Periscope Depth

there’s one more kid that’ll never go to school

When Ross Douthat, New York Times columnist, writes another column about abortion, I don’t feel obligated to comment. Better bloggers than I can field it – IOZ and Amanda Marcotte taking a slow jog infield, waving me off, raising their gloves and squinting – without trouble. But when Douthat talks about pop culture, he’s trundled into my yard.

The American entertainment industry has never been comfortable with the act of abortion. Film or television characters might consider the procedure, but even on the most libertine programs (a “Mad Men,” a “Sex and the City”), they’re more likely to have a change of heart than actually go through with it.

We have two possibilities here. Either:

(1) Douthat hasn’t watched the last three seasons of Mad Men. To call Mad Men a “libertine program” is like calling Apocalypse Now a “rousing call to arms.” Mad Men builds its storyline off the consequences of libertine behavior, not indulgence in it. People hook up and get pregnant. Don goes on a drinking binge and loses a weekend. Drunken office parties become opportunities for humiliation or (as we saw in S3) mutilation. Comparing Mad Men to Sex and the City, where the consequence of cheating on your boyfriend with your (now married) ex is to go shoe shopping, is just daft.

Or,

(2) Douthat made the same mistake that most of male America (and I include myself in that) made with the first couple seasons of Mad Men, which was to presume that Don Draper’s behavior is meant to be emulated. In that sense, Draper’s teetering walk on the brink of tragedy could be called “libertine.” If you’re completely deaf to a show’s tone, context and narrative, sure.

So which is it? Is Douthat uninformed or gullible? Given that he references MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom” a few paragraphs later – shows I’ll bet my paycheck he doesn’t watch – I’m going with #1.

There’s nothing wrong with speaking about a pop culture icon that you know little about. Douthat’s a busy man, doing whatever it is he does, and he might not have time to watch every new show on the menu. I sure don’t, and I’m supposed to write about it! But there’s a difference between using a show you haven’t seen as a reference and using a show you haven’t seen as an argument.

Douthat’s thesis, in this column, is that “the American entertainment industry has never been comfortable with the act of abortion.” To support that thesis, he has to present evidence from the American entertainment industry. His evidence: four shows he hasn’t watched, an MTV special that he fast-forwarded through, and a fair-to-middling poem from the New Yorker. Compelling!

Douthat’s problem, if I have to choose just one, is an unwillingness to own up to the authority he wants. He tries to invent a public groundswell of abortion reticence in order to advance his argument that nobody really wants an abortion. He’d be a more interesting author if he dropped this quest and simply thundered from the mountaintop: I say thee NAY, etc. He’s more convincing that way. Everyone believes Ross Douthat wants to speak with the Voice of God. No one believes he watches “Teen Mom.”