R.I.P. Ellen Willis

Ellen Willis, director of NYU’s cultural reporting and criticism program, died of lung cancer last week at the age of 64.

Over the weekend, a regular correspondent passed along Willis’ insightful critique of Joan Didion’s Political Fictions. From there I leapt to “Freedom From Religion,” a passionate, well-reasoned argument about the critical importance to our democracy of preserving a secular state — i.e.,

one that does not fund or otherwise sponsor religious institutions and activities; that does not display religious symbols; that outlaws discrimination based on religious belief, whether by government or by private employers, landlords or proprietors — that does, in short, guarantee freedom from as well as freedom of religion. Furthermore, a genuinely democratic society requires a secular ethos: one that does not equate morality with religion, stigmatize atheists, defer to religious interests and aims over others or make religious belief an informal qualification for public office.

Sadly, in the five-and-a-half years that have passed since Willis wrote this article, the Bush administration has delivered us a country ruled by faith rather than fairness.

Elsewhere, Sasha Frere-Jones praises Willis’ music criticism. “Though a passionate participant in the revolutions of the sixties, she never bought a bill of goods. David Bowie, Woodstock, Elvis, and Bob Dylan all got fresh report cards every time: no groupthink or default positions can be found in her writing,” he says. Willis was The New Yorker‘s first pop music critic. Here’s a 1969 piece on a trip to Woodstock. And Salon runs her take on Janis Joplin. (Thanks for the intro, Xian.)


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