Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Virginity or Death - A Book Review

Virginity or Death! And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time is the new collection of Katha Pollitt's columns from the Nation magazine, spanning the time period from 2001 to early 2006. Go and buy it now. I did, though I asked the sales clerk at the local bookstore to "give me virginity or give me death" and his eyes bulged out a little.

I'm not an unbiased reviewer of Pollitt's work, because I love her writing. I wrap myself in it as if it were a silk blanket, I gorge on it as if it were the best chocolate in the whole world, I inhale it as if all the secret and luxurious spices were found it it. That last sentence shows that, alas, I'm no Pollitt myself. The idea I wanted to reach was that for me reading Katha's writing is such a sensual experience that it wouldn't matter very much what she writes.

But she writes good stuff, mostly, and stuff that very few other commenters in the mainstream print media cover. Not only is she one of the few out-of-closet feminists out there but she is also one of the few writers who takes women seriously as a topic. Of course, these two things are pretty much the same.

You should buy this new collection even if you have read every one of the columns before, because of two things: First, the Introduction alone is worth the price of $13.95. Here Pollitt writes about the current regime:

The fecklessness of the current regime astonishes me, I admit. Hurricane Katrina displayed to the whole world the inability of the administration to do the bedrock job of government, which is to ensure public safety and protect people from catastrophe, while simultaneously revealing what should definitely not come as a surprise but somehow did to many: the deep poverty of the Gulf region and its racial nature. Surely -- after botching the rescue in full view of the whole world, after Bush's unfortunate use of Trent Lott's beach house as the synecdoche for the towns and neighborhoods destroyed by storm and flood, and his mother's even more clueless remark that living in the Houston Astrodome was "working well" for the displaced, who were "underprivileged anyway" -- surely, I thought, the Administration would pour on steam to show what a good job it would do to get the evacuees back on their feet. I forgot for a moment that this was the same administration that had shown nothing but contempt for professional expertise, whose answers to every question of public policy was tax cuts, and whose response to every crisis has been to leave people to their own devices, down to expecting soldiers on active duty in Iraq to supply their own body armor, like medieval knights.

And here she writes about the media treatment of feminism:

And speaking of babies, what about feminism? If you follow the media, the women's movement is well into the third decade of the longest funeral in history ("Is Women's Lib a Passing Fad?" New York Times, 1972). A torrent of books, articles, and popular entertainment tells women they don't really want equality, and if they get it they will only be miserable, because what makes women happy is nurturing men and children, or even, as a recent New York Times front-page story suggested, quitting their jobs -- their empty, materialistic, meaningless jobs -- to move back into their childhood bedrooms and tend their aging parents ("Forget the Career. My Parents Need Me at Home," November 24, 2005). When was the last time you saw a mass-market film with a "career woman" character who wasn't a bitch on wheels? In which the diamond-in-the-rough working-class beauty was a genius who needed a scholarship, not a stripper who needed a husband? As for sex, any number of writers, from right-wing Harvard political scientist Harvey Mansfield and novelist Tom Wolfe on down, are eager to warn young women of the horrors of the hookup. (Why young women should care what these septuagenerians think about their sex lives is a question not easily answered.)

This discussion gets even more interesting, but I'm not going to give it all away.

Second, it's fascinating to see the columns in time order, starting from the earliest pre-911 ones and reading through to almost the current time. We can observe the impact of the softly-creeping veiled fundamentalism on our lives much more clearly in a context like this. It's a little similar to those films which speed up the opening of a flower.

I almost feel like an infomercial here. Must add something critical. Well, for one thing, I had to pay for the book to review it, though I didn't ask for a free copy, either. And sometimes I disagree with Pollitt because I'm more middle-of-the-road in some political areas and less capable of appreciating irony in others. I also suspect that she'd kick my butt quite admirably if I ever really angered her. Which isn't really a criticism.