I’ve been following this whole octuplet controversy with mixed feelings. A part of me very much groks the anger being directed at Nadya Suleman. No single person can give 14 children the care and attention they all need; hell, I’m not sure a couple could manage it. If “it takes a village” to raise one child, this woman’s going to need five boroughs, and Yonkers too.
But that didn’t account for the vehemence I’ve been seeing in the media and elsewhere about Suleman. Sure, some of it is clearly rooted in the revelation that the state will be paying for these kids’ care, and the creepy possibility that she may have blown some of that state-provided money on plastic surgery to look like Angelina Jolie. But there’s far worse examples out there of unhealthily large families, narcissistic parents, and exploitation of public resources. Why’s this one got people so riled?
Then I read this analysis of the situation, which I think does a good job of explaining the outrage.
The great storm of public fury that has been kicked up by these octuplets is more than an annoyance at the water cooler. It is a vivid demonstration of the price that our country pays every day for the comforting moral clarity of the “right to life,” a fragile construct that has always been partly about not letting pregnant women “escape responsibility” for their actions. If a mother’s life goes to hell because she can’t afford to raise a child, well, she should have thought of that when she let herself get knocked up. The child becomes a sort of righteous punishment, not a person — and, in similar fashion, those “outraged” by Suleman’s story clearly hope that she (and, inevitably, her children) will have a rough time of it. It is the worship of motherhood, and the hatred of mothers.
This analysis feels intuitively on-track to me. But I think it’s missing two additional layers of meaning.
First, I think this is not just the worship of motherhood, but worship of ideal motherhood — ideal only if it’s within the strictures of traditional marriage and patriarchial religion, and therefore controlled one way or another by men. Uncontrolled (or female-controlled, which is the same thing in some of these people’s eyes) motherhood is never desirable. Most media outlets are reporting that the father of Suleman’s children has been caught by surprise by this, and is “a bit overwhelmed”. I think the anti-abortion movement will hold up Suleman not as a heroine, but as a cautionary tale: men, control your womenfolk, or they’ll have babies as they see fit, and see what happens then?
Second, it didn’t escape my notice, when I saw clips of her on TV, that Suleman is a bit on the brown side. And I could be wrong about this, but her name seems like a derivation of a common Arabic name, Suleiman — common enough that I, a garden-variety American with about as much knowledge of Arabic culture as I have of nuclear physics, recognized it as such. I could be totally spinning in the wind here; she might be Swedish for all I know. But I can’t help wondering how much of the rage I’m seeing — not merely outrage, but murderous incandescent fury — is because the Welfare Queen specter has been raised in Americans’ minds, perhaps conflated in some weird-ass way with The Arab Threat and maybe even The Brown Conspiracy To Outbreed White People? (Suleman’s fertility doctor appears to be Indian, see. We’re all in on it!)
You remember the Welfare Queen, don’t you? Ronald Reagan created her to get elected 20 years ago, as columnist Paul Krugman notes:
As Thomas and Mary Edsall put it in their classic 1991 book, “Chain Reaction: The impact of race, rights and taxes on American politics,” “Reagan paralleled Nixon’s success in constructing a politics and a strategy of governing that attacked policies targeted toward blacks and other minorities without reference to race — a conservative politics that had the effect of polarizing the electorate along racial lines.”
Thus, Reagan repeatedly told the bogus story of the Cadillac-driving welfare queen — a gross exaggeration of a minor case of welfare fraud. He never mentioned the woman’s race, but he didn’t have to.
So even though the vast majority of welfare recipients in the US are rural whites forced into poverty by the destruction of America’s industrial economy, the association of welfare with greedy, lazy, urban brown women has become indelible in the American subconscious. And even though the pendulum seems to have swung back since Reagan’s time, and we’re now in a vaguely liberal phase, my suspicion is that this linkage still exists, hair-triggered in our national zeitgeist, ready to fire at the first sign of dusky skin and fertile ovaries. That Suleman may be of Arab ethnicity — the zeitgeist’s latest boogeywoman — just compounds the issue. Now instead of black wombs destroying America for selfish gain, we’ve got Arab wombs destroying America in order to imitate and replace white women. It’s like Invasion of the Bodysnatchers without the giant beanpods.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Suleman’s case trotted out again in about 18 months, when the Republicans start campaigning for the midterm elections. After all, if Reagan’s Cadillac-driving mystery woman could be so effective, how much more effective the collagen-injecting octuplet mom, who at least has a name?