CABLE CONTROVERSY

05.14.12

Michelle Goldberg on the Ann Romney Hitler Tempest

A stray cable comment triggers an Internet firestorm. Michelle Goldberg on the Ann Romney tempest—and her very qualified apology.

I woke up this morning and saw this headline about me on Glenn Beck’s website The Blaze: "MSNBC PANELIST COMPARES ANN ROMNEY COMMENT WITH STALIN, HITLER." Thanks to Twitter, I soon learned that other conservative sites had similar stories. Immediately, I wished I could go back to bed.

Here’s what happened. On Sunday, I appeared on a Mother’s Day edition of Up With Chris Hayes, a weekend morning talk show, along with Katie Roiphe, Eve Ensler, and Jamila Bey. I was a little worried because we were discussing attachment parenting, and I expected that my skepticism towards Dr. Bill Sears would spark an angry backlash from the many hyperinvolved mothers who live in my Brooklyn neighborhood. Instead I accidentally started a different sort of mini-uproar.

One of the show’s topics was the saccharine op-ed that Ann Romney published in USA Today, “Three seasons of motherhood.” The main point I wanted to make about it is that our society offers mothers a deal: what we don’t give them in tangible support, we make up for insipid paeans. (As host Chris Hayes said, we do the same thing to military veterans.) At the policy level, the United States offers mothers very little—we’re unique in not having mandatory paid-maternity leave, for example, and we have the highest maternal-mortality rate of any developed country. But our elites are incredibly generous in their rhetoric, constantly assuring us, in the most florid way possible, that motherhood is the most important and valuable job in the world.

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Michelle Goldberg discusses Ann Romney on 'Up With Chris Hayes.'

I got into trouble, however, by saying that Romney’s closing lines, about how there is “no crown more glorious” than the “crown of motherhood,” reminded me of the pronatalist propaganda of World War II-era totalitarian regimes. That was a mistake. Not because I don’t think it’s true—when I read Romney’s words, I immediately thought of the “Motherhood Glory” medals that Stalin gave to women who had lots of children, and of the Nazi cult of motherhood, which Hitler called women’s “highest exaltation.” To me, bombastic odes to traditional maternity have a sinister ring, especially when they come from people who want to curtail women’s rights. But it was an offhand point, and one that wasn’t worth the aggravation it’s caused. I should have realized that right-wingers were going to pretend that I was saying that Romney is akin to two of the century’s most murderous tyrants.

For the record, I don’t believe that Ann Romney is either Hitleresque or Stalinesque. Rather, I think she is a calculating political wife who once struck me as fairly likeable, but who is now determined to play up the idea that’s she’s being victimized for being a stay-at-home mom. Her op-ed was part of that effort. Unfortunately, if the messages I received on Monday are any indication, it’s an effort I might have assisted.

I’m truly sorry to have given the right a pretext for another tedious spasm of feigned outrage. I’m especially sorry if I’ve done anything to strengthen the conservative myth that liberals disdain motherhood.

In addition to missives full of obscenities, critiques of my appearance and expressions of regret that my mother failed to abort me, there have been a bunch of calls for me to apologize to Romney for calling her a Nazi. If I had done that, of course, I would. I’m tempted to anyway, in case my words have been genuinely rather than tendentiously misunderstood. Romney, though, has made it pretty clear that she relishes opportunities to act the martyr. When CNN contributor Hilary Rosen inadvertently launched a new phase in the mommy wars by saying that Ann Romney was unqualified to serve as her husband’s chief adviser on women’s issues because she had “never worked a day in her life,” Mrs. Romney was delighted. “It was my early birthday present for someone to be critical of me as a mother, and that was really a defining moment, and I loved it,” she said at a private fundraiser.

So my apologies aren’t for Ann Romney, but for everyone else. I’m truly sorry to have given the right a pretext for another tedious spasm of feigned outrage. I’m sorry to have stirred one of the teapot tempests that now dominate the increasingly dispiriting world of political journalism. I’m especially sorry if I’ve done anything to strengthen the conservative myth that liberals disdain motherhood. I certainly don’t. As it happens, I’m hoping to have a baby of my own very soon. When I do, like most mothers I know, I’d much prefer accessible day care, quality public schools, and affordable health care to a metaphorical crown, however glorious it may be.