At the beginning of January, just a few weeks after the birth of my daughter, I came across an article in The Baffler, a journal I love, called “This Brat’s for You.” Written by William Giraldi, it was about how paternity leave for his second child left him “bushwhacked by this surfeit of free time,” eventually turning him into an alcoholic. Underlying it was a blithe assumption that of course no man is really going to throw himself into childcare, even if his employer is enough of a sucker to grant him the time off: “But let’s be honest: even in self-consciously progressive households, it’s a rare new father who does as much baby work as a new mother.”
The piece infuriated me, in no small part because my husband’s very progressive employer had recently instituted a generous paternity leave policy, and without him at home, I’d have been drowning. I don’t really care that Giraldi’s marriage isn’t similarly egalitarian, but I couldn’t believe that the staunchly pro-labor Baffler would run an essay casually mocking paid family leave, a crucial worker’s rights issue as well as a feminist one. So I posted something on Facebook, where I have a lot of journalist friends, and on a private listserv. Soon many people joined me in condemnation. On social media, I started seeing “This Brat’s for You” referred to as the worst essay of 2015. Mallory Ortberg even published a funny, mordant parody.
As the backlash to piece grew to far exceed the reach of the piece itself, I started to feel a little guilty. After all, in the past I’ve inveighed against Internet pile-ons and public shamings. I thought the Baffler editors might feel besieged and perhaps a bit misunderstood, as if this one stupid squib was eclipsing the very good feminist work that they’ve published in recent issues. Or maybe they had the sour, glum feeling specific to one who feels unfairly punished for saying something politically incorrect but true, a feeling that tends to lead to further entrenchment rather than rethinking.
At the same time, it was a reactionary piece, deserving of at least mild ridicule. People who disagreed with it were right to say so. If the overall response was overwhelming, that’s not the fault of any one person registering his or her opinion.
I thought about this reading Jonathan Chait’s New York essay, “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say,” which argues that ’90s-style political correctness has come roaring back. “Political correctness is a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate,” he writes. “Two decades ago, the only communities where the left could exert such hegemonic control lay within academia, which gave it an influence on intellectual life far out of proportion to its numeric size. Today’s political correctness flourishes most consequentially on social media, where it enjoys a frisson of cool and vast new cultural reach. And since social media is also now the milieu that hosts most political debate, the new p.c. has attained an influence over mainstream journalism and commentary beyond that of the old.”