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Katha Pollitt | The Nation

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Katha Pollitt

Katha Pollitt

Politics, feminism, culture, books and daily life.

Switzerland's Polanski Protection Program

Dear Switzerland,

Like many people I have fantasies about getting away with a crime, so I've followed the Roman Polanski case with great interest. Drugging and anally raping a 13-year-old girl doesn't appeal to me, I was thinking more of… well, maybe I'd better not say till I hear from you! Suffice it to say there are lots of people who annoy me deeply and sometimes I wonder how I contain myself. Anyway, I understand that should my darker impulses get the better of me I can take a plea bargain, flee sentencing, claim the judge was biased and corrupt, and live in one of your lovely geranium-festooned chalets for many decades as a respected member of the community. If I stay free long enough, my victims, like Polanski's, might even get so frustrated with the whole business they urge the courts to drop the case. I'm sure you would agree that this demonstration of magnanimity would be edifying and inspiring to the crass and puritanical American public. Polanski's friend the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy has made this point frequently.

My question is, What happens if eventually the law catches up to me and America wants me back? In the case of Polanski, you found a technicality in the extradition request—there's always something, isn't there? You also cited "national interests." But most of his supporters say the real reason is that Polanski is a terrific film director. Mr. Lévy, instance, says "His behaviour is not my business. I'm concerned about his movies." He also says, "Writers and artists often have bad reputations. It's not important for them to look good. Baudelaire, Nabokov. François Villon, Jean Genet. Today, Philip Roth." I dunno—I met Philip Roth once and he was a bit testy about a review I'd written of one of his books, but I don't think he's actually a criminal.

So what I want to know is, how great a writer do I have to be to have the Swiss government protect me once I arrive? Granted, my writing may not be in the same class as Chinatown or The Pianist—but what about Rosemary's Baby? I thought that was a pretty silly movie and not scary at all. Also is six books enough, or do I need to write more before I commit my crime? Ideally, I'd like to wait until I'm in the chalet and have lots of time for contemplation. And do sales figures come into it ? I really hope not—this is creative work we are talking about, after all, and everyone knows its value can't be measured in cash or popularity. Perhaps the world just hasn't caught up with me yet and you could tell the Americans you need to wait till I am dead and posterity delivers its verdict. Then, if it turns out I wasn't great enough to deserve Swiss protection after all, you can ship my corpse back to the district attorney.

Please let me know if I can send you copies of my books—unfortunately, I have plenty on hand. Perhaps you could share them with Polanski's many high-brow defenders—M. Lévy, French culture minister Frédéric Mitterrand and foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, to say nothing of le tout Hollywood. It would be great to know in advance that I'd have them all on my side against the "lynch mobs" who don't understand about Art.

I'll be here in my office, abiding the law and keeping myself to myself—at least, until I hear back from you.

Nicole Hollander is a National Treasure: Thirty Years of Sylvia

It was a sad day last year when the Chicago Tribune  ignored the pleas and protests of Nicole Hollander fans and cancelled her Sylvia cartoon strip. I guess it got to be too much for the Trib to run a regular feature in which women’s humor was based on something cleverer than Does this Make Me Look Fat? and Will I Every Get Married? Sylvia, who looks  like a cross between a tough-talking telephone operator from a 1940s screwball comedy and a gypsy fortuneteller,  is shrewd and cynical and drily, wittily, outrageously attitudinous;  she writes in the bathtub, explains Rush Limbaugh to her extraterrestrial friend,  talks back to  her TV (and her cat talks back to her. Even her cat is smarter than the other cartoon cats out there.)  

The New Press has just brought out The Sylvia Chronicles: 30 Years of Graphic misbehavior from Reagan to Obama.  I can’t figure out how to put up pictures here, so  take a look at Audrey Bilger”s illustrated review  from the Ms. Magazine blog. 

Buy, read, laugh! 

And while you're buying Sylvia for yourself,  can you help make sure some middle schoolers in Louisiana can enjoy reading too?  Read on...

 St. Bernard Parish, three miles from downtown New Orleans, was hard hit by  Hurricane Katrina. All its buildings were damaged, and all its schools were destroyed.  Amazingly, little by little, the district is coming back, and on August 11,  the last of its public schools, Andrew Jackson Middle School, will reopen with 350 students. Just in time for the BP oil disaster, you may be thinking.  Yes. This is indeed a community that  has been hit by catastrophe.  And that’s where you come in.

ReadThis is a volunteer organization of people who love books and want to spread the joy of reading.  (Truth in advertising: I’m on the board.)  We collect new and gently used books for public  schools and other underbooked places; we’ve sent books to a pediatric AIDS center, a homeless shelter and  to  troops in Iraq.  This summer, we’ve taken on a big task: gathering 1400 books for the Andrew Jackson Middle School’s library, which was ruined along with everything else.  Imagine a school library with no books and no money to buy books!  Can you chip in by buying a book or two from the  excellent and varied wishlist prepared by the school librarian? It has lots of terrific choices, from Harry Potter to Walter Dean Myers.  As a bonus good deed, you’ll be helping the Garden District  Book Shop, an independent book store.

Find out more about ReadThis here. If you’d like to get involved—collecting books and mailing them to the school, helping out at our table at the Brooklyn Flea on July 24 , or, if by some miracle you happen to be a publisher, donating  a box or two shiny new age-appropriate books --   email us at readthisorg@gmail.com.  For latest updates, join us on Facebook.

Rebuild and Read: Books for a Post-Katrina Middle School

St. Bernard Parish, three miles from downtown New Orleans, was hard hit by  Hurricane Katrina. All its buildings were damaged, and all its schools were destroyed.  Amazingly, little by little, the district is coming back, and on August 11,  the last of its public schools, Andrew Jackson Middle School, will reopen with 350 students. Just in time for the BP oil disaster, you may be thinking.  Yes. This is indeed a community that  has been hit by catastrophe.  And that’s where you come in.

ReadThis is a volunteer organization of people who love books and want to spread the joy of reading.  (Truth in advertising: I’m on the board.)  We collect new and gently used books for public  schools and other underbooked  places; we’ve sent books to a pediatric AIDS center, a homeless shelter and  to  troops in Iraq.  This summer, we’ve taken on a big task: gathering 1400 books for the Andrew Jackson Middle School’s library, which was ruined along with everything else.  Imagine a school library with no books and no money to buy books!  Can you chip in by buying a book or two from the  excellent and varied wishlist prepared by the school librarian? It has lots of terrific choices, from Harry Potter to Walter Dean Myers.  As a bonus good deed, you’ll be helping the Garden District  Book Shop,  an independent book store.

Find out more about ReadThis here. If you’d like to get involved—collecting books and mailing them to the school, helping out at our table at the Brooklyn Flea on July 24 , or, if by some miracle you happen to be a publisher, donating  a box or two shiny new age-appropriate books --   email us at readthisorg@gmail.com.  For latest updates, join us on Facebook.

Saudi Feminist Wajeha Al-Huwaider: An Open Letter to President Obama

You probably know that Saudi Arabian women are banned from driving and voting. But did you know that they need the permission of a male guardian to do almost any of the things adults do: marry, travel, work, get an education, rent an apartment, go to court, make a contract? Saudi women are legal children their whole lives, controlled by fathers, husbands, brothers—even sons. This outrageous system makes Saudi Arabia one of the world’s biggest human rights violators. But because the victims are girls and women, and the rationale is religious, and Saudi Arabia has vast oil wealth, and sits in the middle of the Middle East, and is some kind of US ally, it doesn’t get much attention.

Will women’s human rights be on the agenda when President Obama meets King Abdullah on Tuesday, June 29, at the G20 Summit to discuss what the White House calls “a range of common concerns related to Gulf security, peace in the Middle East, and other regional and global matters"? One person who wants that to happen is my friend the intrepid women’s rights campaigner Wajeha Al-Huwaider. The other day she sent round this eloquent letter to President Obama:

 

Dear Mr. President,

Allow me to introduce myself: I am Wajeha Al-Huwaider, Saudi writer and women’s rights activist in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

When you meet with King Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz next week, we kindly request that you bring to his majesty’s attention the issue of reforming the Saudi male guardianship system.

As I’m watching the Gulf of Mexico birds which are totally covered with black oil stain I can relate to their suffering as a Saudi woman. These birds can hardly move: they have no control over their lives, and they cannot fly freely to go to a place where they can feel safe. This describes Saudi women’s lives. I know that kind of pain. I have been living it most of my life.

For decades, women in Saudi Arabia under the Saudi male guardianship system live like these hapless birds that are keeping you worried days in and days out. Saudi women have been deprived of their rights to be treated as full citizens. That system prevents mature women from living a normal life.  It prevents a woman even from receiving medical care, or to travel without getting permission from a male guardian—a guardian who may even be her own 16-year-old son. Saudi women have no right to take any decision regarding their own personal affairs; a man has to do that for them.

Birds of the Gulf of Mexico and women in Saudi Arabia suffer similar circumstances; they have been trapped in their own habitat under very harsh circumstances and they need help to gain their lives back.

When you meet with King Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz, please help his majesty see the effect the Saudi male guardianship system has on Saudi women.  Children need guardians; mature women do not.

Thank you.

Sincerely yours,

Wajeha Al-Huwaider

The BP Oil Disaster: Bringing it All Back Home

Terrific former Nation intern Kate Murphy pointed me to this eerily vivid way of picturing to yourself the extent of the BP oil “spill.” (And by the way can we please stop calling it that? A spill is what happens when the cat knocks over your coffee. Whoops, kitty! What’s going on in the gulf is a disaster, a catastrophe, a ruination, a smashup—or if you’re feeling Biblical, how about an abomination?)

Just type your town into the search engine and see how much of the surrounding region would be soaked in petroleum, were the same area covered on land as on sea. Answer: lots more than you think, in every direction. If you plug in New York City, a dark-gray blob encompasses Philadelphia, New Haven and half of New Jersey, reaching all the way north to the southwest corner of Massachusetts. Center it on San Francisco, and it takes in Sacramento, San Jose, Santa Rosa and Sunnyvale—and that’s with half of it stretching out into the Pacific Ocean. Atlanta? It goes all the way to Birmingham Alabama on one side, and through the Chattahoochee National Forest on into North Carolina on the other. For international comparison purposes I centered it on London: it covers most of southeastern England plus half of Wales.

How far will it stretch by tomorrow, the day after, next week? London to Paris? New York to Boston? All of Georgia from the mountains to the sea?

Choice v. Freedom?

Did supporters of abortion rights make a  rhetorical mistake when they  adopted "choice” as their mantra?  In an op-ed piece for the LA Times,  “Nuance Matters in the Abortion Debate, “ Nancy L. Cohen argues that the abortion-rights movement needs a verbal (and conceptual) makeover.  While recent polls suggesting increasing numbers of Americans identify themselves as pro-life rather than pro-choice have been hyped and misreported, Cohen thinks the ‘choice” label is too weak to contend against mighty “life”:

" ‘Pro-choice’  has turned into a tone-deaf rallying cry, inadequate to our actual policy preferences and to the philosophical values Americans hold on the subject of abortion. It essentially cedes the moral high ground to the antiabortion movement. It doesn't do enough to communicate the very American ideals at the foundation of the abortion rights movement — the belief that, in a free and democratic nation, the decision to have a child should rest with the individual woman and those with whom she freely consults.

 

“Perhaps ‘pro-choice’ was once good enough shorthand for liberty, human dignity, individualism, pluralism, self-government and women's equality. But anyone who thinks it is still sufficient, as we enter our fifth decade of the culture wars, hasn't been paying attention.”

 Cohen suggests replacing “choice” with “freedom” : “Are you pro-freedom or pro-life? Now those are values worthy of debate.”

 

Freedom is definitely a stronger, bolder word than choice, which, as many have noticed, sounds namby-pamby and euphemistic, as if even the supporters of legal and accessible abortion don’t want to refer too openly to what, exactly, is being chosen.  Choice also has unfortunate consumerist, trivializing overtones,  as if  the decision to terminate a pregnancy was like deciding what  sweater to buy or what burger to order. Where’s the sense of  need--the urgency, the desperation? Choice has always had that unfortunate focus-grouped ring to it, which is not surprising since it was intended to defang  the opposition. “Choice” says we can agree to disagree about abortion as long as it stays legal:

 

To each her own. But would calling for “reproductive freedom” change the debate?  Freedom is a great and noble word, but its fits the same libertarian framework as “choice.” The Hyde amendment and other bans on  government funding would  do fine under the “freedom” banner, because in America freedom means you can have what you pay for: freedom isn’t free. “Freedom” thus cuts both ways in just the same way as ‘choice”:  if you are free to get a legal abortion, shouldn’t I be free not to support it with my taxes?

 

It is hard to get from “freedom” to fairness, equality, and social support. We don’t talk about unemployment insurance as income freedom, or national health insurance as healthcare freedom. Racial freedom is not how we describe civil rights—and in fact, as the discomfort of Rand Paul and other Republicans with desegregation law shows, it’s not obvious to some even today why “freedom” shouldn’t mean the right to refuse to rent a motel room to black people.  If you believe a fertilized egg/embryo/fetus is a person, then why shouldn’t its  freedom to be born trump  the pregnant woman’s freedom not to give birth?

Freedom is an emotionally more stirring word than choice, while remaining vulnerable to the same objections and limitations. I think “reproductive justice,” a term some activists prefer, makes a better case for abortion rights in the area where they are most threatened, which is access, funding and respect for women.  It also links abortion to other reproductive issues in a broad way: is it justice if a woman aborts a wanted child because of poverty? If landlords won’t rent to families with children? If mothers are discriminated against in hiring?  If health insurance won’t pay for fertility treatments? If a woman is legally compelled to have a Caesarean?

I’m a bit skeptical about the ability of framing to alter a discussion that has been going on now for most of my lifetime.  But no question the cause of abortion rights has suffered by being cut off from the larger story of reproductive and sexual life, which is much more complex than can be captured by either "choice’ or “freedom.”  

Rand Paul: 'Principled Libertarian'? Not.

I'm guessing Robert Scheer wrote his Truthout piece praising Rand Paul as "a principled libertarian in the mold of his father, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas" ("...we need more of that impulse in the Congress") before the media firestorm over Paul's long-standing and not-exactly-secret opposition to the l964 Civil Rights Act, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act. Although Paul now says that he believes Congress was right to bar segregation in private businesses, his original position is what you'd expect from someone who basically believes private-property rights and business interests trump all and the market will fix any pesky problems. Ergo, Barack Obama is "un-American" to criticize BP for the oil spill in the gulf. On Good Morning, America, Paul dismissed the recent deaths of two miners in a collapse at non-union Kentucky mine that had received 840 safety citations in the past year: "Maybe sometimes accidents happen." So much for the anti-corporate rhetoric Scheer admires in Paul.

As a libertarian, Paul theoretically wants to limit the government 's power to do very much of anything—so it's not surprising that his views coincide with those of Scheer and other progressives on a few items, like the Iraq War, bank bailouts and the Patriot Act. There's one area, though, in which Paul apparently wants the government to play a much bigger role: your womb. Women can forget about the "privacy" and "liberty" Paul touts on his website; warnings against government encroachment on freedom do not apply to female citizens of Paul's back-to-basics Republic. As per his website, we get the Human Life Amendment banning all abortion even for rape and incest, "a Sanctity of Life Amendment, establishing the principle that life begins at conception," a funding ban on Planned Parenthood, and a ban on the Supreme Court taking up abortion-related cases. No wonder he's been endorsed by Operation Rescue founder and general all-around sleazemeister Randall Terry.

As with many of Paul's statements and positions, you wonder if he's thought about them for more than two minutes. How, after all, is a ban on abortion to be implemented except by a massive government intrusion into private and personal behavior? To say nothing of monitoring thousands of medical practices, clinics, hospitals and pharmacies—apparently the only businesses Paul would want to put under government oversight.

In countries where abortion bans are taken seriously, the prospect of performing even the most medically necessary abortion terrifies doctors and hospitals. Law enforcement treats miscarriages as possible crimes. Women and doctors go to prison. How does a police officer showing up at a patient's hospital bed to question her as a possible murderer, with a mandatory investigation of the premises of the alleged crime—her vagina and uterus—square with libertarianism? Like his support for increased Medicaid payment to physicians, a profession he just happens to follow, the exceptions to Rand's libertarianism miraculously track his own preferences. Somehow the market, which is supposed to miraculously produce food that doesn't poison you, cars that don't explode, oil wells that don't pollute and mines that don't collapse, is useless when it comes to forcing women to stay pregnant against their will and making sure doctors make plenty of money.

I've always thought libertarianism was juvenile. Thanks to Rand Paul—and contrary to Scheer—I know now it's also unprincipled.

Help the National Network of Abortion Funds!

What if you need an abortion and you don’t have the money? Believe it or not, I meet plenty of people who don’t understand how a woman can fail to come up with the $400-500 for a first –trimester procedure. That’s not such a big sum, is it? And if money’s tight, surely a woman can turn to friends, family, boyfriend?

Sometimes, yes, she can – many do that, and many also sell possessions, postpone bills, and do all the other creative things desperate people turn to when they absolutely need to raise cash. But, hello, one in eight Americans is on food stamps, people are losing their homes and their jobs all over the country, and in many states abortion restrictions and lack of providers have turned what should be a fairly simple procedure into a two-day marathon. That means travel, time off from work, child care —more money to be found. Increasingly, these days if your pockets are empty, so are those of the people you could ask for help—assuming you could ask them and not get a lecture and a shaming. Money troubles are one of the main reasons why women end up having abortions later in pregnancy -- the longer it takes to raise the money, the more advanced the pregnancy and the higher the price.

Thanks heaven for the National Network of Abortion Funds, which helps low-income women pay for their abortion care all over the country. Its ability to provide support extends exactly as far as your donations, which is why I’m blogging to support the NNAF Bowl-a-thon. (It was blog or bowl, an easy choice for me.)

Can you help with a donation of any size, any size at all? Your gift, added to those of others, can help a woman through what is surely one of the most difficult times she will ever face.

Just visit this page and follow the simple instructions.

As a thank-you, I’m offering a signed copy of my book of poems, The Mind-Body Problem, to those who give $50 or more by midnight, Saturday April 16. Just send me your receipt and address and I’ll pop it in the mail.

Nazia Quazi Update

I wish I had better news to report about Nazia Quazi, the 24-year-old Canadian woman who is trapped in Saudi Arabia because her father, an Indian citizen who lives in Riyadh, refuses to give her permission to leave. (You can read my column about her case here.)

Human Rights Watch has been advocating for her, and that is a mighty force on her side. Here’s their writeup of her case. But so far, the Canadian government has held back from intervening forcefully with the Saudis.

Why can’t Nazia just get on a plane and leave, as she would be able to do as a foreigner in just about any other country in the world? Although she is not a Saudi, Nazia falls under the misogynist laws of that country, in which a woman, no matter her age, is a legal minor, whose every move requires permission from a male relative, her mahram. Without her mahram’s go-ahead, a woman cannot , for example, work, travel, sign contracts, go to school, marry, or even be treated in a hospital. Nazia’s case is further complicated by the fact that her father confiscated all her documents, and without her knowledge, converted her tourist visa into a permanent one,with himself as sponsor. Under the Saudi system, that means he has to sign off on her departure.

Little by little, the media is picking up on Nazia’s story. On March 8, International Women’s Day, CBC’s Connect with Mark Kelley featured a terrific interview with Shahla Khan Salter of Muslims for Progressive Values Ottawa. Watch it here and then leave a comment here.

As Shahla makes clear, Nazia’s story is not about Islam or “Muslim values” or multiculturalism or a clash of civilizations or any of those other buzz words floating around. There are plenty of Muslims who support women’s rights. Nazia’s story is about men’s control of women, an unbelievably oppressive government, and Canada’s shameful failure to help one of its own citizens.

What can you do? If you’re Canadian, get involved in the HRW campaign. If you’re not, you can still write a polite note to the Foreign Secretary to express your concern and urge prompt action:

The Honourable Lawrence Cannon
Minister of Foreign Affairs
House of Commons
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0A6
Email: Cannon.L@parl.gc.ca

Also, you can write the Saudi ambassador to the US:

Adel A. Al-Jubeir
Ambassador
Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia
601 New Hampshire Avenue
NW
Washington, DC 20037
press@saudiembassy.net

And to the Saudi Ambassador to Canada:

Mr. Asaad Al-Zuhair
Ambassador
Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia
99 Bank Street Suite 901, ,br/> Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, K1P 6B9

Join the to show your support and keep up with the latest developments.

Haitian Relief: Shelter is Crucial, Underfunded

As if things couldn't get any worse for Haiti, 1.2 million people are now homeless, living in crowded makeshift open-air "spontaneous settlements" without shelter beyond maybe a bedsheet. The rainy season is on its way. It's hard to imagine the misery – no protection from the elements, no sanitation--to say nothing of the risks of epidemic disease.

While the UN humanitarian response has succeeded in filling 107% of requested funds for health, a major achievement, only 27% of funds requested for shelter needs have been donated so far. Some causes may just be sexier than others – but that doesn't mean they're less essential.

Mark Leon Goldberg has the details at UNdispatch, including information on how to donate ( it's about two-thirds down the page). The rains start in May, so if you were thinking it's maybe time to make (another) donation to Haitian relief, you're right.

A tarp that can shelter a family of 5 costs only $15; a shelter kit costs around $30.

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