Every other week, in the pages of this magazine, Katha Pollitt collects her thoughts in her column, “Subject to Debate.” To say that Pollitt’s column is a hotbed of feminist polemic is only partly right. Each of her essays is a small marvel of anger leavened with wit. Armed with a sharp tongue and a broad interest in politics and culture, Pollitt is as likely to seriously critique Martha Stewart as she is to hilariously parody John Ashcroft.
Virginity or Death! (what better title to inspire subway conversation?) compiles more than five years of Pollitt’s columns, on topics ranging from 9/11 and the “war on terror” to the abortion wars and stem-cell research. Her dissenter’s chronicle of the Bush era–the attacks on civil liberties, the slashing of opportunities for the poor, reckless adventures in “nation building” abroad–displays the unique mix of empathy, fury and wit that has made her one of the strongest voices on the left, or anywhere else. As a biweekly column, “Subject to Debate” reminds readers that they are not alone in their rage; as a collection, Virginity or Death! is a call to action–and a tremendously entertaining one at that.
Bemoaning the President’s two-faced campaign of “secularism and pluralism and women’s rights in the Muslim world” while all three are depleted here, Pollitt can’t help wondering if in “the liberal hawks’ fantasy war, Bush was the love child of Mary Wollstonecraft and Voltaire, striding forth to battle the combined forces of Osama bin Laden and Jacques Derrida.” She is especially deft at using biting humor (“in abstinence-only sex ed…you too can have a virgin birth”) and her own experience (after 9/11 Pollitt and her teenage daughter argued over displaying the American flag, for Pollitt a symbol of “jingoism, and vengeance and war”) to demonstrate how personal politics really are.
For all her fierce convictions, Pollitt is also bravely introspective about the most divisive issues of the day, like whether the Bush Administration should topple the Taliban, a regime whose “requirements have some of the obsessive particularity of the Nazis.” She came out against the invasion but admitted that it wasn’t easy to think calmly about how the United States should respond to 9/11 when “you’re afraid to fly in an airplane or open your mail.”
In today’s polarized political climate, it’s tempting for us to define one another as red or blue, and to thank whomever we believe in that we live here and not there. But as Pollitt writes in her introduction, “Women may not call themselves feminists when they fight for their rights, and their daughters’ rights. But that is what they are. In the same way, conservatives may not call themselves liberals when they protest the Bush Administration’s invasions of our privacy in the name of fighting terrorism…. The requirements of real life count for something, no matter what ideology says.” It is to these real-life requirements that Pollitt writes.