The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association

Don’t Think, Smile:
Notes on a Decade of Denial
By Ellen Willis
Boston: Beacon Press, 1999. $24.00

Reviewed by John Biguenet

Book Review September/October 1999

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A feminist’s frustrations with the political discourse of the last 10 years boil over in Don’t Think, Smile!: Notes on a Decade of Denial, the new essay collection by Ellen Willis. Examining the decline of liberal thought, the volume locates the blame in the demoralized left’s propensity for appeasement in a misguided effort to forge a majority. After all, as Willis rightly points out, “No mass left-wing movement has ever been built on a majoritarian strategy.”
 The author of two previous books of cultural commentary and a former staff writer for the New Yorker and the Village Voice, Willis doesn’t hesitate, even in the face of sweeping conservative victories, to call for an unapologetic assertion of liberal principles, social as well as economic. “It’s no wonder that the public prefers the right’s language of freedom,” she writes, adding that
ironically, many leftists are all too eager to pander to the socially conservative values they imagine (erroneously) are the key to majority support, while dismissing libertarianism out of hand, despite its wide appeal. In reality, I’m convinced, the left has no hope of seriously influencing the public conversation unless it counters the right’s conception of liberty with its own compelling vision of a free society.

By remaining silent on this issue, Willis argues, the left has not only abandoned the podium to conservatives but has allowed them to redefine the very terms of the debate. Noting, for example, some feminists’ complicity in the reduction of a broad range of women’s issues to the catchall of sexual violence, Willis laments the consequences, arguing that 

one of the great successes of the antifeminist reaction is that there is now no socially acceptable public language in which women, particularly young women, can directly and explicitly express anger at the ‘mundane kinds of sexism,’ or what I’ve called the sexism of everyday life—that is, men’s ubiquitous, culturally sanctioned, ‘normal’ expressions of dominance.

Similarly, she points out that hotly argued issues regarding governmental services to citizens were conflated and disposed of by conservatives with little resistance from the left, under the principle that government should be modeled on business organizations. “Today all these propositions are virtually unquestioned axioms of economic, political, and cultural common sense,” she writes.

The first half of Don’t Think, Smile! is taken up with a pastiche of brief essays on such topical matters as the publication of The Bell Curve, the trial of O. J. Simpson, the Million Man March, and Paula Jones’s lawsuit against President Clinton. Collectively titled “Decade of Denial,” these short articles are linked by the author’s insistence on freedom of sexual choice as “a matter of individual liberty” and her denunciation of the traditional family as “a social structure based on sexual repression and the subordination of women.”

Arguing that personal freedom must assume a central role in leftist thought, Willis goes so far as to castigate morality itself as “a structure of internalized coercion” (though she does concede that not “all moral imperatives are oppressive”). She adds that the left’s political future depends on a public commitment to such freedom. “What would have happened in 1994—or 1980—if desire had had a champion?” she asks.

Suppose . . .  that from the ’70s to the present, instead of echoing moral conservatives or changing the subject, the left had consistently argued that the point of life is to live and enjoy it fully; that genuine virtue is the overflow of happiness, not the bitter fruit of self-denial; that sexual freedom and pleasure are basic human rights; that endless work and subordination to bosses are offenses to the human spirit. . . .  And suppose those arguments were coupled with a thoroughgoing critique of the new economic order and its accelerating class war; in a challenge to Americans to wrest control of their lives from the sex cops and the corporations?

If liberals had made this case, Willis writes, we’d be facing a different political landscape. But frustrated by their failure to defend their own convictions, she raises what she calls “the bleakest of questions: is the left so afraid of freedom that it would rather lose?”

John Biguenet’s work has appeared most recently in Granta, Esquire, and Joe. His books include The Craft of Translation and Theories of Translation (both from University of Chicago Press) as well as Foreign Fictions (Random House).

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