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Activist decries move to right

Columnist, poet and author Katha Pollitt offered her views on the aftermath of the presidential election, the role and responsibilities of the Democratic party and the "general horror" of recent Republican appointments, and the economic and political impact of the triumph of "family values" in a February 27 talk at MIT.

Ms. Pollitt is a columnist for the Nation and author of a new book of essays, Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics and Culture (Modern Library) and Reasonable Creatures: Feminism and Society in American Culture at the End of the Twentieth Century (Vintage). A recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, she has published poems and nonfiction in the New York Times Book Review, the New Republic, the New Yorker, the Paris Review, Poetry, Time, Vogue and others.

She was introduced by Professor of Literature Ruth Perry, who described Ms. Pollitt's writing as a "forceful exercise of her right to freedom of expression. She provides rational explanations for my gut responses. When I read her columns, I think, 'Now I know why I feel what I feel.'"

Ms. Pollitt applied "crude Marxism," feminist analysis and witty asides to the national zeitgeist with practiced efficiency. "I don't know about you; I was content to wait forever to find out who was president," she said, dismissing the Florida recount frenzy as legalistic grandstanding by Al Gore.

"How much politics can we make if the Democratic party isn't making any? If others are happy, you can't be unhappy for them. The Democrats aren't unhappy with their move to the right. They're following the Republicans because that's where the votes are," she said.

Ms. Pollitt noted the "twinning" of Republicans and Democrats -- both advocate welfare reform, militaristic intervention in "places where we have no business, like Colombia," and both are "fine with giving away the store to major corporations." However, the parties differ dramatically on abortion, women's rights, affirmative action and on the people they place in midlevel positions, she said.

Addressing the "tremendous triumph of family values," Ms. Pollitt listed the three main tenets of current conservative thought. "One, every top should have its bottom. Two, you shouldn't have children you can't afford. Three, you should not be born a black person. Especially number three."

Most troubling to Ms. Pollitt is the way in which political discourse is controlled "not by vox populi but vox of a certain class," she said. "Where is that debate about welfare reform that was so intense in 1994? Why don't we hear from people who are not doing so well in this so-called boom? The makers of the discourse are the voters, the ones who are doing well, and also the ones to be interviewed for their opinions by newspapers. So you get the idea they speak for everyone.

"All over the world, money is being taken from working-class people. In Russia, kleptomaniac ex-Communists are doing this. In Europe, the story's the same. Our problems with schools and health care are not going to be solved by electing the other party," Ms. Pollitt asserted.

A longtime activist and progressive, Ms. Pollitt had suggestions on actions that might address national problems more directly than "just leaving them to representatives."

She found invigorating the anti-NAFTA protests in Seattle; antisweatshop actions; and, closer to home, graduate students and teaching assistants organizing into unions. Ms. Pollitt was also very keen on the "miracle of the Internet." She cited the recent hundreds of thousands of donations to Planned Parenthood made in George W. Bush's name, thanks to an e-mail campaign begun by a woman newspaper columnist in California.

Ms. Pollitt encouraged the audience to take heart from the success of the Vietnam antiwar movement. That movement "didn't elect anybody, but Nixon had to end the war because of it," she said.

Ms. Pollitt's talk was cosponsored by the Women's Studies Program and New Words Bookstore.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 8, 2001.

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