The Nation, 28 September 2009

nation 28 september 2009In this issue, Kim Phillips-Fein looks at a topic we spend a significant amount of time on here at Los Thunderlads, the political label “conservative” and the odd collections of people and ideas that have been grouped under it over the years.  Phillips-Fein faces an impossible task; her 3-page piece is packaged as a review essay on 12 books, and as she goes she is constrained to mention several more books and articles.  What she has written would be a fine introduction to a bibliography on recent scholarship about the American Right.  There is one snippet in the piece I’d like to quote.  Describing the attempt by New York Times writers David Brooks and Sam Tanenhaus to enshrine a traditionalist conservatism of the sort that writers like Irving Babbitt, Russell Kirk, and George Nash found in the writings of Edmund Burke, Phillips-Fein expresses skepticism that such a conservatism is likely to flourish in America.  “That Brooks and Tanenhaus find the motif of Burke appealing is largely a sign of their longing to revive a serious, sophisticated and mature conservatism, and their sense that, thanks to the radicals, the right is in desperate straits and has entered a period of decline.” 

I don’t know whether Tanenhaus and Brooks believe that the American Right is in decline as a political force.  I for my part find it hard to escape the conclusion that it is in a very bad way as an intellectual tradition.  Readers of this blog will have noticed that I spend a lot of time reading magazines like The American Conservative and Chronicles; so it shouldn’t be surprising that I sympathize with their desire to provide America with a conservatism worth arguing against. 

A column about Harvard Medical School’s vague conflict-of-interest policy mentions the fact that some researchers at that institutions have received over $1 million dollars from companies they are supposed to be observing disinterestedly.  Its dean “wants to increase, not decrease, the  school’s connections with industry.”

That we as a society need well-informed, prestigious, independent observers of the medical business will be obvious to readers of JoAnn Wypijewski’s  essay about the latest round of attempts by the sons of Asclepius to cash in on the fact that women do not routinely experience orgasms during intercourse.  Wypijewski narrates the history of earlier efforts, some spectacularly successful.  In 1863, doctors earned as much as three quarters of all their income by administering genital massages to “frigid” women.  Some women required these massages daily, for hours at a time.  The advent of the mechanical vibrator in the early twentieth century put a stop to that revenue stream, and Wypijewski claims that the women’s movement of the 1960s and 70s blocked efforts by the likes of Doctors Masters and Johnson to reopen it.  For Wypijewski, feminist politics then had the power to keep the humanity in sex.  But things have changed:

Every 1970s woman might not have gone to one of Betty Dodson’s masturbation workshops; every man certainly was not reborn as an attentive, exploring lover. But nor was everyone straight, in all senses of the word, and the fluidity of sexuality as part of the great mishmash of human experience was in the air-conditioning system of the culture. It was sexual but political, too. Today the cultural air is thick with sex, but the rhetoric of freedom and rights largely serves a commodified notion of sexual satisfaction. The politics has dropped out, and without politics we’re all just patients, or potential patients.

Wypijewski lists various medical treatments for “Female Sexual Dysfunction” that sound very much like the sorts of things we are supposed to shudder when we hear them described as having occurred in the nineteenth century.  Electrodes in the spine, surgery on the labia- well, let’s just say it sounds pretty gruesome.  Wypijewski concludes: 

A terrific new documentary, Orgasm Inc., by Liz Canner, addresses those questions in terms of corporate medicine and the creation of need via pseudofeminist incitements to full sexual mastery by Dr. Laura Berman and other shills for the drug industry. Female sexual dysfunction, it turns out, was wholly created by drug companies hoping to make even bigger money off women than they have off men with the comparatively smaller market for erectile dysfunction drugs. That’s capitalism; that’s its nature. The more obstinate question is why so many people are willing to be its slaves, and whether a resistant politics can grow up to say not just “We want in” to healthcare but “We want out” of the profit system and, on the sex front, out of a medical model that elevates a doctor over “playing doctor” or a more sensual ease with oneself and others.

“So many times I don’t think sex is a matter of health,” Dr. Leonore Tiefer, a sex therapist and founder of the New View Campaign to challenge the medicalization of sex, told me the other day. “I think it’s more like dancing or cooking. Yes, you do it with your body. You dance with your body, too. That doesn’t mean there’s a department of dance in the medical school. You don’t go to the doctor to learn to dance. And in dancing school the waltz class is no more normal than the samba class.” You might not be a good dancer by some scale of values. You might not get the steps right, or do steps at all, but even in wheelchairs people learn to move to the music.

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