When Tammy Bruce, then president of the National Organization for Women's Los Angeles chapter, clashed with the national leadership of NOW over the O.J. Simpson murder case in 1995, it was a thrilling spectacle of two leftist ideologies colliding: the irresistible force of radical feminism meets the immovable object of racial politics.
Bruce, who scoffed openly at the notion that Simpson was a victim of racist persecution, was censured by NOW's national board for "statements that clearly violate NOW's commitment to stopping racism" — for instance, that the issue of domestic violence provided "a needed break from all that talk of racism."
While Bruce was almost certainly on the side of the angels here, her record suggested that it was a case of a broken clock being right twice a day. Among other things, Bruce had once hailed the Women's Action Coalition, the now-defunct militant group that barred all men, including reporters, from its actions and events. ("Most groups metamorphose," she was quoted as saying, "but I hope they stay the same.") She also lambasted a judge for reversing a policy that had banned Los Angeles firefighters from reading nudie magazines in their personal quarters at the fire station.
Fast-forward to 2003. Meet Tammy Bruce, a columnist for the reliably right-wing NewsMax.com and a television pundit who voices the conservative position on everything from the death penalty to the Pledge of Allegiance. Her new book, The Death of Right and Wrong: Exposing the Left's Assault on Our Culture and Our Values, has blurbs from Laura Schlessinger, Sean Hannity, and G. Gordon Liddy.
Such political odysseys, of course, are not unheard of. But unlike, say, her recovering Leninist friend David Horowitz, Bruce denies that her beliefs have undergone any significant evolution. "The funny thing is that my politics haven't changed at all," she tells me. What really happened, she says, is that she finally saw through the "charade" of the left's rhetoric about empowering women and other groups. Bruce, who now calls herself a classical liberal, insists that she is "still very proud" of her work at NOW.
There's something to be said for anyone who riles the feminist establishment as much as Tammy Bruce does. And her maverick status as (to quote her Web site) "an openly gay, pro-choice, pro-death penalty, gun-owning, voted-for-Reagan progressive feminist" makes her appealing in a time when so many pundits spout prepackaged ideologies of the left or the right. Unfortunately, her claim to be an independent thinker is compromised by her own unacknowledged contradictions — and by her penchant for rhetoric straight from the right-wing TelePrompter.
Probably the biggest contradiction is between Bruce's outrage at the left's attempts to suppress politically incorrect speech and her long history of actions that, to the untrained eye, might look like attempts to suppress politically incorrect speech. Bruce rails at the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) for its boycott of sponsors of Schlessinger's television show; yet in 1990, she led NOW's boycott against Knopf over Bret Easton Ellis' novel American Psycho. In her 2001 book The New Thought Police, Bruce explains that this was different because she never asked Knopf to cancel publication of the book and wanted only to raise public awareness of its violent content. (Actually, GLAAD did not demand the cancellation of Schlessinger's show, to the dismay of some gay activists.) Yet Bruce also boasts that partly due to her protest — which included such strong-arm tactics as encouraging people to flood Knopf's inside phone numbers with phone calls — no similar books have been published since, and the editor of Ellis' next novel censored a particularly violent scene.
The targets of Bruce's wrath in her NOW days also included far more innocuous fare than American Psycho, such as country singer Holly Dunn's hit song "Maybe I Mean Yes," in which a woman says, "When I say no, I mean maybe/And maybe I mean yes" — a lyric Bruce decried as encouraging rape, even though the context was courtship, not sex. When the protests led Dunn to ask radio stations to stop playing the song and cut it from her live program, Bruce called the singer's decision "a very brave move."
Other inconsistencies abound. Bruce rightly castigates feminists for championing women who kill their children, yet says nothing about their support for women who kill allegedly abusive male partners — a cause to which she herself lent her efforts on at least one dubious occasion.
Asked about this, Bruce reluctantly says, "This is one issue where I probably compromised." Today she stresses that abused women have the responsibility to leave a violent relationship, but she offers a ready excuse for the shift in her views. Battered women, she tells me, had more justification for using deadly violence before 1994 — i.e., before the Simpson case and the Violence Against Women Act — when they had fewer protections than they do now.
While Bruce criticizes feminists for writing off the role of fathers in children's lives, she never admits that she herself was guilty of some fairly harsh anti-father rhetoric. In 1995, when Gordon Clark, the estranged husband of Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark, sought primary custody of their two sons because Clark was working exorbitant hours, Bruce railed against "vindictive, estranged spouses" waging war on working mothers. Earlier, she had suggested that one way to combat domestic violence would be to make it easier for divorced women — presumably not just ones who had been abused — to move with the children regardless of the father's concerns.
What about Bruce's views today? She bristles at the fact that Publishers' Weekly called her new book a "right-wing screed." But it does echo a lot of familiar conservative denunciations of cultural decay, with the twist that these things are being said by a lesbian feminist. Bruce trains her sights on soft-on-crime judges and jurors, obscene and scatological performance artists, foul-mouthed rappers, America-hating academics, and proponents of sex education. Even when she's right, her case is marred by a strident tone and a lack of nuance.
Take one of the strongest parts of The Death of Right and Wrong: Bruce's attack on the tendency to sexualize children in the name of sexual liberation. She is particularly appalled by the fairly respectable reception of Judith Levine's recent book Harmful to Minors, which comes disturbingly close to trying to destigmatize adult sexual contact with minors. Yet what mainstream praise Levine's book has received has focused on her well-founded critique of child abuse hysteria and on such gray areas as sex between teenagers and young adults. And in the case of sexual relationships between underage boys and adult women, the tolerance Bruce laments has far less to do with "the Left" than with traditional attitudes regarding gender.
There are some indications, as well, that Bruce is anxious to avoid displeasing her conservative audience. Her comments on homosexuality, for instance, could hardly upset anyone but the most virulent bigot. True, she criticized Rick Santorum's remarks defending the criminalization of gay sex in her NewsMax column. But while she tells me that she supports same-sex marriage, there is no record of her speaking out for it publicly. (When asked about it, she gives an evasive reply: "I've made the argument in speeches. I've made it, I think, in a couple of columns, and if it became a big issue politically I would take a stand on it.") In The Death of Right and Wrong, she argues not only that the Boy Scouts of America have a constitutional right to ban gays from their ranks but that their anti-gay policy is commendable, since having openly gay scoutmasters would expose boys to the risk of molestation. (She does not mention that the Boy Scouts' policy also bans openly gay teenage boys from being Scouts.)
While Bruce's politics have changed far more than she is willing to concede, some things haven't changed. She still demonizes her opponents and caricatures their views, and she still paints apocalyptic pictures of the problems that concern her.