To read Andrea Dworkin is to enter into an alternate universe.
In her Amerika--yes, she still spells the word with a K--we live in the midst of an obscene, unending war: the war of the sexes. Women live, she says, “under martial law . . . in a situation of emergency . . . under a reign of terror . . . brutalized by ‘pimps’ and pornographers and just plain ordinary men.”
These dramatic phrases are not, to Dworkin, simply examples of poetic license, the sort of boilerplate bellicosity that can give spice to an otherwise tepid political speech--Dworkin believes “the war against women is a real war. There’s nothing abstract about it. This is a war in which his fist is in your face.”
Readers familiar with Dworkin’s work will find very little in “Life and Death,” her newest collection of essays, that is new or surprising. In the writings contained within it--some originally given as speeches at feminist gatherings, others reprinted from magazines and journals and even the pages of this newspaper--Dworkin plays variations on the themes she’s explored in her previous books: pornography, prostitution, rape and violence against women.
These are all serious subjects--indeed, in some cases, deadly serious--but Dworkin’s reflexive rhetorical overkill, her unrelenting outrage, serves to cloud rather than clarify the issues. And by collapsing the distinctions between real life-and-death issues (rape, brutality) and what are at worst trivial annoyances (Playboy centerfolds), she manages to trivialize all she touches.
“Intercourse and Pornography: Men Possessing Women” may indeed have been, as her publicist rather perversely puts it, “seminal works,” but “Life and Death” is, for the most part, Dworkin by-the-numbers.
At the heart of “the continuing war against women” that Dworkin refers to in her subtitle is, of course, pornography. Far from being a “superficial target,” as some might claim, pornography is “the DNA of male dominance” or (to change the metaphor) the “Pentagon” of male violence. “Pornographers train the soldiers; then the soldiers go out and do the actions on us,” she writes. “We’re the population that the war is against.”
It’s often said that pornography leads to rape--an assertion that seems to most free-speechers a little simplistic. To Dworkin, though, the issue is even simpler than that: Pornography, in effect, is rape, no different from “any other historically real torture or punishment. . . .” Pornography isn’t fantasy--"pornography happens.” Dworkin may be the only person alive who believes that the letters in Penthouse Forum are real.
This conflation of pornographic pictures and real-world rape is typical of Dworkin’s style. She carefully elides the distinctions between all that she opposes: Pornography is prostitution, prostitution is rape and rape, finally, is not altogether distinct from normal sex. “You cannot separate the so-called abuses of women from the so-called normal uses of women,” she writes. “Men use sex to hurt us. An argument can be made that men have to hurt us, diminish us, in order to be able to have sex with us. . . .”
In Dworkin’s view, women live in a charnel house of torture and degradation--most just don’t realize it yet. “When one thinks about women’s ordinary lives and the lives of children, especially female children, it is very hard not to think that one is looking at atrocity--if one’s eyes are open,” Dworkin tells her readers. “We have to accept that we are looking at ordinary life; the hurt is not exceptional; rather, it is systematic and it is real.”
Given such high stakes, it’s hardly surprising that, to Dworkin, “free speech fetishists” seem as bad as street pimps and snuff pornographers. Indeed, she is enthusiastic in abusing her foes, describing them as “gutless wonders,” “male supremacists” and worse--the sort of people who can work up hypocritical sympathy for a murdered girl even though they “would not really mind her being beaten to death once she was an adult.”
In one extraordinary essay, she suggests that male writers who challenge her views are no better than serial killer Marc Lepine, the brutal misogynist who gunned down 14 women in Montreal a little over seven years ago. “It is true that not every man picks up a semiautomatic gun,” Dworkin writes, “but a lot of them don’t have to, because they have pens.” The pen, it seems, is indeed mightier than the sword.
Dworkin’s reflexive name calling serves as a kind of substitute for reasoned argument. She asserts; she does not prove. She proclaims; she does not support her proclamations with anything beyond anecdotal evidence. (Her most compelling “evidence” comes from statements given at a public hearing she helped to organize.)
Though she’s quick to attack critics of her arguments (and her “evidence”) as arrogant misogynists, she manages to avoid mentioning more than a handful of her critics by name, and she does not attempt to respond to their arguments in detail--perhaps because it is easier to deal with caricatures of critics than it is with real people and real arguments. Dworkin rails at a vague, malevolent “they.”
In most cases, of course, the gender of Dworkin’s accused is male. But it would be unfair to label her, as some have done, as a man-hater--in part because her most contemptuous treatment is reserved for those women who disagree with her.
Dworkin is loath, however, to even admit that any woman might differ with her, much less intelligent and eloquent anti-censorship feminists, such as Susie Bright or Sallie Tisdale--it spoils her picture of a world overwhelmed by “male supremacists.” Showing certain women a contempt even greater than she shows for the typical man, she refuses even to name her female opponents--referring to one, for example, only as “Playboy’s hired girl.”
She dismisses serious feminist criticism with an impatient wave of her hand: Those women who don’t see the world as she does are “liars and deniers,” cowards and fools.
So much for dialogue, so much for real debate; those who disagree with her might not even deserve to live.
There are to be sure, a few chapters of “Life and Death” not utterly disfigured by hysteria--the first chapter, an often eloquent account of Dworkin’s life as a writer, and a tender closing chapter detailing her visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. In both of these essays, Dworkin seems to be honestly interested in exploring the issues at hand, willing to suspend for a moment the dogmatic certainty of most of her writing, to challenge herself to learn something new from the world.
But there is little in “Life and Death” that will challenge anyone, much less Dworkin herself. The book is designed to reinforce the dogmatic outrage of committed Dworkinites and to offend and anger those “free speech fetishists” unlucky enough to find themselves reading it.
As something of a “free speech fetishist” myself, I found it merely depressing yet another sign that our national “debate” about pornography is anything but a real debate. The Dworkinites will continue to make their speeches; we free-speechers will make our replies. But we won’t really be talking to each other at all. We live, after all, in very different worlds.