Saturday, July 12, 2008

George Orwell, Christopher Hitchens and Turning the Cube

Do you want to write about politics? Then go and get George Orwell's Essays and read them*. That was Katha Pollitt's recommendation in her In Depth interview on C-Span2, and I went out right after hearing her to get them. Well, as soon as morning arrived.

The essays are enjoyable reading and a very good guide on how to write clearly, simply and precisely. Writing clearly, simply and precisely on difficult matters is incredibly difficult, of course. Seeing it done made me think that I could do it, too, the way seeing art exhibitions or craft shows always makes me feel that I could do those things, too, even though I can't. That's the real miracle in doing something extremely well: It looks easy and obvious, but only because of all those years of work and training that precede it, that hone and simplify and clarify and strengthen until the work appears to come a whole circle back to obviousness, simplicity and clarity, but on a very different level.

George Orwell is one of those historical figures that both the right and the left want to declare as their own. He was firmly opposed to totalitarianism of all types which meant that he criticized both the Communists and the Fascists, and that's what gives the opening for interpreting him as either a liberal or a conservative. Still, he very clearly states in one of the essays that he was a supporter of Democratic Socialism.

The most famous living fan of Orwell's writings is Christopher Hitchens who has written a book on why Orwell matters. I think Hitchens would wish to be seen as the "Orwell of our era." But what would that mean? Is a man who copies the ideas and writing style of a man dead for 58 years truly the "Orwell of our era"? Whom did Orwell copy, then? There's an odd blindness in all that, like seeing one side of a cube and interpreting that as a fixed two-dimensional square. (Yes, the cube will be finally turned here.) Trying to be Orwell does not mean that one is then automatically the conscience of this generation, but the echo of the conscience of a totally different generation living different crises and witnessing different values.

The turning of the cube struck me as one way of explaining what was so delicious about Orwell's writing. His essays usually start straight and simple, with the accepted views on some then-current topic, as if he was drawing a familiar square for his readers. Once they all saw it clearly he then gently showed them that the square was only one side of a cube, and that by turning the cube a totally different face appearead, also square, but with a new interpretation of the issue. This turning can continue all through the essay and the conclusion then explains the cubeness of the issue.

All that is a way of exploring our blind spots, and Orwell did it extremely well. But it was as if he turned the cube only on the horizontal axis, not the vertical one, and that allowed some blind spots to remain. The essay "Inside The Whale," about Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, offers an example of the latter. Orwell sees Miller's genius as the ability to write about the "ordinary man", the man of sleazy desires and great passivity, and such an ordinary man would use what Orwell calls "vulgar" language. "Vulgar" language and precise descriptions of sex in all sorts of "sleazy" settings are of course an integral part of the Tropic of Cancer.

Orwell wants the reader to identify with the unpleasant male character in the book, to really see the world from his point of view, and that is part of turning the cube. But he doesn't identify with the women who are being used in the book as if they were disposable toothbrushes. I don't think that he even sees that face of the cube at all.

A similar essay is the one about humorous British postcards ("The Art of Donald McGill", 1941), where Orwell almost gets it when he lists the ideas that repeatedly appeared in these postcards:

Sex. - More than half, perhaps three-quarters, of the jokes are sex-jokes, ranging from the harmless to the all but unprintable. First favourite is probably the illegitimate baby.
Conventions of the sex joke:
(1) Marriage only benefits women. Every man is plotting seduction and every woman is plotting marriage. No woman ever remains unmarried voluntarily.


Home life. - Next to sex, the henpecked husband is the favourite joke. Typical caption: "Did they get an X-ray of your wife's jaw at the hospital?" - "No, they got a moving picture instead."

Orwell could put all this down on paper and still continue the discussion without seeing anything at all odd about the hostility towards women in these jokes, about those little triggers that really describe women as the enemy in some ways. Instead he drifts away by following the "obscenity" angle** to the story:

A recurrent, almost dominant motif in comic post cards is the woman with the stuck-out behind. In perhaps half of them, or more than half, even when the point of the joke has nothing to do with sex, the same female figure appears, a plump "voluptuous" figure with the dress clinging to it as tightly as another skin and with breasts or buttocks grossly over-emphasized, according to which way it is turned. There can be no doubt that these pictures lift the lid off a very widespread repression, natural enough in a country whose women when young tend to be slim to the point of skimpiness.

Reading all this now is of course unfair, because we have the benefit of many decades of feminist writings to help us. But still. The idea that if only British women had been fatter the postcards would not have depicted them as all breasts and behinds is an odd stumble from such a clear thinker, and it's a stumble directly caused by not seeing that blind top (or bottom) face of the cube, the one in which we address questions such as why these humorous postcards seem to have been all geared towards a market of men or why there were so few postcards turning women's generalized anger into humor in a similar fashion.

Here's the connection back to Christopher Hitchens: He still writes about women as if they were forks or knives or gin bottles, something to make men's lives either easier or worse, and he still writes to an imaginary all-male audience. This seems a pity. Identifying with Orwell doesn't have to go to such extremes. Besides, I'm fairly convinced that Orwell would have removed that particular blind spot on his own over time. He doesn't come across as a misogynist at all, just a person in a particular place at a particular time with the particular blinders those gave him.

We all wear blinders of some type, and only the passage of time will show where they are. Orwell wore fewer than most and wrote better than most, too.

After all these thoughts about Orwell and Hitchens and the turning of the cube I realized that the current political writing still sees women only whenever it remembers to flip the cube vertically, and that turning of the cube is followed by an audible squeak. Future critiques of the political writings of our era may well point out that squeaking and clicking treatment of women, among many other similar disjointed treatments, as one of our very own blind spots. Perhaps the cube should really be a sphere?

*There are many editions of the essays and they don't always cover the same selection. One place to begin is here.
** Going deeper into the concepts of vulgarity and obscenity would have been a useful exercise there, too. It still is something worth doing, especially in the contexts where something called "locker room talk" is seen as too vulgar for women to hear but otherwise ok. The question why it's too vulgar for women, given that they usually perform major roles as objects of that talk is well worth thinking about.

We’re such a compassionate country (by Suzie)

        The state of Florida has passed a law requiring businesses to give employees three days off if they've been sexually assaulted. (A similar law on domestic violence was passed last year.)
You can't assume all employers will have enough compassion to allow victims to take time off to seek court injunctions, medical care and counseling, among other possible needs.
          But the law doesn't apply unless the business has at least 50 employees. And employers don't have to pay the employee on those three days.
          Not surprisingly, California has a better law.

(Phila is off this Saturday but will return next week.)

Friday, July 11, 2008

Friday Critter Blogging: Dog Edition

The first picture is of Tintti's ten-month old dog, Onni, looking for him at the house they are fixing up, after a pleasant swim in the ocean. You can see the evidence of the swim if you click on the picture. Onni is turning out quite a lot taller than anyone expected but every bit as sweet and charming as was obvious from the beginning.

The second picture is an early one of my angel dog Henrietta running through the snow, looking like a bunny rabbit with her ears flopping about. I think this was the first winter I had her, when she was around three years old and faster than a bunny rabbit.

Should we defend Cindy McCain from sexism? (by Suzie)

          I posted below on a column by Amanda Erickson. She says black feminists are criticizing white feminists for not writing as much about sexism directed at Michelle Obama as they did about Hillary Clinton. 
"Michelle Obama is getting short shrift ... from the mainstream white feminists who were screaming and screaming about Hillary Clinton," said Andrea Plaid, a Brooklyn-based blogger who contributes to Michelle Obama Watch.
          Similarly, Mary C. Curtis takes feminists to task as if all voted for Clinton.  
          Erickson notes that feminist blogs have reported sexism against Obama, as has the National Organization for Women. I’d add the Women’s Media Center, whose founders include Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan, who have been criticized specifically.
           Perhaps sexism against Clinton has been more widely reported because she was a candidate and Obama is a candidate's wife, Erickson says. I’ve never read a political analyst that thought public opinion about a wife could win or lose a presidential race. Gail Collins weighs in on this. 
          Erickson quotes a Clinton supporter saying it’s unfair to expect her supporters to show the same enthusiasm in defending her former opponent and his wife. That leads me to the crux of this post: Should a feminist defend all women against sexism, no matter how she feels about the target? Yes, but we have limited time and energy. That's why I haven’t started a Cindy McCain Watch, and I’ve never posted before on the sexism against her.
         But there is sexism. When people call her a Stepford wife or Barbie, they play into the idea that women are to be judged on looks and demeanor. 
... it is clear that the feminist ideology of some women only extends as far as their favorite candidate. ... Why are so many women standing silent, and worse, abetting the demonization of another woman of substance?
          This quote comes from Tami at Racialicious, criticizing "mainstream feminists" who fail to discuss sexism aimed at Obama. But Republicans might say the same about feminists who don't defend McCain. Read what Susan J. Douglas says.       

In defense of white feminists (by Suzie)

           Conservatives who oppose feminism have long said that white women are the most privileged people in the world. It bothers me that many progressive men and women echo this.
          Search the Internet for “white feminists,” and you'll see that we* have become synonymous with “elitists who don’t care about poor women or women of color.” Why would anyone want to work with us?
          Consider the Dear White Feminists letter:
I’m sick of us exercising our white privilege and then accusing our sisters of color of causing divisiveness when they refuse to submit to our racism. Mostly it’s unintentional racism by white women who want to believe that we are saving the world. But we are not. We’re oppressing and silencing the very people we talk so eloquently about being allies with. … We are the enemy and the oppressors of WoC.
          Race is not the only source of privilege. Therefore, we can't say all white women have more privilege than all women of color. Not all white women have money, for starters, and not all women of color are poor. Shouldn’t everyone get that by now?
           The idea that white feminists only want rights for themselves is a subset of a bigger idea that has been around a long time: Women must think of others first or else they are being selfish. Some women of color have argued it’s OK for white feminists to think only of themselves, but they should make it clear that they are talking only about white women. But anyone who cares only for herself is speaking only for herself, not all white women. Similarly, when a woman of color works for her own rights, there’s no guarantee that she’s helping all women of color, who are diverse in desires and needs, just like white women.
           I don’t know of any famous white suffragist or feminist who did not have some interest in poor women or women of color. This doesn’t let them off the hook for criticism, but it’s incorrect to say they never cared about anyone but themselves. 
          As an example, take Betty Friedan, who wrote “The Feminine Mystique.” Critics cite her as a white feminist who cared only about middle-class white women getting professional jobs. But Friedan had been a leftist, supporting unions and opposing war, before feminism. Whatever her many faults, you can’t say that she cared only about wealthy white women.
         Although many low-income women had to work outside the home, “the feminine mystique” still affected them. By the 19th century, a lot of people believed the ideal was to have a man earn enough so that his wife didn't have to work for money. Many poor people aspired to this, even when they could not achieve it.
         Opening professions to women did not just benefit middle-class whites. It also benefited middle-class women of color then and those who would reach the middle class later. I was a poor teenager in the 1970s, and feminism opened doors for me.
        I got back on this topic after reading Amanda Erickson, writing on the Swamp, the Chicago Tribune’s Washington bureau site. She quotes a professor saying that, in the fight over the 15th Amendment, black women sided with black men while white women opposed them. Actually, there were black women with mixed feelings, and white suffragists split over the issue, as I’ve written before. Erickson continues:
          The question of competing aims continued into the 1960s, as white women pushed for equal treatment in public life. They lobbied for equal pay and better representation in top corporate and government positions.
            African-American women, however, sometimes chose instead to link issues of race and gender, lobbying for better quality of life for families and the poor.
          It wasn’t that simple. There were strong disagreements, but these tensions did not all fall along racial lines. Feminists of all colors worked for reproductive rights, women’s health, paid maternity leave, affordable childcare, no-fault divorce laws, fair hiring practices, fair lending, equal pay, and an end to sexual harassment and other forms of sex discrimination in the workplace as well as in housing and education. They worked against rape and domestic violence.
          If we know our history, our assessments -- and criticisms -- will be more accurate.
          *I use "we" guardedly. I have to include myself among white feminists, but hope my readers come from various backgrounds. 

Step 1: Know the body parts (by Suzie)

      Some idiot came up with an idea for the Vagina Hero, a game based on Guitar Hero. Deeky does a good job picking apart this little bit of misogyny. I just want to add: The game control is patterned after a VULVA, not a vagina. The vagina is that tube-like thing inside. The vulva describes the outer parts.
      Here are just two reasons why adults might want to know the names of genitalia: No. 1, understanding different parts might help in bed.  No. 2, when you're talking to a health-care professional, you want to be accurate. 
     OK, class dismissed. 

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Blogging While Naked

Playboy magazine is hoping to have some female bloggers pose for them:

Playboy has published profiles of nine women bloggers (loosely defined) - Xeni Jardin, Violet Blue, Julie Alexandria, Veronica Belmont, Amanda Congdon, Brigitte Dale, Sarah Lacy, Sarah Austin and Natali Del Conte - and asked readers to vote on which one is "sexiest." The winner will be asked to pose for Playboy.

Sarah Lacy, host of Yahoo's TechTicker, is described respectfully as a "curvy brunette." Lacy says that Playboy told her about the poll before it was published but said nothing about their plans to ask the winner to pose nude for the magazine. Lacy says if she wins she won't accept the offer to go nude.

The story doesn't tell us if all the nine bloggers were asked to participate, if they were informed about the possibility of naked posing and so on.

What I found really interesting were the comments to this story. It's always salutary to go and read what people truly think about such issues. I had fun making a short list of how to defend Playboy before I even started reading (We all know what Playboy does for business so big deal. Look, men like to look at women's tits so fuck you feminazis. Evolutionary psychology has made sex like this. Don't you have anything to write about that is really feminist and serious? Big deal; besides, my tits are bigger. Well, women have no brains so we might as well look at their asses.)

The number of quite feminist comments was a most pleasant surprise.

On Long Posts And Girl Artists

I want to write a long post on the argument by a British art critic that there has never been a great woman artist and never will be one, either. My argument requires a long post, it really does. But do people read long posts? And does a long post strike them as profoundly as sound bites of the above type?

Here's the real problem: It's very easy to make a statement like the one above. It's much harder to answer it, because I can't just go: Fuck off, asshole.

Well, I can, because ultimately the meaning of the original argument is no different from that, on some emotional level. But this arguing game is rigged to benefit those who make outrageous claims with no evidence and those who think "nuances" are misspellings for "nuisances". It's rigged to benefit those who have never read an art history book about the lives of female artists, and it's also rigged to benefit those who have never asked themselves what (and who) defines "great" art as opposed to some other type of art and whether that definition in itself might not have something to do with the cultural and gender-specific values that give birth to all art (and abort some of it).

Rove, Rove, Rove Your Boat

Karl Rove has refused to testify:

Karl Rove, President Bush's longtime political guru, refused to obey an order to testify before a House Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday.

Karl Rove's lawyers says he is immune from a congressional subpoena.

Rove's lawyer asserted that Rove was "immune" from the subpoena the committee had issued, arguing that the committee could not compel him to testify due to "executive privilege."

The panel subpoenaed Rove in May after his lawyer, Robert D. Luskin, made clear the former White House deputy chief of staff would not appear voluntarily.

Luskin responded immediately that Rove still would not appear, prompting a threat of prosecution from the Judiciary Committee chairman, Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, and Rep. Linda Sanchez, a California Democrat who chairs the subcommittee on commercial and administrative law.

"A refusal to appear in violation of the subpoena could subject Mr. Rove to contempt proceedings, including statutory contempt under federal law and proceedings under the inherent contempt authority of the House of Representatives," Conyers and Sanchez wrote.

"We are unaware of any proper legal basis for Mr. Rove's refusal to even appear today as required by the subpoena," Sanchez said Thursday morning when Rove failed to show up. "The courts have made clear that no one -- not even the president -- is immune from compulsory process. That is what the Supreme Court rules in U.S. v. Nixon and Clinton v. Jones."

This is not surprising, of course. It's how the concept of "executive privilege" has been used by the Bush administration as meaning that no laws need to be followed if they happen to displease someone in the administration.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Way To Pick Prezdents

You won't believe this, but the recommended way still is to try to find someone who is no smarter than you at all. A good way is to try to imagine whom you'd most like to have a beer with. In 2000 it was an ex-alcoholic, by the way. Or so we were told.

Now it's the guy who tells jokes about killing Iraqis Iranians with lung cancer. That would be McCain. His joke made the pundits tell us that this joking shows he's just a reg'lar guy, someone we would like to have at our dinner table. Aftah all, we all like to tell jokes about killing the people we were supposedly trying to liberate and all innocent people. Don't we?

Here's the interesting political discussion on McCain's joke about why the increased exports of American cigarettes to Iran are a good thing: Because it kills a lot of them:

Now of course it was a stupid joke. We all understand that. What I'm irked about is the idea that telling stupid jokes makes you a better candidate for prezdenting. Remember how it turned out last time?

I'd prefer a president who is loads smarter than me, someone I would hesitate to have a beer with in case I'd be so awe-struck that I spilled it all on that person's outfit or something. Being the president of the United States is a demanding job and not every Joe or Jane Schmoe should seem qualified for it.

McCain doesn't know how Social Security works, either, as shown in this clip:

If knowing nothing is the way to elect a good prezdent, get your rowing boats ready for a quick escape.
Added later: I got the country wrong at first. Thanks to swampcracker in the comments for pointing it out. Aren't you glad I'm not running for prezdent?

Deep Thought For The Day

The United States only has one party, with two wings: The extreme right wing and the slightly-less extreme right wing. The latter is also the polite wing, the one which folds whenever the other one wishes it to fold.

No wonder that this plane has so much difficulty flying without turbulence.

A Real Fox

That's Fox News. A recent story by a journalist speaks about some of the stuff they do in the name of freemarkettoughcompetition. A lot of it sounds like extortion and racketeering to my innocently pink ears, but I'm sure it's quite all right:

Like most working journalists, whenever I type seven letters — Fox News — a series of alarms begins to whoop in my head: Danger. Warning. Much mayhem ahead.

Once the public relations apparatus at Fox News is engaged, there will be the calls to my editors, keening (and sometimes threatening) e-mail messages, and my requests for interviews will quickly turn into depositions about my intent or who else I am talking to.

And if all that stuff doesn't slow me down and I actually end up writing something, there might be a large hangover: Phone calls full of rebuke for a dependent clause in the third to the last paragraph, a ritual spanking in the blogs with anonymous quotes that sound very familiar, and — if I really hit the jackpot — the specter of my ungainly headshot appearing on one of Fox News's shows along with some stern copy about what an idiot I am.


Fox News found a huge runway and enormous success by setting aside the conventions of bloodless objectivity, but along the way, it altered the rules of engagement between reporters and the media organizations they cover. Under its chief executive, Roger Ailes, Fox News and its public relations apparatus have waged a permanent campaign on behalf of the channel that borrows its methodology from his days as a senior political adviser to Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.

At Fox News, media relations is a kind of rolling opposition research operation intended to keep reporters in line by feeding and sometimes maiming them. Shooting the occasional messenger is baked right into the process.

It sounds like that book All The King's Men or perhaps like the Godfather movie. It also offers some ideas why the press has acted so meekly when it comes to Republicans of various ilk. Wouldn't it be great fun (and also educational) if some very brave reporters did more study on that topic? They'd have to be very brave, true, and also completely unaffected by the loss of their careers etcetera.

The most recent installment of all this has to do with the way Fox News photoshopped the faces of journalists they call attack dogs. The forehead of one was lowered, his nose was widened and so on. All just innocent and clean fun, except that the viewers were not informed that the faces had been photoshopped. Like this:

Why does any of this matter? Do you have friends or family who watch Fox News? I have some, and Fox News is on in every room of the house, all day long. It's a background to all daily living, the only source of "news", almost like your private mesmerizer. What's more worrying is that some people who watch Fox all the time don't watch any other news sources. Over time they drift into a different dimension altogether, a dimension in which New York Times writers really do have the heads of Neanderthals, a dimension in which it was the Iraqis who caused the 9/11 massacres. How are we going to have a public conversation on anything with people who don't have the same evidence and facts as the rest of us?

The odd thing is that for the Fox strategy to work all the other news stations must act as the straight guy in a joke. Once everybody starts using the war propaganda model Fox is cooked. But so are all the consumers of news. Sad, isn't it?

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Where In The World Is Dick Cheney?

And what is his precise job in the Bush administration? That has been up for some debate for a while, but it seems that he had his fingers in many a pie:

Seeking to downplay the effects of global warming, Vice President Dick Cheney's office pushed to delete references about the consequences of climate change on public health from congressional testimony, a former senior EPA official claimed Tuesday.

The former official, Jason K. Burnett, said that White House was concerned that the proposed testimony last October by the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention might make it tougher to avoid regulating greenhouse gases.

The account, described by Burnett in a July 6 letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, conflicts with the White House explanation at the time that the deletions reflected concerns by the White House Office of Science and Technology over the accuracy of the science.

Burnett, until last month a senior adviser on climate change at the Environmental Protection Agency, described that Cheney's office was deeply involved in getting nearly half of the CDC's original draft testimony removed.

"The Council on Environmental Quality and the office of the vice president were seeking deletions to the CDC testimony (concerning) ... any discussions of the human health consequences of climate change," Burnett said in the letter to Boxer.

And what do the administration insiders say about this?

Megan Mitchell, a spokeswoman for Cheney's office, said that the office doesn't comment on internal deliberations. "The interagency review process exists so that agencies and offices can comment and offer their views," she wrote. "This is no different than in any other administration."

What you don't know can't hurt you, right? I guess that's the rationale for keeping the possible health effects of global climate change hidden.

From the LOL Files

Katha Pollitt gave a fascinating interview in the In Depth series about writers on C-Span2 (You can see it at 9 am on July 12). You should watch it, especially the bit in the middle where she states that she reads this blog and calls me "wonderful"! Katha Pollitt is not only a fabulous writer and thinker; she also has excellent taste in her blog readership. Mmm.

Anyway, that's not the LOL part, though you may laugh at me if you wish. It's good for your spleen. What I found funny is that Rush Limbaugh actually noted the interview in his talk show:

POLLITT: The word "feminism" has been I think successfully demonized by the media. So that, for example, the word "feminazi" -- which was, I believe, a coinage of Rush Limbaugh; that distinguished sociologist and political theorist.

RUSH: Thank you.

POLLITT: I remember the first time I heard that word, I could not believe it. And yet that has become a standard of verbal, you know, locution that you hear all the time, used like it's a word. So I think the word... Many people are very afraid of the word.

RUSH: It's an accurate word. The reason it's become a word -- and it has become a word; it's in the dictionary now -- is because it's accurate, and I am a "noted sociologist and political theorist." I thank her for pointing that out.

I like the use of the term "accurate" there. What is the word "accurate" about?

Never mind. Last night I was thinking of a variant of this question:

Suppose that the apocalypse had taken place and that the only two survivors in the world were you and Rush Limbaugh. Would you cross the continent to find him?

The Proper Study For Women Is Women. Discuss.

The post below didn't cover all the thoughts I had on Trubek's article, because I wanted to leave it short enough for reading on hot and muggy days. But some of those unwritten thoughts want to be written out, so here they are:

Remember this quote from Trubek's piece? I have bolded the bits I want to talk about:

I did my own tally. From May 2007 through May 2008, Harper's published 232 men and 51 women (a ratio of about 4.5 to one) and The Atlantic published 158 men to 49 women (a ratio of about three to one). In 2008, The New Yorker has published 185 men and 51 women (about 3.5 to one). Things are not getting much better.

As disheartening as those statistics are, closer inspection of what women do publish in such magazines makes the disparity even more disturbing. Many of the women's contributions are not features. (At The New Yorker, they might be a Talk of the Town piece, a poem, a cartoon, or a dance review.) And many are about being a woman. For example, the March 2008 issue of The Atlantic contains three substantial pieces by women. One, by Eliza Griswold, is both political and reported, and it does not integrate her personal experience. But the other two use personal experiences to make claims about women's lives. And in an almost absurd twist, both argue that women should start settling for less.

I hardly know where to start unraveling the brain-knot I have developed on this topic. First, note that women very often are viewed as an interest group in political and sociological writing, sort of like unionized carpenters or like carpenter ants or like people from some tiny town in Alaska. It's important that this interest group has a voice out there -- or so I imagine the editors musing -- and thus it's necessary to employ a woman or two, to write on the topic of Women.

Because of this weird equivalence, one woman is plenty! After all, we wouldn't want more than one unionized carpenter (or carpenter ant) on the opinion pages of our largest newspapers! And of course the women writers are then expected to write about women's issues. That's what they are there for.

But notice something funny here? Now the market for women writers has shrunk to almost nothing, and the reasons are not necessarily evilly misogynist.

That's the second part of my knotted thoughts on this topic, that IF we confuse the gender of a writer with the representation of that gender we might get a very tiny market for women who write. That whole confusion is built on that sexist assumption that women are like carpenter ants, but no additional sexism is necessary to get to an astonishing conclusion (and my third point):

Once the market for women writers has been shrunk into a doll-house size, new entrants find employment hard to find. Unless what? Unless their schtick is to hate other women!

Just think about it. The editors have already filled that one job where the woman is supposed to "represent" women's points of view in her writing. But they might be very interested in someone who wants to bash those points of views, as discord is good for readership and viewership numbers. Only the basher has to be a woman, too, for diplomatic reasons.

I'm quite pleased with the story I present above. It's naturally exaggerated, for the sake of pedagogical clarity. There are women writing on other issues, too, for example. But the idea that "women" should be discussed and debated is almost universally accepted in the media, and the people who should do that discussing and debating should be women so that men don't come across as sexist assholes all the time.

Why don't we discuss and debate the topic "men"? That, my sweet readers, is a rhetorical question, but I hasten to answer it anyway: Because it's silly to assume that billions of men all have the same points of view. It's equally silly to assume that about billions of women but it's sort of easier to do if you view women from the outside as exotic carpenter ants.

My thought knot is almost unraveled. The final part has to do with the fact that women indeed are more likely to write on sexism and misogyny than men, for obvious reasons, and that if women don't bring up those issues in the media they will not be brought up very often. Sigh. It's not clean work, this feminist writing, and it's poorly paid, too. Once I fix the problems I can concentrate on my Magnum Opus on how to garden while losing pounds and having great sex, too. No carpenter ants involved, promise.

Monday, July 07, 2008

The Silent Thunder

That is your koan for the day.

I have a few favorite puzzles in my head, the types of questions which entertain me on rainy days or in the dentist's waiting room or while at a boring meeting. One of those is this paradox: According to various anti-feminist science writers girls are good with words and boys are good with numbers and pinning butterflies against the wall and so on, and this is why there are so few women in hard sciences, so stop complaining about it you nasty feminazis. But where are all those women so eloquent and good with words? That's the interesting puzzle.

An example of these vanishing women is given in Anne Trubeck's piece entitled The Queens of Nonfiction*. A snippet:

Ira Glass, host of the radio and television program This American Life, claims that nonfiction is the most important and impressive art form of our day: "We're living in an age of great nonfiction writing, in the same way that the 1920s and 30s were a golden age for American popular song. Giants walk among us, Cole Porters and George Gershwins and Duke Ellingtons of nonfiction storytelling."

To commemorate and canonize this golden age, Glass compiled an anthology of some of the best nonfiction writing. The paperback original, published last fall, with proceeds benefiting a nonprofit tutoring center, received prime display space in many bookstores. Its title: The New Kings of Nonfiction.

Huh? Glass is a trailblazing icon of alternative, indie culture, a very with-it, 21st-century guy. What was he thinking? Why did he choose a gender-specific title for his book?


A few years ago, two women — Ruth Davis Konigsberg, a writer and former editor at Glamour, and Elizabeth Merrick, director of a women's literary reading series — tallied the ratio of male to female contributors at those four magazines on their own Web sites. The numbers called attention to a significant gender disparity. According to Konigsberg, on, during a 12-month period (from September 2005 to September 2006), there were 1,446 men's bylines and 447 women's bylines. At Harper's, the ratio was nearly seven to one, at The New Yorker four to one, and at The Atlantic 3.6 to one.

I did my own tally. From May 2007 through May 2008, Harper's published 232 men and 51 women (a ratio of about 4.5 to one) and The Atlantic published 158 men to 49 women (a ratio of about three to one). In 2008, The New Yorker has published 185 men and 51 women (about 3.5 to one). Things are not getting much better.

As disheartening as those statistics are, closer inspection of what women do publish in such magazines makes the disparity even more disturbing. Many of the women's contributions are not features. (At The New Yorker, they might be a Talk of the Town piece, a poem, a cartoon, or a dance review.) And many are about being a woman. For example, the March 2008 issue of The Atlantic contains three substantial pieces by women. One, by Eliza Griswold, is both political and reported, and it does not integrate her personal experience. But the other two use personal experiences to make claims about women's lives. And in an almost absurd twist, both argue that women should start settling for less.

I love the way that quote ends, because I have for long observed the de-feminizing (sort of like de-licing) that is going on at Atlantic Monthly. It started with a few new editors and the installation of Caitlyn Flanagan and it seems to have gone on mercilessly ever since, so that the Atlantic is now the go-to-place for really good examples of woman-blaming and for answers to the old question What Ails The Women.

But to return to Trubek's piece: She makes a point which the anti-feminist science popularizes never address within the basic theory they use for women and hard sciences, the one which argues for different genetic talent distributions. Instead, trying to explain the scarcity of women in the field they supposedly ace requires drawing on one of the other explanations in their tool kits. Male aggression and competitiveness, say. But of course then one wonders why that can't be used to explain what goes on in the hard sciences, too. Why hit women with two different hammers?

I'll leave the answer to that for you to contemplate. Trubek takes all the possible explanations for the vanishing writer women more seriously (probably because she hasn't spent so much time hearing them already), and largely goes for the gendered division of labor as the explanation why the Daring Boy Reporters Infiltrating Al-Qaeda (to make up an example she didn't use) are not Daring Girl Reporters (though a burqa would be an advantage there if Al-Qaeda ever decided to admit women):

Also like Glass, Boynton celebrates how this generation is reinventing "the way one gets the story. … They've developed innovative immersion strategies (Ted Conover worked as a prison guard for his book Newjack and lived as a hobo for Rolling Nowhere) and extended the time they've spent reporting (Leon Dash followed the characters in Rosa Lee for five years)."

That may be the rub — especially considering the self-described lives of Tsing Loh and Gott-lieb: Female writers are busy raising children. It is hard to climb Mount Everest or become a hobo when you have to pick the kids up from school every day at 3:30.

Speaking about paradoxes worthy of contemplation, have you noticed my recent posts about religion telling women that they shouldn't be bishops and that they really should submit to their husbands and to focus on being wives and mothers? Yet when people like Trubek write about the gendered division of labor we are all expected to act astonished (astonished!) that women choose to do such things, all by their little selves. They just don't want to climb Mount Everest in the search of a good story, to be then crowned the Kings of Nonfiction (and also to be blamed for child abandonment if they happen to be mother-women).

And however hard editors work to find women who'd write about nonfiction topic, alas, they cannot be found. They are all hiding, in Plain Sight.

I'm not trying to release women from any responsibility for failing to submit as much as men do. Of course women should submit more stories. The trick is to stop thinking that they aren't good enough. Have a look at David Brooks' columns in the New York Times, and your heart will soar with confidence. When the rejections come, start collecting them by the type and frame the guest bath with them. One day all your visitors will get a good laugh while sitting there, considering that it's the bathroom of the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature. Well, thinking that way helps.
*Trubek's column can be read for five days without subscription. I guess that means until 7/9/08.

Deep Thoughts About Garage Cleaning

I did some garage cleaning yesterday, and now feel morally righteous. Why is that? The reason must be something not-very-nice, because when I really act morally I don't feel that good.

In any case, I found some mathematical manuscripts of mine there, all shredded by mice to make a comfy nest for their babies, and there's a deep message in that, too. Maybe seeing all those integral signs on the nest walls made the mouse babies ever so good in the hard sciences?

And the newly empty garage space! The empty space is the important part, just as old Lao Tse said. Also the newly washed garage windows, though Lao Tse probably said nothing about that.

If First You Fail Then Try Again

For some weird reason that insists to be the title of this post. What does it think it's saying here? If you fail to get raped, try again, maybe? Not sure.

What I'm writing about is this from Shoot The Messenger:

We conducted a pre-interview with Tracie who writes about sex and pop culture for Jezebel under the name "Slut Machine." When you click on "Slut Machine" you are linked to her personal blog that regales her readers with "no detail left behind" accounts of her sexual experiences.
Moe writes about politics and sex as well and combines pop culture with it all and was not available for a pre-interview. Tracie assured us she would be cool with anything we talked about in the feminist, political arena, that she was an expert on China, and that they had been talking a lot about rape lately.
They were emailed a show description with links to past interviews and we were all set.

I don't know if they came to the show drunk, or just ended up drunk by the time they hit the stage, but what I do know is that the discussion that ensued was deeply disturbing to me for a few reasons:

Because they had no regard for the people who came that night and paid money to hear them speak.
They do not understand the influence they have over the women who read them, nor do they accept any responsibility as role models for young women who are coming of age searching for lifestyles to emulate.

Even as one young woman who attended the show voiced her disappointment on her own blog, when Moe and Tracie commented on the entry, she was so excited that she backpedaled her criticism.

Here are the two relevant clips. (You can get the whole interview here.):

I can see how outrageously funny it might be to say that guys who are not considering rape are pussies or how coitus interruptus works as well as a condom, especially against venereal disease. I can even appreciate the shock value of something like that. And the world-weary attitude is a time-honored one to take. Christopher Hitchens does the male version really well, for instance.

At the same time, it's sort of dangerous to imply that women who get date-raped are not just intuitive enough to sniff out potential rapists. This used to be called victim-blaming; a pretty safety blanket for those who think it then can't happen to them.

It's also dangerous not to appear to know the facts about contraception and the incidence of rape and so on.

Now, I'm all for playing the game, if you wish. But if you pick up a sport of some kind, say, boxing or casual sex, you really should learn the rules and practice the moves and know what to anticipate beforehand. Had I gone to my karate sparring matches completely unprepared I would have been whupped so bad. So yes, you can play, but first learn what the game is, what the offense consists of and what your defense should look like. These ladies are not telling you that part.
I should add that I like lots of the posts on Jezebel, and that this post is not intended as an indictment of the blog. Or as an indictment of anything, really. See how meek I am?

Sunday, July 06, 2008

An Act of War (by Phila)

The Right blogosphere has been very excited, lately, about reports that members of the Mexican army "invaded" a home in Phoenix and murdered its occupant (who appears to have been a drug dealer). The initial impetus for this story came from wingnut radio host (and former congressman) J.D. Hayworth, who got the story from Mark Spencer of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association. Spencer backed his theory up with a hearsay report that appeared in internal memos from the Phoenix Police Department, which he posted online (apparently in defiance of department policy).

Spencer's claim was then picked up by Fox News, which helpfully included a link to Hayworth's interview. Soon enough, bloggers were announcing that the Mexican Army had crossed the border to invade Phoenix, and calling it "an act of war."

As the story reverberated through hundreds of empty heads, it got weirder and more outrageous. All-American Blogger, for instance, concluded that "Mexican drug cartels are hiring members of the Mexican military to come across the border with full tactical gear and kill Phoenix police officers in their own homes," [emphasis added] and also informed Free Republic's elite cadre of revolutionaries and dialecticians that the "Mexican Military [is] Raiding The Homes of Phoenix Police Officers."

Both the ICE and the Phoenix PD have denied that any of the suspects were members of the Mexican military. However, Hayworth's radio station has phrased the denials in such a way that they'll confirm the darkest suspicions of immigrant-hatin' paranoiacs:
Phoenix police also did not confirm whether the men were from the military despite internal documents showing that they were.
In fact, these "internal documents" show only that one of the suspects claimed to be a member of the Mexican military. However, by cutting out that attribution, it's easy enough to represent it as the secret, publicly disavowed belief of the Phoenix PD.

And of course, official denials pose no problem at all for those who wish to believe this was an incursion by Mexican military personnel. On the contrary, the denials prove that the story is basically correct...or better yet, from the standpoint of emotional satisfaction, that the situation is much worse than they're letting on. This is the sort of narrative for which only two types of evidence exist: compelling and overwhelming.

Which is why stories like this one put the White House in something of a bind. If it denies that the Mexican military is crossing the border to murder American citizens, it's part of the conspiracy. And if it claims to be concerned, any action it takes that fails to satisfy the "border security" crowd's bottomless appetite for authoritarian brutality, bigotry, and stupidity will be rejected as capitulation or worse.

In my more dour moods, I assume that Bush's ability to enrage the Left still commands some superstitious respect among the gun hoarders and hyperpatriots and racists whom the Administration has played for suckers, even as a steady diet of unfalsifiable rumors and violent rhetoric brings their hysteria and hatred closer to the boiling point. It's easy to imagine things deteriorating once a more..."traditional" enemy of America takes office.