It's been two weeks now since the sliming of a fine woman by Andrew Breitbart, FOX and the rest of the Republican lie machine, exposed a deep and damaging deficiency in the Obama administration. Usually by this time the far right media has kicked up some dirt and the near right (most all of the rest of it) has run with the further sliming. As so often seen when it's a matter of the Republican lie machine, the dirt doesn't have to be authentic. That hasn't been successful in the case of Shirley Sherrod and there are reasons for that.
The fact that the Republican lie machine have been using its own, quickly abandoned, slime against the Obama administration's handling of it should make the president stop and take notice.
Derrick Jackson's column this morning is about the teachable moment presented by this incident, one which is rare in today's media-political climate, one in which a good person stands up for herself and is vindicated. In the column Jackson quotes Robert Gibbs as saying that President Obama doesn't have to be “the teacher in every teachable moment.’’ Oddly, I agree with Gibbs. In this case Barack Obama is the one who should be doing the learning and applying the lessons taught by Ms. Sherrod to himself and his administration. Ms. Sherrod is the teacher and so impressive in her continuing to NOT go the instant celebrity route that the numerous times she has appeared, since the libel broke, hasn't diminished her moral authority. That is rare. You have to conclude that it's her character, her history that have protected her from that. It hasn't gone to her head.
Barack Obama shouldn't take this as a teachable moment he should take it as a learning opportunity. Seen in its entirety what Ms. Sherrod has said carries a number of extremely important truths.
“One of the hard things I found out, when they were dealing with me, was that there was no person of color in the inner circle who talked to me to hear my story or whom I could talk to,’’ said Sherrod, the Department of Agriculture’s director of rural development in Georgia who was fired for false charges of reverse racism.
She found a similar situation at USDA itself. In an interview with columnists and reporters at the National Association of Black Journalists convention, she said that about 15 percent of USDA’s Georgia employees are black in a state that is 30 percent black. They are mostly in lower-grade, lower-paid positions. She said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has pledged changes, “but I don’t know how you do it without black people in your inner circles,’’ she said. “The question has to be asked, where is the real commitment?’’
It is an important question, why the administration of the first black president should have to learn lessons about equal opportunity, equal access to government service and the hard reality of what it's like to be a small farmer, maybe if they called themselves "small businesses" they'd get some respect from the people in the inner circle of the administration.
The opportunity to admit that this presents moral imperative to change course in his administration is one Barack Obama must take if he is anywhere near as astute as he has been sold as being. He should listen to the lessons of her experience that Ms. Sherrod has unfolded in all it's non-elite, blue collar reality. It is, exactly, that level of reality, where most of us reside, that this administration seems to resist facing.
If he doesn't take the lesson, I doubt he will save his administration even if he is reelected. Aside from the lost opportunity to reestablish his moral credibility, the failure to take the lessons of this incident will also be confirmation that Barack Obama has ceded political authority to his opponents inside as well as outside of the Democratic Party. If, as I suspect he will be, he wins reelection due to the Republicans nominating someone so unacceptable that the voters will overlook the shortcomings of an Obama administration that continues on its present course, I suspect a second term will be as wounded as the second Clinton term was. And Bill Clinton didn't have the Bush II recession and two wars dragging him down as Barack Obama does.
One thing that Barack Obama could use this incident to do is to prod the Senate to passing more of the huge backlog of bills that have already passed the House, the part of the government that the Obama inner circle seems to have no respect for, even as they carry the water for the rest of the Democrats in the Senate and in his administration. As Jackon said:
She said if someone with her history can be treated as if she had no history at all, the Obama administration risks being oblivious to real racial rot. As the right screams about imaginary injustices to whites, ripped-off black farmers are still losing land. The Obama administration supports $1.2 billion in final payments to address historic USDA discrimination, but the Senate still has not approved the funds. She said the country is still on a path “where we may not have any black farmers left.’’
Let's see some real pressure in the Senate to get that real and outrageous history of discrimination against farmers ended and righted. Associating Shirley Sherrod would give it far more of a chance than Barack Obama could on his own. I'm not going to believe that this administration or the Democrats in the Senate have learned anything until that is addressed.
If he fails to take these lessons, we in the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party should face the fact that it's the leadership of the House of Representatives who listen to us, who really get us. We should get over the Senate and, if it is warranted by the facts and unavoidable, we should get over Barack Obama.
Saturday, July 31, 2010
Friday, July 30, 2010
You've got to see this video from the Story of Stuff Project. I'm having trouble embedding it. Nena Baker gives some background in the Huff Post:
Adults in the United States use an average of 10 personal-care products a day. That translates to exposures to more than 126 unique chemicals, not counting the untold number of chemicals used in any "fragrance" listed on a label, according to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.
While some of these chemicals are perfectly safe, others may cause cancer, and problems with brain development and reproduction. This worrisome situation is why three Congressional Democrats -- Reps. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin -- introduced the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010 on July 21.I'm too tired to write more because I've spent my evening salvaging stuff left beside the Dumpster in my apartment complex. A lot of students live here, and many clear out before Aug. 1. Maybe they're in a rush or they run out of room in their truck or van or they don't think they can repair something or they know their parents will buy new stuff.
Today, I rescued a dining-room table with chairs, a stereo receiver and speakers, a garbage bag full of men's clothes, a floor lamp, a dresser, and two large, frolicking dolphins carved out of wood that need only a piece of glass on top to be a table again. This was just the stuff that I know can find homes and that was reasonably clean. I'll try to get more stuff tomorrow before it gets shoved into the Dumpster.
When I read the news about the booby-loving middle-schooler (see my post 7/9/10), I had never heard of the Keep-a-Breast Foundation, which gets money from merchandise, such as the wristband the boy wore. I had, however, seen the Save the Ta-Tas T-shirts and bumperstickers in my apartment complex full of college students.
In 2000, the KAB founders "created an awareness campaign like none other by harnessing the power of art to communicate complex feelings and thoughts about health, the female form and ultimately about breast cancer." I'm sure many women appreciate the nonprofit's work. In case anyone doesn't know, however, art therapy and feminist art of the body were around long before KAB.
KAB helps women cast their breasts in plaster, with the casts painted by artists or the women themselves. The casts displayed on the website are mostly of perky breasts, even though many young women do not fit this mold.
"The success of these art benefits put breast cancer awareness on the map for a younger generation," the foundation's website says. I'm sure it educated some young people, but I don't heart hyperbole.
Not counting young women raised in religious cults or countries in which they get little information about their bodies, are there any who don’t know that young women can get breast cancer? After all, pink ribbons and merchandise are everywhere, and many of the media illustrations for breast-cancer awareness depict thin, young white women with their hand on their breast. If your memory isn’t good, Google images for “women with breast cancer” or check out Sociological Images.
It's great that KAB educates young people on cancer at booths, events, etc. But its website offers little that can’t be found better elsewhere, such as this Canadian site on breast self-exams or the Breast Cancer Fund on environmental toxins. If KAB lacks the money to improve its website, at least it could provide links to sites with more information.
The foundation also needs to be careful with health facts, such as saying: "Studies have shown that stress actually can promote cancer indirectly by weakening the immune system’s anti-tumor defense or by encouraging new tumor-feeding blood vessels to form." I agree, chronic stress is bad. But the National Cancer Institute says studies have not proven that chronic stress increases the risk of cancer, although it does seem to hurt people fighting cancer. Why am I nitpicking? Because many cancer patients feel blame, including blame that they can't create a stress-free life for themselves. In fact, I feel that right now as I'm writing on deadline.
Another blog post reports on the recent ASCO meeting, with a brief teaser about "sea sponges being used in treatment." News at 11!!! Here's only a slightly longer version: Studies suggest that women with advanced breast cancer who've already received a lot of treatment live longer by getting a new drug called Eribulin, which is synthesized from sea sponges.
While searching ASCO abstracts, I found the latest study of Eribulin and my cancer, a subtype of soft-tissue sarcoma. So, points to KAB on that. On its blog, I also found a great video on "The Story of Cosmetics," which I'll give its own post, but you can see it now. The first line has a bearing on this post: "This is a story about a world obsessed with stuff."
KAB can reach young people in places like the Warped Tour, a summer tour by performers who are mostly male, which might be less welcoming to other breast-cancer nonprofits. Its blog features a testimonial from a woman with breast cancer who, before she was diagnosed, educated her teen son after they saw a KAB booth at a concert. She says he later bought “I love boobies” wristbands for himself and his friends, and she felt proud.
KAB’s site has a breakdown of its fundraisers (not including the merch) and donations to other nonprofits, such as the Young Survivor Coalition. Last year, the foundation donated almost $8,000 to a survivor to help pay her medical bills. They have specifics for applying for a grant from Emergen-C; otherwise, I couldn’t find the criteria for their grants. It's possible that a survivor who donated to the foundation might want to know how she, too, could get help with medical bills.
The for-profit Loser Kids sells KAB's “I (heart) boobies” wristbands and T-shirts, and says 100 percent of the profits go to the nonprofit. Selling things attached to a cause drives traffic to commercial websites.
The for-profit Ta-Tas Brand Clothing, also based in Southern California, could be seen as a competitor with a similar slogan, the trademarked "save the ta-tas" vs. "keep a breast." It sells T-shirts, wristbands, Boob Lube, etc. I found the "Friends don't let friends lose ta-tas" T unnerving, perhaps because I've had to decide on how much of my body I wanted removed in surgery. I lost parts to save my life.
T-shirts sell for $26.95 up to $39 for a tie-dye version. The company gave 5 percent of its gross sales to many nonprofit organizations until the formation of the nonprofit Save the Ta-Tas Foundation in 2008, according to a letter from its controller, Lesli Gilmore. Now the foundation and the company donate to the Concern Foundation, which funds young cancer researchers.
Gilmore also noted: “The Brand largely supports overhead and administrative costs of the [Ta-Tas] Foundation, which is why you will see our operating expenses were less than 1% in 2009!”
I contacted the foundation in April because of the lack of information on its site. For example, I found a business page saying, “A portion of every sale is given to the fight against breast cancer,” but I couldn’t find what percentage “a portion” represented. When I went back recently, the site impressed me with its clarity.
Giving only 5 percent "is an abomination," one of my friends said. But another was glad to get any amount for cancer research.
Many nonprofits sell merchandise to fund their work and raise awareness. Many companies donate to worthy causes for tax reasons, public relations and marketing. Others tie donations directly to sales. In other words, buy their yogurt and they'll donate to the cause. Some, such as the Ta-Tas Brand, depend on the cause for sales. For example, if breast cancer got cured tomorrow, I think sales would drop, although women might still buy "I love my big ta-tas" shirts.
I could spend every day picking apart nonprofits, including ones I support. I’m singling out KAB and Save the Ta-Tas because of the marketing they chose. Kris Frieswick had an excellent article on the marketing of breast cancer last year in the Boston Globe, and Jeanne Sather has criticized it at length.
In my previous post on this topic, I asked whether the money and awareness raised is worth the sexy marketing. Sociological Images answers that question with a series of posts, including ones titled: “Do Breast Exams Because Boobs are Hot” and “Boobies Against Breast Cancer.”
Thursday, July 29, 2010
(This is a reprint from here. I believe the ideas I discuss in it are important enough to pardon the stilted language.)
Being a journalist with the task to write about research results for the general audience must be very hard. You are supposed to have the statistical skills to understand all kinds of methods, you are supposed to understand several fields of sciences and social sciences well enough to distill them into simpler sound bites, and you are supposed to write the popularization pieces in a few days' time.
Anyone who has done academic research in a field knows that the task is pretty much impossible. There are no Renaissance scholars with the whole toolkit hanging off their belts, no geniuses instantly aware of every single new study in every obscure academic journal, no Doctors of General Criticism out there. Certainly not with the job of popularizing social science research, say.
Add to that the usual restrictions journalists face. Where's the hook for this piece? Why would anyone want to read it? Where's the sex? How can you write the piece so that it presses all those emotional buttons which will guarantee maximal readership numbers? If you write a decent and careful analysis, won't the competing newspapers or websites steal the show from you?
I'm not envious of the jobs of popularizers. Still, I'm going to criticize the results of popularized versions of academic research. I see at least four major problems in what the media tells us about social science research.
The first one is that the need for a journalistic hook biases the studies which are given more publicity. A study which finds, say, that women and men are pretty much the same in some behavior will not be covering the front pages of any major magazines or newspapers. A study which finds, say, a 9% gender difference in something will not attract all those readers like a magnet. Much better to ignore the number and just talk about the chasm that separates men from women.
That the studies are selected for reasons which have little to do with how well they were constructed, how general the conclusions are that can be drawn from them or how much they are in agreement with the mainstream thoughts in an area of research is a serious problem. It makes the general audience draw faulty conclusions about what such studies in general find.
The second problem is also related to the journalistic need to find a hook, and that concerns the fact that issues become stale very fast. Hence, if a popularization of a bad study makes the headlines this week, the corrections and criticisms of that same study will not make the headlines next week. The story is old and stale, let's move on. Never mind that the story was also a false one, yet now remains in the memory banks of many in the audience.
The third problem has to do with the excessive reliance popularizations place on the authors of a study. Every single popularization I have read contains several direct quotes from the study authors. But the authors of a study are going to sell it. Their quotes are not going to be those of a neutral observer. The neutral observer is supposed to be the popularizer who, in general, does not have the expertise to actually provide the necessary counterweight.
This is assumed to be solved by the academic system which screens studies before they get into print. But the screening system has its problems. For instance, suppose that I started an academic journal called "Echidne Studies". To get published in it you must find good things about Echidne. I can gather together several like-minded people, people who appreciate the true essence of Echidne, and I can use those people as my anonymous referees, to make sure that all the articles published in the journal will be of interest to us Echidneites. Don't you think that some of those reviewers might let a few statistical problems slip through, assuming that the anonymous reviewers I picked contained any familar with statistics?
Then academic reviewers are busy people, in general, the number of journals that need reviewers is very large and some journals have a better reputation than others. All this means that anyone who really tries can find quite silly articles printed in some reviewed journal. Not all of those are equally worthy of public attention.
The fourth problem has to do with the way expert assessment is usually added to the popularizations, at least the better ones (the not-so-good popularizations skip this part altogether). This consists of asking someone else, presumably another researcher in the same field, for a quote about the study to be popularized. The problem in many of these quotes I've read is that they appear to be by someone who has not read the article at all. Whether this is actually true is impossible to state but mostly I learn nothing new from the additional expert statements. And these are always kept very, very short, certainly in comparison to the space the study authors are given.
I'm sure that there are more problems than these four. But even these four are serious problems, because the way most of us learn about new research findings is from those popularizations. As a result, we will end up distorted ideas about what research actually has found.
Another post on analyzing research and its popularizations is this one. Now I think it's the better post but the two overlap only partially.
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Not quite, but I went into my archives to gather together a few posts about the Marriage Panic of Whatever Year you might want to look at. The panic is always about women. Men never panic about marriage, never, but women do. And so does the society in general.
The reasons for this vary. Usually the panic is about women not being able to find husbands because they are too educated or too old or too bossy-bots, but recently this old argument has been replaced by the sky-is-falling-oh-my-god argument about civilization collapsing because women aren't getting married enough.
When statistics showed that more educated women in fact have higher marriage rates, the panic changed into one worrying about the less educated women and how they could ever find or keep husbands! But this naturally has nothing to do with the marital stresses that are more severe when one has less money.
Reading many of my posts on this topic, one after the other, was most fascinating and revealing! The underlying patterns become visible when one does that: The insistent focus on WOMEN in these stories and not on men, the odd underlying smell of panic on behalf of the same women. It was a learning experience.
A few posts picked from the many in my archives:
The Eternal Shortage of Marriageable Men
On Flannel Knickers and Feminism
No More Mrs?
Bucking The Trend
Bad Girls Who Refuse To Wed
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
This is a post I never quite completed. It belongs to my feminism series but I couldn't maintain the tone and approach of that series and so I set the post aside.
Yet the point I wanted to make is important. It has to do with the general idea that all societal playing fields are now level. Nothing stops women from excelling if they wished to do so, nothing!
Discriminatory laws have been abolished, discriminatory institutions have changed (except for, er, many religious institutions and the armed forces), and if women still experience discrimination they should just sue!
Preferably under a Democratic administration. But really, such suits are unnecessary because the playing fields already are level (if not slanted to favor women) and the reason women earn less, for instance, is because they choose to do so.
I was channeling both my inner Independent Women's Forum gal (IWF is an anti-feminist ladies' auxiliary of male wingnuttery) and the MRA guyz there. They both argue that women have only themselves to blame if they earn less, on average, than men do, because that is a consequence of their own poor choices.
Some of those choices are based in just women's general desire to avoid hard work and risky occupations, tell the MRA guys. Because what's really behind men's higher average earnings are those relatively few men who build skyscrapers. Yup.
Some choices are based on women's desire to have children, tell the IWF gals. Of course children in this view benefit nobody but the woman who has them so choosing to have children is just like choosing an ice-cream flavor! No need for societal interest in such decisions.
All this is based on the argument that the playing fields are already level or even slanted to favor women. But let's take a closer look at the major playing field most of us have to enter: The labor market.
Is that playing field level? Note that the way workers are treated in the labor markets, even today, is based on an implicit assumption that every worker is primarily a worker. He (and it used to be "he") is assumed to have someone at home who cooks for hims, does his laundry, minds his children and takes care of his elderly and/or ailing relatives: a stay-at-home spouse. But all that maintenance work is the traditional chore of women, something women are responsible for.
A labor market which does not offer proper parental leave or other similar arrangements is not a level playing field when societal gender roles are unequal.
None of this means that women wouldn't make choices. Men make choices, too, including, for some, the choice of entering a dangerous occupation because it pays more. But these choices are always carried out under constraints. And the general labor market constraints are not identical for men and women even in the absence of any gender discrimination.
Which brings me to an analysis of one particular labor market: traditional tough-guy blue-collar occupations. The usual (and statistically incorrect) MRA argument is that men earn more because of those jobs which also have a high mortality rate. If women really walked the talk of equality they'd all sign up to build skyscrapers in New York!
Just imagine signing up for one of those jobs. It's well known that women entering these kinds of jobs suffer form an unusually high level of sexual harassment of an especially nasty type (such as finding a used condom inside your lunch sandwich). Not all men practice such harassment, of course, but a few bad apples can spoil a female worker's whole day, not to mention the more severe problems of not being accepted into the team when job-security may be dependent on that very fact.
Anyone doubting that this would pose an additional hurdle for women entering a particular occupation are either much tougher than I am (congrats and welcome to the divinity circles) or have never been the only woman in a job like that.
So the playing fields are not necessarily level, even in countries where the laws may have become mostly gender-neutral.
Monday, July 26, 2010
This is a Finnish rock song from the 1970s, I think. I like it because it is in Finnish and because the tune is catchy and though the words are risque they are not sexist. The guy is asked to dance by a woman and they either dance for hours and hours or do something else for the same amount of time. He gets ever more tired but she does not and won't let him stop. Put on your dancing shoes!
Rauli Badding Somerjoki: Filing and Planing
Sunday, July 25, 2010
Neal Gabler has diagnosed the problems with the Obama administration as coming from his attachment to Ivy league culture, in pretty much the same way I have been for the past several months. He puts it into context with the Best and Brightest who got us involved with the civil war in Vietnam during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. His analysis of the class aspirations of the Obama inner circle add to what was previously said here.
In many ways, Obama was a sucker for this kind of coldblooded, upper-crust approach to policy and the elitism that went with it. Half-white, half-black, half-American, half-African, part Kansan, part Hawaiian, middle class and transient, Obama made the primary plaint and question of his book, “Dreams From My Father’’: Where do I belong? That question was posed as one of racial identity, but in the end, whether he fully realized it or not, Obama found himself not in black culture or white culture but in the culture of the best and the brightest. That’s where he belonged. That’s where he seemed to feel most comfortable.
So it is really no surprise that he has packed his administration with what one might call The Best and the Brightest 2.0 — people who are as dispassionate and rational and suspicious of emotion as the president prides himself as being: a bunch of cool, unflappable customers. (The exceptions are Vice President Joe Biden and chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.) Like The Best and the Brightest 1.0, these folks — guys like Larry Summers, outgoing budget director Peter Orszag, and Tim Geithner, on the economic side; and William J. Lynn 3d, deputy secretary of defense, and James Steinberg, deputy secretary of state, on the foreign side — are Ivy-educated, confident, and implacable realists and rationalists. Like their forebears, they have all the answers, which is why they have been so unaccommodating of other suggestions on the economy, where economists have been pressing them for more stimulus, or on Afghanistan, where the president keeps doubling down his bets.
He points out that one difference is that today's aspiring administration elite are largely first generation ivy, from non-ivy league parents. As was said here yesterday, they are so invested in their social status, hard won through their merit - and I'd guess their ability to one up and bluff in the pretensions of infallibility that are common in academic circles - that they sacrifice everything else in order to maintain what they've won. It's no way to govern a democracy, it defeats any democratic progress when they will trade it away to the members of their newly joined class. As Gabler puts it:
But in elitism as in religion, no one is more devout than a convert, and these people, again like Obama, all having been blessed by the Ivy League, also embrace Ivy League arrogance and condescension. On this, the Republican critics are right: The administration exudes a sense of superiority.
The United States government is run like a ruthless den of thieves when the Republicans are in office, running it like a men's club isn't enough of an improvement under the establishment Democrats. There are real Democrats, largely concentrated in the House and in state legislatures who have to assert themselves more. If the progressive caucus in the House had played hard ball with the White House and the Senate, more effectively, they might save this administration from itself. That they will have to overcome the snobbery and elitism within the administration and the Senate to do it only means they will have to play really hard.
No one should overlook that just about every one of the people we are citing as a problem here is male. Mixing machismo in to the Ivy League, so many of which were so recently all-male, is also a problem.
Kevin Lewis, the author of the Boston Globe "Uncommon Knowledge" derived from recent publications in the social science journals, touts yet another study of the effects of prayer. In this case it's asserting of "how prayer prevents drinking".
A recent study supports an interesting approach to curbing alcohol consumption: regular prayer. In surveys, people who reported praying more often also reported less alcohol consumption and fewer alcohol-related problems, and more prayer was associated with less consumption and fewer problems over the next several months. Of course, people who pray a lot may be less prone to drink anyway, so the researchers randomly assigned people to regular prayer or nonprayer tasks and then asked them to report their alcohol consumption after four weeks. Those who were assigned to pray drank significantly less than those who weren’t.
Now, I am religious, I suspect, but don't know, that thinking and meditating on ethics, morality, closely examining my conduct for its morality, as well as its rationality, are good and effective. I've got nothing at all against prayer, so long as it's not of the kind that Mark Twain cites in one of his better known short pieces. But prayer cannot be the subject of scientific study.
In the abstract of this study, published in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors it says:
Participants assigned to pray every day (either an undirected prayer or a prayer for a relationship partner) for 4 weeks drank about half as much alcohol at the conclusion of the study as control participants.
"Undirected prayer" starts out being too undefined and undefinable. As I pointed out here before, you cannot even control whether or not the activity you're calling "prayer" is the same action even twice in a row, not even in the same person. The same person very well might be doing different "things" depending on the impossible to define "state of mind" they are in from minute to minute. And "prayer", even as defined in the vast and changing ideas of various religions and religious people, is of wildly different formal definition. Is the rote mumbling of the 23rd Psalm the same kind of thing as the intense concentration of mindfulness meditation?
If you can't define a behavior in order to isolate that behavior, if you can't detect its actual presence except by self reporting*, if you can't reliably exclude it from your control group, what do your results mean? How can you know what they mean?