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Female or Male, You People Trying to 'Have It All' Are Seriously Creeping Out The Rest of Us

June 27, 2012, 4:40 PM
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Anne-Marie Slaughter's new piece in The Atlantic about how women cannot "have it all" has provoked a wave of commentary, but none that I have seen has mentioned the article's clearest, if unstated, point. It is right there, in the opening: Slaughter, a former high State Department official, begins with herself on the job, at the United Nations, meeting foreign dignitaries and sipping champagne at a reception hosted by President Obama. But her mind is not on her diplomatic work, because she's thinking about her royal pain of a 14-year-old son, who's messing up in school, failing math, and not speaking to her. Oh, my, I thought: Mother certainly has had her revenge. And then it occurred to me that matters may actually be uglier: Maybe Slaughter genuinely believes she isn't engaged in payback. Maybe, like a good technocrat, she just decided to write the best possible article, and too bad for the cost.

I don't know Slaughter's son's name, but I'm sure finding it would be a 10-second Google chore. (Yep. Just did it.) His mother being who she is, and The Atlantic being what it is, he is now marked for life. Did she spring that surprise on him? Or did she tell him, in that tough-but-fair State Department style used to criticize dictators we used to support, that the downside of writing up his troubles was outweighed by the good it would do? I don't know, but I bet he wishes his parents had just taken away his iPhone. And I think his embarrassment is relevant to any evaluation of Slaughter's argument.

Here is why: Slaughter is fed up with the mythology that women can and should "have it all," by which she means the maddeningly glib chatter to the effect that it is and should have been possible for her to have gone on "juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teen-age boys." Meticulously, she dissects the myth. But her proposals for change are all about the process of "high-level" work. The content of work at the top of our meritocracy doesn't trouble her.

So, she writes, people should be able to work from home more. And long hours for the sake of long hours? An unnecessary trap.

All true enough. But Slaughter also makes it clear that she is a total professional, committed to the standards of high-quality American work as practiced by those who have reached the top of our corporations, businesses, media, law firms and so on. She wants to make professionalism easier for women (and for men who respect their family commitments) but she gives no thought to the possibility that professionalism itself—not the way it is managed and scheduled—is part of the problem.

Instead, she reassures current and future patrons that she's no rocker of boats. Don't worry, her piece tells them. I still teach a full course load and give a lot of speeches. Yes, I permit myself to doubt the ethos that says it was OK for Richard Holbrooke to miss much of his son's childhood because he was out saving the world. And I'll give a shout out to politicians who take seriously the impact of their work on their families. But I'll still stay until dawn when it must be done: "Being willing to put the time in when the job simply has to get done is rightfully a hallmark of a successful professional." Where is the moment where she wonders if the job really does have to get done? Whether it is, in fact, really essential?

There is nothing in the article to suggest that there is anything wrong with the nation's high achievers, those "successful professionals" in diplomacy, law, academia, media, business and other perches of power and/or money. And, that, to me, is its fatal weakness. Because the inhumanity and brutishness of so many professional lives doesn't derive from scheduling complications and a culture of long hours. The miseries derive from professionalism itself.

This is why I think Slaughter's choice to use her son is relevant. The story made for a terrific lead to her piece—specific, engaging, and memorable. It may well be true that her article would have been less effective without it. From the point of view of the profession (American journalism, thinky-magazine division) she made the right choice.

But, seriously, throwing her son's adolescence out there for the world to chew over? Icky. Suppose she had said to herself, this is the best anecdote to start my piece—but I can't do it. If she had made that choice, she would have been unprofessional, in that she would have made her work less effective, for an emotional reason that had nothing to do with its strictures. I can only read her article, not her mind, but I certainly left with a strong impression that she didn't weigh that possibility. Slaughter may want to work at home some days, but she's still a professional.

Please don't think this example is contrived or far-fetched. In my journalistic career, I have stumbled onto moments of unexpected intimacy and vulnerability, when people opened up to me and made revelations they never intended. I didn't use them in the articles in which they could have appeared. In each instance, I refrained because I felt that the heartache and pain I'd unveiled would be redoubled by publication. And what would be the benefit? Readers would be impressed for a few seconds before they flipped to the department-store ads. "It's just a magazine article," I thought. "It's not worth adding to the sum total of human misery."

I've had similar thoughts when I worked as a magazine editor. When, for example, the big boss would insist on changing a writer's meaning—because his guiding principle was that the publication should reflect his vision. And the second-in-command would say our job was to do what the boss wanted. I would think, "this writer wants it different, plus she needs the money, and it's just a paragraph. How about we give way here, and let the magazine be less polished but more honest?"

These, I think, were not professional thoughts. They were based on an inchoate hunch that any vision of perfection has no inherent moral value. The worth of the work isn't measured by its perfection relative to other efforts but rather by its consequences in the world. And by that standard a lot of what consummate professionals do in the 21st century is practically worthless. Maybe that's not true of Slaughter's champagne-sipping and hobnobbing at the diplomatic reception—or more generally of work in the State Department. But the question—is this trip necessary?—ought at least to be asked.

In American meritocratic circles, that is an acceptable sentiment if you mean, as Slaughter does, that it's hard to do your best and also make the kids' soccer games. It's not acceptable to mean that maybe, just maybe, today your very best isn't really needed, and may not be worth the pain it causes others.

My guess is that this thought is heresy to the hard-driving people who occupy the pinnacles of American achievement. And I further suspect that, in contrast, it is considered as obvious as sunlight be the rest of their fellow citizens. Which perhaps helps fuel the rage and distrust expressed by Tea Partiers and Occupiers about institutions of business and government.

Slaughter wants to change the circumstances of work so that more women reach the summits of achievement and power. But as long as everyone up there is a consummate professional, their gender isn't going to make a lot of difference. Male or female, they'll still look monsters to the rest of us.

More from the Big Idea for Saturday, July 21 2012

Today's Big Idea: Power Women

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