May 7, 2012 · 1 Comments
By Marie Burns:
While I was away, Ross Douthat was at play. My friends and I have long thought that Douthat was fond of playing with inanimate objects. The original basis for our theory can be found on page 184 of Douthat’s autobiographical book Privilege, wherein our Harvard-boy hero described himself as “bored” and “somewhat disgusted” by an animate object – a girl drunk enough to have sex with him. In the finale to a decidedly-unsteamy bedroom scene, Douthat confesses that “whatever residual enthusiasm I felt for the venture dissipated, with shocking speed, as she nibbled at my ear and whispered – ‘You know, I’m on the pill….’” Years before Rick Santorum explained that “contraception … is a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be,” Ross Douthat was incapable of doing things in the sexual realm with a woman not committed to producing little Rosses. So much for animate playthings.
Today Douthat’s inanimate plaything comes courtesy of the Obama campaign. Her name is “Julia,” and as Michael Shear of the New York Times describes her, she is
a fictional woman whose life is chronicled in a slick infographic published on the campaign’s Web site on Thursday. Visitors to the site can watch as Julia grows up, receiving benefits from the president’s policies along the way…. The graphic – titled ‘The Life of Julia’ – includes criticism of Mr. Romney’s positions. At each stage of life, the slide show suggests that Julia would be worse off if Mr. Romney were in charge.
The Obama campaign page, “Life of Julia” is here.
Sadly, Douthat does not like the inanimate Julia any better than he did the buxom girl who used birth control. But we can see in Douthat’s youthful inability to maintain an erection the seeds, as it were, of his antipathy for Julia. In describing Julia, Douthat writes,
The list of Obama-bestowed benefits includes Head Start when Julia’s a tyke, tax credits and Pell grants to carry her through college and low-interest loan repayment afterward, guaranteed birth control when she’s a 20-something and government-sponsored loans when she wants to start a business, all of it culminating in a stress-free retirement underwritten by Medicare and Social Security.
Douthat hates the Obama doll. He begins,
All propaganda invites snark and parody, and the story of Julia is ripe for it. She’s an everywoman only by the standards of the liberal upper middle class: She works as a Web designer, has her first child in her early 30s (the average first-time American mother is in her mid-20s), and spends her golden years as a “volunteer at a community garden.” (It will not surprise you to learn that the cartoon Julia looks Caucasian.)
This would be the dumbest criticism I ever read, had I not read further in Douthat’s column. Note to Douthat: Ross, dear, Julia is an exemplar – just like a doll. She is not a real person. What’s more, Julia is a sort of super-doll. A plain ole doll – even those of the blow-up kind – remains fixed in time. Your baby doll will always be a baby, Ross, even as you grow older, if not wiser. But Julia gets most of the Obama benefits in the same year. While you stay one age, Julia gets older – and younger, if you back up the interactive graphic. And see, Ross, one cannot be three years old and 43 years old at the same time. I know this is confusing for you.
Because Douthat cannot get his brain around simple exemplary material, he does not understand what is obvious to you and me: no one woman would likely get all of the benefits Julia does; but every woman, should her individual circumstances require it, would have such services available under an Obama plan.
Douthat’s complaint that Julia is “an everywoman only by the standards of the liberal upper middle class” is pretty hilarious. He is troubled that she works as a Web designer. I don’t know how upper-classy that is. It seems like typical work for a recent college grad. It’s a job that requires a person to use both her artistic and technological skills, both people skills and the self-discipline to work long hours alone. It could just be that the Web designers who designed Julia couldn’t think of any other job for her. Maybe their vision is, after all, as limited as Douthat’s.
Having a first child after age 30 is also typical for college grads. Ross is very disturbed that Julia has choices – and has made the choice not to have a child while she is establishing her career. Again, it’s The Pill! Elsewhere, Douthat has advocated for women having many children, a goal most easily realized by starting early. Douthat’s belief in Catholic teachings colors everything he reads. Julia is not “normal” because she does not follow Church doctrine. Only an elitist would conceive a model who delays conceiving.
Douthat even thinks that working in a community garden is an elitist thing. Obviously, he has never done any gardening. Here, Ross should think of Willard Romney, who has persons of the foreign persuasion work on his own extensive gardens. Of course these foreign persons don’t volunteer. Rather, Romney has to pay them starvation wages.
Douthat is also troubled that “Julia looks Caucasian.” Douthat would find that troubling. He is invested in the right wing pretense that government programs redistribute white wealth to “blah” people. He does not like to see any sort of publication that hints of the fact that more white women receive government benefits than do women of other colors. Since Julia is a latinate name, I suppose she might be Hispanic. But frankly, I don’t see Julia as being of any race; “Julia looks Caucasian” would not have crossed my mind. Her race is immaterial. To make that point, Julia’s race seems to change over the course of the graphic. In the early frames, she has black hair; in later frames her hair is red or brown before it returns to black, then gray. So Julia is no color; she is every color. Douthat wants to paint her black because he wants to reinforce a fact-averse stereotype. He is irritated that the Obama campaign has made Julia a-racial.
Now for Douthat Crazy:
What’s more, [Julia] seems to have no meaningful relationships apart from her bond with the Obama White House: no friends or siblings or extended family, no husband (‘Julia decides to have a child,’ is all the slide show says), a son who disappears once school starts and parents who only matter because Obamacare grants her the privilege of staying on their health care plan until she’s 26. This lends the whole production a curiously patriarchal quality, with Obama as a beneficent Daddy Warbucks and Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan co-starring as the wicked uncles threatening to steal Julia’s inheritance.
There is NOTHING, nothing in the graphic that suggests Julia has no relationships. The graphic is not about Julia’s parents or her boyfriends or husband or children or friends and other relatives. It is about benefits for women. Perhaps Douthat wants the reader to forget the subject, which is the contrast between the Democratic and Republican visions for the social safety net. Or maybe he is genuinely unable to read a document that graphically contrasts his own narrow vision with Obama’s.
Or maybe he is just parroting the party line. Every criticism that Douthat articulates here has been previously proposed by other writers. It seems “The Life of Julia” pushed the right-wing into screaming-mimi overdrive. As Michael Shear of the Times noted, Julia “managed to provoke a fury among conservatives, who took to Twitter to mock Julia and to condemn the implication that the fictional young woman should be dependent on government policies throughout her life.” Among the less crazy wingers, for instance, Mary Kate Cary, a former Dubya speechwriter, complains in a USA Today op-ed that Julia is being supported by a “paternal state,” that she doesn’t pay taxes, that she is white, that she is not married, that she is not religious, and that she is not a homeowner. So what we have in Douthat is the New York Times delivering the Readers’ Digest of Right Wing World to its readers’ doorsteps.
Let’s be clear. The graphic provides no basis for Douthat’s and Cary’s claims. We don’t know whether or not Julia owns a home in Peoria or rents an apartment in Manhattan. We don’t know if she’s straight or gay. We don’t know if she is a church-goer. There is no suggestions whatsoever in the graphic that she does not pay taxes. Obviously, the real problem with “The Life of Julia” is that it is not a 600-page Victorian novel. Apparently, one needs to spell out every little extraneous detail to conservatives in order for them to “get it.” How is it that people who are usually so disinterested in facts suddenly want a slideshow packed with irrelevant datapoints?
There are some non-partisan criticisms of “The Life of Julia,” too.
For instance, Michael Scherer of Time notes that Obama has agreed in the past to make cuts to Social Security and Medicare (the deals fell through) and is still evidently open to cuts. What Scherer does not bother to say is that Obama’s agreement to these cuts was a concession to Republicans. Scherer posits that “some sort of reductions in Medicare benefits will be required in the coming years.” I don’t think he’s right about that; a recent report shows that Medicare spending has slowed significantly during the Obama administration – with no reduction in benefits – “and it looks like a trend that will keep going strong in the future.” So when Scherer writes, “Both candidates want to reduce Social Security and Medicare benefits in the out years, even if they differ on how much to cut and how to do the cutting,” I don’t think he is being accurate. We have not seen an Obama plan to cut Social Security and Medicare; we have seen a Romney plan: he has fully endorsed Paul Ryan’s “Path to Disparity,” which would drastically cut senior benefits in the future.
PolitiFact argues that “The Life of Julia” claim that “Under the Romney/Ryan budget, interest rates on federal student loans would be allowed to double, affecting Julia and 7.4 million other students” is false because “both parties want to keep the rate the same.” Although on the campaign trail Romney told students they were out of luck if they wanted help from federal loans, he flipflopped on that in late April. He now says he supports maintaining the low student interest rate, although he won’t say how to pay for it. The House recently passed a bill maintaining the low rate and paying for it by defunding a critical portion of the Affordable Care Act. This of course is an in-Obama’s-face tactic that won’t pass the Senate. So the Julia claim used to be true and is still true to the extent that Romney, Ryan and Congressional Republicans will – so far – only fund the lower student interest rate if they can use it to decimate ObamaCare.
Unable as Douthat is to see “The Life of Julia” for what it is – a summary of a few ways Democratic policies are designed to help women when they need assistance and Romney/Ryan policies would curtail this aid – Douthat jumps to broad, unwarranted conclusions:
… the slide show’s vision of the individual’s relationship to the state seems designed to vindicate every conservative critique of the Obama-era Democratic Party. The liberalism of ‘the Life of Julia’ doesn’t envision government spending the way an older liberalism did – as a backstop for otherwise self-sufficient working families, providing insurance against job loss, decrepitude and catastrophic illness. It offers a more sweeping vision of government’s place in society, in which the individual depends on the state at every stage of life, and no decision – personal, educational, entrepreneurial, sexual – can be contemplated without the promise that it will be somehow subsidized by Washington. The condescension inherent in this vision is apparent in every step of Julia’s pilgrimage toward a community-gardening retirement.
There is nothing in “The Life of Julia” that suggests President Obama intends to take over the lives of women. As George Packer mentions in today’s New Yorker, “Obama could fairly base his whole campaign on Republican efforts to thwart the economic recovery. But that would sound weak, so his argument will be ‘Look at what they would do.’” That’s Julia’s purpose. Contra Douthat’s assertion, most of the policies cited in “The Life” are longstanding Democratic (and formerly Republican) policies. Douthat’s charges are dependent on the loon factor, peppered with heavy-handed, fact-free fear-mongering. Head Start, low-interest, government-backed student loans, small business loans, Social Security – these programs have been around for decades. Newer policies from which Julia benefits, like the ACA provision allowing her to stay on her parents’ health insurance plan while she’s a young adult, are wildly popular among the public. And this is what worries Douthat, though he expresses his anxiety in conservo-speak: “… in an increasingly atomized society, where communities and families are weaker than ever before, such a vision may have more appeal – to both genders – than many of the conservatives mocking the slide show might like to believe.” Americans, even those who claim they oppose “government handouts,” are only to glad to accept the benefits when they need help.
The most popular comment on Douthat’s column is by Karen Garcia, who envisions “The Life of Biff,” a .01-percenter who is Romney’s copycat cartoon character. Despite all of Biff’s advantages, Garcia sees a tragic ending for him – and for us 99.99 percenters, too. Had she more space to write (the Times limits comments to 1,500 characters), Garcia (who also blogs here) might have found Biff’s life even more dreadful. For instance, maybe Biff is gay, and under Romney and his Robert Bork-approved Supreme Court appointees, Biff and his partner cannot marry. Or maybe Biff is straight and marries an Egyptian heiress and converts to Islam; the CIA waterboards him because he might be a terrorist. In fear for her own well-being and her children’s, Biff’s foreign-born wife “self-deports,” taking the children with her. Biff cannot even visit his family because instead of going on that Obama ‘Round-World Apology Tour, Romney’s ‘Round-the-World American Exceptionalism Tour is so offensive that many countries break off diplomatic relations with the U.S. Under the Marco Rubio-sponsored “They Are All Cuba Now” law, the U.S. forbids American citizens to travel to those countries.
Watch out, Ross. We liberals can do ridiculous fear-mongering, too.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com