaud the Times for hiring him when there were so many worse choices. Ross is at the very least honest, which is much more than can be said for Bill Kristol.

  2. I’m not sure that’s true, particularly when he admits he’s “somewhat disgusted with himself.”

    I mean, it’s difficult to write about teenage sexuality in a manner that’s both sensitive and insightful, and Douthat’s description of his partner certainly isn’t very charitable. But I think it’s a bit much to say it’s “drenched in misogyny.”

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