Some call it left-wing factionalism. “Fatuousness” may be a more accurate name. In the battle between the radical feminist Catharine MacKinnon and the left-wing journalist Carlin Romano there are no winners, only amused onlookers. Readers of The New Criterion will remember Catharine A. MacKinnon. We reviewed her new book, Only Words, in our October issue, under the headline “Sex in the Twilight Zone.” Among the many fruity things that Professor MacKinnon propounds in Only Words is the idea that pornography is a form of rape and should be punished as such. “To say it is to do it,” she assures readers, “and to do it is to say it.” It turns out now that for Professor MacKinnon and her acolytes, pornography is not the only form of expression that is rape. Negative reviews of her book are, too.

Mr. Romano discovered this when he attacked Only Words in that weekly bible of left-wing sentiment, The Nation, last fall. His main point—that Professor MacKinnon’s identification of pornography with rape rested on a profound and debilitating confusion of speech and action—was well taken and had, in fact, already been made by many other reviewers. But Mr. Romano is known as much for viciousness as for opportunism. He chose to begin his review with true Romanian tastelessness: “Suppose I decide to rape Catharine MacKinnon before reading her book. Because I’m uncertain whether she understands the difference between being raped and being exposed to pornography, I consider it necessary research.” He then explains that he decides against the rape because “People simply won’t understand.” Nonetheless, he imagines the act and discovers that his fantasy “significantly influences what I write.” Mr. Romano spins out the conceit a bit longer. He invents another critic, Dworkin Hentoff—a conflation of the legal scholar Ronald Dworkin and the free-speech advocate Nat Hentoff—who reads his piece and actually does rape Professor MacKinnon before reviewing her book for The New York Review of Books. Eventually both Mr. Romano and “Dworkin Hentoff” are jailed for rape.

The response to this performance was swift, hysterical, enlightening. Predictably, Professor MacKinnon denounced the review as a form of “public rape.” It seems that everything Professor MacKinnon dislikes is rape of one sort or another. Curiously, though, she also dismissed Mr. Romano’s effort as “irrelevant.” (Is rape, then, “irrelevant”?) Jeffrey M. Masson, Professor MacKinnon’s betrothed, shot off an angry letter—which has since been widely circulated—that described the review as a “wild, confused, vicious, personal diatribe against a woman of unbelievable depth and compassion.” Emphasis, presumably, on “unbelievable.”

Piquant incidental detail: Mr. Masson, a psychoanalyst who once claimed to have slept with a thousand women, recently confided that living with Catharine MacKinnon was “like living with God.” Mr. Masson said that he wasn’t threatening Mr. Romano, you understand, though he did write that “I want you to know, if there is ever anything I can do to hurt your career, I will do it. If it hurts you personally.” Poor Carlin Romano! His entire career had been one long effort to be on the politically correct side of every issue, and now this ghastly misstep.

Many people wanted in on the fight. The letters columns of The Nation swelled with verbiage. Perhaps the most extraordinary missive came from the Harvard University Press, Professor MacKinnon’s publishers. Signed by Lindsay Waters, her editor, and six other members of the Press, the letter accused Mr. Romano of using “rape as a tool for the conduct of criticism.” Note the MacKinnonite strategy: you don’t like something; ergo, it must be a form of “rape.” And since when have publishers whined in print when their authors receive bad reviews? We hope this is not the beginning of a trend. Second incidental detail: Mr. Waters is a prominent champion of the late Paul de Man, notable deconstructionist and Nazi sympathizer. It is a prime tenet of deconstruction that language is so radically ambiguous that the meaning of “texts” is always unstable and up for grabs. Yet Mr. Waters seemed to have no trouble understanding Carlin Romano’s review. Has he changed his mind about deconstruction, or is he merely making an exception in this case?

Articles about the Romano–MacKinnon spat have appeared in The Washington Post and many other newspapers. The Sunday Telegraph of London even had a brief piece on the subject. The moral? Perhaps that the Left, given the opportunity, will inevitably devour its own. The one thing we can say with certainty is that Mr. Romano and Professor MacKinnon richly deserve each other.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 12 Number 6, on page 2
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