When Carlin Romano, literary critic
for The Philadelphia Inquirer agreed to review University of
Michigan law professor Catharine MacKinnon’s latest book, Only Words,
for The Nation magazine, he probably knew his slamming of her
views would create some controversy. But he probably didn’t expect to
be accused of raping MacKinnon.
That’s right, Romano has the distinction
of being the first person in history to be accused of rape via book review
— but his accusers are dead serious.
To understand how MacKinnon and
her supporters arrive at this conclusion, you need to know a bit about
MacKinnon and her assault on free speech.
MacKinnon is currently on the cutting
edge of an assault on so-called “pornographic” works. What makes
MacKinnon different than previous anti-porn crusaders is that she advances
and defends the proposition that imagining some acts is equivalent to
actually going out and doing them.
In Only Words, she notes
the countless areas in our legal system in which individuals who utter
certain words or express certain ideas are treated as if they had actually
committed an act.
MacKinnon writes, “Saying
‘kill’ to a trained attack dog is only words. Yet it is not seen as expressing
the viewpoint ‘I want you dead’ — which it usually does, in fact, express.
It is seen as performing an act tantamount to someone’s destruction, like
saying ‘read, aim, fire’ to a firing squad.”
For MacKinnon, pornography is then
analogous to saying “kill” to a trained attack dog. Pornography
doesn’t just express an idea, it commits an act that is harmful to women.
As Romano pointed out in his review, to MacKinnon pornography says “rape”
and thus does not warrant constitutional protections.
From his review of Only Words
it’s readily apparent that Romano disagrees rather vehemently with MacKinnon’s
thesis, and he opens his review with an analogy that attempts to illustrate
the difference between imagining an act and committing an act. It’s this
analogy that has gotten him into trouble.
Romano writes, “Suppose I
decide to rape Catharine MacKinnon before reviewing her book … I plot
and strategize, but at the last moment, I chicken out.”
But then, he adds, imagine other
book reviewer, who he calls Dworkin Hentoff — who comes up with the same
idea and does act on it, raping MacKinnon.
The police are called and both
Hentoff and Romano are arrested. But, Romano pleads, he hasn’t actually
raped anyone — he’s only imagined it. Under MacKinnon’s view of speech,
however, he has raped her and is culpable legally as Hentoff.
Romano thought this was a clever
way to point out some of the difficulties inherent in MacKinnon’s views.
MacKinnon and her supporters think
the review itself constitutes rape.
“He [Romano] had me where
he wanted me,” MacKinnon told Time magazine. “He wants
me as a violated woman with her legs spread. He needed me there before
he could address my work.”
And don’t think this is just empty
rhetoric. MacKinnon told the Washington Post that “Carlin
Romano should be held accountable for what he did. There are a lot of
people out there, and a lot of ways that an be done.”
Romano for his part, isn’t backing
down. “She’s claiming a book review equals rape. That’s quite a stretch.”
Thankfully in the United States
the First Amendment will prevent MacKinnon from pursuing rape charges
against Romano; but if this had occurred in Canada it might be a different
Along with feminist thinker Andrea
Dworkin, MacKinnon has had a substantial part of her ideas accepted by
the Supreme Court of Canada. That court has banned pornography and Holocaust
revisionism on precisely the grounds that MacKinnon has laid out for harmful
In Only Words MacKinnon
describes the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1992 ruling against pornography
this way: “The evidence on the harm of pornography was sufficient
for a law against it … Harm in this context was defined as ‘predispos(ing)
persons to act in an anti-social manner.”
In the final paragraph of his review,
Romano provides probably the best evaluation of MacKinnon’s efforts to
“The first settlers in America
came here to get away from people like Catharine MacKinnon. Thousands
of immigrants still come here to flee people like Catharine MacKinnon.
She is an authoritarian in the guise of a progressive … and God help
the First Amendment if her ideas ever win the day.”