Monday, January 02, 2006

Power Is In The Kitchen

The holidays are now officially over. David Brooks is back typing away with his mitten-covered hands. Today's topic is Linda Hirshman's article about the need of women to fight harder for the option to have a career (on which I blogged earlier here and here) and how Hirshman is wrong because power is in the kitchen so women should stay there. Not that David is planning to join the powerful, of course. He is quite happy writing his little powerless column about the powerless guys waging war in Iraq.

Here are some meat-and-potato quotes from Brooks about why Hirshman is supposedly wrong:

First, she's wrong with her astonishing assertion that high-paying jobs lead to more human flourishing than parenthood. Look back over your life. Which memories do you cherish more, those with your family or those at the office? If Hirshman thinks high-paying careers lead to more human flourishing, I invite her to spend a day as an associate at a big law firm.

Second, she's wrong to assume that work is the realm of power and home is the realm of powerlessness. The domestic sphere may not offer the sort of brutalizing, dominating power Hirshman admires, but it is the realm of unmatched influence. If there is one thing we have learned over the past generation, it is that a child's I.Q., mental habits and destiny are largely shaped in the first few years of life, before school or the outside world has much influence.

Children, at least, understand parental power. In "Eminem Is Right," a Sidney Award-winning essay in Policy Review, Mary Eberstadt notes a striking change in pop music. "If yesterday's rock was the music of abandon, today's is the music of abandonment." An astonishing number of hits, from artists ranging from Pearl Jam to Everclear to Snoop Dogg, are about kids who feel neglected by their parents. This is a need Hirshman passes over.

Her third mistake is to not even grapple with the fact that men and women are wired differently. The Larry Summers flap produced an outpouring of work on the neurological differences between men and women. I'd especially recommend "The Inequality Taboo" by Charles Murray in Commentary and a debate between Steven Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke in the online magazine Edge.

One of the findings of this research is that men are more interested in things and abstract rules while women are more interested in people. (You can come up with your own Darwinian explanation as to why.)

Ok. Let's summarize David. His three points are that staying at home is more fun than working, that staying at home is where the real power is and that women are wired for that kind of power whereas poor men are not. If you read me regularly you already know how I resent this false dualism of "work-vs.-home"; most people need and want to have both children and meaningful work, but some of us are not allowed to have both by people like Brooks.

But leaving that aside, the question of where human beings flourish best is not one that can be answered by inviting someone to spend a day as the law associate of a big firm without also letting that person get the income of the law associate and the respect that person gets as well as the exciting problems he or she is invited to analyze. Likewise, David himself should be invited to spend a day with four children under ten in an isolated suburban home, with laundry to wash and three meals to prepare. All I did here was a reversal of his argument; I'm not arguing that staying at home with children isn't fun and rewarding, too. But so is being a law associate in a large firm.

The question of power at home is interesting. This is an old argument: The Hand That Rocks The Cradle Rules The World. If this were actually true we'd see mothers and nannies blamed for the Iraq war and the illegal wiretappings in this country. It is not true, for the simple reason that no cradle-rocker has influence over more than just a few children, whereas anybody running the United States has power over most of the world. And that it is not true is the reason why David Brooks is not in the kitchen.

David's third and grossest mistake is to refer to Charles Murray as an expert on race and sex differences. Charles Murray! Now a New York Times columnist recommends Charles Murray's ravings and rantings as a good source of scientific information! Your liberal media in action, my dear readers.

Let's give a little more attention to one of David's wholesale conclusions, this one:

One of the findings of this research is that men are more interested in things and abstract rules while women are more interested in people.

If this is true, shouldn't women be running all political systems in the whole world? And how would you divide fields such as medicine? After all, people have things inside them. People also do things. So confusing, isn't it? Much easier to argue that women are more interested in people and that means that women are better suited to rearing children and men for everything else.

Cathy Young discusses some of this on her blog in a different context. In particular, she talks about the monkey study which wingnuts love, because it seemed to tell us that girl monkeys like to play with saucepans and dolls and boy monkeys with cars. Which tells us, naturally, that even girl monkeys are genetically wired to be in the kitchen, even if girl monkeys don't yet have kitchens. And boy monkeys will all be cab drivers one day. As all wingnuts knew to be true to begin with, except that we are not supposed to have evolved from the same ancestor as monkeys. Oops! But I digress. What the monkey study actually found was this:

Of the 88 laboratory-living vervet monkeys in the study, 33 males and 30 females had some contact with one or more of the toys they were offered (playing with a toy or picking it up and examining it).

For the males, about 16% of the contact was with a toy police car. For the females, the corresponding figure was about 8%. Another toy rated as "masculine," an orange ball, was handled by males about 20% of the time and by females about 10%. (The figures are approximate because the article shows them as bars on a diagram, not as specific numbers. The graph can be found here at Obsidian Wings.)

A red pan, also classified as a "girl toy," accounted for about 27% of the females' contact with the toys. And for about 17% of the males'.

The biggest difference was in the handling of a doll. About 22% of the females' toy contact consisted of picking up, handling, and examining the doll. The corresponding figure for males was about 8%. (There were no significant gender differences in monkey interest in a furry dog toy.) It should be noted that among vervets, adult males do not participate in infant care at all, though juvenile males apparently handle infants; the females' behavior toward the doll was rather similar of female vervets' handling of infants.

Let's say that all these differences are solid and related to gender and biology (though I find it hard to believe that female monkeys would perceive a pan as a "feminine" object -- last time I checked, monkeys don't cook). They still clearly show a great deal of intra-gender variation. So why is it that, if male monkeys play with a toy car 16% of the time and female monkeys 8% of the time, this is translated into "boys love trucks"?

Incidentally, there was no overall difference between male and female monkeys in favoring "object toys" versus "animate toys" (the doll and the dog). So much for the notion that females are person-oriented and males are object-oriented.

Put that in your pipe, David Brooks, and then do something politically incorrect with it.
Read Amanda's take of the article here.