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Katha Pollitt On The Left's Free Speech Issues


Katha Pollitt, the poet and essayist who is a columnist for The Nation, a left-wing magazine in which she often writes of feminism, abortion rights, class, poverty and identity, has a column in the current issue of Dissent, another left-leaning publication, that's titled "The Left Needs Free Speech." We're going to turn now to Katha Pollitt. Thank you so much for being with us.

KATHA POLLITT: Oh, thank you so much for having me, Scott.

SIMON: What do you say in this piece, and why do you think it needed to be said?

POLLITT: I was mostly talking about books. And people on the left can think they're very strong because they tend to be concentrated in places like The Nation magazine, where I write, or university, some universities. But actually, the left is not strong. The right is strong. There are 23 states where Republicans control everything. The people who want to ban books have historically been conservatives. So I think that if we want space to express our own ideas, which often are not popular, we need to present freedom of speech as a very important American value, which it is.

SIMON: What about the response that publishers - and for that matter, social media platforms - are private corporations, and they make marketing decisions, whether it's to withdraw Blake Bailey's Roth biography or not publish Woody Allen's memoir or take certain Dr. Seuss titles off the shelves or, for that matter, suspending Marjorie Taylor Greene or Rand Paul for a week. They can do that. They're private corporations. But there are alternatives for all of those people, and therefore it's not a violation of the First Amendment or free speech.

POLLITT: I just think that it's a mistake. I'm not saying they don't have a legal right to do these things. I'm just saying they shouldn't do it. Freedom of speech is a very American value. That's a good thing. The respect we give to people with different views is what allows us all to live together. It's what allows people who oppose abortion to say, nonetheless, you should get to make your own decision. It's what allows people who believe that other religions are a lot of nonsense and that atheists are going to go to hell, nonetheless, to say you should have the right to say what you want about religion.

SIMON: What about the argument - I'm beginning a lot of my sentences that way, I realize.

POLLITT: (Laughter) I see that.

SIMON: What about the argument that the ideas that some of these people are advancing are just poisonous and you shouldn't feed poison to people?

POLLITT: Well, who decides what's poison? The people who make these decisions historically have not been people that you or I would want deciding what we could get to read. The history of book banning is not a happy story. That's why throughout the 20th century, it was the left that defended free speech. The big cases of book banning - these were always tend to be books about sex, books about gays and lesbians. Those are still being banned. Books about feminism, books about birth control - so I think that for every person who would say those books are poison, there'd be another person who would say, no, no, those books are essential.

SIMON: What about people who say they're offended?

POLLITT: Well, I'm offended every day, but, you know, so what? So you're offended. So get over it.

SIMON: Finally this - you say people on the left should remember that they hold many positions that are unpopular. But isn't there a lot of confidence on the left that America's changing, that what a lot of people see as a white male, patriarchal, heterosexual power structure is being dismantled?

POLLITT: Well, I hope that's true, but it's not happening in the parts of the country where the left needs to make headway. What I would like to see is let's keep all that old stuff, that old patriarchal stuff. I mean, those books are pretty great. Tolstoy's pretty great, you know? But let's add to it. There is really no limit to the amount of books that we can have on our bookshelves. A good book is capable of being read in many, many different ways.

Let's take Philip Roth. To me, Philip Roth - I mean, he's a wonderful prose stylist, and he's written books I really got a lot out of. But he also - to me, he is kind of a misogynist. But, you know, I found an article by a young writer named Raina Lipsitz, and it says, Philip Roth inspired my very feminist sex life. Now, I didn't - I don't find that persuasive at all, but if a writer is a serious person, different readers are going to get different things. So I think it's a mistake to think that you - one individual person or one group - has the last word to say about a book. And it's better to just leave them out there and let people have a conversation.

SIMON: Katha Pollitt - she writes in The Nation and in the current issue of Dissent. Thank you so much for being with us.

POLLITT: Thank you so much for having me, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF PORTICO QUARTET'S "POMPIDOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.