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Subject to Debate | The Nation

Subject to Debate

Katha Pollitt

Let's say there was a school system or a chain of clinics on whose professional staff were a certain number of men who molested the children in their care and who, whenever this behavior came to the attention of their superiors, were shifted to another school or clinic, with parents and colleagues, not to mention the justice system, kept in the dark whenever possible. Imagine that this practice continued for thirty years through a combination of out-of-court settlements, sympathetic judges and politicians, stonewalling lawyers, suppression of information, fulminations against the media. Don't you think that when the story finally broke, the men who had made and implemented the policy would be held legally responsible--for something? Certainly they would lose their jobs.

Bring God into the picture, though, and everything changes. The bishops who presided over the priestly pedophilia in the Catholic Church's ever-expanding scandal are not likely to follow Boston's Father Geoghan, convicted and sentenced to nine to ten years and facing more charges, into the dock, much less the cellblock. After all, they are men of God. Thanks to God, the Catholic Church can run a healthcare system--10 percent of private hospitals in the United States--that refuses to practice modern medicine where women are concerned: not just no abortion but also no birth control, no emergency contraception for rape victims, no sterilization, no in vitro fertilization. The church can agitate against the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS, even in desperate Africa, a position as insane as South African President Thabo Mbeki's stance against antiretroviral AIDS drugs, but that generates a lot less outrage in the West. It can lobby in Ireland against allowing suicidal women to have abortions and intimidate a 14-year-old rape victim in Mexico into carrying to term; it can practice total sex discrimination, barring women from the priesthood and therefore from sharing in the political life of the church, and still demand to be taken seriously when it speaks of human rights or ethics--rather like the Philadelphia parochial school recently reported as giving academic extra credit to students who march in antiabortion-rights demonstrations even as the church goes after public funding through vouchers. No secular institution could get away with any of this, any more than a secular psychotherapist or family counselor could get away with telling poor mad Andrea Yates what the Protestant evangelist Michael Peter Woroniecki did: that Eve was a witch whose sin required atonement in the form of perfect motherhood and that working mothers are "wicked."

Another example: Let's say a group of Americans decide that they would like to live where they believe their ancestors lived 2,000 years ago, even though other people have been living there for centuries and don't like the idea one bit. If these people were Cajuns who wanted to park themselves in the Bois de Boulogne, everyone would think they were out of their minds. If they were American blacks taking over swatches of Ghana, people--including many black people--would laugh at their historical pretensions and militaristic grandiosity. It would certainly be a relevant point that these settlers are not displaced persons or refugees--they have perfectly good homes already. But once again, God changes everything: The former Brooklynites, Philadelphians and Baltimoreans now camping out in "Judea" and "Samaria" (the West Bank to you) wave the Bible and the Israeli government lavishes on them all sorts of privileges--cheaper mortgages, income tax breaks, business development and housing grants--with results that are disastrous for Israel and Palestinians alike and that now threaten the peace of the entire world. In a recent front-page story, the New York Times treated the longing of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to return to their homes in Israel proper as a psychological obstacle to their forging any kind of rational future, individual or collective, and maybe it is-- maybe it would be better for them to forget the old homestead and demand reparations. But at least the old woman mourning a sewing machine left behind when she fled Beersheba fifty years ago really, personally owned that sewing machine; the family picnicking year after year in the ruins of its former property has living memories of farming that plot of land. It is not a notional "ancestral" possession supposedly guaranteed in perpetuity by God. In this case, the religious fanaticism is not coming from the Muslims.

Elsewhere, of course, it is. God has been particularly busy in the Islamic world, building madrassahs, issuing fatwas, bringing in Sharia with its bloody stumps and beheadings and floggings and stonings--seventeen people have been stoned to death so far under the "progressive" Khatami regime in Iran--and underwriting a wide variety of dictators and monarchs and warlords. When gods start multiplying, matters don't improve: Polytheistic Hindu zealots have slaughtered 700 people, including many children, in revenge for the torching by Muslims of a train carrying Hindus from the site of the Ayodhya mosque, destroyed by a Hindu mob in 1992 because it supposedly occupied the site where the god-king Ram was supposedly born. As I write, Hindu fanatics are threatening to fight Muslims for a strand of beard hair preserved in a Muslim shrine in Srinagar, which they claim belongs not to Mohammed but to Hindu religious leader Nimnath Baba. How many children will be burned to death over the proper attribution of that holy facial hair?

Think of all the ongoing conflicts involving religion: India versus Pakistan, Russia versus Chechnya, Protestants versus Catholics in Northern Ireland, Muslim guerrillas in the Philippines, bloody clashes between Christians and Muslims in Indonesia and Nigeria, civil war in Sudan and Uganda and Sri Lanka, in which last the Buddhist Sinhalese show a capacity for inflicting harm on the admittedly ferocious Hindu Tamils that doesn't get written up in Tricycle. It's enough to make one nostalgic for the cold war--as if the thin film of twentieth-century political ideology has been stripped away like the ozone layer to reveal a world reverting to seventeenth-century-style religious warfare, fought with twenty-first-century weapons. God changes everything.

On October 31 Governor Jane Swift of Massachusetts pardoned five women who had been convicted and executed in the Salem witch trials in 1692. Well, better late than never--what's a few centuries one way or another? Once you're dead you have all the time in the world. It's the living for whom justice delayed is justice denied, and on that score Governor Swift is not doing so well. On February 20 she rejected the recommendation of the state parole board, known for its sternness and strictness, and refused to commute the thirty-to-forty-year sentence of Gerald Amirault, who was convicted in the 1986 Fells Acre Day School child sex abuse case and who has already served sixteen years in prison. Violet Amirault and Cheryl Amirault LeFave, his mother and sister, who were convicted with him, served eight years before being released.

Since the l980s, when a wave of now notorious prosecutions of alleged ritual child sex abuse swept the country, many of the techniques used to elicit children's stories of abuse have been discredited: leading and coercive questions, multiple reinterviews, promises of rewards, suggestive use of anatomical dolls. It's no longer iron-clad doctrine that certain behaviors, like bed-wetting, masturbation and sexualized play, reliably indicate sex abuse. The slogan of the prosecution and the media was "believe the children"--but what that really meant was don't believe the children if they insist that nothing happened, if they like going to daycare and readily hug their alleged abusers; only believe the children when, after relentless questioning by interviewers, therapists and parents, they agree that something terrible happened and eventually come to believe it, as the Fells Acre children, now young adults, still do. As Dan Finneran, the Amiraults' lawyer until 2000, puts it, the case represents "a closed system of thought: denials, recantations and failure to remember are categorized as manifestations of repression and fear and thus stand as confirmations of actual abuse." If no means yes, and yes means yes, how do you say no?

All these issues featured in the Amirault case. The result was that a respected working-class family who had run a popular daycare center in Malden for twenty years--a place that parents were constantly popping in and out of--were convicted of a total of twenty-six counts of child abuse involving nine children in trials that included accusations of extravagant and flamboyant sadistic behavior: children being anally raped with butcher knives (which left no wounds), tied to trees on the front lawn while other teachers watched, forced to drink urine, thrown about by robots, tortured in a magic room by an evil clown. One child claimed sixteen children had been killed at the center. Obvious questions went unasked: How come no kids who went to Fells Acre in previous years had these alarming experiences? Why was an expert witness permitted to testify about a child-pornography ring when no pornographic photos of the Fells Acre kids were ever found?

Governor Swift made a big show of looking seriously and long at Gerald Amirault's case, but she failed to consider the central question, that of whether he was guilty of any crime. Indeed, Swift made Gerald's refusal to admit guilt and get treatment as a dangerous sexual predator a centerpiece of her decision--but why should an innocent man have to say he's guilty to get out of jail? Gerald has been a model prisoner: He's taken college courses, he has worked, he has a flawless record. He has the total support of his wife and children and a job lined up in anticipation of his release.

Swift claims that her main consideration was whether Amirault's sentence was in line with those of others convicted of similar crimes. She cited the case of Christopher Reardon, a lay Catholic church worker who pled guilty to seventy-five criminal counts of abusing twenty-nine boys last summer and received a forty-to-fifty-year sentence. But the case against Reardon was open and shut; he took photos and videos, and even kept spreadsheets detailing his crimes. The real cases to compare with Amirault's are those of his mother and sister, who were convicted of the same crimes, although slightly fewer of them. Cheryl Amirault LeFave and Violet Amirault received sentences half as long and were released after serving half as many years as Gerald. Does Gerald's being a man have something to do with these disparate outcomes? Absolutely. The women benefited from the leniency still--if fitfully--bestowed by the justice system on women. Moreover, as the case against the Amiraults came to look more and more troubling with hindsight, the original scenario, in which the three were equally involved in molesting children, was replaced by a theory, never put forward during the trials, that Gerald was the ringleader and the women his dupes. How could this be? The evidence against the three was the same.

At her press conference, Governor Swift refused to discuss the case against Gerald and three times declined to respond when asked how he had failed to demonstrate good behavior in prison. The clear implication is that her motives were political: With Massachusetts in an uproar over the ongoing scandal of pedophile priests, to commute Gerald Amirault's sentence would have made her vulnerable in November when, as a not very popular or experienced Republican appointee, she faces an uphill struggle for election. What an irony--the Catholic Church protects genuine child molesters for decades and thereby creates a political situation in which an innocent man is trapped in jail. But Swift's calculation is backfiring. The Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, the Boston-based Christian Science Monitor, the Berkshire Eagle in Swift's home county have all editorialized against her decision; polls show wide support for Amirault's release.

Massachusetts--liberal, modern, technocratic Massachusetts--is the only state in which people convicted in the 1980s wave of ritual child abuse cases are still in prison. Bernard Baran, whose case shares many features with that of the Amiraults, with the added strike against him of being homosexual, has been incarcerated for almost half his life. Meanwhile, Scott Harshbarger, the DA who originally prosecuted the Amirault case, is now head of Common Cause. Will it take another 300 years for the state to acknowledge that Salem was not its last miscarriage of justice?

It may look as if domestic politics no longer exists in the new America--the one in which there is no money for anything besides guns and prisons but we don't care because we are all bowling together against the Axis of Evil. But that's not true. As long as there is a fertilized egg somewhere in this great land of ours, there will be domestic politics. George Bush may not be able to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth for the religious right, who gave him one in four of his votes. He may even realize that a serious victory for religious conservatives--significantly restricting the legality of abortion, say--would hurt the Republican Party, because California has more people than Utah. But he is doing what he can to keep the fundamentalists happy.

It must be frustrating for him--just when we're all supposed to pretend to love our differently faithed neighbor even if we know he's bound for hell, Christians keep saying weird things. First there was Jerry Falwell's remark that God let terrorists blow up the World Trade Center because he was fed up with "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians...[and] the ACLU"; Falwell apologized, only to express the same thought a bit more obliquely on November 11 at a Florida church: "If the church had been awake and performing that duty"--proselytizing the ungodly--"I can tell you that we wouldn't be in the mess we're in today." God, says Falwell, "even loves the Taliban"--it's just liberals he can't stand.

And then there's Attorney General John Ashcroft, who burqaed the semi-nude statue of the Spirit of Justice because he felt upstaged by her perky breast at press conferences, and who thinks calico cats are emissaries of the devil, when everyone knows it's black cats. Ashcroft is in trouble with Arab-Americans for offering this proof of the superiority of Christianity to Islam as quoted by conservative columnist Cal Thomas on his radio show on November 9 (and belatedly denied by a Justice Department spokeswoman): "Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him. Christianity is a faith in which God sends his son to die for you." Not to get too wound up in theology here, but if the Christian God sent his own son to die doesn't that make him, according to Ashcroft's definition, a Muslim?

Fortunately, the fertilized egg can be rolled onstage to distract us from such knotty questions. In keeping with the strategy of rebranding antichoice as prochild, the Bush Administration plans to use the CHIP program for poor children to provide healthcare to children "from conception to age nineteen," a neat way of defining zygotes as kids. The women in whom these fine young people are temporarily ensconced will remain uninsured--perhaps they can apply for federal funds by redefining themselves as ambulances or seeing-eye dogs. After all, somebody has to get those fetuses to the doctor's office. As for the 8 million uninsured postbirth children, not to mention the 27 million uninsured adults, who told them to leave the womb?

But wait, there's more. In a highly unusual move, the Justice Department has weighed in on the side of Ohio's "partial-birth abortion" ban, which has been on ice thanks to a federal court ruling that found it did not make enough allowance for a woman's health, as required by the 2000 Supreme Court decision in Carhart v. Nebraska. The Ohio law would permit the operation only to save her life or avoid "serious risk of the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function." Gee, what about considerable risk of moderate and long-term impairment of a bodily function of only middling importance? Should the Ohio state legislature (seventy-five men, twenty-four women) decide how much damage a woman should suffer on behalf of a fetus? Shouldn't she have something to say about it?

To please fanatical antichoicer Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey, Bush is holding back $34 million from UN family planning programs. To return the favor, Congressional Republicans have revived the Child Custody Protection Act, which would bar anyone but a parent from taking a minor across state lines for an abortion. The parental-notification-and-consent laws of a pregnant teen's home state would follow her wherever she goes, like killer bees, or the Furies--and unlike any other law.

Bush is also stacking with social conservatives commissions that have nothing to do with abortion per se but raise issues of sex, gender and reproduction. The cloning commission, called the Council on Bioethics (fourteen men, four women), is headed by bioethicist Leon Kass, a former opponent of in vitro fertilization who's associated with the American Enterprise Institute. There's room around the table for antichoice columnist Charles Krauthammer; antichoice law professor Mary Ann Glendon, the Vatican's representative at the UN conference on women, in Beijing; and social theorist Francis Fukuyama, who wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed that the thirty-years-overdue introduction of the pill in Japan in 1999 spelled the downfall of the Japanese family, because now women will just run wild. But there are only four research scientists, and no advocates for patients with diseases that the cloning of stem cells might someday help cure. Similarly, the newly reconfigured AIDS commission is said to be stacked with religious conservatives and will be headed by former Representative Tom Coburn, whose claim to fame is his rejection of condoms, which sometimes fail, in favor of "monogamy," which never does.

Finally, there's the nomination of Charles Pickering for the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Rated unqualified by the Magnolia Bar Association of Mississippi. Pickering, an ardent segregationist when it counted, opposed the ERA, has been a lifelong opponent of legal abortion and won't discuss his antichoice record in Senate hearings. The Fifth Circuit includes Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, states where the right to abortion is already compromised by conservative legislatures; in l999 Texas tied with Michigan for most new antichoice laws enacted (seven). Traditionally the federal courts offer hope of redress for victims of state laws--in this case, some of the poorest women in the country. What are the chances that Pickering will champion their rights and their health?

My money's on the fertilized egg.

The death on January 23 of the French philosopher and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu came as the American chattering classes were busy checking the math in Richard Posner's Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline--an unintentional parody of sociology in which Posner presents a top-100 list ranking writers and professors according to the number of times they turned up on television or Internet searches. Bourdieu, whose heaviest passages crackled with sardonic wit, would have had a wonderful time exploring this farcical project, which takes for granted that Henry Kissinger (No. 1), Sidney Blumenthal (No.7) and Ann Coulter (No. 74) are in the Rolodex because they are leading the life of the mind--why not include Dr. Ruth or, as one wag suggested, Osama bin Laden? In tacitly conceding the fungibility of celebrity even while decrying it, Posner confirms Bourdieu's gloomy predictions about the direction modernity is swiftly taking us: away from scholarship and high culture as sources of social prestige and toward journalism and entertainment.

Bourdieu himself argued that scholars and writers could and should bring their specialized knowledge to bear responsibly and seriously on social and political issues, something he suspected couldn't be done on a talk show. His involvement during the 1990s in campaigns for railway workers, undocumented immigrants and the unemployed, and most recently against neoliberalism and globalization, was the natural outgrowth of a lifetime of research into economic, social and cultural class domination among peoples as disparate as Algerian peasants and French professors, and as expressed in everything from amateur photography to posture. It's hard to think of a comparable figure on the American left. Noam Chomsky's academic work has no connection with his political activities, and it's been decades since his byline appeared in The New York Review of Books or the New York Times. One friend found himself reaching all the way back to C. Wright Mills.

Bourdieu, who loved intellectual combat, called himself "to the left of the left"--that is, to the left of the ossified French left-wing parties and also to the left of the academic postmodernists aka antifoundationalists, about whose indifference to empirical work he was scathing. Reading him could be a disturbing experience, because the explanatory sweep of his key concept of habitus--the formation and expression of self around an internalized and usually accurate sense of social destiny--tends to make ameliorative projects seem rather silly. Sociology, he wrote, "discovers necessity, social constraints, where we would like to see choice and free will. The habitus is that unchosen principle of so many choices that drives our humanists to such despair." Take, for example, his attack on the notion that making high culture readily available--in free museums and local performances--is all that is necessary to bring it to the masses. (In today's America, this fond hope marks you as a raving Bolshevik, but in France it was the pet conviction of de Gaulle's minister of culture, André Malraux.) In fact, as Bourdieu painstakingly demonstrated in Distinction, his monumental study of the way class shapes cultural preferences or "taste," there is nothing automatic or natural about the ability to "appreciate"--curious word--a Rothko or even a Van Gogh: You have to know a lot about painting, you have to feel comfortable in museums and you have to have what Bourdieu saw as the educated bourgeois orientation, which rests on leisure, money and unselfconscious social privilege and expresses itself as the enjoyment of the speculative, the distanced, the nonuseful. Typically, though, Bourdieu used this discouraging insight to call for more, not less, effort to make culture genuinely accessible to all: Schools could help give working-class kids the cultural capital--another key Bourdieusian concept--that middle-class kids get from their families. One could extend that insight to the American context and argue that depriving working-class kids of the "frills"--art, music, trips--in the name of "the basics" is not just stingy or philistine, it's a way of maintaining class privilege.

Although Bourdieu has been criticized as too deterministic--a few years ago The New Yorker characterized his views, absurdly, as leading "inexorably to Leninism"--he retained, in the face of a great deal of contrary evidence, including much gathered by himself, a faith in people's capacities for transformation. He spent much of his life studying the part played by the French education system in reifying class and gender divisions and in selecting and shaping the academic, technocratic and political elite--the "state nobility"--that runs France, but he believed in education; he railed against the popularization and vulgarization of difficult ideas, but he believed in popular movements and took part in several. In one of his last books, Masculine Domination, he comes close to arguing that male chauvinism is a cultural universal that structures all society and all thought; he is that rare man who chastises feminists for not going far enough--but the book closes with a paean to love.

Bourdieu's twenty-five books and countless articles represent probably the most brilliant and fruitful renovation and application of Marxian concepts in our era. Nonetheless, he is less influential on the American academic left than the (to my mind, not to mention his!) obscurantist and, at bottom, conservative French deconstructionists and antifoundationalists. Perhaps it is not irrelevant that Bourdieu made academia and intellectuals a major subject of withering critique: You can't read him and believe, for example, that professors (or "public intellectuals," or writers, or artists) stand outside the class system in some sort of unmediated relation to society and truth. The ground most difficult to see is always the patch one is standing on, and the position of the intellectuals, the class that thinks it is free-floating, is the most mystified of all. It was not the least of Bourdieu's achievements that he offered his colleagues the means of self-awareness, and it's not surprising either that many decline the offer. His odd and original metaphor of the task of sociology holds both a message and a warning: "Enlightenment is on the side of those who turn their spotlight on our blinkers."

What would the government have to do to convince you to get married when you otherwise wouldn't? More than pay you $80 a month, I'll bet, the amount Wisconsin's much-ballyhooed "Bridefare" pilot program offered unwed teen welfare mothers beginning in the early nineties, which is perhaps why then-Governor Tommy Thompson, now Health and Human Services Secretary, was uninterested in having it properly evaluated and why you don't hear much about Bridefare today. OK, how about $100 a month? That's what West Virginia is currently offering to add to a couple's welfare benefits if they wed. But even though the state has simultaneously cut by 25 percent the checks of recipients living with adults to whom they are not married (including, in some cases, their own grown children, if you can believe that!), results have been modest: Only around 1,600 couples have applied for the bonus and presumably some of these would have married anyway. With the state's welfare budget expected to show a $90 million shortfall by 2003, the marriage bonus is likely to be quietly abolished.

Although welfare reform was sold to the public as promoting work, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of l996 actually opens with the declaration that "marriage is the foundation of a successful society." According to Charles Murray, Robert Rector and other right-wing ideologues, welfare enabled poor women to rely on the state instead of husbands; forcing them off the dole and into the rigors of low-wage employment would push them into marriage, restore "the family" and lift children out of poverty. That was always a silly idea. For one thing, as any single woman could have told them, it wrongly assumed that whether a woman married was only up to her; for another, it has been well documented that the men available to poor women are also poor and often (like the women) have other problems as well: In one study, 30 percent of poor single fathers were unemployed in the week before the survey and almost 40 percent had been incarcerated; drugs, drink, violence, poor health and bad attitudes were not uncommon. Would Murray want his daughter to marry a guy with even one of those strikes against him? Not surprisingly, there has been no upsurge of marriage among former welfare recipients since 1996. Of all births, the proportion that are to unwed mothers has stayed roughly where it was, at 33 percent.

Since the stick of work and the carrot of cash have both proved ineffective in herding women to the altar, family values conservatives are calling for more lectures. Marriage promotion will be a hot item when welfare reform comes up for reauthorization later this year. At the federal level conservatives are calling for 10 percent of all TANF money to be set aside for promoting marriage; Utah, Arizona and Oklahoma have already raided TANF to fund such ventures as a "healthy marriage" handbook for couples seeking a marriage license. And it's not just Republicans: Senator Joe Lieberman and Representative Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, are also interested in funding "family formation." In place of cash bonuses to individuals, which at least put money in the pockets of poor people, look for massive funding of faith-based marriage preparation courses (and never you mind that pesky separation of church and state), for fatherhood intervention programs, classes to instruct poor single moms in the benefits of marriage (as if they didn't know!), for self-help groups like Marriage Savers, abstinence education for kids and grownups alike and, of course, ingenious pilot projects by the dozen. There's even been a proposal to endow pro-marriage professorships at state universities--and don't forget millions of dollars for evaluation, follow-up, filing and forgetting.

There's nothing wrong with programs that aim to raise people's marital IQ--I love that journalistic evergreen about the engaged couple who take a quiz in order to qualify for a church wedding and call it off when they discover he wants seven kids and she wants to live in a tree. But remember when it was conservatives who argued against social engineering and micromanaging people's private lives and "throwing money at the problem"?

Domestic violence experts have warned that poor women may find themselves pushed into marrying their abusers and staying with them--in a disturbing bit of Senate testimony, Mike McManus of Marriage Savers said domestic violence could usually be overcome with faith-based help. Is that the message women in danger should be getting? But there are even larger issues: Marriage is a deeply personal, intimate matter, involving our most private, barely articulated selves. Why should the government try to maneuver reluctant women into dubious choices just because they are poor? Even as a meal ticket wedlock is no panacea--that marriage is a cure for poverty is only true if you marry someone who isn't poor, who will share his income with you and your children, who won't divorce you later and leave you worse off than ever. The relation between poverty and marriage is virtually the opposite of what pro-marriage ideologues claim: It isn't that getting married gives feckless poor people middle-class values and stability, it's that stable middle-class people are the ones who can "afford" to be married. However marriage functioned a half-century ago, today it is a class marker. Instead of marketing marriage as a poverty program, how much better to invest in poor women--and poor men--as human beings in their own right: with education, training for high-paying jobs, housing, mental health services, really good childcare for their kids. Every TANF dollar spent on marital propaganda means a dollar less for programs that really help people.

The very fact that welfare reformers are reduced to bribing, cajoling and guilt-tripping people into marriage should tell us something. Or have they just not hit on the right incentive? As a divorced single mother, I've given some thought to what it would take for me to marry against my own inclination in order to make America great again. Here's my offer: If the government brings Otis Redding back to life and books him to sing at my wedding, I will marry the Devil himself. And if the Devil is unavailable, my ex-husband says he's ready.

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Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt is well known for her wit and her keen sense of both the...

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