Saturday, November 15, 2008

A Quiet Kid Observed At A Distance by Anthony McCarthy

September, on the fresh playground looking at the weeds, till those are ground underfoot, then just walking around, master of camouflage, unseen, standing beside their body.

Then on the cold, bright October, in the smoky, low, angled morning sunlight, brisk in the morning wind, a quickened face sparked by fall.

Grey afternoons as the dark clouds pass by, smoke in the papery sky, walking on the sidewalks, blown with clean air. Contained, could be thinking of anything. You easily imagine it’s something good. Always alone. Confidence to move in the town based in their experience that they are invisible.

How many late afternoons sitting in the dry office, waiting for a ride. So familiar the old oak office chairs aren’t less remarkable with this kid sitting in one, doing homework again. Some times while mid-problem, with pencil in hand, looking at the page to balance the equation, as if time rests for the consideration, then checks the work with quick confidence. Goes on to the next one. Office brat, though not a brat. Liked well enough. Once in a while someone notices and smiles at the serious face.

Home, there’s an older one to live up to, they seem to like each other. A good kid, a loner you worry about from time to time. But who you expect will turn out all right. You hope so.

Update: Two Answers

You’re right, I didn’t specify the kid’s gender on purpose.

Yes, the original was about a real person, this is about many others.

Working Conditions (by Phila)

There was a bit of debate here, a few weeks back, over the amount of support (if any) that progressives and feminists should give to the porn industry. For the record, I argued that at least some types of porn should be viewed (and regulated) as a manufactured product rather than an act of self-expression; and that the idea of "consent" to certain acts is based on an untenably idealized (and, I'd argue, inherently capitalist) notion of free will and rational choice that ignores virtually everything we've learned about human psychology, sexuality, and gender over the last century.

I also made the point that there's a difference between paying people to simulate degrading or violent acts on film, and paying people to perform them, and that the latter transaction can't necessarily be treated as nothing more than a First Amendment issue.

In other words, the violent porn industry is one to which I'm fairly hostile, and the standard liberal boilerplate that sanctifies the rights of porn producers to their profit margin strikes me as pre-critical (when it's not striking me as childish and deluded).

Which is why I'm very sympathetic to, but ultimately unconvinced by, this argument from sex worker Audacia Ray:
When I present the idea that its not the aggressive anal/choking/cum splattering that makes porn unethical or unfeminist, but the conditions under which the performers are doing said acts, people say...‘Its impossible to know what the working conditions are.’ It isn’t impossible....Just as people research textile factory conditions and then put pressure on corporations—-the same could happen with porn.
One difference, it seems to me, is that there's a basic need for textiles, and the role of textiles in society is essentially positive. While I'd never hold utility up as the standard to which artists or even sex workers must adhere, I do think it's worthwhile to make that simple distinction: no one needs to see someone else eat shit, and the fact that one can make money by producing this imagery says something interesting about our culture (as surely as, say, Hummers or foreign-made patriotic magnets do).

As I've argued elsewhere, money warps our sense of options the way gravity warps space-time. Things being as they are, the fact that people might someday be degraded in improved working conditions isn't comforting; we still have to face the the central issue that for many people -- and women too, of course -- the fact of financial duress (to say nothing of misogyny) comes before the decision to be choked or pissed on or smeared with shit. What Audacia Ray is recommending reminds me a little of California's Proposition 2, which will improve conditions for animals in factory farms: it's definitely more humane, and it's certainly worth supporting, but in the end it does nothing to change the basic relationship between predator and prey, which remains almost too obvious to notice.

I'm strongly resistant to what I see as the paternalism of telling people what's best for them, sexually, not least because it often ends up pathologizing or infantilizing women in the name of protecting them. At the same time, the point that I think Audacia Ray misses is that money is coercion. Which is a strange point to miss; that money is power, and that everyone has a price, are central narratives of our popular culture. And yet, the financial power it takes to produce and distribute violent porn is usually portrayed neutrally by its apologists, as though it were some widget-based example out of an Econ 101 textbook: there's an offer, acceptance, and consideration, so everything's fine.

Virtually anyone on the left can see through this argument instantly when someone like Tom DeLay uses the ideal of economic empowerment to defend paying a woman in Saipan a dollar a day to assemble some sort of consumer gadget; even the woman's heartfelt assurance that she's just grateful to be working will not necessarily convince us that she's there of her own free will. But sex is different, apparently; in this case, it's fine to exalt the form of liberation over its content. Sexual empowerment is simply a matter of doing whatever you want, sexually; why you want it, and who profits most from that desire -- financially and socially -- are questions we seem to be learning not to ask.

Birth and death (by Suzie)

        I turn 50 today, and it feels like a personal accomplishment.
        By now, my friends have learned that you don’t give black-bordered birthday cards that make fun of aging to someone with incurable cancer. (I mention cancer, not to win sympathy, but to make visible the lives of people like me. It’s a part of the disability-rights movement.)
        Anyway, I’m in remission, happily munching on the popcorn covered in toffee and dark chocolate that my sister sent me. (It’s what’s for dinner.) I don’t need anything else, but if you’re so inclined, here’s what I’d like:
        Please tell someone that support exists for people with rare cancers. I don’t know how you’ll work this into a conversation, but I trust your ingenuity.
        Pink was everywhere last month for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. For the record, I oppose breast cancer. But I bet most people have heard about breast cancer by now, and they know that organizations exist to fight the disease and help the patients. On the other hand, even some sarcoma doctors don’t know that nonprofits exist to help sarcoma patients. The other day, a woman found me by “Googling, somewhat pathetically and furtively, ‘Leiomyosarcoma hope.’ ”
        People with rare cancers often can’t meet in person for support groups, but we can connect by telephone and/or email. The Sarcoma Alliance has a peer-to-peer program to make these connections, as does the M.D. Anderson Network and other nonprofits.
        There’s a scientific explanation why some of us live longer than others. In cases where we don’t have answers, it’s tempting to suggest that people survive because they fight harder or they have a positive attitude or they have a reason to live. Avoid that temptation. As a volunteer, I’ve seen real fighters who kept positive and did much for others die. This week, it was my friend Suzanne Kurtz, who founded Leiomyosarcoma Direct Research. She celebrated her 60th birthday and then declined into death.
        For whatever reason I’m still here, I may as well enjoy the chocolatey popcorn.
       ETA: This story explains what I was doing in Ecuador last week. I know the father of a child who died of sarcoma, and he started a foundation to help kids with cancer in Ecuador. 

Eggz Over Eazy

It's never a good idea to write about things which have affected the author very, very intimately. Trying to see all parts of the question is hard enough when this is not the starting-point. For instance, this piece about the "global fertility crisis" is not terribly evidence-based, and the reason may well be that the author herself was sterile by age 32. The final sentences in the article are, in fact, the thesis of the article:

But after a Ph.D., a law degree, and a year on Wall Street to pay off student loans, I was already 32, and sterile. I have begun telling the young professional women who seek my advice not to follow my example too exactly.

What's tricky about this thesis as the framing of the "global infertility crisis" is of course that very, very few women get a doctorate and a law degree in their twenties. Indeed, very few women fall into that career group in the first place, the one that the conservative anti-feminists dig out when they complain about (white) dearth of babies: Those uppity women should not go to school. They should stay at home and have more (white) babies.

And of course most men or women are not infertile for age-related reasons at age 32. But if you start writing about the "global infertility crisis" from the angle of the quite small group of "highly educated" women delaying their childbearing too long, well, you are going to end up with a biased piece.

There's another bias in the piece: Note that all the close-and-personal interviews are with women (men don't care about infertility?) and that the expert quoted is a man. But in fact something like forty percent of the infertility found in couples who try to conceive is caused by the man, not by the woman! Men's fertility drops with age, too!

I have never read one of these pieces where that fact is made completely clear. It's as if women are a separate species from men, solely responsible for procreation, and it's also as if the society cannot change at all to allow these women both to go to school and to have children. The society is arranged for the male career pattern but that, too, goes unnoticed.

Instead, we get these kinds of red-warning-flag articles. I fully understand the reason for them. But I'd love to read a more balanced article on these questions, one which actually notes how women are not the sole problem in this world.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Friday critter blogging (by Suzie)

       No cute photo, sorry. Just a parable.
       I love cats, but I’m allergic to them. In the past, I’ve fed cats only to end up owning them, to the extent that anyone ever owns a cat.
       In recent months, people in my section of our humongo apartment complex, including me, have been feeding a very big striped cat. (If I name him, if I acknowledge that the woman next-door calls him “Ringo,” then I’m doomed.)
       The sight of the VBSC overwhelms my smaller Chihuahua, who wags her tail furiously while licking the cat's face. She play bows, and the VBSC rubs against her. They communicate cross-culturally.
       (Her next favorite is a male Chihuahua who spends his days on a balcony. I call him Romeo. My Chi whines at him, and he sticks his head through the bars and whines at her, and then I think he licks himself, but perhaps that's TMI.)
        I put up signs, hoping someone would adopt the VBSC. Taking him to a shelter would mean death because our county has too many adoptable cats already, and he can’t compete with a cute kitten or a cat that’s OK living indoors. I could have gotten him fixed for the lower price offered for feral cats, but I would have had to bring him in early, and the VBSC doesn’t have a reliable schedule. (This reminds me of writing about the homeless mentally ill who would be given appointments to return in two weeks at 3 p.m., or some such.)
       I worked out a deal with a friend whose daughter runs a rescue: If I could capture the VBSC and bring him to her house, she’d take the cat to her daughter, who would shelter him long enough for him to get fixed, get tested for diseases and get shots. Then we’d return him to the wilds of my apartment complex.
       Yesterday, I stuffed him into a pet carrier and took off in my car, with him wailing in despair, and me feeling like a traitor, wondering about humans imposing our will on animals, etc. Then he let go of a gallon of urine. While waiting to hear how he's faired, I’ve tried Nature’s Miracle on my cloth car seat, and then water and vinegar. Next up will be zeolite.
       If you have not experienced it, I can’t tell you how bad male cat urine smells. After driving around a while, however, I found that I was getting used to the odor. And it got me thinking how we tolerate stuff in our lives. We try to get rid of it, of course, but after a while, we adjust, and we need someone else to get in the car and say, “OMFG, this car stinks! How can you stand it!?”
       Apply this to politics as you see fit.

Affirmative action and the election (by Suzie)

           In the general election, voters in Nebraska approved a constitutional amendment that bars public agencies from giving preferential treatment based on gender, race or ethnicity. (See this article for possible repercussions.) Colorado barely defeated a similar initiative.
           I favor affirmative action in general. But I think it’s a lost cause if liberals treat it like a dirty word. I wrote about this before, noting how Obama equated it with the conservative idea of “giving preference to minorities who are less qualified.”
           This Atlantic article suggests Obama’s election was
a stunning triumph for the early 1960s notion of colorblindness. Children’s Defense Fund president Marian Wright Edelman wrote in Politico that “… my fellow Americans are willing to do what Dr. King envisioned: vote for a President based on the content of his character rather than the color of his skin.” Edelman’s language is consistent with Obama’s strikingly colorblind campaign.
         Obama didn’t need to emphasize his race; so many others did it for him, with accusations of racism and counter-accusations of race-baiting, plus discussions about the importance of electing our first black president. Crowds chanting “race doesn’t matter” did not indicate colorblindness. Colorblindness will occur when people truly stop noticing race.
         In regard to college admissions, the Atlantic article suggests Obama may favor preferences based on income and wealth, rather than race. It makes the case that such programs could help blacks and Hispanics just as much as ones based on race and ethnicity.
          Like many discussions of affirmative action, the article doesn’t mention gender, perhaps because colleges admit plenty of women these days. But gender is still relevant in other areas, such as male-dominated fields. When debating affirmative action, we need to remind people that gender disparities may not occur for the same reasons or in the same way as disparities by race, color and ethnicity.
          ETA: We got started on this topic early. For more, go back to the comments on this thread.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

On Voices

You know that grating twang Sarah Palin has? And how annoyingly Hillary Clinton speaks? From now on I'm gonna loudly (yeah, I know) criticize any politician's voice if it doesn't match this wonderful example about basso profundo, Maxim Mikhaylov (Mikhailov):

An explanatory note: This may be funny only to those who share my weird sense of humor. But I still think it would be great if all politicians were forced to opera sing their speeches in Congress.

Floating In Weirdness

This is from a recent O'Reilly Factor:

Summary: On The O'Reilly Factor, Dennis Miller stated of Gov. Sarah Palin: "[M]ostly women on the left hate her, because to me, from outside in, it appears that she has a great sex life." He continued, "I think she has non-neurotic sex with that Todd Palin guy. I think most of the women on the Upper East Side, their husbands haven't been aroused since Mailer signed copy of The Executioner's Song at Rizzoli's back in the early '70s."

I'm floating on this sea made out of pink styrofoam balls and looking at the cardboard sky above. Which is shorthand for being in another reality, a reality where Dennis Miller can state three unsupported assertions in a row (it is mostly women on the left who hate Sarah Palin, the Palins have non-neurotic sex and women of the Upper East Side don't have any sex) and that's perfectly good in a public debate.

Me, I think that Dennis Miller might be a podperson from the planet of Cockheads, that his idea of sex consists of picking a female chicken leg for his dinner and that the last time he ejaculated was when Bush invaded Iraq. Let's discuss those assertions, too, eh?

Note how carefully I didn't add any subtle references to Mailer's Executioner's Song. in my little comparison paragraph.

And yeah, bashing lefty women is perfectly fine with O'Reilly, because he can always pretend that Miller is just a little naughty and that he should have warned all the viewers beforehand that there's going to be just a small interval of misogyny (the problem with those women is that they don't get fucked enough but that's because they are monsters) but of course we can all laugh our way through it.

Statins. The New Wonder Drugs.

A recent study finds that statins (cholesterol-lowering drugs) can affect the likelihood of heart attacks and strokes even in individuals whose cholesterol levels were normal. The reason may have something to do with the role inflammation plays in affecting those risks. Statins appear to work on inflammations, too.

The study opens up some very important questions: First, note that it was funded by a company which manufactures the statin used in the study, Crestor:

Although there has been concern about the safety of Crestor, the researchers found no signs of significant risks. The study was funded by AstraZeneca, which makes Crestor, but the company had no influence over the analysis, Ridker said. He and his hospital receive royalties from the high-sensitivity CRP, or HSCRP, test, but other researchers said that was no reason to doubt the findings.

I don't like the principle of drug manufacturers paying for the studies which evaluate how good their drugs are, never mind how carefully such studies are done. What happens to those studies which find the drugs to be ineffective? Are they published with the same alacrity? Perhaps. But note that having drug firms pay for studies means that the study must pose questions about specific drugs rather than about specific diseases. For instance, perhaps there are other ways to lower inflammation in the body (aspirin?) than statins, and perhaps those other ways might have fewer side-effects and/or be cheaper.

Second, note the ethical problems that findings like this pose for insurance providers: Should statins now be covered even for individuals with normal cholesterol levels? Some views on that:

Some skeptics, however, argued that the actual risk reduction for an individual would be very small, given the relatively low risk for most middle-age people, so the benefits easily could be outweighed by the costs of thousands more people taking tests, drugs and being monitored by doctors.

"We're already struggling to provide health services for the 46 million Americans who don't have health insurance in the United States," said John Abramson, a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School. "This is going to drain away a lot of money from the system for little or no benefit. We know that there are lifestyle interventions that are effective."

Ridker and others, however, said that the benefit was clear.

"We could prevent a lot of heart attacks, stroke, bypass surgeries, angioplasties, and save a lot of lives," Ridker said. "To me, that's a good thing."

There are formal ways of answering the question of what a health care system should pay for and why, and those ways consist of various types of cost-benefit or cost-effectiveness analyses. The former try to compare the benefits from a treatment to its costs, often failing, because it's hard to measure the benefits (reduced morbidity or mortality, reduced pain and suffering) in the same units as the costs (which are mostly in dollar terms).

The latter gets around this problem by looking at the costs per some measure of outcomes (say, lives saved or life-years gained). For example, we might compare the costs of lifestyle modification to the costs of taking statins, both standardized per life-years saved or some other suitable measure of outcome. I'd like to see a study do that, perhaps supplemented with other drug treatments that might work. But a pharmaceutical company is unlikely to fund such a study.

Prevention is a weird medical field, by the way, partly, because many of us have an almost religious affection towards it and partly because many forms of primary or secondary prevention have been eagerly adopted before studies have shown them to be effective or even without any studies at all. But it's a neat field for pharmaceutical companies as the market for their products suddenly becomes much wider than just the sick and because those still-healthy people are able to keep on working and paying for the medications, too. - None of this is intended to bash prevention, just to point out that it should be held to the same standards as other treatment forms.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

An Announcement

There will be more parts to my series on why feminism is still very much needed. So sad, that. Links to the first six can be found in this post.

If you haven't read those yet you have to send me a donation. I'd like a Daimler with burl walnut paneling. Or you can just go and read the posts in the series so far.

I also noticed that I have become rather radicalized by writing that series. It's as if I took the thin veil off my snakey eyeballs and suddenly I see! The brightness, it hurts! I peeled my skin off to write those posts and does that hurt. To pretend to see a society from outside leaves you seeing it that way for quite a while, no matter how hard you try not to do that.

What hurts especially hard is how funny sexism is. It's really funny, and those who cry sexism are the funniest of all. Also, wimmin are funny, because they are such emotional critters and have tits which they should show more. Britney Spears is funny! Paris Hilton is funny! Olivia Newton-John cannot sing! Chicks don't dig music! Nancy Pelosi has bug eyes! Condi Rice is a cold bitch! Hillary Clinton is a nutcracker! Sarah Palin is stupid! (Well, of course George Bush is stupid, too, but we don't spend centuries discussing that.) And all those grating female voices! I never realized how many people find those voices objectionable. I must be all alone in not being able to listen to Joe Biden's voice.

There's an odd paradox going on. On the one hand we get those science reports about how men are the logical sex and on the other hand we pretend that the playing field for women is completely and totally even in this culture, that there is no need to cheer for the Firsts among women, because women already are either even or the overladies of everything.

Oh The Struggle of Genes!

Did you come across this science piece in the New York Times:

Two scientists, drawing on their own powers of observation and a creative reading of recent genetic findings, have published a sweeping theory of brain development that would change the way mental disorders like autism and schizophrenia are understood.

The theory emerged in part from thinking about events other than mutations that can change gene behavior. And it suggests entirely new avenues of research, which, even if they prove the theory to be flawed, are likely to provide new insights into the biology of mental disease.

At a time when the search for the genetic glitches behind brain disorders has become mired in uncertain and complex findings, the new idea provides psychiatry with perhaps its grandest working theory since Freud, and one that is grounded in work at the forefront of science. The two researchers — Bernard Crespi, a biologist at Simon Fraser University in Canada, and Christopher Badcock, a sociologist at the London School of Economics, who are both outsiders to the field of behavior genetics — have spelled out their theory in a series of recent journal articles.

"The reality, and I think both of the authors would agree, is that many of the details of their theory are going to be wrong; and it is, at this point, just a theory," said Dr. Matthew Belmonte, a neuroscientist at Cornell University. "But the idea is plausible. And it gives researchers a great opportunity for hypothesis generation, which I think can shake up the field in good ways."

Their idea is, in broad outline, straightforward. Dr. Crespi and Dr. Badcock propose that an evolutionary tug of war between genes from the father's sperm and the mother's egg can, in effect, tip brain development in one of two ways. A strong bias toward the father pushes a developing brain along the autistic spectrum, toward a fascination with objects, patterns, mechanical systems, at the expense of social development. A bias toward the mother moves the growing brain along what the researchers call the psychotic spectrum, toward hypersensitivity to mood, their own and others'. This, according to the theory, increases a child's risk of developing schizophrenia later on, as well as mood problems like bipolar disorder and depression.

What fun that outsiders can now make up theories about behavior genetics! I have one that has to do with the gender of all these researchers and the person who wrote the article as well as the kinds of terms selected here: "tug of war" between the sperm and the egg, indeed. I bet they are armed to their teeth, those eggs and sperm. Might it not be the case that these researchers started from their own gender war and worked inwards from that, hmh?

Then to the actual questions they pose which is really whether all these conditions are largely inherited from one parent (note that showing that for just autism doesn't prove their theory at all): There's a very simple way of getting some evidence on that. It's well known that the tendency towards schizophrenia has a genetic component. For instance, if both parents have it in their family lines the child is at a much higher risk. Now go back to those studies and find out if schizophrenia appears to be inheritable only in the female line or much more strongly through that. Then do the same for depression and bipolar disorder. Easy peasy.

But that's not what all this is about. It's about Simon Baron-Cohen's theory that people have male brains and female brains, the former being all systematic thinking and the latter being all emotions. Indeed, the article I link to specifically mentions his role as the starting-point of these theories. That Baron-Cohen is not an expert on genetics, either, doesn't matter for these boyz. That the test he offered for determining which kind of brain you might have is severely biased doesn't matter. That his book on all this ends with a fairly open scream of rage about the unfairness of this world to men doesn't matter. That he wrote two long chapters in it about his imaginations and dreams of the prehistoric society which created that systematizing male brain and that emotional female brain doesn't matter.

I'm not fighting against doing research of this kind or popularizing it, by the way. I'm fighting against the lower standards this kind of research is held to, and the language that is being used in the popularizations. Another example of that:

The theory leans heavily on the work of David Haig of Harvard. It was Dr. Haig who argued in the 1990s that pregnancy was in part a biological struggle for resources between the mother and unborn child. On one side, natural selection should favor mothers who limit the nutritional costs of pregnancy and have more offspring; on the other, it should also favor fathers whose offspring maximize the nutrients they receive during gestation, setting up a direct conflict.

The evidence that this struggle is being waged at the level of individual genes is accumulating, if mostly circumstantial. For example, the fetus inherits from both parents a gene called IGF2, which promotes growth. But too much growth taxes the mother, and in normal development her IGF2 gene is chemically marked, or "imprinted," and biologically silenced. If her gene is active, it causes a disorder of overgrowth, in which the fetus's birth weight swells, on average, to 50 percent above normal.

Here's the "struggle" again, between first the mother and the "unborn child" (hmmm), then between the mother and the father! The mother is all alone on one side. The fetus would love to grow humongous (except of course then it wouldn't get born at all and though it would win the war against its mother as she would die, so would the fetus)!

And this bit is very odd: " On one side, natural selection should favor mothers who limit the nutritional costs of pregnancy and have more offspring; on the other, it should also favor fathers whose offspring maximize the nutrients they receive during gestation, setting up a direct conflict." Why odd, you might ask? Because it assumes that once a baby is born it gets up and starts merrily procreating. A big and bouncy baby born out of a dead mother would have had a very tough time procreating, given that it might have died in the absence of breast milk and daily care. It's also odd because I usually read that argument in a slightly different format, that it's the men who want women to have pregnancy after pregnancy, to maximize the numbers of their own offspring, and that it's the women who want to limit the numbers of their pregnancies to stay alive a little longer.

In summary, note how this story is on the face of it a neutral discussion of some rather wild conjectures, but on the deeper level it sets women against men and mothers against both fathers and their own children.

So it's not really about autism and schizophrenia at all. But if we took the approach used in this popularization seriously we might then conclude that men seem to be doing well in this gender struggle as the rates of autism are rising.
While looking for those Baron-Cohen links on my blog, I came across a post about Desmond Morris' new book, all about male superiority. What was very odd is that he, too, links to Baron-Cohen's idea that it's only men who collect things (supposed to be because they are systematizing). Bad research really does have staying power. Soon we shall all agree that it's men who collect things even though every yard sale and every flea market and every antique shop I visit has more women than men in them.

A Fun Prank

New York Times Special Edition Video News Release - Nov. 12, 2008 from H Schweppes on Vimeo.

The Good News And The Bad News

Which would you like first? I'm gonna give you the good news first: A little birdie tells me that president Obama, once in office, might rescind the Global Gag Rule. That would be a perfect beginning for his reign, I think, because it would help the poorest women in this world and the ones with fewest options.

Then the bad news: The Catholic bishops have stated this:

The nation's Catholic bishops Tuesday approved a statement declaring that if the Democratic-controlled Congress and the incoming Obama administration enact proposed abortion rights legislation, they would see it as an attack on the church.

I'm not quite sure how abortion rights legislation would be an attack against celibate men, but let that one pass. And yes, I know what they mean by "the church."

To Read With Your Morning Beverage

How about this study which looks at women's equality across the world? Right now it's the middle of the night so I won't offer my opinions on it, except to note the large variation between countries which suggests that social, religious and cultural norms are all having an effect on the rankings. Oh, and the United States ranks 27th.

You can read the actual report from the study here (pdf)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Happy Blogoversary!

To this blog. Thank you for all I have learned from you. Thank you, Suzie, Skylanda, Phila and Anthony McCarthy (in reverse alphabetical order this time)! Thank you, those of you who comment. Thank you, those of you who read. Thank you, those of you who lurk. Mwah.

On Nailin' Palin

Here's the thing, the thing that seems to be missed by almost everybody when we discuss the treatment of Sarah Palin and whether feminists should rise up in arms and defend her or whether she's so horrible that it's OK to bash her even with sexist weapons (cunt, twat, Caribou Barbie) or whether feminism should die if it dares to defend someone like her (when there are so many valuable causes for feminism) and welcome to the post-feminist era (because feminism is no longer needed):

The question has zero to do with Sarah Palin as a person. The question has everything to do with Sarah Palin as a spoonful of that amorphous mass called womanhood. When sexist commentary is acceptably used with Palin it allows sexist commentary to be used on all other uppity women, then on all women who are not-so uppity, then on the women who have been made into doormats.

I'm not sure why this point isn't clearer. When I wrote about the sexist treatment of Hillary Clinton I wasn't writing on her behalf. She's powerful, she's rich, she will be OK. But seeing how a woman who is powerful and rich is reduced to the status of the bitch from hell, the monster with AMBITION!!!, what does that tell us about how other women might be treated in politics, in the media in general and in this society? Hm?

No, I'm not defending the Sarah Palins or Hillary Clintons of this world when I write on topics like these. However tangential they may be, all of my feminist writings are ultimately intended to defend the little girls who were born today on this planet.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Five Years

Tomorrow will be the fifth anniversary of this blog. It's pretty astonishing. I hope the blog managed to work a teeny-weeny bit to help the election victory last week. I have no idea if it did or not, but it's nice to think so.

Anniversaries and birthdays are always a time for me to think about where I've been and where I'm going, and this one is no exception. The world is going to be a little different now and its needs and demands are also going to be different. So what would you suggest I should do with this blog? I have now a great team (of unpaid writers) and perhaps we could go towards some sort of a larger site, with proper technology and chat groups and such? A real team blog. Of course it would have to be organized by someone else than me, because I know where my strengths and weaknesses lie. My strength is to cling to one point like a limpet. If limpets cling to one point.

I was reading Joanna Russ's The Two of Them (much recommended, by the way), and something a character said in the book made my inner bell toll. She was offered a way out from a horrible situation but she refused to leave because that would mean "leaving her dreaming behind". There goes the limpet! Or doesn't go, as the case might be.

This is not the proper anniversary post, by the way. That will be tomorrow. I'm gonna try to make a great effort to stay perky and positive and happy all of tomorrow! Yes, indeedy.

Today's Television Quote

It's from yesterday, actually, and it was jotted down so the quote may not be exact, but the meaning is worth discussing:

Juan Williams

"Power Panel"

Fox New Sunday


"I would think that feminists would be up in arms about the way
Sarah Palin has been treated."

Feminists would be up in arms and nobody else? That's the old assumption that when someone thinks a woman somewhere is treated badly, it's time to pick up the phone: "Feminist cleanup team to Aisle 8". The rest of human beings have no obligations about this at all, not other women and certainly not men. It's a very entertaining aspect of our public political discussions. The status quo, the mainstream view, is that we can bash women as women and that it's perfectly acceptable.

There are days when I wonder why nobody else sees how ridiculous that is, especially given the large budget feminists have for working on behalf of that majority of world's people. And given the fact that at other times the same people who are using that pink courtesy phone (to call up the feminist cleaning crew) spend a lot of time bashing feminism as a movement. Yet all that keeps them in the mainstream.

Then to the whole question of how Sarah Palin was treated. How am I to evaluate that, given that most of her political views are anti-women and that she did say some really stupid things? That's tricky. Ideally, I'd have data on several politicians, both men and women, who have similar political agendas and who say similar things and then I'd compare the public reaction to these.

Alas, I don't have such data. Neither do I have any real way of knowing which of those Republican campaign leaks are true stories and which are not. All I have are my own impressions about the way Palin has been ridiculed and in what contexts, and my guess is that some percentage of the anger she has caused indeed is a sexist kind of anger, a wonderful opportunity to really attack a woman in public without getting any of the PC police to give you a ticket for it. What percentage that might be I can't tell.

Take, for instance, this:

Alaska Governor Sarah Palin has received her first job offer since failing in her bid to become vice president of the United States, and it comes with a large cash offer. Florida-based porn director Cezar Capone has offered to pay Palin $2 million to appear in an adult film production.

Capone, who calls himself "the king of all MILF films," promises in an open letter on his website that the film would be distributed internationally, shot in high definition, and feature a "beautiful mother recognized by all of America.... as the most desirable woman over 40."

This is not the only example of connecting Palin with porn. Whenever those examples are brought up in various chat groups the liberal/progressive reaction is to find them funny. The feminist reaction would be to point out that even a woman running for the Vice President of the United States is first and foremost, a body for fucking. The response to that would be that she was running as a body for fucking so she deserves this.

The other examples I've seen are about Palin's presumed inability to cook meals for her family and about her being a very bad mother. The latter crops up all over the place, even in feminist chats, and the basic idea is that she should first of all be taking care of her own family. If her gender was reversed we wouldn't have heard much about this at all, because Todd (Toddita?) would be assumed to be taking care of the children.

It's a mess, from a feminist point of view, because we are asked to defend a woman whose policies are not good for women, we are asked to defend a woman who was one of the FIRSTS, one of that group who is supposed to be much better than the average person in an occupation, and she was not picked on those grounds. Yet mostly we got no acknowledgment of the FIRST quality in this election, we chicks. What we got, instead, was such a spewing of viciousness about both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin that I'd be not at all surprised if no woman would run for the next hundred years. That might very well be the exact intended effect.

On the other hand, Palin's candidacy forced the right-wing Christians to support a career woman with young children at home. That, indeed, might be an odd victory for feminism, one of the very few that we can take home from this campaign year.

Meanwhile, in Somalia. TRIGGER WARNING!!! TRIGGER WARNING!!!

This is a piece of news from over a week ago. I have kept it from the blog until now because she is dead whatever I do and because I wanted more attention to her case than the election week here allowed:

MOGADISHU, Somalia - A 13-year-old girl who said she had been raped was stoned to death in Somalia after being accused of adultery by Islamic militants, a human rights group said.

Dozens of men stoned Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow to death Oct. 27 in a stadium packed with 1,000 spectators in the southern port city of Kismayo, Amnesty International and Somali media reported, citing witnesses. The Islamic militia in charge of Kismayo had accused her of adultery after she reported that three men had raped her, the rights group said.

Initial local media reports said Duhulow was 23, but her father told Amnesty International she was 13. Some of the Somali journalists who first reported the killing later told Amnesty International that they had reported she was 23 based upon her physical appearance.

"This child suffered a horrendous death at the behest of the armed opposition groups who currently control Kismayo," David Copeman, Amnesty International's Somalia campaigner, said in a statement Friday.

Note the odd way the original article is written. Just a short summary of the case, then an odd transition into discussing how tough Somalia is for everyone.

Nasty Post II

This is not so much nasty as a sad one. It has to do with this great picture that has been posted all over the liberal blogs and even by that favorite conservative (though now rather weather-vanish), Andrew Sullivan:

The picture is of all the American presidents and shows what a wonderful change Barack Obama's election has brought to the line-up, and I'm chuffed about that.

Where's the sadness, then, you horrible goddess who won't let us enjoy this moment as it should be enjoyed? The sadness came when I read several of the comments threads at places where this picture was posted and realized that many see the task of getting more diversity to this highest of offices as now completed. And if prodded about that, the response is: "Sure, of course we will get a woman president one day. Sure, once we get a candidate good enough. But of course we will get there one day. Of course."

No excitement in that, no feeling that such a choice would change the world. No urgency at all.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

The flip side of history (by Skylanda)

So the election has come and gone, and with it the elation of a new day, a new administration, a new turn on the world stage. For the first time in years, the newsreels from around the world run a picture a planetary celebration around news coming out of America; instead of burning our flag, spitting on effigies of our leaders, throwing rocks at our consulates, there's a sort of cheer that matches - just maybe - the cheers coming off the streets of Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Seattle, the streets of America. Take a moment to fancy that.

The next four years will test a young president the way few have been tested before; the only comparisons that come to mind are JFK and Clinton, because few modern presidents have been so fresh out of the box and faced with such turbid waters. It is unlikely that Obama will be able to do everything he set out to; if he accomplishes half of it, if he merely makes the progressive left feel like we're not fighting a headlong upstream battle just to keep things from getting exponentially worse, well, I'll consider that a win given the steaming heap of economic and foreign policy shit he's been handed from the git-go. And if he manages to throw in some legacy-building health care reform, climate reform, sustainable energy policy, whatnot, more power to him. My expectations after the Bush years are mighty low indeed; it will be hard for an Obama administration not to exceed them.

But before looking too far forward, it might be interesting to take a quick look back to Tuesday, before the landslide came screaming down the mountain to sweep eight years of Republican rule to a demoralizing ruin.

Like thousands around the country, I worked in one of the local precincts on Tuesday. I was part of the local voter support crew (one woman raised an eyebrow and nixed the previous term, "comfort captain," saying it made her sound too much like post-war geisha). These were the people you might have seen handing out snacks and water in long lines at the heavily-tread precincts, lending out umbrellas in the particularly rainy and sun-shiny states, there to provide voters in long lines with whatever it might take to keep them there and cast their vote despite the odds of wait times and inclement weather and voter intimidation and the like. They wouldn't have been wearing Obama t-shirts or pins supporting their local Dem candidates, and you might have mistaken them for the local chamber of commerce for all the non-partisan talk they professed; we were under strict instructions to avoid mentioning our party affiliation unless directly asked, and not to talk politics with the voters in line. Just make sure they reach the head of the line and vote.

As you can imagine, this was all very strategic. There was no "voter support" in the historically red precincts; there were no democrats handing out bottled water in districts where registration is 75% GOP and prior elections show a heavy lean to the right. This was among the most data-intensive grassroots efforts I've ever seen; the national security apparatus and your local credit bureau alike would be cowed by the means with which data was put to on-the-ground strategic use.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the half-launched, half-failed (but sure to be tried and tried again) "Project Houdini." Newsweek ran a blurb about it last week, so I assume the cat is out of the bag and all the hush-hush about it is so relevant as last week's bird-cage liner, so here goes: ya know those folks who knocked on your door so many times before the election, begging you to get out and vote? And all those folks who were peering over the precinct judges shoulder, checking off your name as you came in to vote? All that data, all that information, every bit and byte of it, was streaming into a real-time database. On election day, canvassers in the target blue precincts started out with a precise list of who had voted and who had not (naughty and nice, oh yes, you've heard this before), and they knocked on the not-yet doors. At three intervals throughout the day, every precinct in the nation was to live feed their lists into a central system, and that system would spit out new, honed lists for the canvassers to hit up. Five hundred canvassers in my podunk town alone. This was a massive effort, build from the ground up with volunteer true-believer labor, wratcheted into place by the technological prowess and mass communication infrastructure of the internet generation waking up to realize that we might just elect a guy who actually admits he's never used email. The effort was a wonder to behold.

Of course, in most states the system crashed at least once during the day. In my state, it hit the skids early in the morning and never picked up at all. It was replaced by hand counting, eyeball cross-checking, and the late-afternoon realization that come Tuesday, just about everyone in this town who was going to vote had already done so.

In my assigned precinct on Tuesday, it was so quiet that the epic lines we were expecting never materialized: a steady trickle of voters strolled in, took up their ballots from some very bored precinct judges, and strolled along their merry way. By the end of the day, the precinct judges were joking about our efforts out front that the only people we were supporting to stay through the chill of the day were ourselves; I know this because I ran into one of them at the local brewery during the McCain concession speech and we about it over a couple of beers (this is, as I mentioned, a very small town). Boredom was the goal, I reminded myself during some of the slowest hours: because of the push for early voting, the day itself ran smooth as silk in just about every precinct in town. I couldn't tell you the final numbers, but my precinct had an early voting rate of about 54%; we rough-counted the remainder who voted on Tuesday, and came up with a total around 80%. Eighty percent - in a state where a good year turns out maybe forty percent of the voting public. Whatever the turnout, when the winds drove us in just short of 7 pm, we couldn't help but think that this was democracy done right.

But all was not quite so unruffled throughout the rest of the state. Because of the heavy early turnout, voting on election day was unusually light. At five in the afternoon, a wave of panicked phone calls came out from headquarters; too few voters were coming out in the target precincts, the number weren't crunching, the statistics weren't spinning their tales just right to guarantee the state for Obama. Every able body was being pulled off every other position to canvass for every available vote in the urban areas where the houses are close enough to go door to door trolling for those last few votes. The polls had just closed on the east coast, they had just called Kentucky for McCain and New Hampshire for Obama, and that didn't make it look too promising on the numbers alone. I polled my crew of four (one of whom was raised Jehovah's Witness and swore on her undead mother's grave that she would never knock on a stranger's door again), and we collectively decided the best we could do was uproot a four-by-six foot Obama sign from an unguarded corner, hike it down to the busiest nearby intersection, and wave it around like idiots in the wind hoping that by dumb luck a few souls would drive by and remember - d'oh! - that they hadn't voted yet.

By the time the polls closed and we had showered and turned ourselves back out onto the streets, the polls for the eastern states were coming in, then the south and midwest, and once you cross that threshold where all you have to do is add California's ridiculously large blue block of electoral votes, the night came to a thunderous head. My state did indeed go blue - and by a very comfortable margin - and the five o'clock panic was all for naught. There were few mourners on the streets around us that night, and even in this small town, the celebration ran dark into the night and light into the morning.

Nearly a week later, and for many years to come, November 4th, 2008, will be a date to reckon with. Not so much because the country swung so far to one side or the other (the electoral college may have slid home like mud from a clear cut forest slope, but the popular vote never wavers more than ten points off the midline), but because the Democratic party finally grew up to run a 21st century campaign. This is how the GOP has been running campaigns for thirty years - sophisticated, well-thought, well-organized; this is why red routinely comes out on top even in states like New Mexico, where registered Dems outnumber registered Republicans by half again their number but so few bother to go to the polls that the state's electoral weight often swings a dozen shades right of the state-wide sentiment.

Still, there is something tragic, something profoundly anti-democratic about the reality that winning a campaign relies on strategizing, planning, playing a game of Risk with your demographics and your people. Gone are the days when people could simply decide what they think, vote their conscience, and government could answer to their constituents on that basis. Maybe it is naive to think that ever existed anyhow. But if this is the game we are to play - the game of grassroots demographic man-handling - thank god the bare remnants of the progressive left that we have in Washington have learned how to play it too.

And so, bottoms up: to a Democratic executive branch, to a Democratic congress, to the promise of a reasonable Supreme Court into the foreseeable future. History is upon us, and suddenly - the unmitigated travesty of Prop 8 aside - it just isn't looking quite so bad.

Civil Unions and the All or Nothing Principle by Anthony McCarthy

It was one of the unanticipated benefits of sharing my thoughts about things like the political realities around gay marriage that I’d be subjected to several long lectures on why I, though a gay man, am not thinking correctly about the issue. My attempts to forego platitudinous stands on principle to try and understand the issue in real life today, are not to be countenanced. Oh, did I mention that those volunteer lectures were delivered by several straight men?

It’s kind of funny to have a straight man berate you, a gay person, for not being uncompromising enough on gay rights.

Watching one of the women who brought the court case allowing gay marriage last Wednesday. was difficult. She was heart broken and had every right to be. While I have reservations about the political practicality of winning that freedom in the courts at this time, she was asking for what is her right. That wasn’t where we disagree. We disagree on where the struggle is at this time and on how to obtain that right and the timing of it. But we apparently have an interim disagreement on principle.

In her statement she rejected civil union as an unacceptable compromise of equality. And, face it, civil union is a compromise position*. But we don’t live in a perfectly equal society, we all accept compromises in our lives. While she has an absolute right to reject civil union for herself, other lesbians and gay men don’t make the same choice, which is their right. I can’t see any reason to insist on what you can’t have or to delay having something better than the status quo just because you can’t get what is best. Not as a blanket principle, that is. Civil union which is essentially the equivalent to marriage would be the difference of a word, only. Other civil union laws that confer some benefits of marriage but not others would still leave those entering into them better off than before. That is a choice they have to make.

As for straight people who take an all-or-nothing stand on behalf of myself and other gay people, no, thank you, no. You don’t get to make that call. One of the more strident voices against compromise by civil union told me he was a married straight man when I pressed it. Doesn’t a straight person who enters into marriage in a state which doesn’t allow gay marriage actively accept that inequality for their own benefit? Shouldn’t their absolutist stand apply to themselves as well? Especially if they vicariously reject civil union for gay people who might disagree with their moral absolute? You would think that level of moral certitude would carry the obligation to not accept the benefit so unequally provided to them by the law.

Straight people don’t get to choose for gay people what compromises they accept when they can’t get it all. Lesbians and gay men don’t get to choose to reject civil union for others as a sell out. People have the right to as much equality as they can wrest out of an unjust society. Slaves denied the right to marry didn’t give up the attempts to form marriages and stable families, their status as chattels notwithstanding. They often tried and sometimes succeeded. Except in rare instances, lesbians and gay men in the United States aren’t faced with that kind of active prohibition to forming the equivalent of marriage. If they can’t where they live, they can move to a place where it is allowed and there are legal ways to provide some, though not all, of the legal protections of their committed relationship. While that necessity is unjust, it, never the less, is a possibility today. It is the status quo of the vast majority of gay people living in the United States. Even if California had allowed equal marriage rights, almost all other states don’t, the federal government and many corporations don’t and that fact still makes gay marriages in Massachusetts definitely not the equivalent of straight marriage even there.

There is no reason to see civil unions as settling for something, it can be a stepping stone, a way to obtain what rights we can, enjoy the benefits of those and fight on towards the farther goal of complete equality. The failure of the Equal Rights Amendment (which should be revived) didn’t mean that women shouldn’t enjoy what rights they could get in the mean time. I don’t think a country in which many places legally disallow a full range of rights based on gender preference can let the struggle for those lapse while this one, very difficult to obtain, right is focused on. We need as many of our rights as we can get at any one time. Marriage absolutists have no right to insist we defer those for a right many of us will not use to begin with. By all means, lets work on it, but not just on that issue.

* The idea of civil union might carry a benefit that marriage doesn’t, it doesn’t need to imply that there is a sexual relationship between two people. From what I understand the largest group of people in France taking advantage of a form of civil union are unmarried daughters and their mothers. I don’t see why sex should be a necessity for two people who want to maintain a stable household based on mutual affection and support and to have the law recognize and encourage that kind of household.

“Blocs” Don’t Vote, People Vote. Equality Is An Inescapable Prerequisite For Democracy by Anthony McCarthy

So much was made of the so called Bradley Effect before this election that you would have thought it was a law of nature instead of an unverified excuse given by some pollsters for why their opinion polling failed to account for what happened at the polls in a very few elections.

I wonder if a meta study of polling in general, comparing that done in elections in which only white candidates were entered and those that generated what I think of as the “Bradley excuse” would show that the discrepancy in that race was all that anomalous or if only the attention given to the race of Tom Bradley provided them with an needed excuse in that one. Whatever, it doesn’t seem to have happened this time.*

The bad habit of mistaking a category created by pollsters as an undifferentiated electoral identity seems to be most in evidence this week surrounding the California gay marriage ban. “The black vote”, “the Latin vote”, “the x vote”, is held to have split, supporting Barack Obama and also the denial of a civil right to millions of lesbians and gay men.

Well, there isn’t a “the black vote” there are only the votes of people who are identified as black, individual votes by individual human beings. Some black people voted for Obama and against the ability of gay people to marry, some people identified as black voted for both. I’d imagine there are black people who voted for McCain and against gay marriage. Hard as it is to imagine how those positions could co-exist in one mind I’d guess there are even people identified as black who voted for McCain and for gay marriage rights.

The same range of possibilities, I am certain, exist for those covered by the blanket “Latin vote” and even “white male Catholic vote for those with less than an high school education” I’m absolutely confident that some assigned for convenience to that most benighted group voted in the most enlightened and egalitarian way. .

One person, one ballot”, is the small verbal leap needed to break out of this mental manacle, the definite article of stereotype, so beloved of convenient sociological generalization.

There is no “the black vote”, we don’t even have to worry about conducting a meta study to overturn that damaging nonsense. There are people who vote and if they don’t support some aspect of civil rights now, they might be persuaded to in the future. That is the work of political progress, that is the essential step we have to take. It is entirely possible. If it wasn’t, we could forget about gay marriage rights because the majority of people in the United States cast “the heterosexual vote” and “it” is decidedly not there for gay marriage now. “The heterosexual vote” used to not be there for employment and public accommodation equality for gay people in any place. No more than “the white male vote” was there for the equality of women, black people, or most other group identities. But progress has been made and the law, at least, generally is equal for covered groups.

That is the work that remains to be done, individual people have to have the case for fairness and equality made to them. Some will understand it put in those terms, some will have to have explanations based on self-interest, some will have to have a more liberal scriptural argument made to them. And some will never be willing to support civil rights for lesbians and gay men because their hate and bigotry will not be overcome. We have to persuade an effective majority of the electorate, we don’t have the luxury to write off anyone based on their ethnic, religious, gender or other sociological abstraction. We don’t know who we can persuade based on those stereotypes but we do know that we need their support.


The marriage referendum in California brings up a seeming contradiction for advocates of democracy, how can someone believe in government of and by The People but be opposed to their voting on gay marriage?

We live in a diverse society, two genders, many ethnicities and religions and other identified groups. All of those people are guaranteed equal protection of the laws, it is a non-negotiable promise given to ensure freedom and to promote a decent and peaceful society.

Just as the ability of informed individuals to cast a rational vote is the essential logical assumption for identifying their right to vote, equality is the key moral value which makes democracy possible. Without legal equality, the divisions into privileged and unprivileged would soon turn into some form of aristocratic despotism. The guarantee to equal protection of the law covers us all, it is a guarantee that can’t be denied on the basis of majority vote or it doesn’t securely exist for anyone. Equal means equal, it doesn’t mean some people are more equal than others and those who deny others their equal rights today, can find themselves targeted for discrimination tomorrow.

Equal protection of the law, equal access to legal remedies of violations of rights, equal access to public accommodations for all of the residents of the United States is a right inherent to everyone. That is a bedrock necessity, both a logical and practical necessity, for having democracy, the right of self-government. Both majority rule AND the equal protection of the law are requirements of democracy. To the extent that one is violated, the other will also suffer, both equality and self-government erode in an unjust society. A good and peaceful society, one which works to provide a decent life for all of us is the goal of democracy, justice is a basic requirement to get that. It is non-negotiable, it isn’t a matter of choice.

* In other words, racists are embarrassed about being racists and too stupid to come up with another plausible excuse made to themselves and so tell a pollster that they are undecided when they really aren’t? And that people doing all those things at the same time are statistically significant? Though I doubt that, who knows? From what I’ve read, apparently no one. The existence of the “Bradley effect” was never scientifically verified, it remains as a pop-science theory based on pollsters convenient excuses for their errors, something to fill the air time of all day cable junk news. Apparently there wasn’t such an effect in this election.