Saturday, December 06, 2008

A Biological Message (by Phila)

It's interesting to see how crude, reductive theories of human behavior become more refined and thoughtful over time. As Mairi Macleod notes in New Scientist:
Men tend to score high on the sociosexuality scale more often than women, and evolutionary biologists say there are good reasons for this. Although men often invest considerably in their offspring, all they actually have to do to father a child is have sex, so there has been strong evolutionary pressure for men to be open to short-term relationships. Women, on the other hand, bear the heavy costs of pregnancy and breastfeeding, and in every culture they tend to do the bulk of childcare. So they are best off being choosy about sexual partners, or they might get left holding the baby.

Of course, it is not that simple. Women can be as sexually unrestrained as men. In fact, there is a huge overlap in the sociosexuality scores of men and women, with more variation within the sexes than between them. Some researchers are now trying to explain these subtleties in terms of biology and evolution.
One such researcher is David Schmitt of Bradley University, Illinois, who has noted that women are more likely to have flings when they're ovulating, and that their preferences change at this time from paunchy, balding, bespectacled academics, or sideshow freaks, or other women, "to men who look more masculine and symmetrical."
Women may have a dual strategy going, suggests Schmitt. "Humans infants need a lot of help, so we have pair-bonding where males and females help raise a child, but the woman can obtain good genes - perhaps better genes than from the husband - through short-term mating right before ovulation."
I look forward to explaining this "dual strategy" to the women of my acquaintance, who are sure to find it as illuminating as I do, once they overcome the charming incomprehension of science that has served them so well as a strategy for attracting alpha males.

Macleod goes on to wonder "what makes some women more likely to engage in casual sex at any time than others - and, for that matter, why is there also such a large variation among men?" Daniel Nettle from the University of Newcastle is happy to explain:
One factor is personality. According to Daniel Nettle from the University of Newcastle, UK, the classically promiscuous man will be high in extroversion, low in neuroticism and fairly low in agreeableness as well. "The extroversion gives you the desire to do it," he says, "the low neuroticism means you don't worry too much about doing it and the low agreeableness means you don't really care if you mess someone around or cheat on your wife."
Putting aside the weird claim that extroversion -- as opposed to, say, sexual desire -- gives you the desire to have lots of sex, it seems as though Nettles is implying that risk avoidance is neurotic by definition, the benefits of pair-bonding notwithstanding. His equation holds true for men and women, apparently, with one interesting distinction:
The situation is similar for women, says Nettle, although another factor, openness, comes into the mix to some extent. This makes sense since people who are open to experience are likely to want to explore new relationship possibilities.
It's strange that Macleod takes such care to explain the sole point that doesn't need explanation, and is in fact tautological. What we'd actually like to know is why openness "comes into the mix" only for women.

Remember, now...we're moving away from the facile reductionism of early sociobiology, and towards a Brave New World of complexity and nuance. As thus:
Our sociosexuality may also be influenced by early family circumstances. Developmental psychologist Jay Belsky of Birkbeck College, London, believes that when children grow up in stressful, unpredictable conditions, perhaps an absent father or marital conflict, girls in particular get a biological message to breed sooner and more often because there is no point in waiting around for a good long-term relationship.
Some of these girls will get the message that it's time to start "breeding" by being raped, of course, while others will get it through more subtle forms of coercion. I think it's fair to say that there's a lot more going on in the sexual lives of at-risk children and teens than the blossoming of a biological imperative; at the risk of sounding like a broken record, it's supremely ideological to ignore obvious external forces in favor of speculative internal ones.

From this point, the article descends into madness. Secure men tend to be more monogamous, Schmitt says. However, "men with a highly masculine and symmetrical appearance may come to realise during adolescence that they have what it takes to attract women for short-term they go for it, at least while they are young. Meanwhile, men who have more trouble attracting women for quick flings may have to settle for monogamy."

One study found that attractive women in their twenties were more likely to be promiscuous, but we're cautioned that these women "probably hadn't reached an age when they wanted to have babies" (unlike girls in "stressful, unpredictable conditions," who are blindly driven to breed early and often).

As women gain economic power, they naturally desire more attractive men -- especially when ovulating -- which means that men have to invest more in their appearance, which explains "the explosion in the male grooming industry." You can't argue with facts!

On the bright side, Schmitt believes that we can move towards a more liberal and equal society, at least as regards sexual expression, as least as regards ovulating women:
"I think if we constructed a scale to measure 'sex without commitment with someone you consider especially physically attractive and socially dominant' and gave it to men and to women, when the women were nearing ovulation, women might score higher in many countries even today," says Schmitt.
But this should not be taken to imply that biological messages (or our interpretations of them) are subject to...well, evolution:
[T]here's no escaping the fact that women are the ones who get pregnant and bear children, so it's is hard to imagine that all of the differences in what men and woman look for in a relationship will ever go away.
There may be no escaping that fact, for all I know. But it doesn't follow that every theory based on it is equally inescapable, or even correct.

Homeland Security USA (by Phila)

A federal judge has rejected a lawsuit that sought information on government policies for interrogating travelers, on the grounds that it "could help people break the law."
The Asian Law Caucus and the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed the case in February, saying more than 20 people, mostly South Asian and Muslim, had complained of being interrogated repeatedly at U.S. airports on such subjects as their views on American foreign policy, whether they hated the government and which mosques they had visited abroad.
Makes sense to me. If we give would-be terrorists this information, they're more likely to pretend not to hate the US government when questioned at the airport. We're much better off if they feel perfectly comfortable denouncing the US as an infidel nation, and railing against Obama's apostasy.

More important, it'll make for better television:
To compete with the "Real Housewives of Orange County" (and Atlanta?), ABC will premiere in January "Homeland Security USA," a reality show produced with the cooperation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Watch in the comfort of your living rooms Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Transportation Security Administration, and the Coast Guard in action.

The premiere episode reportedly is entitled "This is Your Car on Drugs," whereviewers will see the Los Angeles International Airport and the arrival of a young "voluptuous" woman from Switzerland "with no working papers but a suitcase full of titillating surprises!"
Perhaps future episodes can be devoted to Hiu Lui Ng, or Sameh Khouzam, or Bettina Casares. Their stories may not be titillating, but they're certainly suspenseful.

Elliot Carter Looking Forward by Anthony McCarthy

Elliot Carter’s reaching the age of 100 this coming week is going to be mentioned a lot more than his music is going to be played on the air. Some excerpts of the brilliant lucid and exciting music he is still writing might be played but probably not more than about 20 seconds at a time and they’ll talk over it. NPR will, I’m certain, be pulling out everything that’s been said about him to say it again. They’ll mention his opera, they did that story when it was produced. He’s written many pieces since.

There’s nothing wrong with looking in amazement at his age, just reaching the century mark is remarkable. But it’s the music he’s producing now, past the age when anyone else has produced involved works, that is really amazing. I can’t think of a single person of his age who was producing forward looking music. Stravinsky’s late music were mostly very short pieces, some of them epigrammatic and often occasional music. Though, you have to include, those are some pretty wonderful listening. Carter’s recent music, and he seems to be getting more premiers than retrospectives, are major works, brilliantly conceived and executed. There’s not a whiff of senescence or nostalgic reflection about them.

Even as he nears 100, as everyone knows, Carter is still composing with enormous facility. "Tintinnabulation," the first of the two world premieres given in Boston this week, was written for six percussionists playing a vast array of non-pitched instruments. They are grouped into general categories of wood, metal, and skin, but overall the work exudes Carter's brand of immaculately choreographed rhythmic chaos, like an explosion in a clock factory.

Carter had never written for solo percussion ensemble before but that clearly did not deter him from bending this configuration to his own composerly aims with extraordinary precision. As a short piece lasting less than 10 minutes, "Tintinnabulation" covers an enormous range of sonorities, partly through Carter's choice of instruments (a Chinese opera gong and five types of nipple gongs are among the mix) but also through his meticulous instructions of where to strike each instrument and what kind of stick to use, be it a mallet, a brush, a birch dowel, or even a knitting needle.

Under Epstein's direction, the NEC Percussion Ensemble gave an impressive, exacting performance, responsive to both the details and the music's overarching shape. Then they did it again as an encore.

Last week on one of the blogs someone said that one of the minimalist icons was “God”. I beg to differ, they’ll have to get in line to inherit the mantle, but I wouldn’t hold my breath if I was any of them. Elliot Carter doesn’t appear to have considered retirement yet.

Friday, December 05, 2008


Here's an interesting example of the use of the term 'bitch' by Joe Quinn, the pundit who is perhaps better known for calling the National Organization for Women the National Organization of Whores.

Summary: In a discussion of Deborah Lawrence, an artist who submitted an ornament for the White House Christmas tree expressing support for a congressional resolution to impeach President Bush, Rose Tennent read a quote from Lawrence, who said of the attention surrounding her ornament: "It took on a life of its own, obviously. In a way, I'm speechless." Tennent responded: "Good, stay that way. Don't talk," to which co-host Jim Quinn added, "That's right, don't talk. Shut up, bitch."

Melissa points out that being called a bitch by Mr. Quinn should really be taken as a compliment.

Here's the difficulty I have when writing about the use of terms such as 'bitch': There's no equivalent male term (though 'bastard' might come close except that it's not limited to the male sex) with similar connotations. This makes it hard to figure out if Quinn would have called a man something equivalent in a similar situation. Let's try it: "That's right, don't talk. Shut up, dog."
The picture is of my sainted Henrietta the Hound, the bitch to rule over all.

Clothes and culture (by Suzie)

         Fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer had a small disagreement online over the significance of her dressing up to meet an ex-boyfriend. (This is in the comic that continues the TV series.)
         A couple of men assumed women dress up because they want the man they’re meeting. Female readers gave different reasons, including a woman might want to prove to an ex that she's doing well and still attractive, even if she no longer has any interest in a relationship with him.
        This reminded me of a conversation I had with a feminist ally. A young, attractive woman I knew worked for him. He noted that she often wore tight tops and revealing knit pants. He assumed she was trying to signal something to him, but he couldn’t figure out what, since she was a lesbian. I explained that she might dress this way 1) to please her partner, who might see her when she left for work and when she returned 2) to be attractive to other women 3) because that was her style 4) because that was the fashion among young people and/or 5) because cotton knits are comfortable. I was absolutely sure that she was not dressing that way to send some sort of coded message to her male boss.
          In music, movies and TV, women generally exist in relationship to men, as wives, girlfriends, enemies, Secretaries of State, whatever. It would be easy for well-meaning men to fall into the trap of thinking women revolve around them.         

Friday critter blogging (by Suzie)

Little dog, big bone: Even though it's a fake bone, it's still odd to be a vegetarian with a little carnivore in the house.

Very Big Striped Cat update: I tried everything suggested to get the smell of male cat urine out of my car. I finally resorted to a professional cleaning, and the car seat still stinks!

The cat is doing better than my car seat. It turns out that he loves big, dumb dogs and aspires to be a house cat. He has settled into his foster home, following three dogs through the doggy door, sometimes between their legs. He could jump the fence to freedom, but hey, there's food and a soft bed back inside.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Jacques Brel

For some smoochy music

There Ya Go

A new Episcopalian brand name has been created! Fire and Brimstone?

Conservatives from the Episcopal Church voted yesterday to form their own branch of Anglicanism in the United States and said they would seek new recognition in the worldwide church because of their growing disenchantment over the ordination of an openly gay bishop and other liberal developments.


The conservatives remain upset about the 2003 ordination of Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, the role of female clergy, the church's definition of salvation and changes to the main book of prayer.


Although yesterday's votes took some church leaders by surprise, conservatives have been speaking of forming an alternative body for decades. Among the challenges they have faced are internal divisions about issues including the role of laypeople and female clergy. Minns said the new canons allow female deacons and priests in churches that choose them but do not allow female bishops.

All this links to one of the posts in my feminism series. This one.

Meanwhile, in Nigeria

Child brides are common and this results in fistula being common, too:

Northern Nigeria has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world: nearly half of all girls here are married by the age of 15.

The consequences have been devastating. Nigeria has the highest maternal mortality rate in Africa and one of the world's highest rates of fistula, a condition that can occur when the pressure of childbirth tears a hole between the vagina and the bladder or rectum. Many women are left incontinent for life. Up to 800,000 women suffer from fistula in Nigeria.

"They marry young, they get pregnant young, they deliver young and they pick up the fistula," said Kees Waaldijk, the chief consultant surgeon at the Babbar Ruga hospital, the world's largest fistula clinic, in the northern state of Katsina.

Most cases happen to young girls during their first pregnancy, and nearly half the patients at Babbar Ruga are under 16.

Dr Waaldijk operates on up to 600 women a year, with no electricity or running water. He sterilises his equipment in a steel casserole pot that sits on a gas camping stove. Rows of girls and women - some as young as 13 - lie listlessly on rusty hospital beds, each connected to a catheter.

The smell of urine is overpowering and many of the women have been cast out from their communities. Some have been divorced by their husbands - it is estimated that up to half of adolescent girls in northern Nigeria are divorced. "If nothing is done the woman ends up crippled for life: medically, socially, mentally and emotionally," Dr Waaldijk said.

The numbers given in this quote on married and divorced adolescent girls are unlikely to be quite correct, by the way, because they would leave no space for unmarried girls. But the problem of fistulas is a real one, a horrible one, something which the teens themselves cannot avoid but at the same time something which can make them ostracized by their communities.

The rest of the linked article discusses Nigeria's attempt to set a higher minimum age for marriage. But this is resisted by some:

Other vocal opponents to the Act include village heads and elders - almost all men - highlighting the tribal and cultural constraints that hamper attempts to stamp out child marriage.

"It is important we have the right to marry our girls young so there is no risk of pregnancy outside marriage. It is to preserve the purity of our girls," said Usman, an 84-year-old man from the village of Yammaw Fulani, who married a 14-year-old girl four years ago. "We will never accept this law," he said.

Now contrast that use of 'purity' with the way the fistula sufferers smell.

Join The Discussion: Health Care

Tom Daschle and Lauren Aronson want your comments on health care:

This video summarizes a few of the ideas people have proposed: focusing more on prevention, setting up a Health Corps (like the Peace Corps) for recent graduates of the health care profession and focusing on cost-containment and how to provide health insurance for part-timers.

I don't want to throw cold water on these plans but I will. First, prevention is wonderful, assuming that it works (not all types of prevention have ever been tested), but it will not necessarily lower health care costs. This is because some illnesses still kill people rather fast whereas people who live very long lives tend to end up in expensive nursing homes. This does not mean that prevention wouldn't be something well worth supporting for the reason that it postpones pain and suffering (when effective). But it's not without some unexpected cost consequences.

Second, we have already experimented with Health Corps, in the form of grants to physicians for medical school which they had to pay back by working in under-served areas (rural areas and poor inner city areas). These worked in the sense of providing medical personnel for those areas, though the medical personnel was outa there the minute the debt was paid back. Not the ideal form of getting continuous care to the under-served areas, but better than nothing. If the Health Corps concept is supposed to be based on pure volunteerism without anything like money for medical school it will not work. The reason is that graduates have very high debts that they have to pay back fast.

Third, focusing on cost-containment is much easier said than done. Indeed, if you know how to contain health care costs while also never denying anyone treatment for anything they might want and while offering people in the field very nice salaries indeed, please tell us right now. If anything, the comments I read below the linked post (only the first hundred or so) suggest that what people want is health insurance and then nobody rationing their care at all. It's not possible to have a low-cost system without some form of rationing. Currently we do the rationing by prices and incomes, but if those are not used then something else will have to take their place.

Fourth, the idea of giving part-timers some way of getting health insurance is fantastic. It would help people whose jobs consist of two or three part-time jobs and it would help women who are working part-time because of family obligations, say. Of course the easiest way to do this would be to delink employment from health insurance. If that turns out to be politically unfeasible the problem is how to provide part-timers the benefits without making them such expensive employees that firms will no longer employ them.

That sounds quite curmudgeony, but I do that on purpose, because it's important to address all aspects of the proposed policies, including their negative aspects.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

RIP Odetta

Odetta Holmes died on Tuesday. She was a great singer and a great musician.

And Then There Were None

That is, I think, a detective novel by Agatha Christie, but it also applies to two situations I read about today. First, Gawker laid off its one-and-only female employee. Then there was this:

New York Gov. David Paterson said on Wednesday he was "outraged" that no women were nominated to lead the state's Court of Appeals, its highest court, forcing him to choose from seven men recommended by a panel.

The current Chief Judge, the one who's being replaced, is the first woman who ever held that job, Judith Kaye. That her replacement would have to be picked among seven men might suggests either that a) there are no qualified women, none at all, in the whole state of New York, b) that you couldn't possibly replace one woman with another (the horror! we already HAD one of those, now shut up) or c) that the people nominating candidates are oblivious to the existence of capable women candidates, because women as something else than women tend to be invisible people.

The Pressure Of Teh Fluffy Posts

All work and no play makes Echidne the goddess of gloom. So we need to play. What fluffy posts would be good for that? What particular topics would you like to see?

I'd like to do something about sex as a fun thing for women, too. Not that those would be fluffy posts. They could be sticky posts or steamy posts or whatever. But my basic premise is that there is an enormous variety of sexual feelings and attitudes among women, an enormous one, and there's very little out there about that or what makes women sigh. Or roar. Or whatever. I also think that most everything I've read on the topic of female sexuality is just plain wrong. Well, at least that's a good beginning position to take. Kama Sutra by Echidne?

It's also quite possible that everything I've read about what makes men sigh or grunt or whatever is also wrong.

The Cost of College

Getting a college degree is becoming ever more expensive in direct financial terms:

The rising cost of college — even before the recession — threatens to put higher education out of reach for most Americans, according to the annual report from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

Over all, the report found, published college tuition and fees increased 439 percent from 1982 to 2007, adjusted for inflation, while median family income rose 147 percent. Student borrowing has more than doubled in the last decade, and students from lower-income families, on average, get smaller grants from the colleges they attend than students from more affluent families.

"If we go on this way for another 25 years, we won't have an affordable system of higher education," said Patrick M. Callan, president of the center, a nonpartisan organization that promotes access to higher education.

"When we come out of the recession," Mr. Callan added, "we're really going to be in jeopardy, because the educational gap between our work force and the rest of the world will make it very hard to be competitive. Already, we're one of the few countries where 25- to 34-year-olds are less educated than older workers."

Although college enrollment has continued to rise in recent years, Mr. Callan said, it is not clear how long that can continue.

Studies done by nonpartisan organizations that promote access to higher education might be somewhat biased towards findings which allow them to ask more funding for higher education. I have no idea if this particular study is biased that way. But I'd be very surprised to read about a study which finds that college is very affordable and that financial aid could easily be cut. Indeed, studies with these types of findings have been the rule for some decades now.

This does not mean that the findings wouldn't just indicate a trend towards more unaffordable college degrees, of course. But the proper way to evaluate that question is slightly different from just looking at the sticker price on a college degree.

First, note that the best way to view going to college is as an investment, in this case an investment in your future earnings capacity. The benefits from a college degree are largely in the extra amount of money college graduates earn each year over and above what otherwise similar high school graduates earn. And that earnings differential is still large. It may well be large enough to justify greater loan-taking by the students or their families.

Second, the costs of this investment in your future are not just the costs of tuition and books and such. A large part of those costs are the earnings a student forgoes by being in college rather than in the labor market. A proper study of this would look at these costs, too, to see if they have grown or shrunk over the years.

Is that too boringly academic? I could do lots more on that, with comparisons between men and women and students from different racial groups. For all of them, though, going to college is still a good private investment, 'private' here meaning an investment which we only analyze from the point of view of the person investing her or his time, money and energy in one way rather than in some other alternative way.

If we apply a wider lens to the question and ask what the ideal 'social' investment in education might be, in this country and for different types of students, slightly different questions ask to be answered. For instance, it is bad for the whole society if able but poor students can't go to college, because then we as a society don't get to enjoy their talents to the extent that's desirable. This argument alone (without adding the other one about education being one of the few reliable ways out of poverty) suggests that loans and scholarships for poor-but-brilliant students are a very good thing. But who should pay for those loans and scholarships? And should they be equally available to all poor students, all brilliant students or just everybody?

This sentence deserves further interrogation (a lovely academic term):

"When we come out of the recession," Mr. Callan added, "we're really going to be in jeopardy, because the educational gap between our work force and the rest of the world will make it very hard to be competitive. Already, we're one of the few countries where 25- to 34-year-olds are less educated than older workers."

Is there really such an educational gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world? This country is still one of the richest in the world, with one of the highest percentage of students going to college in general? What is Mr. Callan specifically alluding to?

I'm not sure and I'm too lazy today to research it myself. It's easier and more efficient for me to let my brilliant readers tell me. But people who get college degrees in most other countries are actually a smaller percentage of the total population than is the case in the U.S.. It's true that public financing of those degrees is more common so that going to college is easier in that sense, but getting into a college, now that's a lot harder because of entrance examinations and such.

It could be that the ideal American concept of college for everyone for four years (and that doesn't even include graduate school for law degrees etc.) is just not sustainable in its common form. Something which combines the basic ideas of college with firm occupational training within the same time frame might have to suffice.

At the same time, I'm not a great fan of distance learning as a replacement for the traditional college experience. Much of what I learned in college came from being put in one place with lots of people I'd never have met otherwise. Much of the learning took place outside classes altogether, and what I learned in classes was really how different minds worked.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

More Nina Simone

"The House of the Rising Sun" and "Go To Hell"

"Lilac Wine". Warning: Causes shivers down your spine.

And my current favorite:

How Violence Works

The terrible events in Mumbai caught the attention of the whole world. Those who were slaughtered were picked randomly, almost blindly, except that the butchers actually did see them, mostly face-to-face. The victims were treated as less than animals going for slaughter. At least the animals are eaten afterwards and they are valued as food.

Welcome to human violence on the mass scale. It's not better to slaughter innocents with bombs from a distance, of course. But there is something added, something sadistic or even meta-sadistic about picking out victims in person in this manner. The butcher looks humanity in the face and does not see it.

Then the reactions to all this from American conservative pundits:

On The War Room, Jim Quinn said: "We either wipe this scourge from the face of the Earth -- 'Well, you just can't say that, because there's a lot of peaceful Muslims out there.' Well, there was a lot of Germans that weren't Nazis either, but we still bombed Dresden. We either wipe this scourge from the face of the Earth, or we will be doomed to live under it."


Michael Savage said: "Should the tribal areas of Pakistan be wiped out and the rats killed in there once and for all? Should we nuke the tribal areas in Pakistan's wild-man region and wipe out the terrorists once and for all?"

The same dehumanization taking place: scourges and rats. That's always the first step in changing human psychology towards the direction which allows massacres to take place: Learn to see the enemy as subhuman, learn to see the innocent as either unimportant or actually not innocent. And the second round of killings commence.

I'm glad that neither Quinn nor Savage are controlling the events in India and Pakistan, because at least we can hope that those who are in control are wiser than these pundits.

What A Close Miss!

Just imagine if president-elect Obama had not appointed Hillary Clinton to his cabinet! What on earth would people in the press have used for their daily chewing gum? Luckily she was appointed so now we can have another four years of articles like this one:

Isn't it time for Hillary Clinton to get a quickie divorce from Bill (it can be done; it took about 20 minutes for Madonna to dissolve her marriage) before her confirmation hearings start?

And of course Maureen Dowd's what-to-write book just got filled, too. And our old friend, Christopher Hitchens, is invited on television to carefully define his obsessive-compulsive Clinton-illness:

It might seem to us who don't suffer from that particular OCD that the solution is just not to write articles or make statements about how horrible the Clintons are, except on those days when they actually do something horrible.

Monday, December 01, 2008

A Silly Thought for the Day

Remember when George Walker Bush said that he had some political capital and that he was going to spend it? Do you think he invested it all in subprime mortgages and failed wars?

Monica Brown

I have written about Monica Brown before. She is only the second woman since WWII to have been awarded the Silver Star. Lara Logan interviewed her on Sixty Minutes:

Private Monica Brown is only the second woman to be awarded the Silver Star since World War II. She's an Army medic who risked her own life to save two critically wounded paratroopers with the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan.

Under Army regulations, women cannot be assigned to frontline combat units. But, as correspondent Lara Logan reports, in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq today, that's exactly where they often end up.

Some male soldiers aren't so happy about that, including members of Pvt. Brown's own unit. But her superior officers say she is a hero - a hero who earned one of the military's highest awards for exceptional valor when she was only 18 years old.

Read the whole story, as they say. She is clearly one of those people who act like cucumbers in situations of extreme stress. In the sense of being cool, I mean.

I found the whole interview (which I happened to see on television) quite interesting. It's hard to know how to define heroism and one might think that there's a tendency to either go overboard in the adulation department or to spend all the time finding those feet of clay.

Except that I doubt people would do that with the traditional hero, some man who won the Silver Star for exceptional valor. Would they wonder if his ethnicity, race or religion was really the reason for the award? Would they ask if what he did really was that heroic? Perhaps. But I can't recall a single story like that.

In any case, the interview touched on the idea that Monica Brown might have gotten the reward for being a woman. This offers us yet another example of how the First Women are always suspected of being women first.

This is the part I found shocking in the interview:

"Do you think the two most critically wounded, Smith and Spray, do you think they are alive today partly because of Monica's actions?" Logan asks.

"Without a doubt," Greene says.

"Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely," Schweitzer adds.

But both of those men, Smith and Spray, declined to give 60 Minutes an interview. When we asked why, Smith said flat out women have no business being on the front line. The men who did talk to us did not feel that way, and said Brown performed as well as any man on the battlefield.

I bolded the shocking sentence in the quote. Let's assume that Smith indeed owes his life to Monica Brown. What he is then saying is that he prefers being dead to having women on the front lines. Now I'd call that at least determined if not shocking.

It would be interesting to know if he felt that way before or if his current role as the guy-who-was-saved-by-a-little-girl is the reason for his opinions.

Marin Alsop

She is the Principal Conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as well as its music director. She was named the 2008 Conductor of the Year by Musical America, an industry publication.

One of those path breaker types. There are not many women among internationally known conductors, even if we are allowed to count the dead ones, and that scarcity tends to perpetuate itself in an odd way. Just think about a young girl who has managed to figure out that she'd like to be a conductor and is pretty talented. Her next step is to make her family supportive of her dreams and the step after that is to make her teachers supportive of those dreams and so on.

If she doesn't have many female role models in her dream profession, all that persuasion is made more difficult. Adults might gently persuade her to look for a career that is easier for women, because they know how hard it is to be the First Woman in any new field, how that First Woman must possess a platinum spine and the skin of a porcupine, combined with the determination of a bamboo shoot drilling through the asphalt (this happens somewhere right now, by the way, that bamboo business).

As most people (even brilliantly talented ones) don't want to live like porcupines drilling through the asphalt those Firsts are quite rare. Once they are in place, however, the path has been marked out and others can try to walk it with just a little less trouble. The snag is that the First Woman doesn't usually get rewarded for having broken that path for the rest of us.

Jeez. I was trying to write one of those happy and optimistic pieces, celebrating the achievements of women and the way society now is much better than the society of fifty years ago. Let's try again:

I celebrate Marin Alsop's determination, her desire to bring music to more people and her willingness to mentor young conductors. I celebrate her talents and hard work, and I look forward to a time when women conductors are dime a dozen.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Three cups of cheese (by Skylanda)

There's book going around these days, you might have heard of it, called Three Cups of Tea. It's by a guy named Greg Mortenson, who stumbled off of a failed assault on K2 'round about 1993 and into a small Pakistani village, where he promised to return the hospitality of those who helped him by building a school. He went home, he returned, and he built a bridge, and then a school. And then he made it his life's mission to build lots of schools, in one of the most contentious areas of a very contentious planet, at a fair amount of peril to self and soul.

Usually, do-gooder books by Americans (and other westerners) abroad do not sit well with me. Usually they are entirely too rife with the spoils of moral superiority, and entirely too charged with the self-important notion of one's own role in a moving scene largely too fast and furious for anyone but the self to take note of one blathering foreigner mucking up the landscape. The last foreigner who wrote a good tome about do-gooder'ing abroad was Paul Farmer - the Boston-based doctor who has spent about half his life establishing world-class community-based health care in Haiti - and even he has a few rare moments of such intense self-righteousness it makes the breeze blow backward.

But I digress.

So this Mortenson guy, he ain't all bad. Much of the gist of his book is that poverty is grist for the fundamentalist mill (he kinda glosses over the way that poverty is compounded in that region by the seasonal migration of the trekking crews, which juxtapose some of the planetary heroics of elitism over the sorest hot-spots of deprivation in the world, but hey, everyone's got a blind spot, right?), and that education is the key to opening up equality and quashing fundamentalism - and terrorism - before it even begins. This is pretty heady stuff. It was not a very popular notion right after 9/11; it's all kinds of trendy now, though in a fairly good way. Moreover, he emphasizes again and again the importance of educating girls; he didn't discover or pioneer the data on the effect of educating girls on improving standards of living in a community, but he champions this notion like nobody's business. Educating girls in some of the most conservative, fundamentalist regions of the world: tough stuff. Admirable, even. I kinda dug the book, western do-gooder-isms and all.

So I was fascinated to see the guy talk when he came through my town on his recent book tour. His talk didn't entirely disappoint; he does hammer some politics home, especially in his insistence that whatever Obama might get right, he's dead-on wrong if he thinks that what Afghanistan needs is another tens of thousands of American troops on its soils wreaking even more havoc than we've already wreaked over the last seven (count 'em, seven) years that we have already spent there.

But his talk is a lot more off-the-cuff than his book, and it's always a little disconcerting to see the disconnect between a controlled descent into a topic and a conversational parsing of opinion. First and foremost, he loses the gravity his own quest by delving into the sort of We Are the World feel-good rhetoric that is equal parts smarm and unadulterated schlock. Yeah, for anyone whose seen his talk, I know: his pre-teen kid helped write that cheeseball song (I'd link to it, but it's hard to find I can do is the amazon page for the CD), it's not meant to appeal to adults. Problem is, once you stick it in your stock Power Point presentation, it becomes impolite for the adult audience not to cough a few times over it. Kids have the right to feel that they are doing great things by throwing pennies at poor people - that's part of being a kid who eventually grows into a compassionate maturity; adults who feel that way (gatherings of eighties pop stars entirely withstanding) generally are not nice people to be around, especially if you happen to be on the receiving end of those charitable pennies (and even moreso if you don't happen to show properly gracious humility for being the beneficiary of such enormous generosity as unwanted pennies thrown your way). I always find it awkward, then, to be asked to oooh and aaaah over what I largely consider to be an insult to people experiencing a whole lot of trouble in the world.

That personal bit aside though, he emphasizes the power of individuals to do great things, most often by using the stories of the Pennies for Peace campaign that engages children to gather up spare change for his school-building missions. That's all nice and good and all - I'm all for indoctrinating the young'uns as soon as you can get 'em - but in propping up that effort as a solution, it privileges charity over justice in that peculiar way that people do who want the world to look nicer while not giving up any of the privilege that caused the world to look sorta ugly in the first place. As if somehow wealthy white kids in Waldorf schools in Minnesota doing their holiday do-gooder project can ameliorate oppression...ya know, that kind of oppression that you can really only achieve from being batted around for thirty years between the Cold War super-powers and sundry warlording marauders gunning for control of the world's finest opium crop. Ya know, that kind of oppression. The kind that Mortenson demures from really delving into, because it really is more fun to talk about how the pennies in your pocket can save the world, when really, world save-age (to steal an apt phrase from the Whedonverse) is a whole lot more complicated than that. It doesn't take charity to save the world; it takes realizing that one nation using a quarter of the world's oil spells desolation for others that need those resources, or just don't need to lose a war whose main purpose is to see a pipeline run across a contested territory to feed the oil thirst of the west. It doesn't take pennies to save the world; it takes a mass down-ratcheting of our expectations of what kind of lifestyle some 300 millions Americans can reasonably sustain - how many SUVs we can drive, how many McMansions we can dwell in - to reasonably expect to house and maintain the world at large in a reasonable standard of living. It'll take a lot more than schools to save the world if those schools are routinely caught in the crossfire of trade made profitable purely on the prohibition of drugs in the western nations, a prohibition suspiciously profitable to large number of US corporations - especially those who sell high-tech police gadgetry and man high-tech prisons. To steal straight from Isabel Allende, it doesn't take charity, it takes justice. Justice for Afghanistanis, justice for every petty pot smoker picked up in a rather unjustified drug war. There's a lot of justice unmet out there, and pennies for schools in Pakistan are a small drop in a very large ocean of need - need that will be largely unmet as long as long as we rely on individual charity instead of systematic justice to prop up our sense of right and wrong.

Ninety percent of the US once supported George Bush during the era of his rush into Afghanistan; I wasn't among those people (if nothing else, I had too much to lose: immediate family in the line-up to the front), but you can't tell me that everyone who cheers on Greg Mortenson today when he yammers about pennies and peace was among the rarified ten percent that wasn't hooting and hollering for violence when the mood struck fancy. It's popular now to feel good about feeling good about the Muslim world; it hasn't yet become popular to do something besides throw the cast-offs of children at it.

Someday, maybe we'll get there. I'm not counting on the Greg Mortensons of the world to light our way.

Cross-posed from my blog at Loose Chicks Sink Ships.

Ethics and gender (by Suzie)

       The Associated Press reports on a survey by the Josephson Institute on lying, cheating and stealing among U.S. high school students.  
       Boys came out looking worse. By statistically significant margins, more boys agreed with these statements: "In the real world, successful people do what they have to do to win, even if others consider it cheating." "A person has to lie or cheat sometimes in order to succeed." "People who are willing to lie, cheat, or break the rules are more likely to succeed than people who are not." More girls thought: "Being a good person is more important than being rich." "It's not worth it to lie or cheat because it hurts your character." Yet, boys and girls scored pretty much the same when asked how they rated compared with other people they know.  
        The AP asked whether kids these days are worse than kids in the olden days. As usual, no one asked questions about gender differences, such as: Why do boys appear to be less ethical than girls? What implications does this have for girls in school, the workplace and their personal lives?  
        Think of politics, in which men still dominate the upper echelons. What may seem like playing the game to some people may seem unethical to others.  

The First Step Is To Admit You’ve Got A Problem by Anthony McCarthy

Maybe because of her long service on behalf of us as the first questioner at press conferences, Helen Thomas has take the bold step of using the dreaded “D” word. We are in a depression. The word itself is forbidden, using it is believed will make things worse. Well, when your economic prosperity was largely a matter of sustaining a fantasy life, determinedly ignoring the reality of the destroyed environment and enslavement of unseen people, the temptation is to keep up the pretense. I’ve said here recently that I believe people are always tempted to act as badly as they think they can get away with, children certainly tend to. Well, we can’t get away with it any more. The ruined environment, the inability of overseas wage slaves to subsist on less than the near to nothing they are allowed in today’s ultra-capitalism, and the financial piracy of the Bush years cannot be sustained. The patched up puppet show started falling apart some time ago. Just as in the 1920s, many of us have been living in a depression for some years now.

It’s the time to call this depression what it is. The dramatic impact of it, the possible short term damage is necessary to jolt the public and the aristocracy out of their delusion. Reality is real, you can’t improve things without facing the truth. Taking the pain of stating the truth will make changing the underlying policies possible. Without facing the awful situation the old policies and beliefs produced, we won’t get the change we need.

Just as FDR found it necessary to try things and to quickly change policies to match the gradual revelation of crises of the 1930s, Barack Obama will have policies that evolve and change radically. What policies we get will be very different than those we can guess at by looking at his early appointments. None of us, including them, know more than a part of the problems they have inherited. I’m hoping that Obama’s administration will be able to adapt to reality instead of holding fast to the old free market religion. They might since they will be working for him and not his predecessors. But they won’t have much time. They’re going to have to adapt fast. And they’re going to have no more than eight years to do it. If we are very unfortunate they might only get four years. The push back from the pirates who own the media will be enormous, it is already starting. There are still idiots working on their behalf who are trying to revise history to make the failures of Coolidge and Hoover into the failures of Franklin Roosevelt. As people of Helen Thomas’s generation die and the direct memory of that period fails, their deeper knowledge will pass away. And a large part of the population still want to believe in the fairy tale.

I am hoping that facing the truth, that unbridled materialism is unsustainable, will lead to the acceptance that equality, generosity, self-sacrifice and fairness are, in fact, what produces a better life. That was what saved the United States from the fascism that took hold in Europe and Japan during the Great Depression years. The foundations of fascism were present here, in Jim Crow and other forms of bigotry, they are still here. The fact is that it is was ever only the idealism of an effective majority that kept them from doing worse than they did. It could have been worse, it still could.

Now, at the beginning of his first term in office, Barack Obama has to start telling The People the truth, the whole truth as he learns it. He has to present what we have, what we can produce and to show people that it is being distributed fairly and according to the best of our natures. He has to make dramatic demonstrations that no matter how bad it gets that the pain will be distributed equally, that fairness and honesty win out over the contracted theft of the of liars and cheats.

He will be counseled to keep the bad news confidential, that The People aren’t mature enough to accept it. The would be ruling class believes nothing so fervently as that The People are too immature to face the truth. If Obama begins to tell the truth they will start talking about Jimmy Carter’s entirely true “Malaise” remark. Carter’s message wasn’t the problem, it was true. Things weren’t sufficiently bad and the reality of it could still be denied. Using the truth against Carter, the media sold us Ronald Reagan, George Bush I and after the interregnum of Bill Clinton George Bush’s lack luster son. Now the lie that sustained three of the worst presidents of our history is over, it is time to put them in the same box as the Republican presidents of the 1920s and bury their ideology. Let’s put a stake through its heart this time.

Obama is going to have to go over the heads of the discredited media, he is going to have to do so now and dramatically. The People won’t make the right decisions unless they know the truth, Barack Obama will not be able to convince the congress if The People continue buying the demagoguing lies that put Republicans in office over the past thirty years. I suspect that, in time, he will find that radical reorganization of broadcast and cable media are essential to The People governing themselves and producing a democracy. He doesn’t seem to know that yet, I believe he will.