(A Prelude to) a bizarrely long and rambling polemic against Mark Greif’s “On Repressive Sentimentalism” which takes a surprising but satisfying detour into a discussion of Neo-Orientalism

by zunguzungu

I’ve never been married, and I’ve certainly seen plenty of unhappy marriages, but I must admit I found Caleb Crain’s defense of the institution much more pleasing than the snide dismissalism of Mark Greif’s N+1 essay, “On Repressive Sentimentalism.” It’s easy to use that tone to attack a thing you personally can’t want, and it’s often very satisfying (for reasons Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens should think about when they go around talking about religion), but it’s also an utterly ineffective rhetorical tactic if you actually want to convince those who don’t already share your perspective. I’m not sure he does. Telling people they can free themselves by ceasing to desire what they desire is an argument that will always lose.

Anyway, his use of a certain reductive vision of what marriage could be (for him, it seems, it is the definitional opposite of a potentiality) didn’t stop him from saying some things about abortion politics that I was pleased by, in a Lakoffian sense of the tactical politics of framing. For example:

“A lot of people, for example, share an intuition that goes something like this: any of a woman’s children, let’s say her first, is her first child regardless of the month or year she started gestating him, or the ovulation window she chose to work within. This is certainly the picture parents and children work with. (“Mom, why didn’t you have me when you were younger?” “Because I was still in school, honey!”—We don’t answer, “If I had, you wouldn’t exist,” and not because we’re shielding the child from strongly felt ontological problems.) And it’s a fact that no mothers in America stay pregnant for the entire period that they could, from age 13 to 45. They are choosing one pregnancy-window, or a few, from a possible thirty or so. Nor do women who have an abortion forswear childbearing over a lifetime. What the anti-abortion position does is to insist on the willy-nilly creation of a class of children (from the millions of possible children who can be created, or not created, at any moment, by all of our choices) who are specifically those that are not wanted. It prefers unwanted children to wanted—forcing children into existence when they are likely to have worse lives, less happiness, more sorrow, more pain, rather than when they are likely to have better lives.”

“The sentimental pro-abortion commercials I’d like to see would be the TV spots that feature kids born to loving mothers who had abortions earlier. “Thank God my Mom had me when she could afford to care for me. Thank God she had me when she could love me, instead of having to give me up for adoption. I’m glad Mom chose to have me when she was an adult; now my Mom and Dad love each other. Thank God people let my Mom make her own decision about it.” If it’s sometimes intuited as unreasonably selfish when a woman isn’t willing to contribute nine months’ worth of blood, energy, and time to bear a possible person that comes into her womb (as we might be obliged to donate a kidney to a donor-match), it’s not in the least selfish for any woman to choose when she wants to contribute all these things. As for the strictly punitive, “personal responsibility” impulse—which says, “Well, she chose to risk getting pregnant!”—until one is prepared to forbid doctors from coming to the aid of the “responsible” parties to other unintended but foreseeable events that alter someone’s life (fireworks accidents, motorcycle accidents, toothpick-down-the-throat canapé accidents), it’s not clear why abortion is different.”

And then this:

“Among abortion-haters, an underlying charge is that abortion encourages sex. This is really puzzling. What they mean to reject is “sex without consequences.” Their counter-strategy has been abstinence education for children, which plainly encourages sex “with consequences,” namely pregnancies. This was foreseeable. If you discourage children from contraception and abortion, in programs which portray sex (in marriage) as hidden treasure, adulthood’s lucky prize (think of those “promise rings,” co-ed erotic pledges of purity, courtships sublimated into vows to fuck later, after the wedding), you will reliably create a lot of babies with underage moms, as all scientific studies, plus 10,000 Bristol Palins, attest. What’s so important about “sex with consequences” that you’ll sacrifice your own children to it?

“The value of “sex with consequences”—which gays can never have (except for the brief shifting of gravity during the AIDS plague), because they don’t get pregnant, and which feminists say it’s good to escape—is that it enforces domination. It does so through a positive appeal, not open repression. Pregnancy will lay you up for nine months, plus eighteen years of care, sure. That’s not the main issue. Domination depends rather on the beauty of sex with consequences, the pleasure of sex with consequences, to guarantee commitment to the family-centered fold. Women’s straight desire and wish for love and pleasure is the thing that’s supposed to seduce women back into the system of inequality—a beautiful inequality mentally structured by childbearing and the determination of your life course by the consequences of desire. It is beautiful, in its way; as oriental despotism was beautiful, too.”

Tomorrow(ish), I will not only take issue with the use of the phrase “Oriental Despotism” as if it means anything, but I will find in it the trail of bread crumbs leading to why I found Greif’s essay somewhere between annoyingly smart and offensively obtuse.