How appealing it is to read a serious work of political commentary by a woman as courageous and compassionate as Anna Quindlen. What sets her apart from other feminist authors is her grasp of middle-American values (love of home and family, reverence for the struggles of her immigrant ancestors and at least a qualified loyalty to the Catholic church) and her insistence on humanity and compassion as the supreme qualifications for political and cultural leadership in our society. She brilliantly assimilates the best of the Sixties counterculture, the Civil Rights Movement, and Feminism, (not to mention the traditional Democratic liberalism of FDR and the New Deal) and combines them in a distinctive voice that is always delightfully irreverent and accessible.
As playful and witty as Quindlen can be, however, it would be a mistake to assume that THINKING OUT LOUD is a frivolous book. Some of the essays collected here address crimes so horrifying and brutal that it's hard to imagine even Anna Quindlen being untouched by pessimism and despair. What's most extraordinary, however, is that even in essays such as "The Perfect Victim" (about the rape of the Central Park Jogger) and "A Changing World" (about the racially charged murder of a black teenager in all-white Bensonhurst)Anna Quindlen insists above all on celebrating the humanity of the victim. Quindlen is a genius at capturing the details behind the story, as well. From her point of view, the humanity and larger than life heroism of the Central Park jogger can be summed up in the fact that she was a Wellesley graduate, Wellesley symbolizing the ideals and aspirations of humanistic, upwardly mobile middle class feminism. Conversely, the brutality and subhuman cruelty of the Italian boys of Bensonhurst she automatically connects with the contempt for higher education and upward social mobility displayed by the proudly working class males in ethnic enclaves like Bensonhurst.
It's only natural, of course, that as a Barnard graduate Anna Quindlen sees higher education as valuable and rewarding in moral as well as material terms. Middle class kids who excell in academics are taught from a very early age to view working class kids with different skill sets as pathetic failures at best, contemptible losers at worst. These are clearly the values that Anna Quindlen accepted unthinkingly as a little girl. Still, it's regrettable that in her essay on the first Gulf War, "Summer's Soldiers," she refers to Gulf War soldiers (like myself) as "not smart, not rich, not directed enough for college." This is exactly the kind of thoughtless, dismissive, seemingly out of touch comment that can be twisted by a cunning conservative commentator (such as Bill O'Reilly or Rush Limbaugh) to suggest that liberals are smug elitists who hold all working class people in contempt. Such unfortunate gaffes undermine the anti-war movement in any war, because they widen the regrettable but undeniable gap between the progressive leadership of the anti-war left and the great mass of the American people.
Anna Quindlen dismisses the patriotism of more than a hundred thousand Gulf War veterans with a sneer, on the argument that they're not college educated and therefore can't understand the core values of a democracy. Yet she writes with almost religious fervor about her immigrant Irish ancestors, who came to this country not only ignorant of democracy but (for the most part) completely illiterate. Does she really imagine the soldiers who fought the Gulf War were any less patriotic or unselfish than the Famine Irish who came here unable even to write their own names?
My own ancestors were Jews from Eastern Europe. The literacy rate among the Jews at the turn of the last century was much, much higher than that of the Famine Irish of the 1840's, and the Jews never engaged in ethnic cleansing and mass murder of black women and children as the Irish did with astonishing gusto during the Draft Riots of 1863. Yet no one would suggest that Jews made "better" Americans than the Irish.
Anna Quindlen is a gifted, eloquent spokesperson for the values of democracy, yet she has a selective memory about certain aspects of the Irish experience in America. She condemns the violent racism of Italian Bensonhurst with regal hauteur and ice-cold contempt, like Queen Victoria turning up her nose at Jack the Ripper. Yet in another column she acknowledges with almost disturbing cheerfulness that she grew up in a neighborhood "where a Jewish family would have been a rarity and a black family an impossibility." The boys of Bensonhurst used murder to keep their neighborhood all white -- what weapons did Anna's parents use? Does she know? Does she even care? Perhaps in her mind, racism is okay as long as you "want better things" i.e. to send your daughter to college.
On repeated readings, one gets the impression that what Anna Quindlen finds most repulsive about the boys of Bensonhurst is not that they were willing to stoop to murder but that they were defending a working-class neighborhood, not a middle class one. Her loathing for the murderers of Bensonhurst is not really that of the Union Army soldier for the Confederate soldier, where both sides have clearly put everything at risk and are equally willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, but is more analogous to the slaveowner's snide contempt for the white-trash overseer. She has lived in all-white neighborhoods all her life, yet she almost unthinkingly scapegoats working class males, equating their class pride with racial hatred and racial violence. But the equation is not complete unless you factor in the fact that upper class whites take the right to live in "exclusive" neighborhoods for granted.
The subject of race is a constant thread in THINKING OUT LOUD. Anna Quindlen champions Affirmative Action with all the zeal of a Union Army colonel holding to the last at Little Round Top. Yet again, it's interesting that she sees no contradiction between her own girlhood -- all those years in secluded innocence at the all white, all girl, all Catholic private schools she so clearly cherished -- and the multi-racial future she wants for other people's children. I'm not saying I disagree with Anna Quindlen, not at all. I'm just thinking out loud that she didn't insist on going to public school when she was a teenager, in order to make friends with black kids (like my father) or Jewish kids (like my mother). I wonder exactly when it was she discovered that black women were her "sisters." It wasn't when she was serving as an infantryman in Vietnam, and it wasn't when she was a Freedom Rider in Alabama. Anna Quindlen writes about the Civil Rights movement as if it's "her" achievement -- as if somehow she deserves the credit. Yet all of her essays, even the most touching and entertaining, make it painfully clear that she is the product of racial privilege, and that her view of blacks is condescending and paternalistic, closer to that of an "enlightened" slaveowner like Scarlett O'Hara than that of a white-trash renegade like the notorious slave-stealer Huck Finn.