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Katha Pollitt | The Nation

Katha Pollitt

Author Bios

Katha Pollitt

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.

Articles

News and Features

War tropes abound once again during our war on terrorism, but this ain't the USA of yesteryear.

How depressing was the October 13 peace rally in Washington Square? Well, the Bread and Puppet Theater performed--that should give you an idea. "It's the sixties all over again," murmured the portly graybeard standing next to me as the funereal drum thudded and the players, holding their papier mâché body masks, paraded glumly through the crowd of perhaps 500 people--most, by the look of them, veterans of either the peace and justice or sectarian left. Look on the bright side, I thought: At least we don't have to sing "Down by the Riverside," as happened at the peace rally in Union Square on October 7, a few hours after bombs started falling on Afghanistan.

I don't like to criticize the activists who put together what little resistance to the bombing there is. But the 2000s aren't the 1960s, and whatever else Afghanistan is, it isn't Vietnam, any more than international terrorism or Islamic extremism is the new communism. Essential to the movement against the war in Vietnam was the pointlessness of our involvement: What had Ho Chi Minh ever done to us? The Vietcong never blew up American office buildings and murdered 5,000 ordinary American working people. You didn't have to be a pacifist or an opponent of all intervention everywhere to favor getting out of Vietnam--there were dozens of reasons, principled, pragmatic, humanitarian, self-serving, to be against the war. This time, our own country has been attacked, and the enemies are deranged fanatics. No amount of military force short of nuclear weapons would have defeated the North Vietnamese and Vietcong, who really did swim like fish in the sea of the people and had plenty of help from the Soviet Union besides; the Taliban, by contrast, are widely, although not universally, hated in Afghanistan, and Osama bin Laden's men, known as the Arab-Afghans, are viewed there by many as a hostile foreign presence.

Faced with a popular air war conducted, at least on paper, in such a way as to minimize civilian casualties, the peace movement falls back on boilerplate: All war everywhere is wrong, no matter what evils pertain; any use of force merely perpetuates the "cycle of violence"; the war is "racist," whatever that means; it's a corporate plot. The most rousing and focused speech at Washington Square was physicist Michio Kaku's denunciation of Star Wars--but no one I heard (I missed the noted foreign policy experts Al Sharpton and Patti Smith) grappled with the central question: If not war, what? Realistically, some of the alternatives that have been proposed would also involve military action. Osama bin Laden is not likely to mail himself to the International Criminal Court to be tried for crimes against humanity; the disarming of both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance by United Nations peacekeepers, followed by free and democratic elections--the course favored by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan--is not likely to happen peacefully either.

The attack on the World Trade Center, an unspeakable and unjustifiable crime, created a sense of urgency and feelings of fear and anger that do not easily accord with calls for a deeper understanding of America's role in the Muslim world. It's hard to care that the US government armed and bankrolled the fundamentalist mujahedeen in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets, or that it supports clerical-fascist Islamic governments like the one in Saudi Arabia, when you're afraid to fly in an airplane or open your mail. Say for the sake of argument that the "chickens" of American foreign policy "are coming home to roost": You can see why many would answer, Well, so what? Why not just kill the chickens and be done with it? That may prove much more difficult than today's pro-war pundits acknowledge--what if one only hatches more chickens?--but it's not totally off the wall, like Alice Walker's embarrassing and oft-cited proposal that bin Laden be showered with love and "reminded of all the good, nonviolent things he has done."

Right now, the argument that the war will have unforeseen and disastrous consequences may sound like handwringing, but it is doubtless true. Given the millions who are starving in Afghanistan, the 37,500 mini-meals that have fallen from the sky are a cruel joke. And even if the Al Qaeda network is destroyed and the Taliban overthrown, the circumstances that created them will remain. This is the case whether one sees the attack on the WTC as inspired by religiously motivated hatred of modernity and Enlightenment values, like Christopher Hitchens, or as a response to particular American policies in Israel, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, as Noam Chomsky argues. Experts can debate the precise amount of motivation this or that factor contributes to terrorism--but unless the Muslim world is transformed on many levels, it is hard to see how the bombing of Afghanistan will keep Americans safe or prevent new Al Qaedas and Talibans from forming. For that, we would have to be able to look down the road ten years and see a peaceful, well-governed, rebuilt Afghanistan; a Pakistan in which the best chance for a poor boy or girl is public school, not a madrassah for him and nothing for her; a Saudi Arabia with a democratic, secular government; an Egypt without millions living in abject poverty and a hugely frustrated middle class. This is all the more true if militant Islam is relatively independent of concrete grievances like Israel and Iraq.

Unfortunately, anyone who tries to talk about the WTC attack in this way--as Susan Sontag did in her entirely reasonable but now infamous New Yorker piece--is likely to find themselves labeled a traitor, a coward, anti-American or worse. (I found this out myself when I made the mistake of going on the radio with mad Andrew Sullivan, who has said the "decadent left...may well mount a fifth column," and who accused me of objectively supporting the Taliban and likened me to someone who refuses to help a rape victim and blames her for wearing a short skirt.) But a war can be "just" in the sense that it is a response to aggression--as Vietnam was not--and also be the wrong way to solve a problem.

Are there any people
on earth more wretched than the women of Afghanistan? As if poverty,
hunger, disease, drought, ruined cities and a huge refugee crisis
weren't bad enough, under Taliban rule they can't work, they can't go
to school, they have virtually no healthcare, they can't leave their
houses without a male escort, they are beaten in the streets if they
lift the mandatory burqa even to relieve a coughing fit. The
Taliban's crazier requirements have some of the obsessive
particularity of the Nazis' statutes against the Jews: no high heels
(that lust-inducing click-click!), no white socks (white is the color
of the flag), windows must be painted over so that no male passerby
can see the dreaded female form lurking in the house. (This
particular stricture, combined with the burqa, has led to an outbreak
of osteomalacia, a bone disease caused by malnutrition and lack of
sunlight.)

Until September 11, this situation received only
modest attention in the West--much less than the destruction of the
giant Buddha statues of Bamiyan. The "left" is often accused of
"moral relativism" and a "postmodern" unwillingness to judge, but the
notion that the plight of Afghan women is a matter of culture and
tradition, and not for Westerners to judge, was widespread across the
political spectrum.

Now, finally, the world is paying
attention to the Taliban, whose days may indeed be numbered now that
their foreign supporters--Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates,
Pakistan--are backing off. The connections between religious
fanaticism and the suppression of women are plain to see (and not
just applicable to Islam--show me a major religion in which the
inferiority of women, and God's wish to place them and their
dangerous polluting sexuality under male control, is not a central
original theme). So is the connection of both with terrorism, war and
atrocity. It's no accident that so many of the young men who are foot
soldiers of Islamic fundamentalism are reared in womanless religious
schools, or that Osama bin Laden's recruiting video features bikinied
Western women as symbols of the enemy.

But if
fundamentalism requires the suppression of women, offering desperate,
futureless men the psychological and practical satisfaction of
instant superiority to half the human race, the emancipation of women
could be the key to overcoming it. Where women have education,
healthcare and personal rights, where they have social and political
and economic power--where they can choose what to wear, whom to
marry, how to live--there's a powerful constituency for secularism,
democracy and human rights: What educated mother engaged in public
life would want her daughter to be an illiterate baby machine
confined to the four walls of her husband's house with no one to talk
to but his other wives?

Women's rights are crucial for
everything the West supposedly cares about: infant mortality (one in
four Afghan children dies before age 5), political democracy,
personal freedom, equality under the law--not to mention its own
security. But where are the women in the discussion of Afghanistan,
the Middle East, the rest of the Muslim world? We don't hear much
about how policy decisions will affect women, or what they want. Men
have the guns and the governments. Who asks the women of Saudi
Arabia, our ally, how they feel about the Taliban-like restrictions
on their freedom? In the case of Afghanistan, the Northern
Alliance presents itself now to the West as women's friend. A story
in the New York Times marveled at the very limited permission
given to women in NA-held territory to study and work and wear a less
restrictive covering than the burqa. Brushed aside was the fact that
many warlords of the Northern Alliance are themselves religious
fighters who not only restricted women considerably when they held
power from 1992 to '96 but plunged the country into civil war,
compiling a record of ethnically motivated mass murder, rape and
other atrocities and leaving the population so exhausted that the
Taliban's promise of law and order came as a relief. It's all
documented on the Human Rights Watch website
(www.hrw.org).

Now more than ever, the Revolutionary
Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), which opposes both
the Taliban and the Northern Alliance as violent, lawless,
misogynistic and antidemocratic, deserves attention and support.
"What Afghanistan needs is not more war," Tahmeena Faryel, a RAWA
representative currently visiting the United States, told me, but
massive amounts of humanitarian aid and the disarming of both the
Taliban and the Northern Alliance, followed by democratic elections.
"We don't need another religious government," she said. "We've had
that!" The women of RAWA are a different model of heroism than a
warlord with a Kalashnikov: In Afghanistan, they risk their lives by
running secret schools for girls, delivering medical aid, documenting
and filming Taliban atrocities. In Pakistan, they demonstrate against
fundamentalism in the "Talibanized" cities of Peshawar and Quetta.
Much as the victims of the WTC attack need our support, so too do
Afghans who are trying to bring reason and peace to their miserable
country. To make a donation to RAWA, see www.rawa.org.

* * *

I got more negative comment on my
last column, in which I described a discussion with my daughter about
whether to fly an American flag in the wake of the WTC attack, than
on anything I've ever written. Many people pitied my commonsensical,
public-spirited child for being raised by an antisocial naysayer like
me. And if The Weekly Standard has its way--it's urging
readers to send young "Miss Pollitt" flags c/o The Nation--she
will soon have enough flags to redecorate her entire bedroom in red,
white and blue, without having to forgo a single Green Day CD to buy
one for herself. (See this issue's Letters column for some of the
mail on the flag question.)

Fortunately, for those who want
to hang something a bit more global out their window, there are
alternatives. The peace flag (www.peaceflags.org) reshapes Old
Glory's stars into the peace sign; the Earth flag (www.earthflag.net)
displays the Apollo photo of the Earth on a blue background.



Woods Hole, Mass.

Katha Pollitt is my favorite Nation columnist, but guess what, Katha, you've got my objections to cloning embryo stem cells all wrong ["Subject to Debate," July 23/30].

Maybe now that it's public knowledge that researchers have been buying women's eggs so they can make human embryos for research, you may be getting the point. But if not, let me explain. Human eggs don't grow on trees. They are embedded deep inside women's bodies; not easy to get at, like sperm. To collect more than one at a time means you first have to give women hormones to shut their ovaries down. You then have to hyperstimulate their ovaries with hormones of another sort so that many more than the customary single monthly follicle and its egg mature. At the right time, you then puncture each follicle and suck out its egg. Sound good for women? Steptoe and Edwards, the scientific "fathers" of Louise Brown, didn't give her mother hormones because they feared it wasn't safe. They waited patiently for a follicle to mature and then collected the egg that eventually became Louise. But the fertility industry doesn't have time for such niceties. Now it's hormones and mass production.

The concerns Pollitt imputes to me are not what worries me. I worry about what this new "need" for human embryos will do to women. And do you know what? We may never know the answer, because in countries with proper healthcare systems where proper health records are kept, people are not permitted to buy and sell body parts. "The enemy isn't the research," Pollitt writes, "it's capitalism." Wrong again: The enemy is research under capitalism.

RUTH HUBBARD

Professor emeritus of biology Harvard University
Board member, Council for Responsible Genetics (www.gene-watch.org)


Valhalla, N.Y.

It's unfortunate that the usually perceptive Katha Pollitt completely misses the point about human cloning in her column on this subject. Kids produced by in vitro fertilization are one thing: They are made from the standard starting materials--an egg and a sperm. The donor of either may request anonymity, but the resulting infant is guaranteed to be a full-fledged member of the human species, biologically speaking (as well as socially and legally, although these connections are rapidly being eroded in the current environment--see Lori Andrews, The Clone Age, Henry Holt, 1999).

A clone is quite a different animal, however. It is constructed of parts of cells (an egg missing its nucleus; the nucleus of an adult cell) that never meet in the course of reproduction. Evolution has never had to deal with, and arrive at correctives for, the errors introduced into the developmental process resulting from this atypical combination of cell parts. No wonder virtually all attempts at animal cloning have led to fetal deaths, multiple birth defects or severe health problems later in the lives of even the most sound-looking clones. This is not a set of problems that can be worked out in mice before confidently being attempted in humans; it is probably too complex to be fully controlled, and in any case, each species presents unique complications.

A Massachusetts company, Advanced Cell Technologies, has announced that it is now producing clonal human embryos as a first step in producing donor-matched therapeutic stem cells. And now biotechnology industry representatives have begun to make common cause with some of their anti-choice beneficiaries in Congress in trying to define such embryos as "not true human embryos" in order to thwart laws against their production and manipulation. Indeed, if Pollitt's blasé attitude toward the production of full-term human clones becomes prevalent, we can look forward to the day when the not-quite-natural, not-quite-artificial products of human cloning experiments (disconnected, as they would be, from any social network other than that defined by ownership rights) are also redefined as "not true humans." This would open the way to their finding use as sources of transplantable organs,experimental laboratory models or perhaps, for the most presentable examples, wounded hero status in the march of reproductive technology. Would Pollitt flip off concerns about "threats to 'human individuality and dignity'" in this not very distant brave new world?

STUART A. NEWMAN
Professor of cell biology,
New York Medical College
Board member, Council for Responsible Genetics (www.gene-watch.org)


San Francisco

On the question of human cloning, Katha Pollitt's usually reliable political insight has failed her. She dismisses the pro-choice statement calling for bans on human cloning--signed to date by more than a hundred women's health and reproductive rights leaders--on the grounds that the pending Congressional bills to prohibit cloning are the "brainchildren of anti-choice Republican yahoos."

But that's precisely the point: Human cloning and genetic manipulation are feminist-liberal-progressive-radical issues. We leave them to the anti-choice crowd at our considerable peril.

The recent deluge of news about stem cells has generated a great deal of confusion about cloning. Two clarifications are key: First, opposition to cloning can and does co-exist with support for research on embryonic stem cells, using embryos from in vitro fertilization procedures. Stem cell research and embryo cloning intersect, but they are technically distinguishable--and vastly different politically.

Second, looking at human cloning through the lens of abortion politics blurs and distorts its meaning. The prospect of cloned or genetically "enhanced" children is ominous because it could so easily trigger an unprecedented kind of eugenics, one implemented not by state coercion but by upscale marketing campaigns for designer babies.

Pollitt thinks this scenario unlikely. I invite her to reconsider. The marginal figures she mentions--the Raelians and the cowboy fertility doctor Panos Zavos--are not the only champions of human cloning, and they are far from the most dangerous.

Already biotech companies are jockeying for patents on procedures to clone and manipulate human embryos. And for several years now, a disturbing number of influential scientists, biotech entrepreneurs, bioethicists and others have been actively promoting human cloning and genetic redesign. Some are open about their ambition to set humanity on a eugenic path and to "seize control of human evolution."

One example among many is Princeton University molecular biologist Lee Silver. In multiple appearances on national television and in the newsweeklies, Silver has plugged the "inevitable" emergence of a genetic caste system in which the "GenRich" rule and the "Naturals" work as "low-paid service providers." Like others of his persuasion, he seems quite ready to abandon any pretense of commitment to equality--or even to a common humanity.

Pollitt is right to caution against accepting wildly overblown claims about the power of genes to determine everything from sexual orientation to homelessness. But it would be foolish to overlook the rapidly expanding powers of genetic manipulation, or to dismiss the possibility that the advocates of a "posthuman" future will achieve enough mastery over the human genome to wreak enormous damage--biologically, culturally and politically.

Free-market eugenics is not science fiction or far off. It is an active political agenda that must be urgently opposed.

MARCY DARNOVSKY
Exploratory Initiative on the New Human Genetic Technologies


POLLITT REPLIES

New York City

"It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's...Superclone?"--my column on cloning--was probably the most unpopular "Subject to Debate" ever. Clearly this is a vexed subject, with many aspects, some of which are noted in the letters above.

The hormone-stimulated ripening and extraction of eggs, which Ruth Hubbard vividly describes, are, as she notes, the basis of much assisted reproduction, including now-routine procedures like in vitro fertilization with one's own eggs. Indeed, many college newspapers advertise for egg donors, and many students are willing to go through the extraction process and to take on its risks in return for substantial fees. Cloning would expand this market--how much, we don't know--but the market already flourishes.

While I, too, am troubled by so many women undergoing procedures whose long-term safety is still unknown--I mentioned this in my column as a fair objection to cloning--the fact is that every day all sorts of people take risks for money, or knowledge, or pleasure, or survival. What makes eggs so sacred? And would Hubbard approve of cloning embryos if the eggs were obtained in the "patient," old-fashioned way?

Stuart Newman and Marcy Darnovsky raise "brave new world" scenarios that to me do indeed sound farfetched and wild, and not even all bad--why would it be bad to "design" healthy babies, cloned or not? In any case, cloning seems like an odd place to begin worrying about a society divided into classes destined from birth for different levels of health, wealth and personal development: We live in that society now!

KATHA POLLITT

My daughter, who goes to Stuyvesant High School only blocks from the World Trade Center, thinks we should fly an American flag out our window. Definitely not, I say: The flag stands for jingoism and vengeance and war. She tells me I'm wrong--the flag means standing together and honoring the dead and saying no to terrorism. In a way we're both right: The Stars and Stripes is the only available symbol right now. In New York City, it decorates taxicabs driven by Indians and Pakistanis, the impromptu memorials of candles and flowers that have sprung up in front of every firehouse, the chi-chi art galleries and boutiques of SoHo. It has to bear a wide range of meanings, from simple, dignified sorrow to the violent anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry that has already resulted in murder, vandalism and arson around the country and harassment on New York City streets and campuses. It seems impossible to explain to a 13-year-old, for whom the war in Vietnam might as well be the War of Jenkins's Ear, the connection between waving the flag and bombing ordinary people half a world away back to the proverbial stone age. I tell her she can buy a flag with her own money and fly it out her bedroom window, because that's hers, but the living room is off-limits.

There are no symbolic representations right now for the things the world really needs--equality and justice and humanity and solidarity and intelligence. The red flag is too bloodied by history; the peace sign is a retro fashion accessory. In much of the world, including parts of this country, the cross and crescent and Star of David are logos for nationalistic and sectarian hatred. Ann Coulter, fulminating in her syndicated column, called for carpet-bombing of any country where people "smiled" at news of the disaster: "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity." What is this, the Crusades? The Rev. Jerry Falwell issued a belated mealy-mouthed apology for his astonishing remarks immediately after the attacks, but does anyone doubt that he meant them? The disaster was God's judgment on secular America, he observed, as famously secular New Yorkers were rushing to volunteer to dig out survivors, to give blood, food, money, anything--it was all the fault of "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians...the ACLU, People for the American Way." That's what the Taliban think too.

As I write, the war talk revolves around Afghanistan, home of the vicious Taliban and hideaway of Osama bin Laden. I've never been one to blame the United States for every bad thing that happens in the Third World, but it is a fact that our government supported militant Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979. The mujahedeen were freedom fighters against Communism, backed by more than $3 billion in US aid--more money and expertise than for any other cause in CIA history--and hailed as heroes by tag-along journalists from Dan Rather to William T. Vollmann, who saw these lawless fanatics as manly primitives untainted by the West. (There's a story in here about the attraction Afghan hypermasculinity holds for desk-bound modern men. How lovely not to pay lip service to women's equality! It's cowboys and Indians, with harems thrown in.) And if, with the Soviets gone, the vying warlords turned against one another, raped and pillaged and murdered the civilian population and destroyed what still remained of normal Afghan life, who could have predicted that? These people! The Taliban, who rose out of this period of devastation, were boys, many of them orphans, from the wretched refugee camps of Pakistan, raised in the unnatural womanless hothouses of fundamentalist boarding schools. Even leaving aside their ignorance and provincialism and lack of modern skills, they could no more be expected to lead Afghanistan back to normalcy than an army made up of kids raised from birth in Romanian orphanages.

Feminists and human-rights groups have been sounding the alarm about the Taliban since they took over Afghanistan in 1996. That's why interested Americans know that Afghan women are forced to wear the total shroud of the burqa and are banned from work and from leaving their homes unless accompanied by a male relative; that girls are barred from school; and that the Taliban--far from being their nation's saviors, enforcing civic peace with their terrible swift Kalashnikovs--are just the latest oppressors of the miserable population. What has been the response of the West to this news? Unless you count the absurd infatuation of European intellectuals with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance of fundamentalist warlords (here we go again!), not much.

What would happen if the West took seriously the forces in the Muslim world who call for education, social justice, women's rights, democracy, civil liberties and secularism? Why does our foreign policy underwrite the clerical fascist government of Saudi Arabia--and a host of nondemocratic regimes besides? What is the point of the continuing sanctions on Iraq, which have brought untold misery to ordinary people and awakened the most backward tendencies of Iraqi society while doing nothing to undermine Saddam Hussein? And why on earth are fundamentalist Jews from Brooklyn and Philadelphia allowed to turn Palestinians out of their homes on the West Bank? Because God gave them the land? Does any sane person really believe that?

Bombing Afghanistan to "fight terrorism" is to punish not the Taliban but the victims of the Taliban, the people we should be supporting. At the same time, war would reinforce the worst elements in our own society--the flag-wavers and bigots and militarists. It's heartening that there have been peace vigils and rallies in many cities, and antiwar actions are planned in Washington, DC, for September 29-30, but look what even the threat of war has already done to Congress, where only a single representative, Barbara Lee, Democrat from California, voted against giving the President virtual carte blanche.

A friend has taken to wearing her rusty old women's Pentagon Action buttons--at least they have a picture of the globe on them. The globe, not the flag, is the symbol that's wanted now.

It's time to consider what would really improve our unequal society.

Should the question of personhood at the embryo stage really be decided by politicians?
 

Is human cloning a feminist issue? Two
cloning bans are currently winding their way through Congress: In the
Senate, the Human Cloning Prohibition Act seeks to ban all cloning of
human cells, while a House version leaves a window open for cloning
stem cells but bans attempts to create a cloned human being. Since
both bills are the brainchildren of antichoice Republican yahoos, who
have done nothing for women's health or rights in their entire lives,
I was surprised to get an e-mail inviting me to sign a petition
supporting the total ban, organized by feminist heroine Judy
Norsigian of the Boston Women's Health Book Collective (the producers
of Our Bodies, Ourselves) and signed by Ruth Hubbard, Barbara
Seaman, Naomi Klein and many others (you can find it at
www.ourbodiesourselves.org/clone3.htm). Are feminists so worried about "creating a
duplicate human" that they would ban potentially useful medical
research? Isn't that the mirror image of antichoice attempts to block
research using stem cells from embryos created during in vitro
fertilization?

My antennae go up when people start talking about
threats to "human individuality and dignity"--that's a harrumph, not
an argument. The petition raises one real ethical issue, however,
that hasn't gotten much attention but by itself justifies a ban on
trying to clone a person: The necessary experimentation--implanting
clonal embryos in surrogate mothers until one survives till
birth--would involve serious medical risks for the women and lots of
severely defective babies. Dolly, the cloned Scottish sheep, was the
outcome of a process that included hundreds of monstrous discards,
and Dolly herself has encountered developmental problems. That's good
reason to go slow on human research--especially when you consider
that the people pushing it most aggressively are the Raelians, the
UFO-worshiping cult of technogeeks who have enlisted the services of
Panayiotis Zanos, a self-described "cowboy" of assisted reproduction
who has been fired from two academic jobs for financial and other
shenanigans.

Experimental ethics aside, though, I have a hard
time taking cloning seriously as a threat to women or anyone
else--the scenarios are so nutty. Jean Bethke Elshtain, who took a
break from bashing gay marriage to testify last month before Congress
against cloning, wrote a piece in The New Republic in 1997 in
which she seemed to think cloning an adult cell would produce another
adult--a carbon of yourself that could be kept for spare parts, or
maybe a small army of Mozart xeroxes, all wearing knee breeches and
playing the Marriage of Figaro. Actually, Mozart's clone would
be less like him than identical twins are like each other: He would
have different mitochondrial DNA and a different prenatal
environment, not to mention a childhood in twenty-first-century
America with the Smith family rather than in eighteenth-century
Austria under the thumb of the redoubtable Leopold Mozart. The clone
might be musical, or he might be a billiard-playing lounge lizard,
but he couldn't compose Figaro. Someone already did
that.

People thinking about cloning tend to imagine Brave New
World
dystopias in which genetic engineering reinforces
inequality. But why, for example, would a corporation go to the
trouble of cloning cheap labor? We have Mexico and Central America
right next door! As for cloning geniuses to create superbabies, good
luck. The last thing most Americans want are kids smarter than they
are, rolling their eyeballs every time Dad starts in on the gays and
slouching off to their rooms to I-M other genius kids in Sanskrit.
Over nine years, only 229 babies were born to women using the sperm
bank stocked with Nobel Prize winners' semen--a tiny fraction, I'll
bet, of those conceived in motel rooms with reproductive assistance
from Dr. Jack Daniel's.

Similarly, cloning raises fears of
do-it-yourself eugenics--designer babies "enhanced" through gene
manipulation. It's hard to see that catching on, either. Half of all
pregnancies are unintended in this country. People could be planning
for "perfect" babies today--preparing for conception by giving up
cigarettes and alcohol and unhealthy foods, reading Stendhal to their
fetuses in French. Only a handful of yuppie control freaks actually
do this, the same ones who obsess about getting their child into a
nursery school that leads straight to Harvard. Those people are
already the "genetic elite"--white, with lots of family money. What
do they need genetic enhancement for? They think they're perfect
now.

Advocates of genetic tinkering make a lot of assumptions
that opponents tacitly accept: for instance, that intelligence,
talent and other qualities are genetic, and in a simple way. Gays,
for example, worry that discovery of a "gay gene" will permit
selective abortion of homosexual fetuses, but it's obvious that
same-sex desire is more complicated than a single gene. Think of
Ancient Greece, or Smith College. Even if genetic enhancement isn't
the pipe dream I suspect it is, feminists should be the first to
understand how socially mediated supposedly inborn qualities
are--after all, women are always being told anatomy is their
destiny.

There's a strain of feminism that comes out of the
women's health movement of the seventies that is deeply suspicious of
reproductive technology. In this view, prenatal testing, in vitro
fertilization and other innovations commodify women's bodies, are
subtly coercive and increase women's anxieties, while moving us
steadily away from experiencing pregnancy and childbirth as normal,
natural processes. There's some truth to that, butwhat about the side
of feminism that wants to open up new possibilities for women?
Reproductive technology lets women have children, and healthy
children, later; have kids with lesbian partners; have kids despite
disabilities and illness. Cloning sounds a little weird, but so did
in vitro in 1978, when Louise Brown became the first "test tube
baby." Of course, these technologies have evolved in the context of
for-profit medicine; of course they represent skewed priorities,
given that 43 million Americans lack health insurance and millions
worldwide die of curable diseases like malaria. Who could argue that
the money and brain power devoted to cloning stem cells could not be
better used on something else? But the same can be said of every
aspect of American life. The enemy isn't the research, it's
capitalism.

Most of the time I think of gay rights, women's emancipation and the decline of male dominance as irreversible historical processes, blah blah, driven as they are by powerful material, social and intellectual forces, blah blah blah. Then comes the Bush Administration and I find myself thinking: Yeah, right. Who would have imagined, for example, that the bright and shiny year 2001 would see the President moving to take away contraception coverage in insurance for federal workers? Is birth control "controversial" now? And what would Karl Marx say about abstinence education--slated for a huge increase in the budget, despite studies suggesting it is as worthless as the missile defense shield? Or about the angels-on-a-pinhead debate over stem cell research? I mean, why help actually existing people with painful fatal diseases when you can give an embryo a Christian burial?

According to the census, American families increasingly come in all shapes and sizes--single moms (7.2 percent), single dads (2.1 percent), live-togethers with kids (5.1 percent). "Nuclear households"--two married parents with children--are down to 23.5 percent of all households, the lowest ever. The census doesn't measure gay and lesbian parents, but their numbers are on the rise as well. So this is exactly the moment for Wade Horn, head of the Fatherhood Initiative and scourge of nontraditional families, to be nominated as assistant secretary for family support at HHS, where he'll be in charge of a vast array of programs serving poor children and families--from welfare and childcare to child support, adoption, foster care and domestic violence--and will have a great deal of influence over the reauthorization of welfare reform, coming up next year.

For Horn, "fatherlessness" causes every woe, from the Columbine massacre (hello?--both killers came from intact families) to "promiscuity" among teenage girls. "Growing up without a father is like being in a car with a drunk driver," he told the Washington Post in 1997. In other words, a woman raising a child alone, like a drunk driver, is the chief and immediate source of danger to that child--maybe she should be in jail! The cure for single motherhood is marriage, to be imposed on an apparently less and less wedlock-minded population by public policy. In his weekly "Fatherly Advice" column in the far-right Moonie rag the Washington Times, Horn has advocated giving married couples priority in public housing, Head Start places and other benefits, although he now says he's abandoned that idea--maybe someone clued him in that such discrimination was unconstitutional (tough luck, Sally, no preschool for you--your parents are divorced!). Horn favors paying people on welfare to marry (ah, love!), opposes abortion ("states should operate under the principle that adoption is the first and best option for pregnant, single women"), thinks spanking is fine, blames contraception for unwed pregnancies and STDs, and has kind words for the Southern Baptist dictum that wives should "submit" to their husbands--who are, in his view, rightly the primary providers, disciplinarians and "foundations of the family structure." Anyone who thinks gender roles aren't set in concrete--like maybe in some families Mom is "results-oriented" and Dad's a softie--is a "radical feminist," like those man-hating harpies at the National Organization for Women.

A long list of gay, feminist, welfare-rights, community activist and reproductive rights organizations have signed on to a letter protesting Horn's nomination; the Senate Finance Committee begins confirmation hearings on June 21. Unfortunately for those who want to blame the Republicans for everything, many Democrats share Horn's belief in marriage as a panacea for social ills--this is a favorite communitarian theme, after all, and Clinton's welfare reform bill explicitly called for marriage as "the foundation of a successful society." Readers of this column will remember that no less a progressive icon than Cornel West signed the Institute for American Values' Call to Civil Society, endorsing "covenant marriage" and the privileging of married people for public housing and Head Start and so on. The Child Support Distribution Act passed the House last year by a 405-to-18 vote and was just reintroduced--this would divert more than $140 million of welfare funds from poor mothers and children to job training and counseling for poor noncustodial fathers in the hope that the dads will pass along some of their earnings to their children (in one 1998 pilot project reported in the New York Times, the dads squeezed out an extra $4.20 a month).

Horn's not the only Bush nominee trying to turn back the clock on modernity. Fervent Bush supporter Scott Evertz, the new head of the White House AIDS office, whose major experience in AIDS education has been working with Catholic groups, was a fundraiser for Wisconsin Right to Life and fought to keep the antichoice plank in the state's Republican Party platform. Nonetheless, the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force praised the appointment--after all, Evertz is the first open homosexual to be appointed in a Republican administration! So much for those organizations' commitment to reproductive and "human" rights.

For the true flavor of the Middle Ages, though, consider John Klink, whose name has been floated for Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration. Klink is currently employed as a diplomat with the Holy See's Mission to the United Nations, in which capacity he has opposed any and all use of condoms and contraception, not to mention abortion. He was a major mover in the Vatican's defunding of UNICEF, on the grounds that it supported postcoital contraception on request for refugee women who had been raped, and he has led the Vatican's attempts to sabotage UN consensus documents on women's right to "methods of fertility regulation which are safe, efficacious, accessible and acceptable." Only "natural family planning" for the millions of women, very few of whom are Catholic, fleeing war, tyranny and famine around the globe!

Forward to the past, or a cynical bid for the Catholic vote? Stay tuned.

Memo to editors of campus papers: When the next right-wing ideologue shows up with an ad full of nonsense, just take the money and print it. That way, they will not be able to pose as the victim of "political correctness," they will not get millions of dollars' worth of free publicity and their ideas will not acquire the glamour of the forbidden. By the same token, you will not look afraid of debate and controversy, nor will you have to explain why you rejected their ad while printing something equally false, offensive or stupid on some previous occasion.

Never mind that the people accusing you of censorship practice it themselves: In an amusing riposte to David Horowitz's flamethrower ad opposing reparations for slavery, Salon's David Mazel proved unable to place an enthusiastically pro-abortion ad in papers on conservative campuses; and as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting points out, the Boston Globe, which editorialized against students who rejected the Horowitz ad, itself rejected an ad criticizing Staples, a major advertiser, for using old-growth forest pulp in its typing paper. So there, and so there! But you're in a better place to make such arguments stick if you can stand--however cynically and self-servingly--on the high ground of free speech yourself.

Just as Horowitz faded, having shot himself in the foot by refusing to pay the Daily Princetonian after it printed his ad but editorialized against it, up comes the soi-disant Independent Women's Forum--you know, that intrepid band of far-right free spirits funded by the ultraconservative Sarah Scaife Foundation--with an ad in the UCLA Daily Bruin and Yale Daily News urging students to "Take Back the Campus!" and "Combat the radical feminist assault on Truth." The IWF charges "campus feminism" with being "a kind of cult" in which "students are inculcated with bizarre conspiracy theories about the 'capitalist patriarchal hegemony,'" a fount of "Ms./Information," "male-bashing and victimology." Brainwashing isn't exactly what comes to mind when I think of the revolution in scholarship that has produced such celebrated historians as Linda Gordon, Ellen DuBois, Joan Scott, Rickie Solinger, Leslie Reagan and Kathy Peiss. The sweeping, paranoiac language gives it away--this is IWF member Christina Hoff Sommers speaking from her perch at that noted institution of higher learning, the American Enterprise Institute.

The bulk of the ad consists of a list of "the ten most common feminist myths" and the "facts" that supposedly prove them false. Much of this is lifted from Sommers's Who Stole Feminism?, a book that attempted to deploy a few gotchas against hyperbolic statistics and questionable studies to deny the significance of violence, sexism and discrimination in women's lives. I mean, how important is it that "rule of thumb" may not derive, as some feminist activists believe and some newspapers have printed, from an old legal rule permitting husbands to beat their wives with a stick no thicker than their thumb (Myth #4)? Feminists did not make this folk etymology up out of nothing--actually, according to Sharon Fenick of the University of Chicago, writing on the Urban Legends website, it probably goes back to the eighteenth century, when the respected English judge, Francis Buller, earned the nickname "Judge Thumb," for declaring such "correction" permissible. That it was legal for premodern English husbands to beat their wives within limits is not in dispute (in her book, Sommers obscures this fact by omitting the Latin phrases from a passage in Blackstone's Commentaries); nor is the fact that wife-beating, regardless of the law, was, and sometimes still is, treated lightly by the legal system under the rubric of marital privacy. Thus, in 1910 the Supreme Court, in Thompson v. Thompson, barred wives from suing husbands for "injuries to person or property as though they were strangers." (I learned this, and much else relating to the history of American marriage, from Yale feminist historian Nancy Cott's fascinating Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation.)

And what about Myth #2, "Women earn 75 cents for every dollar a man earns." That doesn't come from some man-bashing fabulator squirreled away in a women's studies department. It comes from the US government! The IWF argues that the disparity disappears when you take education, training, occupation, continuity of employment, motherhood and other factors into account--but even if that were true, which it isn't, to overlook all those things is itself advocacy, a politicized way of defining sex discrimination in order to minimize it.

And then there's #1, the mother of all myths: "One in four women in college has been the victim of rape or attempted rape." The IWF debunks this number, which comes from the research of Mary Koss, by citing the low numbers of reported rapes on college campuses, but the one-in-four figure includes off-campus and pre-college rapes and rape attempts. Are Koss's numbers the last word? Of course not. In 1998 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that among all women, one in five had experienced a rape or attempted rape at some point in her life. In January the Justice Department released a report claiming that 3 percent of college women experience rape or attempted rape per school year, which does add up over four years.

Does irresponsible, lax or even slanted use of facts and figures exist in "campus feminism"? Sure--and out of it, too. (Try economics.) But what does that have to do with women's studies, a very large, very lively interdisciplinary field of intellectual inquiry, in which many of the supposed verities of contemporary feminism are hotly contested? The real debate isn't over the merits of this study or that--in social science "results" are always provisional. Now that the IWF has thrown down the gauntlet, feminist scholars should call for that real debate--Resolved: Women's lives were more seriously studied and accurately understood when almost no tenured professors were female. Or, Resolved: Violence against women is not a major social problem. Or, Resolved: If women aren't equal, it's their own darn fault.

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