Saturday, May 30, 2009

Preferential Treatment (by Phila)

Matthew Yglesias compares Sonia Sotomayor's "preferential treatment" to that of white conservatives:
Beyond the simple observation that conservatives really and truly are fanatical in their defense of the prerogatives of white people, the obvious observation to make is that everyone in life has been treated preferentially by someone at some point. Sometimes if you face a lot of disadvantages in life, people recognize that and extend you an extra helping hand. Or maybe, like John Roberts, you were educated at a private boarding school before attending Harvard. Or maybe you’re Irving Kristol’s son. Or maybe because your ideology pleases Rupert Murdoch, he agrees to cover the losses of the magazine you work at.
This displeases Robert VerBruggen, who presumably clawed his way to an eminent position at NRO's Phi Beta Cons through willpower and the sweat of his brow.
When someone is privileged in life — for example, by going to an elite boarding school — he can leverage these privileges to make himself more qualified for various positions. When someone is privileged in the awarding of a credential — such as by receiving a degree for less or lower-quality work than others had to do — this makes the credential less valuable. In other words, it papers over a lack of qualifications.
Having granted that last point, as we must, most of us would go on to imagine a situation in which a wealthy white legacy student does less or lower-quality work than his peers, gets a prestigious degree regardless, and proceeds directly to the board of a multinational company, or some thinktank whose goal is to maintain a stranglehold on political power and the national terms of debate. We might even imagine him holding forth stridently on some complex subject like genetics or climatology, even though he barely managed to "earn" his MBA, and spent his few science classes irritating professors with talking points gleaned from J. Philippe Rushton and William Dembski.

VerBruggen, I'm sure, would find these scenarios totally outlandish. As he sees it, wealthy, privileged people use privilege to better themselves, which is what makes them great. By contrast, greedy, grasping, dim-bulb minorities like Ms. Sotomayor use privilege to crash High Society. Picture a 1906 cartoon of a cannibal in a tuxedo and top hat, spouting comical malapropisms at a dinner party, and you'll get the basic idea.
No one, not even white-folks-lovin' conservatives, disputes that minorities get fewer "special advantages in life than do middle class white men." The issue at hand is whether that fact mandates we hold minorities to a lower standard when it comes to hiring and university admissions — and then, apparently, forget they were held to a lower standard when they're nominated to the Supreme Court....

If universities didn't treat minorities preferentially, there'd be no question about whether Sotomayor's graduation from Princeton with honors means anything less than anyone else's.
In this last sentence, VerBruggen acknowledges that certain people's qualifications can basically be taken on faith, even if they involved "leveraging privilege." To anyone with the slightest self-awareness, or the faintest glimmerings of conscience, that really ought to set off a few alarm bells. If VerBruggen isn't saying that gender and skin color are strongly suggestive of inferiority - and that any "honors" minorities flaunt are likely to be stolen, like a twenty-dollar bill in the pocket of a sharecropper - it's hard to know what he is saying.

He'd probably argue that this isn't about minorities and women per se; he's just worried - in his amiable, doting way - about the corrupting effect of special advantages on people who "normally" lack them; he might fret just as ostentatiously over the table manners of people at a soup kitchen, for all I know. But I suspect that if AA were repealed tomorrow, he and his co-religionists would soon find equally earnest reasons to suggest that people like Sonia Sotomayor are substandard and inadequate and ultimately ludicrous, in accordance with the popular theory which states that you're only a racist if you dislike minorities for no good reason.

In any case, VerBruggen's bright idea is to let inborn privilege continue to work its magic in the lives of people who have it, while demanding that women and minorities prove their (alleged) worth by overcoming the structural disadvantages that inevitably arise from this process. As usual, "preferential treatment" is fine, as long as you have the correct preferences.

Reclaiming the forest for women (by Magda Santos)

Walking Florida’s wilderness trails is one of the most beautiful, peaceful and fascinating pastimes. The spiritual and philosophical become secondary to pure enjoyment.

However, as a woman, my first concern turns from peace and beauty to safety. My first thought is not communing with the forest and its animals or camping in the moonlight. It all turns into keeping myself safe.

Why? Simple, how many newspaper stories have you read about women attacked, raped, and killed? How many times have you heard the horrible statistics about domestic violence? Then there are the murders of whole families by angry distraught men. Here in Florida, we were unwillingly a part of the death of two women and two children by a husband and father.

Then there’s the difference in stature between the sexes. Most women are smaller and not as muscular or even as strong as most men. That keeps us at a disadvantage. Remember, we’re not encouraged to be physically powerful; it threatens men, alienates potential husbands, and doesn’t make us look feminine like the emaciated models on posters, runways, and magazines.

I can just imagine the first time a man chose a weaker woman. “No, no I don’t want an Amazon; she’s my equal. I want someone I can push around.” Eventually it became an important social thought embedded in our psyche.

So what does all of this have to do with women walking in the woods? It illustrates our need to evaluate risk, benefits and be careful, not carefree. Feeling carefree is not for people with access to little money, opportunity, and strength.
I host an Internet radio show called Speak Freely on Saturdays at 4 p.m., and recently, I interviewed someone who teaches a woman’s style of chi kung. We talked about the influences of nature on the many chi kung forms and at the end of the interview I asked if she practiced with her students outdoors?

Her response was it would be wonderful but some of the movements are provocative and it would be dangerous to practice in the park nearby. In addition, some of the women are survivors of cancer and violence and they would feel too vulnerable. I respect their decision and understand their feelings of vulnerability.

However, if you wish to venture outside, there are many ways of protecting yourself and as most personal security experts suggest the best idea is to look like a difficult target. You see most thieves, rapists, murderers, and other bad people look for the easiest target. They move on to the house that has no lights on, the keys left in the car, the woman without a dog.

They look for opportunity. I once left a camera in my car with the windows down in a suburban neighborhood and sat across the street. A thirtysomething white male with a female walked by the car and saw the camera; he reached in and took it, shrugging his shoulders as he looked around. I walked across the street and took the camera back from him. He was not apologetic or remorseful. I only tell you this story to show you how opportunism works.

So, hide your knife and make sure you know who’s next to you at all times. Keep your herd mentality and don’t be picked off. You don’t want to be the hiker that stays behind or eats alone.

A woman’s world is limited only by the amount of time and courage she wishes to use for a given task. Now, if she wishes to use her capital by spending time outdoors she will have to cultivate awareness and self-defensive skills. Self-defense classes are abundant, take one and tips on personal security are numerous. Hear are just two: Wear drab-colored T-shirts that help you blend in to the scenery and say, "I’m not looking to hook up." Then the old standby: There is safety in numbers. Hiking with groups like Florida Trails or the Sierra Club will help keep you safe. Nature is waiting to show you all her beauty and soothe your soul.

Don’t give up the outdoors out of fear. Reclaim the forest. Besides they don’t call her Mother Nature for nothing. See you on the trails.
You can listen to Magda on her radio blog. This guest post was posted by Suzie.

Against Bigotry: My Last Words Here on the Subject by Anthony McCarthy

In all of the stuff I’ve read about the alleged war between religion and science, both sides seem to forget one of the clearest features of both their side and the other. Both science and religion are activities engaged in by humans and, as far as we know now, only by humans. There is not a single word or idea about either one that isn’t the product of a human mind, mouth or hand. There is no unmitigated expression of either the natural universe or the supernatural, no expression of them is more than symbolic or a substitute for the direct experience of the thing itself. All expressions in all topics, true, false, undecided, etc. are a completely human interpretation of their experience.

Religion is the expression of peoples’ interpretation of what they have every right to believe is their personal experience of the supernatural, in whatever form that takes. How much of their experience is covered under “religion” varies with personal interpretation. Religion is not a formally limited word. Being personal, it is wildly variable. Being an attempt to understand what is a profound and difficult experience, the symbolic expression of it is bound to be not much more than metaphorical. When mistaken as science or history, the vital essence of the metaphor is destroyed. And its not only religious fundamentalists who do that. Absent actions that harm others, religious belief is the property of the believer.

Science is the expression of a small part of peoples’ experience of matter and energy as it appears to their perceptions. Science exists as the result of a formal adoption of fairly definite procedures and methods. It is strictly limited. Or should be. Since science deals with what is a relatively simple part of reality, its symbolism frequently achieves something fairly accurate and useful. Often all too useful. Science is meant to be a source of universal instead of personal truth and as such is the property of everyone.

The expression of religious experience is not filtered through a relatively fixed series of universally adopted methodical refinements, it can’t be because it’s purposes and subject matter are too varied and are not in any way sufficiently limited to permit that. The realities and relationships it deals with are far too complex for that.

Science, which exists only in order to obtain an enhanced degree of reliability in understanding and manipulation of the material universe, can’t be practiced without passing its raw materials through those kinds of formal filters. Science without those filters is unreliable. That large parts of even the material universe are not able to be refined with science makes it a far more limited activity even within the material universe. Science, being an attempt to gain an enhanced level of reliability, doesn’t deliver that when it abandons or neglects the stringent practice of its methods. When it does follow those strictly, it is the source of our most reliable information about some of the material universe. When it doesn’t follow them strictly, its reliability is liable to break down, in the worst cases, catastrophically. For that reason what can be and has been treated by science and what hasn’t been is a vitally important consideration, would that it was more often considered.

You might have noticed that this discussion has, so far, left out the extremely important issue of good and bad, morality. Morality deals with interactions between living beings, the observation of rights and practicing justice and kindness. It is commonly thought that morality seems to be the proper concern of religion and has nothing to do with science. That idea is possible only if you ignore that as human activities and human concerns, there is no way to completely isolate them from having an impact on the rest of life. Interestingly, it is on the field of morality, of the struggle for the true, the good, the noble and the right, that the epic smack down between religion vs. science, for the minds of humanity is waged. Considering the frequently dishonest and dirty part of that, it’s not the reasoning mind that is being engaged. I will point out in passing that it is a grudge match waged by those who purport to represent the rest of us, whether or not we want to be associated with them.

Science doesn’t exist in a disembodied perfection, in a pure and chaste form, any more than religion does. The activities of both impinge on the lives of people and the lives of the countless other beings we are related to on this planet and, perhaps someday, beyond it. Religion frequently descends from its higher intentions of delivering justice and kindness and becomes as sordid as any other human activity. No less than religion, in its popular form and even in some who should know better, the romantic view of science rivals the worst of disingenuous depictions of religion.

Science has intentionally provided us with the means to kill millions in a single day. We know its deliberately made products have killed hundreds of thousands in two events, and many tens of thousands in others. The bombs that did that were intended to do just that. As a tool of commerce, it is one of the strongest forces with which we are destroying our planet. As with religion, only those who have done this in science are to blame for that, though the rest of us withholding the condemnation of those who do implicates us all in their crimes against life.

Both religion and science are useful to the acquisition and concentration of wealth, both, as wealth enhancement for its authorities, are liable to become potent tools of evil*. Both frequently have been and are entirely willing tools of evil today. Both, for example, have been used to justify racism and sexism, economic inequality and the murders of millions. Real life impinges on both to an extent and in ways neither is generally willing to admit.

Science should be held to its methods of achieving its enhanced reliability, though it often isn’t. What gets called by the honored title “science” often depends on the status of the person pushing it far more than what they’re pushing. While this is especially true in that part of science which depends on faith, popular science, it is often true even at levels above that. As others have also pointed out, scientists can’t read everything, they can’t even analyze everything they might need for their own work, much of what they use is taken on faith.

At times the eye rolling of scientists aware that something habitually regarded as being science is garbage, is suppressed because they don’t want to have to put up with the fussing by colleagues in other departments at faculty meetings. But if you get someone in the hard sciences to talk candidly, they can be quite expressive on the topic of the fraudulence of much that is called and popularly regarded to be orthodox science. They can be especially, and often quite publicly, verbal about the scientific deficiencies of rivals in their own field, with equally prestigious positions, or those even higher. Sometimes this can be reminiscent of the squabbling between two, closely related, religious sects. So the reliability of the entire field of “science” is not rock solid. It doesn’t deliver perfect reliability, it very often doesn’t serve the truth or improve the lives of people or other living beings. It’s conclusions are fully liable to being suppressed and its forgeries uncorrected for reasons entirely unrelated to diligent analysis and review. The trope that all the evil that science does is due to its corruption by “engineers” engaged in the applied corruption of altruistic, pure research, is bull feathers. You could make a sizeable list of truly evil practitioners of science who were never excommunicated from its rolls anymore than some of the most evil figures in our history weren’t from their religions. .

Religion too has its many failures and, at times, of horrible consequences. Due to the dramatic exposures of its hypocrisies and crimes against justice, religion is hardly lacking in bad press these days. Nor should it. Lacking formal procedures, it is harder to hold all of religion to standards of service and consistency but it should at the very least not be hypocritical. But that is as true for politics, trade, professions and any other collective effort to effectively do something in the world. Faulting them for not having methods and procedures which are certain to deliver the goods makes no sense. The insistence that one of these non-scientific, collective, attempts produce results as reliable as the best products of the physical sciences - dealing with much simpler phenomena - is clearly pointless. You may as well condemn all of science because scientists act sometime act with all the imperfections of people engaged in religion.

The idea that science and religion comprise two, non-overlapping magisteria of human activity is a good but limited view of the situation. I think that Stephen Jay Gould, the most famous proponent of the idea, was trying to define the two areas in conflict in a way that would separate them along a clear demilitarized zone. I think he really wanted to get back to his work and not get side tracked into a side show career, as some of his colleagues have been. Trying to get the fighting sides apart so more important things could happen was a noble effort at a limited peace. I also think he was being realistic about how we live our lives.

Among the legitimate goals of NOMA, as it’s often called, is to restrict the formal literature of science and the teaching of science in the public schools to their only legitimate subject matter. Science can’t be informed by anything outside of its subject matter and the methods developed to understand it. As mentioned, when science is extended past those, it’s not science anymore.

Religion-as-science doesn’t give reliable results because it can’t limit itself in that way, its subject matter is infinitely broader, it can’t restrict itself to a single methodology of collecting information. The results of even the best of religion, won’t be the results of science. It is news to many when they hear it but this fact is not news to many thoroughly religious people.

But among those other area of life mentioned above, religion can be and frequently is, informed by the most rigorous and reliable product of science. Religion, as politics, commerce, the arts, etc. do not require an exclusive wall against science. Being manifested in the material universe, inhabiting it, they could hardly avoid it. They can still exist and are often improved by consulting the specialized and limited product of science. There are even common areas of activity among them, sometimes, though, when those don’t serve any good end, they should be abandoned.

Politically, going past the struggle to keep religion from being imposed on formal science and science from stupidly trying to do what it can’t in the area of the supernatural, is a waste of time and a big mistake. The war on religion and the war on science does not need to define what we think and do, we don’t even have to be neutral in it. We can ignore the entire thing.

The life of a scientist or a religious believer is never honestly defined only in terms of one or the other. Both science and religion exist within individual people, within the same mind. It, more often than not, does. A person puts into effect the methods of science and delivers results, valid or invalid, to a positive, negative or inconclusive result. The same person participates in politics and, more often than not, other, non-scientific experience which they draw conclusions from for themselves. The person doesn’t contain non-overlapping anything, though they can compartmentalize when they have to perform a specific task. They don’t generally consult their political ideas when they make their bed or sweep their floor or balance an equation. They don’t consult their feeling of the necessity to give to the poor when they are observing the action of energy on a body in order to measure it as part of an experiment. The same person can do different things. They can have a life outside of and inside of work.

The public, political, problems that can come from and be solved with science, religion or any number of other human endeavor, generally concern avoiding doing harm to ourselves and our environment and to use resources more effectively in order to enhance the general good without causing worse problems. A large part of that is the effort to prevent those with enhanced power from abusing those with less or no power. Animals and plants, having no political power and demonstrating little in the way of effective planning for their protection, are the most vulnerable of all. Many people have almost as little ability to withstand the onslaught of the powerful armed with science, religion, the law and other tools.

As with the law, the potency of science and religion can be turned either way. The prestige of much of religion frequently has nothing to do with its justice or goodness. Much of the prestige of science has nothing to do with the search for truth, it has to do with its utility to those who have wealth and power and the large salaries that can result from serving the powerful. That money making potential and utility to those who want to use them are some of the few things it shares in full with religion. Pretending that either has a good track record in selfless service is one of the crueler jokes on the rest of us. The service to the common good has been spotty, both as intended effect and in its stated virtues being made real and effective. Lying about those records is another thing both science and religion have in common.

So, there we have it in all it’s marred, mixed, muddled and weathered reality. The works of human minds, mouths and hands, both science and religion. Both publicly aspiring to the highest truth and good, both thoroughly a part of human life in all its limited imperfection. Both should stop pretending and lying, neither should be allowed to lie about the other. And both of these exalted magisteria are fully a part of life, they are no purer in the reality of life than politics.

We, The People are saps when we fall for the cover stories and PR of all of them. They’re all of use to the greater good, but only when they serve it. Keeping them honest, making them serve the common good is the real problem. Not refereeing their eternal bickering.

* I think the relegation of the concept of evil to the status of a quaint and slightly embarrassing concern of a more credulous past should be abandoned. Evil, as anyone with a brain can see, is flourishing. Far from being a neurotic fixation keeping us from a happiness we have as a right, real guilt is preventative. People who don’t feel guilty about doing evil things, unsurprisingly, don’t have any hesitation to do them when they can get away with it. People can’t be monitored continually, they have to have internal limits on doing the rotten stuff they want to do. A lot of obsessive guilt is over things that hurt no one, people feeling that kind of guilt should stop indulging themselves and concentrate on what they do that hurts other people.

A Personal Note: I have had my fill of this stupid cultural squabble and especially the undifferentiated bigotry generated on the blogs of the left from the self-selected “science” side of it against all of religion. I did not live through the progress of the civil rights era to silently watch a rebirth of bigotry flourish on the nominal left. The “religion” side of the squabble is on the right and, at least, I can ignore that while pursuing my own side of the infinitely more important political fight. That, friends, is what I’m in this for, to fix our politics. I would invite bigots on both sides to go soak their heads and step out of the way because there is serious work for serious people to do and they’re being obstructive jack asses.

If “science” wants to shoot itself in the leg with stupid attacks on the vast majority of the population who are religious, including the majority of people who accept evolution, I can’t stop them. I will ask other people on the left to consider if that fight is worth more than the fight against global warming, for universal health insurance, to stop nuclear proliferation, against patriarchal sexism, racism, and a discouragingly huge agenda of absolutely necessary change. Scientists should ask themselves as well if they really want to get involved with the psycho-drama of the two warring camps of fundamentalists who have inflicted this distraction on us. But that’s their choice to make.

Quite frankly, and I’m sure most controversially, the most that the “pro science” side has a right to demand is that the formal literature of science and public school classrooms be restricted to the legitimate subject matter of science. Those are the only two legitimate areas in this that are of general public concern. Those people who have grabbed onto this dispute to promote a war on religion are a liability to those who really want to prevent religion being inserted where it shouldn’t be.

And in so far as public school biology classes are concerned, evolution has to take its place in a curriculum that deals with matters of more pressing concern to most public school students and the adults they will become. Most of them will need to protect an environment that will sustain their lives, sustain themselves with adequate food and clean water, avoid diseases, prevent pregnancies and venereal diseases through science-based contraceptive education, than will need to be familiar with the concept of natural selection.

And even within the section on evolution other topics such as genetic drift will have to become part of the subject as they gain more prominence. Topics vitally important to preventing racial, national and gender bigotry are of more pressing need than a familiarity with the history of classical evolution. It would be absurd to think that the fight over evolution is responsible for any of the problems exacerbated by ignorance of biology, the conventional American school schedule is probably more responsible for that. But there is no way that the anti-religious PR that has muckled on to the science of biology will help fix that. No more than their fundamentalist opponents program will.

Except in so far as it is useful to a student, evolution is of only cultural interest. Not everyone requires an extensive understanding of evolution in their work. We are talking about the one and only biology course many of these students will ever take in their entire lives. Not everyone receives a graduate level degree in any of the life sciences.

Trying to insert God into science is a supremely anti-religious act, as far as I’m concerned. It is to make God subject to the restrictions of the material universe. Personally, it confirms my suspicions about the religious defects of biblical fundamentalism, but that’s a personal observation only.

I am going to stop blogging on this issue except as it has the potential to damage the left’s chances in politics. Other than that it has wasted time better spent on important things. The warring sides are idiots, even the smartest of them. As noted here last week, it’s something I finally figured out. I don’t have any more time to waste on idiots who don’t care about fixing anything. We should tell them all to leave us out of it and ignore them when they attempt to divide us and to distract us from getting something done.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Domestic work, part 2 (by Suzie)

          I went out with T&P for a final dinner before P returns home. On a whim, I pulled in to a sex-toy store, thinking P might not be familiar with them. In the aisles of costumes, all for women, I explained that there’s a greater expectation that women will dress up for men than vice versa.
         Many feminists who identify with the third wave would say it’s fine if a woman dresses in a maid costume because anything that leads to sexual pleasure is liberatory. If a sex worker dresses as a maid to fulfill a man's fantasy, some feminists would say she has a right to do what she wants with her body. But if a woman hires another woman to do actual maid work, then the employer is a bourgeois racist who has bought her freedom at the expense of another woman, according to some people.
        This led back to last week’s topic. Because of the history and demographics of the U.S., it may be hard for people to see domestic work outside of the context of the exploitation of women of color. Last week, I tried to point out that people hire others for domestic work around the world, often within the same ethnic group. Employers often are not rich. It isn’t inherently exploitative – or, at least, not any more exploitative than any other labor. I think T&P show compassion when they try to find work for poor people, who are from their own ethnic group, but often rural. 
       I do understand that domestic work is ripe for abuse, especially when women work far from home, and men are involved. Here’s an article on that subject.
       Other jobs also are prone to abuse, such as ones in which workers travel a long way to work in sweatshops or in the fields. On the other hand, working in her hometown or inside her home is no guarantee that a woman won’t be abused. 
       Here’s an interesting article on who has been employed in domestic work in the United States. When women can find work that pays more, they often take it. If white women are blamed for shifting domestic work to women of color, wouldn’t individual women of color also be guilty when they move into better jobs? Progressives praise poor people for being resourceful and hard workers – until those people succeed financially, and then they become the oppressors.
        If white U.S. feminists bought their liberation at the expense of the women of color who did domestic chores, what about women of color here or in developing nations who pay for domestic work? 
        My mother had a bachelor's degree and worked as a Spanish-English secretary before she married. Afterward, my father didn’t want her to work. This was all about his status as a man who could provide for his family. It had nothing to do with household chores. It wasn’t like my mother stayed home all day; she did all sorts of volunteer work. When my parents divorced after many years, my mother faced age discrimination and could find only a low-paying job. She sold plaster figurines in a shop, and we kids sometimes helped by scraping the seam off the plaster with a special blade. One good thing about the job was it had down time when Mom could do creative writing.
        I’m sure there were white women who chose to have a professional career only because they could afford to hire a maid or nanny. But others wanted their own money, even if they had to continue to work inside and outside the home.
        By now, I hope I’m at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, telling doctors about sarcoma nonprofits. In a better world, I wouldn't have to do this work for free -- or at all.
        I’ll have a new topic next week. 

Friday flower blogging (by Suzie)

This is not porn. Please explain in 500 words or less. (Cf., last week's comments.) 

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Feed Me!

This is my annual fund-drive. Last year you lovely people helped me to replace my computer and that's why I'm still blogging! (OfcourseIreallyspentitallonchocolate.)

This time I need help for a conference trip. You want me to go, you do.

You can find donation buttons hidden all over this blog. Don't give if you don't have money to give. Thanks.

Tonight's Health Care Story

While at the drugstore tonight I found the usual cashier in the back of the store, sitting on a chair. He looked like death warmed over. Truly awful, and his temperature was high enough to heat the air around him.

We started chatting (well, I butted in and he's too polite and charming to tell me to fuck off). He has rheumatoid arthritis all along his spine, no health insurance, expensive (but pretty useless) pain-killing drugs and a job in which he is not allowed to sit down but must remain standing even while using one arm to load customer's heavy purchases into plastic bags. He needs much more intensive treatment than he can afford. He needs health insurance. He needs a stool to sit on and a more suitable job.

Living with chronic pain is living in hell, and it's not much good for your family or friends, either. Neither is it good for the employer, because they might lose an excellent and intelligent worker in their short-sighted chase for immediate savings.

I left feeling useless, angry and guilty. I shouldn't have left him there like that, but then neither should this country have done that to him and to so many others.

The Little Cottage...

Or a few scattered thoughts on the housing crisis. Atrios notes that things are going to get worse before they will get better, and that's certainly the case for those who are struggling to pay mortgages which are now higher than the value of their dwelling. Either they are going to lose whatever investments they have made in the house or they are locked in, unable to move. But have you asked yourself who might benefit from this crisis? It's not just people looking to buy for the first time (assuming they can get a mortgage from the deranged banking system.)

At the same time, if you compared average family incomes to the average house prices a few years ago it was pretty clear that something smelled off in the housing market: the "average" house was unaffordable (using the old rules) by the "average" family in almost every single area of the country. So the prices had to come down or the incomes had to go up. We all know which of the two happened.

Today's Deep Thought

It's horrible to be wrung dry when you have a fund drive. Maybe people could pay for my continued silence? Like in a protection scheme?

Something will turn up. In the meantime you should listen to Malvina Reynolds:

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Hunting Sonia

Everyone who reads this blog is an intelligent, empathic and fascinating creature (smear it thick enough for ya? mwah). Thus, everyone here knows that what the Republicans are doing to Sonia Sotomayor is a game they have to play. But it's a dirty and nasty game, and it's fascinating to see how the talking points are presented. Media Matters has put the main talking point and its repetition into one video:

Television viewers wouldn't get the same impression because those moments are sprinkled over a longer stretch of time. But the ultimate impact is the same one: Sotomayor is a racist! Of course she is also empathic which is bad because it's womanly! (Even though George Bush The Elder praised Clarence Thomas for his empathy).

Watching that video is like looking into the abyss in which fear lives among some conservatives, the fear of the poor-and-unwashed (wimmin! Hispanics!), the fear that some time of revenge is nigh and that they will be the victims of that. I almost feel pity until I remember that all that is pretense, that these guys on the video make good money and wield a lot of power.

Adam Serwer has a beautiful response to the pertinent question of what Sotomayor actually said and what it means. I especially like the observation that no particular set of life experiences makes one a neutral observer of the world or capable of reliving other people's experiences by just thinking about them. We can try (that's what empathy is for), and we should try, of course. But Pat Buchanan's opinions about the world are colored by his own history, his gender, his race, his religion and his ethnic group. These don't disqualify him for having opinions about questions he has never experienced, of course, but they should remind him of the need for modesty and the need not to view people with other life histories and defining characteristics as somehow 'not standard'.

But that's how Sonia is hunted. I don't want to join in that hunt. But I'd like to know her position on Roe v. Wade.

An Interesting Read

That would be William Deresiewicz's Nation article on literary Darwinism. (Yes, Virginia. Evo-psychos are everywhere.) It starts:

The appeal of evolutionary psychology is easy to grasp. Just think of Annie Hall. The last few decades have left us so profoundly disoriented about the most urgent personal matters--gender roles, sexual norms, the possibility of creating lasting romantic relationships, not to mention absolutely everything to do with family structure--that it's no surprise to find people embracing a theory that promises to restore order. Once we had religion to tell us who we are. Then, for a while, we had Freud. Now we have evolutionary psychology, which, as an attempt to construct a science of human nature on Darwinian principles, marshals two of the most powerful ideas in contemporary culture: science, our most authoritative way of knowing, and nature, our highest ground of moral appeal. No wonder the field is catnip to journalists and armchair theorists alike. Equip yourself with a few basic concepts--natural selection, inclusive fitness, mating choice--and you, too, can explain the mysteries of human existence. That evolutionary psychology has no real intellectual credibility, that mainstream biology regards it as a house of sand, rarely seems to come up. EP is the Malcolm Gladwell of science: facile and glib, but so persuasive and charming that no one wants to ruin the fun.

To be fair, the problem lies less in the field's goals than in its claims. Much of its opposition is misguided and out-of-date. For a long time, evolutionary approaches to human behavior were discredited by the specter of Social Darwinism. More recently, the concept of a unitary human nature has been condemned as a form of bourgeois universalism--that is, of disguised ethnocentrism. But those who reject the notion of human psychology as a product of evolution (that is, of nature rather than culture) would undoubtedly recoil at the idea that human physiology is not a product of evolution. The only alternative is creationism. And if our bodies have evolved, then so have our minds, which a materialist philosophy (one that doesn't depend on supernatural entities like the Christian soul) must regard as products of our bodies--of our brains, nerves, sense organs and so forth. Surely no one would dispute that there is a universal bee nature or dog nature or chimpanzee nature. Why not then acknowledge, at least in principle, a universal human nature, however various its elaborations in culture?

The question is, What does it consist of, how did it arise and can we discover it? Here is where evolutionary psychology falls down. EP claims that the human mind evolved in the Pleistocene, the 1.6 million years during which Homo sapiens emerged on the African savanna. EP seeks to identify apparently innate and cross-culturally universal aspects of human behavior (like speech), then tries to construct scenarios to explain why such behaviors would have been adaptive--would have promoted individual or collective survival and reproduction--in the Pleistocene environment. This all sounds reasonable until you discover that: (1) we don't actually know what the Pleistocene environment looked like; (2) we don't know how our Pleistocene ancestors lived; and (3) we now believe that evolution might happen a lot faster than we used to think, so much of our psychology may not be a product of the Pleistocene at all but of the 10,000 years since the emergence of civilization. There are other problems with the stories that EP likes to make up about how we got to be the way we are. They still have no support in genetics. If something's not genetic, it's not evolved. Also, not all behaviors (or physiological structures) are the result of selection pressures. Some are byproducts of other capacities, as literacy clearly is. Some are the result of functional shifts (insects' wings, for example, seem to have developed at first to regulate heat). Finally, there are some deeply ingrained human behaviors that seem very hard to justify in adaptive terms.

You know what's really fascinating to me? That first paragraph about how it used to be religion which told us "how we were", then Freud and now evolutionary psychology. And what do those three have to say about how "women are"? Hint: It's nothing very complimentary.

Mr. Deresiewicz probably wrote that paragraph quite blithely, just to get into the meat of the story, to set up the scaffolding for his argument. But that framework looks like the scaffolds to me. So it goes.

Then there's that bit about the opposition to evolutionary psychology as being misguided and out-of-date. Most of the opposition I've seen is not based on some weird theory that our psychological make-up never evolved. Neither is the idea of humans as blank slates terribly common. These arguments are often raised by certain evolutionary psychologists, to suggest that anyone who doesn't agree with their particular hypotheses is obviously either a creationist or otherwise nutty.

That's a false dichotomy, of course.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


I was praying to myself (as the nearest divine) not to ever have to use that silly title about Ross Douthat. But he wants it, so there it sits, on top of this post, sigh, because Douthat insists on going after us wimmenfolk as soon as possible. He's David Brooksian in his approach. This consists of pretending that he reallyreally cares about women's equality but, alas, the little dears just cannot handle equality and --- oops! look at this study I found by digging very hard! --- the science agrees.

Where was I? Oh, douchehattery. Here it goes:

American women are wealthier, healthier and better educated than they were 30 years ago. They're more likely to work outside the home, and more likely to earn salaries comparable to men's when they do. They can leave abusive marriages and sue sexist employers. They enjoy unprecedented control over their own fertility. On some fronts — graduation rates, life expectancy and even job security — men look increasingly like the second sex.

But all the achievements of the feminist era may have delivered women to greater unhappiness. In the 1960s, when Betty Friedan diagnosed her fellow wives and daughters as the victims of "the problem with no name," American women reported themselves happier, on average, than did men. Today, that gender gap has reversed. Male happiness has inched up, and female happiness has dropped. In postfeminist America, men are happier than women.


All this ambiguity lends itself to broad-brush readings. A strict feminist and a stringent gender-role traditionalist alike will probably find vindication of their premises between the lines of Wolfers and Stevenson's careful prose. The feminist will see evidence of a revolution interrupted, in which rising expectations are bumping against glass ceilings, breeding entirely justified resentments. The traditionalist will see evidence of a revolution gone awry, in which women have been pressured into lifestyles that run counter to their biological imperatives, and men have been liberated to embrace a piggish irresponsibility.

There's evidence to fit each of these narratives. But there's also room for both.

Feminists and traditionalists should be able to agree, for instance, that the structures of American society don't make enough allowances for the particular challenges of motherhood. We can squabble forever about the choices that mothers ought to make, but the difficult work-parenthood juggle is here to stay. (Just ask Sarah and Todd Palin.) And there are all kinds of ways — from a more family-friendly tax code to a more accommodating educational system — that public policy can make that juggle easier. Conservatives and liberals won't agree on the means, but they ought to agree on the end: a nation where it's easier to balance work and child-rearing, however you think that balance should be struck.

What utter rubbish. First, you cannot use a study like that to prove that women are unhappier than men, in some objective sense. It cannot be done, because interpersonal comparisons of statements about subjective emotions don't lend themselves to such conclusions. It's like saying that my toothache is worse than yours.

Second, for the same reason you cannot say that women (of a given age etc.) now are unhappier than women fifty years ago. You could only do that if you could somehow swap those women in time and let each group live the other's life for a few decades.

Third, I'm quite certain that if we follow opinion surveys on happiness for longer time periods than Douthat did we find that in the past women who were surveyed expressed higher levels of unhappiness than men who were surveyed. (I have seen the evidence on that and will post it here if I get the time to look for it again.)

Fourth, that last paragraph in the above quote really is silly. Conservatives don't want women to have a balance between work and child-rearing. It's hard to know what they want, exactly, but it certainly includes not having any women in positions of power in the public sector, and that goal depends on discouraging women from paid work.

Fifth, and finally, the whole piece stinks, because it's written as a very neutral and kind discussion of the old-and-eternally-fascinating-topic: What the fuck is wrong with women? And how can we help the poor little dears? Note that another way to interpret the evidence of this study would be to point out how men are now ever-so-happy and how feminism really has made their lives more meaningful. If you want to go along those silly routes.
An earlier post on happiness and gender is here.

A Post That Was Not

I was going to write a carefully reasoned post about this bit of news for Memorial Day, but life overtook:

Britain's female soldiers could soon battle enemy forces in face-to-face combat, if a ban on women serving in the most dangerous warfare roles is lifted for the first time.

In keeping with a wider overhaul of equality laws in Britain, military officials are considering whether to allow female troops to be deployed with previously all-male units on perilous missions behind enemy lines.

Armed forces minister Bob Ainsworth said a new study will decide whether to lift a long-standing ban on female soldiers, sailors and air force personnel taking part in close quarter combat.

The review comes amid an examination of gender equality across British society, including moves to expose pay gaps between men and women and to encourage affirmative action.

Britain last reviewed the role of female troops in 2002, when officials concluded that women were less able to carry heavy loads, more prone to injury and had a lower capacity for aggression than men. It said single-gender units also were likely to bond better and work more effectively.

My carefully reasoned post would have had all sorts of shit about how we could use something else than gender as the determinant. For instance, we could test every applicant for physical force and for aggression.

Then I started thinking about how to test someone for aggression. Doesn't seem possible. And then I started thinking about my martial arts training and how what is ultimately weeded out of you altogether is aggression and fear, in a particular situation. You act without any emotion one way or the other, just a trained machine, if you like. Aggression gets in the way and makes you commit mistakes.

That's the skeleton. But of course what's really interesting about this whole question is reversing it. Do we ever exclude men from a job on the basis of their aggression, say? IF there are jobs which demand aggression, there are certainly also jobs which demand that you don't use it. But those jobs are not formally closed for one sex.

Hey, Hispanic Chick Lady!

"Hey, Hispanic chick lady! You're empathetic ... you're in!" That's how Glenn Beck reacted to Sonia Sotomayor's selection as the nominee to the Supreme Court. I like that so much, because it shows clearly what Beck thinks about us women as human beings.

What else should I say at this point, not having done my homework* on Sotomayor's opinions? It's almost always like this: I surf the web, read various news items, and my inner alarm system goes 'ping' on some, meaning that I could say something important about that particular topic, or it goes 'brrp', meaning that I could write funny on that topic, and then it jams on an item of news which everybody is talking about and about which I neither have anything to say nor any interesting way to not say it. If you get my meaning.

In any case, I'm glad that Obama nominated a woman (I didn't really want to stand outside White House, protesting, for the next four years), and a Hispanic woman is certainly a good thing, too, given the percentage of Hispanics in this country. My very uneducated impression is that Sotomayor is not terribly lefty, but then neither is Obama.

But that Beck comment still interests me, because of an earlier article I read about the many ways diversity could be viewed for the Supreme Court. It's certainly true that Catholics are vastly overrepresented on the Court now, when compared to their population percentage. But then men are even more overrepresented, so there ya go.

Or don't go, if diversity is interpreted in a very silly way, as that article partly did (though mostly it's quite good). Suppose that instead of looking at the composition of the Court we look at only recent nominations! Then, of course, we get a lot more women in a much smaller pool! And lots of population groups which were never nominated at all!

What's wrong about all this is exactly what's wrong about the idea of 'diversity', as if one could tug a little there, add a little there, and then end up with some meaningfully diverse Supreme Court, without having any idea about why we are doing this in the first place.

It's not some basic idea of wanting to have interesting variations on the bench that we should be after, and looking at the pool of recent nominations is a meaningless base. A better base would be all the people who have ever sat on the bench, though really the only practically important base is the current members of the Court. And the reason why I, at least, look at that diversity thing is because the Court should reflect the country and the percentages of various groups within that country.

Unless there are good reasons** for not following that rule, we should expect the Supreme Court to have about equal numbers of men and women, and the ethnic, racial and religious percentages on the bench should roughly*** reflect the percentages of those groups in the general population.
*I really should have tried to find out whether she's pro-choice or not. Mea culpa and all that.
**I'm thinking here of a purely theoretical situation where a religion, say, banned its members from getting a training in law, but similar arguments have been used when a group (er, women) just didn't have enough trained legal people to pick from.
***Very roughly for some of the smallest minorities, unless we make the Court much bigger.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Pussy Galore!

That means lotsa cunt, you know. Let's not forget that. Politico:

She's the 69-year-old speaker of the House of Representatives, second in the line of succession and the most powerful woman in U.S. history.

But when you see Nancy Pelosi, the Republican National Committee wants you to think "Pussy Galore."

At least that's the takeaway from a video released by the committee this week – a video that puts Pelosi side-by-side with the aforementioned villainess from the 1964 James Bond film "Goldfinger."

The RNC video, which begins with the speaker's head in the iconic spy-series gun sight, implies that Pelosi has used her feminine wiles to dodge the truth about whether or not she was briefed by the CIA on the use of waterboarding in 2002. While the P-word is never mentioned directly, in one section the speaker appears in a split screen alongside the Bond nemesis – and the video's tagline is "Democrats Galore."

The wisdom of equating the first woman speaker of the House with a character whose first name also happens to be among the most vulgar terms for a part of the female anatomy might be debated – if the RNC were willing to do so, which it was not. An RNC spokesperson refused repeated requests by POLITICO to explain the point of the video, or the intended connection between Pelosi and Galore.

Here's the video:

It's pretty tame stuff, in some ways. But note how the shots are carefully taken to have Pelosi mess with her hair and come across hesitant? Then the background music links it all to Pussy Galore. Lotsa cunt. But in a whispery way, just enough to prick heh) the subconsciousness of men who don't like women in power or who fear that women are not strong enough or fear that women are too strong.

Utter Nuttery

A wingnut, Sam Schulman, argues against same-sex marriage using the funniest language. Just read this:

The entity known as "gay marriage" only aspires to replicate a very limited, very modern, and very culture-bound version of marriage. Gay advocates have chosen wisely in this. They are replicating what we might call the "romantic marriage," a kind of marriage that is chosen, determined, and defined by the couple that enters into it. Romantic marriage is now dominant in the West and is becoming slightly more frequent in other parts of the world. But it is a luxury and even here has only existed (except among a few elites) for a couple of centuries--and in only a few countries. The fact is that marriage is part of a much larger institution, which defines the particular shape and character of marriage: the kinship system.


Consider four of the most profound effects of marriage within the kinship system.

The first is the most important: It is that marriage is concerned above all with female sexuality. The very existence of kinship depends on the protection of females from rape, degradation, and concubinage. This is why marriage between men and women has been necessary in virtually every society ever known. Marriage, whatever its particular manifestation in a particular culture or epoch, is essentially about who may and who may not have sexual access to a woman when she becomes an adult, and is also about how her adulthood--and sexual accessibility--is defined. Again, until quite recently, the woman herself had little or nothing to say about this, while her parents and the community to which they answered had total control. The guardians of a female child or young woman had a duty to protect her virginity until the time came when marriage was permitted or, more frequently, insisted upon. This may seem a grim thing for the young woman--if you think of how the teenaged Natalie Wood was not permitted to go too far with Warren Beatty in Splendor in the Grass. But the duty of virginity can seem like a privilege, even a luxury, if you contrast it with the fate of child-prostitutes in brothels around the world. No wonder that weddings tend to be regarded as religious ceremonies in almost every culture: They celebrate the completion of a difficult task for the community as a whole.

This most profound aspect of marriage--protecting and controlling the sexuality of the child-bearing sex--is its only true reason for being, and it has no equivalent in same-sex marriage. Virginity until marriage, arranged marriages, the special status of the sexuality of one partner but not the other (and her protection from the other sex)--these motivating forces for marriage do not apply to same-sex lovers.

The piece goes on like that except it gets weirder. Like this:

But virginity and chastity before marriage, license after--these are the burdens of real marriage, honored in spirit if not in letter, creating for women (women as modern as Beyoncé) the right to demand a tangible sacrifice from the men who would adore them.


Few men would ever bother to enter into a romantic heterosexual marriage--much less three, as I have done--were it not for the iron grip of necessity that falls upon us when we are unwise enough to fall in love with a woman other than our mom.

Quite wonderful! I envy the writer for whatever he's smoking. But it's time to come back to earth.

First and most importantly. Note very carefully that the piece is not about general kinship systems. It's about PATRILINEAR kinship systems. A matrilinear system wouldn't care about the identity of a woman's (voluntary) sexual partners, because all her children automatically belong to her extended family. It is the patrilinear system which has to guard the sexuality of its women so that inheritance and patrimony can be guaranteed to pass in the male line. This point is crucial. Crucial. Schulman wants to talk about a patrilinear inheritance and kinship system, not about how to protect women.

Second, the systems he so lovingly paints for us are not, in fact, intended to protect women. All those systems allow for prostitution, rape happens in all of them and in many the husband can throw away an unsatisfactory wife as if she was a snotty used tissue. Virginity before marriage does protect women in traditional societies, often from their own male relatives (think of honor killings). But its main objective is to make certain that men know who their offspring are.

Though Schulman's article mentions the phenomenon of new daughters-in-law being treated like serfs, he nevertheless implies that the alternative to traditional patrilocal marriage would be even worse for us poor women. He, for one, thinks that men would fuck anything that moves, including minor children, if the patrilinear kinship system disappeared altogether. It seems to me that if this were really true he'd insist on something stronger than traditional marriage as the corrective. Pre-emptive detention, say.

Third, note that Mr. Schulman tells us he has been married three times. The kind of kinship system he portrays (not the one I've clarified for you) would not allow this, any more than it would allow same-sex marriage. He has made a mess of his own kinship map by having married so many times. Whose relative is he now? Which young women should he protect and from whom? Divorce has a much bigger impact on his imaginary kinship system than anything same-sex marriage could cause, especially given those wild men with insatiable desires for variety.
Via Sadly, No.

For Today

I also wanted to post Nanci Griffith's Pearl's Eye View (The Legend of Dickey Chapelle), but couldn't find it.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Untitiled by Anthony McCarthy

Waiting for the library board meeting,
looking at the old photos in the town hall display case
Old G.A.R. members.

In the captions, a familiar name, he lived in the house you grew up in,
Though no relation, it was his family farm.
You learned something about them from the document search
from when you researched the boundary dispute.
There he is, an old farmer, you seem to remember he died in 1915, the picture is undated.
Straight, serious, bearded. In a uniform with a sash, No hat, as formal as Sherman.
But a farmer. You know his barn, he built it.
You imagine him mucking the stalls, cursing the flies, the smell.
You know he worried over his crops, cut himself when he sawed wood.
Might have sworn like a trooper, for all you know.
You know he had a brother who lived in the house, who survived him.
It doesn’t say in the deeds and wills but you get the feeling he was helpless
An old farmer once told you a story about him being ‘tetched’.
“Had a walking stick made of an ox dick.”
The old soldier must have worried about him because he made provision for him in his will.
He was the last of the family, the lawyer sold the farm
And new surnames supplant his
On the deeds.

You know that, you know nothing else but that he was a veteran
and you have a slate frame with his initials on it.
The picture shows nothing about the war.
You are certain he didn’t stand like that much,
Though not twenty and, no doubt, able.
The old man, the only picture you’ve ever seen,
Before you knew only his name on the stone,
On the monument bought by the lawyer, after his brother,
The last of the name, died in ‘24.

Michala Petri and Lars Hannibal play Bach Sonata in F

This is a very fine performance. I’m not sure if this is J.S. Bach or, perhaps, C.P.E. Bach but its unusually fine recorder playing. The archlute instead of the usual keyboard is a welcome change too.

posted by Anthony McCarthy

Is Anyone Wondering If The 35000 Year Old Statue Is a Self-Portrait? by Anthony McCarthy

A nod to Echidne.

I was going to research this but didn’t need to get farther than the first Google search page that came up.

35000-year-old figure of 'sexually charged' woman unveiled

Obsession with Naked Women Dates Back 35000 Years | LiveScience

Sexy "Venus" may be oldest figurine yet discovered - Yahoo! News

Sexy Figure Sculpture May Be 35000 Yrs Old - ABC News

I haven’t been following this very closely, but has anyone speculated that the sculptor might have been a woman? Or that she might have been making a self portrait? Or that the sculptor might have been making a portrait of her mother? Everything I’ve read or heard seems to take it for granted that it was made by a man, most seem to assume, for erotic reasons.

Other than the location, approximate age and material its made of everything that has been said about this ancient art is mere speculation. We don’t know who made it, why it was made, even if it is part of a cultural tradition. We have no way to know if it was even what they, themselves, would consider their best work. We don’t know if the artist liked their work or if they were considered to be a good artist by their contemporaries. This could be the equivalent of pre-historic kitsch, for all we know. Any remarks about the pattern of cuts along it is likely to be a misinterpretation. Tattoos? Body painting? Cultural cutting? A striped body stocking? Disfigurement by a later hand, perhaps even the woman depicted who just hated it? The earliest known graffiti made fifty years after the artist died?

Like all attempts to recover a lost cultural past, everything being said about its meaning and what it tells us about the person who made it and their presumed culture, tells us only about ourselves. No amount of other “cultural material” from that area and time can tell us much other than if this was a common theme in their culture. Even with a large number of objects, most of what we might want to know is irretrievably lost to us and always will be. We can’t ask them to answer those questions. We shouldn’t pretend we can know what they were thinking. We can’t even recreate their aesthetic sensibility with reference to our own. We can't even know if the artist had a single "message" or "meaning". Maybe if asked they would say that was the viewer's job.

Almost everything I’ve read talks obsessively about the size of the breasts and thighs but no one seems to be very concerned that the head is way too small, or, perhaps, missing. The conclusion someone could draw about the gender of the people making the comments from that is of more certain reliability than any speculations about what the statue meant to whoever made it. The comments made since its discovery are the only record of its meaning we have.

The desire to fill in for information we can’t get seems to be irresistible, especially among scholars who are eager to get into print or interviewed. And if they don't make one up, the "journalist", steeped in the social science assumptions learned in college can be counted on to fill it in. But that’s just story telling, it's not fact. We should stop pretending it means anything.

Update: OK, Let me show you what I mean.

Sciency explanations for why the 35,000 year old woman’s head is so small.

#1. The sculptor wasn’t very skilled and didn’t leave enough room for a head that was proportional to the body. You see this all the time when you watch kids drawing. Alternatively, the sculptor had problems depicting proportions.

#2. The sculptor intended that a separate head would fit over what is there, the head was either never attached or got lost

#3. The part of the ivory that was going to be the head broke off when it was dropped and this was the best that could be done with what was left.

#4. The figure was carved by a male breast fetishist who didn’t have much respect for a woman’s intelligence or who just wasn’t a face guy.

#5. The figure is actually a malicious caricature made by a woman of a rival, she was calling her a “pea brain”. Only in her culture that would have been “you have the intelligence of a sloe fruit”.

#6. You can go on making up stories all day if you want to. Just don’t be surprised when someone points out you’re just talking about yourself and not the sculptor when you do.