Saturday, November 29, 2003

A Book Review

For the insomniacs who like to stay that way I recommend this book: It can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis. It was originally published in 1935 as a response to the increasing fascism in Europe. According to the back cover of my Signet Classic edition, "This book remains a warning about the fragility of democracy, juxtaposing hilarious satire with a blow-by-blow description of a president saving the country from welfare cheaters, sex, crime, and a liberal press by becoming a dictator."

This president, one Berzelius Windrip, has written a Mein Kampf -type book called Zero Hour - Over the Top. Here is president Windrip in his own words:

"I want to stand up on my hind legs and not just admit but frankly holler right out that we've got to change our system a lot, maybe even change the whole Constitution (but change it legally, and not by violence) to bring it up from the horseback-and-corduroy-road epoch to automobile-and-cement-highway period of today. The Executive has got to have a freer hand and to be able to move quick in an emergency, and not be tied down by a lot of dumb shyster-lawyer congressmen taking months to shoot off their mouths in debates."

Interesting, isn't it? Windrip is legally elected but slowly turns the American democracy into a fascist state. People do ultimately rise up, but

"... there the revolt halted, because in the America, which had so warmly praised itself for its "widespread popular free education," there had been so very little education, widespread, popular, free or anything else, that most people did not know what they wanted - indeed knew about so few things to want at all.

There had been plenty of schoolrooms; there had been lacking only literate teachers and eager pupils and school boards who regarded teaching as a profession worthy of as much honor and pay as insurance-selling or embalming or waiting on table. Most Americans had learned in school that God had supplanted the Jews as chosen people by the Americans, and this time done the job much better, so that we were the richest, kindest, and cleverest nation living; that depressions were but passing headaches and that labor unions must not concern themselves with anything except higher wages and shorter hours and, above all, must not set up an ugly class struggle by combining politically; that, though foreigners tried to make a bogus mystery of them, politics were really so simple that any village attorney or any clerk in the office of a metropolitan sheriff was quite adequately trained for them

"Politics were really so simple that any village attorney was quite adequately trained for them." And probably any bodybuilder or movie star... The book also has the foremother of Concerned Women of America, and an airplane is used as a fatal weapon. Good stuff for those of us who like to teeter on the narrow edge between outright insanity and intentional ignorance.

Oh, Baby!

Imagine yourself as not yet existing (behind the Rawlsian 'veil of ignorance' if you wish). Imagine that you can choose the sex you are going to be born into, but nothing else about your forthcoming life. Would you choose to be born a girl?

Not very likely. Pure statistical odds would mean that you'd probably be born in one of those countries where the birth of a girl can be a family disaster. It's kind of hard to grow up into a confident and productive human being if your very existence is a misfortune. If you're allowed to grow up, that is.

Life is a crapshoot, anyway, and being born poor is pretty bad. But being born a poor girl baby in a country such as India is a calamity. In India, a traditionally patrilinear society, sons are important both as workers and as the future caretakers of their parents in old age. Daughters, on the other hand, are to be married off to some other family. On top of that, their marriagibility depends on providing a dowry. So the birth of yet another daughter to a poor family is no cause for rejoicing. Not another pair of hands to guarantee a safe old age for the parents, but another dowry to scrape together.

India is of course not the only country that doesn't value daughters as much as sons. China is famous for its strong preference for sons, and most countries show this preference to at least some degree.

Even the western world, it seems. Several recent studies suggest that marriages where all the children are daughters are more likely to end than marriages where all the children are sons and that parents invest more wealth in their male children. The differences these studies find are very small and may not reflect an actual parental preference for sons. But if they do reflect this, and if the reason for preferring sons is in their value as manual laborers and old age insurance policies, these differences shouldn't exist at all in post-industrialized countries with functioning pension systems. If anything, one might have predicted a slight preference for daughters, given that it is largely the daughters who provide informal nursing care to aging parents.

Steven E. Landsburg gives his take on these study findings in a column fetchingly entitled:
Oh, No: It's a Girl! Do Daughters Cause Divorce? Landsburg argues that boys hold shaky marriages together not because the parents deem the effects of a divorce to be worse for sons than for daughters, but because boys actually make marriages better. Better than daughters, that is. Why? Landsburg seems to think that it might have something to do with playing catch, among other things. He concludes by noting that :

Years ago on the schoolyard, we used to chant that girls are good but boys are better. It looks like our parents agreed with us.

Who are the 'we' in this statement? None of the several women I checked with had chanted this particular song in the schoolyard. And how can Mr. Landsburg speak on behalf of both mothers and fathers? As far as I know, these studies allow us to draw no conclusions about how much parents agree in their preferences.

I think that those mothers and/or fathers who prefer sons over daughters do so because the society on the whole exhibits the same preference. The advantages to having sons in India are obvious, but the reasons underlying these advantages are much less so. Why did most countries adopt a patrilinear system of inheritance? Why did most societies decide to marry their daughters away from the homes of their birth and not their sons? Why has it been until recently that only sons can carry on the family name? Why are dowries (payments from the bride's family) more common than bride prices (payments to the bride's family)? These are the essential mysteries.

And what about the current consequences of the strong preference for sons in countries such as India and China? Sex selective abortions and infanticide of girls have distorted the sex ratios to such an extent that the outcome might be a society with a large segment of eternal bachelors. China already may have around thirty million men who will never have a chance to marry, and many regions of India are facing a similar dilemma, with only 800-900 girls being born for every 1,000 boys.

To be honest, I could care less about this consequence. If the best argument against the preference for sons is to point out that someone must produce future wives for these sons, we haven't advanced very far. Besides, this problem can be easily solved through the use of polyandry, serial or not. Polyandry works, I should know.

Sons will be preferred over daughters in societies where men are privileged over women. It's as simple as that. The more equal the social valuation of women and men, the smaller the observed preference for sons.

Postscript: 1. I ran this text through the Gender Genie. The results:
Words: 830

(NOTE: The genie works best on texts of more than 500 words.)

Female Score: 986
Male Score: 2121

The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: male!

I guess they don't have a category for goddesses.

2. If you are interested in learning more about this topic, a poster named Le Chat Noir on the ms. boards has searched the web for you.

Friday, November 28, 2003


I keep reading that this is the post-feminist era. Feminism is so passe, so seventies. Fashionable people don't wear it anymore.

But what do they wear instead? What is post-feminism? After some serious thinking and studying (also apparently passe concepts), I have come up with these definitions of post-feminism, all in use:

1. Post-feminism means that the old-time, somewhat grungy feminists won their fights, and that women now enjoy full equality with men and no longer need to go grungy.

2. No. Post-feminism means that the strident sisterhood of the seventies lost. Women are not equal to men, nor do 'real' women wish for equality. A beautiful womanhood is quite sufficient for them, thank you very much.

3. The deconstructionists believe that there is no such concept as 'woman', never mind 'women's rights'. This makes feminism 'problematized'. We live in post-feminist times in the same manner as we might be said to live in post-modern times. I must admit that this manner looks pretty fuzzy to me.

4. Post-feminism means that feminism lost, not because it wasn't needed, but because it was somehow blamed for the double-shift of employed women: first do your paid work, then do the chores at home. Hmmm. Seems like anti-feminist propaganda to me. As far as I know, there isn't any feminist rulebook that bans men from doing their share of chores at home.

5. Feminism is dead as a movement even though it might still be needed, because the trouble to organize is too much considering the slight gains it might reap in the current political climate. This is post-feminism as lethargy and indifference. Or whatever.

No doubt other definitions could be invented. This muddle of meanings explains why I am filled with fury when I read or hear a flippant reference to 'outdated' feminism. I have no idea what it means. Sometimes I suspect that neither do the utterers.

So do we actually live in post-feminist times? Should we? You tell me. Not even a goddess can answer this one.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Happy Thanksgiving to everybody who celebrates this American holiday. Others can be thankful for the fact that they don't: no need to clean for weeks, pick up ancient relatives from airports, stock the larder with weird foods without which Cousin Charlotte would pine away, cook a dead bird bigger than the oven or pretend that sweet potatoes can masquerade as a dessert. No need to overeat or to watch American football. So be thankful, all and one.

In honor of thanksgiving, then, here's a blog on an American house.

Designing the Absurd

Is life meant to be absurd and design to follow suit? My house is full of examples that suggest this: The door knobs, for example. They are round glass balls. If you wanted to design a door handle that looks as it would work but doesn't, you'd make it a round glass ball. This keeps people housebound if they have wet hands, carry anything bulky or heavy, or suffer from arthritis. The glass also makes the knob impossible to repair when turning it no longer turns the lock.

The sash windows of my house may have been designed by M. Guillotine during his lunch breaks. The upper pane normally doesn't move at all, but when the ropes that support it break, it comes down faster than a guillotine blade. Usually when I am stretching my neck out of the window in order to wash the upper glass from the outside.

These inventions are ancient, but more modern design works hardly better. The shower head in my bathroom is good for quick showers in the morning. It is worthless for anything else, being embedded in the wall. Shower heads should be detachable. Anyone disagreeing with this has never cleaned a bathtub or a large, nervous dog in it. Both jobs need rinsing which needs detachable shower heads. The lack of one forces me to use a large saucepan. As a consequence, I always have dogs with saucepan phobias.

Saucepans are no good for rinsing remote controls, microwave keypads or computer keyboards. Nothing is good for rinsing or cleaning these, although an extended leave of absence from work and a ton of tweezers and toothpicks might make a slight difference. As most people have better things to do with the rest of their lives, such equipment is often sold in colors and textures which look already grimy. That way cleaning doesn't seem necessary until it is far too late.

A case might be made in defense of each of these features I malign. There is no such defense for the American electric sockets, no reason whatsoever for making them look like miniature copies of Edward Munch's 'The Scream'; a painting from hell. This is what stares back from baseboards all over the U.S., normally attached to the wall roughly diagonally. No wonder that mental health problems grow increasingly common. The only place where these sockets should be allowed is in dentists' waiting rooms. But that wouldn't satisfy the laws of absurdity.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

On Naming Things

Fetuses are now called unborn children. I like the logic behind this innovation; from now on I shall call living adults undead corpses. And for breakfast I will no longer order fried eggs but fried unborn chickens.

Monday, November 24, 2003

Pornography Goes Mainstream

Did I ever mention that retired gods and goddesses may sometimes take human form? Aphrodite has chosen to become an eighty-year old widow living in Florida. She adores Mickey Mouse, neon pink golf carts and polyester pant suits. She was really fed up with her long reign as a sex goddess, and wanted a more active life. I stopped by recently. We had a ball.

She took me to this new Viennese tearoom for women. They served exquisite little pastries, and the place was packed with 'dite's cronies. After we were served our cappuccinos, the waitress told us to help ourselves to all the tidbits on the center table. Can you believe this? The cakes and pastries were daintily arranged on the reclining still form of a gorgeous naked man? He was a real cupcake!

I reached out for a canape in his left armpit and watched his pupils dilate. His eyes moved to point at the large painted sign which warned against any bodily interference with the 'model'. So we could only look, not touch. And look we did.

I asked the waitress if the tearoom had had any problems with meninists protesting against their use of a male platter. She laughed and said that all publicity was good publicity. Besides, everybody knew that meninists had no sense of humor. We all agreed that we really respected and admired men, especially this lovely studmuffin!

When we were replete with cakes and the platter covered but with crumbs, 'dite took me back to her condo to watch some daytime soaps. I kept nodding off on the couch until she turned the channel to Oprah's show. The day's topic was "Getting in Touch with Your Inner Erection". It seemed to consist of some man flogging his book on 'bagel dancing'. The gyrations and contortions around a bagel suspended from a string in the ceiling were supposed to make men fit and better in the marital bed. I started feeling slight bouts of indigestion. I'm not a prude, as any of you may check on the Google, but this was just getting to be too much.

Men are people, too, after all. What was going on? Had 'dite interfered with earth's essential vibrational frequency? She adamantly denied having anything to do with these sexxee developments among men. Supposedly men had just collectively decided that titillating women was sex-positive and healthy. As proof 'dite mentioned a newspaper article about men's athletic wear stores in Paris. To drum up more business, these stores had hired coaches to teach men how to remove their jockstraps in an alluring fashion. One young man was quoted as saying that he had never before really understood how important it was to remove the football socks before rather than afterwards. The store had hung up framed sayings supposedly by Simone de Beauvoir: "The high time of the day on the sports fields is not when a man suits up but when he takes it all off for his woman."

I did mention to Aphrodite that according to the article there had been protests by some men's groups outside the store. She waved this detail away with her tennis-braceleted arm and pointed out an ad in a magazine I was leafing through as further proof of the same trend in sexual liberation. The ad was selling sweatshop-free underwear for men, but the pictures were extremely revealing crotch shots from below.

"Sort of pornographic, don't you think?" I asked. She nodded. "Porn has gone mainstream now. Care for a round of golf?"


I have slightly played with the truth in recounting this story. If you insist on the more politically correct but boring facts, here they are: Sushi served on a naked female, pole-dancing on Oprah, Parisian strip-tease lessons for women who buy underwear and American Apparel's ad for women's panties.

An interesting postscript:1. Folks in Seattle decided to alter the world to match my story better. That's the power of goddesses for you. See naked men as doughnut platters. 2. Daniel sent me this. It is a Swedish revision story of pornography going mainstream. In actual pictures. "Ombytta roller" means swopped sex roles. Just keep clicking on "mer sex"! I bet Aphrodite is behind this one, too.