Ross Douthat's "red pill" garbage: How his take on privilege is just a defense of the powerful

The New York Times columnist says he wants to complicate how we see power, but all he does it flatten it

Published April 20, 2015 8:58PM (EDT)

Ross Douthat               (HBO)
Ross Douthat (HBO)

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat believes that the left has a tendency to assume “that lines of power are predictable, permanent and clear,” and he would like it to stop. Life is complicated, “take the red pill," etc. But it becomes obvious relatively quickly that Douthat's column on privilege is not about the messy work of multi-positional analysis so much as it is a strong defense in favor of oversimplifications about power that better suit him.

Which is maybe why he chose the Charlie Hebdo shooting, the sexual abuse of 1,400 young, mostly white women and girls in Rotherham by men of South Asian descent and recent gay rights victories in the United States to argue the point. Douthat seems to believe that the left's “prescribed hierarchies of power and victimhood,” which I am going to take to mean structural critiques of power, are not valid because extremists can wield violence against artists in the name of Islam, men of all backgrounds have the capacity to rape and gay people can get married in 37 states.

It does not take very much mental rigor to recognize that structural critiques of violence and discrimination do not fall apart because sometimes people in marginalized groups commit horrific crimes or enjoy legal recognition.

Here is what Douthat had to say about Rotherham:

[T]he hundreds of white women recently raped by Pakistani gangs in England’s industrial north were theoretically higher on a ladder of privilege than their assailants. But the gangs’ actual power over their victims was only enhanced by that notional ladder, because multicultural pieties were part of what induced the authorities to look the other way.

While it is true that the report on the abuse found that some officials cited a fear of being branded racist as a reason they did not speak out, it is equally true that the victims were themselves vulnerable and that the police officers tasked with investigating these cases had a history of trying to “disprove victims’ allegations” and ignoring reports of sexual violence.

So maybe instead of political correctness gone mad, a more probing look at what happened in Rotherham would find a confluence of class politics, rape culture, a dysfunctional child welfare system, police negligence and anxieties about race and ethnicity.

Or as Rochdale’s Labour MP Simon Danczuk told the New Statesman about a case in which 47 men of Asian descent were implicated in a similar grooming and sexual abuse case, “It’s a complex jigsaw and ethnicity is just one of the pieces. Class is a major factor, night-time economy is a factor in terms of this type of on-street grooming.”

But Douthat does not contend with any of that, instead pointing to “multicultural pieties” as the reason authorities looked away.

Douthat’s wants the left to use a scalpel rather than a hatchet in its analysis of privilege, but he manages no such thing in his read of American politics. Take the “red pill” (related: barf) that Douthat offers and you will see “today’s progressivism as a force that has consistently liberated adults at the expense of children’s basic rights and that depends on a great deal of hidden violence -- millions upon millions of abortions, above all -- to sustain its particular vision of equality.”

The subtext here appears to be that Douthat views legal abortion as the same thing as a system that ignored the rapes of 1,400 minors. And while it goes unmentioned, it is not a stretch, given Douthat’s history of writing on the subject, to infer that this idea of progressivism liberating adults “at the expense of children’s basic rights” is also a swipe at marriage equality and LGBTQ families.

In a 2012 blog post on a discredited study about gay parents, Douthat again invoked children’s rights to argue that marriage's “purpose” is not “to validate the consenting adults who enter into it, but to provide support and recognition for a particular way of bearing and rearing children -- one whose distinctive advantages remain apparent, even as that recognition declines and disappears.” (Douthat is also wrong about the "distinctive advantages" of straight marriage, as the vast number of studies show that the children of gay parents do just fine.)

The left indulges these blind spots in order to uphold “its particular vision of equality,” according to Douthat. This “particular vision,” entails, I believe, the ability of gay couples to access the same legal rights as straight couples and raise their children without having to prove to skeptical columnists why it is OK for them to do so. It also includes the right to terminate an unintended pregnancy rather than be coerced by the state to carry it to term.

Frightening stuff, I know.

Douthat’s argument claims to be about embracing complexity and exposing the limits of metanarratives. But what it actually boils down to a chastisement of the left for not embracing the more flattened aspects of Douthat’s own politics: that one must either celebrate Charlie Hebdo’s Islamaphobic cartoons or find oneself on the wrong side of an argument about freedom of the press, that gay people in the United States shouldn’t be considered a marginalized group because equal marriage is legal in some states and anti-LGBTQ brutality is more explicitly sanctioned in other countries, that "all abortion is murder" marks the end of any discussion about reproductive freedom and abortion as a moral decision.

It is also hard to avoid how Douthat's analysis of power is informed by -- wait for it -- his own privilege. Perhaps from his vantage point -- a straight white Catholic guy and coastal media type (hiss!) -- the gay rights movement does have "extraordinary influence" -- especially at the "elite" level. Maybe he knows some gay people who are doing pretty well for themselves, with nice media jobs and families of their own. But Douthat's feelings about LGBTQ people's status does not make it so. (Another thing about privilege: it can cause you to think that the only world that exists is the one that stops at your nose.)

But it is still perfectly legal to discriminate against gay people, even without new laws that make that more explicit. LGBTQ youth are still over-represented in the homeless population. Trans women of color are still disproportionately likely to be the victims of violence. And none of these things become less true just because marriage equality may soon be legal in every state.

Privilege is slippery -- there is no questioning that. But if you want to complicate ideas about power, difference and solidarity with an eye toward justice, read some Audre Lorde. Leave Douthat’s “red pill” on the table.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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