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February 2018
Grandma Knows Best
Neo-conservative ideologue Midge Decter must be right. After all, she says so.

Midge Decter
I read Midge Decter’s disappointing ideological memoir, An Old Wife’s Tale, during an extended visit to my elderly mother. My mother, too, urges me to civic and personal virtue, family values, and love of country, and she, too, rages against the decadence of contemporary culture, the harm that feminism has caused, the corruption of the educational system, the tastelessness of contemporary styles and the fecklessness and baseness of (especially liberal) politicians.

And I agree. Love of country is a positive sentiment, the public square has been dangerously emptied of spiritual content, children probably best develop the key qualities of ego strength and ego restraint in traditional family structures. About feminism, too, I agree – that its narcissism, hostility to men, rhetorical excesses and repugnance for childbirth and normative householding have poisoned relations between the sexes for decades now, even that the “women’s movement” is in some ways an elaborate scam by which the healthiest and freest cohort of women in the history of the world persuaded a confused society that they were among the oppressed of the earth.

So Decter and I are on the same page, so to speak. But are opinions enough? Decter’s book consists in large measure of kitchen conversation, the kind of at-home preaching or prattle that scores high for oratorical certainty but low for evidence or helpful context. Everybody, grandmas especially, get to talk that way with friends and family in their own kitchens, but from a book by a leading neo-conservative ideologue one expects information, discussion, maybe even an acknowledgment that there could be two sides to some issues.

Without those elements, Decter veers close to self-indulgence. Thus, in a dozen chapters combining her life’s story with the outlines of her intellectual development, she offers such silly formulations as “I myself had always thought of feminism as being true faith in, and admiration for, the nature and gifts and contributions of women” (as if “feminism” is merely the opposite of misogyny and not really an ideology at all); or such illogical ones as “Abortion should of course be illegal but not…absolutely impossible under all conditions.” (And where did that “of course” come from?)

Rather than give us the muscle of research and reason, she elevates anecdote to the level of axiom (as grandmothers like to do). Is it really a current trend, for example, for young women to preserve their virginity by performing fellatio on their boyfriends; and does such a practice in fact drain sexual energy out of relationships long into the future? Grandma says so, no support offered – if you don’t like it, go rake the leaves.

Worse, like many a grandma, Decter can sound dated, out of touch with the reality of her children’s and grandchildren’s lives. “Current theory,” she tells us, assigns “identical sexual natures” to men and women. But that idea is more a holdover from her battles in the ‘70s and ‘80s than an accurate representation of the shadings of feminist theory today. And is date rape really nothing more than an “invention” to keep young women “feeling chaste without having to take responsibility for being so”? The broad brush is not a particularly penetrating tool.

Decter posits that the socialization of young women in contradiction to their true inner natures as mothers and as society’s “indispensable civilizing force” has led to an “unmanning” of young men. What’s gone wrong in the socialization of boys (absence of real work to do, lack of role models and mentors for manhood, being allowed neither “to grow up nor … to be “real children at the beginning of their journey to some genuine kind of adulthood” is a weighty subject – one that Paul Goodman, for example, explored keenly in his extraordinary Growing Up Absurd some 35 years ago. Much significant work has been done on the subject since then – in the last decade, boy-problems and girl-problems have become an industry in themselves – but on this subject, too, Decter feels no need to provide context, background or even suggested remedies.

In brief, though Decter is often witty, her memoir is not as smart as one wants it to be. The “old wife” presents a few interesting ideas – that the Sixties revolution, for example, marked a class battle between the privileged young and those who went into the army or blue-collar jobs, or that the Women’s Movement of the ‘70s and ‘80s was in actuality a rebellion against the sexual revolution.

But the interesting ideas are scattered among the banal, and they too lack context, discussion or even a humble acknowledgment that, say, something airless and mean in 1950s American life might have allowed the likes of Joe McCarthy, Tricky Dick and the Vietnam War to invent themselves. Were the “Libbers” (the term Decter uses to demean feminists) merely seeking “liberation from the ultimately inescapable nature of womanhood itself” and not responding at all to real problems in American society? Mom‘s patriotic apple pie didn’t start to taste like ash to a lot of young Americans for no reason. Maybe the pendulum has now swung too far to the “left” in some arenas. But to ignore context and history, as Decter does, is to misunderstand even what one is correct about.

As personal memoir also, her book is slim pickings. Decter tells the basic outlines of her life – reared Jewish in the Midwest, twice married, suburban mother and urban career women, social critic and author of three books (The Liberated Woman and Other Americans; The New Chastity and Other Arguments Against Women’s Liberation; and Liberal Parents, Radical Children), neo-conservative activist exiled with second husband Norman Podhoretz, long-time editor of Commentary Magazine, from the cocoon of the New York intellectual Left – but she provides very little in the way of real recollection. One doesn’t need gossip, but Decter disappoints by shedding virtually no light on the cultural, political and intellectual milieu in which she moved or on the many significant people with and against whom she has worked. If one‘s aim is such discretion about details, why write a memoir?

What’s clear, beyond her opinions, is how important to Decter is her membership in the particular intellectual tribe she’s chosen. She belongs with these, the conservatives, and absolutely not with those, the liberals. It’s a stance not so surprising in middle-class ladies from respectable surroundings, but one wishes for more nuance and more subtlety.

So I’ve got a lot of complaints about An Old Wife’s Tale. Still, as a parent concerned about a 20-something daughter exploring life and love in America, I don’t dismiss Decter completely. There’s something degraded, harmful and alluring out there in the wilds of American culture, and one thing leads to another. Young people need protection. So, with many caveats, I’ll end up suggesting to my daughter and her friends that they take a look at Decter’s book. Someone’s got to try to talk some sense into their heads, after all.

Published in the Jerusalem Report, May 20, 2002.

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