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Left Can Still Bitch: Review of Stranger In A Strange Land, Encounters In The Disunited States and Bitchfest

Bennett Baumer Dec 18, 2006

Two good collections of essays on feminism, politics, race and culture are available for fireside reading during the holidays. In Stranger in a Strange Land, Guardian and Nation contributor Gary Younge exhibits a foreigner’s curiosity in his travels and writings about America’s idiosyncrasies. Younge, a Brit of Afro-Caribbean descent, produces journalism that permeates what Sacha Baron Cohen’s fictional character Borat tries to get at – the institution of racism and the role of religion in society.

In Younge’s best essays, he resurrects forgotten civil rights activist Claudette Colvin, who preceded Rosa Park’s defiant sitdown in a Montgomery bus. Colvin was a rebellious 15-yearold and at the bottom rung of the ladder in the pious southern African-American community – she was dark skinned, poor and from a neighborhood where “men would drink too much and get into a fight.”

Colvin’s greatest downfall, though, was getting pregnant shortly after her arrest for challenging Jim Crow. Younge catches up with her in the Bronx decades later, where she recounts contemplating prostitution to support her young child and ease the economic burdens of being isolated from the movement she helped birth.

Younge’s essays on the 2004 election prove to be less insightful though still poignant. “This is an election about America and its obsessions, old and new and many are indeed incomprehensible,” he writes. Indeed, many of his American left-wing fans would agree that gay marriage, guns and God are inflated obsessions, but not incomprehensible ones. Gay marriage and abortion are time-tested divisive political tools, and will therefore be forced into the realm of obsession for as long as they prove useful.

A more promising essay features an interview with troubled former New York Times journalist Jayson Blair. Younge writes of Blair, who counts his childhood rape and subsequent drug use and mental problems for disconnecting him with reality: “He’s never more than five minutes away from a giggle… You are left with the impression that he’s barely got started with adulthood.”

After the financial troubles and subsequent closure of indie magazine Clamor, the left can, thankfully, still Bitch. For 10 years the folks at Bitch magazine have unapologetically critiqued pop culture from a feminist perspective, with the best compiled in their recent anthology Bitchfest. While many left intellectuals eschew pop culture topics such as the Spice Girls and CosmoGirl, the editors at Bitch deftly recognized that Americans, especially young people, are far more likely to be in touch with Britney Spears than bell hooks, and with MTV than NOW. More than that, the editors at Bitch developed a financially sustainable, funny and irreverent outlet for feminist media critique. What ensues in Bitchfest are dozens of essays on black feminist metal heads, male bonding, homo-sociality and gay parents going mainstream. In an era where pundits like Ann Coulter and even Camille Paglia utilize feminism for their own gain only to trash it, Bitch is a bulwark against other mindless clichés like feminism’s eminent death. Vive Bitch!