Lived Experience

March 14, 2007

Lynet‘s point about the difference between different applications of lived experience is strong enough to require me to clarify my general anti-anecdote position. To summarize the original bone of contention, I said just taking women’s (and minorities’) word for it whenever they say something offends them is akin to taking pro-Israeli Jewss whenever they say criticism of Israel is illegitimate. Lynet responds,

You seem to have some concern that anyone could pick a particular word or phrase, claim to be offended by it, and demand that it not be said. One point that needs to be noted is that such a demand is considerably more reasonable when the word or phrase in question is not necessary in order for some particular statement to be able to be said at all. Thus, for example, demanding that no-one criticise Israel for fear of being anti-Semitic stifles an important viewpoint, and should be disallowed. On the other hand, asking that people not refer to women as ‘cunts’ only stifles an important viewpoint if you really do think that the word ‘cunt’, with all its implications, is best way to get your viewpoint across.

I suppose in this case a better analogy of “cunt” is to “apartheid.” It’s not really necessary to invoke the word “apartheid” in reference to the situation in Israel; I manage to criticize the occupation perfectly well without having ever used it, except for one instance in which a South African UN official said so. The term itself is offensive to many people, including many who oppose the occupation, precisely because it has a strongly delegitimizing connotation. Since so much of Zionism is concerned with the very legitimacy of Israel, comparing it to such a pariah state as South Africa under apartheid touches a nerve.

In fact, I don’t use the word “apartheid” for the same reason I don’t use “cunt”: precisely because it’s so emotionally loaded. I strive for factual arguments, which is why I tend to avoid touching people’s nerves. But at the same time, I defend people who use the word “apartheid” against accusations of recklessness or anti-Semitism. Just because a group claims to be oppressed doesn’t give it the right to control anyone else’s vocabulary.

The “claims” part is crucial; although it’s possible to separate oppressed from non-oppressed groups, in practice the left tends to separate the two based primarily on political alliances. In cases of serious oppression, such as legal discrimination or economic and social inequality, there are ways to separate the two without any a priori assumption about who is oppressed and who isn’t.

And that brings me to my main point. Lived experience in such matters as gender and race is very useful as a motivating example. Betty Friedan’s research into the condition of housewives began with an observation about herself and her college class.

But just as motivating examples in mathematics aren’t proofs, so are motivating examples in social policy not evidence. The problem is that people routinely get offended over frivolities, and, in a suitably radicalizing context such as a consciousness raising group or a housegroup, turn them into very deep and utterly wrong theories about the world. Susan Brownmiller’s theory of a rape is a good example of this on a large scale.

Part of this stems from confusion between legal reasoning and scientific reasoning. The law is inherently based on anecdotes, both in its reliance on eyewitness testimony and the common law system’s emphasis on precedents. A sexual harassment lawsuit’s success depends on whether the plaintiff can produce several women independently claiming harassment by the same person or witnesses to a single act of harassment.

But that’s not a good basis for social policy. Social policy should inform the law, not the other way around. Even branches of feminist and antiracist movements that aren’t overtly policy-related are in the realm of social science, which has more statistical standards of evidence.

And that brings me back to claims that the word “cunt” is oppressive based on women’s lived experience. Lived experience is only the first step; it has to be followed with rigorous inquiry into the evidence that underlies it. For example, is there any longlasting psychological trauma associated with “cunt” (or “apartheid”) the way there is with “nigger”? Is there any evidence that in general, gender-neutral language promotes less sexism given that e.g. China is perfectly sexist even though spoken Mandarin is almost entirely non-sexist?

That, ultimately, is what matters. Anecdotes can give powerful indications a trend may hold, just like motivating examples in math can give strong evidence for a theorem that will take a hundred years to prove. But there’s a reason conjectures need to be proven to be considered full-fledged theorems.

Post-Slump Links

March 11, 2007

Since every hour that passes I’m more certain I’m not going to keep blogging, here are a few good links for your perusal:

Stuart Staniford of the Oil Drum explains carefully why the Saudi production decrease is due to peak oil rather than a voluntary reduction. The minutiae of the Saudi production curve are more consistent with a post-peak slump rather than with a voluntary reduction meant to give Saudi Arabia the power to flood the market at any given time.

C. L. Hanson notes that the two basic principles of relationships – that people have the right to say no to sex and that people shouldn’t sleep with anyone but their partners – are incongruous. As such, she talks about how cheating can save relationships.

Stentor rebuts market-based arguments against environmental legislation. He explains specifically that air pollution needs to be curbed collectively since air is naturally a shared resource. This isn’t an especially novel argument – the tragedy of the commons is a recognized market failure – but some libertarians’ hostility to it requires repeating it more than should be necessary.

Melissa Franklin, Harvard’s first tenured female physics professor, speaks at a conference about women in science that has just given her an award. She recounts experiences ranging from students’ crying because they couldn’t finish their problem sets to sexual assault.

Don’t Be Afraid to Challenge Sexism

March 10, 2007

When I hear the words “Political correctness,” I think about pointless exercises in choosing the precise word and mannerisms to use in every situation, elevated above substance. James Dickson’s Michigan Daily article about feminism certainly lowers the bar; to Dickson, political correctness includes saying that when a woman says no to sex she means no and that people shouldn’t excuse sexual assault on the flimsy excuse that boys will be boys. Dickson complains,

In their laudable desire to eliminate rape, campus feminists have created a climate of fear that doesn’t acknowledge that no one supports rape besides rapists. To shift the blame from rapists to some supposed rape culture is an act of magic, not logic.

The climate of fear he talks about isn’t some “Every man is a rapist” trope or even a guilt-based campaign treating men as five-year-olds. The poster he complains about is, by his own admission,

“If you do one or more of the following things:

� use words like ‘pimp’ and ‘player’ to praise sexually exploitative men

� blame women who have experienced sexual assault for indecency, stupidity, for ‘asking for it’

� think ‘no’ means ‘yes’

� excuse sexual violence because ‘men can’t control themselves’


In trying to sound like a serious rape fighter who happens to emphasize its nature as a crime, Dickson manages to miss the mark almost every sentence. He talks about how rapists and sex criminals are reviled; but that holds only in stereotypical cases where it’s impossible to accuse the victim of having consented. In all other cases, “She asked for it” can be used effectively as a defense in criminal trials (see e.g. here).

Dickson further manages to mangle his own anti-rape proposal by calling for installing more street lighting throughout Ann Arbor. It’s not hard to find statistics about where women get sexually assaulted and their relationship to the perpetrator; in the US, the NCVS has fairly thorough data. Averaging the surveys from 2003 through 2005 reveals that 5.1% of sexual assaults in the US occur on the street, compared with 62.7% that occur at or near the victim’s home or the home of an acquaintance of hers.

One of the advantages of campaigns encouraging women to speak out is that causing women to report rape more is likely to help in two ways. First, as far as I can tell, the reporting rate for rape is negatively correlated with the rape rate, probably due to a deterrence effect. And second, the more rapes are known, the more political capital there is for other anti-rape policies.

Dickson’s article is one that makes a lot of sense, if you accept certain premises about rape that, while common among conservatives and plain old sexists, are not true. The premises’ centerfold is the stereotypical rape, which features a victim who’s very clearly more a virgin than a whore and a perpetrator who barely knew her if at all and is not considered a good guy in general. That rape is the easiest to come down against both in the media and in court, but is a fairly rare specimen.

In all other cases, a lot of things that should be too irrelevant to note are considered mitigating circumstances. If the perpetrator knew the victim well, especially if he’s a partner or former partner, people such as Dickson are likely to consider it within his rights to demand sex. If the victim was drunk, they consider the rape her fault. If the victim has a history of consensual sex – or, more precisely, if the defense manages to make such a history public – they consider her a tramp. At the end, they firmly oppose a small minority of rapes and excuse the rest.

That, ultimately, is what is called the rape culture. It’s not so much rape itself as the barrage of ifs and buts coming from people like Dickson, for whom the mildest campus activism is extreme political correctness. Dickson himself manages to avoid saying such phrases as “She asked for it,” but still can’t help deriding a poster attacking that attitudes.

There are two kinds of people who use the words “Extreme rhetoric” to refer to posters attacking attitudes that apologize for rape. One is rank misogynists, who blame working women for every social problem and think rape is bad except when it happens in real life rather than in the media. The other is radical feminists, who would like you to believe the jump from mild anti-rape rhetoric to refusing to have sex with men as a matter of principle is smaller than it actually is. And Dickson doesn’t at all strike me as a radical feminist.

Blog Against Sexism Day: When Objectification Hurts

March 8, 2007

The story about the law student who was denied employment because a forum for pseudonymous sexists objectified her, discussing her sexually without her knowledge and consent, is making its rounds through the blogosphere. The best take comes from Jill, who documents how the forum’s members cyberstalked her to the point that she had to skip classes for fear of being targeted for harassment or worse.

The objectification in question revolves mostly around a contest run on the forum, “Hottest girls at top 14 law schools.” The contest featured photos of the women, taken by the women or by sex-obsessed forum members; Jill reports how forum members openly talked about masturbating to her picture, photographing her with camera phones, and sexually assaulting her. All of this are beyond objectification; they’re actually hurtful, as the law student who was denied employment will attest.

The first ground rule is that if objectification involves cyberstalking, threatening to rape, or any similar form of harassment, it’s sufficiently wrong that there’s grounds to crack down on it (not to mention illegal). But even when it doesn’t, the power relation involved matters. This very blog features anonymous or pseudonymous commenters who say very unsavory things about politicians and political parties they don’t like. So it’s useful to start exploring the disanalogies between entering Jill into an online beauty contest involuntarily and bashing politicians.

A good standard to apply in many cases is libel law. In the US, there are a lot of exceptions to libel, based on a variety of grounds. It’s always acceptable to say anything about public figures, because they’re assumed to have exposed themselves to valid and invalid criticism, and because they have the power to contradict most statements said about them. If I refer to George W. Bush as a dictator, he can choose to inundate the airwaves with “I am not a dictator because ___” messages; Jill can’t do anything of that sort.

And more importantly, if I refer to George Bush as a dictator, or even to Ann Coulter as a male, then s/he will not be really affected even if my points go unaddressed. Ann Coulter is a public figure whose persona is familiar to many people on her own terms. Even in the unlikely case my slander became the top result on Google, she’s sufficiently public not to be affected. As Elizabeth Edwards noted, when Ann Coulter called John Edwards a faggot she was hurting gays more than she was John Edwards.

In contrast, talking about Jill sexually behind her back has an immediate effect on her, because of the different power situation. She will have to answer to potential employers, who will likely Google her name and find the libelous statements written about her on the forum. The forum is big enough that a thread about her that many people will hold against her through no fault of her own is sixth on Google when one searches for “Jill Filipovic.”

The same goes to the idiots who declared publicly they wanted more pictures of Jill, preferably taken without her knowledge, to masturbate to. Masturbating to a scene involving no person in particular of course doesn’t objectify anyone. Masturbating to a person who consents is not problematic; masturbating to porn falls under consent, since porn stars are assumed to know that the photos or films of them will be used for masturbatory purposes. In contrast, masturbating to someone who doesn’t consent is in the same category as masturbating to the picture of a nine-year-old. It’s not in itself illegal, but once you start discussing it, you should expect people to consider you at best a deviant and at worst a criminal.

I don’t wish to condone vicious attacks on Ann Coulter’s looks or shallow fat jokes about Dick Cheney. But they’re merely idiotic, exposing the shrillness and juvenility of those who make them. Starting a non-consensual beauty contest that gives potential employers the impression the women depicted consented to anything of that sort hurts people by severely defaming their character.

The reaction of the forum’s owners is far from encouraging. In response to a Washington Post article exposing the forum’s misdeeds, the owners thought slander was their right.

Another Yale law student learned a month ago that her photographs were posted in an AutoAdmit chat that included her name and graphic discussion about her breasts. She was also featured in a separate contest site — with links posted on AutoAdmit chats — to select the “hottest” female law student at “Top 14” law schools, which nearly crashed because of heavy traffic. Eventually her photos and comments about her and other contestants were posted on more than a dozen chat threads, many of which were accessible through Google searches.

“I felt completely objectified,” that woman said. It was, she said, “as if they’re stealing part of my character from me.” The woman, a Fulbright scholar who graduated summa cum laude, said she now fears going to the gym because people on the site encouraged classmates to take cellphone pictures of her.

Ciolli persuaded the contest site owner to let him shut down the “Top 14” for privacy concerns, Cohen said. “I think we deserve a golden star for what we did,” Cohen said.

I’m not sure whether admin Jarret Cohen (yes, I’m Googlebombing) was serious when he said that. The phrase “Golden star” is used sarcastically lately, to indicate that someone performed a trivial act but is asking for special dispensations for it, as in, “Bush thinks he deserves a golden star for finally submitting to the law.” What kind of idiot not only thinks he deserves a golden star for not letting his own site be a hornet’s nest of hurtful objectification but also mocks himself by using that specific phrase?

That is sexism, plain and simple. I’m not aware that being female lessens one’s right to privacy. Such contests violate that right in ways that the most vicious attacks on public figures can’t. I realize that there are a lot of people who believe rights only apply to men – hence, pro-life politics – but these are best kept as far away as possible from where they might actually cause damage.

Bean’s Blog Against Sexism Day gender equality checklist specifically calls for shutting down the forum in question. But the problem is not the forum specifically; it’s with a general system that accepts, nay, encourages men to go out and objectify women, preferably in the most hurtful ways possible, on pain of being branded effeminate. The forum is just one nasty example of that general principle, just as lynching was one nasty example of segregation.


March 5, 2007

Bean writes about a non-coercive strategy of increasing fertility rates. It appears as if what causes fertility rates to plummet with development is women’s entry into the workforce combined with the realization that working mothers face significant difficulties. Therefore, it’s possible to increase fertility by subsidizing child care, as France and Sweden do.

Although Bean doesn’t mention it, such policies have been mostly successful: France’s fertility rate is now 2.01 up from 1.89 in 2000, higher than every developed country except the US, and higher than even the US once one controls for teen pregnancy. Sweden is at 1.66 up from 1.53 in 2000, the 8th highest in the EU. Meanwhile, Ireland, whose high fertility (1.86, second only to France in the EU) is based on keeping women barefoot and pregnant rather than informed and empowered, is seeing a reduction in fertility.

Significantly, the Norwegian solution of paying women to be mothers is not working so well. In Norway, the government pays women the equivalent of $19,000 a year to stay home and raise children; the fertility rate is 1.78, down from 1.81 in 2000. In Sweden and France, which emphasize daycare, fertility is soaring.

Of course, it’s not all policy. Attitudes matter; the reason Norway is so far high is that it starts from a fairly feminist base (though, to be honest, it doesn’t explain why it’s more fertile than Sweden, widely understood to be the most feminist country in the world). Italy and Spain, which are becoming more Western European and less Catholic in attitude, have seen fertility increases between 2000 and 2006 that are even higher than France’s; but their increased natalism is starting from a base almost at 1.

Bean correctly notes that

there is a long history of using public fertility supports for natalist purposes. But that’s not what’s at issue here. The question here is how to allow women to balance the biological responsibility for childbirth with the need and desire of many women to work outside the home? Some countries, including Sweden, that have been successful in encouraging parenthood through childcare also have much saner work expectations than the U.S. To accomodate motherhod, we *all* need to work less (not just mothers — everyone). Another answer — which the article doesn’t even touch — is to shift societal expectations about childcare. If parents share caregiving responsibilities, men will better understand the demands women have long faced and women will be able to continue to work and to become mothers simultaneously.

The bottom line is that any solution cannot just be about women — it’s got to consider how to shift family structures, societal expectations, and state supports.

Obviously, state supports are the easiest to change. Daycare is expensive for the individual family, but because of the middle class compact, it’s not expensive for the taxpayer. And, of course, it provides the important benefit of covering poor families, which are caught in the impossible situation of having to earn two paychecks while keeping the children at home until free primary education kicks in.

On the other hand, state supports can also help influence societal expectations. Best Buy’s offices have adopted a flex-time policy wherein employees are free to choose their hours, as long as they get all their work done. Not only has this policy increased productivity, but also working mothers are able to maintain a good work-family balance without being branded uncommitted at work. The government can use a variety of mechanisms to encourage such policies, if only because they increase labor productivity.

There’s the environmental argument that low fertility is good because it reduces global population pressure. The problem with that argument is that the people who make it manage to accomplish both being racist/imperialist and ignoring realities in order to avoid being racist/imperialist.

First, in the first world there’s no population pressure. The US can comfortably accommodate many more than 300 million people without any increases in agricultural productivity, it exports so much food. Globally it’s something else, but 100 million extra Americans or Europeans don’t make much of a difference.

Second, stare at a graph of agricultural productivity for a few seconds if you think that the very real problem of supporting a social security system with a fertility rate of 1.5 outweighs the hypothetical problem of a population bomb. The way it looks now, world population is going to converge to 11 billion by the end of the century and stay there. That’s sustainable, from both an economic and an environmental point of view.

And third, immigration isn’t always a feasible solution. The US and Canada can weather any fertility rate with immigration alone. Japan, South Korea, and Russia, all countries with very real negative population bombs, can’t; they’re just not attractive destinations for immigrants. Japan is in an especially problematic position, because its social security system is based on cradle-to-grave corporate responsibility to employees, a principle that is being increasingly undermined by a variety of processes of which only some are avoidable.

Fortunately, subsidizing daycare and encouraging corporate cultures conducive to gender equality are good even independently of their making the difference between a fertility rate of 1.5 and a rate of 2. Forget the morality of equal rights for a second; it’s generally better for a society to have a talent pool of skilled workers consisting of all educated adults rather than just half of them. As I like to say, it’s better for everyone for merit to supplant privilege.

India’s Missing Girls

March 4, 2007

Echidne has a terrific post about India and China’s sex ratios. In both countries, there is rampant sex-selective abortion and infanticide, leading to sex ratios of 882 and 832 girls to 1,000 boys respectively. Echidne uncharacteristically takes the snarky road here, so let me try and be a more policy-oriented wonk.

1. Abortion restrictions don’t work here. China already forbids doctors to tell women the sex of their babies before birth. On the contrary, freer abortion turns this into a legitimate if decidedly sexist choice rather than murder.

2. Conversely, other governmental restrictions on fertility exacerbate the problem. In India, the sex ratio is largely a product of dowries, which make girls a financial burden on poor families. In China there’s no such thing; the problem stems mostly from the one-child policy, since families prefer having at least one boy to continue the lineage. Nor does the relaxation that families are permitted a second child if the first is female help much, since it still creates potentially a 2-to-1 gender ratio.

3. India’s ban on dowries is only helping a little bit. In the villages, a lot of progressive Indian laws are being routinely flouted. Officially, it’s illegal to discriminate on the basis of caste; in practice, the status of low-caste Indian villagers is about the same as this of black Alabamans in 1927.

4. Urbanization won’t help much. In Delhi there are 827 girls per 1,000 boys, despite having an above average level of income. Urbanization has done a lot to help women and low-caste people, but is entirely skipping the practice of sex-selective abortion, which is only getting worse due to increasingly expensive dowries.

5. Enforcing existing laws will help, but can only go so far. India doesn’t have an especially stable government, and in the long run will have an even less stable one as a consequence of the immense surplus of males. Cracking down on dowries is too politically unpalatable.

6. Baby steps like the one that the government is trying to promote, namely encouraging parents to abandon girls in local hospitals instead of abort or kill them, are the most secure. Unfortunately, they’re also the slowest, and problems of an oversupply of men can become very urgent. All hell broke loose in China in the 19th century in precisely those areas with lopsided sex ratios.

7. Exporting people is theoretically possible, but requires Western countries to forego their racism enough as to admit 2 million people every year – the 1 million missing women plus 1 million men to compensate. At a time when Europe is trying to return to its medieval roots and the United States lets in something like 300,000 legal immigrants per year, it’s not realistic for the Indian government to bank on that. It’s the best the West can do, but it’s probably even more politically difficult than to enforce anti-dowry laws in India in the first place.

That Housework Study

March 3, 2007

On Feministing, there’s a very long comment thread about a new study that shows once again that not only do British women do less housework than men, but also women do more housework when they begin cohabiting while men do less. Commenter Soullite suggests a way to doubt the study, but inadvertently reinforces its point.

Second, it’s apparent when you dig into the polls that the difference in housework is negated by the difference in work outside of the house. To argue that men should both work more than women outside of the home and do equal work to women in the home is awfully convenient. This is why the same study found that women had more leisure time despite working more often at home.

Also, despite whehter all families need to do yard work, or shovel snow or service vehicles, these activities should clearly be defined as household upkeep and as such should have been included in any study measuring that or it will skew the numbers no matter how slightly.(…)

It’s finding that men and women do equal “work” even if it’s not equal “housework”.

First, false consciousness arguments are generally too embarrassing to be for public consumption. If a man who changes the oil in his car doesn’t consider that any kind of work – household, maintenance, or whatever – it’s not work.

More importantly, the fact that men and women do equal work is well established. An old study from the 1980s reported in every recent Human Development Report shows that in developed countries, men and women do about the same amount of work, but men spend two thirds of their working hours in market-based activities while women spend only one third. The main problem is that those women not only don’t get paid but typically perform work far below their skill level.

Housework is like any other non-unionized skilled work. Some people clean homes; others work at Wal-Mart. It’s possible to overblow what “housework” exactly means and how it should be remunerated – this study is a good example – but the wage of a maid is a good yardstick that measures the substitution effect. The housework men do is incidentally more expensive on a per hour basis by that measure, not because it’s more skilled but because repairmen tend to be unionized while maids suffer from the effect of depreciation of female labor.

The study says cohabiting women do 15 hours of household labor a week in Britain compared with 5 for men (incidentally, other studies tend to get similar ratios but higher numbers). Assuming a female maid makes minimum wage, i.e. £5.35/hour (PPP$8/hour) and a male who performs all the household activities a man does makes half again as much, we get that the woman’s household labor adds £80/week to the combined income pool, while the man’s adds £40/week. So far, so good.

But in terms of who actually gets to keep the money, this isn’t good at all. Although the woman’s household labor saves the household £80/week, in terms of control of the money, her share is proportional to her market income. Even a housewife who gets to spend the family’s money has no real control of the money, since she is consistently dependent on her husband’s charity, which can be withdrawn at any moment.

In case of separation or divorce, even if she gets part of the money, she won’t have any income of her own. If the couple has children she might see some child support, but child support is set at the levels that support the children, not the whole family.

Reagan wasn’t quite right when he said people who depended on government can’t be free. The government tends to be the least demanding money giver, at least in developed countries other than the US, whose TANF system is designed to humiliate. A husband may temporarily love his wife, but that love can disappear without any prior warning, and with no income of her own, the woman will typically be plunged into poverty.

More Carnivals

March 2, 2007

I’m not sure why I missed Help Us Help Ourselves yesterday, but I did. The carnival’s posted on the 1st of every month, so it’s not as if it was hard to remember.

Also, there’s a new carnival in town, dealing with issues of women in science (and engineering, and math, and technology): Scientiae. The first edition features many good posts about discrimination against women in the academia; the highlights are Am I a Woman Scientist?’s writeup about why women publish less than men, and Female CS Grad Student’s experience with being the only female in her graduate electrical engineering class. The next edition will be posted on 3/15 on Post Doc, Ergo Propter Doc, but the submission deadline is 3/12.

A Primer on Excluding People

February 28, 2007

Jessica has a tremendous post on TPMCafe analogizing the DePauw sorority affair, wherein the national chapter kicked out 23 women who were nonwhite or overweight or too geeky in order to boost recruitment, to the mainstream feminist movement’s recurrent exclusion of under-30 women. She says,

Mainstream feminism may not be kicking any women out of the treehouse, but it’s certainly not lowering the ladder, either. Sure, we have our women’s studies classes and local NOW chapters, but the bulk of outreach done by mainstream feminists and women’s organizations is targeted towards those who already consider themselves feminists, or at the very least are politically engaged.

I used to think that this gap in outreach was just a backlash-tired movement unintentionally forgetting about women who feminists figured wouldn’t be interested anyway. But reading about the odd logic of recruitment spouted by the DePauw sorority sisters had led me to make a comparison that I’m sure many of my elders will find infelicitous—now I wonder whether the chilliness faced by many of my peers isn’t something a bit more insidious.

Maybe, just maybe, some feminists would rather that young women weren’t interested in feminism [emphasis in original] on a large scale—that way, the movement still belongs to them.

It’s a general symptom of any movement that doesn’t have clear standards of success that depend only on its own actions – e.g. “Win the next election.” When the movement can attribute successes and failures to social trends, it doesn’t have to do that much. The gradual closing of the gender gap in the US in the last 30 years has allowed the feminist movement to pretend post-1975 activism had anything to do with it; in particular, it’s allowed it to slack.

Katha Pollitt’s response to Jessica is a primer on how to exclude people and make the movement insular and ineffective. Her response to Jessica’s allegation that the feminist movement is excluding young women is the same response that the Democrats always use when told they don’t inspire anyone: “Start your own movement,” with a strong “stop bugging us” undertone.

In general, Pollitt rebuts not so much Jessica’s argument as the argument she thinks she should be making. Jessica’s demand for giving young women a seat at the table isn’t some personal power thing, a question of daughters criticizing mothers but mothers not allowed to criticize daughters. It’s a specific demand that the feminist movement stop being so ineffective. Think of her as the Markos Moulitsas of American feminism, without the sanctimony.

When Jessica delves more into specifics, she talks about a lot more than generational tension. The feminist movement engages in scaremongering about Roe vs. Wade, which just doesn’t inspire anyone considering that abortion has been legal in the US for 34 years. NOW’s action alerts are so slow that blogs like Feministing are typically months ahead of them. Organizations like NOW and Feminist Majority use a command and control structure that’s reminiscent of machine politics.

Instead, Pollitt responds with such generalities as,

There’s something else that bothers me, though, about your piece. It’s the way you shift from a critique of unwelcoming institutions to a general complaint that older, individual feminists should criticize you, yourself, in any way. How dare some have a problem with Feministing’s mud flap girl logo! And send you — horrors — e mails about it! As a constant reader of Feministing, I know that you and your co-writers are quite the blogo-battlers. You don’t have the all-inclusive, nonjudgmental, everyone’s-a-feminist POV you insist others take toward young women.

I’ll admit to only having read Feministing for 8 months. But there’s a big difference between being inclusive and having no opinions. Jessica and Vanessa are unabashedly sex-positive, to the point that Feministing was the only feminist blog except Majikthise not to take shit from the radicals on blowjobs. But Jessica has never censored radical commenters, not should she.

Ignoring the radical fringe doesn’t make one exclusive. On the contrary, Sister Souljah moments are often central to outreach whenever a movement has been tarred with radicalism. Criticism about the mudflap logo is too unserious to waste time on; the real outreach comes from convincing the average 21-year-old woman to be a feminist activist.

I’m not an especially mainstream feminist. On the issues I’m mostly with the movement – the only issues I split with it on are sexual assault and deadbeat child support, both of which are fairly minor – but I tend to loathe its general attitude toward things. My ideal post about abortion isn’t an unremarkable rant about trusting women, but a serious philosophical treatise about personhood or a public health-oriented post. And yet I’ve always felt welcome there, even when arguing with five different regulars all at the same time.

Granted, relative to mainstream feminism I’m on the opposite side as the radicals Pollitt insists Jessica take seriously. But, you know, the side I’m on has more than 90% of the population. Rovian tactics of appealing to the base and ignoring everyone who isn’t sufficiently radical may work when there’s a war going on and your side is perceived as the only one that’s strong on defense. In normal circumstances, it makes you lose both houses of Congress to a boring, spineless party.

If there are ideological differences between generations, they should be discussed as ideas, not declared off limits because the person who espouses them is younger (or older). You are doing what you accuse older feminists of doing — declaring your views unassailable simply because you have them. They say,”You weren’t there,” You say, “You aren’t here.” Okay, but you still have to make your case — plenty of young women, including young feminists, don’t share your POV. Your real beef with Ariel Levy, for example, is not that she’s too old and out of it to understand young women (she’s only in her early thirties). It’s that you don’t agree with her view that today’s sexual culture (girls gone wild, hooking up etc) is basically exploitation and exhibitionism packaged as feminism. I’m not saying she’s right or wrong, I’m just saying that “Female Chauvinist Pigs” presents an actual argument, not a mindless ignorant diss of young women by some old fussbudget who knows little about them. Fact is, a lot of young women agree with her and loved that book. It was really popular on campus.

Icons of Evolution presents an actual argument, too. Ariel Levy isn’t someone who tries very hard to be taken seriously, what with her equivocation of old puritanism with modern depravity. I’m not making any apologies here: the raunch culture is objectively better than the puritan culture. The culture of the 1990s accepts subcultures that can by and large escape mainstream trends in ways this of the 1950s never did. The virgin/whore dichotomy stops holding when one considers not just what shows on MTV but also what’s acceptable to people who watch MTV.

And, for the record, Jessica doesn’t just dismiss Levy without explaining why she’s so off-target. Writing in the Grauniad, she made a far more specific case than she does in a short blog post on TPMCafe that needs to encapsulate her entire critique of present-day feminist activism.

I’ve never had much sympathy for Kos, so comparing Jessica to him might not be the best analogy for her activism. But the Beltway Democrats who keep complaining about him annoy me even more than he does; Pollitt’s rant about Jessica sounds a lot like the cry of a DCCC organizer who’s concerned with the grave fact that he no longer has a monopoly on fundraising.

Tuesday Night Links

February 27, 2007

Echidne examines the consequences of shrinking government to the point that it can be drowned in a bathtub. She looks at what spending cuts have done to the FDA, which is conducting just half the food safety inspections it did three years ago (link). I don’t want to blow government out of proportions; I just want to increase it to the size that I can ride the subway without being infected with cholera, eat uncooked chicken without getting salmonella, and walk under a shed without worrying about the possibility of a collapse.

Ezra writes about free trade; although he has populist sentiments, he’s fairly pro-trade. In a heated argument between Brad DeLong and Jeff Faux, he comes down clearly on DeLong’s side after Faux dodges a legitimate question about free trade’s positive effects on China. Ezra takes Faux to task for ranting about Chinese domestic economic policy for being bad for the poor. Why impoverishing China by slapping tariffs on it will cause its government to change its policy when similar sanctions against other countries have miserably failed is beyond me.

Samhita asks whether it can truly be called feminist empowerment when women in Pakistan protest the demolition of illegally built mosques. The people on the comment thread tend toward realizing that, to quote EG, “Women are a huge segment of the population, and no social/political/religious movement would succeed without any support from women. But that doesn’t make the movement inherently feminist.”

Jenny explains why it’s not a feminist duty to support Hillary Clinton. Just like I don’t accuse anyone who opposes Obama of hating black people and anyone who opposes Richardson of hating Hispanics, so do I oppose allegations that opposing Clinton is something sexist. The proper feminist or antiracist or pro-gay or pro-atheist thing to do is support a candidate based on real issues, regardless of gender/race/sexual orientation/religion. Feminism doesn’t exist to empower Hillary Clinton, but to empower the 3,249,999,999 women who aren’t so powerful as to have a shot at becoming the most powerful person in the world.

Lindsay writes about the difference between the left-wing American blogosphere and the right-wing one. While the left-wing blogosphere seeks to turn itself into part of the Democratic Party, featuring a motley crew of policy analysts, movement activists, fundraisers, and screamers, the right-wing blogosphere only engages in scalping of the type Donahue did to Amanda.

Ruchira reproduces an article about Tehran that seems to strike the correct chord in depicting the city as highly cultured and developed and at the same time suffering from a fundamentalism problem. This isn’t Kandahar or even Baghdad we’re talking about, but a modern city that doesn’t have many ingrained problems a revolution won’t solve.

Brent notes that Mitt Romney is hardly the only person in the US who thinks atheists can’t be Presidents. A clueless law professor at Colorado University rants about atheists from about every imaginable angle, including coming out in support of Romney’s bigotry. Brent takes him to task for spouting inanities about atheists’ morality.

Skatje takes down arguments for preserving the Pledge of Allegiance so that you don’t have to. Hitting the nail right on the head, she says, “An oath of loyalty is something you see in totalitarian regimes, not something you’d expect in a nation that prides itself on freedom. In a classroom with children from as young as age five robotically chanting at a flag every morning, I’d also expect a big silver screen on one of the walls. I’ve already written about nationalism. Submission and obedience to a government is another leg of it.”

Tyler rants about excessive moderates who in order to look centrist compare atheists to fundamentalists. Unlike Tyler I don’t care enough for Dawkins to get agitated when someone does a hatchet job on him, but I do care enough for reality to see that atheism is as extreme as fundamentalism to the same degree that supporting full racial equality is as extreme as apartheid.

The Burden of Perfection

February 19, 2007

Women and minorities have the burden of being perfect. They can get ahead, as long as they make no mistake whatsoever. The issue with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is that black people of Sidney Poitier’s character’s merits are accepted; the problem is that every woman or minority who falls short of that standard is considered defective, while majority-race men who do but are still overall good are accepted.

Ségolène Royal, who up until this point hadn’t played the gender card, is now saying she’s being unfairly attacked for being female. The various gaffes that have eroded her support in the polls wouldn’t hurt her nearly so much if she were male. For example, one of the most nagging problems she faced was insufficient support and dissension in her party’s ranks; but Chirac hates Sarkozy, and yet Sarkozy’s support isn’t eroding the same way Royal’s is.

The same double standard props up a lot of systems based on boundedness: radical groups, racism, sexism, cliques, nationalist circles. Every issue that can distinguish a member of the in-group from a member of the out-group is then blown out of proportion, at times to the point of totalization.

For a concrete example, take a radical group’s treatment of criticism from outside. Let’s say that feminist groups have only two main issues to worry about, abortion and equal pay. Some invariably emphasize one, while others emphasize the other. Within the movement, these differences are perfectly acceptable. But when someone outside the movement ever suggests focusing on one, the people within the movement will immediately totalize the other and declare him an intruder.

This is not to suggest that feminism works like sexism. But some of the pathological characteristics of radicalism are results of its fundamentally egalitarian worldview, which focuses on internal equality and strong boundedness. As such, radicals will share them with those conservatives who, without displaying other radical pathologies, engage in traditional sexism or racism.

To put another spin on it, the people who say that the intra-Socialist dissension reflects negatively on Royal and then support Sarkozy, who can’t get the support of his own party’s incumbent President, are as bad as the people who participate in communist cell activity or Evangelical housegroups.

Carnival of the Godless #60 is Up

February 18, 2007

Manifold Fates is still down, so Brent posted the 60th edition of COTG on UTI, including my own post about freedom from religion, which I don’t remember submitting to the carnival.

In related news, accidental blogger Ruchira Paul writes about the Texas legislator who said the theory of evolution was a Kabbalistic conspiracy and therefore unconstitutional to teach in public schools. She concludes, “Texas Governor Rick Perry recently issued an executive order to make vaccination of pre-teen girls with Gardasil mandatory in order to protect them from the Human Papilloma Virus.  Alas, no vaccine, mandatory or optional, exists to protect the children from the willful ignorance of their elders.”

Ann’s Weekly Feminist Reader has two stories about fundamentalist outrage. First, in Israel, certain ultra-Orthodox Jews are working hard to dispel the notion that Islam is uniquely abusive toward women. In Haredi areas, such as the entire city of Bnei Brak, buses are de facto gender segregated, with women sitting in the back. Now a woman who was harassed for not going to the back of the bus is launching a class action lawsuit aiming to break the gender-segregated buses.

And second, the Catholic Church is ranting about Portugal’s referendum. The national conference of bishops whined, “The favorable result for the ‘yes’ is a sign of accentuated cultural mutation by the Portuguese people.” I’m glad the bishops are coming to understand they’re behind the times. The Catholic Church has only itself to blame; it doomed itself to irrelevance when it elected Ratzinger Pope.

Social Normality

February 16, 2007

In a brief exchange I had with Lynet a few days ago, she raised the question of normality. Writing about how culturally ingrained sexism discourages women from pursuing an interest in math or science, she says,

I agree about it being kind of a stretch to think that a girl would consciously choose not to study maths because it’s not ‘feminine’. The notion of femininity is strongest these days insofar as it affects sexual relationships with men, I’d say. Part of the method of communication can sometimes involve shared assuptions about how a woman who feels attracted to a man will react.

It might perhaps be more ‘normal’-seeming for a girl to be disinterested in maths; I think ‘normality’ plays a bigger role than ‘femininity’ here. Both notions are of course gender-dependent.

The conception of normality is of course far stronger than sub-notions like femininity or masculinity or whiteness. At the risk of engaging in totalization, let me suggest that in fact these sub-notions depend on normality. Restrictive gender roles can’t live without a sense of social conformity that tells men to act like men and women to act like women.

One continual source of frustration for progressive activists is their total inability to combat conformity. Martin Luther King talked about judging people by the content of their character, but all he managed to do was remove skin color from the long list of superficial bases of judgment. In post-1960s America, people are still judged by their clothes and manner of speech and height and weight (though, to be fair, the 1960s also ushered in greater tolerance for subcultures than before).

Similarly, gay marriage is a good way to advance equal rights for gays and lesbians, but the libertarians, liberals, and radical leftists who are hoping to see the state stop enforcing its model of marriage on people are going to be disappointed. Like interracial marriage before it, single-sex marriage will not change anything about marriage, except remove one specific restriction. In 30 years, polyamorists will be rebuked, “Marriage is between only two people.”

This all-encompassing conformity is of course strongest outside these social battles. Take the standard modern Western view of gender relations, which illustrates just how complicated things are. What’s considered normal dragoons people to choose an archetype within their accepted gender role and stick to it.

Traditionally, men are expected to be strong and sporty and tough and have the same range of emotions as a clownfish; women are expected to be sexless before marriage and subservient and sexually submissive after. Nowadays, men are supposed to have a sensitive side they can switch on and off at will – Jack Bauer is not a John Wayne character – while women can choose between subservient femininity and ultra-masculinity. Naturally, subcultures and uncommon attributes like homosexuality and geekdom complicate things further.

Now, let’s apply that notion to women in math. This being 2007 rather than 1907, a 14-year-old girl with interest in math has a few rolemodels, both historical and contemporary, and knows that it’s possible for women to do math. But since math is so immersed in geek culture in the West, she may well be inclined to do something else if she doesn’t have a geeky personality.

This applies to both boys and girls, but ends up disadvantaging girls more. First, current geek culture is less gender-neutral than it would like to believe it is. If Gary Gygax had developed D&D for a female or even mixed target audience, he’d have built it with a more developed social interaction system and a less developed combat system.

Second, there’s a self-perpetuating myth that men can be mathematicians without sacrificing other interests while women can’t. In a culture that discourages women from doing math, the only women willing to overcome cultural expectations will be insanely dedicated to the point of having no other interests. That will only reinofrce the notion that math is somehow abnormal for women, perpetuating the cultural discouragement. This is essentially the intersection of social normality with the problem of rolemodels.

And third, the current construction of masculinity has a 1940s/50s Hollywood kernel with some modifications from the 60s and 70s. Since there have always been high-profile male mathematicians and scientists, there has been plenty of time to cultivate a properly masculine appreciation of science. The current model is one of the scientist or the mathematician as a conqueror or an explorer in uncharted territory. This has little to do with how math and science are actually done, but it’s romantic enough that people believe it. That way, men can be mathematicians without losing their gender-dependent normality, while women can’t.

For sure, this is a very gross simplification. I was ostracized for years for reading encyclopedias in my free time and being both good at and interested in math. But I had a support group of fellow (male) geeks, whereas the only girl in my class who was that geeky was kept out of our group even more so than the genuinely mentally disturbed male computer whiz.

Expectations of social normality affect everyone, but they always affect the marginalized the most. Women, and probably minorities and the poor as well, have to spend a large amount of the cultural equivalent of political capital to be taken seriously even if they have no special quirks, such as a love of mathematics. The best analogy here might be law school student loans, which indebt everyone but cripple people who had to take loans to pay for college.

Why Do All These Women Care About Abortion?

February 14, 2007

E. J. Dionne is noting that politicians tend to flip-flop on abortion a lot, and suggests this is because it’s not that important a political issue except to each party’s base. And, in a way, he could be right. Most politicians don’t care about abortion. Why would they? The average politician everywhere is an upper-class male with a post-menopausal wife who has access to contraceptives.

In the US, there are only two serious Presidential candidates this issue means something to. Not coincidentally, one of them is the only woman in the race (the other is a genuine Dominionist). In the 2004 primary, when the only woman in the race was a lightweight, the only contender who cared about the issue was a doctor who had interned at Planned Parenthood and later encountered pregnant teens in his practice.

In such a climate, it’s not surprising that people who think the entire political arena will be a lot more civil if only women and the men who care about their concerns shut up. Fifteen years ago, the same sentiments were aired in connection to black people, and indeed the Democratic Party became the party of welfare reform and the drug war. The sentiment is always the same: unless an issue predominantly affects rich white American men, it’s not worth fighting over.

But then again, there could be other reasons why politicians flip-flop on abortion. One is confirmation bias: politicians flip-flop on everything, but Dionne is looking for a reason to dismiss only abortion. Edwards is woefully inconsistent on foreign policy, McCain is inconsistent on everything, and Romney’s campaign’s choice line is about a position he disagreed with in 2002.

Candidates usually don’t care about any issue but one or two core ideas. For Edwards, everything but poverty is secondary. For Clinton, it’s mostly foreign policy; she’s fairly consistently hawkish. For Brownback, it’s religious fundamentalism, which explains his relative centrism on economics and foreign policy. It’s very rare to find someone like Feingold, who consistently fails to flip-flop even on issues that aren’t central to his political identity.

But suppose Dionne is right and this trend is more marked for abortion. There’s an alternative explanation that he doesn’t even mention: the political gamut on abortion. Abortion is perhaps the only political issue in the US on which the political gamut spans all possible views; debate on other issues is very narrow.

The average poll shows that there’s at least a substantial minority for every position on abortion in the US from “available on demand” to “legal only to save the woman’s life,” as well as for every sub-issue, such as parental notification and state funding.

No other issues displays this breadth in the US. On foreign policy, Americans are divided on whether to approve every military action, or every military action except those executed with total incompetence. The gamut on unions runs from opposition to strong opposition. The gamut on health care runs from major reforms to a total overhaul, with Milton Friedman’s view and even support for the status quo being out of the question. On education, the issue of funding equality isn’t even on the radar.

In that light, it’s not surprising candidates will flip-flop on abortion, since their views are likely to be almost right in the middle. Anyone with even a slight left-of-center attitude toward economics, like me, can be relied on to support the Democrats, who are still to my right on the issue. But in a debate when the two mainline views on abortion are very far apart, a politician is very likely to be in the middle, where he’s likely to waver.

It could be that this is what Dionne is rooting for. A lot of pundits would like to see fewer distinctions between the parties, which would allow them to make broad policy pronouncements without antagonizing anyone. For the people, more distinct parties mean more choice at the ballot box; for the punditry, they mean being required to take concrete positions on controversial issues.

This is probably why the media loves Obama so much. Regardless of what he does in practice, in theory he calls for greater party cooperation, which is good for any media spectator who wants to gain political power without going through the trouble of convincing large numbers of voters that he’s right.

Tuesday Small Hours Links

February 13, 2007

There are so many good links from the last day or two.

Jessica Dreadful breaks another abortion ban story from South Dakota, this time with exceptions for rape and incest in order to make the bill more palatable. But even then, the rape and incest exceptions are created with the most draconian restrictions possible.

[Link] The bill would allow rape victims to get abortions if they report the rapes to police within 50 days. Doctors would have to confirm those reports with police; doctors also would have to give blood from aborted fetuses to police for DNA testing in rape and incest cases.

The Commissar explains exactly what is wrong with the Bush administration’s accusations of Iranian support for Iraqi militants. Instead of trying to doubt the intelligence that was used to gather the conclusions, he shows why the conclusions themselves are implausible.

At the recent US military briefing about the Iranian mortar shells given to Iraqi Shiite militias, it was reported that these super-bombs have killed 170 US troops since June, 2004. I’m sure that Shiite IED’s have killed American troops in Iraq. How many overall? If the Iranian EFP’s have killed 170 Americans, what fraction is that of the total.


Of the 553 (82+471) where the sect of the attacker can be reliably inferred, 15% of these deadly IED attacks were committed by Shiites. Extrapolated to the full set, that would be 144 overall. That’s right. Only 144 Shiite-IED related deaths since June 2004.

Ezra has a three part series on the horrors of prison rape. While he doesn’t use the wonky style we all know and love, his posts still come off as very strong. He notes,

According to the Justice Department, “[in] 2005 there were 3,145 black male sentenced prison inmates per 100,000 black males in the United States, compared to 1,244 Hispanic male inmates per 100,000 Hispanic males and 471 white male inmates per 100,000 white males.” This is important. The relative infrequency with which white Americans enter prison, particularly for extended periods of time, surely effects the political urgency of prison reform. Indeed, it’s likely the reason overall legislation pushes in the other direction — towards overcrowding and longer sentences and less rehabilitation.

Brent reproduces a letter about the invisibility of atheists in the US. Since atheists are impossible to immediately discern from theists, bigoted Christians can get away with assuming that everyone in their lives who is a good person shares their religion. Based on that, he urges atheists to come out publicly.

First, misconceptions about us abound because of this invisibility. People don’t realize that we are their doctor, their teacher, their spouse or the nice guy that just held the door for them. The only face of naturalism a person is likely to see is a militant one. Is there any doubt that the image of naturalists would improve overnight if politicians, stars and athletes would come out?

d of Lawyers, Guns and Money comments on a statement by Bill Kristol about Obama that makes Joe Biden look like the second coming of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, W. E. B. DuBois, and Frederick Douglass all rolled into one. Kristol says Obama would’ve supported pro-slavery politicians in the 1850s. d notes,

When Kristol suggests — wearing his arrogant smirk like a badge of honor — that Barack Obama “would have been for Douglas in 1858,” he seems not to know one important historical fact. According to the laws of Illinois in 1858, Barack Obama would not only have been incapable of voting for Stephen Douglas, but he also would not have been allowed to enter the state in the first place. In 1853, Illinois passed one of the most restrictive black codes in the so-called “free north.” Blacks from other states were permitted to remain in the state for ten days; if they did not leave, they were subject to arrest and temporary enslavement — they would be sold to bidders who would be entitled to their labor until the mandatory $50 fine had been worked off. If the offending individual remained in Illinois after his or her release, the fines increased by $50 increments for each subsequent offense.

In her latest basic concepts post, Shelley turns to prions, the proteins that cause mad cow disease. Although they are proteins rather than organisms, they have the capability to mess with existing proteins in a way that makes them infectious in a way.

The protein that prions are made of is found throughout the body normally(called PrPc), although what their non-disease function is is not yet known. These proteins are encoded by the PRNP gene, and mutations in this gene are responsibly for inherited prion diseases. The disease-state prion protein is called (PrPSc) and is resistant to proteases which would normally denature a protein and render it harmless. The theory of how prions become infectious to other proteins is detailed below.

Abbas reproduces a letter by Waleed Hazbun, a visiting professor at the American University of Beirut. Hazbun describes the city,

Walking down the streets of the Hamra district of Beirut I think to myself that more cities across the Arab world should feel this way. Even as the city is re-dividing itself politically and police and security forces stand watch over public spaces, key buildings, and the residences of leading politicians, Beirut remains a urban, cosmopolitan environment. By invoking this term I do not refer to the fancy shopping districts with Euro-American name brand shops, the haut-hipsters hanging out a Starbucks (or even the much cooler De Prague), or the late night dancing parties going on at the trendy clubs. Beirut is a costal Levantine city that has never been cut off from other Mediterranean cities and trade routes nor fully isolated from its Arab/Islamic hinterland. It is not a show case ‘modern’ city built next to a museumfied medieval era ‘madina,’ like Tunis nor an artificial metropolis emerging out of a desert landscape due to royal patronage or the flows of petrodollars. It is more like Istanbul and how cities on coast of Mandate Palestine might have developed in some alterative reality.

Also on 3QD, Dhiraj Nayyar writes about the parallels between India and the US. India is aspiring to global superpower status, complete with economic domination and massive exportation of culture. But the social problems of the US pale in comparison with those of India.

Can India possibly claim to be superpower, the new emperor, just because some of it’s corporates are taking over firms abroad. Corporate might hasn’t turned into well-being for the majority of the people who still languish in poverty, illiteracy, hunger: basically dismal human conditions. Even possessing a few nuclear weapons doesn’t change this fact. And if half a country’s population cannot read, feed or cloth itself, what does that say about the empire? Even the American empire seems hollow when it is estimated that one in six people in the US is functionally illiterate, a large number of them live in poverty, where poverty is often a function of race, and where hurricanes like Katrina leave the mighty government fumbling for solutions.

Tyler expresses skepticism of much-hyped developments in quantum computing. In principle, quantum computers can factor integers in polynomial time, compared with exponential time for normal computers. In practice, constructing a quantum computer is about as feasible as fusion power at this stage. Tyler explains,

An actual working 16-qubit quantum superconductor that can overcome decoherence and the ubiquitous errors that plague any effort to build a computing device on quantum principles would be quite an achievement. It would indeed be interesting to do a full scale quantum computation, perhaps actually executing the Shor factoring algorithm. But A.) 16-qubits isn’t going to cut it and B.) they’ve been ominously reserved about releasing any results for professionals and academics to evaluate. And needless to say, with the grandiose proclamations the folks at the company have made, I’m skeptical.

Zuzu rips into the third chapter of Dawn Eden’s book, The Thrill of the Chaste (the parts Zuzu quotes sound as unintelligent as the title).

The chapter opens with a description of a continuing education course on “Living Single.” Dawn reads the description — which is all about helping people confidently navigate the single world, whether they’ve never left it or are re-entering it — and all she sees is “lack.”

She would, wouldn’t she?

I mean, her whole life, she’s felt lacking, and though she’s changed her strategy, her goal is the same: get married. Thing is, as she does so many times, she breezes right by the point. The course is designed to alleviate some of the social pressure that single adults feel to be in a couple, that they are in fact lacking something. It’s designed to help people understand that they don’t need to be in a couple to have fulfilling lives. But Dawn just sees the course as evidence that women are mired in a pathetic, pop-culturally-dictated “single lifestyle” that is all about lack — that lack being, of course, lack of a man and lack of God.

Finally, Bora collects all Darwin Day posts in one big link post. I haven’t had time to look at them yet, but you should.

Factual and Normative Statements

February 11, 2007

Lynet, who’s just started blogging at Elliptica, talks about the distinction between personal and political feminism. She also makes the incisive observation about standards of masculinity and femininity,

[Link] On some level, I want to be feminine. That is to say, I want to identify as a woman, want to count as a genuine member of my sex. It’s a matter of identity. I think most people feel this way about their gender. As a result, statements of the form “Men are usually…” or “It is feminine to…” are almost never able to be nothing more than statements about the way men or women are. Inevitably, they end up containing some idea that this is the way men or women ought to be.

This means that when people make entirely scientific statements about women, on average, scoring less than men on maths tests (or having a smaller sexual appetite, or whatever) I find it hard to believe that someone, somewhere, is not taking that as a normative statement; a statement about what they should do to fit in with their treasured identity. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t do these studies, or report what they find, but I think it’s important that people consider what they are playing with when they make gender statements. They are not to be made lightly or without basis.

First, let me get the personal identity stuff out of the way: I think identities are for other people. Other people are free to box me as 18, male, atheist, Israeli-born, white, and so on. My own behavior has nothing to do with those, except for the trivial things (I pee standing up, don’t go to any house of worship, etc.).

More to the point, Lynet is entirely right. Statements about gender essentialism are almost never meant as “is” statements, and infrequently meant as “seems” statements. Relationships books that try emphasizing that men and women are from different planets tend to boil down to, “In mainstream culture, men and women are encouraged to act in different but equally irrational ways, and it’s perfectly fine.”

Worse, “Men are…” statements always carry a very strong “and should be” flavor. Any male who doesn’t conform to those statements is automatically branded not a real man, with all the accompanying stereotypes.

It’s somewhat more complicated for females and “Women are…” statements, but Lynet’s basic point about wanting to be feminine holds. Women who choose not to be feminine are immediately thrown into one of several very limiting boxes: the whore, the tomboy, the hyper-aggressive corporate executive, the Lucy Liu character.

Psychologically, these statements are very damaging. They’ve gotten to the point that merely asking female testtakers to fill in an oval for gender before a math test will hamper their performance. An individual woman may escape that stereotype threat, just like an individual may choose to receive a non-mandatory vaccination; but from the perspectives of public education and public health, both stereotype threats and voluntary vaccinations are disasters.

There’s an entirely different class of essentialist statements, that of normative statements that pretend to be factual. The entire notion that women are worse than men at math boils down to shoddy research nobody would’ve taken seriously but for a burning desire to tell women to stick to cooking.

There aren’t that many factual statements about gender differences that aren’t trivial (“very few men can lactate”). Cognitively, males’ better spatial perception appears to have no consequences outside tests that ask people to mentally rotate shapes. Females’ better verbal perception has serious consequences concerning language change, but unless you’re a sociolinguist or a feminist activist concerned with control of language, you don’t need to ever know that.

And even so, people don’t usually make those statements without some social justification in mind. I’ve yet to see a single person who thinks females are underrepresented in science for biological reasons say that by the same token, women should be 80% of the average linguistics department.

Generic Issues

February 7, 2007

1. I intended to dedicate this day to Giuliani, not McCain. So here it goes: Giuliani had nothing to do with the drop in crime in New York. The blue dot is when Giuliani’s predecessor, Dinkins, assumed office. The red dot is when Giuliani assumed office.


(The data comes from here)

2. Tyler blogs about a right-wing nut who complains that Israel is recognizing gay marriages performed in other countries: “The pro-family official’s concern, he explains, is that Israel’s acceptance of same-sex marriage will give ammunition to its Islamic enemies and fuel their propaganda.” Tyler notes that this is just the Dinesh D’Souza strategy of saying that conservative values are good because the terrorists hate liberal values.

My own comment on that is that the greatest number of Palestinian terrorist attacks is on settlers, who are fairly religious, and on targets in Jerusalem, a conservative city. Attacks on liberal Tel Aviv are the most spectacular, but while half of Israel’s Jewish population lives in Tel Aviv metro, far fewer than half of Palestinian attacks are on Tel Aviv metro.

3. Hat-tip to JD2718: Ray of Education and Technology rips into the Wall Street Journal, which decided to resurrect the meme that public school teachers work 7 hours a week. Based on calculating the number of hours they spend teaching, it arrived at an hourly pay figure of $34/hour. Based on calculating the actual number of hours they work, including teaching, staff meetings, and grading, $15/hour is closer to reality.

Also due to JD2718, the NYC Department of Education’s fetish for small schools combines the worst features of small schools and large schools. Ordinary small schools have their own buildings and are self-contained enough to teach 400-500 students independently. New York’s small schools share the same building with other schools, so they have to coordinate things like bells; a better way to describe them would be large schools supervised by committee.

4. Wal-Mart’s dreadful history of discriminating against women is finally resulting in a trial. Wal-Mart isn’t even denying that the discrimination exists, but instead tries weaseling out of a class action lawsuit and says individual women should sue individual stores.

In a way this is significant beyond Wal-Mart, because the company’s ridiculous claim that it “did not have a policy of discriminating against women” can help underscore a strict liability doctrine in civil rights cases. A corporation is responsible for making sure it’s an equal opportunity employer; if it isn’t aggressively punishing managers who discriminate, it’s exposed to class action lawsuits. It’s just how states are responsible for making sure their militaries don’t murder civilians when occupying a foreign country.

5. Hamas and Fatah are negotiating in Mecca. They’ve been negotiating for a while; while their leaders are talking to each other about how to forge a unity government, their foot soldiers are killing each other as well as any civilians who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

News or Links, Take Your Pick

February 4, 2007

Guestblogging on Ezra Klein, Ankush notes that Edwards is even more of a waffler than he comes off in Ezra’s interview. He notes that Edwards blames the war on intelligence failure, and rebuts,

Today, I’d like to see a presidential candidate grapple with the questions that should be raised about why so many politicians — including, if you supported the war on the basis of WMDs, you — were so wrong when it was far from inevitable. What do you plan to do about promoting and reconciling dissent within the intelligence agencies? How should a President seek out conflicting viewpoints and process the contradictions? What should be the default presumptions when, as is often the case, you have very little intelligence to work off of? Are you concerned that Washington is dominated by a fairly homogeneous, vaguely hawkish group of foreign policy types, many of whom aren’t particularly good at what they do? In essence, why were you wrong in interpreting the evidence about Iraq and what do you plan to do in order not to be wrong the next time?

Edwards’s claims that the intelligence was irretrievably tainted and that everyone was wrong about the wisdom of war — claims which, to be fair, are frequently made by many, many other politicians and pundits — are so demonstrably false as to be borderline offensive. I appreciate his sincerity about his regret over the tragic costs of this war, but, so far as evaluating one’s participation in bringing this disaster about, expressing such regret is quite literally the least you can do.

A few days ago, Hamas and Fatah set a record by holding their fire for a whole day. But as the second day of quitting smoking chocolate coffee indiscriminate violence is always harder than the first, it didn’t work out very well, and Palestinian civilians are living in fear again.

Gazans have long been accustomed to violence. But until recently, the fighting was between local militants and Israeli forces, and the lines of battle were clear.

The last few weeks of fighting between Hamas and Fatah gunmen have taken on a different feel. Gunfire can erupt at any time, poorly trained fighters shoot at random, and the target isn’t always known.

Rudy Giuliani is still not “in it to win,” but is saying there’s a “good chance he’ll run.”

He has emphasized his steady hand dealing with the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. However, his moderate stances on gun control, abortion, gay rights and other social issues could be liabilities for him in a GOP presidential primary that includes hard-core conservatives as a central voting group.

For instance, in November, South Carolina voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional ban on same-sex unions.

“The fact is I appeal to conservative Christians the way I appeal to everyone else,” Giuliani said at a news conference. “I don’t think you have separate appeals to people.”

Giuliani is right. A very big constituency in the South includes people who think it was a mistake to give black people civil rights; Giuliani has a lot to sell them. Another big constituency hates it when non-conformists have free speech; Giuliani can placate them, too. Before Southern conservatives had God, guns, and gays, they had blacks. has a compilation of information about the HPV vaccine, which Texas Governor Rick Perry has just made mandatory for all girls aged 11-12.

Tony Blair is not only a lame duck Prime Minister, but also under immense pressure to quit now rather than in the summer. It’s not the brown-nosing of Bush or the religious fanaticism that turned the people off, but a corruption scandal involving cash for honors.

The ICM survey for the Sunday Express found that 56 per cent of the public want him to go now rather than wait for his planned summer departure.

The poll found that 43 per cent of Labour supporters feel it is now time for him to step down.

The survey also reveals a loss of trust in the Blair regime with some 66 per cent believing that evidence relating to cash-for-honours allegations has been covered up by people in Downing Street.

Victoria Brittain notes that there is such a thing as Islamic feminism, and that it has achieved several successes in rolling back discriminatory laws in Muslim-majority countries.

Embattled Muslim women, suffering the burdens of the worst cultural attitudes to rape and adultery enshrined in medieval laws in Pakistan and Northern Nigeria; or the sexual violence and rolling back of their rights, unleashed by the war in Iraq; or the targeted killings of women activists in Afghanistan, are turning for help to Muslim women’s groups. From those in Morocco and Malaysia, in particular, the skills of self-help training, experience of long legal battles, linking scholars and activists, are in great demand.

At government policy levels some, Islamic women activists’ campaigns are having successes large and small in some surprising places: Morocco’s Moudawana (religious personal statute laws differing from civil law) have recently been revised after 30 years of struggle; in Turkey’s Ministry of Religion there is a cautious beginning by some scholars to work on the highly sensitive area of questioning the historical basis of the hadith (sayings and deeds attributed to the Prophet) which seem misogynist; and in Indonesia’s rural areas teaching materials are being revised.

The Democratic Party is waffling about abortion, as its candidates deemphasize it more and more in order to appeal to Dominionist voters.

Day believes it is the beginning of getting some voters back into the fold. “If I had a nickel for every person who came up to me and said ‘I used to be a Democrat and I’d come back if they changed their stance on abortion,’ we’d be back to a 290 majority like we had in the 1970s.”

Day’s analogy is correct but incomplete. If the Democrats appeal to Dominionists, they’ll be back to a 290 majority in the House like in the 1970s; and like in the 1970s, they’ll have Southern conservatives hold key committee chairmanships that they’ll use to push the entire party to the right.

Skatje writes about homosexuality and the religious nuts who have a problem with it.

You let your bible tell you to shun gays, but you don’t pay attention when it tells you to shun women on their period? The bible says a lot of ridiculous things. You shouldn’t take the “unnatural affections” being a sin bits any more serious than the parts where it says to dash your enemy’s children against rocks or stone disobedient women to death. The reason I figure for including the part about homosexuality in the bible is the same reason they include various sorts of washing, staying away from dead bodies, etc. At the time these things were written, they didn’t know about bacteria and how disease works. They just knew that if you did such and such, you’re less likely to become ill. Anal sex can be unsanitary without the proper precautions. Back then, it was probably a good idea not to stick that there. I’m also undoubtedly sure that homosexuality is mentioned because the bible is notorious for disapproving of things that are different or unusual. Not very good justification though. Don’t let the bible tell you to hate stuff, ‘kay? Use your own head.

The best quote comes from commenter Azkyroth, who mocks a theistic commenter who confuses “canon” with “cannon,”

Also, “canon” is the official Christian doctrine; “cannon” are what they’ve been using to spread the canon since the cannon was invented.

Hat-tip to Robin: Timothy Garton Ash responds to Pascal Bruckner, who accused him of being an Islamist apologist after he criticized Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Pascal Bruckner is the intellectual equivalent of a drunk meandering down the road, arguing loudly with some imaginary enemies. He calls these enemies “Timothy Garton Ash” and “Ian Buruma” but they have very little to do with the real writers of those names. I list below some of his misrepresentations and inaccuracies, with a few weblinks for the curious.

Pascal Bruckner speaks in the name of the Enlightenment, but he betrays its essential spirit. The Enlightenment believed in free expression, without taboos. Because I disagree – courteously, precisely and giving clear reasons – with the views of a woman of Somalian origin, Bruckner does not hesitate to imply that I am a racist (he calls me “an apostle of multiculturalism,” then describes multiculturalism as a “racism of the anti-racists”) and a sexist (“outmoded machismo”, “the spirit of the inquisitors who saw devil-possessed witches in every woman too flamboyant for their tastes”). This is exactly the kind of blanket disqualification that he himself criticised in an article in Le Figaro entitled “Le chantage a l’Islamophobie,” (reprinted from Figaro here) deploring the way any critic of Islam is (dis)qualified as an Islamophobe racist. Except that here he is the blackmailer. Voltaire would be ashamed of him.

Friday Link Roundup

February 2, 2007

Ann notes that HPV causes not only cervical cancer but also penile cancer, and wonders if it means legislators will be less squeamish about mandatory vaccinations.

Jenny Dreadful complains about people who argue for expanding birth control in the third world as a measure of environmental population control. Population pressure in third world countries too far away from the first world to induce massive emigration does increase the pressure on natural resources, but by less than the increase in population. The more global the issue is, the less this population growth has an effect: population explosion in Madagascar has contributed to soil erosion, a local issue, but not at all to climate change.

G. Willow Wilson writes about the Cairo Book Fair, which attracts a gigantic number of people every year. She worries mostly about the proliferation of religious propaganda:

It would be one thing if the religious texts in question were copies of the Qur’an and hadith and jurisprudence, but too often they are mere propaganda: texts that claim shaving one’s beard is a worse crime than adultery, for instance; because adultery is a momentary offense, but habitual shaving accrues bad deeds for as long as you do it, potentially years and years. I have seen Wahhabi books devoted entirely to the supreme virtue of fear.

Pam notes that Pope Benedict XVI can’t control his own church:

A yawning gulf between the stern doctrines preached by Pope Benedict and the advice offered by ordinary Roman Catholic priests has been exposed by an Italian magazine which dispatched reporters to 24 churches around Italy where, in the confessional, they sought rulings on various moral dilemmas.


Another journalist posed as a researcher who had received a lucrative offer to work abroad on embryonic stem cells. With the extra cash, he said, he and his wife could think about starting a family. So should he take up the post?

“Yes. Yes. Of course,” came the reply.

The Blank Slate and Other Phantom Theories

January 29, 2007

I keep posting my 3QD columns increasingly late. My most recent one, about Pinker’s The Blank Slate and the inconsistencies between how it portrays the world and how the world actually is, was up only at 8:42 pm even though we’re supposed to have them up and running by midnight between Sunday and Monday.

The most important one liner from the entire post is in my opinion, “The truth is never oppressive” – or, in its fuller version, “the truth, or what a reasonable person would believe to be the truth, is never oppressive.” I then show that on the contrary, the views Pinker holds about gender and apologizes for about race fail any scientific reasonable-person standard.

The spine of the article is four paragraphs about a third of the way through, including that one liner.

The relationship between Pinker and Lewontin is an interesting one. Pinker notes that although Lewontin claims that he thinks the dominant force in evolution is the interaction between gene, organism, and environment, in terms of social implications he ignores everything but environment. On that Pinker is certainly right: Biology as Ideology is an anti-science polemic that distorts facts to fit Lewontin’s agenda (my take on Lewontin was subsequently debated in length here). However, Pinker commits the same transgression: he says he believes in the sensible moderate view that human behavior is determined by both inborn and environmental factors, and goes on to not only ignore the implications of the environmental part but also defend racists and sexists who have used pseudoscience as cover.

For instance, he starts by ridiculing people who called Richard Herrnstein a racist for a 1970 paper about intelligence and heredity. Although the paper as Pinker describes it is not racist per se, Herrnstein was indeed a racist. The screed he published with Charles Murray in 1994, The Bell Curve, is not only wrong, but also obviously wrong. Even in 1994, there were metastudies about race and intelligence that showed that the IQ gap disappears once one properly controls for environmental factors, for example by considering the IQ scores of children born to single mothers in Germany by American fathers in World War Two.

The truth, or what a reasonable person would believe to be the truth, is never oppressive. If there is indeed an innate component to the racial IQ gap, or to the gender math score gap, then it’s not racist or sexist to write about it. It remains so even if the innate component does not exist, but the researcher has solid grounds to believe it does.

However, Murray and Herrnstein had no such solid grounds. They could quote a few studies proving their point, but when researchers publish many studies about the same phenomenon, some studies are bound to detect statistically significant effects that do not exist. By selectively choosing one’s references, one can show that liberals are morally superior or morally inferior to conservatives, or that socialism is more successful or less successful than capitalism. At times there are seminal studies, which do not require any further metastudy. There weren’t any in 1994, while existing metastudies suggested that the racial IQ gap was entirely environmental. As I will describe below, the one seminal study [link added] done in 2003 moots not only Murray and Herrnstein’s entire argument but also much of Pinker’s.

As in my other scathing book reviews, there are some parts I would’ve liked to rebut but couldn’t without breaking the article’s flow. Things that would’ve made it into the post if I’d written it in bullet point format include,

1. Pinker’s scare campaign around Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon. Hardly anyone cares for them anymore, especially for Dworkin. Even Brownmiller felt the need to compare Dworkin’s speeches to revival tents in a paragraph praising Dworkin’s passion.

2. The general use of abstract moral principles against social movements. Proponents of torture advise opponents of torture to speak only in moral terms and ignore the fact that torture is ineffective; sexists advise feminists to only attack obvious discrimination and ignore the fact that men and women are cognitively nearly identical.

3. The reemergence of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, largely due to the discovery of the Pirahã’s inability to master basic counting. Chomsky’s transformtional grammar is the only serious challenge to Lockean empiricism, which Pinker tars by associating it with the phantom theory that is the blank slate.

4. Relational models. Pinker quotes Alan Fiske’s theory of four relational models – market pricing, communal sharing, equality matching, and authority ranking – and claims that equality matching is the most common to support his claims. In fact there’s no criterion that can determine which is more common; for what it’s worth, equality matching is the weirdest of the four in some precise ways.

5. The Larry Summers controversy, in which Pinker defended the assertion that women are innately worse at math than men. There’s no obvious EP-derived hypothesis why it should be so, and even if there were, it would fail to conform to reality, since women can and often are as good at math as men. Feminist activism has changed a lot; Columbia’s progressed from having its first female Ph.D. student in math 20 years ago to having a 50-50 incoming class this year.

6. Education. I have no idea where Kim Gandy’s getting her numbers from when she says boys and girls are 99% identical in learning, but the basic point that the differences in cognition are small is right. Stentor has a link to the relevant research somewhere in his archives. I allude to this point in the post, but don’t explicitly mention this research.