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May 05, 2008

The Personal Is Political?

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Alice Walker: lousy mom? “My mother is very ideologically based, and her ideology is much more important in many ways than her personal relationships,” says daughter Rebecca Walker, who is no longer in touch with Alice. Another nice passage from Rebecca:

Her circle were questioning power relationships and whether a mother had any more knowledge than a child. Some friends of hers were living on communes. I know those kids and they’re totally screwed up.

Some were sexually abused, all kinds of bad stuff happened, but even those who survived intact don’t want to create communes for their children. They didn’t want to be raised by 10 different parents — again, it was this ideological thing trumping the maternal instinct ...

I keep telling people feminism is an experiment. And just like in science, you have to assess the outcome of the experiment and adjust according to your results, but my mother and her friends, they see it as truth; they don’t see it as an experiment.

So that creates quite a problem. You’ve got young women saying, ‘That didn’t really work for me’ and the older ones saying, ‘Tough, because that’s how it should be’.



posted by Michael at May 5, 2008


but even those who survived intact don’t want to create communes for their children.

At least communist thinking and behavior isn't heritable.

Posted by: agnostic on May 5, 2008 1:48 AM

What's that saying about the cobbler's kids walking barefoot? A brilliantly insightful author clueless as to their relationship with their own children? What's the surprise? Simply blindness to our closest familiarity.

Posted by: DarkoV on May 5, 2008 7:59 AM

It would be news worthy and even shocking to encounter a memoir by the child of a celebrity parent who felt loved, honored, understood and supported by said parent; a memoir that recalled the joy of being raised by a parent (or parents) who managed to lead their public lives and contribute to the world of politics or art or corporate business while simultaneously being fully and lovingly engaged as parents. Heck, it is rare enough for average, non-celebrity parents and children to navigate the often rough waters of the child's growing up and becoming an independent adult without rifts and misunderstandings that sometimes heal or even create stronger bonds but too often result in long term estrangement.

Posted by: Chris White on May 5, 2008 7:59 AM

Political religiosity mystifies me. Why does anybody want it? It's so damned dreary... about as exciting as dirty underpants... although, how that I think about it, somebody is probably excited about dirty underpants.

The left likes to think of itself as racy and adventurous and chic, but it's really boring, sanctimonious and dreary.

Why would anybody want to live in a commune? Sounds absolutely dreadful to me. Unfortunately, I've seen a lot of this crap in Woodstock. Some of the most godawful gray, crappy people in the world. They call themselves "enlightened," but they look like grim failures who can't cope with the world.

The Woodstock Times, our little newspaper, is a cult in itself. The pay is laughable. I've been in better appointed outhouses than the Times' offices. Supposedly, working for this hippie institution frees one from the horrifying constraints of corporate life. I've known many people who worked for the Times, but I still can't understand why anybody will take the job. Apparently, pontificating about Saving the World makes up for the poverty and filth.

And, if you work at the Times, you never leave the womb of the cult. You never have to encounter a person who holds traditional middle American beliefs.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on May 5, 2008 8:34 AM

Very interesting. I think the comparison to Mrs. Jellyby was very apt: it sounds like the elder Walker's basic vice was in caring only about humanity in the abstract and not about mere individuals like her daughter. In other words, it was about collectivism, not feminism per se. (There are individualist ways to be a feminist.)

Posted by: Lester Hunt on May 5, 2008 8:48 AM

I live in what gets called hippie-country. The political views of most of my neighbours are best described as "unrestructured-sixties". Very surprisingly, the best thing about my part of the world is families, kids, and parent-kid relations. Old landed hippies are awful about money and property: they are, as a race, grasping, demanding, unreasonable materialists. As parents, they're just great, with very few exceptions. Think "Leave it to Beaver" among the gum trees and marijuana smoke and you'll get a kind of picture.

I'm always happy to bash the left - oh, you noticed? - but perhaps we need to make a distinction between activism and politics. My old hippie neighbours are far too tight-fisted and far too interested in their families to contribute to any causes.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on May 5, 2008 9:45 AM

Agnostic -- Time for a genetics investigation into whether various population groups and family lines tend to have strong preferences for certain kinds of ideologies and forms of political organization.

DarkoV -- So true.

Chris -- True. And of course it'd hardly be news (and wouldn't appear in a newspaper) if she loved her mom and had a nice relationship with her. Yet at the same time there's something a little distinctive about boho-world stresses between parents and kids. I was very struck by this when I started hanging with artists and writers and such. Parents who either overlooked their kids entirely or who had grand, kooky theories about childraising; kids who didn't just have the usual suburban-kid feelings about the 'rents, but who typically both hated the parents and hero-worshipped them ... Estrangement, fury, and even suicide weren't uncommon. Add a political element and it's pretty remarkable. One arty NY intellectual (whose relations with his own kids were awful) once told me he thought the real story of the NY intellectual-art world was about their awful relations with their kids, and that a book should be written about it. There's a good movie on the general theme of "Why do my parents care so much about politics and the world while at the same time neglecting me?" -- Chris Menges' "A World Apart."

ST -- I know some of those people you're talking about. One couple I know has kind of talked themselves into being "environmentally" ill. Apparently they're so sensitive and pure that inhabiting the modern world makes them sick. Their lives consist of getting themselves officially declared disabled, getting the state to pay their bills, and lingering over awful "pure" hippie food. Feeling picked-on by modern life, in other words. It's a real folie a deux -- their general protest against the world (and avoidance of grownup responsibility) is the basis of their marriage and consumes their entire life. Dealing with 'em is strange, because either you buy entirely into their vision or you've betrayed them, and revealed what a polluter/rapist/insensitive person (it's all the same) you are. It's pretty amazing -- they've actually talked themselves into being sick. I mean, they're in such awful dreary joyless shape that if they aren't sick they might well as be, though of course no doctor can find anything physically wrong with them. The combo of righteousness, resentment, and (to be honest) an aversion to work can be an impressive, if depressing thing. I mean, in a general way I certainly understand finding America crude and brutal, and not being real enthusiastic about taking part in middle American life. It's pretty demanding and often pretty dull. I'm often a little appalled by the standard American thing, and pretty fringe-y myself. I don't know how people put up with it. (But of course most of them actually seem to like it -- imagine that.) But turning yourself into the Unabomber's ailing neighbors seems to be going pretty far.

Lester -- Alice Walker is no Wendy McElroy, that's for sure.

Robert -- Yeah, I've known a lot of sweet hippie families too. Some of them seem really lovely -- warm, free-wheeling, quirky ... I wonder how the kids tend to turn out, and tend to feel about their upbringings. Any idea?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 5, 2008 10:05 AM

"It would be news worthy and even shocking to encounter a memoir by the child of a celebrity parent who felt loved, honored, understood and supported by said parent..."

Yes, Chris, there's some truth to that, but it avoids the issue.

Alice Walker is a leftist scold. She scolds people about their methods of child rearing. Child abuse and sexual abuse... well, that's supposed to be her forte.

So, the issue you've avoided is whether this discredits Walker's sanctimonious preaching, and whether it indicates that good old fashioned middle class people who rear their children in the traditional way don't have more sense than Walker.

In other words, maybe Walker's contribution is horseshit.

Here's the way I think that it's horseshit. Her "ideals" produce nothing but misery. The normal, compromised, traditional ways that she was so quick to criticize actually work better.

I can see why a person with your political beliefs doesn't want to confront this. Walker was part of a generation of feminazi writers who viciously attacked men as head of the household and head of the family, and offered an "ideal" in its place. That "ideal" turns out to have some pretty significant holes in it.

The feminazi cult succeeded in overturning many of our traditions with the promise that they had something better to offer. They were lying. They had something a whole lot worse to offer... once again the great illusion of "good intentions."

I'll take the ocassional failures of men to adequately play the role of patriarch over the "ideal" of nutjobs like Walker and her feminazi pals.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on May 5, 2008 10:06 AM

Great post, Michael. And a great find, too. It's telling a UK publication went ahead and published these quotes -- the US media is way to feminist for this.

I've heard stories like Rebecca Walker's before, but she sure is articulate about it. Here's hoping she writes her own book and tells of her life.

Posted by: Days of Broken Arrows on May 5, 2008 10:18 AM

Agnostic - It may not be inheritable, but it is viral.

Chris - Paul Newman, Tom Selleck, Billy Crystal...the list goes on. Also, I bet that a LOT of athletes, expecially hockey players, have children who loved their famous fathers/parents. The point that I am trying to make here: it seems that people who are most interested in living "traditional" lives with "traditional" roles do best.

Robert - I am curious, of your Lefty friends, how many of them send their children to diverse public schools in middle class neighborhoods?

Posted by: Ian Lewis on May 5, 2008 11:18 AM

Crusaders on either side of the political spectrum are awful at the very things they preach about. Which is why they're crusaders. Their patron saint is Claude Frollo. Never trust a zealot.

Of course, Walker is a brilliant writer, and so goes down in history as yet another brilliant artist who is a terrible person.

Posted by: JV on May 5, 2008 11:37 AM

"Robert -- Yeah, I've known a lot of sweet hippie families too. Some of them seem really lovely -- warm, free-wheeling, quirky ... I wonder how the kids tend to turn out, and tend to feel about their upbringings. Any idea?"

Typically, Michael, the kids get jobs, move away, marry early, visit often. It's mostly all good.

Mind you, we're talking about settled land-holding families, not commune-dwellers. Hippies aren't good at sharing and co-operating. That goes double for the meditators: I've never met a Zen type who wasn't an absolute barracuda when it came to money and property. Watch 'em!

Of course, it's not just the hippies that turn out happy kids here. Watching whole families of rural and town folk heading off for a Sunday of fishing, horse-riding or bike-racing together is pretty touching and reassuring.

Here on the coast of NSW, you look one way and it's drugs, race-resentment, idleness and brutality. Look the other way, and it's a paradise for Huck and Tom.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on May 5, 2008 11:47 AM

The story is fascinating because it reveals that the feminism of Walker's type and time was never about actual women being actually free to do what they actually wanted. It was (yawn) yet another totalitarian fanaticism, hyper-vigilant, minutely detailed, built around some literal-minded "ideal" and imposed (in the name of freedom!) on all and sundry.

This "feminism" was in fact deeply anti-woman, and anti-girl. I am glad its day is done; I'm glad Walker's child has outed her monster of a mother; and I'm glad that the poisonous ideology of radical feminism has been further discredited by the revelation of its devastating effect on a female.

Of course, the question remains: do toxic mind-parasites like radical feminism turn their victims into monsters, or are monstrous personalities attracted to that kind of viciousness?

I remember a quote from Allan Sillitoe in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner to the effect: There are people who go on and on about getting the whip out of the hand of the boss man. But what they really want is to have the whip for themselves. And when they get it, they go dead from the heels up.

Radical feminists were dead from the heels up. Especially in their hearts and souls. They make me shudder. My Lord, the coldness of them!

Posted by: PatrickH on May 5, 2008 1:26 PM

Of course, the question remains: do toxic mind-parasites like radical feminism turn their victims into monsters, or are monstrous personalities attracted to that kind of viciousness?

This is something I think about a lot.

Like, why is it that you never meet a Pro-War Vegan?

Why are Long-Distance runners much more likely to be Leftist compared to Sprinters?

If you love Football or Hockey, why are you not likely to be some Pete-Seeger like "progressive"?

Or, if you are some pretty boy actor, why are you NOT likely to be a fan of the 2nd Ammendment?

I personally think that most people that are not in the middle of the political spectrum were born that way, and not made.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on May 5, 2008 4:08 PM

I am amused by the way a specific case, the rift between mother and daughter Alice and Rebecca Walker, becomes another excuse for dismissing feminism, "feminazis", communes, hippies, leftists, and (thanks ST, of course) Woodstock. Get a grip people!

Whether Alice Walker was a bad mother has little to do with Alice Walker the writer, or even Alice Walker the feminist. Whatever issues Rebecca Walker has due to her difficult childhood ... and let's not forget the impact of her father and mother's highly unusual custody agreement, being mixed race, having been shuttled back and forth between two coasts and two very different cultural milieus ... she seems to have become an articulate writer. By her own words she is now happily married and enjoying motherhood. How much of this is the result of her parents, or in spite of them, is as likely to be answerable as the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

My father was a public school guidance counselor. He was great with his students. Innumerable former students and parents of those students have expressed appreciations over the years for his patience and understanding. He wanted and helped his students to achieve their highest potential, but he did not push them in directions they showed little aptitude for or did not want to go.

As a father he had a great deal of difficulty with all of those things. He tended to be impatient, overbearing, unwilling to listen and found it very hard to express love, only disapproval. Fortunately he lived long enough that we were able to pass through the bad, hard times of near estrangement that occurred during my early adulthood and came out the other side to acknowledge and share our strong underlying mutual respect and love. I'm sure that I gained far more than I suffered by being his son, but there was a time when I did not see it that way. I would be hard pressed to draw any generalized inference from my relationship with my father about whether guidance counselors (or WW II vets, or First Amendment advocates, or any of the other things my father was) make good or bad parents.

Everyone who comments here can toss out anecdotes to support their own biases, myself included. I know many kids of hippies (including those who would also consider themselves feminists) who have great relationships with their parents and who are entering adulthood seemingly well adjusted and capable. I can also think of some who are screwed up beyond belief. I also know a fair number of artists of various types. Some have lousy relationships with their kids and others are wonderful parents. The same is true for kids of yuppies or born again Christians. I fail to see it as connected to their art or politics or religion per se.

Posted by: Chris White on May 5, 2008 6:57 PM

Chris White, I'm sure that you're right, and that bad ideologies/faiths/world-views do not automatically make for bad parenting. That is, people often rise above their ideology when it comes to their behaviour in real life. And, of course, some - like your father - fall slightly below it, when their own children are involved. But in the case of Alice Walker, inconsistencies of this type do not appear to have been an issue. If anything, her great problem is that she appears (supposing her daughter's account to be accurate) to have been ruthlessly consistent, never to have allowed a moment's doubt, or complaints from her daughter, to have affected her devotion to her pet theories.

The facts that the child was bi-racial, the parents' marriage a difficult one, and that the daughter grew up "bicoastal" and bicultural, are not mitigating circumstances for Walker or her former husband, because all these issues also grew out of the two parents' ideology.

Rebecca Walker may yet forgive her mother, though: Erica Jong's daughter eventually did, but Jong was far less an ideologue than Walker.

Posted by: alias clio on May 5, 2008 7:39 PM

Well, my earlier effort seemed to just dissipate, so here goes again. Please don't double post if number one went through.

Thank you clio, for restoring my faith in humanity's ability to read. It's not ST (or me) that Chris White has chosen to read right past, but Rebecca Walker. I'm not saying that Chris is a totalitarian fanatic like Alice Walker, only that he is less interested in Rebecca's suffering than he is in pas d'ennemies a gauche. I must admit that the casual heartlessness of his wave-of-the-hand comment about Rebecca Walker being happily married now (so...what?) took my breath away.

As I said earlier, "My Lord. The coldness of them!"

Posted by: PatrickH on May 5, 2008 9:39 PM

And, in the "reading past" category, how about acknowledging that much what we have here is a false equation built on a specific case; Alice Walker is a radical feminist, Alice Walker was a cold unloving mother, therefore radical feminists are cold unloving mothers. One might as well make the argument that Larry Craig is a conservative Republican known for making public statements on moral issues, Larry Craig was arrested for soliciting gay sex in a public bathroom, therefore all conservative Republicans are hypocrites prone to homosexuality.

As for my "casual heartlessness" ... what a crock. My feelings regarding Rebecca Walker have nothing to do with the line of discussion here. I think she had a raw deal as a kid. I blame both of her parents, and their immediate social circles and, yes, their too great allegiance to political ideals over actual, on-the-ground, personal responsibility as parents. My heart, as they say, goes out to her. I also feel sorry for Chelsea Clinton and the Bush twins and any kids Rush Limbaugh might have. They might each feel they have a great or a lousy relationship with their parents. Still, whatever public statements they may eventually make about being the children of well-known parents who've all contributed to public discourse about how children should be raised (including by being at times bad examples) the specifics of their own relationships with their parents will have only a severely limited bearing on the validity of the parents' political or professional contributions to public discourse on the topic.

I think it is also worth noting, again in the "reading past" category, that Rebecca Walker does not seem to be rejecting feminism per se, but the tendency of her mother and those in her mother's circle of vanguard radical feminists who have become locked in a rigid belief system rather than seeing feminism as an ongoing process ("they see it as truth; they don’t see it as an experiment"). The linked article does not reveal Rebecca Walker as a reactionary, looking back to traditional sexual roles for answers, but as part of the wave of younger women who have a more nuanced and moderate approach to integrating feminist ideals differently in public and personal spheres than their predecessors. Just as many younger African-Americans have a different approach to and understanding of civil rights than the generation that produced Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

My thinking runs along the lines of each of us must do the best we can with the hand we're given, both as parents and as children. As parents our philosophies, religious beliefs, politics, et cetera will all influence ... for good and ill ... our parenting. As kids we must deal with the parents we have, who have unique flaws and strengths in varying degrees. Based on our parents' love and parenting skills, combined with our own intellect, luck and intrinsic qualities, along with various other circumstances external to the family unit, we make it through childhood to become adults, and perhaps eventually parents, ourselves. As parents we'll try to recreate what we thought good and avoid what we thought bad about our own parents approach to parenting. And ever on the wheel will roll.

Posted by: Chris White on May 6, 2008 8:40 AM

Chris, you're ignoring the repeated pairing of the adjective "radical" with feminism in my post, as well as "feminism of Alice Walker's type and time". I hope you will agree that this narrows down my point from a blanket condemnation of feminism to a specific condemnation of totalitarian, rigid, all-encompassing radical feminism. The question I raised was whether this type of mind-poison effects personal relationships adversely, and my answer was, "Yes it does."

And your "casual heartlessness" was indeed evident in your dismissal of Rebecca Walker's suffering. You say your feelings are not relevant to the line of discussion. So be it. But your utter lack of feeling is relevant, since it mimics all too closely the same coldness that Alice Walker displayed so terribly to her own child. Ideology over humanity. I just thank the God in whom I do not believe that the poison of Alice Walker-style radical feminism appears to have been expelled from our public discourse.

I hope it stays that way. And Rebecca Walker has helped make that more likely. Hats off to her!

Posted by: PatrickH on May 6, 2008 1:48 PM

"Her circle were questioning power relationships and whether a mother had any more knowledge than a child."

I remember hearing that in my upbringing, and I've read a Hillary Clinton speech along the same lines, where she says that children have all the knowledge. She and others have cited as evidence for this that in the Middle Ages, children were treated as adults. But wasn't patriachy prevalent in the Middle Ages? It's very confusing for me, but I guess that's because I'm no longer a child.

Posted by: James M. on May 6, 2008 3:38 PM

Hmmm, here and I thought it was the sole province of goofy hippie leftists to be all about feelings while more rational minds did not overmuch concern themselves with such folderol.

The tone of Rebecca Walker's article is perceptive, calm and eloquent, not that of a woman crying out for expressions of sympathy and solidarity from strangers. She apparently has a good marriage with a loving and supportive husband and has at least mended fences with her father (although her next book is supposed to be an exploration into the complexities of her childhood). As I pointed out in my first comment, many of us have had periods of painful estrangement with a parent. That I did not either dwell on my empathy for her or support denouncing "radical feminism" because of her suffering has little or nothing to do with anything. I do not know Rebecca Walker well enough to truly feel her pain. In short, I have plenty of empathy for Rebecca Walker and her suffering but it is fundamentally beside the point.

The topic is how one's political (or artistic or religious) beliefs are, or are not, realized in their personal life, whether the result is good or bad and what bearing that has on how we view their politics, art or what-have-you. A parent who avows that parenting is, in itself, an evil vestige of a corrupt patriarchal system bent on exploiting women and children is a fool and if that is the extent of their contribution to discourse on the subject they would and should be ignored. Alice Walker, the writer and radical feminist certainly had more to offer than that caricature, whatever her own parenting was like. That she is shown to have been a cold and distant parent, too caught up in her political and artistic life to properly bond with and respond to the needs of her daughter, is a personal failing and undoubtedly hurt Rebecca. Knowledge of Rebecca's situation might well cause a re-examination of Alice Walker's writings. (Can't you just imagine the Oprah show that tries to bring them back together? Or where Oprah denounces Alice and embraces Rebecca?)

As for "the poison of Alice Walker-style radical feminism" being "expelled from our public discourse"; like the riots and militancy of many during the years of Black Power or, for a better example, the radical suffragettes fighting for the vote, sometimes it takes extreme measures to bring about a change that, once accomplished, no longer requires the same sort of radical efforts to maintain or continue. (See Rebecca Walker as part of the ongoing feminist experiment.)

Posted by: Chris White on May 6, 2008 6:29 PM

But to prove that a broken watch tells the right time twice a day:

“My father had come out of world war two and the Holocaust, my mother from the segregated South. Their attitude was, ‘The Gestapo isn’t after you, you’re not getting beaten up by mobs just for sitting at the lunch counter — what’s your problem?’ ” she says.

As someone who is trying to impress on teenagers that angsty temper-tantrums just trigger my obstinate streak and selective deafness, I can only applaud Walker on this (small) point.

Posted by: Craig Ranapia on May 7, 2008 7:07 AM

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