The American Zeitgeist as Revealed in Slate by ‘Prudie’

October 12, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

The zeitgeist, as revealed by popular culture is a remarkable thing to behold. Now, just how much of the aforesaid zeitgeist is reflected in pop culture is anyone’s guess. My own is that there’s a lot more wisdom and common sense in most Americans than in all the professional opiners but together. Given a chance — which is rare — everyday folks have a way of seeing through the cant and drawing conclusions that are, often as not, pretty sound. I have enough experience talking to juries to know that they readily cut through the haze of legal argumentation to the quick of whatever case is before them. Not always, but far more often than not. And that experience leads me to conclude that they do the same with the various fevered emanations of pop culture.

Still our consumer culture, as evidenced by movies, magazines, ads, television and the like is well worth tracking, if for no other reason than to let us know what elite values we’re expected to absorb. With that in mind, I offer the latest from “Dear Prudence,” i.e. the advice column written for Slate by Emily Yoffe. Of course Slate often tends toward the type of rank anti-intellectualism that historian Richard Hofstadter identified way back in the early 60s. But again, not always. William Saletan has produced some good work and even Emily Yoffe recently had the temerity to, in the face of the usual barking by feminist watchdogs, point out that, if college women wouldn’t get quite so drunk quite so often, they might make better choices about with whom they have sex. That of course pushed the bright red “Blaming the Victim Button” that every radical feminist has installed on graduating from their Women’s Studies program, but Yoffe stuck to her guns and was right to do so.

The point being that, unlike so many other Slate writers, Yoffe has at least a vague understanding of women as responsible adults, as able to take care of themselves as the next person. I can’t tell yet, but she may even have connected enough of the necessary dots to figure out that, until everyone, even including feminists (!), begins to treat women that way, they’ll have no chance at true equality with men. It’s just not possible for most people to see women as victims of their own choices freely made, and, at the same time as deserving of equal respect and treatment. Who wants the person in the Oval Office with her finger on the nuclear trigger to be someone who believes that, for example, the sex she willingly had one night became rape the next day because Mr. Right didn’t call. We can’t have it both ways. We can’t pretend that women are the fragile incompetents radical feminists want us to believe they are and also strong, independent and trustworthy.

So, possibly Yoffe may be getting the idea that so many of us have had for so long. Let’s hope.

So it came to pass that a reader wrote into “Dear Prudence” here as follows (Slate, 10/6/14):

Q. Want to Go Alone: Four years ago, my birth control failed. I never wanted kids and was set to have an abortion, but my husband convinced me it’d be different with our own. It’s not. I’m glad my husband bonded with our daughter, because I wish her no harm but do not love her. My unwillingness to spend time with her made me take on long hours at work, and I am being rewarded with a promotion and raise that requires a transfer to a city 1,000 miles away. I accepted as soon as it was offered. I’m now wondering how to tell my husband that this is a done deal and also that I’d prefer that he and our daughter stay behind. Any thoughts?

To which “Prudie” replied:

A: I hope you watched the season premiere of Homeland last night. You would have really related to spy Carrie Matheson who maneuvered a posting to Pakistan in part to get away from her infant daughter. (Although, I hope you would have been horrified to watch Carrie, in the course of the single day she spent taking care of her child, contemplate drowning her.) This is a very sad letter, and does represent the dark side of being “convinced” into having a child. But I’m going to take this opportunity to say I’ve heard from far more people who found themselves in your position, had the child, and adore being parents. You also need to acknowledge that while your husband argued in favor of having your daughter, in the end the choice was yours. I do wish you would have recognized your inability to love your child in any way as a sign that you needed to make an effort to address this with a professional. However, it doesn’t sound as if you have much love for your husband, either, if you accepted a job 1,000 miles away without even contemplating discussing this with him. My thought is that you’re out of this marriage, you’ve never been into being a mother, and now you need the guts to say you want a divorce. If you are simply going to walk away from your child, I hope that your husband in due course finds another wife, one who can be the mother to your little girl that she deserves.

Given my earlier remarks about pop culture, I found it noteworthy that Yoffe chose to first associate the real flesh and blood writer with a fictional character. Whether or not “Want to Go Alone” identifies with the character in the television series, the difference between the two is that, whatever consequences “Carrie” experiences aren’t real while the ones WGA encounters will be very much so. Both contemplate throwing aside their children and families, a decision that can work out very nicely in fiction, but probably not so much in reality.

Still, I like the sentence, “You also need to acknowledge that while your husband argued in favor of having your daughter, in the end the choice was yours.” Yes, there’s that personal responsibility thing we see so little of these days. It would have been easy in today’s America for Yoffe to have hidden behind the stock narrative of female helplessness and male power. I can easily see a response to the effect that her husband’s desire for a child overwhelmed GWA’s will and so her current discontent is all his fault. But to her credit, Yoffe resisted the temptation.

But my applause ends there.

Yoffe pronounces GWA’s letter ‘sad,’ but utters not a peep to the effect that what she’s contemplating is (a) morally wrong, (b) enormously destructive to her child, (c) childishly selfish, (d) irresponsible in a number of ways and (e) deceitful. Here’s a woman who’s essentially done everything necessary to abandon her husband and three-year-old daughter and Yoffe can’t summon up a single judgmental phrase. Most tellingly, she fails to mention that, whatever GWA’s feelings toward the little girl, the child attached to her mother years ago and will be devastated, possibly all her life, by her abandonment by one of the two most important people in her life.

If this Slate piece indicates anything at all about the zeitgeist, it is that we’re far too willing to let behavior like GWA’s pass as “no harm, no foul.” On the contrary, there’s a great deal of harm and it’s long past time someone said so, loudly and disparagingly. There’s a time and a place to be judgmental and this is one of them. But Yoffe’s too busy parsing gentle, politically correct words to see the obvious.

But there’s worse to come. Even if Yoffe doesn’t care about GWA’s child or husband (which she transparently doesn’t), she might at least spare some feeling for GWA who’s about to make what looks like a terrible mistake. Of all the words Yoffe failed to write, surely the most remarkable are “alimony” and “child support.”

Here’s a woman who’s now stated in writing for all the world to read that she doesn’t love her child, never has and doesn’t intend to start, has taken steps to ensure that she sees the child as little as possible, is a good earner and has lied to her husband and daughter for the purpose of abandoning both. Walking into a divorce court with that resume won’t be viewed very favorably by a judge. I can just see her lawyer’s face when GWA mentions “Oh, by the way, I wrote this letter to “Dear Prudence.”

In any case, this is obviously a woman who will not even request custody. After all, she doesn’t much like the child and hasn’t taken much part in her care.

All of which means she’ll be the one paying a hefty part of her earnings to her ex in alimony for who knows how long and child support for the next 15-18 years. Plus, she’ll be 1,000 miles away and virtually unable to see the child she’s paying to help raise.

These facts of course are obvious enough, but Yoffe never mentions them. Would it matter to GWA to be saddled with those twin support obligations? My guess is it would. After all, high-earning and advancement in the company seem to be prime motivating factors to her and alimony and child support can hit the former pretty hard as most divorced men know all too well.

And, speaking of men, I have to wonder at Yoffe’s oversight. Why did alimony and child support fail to make an appearance in her response to GWA? Is it because GWA’s not a man? Surely her reply to a father and husband contemplating family abandonment would have included the real-world consequences to his pocketbook. Neither alimony nor child support occurred to either GWA or Yoffe. Why not? Are the realities of being a non-custodial parent so overwhelmingly gendered that they’re simply off the radar screens even of people like Yoffe who are paid to give advice? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 90% of non-custodial parents paying pursuant to a child support order are men, so maybe so.

Then of course there’s that part of the cultural zeitgeist that daily tells women that they’re the sole arbiters of everything related to children. From whether the child can be born to whether it has a father, to who its father will be, to whether it receives support from said father, to whether it’s adopted, etc. those decisions we leave largely up to mothers and do little to interfere in them.

So it may be that both GWA and Yoffe are so steeped in that cultural tea that they can’t see beyond it. If so, GWA is shortly to be in for a big surprise, one that fathers deal with every day. She’s about to begin paying for a child and an ex she never sees. As millions of American dads could tell her, “Welcome to my world.”

Thanks to Paul for the heads-up.


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