A review of Caitlin Flanagan's "Girl Land"
“Get her father involved in her dating life.” When I came upon this recommendation (tip number three for getting daughters safely through adolescence) in Caitlin Flanagan’s book Girl Land, I had to laugh. Could it really be that an author needs to state something so obvious? How many readers do not already know that, as Flanagan explains, “punks” can’t stand “coming under the authority and scrutiny of a powerful adult male?”
Perhaps more than one would think. Reading the rest of Flanagan’s light but informative jaunt through the history and current sad state of American female adolescence, I began to wonder whether I had been overestimating American parents. There is her account of today’s after-prom party ritual. Schools do not want to be held liable for any problematic behavior on their watch, so the proms themselves are closely guarded events, free of alcohol and sexual activity. Even suggestive dancing is banned in “contracts” that students must sign prior to attending. But the after-party, often held at a chaperone-free home, has become a freak show. Girls at the prestigious prep school near Flanagan’s home shed their pricey dresses and don lingerie sets to attend “P&H,” shorthand for the gathering whose theme every year is “Pimps and Ho’s.” When they get off the party bus, they are “regarded with surprised delight by whatever men happen to be there—homeless guys, street thugs, the club’s bouncers, wanderers—who had not expected to get an eyeful of very young, upper-middle-class girls dressed in panties and boots.”
The dean of students at another school tells Flanagan: “The number one thing that amazes all of us year after year…is the way the parents will let them do anything on prom night. They will not—I mean will not—stop their kids from doing any stupid, dangerous thing they want.” One year, a concerned mother complained to the dean. But instead of forbidding the girl from attending, she drove to the party herself and sat parked outside the “abandoned warehouse” where it took place so she could reassure herself of her daughter’s security.
Indeed, if there is one conclusion a reader should reach after finishing Girl Land, it is that most parents have lost any semblance of common sense. For several years now, Flanagan’s regular essays in the Atlantic, some of which formed the basis for this book, have been a welcome antidote to this problem. If only they were more widely read, surely we’d be in better shape. In Girl Land, Flanagan tries to provide a coherent chronology to the cultural collapse that she has observed. The road is a little windy at times, but her prose makes that easier to overlook.
At the vanguard of this collapse, as Flanagan describes it, were people like Robert and Melanie Bellah—the Harvard professor and his Stanford-educated wife—who raised four daughters in Cambridge and then in Berkeley in the late 1960s and 70s. The children’s “early girlhood found expression in a hundred ways,” Flanagan reports. They played Fairyland and Queen of the May and Cinderella. They went to ballet and kept diaries detailing their every romantic flight of fancy. “The Bellahs were permissive parents,” Flanagan writes, “a phrase that to the contemporary reader sounds like a criticism, but in those days was considered the sign of involvement and thoughtfulness.” Permissiveness regarding imaginary play might be wonderful, but when their daughter Tammy hit adolescence, things took a turn for the worse.
Based on diary entries that her mother found and wrote about after Tammy’s suicide at the age of 19, it is easy to see the confused girl’s romantic side. She falls for boy after boy and starts sleeping with them at a rapid clip, chronicling each experience in heart-fluttering detail. The relationships grow increasingly abusive, and yet Tammy’s writing is always heavy with adolescent emotion. Writes Flanagan: “Her true desire, we sense quickly, wasn’t exactly—or certainly not only—sexual….She wanted desperately to love and be loved.”
In the case of a better known child of this era, Patty Hearst, Flanagan tries to explain how in the midst of her captivity, she became the “girlfriend” of SLA leader Willie Wolfe. In her memoir, Hearst even describes the small, carved monkey Wolfe gave her as his “most treasured possession.” Flanagan writes, “It was a particularly feminine thing to do, to try against all odds to place one’s sex life within the context of romance and affection.”
Which is what most adolescent girls want to do. To acknowledge this, Flanagan insists, is no crime. Yet parents continue to ignore their girls’ persistent conflation of sexuality and affection. They are more and more reluctant to tell their daughters that boys do not always want the same thing girls do. Instead, once parents have taken care to make sure that their children don’t get pregnant and are protected from venereal disease, they seem to run out of reasons to discourage early sexualization.
Caitlin Flanagan is not a prude. And she is fortunately not gullible enough to believe every horror story she hears about teenage girls. When a mother told her a few years ago about a bar mitzvah dinner dance on the North side of Chicago “where the girls serviced all the boys on the bus from the temple to the reception hall,” Flanagan found the story “so preposterous” that she “burst out laughing.” After several other mothers reported similar stories to her, she traced this not-quite-urban-myth—let’s call it an urban exaggeration—to an episode of the PBS investigative show Frontline called “The Lost Children of Rockdale County.” The show, which aired in 1999, suggested that an epidemic of orgies had led to widespread syphilis in a particular community in Georgia. In fact, Flanagan notes, the kind of sexual deviance described in the documentary was horrifying but was actually pretty limited in scope.
The show’s interviewers found some adolescents who were not involved in the reported orgies. Theirs was a different problem, though. Flanagan explains: “These were kids—girls especially—who had developed a dull, curiously passionless relationship to their sexuality, which they gave of freely. The girls seemed sad that their easily granted sexual favors (including oral sex) had not earned them boyfriends, and they were completely unaware of how they could have negotiated the transactions differently.”
But how did we get to a point where girls are so helplessly ignorant on such matters? The broader culture is in no small part to blame. Flanagan offers all sorts of artifacts from Judy Blume books to women’s magazines to rap lyrics, suggesting that women’s approach to sex is or should be exactly like men’s.
But again and again Flanagan returns to parents. Her own mother and father at least made some attempt to explain the differences between boys and girls and why the latter shouldn’t trust the good will of the former. Her mother scolded her after finding she had invited a boy to her bedroom, suggesting that he would tell his friends that he knew the color of the comforter on her bed. What a quaint notion. Many young girls today would probably greet such a comment with bafflement. Why shouldn’t everyone know such a thing? There are probably pictures of her bed on her Facebook page, if not a YouTube video with it in the background.
Today’s world is a lonely one for sensible parents. As Flanagan points out, the whole “it takes a village” philosophy “is a joke, because the village is so polluted and so desolate of commonly held, child-appropriate moral values that my job as a mother is not to rely on the village but to protect my children from it.” (One of her other useful, but head-smackingly obvious, “recommendations” is to prohibit an Internet connection in the child’s bedroom.)
So is Flanagan terrified that her own children will engage in sex outside of a romantic context? Would she think she had failed catastrophically as a mother? No, she writes. “Because I don’t have daughters. I have sons.”
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A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find that kind of unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.