A new episode of the Humanist Hour is available for listening. Keep reading to find out about the guest on this month’s show.
In this month’s podcast, Todd Stiefel and co-host Jamila Bey welcome Katha Pollitt, the recipient of the American Humanist Association’s 2013 Humanist Heroine Award at the American Humanist Association 72nd Annual Conference held May 30-June 2, 2013 in San Diego, CA.
Jamila Bey, co-host
Jamila Bey is a journalist based in Washington, D.C., where she hosts the weekly radio show: SPAR with Jamila Bey, which airs on AM 1390 in Washington and AM 1430 in New York City. She is also a member of the American Atheists Board of Directors, a contributor to the Washington Post blog, “She the People,” and was a frequent guest on the MSNBC show “Up With Chris Hayes.”
Katha is a feminist poet, writer and essayist focusing her wit on political and social issues, including abortion rights, racism, welfare reform, feminism, and poverty.
Her bimonthly column, “Subject to Debate,” appears in The Nation magazine, where she began contributing in 1980. Her column won the National Magazine Award for Columns and Commentary in 2003. Her 1992 essay on the culture wars, “Why We Read: Canon to the Right of Me…” won the National Magazine Award for essays and criticism, and she won a Whiting Foundation Writing Award the same year. In 1993 her essay “Why Do We Romanticize the Fetus?” won the Maggie Award from the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She has written two books of poetry, Antarctic Traveller, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories, Virginity or Death!: And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time, and The Mind-Body Problem. Her work has been included in multiple anthologies and she has been a guest on numerous national TV and radio programs.
Links from this month’s episode:
- Book: The Mind-Body Problem by Katha Pollitt
- Book: Antarctic Traveller by Katha Pollitt
- Book: Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories by Katha Pollitt
- Virginity or Death!: And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time by Katha Pollitt
Music from this month’s episode (in order of appearance):
Transcript: The Humanist Hour #85: Katha Pollitt
Bill Nye: Hey, hey. Bill Nye, the Science Guy here.
Salman Rushie: This is Salman Rushdie.
Julia Sweeney: Hi. This is Julia Sweeney.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: I’m Neil deGrasse Tyson.
E.O. Wilson: This is E.O. Wilson.
Dar Williams: Hi. This is Dar Williams.
Brian Keith Dalton: I’m Mr. Deity, and you’re listening to The Humanist Hour. I command you to listen now or I will smite you.
Todd Stiefel: Hi. This is Todd.
Jamila Bey: Hi. I’m Jamila.
Todd Stiefel: We have an exciting guest this month in Katha Pollitt, who we will be turning to shortly. But first, this is The Humanist Hour podcast, the official podcast of the American Humanist Association.
Jamila Bey: Humanism is an awesome philosophy that holds that people are the most important things, people need to be treated ethically, and people need to be considered before profit, before all other considerations. And when you do that and you do that in earnest, you try to make the world better and, more importantly, you try to leave the world a bit better for you having been in it as a humanist.
Todd Stiefel: Indeed. So, we should put humanity before each of our own personal favorite superheroes.
Jamila Bey: Absolutely, except the Hulk.
Todd Stiefel: That’s true. Hulk comes first, then people. That’s the official stance of the AHA. Please don’t tell the executive director I said that. Now, I think, Roy would approve but he might argue. I think he might be more of a Superman guy, not the Hulk. I don’t know.
Jamila Bey: The Hulk is green.
Todd Stiefel: The Hulk is green.
Jamila Bey: “Hulk smash.”
Todd Stiefel: Hulk, smash. This is true. That really is the essence of humanism, listeners, “Hulk smash!”
So, Jamila Bey, welcome to the show. Listeners, Jamila is a journalist from D.C. She’s also a radio host. So, she sounds more professional than I am, that’s because she is. She has worked with NPR and currently hosts a show called SPAR with Jamila — SPAR standing for Sex, Politics, and Religion. She is a writer. She is working on a book. She is a comedian, I believe, and a really good speaker, actually. And you know, I wanted to ask you a quick question. I heard you speak, like, a week ago, I guess now, and your talk focused on how we need to tell more stories. Can you elaborate on that a little bit for our listeners?
Jamila Bey: Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Jamila, and she was loud and obnoxious, and everywhere she went, teachers called her parents into conferences and said, “We don’t know what to do with this kid. She just won’t stop talking.” And one particular teacher, Sister Donna, said, “You know what, Jamila, you can’t talk until you finish reading this book. And when you’re done reading the book, you get to tell the kids in the classroom with you what it’s all about.” I was in probably first grade at this point, and I think the book had 150 pages in it. I don’t remember what it was, but I remember being really excited to explain why this book was awesome and the different points where the author drew me in, and la-la-la. So, a monster was born really small.
And one of the things I even said in that speech a week ago is arguably — and I’m right here, I do have a bias but I’m also right — the world’s oldest profession is not what we’ve been told it was. It’s storytelling, how to make connections to other people. And as a journalist, I deal in data, I deal in facts, I deal in numbers and all of that stuff, but behind every one of those numbers, behind every one of those statistics can be found a story. It’s not enough, in my opinion and in most people’s opinion, to say, “Forty percent of Americans, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” But when you say, “Look at this family. Here is how they’re like you in a lot of ways. This particular piece of legislation is going to make it harder for them to send their kids to college. This piece of legislation is going to make it easier for them to keep a roof over their heads and stay warm through the winter. This family is a lot like you.” This is the way we learn and interact, and storytelling makes what I do possible, and what I do is try and make people think and make people engaged with the government in which they should be participating. So, stories, it’s all about stories.
Todd Stiefel: See, I was going to jump in with a joke, except I got engrossed in your story.
Jamila Bey: There we go. There we go.
Todd Stiefel: But this is true. This is good. You actually proved your point as you were talking. Because I wasn’t — I mean, I said that as a joke, but it was actually true. I was preparing to say a joke, and like, “Wait a minute. This is a good story. I want to listen to this.” And I think that’s true for a lot of people. And maybe you’re right, if we told better stories, we might be able to get our point across better.
Jamila Bey: I think so. And we also have to control the way we tell our stories. Let’s be real. You and I both have picked up news reports of, “The atheists are doing this. They’re trying –” and slant is a very important thing. I know that someone has co-opted the no-spin zone and all of that, but the truth of the matter is that when you have reporters who go in with their particular worldview or when they bring back their stories and their editors have a particular worldview and they see something that conflicts with that worldview, talking now about humanism and atheism or whatnot, a lot of times the stories are not fairly told.
I’m not saying that it’s impossible to find a well-told story, a fair and factual story, but if everyone who’s telling those stories carries a torch for some other, you know, some faith tradition or some religious belief, and then they go, “Okay. Well, these people are different,” that’s not as fair as if, for example, I tell a story and I say, “Hey, you know, this guy down in Louisiana? Let me tell you about him. He’s really awesome. He used to be a preacher, and now he’s not a preacher anymore.” But let’s talk about how he got there, and let’s listen to what he’s saying as opposed to, “Them atheists are trying to co-opt the way we religious folk talk.” It’s like, no, he comes out of your culture and I see that. It’s not a co-opting. It’s a cohesion of who this one guy in Louisiana is, or this woman who’s in Florida, or this other woman who happens to be in Atlanta and she’s really cool, and this guy who’s up in Milwaukee, and oh, wow, they’re everywhere. But you’re not telling those stories because you want to show how we’re different, and that’s actually not factually the case. I mean, “Heck, Todd. Do atheists do good with their money by chance?”
Todd Stiefel: Sometimes.
Jamila Bey: Do humanists like, you know, get together –
Todd Stiefel: Oh, wait, wait. Am I supposed to tell a story here?
Jamila Bey: No. I mean, I asked a yes-or-no question, so that’s great.
Todd Stiefel: Yes, yes. [Indiscernible]. But I’ll take a try. I’ll take a try. This is radio. We should do this in, like, the radio voice. So, let’s see [cross-talking].
Jamila Bey: Okay. So, can I teach you how to do radio voice real fast?
Todd Stiefel: Well, I think I’ve got a few radio voices. But I want to hear your lesson first.
Jamila Bey: You’re very good, but I want to give you –
Todd Stiefel: I’m not using the tacky radio voice.
Jamila Bey: While I was –
Todd Stiefel: I want to hear your lesson.
Jamila Bey: Here is — it’s a very quick lesson. And I know what I’m doing. When I worked at Morning Edition, I was the commentary editor, so I would get people who were worried about being in front of a microphone and I would get them broadcast quality, some people took more than others, but here’s a very quick trick that will help absolutely everybody. You’ve got really good voice, Todd, so you’re not going to modify a whole lot, but I find that this works with people who are very nervous and it works for women, and I’ll show you why.
Put your hand in the middle part of your chest, just hold it there. Okay. Your hand’s there?
Todd Stiefel: Yes.
Jamila Bey: Okay. Now, you are going to hum a note and you’re going to hold a note. I will demonstrate first. Hmmm. Okay. So, your turn, Todd.
Todd Stiefel: Hmmm.
Jamila Bey: Now, hold that note even while I talk.
Todd Stiefel: Hmm.
Jamila Bey: Okay. What you’re doing is you’re finding the place — keep humming. Just keep on. I need you to be my background here. Hmmm. There we go.
Todd Stiefel: Hmmm.
Jamila Bey: What Todd is doing is he’s finding the place where his voice naturally goes, where his body is most resonant, where he is providing the least stress to his vocal cords and he can keep that going. That’s sort of a survival floating thing for your voice. That “hmmm,” that initial place where your voice naturally wants to go. That is the register in which you should be doing most of your speaking. That’s where you have the most ability to go up in tone and make a point and get up high, and be like, “Oh, no, you didn’t.” But it’s also the point from which you can drop down low and say, “Wait a minute. Hold on. No. You will not continue to talk over me.” A lot of people start up in that upper register and they really don’t have anywhere to go and it’s hard to maintain up here, you know, “Ah.” So, when you are in doubt, you can think about that “hmmm” where you are when you hum and you think about talking about where that is, you can always go up, you can always come down. But that’s a very easy way, especially if you’re going into a meeting or somewhere, you’re a little nervous and you don’t want to show that you’re nervous, you can, kind of, talk down low and that’s a more authoritative tone for 95 percent of people who’ve used their voices to communicate.
Todd Stiefel: Perfect. Is this better?
Jamila Bey: Better it is, yes, wise one.
Todd Stiefel: “Hulk, smash. Ah!”
Well, that’s a good lesson. That would probably work for singing as well, because I was always trying to figure out, like, should I sing it high, falsetto, or should I sing it low, or where should I sing? So, I probably should try to sing somewhere near where I hum.
Jamila Bey: Probably. That’s that power zone in terms of talking. Unfortunately, I can’t sing. I come from a family of singers and it skipped us. Like, if I’m in a choir, I can hide. But I’m not a singer. It’s sad. It’s tragic. So, I just figured, okay, I’ll just talk. I’ll talk and I’ll get in people’s faces, and I’ll be like, “Actually, you didn’t say that. And when you wrote about it, you wrote the complete opposite where did the change come in,” and then, I like to do that and find out why people aren’t saying what they said they said. Damn it.
Todd Stiefel: The best advice I’ve gotten in regard to singing is to try to focus on something where I might have a natural ability to build on. Singing is not one of them.
Jamila Bey: I disagree. I like your band.
Todd Stiefel: I don’t sing in it. They don’t let me have a microphone.
Jamila Bey: This is why I need a researcher to give me notes first.
Todd Stiefel: There you go.
Jamila Bey: Well, I stand corrected — actually, I sit in a very comfy chair corrected.
Todd Stiefel: Exactly. So, there is, like, one big piece of, kind of, equality, humanist-type news I’d like to talk about briefly before we get into our awesome interview this month, which is with Katha Pollitt, but we’ll get back to that in a minute.
So, since our last show, the Supreme Court ruled on a couple of things, but of particular note, they smashed — per the word of the day — they smashed DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, and effectively destroyed Prop 8, giving in effect marriage equality in California and paving the way for, at least, federal marriage equality and potentially state-level marriage equality through lawsuits based on this one. Pretty cool stuff. What are your thoughts on all this, Jamila?
Jamila Bey: The Supreme Court is a body of people who wield considerable power and they made me smile with DOMA, they made me smile with Prop 8. Equality is essential and equality is the law of the land. I cannot tell you honestly that they did not completely break my heart and then rip it from my chest still beating and stomp on it Mortal Combat style with their ruling on the Voting Rights Act. I’m conflicted. My joy over DOMA and Prop 8 is completely negated by my dismay over the Voting Rights Act. So, please hear the ambivalence in my voice not as anything more than I’m an American living in 2013 and I see some rights being moved forward and some regressing, and I’m really torn. I wish to celebrate, and then, I am yanked back from my celebratory — what’s a better word for high? I mean, I feel — we need better terms. I want to say my spirit rises, it soars and then it’s yanked back down.
Todd Stiefel: Your elation? Your –
Jamila Bey: Yes, my elation is deflated. To me, these rulings which came a day apart have burned themselves indelibly into my being. I rejoice and I lament all at once.
Todd Stiefel: Yes, the Supreme Court is an interesting place now. Because it seems like we’ve got a fundamental problem in that four will always vote one way, four will always vote the other.
Jamila Bey: At this point, my feeling is there’s a lot of work to be done, there are a lot of people who are doing what I argue is the most patriotic thing an American do, which is to raise her voice in opposition to her government when she sees a problem. It’s not enough to support your government in all things, because the government is never going to be 100 percent. And the beauty that we are afforded as citizens of this great nation is that we may speak up and we may speak out and we may peaceably assemble and we may petition. It’s important that we protest and we politic and we do all of the things that many of our brethren in other countries are not afforded the protections to do. So, the U.S. government, it’s doing some things right, it’s doing some things wrong, and we need to keep them on their toes. And that’s one of the reasons why I’m a journalist. It’s my obligation to say, “Hey, people. This is what is going on in our democracy. Let’s be happy. Let’s not be happy.” It depends on what we’re talking about.
Todd Stiefel: I totally understand your conflicted emotions on these issues, and I’ve kind of lost confidence in the Supreme Court in general, but I’m thrilled with at least this sequence of decisions on marriage equality and very much enjoying the aftermath which over the last few weeks, a whole slew of states have had new court cases filed directly challenging their constitutional amendments and using some of the wording from these cases. So, I think it’s going to be domino effect now. I think we’re going to see state marriage equality laws falling left and right.
Scalia actually points out in his commentary that it should be seen that this ruling is just going to be used as the foundation for attacks on the state constitutional laws because the arguments still work, just substitute out Federal Defense of Marriages as a violation of equal protection and put in state constitution, and it’s going to be the same argument. And he’s right for once. So, yes, I’m actually — I think it’s kind of cool and it’s going to be fun to see the way this shakes out because I think things are going to shift drastically.
So, speaking of activism and doing some really cool things with your life, we’ve got an activist who has actually focused her career on women’s rights, feminism, and gender equality; Katha Pollitt is our guest today.
Jamila Bey: Katha is someone who is a brilliant journalist, a brilliant writer, a brilliant teller of stories, and I don’t use hyperbole when I use the term “brilliant,” she really is. I’m delighted you’re with us. Thank you for being with us, Katha.
Katha Pollitt: Oh, thanks for having me.
Todd Stiefel: I’m really excited. I have to make a confession. Before the AHA Convention was announced, I had not actually heard of you. And –
Katha Pollitt: Don’t tell me that.
Todd Stiefel: I know. I know.
Katha Pollitt: Now, I’m sad.
Todd Stiefel: I know. It makes me the opposite of a fanboy, I guess. But when I saw you at the convention, I saw your speech and I was absolutely blown away and so impressed with your intellect, your analytical mind, and I guess, how down-to-earth you were up on that platform. And so, as somebody who didn’t know who you were, you were extremely impressive to me, and you have yourself a new admirer.
Katha Pollitt: Thank you. Thank you. Better late than never.
Todd Stiefel: So, I guess — let’s just start off, this is a humanist podcast, tell me about your path to humanism.
Katha Pollitt: I’ve never been a believer. I’ve always been interested in religion, but I’ve never believed in religion. It’s always seemed to me as kind of interesting thing to talk about, which is the opposite of my husband, who is also an atheist, but he doesn’t really care, I don’t have the gene for belief, and he just finds these subjects all sort of pointless and he just couldn’t get into it, but I’m a little more interested in it than that. And I think one reason for that is that I was sent to a school that had chapel every morning, so I had, like, this kind of big dose of daily hymn singing and praying and Bible reading, and I resented that very deeply that I had to do that.
Todd Stiefel: Interesting.
Katha Pollitt: And I think that that kind of put some energy into my atheism.
Todd Stiefel: As, I guess, somebody who’s been a lifelong humanist, how has your humanism informed all your activism and your thoughts on feminism?
Katha Pollitt: I know there are a lot of people who are religious feminists, and I’m happy if people come to feminism however they come to it. But, for me, religion has always been one of the obstacles to women’s equality, not a path to women’s equality. So, for me, feminism is connected to things like modernity, reason, liberal politics in general or even radical politics in general, and not connected with things like hierarchical values and a sense of hierarchical eternal order, patriarchal religion that you spend your life trying to tweak, that kind of thing.
Todd Stiefel: Indeed. It’s actually kind of interesting you said that. I was recently working with Camp Quest on their famous freethinkers, which is something they do with the children at camp, they teach them about historic humanists. And in looking them up, I was looking it up, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, both early humanists and major women’s suffrage advocates, and interesting, they were two humanists but they disagreed on how much they should attack religion as part of it with — are you familiar with this story?
Katha Pollitt: Yes, I am. And, you know, Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote a wonderful critique of the Bible called The Woman’s Bible where she went through the Bible, annotating it from a feminist point of view, and she got into a tremendous amount of trouble for that. And the reason for that was at that time, the late 19th Century, religion was still such a powerful force in American life, and most people were quite religious and there was a great fear in the suffrage movement that she would be affecting the ability of a whole movement to reach out to people, that they would just say, oh, that they’re just a bunch of atheists and radicals. So, she got in a lot of trouble for that. But you know, there are other feminists, of course, who were at that time too fighting to be ordained, fighting for more power in their churches, fighting, for example, in Judaism, American Judaism, not to have separation in the way the congregation was seated. All kinds of stuff like that.
So, it’s — I think, what I said in my speech was kind of — I mean, there’s a kind of sociological way of looking at it where change happens in a kind of back-and-forth kind of way between the secular and the religious, and then, there’s the more ideological way where it’s very irritating when religion changes. They don’t admit that it’s coming from outside, you know what I’m saying?
Todd Stiefel: Uh-huh.
Katha Pollitt: They don’t admit, like, “Oh, right, 500 years ago, we all believed that wives should obey their husbands and this is because it says so in the Bible. And now we don’t believe that. Now, we think it’s — now, it’s just wonderful equal partnership.” And you want to say, “Well, do you ever want to just say that you were wrong the first time? Sort of, God never did say that thing, or you don’t like those passages in the Bible anymore, you can take them out of the Bible.” You know, I always feel like there’s this little hint of bad faith in it when religions revise themselves in a more feminist direction.
Todd Stiefel: I think you’re spot on there. As a matter of fact, I will assume that in 50 years that the primary responsibility for LGBT equality will be taken by the churches, who will say that they were always leading the charge and it was this fringe element trying to repress gay rights and — because that’s been the pattern before on slavery, on women’s suffrage, on civil rights, on most civil liberties-type issues, the church will oppose them and then popular opinion will change outside of the church, the church will kind of follow, and then take credit.
Katha Pollitt: Yes, well, there is a lot of that. And the thing is, you know, as they say, the devil can quote scripture for its purpose, you can find anything you want in the Bible, it’s a really long book and it’s full of contradiction and it’s full of stories that can be interpreted in dozens and dozens of different ways, so there is this kind of pick-and-choose element. But, I think, with this LGBT issue, that they’re really clear example of, you know, 100 years ago, 50 years ago, it was pretty hard to find a denomination that said, “Gay, lesbian, great,” and now, that’s all changing. Well, not fast enough.
Todd Stiefel: Indeed. Indeed. Hopefully, we’ve hit a tipping point recently which would be a wonderful to see it accelerate.
So, I want to switch gears a little bit and, well, I’m not going to follow the note I took here because it’s been autocorrected into butchery. I was going to ask you about your pottery.
Katha Pollitt: Oh, my pottery. Yes.
Todd Stiefel: But that was –
Katha Pollitt: I’m drinking some iced tea from my pottery now.
Todd Stiefel: Yes, you’re extremely famous for your — world-famous potter here on the line. No, autocorrect. What I’d like to actually ask you about is your poetry and how it’s helped you communicate your ideas and what’s your inspiration for your poetry.
Katha Pollitt: Well, you know, I published a book a couple of years ago called The Mind-Body Problem, and there is a whole section in it of poems that, sort of, draw on Biblical passages and stories, and it’s called After the Bible. I got really into it. I got really into looking at these very ancient and complicated and, kind of, wonderful stories and trying to find something a little bit new in them, something that would speak to our time and to me. And I could read one if you like.
Todd Stiefel: Oh, that would be awesome. Oh, yes, yes, yes.
Katha Pollitt: I just happen to have about 500 copies of the book right here.
Todd Stiefel: Did I sound too excited? I’m sorry.
Katha Pollitt: Okay. Why don’t I read the first one? And I should say, by way of introduction, an interesting thing about America is that everybody knows these stories; when I gave a poetry reading in the UK recently, after I had read these poems, a Danish woman came up to me and she said, “Oh, I’m so glad you gave substantial introductions to these poems, because I didn’t know any of these stories.” And I thought, “What, you didn’t know the story of Adam and Eve?” But, maybe not.
Anyway, so, here’s the poem about Adam and Eve, and it’s called The Expulsion. “Adam was happy, now he had someone to blame for everything, shipwrecks, Troy, the gray face in the mirror. Eve was happy, now he would always need her. She walked on boldly, swaying her beautiful hips. The serpent admired his emerald coat, the Angel burst into flames (he’d never approved of them, and he was right.) Even God was secretly pleased. Let History Begin! The dog had no regrets, trotting by Adam’s side self-importantly, glad to be rid of the lion, the toad, the basilisk, the white-footed mouse who were also happy and forgot their names immediately.
Only the Tree of Knowledge stood forlorn, its small hard bitter crab apples glinting high up in a twilight of black leaves. How pleasant it had been, how unexpected to have been, however, briefly the center of attention.”
Todd Stiefel: Excellent. Bravo.
Katha Pollitt: Thank you. Well, behind that poem, one of the many things besides the Bible, of course, but also in Paradise Lost, at the end of Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve are leaving the garden, they’re compelled to leave the garden, it said, “The world was all before them, where to choose.” So, Milton also had the idea of leaving the garden as a kind of freedom and as a kind of, you know, “Now, history will begin. Now, our story can be told.” So, I like that. I like that idea a lot. Who wants to stick around in that old garden anyway?
Todd Stiefel: Yes, especially a garden where the only thing you’re not allowed to do is eat off the Tree of Knowledge.
Katha Pollitt: It’s true. It’s true. That’s very interesting, isn’t it?
Todd Stiefel: It’s fascinating.
Katha Pollitt: Yes.
Todd Stiefel: I never thought of that as a child. It was only as an adult I was like, “Wait a minute. Wait. Why that tree?” Like, that seems like the one He should be like, “Hey, there’s a bunch of apples over there. Eat as many as you can. We’ll have Google later to help you out.”
Katha Pollitt: Yes. Yes. Well, that’s why there’s that classic slogan, “Eve chose knowledge,” and that was her great crime.
But, you know, it’s interesting, because the other feature of the Adam-and-Eve story is that how common it is in religion and mythology that all the trouble starts with a woman. For example, the story of Pandora, you know, Pandora and her box, “Don’t open that box.” [Indiscernible] but curiosity, as in the case of Eve, curiosity got the better of her and out came all the evil that has plagued humanity ever since. So, I think that’s very interesting. And you know what it says to me, is that it’s like certainly back in those times when these myths were being formulated and the Bible was being written, I mean, patriarchy was the rule, that was it, and yet, men must’ve never felt that they really had women nailed down tight enough because there’s always this, “Oh, they’re going to get out of control. They’re going to open the box. They’re going to eat the apple.” So, it’s very interesting that you can never really repress people enough.
Todd Stiefel: You know, just hearing you talk about this makes me realize that, you’re totally right, there’s these classic stories painting women as villains, but we kind of have this modern-day opportunity to reframe them. Because what they were guilty of really should frame them as heroes, not villains. What they did in these myths, if we look at it from a humanistic perspective was heroic, bringing us more knowledge, bringing us greater freedom. These are the things that should be lauded, not condemned.
Katha Pollitt: Well, in the case of Eve, yes. Pandora, I’m not so sure. Pandora, there wasn’t any knowledge released from her box. It was bad things like death and disease.
But anyway, I just think –
Todd Stiefel: Fair enough. I was focusing on Eve.
Katha Pollitt: Yes.
Todd Stiefel: So, here’s an issue that’s popped up several times, Katha, in the, kind of, overall secular movement, and that’s regard to should humanists take more of a public pro-choice stance? And many people seem to think, yes, but there is a very vocal minority that says no for a variety of reasons, including, believe it or not, there are some pro-life atheists and humanists out there. What are your thoughts on this topic and also, kind of, just some of the current events around this?
Katha Pollitt: I think that reproductive rights are a bedrock issue of human freedom. I don’t think you can have women leading full, flourishing lives and I don’t think you can have gender equality if women are compelled to carry pregnancies every time a stray sperm gets in there. I mean, that is no way to organize a life, is it? And that’s even aside from very important issues of health and safety and all the rest of it. So, I don’t really see why a secular humanist would want to stay away from that. You might as well say, “Oh, why should a secular humanist be for the First Amendment?” I mean, a lot of harm is done in the name of the First Amendment, but we’re still for it. Or why does a secular — why can’t a secular humanist be a big, humongous racist?
Jamila Bey: Well, I want to jump in here a moment. Because one of the things that a humanist and a lot of non-religious folks do when we look at their politics is we do see a lot of these folks who skew libertarian. And again, the libertarians — I know you’ve written at length at this, you’ve spoken at length at this, Katha, I think it was you who said their liberty extends just up until abortion. But we do see a lot of secular humanists who are indeed libertarian in their political bent who fall under that categorization, no regulation until it comes to a woman’s uterus.
Katha Pollitt: I think that’s a very hard position to defend, because the notion that a fertilized egg is a person is very hard to defend; if you think about what a person is, you really, I think, have to bring in concepts like the soul — because a fertilized egg and an embryo do not have any of the qualities of a person. They don’t have thoughts, they don’t have perception, they don’t have consciousness, they don’t hear or see, they don’t have organs to do so. So, what does it mean to say that this fertilized egg gets to totally determine the future course of life of a woman? I think that that is a buried religious idea that now, now that the soul — I mean, a humanist wouldn’t want to use that term, so, then they would say, “Well, it has all the DNA it needs.” Well, so what? DNA doesn’t make you a person. A DNA could be an embryo in a Petri dish.
Jamila Bey: Indeed.
Katha Pollitt: Yes.
Jamila Bey: So, I think, then the argument becomes, well, if you have these feelings, can we consider that they perhaps do indeed stem from more religiously influenced, let’s just say, ideas? I’m sure there are a lot of people who don’t believe that abortion is right, but when you look at, for example, the state of Texas where it’s becoming harder and harder for women to even access contraceptives, especially if you are a poor woman or if you’re in a remote locale, if you’re in a part of the country where you go to the pharmacy and that pharmacist has a conscience objection to giving any kind of birth control and you’re trying to get a morning-after pill, your reproductive rights are impeded. So, if we took those rules and regulations and said, “You know what, if you’ve got that objection, like we would tell a Jehovah’s Witness who wanted to be a surgeon, you can’t do this job.” And then, we would be able to remove some of the religiosity out of the political arena that seems again to only negatively affect women. Not only, but mostly.
Katha Pollitt: Yes, exactly. I’m still back there with the libertarians though. I’ll just say Ayn Rand was really pro-choice. She was not about a lot of things, but she just thought the whole anti-choice position was ridiculous. And I think that there’s a way that libertarianism connects off with certain kinds of very deep conservatism with the idea that you don’t get any help from anybody, you’re completely responsible for yourself and your family, and now we’re going to make a woman completely responsible for this baby, but nobody else is going to help. God forbid, the taxpayer helps. God forbid there’s some publicly funded healthcare. And to me, it just doesn’t make any sense to be anti-choice unless you were going — I mean, it still doesn’t make any sense, but if you’re going to be anti-choice, I think it is incumbent upon you to be in favor of a very big and comfortable, large state to take care of people. Otherwise, you’re just saying the woman has to suffer and give birth to this baby, then we don’t care. That doesn’t make any sense at all.
Jamila Bey: I would argue, and I have, as a matter of fact, that one of the things that has brought about a schism, to use that word, in secularism the idea of transferring those ideals and that skepticism and humanism to politics and including issues of social justice. There’s been a lot of debate and discussion over that. I just find it rather telling that in a lot of cases, the folks who were saying, “Well, this is Mission Drift.” We should be considering things skeptically and critically, yet a lot of times these policies that say, “Well, you know, let’s be libertarian, let’s have no regulation until it’s women or whatnot,” you know, they really fall out of line of just what is good policy. When we look at, for example, early childhood education or, I don’t know, the Farm Bill that provides subsidies to huge farms, but has cut the food subsidies and food stamp benefits to hungry families. Yes, I don’t know. It seems like skeptics would have quite a bit to say about what is good fiscal policy, social policy, about these issues, and it maybe doesn’t drift so far from a skeptic eye being turned to these topics.
Katha Pollitt: I guess, a lot of it depends on what kind of a society do you want to live in. I don’t think skepticism is the complete guide to that. You still have to have some other values like: I don’t want to live in a society in which a lot of people die prematurely and are unhealthy and poor; I don’t want to live in a society where people are incredibly ignorant because there is no public school system, or the public school system is so defunded that people don’t get a good education there. That’s not the kind of America that I want to live in. I want to live in where people are given what they need to be flourishing individuals who get to develop themselves and have healthy lives as they define that.
Todd Stiefel: This is interesting, because some libertarians who are, kind of, pro-life I think are pretty, I guess, hypocritical, in regard to one of the core foundations of libertarianism is supposed to be individual liberty and reducing regulation, yet at the same time, in this particular case, what they’re advocating for is massive regulation on women’s bodies. It kind of reminds me of what I consider to be the hypocrisy going on with these anti-abortion clinic laws going through that are being pushed by people who ran on economic conservative platforms, particularly in North Carolina, Ohio, and Texas.
I’m really curious, Katha, as to what your take is on this, because I find it interesting to see people who are on one hand are pushing through the removal of regulation on environmental issues, claiming that they’re economic conservatives, but then on the other hand, are pushing through bills that are so restrictive that they’re actually forcing a large percentage of business in the reproductive rights business, women’s clinics and the like, completely out of business. What are your thoughts on that?
Katha Pollitt: It is contradictory to say we want to have a very, very minimal state, except for the piece of it that would be required to be much bigger than it is now in order to prevent women from having abortions, to punish ones who did, to punish doctors who perform them and other people who perform them. I mean, there has to be a big police state in order to control that. And even that doesn’t work in Romania where abortion was completely illegal, it took about a year for women to figure out how to have illegal ones. And Romania was not a democracy and it wasn’t libertarian. So, I think that there is something there that these secular libertarians who are anti-choice need to think about, that they want two things that don’t go together. But in the sense of a larger politics of it, in places like North Carolina, I think there it is less anti-choice libertarians — and correct me if I’m wrong, since you’re from there — than it is two different constituencies, people who are anti-choice and people who are extreme economic conservatives, and there’re different constituencies that the people in power are trying to satisfy, but they’re not the same people.
Todd Stiefel: Yes, I think that’s true, except on this, I think, abortion issue specifically, it’s really the religious right leading the charge and everybody’s jumping on board because they’re hoping to get the votes which is frustrating.
Katha Pollitt: Right. But most religious conservatives are not libertarians.
Todd Stiefel: No, they are not.
Katha Pollitt: They are not.
Todd Stiefel: You’re right.
Katha Pollitt: They’re for a big punitive state that follows their beliefs.
Todd Stiefel: A theocratic state, yes.
Katha Pollitt: Yes. But getting back to this, it’s a very interesting idea, let me ask you a question. Why do you think libertarianism is a strand in the secular community?
Todd Stiefel: I mean, personally, I think it’s a strand because most people in the secular community are pro-civil rights. They’re liberal on social issues. But then, we differ in terms of our economic stances, and some of us think that the state should be smaller, others think it should be larger, some think there should be a larger safety net, some think smaller. I don’t think humanism necessarily dictates a position on a lot of economic issues. I do think it is countered like an objectivism that’s kind of lacking in empathy when you get to its philosophical core, but objectivism plus an empathetic nature that believes in, like, a basic government supplied safety net but an overall small government and most, kind of, only necessary regulation I don’t think is countered humanism necessarily.
Katha Pollitt: What do you think, Jamila? Why would those people gravitate towards secularism?
Jamila Bey: I completely agree with Todd. I would also add that simply because, frankly, I think that libertarianism is a philosophy that a lot of very educated people who genuinely believe that more knowledge brings more solutions. We can think our way out of much. We need to let science and experimentation go unimpeded. We need to do with what we have the best that we can do. The problem with that is that you often can lose sight of the fact that while regulation is necessary, period, the market doesn’t fix everything. If you disbelieve me, give your child a bottle of formula from an unregulated factory; if it kills your kid, you don’t buy that anymore. The market will fix it, you see.
But I think it’s something that happens when that particular philosophy works with people who do have some means, who do have probably more-than-average education and probably not a whole lot of children. Anyone who’s seen kids who don’t have and they’re sitting in the classroom with one’s own child, it’s harder to say, “Yes, cut subsidies that would feed these hungry children, and then put them in the classroom with mine.” I think people who like to think, who like to question, who like to debate these things find that provocative and controversial ideas are fun to own and try to make fit in the real world, and then, after you’ve had a couple of kids and you’ve got to buy formula, you go, “Oh, wait, yes, government, put a stamp on that.”
So, it’s fun. I think it just shows smart people like to think — and I’m not saying that everybody is that smart, but I think it is a philosophical exercise. I think libertarianism is in large part a liberal in the true tradition of liberalism, a thought exercise. And it can be fun for this growing movement. I think, like a lot of political theories, it just doesn’t work when you let people touch it.
Katha Pollitt: Ah, people, they are the problem.
Jamila Bey: Indeed.
Katha Pollitt: I thought God was the problem, but it turns out it’s human beings. Oh, no. How can we be humanists?
Jamila Bey: But, you know, people are fun. People are a lot of things.
Katha Pollitt: Yes, well, fun sometimes. So, that’s all very interesting. I know at the women and secularism convention, that whole issue came up of sort of expanding what it meant to be a secularist or a skeptic. Should it take part in social movements and do good deeds and things like this? And I think, well, it’s always good to do a good deed. And I also think that a movement doesn’t have to be a complete identity, like, I would never say that being an atheist is sort of one of my top three things. I would say my top three things are being a feminist, being a writer, being aging, declining [indiscernible]. But, you know, if somebody wants to believe in God, I’m not going to say to them, “Don’t do that,” unless they want to get into it. I’m more interested in keeping God out of the way the government works, like [indiscernible] stuff and prayer in the schools and things like that. But what people do on their own time — people are always going to be not like me. I’ve gotten used to that.
Todd Stiefel: I think that’s spot on. I mean, I think that as long as we’re not marrying religion and politics or religion and government and as long as it’s not leading to harm like warfare and terrorism. I’m personally fine with kind of the day-to-day you’re a Christian, you pray, you go to church, like, “Okay, more power to you.” It’s not trampling on me, my life, liberty and happiness. Now, I know some atheists would disagree and think we need to fight it to the hilt. I just don’t think it’s a fight worth having.
Jamila Bey: Well, I think also — you know, and, Katha, much of the work you do and the speeches I’ve seen you give do talk about the fact that religion, even the so-called liberal traditions, do impede women’s freedom and ability to move this and that. I think, if my experience of religion which was pretty much, “Oh, yeah, everything is great. Jesus loves everyone,” if that’s the message you’re getting, fine.
However, I would argue that a lot of the religion that we have is not saying that. If you are a poor person and you live in Atlanta, Georgia, and church is your pretty much every outlet you can have in terms of your socialization and whatnot, and you are taught that if you truly believe and the Lord will truly bless you, you need to give and you need to get into this prosperity gospel thing that’s very big amongst poor American people. You will give, and you will give sacrificially, and the Lord will see your earnestness and He will richly bless you. You know, we see this type of stuff happening with people who have the least.
I think, you know, the type of person who says, “Oh, yeah, religion is something I do.” “Honey, what religion are we?” “Yes, yes. We go to the Presbyterian Church because it’s very near.” Those are not the people that I care for. I care for the families where those girls are taught the most important thing you can do is to breed babies for Jesus — I’m looking at you Duggar Family. And for me, my experience was I would see families — I grew up Catholic in Pittsburgh, working class — anytime times got rough, that girl would go to the public school and the boy would stay in Catholic parochial school that the parents had to pay tuition for. And by the time I was probably 12, 13, I really quickly saw that the idea of you educate that boy first — I was daughter two of four, so there was no boy to keep in school, we all have to keep going — but I very quickly saw that the idea of, “Well, Jesus loves you, but He’s going to make sure my son is better educated,” that I think is one of the things that started me going this religion thing gives me a short end of the stick, and I only mean that in the metaphorical way.
Katha Pollitt: Yes. Well, religion does do a lot of harm. I was thinking more just of if people sort of keep it to themselves.
Jamila Bey: Because I’m African American. I can’t get on a bus without people invoking Jesus, “Jesus, thank you I’m going to make it to work on time.” The culture that I exist within is overly religious. Let’s just look at the fact that the first thing the Martin Family said publicly after George Zimmerman was acquitted was, “Well, we will pray.” And that’s their right, that’s their choice. I would argue though that people have been praying and I’m sure that Emmett Till’s mother in 1955 prayed too. I just don’t see that that’s particularly effective but my culture says that’s the way you talk, that’s the way you express yourself, and I just feel like, “you know what, let’s go more science [sounds like]; replicate it in a lab or don’t bring it to me.” But that’s just me. Growing number of me, but, you know.
Katha Pollitt: See, this is something I’ve always wondered about. Something really terrible happened. You get a terrible fatal disease and then you say, “Oh, and that restored my faith. Now, I believe in God more than ever,” and I’m always thinking why? That should make you believe in God less than ever, you know? But maybe that says that I misunderstand what the purpose of religion is, that the purpose of religion is to console you, and so you believe whatever you need to believe to get that, to get that feeling that God is watching over me and I can talk to him and he will help me, maybe not by giving me better health but he’ll give me the strength to bear what I have to bear. So, it’s never quite made a lot of sense to me but it seems to make sense to a lot of people.
Jamila Bey: Fewer and fewer people are saying that it’s making sense to them as you look at the numbers of people who are leaving faith traditions, and every across demographic lines, people are leaving churches. And I personally feel like that’s probably not a bad thing, especially as our knowledge grows and we realize that it is always better to go to a doctor than it is to prove your faith by praying an ailment away.
Katha Pollitt: Well, yes, but some people do both. I mean, all those Catholic hospitals, there’s one in six of all the hospitals in the country, it’s not like they’re not giving you medicine unless of course it’s reproductive medicine.
Jamila Bey: Oh, thank you.
Katha Pollitt: So, you can do both. God helps those who help themselves kind of thing. But, you know, what you say about people leaving religion is very interesting to me because it’s not like they know any science. I mean, people are fantastically ignorant when it comes to anything having to do with science, there’s very poor science education in this country. So, do you think that the reason that people are becoming more detached from religion as some people are is that religion has really gone too far? That people, if you’re not in the religious right, you really don’t like the religious right because they’re telling you what to do, they are stepping in your sexual business, they’re just big killjoys, they want to interfere with everything, and they’ve just gone too far. Do you think that that’s part of it?
Jamila Bey: As a person who cares deeply and loves homosexual people? Oh, yes. As someone who really does believe that hungry children should be fed and you shouldn’t just say, “Well, your mother never should’ve gotten pregnant with you,” as somebody who’s looking at the state of Virginia which is about to — there’s a bill introduced to make oral sex illegal, I absolutely believe that people –
Katha Pollitt: I read about that yes. I think they should do that. I think that would be very amusing.
Todd Stiefel: I laughed so hard –
Katha Pollitt: An endless source of gossip and scandal, and soon nobody could be in political office. Everybody would have the oral sex misdemeanor record.
Todd Stiefel: Except it’s a felony.
Katha Pollitt: Or it’s going to be a felony.
Todd Stiefel: It’s a felony.
Jamila Bey: Oh, yes.
Katha Pollitt: A felony? Okay. All right.
Jamila Bey: That’s going to sting.
Katha Pollitt: So, that’s one way of having libertarianism. You simply don’t let anybody have the credentials to run for office anymore.
Jamila Bey: Woo-hoo. That is hopeful.
Todd Stiefel: I’m curious as to your thoughts. Recently, Susan Sarandon — you may have heard about this — said she no longer identifies as a feminist. She feels like it’s kind of an old-fashioned term and is more used against women than for them, and that she prefers to identify as a humanist. What are your thoughts on that?
Katha Pollitt: I don’t agree with that way of thinking. I think there are specific ways in which women are situated in society in a very disadvantaged way in which there is a lot of misogyny, in which men control a lot of the — you know, there is a lot of patriarchy. And I think you lose that if you just talk about humanism, which sort of says, “Oh, yes, we should all be better. We should all have a better life.” And I think that the specific nature of the political critique in feminism is something we don’t want to lose.
Todd Stiefel: I think you’re right, actually. Because I think humanism is directly compatible with feminism, but they’re not the same thing.
Katha Pollitt: They’re not the same thing.
Todd Stiefel: Humanism is broader in scope, covers many, many issues, feminism being one of the most important, but I would hope to — I mean, personally, I would identify as a humanist but I’m also a feminist. I am both. And I think they’re both critically important.
Katha Pollitt: Well, I agree with that, and I don’t know why she said that. But there are some other celebrities that are coming out as feminist. For example, Ellen Page of Juno, and some other younger famous performers. So, you know, you lose Susan Sarandon and you get Ellen Page.
Todd Stiefel: I think that’s a fair trade, actually. Ellen Page is awesome.
Katha Pollitt: She’s very great.
Todd Stiefel: She’s so talented. So, what’s coming up next for you? What’s happening your near future in your work, writing and activism?
Katha Pollitt: I’m finishing up — at least, I hope finishing up — maybe I should put that in quotes or parentheses – defending abortion rights, actually. So, that’s my [indiscernible].
Todd Stiefel: Does it have a title?
Katha Pollitt: Well, the very tentative title which may not be the title is Pro.
Todd Stiefel: Interesting.
Katha Pollitt: With a subtitle. So, we’ll see. I’m a little nervous about it, so let’s not talk about it.
Todd Stiefel: Well, it’s all good. Our listeners can definitely be on the lookout for that. When is it scheduled to come out in theory?
Katha Pollitt: You know, that’s an interesting question. I’m supposed to turn it in at the end of September, so I guess that would mean that it would come out in May or June. My most recent book is The Mind-Body Problem, which is a collection of poems which has many poems about religion and Biblical themes. You can find it on Amazon where it only costs $9.20.
Todd Stiefel: And that’s the hardcover. Which interestingly they’re selling the Kindle paperless version for $14. I don’t know why that costs more [cross talking].
Katha Pollitt: I’ll never understand the book business.
Todd Stiefel: Well, thank you so much for being on the show, Katha. We greatly appreciate it.
Katha Pollitt: Thank you so much for having me. It was really fun.
Todd Stiefel: Indeed. Have a great day. So, that was Katha Pollitt. She was an awesome interview. What an incredibly sweet and intelligent person she is. I really got a kick out of getting to talk to her. Please check out her books, The Mind-Body Problem, which is a book of poems. Also, Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories, Virginity or Death!: And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time.
Listeners, you can reach us on our comments line at (202)618-1371. You can check us out at thehumanisthour.org which has previous episodes and shownotes including links to books and stories that we’ve talked about. And, of course, you can like us on Facebook, that’s much appreciated.
So, Jamila, thanks so much for being our co-host for the month. It’s been awesome. Is there anything else you want to talk about before we sign off?
Jamila Bey: You know, I am delighted to have been here, and I have to admit that I love the AHA — it’s not very far from my office, I need to go over and do some more stuff in there — but humanism is so important and I really hope that as I go forward telling my stories again, I keep my old principle in mind that people are the most important thing, and I love to live my life by those principles, and I hope more of us — Supreme Court, I’m looking at you — do our jobs and live our lives with that idea in mind.
Todd Stiefel: In a world where humanism grows and flourishes, Jamila is well loved. Thank you for being on our show.
Jamila Bey: Thank you for having me. And I love you.
Todd Stiefel: You, too. Awesome. All right. Listeners, thanks so much, and we will talk to you next month when our guest will be Dan Savage who is going to be interviewed as a special episode. He’s to be interviewed by Marty Klein. So, see you next month.
[Transcript ends at 57.50]
[End of transcript]