Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Lesson Re-Learned

I don't normally read Ross Douthat's columns in The New York Times.  Like David Brooks, he occupies a space of valuable op-ed real estate to wave his freak-flag of pointless, narcissistic spite masked as insightful social commentary.  For some reason, though, I clicked a link from Twitter to today's offering, and I was rewarded with precisely the kind of awful writing I should have known I would read.

The column itself is an endorsement of yet another stupid book trying to help young parents understand that becoming a parent is, indeed, a good choice.  That such a thing should be deemed worthy of interest outside the halls of self-regarding upper-middle-class whiteness is beside the point for me.  Yet, it is precisely because this would be the target audience of such pabulum that Douthat is drawn to it.  What he does with it, however, is typical of his output: Rather than talk about parenting as the near-impossible task it actually is, yet rewarding in and for itself, Douthat decides to riff on a theme that is de rigueur for him: How much better Ross Douthat is than others in his same socio-economic cohort.  At least, how much better he believes himself to be than the imaginary members of said cohort that Douthat believes make fun of him and his life choices.

In that sense, this column is an archetype of all Douthat columns.  Rather than speak to the many ways our society makes parenting difficult at the best of times*; rather than a curious examination of why young couples might choose not to be parents; rather than wonder why we need yet another book reassuring parents the choice to become parents is a good choice; rather than all this, Douthat makes the entire column about why he, Ross Douthat, is better than those whose life choices are different.  Rather than write a column about family or social policy, Douthat writes yet another in a long string of columns about Ross Douthat.

What's disturbing about this particular offering, however, is Douthat's transparent narcissism.  There is no pretense that Douthat is going to speak to issues beyond his own private concerns as reflective of some broader trends.  The column is textbook narcissism.  His ending flourish - I'm a better person because I'm miserable being a parent! - has the added benefit of him trying to convince himself there is some truth there.

Deeper than the narcissism, however; deeper than the obvious fear that he has not, in fact, made a choice that brings happiness; deeper than these, however, is a kind of roiling envy mixed with anger.  Those in his, Douthat's, cohort who have chosen to eschew parenthood, Douthat imagines laughing at him for his own choice.  Leaping off the page is the fear they might be right.  As I wrote on Facebook, the words are stitched together in such a way they barely hold back this anger.  For this reason alone, this column is not just bad, but horrifying in a disturbing, creepy way.  As the world is all about Ross Douthat, those to whom his imagination leaps as sniggering at his becoming a father (as if anyone outside his friends and family care one way or another) are not people who have made different choices.  It isn't even, as his words claim, they are somehow less morally upright in their choices.  There is, between the words and paragraphs, the sense that Douthat sees them as some kind of threat.  That it is obvious Douthat fears they may also be correct in their choices makes this threat even more dire.

Never mind those against whom Douthat writes are creations of his odd mind.  Never mind that the complexities and difficulties of parenting don't seem to be a concern in a column ostensibly about parenting.  Never mind that not becoming a parent is a choice as filled with moral uprightness as any other.  Never mind all these things.  Seething, barely contained by the linguistic conventions of sentences and paragraphs, with punctuation serving as stitches to hold back the tide, is rage that others are living their lives as a judgment upon his choices.  It is really quite frightening to read.  One wonders how he operates day-to-day, interacting with others without flying in to blind rage at all the imagined slights to his life choices evident in our social life.

Having read this column, I, for one have at least learned not to read him again.  I will, however, wait for the inevitable break.  It is bound to come.  People with this kind of anger inside them usually do, somehow.

*In light of the verdict in the Michael Dunn murder trial, such a column would certainly have some resonance.  A teenager doing what teenagers do is murdered by a man terrified of a group of black teenagers being teenagers.  No matter what we do as parents, we cannot protect them all the time, and that should terrify anyone.

Virtual Tin Cup

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