Posted tagged ‘Ross Douthat’

Ross Douthat has Problems with Women, Babies, Numbers, and More

January 5, 2011

Plenty of folks on the blogs,  have had their way with the recent essay in defense of the use of poor white women as baby farms for discerning elites, written by the lesser half of The New York Times’ current conservative op-ed. embarrassment, Mr. Ross Douthat.

I’m not going to repeat what others have said better.  Read our own Anne Laurie’s take (and her next verbal RPG); check out Amanda Marcotte, who ropes, ties, brands and clips young Ross in a thousand words or so; see AsiangrrlMN’s riff on the apparently foreign (to Douthat) notion that some women might actually, sincerely, decline to accept motherhood as a necessary fulfillment of their personhood;  delight to Tintin’s allusive stylings over at Sadly No; and with TBogg, always trust the shorter.

With all that out there, in this post I just want to poke a few more holes in Douthat’s reputation for intellectual honesty/fun with numbers, and then, in a hopefully more concise item to follow in a few hours, to use a lovely piece by a former student to shine  a little historical sidelight on the monstrosity that Douthat seeks to gussie up with a bucket load of nostalgic fantasy.

On the numbers:  Douthat in his column states that before 1973 there was a comparative abundance of babies available for adoption — one out of five single white women making babies gave their kids up.

Now, he writes, only one percent of such pregnancies lead to adoptions, and “would-be adoptive parents face a waiting list that has lengthened beyond reason…,” basing that assertion, apparently, on the word of Melanie Thernstrom writing in the the Times Sunday Magazine* who claimed that she chose surrogacy because adoption was just too hard.

Well, there are actual data on this point, and while there has unquestionably been a drop in adoptions in the US since 1970, the scale of that shift is (surprise!) much less than Douthat implies.

According to the Adoption History Project, adoptions in the US peaked at about 170,000 per year in 1970, declining over the next several years to about 125,000 per year by the 1990s, a number that has remained pretty much at that level since.  (Note, for those of you keeping tabs on Douthat’s insistence on white babies as the gold standard, as it were, that foreign adoptions accounted for about 10% of that total in FY 2009, with the numbers of babies coming from abroad declining since 2004.)

All of which means that while Douthat seeks to argue that women’s autonomy over their own bodies has made it virtually impossible for wealthy white couples to gain access to the children of their dreams– it ain’t so.  We do not see the implied outcome that adoption rates/availability  have dropped by 95% in the last four decades.  Instead, actual adoptions are down by a little more than 25%.

That still leaves his qualitative claim, of course.  So, let’s check that too:  have adoption waiting lists extended “beyond reason?”

No.  With just a quantum of actual reporting you find a very different picture of domestic adoption as a couple might experience it in 2011.

Which is what I did, calling a local Massachusetts agency, Jewish Family Service of the North Shore, to speak to their adoption specialist, Ann Wordfork, about the facts on the ground.

According to Woodfork, the landscape for domestic adoptions has remained pretty constant over the last several years.  Every couple she sees that sticks with it, she says, gets a child.  The adoption process, especially if it comes in the wake of years of infertility medicine, is an emotionally demanding experience, so people do drop out, of course.  But, Woodfork says, once a  couple completes its adoption “book” — the collection of photos and personal statements with which prospective adopters present themselves to birth mothers seeking a home for their children-to-be — you can take about one year as the rule of thumb as the time it will takes for you to bring home your child.    Compared to the time that couples seeking a baby through the old fashioned channels “try” and then gestate….well there’s not much in it, is there?

So, when Douthat claims that allowing women to make their own decisions about their bodies has left adoptive parents out of luck, he is simply wrong.  And he is so because he either deliberately chose to deceive his readers, or more likely IMHO, he is so wedded to his assumption/conclusion that it never occurred to him to check.**

One last point on Douthat’s intellectual dishonesty/ineptitude.  One of the striking failures in this column and his mode of thought more generally is his touching faith in the simplest of causal explanations.  Abortions up and adoptions down since 1970?  Well then that’s the whole story.

Except it’s not, of course, and Douthat even presents one of the ways his logic fails without noticing that he’s blowing his punchline.

Recall that he suggests that Thernstrom and her husband were driven to acquire their children through the use of an egg donor and two gestational surrogates because adoption was effectively unavailable to them.

Not so.  Rather, both in the immediate case and in the spread of this response to infertility, what you see is an alternative to conventional adoption, not a sequel to its failure.  More broadly, there are a lot of factors that shape people’s decisions about whether or not to seek an adoption.  Advances in fertility medicine means that some couples who couldn’t have conceived do.  Gamete donation changes the landscape.  Surrogacy certainly does — especially if you are rich.  All of which adds up to a changing family landscape in which some couples, mostly in the overclass, who would once have been adoptive parents now acquire children by other means.***

The shorter to all of the above:  Once again, Douthat tries to find a deep social reason to deny women’s autonomy, and to advance that goal he gets just about everything wrong.

Last, just to go a bit bigger than the relatively inconsequential Douthat:  if this is what passes for elite public intellection on the Right, (and it is) then take this as yet one more overlong reminder why these clowns shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near power.

Factio Grandaeva Delenda Est.

*Warning:  pretty ghastly piece at that link IMHO; I may yet blog on one aspect of it, in which the author happily glosses over the critical difference in power relations in surrogacy vs. adoption.  Or I might not, as the internal clues to the author’s unreliable narration seem sufficiently obvious, and life is short.

**I’m not claiming that I’ve committed a proper act of journalism here myself, by the way.   One interview with one social worker at one of Massachusetts 50 or so adoption agencies does not a comprehensive account make.  The point is not that I’ve proven adoption is easy; rather, I’m just trying to show that Douthat’s account of the state of adoption in this country doesn’t stand up to a minimal investigation of either the historical statistics or informed anecdotal experience on the ground.

***Again — I’m not making a broad claim here.  I haven’t gathered the statistics that could tell me how deep a bite surrogacy and fertility technology and the rest are taking out of conventional adoption.  Woodfork did tell me that in the professional meetings that discuss such issues, these alternatives to adoption are taking on a much larger share of the discussion, while adoption’s percentage of mindshare at such meetings is shrinking.  But that’s just one more anecdote, and I’m not going to plant a standard on this hill.  Instead, what I’m trying to do is to point out the flaws in Douthat’s approach  — the notion that all it takes is one correlation to explain any amount of social life.  Never forget:  milk drinking leads to heroin addiction!

Images:  Rembrandt van Rijn, Hannah in the Temple; Samuel’s Prayer Testing, 17c.

Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun The Marquise de Pezay (or Pezé), and the Marquise de Rougé with Her Sons Alexis and Adrien. 1787.

An Answer To Ross Douthat’s White Washed Vision

July 20, 2009


I actually agree with one of Douthat’s claims, that the formation of a new, post-racial power structure will eliminate the need and basis for affirmative action.  Where I — middle aged, privileged white man/member of the academic elite as I acknowledge I am — dispute Douthat is in his belief demographic changes in themselves lead to an end to discrimination.

Case in point, Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s arrest in his own home, after providing identification for the crime of having lost his keys.  Gates, for those of you who don’t know, is not merely a member of the academic elite, but as the holder of  a chair at Harvard; as a major author and editor recovering African American literature from its apocryphal status; as probably the best known and most influential scholar of African American Studies in this country; as a serial host of PBS broadcasts and ubiquitous interviewee —  he is fully paid up member of America’s academic aristocracy.  If you are familiar with David Lodge’s Changing Places novels, he is, in certain ways, (and I mean this as a compliment) someone that Morris Zapp would have called brother.

And yet, it appears, he is guilty of the crime of AWB — Affluence While Black.  Would a white professor — would I — have been arrested in the same circumstances.  The counterfactual is untestable, but I’ll venture a guess and say no.

And my point?  It is that Douthat matches in ignorance of the real world all of his uninformed arrogance in his judgements passed on it, and on much more accomplished people than he will ever be.

Yes, it is true that affirmative action for the victims of discrimination can morph into the same back-room privilege that puts 20 somethings with a gift for reasonable prose into a series of posts in which his lack of real world knowledge does not disqualify from opining on whatever.  In that context, I was struck in Douthat’s latest column by this remark:

It was a characteristic O’Connor move: unmoored from any high constitutional principle but not without a certain political shrewdness. In a nation that aspires to colorblindness, her opinion acknowledged, affirmative action can only be justified if it comes with a statute of limitations. Allowing reverse discrimination in the wake of segregation is one thing. Discriminating in the name of diversity indefinitely is quite another.

Douthat, proud possessor of a BA from Harvard (but no law degree) manages to dismiss Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in an almost Buckley-ian sniff of disdain.  The little lady is “not without a certain political shrewdness.”  How generous.

The Latina, of course, fares even less well:

It’s doubtful, though, that Sonia Sotomayor shares this view.

“It is firmly my hope, as it was expressed by Justice O’Connor,” she told Senator Kohl, “that in 25 years, race in our society won’t be needed to be considered in any situation.”

But O’Connor didn’t hope; she expected. And Sotomayor’s record suggests that there’s a considerable difference between these postures — that for the nominee, as for most liberal jurists, as long as racial disparities persist, so too must racial preferences.

Such fine parsing of hope vs. expectation; for one as blessed as Mr. Douthat, expectations do not fail but to be met.

How else does someone who has never worked a non-media job, never met a payroll, never worked a political campaign, nor, heaven-forfend, organized his community — someone who, by all that’s holy, has had even less contact with the real world than his NY Times predecessor, that self-made son, William Kristol — come to his conclusion, which is that Judge Sotomayor is part of the emerging rainbow conspiracy to use the fact of past discrimination to preserve illegitimate non-white power indefinitely into the future.

I don’t know if Douthat knows his own bad faith, or actually believes that his position in society was achieved without the exercise of advantage systematically denied to most — and differentially so for those of color.

I do know that he could not imagine himself in the position Professor Gates found himself in within his own home — and for good reason.  As Graham Greene had it in Our Man in Havana (that rare double:  a must-read book and a must-see film) the policeman educates the English expatriate on the distinction between the torturable and non-torturable classes, remarking that his own father had been an example of the former group.

Douthat is as firmly placed in non-torturable America as it is possible to be.  Gates, for all his greater accomplishment, institutional affiliation, and unmeasurably more significant wealth of experience is not.*

And that’s why affirmative action has not run its course; why O’Connor’s expectation and Sotomayor’s more modest hope that by 2028 we will inhabit the post-racial society of Martin Luther King’s dream may not in fact be realized by that deadline.  For all of Douthat’s insouciant assertion that Senator Sessions and his ilk are yesterday’s men, right now, today, those men and their ilk — and their scions, like Douthat himself — retain their privileged status where it counts:  both in power and on the street.

Mere numbers do not alter the fact of American life, racially charged.  Demography does rule, eventually– but only an actual end to discrimination, only the creation of a society where a black man being arrested for breaking in to his own home would actually be a surprise, will mark the point at which we may say for ourselves that we’ve finally put race behind us.

Don’t believe me?  Go Skip Gates’s bail.

Update: I was out of town over the weekend and didn’t read Frank Rich’s Sunday column on Sotomayor and her interrogators until this morning.  There Rich agrees with Douthat (or rather, Douthat follows Rich) in the claim — the  hope, I’d say — that Sessions, Graham, Coburn and the rest are dinosaurs, old, racist, sexist, pretentious, unreflective, hypocritical, morals-for-thee-but-not-for-me buffoons who have not yet realized that they are merely the walking extinct.  I share both writers’ hope; my expectation, however, is that powerful men know how to wield power, and that advantage will keep the kind of society that prospers such unworthy representatives ticking over for a while yet.  For a stray reason why, consider this story from the WSJ as highlighted by DK contributor Jerome a Paris.

Update 2: Via Gawker, Gates is released with charges dropped after four hours in jail.  With pix of Gates in handcuffs, being led from his own  home.

*Gates’ experience, btw, is no anomaly.  I have several black colleagues at MIT who, to a man and woman, have told me that (X)WB remains a pulling-over offense even here in the People’s Republic of Cambridge and its greater Boston environs.  To put it bluntly, Douthat has given no evidence in anything I’ve read of his that he has any idea of what people outside his charmed circle actually experience.  A wise Latina does in fact know better — but if Douthat is the standard she has to beat, it’s a very low bar.