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Katha Pollitt

Columnist

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.


  • Elections September 6, 2007

    Onward, Secular Soldiers

    Memo to candidates: There are more atheists, agnostics and skeptics out there than you think. How about sending us some love?

    Katha Pollitt

  • August 30, 2007

    Cindy Sheehan, Re-revisited

    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.

    Katha Pollitt

  • August 26, 2007

    Grace Paley, 1922-2007

    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.

    Katha Pollitt

  • August 20, 2007

    More on Sheehan v Pelosi; Bush Dogs of War

    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.

    Katha Pollitt

  • August 12, 2007

    Dear Cindy: Please Don’t Run

    On July 25, Cindy Sheehan announced that since Nancy Pelosi failed tomove to impeach Bush and Cheney by Sheehan's deadline two days earlier,she will run as an independent for Pelosi's seat in Congress. I havea lot of respect for Sheehan, but I hope she'll reconsider.

    First of all, should impeachment really be a litmus test? Sure, itwould be emotionally satisfying to haul the president before theSenate--look how much fun the Republicans had with Clinton. I understand why some of my Nation colleaguesare so keen on it. But it's not going to happen--the numbers in Congress and Senate aren'tthere , and I don't care how many people sign petitions and call theircongressperson, that is not going to change. Despise the Democrats for caving in -- on war funding, on FISA, on abstinence-only education. Pressure them, confront them, make them feel your wrath. But to insist that they work themselves into a lather for what is essentially a symbolic gesture with no chance of success? I don't see the point of that.

    Second, Sheehan's run is futile. There's a place for outsidercandidates, even longshots. Ned Lamont lost hisSenate race, but first he won the primary and he ran to win. Moreover, even though he lost the race, he made his point: hiscandidacy put the Democrats -- and the media -- on notice that antiwarfeeling was far deeper, and antiwar opponents far better organized,than they had believed. Nancy Pelosi has been a cautious -- too cautious -- leader, and if a lefter candidate could take her seat, fine. But let me go out on a limb here: Sheehan has nochance of defeating her, and still less chance of moving into an open seat because the impeachment of Bush and Cheney has moved Speaker Pelosi, next in line, into the White House. Sheehan's candidacy is less likethat of Ned Lamont than it is like the barely visible symbolic third-party runs of JonathanTasini and Stanley Aronowitz for Governor of New York. She'll getmore media than those gentlemen, because she and Pelosi are national celebrities,but I doubt she'll come much closer to victory. Thus, instead of showingthe Democrats how strong is the threat from the left, it will showthem how weak it is.

    Katha Pollitt

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  • Who’s Sorry Now?

    Michael Ignatieff apologizes for being wrong on Iraq. If only mainstream media acknowledged all the people who were right.

    Katha Pollitt

  • July 31, 2007

    A Reply to Dave Zirin

    In The Nation's web-letters, Dave Zirin repliesto my post about his column on Michael Vick. In the nicest possibleway, he suggests that I'm out of my depth in tackling a sportssubject. He's certainly right that I'm no expert on sports or sportsmedia. How big an expert you need to be in this case is anotherquestion.

    Zirin's big point is that Vick and other football stars do not havethe moral agency I attribute to them, because they come from poorbackgrounds and have few alternatives : "Vick and others are free notto play professional football. They are also free to work inMcDonalds, or go to a public school that treats them like prisoners."

    That may be so. I wasn't condemning Vick for playing football, though,but for allegedly running a barbaric and illegal dogfighting business.What does dogfighting have to do with escaping from a life flippingburgers? Or -- Zirin's other distracting topic -- with the prevalenceof sports injuries? True, as Zirin notes, there are greater evils inthe world than animal torture, and animal torture does not exist in avacuum: "We are carrying out two military occupations, spend $500billion on "defense" and have over 300 million guns in circulation. Itshouldn't surprise us that violent sports, from the NFL to UltimateFighting, find a wide audience. It also shouldn't surprise us thatplayers in these sports engage in past times [sic] that one would deemanti-social."

    Katha Pollitt

  • July 31, 2007

    Help Jesse Friedman Overturn his Wrongful Conviction

    There was great news in this morning's inbox from Elisabeth Friedman, wife of Jesse Friedman. After running into wall after brick wall in his attempt to have his conviction overturned, Jesse's finally caught a break: A federal judge has granted his habeas corpus petition.

    Jesse was one of numerous innocent victims of the wave of mass-child-sex-abuse cases that swept the country in the l980s and l990s. Convicted as a teenager of molesting boys who took computer classes from his father, who was also convicted, he served 13 years in prison for a crime that looks more and more like one that never happened. ( See the celebrated documentary Capturing the Friedmans for more on the case.) The ingredients common to sex-panic cases were all present: an over-zealous police and prosecutor, a hostile community, frenzied media, dubious therapeutic practices like recovered memory and hypnosis, immense pressure put on kids to say what the prosecution wanted to hear, evidence withheld from the defense, and so on. In the light of what we now know about false confessions, which minors are particularly likely to make, Jesse's plea bargain stands as yet more evidence that too often innocent people can be made to look guilty.

    Our system of justice runs on money -- shouldn't be so, but that's the way it is. After almost 20 years entangled in the case, the Friedman family is reaching out for help. If you can contribute even $5 to Jesse's defense fund, you can help him take his fight to prove his innocence to the next level. You can make a donation through Paypal at www.FriedmanDefenseFund.org. Or you can write a check to NCRJ with Jesse Friedman on the memo line and mail it to National Center for Reason and Justice P.O. Box 230414 Boston MA 02123-0414.

    Katha Pollitt

  • July 26, 2007

    Who’s the Victim in the Case of Michael Vick?

    Michael Vick has a 10-year contract with the Atlanta Falcons for $130 million. His skill at running, kicking and throwing a football has won him the admiration of millions -- until now. As you probably know, Vick has been charged with involvement in the cruel and illegal "sport" of dog fighting. Americans may not care if an athlete beats his wife, but we love our pets. Breeding and training dogs to fight and kill, disposing of the losers by hanging, electrocution, slamming them repeatedly onto the floor -- this is definitely taking machismo too far.

    In his recent piece for The Nation's website, Dave Zirin makes some valid points. Yes, Vick deserves some semblance of the presumption of innocence in the media. (Vick claims others ran the dog fight business from his Virginia house without his knowledge when he wasn't present.) And yes, there's racism in some of the virulent attacks on him on sports and news websites. References to lynching, the n-word and OJ do suggest something besides love of animals.

    But I was appalled by Zirin's attempt to shift focus away from Vick to "the self-righteousness of the media" and the hypocrisy of "American culture" which "celebrates violent sports -- especially football -- and is insensitive to the consequences that the weekly scrum has on the bodies and minds of its players" like Earl Campbell and Andre Waters and other middle-aged ex-footballers who suffered long-term damage from old injuries. Like the accusations of racism, this sounds like a rather desperate bid to change the subject. Why should one concern displace the other? Can't one both feel revulsion at animal torture and want the game to be safer? At least the the players were volunteers, richly rewarded for the risks they took. Nobody asked the dogs if they wanted to have their throats ripped out.

    Katha Pollitt

  • July 25, 2007

    The Democrats Increased Funding for WHAT?

    I'm way late on this, so I hope you've already squawked to your congressperson about a particularly nasty bit of gristle buried in the big fat bratwurst that is the 125-page Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill. Passed by the House on July 19 by a comfy 276-140 vote, HR 3043 increases federal funding for abstinence-only education by $27.8 million -- $4 million more than Bush asked for. That brings to a whopping $141 million the amount of your taxes the feds will spend annually on religion-ridden error-strewn information-denying propagandistic-boondogglish school programs that--as a Congressionally mandated 10-year evaluation by Mathematica Policy Research showed back in April -- do not even work.

    These are the same programs that Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) blasted in a report last December for spreading such falsehoods as : condoms don't protect against pregnancy, half of gay male teens are HIV positive, a 43-day old embryo is a "thinking person," 10% of women who have abortions become sterile, and the HIV virus can be transmitted through sweat and tears. My personal favorite, as described by The Washington Post:

    "Some course materials cited in Waxman's report present as scientific fact notions about a man's need for ‘admiration' and ‘sexual fulfillment' compared with a woman's need for ‘financial support.' One book in the ‘Choosing Best' series tells the story of a knight who married a village maiden instead of the princess because the princess offered so many tips on slaying the local dragon. ‘Moral of the story,' notes the popular text: ‘Occasional suggestions and assistance may be alright, but too much of it will lessen a man's confidence or even turn him away from his princess.' "

    Katha Pollitt