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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

If a critic's clout can be measured by the ability to make an artist's name, the most important art critic in America today is clearly Rudolph Giuliani. Just over a year ago he excoriated the Brooklyn Museum of Art for including in its "Sensation" show Chris Ofili's Holy Virgin Mary--the elephant-dung-decorated painting of an African BVM, which the mayor found "anti-Catholic," blasphemous and disgusting--and turned Ofili himself into a sensation overnight: One collector, I heard, complained that the media attention had driven Ofili's prices so high he couldn't afford him anymore. If I were Jake & Dinos Chapman, represented by a perverse sculpture of deformed and weirdly sexualized children, I would have been seriously peeved, and if I had been Richard Patterson, whose Blue Minotaur, a profound meditation on postmodernity and the heroic tradition, got no attention at all, I would have wept.

You'd think the mayor would have learned to stay his theocritical thunderbolts, but once again he has gone after the Brooklyn Museum for including an "anti-Catholic" work--Renee Cox's Yo Mama's Last Supper--in the new show of contemporary black photographers, "Committed to the Image." He's even suggested that what New York needs is a "decency commission," which got big laughs all around, since the mayor, a married man, is openly carrying on with his mistress, upon whom he has bestowed police protection worth some $200,000 annually at taxpayers' expense. As the whole world now knows, Yo Mama is a five-panel picture in which Cox appears naked, as Jesus, surrounded by male disciples--ten black, one white--at the Last Supper. As an artwork it's negligible, glossily produced but awkwardly composed and, to my eye, rather silly. Cox is thin and beautiful; the men, in robes and caftans, are handsome and buff--apparently the first Christians spent a lot of time in the gym and at the hair salon, getting elaborate dreadlocked coiffures. Unlike the figures in Leonardo's Last Supper, which are highly individualized and dramatically connected, the figures here are generic and stiff. My eye kept going to the limited food on offer: bowls of wax-looking fruit (did they have bananas in Old Jerusalem?), rolls, pita bread. Was the Last Supper a diet Seder?

If you want to see visually haunting work at "Committed to the Image," there's Gordon Parks, Albert Chong, Imari, Nathaniel Burkins and many others. LeRoy W. Henderson's black ballet student, dressed in white and standing in front of a damaged classical frieze, interrogates the Western tradition much more deeply than Yo Mama does. Mfon's self-portraits of her mastectomized torso, a meditation on beauty, heroism and tragedy expressed through the female body, lay bare the high-fashion hokiness of Cox's costume drama. For fan and foe alike, the interest of Yo Mama appears to be political. Cox describes her art in ideological terms ("my images demand enlightenment through an equitable realignment of our race and gender politics"), and she has been quite pungent in defending it. As with The Holy Virgin Mary, the mayor hasn't actually seen it, nor had the numerous people who sent me frothing e-mails after I defended government support for the arts on The O'Reilly Factor.

Even the New York Observer's famously conservative art critic, Hilton Kramer, who usually delights in withering descriptions of pictures he hates, apparently felt that depicting Christ as a naked black woman was so obviously, outrageously anti-Catholic he need say no more about the photo before embarking on his usual rampage. It would be interesting to know where the offense lies: Is it that Cox as Christ is naked, black or female? All three? Two out of three? If one thinks of Catholics, the people, there's nothing bigoted about any of this. (Like Ofili, Cox is Catholic--as are most perpetrators of "anti-Catholic" works.) There is no ethnic stereotyping of the sort on view, for instance, on St. Patrick's Day, when the proverbial drunkenness of the Irish is the butt of endless rude humor, especially from the Irish themselves. While we're on the subject of ethnic stereotyping, it's worth noting that in a great deal of Christian art, Jesus and the disciples are portrayed as Northern Europeans, while Judas is given the hooked nose and scraggly features of a cartoon Jew.

But if what is meant by anti-Catholic is anti-Catholic Church, why can't an artist protest its doctrines and policies? The Church is not a monastery in a wilderness, it's a powerful earthly institution that uses all the tools of modern politics to make social policy conform to its theology--and not just for Catholics, for everyone. It has to expect to take its knocks in the public arena. A church that has a 2,000-year tradition of disdain for women's bodies--documented most recently by Garry Wills (a Catholic) in his splendid polemic Papal Sin--and that still bars women from the priesthood because Jesus was a man can't really be surprised if a twenty-first-century woman wonders what would be different if Jesus had been female, and flaunts that female body. And a church with a long history of racism--no worse than other mainstream American religions but certainly no better--can't expect the topic to be banned from discussion forever.

At the Brooklyn Museum, Yo Mama's Last Supper is in a separate room with its own security guard. On Sunday afternoon, it attracted blacks, whites, Asians, parents with small children, older women in groups, dating couples, students taking notes--le tout Brooklyn, which is turning out in large numbers for the show. I asked one black woman, who described herself as a Christian, what the picture meant to her. "It shows Life as a woman," she said. "It's beautiful." Her friend, who said he was a Muslim, liked the picture too.

If only I could get the Mayor to review my book!


* * *

Show George W. Bush you support RU-486. Make a donation in W.'s name to the Concord Feminist Health Center (38 South Main Street, Concord, NH 03301) and help it buy the ultrasound machine this method requires. The center will send the President a card to let him know you were thinking of him when you wrote your check.

Imagine Madison Square Garden brimming over with 18,000 laughing and ebullient women of every size, shape, age and color, along with their male friends, ditto. Imagine that in that immense space, usually packed with hooting sports fans, these women are watching Oprah, Queen Latifah, Claire Danes, Swoosie Kurtz, Kathleen Chalfant, Julie Kavner (voice of Marge Simpson), Rosie Perez, Donna Hanover (soon-to-be-ex-wife of New York's bigamous mayor) and sixty-odd other A-list divas put on a gala production of The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler's theater piece about women and their mimis, totos, split knishes, Gladys Siegelmans, pussycats, poonanis and twats. Imagine that this extravaganza is part of a huge $2 million fundraising effort for V-Day, the antiviolence project that grew out of the show and that gives money to groups fighting violence against women around the world. That was what happened on February 10, with more donations and more performances to come as the play is produced by students at some 250 colleges around the country, from Adelphi on Long Island--where it was completely sold out and where, sources assure me, the v-word retains every bit of its shock value--to Yale.

And they keep saying feminism is dead.

The Vagina Monologues, in fact, was singled out in Time's 1998 cover story "Is Feminism Dead?" as proof that the movement had degenerated into self-indulgent sex chat. (This was a new departure for the press, which usually dismisses the movement as humorless, frumpish and puritanical.) In her Village Voice report on the gala, Sharon Lerner, a terrific feminist journalist, is unhappy that the actresses featured at the Garden event prefer the v-word to the f-word. ("Violence against women is a feminist issue?" participant Isabella Rossellini asks her. "I don't think it is." This from the creator of a new perfume called "Manifesto"!) Women's rights aren't what one associates with postfeminist icons like Glenn Close, whose most indelible screen role was as the bunny-boiling man-stalker in Fatal Attraction, or Calista Flockhart, television's dithery microskirted lawyerette Ally McBeal. Still, aren't we glad that Jane Fonda, who performed the childbirth monologue, has given up exercise mania and husband-worship and is donating $1 million to V-Day? Better late than never, I say.

At the risk of sounding rather giddy myself--I'm writing this on Valentine's Day--I'd argue that the implied contradiction between serious business (daycare, abortion, equal pay) and sex is way overdrawn. Sexual self-expression--that's self-indulgent sex chat to all you old Bolsheviks out there--was a crucial theme of the modern women's movement from the start. Naturally so: How can you see yourself as an active subject, the heroine of your own life, if you think you're an inferior being housed in a shameful, smelly body that might give pleasure to others, but not to you? The personal is political, remember that?

The Vagina Monologues may not be great literature--on the page it's a bit thin, and the different voices tend to run together into EveEnslerspeak about seashells and flowers and other lovely bits of nature. But as a performance piece it's fantastic: a cabaret floor show by turns hilarious, brassy, lyrical, poignant, charming, romantic, tragic, vulgar, sentimental, raunchy and exhilarating. In "The Flood," an old woman says she thinks of her "down there" as a cellar full of dead animals, and tells of the story of her one passionate kiss and her dream of Burt Reynolds swimming in her embarrassing "flood" of sexual wetness. A prim, wryly clever woman in "The Vagina Workshop" learns how to give herself orgasms at one of Betty Dodson's famous masturbation classes. At the Garden, Ensler led the cast in a chorus of orgasmic moans, and Close got the braver members of the audience to chant "Cunt! Cunt! Cunt!" at the climax of a poetic monologue meant to redeem and reclaim the dirtiest of all dirty words.

How anyone could find The Vagina Monologues antimale or pornographic is beyond me--it's a veritable ode to warm, quirky, affectionate, friendly, passionate sex. The only enemies are misogyny, sexual shame and sexual violence, and violence is construed fairly literally: A poor black child is raped by her father's drunken friend; a Bosnian girl is sexually tortured by Serbian paramilitaries. None of your ambiguous was-it-rape? scenarios here. Oprah performed a new monologue, "Under the Burqa," about the horrors of life for Afghan women under Taliban rule, followed by Zoya--a young representative of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA)--who gave a heartbreaking, defiant speech. Three African women spoke against female genital mutilation and described ongoing efforts to replace cutting with new coming-of-age rituals, "circumcision by words."

I hadn't particularly wanted to see The Vagina Monologues. I assumed that it would be earnest and didactic--or maybe silly, or exploitative, or crude, a sort of Oh! Calcutta! for women. But I was elated by it. Besides being a wonderful night at the theater, it reminded me that after all the feminist debates (and splits), and all the books and the Theory and the theories, in the real world there are still such people as women, who share a common biology and much else besides. And the power of feminism, whether or not it goes by that name, still resides in its capacity to transform women's consciousness at the deepest possible level: That's why Betty Friedan called her collection of letters from women not It Got Me a Raise (or a daycare center, or an abortion) but It Changed My Life. Sisterhood-is-powerful feminism may feel out of date to the professoriat, but there's a lot of new music still to be played on those old bones.

Besides, if feminists don't talk about sex in a fun, accessible, inspiring, nonpuritanical way, who will?

* * *

Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics and Culture, a collection of columns originally published in this space, is just out from Modern Library as a paperback original. It has a very pretty cover and a never-before-published introductory essay, and contains most of the columns I still agree with, and one or two about which I have my doubts.

How many times did we hear during the endless campaign that Bush wouldn't go after abortion if elected? Republicans, Naderites and countless know-it-alls and pundits in between agreed: Pro-choice voters were too powerful, the country was too divided, the Republicans weren't that stupid and Bush didn't really care about abortion anyway. Plus whoever won would have to (all together now) "govern from the center." Where are all those smarties now, I wonder? Bush didn't even wait for his swearing-in ceremony to start repaying the immense debt he owes to the Christian right, which gave him one in four of his votes, with the nominations of anti-choice die-hards John Ashcroft for Attorney General and Tommy Thompson to head Health and Human Services.

On his first full day in office, Bush reinstated the "gag rule" preventing international family-planning clinics and NGOs from receiving US funds if they so much as mention the word "abortion." (This action was widely misrepresented in the press as being a ban on funding for performing abortions; in fact, it bans clinics that get US aid from performing abortions with their own money and prohibits speech--whether lobbying for legal changes in countries where abortion is a crime or informing women with life- or health-threatening pregnancies about their legal options.) A few days later, Thompson announced he would look into the safety of RU-486, approved by the FDA this past fall--a drug that has been used by half a million European women over twelve years and has been more closely studied here than almost any drug on the market. In the wake of Laura Bush's remark to NBC News and the Today show that she favored retention of Roe v. Wade, both the President and the Vice President said the Administration has not ruled out a legal challenge to it, placing them to the right of Ashcroft himself, who told the Judiciary Committee he regarded Roe as settled law (at least until the makeup of the Supreme Court changes, he did not add).

Don't count on the media to alert the public. The press is into champagne and confetti: Who would have thought "Dick" Cheney would be such an amiable talk show guest! Time to move on, compromise, get busy with that big tax cut. "Who in hell is this 'all' we keep hearing about?" a friend writes, "as in 'all agree' that the Bush transition has been a smashing success?" An acquaintance at the Washington Post, whose executive editor, Leonard Downie Jr., claims to be so objective he doesn't even vote, says word has come down from "on high" that stories must bear "no trace of liberal bias"--interestingly, no comparable warnings were given against pro-Bush bias. So, on abortion, look for endless disquisitions on the grassiness of the anti-choice roots, the elitism of pro-choicers and the general tedium of the abortion issue. Robin Toner could barely stifle a yawn as she took both sides to task in the New York Times ("The Abortion Debate, Stuck in Time," January 21): Why couldn't more anti-choicers see the worth of stem cell research, like anti-choice Senator Gordon Smith, who has several relatives afflicted with Parkinson's (but presumably no relatives unwillingly pregnant); and why can't more pro-choicers acknowledge that sonograms "complicate" the status of the fetus? In an article that interviewed not a single woman, only the fetus matters: not sexuality, public health, women's bodies, needs or rights.

Now is the time to be passionate, clever, original and urgent. I hate to say it, but pro-choicers really could learn some things from the antis, and I don't mean the arts of arson, murder and lying to the Judiciary Committee. Lots of right-wing Christians tithe--how many pro-choicers write significant checks to pro-choice and feminist organizations? Why not sit down today and send President Bush a note saying that in honor of the women in his family you are making a donation to the National Network of Abortion Funds to pay for a poor woman's abortion (NNAF: Hampshire College, Amherst MA 01002-5001)? March 10 is the Day of Appreciation for Abortion Providers--send your local clinic money for an abortion "scholarship," flowers, a thank-you note, a bottle of wine, a Nation subscription for the waiting room! (Refuse & Resist has lots of ideas and projects for that day--call them at 212-713-5657.)

The antis look big and powerful because they have a built-in base in the Catholic and fundamentalist churches. But (aha!) pro-choicers have a built-in constituency too: the millions and millions of women who have had abortions. For all sorts of reasons (privacy concerns, overwork, the ideology of medicine) few clinics ask their patients to give back to the cause. Now some providers and activists are talking about changing that. "My fantasy," Susan Yanow of the Abortion Access Project wrote me, "is that every woman in this country gets a piece of paper after her procedure that says something like, 'We need your help. You just had a safe, legal abortion, something that the current Administration is actively trying to outlaw. Think of your sisters/ mothers/daughters who might need this service one day. Please help yourself to postcards and tell your elected representatives you support legal abortion, join (local group name here), come back as a volunteer' and so on." If every woman who had an abortion sent her clinic even just a dollar a year, it would mean millions of dollars for staff, security, cut-rate or gratis procedures. Think how different the debate would be if all those women, and the partners, parents, relatives and friends who helped them, spoke up boldly--especially the ones whose husbands are so vocally and famously and self-righteously anti-choice. If women did that, we would be the grassroots.

* * *

Correction: It was Joe Conason, not Chip Berlet, who reported that John Ashcroft had met with the St. Louis head of the racist Council of Conservative Citizens. Berlet's equally fascinating story, cut for space reasons, was that Ashcroft made a cameo appearance in a 1997 Phyllis Schlafly video that claims that environmentalism, feminism, multiculturalism, gay rights and even chemical weapons treaties are part of a conspiracy to bring about One World Government. See clips at www.publiceye.org.

After a bruising fight fopr the presidency, George W. Bush is stocking his cabinet with figures from the far right, none more so than John Ashcroft.

A cold snowy start to the new year, the first day of the new millennium. Not the fun one with champagne at the Pyramids and the all-night, round-the-globe pseudoprofundities and the secret letdown when our computers didn't turn into pumpkins at midnight. I mean the real millennium, with the bad news bears basking on their ice floes as the stock market sinks and thousands tremble as The Anxious Consumer ponders whether to spring for the new Chevrolet Astro or live with the old Dodge Caravan a bit longer. On the radio a mom explained that her kids just wanted gift certificates for Christmas so they could take advantage of the post-holiday sales. How old are these kids? 50? This morning, same station, a man from the Cato Institute instructs us to count our blessings: We are all a lot better off than a hundred years ago; after all, Americans are two inches taller now.

On New Year's Day, a stern young black man missing his front teeth preaches on the subway: "Mr. Black Man! Mr. White Man! What is the meaning of Eternity? Repent! Repent!" He stalks the aisle, dressed all in black and carrying a blood-red Bible, like a mad priest in an opera, while passengers stare stonily into the headlines: I'm Sacking Satan, declares ex-Jet Marc Gastineau in the New York Post, once again evading jail for beating his wife, who like him has gone into Christian therapy ("'I contributed to a lot of the violence,' said the slight, 5-foot-5 woman"). In the passageway between stations, a tiny man of unguessable age wearing a filthy Ralph Lauren American Flag sweater plays a violin as if it were an unfamiliar object he had found in the trash; a young black man sings Beatles songs expertly and with unflagging good cheer. The Christmas-caroling street minister with the fantastic baritone voice is gone, but the Chinese musician is still seated on the L train platform, bending in total concentration over his pipa, an elegant longnecked stringed instrument that emits at the touch of his bow a thin wail, like a dying cat.

My father turns 81 in his hospital bed. After three brain surgeries, who knows what he understands? Flowers arrive that he does not look at; cards are read that he does not listen to. Friends arrive with "get well" offerings--a sleep mask, earplugs, pictures of their children--and leave quickly, stricken. Newly arrived from England, a Kazakh friend complains, "They won't move him to the other bed, although I keep asking!" It seems that bed is the lucky one, the one where the patients get better. A staggering amount of medical help and equipment swirls around my father; it is as though experts have been summoned from all over the world--a doctor from Korea, nurses from the Philippines and Ireland, aides from Jamaica and Guyana and India and Central America--all for the express purpose of tending a few limp, pale Americans. And yet the simplest realities--that my father has eaten essentially nothing for almost two weeks--seem to evoke no sense of urgency, to fall into the spaces between specialists and between changing shifts.

In Man's Fate, the Russian Communist Katov prepares himself to be thrown alive into a furnace after the Shanghai rebellion he helped organize is betrayed by Stalin. He says to himself, "Let's suppose I died in a fire." What style, I thought as a teenager, what cool. Today I think: Well, it would be scary and painful, but at least it would be quick. And by dying in 1927, Katov got to keep his political dignity: He didn't have to persuade himself that voting for a protest candidate was a radical act or inveigh against "global capitalism," or "corporate capitalism," as if there were some other kind--national capitalism? mom-and-pop capitalism?--that could be brought out of the closet of history, and donned like a comfy old suit.

I had planned a very different column--upbeat and energetic, with exhortations to do more and a list of clever resolutions. I e-mailed my whole address book asking for suggestions for feminist activism. I don't know what I was hoping for--seize the TV stations? Dangle John Ashcroft off a skyscraper till he promises to spend the rest of his life cleaning abortion clinic toilets? Raise a lesbian militia to fight the Taliban? What came in was nothing like that. Write letters, the activists said, make phone calls, raise money, bother your politicians, volunteer. Challenge the sexism of daily life, the writers wrote: racist and sexist remarks, panels with no women, all-male magazine forums and debates. Link issue A with issue B, the academics urged.

Fine, but according to Newsweek, there are now 1 million slaves in America, mostly women and girls--cleaning houses, making clothes, servicing men sexually to pay off traffickers and pimps. Ask yourself what kind of man would fuck a slave, some Chinese or Albanian or Thai teenager in a plywood cubicle with a mattress on the floor. Do you think he cares if you write a letter to your congressman? Maybe he is your congressman.

The world spins only forward, says Prior Walter in Angels in America. But which way is that? Most members of my study group think intellectuals and activists have no special role to play in history. They only perch atop its shifting tectonic plates, ready to jump on the backs of the workers at the first sign of autonomous action. "The working class is revolutionary or it is nothing," quotes the Last Marxist at least once per meeting, which goes on all day and ends with a wonderful meal. Last time, we invited the Race Traitors--Noel Ignatiev, John Garvey, Beth Henson--and accused them of daring to think they could spark a movement with a magazine and a book. Wow, said Noel, you guys are really depressed. Yes, I said, usually it takes us all day to feel this irrelevant, and it isn't even lunchtime yet.

I go home in the snow, I e-mail the President to save the Alaskan wilderness, proving yet again that I have no dignity and do not read my own columns. At bedtime we read aloud from Mona in the Promised Land, by my daughter's favorite contemporary American writer, Gish Jen.

"If there's a depression, will we have enough money?" Sophie asks as we turn out the light. "Don't worry about it," I say. "Everything will be fine. We can always sing in the subway."

Our drug laws, like those concerning voting, reveal bias and backward thinking.

Was it only a few short weeks ago that I turned on the TV in my hotel room to hear conservative commentator Tucker Carlson explain to Don Imus that Gore would win the Floridian chadfight because Republicans were too nice, polite, modest and fair to get down and dirty like the Democrats? That was before a small army of rowdy Republicans descended on Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties and successfully intimidated election officials while turning themselves into a media spectacle halfway between a fraternity brawl and an ancient Roman mob. Like the false announcement of a Bush victory on election night--courtesy, we now know, of a Fox TV reporter who is a cousin of George W. Bush--the demonstrators helped produce the mistaken but widespread impression that Bush had won an election that Gore was trying to undo, when in fact the election, as I write, is still undecided. According to the Wall Street Journal and other papers, the demonstrators, originally portrayed as John Q. Publics following their hearts to Florida, are GOP operatives and Congressional staffers financed by the Bush campaign, which is putting them up in Hilton hotels and entertained them on Thanksgiving with turkey and a performance by Wayne Newton.

Al Gore's position is that there should be an accurate count of the Florida vote--the fraudulent nature of which becomes daily more obvious. What's wrong with that? Outrageous, say the Republicans; boring, say the media, which from the start urged "closure," like a prosecutor urging a quick lethal injection so that grieving survivors can start "the healing process." Flip a coin, advised Ralph Nader, fliply.

And what of Nader? Campaigners have been quick to put a brave face on his unimpressive 2.7 percent--unmentioned now is the magic 5 percent that would bring the Greens federal funds and that they themselves had made a central rationale for a Nader vote. "We accomplished what we set out to do," Nader campaign manager Theresa Amato told me. "We helped the Greens, we raised issues, we got new people into the political process. The Greens are now the leading third party, the only viable third party. I'm positive, I'm upbeat, I'm not depressed in any way." Longtime Green activist and former member of the town council of Princeton, New Jersey, Carl Mayer was even cheerier, telling me that Nader had mobilized 150,000 volunteers and 50,000 donors and sparked the formation of some 500 local Green organizations and 900 campus groups, and crediting him with "changing the tenor of the whole race" by pushing Gore to take populist stands against the drug and oil industries. Mayer even argued that it was because of Nader that President Clinton declared wilderness areas national monuments in several Western states and that the FDA approved RU-486. Unlike virtually every other Nader supporter in America, Mayer not only accepted the mainstream analysis that Nader votes had cost Gore the election (assuming Bush wins), but said it didn't bother him a bit.

One hesitates to inject a discouraging word, but 2.7 percent of the vote is not a lot. It puts him in the company of conscience candidates like Barry Commoner, but behind most major third-party challengers in recent memory. Even John Anderson--who?--and his National Union Party--what?--eked out 6.6 percent in 1980. Sure, you can spin these gloomy stats--Nader got more votes than any progressive third-party candidate since 1948! Nader would have gotten lots more votes but for the closeness of the Bush-Gore contest, which kept Dems in the fold! Third-party runs aren't about votes, they're about changing the discourse! But when I think about how many furious letters and e-mails I got for writing skeptically in this space about the possibility of a meaningful third party, especially a progressive one, I have to say events have borne me out. I said that in the end most voters would stick with the two parties because the differences that seem small to Naderites are concrete and significant to them, because the two-party system is the way civic favors and services are distributed and because people understand that the winner-take-all system insures that a left-leaning third party throws elections to the Republicans--as the Republicans understood when they ran Nader's attacks on Gore as ads for Bush.

Commentators will be analyzing the Nader vote for months, and no doubt the campaign could have done some things better or not at all: the invisible and tokenistic vice presidential candidacy of Winona LaDuke, the waffling over whether to go for votes in toss-up states, the attacks on "frightened liberals." But even a perfect campaign would run up against the structural obstacles that have rendered marginal every modern attempt to build a strong and lasting third-party alternative to the two- party "duopoly."

Future elections will be even tougher. Whoever wins the presidency, people now know every vote counts--the frightened liberals are really frightened now. If Bush wins, the energy left of center will go into re-electing Democrats--any Democrat. Meanwhile, the small Nader vote--only 2 percent of Democratic voters chose him, while 11 percent chose Bush--means that the Democratic Party will move, if anywhere, rightward. The Greens may move that way also; after all, they failed to dislodge the old progressive voting blocs--feminists, blacks, Hispanics, Jews, labor. The typical Nader voter was a young white man, college educated but income poor. Nader did well among students, independents and Perot voters; outside a few left strongholds--Madison, Portland, Berkeley, western Massachusetts--his best counties were rural, his best state Alaska (10 percent), of all places. None of this sounds like a recipe for a powerful progressive voting bloc. In an interesting post-mortem on the Newsforchange website, Micah Sifry argues that the Greens may be too far left for the actually existing electorate and that the future lies in the "radical middle," from which sprang Jesse Ventura and Ross Perot. In other words, for leftists to achieve even the momentary electoral prominence of the now-moribund Reform Party, they have to be more, well, conservative.

While partisans debate whether a victorious George W. Bush would nominate Supreme Court Justices who would overturn Roe v.


Divorce, American Style

New York City

In The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, Judith Wallerstein argues that the consequences of parental divorce for children are typically harmful and long-lasting. Katha Pollitt disagrees ["Subject to Debate," Oct. 23], charging that Wallerstein's study cannot be trusted because her sample is too small and because the families she studied suffer from multiple problems, not just divorce. Wallerstein's anti-anti-divorce critics have been making these charges for years, but fortunately we now have independent evidence to show who is getting it right. The two most important quantitative studies based on representative samples seeking to distinguish the effects of parental divorce from the effects of pre-divorce family problems are A Generation at Risk (1997), by Paul Amato and Allan Booth, and a study by Andrew Cherlin and colleagues published in the American Sociological Review in 1998. Both studies broadly support Wallerstein's main findings and offer little or no support to her critics. Which is why your readers aren't likely to hear about these studies from Katha Pollitt, even as she improbably appoints herself guardian of the scientific method on this topic.

DAVID BLANKENHORN
Institute for American Values


Belvedere, Calif.

In her strident column, Katha Pollitt attacks my book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, with a plethora of misstatements. I reply to the most egregious. I state categorically several times in my book that I am not against divorce: "I am not against divorce. How could I be? I've probably seen more examples of wretched, demeaning, and abusive marriages than most of my colleagues." And further: "I don't know of any research, mine included, that says divorce is universally detrimental to children."

What I do say throughout my book, which Pollitt chooses to ignore, is that when people decide to divorce, it has a short-term and long-term traumatic effect upon the children that makes their subsequent life journey more difficult and that society, including the courts and their parents, must recognize this and take steps to mitigate this impact. They can come out well, as I demonstrate. It is simply harder.

Pollitt attacks my work as "pseudoscience." My method, the case-study method of qualitative research, is well established in biological and social science. It is a major method in medicine, psychiatry, psychology and anthropology. It depends on intensive interviewing to learn the internal landscape of the person and is the chief source of hypothesis formation and knowledge generation. The twentieth-century contributions of Piaget, Freud, Erikson and Bowlby were based on this method. Quantitative survey research cannot tap inner life experience.

About controls, Pollitt is again wrong. At the twenty-five-year mark, when I was elaborating the life experience of these children from childhood into adulthood, I assembled a comparison group of youngsters in the same neighborhoods with parents in comparable social and economic circumstances. They were matched (as a group, as do most sociological studies) along major parameters that I found relevant to my study. It is not clear what more Pollitt, who is not a behavioral scientist, could have in mind. This group was not solicited earlier because I was starting in a new area--no one had studied the impact of divorce on children before me--and I could not have known then what to control.

Pollitt asserts that mine is a skewed sample consisting of "crazy" divorcing parents, primarily responding to an offer of treatment. Certainly, people who are divorcing are distressed at the time and can exhibit very disturbed behaviors, including violence, which did not characterize the prior relationship until its downhill course brought the couple to the divorce decision. Certainly, people who divorce--across the board, not just in my sample--are people who have failed at a central relationship and therefore may have more psychic disturbances than those who maintain successful marriages.

It is shocking to call my sample "crazy" and therefore not representative of a divorcing population. I was working for divorce under the best of circumstances and was happy to have such a relatively affluent and well-educated sample. It is altogether untrue that they came as "sixty disastrous families, featuring crazy parents, economic insecurity [and] trapped wives." As for the 131 children of the sixty couples, they were screened to be developmentally on course, without significant school, home or play disturbances prior to the breakup.

Pollitt states that our world has changed significantly since my study began in 1971. Fathers are now more actively involved with their children, mothers are now better placed economically, etc. It remains to be seen how much difference this makes. In my study, a significant number of the women had professional degrees and careers, and that has not made the post-divorce relationships of their children significantly better than the others in the cohort. And it remains to be seen, when 50 percent of divorces occur with children under 6, and 75 percent of the divorced fathers remarry, how many fathers can maintain their parenting in the first marriage, while living with the requirements of the second marriage and new children.

My main point is that although I was the first to call attention to the traumatic impact of the divorce experience, during the early seventies, there have by now been many corroborating studies--done in our contemporary climate--that uphold my findings, and what seemed to many to be an alarmist view then is now conventional wisdom. I trust that my current findings of the long-term impact of parental divorce that crescendos as these children face the issue of man-woman relationships in adulthood may be similarly concurred in as further studies are carried out by others.

JUDITH S. WALLERSTEIN


POLLITT REPLIES

New York City

It is true that Judith Wallerstein says in her latest book that she is not "against divorce." But what does that mean? She writes, "I think you should seriously consider staying together for the sake of your children," and she praises parents who stay in unhappy or dead marriages "with grace and without anger" but not those who leave such marriages and still put parenting first, something she seems to think is nearly impossible ("parenting erodes almost inevitably at the breakup and does not get restored for years, if ever"). Everyone who has written about her research takes it to argue that divorce is a great evil, to be avoided if at all possible--certainly that is what David Blankenhorn thinks she is saying. If Wallerstein is not "against divorce" why does she sit on the Council on Families of Blankenhorn's Institute for American Values, which has an explicit antidivorce agenda, opposing no-fault divorce, favoring "covenant marriage," waiting periods and mandatory counseling?

Wallerstein compares her methods to those of illustrious modern psychologists. It's odd to see Freud, who has been widely criticized for massaging his data when he didn't make it up, invoked as a model practitioner, but in any case, none of these men co-wrote their books with popular journalists (in Wallerstein's case, Sandra Blakeslee), used composite characters or presented as interviews done by themselves interviews that were conducted by other people. Case studies are all very well, perhaps even when written up with an obvious eye to mass-market advertising and media soundbites, but interviewing people for a few hours every five years (or listening to the tapes of such interviews by others) is not "intensive interviewing"--it's a conversation, a visit, a tête-à-tête. Nor is a group of high school classmates of one's original subjects assembled twenty-five years into one's research a valid scientific control. Besides, as she herself notes, the comparison group parents were much better educated and wealthier.

As a sample of children whose parents are divorced, Wallerstein's 131 subjects leave much to be desired. For one thing, she didn't follow up on the ones who dropped out--thirty-eight people, almost 30 percent of the original group! If, as is likely, the ones who stayed were the ones with more problems, and the ones who left were the ones who adjusted well to divorce and moved on with their lives, then failing to do "case studies" of the dropouts leaves her with a sample biased toward gloomy findings. (That Wallerstein's continuing subjects came disproportionately from families that had a hard time coping with divorce is suggested by the fact that 32 percent of their mothers had only a high school diploma or less versus 24 percent of the mothers in the original group.) It is disturbing that Wallerstein seems incurious about the melting away of so many of her original subjects, and the result is that she not only cannot say how representative her interviewees are of "children of divorce" in general, she can't even say how representative they are of her own sample!

As she has done many times in recent years, Wallerstein fudges the fact that she recruited her group--and skewed her sample--by offering free therapy, as she herself clearly acknowledged in her first report on her study "Surviving the Breakup." Similarly, although she professes herself shocked by the word "crazy," it was she who, in the same book, described her sample as consisting largely of people who were mentally or emotionally troubled. According to her own words, only one-third of the parents in her sample were "those whose functioning overall during the life history of the marriage was generally adequate or better." Roughly 50 percent were "moderately disturbed"--nor does she suggest in the earlier book that this is a temporary aberration caused by the stress of divorce, as she now claims. On the contrary, she speaks of addictions, suicidal tendencies, chronic depression, "severe neurotic difficulties," "handicaps in relating to another person" and "longstanding problems in controlling their rage or sexual impulses." This is half the parents. The remainder--15 percent of the men and 20 percent of the women--were "severely troubled during their marriages, perhaps throughout their lives," with "histories of mental illness, including paranoid thinking, bizarre behavior, manic-depressive illnesses, and generally fragile or unsuccessful attempts to cope with the demands of life, marriage and family." Divorce or no divorce, the offspring of such people are not likely to reach adulthood unscathed.

Wallerstein labels her subjects "children of divorce." The very process of participating in her study may have encouraged her subjects to embrace that self-definition, as "children of alcoholics" often view their lives through the lens of parental drinking, which is taken to explain every possible deviation from the ideal. Another researcher might label them "children of the emotionally or mentally ill." Perhaps, as Wallerstein seems to believe, two disturbed parents are better than one. But that tells us little about what the effects of divorce are for the children of parents who are nonviolent, sane, stable and capable of loving and responsible relationships. Paradoxically, these parents, the ones most likely to raise healthy kids after divorce, are the ones most likely to heed Wallerstein's advice to remain in bad marriages.

KATHA POLLITT


SISTERHOOD WAS SOURFUL

Brooklyn, N.Y.

In "When Women Spied on Women" [Sept. 4/11], the piece excerpted from Ruth Rosen's book regarding women spying on and infiltrating the women's movement, contained a reference to Seattle that I wish to clarify. Rosen repeats Betty Friedan's contention that the FBI had infiltrated a number of women's organizations and manipulated the gay-straight split. She cites Friedan's charge that when she was invited to speak in Seattle, she was met with protesters. Friedan told Rosen that she thought "the Seattle thing was [the result] of agents."

I was active in the left and women's liberation movement in Seattle, am writing a book about the women's liberation movement in Seattle, helped organize the protests against Friedan--and I know I wasn't an agent. The protest against Friedan was organized mainly by individuals and groups like the University YWCA, the University of Washington Women's Commission and the Seattle Gay Women's Alliance, who were disturbed by Friedan's homophobia. One of the main organizers of that protest was Mary Aiken Rothschild, now a professor of women's studies at the University of Arizona, then a PhD candidate in history and acting director of the University of Washington women's studies program. In an interview with Pandora, a local feminist newsletter, Rothschild challenged "Friedan's idea of what a feminist movement is about.... Mary defined herself as a straight woman, a mother, a professional who supported her lesbian sisters. Gay and straight women work together in Seattle and that is why we are getting somewhere. We didn't need big name leaders from the outside coming in to disrupt our movement."

Those of us involved in organizing the protest were very proud of our activities. We had attempted to convince Friedan to share a platform with an activist in the lesbian movement. She refused. We tried to meet with her and discuss her political point of view. She refused. So, we confronted her at a cocktail party and then at her public meeting at the University of Washington. This was not the first time that the radical women's liberation movement publicly confronted movement "leaders." In the fall of 1972, largely through the efforts of the University of Washington Women's Commission, we met with and publicly demonstrated against Gloria Steinem. The women were particularly critical of her support for the Democratic Party and her role in voting down the pro-choice plank at the 1972 Democratic convention.

As Rosen demonstrates, many women were hardly "sisterly." Others, to their discredit, accused women of being agents, provocateurs or male-identified as a way to dismiss their ideas or persona. As historians, especially as historians of our own movement, we have an obligation not to leave these charges unanswered.

BARBARA WINSLOW


Brooklyn, N.Y.

I can verify that the FBI continued its surveillance of the women's movement long after the late sixties and early seventies. Three months after my book Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody was published, in 1986, the FBI convened the first grand jury in the history of our country to question an American citizen, me, about the whereabouts of a missing mother and her "allegedly" sexually abused daughter, who had fled "underground" when a court awarded custody of the girl to the "alleged" paternal incest-abuser. Had I been granted immunity to testify before the Buffalo grand jury and failed to do so, I might have sat in jail for a long time.

What terrified me was the possibility that few feminists understood that my silence was a political act. At the time (long before TV began to air docudramas about a Mother's Underground) virtually none of the liberal feminist organizations with whom I had worked on other issues--NOW, NOW's Legal Defense and Education Fund, the National Center for Women and Family Law, Ms. magazine and Foundation--were institutionally or ideologically ready to face this kind of danger. Lawyer Margy Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights was, and the center stood by me. A few days before the grand jury was to take place, I received a call from the FBI telling me that they "had captured the felon" and that my testimony was no longer needed. Meanwhile, feminist and lesbian networks were disbanded, a number of feminist and lesbian lawyers were harassed, and one lost her license to practice law in Mississippi because she dared to represent a mother in a similar circumstance. The FBI successfully hunted down and jailed a number of runaway mothers.

PHYLLIS CHESLER

If Gore loses the White House--and some of you reading this will know whether or not he did--he'll have no one but himself to blame. Readers of this page know I've been something of a Naderskeptic all along (I'm planning a tactical vote for him here in Gore-solid New York, but if I lived in a toss-up state I'd vote Democratic and hope you would--or did--too). Still, it's not Nader's fault that huge numbers of voters don't care if Bush is a reactionary moron and find his Christian frat boy act appealing. Ralph didn't tell Gore to go after the dithering undecideds and to forget about energizing his base and reaching out to suburban and working women. Remember when abortion and gun control were going to be key issues? When the Million Moms were going to sway the election? Ralph didn't make Gore distance himself so far from Clinton--a genius campaigner with a 60 percent approval rating--that he couldn't plausibly claim the "good" economy as his own, even as he also wasn't willing to acknowledge the millions who have been victimized by Clinton's policies on prisons, welfare, drugs, civil liberties, privacy. Who was stopping Gore from announcing that on second thought, sending a $1.3 billion anti-drug aid package to Colombia was a terrible idea? Wouldn't that have been a better way to prove he was his "own man," not Clinton's, than spouting sanctimonious pieties about faith and family?

Or take capital punishment: When the issue came up in the debates, Gore and Bush both said they were for the death penalty. Gore could easily have said that, like Republican Governor Ryan of Illinois, he supported the death penalty but was troubled by studies showing an alarming number of false convictions in capital cases, and so he also supported a moratorium on executions. Sure, some of the undecideds would have peeled off to Bush--you can imagine the campaign ads in which relatives retell ghastly murders of loved ones and accuse the Vice President of denying them "closure." But then Gore could have run ads highlighting Bush's appalling record as death-penalty king of Texas, and his lazy and frivolous approach to the whole issue, which troubles some conservatives and has even become a standard laugh line for David Letterman. By taking a political risk--in a righteous cause--Gore would have been able to counteract the popular view of him as calculating and expedient, which is doing him more harm than his actual positions, which voters tell pollsters they like.

The same could be said of Gore's problems to his left. If Gore wants to defuse Nader, why doesn't he fire back on a whole range of substantive issues instead of acting like Nader has stolen votes that somehow belong to Gore by right? Gore has a record as Vice President, and he presumably believes in the positions that drive Naderites wild--for NAFTA, for military interventions around the globe, for welfare reform, for ladling vast sums of money into the Pentagon. He could take the trouble to explain why he is right and Nader is wrong on the issues that divide them, or why he is being wrongly blamed for policies that were actually the work of a Republican Congress, or why he is the best person to undo the damage Nader has identified.

Nader's not perfect, after all--Gore could ask why he doesn't belong to the party whose ticket he heads, why he told Outside magazine he would prefer a win for Bush (readers will remember he told me the opposite), why he has so little support among the people--minorities, women, blue-collar workers--whose interests he claims to represent. He could point out that while four years of Republicanism may move a few to the left, it may also drive far more people to embrace the Democrats, any Democrats, so the whole Nader phenomenon contains the seeds of its own destruction, in which case why not cut to the chase and vote for the Democrat now? He could make plenty of hay out of Nader's ill-informed and self-serving insistence that a Bush win will not endanger reproductive rights--most recently, Nader told Sam Donaldson that even if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, "it just reverts it back to the states." Just! As if there aren't at least fourteen states ready to criminalize abortion the minute they get the go-ahead. As if there aren't already more than 300 restrictions on abortion already on the books! At one time Gore's ferocity as a debater was going to be his decisive strength. It may have backfired with the feel-good nincompoop Bush, but Gore could always try getting down off his high horse and asking Ralph how he would feel about letting other freedoms lose their constitutional protection. Should fifty state legislatures decide every year how much freedom of speech Ralph Nader is going to have?

It's perfectly fair to attack Nader. It's even fair to attack him in nasty, personal ways, the way Naderites attack Gore--by, for example, spreading the right-wing disinformation that Gore said he invented the Internet and was the model for Love Story. But it's absurd and kind of pathetic for Toby Moffett and the "Nader's Raiders for Gore" to wring their hands and beg Nader to step aside for the good of the country--it would make more sense to beg Gore to address the concerns of Nader voters. It would even make more sense for them to address--since Gore isn't doing the job--the fence-sitters who are moving toward Bush: pro-choice women, for instance, who think Bush isn't serious about working to limit abortion (an illusion not shared by the Christian Coalition, one might add), and union men who are having trouble choosing between their guns and their job protection.

According to a group of seven academic political forecasters, Gore is supposed to win because the man and the campaign and the issues are unimportant: Whether the incumbent party stays in the White House all depends on the state of the economy, both actual and perceived. This alone can explain the outcome of every election since 1948. If Gore loses despite his tremendous structural advantages, what can you say except he screwed up monumentally? Clinton triangulated against the left, but Gore acted as if the left didn't exist. You can't blame the left if it came back to bite him on the behind.

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