Saturday, August 31, 2013

How Older Parents Are Wrecking The World

It's that time of the year again when we talk about too old parents having children.  I'm annoyed by this piece in the New Republic, even though it might make many good medical points.  My annoyance is based on four factors:

First, the article is a vast exaggeration of what's going on.  A vast exaggeration.  Take the title:

How Older Parenthood Will Upend American Society The scary consequences of the grayest generation.

We have the upending of the society!  We have the scary consequences!  And yet there's this:

That women become mothers later than they used to will surprise no one. All you have to do is study the faces of the women pushing baby strollers, especially on the streets of coastal cities or their suburban counterparts. American first-time mothers have aged about four years since 1970—as of 2010, they were 25.4 as opposed to 21.5. That average, of course, obscures a lot of regional, ethnic, and educational variation. The average new mother from Massachusetts, for instance, was 28; the Mississippian was 22.9. The Asian American first-time mother was 29.1; the African American 23.1. A college-educated woman had a better than one-in-three chance of having her first child at 30 or older; the odds that a woman with less education would wait that long were no better than one in ten.

Bolds are mine.  What that paragraph supports is not the upending of the American society.

Second, the story is written from an upper-class point of view and largely reflects the concerns of those who must choose between further education and having children early.  Delaying childbearing for those reasons is NOT the largest global reason for the reduced fertility rates in many countries. It may be a consequence of wanting a smaller family size, but worldwide fertility rates are not dropping because women everywhere are delaying childbirth for careers!

Third, the story conflates fertility rates and late births in a way which leaves me feeling that the author wants everybody to have lots of children, and that the way to do that is to begin at menarche or so, given that the body then is less likely to have accumulated toxins or mutations or whatever might make the children of older parents more likely to have problems.

Indeed, the story tries to press all the panic buttons together!  Though I must give it kudos for pressing them on men, too.  Usually these articles only press women's panic buttons (We women always do everything wrong:  If we are black, we have children too young and without husbands.  If we are white, we don't have enough children or too late, at least if we are not poor.  If we are white and poor,  we also have children too often without husbands and so on.  I'm going to stop reading this crap.)

Fourth, this article contains something which I've noticed before in these kinds of articles.  Here's an example.  It's a subtle one, following some time after an assertion that feminists really are celebrating older parenting everywhere!

If you’re a doctor, you see clearly what is to be done, and you’re sure it will be. “People are going to change their reproductive habits,” said Alan S. Brown, a professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at the Columbia University medical school and the editor of an important anthology on the origins of schizophrenia. They will simply have to “procreate earlier,” he replied. As for men worried about the effects of age on children, they will “bank sperm and freeze it.”

Bolds are mine.

What's irritating about this?  It pays no attention to people's life circumstances, the absence of paid maternity leave, the difficulty of establishing a family in one's early twenties, the absence of protections for women who take a maternity leave from work and wish to return to the same position in their career paths, the absence of support for daycare and so on.  And note that the people who have to "procreate earlier" are really not all people, because some can bank sperm and freeze it, assuming they can afford that.

I've read similar opinions in earlier old-mother articles, and they always give orders like that, pretty much.   Sorta shape-up-or-ship-out.

At the next step in the article the author gives us the usual good advice about what's needed for that earlier procreation to happen.  That advice (of which the first paragraph is aimed at only the educated upper classes, by the way) will be ignored, as it has been, for decades:

Demographers and sociologists agree about what those policies are. The main obstacle to be overcome is the unequal division of the opportunity cost of babies. When women enjoy the same access to education and professional advancement as men but face penalties for reproducing, then, unsurprisingly, they don’t.
More immediately effective are policies in place in many countries in Western Europe (France, Italy, Sweden) that help women and men juggle work and child rearing. These include subsidized child care, generous parental leaves, and laws that guarantee parents’ jobs when they go back to work. Programs that let parents stay in the workforce instead of dropping out allow them to earn more over the course of their lifetimes.
Compare that to the medical advice that "people" will just have to procreate earlier.

OK.  After picking through all that, the piece has good points about the fact that having children late in life carries larger risks than having them early.  To what extent epigenetic studies about mice or rats directly translate into humans is unclear, however, and the article would have much benefited from placing the numbers it quotes into a proper framework.

It's not terribly informative to tell us that some condition becomes more likely with parental age if we are not told what percentage of all children the condition applies to and, thus, what the actual increased risk might be.  Given that most people still have children relatively young, the societal upending the post predicts doesn't seem called for.  At least I wanted to know exactly what percentage of American men and women have their first child after the age of, say, forty.

Just to remind you again, the average maternal age at first birth in the US is 24.5 years, not forty years.  Thus, to write about the scary consequences of the graying generation is like telling us that the sky is falling.  But that treatment is good for clicks, advertising income and the survival of a struggling newspaper, right?

Thursday, August 29, 2013

On Whether the US Should Intervene in Syria

It is a very sad day when the best piece on this was written by a humor site, the Onion.  That piece is sarcasm of a very dark kind and says nothing much about the human suffering.  But trying to decide on the basis of human suffering is equally impossible, unless one has the ability to predict the  total future casualties (as well as their split into innocent bystanders and willing participants) under each option.

I'm not well informed about the situation in Syria but it seems to me that none of the sides in the civil war are on the side of ordinary democracy for the majority of Syrian people.  It looks like a religious-cum-political-cum-economic power struggle between fairly small groups.

What's truly awful about these situations that the "innocent bystanders" are always the least powerful and often the ones the next power-brokers will oppress.

On Depression And Gender

A new study (seems to be based on a doctoral thesis by one of the authors) suggests that depression rates among men may have been underestimated because of the symptom list that is commonly used.  In other words, perhaps, as the authors argue, depression is as common in men as in women (or even more common in men).  But perhaps not.

The problem I have with the study (which I quickly read) is that I didn't spot the part where the lists of symptoms are nailed down as defining depression.  Something like people feeling better after getting medication for depression or other therapy for depression, something which links all the various symptom lists to the same illness.

I may have missed that part.  But in general the measurement of mental/ and emotional illnesses can be tricky.

Still, the study findings are interesting.  For example, when the authors used a combined scale which included both traditional (sorta female-coded items) and new "masculine" items, women and men tended to score about the same.  In addition to that, it wasn't necessarily just the men who seemed to score higher on the "masculine" items but a significant number of women, too:
The second scale, the GIDS, included traditional depression items as well as the alternative, male-type items from the MSS. The MSS appeared to identify depression in a group of men who disclosed more externalizing symptoms. However, we know that men’s experiences of depression are not uniform. For some men, these alternative symptoms would be enough to assess depression, while others would experience the more traditional symptoms of depression. Given that a significant number of women also met our depression case criteria using the MSS indicates that both women and men would benefit from a scale that contains an array of symptoms that better reflect the heterogeneity of the depression experience.

If the authors' new scales indeed measure depression better in many men (and many women), then their use will be an improvement, always assuming that effective treatment exists.  More people can be helped.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A Breastfeeding Joke And Slightly Related Comments

This is the joke:

I think it is funny, anyway.

More seriously, and because I read some theoretical literature in the last few days, the treatment of breastfeeding in the media is fascinating.  There is a push for more breastfeeding and there is also increased acceptance of public breastfeeding.  But the need for both of those is because of how female breasts have been coded in the recent past (and still are):  As sexual titillants.  If there isn't such a word (titillant) it should exist.

But I also think that the same person could be for breastfeeding and against public breastfeeding, if that person believes in the women-in-the-private-sphere-only argument.  Being able to take your baby out with you without considering the feeding rhythm gives women more freedom.

Which links, a bit wobblily (another word that doesn't exist?), to my observation comparing Finland and the US.  At least where I live in the US the presence of children is a bit ghost-like.  The streets are sorta empty of them and glimpses of families are nowhere as common as in Finland.  And the number of young dads as the only adults with their children out doing things is much, much higher there than here.

I have some ideas about what drives these differences, and it isn't different birth rates.  Americans are much more afraid of what might happen to unsupervised children playing with other children outside, and Finns have paternity leave which serves to increase the bonding between fathers and children.  I also think the societal values are somewhat different in the two countries.

Blog Spam

I spend a few minutes every day on spam.  It's like having to sweep the same corner of the living-room every day, for some weird reason.

And now I'm getting curious about the spam industry.  For example, I didn't use to get much spam until this last spring.  Now it's continuous, even though Disqus' spam program catches most of it so you never see it.

But what fascinates me right now is where the spam goes.  On this blog it goes to the post about "Get Lucky at 35,000 Feet."  Why the spammers pick older posts is obvious.  But why certain older posts?

I get that the work posting spam is poorly paid and I'm not yelling at the people doing it.  But perhaps something could be done about the algorithms which make spam profitable for firms.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

On The Concept of Privilege As A Tool in Social Justice Movements

Contents include rape and sexual harassment.

I've written about this before, but there's more I want to say about it, partly brought up by this quote from a post about the new supposedly feminist website called Bustle:

Based on his statements and interviews, it seems fair to say that Goldberg has, at best, a rudimentary understanding of the concept of feminism — while it's a broad and controversial term for sure, most people who have bothered to read up on the subject seem to agree that part of being a 21st-century feminist includes embracing intersectionality, questioning stereotypes, being aware of your privilege, and letting women speak for themselves.

Bolds are mine.

Being aware of your privilege is fine, and it as an excellent tool for introspection, for understanding what I don't have any lived-in experience about, for understanding that the world can treat other people quite differently, and for placing oneself at the beginning of some debate (do I know something worth sharing here?  do I make assumptions about what others know that are incorrect?)

But what about using the concept in other ways?  That's where I think the concept of privilege fails as a tool.  It's too blunt, too prone to being used as a shut-up in conversations, too prone for being used as a check on the ideological purity of someone to be in the room (which also turns lack of privilege into a certain type of odd privilege).  To give you an example, to tell someone his or her privilege is showing is a statement which both conveys certain information and argues that the person has committed a faux pas of a type, that the person probably should shut up and leave the conversation.

That doesn't matter, perhaps, except in the sense that one catches more flies with honey than with vinegar, though it does tend to stop any further attempts to increase mutual understanding.

 What matters much more is when privilege is used as an actual tool of theoretical analysis.

The reason for that, in my opinion, is that the concept of privilege is so stretching, so meaningless, so capable of inversions that we don't get anywhere by using it.  The bigger worry, by far, is the idea of starting to add up privileges, to decide who is the least privileged, and then to use that impossible summing to make conclusions about what one should do in a particular situation, whose position one should focus on, whose worries one should evaluate. 

That's partly because some things listed as privileges can depend on one's choice, partly, because many aspects of privilege focus the study of a societal problem on the relative position of different individuals with respect to that problem, and such focus then tends to blind us to the larger problem and concentrate on individuals and their lives rather than the wider problem.  But the different types of privileges are not commensurate and so trying to sum them up introduces pure subjectivity into the analysis.

To give you a more concrete example of some of the problems, I have urban East Coast "privilege".  But if I move to a bubolic area, because of my own choice, I lose that "privilege?"   I can now participate in discussions as a representative of rural people?  That doesn't make the best approach to the very real problems of the rural poor or the very real problems of how to provide, say, adequate media coverage of sparsely populated areas or how to make sure that feminism or other such movements aren't just bicoastal ones.  In a sense the concept of "privilege" is both too general, vague and too narrow, individualistic.

Here's what I really want to stress:  My criticism of the concept of "privilege" is not an argument for implying that one's race, gender, ethnicity and so on wouldn't place people into different boxes, with different access to the good things in life and with different levels of bad things happening to us.  It's crucial to be clear about that.  But when we lump all the different aspects of these and other concerns (social class, religion, sexual preference, gender identity, health etc.) together and throw them into one box marked "privilege" we don't really get very far in our analyses.

That's because different types of "privilege" have different underlying reasons, and a proper study of those reasons is imperative, in my view.  One way of doing that study is by looking at one particular question (say, race) first in isolation and then in how it interacts with other important questions (gender, income, etc.)  If we don't do that disaggregated analysis, we are stuck with a concept of "privilege" which tells us very little about what to do to make things better.

To apply all this to a particular problem, consider the recent media coverage of gang rapes and sexual harassment and the like in India.  Let's begin with a piece published at the about the experiences of an American exchange student in India.   The story is an outpouring of pain and grief with very little analysis (which isn't necessarily required of such stories).  But it also equates the sexual harassment the writer had to undergo with the whole country of India in a way which might be essentializing, implying that India is somehow ineradicably a misogynist place which foreign women should avoid.

A companion piece at the site provided a different narrative of the possible experiences of another exchange student on the same trip.  The author of that stressed the kindness and humanity of the Indian men she met and the fact that one shouldn't label a whole society based on what some individuals in it do.

Here's where the concept of privilege enters all this:  A post on Ms Magazine site discusses these two essays from the point of view of a professor of gender studies. The post makes a complicated argument:

So RoseChasm is not incorrect to feel hunted, but her words unfortunately line up with global power grids. She depicts India as irredeemably patriarchal, with no nod to the long history of Indian feminists protesting against sexual violence in public spaces, homes and by police and military. By default, the U.S. gets seen as a haven of gender equity. We forget that U.S. campuses have four times the number of sexual assaults that off-campus sites do, that domestic violence kills in record numbers and that the U.S. military commits rapes in huge numbers with little impunity. RoseChasm’s testimony may be a terrified survivor’s account, but it reinforces ideas of places like India as primitive frontiers, desensitizing us to violence launched against other countries with the alibi of culture.
RoseChasm wants to be invisible, neutral, “just a person” in India, but the very fact of her presence on a study abroad trip underlines a one-sided privilege: Students on such programs can travel to others’ lives, gawk at them and pretend to live their lives for a brief moment, with little recognition that people may be looking or talking back, sometimes in violent ways. For women on these trips, this becomes a violent, gendered difference from men in their programs, to be sure, but for all it’s a reminder that global inequalities often provoke vicious backlash. And RoseChasm’s U.S. privilege doesn’t protect her from the everyday violence Indian women negotiate. A return to the U.S. provides no protection from gendered violence, either—it only compounds the complete lack of safe havens for women.

The bolds are mine.

My beef isn't with the author, Srimati Basu, pointing out the global power grids or the fact that American tourists in India are privileged in many ways over the general Indian population.  My beef has to do with the idea that the modern concept of privilege benefits the analysis here.  The older one, based on income, education and social class, might have been more useful.

Basu's two points in that context are contradictory.  She both argues that the US and India are not that different* when it comes to gendered violence AND that the author of the initial essay, RoseChasm, is privileged** because she can move from one of these countries to the other, whereas Indian women cannot do so.   But if that is so, then Basu herself, say, is privileged when it comes to the US, compared to poor American women.  Basu can leave the country, they cannot.

That's nit-picking, sure, and a bit stupid.   My point may become clearer when we introduce to this discussion the most recent gang-rape case from India:

Out on an assignment, the photojournalist was raped in a deserted textile mill in central Mumbai on Thursday evening after the five accused assaulted and tied her male colleague.
Twenty police teams, including 10 from the crime branch, are tracking their three other accomplices, all of whom have been identified and are aged between 18 and 20.
On Friday afternoon, the police had arrested Chand Abdul Sattar who lives at Dhobi Ghat, close to the mill. The accused later confessed to the crime.
"We have arrested one of the suspects who has named the others involved in the incident. The suspect has also confessed to the crime," Mumbai police commissioner Satyapal Singh had said in a press conference on Friday.
The five men, all school dropouts, were jobless and visited the mill often. Two even have robbery cases registered against them.
If we apply the privilege concept to this story, it might be necessary to point out that the victim comes across as probably of a higher social class than the perpetrators, who are school dropouts and unemployed.  From this it's not a terribly big step to discussing which rapes are in some sense more understandable than other rapes and so on.   I don't want to go there.

This is what I see as a big problem with the simultaneous discussion of different types of privileges and attempts to compare them or to add them up or to subtract from them.  I don't see how that approach would diminish any of the underlying problems.  The tools for fighting poverty and global inequalities are different from the tools for fighting rape, in general, and I don't think that conflating the two increases our analytical abilities.  This doesn't mean that an understanding of the variables which make rape more likely on the perpetrators' part isn't useful.  But that's something different altogether.

To conclude, I want to reiterate that this post is about the concept of privilege as an analytical tool, not an argument for the absence of what the concept attempts to capture,  and certainly not an argument against using it as a device for introspection.

* The discussion of gender violence in different countries often concludes with the argument that gender violence exists everywhere.  This is correct, of course.  But it's still important to study different cultures, the way they handle rape and sexual harassment, whether the authorities take them seriously or not, whether the victim-blaming and shame associated with being a victim is identical and so on.  It's also important to try to get good international figures of actual rapes and to understand the reasons for any differences that are found.  Those reasons include several possibilities:  For example, women have different "rights" to go out alone or unattended by a male relative, and how the society views those "rights" determines the incidence of rapes in complicated ways.  Then the rate at which women report rapes can differ because of the cultural incentives or disincentives for doing so.  And so on.  To give one extra flavor of the complications in this, it's possible that a country which experiences an upsurge of attention aimed at rapes (such as India) may, in fact, be improving its actual hidden statistics if those rapes in the past went unreported and even hidden.

Such international comparisons should avoid the kind of approach that Basu warns us about.  But the comparisons are necessary for both learning what works in the prevention of gender violence and for measuring improvements.

**That RoseCharm tells us she suffers from PTSD and was admitted to a psychiatric ward for some time and is now on mental disability leave from college further complicates the analysis if we use being able-bodied or able-minded as yet another form of privilege.

What Some Treatments of Chelsea Manning Teach Us About Views On Women

On CNN Newsroom:

CNN host Fredricka Whitfield continued to incorrectly refer to Chelsea Manning as a male as one of her guests suggested that providing Manning with hormone therapy while in prison would be "beyond insanity."
During the August 24 edition of CNN Newsroom, Whitfield invited civil rights attorney Avery Friedman and criminal defense attorney Richard Herman to discuss the possibility of providing Manning - previously known as Bradley Manning - with medical treatment for her gender dysphoria while she serves her sentence in an all-male military prison for leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks.
Herman, who is a regular CNN legal commentator, railed against the possibility of providing Manning with adequate medical care, calling the idea "beyond insanity" and suggesting that Manning could get "good practice" presenting as a female in prison: 
HERMAN: It's absurd. Sometimes we have to step back and say, "you know, some of these cases we cover, this is beyond insanity." There's no way that taxpayers are going to pay a hundred thousand dollars for a gender transformation for this guy while he's in prison. If he wants to be Chelsea, he can practice all he wants at Fort Leavenworth, because those guys are there for a long time. So he can get good practice and when he gets out, he can have the operation or whatever, and he can pay for it.

Bolds are mine.  I wonder what on earth Herman might have meant by that comment.

No, I don't.  The implication is that the role of women is to get raped and that a male prison is a good place to practice for that role, given the high rates of prison rape.

Meanwhile, in Finland, the chief editor of a newspaper called  Kaleva cut a joke on the topic of transgender Manning:

Tietovuotaja Bradley Manning haluaa muuttua naiseksi. Se ei ole ihme. Laverteluhan on aina ollut ämmämäistä".

My translation:

The information leaker Bradley Manning wants to turn into a woman.  That's no wonder.  Blabbing/tale-telling has always been what chicks/hags do.

When questioned about it, editor Mantila defended his joke as summarizing everything important really well.  He also didn't get what the fuss was about and pointed out that his newspaper has been among the most liberal when it comes to sexual minorities.  Nobody should be wrapped in cotton wool, he also stated, not even sexual minorities.

I went and read the comments to the story about Mantila's beautiful and hairy foot in his mouth, and most didn't think his joke was that good.  But one person there linked to a Daily Mail article which argued that women do so speak more than men.*

The placement of transgender individuals into a scheme of theoretical analysis about gender can be very difficult.  But one way of approaching this might be to look at it in the context of enforcing rigid gender norms, including the impossibility of leaping over the border between male and female sexes.

 If we apply this tool, the above two examples seem to demonstrate the idea that Manning is moving from the better sex to the worse sex, one which is sorta made for passive reception of sexual advantages but which also talks nonstop.
*The article from last February, which I missed, is about testing boy and girl rats.  The boy rats are more vocal than the girl rats and get more attention from the mommy rats.  There's a difference in a protein P2 between the boy and girl rats (boy rats have more of it), and when the researchers switched the relative amount of P2 in the boy and girl rat brains, the girls became more vocal and got more mommy attention. 

The researchers then argued that in a small sample of human children (5 girls, 5 boys) the girls had more of P2 than the boys.  But they never measured how vocal those girls and boys were.  Yet the popularization argued that "Women Really Do Talk More Than Men."

There are all sorts of problems with that, of course, because the study didn't show any difference in how vocal the children were and even the initial study didn't compare adult rats with each other.  A sample size of ten can be a bit tricky, for all sorts of good reasons, too.  For a nice discussion of the issues, go here.

But do see the leap the commentator took:  We move from the idea that women tell more tales, blab more to the idea that women just speak more.  The latter is now somehow associated with the idea that women would leak more information than men.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Speed Blogging, Monday 8/26/2013. On Anniversaries, Women in the Obama Administration and The Question of Religious Freedom

Or word salad.  Not coleslaw, but the kind of salad where you have goat cheese lumps, too, among lettuce leaves a bit too big to swallow without knife-work.

First, Saturday was the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, today is the 93rd anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment (women's right to vote).  So we are a very very young country when it comes to civil rights.  Worth keeping in mind. 

Second, the Koch brothers have decided not to buy the Tribune papers.  This is good news.  Or as much good news as we are likely to get for a while so you should revel in it.

Third, has the Obama administration a good record of hiring women or not?  That may depend, as wise people say, but the weasel-word of "diversity" doesn't suffice as a defense:

“The president’s commitment to diversity is second to none, and his track record speaks to it,” Alyssa Mastromonaco, the deputy chief of staff, said in an e-mail message. “This is a man who has appointed women as national security adviser, as White House counsel, as budget director and to lead the task of implementing our single most important domestic policy accomplishment,” namely Mr. Obama’s health care law. “This president has single-handedly increased the diversity of our courts, and he will continue to select from a field of highly qualified and diverse candidates for all federal posts.”
For those who don't know of my dislike of the term "diversity," a short explanation:  You can have diversity with a government which has one white woman, one black man, one Asian-American man and umpteen zillion old white guys.  "Diversity" is not the same thing as a representative government*, in short, and it's a representative government that I think we want.  "Diversity" could provide that, of course, but it also offers a loop-hole for those who don't want a representative government etc..

Fourth, I find the concept of religious rights or religious freedom interesting because it can clash with other types of rights, given that religious rights only crop up in a society with more than one flavor (or perhaps intensity) of religion.  One crucial question is naturally to what extent religious rights infringe on the rights of those who don't share the same religion.  This article addresses some of those issues. 

But very few articles analyze how women's rights and religious rights may conflict on a much deeper level, if the religion specifies women's roles as inferior and secondary and if survival after death is taught to depend on the internalization of those teachings.  That puts the believing woman into an impossible Catch-22 position when it comes to choosing between her religion and her human worth. 

*Representative in terms of population group sizes, with certain basic guarantees and possibly positive discrimination to reassure that group such as Native Americans have representation, too.

Random Writing Post. Can Be Ignored.

This is necessary because I took two days off from the computer and its simulacrum of the real world.  But that's a post for a different day when the gears in my brain are better oiled.  I'm feeling more and more that I pretend-live on the net and that my real life isn't saved and set aside for that, to be enjoyed later.  Must consider.

In any case, the last two days I spent at the seaside.  Wonderful view of the Mother Ocean, making me feel tiny tiny and unimportant, yet quite safe.  The world is OK, even if the human race disappears which might be an improvement, from the ocean's point of view.

I watched a family of groundhogs and they came by to check me out.  An interesting inter-species moment.  A worried look from the groundhog (waddling quickly past after turning its head to gawk at me), a worried look from me until I figured out what animal this was and that it most likely wasn't rabid but just sorta tame.  Or it had tamed me or whatever.

To return to the topic of that first paragraph:  I took the weekend off because of how my return from the Finnish vacation struck me:  The Internet (Twitter, blogs, articles and so on) pulled me hither and pushed me yonder and made my brain feel like I had been twirled around for an hour.  I would follow a thread of thought and find it disintegrate into hundreds of strands which would then get entangled with each other and produce a knot impossible to tease apart.  I would try to follow some other thread of thought and end up with the same dilemma.  Where is my place here?  Do I have any useful function left?

I don't know, and neither does the groundhog.  Though it likes lawnmowers which make its dinner easier to reach.