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.
Â Â Â Â Last month I was privileged to be part of Georgetown University's day-long celebration of the 40th anniversary of the publication of Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night, his autobiographical-historical-novelistic account of the l967 March on the Pentagon.Â Mailer was in the hospital and unable to attend as he'd planned -- but it was still a fascinating day. Â My favorite moment wasÂ whenÂ the delightful and eruditeÂ Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, who wrote his thesis on Mailer, explained that in the 1960s and 70s Mailer failed to grasp the reductive nature of television --Â he would go on a talk show ,utter a complex thought, and then find that the only part that was quoted was an inflammatory soundbite, like "all women should be kept in cages." Ah, yes, context.Â I'll bet it made all the difference! My second favorite momentÂ came after my bit on the literary panel,--in which yes, as the only woman I did feel compelled to mention Mailer'sÂ rather staggering misogyny-- when various older gentlemen in the audience leapt to their feet to assure me that his violent hostility to women was just a phase . Their wives had met Mailer in the lateÂ l970s and found him very nice.Â My third favorite moment was when, after the showing of Richard Fountain'sÂ l971 documentary about mailer --Â theÂ product of the very film crew that Mailer reveals, halfway through the book, is following him about as he makes one weird speech after another, sometimes in strange voices-- aÂ Georgetown student told the panel on stage that she and herÂ activist friends always tried to present their political pointsÂ in a sober, respectful way, and sheÂ found the 1960s, and Norman Mailer in particular, entirely bewildering: Was everybody just crazy back then?Â Â
It probably astonishes you to hear that I'm not a charter member of the Norman Mailer Society, but IÂ enjoyed Armies of The Night.Â One of the great things about books, especially when they are of a previous generation, is that you don't have to swallow them whole -- you canÂ take what you want and leave the rest.Â If you are a writer yourself, you might even see a signpost in what strikes you as mostly a swamp.Â Take, for example Mailer'sÂ third-person depiction of himselfÂ as a major jerk ,obnox and social climber-- "the Novelist"Â worries endlessly about what to wear to the big march ,Â about his literary statusÂ and whether Robert LowellÂ respects him; he pisses on a restroom floor because he's too drunk to find the toilet in the dark, gives an incoherent ranting speech that it turns out nobody could hear, spends a lot of mental energy wondering how to schedule his arrest at the Pentagon so that he can be back in New York in time for a glamorousÂ party, and gets so tied up in egomaniacal knots that when he finally bunks down in jail for the night, in stead of having a historic prison-memoir moment he is unable to address a word to the reputed young genius in the next bed -- Noam Chomsky.Â It's all pretty funny.Â But who is telling you this story that reflects so poorly on "the Novelist's" claims to moral seriousness,Â political commitment, and fitness for the leadership position he longs to hold? Norman Mailer. Norman Mailer the narrator knows perfectly well --at least in Armies of the Night he does -- what an anxious, obsessive, narcissistic, fantastical, insecure, over-the-top, ridiculous person " Norman Mailer" is.Â The writer sees what the character doesn't see. The expression of that double consciousness isÂ a masterpiece of style.Â Â Still, there is that little problem of misogyny. I wishÂ The Nation's considerable coverage of his life had given that more than a passing wave.Â What a failure of imagination and humanity there is in his ravings about the evils of birth control and women's liberation, his cult ofÂ hatred andÂ domination and violence, his fatuous pronouncements about what women should be (goddesses,whores,Â mothers of as many children as a man could stuff into them), ), his pronouncements of doom on a culture that let them get out of their cage . Â I rememberÂ him speaking at a PEN meeting in the l990s aboutÂ the damage women would do to the Democratic Party if they exercised power within it.Â That made about as much sense as his famous essay in "Advertisements for Myself," (l959)Â in which, havingÂ insulted every famous male writer of his day from Bellow to Baldwin, he wrote . ''I doubt if there will be a really exciting woman writer until the first whore becomes a call girl and tells her tale.'' Â
The obits don't make much of this but it should be said straight out: Mailer did a lot of harm in his life.Â He stabbed hisÂ second wife, Adele Morales, and it wasn't some larger-than-life zany antic they both had a good laugh over later: he nearly killed her.Â Psychologically, a recent New York times story suggested,Â she never recovered. He helpedÂ get theÂ writer and murderer Jack Abbott out ofÂ prison ,Â and immediately plunged thisÂ unbalanced man who had spent over half his life behind bars Â into the heady world of literary celebrity; within days Abbott had killed a waiter he imagined was dissing him. Â Several obits have humorously recounted how Mailer assaulted on the street a sailor he thought called his dog gay, but the near murder of Morales, and the actual murder of Richie Adan by Mailer's protege, show that his infatuation with machismo was not just a literary joke, much less endearing protective covering for his inner nice-Brooklyn-boy-who-loved-his-mother.
Is Maureen Dowd obsessed with Hillary Clinton or what? Last week, she complained that Hillary spoke "girlfriend to girlfriend" to women voters while refusing to share the pain of being married to a sexually exploitative monster who had made her violate all her beliefs and principles, as Caitlin Flanagan opined in the Atlantic. This week, Dowd accused Hillary of "playing the woman-as-victim card" because her campaign put out a humorous video portraying the last debate as a masculine pile-on (never mind that Hillary herself said she was the focus of tough questioning because she was the front-runner): "If the gender game worked when Rick Lazio muscled into her space, why shouldn't it work when Obama and Edwards muster some mettle? If she could become a senator by playing the victim after Monica, surely she can become president by playing the victim now."
As far as I'm concerned, anyone who quotes Caitlin Flanagan approvingly has lost their bona fides on gender issues. Flanagan, after all, is the woman who calls herself a homemaker while acknowledging that she's never changed her own sheets, who insists that children don't love working mothers as much as they do stayhomes, and who says women have a duty to have sex with their husbands at least twice a week. As for playing the woman-as-victim card, can this be the same Maureen Dowd who wrote in her last book, Are Men Necessary?, that men don't ask her out because she's too smart and successful and will never see 35 again? How's that for painting yourself as a victimÂ Â of sexism--which, I hasten to add, Dowd probably is!
You don't need to be Simone de Beauvoir to recognize that lots of middle-aged men would find Dowd too challenging and too old -- i.e., their own age. For applying this rather obvious sociological observation to herself--for permitting herself one unguarded moment and writing what women say to each other all the time--she was publicly taken to task all over the media. Unlike Hillary, Dowd backed down. I turned on the TV late one night and there was Dowd, all sultry red hair and fishnet stockings, gaily insisting to some male interviewer that her social life was terrific, no problems in that department at all.
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.