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Katha Pollitt

Katha Pollitt

Politics, feminism, culture, books and daily life.

Sign the Open Letter From American Feminists

With advice and counsel from the History in Action e-mail list, I wrote up the Open Letter below to protest the way the media slanders the women's movement as indifferent to the human rights of women in the developing and/or Muslim world. Fact: it's feminists who first identified atrocities against women around the world--female genital mutilation, forced marriage, child marriage, spousal violence, rape-- as violations of human rights, not family matters or customs of no state importance. It is feminists who have consistently pushed for women's rights to education, health care, and legal and social equality and who've pushed organizations from the UN to Amnesty International to broaden their perspective to include women's rights to be free from violence and coercion. "Women's rights are human rights" was not a slogan dreamed up by David Horowitz or Christina Hoff Sommers.

In only four days, the Open Letter has gathered 700 signatures. it's been signed by people from all walks of life and every part of the country: writers, scholars, students, activists, leaders of feminist organizations and global health organizations, doctors, nurses, kindergarten teachers, clergypeople, stay-home mothers and so on and on--to say nothing of a whole bunch of people who simply describe themselves as "feminist."

If you'd like to sign, send your name to me at kpollitt@thenation.com, and be sure include how you would like to be identified; for example, writer, professor (with department and university), activist, astronaut, parent, movie star. if you are active with a feminist/progressive or global organization or NGO, that would be a good thing to mention. I would like the list to show that all sorts of women, and men, are feminists and how many are actively working for women's human rights. And yes, men can sign!

An Open Letter from American Feminists

Columnists and opinion writers from The Weekly Standard to the Washington Post to Slate have recently accused American feminists of focusing obsessively on minor or even nonexistent injustices in the United States while ignoring atrocities against women in other countries, especially the Muslim world. A number of reasons are given for this supposed neglect: narcissism, ideological rigidity, reflexive anti-Americanism, fear of seeming insensitive or even racist. Yet what is the evidence for this apparently now broadly accepted claim that feminists don't support the struggles of women around the globe? It usually comes down to a quick scan of the home page of the National Organization for Women's website, observing that a particular writer hasn't covered a particular outrage, plus a handful of quotes wrenched out of context.

In fact, as a bit of research would easily show, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of US feminist organizations involved in promoting women's rights and well-being around the globe--V-Day, Equality Now, MADRE, the Global Fund for Women, the International Women's Health Coalition and Feminist Majority, to name some of the most prominent. (The National Organization for Women itself has a section on its website devoted to global feminism, on which it denounces a wide array of practices including female genital mutilation (FGM), "honor" murder, trafficking, dowry deaths and domestic violence). Feminists at Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations have moved those organizations to add the rights of women and girls to their agenda. Feminist magazines and blogs--Ms. magazine, Feministing.com, Salon.com's Broadsheet column, womensenews.com (which has an edition in Arabic)--as well as feminist reporters and commentators in the mainstream media, regularly report on and condemn outrages against women wherever they occur, from rape, battery and murder in the US to the denial of women's human rights in the developing or Muslim world.

As feminists, we call on journalists and opinion writers to report the true position of our movement. We believe that women's rights are human rights, and stand in solidarity with our sisters who are fighting for equal political, economic, social and reproductive rights around the globe. Specifically, contrary to the accusations of pundits, we support their struggle against female genital mutilation, "honor" murder, forced marriage, child marriage, compulsory Islamic dress codes, the criminalization of sex outside marriage, brutal punishments like lashing and stoning, family laws that favor men and that place adult women under the legal power of fathers, brothers, and husbands, and laws that discount legal testimony made by women. We strongly oppose the denial of education, health care and equal political and economic rights to women.

We reject the use of women's rights language to justify invading foreign countries. Instead, we call on the United States government to live up to its expressed commitment to women's rights through peaceful means. Specifically, we call upon it to:

--offer asylum to women and girls fleeing gender-based persecution, including female genital mutilation, domestic violence, and forced marriage;

--promote women's rights and well-being in all their foreign policy and foreign aid decisions;

--use its diplomatic powers to pressure its allies--especially Saudi Arabia, one of the most oppressive countries in the world for women--to embrace women's rights;

--drop the Mexico City policy--aka the "gag rule"--which bars funds for AIDS- related and contraception-related health services abroad if they provide abortions, abortion information, or advocate for legalizing abortion;

--generously support the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), which supports women's reproductive health including safe maternity around the globe, and whose funding is vetoed every year by President Bush;

--become a signatory to The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the basic UN women's human rights document, now signed by 185 nations. The US is one of a handful of holdouts, along with Iran, Sudan, and Somalia.

Finally, we call upon the United States, and all the industrialized nations of the West, to share their unprecedented wealth, often gained at the expense of the developing world, with those who need it in such a way that women benefit.

Signed,

Katha Pollitt, writer
Marge Piercy, writer
Susan Faludi, writer
Alix Kates Shulman, writer
Julianne Malveaux, president, Bennett College for Women
Anne Lamott, writer
Mary Gordon, writer
Linda Gordon, historian, NYU
Jennifer Baumgardner, writer
Ruth Rosen, historian
Jane Smiley, writer
Anna Fels,MD, psychiatrist and writer
Debra Dickerson, writer
Margo Jefferson, writer
Jessica Valenti, writer
Dana Goldstein, The American Prospect
Karen Houppert, writer
Gloria Jacobs, The Feminist Press
Carole Joffe, professor of sociology, UC Davis
Janet Afary, Middle East historian, Purdue University

And more than 700 more women and men.

Please add your name to this powerful list, and thanks.

Update: You can read the complete list of signatories to date here, and, of course, you're most welcome to sign the letter at any time.

Hillary Shows Feeling, is Slammed

John Edwards just lost my vote. How dare he take cheap shots at Hillary Clinton for letting her eyes mist over (not "crying" as was widely reported) at a meeting with voters in Portsmouth NH earlier today? This is a man who has used his most private tragedies--his wife's cancer, his son's fatal accident -- in his campaign in a way that had a woman done the same she would surely be accused of "oprahfying' the lofty realm of politics. This is also the man who promoted himself early on as the real women's candidate, and who has repeatedly used his likeable wife to humanize his rather slick and one-dimensional persona. Today he deployed against Hillary the oldest, dumbest canard about women: they're too emotional to hold power. ABC's Political Radar blog reports:

"Edwards, speaking at a press availability in Laconia, New Hampshire, offered little sympathy and pounced on the opportunity to bring into question Clinton's ability to endure the stresses of the presidency. Edwards responded, 'I think what we need in a commander-in-chief is strength and resolve, and presidential campaigns are tough business, but being president of the United States is also tough business.'"

Ooh, right,we need a big strong manly finger on that nuclear button! Even if that finger has spent most it its life writing personal injury briefs in North Carolina, which, when you come to think of it, is not an obvious preparation for commander-in-chiefhood.

"When people say they don't want anyone's finger on the button who cries, I say I don't want anyone's finger there who doesn't cry," Pat Schroeder told me when we spoke by phone this afternoon. "Tears show someone is a human being." Schroeder ought to know. In 1987 she was viciously attacked for shedding a few tears while announcing her withdrawal from the presidential race. "Ronald Reagan used to tear up all the time," she said. " when John Sununu left the New Hampshire governorship to run Reagan's campaign he was crying so hard he couldn't finish his speech. Bush recently teared up. Dozens of male politicians cry. But when a man cries, he's applauded for having feelings. when a woman cries, she attacked as being weak."

Hillary Clinton, long criticized as cold, shows a bit of feeling and is attacked as overly emotional. It's the latest installment of the ongoing double bind in which if she wears a black pantsuit she's too masculine and if she wears a pink shell she's too feminine; if she's serious she's humorless and if she laughs she "cackles." (George Bush has a horrible heh-heh-heh laugh, Schroeder reminded me. But who, besides Jon Stewart, makes anything of it? ) When Hillary was First Lady she was attacked for being too involved in business of state; now, when she claims "experience" we're reminded that First Ladies are basically trivial. "I'm so sick about the way Hillary is treated I can hardly talk about it," Schroeder told me.

It's bad enough when the media goes after Hillary like a pack of addled lemmings. A few weeks ago it was her wrinkles -- would people vote for a visibly middle-aged woman? today it was her welling eyes. But Edwards is not some on-air airhead . He's supposed to represent "change," remember? You'd think he'd be more alert to sexist gender scripts, given that he's been dogged by accusations of effeminacy for (oh horrors) spending too much time and money on his hair.

I guess in his case metrosexuality only goes scalp deep, because today he sounded like quite the old-school bully boy.

Hillary Clinton has taken a beating in New Hampshire for tearing up in a conversation with a supporter.

Branding the Candidates

The election is almost a year away, and already it's come down to branding. In Saturday night's Democratic debate the candidates discussed in considerable detail muclear terrorism, health care, carbon emissions and other substantive issues. But what really got them excited were the vague competing mantras of "change" and ‘experience." Obama says he stands for change. Edwards, siding with Obama against Clinton for some strategic reason too subtle for me to understand, says he stands for change too. Hillary Clinton, who casts herself as the candidate of experience but actually uttered the word "change" more often than the other candidates, dismissed her rivals as fancy talkers. She said she has 35 years of experience ( which means she's counting everything she's done since getting out of law school) and knows how to make change happen. She points out, quite correctly, that electing a woman president would be a very big change, but nobody seemed too interested in that. After all, electing a black president would be a big change too.

Hillary Clinton was fiery and funny and bore no resemblance to the candidate relentless attacked in the media as rigid, incompetent, Machiavellian and screechy. You can understand her obvious frustration with the ongoing lovefest for Obama: At one point she even compared his "likeability' to that of George W. Bush. In real life, Obama has made the same sort of compromises she herself has made. As she pointed out, he said he'd vote against the Patriot Act, and then he voted for it. He casts himself as the candidate who'd repair our bellicose relations with the world, and then talks about bombing Pakistan. He talks about putting Republicans in his cabinet, as Bill Clinton did. His health-care plan, as Paul Krugman points out every day on the New York Times op-ed page, is weaker than Clinton's or Edwards'. I'm sure Hillary Clinton must be wondering what the difference is between "triangulation" and Obama's calls for unity.

Somehow Hillary Clinton is stuck as the candidate who simultaneously represents excessive compromise and excessive partisanship. For various reasons, John Edwards, who actually represents the most substantive hope for change, seems in some ways a throwback to the old-fashioned class-based politics of the 1930s. Poor Richardson, who actually has the most experience of any candidate in either party, can't get any traction at all. Obama, the black candidate who never mentions his race, gets to smile his mile-wide smile and be a rock star. Somehow he has made himself a great big humongous hope object. People can project on him what they want him to be.

It may not be fair, but then, that's show business.

Bill Kristol Gets New York Times Op-Ed Slot

Just shoot me. First, it was Sam Tanenhaus, conservative editor of the New York Times Book Review being put in charge of the News of the Week in Review section. That means one conservative will determine how politics,culture and ideas are covered in TWO of the most important sections of the supposedly liberal newspaper of record. Now, says the Huffington Post, the Times is set to announce that Bill Kristol will be writing a weekly op-ed column. That's Bill Kristol ,Fox commentator , editor of the the Murdochian agitprop factory Weekly Standard, George W. Bush's propagandist in chief, co-founder of the Project for a New American Century, relentless promoter of the war in Iraq , ideological bully and thug. This is the man who blamed american liberals for the Khmer Rouge and the Ayatollah Khomeini (!), who will say just about anything, however bizarre or illogical or wild or (I'm guessing) cynical, to push the only ideas in his head: everything bad is the fault of Democrats and never mind the question, war is the answer.

On Iran:The right response is renewed strength--in supporting the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan, in standing with Israel, and in pursuing regime change in Syria and Iran. For that matter, we might consider countering this act of Iranian aggression with a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Why wait? Does anyone think a nuclear Iran can be contained? That the current regime will negotiate in good faith? It would be easier to act sooner rather than later. Yes, there would be repercussions--and they would be healthy ones, showing a strong America that has rejected further appeasement.

On morning-after contraception: "I don't know, I came into Fox this morning and one of our younger colleagues who works here, a guy just out of college a couple of years, said all his friends in who are still college are very happy about this -- all his guy friends, his male friends who are still in college are happy about this. They have a wild night. Precautions aren't taken. The burden is now totally off them. They tell their girlfriend to go out and get this drug and no problems at all. And I don't think that's a very good thing for the the country."

On Sunni-Shiite hostility in Iraq and desire of shiites to set up a religious state:"pop sociology"

On Terri Schiavo: "After all, we are a 'maturing society,' as the Supreme Court has told us. Perhaps it is time, in mature reaction to this latest installment of what Hugh Hewitt has called a 'robed charade,' to rise up against our robed masters, and choose to govern ourselves. Call it Terri's revolution."

On John Kerry and the Osama videotape: "But the fact remains that Osama bin Laden is notneutral in our election. He is trying to intimidateAmericans into voting against George W. Bush."

What ever happened to meritocracy? For Kristol to get a Times column--after being fired from Time magazine no less -- is as meritocratic as, um, George W. Bush becoming the leader of the free world. A pundit, even a highly ideological one like Kristol, has to be (or seem) right at least some of the time. But what's striking about Kristol is that he's has been wrong about everything! or did I miss the sound of democratic dominoes falling neatly into place all over the Middle East? And it's not as if he's a great prose stylist, either. At least David Brooks can occasionally turn a phrase. Kristol just churns out whatever the argument of the moment happens to be, adds jeers, and knocks off for lunch.

What this hire demonstrates is how successfully the right has intimidated the mainstream media. Their constant demonizing of the New York Times as the tool of the liberal elite worked. (Maybe it also demonstrates that the people in charge of the decision aren't so liberal.) I'm sure we'll hear a lot about the need for balance at the paper -- funny how the Wall Street Journal doesn't feel the need to have even one resident liberal, but fine, let's have balance. Let's have a true leftist on the oped page--someone as far to the left as Kristol is to the right. Noam Chomsky, anyone? (and why does he seem just totally out of bounds but Kristol does not?) Barbara Ehrenreich? Naomi Klein? Susan Faludi? Gary Younge? me?

Why do I think those phone calls will not be coming any time soon?

Taking Care of Caretaking

This morning, TakeCareNet released the results of its survey of presidential candidates' positions on 26 public policies related to work, family, and caregiving. Co-sponsored by eight other organizations, including the Labor Project for Working Families, Momsrising.org, and the National Council of Women's Organizations, the survey addresses the "silent crisis of care": the absence of social support for working families (I know, I know, I hate that moralistic multi-focus-grouped phrase) that has made us a nation of stressed-out parents, daycare workers on poverty wages, and children who aren't getting the high-quality attention and stimulation they need. Number of Democratic candidates who responded: five (Clinton, Dodd, Edwards, Obama and Richardson). Number of Republican candidates who responded: zero. This is one area in which the parties definitely diverge.

While some of the Dems preferred their own policy proposals to those on the survey, all five support increased funding for childcare, both for mothers on TANF and families in general; public funding for universal, voluntary pre-school programs; expanding the Family Medical and Leave Act to cover workplaces with as few as 25 employees; allowing leave for appointments related to domestic violence; a minimum number of paid days off to care for sick family members; indexing the minimum wage to productivity and inflation; and more. I was particularly glad to see on the menu a scholarships for education and training, as well as higher pay, for child care providers. The magic of the marketplace is never going to bring us quality childcare, because most parents cannot begin to afford what that would cost.

Will the Dems actually campaign on care? Or will the policies laid out by the TakeCareNet survey join the long laundry list of wonkish positions you have to search their websites to find? Dems say they want the votes of women, and especially, as Katrina pointed out on her blog, want to mobilize single women, many of whom combine low-wage work with raising kids and/or caring for elderly parents. Yet, except on abortion rights, about which they speak as little as possible, Dems have not really made a pitch to women that goes beyond fluff and pr -- they're too afraid of scaring off the elusive white male voter: ew, the Mommy party! cooties! Yet care is an issue that affects men too. Even the Nascariest Nascar dad can see the advantage of nursery school.

People who mock the Dems for ceding big themes to the Republicans have a point, but last time I looked Family Values was one such theme. This year, Dems could show that it doesn't have to be code for abstinence, homophobia and Jesus. It can mean giving families the social support they need to raise the next generation and tend to the sick while earning enough to keep the ship afloat. By making it easier to combine work and parenting, these policy proposals, and others like them, can lower the stakes in the mommy wars and encourage fathers to take more responsibility.

Moroever, care issues cross class, race and gender lines: even among the relatively well-off, few people can really afford to buy their way out of the time crunch that is family life today. I'd like to see the Dem candidate, whoever that turns out to be, ask his Republican opponent what's not to like about indexing the minimum wage to inflation, or giving workers a few paid days off each year to care for a sick child.

If their failure to even fill out the TakeCareNet survey is any indication, that Republicans won't have much of an answer.

Help Keep Bookwoman Alive!

Remember when feminist bookstores dotted the land? In l993 there were 124. A woman writer could give readings in women's bookstores from Los Angeles to Baltimore. But 1993 was the high point. Ever since, like other independent bookstores--I'm still mourning the death of Ivy's Books at 92nd Street and Broadway, which closed a year ago--ones catering to feminists have been closing, felled by economic forces with which we are all familiar: chain stores and online sellers who offer big discounts, skyrocketing rents, changing neighborhoods and, arguably, declining interest in reading. True, every Barnes & Noble now has a women's section, but feminist bookstores, even more than most independents, are not just places where books are sold They are places where small-press, new, local and midlist writers are cherished and hand-sold by staffers who actually care about books, where there's room to stock offbeat items, pamphlets and magazines, and where literary and political communities are shaped through events, readings, book groups, talks, and parties. It can't be good, for either books or feminism, that there are only around 15 women's bookstores left in the United States.

That number will get even smaller if BookWoman, in Austin, Texas, goes under. For over thirty years, BookWoman has anchored the local feminist community: now it's been priced out of its home at 12th and Lamar, once a funky area of independent shops, now increasingly posh. Owner Susan Post is trying to raise $50,000 by mid-December. It's what she needs in order to keep the business open and negotiate a new lease at a new address. Kind donors have raised about half that amount. Can you help take it over the top? You can make a quick donation at www.savebookwoman.com.

If you're within striking distance of Austin, drop by and browse. If you can't make it to the bricks and mortar, shop online at www.ebookwoman.com. Why not help the store and make life easy for yourself at the same time, by doing your holiday shopping there?

And don't forget that quiet evening curled up with a book you've been promising yourself as a reward for having your whole family over for Chanukah latkes, Christmas turkey or, I dunno, atheistical baba ganoush. Let Bookwoman send you Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, or Mary Gordon's fabulous memoir Circling My Mother. Or any other book that takes your fancy. They have cool t-shirts too. Just in case you have all the books your shelves can hold for now.

Read more about BookWoman here.

Left-Leaning Male Pundits Heart Huckabee

Have you noticed how liberal white male reporters get crushes on right-wing male candidates? For years John McCain had Democratic and even left men swooning at his feet--a straight talker! A war hero! He's cool and macho, and he'll invite you over for barbecue! Never mind that McCain was basically a militaristic reactionary with occasional twinges of sanity. Even at The Nation, McCain was a popular guy with the guys. in 2004, one of my Nation colleagues argued in an edit meeting that the magazine should endorse him.

This time round, the so-called-liberal-media men's Republican sweetheart is Mike Huckabee. He plays the bass guitar! He cares! He's not a total maniac like the other evangelical Christians even though he doesn't believe in evolution and probably thinks you're going to Hell! Ari Berman declares him " humble, decent, and funny." In The New Yorker, Rick Hertzberg is surprised to find himself charmed: Huckabee is "funny," "reassuringly ordinary" in appearance and demeanor, "curiously unthreatening" in affect; he speaks "calmly" and declines to serve up "red meat" on abortion, immigration, the Clintons, and other issues dear to rightwingers' hearts.

Marc Cooper, who can't throw enough rotten tomatoes at Democrats and "progressives," or as he likes to call them "pwogwessives," writes in his blog that Huckabee " radiates a core decency." Newsweek's Jonathan Alter: He "speaks American." (oh lord, where's Mencken when you need him?) "Even on faith and politics, Mike is easy to like." Really? It's easy to like a man who tells Bill Maher that "we really don't know" whether the earth is six thousand or six billion years old? Who doesn't think human beings are primates? Who wants to outlaw almost all abortion because "life begins at conception"? Gail Collins-- yes, yes, not all Huckabee fans are men -- thinks indeed, it is.

Hertzberg ruminates so pleasantly on Huckabee's sympathy for the poor, his attacks on the Club for Growth, his lack of the spit-flecked viciousness that has characterized so many religious wingnuts, that you almost forget Huckabee is a religious wingnut himself. Only in his second to last paragraph does Hertzberg get around to acknowledging that "None of this is to say that Huckabee's policy positions are much better than those of his Republican rivals; in some cases, they're worse. He wants to replace the federal tax code with a gigantic, horribly regressive sales tax; he cannot name a single time he has ever disagreed with the National Rifle Association; he wants to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage and abortion." But not to worry: "In practice, however, the sales tax and the amendments would go nowhere, and he couldn't do much about abortion except appoint Scalia-like Justices to the Supreme Court--which his rivals have promised to do, too."

Just so you know: One of Huckabee's first acts as governor of Arkansas was to bar state Medicaid from paying for an abortion for a retarded teenager raped by her stepfather, despite federal regulations requiring such payments. Is that your idea of a nice, decent, "curiously unthreatening guy ? As Todd Gitlin writes at TPMcafe, the media relentless scrutinizes the health-care plans of the Democratic candidates, but when Republicans say they want to ban abortion and declare that life "begins at conception,"--anti-choice code for banning most methods of contraception -- they get a free pass, including from the so-called liberal media.

Is there some weird masochism operating here, whereby left-leaning men, weary of failure and scorn, roll over for rightwingers who smile and throw them a bone? Does the issue of abortion-- which is a marker for a whole range of women's issues--just not matter to them the way it does to women with the same politics? Are they so desperate for a candidate who uses the language of "economic populism," --when he isn't pushing regressive taxation-- that they'll overlook everything else? Which is more likely: a Republican president who limits women's access to abortion, or a Republican president who limits laissez-faire capitalism? The question answers itself. I just wish more liberal male pundits were asking it.

UPDATE: Marc Cooper e mailed me to say he felt I quoted him out of context and am a good example of the "pwogwessives" he despises. He also called my attention to this staggering breaking news story from Murray Waas on the Huffington Post, a story Marc helped edit and has linked to on his blog. Be sure to check it out -- it's truly horrific.

NOTE: Apologies to John Nichols, to whom I originally attributed Ari Berman's quote. Far from being charmed by Huckabee, Nichols wrote a persuasive post on this website attacking him for applying religious tests to Romney. And before anyone else writes in to point out that the pundits I mentioned were discussing Huckabee's public persona, not his character, "decent" is a moral term that describes someone's actual character as expressed in action, not their social manners as expressed in an interview or debate. It's not a synonym for "affable," "pleasant," or "seemingly not insane, despite adherence to nutty beliefs about imminent end of world etc."

Norman Mailer R.I.P.

      Last month I was privileged to be part of Georgetown University's day-long celebration of the 40th anniversary of the publication of Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night, his autobiographical-historical-novelistic account of the l967 March on the Pentagon.  Mailer was in the hospital and unable to attend as he'd planned -- but it was still a fascinating day.   My favorite moment was  when  the delightful and erudite  Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, who wrote his thesis on Mailer, explained that in the 1960s and 70s Mailer failed to grasp the reductive nature of television --  he would go on a talk show ,utter a complex thought, and then find that the only part that was quoted was an inflammatory soundbite, like "all women should be kept in cages." Ah, yes, context.  I'll bet it made all the difference! My second favorite moment  came after my bit on the literary panel,--in which yes, as the only woman I did feel compelled to mention Mailer's  rather staggering misogyny-- when various older gentlemen in the audience leapt to their feet to assure me that his violent hostility to women was just a phase . Their wives had met Mailer in the late  l970s and found him very nice.  My third favorite moment was when, after the showing of Richard Fountain's  l971 documentary about mailer --  the  product of the very film crew that Mailer reveals, halfway through the book, is following him about as he makes one weird speech after another, sometimes in strange voices-- a  Georgetown student told the panel on stage that she and her  activist friends always tried to present their political points  in a sober, respectful way, and she  found the 1960s, and Norman Mailer in particular, entirely bewildering: Was everybody just crazy back then?  

It probably astonishes you to hear that I'm not a charter member of the Norman Mailer Society, but I  enjoyed Armies of The Night.  One of the great things about books, especially when they are of a previous generation, is that you don't have to swallow them whole -- you can  take what you want and leave the rest.  If you are a writer yourself, you might even see a signpost in what strikes you as mostly a swamp.  Take, for example Mailer's  third-person depiction of himself  as a major jerk ,obnox and social climber-- "the Novelist"  worries endlessly about what to wear to the big march ,  about his literary status  and whether Robert Lowell  respects him; he pisses on a restroom floor because he's too drunk to find the toilet in the dark, gives an incoherent ranting speech that it turns out nobody could hear, spends a lot of mental energy wondering how to schedule his arrest at the Pentagon so that he can be back in New York in time for a glamorous  party, and gets so tied up in egomaniacal knots that when he finally bunks down in jail for the night, in stead of having a historic prison-memoir moment he is unable to address a word to the reputed young genius in the next bed -- Noam Chomsky.  It's all pretty funny.  But who is telling you this story that reflects so poorly on "the Novelist's" claims to moral seriousness,  political commitment, and fitness for the leadership position he longs to hold? Norman Mailer. Norman Mailer the narrator knows perfectly well --at least in Armies of the Night he does -- what an anxious, obsessive, narcissistic, fantastical, insecure, over-the-top, ridiculous person " Norman Mailer" is.  The writer sees what the character doesn't see. The expression of that double consciousness is  a masterpiece of style.    Still, there is that little problem of misogyny. I wish  The Nation's considerable coverage of his life had given that more than a passing wave.  What a failure of imagination and humanity there is in his ravings about the evils of birth control and women's liberation, his cult of  hatred and  domination and violence, his fatuous pronouncements about what women should be (goddesses,whores,  mothers of as many children as a man could stuff into them), ), his pronouncements of doom on a culture that let them get out of their cage .   I remember  him speaking at a PEN meeting in the l990s about  the damage women would do to the Democratic Party if they exercised power within it.  That made about as much sense as his famous essay in "Advertisements for Myself," (l959)  in which, having  insulted every famous male writer of his day from Bellow to Baldwin, he wrote . ''I doubt if there will be a really exciting woman writer until the first whore becomes a call girl and tells her tale.''  

The obits don't make much of this but it should be said straight out: Mailer did a lot of harm in his life.  He stabbed his  second wife, Adele Morales, and it wasn't some larger-than-life zany antic they both had a good laugh over later: he nearly killed her.  Psychologically, a recent New York times story suggested,  she never recovered. He helped  get the  writer and murderer Jack Abbott out of  prison ,  and immediately plunged this  unbalanced man who had spent over half his life behind bars   into the heady world of literary celebrity; within days Abbott had killed a waiter he imagined was dissing him.   Several obits have humorously recounted how Mailer assaulted on the street a sailor he thought called his dog gay, but the near murder of Morales, and the actual murder of Richie Adan by Mailer's protege, show that his infatuation with machismo was not just a literary joke, much less endearing protective covering for his inner nice-Brooklyn-boy-who-loved-his-mother.

What can a woman writer take from Mailer? Not much of his content, and certainly not his career advice. But what about style? The boldness, the risk of failure, the willingness to be big and raw and to work the language hard. To let yourself not look good and make readers admire you anyway through sheer virtuosity. Style, I thought after my day with the Mailerites, is everything, content almost nothing. True? I'm not sure, but for Mailer's sake let's hope so.

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Dowd v Clinton, Chapter 3465

Is Maureen Dowd obsessed with Hillary Clinton or what? Last week, she complained that Hillary spoke "girlfriend to girlfriend" to women voters while refusing to share the pain of being married to a sexually exploitative monster who had made her violate all her beliefs and principles, as Caitlin Flanagan opined in the Atlantic. This week, Dowd accused Hillary of "playing the woman-as-victim card" because her campaign put out a humorous video portraying the last debate as a masculine pile-on (never mind that Hillary herself said she was the focus of tough questioning because she was the front-runner): "If the gender game worked when Rick Lazio muscled into her space, why shouldn't it work when Obama and Edwards muster some mettle? If she could become a senator by playing the victim after Monica, surely she can become president by playing the victim now."

As far as I'm concerned, anyone who quotes Caitlin Flanagan approvingly has lost their bona fides on gender issues. Flanagan, after all, is the woman who calls herself a homemaker while acknowledging that she's never changed her own sheets, who insists that children don't love working mothers as much as they do stayhomes, and who says women have a duty to have sex with their husbands at least twice a week. As for playing the woman-as-victim card, can this be the same Maureen Dowd who wrote in her last book, Are Men Necessary?, that men don't ask her out because she's too smart and successful and will never see 35 again? How's that for painting yourself as a victim  of sexism--which, I hasten to add, Dowd probably is!

You don't need to be Simone de Beauvoir to recognize that lots of middle-aged men would find Dowd too challenging and too old -- i.e., their own age. For applying this rather obvious sociological observation to herself--for permitting herself one unguarded moment and writing what women say to each other all the time--she was publicly taken to task all over the media. Unlike Hillary, Dowd backed down. I turned on the TV late one night and there was Dowd, all sultry red hair and fishnet stockings, gaily insisting to some male interviewer that her social life was terrific, no problems in that department at all.

The more people insist that sexism plays no part in the primary campaign or its media coverage, the more likely I am to vote for Hillary Clinton and I'll bet I'm not the only one. Her poll numbers with women are rising, after all. I think a lot of women are just fed up to here with the sexism they see around them every day at their own workplaces and that their male colleagues just don't notice as they ride the testosterone escalator upwards. Six male politicians salivating to score points, two super-self-satisfied male journalists asking the questions (and what questions!), one woman who has got to know the world is just waiting for her to set a foot wrong--it makes a picture. If you've ever been the only woman at the meeting, on the panel, with your job, at your level, you see that picture all the time, and it's a self-portrait.

While on the subject of Dowd, let me add that I am sick of Hillary being tagged with the adventures of Bill's genitals. What's it to Dowd or Flanagan that Hillary ran for the Senate instead of filing for divorce? At least Hillary isn't a sad doormat like Wendy Vitter and countless other political wives. As long as we are looking at candidates' spouses, what about Michelle Obama and Elizabeth Edwards, smart lawyers who quit work to promote their husbands' ambitions? Nobody criticizes those choices, or says nasty things about those relationships. In fact, we are constantly being told how warm and wonderful these marriages are. Fact is, none of us knows a thing about what really goes on with the Obamas, the Edwardses, or any of the other candidates and their wives. And if it weren't for Kenneth Starr, we wouldn't know about the Clintons, either.

How Many Times Can a Country Lose its Innocence?

I've been thinking recently about the many ways in which we conceal from ourselves the truths we know we know. At the Shocked, Shocked conference at NYU on Saturday -- the subhead of which was the comical/exasperated "Just how many times can a country lose its innocence?" -- the Yale historian David Blight gave a riveting talk about how over the second half of the 19th century the Civil War became memorialized as a conflict between "two right sides " -- Union and Confederate-- and "reconciliation" came to mean focussing exclusively on the valor of the soldiers in both armies. Slavery? Black people? Neither fit the narrative of reuniting North and South. For that, the causes and purposes of the war had to be obscured, the past -- the real past -- forgotten. The slaveowner and the slave dropped out of the public story, the soldiers in blue and gray became the star players. In this way, the country could bind up its wounds and move on triumphantly without having to confront the reconstitution of white supremacy in the South, or Northern racism either. Napoleon quipped that the winners write history, but until the civil rights movement, the history of the Civil War was largely written by the South.

Blight gave an interesting example of how the wish for a heroic, positive history distorts "progressive"memory too. Ken Burns ended his PBS series on the Civil War with footage of the huge 1913 reunion at Gettysburg of veterans from both sides, closing on a conciliatory meeting between an old black union soldier and a white confederate one. According to Blight, this picture had to have come from a much later vets reunion. In 1913, all the vets were white. The only blacks permitted in the encampment were the ones who built and maintained the latrines, cooked and served food, and handed out blankets.

You can see the same process of historical mythmaking at work on the War in Vietnam. The war as well-intentioned tragedy (liberal version) versus the war as sabotaged glory, the stab in the back (conservative). The history of militant GI resistance, told in the powerful documentary "Sir! No Sir!", has dropped out of public memory, replaced by feckless "draft dodgers" and the myth of the returning soldier spat upon in the airport by a hippie girl with flowers in her hair.

How will the War in Iraq be woven into the ongoing narrative of American goodness and progress? We brought them democracy, but they couldn't handle freedom? We could have pacified the country with just a bit more time but the peaceniks stabbed us in the back, just like in Vietnam? Maybe both--in fact, both are in circulation already. You can be sure that, as with Vietnam, no matter how many Abu Ghraibs and Hadithas come to light, they will be blamed on bad-apple soldiers and the fog of war, not higher ups or official policy.

Imagine that in 30 years the Smithsonian tries to put on an exhibit exploring the the Iraq war: the cooked evidence of WMD, the "embedding" of the media, our bewildering and shifting alliances with assorted Iraqi would-be strongmen, the destruction of Iraqi infrastructure, the violence against civilians, the displacement of millions of Iraqis to Syria and Jordan, and so on. Today , these are all things we know well. But will we still know them in 30 years? If history is any guide, they'll have been replaced by a soothing and hopeful popular narrative of patriotism , military valor and well-meaning blunders. In the furor over the planned exhibit, many rightwing politicians will raise tons of cash, the curator will lose her job, and in the end the more disturbing, 'controversial" displays will be replaced with pictures of Osama bin Laden, 9/11, soldiers building schools and soulful-eyed Iraqi children being brought to America for medical treatment.

Blight closed with a wonderful remark from the Reverend Fred Shuttleworth, the great civil-rights leader: "If you don't tell it like it really was, it can never be as it ought to be." That goes for all of us.

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Katha Pollitt's collection of personal essays, Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories, is just out from Random House. These are not Nation columns; in fact, most are previously unpublished. "Watching Pollitt level her incisive wit at targets as disparate as Marxism and motherhood makes "Learning to Drive" a rewarding and entertaining read."--San Francisco Chronicle

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