Saturday, September 05, 2009

Maggot Lace

Caitlin Flanagan is a stunning writer:

A long time ago, I attended the funeral of a teenage boy who died the way Wade Edwards did, in a car that flipped badly and killed him quickly. I remember standing at the burial site, under a hot Los Angeles sun, a large crowd of us waiting for the parents to arrive. The cortege turned in through the gates, snaked up the winding road, and pulled up to where we were gathered. For a long time nothing happened, the car doors all stayed closed, and you realized—in a misery of embarrassed voyeurism that occluded even the sadness—that a drama was going on inside the car containing the mother, that getting her to stand out in the sunshine with us was going to involve someone persuading her to allow her son to be dead.

At last the car doors opened, and you felt you should look away, but that wasn't right either, and so you watched, and it was a bad thing. At first, the procession faltered forward. The family made it down to the graveside, and a rabbi spoke. The pine box was lowered into the ground and the time came for the boy's brother to spade the first shovel of dirt onto the coffin, and that's when things fell apart. I'd known the boy well—he had been a student at the school where I taught English—but I hadn't loved him. In fact, I had never loved anyone yet, because I was years away from having a child of my own, and until you've done that you're just guessing about love, gesturing toward it, assuming that it's the right name for a feeling you've had.

Things fell apart when they tried to spade in the earth, and there was screaming and titanic grief, and you were in the position of watching someone being forced—physically forced—to bear the unbearable. At last it was done, and the family stumbled back up the hill to the air-conditioned cars with the liveried drivers, and the mother collapsed into one car, and the door was shut solidly behind her, sealing her into her shadowed madness.

Beautiful, is it not?

Too bad that those marvelous paragraphs are embedded in a review of three books which connects Helen Gurley Brown (the author of Sex And The Single Girl) with the infidelity of John Edwards. The subtitle of the review tells us what Flanagan's message is:

How Helen Gurley Brown inspired a generation of home-wreckers, and brought down John Edwards

These home-wreckers are the secretaries and receptionists Gurley Brown wrote about in the 1960s or their spiritual granddaughters of today: Women ready to grab whichever available man they can, and to hell with the wife at home.

The Gurley Brownish single women don't have the power to get promoted at work, Flanagan reminds us, but they have the power to claw their way up along a hairy male leg. At least until its owner shakes the struggling single woman off, as he will, in due time, because mistresses are for sex, long-suffering wives at home for real life.

Home-wrecking is not like other blue-collar industries, in Flanagan's world. It's totally staffed by women. Men are apathetic victims, led around by their penises, and cannot be held responsible for their urges to bed-hop even while married. This is something women should just accept as the framework for their lives.

That, according to Flanagan, leaves them with three options: either marry one of those bastards and stay long-suffering in the kitchen, refuse the rigged game altogether and become a lonely spinster with cats or wreck the homes of godly married women. What juicy choices we are offered in her world!

What's ultimately weirder is the great contempt towards all men Flanagan demonstrates, without seeming to notice it. That this contempt is associated with complete acceptance of male dominance in all paths of life makes me wonder how she sees her life in general. Isn't it dreadful to be in that position of always justifying one's own internalized misogyny? How does she cope with the cognitive dissonance that certainly would bother me if I was a woman telling other women that housewives are the only Good Women and that house-cleaning is the epitome of spiritual enlightenment, while all the time carrying on a nice little writing career with paid help at home? Or is it all just a game, something for laughs while tossing back a beer or two with the guys at the bar?

Who knows and who cares, you might say. So let's move on, to note that women in Flanagan's world belong into groups, some very bad (feminists), some bad (single women planning to wreck home) and some just pitiful (women who forgot to have children), but men don't belong to any similar subgroups. They are allowed to belong to the whole boys-will-be-boys dominant class, but no one man is an example of a sub-group (such as philanderers) that Flanagan would condemn. She condemns her own sex in that wide sweep of the brush. Perhaps this is what Ta-Nehisi Coates means in this quote about the review:

I don't really agree with this Caitlin Flanagan piece on Helen Gurley Brown (it feels weirdly gender-nationalist to me) but I enjoyed it a lot.

Gender-nationalist??? What nation does Flanagan hold a passport from, I wonder.

Well, certainly not from Arkansas. Our Caitlin fairly shudders when writing about Gurley Brown's childhood:

Born in an Arkansas hollow in 1922, fatherless by 10, Brown was poor—dirt poor—from the get-go, and she was raised by women who tended to step off the road and pee when the urge hit them. Clearly, there is something Appalachian about the easy truck with bodily functions that became so important to Brown's mission and message. While the Mount Holyoke grads were meeting in embarrassed little encounter groups to discuss possibly putting a mirror down there, Brown was telling her readers to embrace all aspects of their body, including the various functions and products of the alimentary tract.

In another woman, one whose life journey began elsewhere, this might be described as a hard-won, anti-bourgeois earthiness, but Brown never was bourgeois. The central tension of her work, and what has made it such a success, is that her ideas, launched at women who desire to gain or maintain position in the middle-middle class, emanate from the sort of person who gives that group the deepest and most reflexive shudder of all: pee-on-the-side-of-the-road white trash.

So many interesting avenues to explore there, not to mention the general question whether Helen Gurley Brown really was a feminist forerunner or just a woman who told other women how to work the patriarchal system a teeny-weeny bit to their advantage. I also find the column an odd mixture of steeped-in-the-sixties arguments with an otherwise sterile ahistoricity (no infidelity before Gurley Brown, no contraceptive pill). Not to mention how infidelity in the column is always between a single woman and a married man, never the other way round.

But rather than go there I want to return to that first quote from Flanagan, about the great grief on the death of a child.

What is its role in the column? The obvious tie-in appears to be to Elizabeth and John Edwards and their loss of a son. If you connect that with his later infidelity and blame it on single women as a group, what are you truly trying to say? That you fear (fear) what might happen to your family? That you see enemies to it everywhere, enemies who want to kill what you most value? And that you are vulnerable, naked and at risk?

Wouldn't it then be very reassuring if you can picture your enemies as ultimately pretty non-violent women: feminists or greedy temptresses or whatever group you pick? They are not likely to have any real power over your family, after all, and you can then avoid looking into the real dangers.

Friday, September 04, 2009

‘Dollhouse,' power & redemption (by Suzie)

First, I want to clear up a misquote that’s making the rounds. Some people quote Joss Whedon as saying “Dollhouse” isn’t a feminist show. This seems to stem from io9’s report on Whedon’s speech when he got a Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism.

Now the full speech* is on the Internet, and anyone can hear what he said. Because he talks publicly about being a feminist and a humanist,
“everybody is judging what I do by that. … I read today in the Washington Post, I think, that fans are calling [‘Dollhouse’] a feminist screed, and it’s not. It’s a work of fiction that I’m creating. If you use drama for didacticism, it’s not drama; it’s speech writing.”
On Whedonesque, he addressed the question of whether “Dollhouse” is feminist by explaining that the author’s intent does not necessarily mean a production will, or will not, be feminist. The viewers decide.

“I think there are episodes [of ‘Dollhouse’] that don’t say anything, and I’m ashamed of that,” he says in his humanism speech. He acknowledges that he caved in to demands, such as making all the dolls young, to keep Fox from canceling the show.
There are two things that interest me, and they’re both power. ... One is not having it and one is abusing it. … In my life … I went through a period, for a long time, of having none; not realizing I had it and abusing it; to an understanding of that and wishing to be redeemed of that.
Redemption is at the heart of everything he does, he says.

For me, the first season DVD redeemed “Dollhouse.” (The second season begins Sept. 25.) In the intro (thanks to the person who transcribed it), he compares himself to characters on the show.
I am a monster.

I am also a terrified young girl making her way through the dark, trying to find an answer, an exit, an identity. I'm a capricious and self-satisfied programmer, a ruthless and terribly vulnerable boss, and a scarred, lonely healer who cannot come out of the dark.

And this show is all about the dark; I was out of superhero land and into a world of the helpless and the corrupt. It kept me up nights, thinking of the tightrope I was going to start walking. But in the end it drew me in, almost the way it draws the noble FBI agent who just wants to help a woman free herself - 'cause I'm him too. We all live in the Dollhouse. We all play there. We're all abusers, victims, kind, callous ... cobbling our own narratives about who we are and what we want. We are programmed. We are programmers.
Earlier, Ladybusiness gave this analysis of the show:
The Dollhouse is a giant metaphor, not only for rape culture, but for patriarchy and oppression at large: even the boy dolls are girls, stripped of agency or access to power and cast in pre-defined roles to fulfill the fantasies of the folks who are actually in charge. When they have sex, they aren't consenting - they've been made to think that they are consenting, by being made to think that they are the people who would consent to such things. They exist either in a state of infantilization and non-personhood (in which they are "cared for" by people who have a vested interest in continuing to use them) or implanted with false consciousness in which they are not aware of what's being done to them. I mean, false consciousness: Whedon's metaphors, they are rarely subtle. Their reactions to learning this, when they "wake up" (which Whedon has shown them doing, albeit briefly) are horror, disgust, and rage at how deeply they've been violated.

You can't just stake the enemy or cast a spell at him or throw him into Hell this time. The enemy surrounds you and controls you and is much, much bigger than any one person. The enemy is in your head: it controls what you're allowed to think, what you're allowed to know, who you're allowed to be. Resistance, this time, isn't about throwing punches. It's about getting your mind back. It's about reclaiming your right to define who you are - your right to be a person.
I’ve written before about "Dollhouse," including the issue of consent and the guys who keep insisting that the show is morally ambiguous.

Yes! Even smart men who discuss philosophy ponder whether it would be exploitative or immoral for an illegal, underground, commercial business to get young people to agree, sometimes with coercion, to have their personalities wiped clean and replaced with other personas that will do whatever the clients want. Feminists were treated to another of these discussions, as one frequent commenter said he preferred the pilot that aired and what he considered its moral ambiguity.

The DVD includes the original pilot, titled “Echo” after the main character, played by producer Eliza Dushku. To save the show, Whedon and Dushku scrapped the original pilot and made another.

In the DVD commentaries, Whedon says fantasy is a gray area: A person may imagine the perfect lover, or dream of wiping away painful memories. But if the Dollhouse were real, it would be unacceptable, and the sex the Actives have would not be consensual. The episode that sparks the most debate on this subject is “Man on the Street,” in which a gazillionaire rents an Active each year to be his wife on the anniversary of her death. Even if his motives are sympathetic, he’s still a predator, Whedon suggests.

The DVD also includes the 13th episode, “Epitaph One,” which Fox chose not to air. (Stop reading now if you don’t want spoilers.) The setting is 2019, by which time others have gotten hold of the technology. Some use this to jump from body to body, hoping to escape death. Some have turned mobs into killers. A few people who have retained their own consciousness stumble upon the Dollhouse, and hear the memories of the original inhabitants. The “terrified girl” is now helping others and may have killed the boss. The programmer, who calls himself a monster, has gone mad, knowing what his work has wrought.

What the Dollhouse did was not just wrong; it brought about an apocalypse. Take that, you lovers of ambiguity.
*For those who like Joss, the 90-minute video of the humanism speech is well-worth watching. It has various tidbits, such as: His two children have his wife’s last name.

Friday critter blogging (by Suzie)

This is Logan, an Akita/Husky mix, who lives with Lisa and her family in Anchorage, where it's already winter -- by Florida standards.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Can You Spot The Invisible Elephant?

Gail Collins has written a fascinating column on Levi Johnston's article in Vanity Fair. Johnston, you may recall, is the father of Sarah Palin's grandchild. Johnston tells us what a rotten mother Sarah Palin is. He also comes across as a bratty teenager, but never mind.

Collins makes several good points in her piece. Sadly, I want to discuss the one that isn't so very good:

Besides selling a fantasy about how easily a semi-delinquent, unemployed father-to-be could be turned into Prince Charming, Palin also spent her campaign trying to give the impression that running for vice president and taking care of five children, the youngest a baby with special needs, was as easy as falling off a snowbank. Politicians who don't want the federal government to address child care issues like to imagine that's true. It absolves them from dealing with the question of who takes care of the kids when women make up almost half the work force.

A good point, you mutter? And isn't she really a horrible mother? And can mothers indeed have jobs and children without failing in both or at least one of those endeavors? Let's start discussing what a Bad Mother is.

Now for the invisible elephant. I think it's called Todd, a stay-at-home dad whose parenting skills are not much discussed. You remember? The guy married to Sarah Palin. I'm not sure what his role in that family is supposed to be if Sarah Palin is the one expected to mind the children and do politics, too.

Just do a reversal on that. Pick any male politician with a stay-at-home wife. Then ask how he manages to both work and care for the children. Make him the responsible party in anything the children do wrong. Try that and see the humongous waves of discussion you develop, even among feminists. It's probably because we prefer the elephant invisible.

Collins' point about the need for childcare arrangements stands, of course. But I really am tired of that fat invisible elephant on the living-room couch.

Some Soul Food For Feminists

This is what I listen to when I have been beaten to small pieces of dim snake scales by fatigue, hatred and inertia. It gets me back slithering. I hope it can do the same to you, whatever the cause of justice you pursue.

Note: The words Shirley Bassey sings are not the same you get from searches for the lyrics. I like hers much better.

I Luvz Dan Rather Today

Jezebel posts a video about Morning Joe discussion on women anchors. Do watch it and read the attached post. What I noticed, with that third eye of mine, was not only the division of labor where Mika Brzezinski was the one to say all the concern-trolling stuff about how women are not ready etc. but also the enormous gender differences in clothing. Now, I have no idea if men are told to wear dark testosterone-impregnated pinstriped suits and women something feminine, but it's certainly the case that the dress parameters, among many other things, differ by gender in television-land.

It's worth noticing all that. And I love Dan Rather (just momentarily, being parched for support) because he's fairly open and honest in that chat.

Oh. I almost forgot the other reason to write about this: Mika Brzezinski's words about women being promoted too young or when they are not ready may or may not be true in television-land, what with the desire to have hawt anchor-babies. But women everywhere know that employers who don't promote women won't explain it as a natural conclusion arising from their sexism. They give other reasons for it, such as the woman not just being ready for a promotion. Therefore, every time we hear those arguments we should examine them carefully. This is something that matters to a woman wanting to get promoted from a factory-floor position to one that pays just a little bit more.

Redefining the End Points

The U.S. media is excellent at cutting off the left from political debates. That way the moderates look like the new left end and the so-called center keeps on moving to the right. For an example, take a look at a USAToday article on Obama's coming speech on health care. It begins by stating the problems he has (people don't want reform yadda-yadda, despite what the polls tell us). Then comes this:

As he enters what senior adviser David Axelrod calls the "eighth or ninth inning" of the debate, Obama is caught between liberals who want to revamp the insurance market with a government-funded "public option" and moderates who favor an incremental approach.

Both efforts have stumbled. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the public option wasn't essential. Six senators seeking a compromise ran into trouble after one, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, urged his donors to defeat "Obama-care."

Note how suddenly wanting a public option is labeled a) liberal and b) an extreme end-point. The correct end-point in the debate was a single-payer health care system, but the media has successfully erased that a long time ago, despite letting all sorts of right-wing memes stand as truths.

Of course a government option is an incremental policy. That it has become the bugbear of our political classes as pretty surprising. I guess the wingnuts are still worth fearing and in power, despite being a minority in both houses of the Congress.

What does the reform mean without a public option? My simple answer: Nothing. For a longer explanation, read my AlterNet piece on this.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

On The Duggars Phenomenon

The Duggar family are expecting child number nineteen, at the same time as the eldest son in the family is preparing for his first-of-the-series. The Duggar children all have first names beginning with the letter "J", but the son is going to break with tradition and use the letter "M" for his series!

I know all this because the Duggars -- and their fertility choices -- are on the television. You can follow their lives that way. Indeed, the television pays for their fertility choices which is something those who wish to emulate them might not realize.

How does the audience view the Duggars, in any case? As a freak show? As curiosities which nevertheless deserve our respect for being so very thorough about that increase-and-fill-the-earth bidness? As a teaching program for other mothers who have failed by not multiplying enough? As something similar to the Big Love series, a way to familiarize us with various anti-woman arrangements in this world and to make us see them as normal and cute and quite AOK? I wonder.

The Duggars appear to be part of the Quiverfull movement, which advocates this:

Don't you see that children are God's best gift?
the fruit of the womb his generous legacy?
Like a warrior's fistful of arrows
are the children of a vigorous youth.
Oh, how blessed are you parents,
with your quivers full of children!
Your enemies don't stand a chance against you;
you'll sweep them right off your doorstep.

I chose the version which replaces "men" with "parents", to make it all as fair as possible. The Quiverfull also advocate male dominance in the families and argue that it's God who owns women's uteri, not the women themselves, and to assume otherwise is a sin. Hence their anger at feminists and such. Only God can determine when a woman becomes pregnant. Of course the lack of parthenogenesis is ignored in that view or the power it gives to man-the-head-priest in deciding when his wife should bear again.

Kathryn Joyce has written extensively on this movement. Here's a snippet from her work:

Quiverfull parents try to have upwards of six children. They home-school their families, attend fundamentalist churches and follow biblical guidelines of male headship--"Father knows best"--and female submissiveness. They refuse any attempt to regulate pregnancy. Quiverfull began with the publication of Rick and Jan Hess's 1989 book, A Full Quiver: Family Planning and the Lordship of Christ, which argues that God, as the "Great Physician" and sole "Birth Controller," opens and closes the womb on a case-by-case basis. Women's attempts to control their own bodies--the Lord's temple--are a seizure of divine power.

Though there are no exact figures for the size of the movement, the number of families that identify as Quiverfull is likely in the thousands to low tens of thousands. Its word-of-mouth growth can be traced back to conservative Protestant critiques of contraception--adherents consider all birth control, even natural family planning (the rhythm method), to be the province of prostitutes--and the growing belief among evangelicals that the decision of mainstream Protestant churches in the 1950s to approve contraception for married couples led directly to the sexual revolution and then Roe v. Wade.

"Our bodies are meant to be a living sacrifice," write the Hesses. Or, as Mary Pride, in another of the movement's founding texts, The Way Home: Beyond Feminism, Back to Reality, puts it, "My body is not my own." This rebuttal of the feminist health text Our Bodies, Ourselves is deliberate. Quiverfull women are more than mothers. They're domestic warriors in the battle against what they see as forty years of destruction wrought by women's liberation: contraception, women's careers, abortion, divorce, homosexuality and child abuse, in that order.

I found one woman's essay about her journey into the Quiverfull quite upsetting:

God used a ladies' Christian email list to bring me to the conviction that God should be in control of our wombs.


The excuses that I gave for not wanting more children were all selfish and unBiblical:

1. " I can't handle the ones I have...I'm so tired! " - I truly needed to cast my cares upon the Lord. I was so wrapped up in "poor me" that many times it caused me to take my eyes off of Him.

2. "We can't afford more children...."- God supplies for our needs. If I am truly trusting him and acknowledging that all we have comes from Him, then I should be confident that He will supply what is needed for each additional child that He places into our hands.

All this segues into the wider question of what female reproductive rights mean when the woman has completely relinquished them to some divine power for whom her husband performs as the avatar.

Today's Embroidery

I have posted this before, but this particular picture shows the character of the background cloth I used. The lesson in this one is obviously not obvious (screws eyes, waggles forked tongue). On some days I'm the fairy/angel and I get off, on other days I'm the monster and either get fed or not. Click on the picture to see it more clearly.

What's Sauce For The Gander...

Doug in the comments linked to a column by Natalie Angier in the New York Times. The column is worth a post all its own, because of this:

Small wonder that many Darwinian-minded observers of human mating customs have long contended that serial monogamy is really just a socially sanctioned version of harem-building. By this conventional evolutionary psychology script, the man who skips from one nubile spouse to another over time is, like the sultan who hoards the local maidenry in a single convenient location, simply seeking to "maximize his reproductive fitness," to sire as many children as possible with as many wives as possible. It is the preferred male strategy, especially for powerful men, right? Sequentially or synchronously, he-men consort polygynously.

Women, by contrast, are not thought to be natural serializers. Sure, a gal might date around when young, but once she starts a family, she is assumed to crave stability. After all, she can bear only so many children in her lifetime, and divorce raises her risk of poverty. Unless forced to because some bounder has abandoned her, why would any sane woman choose another trot down the aisle — for another Rachael Ray spatula set? Spare me extra candlesticks, I'm a one-trick monogamist.


Yet in a report published in the summer issue of the journal Human Nature, Monique Borgerhoff Mulder of the University of California, Davis, presents compelling evidence that at least in some non-Western cultures where conditions are harsh and mothers must fight to keep their children alive, serial monogamy is by no means a man's game, finessed by him and foisted on her. To the contrary, Dr. Borgerhoff Mulder said, among the Pimbwe people of Tanzania, whose lives and loves she has been following for about 15 years, serial monogamy looks less like polygyny than like a strategic beast that some evolutionary psychologists dismiss as quasi-fantastical: polyandry, one woman making the most of multiple mates.

Doug also jokingly wonders if this refers to some loose piece of feminist research, and of course it's hard to know without reading the actual research. But if research consisting of following a tribe for fifteen years, recording the number of marriage-like relationships and recording the numbers of children which survive past the crucial age of five is loose research, what the fuck should we call all those ask-the-American-undergraduates-to-rank-pictures-of-desirable-women evo-psycho pieces? So loose that the universe and our brains fall through it?

Let me calm down a bit there. Whatever the quality of this research might be (and I will check if I have time), at least it actually measures reproductive success. The importance of this cannot be overstressed. Practically all the studies I have seen speculate about the reproductive success of men who cast their seed around widely, while not offering actual evidence. Likewise, very few studies address the complaint I've made many times that getting a woman fertilized does not equal having produced a fertile adult offspring. Before that is possible the pregnancy must result in a live birth, the resulting baby must be fed and kept safe all through the next ten plus years. Only then can we measure the reproductive success in the sense of the genes being passed on.

So what were the findings of this study? Here:

In her analysis, Dr. Borgerhoff Mulder found that although Pimbwe men were somewhat more likely than their female counterparts to marry multiple times, women held their own and even outshone men in the upper Zsa Zsa Gabor end of the scale, of five consecutive spouses and counting. And when Dr. Borgerhoff Mulder looked at who extracted the greatest reproductive payoff from serial monogamy, as measured by who had the most children survive past the first five hazardous years of life, she found a small but significant advantage female. Women who worked their way through more than two husbands had, on average, higher reproductive success, a greater number of surviving children, than either the more sedately mating women, or than men regardless of wifetime total.

Angier emphasizes that the results are preliminary. It will be most interesting to follow future studies of this data set.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Noted In Passing

And only because the great state of Massachusetts (or Sodom and Gomorrah, if you like) has never had a Senator with girly parts. Never. But Martha Coakley is planning to run for the seat Edward Kennedy vacated. Not sure about her chances, however.

Public Enemy Number One: Echidne

Did you know that? And did you know that you are most likely every bit as frightening and dangerous, hmh? Certainly that's the case if you support feminism. Yes, my dears, we are the new Bonnie and Clyde of this great country of ours, speeding down sleepy suburban streets, rifles under our garter belts, ready to kill the traditional American family.

I really liked where that paragraph was going. Now it has to come down to earth which means that I have to add that I'm talking about the ultra-radical Talibanic Republican candidate for governor in Virginia, Robert F. McDonnell. He was trained in Regent University (where Jesus would go if he was somehow born fundie, wealthy and white in this country), and in 1989 wrote a thesis on the Family:

He argued for covenant marriage, a legally distinct type of marriage intended to make it more difficult to obtain a divorce. He advocated character education programs in public schools to teach "traditional Judeo-Christian values" and other principles that he thought many youths were not learning in their homes. He called for less government encroachment on parental authority, for example, redefining child abuse to "exclude parental spanking." He lamented the "purging of religious influence" from public schools. And he criticized federal tax credits for child care expenditures because they encouraged women to enter the workforce.

"Further expenditures would be used to subsidize a dynamic new trend of working women and feminists that is ultimately detrimental to the family by entrenching status-quo of nonparental primary nurture of children," he wrote.

He went on to say feminism is among the "real enemies of the traditional family."

Actually, feminism IS an enemy of the traditional family, if the word "traditional" refers to a male-dominated theocratic family without love or joy. Feminists want to replace that with a real family, of equality and mutual support and such. Or at least I want to do that. But yes, I'm aftah you, Mr. and Mrs. Traditional-Family-Values.

Now, twenty years is a long time, and perhaps Robert F. McDonnell has changed his mind on these weighty issues altogether. That sort of thing CAN happen, especially in an election year when one needs to appeal to fence-sitters and people who live in reality. And lo and behold! Mr. McDonnel indeed backtracks on some of his utterances:

McDonnell said in his statement that he is "fully supportive of the tremendous contributions women make in the workplace. My wife and daughters work. My campaign manager in 2005 was a working mother. I appointed 5 women to my senior staff as Attorney General."

I'd like to now more about his conversion experience. How did he move from his 1989 views to his present admiring stance? Did it hurt at all? And what are his current views on us frightening feminists?

That Cause-And-Effect Thingy Again...

I've written before about the importance of not assuming causality in studies which only find correlation, and I plan to write more about the oh-so-common misuse of simple correlation between two variables as somehow the Final Word On Something when the situation might be much more complex and full of sneaky omitted variables. Today's topic is related to that one but also serves as an example of some other difficulties that one stumbles upon in interpreting empirical research.

Sounds like fun, eh? I can't make it simpler because I'm fatigued (says she while reclining on her recamier). Here's the news that provoked all this:

No vacationer plans on getting sick, but many do fall ill, and seriously. All too often they land at hospitals that are anything but temples of healing.

In the popular sitcom Royal Pains, ritzy folks in the Hamptons hire a concierge doctor to tend their ills rather than an inept local hospital.

In reality, it's no comedy. A USA TODAY analysis finds two dozen hospitals near popular travel destinations, as compiled by the National Travel Monitor, have death rates among the worst in the USA. A separate analysis shows that one of every four hospitals with high death rates for heart attack, heart failure or pneumonia — 94 of 402 — are near state parks.

The quoted article recommends that travelers do some checking before picking a particular travel destination. But here's the problem with this interpretation: A hospital could have higher death rates for the very reason that it's close to a large tourist attraction. Tourists, by definition, are strangers to the place, far from their own doctors and their medical records, and that combination is unlikely to improve the outcomes of any illness attacks they may have.

This isn't necessarily the case, of course. It could be that the discussed hospitals just have worse outcomes, even when they treat local people. But in general outcomes are only meaningful if we control for the types of patients which enter the hospital. If those patients are, on average, high-risk cases then even an excellent hospital can look bad in the outcome statistics.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Once Upon A Time

I often find fairy tales appropriate for understanding American politics. Take the current health care reform. To see what really is taking place there, read the following fairy tale:

Mouse as the Cat's Tailor

A cat walked along the road carrying a large bolt of cloth under its arm. A mouse going in the other direction asked the cat:"Where are you going, cat?" "To see my tailor," the cat answered. "I need a new coat."

"Let me sew it for you" said the mouse. The cat handed the bolt of cloth over to the mouse who went to work on a coat. (Now, what you need to know here is that the mouse knows nothing about tailoring.)

A week later the cat came to pick up his new coat, but the mouse said:"Er, the coat didn't quite work out, but I could make you a nice pair of pants instead." The cat reluctantly agreed.

A week later the cat came to pick up his new pants, but the mouse said:" Er, the pants didn't quite work out, but I could make you a nice vest instead." The cat reluctantly agreed.

A week later the cat came to pick up his new vest, but the mouse said:"Er, the vest didn't quite work out, but I could make you a nice cap instead." The cat reluctantly agreed.

A week later the cat came to pick up his new cap, but the mouse said:"Er, the cap didn't quite work out, but I could make you a pair of mittens instead." The cat reluctantly agreed.(Yes, I know. The cat is stupid.)

A week later the cat came to pick up his new mittens, but the mouse said:"Er, the mittens didn't quite work out, but I could make you a handkerchief instead." The cat reluctantly agreed.

Does it remind you of anything? Try changing the 'cat' to 'the Obama administration', the 'bolt of cloth' to 'the initial health care reform plan' and the 'mouse' to the Republican opposition. Note that we started with a coat and are now down to a hankie! And the cat/Obama administration is still willing to go back for more cutting of the cloth!

What doesn't quite fit the current health care fight is the end of that fairy tale:

A week later the cat came to pick up his new handkerchief, but the mouse didn't have it made and neither was there any cloth left at all. So the cat ate the mouse, and ever since that time cats have hated mice.

In reality, we are most likely to end up with nothing. It's pretty unlikely, now, that the final public option would be strong enough to matter. And without strong public regulations (banning cherry-picking of all types, say) and a public alternative in the marketplace, the whole proposal is nothing. Sad, isn't it?

But then the Republicans have been using other fairy tales most successfully: The Sky Is Falling! The Sky Is Falling! The Sky Is Falling!

How do you prove it is not?

Plumber's Cracks

Are perfectly OK, but women who have jeans low enough to reveal the beginning of their butt cracks are headed for lives of indignity, irresponsibility and self-loathing.

These words are not from some Taliban playbook. They are from a book by an American wingnut, Christopher Caldwell, who writes about the problems with European women's freedom and the beginning of the era of Islamic Europe:

This is why Caldwell refers to poverty-stricken Muslim enclaves as "the strongest communities in Europe" — strong, that is, in the context of a pitifully weak post-religious and post-nationalist Europe. "Islam is not the second religion of Europe but the first," he says, because it has maintained its "vital energy," while there is nothing left to European Christianity but a superficial "lifestyle." He even ends up agreeing with Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, that Europe's "materialist civilization" is "on the verge of collapse." Caldwell feels more at home with Muslim values than with the values of contemporary Europe — as, he says, would Dante. And Caldwell also values women's chastity more than women's autonomy because chastity (not to mention virginity) "can further dignity, responsibility, and self-respect." You may think that burqas and niquabs demean women, he ironizes, but what about "jeans that cinch halfway down the bum crack"?

It's always refreshing to find a wingnut honest enough to admit that he'd love to have his own Taliban-movement here at home. Women properly sequestered! Uteri carefully covered! Dignity and self-respect blossoming everywhere among women!

Except that I have never seen the chain of logic spelled out on all that properly. For instance, once we get all those horny women off the streets, will there be no demands for porn, no demands for sex, no demands for extramarital affairs? Once all women are chaste, what the fuck will men do for a fuck? And if covering up is the way to dignity, responsibility and self-respect, why not advocate it for all the wingnut men, including Christopher Caldwell?

But I forgot. Of course women are different from men and of course the topic of how women should behave is a legitimate one, because the future of the Western culture depends on it! The topic of men's behavior is not a legitimate one, and men may behave as they wish, in Caldwell's world. They may even do their utmost to persuade women off the glorious street of chastity! And if they succeed in that, it's the women's fault.

More generally, I love the circularity of the anti-feminist wingnut theme in the wider story of why Yurp Will Fall To Islamic Extremists:

The licentious and irreligious Europeans are what will cause the end of Europe As We Know It. In particular, European women, selfish creatures as they are, refuse to breed in adequate numbers, because that would hamper their enjoyment of nasty infertile sex, foreign vacations, BMWs and other such incredibly common aspects of European life. The evil European women also refuse to stay at home with the children they have not produced.

These are the reason why Islamo-Fascists will win! The New Europe will be a place where women will be forced to breed, to stay at home and to cover up! And the European women deserve all this, because they have refused to breed, to stay at home and to cover up to prevent it!

See the problem with these types of arguments? Well, one problem. The other one is the general misuse of statistics in pieces like these. I also get the feeling that very little actual travel in Europe is required before a wingnut writes a book bashing a whole continent.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan

The turnout of women voters in the elections was miserable. That's not a bug but a feature, of course:

Although no official turnout figures are available and the election results are not yet final, election monitoring groups and political activists from Taliban-plagued provinces report that in dozens of insecure districts, almost no women voted. Nationwide, they say, women's participation was much lower than in either the 2004 presidential or 2005 parliamentary elections.

The sense of eroding political rights for women did not begin with this election. In the past several years, Taliban attacks on prominent women have sent a powerful message to others who dreamed of entering public life. In the southern province of Kandahar alone, a female legislator, a women's affairs official and a female prosecutor were gunned down by terrorists. Others have received constant threats, travel with armed guards or rarely visit their constituencies.


"Things are reverting, and it's because of a mix of insecurity, economy and culture," said Soraya Sobrang, a physician and member of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. "For a few years when security was better, women could participate in public life and the new constitution gave them political rights. But then the attacks started, and people were warned not to send their daughters to school, not to send their wives to work. All their new rights came under threat, and nothing really changed in their lives."

Now, Sobrang said, many Afghan women have lost hope.

"We have lost a lot of the ground we made. Women still face forced marriages, still work in the fields, still depend on men who beat them every day," said Sobrang, who voted on Aug. 20 in a very short line of nervous, unsmiling women. "We can give a card to a woman and tell her to vote, but that does not protect her from danger, and it does not give her any real rights at all."

The losing of hope is a feature, too, of course, because apathetic women are easier to keep at home or working the fields. Neither are they especially eager to rise up and demand their rights. So it goes.

I wish I had something more optimistic to write on this topic. But as long as Taliban values reign in Afghanistan, women there are going to have rights at most equivalent to those kind people here give to their dogs: the right to go out but only when accompanied and so on.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Outraged and Offended by Isotoner (by Liz)

Phila's excellent post yesterday on Fay Weldon asked the question, "Who wants to be outraged and offended and tense all the time?"

This is exactly how I felt this week while discussing the case of the Isotoner employee who was fired for taking unauthorized breaks to pump breast milk. Not only did her employee fire her, but the Ohio Supreme Court upheld the firing. Read more about it here

An excerpt, "According to the trial court, “Allen gave birth over five months prior to her termination from [Isotoner]. Pregnant [women] who give birth and chose not to breastfeed or pump their breasts do not continue to lactate for five months. Thus, Allen’s condition of lactating was not a condition relating to pregnancy but rather a condition related to breastfeeding. Breastfeeding discrimination does not constitute gender discrimination."

The case itself is disturbing enough. But the reaction to it is equally disturbing. Most people I know hadn't heard about it. Of course, the news cycle has been dominated by Senator Kennedy all week, but when I did mention it to people, I did not get what I felt was the appropriate level of shock, outrage, indigantion…or, oh I don’t know…something, anything.

So here I will admit my weakness. When I hear about cases like this, and I feel alone in my reaction to them, sometimes I wonder just what Phila wrote, "Who wants to be outraged and offended and tense all the time?" Is it easier just to go along?

Okay, moment of weakness has passed. I am outraged, offended and tense about this case. And I am willing to stay that way as long as necessary.

I say, better to be outraged, offended and tense all the time, than to be less than who I am.