I mostly don't read Ross Douthat's New York Times columns because I find his "I'm just a nice conservative guy trying to find some common ground in this mixed up world" thing to be pretty exhausting. He is a chronic mansplainer and a reliable apologist for discrimination (with a little intellectual flair). But the trio of opinion pieces he wrote this week in response to Elliot Rodger and current public conversations about masculinity and misogyny are probably worth talking about. Because Douthat really wants you to think that he gets it, but he very much does not.
In his first go-round on the issue, Douthat uses lots of careful language to concede that he understands why we might need to talk about misogyny right now. Because before Rodger murdered six people, he told the world that he wanted to put women in concentration camps and take his revenge against the "sluts" who rejected him. "In this particular tragedy, the killer’s motives really do seem to have a larger cultural significance," he admits. Now, mind you, Douthat doesn't want to talk too much about it, lest we allow emotional things like examinations of systemic violence against women clutter our thinking or get us mixed up in the "splendid little culture war over the significance of the Santa Barbara killer’s distinctive stew of lust, misogyny and rage."
Plus, he really just wants to blame casual sex for the tragedy. Douthat goes on to argue that feminist attitudes about sex may be as much of a problem in our culture as Rodger's sense of violent entitlement to women's bodies, which is the actual point that he's been waiting to make through all of his maybe misogyny is perhaps possibly real sometimes but not in the way most feminists say it is hand-wringing:
Contemporary feminism is very good -- better than my fellow conservatives often acknowledge — at critiquing these pathologies. But feminism, too, is often a prisoner of Hefnerism [Douthat's term for people having sex in a way he does not like, basically], in the sense that it tends to prescribe more and more “sex positivity,” insisting that the only problem with contemporary sexual culture is that it’s imperfectly egalitarian, insufficiently celebratory of female agency and desire.
This means that the feminist prescription doesn’t supply what men slipping down into the darkness of misogyny most immediately need: not lectures on how they need to respect women as sexual beings, but reasons, despite their lack of sexual experience, to first respect themselves as men. [...]
A culture that too tightly binds sex and self-respect is likely, in the long run, to end up with less and less of both.
Douthat brings more of the same in a follow-up piece, a rumination on why he is "a little dissatisfied" with his fellow conservatives' approach to the issues of violence against women and misogyny. "In their haste to critique too-sweeping indictments of masculinity/male privilege/”rape culture”/etc., it seems to me, some conservatives risk foreclosing the possibility that misogyny might be a real cultural problem, to which a certain amount of moral outrage and a certain kind of structural critique might both be healthy, legitimate responses," he writes.
What a remarkable little sentence. In his quest to remain firmly in nice conservative guy territory, he arms himself with a dizzying array of qualifiers. Misogyny "might be" a real cultural problem, and a "certain amount" of moral outrage and structural critique "might be" considered "legitimate responses."
Douthat finishes the series off with another piece called "The Left and Masculinity," which he probably should have just called #NotAllMen. Responding to a writer who argued that traditional masculinity "must die," Douthat -- a fan of all things traditional -- responded that if we look back at our masculine role models from days gone by, we will find that men like John Wayne may have been lone gunslingers, but they were not violent misogynists. (Or not always. I mean, I'm not a Wayne completist, but "The Searchers" is pretty weird!)
Douthat is also puzzled why feminists don't talk more about men like Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart when they talk about masculinity. These men were "icons whose characters often dealt with female stars as equals, who had sex appeal to burn but weren’t defined by their libidos or their list of conquests, who dealt in violence sparingly or not at all." He believes they could "profit from the realization that some of the human goods they seek are actually more clearly visible behind us, somewhere back in a cultural past they still insist they’re fighting to overthrow, whose actual details the darkness of forgetting has almost swallowed up."
Fair enough to Douthat's point about there being moments in which men in movies were depicted as valuing their families and treating women with respect -- at least in the narrow confines of the deeply gendered relationships and life trajectories portrayed in these films. But his larger point -- in these three pieces and pretty much always -- is that we should be looking back and not forward to find models for how to live today. The answers to our problems can be found "somewhere back in a cultural past." The good old days. The ones that are behind us.
Douthat has time and again shown himself to be deeply invested in defending discrimination and destructive cultural norms, but he is always very polite about it. He sincerely believes that it doesn't make you a bigot if you think LGBTQ people should not have equal rights or that straight marriage really is the super best kind of marriage. Or that you're not a sexist dinosaur just because you believe that women shouldn't have so much sex.
For all of his talk of giving feminists credit for their work, Douthat is not interested in having a serious conversation about misogyny or male sexual entitlement. The norms he clings to rest too heavily on both. He just dresses this position up with lots of appeals to good faith and the search for common ground. Because maybe if you say feminists are sometimes right about some things enough, no one will notice that you've spent the rest of your column making the exact opposite point.