Katha Pollitt is well known for her wit and her keen sense of both the ridiculous and the sublime. Her “Subject to Debate” column, which debuted in 1995 and which the Washington Post called “the best place to go for original thinking on the left,” appears every other week in The Nation; it is frequently reprinted in newspapers across the country. In 2003, “Subject to Debate” won the National Magazine Award for Columns and Commentary. She is also a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute.
Pollitt has been contributing to The Nation since 1980. Her 1992 essay on the culture wars, “Why We Read: Canon to the Right of Me…” won the National Magazine Award for essays and criticism, and she won a Whiting Foundation Writing Award the same year. In 1993 her essay “Why Do We Romanticize the Fetus?” won the Maggie Award from the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Many of Pollitt’s contributions to The Nation are compiled in three books: Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism (Knopf); Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics, and Culture (Modern Library); and Virginity or Death! And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time (Random House). In 2007 Random House published her collection of personal essays, Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories. Two pieces from this book, “Learning to Drive” and its followup, “Webstalker,” originally appeared in The New Yorker. “Learning to Drive” is anthologized in Best American Essays 2003.
Pollitt has also written essays and book reviews for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Harper’s, Ms., Glamour, Mother Jones, the New York Times, and the London Review of Books. She has appeared on NPR’s Fresh Air and All Things Considered, Charlie Rose, The McLaughlin Group, CNN, Dateline NBC and the BBC. Her work has been republished in many anthologies and is taught in many university classes.
For her poetry, Pollitt has received a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her 1982 book Antarctic Traveller won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her poems have been published in many magazines and are reprinted in many anthologies, most recently The Oxford Book of American Poetry (2006). Her second collection, The Mind-Body Problem, came out from Random House in 2009.
Born in New York City, she was educated at Harvard and the Columbia School of the Arts. She has lectured at dozens of colleges and universities, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brooklyn College, UCLA, the University of Mississippi and Cornell. She has taught poetry at Princeton, Barnard and the 92nd Street Y, and women’s studies at the New School University.
I've been thinking recently about the many ways in which we conceal from ourselves the truths we know we know. At the Shocked, Shocked conference at NYU on Saturday -- the subhead of which was the comical/exasperated "Just how many times can a country lose its innocence?" -- the Yale historian David Blight gave a riveting talk about how over the second half of the 19th century the Civil War became memorialized as a conflict between "two right sides " -- Union and Confederate-- and "reconciliation" came to mean focussing exclusively on the valor of the soldiers in both armies. Slavery? Black people? Neither fit the narrative of reuniting North and South. For that, the causes and purposes of the war had to be obscured, the past -- the real past -- forgotten. The slaveowner and the slave dropped out of the public story, the soldiers in blue and gray became the star players. In this way, the country could bind up its wounds and move on triumphantly without having to confront the reconstitution of white supremacy in the South, or Northern racism either. Napoleon quipped that the winners write history, but until the civil rights movement, the history of the Civil War was largely written by the South.
Blight gave an interesting example of how the wish for a heroic, positive history distorts "progressive"memory too. Ken Burns ended his PBS series on the Civil War with footage of the huge 1913 reunion at Gettysburg of veterans from both sides, closing on a conciliatory meeting between an old black union soldier and a white confederate one. According to Blight, this picture had to have come from a much later vets reunion. In 1913, all the vets were white. The only blacks permitted in the encampment were the ones who built and maintained the latrines, cooked and served food, and handed out blankets.
You can see the same process of historical mythmaking at work on the War in Vietnam. The war as well-intentioned tragedy (liberal version) versus the war as sabotaged glory, the stab in the back (conservative). The history of militant GI resistance, told in the powerful documentary "Sir! No Sir!", has dropped out of public memory, replaced by feckless "draft dodgers" and the myth of the returning soldier spat upon in the airport by a hippie girl with flowers in her hair.
Remember Michael Ignatieff's "Getting Iraq Wrong," the New York Times Sunday Magazine essay in which he explained that he supported the war in Iraq because he was a sensitive academic prone to big dreams? Ignatieff managed to admit that he had been wrong while attacking the people who'd been right all along: "Many of those who correctly anticipated catastrophe did so not by exercising judgment but by indulging in ideology," he wrote. "They opposed the invasion because they believed the President was only after the oil or because they believed America is always and in every situation wrong." Not very gracious, that.
Personally, I have no idea why we went to war in Iraq. Even at the time it seemed insane. After all, the Bush Administration knew everything war opponents knew: that Saddam hadn't been involved in 9/11, didn't have WMD, wasn't a mighty military force about to pounce on the world. Cruel as the regime was, I never bought the view that the war was a humanitarian rescue mission, either. There are too many harsh dictatorships, too many places full of horror -- Congo, Darfur, Burma -- that the US basically ignored. As for bringing democracy to the Mdidle East, where would that leave our good friend Saudi Arabia? I basically figured the decision to invade was one of those overdetermined situations, a murky confluence of motives and actors and schemes, like most wars. We'd have to wait for the historians to sort it all out in fifty years.
Or maybe not. In his new book Alan Greenspan ,no lefty peacenik, writes, "I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil."
I was a little surprised the other day to find a picture of Mother Teresa adorning The Nation's website, illustrating an interview in which Richard Rodriguez rehearses the very canards about the left and religion I discuss in my column this week. Christopher Hitchens may have gone overboard in his attack on Mother T (as Alexander Cockburn put it in the New Yorker's starstruck profile of Hitchens, "Between the two of them, my sympathies were with Mother Teresa. If you were sitting in rags in a gutter in Calcutta, who would be more likely to give you a bowl of soup?'"). But Rodriguez' view is simple hagiography: he doesn't even raise in a parenthesis Mother Teresa's deep political and theological conservatism, her hob-nobbing with dictators , her opposition not just to abortion rights but to birth control and to condoms for disease prevention, her lack of interest in getting rid of poverty or bringing modern medical care to the poor.
It's fascinating that, according to recently released letters , Mother Teresa almost never felt the presence of God and suffered terribly over this. In a way that made me like her more: this was one tough nun. But when Rodriguez says the revelation of her spiritual aridity will deepen "our sense of her mystery and possibly her sainthood" who is the "we" he has in mind? If you're not a Catholic, you probably don't believe in Catholic saints. He argues that public knowledge of her religious doubts may mitigate what he correctly identifies as a worldwide excess of murderous faith, but this seems most unlikely. Mother Teresa herself didn't let her lifelong dark night of the soul get in the way of her extreme religious orthodoxy. I think her example goes the other way: it says, if you have doubts, keep quiet, don't use them to question dogma, challenge authority, open yourself up to new ways of thinking. Just keep kissing the rod. If Mother Teresa wasn't such a big humanitarian icon, we might think there was something a bit masochistic in her devotion to a God who made her so miserable.
Rodriguez writes "The left, like spoiled children, having been accused of being sinful by the Church, they decide the Church is really sinful. That's not useful. More useful is to spend a life of service to a Church that is not easily yours." Tell it to Voltaire! Was he a spoiled child? Was his life not useful? Anyway, the people most ardently convinced of the "sinfulness" of the church these days aren't leftists but Catholics appalled by molesting priests and the failure of the hierarchy to deal with this scandal in an honest and open way-- Boston's Cardinal Law did more to hurt the church than all the atheists and anticlericals who ever set pen to paper. And why is it more "useful" for, say, a homosexual like Rodriguez to "serve" the Church than to leave it and join a denomination that respects his sexuality ? He could still believe in Jesus if he was an Episcopalian -- he could even be a priest.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post saying Cindy Sheehan would probably not do very well against Nancy Pelosi, and therefore I was sorry she had decided to run. I said she was more valuable to the antiwar movement as an activist. I said leftists waste a lot of time on futile electoral contests, and cited examples of such contests. These remarks, which were couched in terms of deepest respect for Cindy Sheehan, have evoked much bile and wrath in this blog's comment section and elsewhere in the blogosphere. So much fun are commenters having discussing what a traitor and reactionary I am, few seem to have noticed that, in a followup, I wrote that my comments were actually as much about electoral protest politics in general as about this particular race and "if Cindy Sheehan wants to make an anti-war gesture, running against Nancy Pelosi is one way to do it, so good luck to her."
She's going to need it. Her outraged and self-righteous response to my mild and polite posts make me wonder how she will withstand the rigors of political campaigning. Because I express doubt that she will make much impression on the ballot box, and think that likelihood and its implications are worth discussing frankly, Sheehan accuses me of "stridently" (nice --does anyone EVER use that word for a man?) defending the Democratic Party's "complicity" in the war and of not caring about the sufferings of Iraqis the way she does.
I'm sorry, that doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. Even if I was the reprehensible character she claims -- yellowdog Dem indifferent to the horrors of war, willing to say anything to keep Nancy Pelosi in power -- I could still be right about Sheehan's own electoral prospects and about whether such runs are the best use of the antiwar/progressive movements energies. Shouldn't a serious candidate be trying to show the hundreds of thousands of people who visit this website that I am wrong? Sheehan doesn't address any of the points I raise, or that Gary Younge raises in his excellent column on the same issues. All she does is malign my motives and my personality, attack The Nation for supposedly exploiting her fame, and accuse anyone who questions her judgment of supporting the war.
I am so sad that Grace Paley has died. She was a great writer --every word as pungent as pumpernickel-- with a great subject, the daily lives of women in jewish-immigrant-bohemian-left New York. In her short stories yiddishkeit meets radicalism meets Greenwich Village meets Malamud/Roth/ Leonard Michaels/ maybe even the Isaac Bashevis Singer of "A Friend of Kafka" --except that none of those writers, Singer every once in a while excepted, was particularly interested in what was going on with women.
I knew Grace a bit and surely there was never a kinder, more self-effacing writer of her stature in the history of the world. Sometimes she reminded me of James Merrill's remark that Elizabeth Bishop engaged in an "instinctive, modest, life-long impersonation of an ordinary woman." In the early l990s Grace put me up in her house in Vermont when I was snowed in after giving a talk at Dartmouth. We sat at her dining table and talked about children -- my daughter, her grandson, the inner-city kids who'd spent summers at the house decades before. We also talked, rather improbably, about agriculture -- her husband, Bob Nichols, had taken up the cause of local dairy farmers who were being squeezed by big producers. For all her warmth and unpretension, Grace had her share of reserve, or perhaps I was too shy. And so I did not ask any of the questions that flitted through my mind-- about writing, politics, the left, feminism, her life, life. I spent my one evening in her house talking about children and cows.
Grace was a tireless activist. Sometimes, I thought, too tireless. I used to see her at small demonstrations around town in the l980s, and wish someone would chain her to her desk -- lots of people can march, I would think to myself ( not that lots of people were doing so) but only Grace can write like Grace. She would have been horrified by such an elitist thought, I know--to her, the movement was life. She often said she liked to be out in the streets. And maybe her writing was as original, compressed, fresh and energetic as it was because it had to fight for attention with stopping the war(s), liberating women, bringing creative writing into the public schools, working for that elusive future where it's the defense department, and not the daycare center, that has to hold a bake sale.
Readers made some good points about my post questioning the wisdom of Cindy Sheehan's decision to run to Congress against Nancy Pelosi. Really, what's the harm? I think my problem wasn't so much with this particular race per se as with the general penchant of the left for the electoral politics of theatre: runs that have no hope of success by people who have no serious interest in being in government. I know that sounds terribly square. But beyond generating (maybe) a few headlines and offering likeminded voters a chance to raise a fist in the air, what is achieved? Is an organization built? is the ground prepared for a more powerful bid next time? Are ideas put into the political discourse that weren't there before? Is the winner pushed to the left? Too often, in fact almost always, the answer to these questions is no.
If Cindy Sheehan wants to make an anti-war gesture, running against Nancy Pelosi is one way to do it, so good luck to her. Still, to me, it would make more sense for Iraq war opponents to run where they have a chance to win, and against a more reprehensible congressperson, too. Chris Bowers at openleft.com has compiled a list of the 38 Democratic congresspeople -- he calls them Bush Dogs -- who voted with the Republicans both on funding the Iraq war and on warrantless wiretapping.