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Sometime in high school, my friend Jordan romanced a girl on an Alaskan cruise. I can picture them even now, an acne-ridden DiCaprio and Winslett yanked from D.C. and Des Moines to accompany sunset-cruiser grandparents. They shuffleboarded up the fjords. They spat cliches at the north Pacific. They made out. You know the story.
And then, of course, she called him. I think it was an answering-machine message he heard first. “I’m just in town for the march,” she said. “Just calling to say hi.”
The march? Good, solid liberal Jordan scratched his head. He didn’t know about any march. And then he saw the paper: “Pro-Life Marchers Descend on Washington.” Good heavens! She had seemed so smart and so normal, and now, all of a sudden, it seemed she was…one of them. That cruise ship had not only sailed to Alaska, it had taken our hero on a journey even more exotic: to the world outside the liberal diaspora.
Journalist Elinor Burkett takes the same journey in The Right Women: A Journey Through the Heart of Conservative America, her profile of the various women of the American far right. Though she forgoes the spit-swapping, her trip is otherwise reminiscent of young Jordan’s: exotic sights and surprise affection recorded by an accidental-tourist protagonist. The only difference is that the cruise ship never sank, while Burkett’s book left me begging for an iceberg.
The setup, in a nutshell: Burkett presents herself as an aging liberal feminist Gulliver wandering through the brave new world of self-proclaimed ultraconservatives. Divided into sections with titles like “The Babes” (the young political professionals of the right), “The Outlaws” (militia-style women), and “The Apostates” (ex-feminists who now do things like run small businesses), The Right Women gazes through Burkett’s wide eyes at everyone from a black Mississippi Republican candidate to new right “ideopreneurs” like Arianna Huffington and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese.
Burkett makes every effort to respect the different experiences of her subjects. Like a good sensitive liberal, she also makes every effort to identify with them—something she succeeds in doing with frightening frequency. I suppose it goes without saying that before too long—in fact, in the introduction—she is flaying her liberal conscience and waxing positively Aldaesque about the diverse dignity of rightist womanhood: “I heard in my own thoughts a nasty, patronizing and holier-than-thou arrogance….I slipped several rungs on my own moral superiority ladder—and started listening, and remembering.”
Burkett goes on to let a truly impressive array of her putative ideological foes have their say, but in many of her profiles she doesn’t so much listen to the women as regurgitate their nostrums. (Perhaps predictably, the ones least likely to get a free ride are the women most like Burkett: middle-aged, educated, and keeping both feet firmly planted in mainstream politics.) While the experience of hanging with cigar-smoking D.C. Republican-revolutionistas at the 18th Street Lounge might make Burkett remember her own days of challenging parental wisdom—as if being a rebel were an end in itself—she seems to have forgotten in the process the reflexive suspicion any reporter needs to bring to an interview. Her book, in fact, begins to look an awful lot like an exercise in liberal guilt. She gives off the impression that she’s so wary of being judgmental that she won’t call bullshit on the people she’s writing about. A book with this mentality about, say, poor black people would be mercilessly panned by the women Burkett profiles.
If it were simply a matter of Burkett’s buying into her subjects’ views of themselves, that would be one thing. In a section about conservative Southern black women, for instance, she lets Washington state Republican Nona Brazier all but recast civil rights legend W.E.B. Du Bois as a fawning apostle of dependence on government while holding up Booker T. Washington, who argued against anti-segregation militance, as the ultimate defender of self-sufficiency. That’s the kind of stuff you’d expect from a far-right propagandist rather than a self-proclaimed liberal, but the really eerie thing is the way The Right Women also eats up conservative myths about liberalism.
As it turns out, the book lends credence to just about every rightist cliche about the left. Her subjects claim to be besieged by PC mobs, to be struggling against a culture of self-indulgence, battling against the liberals who have run things for decades (17 years after Ronald Reagan’s election, Burkett actually lets this through), and reacting to the naive mistakes of the oft-mentioned “sixties.”
Given Burkett’s literary device of narrator-as-liberal-innocent-abroad, this wholesale acceptance of the conservative take on liberalism is decidedly weird. And given the way so many of her subjects define themselves against that very same stereotyped liberalism, it’s also a fatal flaw for a book that claims to profile them.
Have liberals been running things through the Reagan and Clinton years? Do left-wing politics primarily represent self-indulgence? Are the women of the right besieged by nefarious PCs? I’m a lefty and I don’t think so. I think they think so, which is an interesting question to examine—more interesting, in any event, than Burkett’s string of hagiographic entries analogizing the efforts of today’s right-wing women to her own days of aquarian rebellion. It’s the ultimate in liberal guilt: suspend judgment on the folks who would eat you alive. No wonder The Right Women are in charge. CP