Saturday, March 01, 2008

After you figure you’ve heard everything everyone’s going to do with Billy Strayhorn’s Lush life, you find Stan Getz and Mary Lou Williams on You Tube.

Wish someone would post Mary Lou’s Waltz.

Feeling Queasy About This

Or A TV kiss is not a kiss. by Anthony McCarthy

As if gay men don’t have enough problems now we have a controversy about two gay characters kissing on a soap opera. The controversy is stirred up by one of the cooky-cutter-conservative-corporations, the home industry of American facism. And, of course, they have to be opposed. But, quite simply, this is not a major sign of progress attacked. I’m sure it is a sign of trouble for gay men in the United States.

I doubt that the positive effects of having gay characters on soap operas are going to balance out the problems those characters will lead to. Witnessing many, many screwed up straight lives of the sort that a TV based culture seems to be good at promoting, many of them seem to be copying what they saw on soaps. The, thankfully, little direct observation I’ve made of them seem to give one clear, though clearly unintended and unlearned lesson. People who give in to their desires without a sense of decency, lead screwed up lives. The kinds of lives seen in most of the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination this time. And stupid? How many people in real life are stupid enough to discuss stuff they didn’t want overheard without the door closed? After they’ve made the same mistake the sixth time? It’s as if the residents of the small-mid-western towns that, I understand, are the locations of most of the soaps are too ga-ga to be given solid food. They’re populated with idiots in perpetual heat.

The commercial media won’t be the place where positive depictions of gay people come from. The best place for people to see the best of gay men and lesbians should would be people they know personally. Those won’t be people who take their models from what American TV shows us to be. Not even with their best efforts. And that would not be found on the soaps. The media could only play a role in bring us up from oppression if decent, responsible, intelligent adult gay men and lesbians were written and acted by good writers and excellent actors. Frankly, those aren’t going to be found on daytime TV, they are almost non-existent in the moives, where decent, adult, gay men are even rarer than nice straight guys. And speaking of straight people. The models of straight behavior on TV doesn’t enhance the lives of straight people, why should anyone expect they’ll do better by us? At the risk of offending large numbers of people, the number of soap opera names held by neglected children in the news must mean something.

American TV is crap. I don’t want anyone forming an idea of me based on what is found there any more than responsible, grown-up lesbians would want to be taken for Rosie O’Donnell or Ellen DeGeneres. While the neo-fascists have to be opposed, I’d feel a lot better about defending gay characters kissing on TV if I didn’t suspect those will lead to silly, superficial, screwed-up behavior in what we have to take by default as being real life.

A Hapless Soldier In The Hands Of A Self Righteous Army by Anthony McCarthy

Billy Boy The Sunday Soldier of the 17th Maine by Jean Mary Flahive* is a novel based on a real story, one I grew up with. Billy was William Laird, a “slow” boy from Berwick, Maine, near where I live. Though illiterate and most likely not able to understand what he was doing, he was enlisted in the Army during the Civil War along with a group of other boys from his town, deserted after he’d been separated from them by the Army, walked a long way home from Maryland, was arrested and was shot by a firing squad for desertion. That much of the story is pretty solid fact. The town lore is that he was badly harassed and likely abused in the Army and that Abraham Lincoln, when informed of his story, pardoned him but that the pardon arrived too late. Though it seems the last part is not able to be confirmed. The author points out that the Anti-Conscription riots might have had something to do with a pardon being lost at the time he was killed. It’s impossible to know.

I got the story from the same source the author did. She was given an account written by Richard Stillings, a history teacher, local politician, and career military officer, after his funeral. He was also a friend of my parents, he told me the story, himself. His family lived in Berwick at the time Billy Laird lived, I think it is certain that his ancestors would have known the Laird family, so he probably got it from a line of transmission that began close to the facts.**

Dick was a history major and not a bad one, I read one of his college papers and it was pretty good if quite conventional. He was smart and honest about history, though he was a liberal Republican of the sort which doesn’t exist anymore. You won’t be surprised to hear we fought about everything to do with politics if it came up. Since he knew I’d fight at the drop of an implication, he must have enjoyed it. He certainly provoked me often enough. Dick died twelve years ago and I wish I could ask for his comment. Jean Mary Flahive did a lot of additional research but said that she really only found the beginning and the end of the story so oral history a generation removed is probably as good as is available.

The book is a real novel so much of what it contains is either guessed at or invented, the author makes it pretty clear at the end of the book what is which. I think that her guesses were generally on the mark. The irresponsibility of allowing a mentally retarded boy to enlist in the army, the ill treatment he would have gotten, especially when he was separated from people he knew, the injustice of the military justice system that killed him with brutal indifference, though I’d guess it was with a generous measure of petty official enthusiasm. I have wondered if he wasn’t killed just as an example to others, a specimen of the institutionalized terror that all war machines practice as a means of forcing people to make war. I’d wondered if a mentally retarded boy might have been seen as expendable by military officers with too little to do stationed in Augusta, Maine where he was tried.

The completely invented material fills out the story into a narrative that tries to explain how he might have made it home. It’s suitable for its intended audience, though it goes farther than I’d have dared try.

I think the picture of his family and their reaction to the execution of a beloved son must be close to true. They recovered his body and buried him on their farm, where his grave still lies.** They must have loved him enough to overcome whatever shame would have accrued to them for having produced a deserter during the Civil War. I hope that is what that means. The story I heard was that they eventually left the town, having had their hearts broken by the injustice of it. The sadness of the story survived for the next hundred years as part of local history so I think there must have been more than a little affection for Billy Laird while he was alive.

Billy Boy is a good book for middle-school aged children and older to read, something to counter the constant pro-war propaganda that saturates the media in the United States today. Every decade or so there is a story about someone who was inducted into the military who shouldn’t have been due to their intellectual limits. Sometimes they are destroyed by the sadism or indifference of the military and its officers, sometimes it amounts to no more than cold blooded murder. Unfortunately, that’s not likely to change as the imperial wars the United States is brought into by corrupt presidents with real absolute war making powers continue. William Laird’s story is only a small story of a hapless soldier, one of those whose blood regularly runs down the palace walls of our pretend republic. It pulls back the curtain on “supporting the troops” in a way that wouldn’t ever remain buried in a real democracy.

* ISBN: 978-1-934031-13-1 Billy Boy is published by Island Port Press.

** He told me on another occasion of having shaken the hand of someone who shook hands with Lincoln so he knew people who had been alive in the 1860s

*** Laird, William H., d. July 15, 1863, aged 30 yrs. 6 mos. 14 days. (53) (Executed as a deserter, but irresponsible.) BURIAL INSCRIPTIONS And other Data of Burials in Berwick, York County, Maine to the Year 1922 by Wilbur D. Spencer . I believe the age should actually read 20 yrs. I’ve never visited the grave, though I know people who have seen it. Reading through the list of Cemeteries indicates that Richard Stillings’ uncle owned the Laird Families’ farm early in the 20th Century.

Friday, February 29, 2008

How To Dis Women Hilariously

Joel Stein gives us a very handy lesson on that in his most recent column, fetchingly called "A little something for the ladies." Note the term "ladies" and the "little something"! Could it be....a diamond ring? Ooh, shiny! Gimme, gimme! If not I shall stomp my tiny foot and cry! And you will not get laid for a century at least!

The column isn't about what to give your little lady on Valentine's Day to get the blowjob you've paid for, nope. It's about women as political animals. Well, as political pet animals, really. It's also a very very funny column, and I'm going to show you how you, too, can write a funny column like that.

First, though the column is supposedly on women, make sure that every man reading it will think of his little bit of armpit fluff instead. For instance, you could begin like this:

You know how ladies, when they don't get what they want, can go a little crazy? Am I right, fellas? Right now, they're pretty upset about losing their first chance at a female president. This would have empowered little girls, shattered sexist beliefs about female incompetence and forced men around the world to view a woman as an agent of power instead of a sex object -- all of which, it turns out, are important to women even though they buy Star magazine. Ladies are complicated.

Pure male genius, that paragraph. Notice how he gets you to agree that women are crazy, in the very first sentence? Women cry and get angry for no good reason at all, whereas men never get angry or crazy. Never. The third sentence explains, subtly and sneakily, how women are illogical, too, because they really want to be sex objects, even if they pretend they don't. So you have to appease them, placate them, for what else can you do when someone is crazy and illogical yet necessary for those sexual uses?

The next paragraphs elaborate on women's silliness and immaturity and the easy way that a man can cope with that:

Because women do most of the voting, and the shopping and the TV watching and the book reading -- porn really must take up a lot of men's time -- they need to be placated. Which shouldn't be hard. You know how when your dog dies, your wife wants to get a puppy right away? That's what America has to do. We need a replacement Hillary.

Because while women are sad that Hillary Clinton seems poised to lose the Democratic nomination, they're even more dejected that there appear to be no women with enough political stature to run for president next time. That's why Barack Obama and John McCain need to pick female running mates. Either that or we're going to have to find some money in the federal budget for 150 million flower bouquets.

See how clever our Joel is? That puppy question, for example? How does he know that every single wife wants a new puppy when the dog dies? Is he a mind-reader or is he linking women to what children might want when a family dog dies? To sort of infantilize women (the majority of Americans)? He's a brave guy. And so very funny.

To return to the version of women as someone's difficult wife or girlfriend: Those creatures need placating, and flowers will do. Well, if women are more like pets-with-benefits, something like a rawhide bone might do as well. But a nice bouquet of roses with perhaps a tiny teddy bear which says "I wuw u!"; those will make her cheerful and quite content. Who cares about the number of women in the Congress when you can have twelve long-stemmed roses instead!

In the rest of his very funny column Joel gives us various scenarios of how we could stuff a little lady into the slot of the Vice-President, should the roses not work after all. Some of those scenarios even give men eye-candy! Tits! Yeah. But he ends his monologue by noting that the unreasonable and emotional women would not be satisfied with a female Vice-President:

Will a female vice president really satisfy women? Of course not. But what does? The point is that we'll be showing them we understand that their frustration is legitimate, and that we're hearing them, and that we're ready to listen. That stuff will totally buy us until November.

I love that ending! See how brilliantly he managed to insert something about how women always need to talk about their emotions and to be heard and how men never listen? Well, now they listen, hand out roses and Vice-Presidents. Of course none of that is enough, because women are emotional, greedy, impossible to understand, yet childishly easy to divert by just a gift or two.

The end of the lesson. Now you know how to write a really sexist (but ohsofunny) column basically stating that women (the majority of Americans) are illogical, insatiable, emotional and silly creatures. Warning! Do not try this approach with any racial, ethnic or political group other than women. You will get severely told off, even fired, if you do.

Who makes us swoon? (by Suzie)

      Do we idealize women in the same way we do men? 
      Googling “Obama” and “swoon” yields 127,000 hits. Women aren’t the only ones fainting with excitement, according to the media. Men, from MSNBC’s Chris Matthews to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, also have been described as swooning for him.
       I don’t want to debate whether Obama is swoon-worthy. Instead, I’d like to discuss the gendered aspect of the word “swoon” as well as who makes us swoon.
       “Swoon” seems marked as a silly, female behavior. Saying a man swoons is akin to saying he’s acting like a girl, one of the worst possible insults. It’s OK for men to support someone, but they shouldn’t get all emotional (i.e., female) about it.
        Girls and women will worship both genders. Even when they lust after a man, they also may want to emulate his traits and actions. He may be a role model for them.
         Boys and men idealize those of their own gender. Some gay men have female idols, such as Barbra Streisand. Straight men may lust after women or admire them as women. But I wonder how often a straight man worships a woman as his role model. 
         One reason for my question is the tendency to see movies, books and TV shows that feature women as being for women, while those with male protagonists are marketed for everyone.

Humanism and feminism (by Suzie)

       In a comment to a previous post, someone suggested it might be better to be a humanist than a feminist, considering the schisms in feminism.
       For those interested in the differences: A feminist can be a humanist, and a humanist can be a feminist. But not all feminists are humanists or vice versa.
       Like feminism, people define humanism differently. Here’s how Andrea Rubenstein defines it: 
Humanism tackles the issue of humanity from a “truth”/rational-oriented perspective, rejecting spirituality and the supernatural as determinants of fate in favour of self-determination. There is both secular and religious humanism, but both reject the idea of deriving religion from moral ground. This movement also doesn’t necessarily include equality; one can seek rational truth in a way that gives dignity to all humans while allowing privilege to continue in some areas.
          Thus, some feminists who are religious might reject humanism. Ditto for postmodern feminists who question concepts of truth and rationality.
           Patricia K. Willis argues that, by definition, humanists should be feminists. Would that it were so. Some humanists might reject feminism, or what they think is feminism, and they may think they are being rational. 

Deconstructing Chris Rock (by Suzie)

      While the Goddess is contemplative, I'm obsessed by this primary season. I cannot resist another post on gender and race. Run for cover if you must.
      A friend sent me a Chris Rock clip gone viral in which he asks, “How can you compare the suffering of a white woman to the suffering of a black man? It's not even close! I mean, white women burned their bras; black men were burned alive!” 
       This joke hit hard, because two women (one of whom was pregnant) were set on fire in December in an adjacent county. You didn’t hear about it? That’s not surprising because male violence against women often is seen as an isolated crime or personal problem, not the symptom of a sexist system.
        The two women who died were Hispanic. But violence against women comes in many shades, many ethnicities. I'm heartened that the UN secretary-general is calling on men to address this behavior.
        Back to Chris Rock. First, he repeats the myth of bra-burning, always a good way to laugh off feminism.
        Talk of voting for a white woman or black man is a “suffering contest,” he jokes. Similarly, some feminist blogs trashed Gloria Steinem last month for suggesting that gender is more restrictive in a presidential race. They repeated the feminist dictum that people should not say one oppression is worse than another. (Here's one example.)
        Chris Rock isn't arguing that people shouldn't pit one against the other; he's arguing that black men should win the suffering contest. As one T-shirt maker puts it: “Bro’s before ho’s.”
        When some people hear "white woman," they envision a woman with money. But "white women" encompasses women who are poor, old, sick, disabled, queer, undocumented, non-English-speaking, imprisoned, etc.
         But even middle- and upper-class white women must deal with sexism. Money can't guarantee safety. Nor can it ensure equal opportunity in a society in which men still occupy the highest positions in government, business, religion and the media. 

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Giving Alms

Hecate links to this story about Catholic charitable giving recommendations:

The Diocese of Little Rock is urging its members not to donate to a breast cancer foundation known for its fundraising races across the globe because the group supports Planned Parenthood.

The diocese says the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation, which has invested about $1 billion in cancer outreach and research, gives money to Planned Parenthood to hold breast exams and offer education to women in its clinics.

"Donors cannot control how an organization designates its funds," a diocese statement reads. "Therefore, money donated for a specific service ... directly frees up funds to support other areas of an organization's agenda."

Marianne Linane, director of the diocese's "respect life" office, said those other agendas includes abortions and contraceptive services. The Catholic church's policy is that abortion is wrong in every instance.

As Hecate points out, that the money donated is fungible is something we have chosen to ignore when watching how the Bush administration gives large handouts to various religious groups, but only to be used for, oh, say the provision of social services such as drug rehabilitation treatments, not for actually preaching or evangelizing to people. But of course the very same groups now have more money left for those exact tasks, thanks to taxpayers. Because money is fungible.

But isn't it interesting that the bad agendas include contraceptive services? Better women dead than on the pill? I hope not.
Added later: Charitable giving can take strange forms:

For the past four years, Catholic Charities instructors have provided the sex-ed instruction in Chandler schools free of charge. They typically come to the public schools for a week to present the material.

Chandler Unified associate superintendent Susan Eissinger said there's no change in the basic message of the program, emphasizing that abstinence is the only 100 percent effective way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Discussion of birth control is not a part of the curriculum.

The long tentacles of the faithful reaching everywhere? Note also how these abstinence programs always have sections on how to say no but never seem to have sections on how not to press someone else for sex.

I Bet You Didn't Know This

About John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton:

While presumptive Republican nominee John McCain has consistently received zero-percent ratings from every pro-choice organization that ranks candidates, both Clinton and Obama have received 100-percent ratings from NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood.

Well, of course you knew that. It's just something that has been sort of ignored in much of the coverage of McCain as the maverick truthteller, the guy who treats the press as his best friends, the guy who really is a liberal in wingnut clothing.

Prince Hal and King Drudge?

I woke up to the story about Britain's prince Harry, the third in line for the throne, serving in Afghanistan. The plot of this revelation was most confusing, because if his presence there had been kept a secret for security reasons so far, why come out with the news now? You don't wave a shish kebab in the face of a predator, after all, and it's pretty clear that getting Hal would be a feather to the cap of all those warlords and Talibanites over there. Perhaps more importantly, this knowledge will endanger everyone in Hal's unit more, too.

At first I thought that someone had decided it was more important to show how the upper classes of Britain walk their talk than to keep the prince's unit safe. But the real answer turns out to be much simpler: There was a secret agreement between the press and the British government that Harry's presence in Afghanistan would not be discussed.

The king of all things Republican and salacious, one Matt Drudge, decided that the safety of those soldiers mattered less than publishing the story. Or that is what this British Telegraph article argues.


Oliver The Cat

I have had a hard time with the cyberspace community in recent weeks. First all those schisms that appeared between the camps of the two Democratic primary candidates, then the realization that writing about the nuts and bolts of politics probably never has mattered much at all, that individuals vote on quite a different basis from that, then my attempts to reconcile myself to the new evidence of contempt towards women on quite a few lefty blogs (I expect it on the right-wing blogs), then the next rounds of all this which go on inside my head, trying to categorize, classify, sort, trying to find the answer that would make it all quite fun and exciting and pleasant again.

Note that I'm not complaining or asking to feel better about any of this. It is what it is, and my struggles have much more to do with my own naivete which never seems to disappear, an odd mix of being very skeptical and pessimistic about evidence and facts and yet on some level believing that tomorrow morning the sun will shine on a much improved world. I'm also over-reliant on the intellect in trying to understand what makes people tick (or spasm). For example, the new heated debates about Clinton and Obama have very little to do with something that logical arguments could clarify. The debates have to do with what buttons are being pushed, what desires are being expressed and all sorts of fuzzy creatures in the subconsciousness or the twilight world of our own emotional histories.

Sadly, they also have much to do with the question of which army you will stand with, and once you choose the battle lines are drawn. I've seen previously impartial voices turn to the use of "if you're not with us you're against us", I've seen moderate criticism interpreted as treason and a block-headed refusal to do the right thing, I've seen debate become impossible because of the emotional weight each word has somehow developed.

So what has any of this complaining to do with Oliver the cat, the title of this post? Not sure. Oliver was the Main Coon Cat of a neighbor, many years ago. His coat was the color of the chestnut, his tail the size of the state of Maine. When I'd come home in the afternoon I'd glance at the two large flower pots on the neighbor's porch, filled with begonias. One of them would also sprout a fantastic chestnut-colored tail, curving down the side of the pot as if planted there to bring further beauty to the whole. That was Oliver.

When his owners walked down the road to chat with other neighbors Oliver would follow, dashing up the telephone poles, turning his little head to see if he got the attention he deserved. Once he came to meet me when I came home from the grocery store, rubbing himself against my legs as I unloaded the car. Then, quick as a lightning, he ran away with the cheese that was on top of the grocery bag. He seemed to love life and view it as a movie starring Oliver The Cat.

On William F. Buckey Jr.

He died yesterday at the age of 82. He was my first taste of American conservative thinking and for a while I thought that's what all American conservatives are: believers in the inherent superiority of the natural aristocracy of money and class. That type of a conservative was familiar to me from Europe, so I didn't initially realize how rare a species Buckley truly was in the large specimen cabinet of American wingnuts.

Thinking of him as representative also led me astray for some time in assuming that an intellectual debate was the way to converse with the most conservative of Americans. At least you could have talked with Buckley about facts and how to interpret them, I thought.

But Buckley wasn't all about old money and how to pronounce difficult and esoteric terms. He also used to be a racial segregationist and he never stopped being a believer in the idea that the little ladies should be seen but not heard. He wrote a piece in the 1950's about how the Southern whites really love the Southern blacks and how they understand that the blacks are wonderful people, as long as they enter the house through the kitchen door. While his later opinions on race were somewhat more moderate, reading that piece struck me as a good candidate for those substitution games: replace the word "blacks" with the word "women" and you get a nice, tight summary of one particular type of conservative sexism today.

I gather that Buckley wasn't happy about the way the Republican Party had changed since the 1970's (what with the unwashed masses of fundamentalists being allowed in), though I'm sure he understood that a base consisting of only people with inherited money and a good education would not have had enough votes to make any type of difference.

There aren't many conservatives of the Buckley type left. William Kristol comes to mind as a possible heir, though Kristol is much less bothered with facts.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Citizens, Countrywomen, Lend Me Your Ears

I always wanted to use that title. What I want your ears for is to listen to this On Point program on gender and the primary political race. These are the guest speakers:

· Ellen Goodman, syndicated columnist for The Boston Globe
· Geraldine Ferraro, Democratic vice presidential candidate in 1984
· Pat Schroeder, former Democratic Congresswoman from Colorado, she considered run for the White House in 1988
· Katha Pollitt, columnist for The Nation magazine

The program discusses the sexist comments from various people in the media (Tweety, do you hear me? Timmeh?) and the general political climate for women in this country. I have this odd feeling that something wasn't covered that should have been. If I can figure out what it is that's bothering me I will add a footnote. But it's a good debate.

On American Religiousness

A new Pew study tells us that Americans are changing their religious affiliations fairly often, that the Catholic Church is not shrinking in size only because of the immigration of new Catholics and that the fastest growing group in the country consists of the religiously unaffiliated. Remember, though, that a small group growing always does that at a rapid initial rate. For instance, a group growing from one to two people has had a 100% increase.

Still, the group of the unaffiliated indeed has become more popular over time:

In the 1980s, the General Social Survey by the National Opinion Research Center indicated that from 5 percent to 8 percent of the population described itself as unaffiliated with a particular religion.

In the Pew survey 7.3 percent of the adult population said they were unaffiliated with a faith as children. That segment increases to 16.1 percent of the population in adulthood, the survey found. The unaffiliated are largely under 50 and male. "Nearly one-in-five men say they have no formal religious affiliation, compared with roughly 13 percent of women," the survey said.

The rise of the unaffiliated does not mean that Americans are becoming less religious, however. Contrary to assumptions that most of the unaffiliated are atheists or agnostics, most described their religion "as nothing in particular." Pew researchers said that later projects would delve more deeply into the beliefs and practices of the unaffiliated and would try to determine if they remain so as they age.

I beg to differ with the interpretation in that last paragraph, though. To say that your religion is "nothing in particular" is surely less religious than stating that you believe in god or gods or the tao, say. But yes, by all means let's have more studies concerning this religion of nothing in particular.

After reading about the Pew results I searched for more information on the megachurches: the very large nondenominational churches which have attracted so many Americans in the recent decade. I wanted to find out the rate at which they are born, the rate at which they die and how long they survive, on average. But I wasn't very successful. Still, this is interesting:

When Abundant Living Family Church opened in December, staff members gave tours - not to show off the newly painted chapel or well-stocked recreation room, but to make sure members don't get lost.

Even the main sanctuary, which seats almost 4,000 people, can be hard to find because it competes with the children's church, classrooms, administration building and other amenities on 30 acres.

The nondenominational church on Civic Center Drive is colossal, having more than 7,000 members.

"We have big SUVs, we're building bigger homes. ... I think people find safety and security in something that's big," said Pastor Diego Mesa, the church's founder.


Enormous churches with parishioners in the thousands aren't new - a half dozen existed at the turn of the century - but the phenomenon has grown in recent years.

According to Megachurches Today 2005, a study put out by Hartford Institute for Religion Research, there were more than 1,200 megachurches in 2005, 178 of them in California. That figure is double what it was in 2000, and according to the study, the trend doesn't seem to be slowing.

What seems to be different about these new megachurches is that they are like small societies, with restaurants, bowling clubs, bookstores, psychological counselors, music and art and daycare services, and that they are run like profit-making businesses. Given that latter angle, it's worth questioning how vulnerable such churches are to losing popularity among the congregants and how tricky it is to keep one of those behemoths alive during any downswing in attendance figures.

At the same time, I'm struck by how these megachurches make religion a part of most aspects of the congregants' lives. This is not unlike some of the things I've read about Islam as not being just a religion but a complete way of life. Can the same thing be said about the American megachurches? And if so, what will the very conservative religious theology they seem to practice mean for the values the churchgoers will have? To take an example, at least one megachurch will not let women run any workshops or study groups which men attend, because of that Biblical prescription against women teaching men. Will the members of this church start demanding similar rules in the wider society?


On the Russian Elections

I'm listening to the BBC World tonight. Their series on "all things Russian" talks about the anti-Western feelings of many young Russians (how many is unclear, as usual in journalism). One young Russian tells the interviewer that the West wants Russia weak and wants to cram Western-style democracy down their throats.

I'm not sure what he meant by "Western-style democracy," but his distaste of it may have had something to do with that great scavenger feast of the 1990's when a few friends of the powerful were allowed to buy up the government-owned corporations for what amounts to a pocketfull of pennies.

But on a different level I started thinking about the alternatives that we have to "Western-style democracy." Is there an "Eastern-style democracy?" And if there is, who does it empower and disempower? Or are the real alternatives to any kind of democracy either theocracies or autocracies (say, Putinocracies)? And how can we tell what the people in various countries really want, in terms of democracy?

The points I'm trying to get at have to do with the way democracy has become one of those words which we rarely bother to define at all but which has very different, and highly emotional meanings to different people. Suppose that we could invent an alternative type of democracy to the Western model. How would it look like?

And can we ever really have democracy without the necessary civil society, the legal institutions and some practice and experience in how to vote? If those are lacking democracy often becomes violence through a majority rule.

But then neither do the Western countries often fare very well in practicing that "Western-style democracy." Still, the alternatives to that look even worse to me.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Darryl Pearce, R.I.P.

Darryl Pearce died suddenly on February 19, 2008. Darryl wrote a blog called Fuming Mucker. He also commented frequently here and on the Eschaton. I shall miss his beautiful spirit, his great sense of comedy and his great heart very much. My deepest condolences to his family and friends.

A comment he wrote last June can be turned around and made into an obituary for him:

...well, I appreciate finding you... and everybody denigrated by the loud-mouthed, fright-wingers of the world.

Some, like Steve Gilliard, leave too soon. Alas, death is as natural as birth. Nevertheless, ...virtually through the keyboard and monitor...

thank you for being there.

Our little echoes across the electrons have helped me keep my sanity these past six years.


Hugs, Darryl Pearce. Fly, friend, fly.

The Tampon Deaths

I've mentioned the proposed Colorado Human Life Amendment before on this blog, but it deserves to be mentioned again, given that Mike Huckabee is throwing his support behind it:

Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee on Monday endorsed a proposed Colorado Human Life Amendment that would define personhood as a fertilized egg.

The former Arkansas governor and Baptist minister also supports a human-life amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Huckabee spoke favorably about the Colorado ballot initiative, sponsored by 20-year-old Kristi Burton and her Colorado for Equal Rights group, during his Friday visit to Colorado Springs.

On Monday, Huckabee lent official support to the measure.

"This proposed constitutional amendment will define a person as a human being from the moment life begins at conception," Huckabee said in a statement.

"With this amendment, Colorado has an opportunity to send a clear message that every human life has value," Huckabee said. "Passing this amendment will mean the people of Colorado will protect the sanctity of life from conception until natural death occurs."

Burton's initiative, if approved by voters in November, would extend state constitutional protections to every fertilized egg, guaranteeing the right to life, liberty, equality of justice and due process of law.

Does this mean that every woman must bring her used tampons in for forensic work, just in case a tiny American may have passed on during the menstrual cycle? It would certainly seem to be necessary to do a criminal investigation on every miscarriage. I'm not quite sure what legal steps should be taken to guarantee all those rights to the fertilized eggs at fertility clinics. Perhaps Senator Huckabee will offer to gestate them to term.

The Nasty. It Stinks.

I don't enjoy really nasty campaigning by politicians. But at least I understand that they may see it as part of their job. Not sure how Mark Halperin has decided that his job as a political writer requires writing John McCain a checklist of things to use against Barack Obama, in the general election, including:

6. Allow some supporters to risk being accused of using the race card when criticizing Obama.


11. Emphasize Barack Hussein Obama's unusual name and exotic background through a Manchurian Candidate prism.

Pressing the fear button (for appealing to racism here is but another type of fear). That is, of course, what the Republicans have left. The economy is in intensive care, the war is limping on and George Bush's approval ratings are glacial. But then the last seven years have been all about fear.

Good Morning! Coffee, Anyone?

Perhaps we have advanced a little in the last half a century?

From jdw on Eschaton threads.

The Price of Bread Will Rise

Or at least the price of wheat has gone up in a worrying way:

Wheat prices have hit record levels as supplies dwindle, raising concerns about growing food inflation.

Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT) wheat for delivery in March rose the maximum 90 cents allowed to $11.99 a bushel in electronic trading in Asia.

High-protein spring wheat on the Minneapolis Grain Exchange rose by almost 25% to record levels on Monday.

Kazakhstan has become the latest country to put export restrictions on wheat as it battles against inflation.

Russia and Argentina have already imposed similar export restrictions.

What's behind this? Partly poor harvests in the recent past, partly the rising standard of living in China (and India) which has increased the demand for meat. Meat takes a lot of wheat to grow.

Note that other agricultural staples might face similar price increases in the future.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Tiptoeing on the Edge of the Universe

Don't you think that is a great title? My brain tells me that it is the title of something I should write about but then shuts up and refuses to give me any additional details.

So I decided that we are going to have an essay competition. You can use ten words to complete the story that would go with that title.

And Will We Hear About This Everywhere?

I recall the popularization of a previous Pew study on the Internet use by women and men, so I'm now excitedly awaiting an equal wave of popularization of this finding:

Another strike against the tendency to see cultural predilections of the moment as direct reflections of underlying genetically-determined features of human nature. For years, everything related to computers has been a predominantly male domain. But the New York Times reports on a dramatic shift: these days, young girls are much more likely to be creating original Web content than young boys.

Indeed, a study published in December by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that among Web users ages 12 to 17, significantly more girls than boys blog (35 percent of girls compared with 20 percent of boys) and create or work on their own Web pages (32 percent of girls compared with 22 percent of boys).

Girls also eclipse boys when it comes to building or working on Web sites for other people and creating profiles on social networking sites (70 percent of girls 15 to 17 have one, versus 57 percent of boys 15 to 17). Video posting was the sole area in which boys outdid girls: boys are almost twice as likely as girls to post video files.

Guess what? If the study gets popularized it will be on that video blogging difference or on something about how girls want to touch others. Call me an old cynical goddess, but that's how it goes.

But the news is actually good for those who feared that girls and women would be left behind on the net.

The Reclaiming?

Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live suggested that women who get things done should reclaim the label "bitch." You can watch the video here (warning: it's about the primaries so if you suffer from primary allergies, abstain.)

You can even get t-shirts reclaiming bitchiness.

I have a t-shirt saying "Bitch" on the back. It was a promotion from the Bitch magazine. Nobody has come to me to tell what they think of it, for some odd reason.

The concept of reclaiming a slur word and making it into something beautiful is an intriguing one. Does it work, though? I'm not sure. I think it would probably depend on how common the reclaiming is. If it's common enough to influence the overall meaning of the word, then it would work. Otherwise it would just allow those who use it as a slur an extra excuse when they get caught.

But it is indeed true that being called "a bitch" often equals being active and getting things done. Just think about the word "lady." Nobody calls you a lady if you get things done. They call you a lady if you have never pissed them off.

The Nitpickety Echidne

I've been told several times that the proper and nutritionally balanced reaction to meeting misogyny on the net or on the television is to just move on. Ignore! Don't pay them attention! They thrive on attention!

Presumably the misogyny will just wither away and not harm anybody if I don't talk about it. Yes, that's the ticket.

Anyway, Shakespeare's sister seems to have received the same e-mails, because she has written a post about the idea that feminists dig up nasty stuff on purpose, that they turn those rocks over just so they can scream about the slithering slimy things they find, that the world would be a much nicer place if we didn't let any of that upset our beautiful minds (to quote Barbara Bush the Elder). Here is a taste of her post:

The truth is, if I actually spent my days actively paying attention to every example of misogyny around me, I would be a profoundly unhappy woman. Not bitchy or grumpy or short-tempered, but paralyzingly depressed. Women have to train themselves to avoid consciously reacting to every bit of misogynistic detritus permeating the culture through which we all move, lest they go quite insane. I write about the things I can't not write about. If I wrote about all the examples of sexism I see every day, I'd never sleep.

Tangentially, the idea that addressing "the little things," like being told to smile or misogynistic t-shirts, somehow demeans feminism or distracts from "real" or "serious" sexism is utterly, completely, devilishly wrong.

Feminism seeks to address all manner of issues, big and small. That women can (and do) utilize the tenets of feminism in every aspect of their lives does not undermine the history of the feminist movement, but instead does it a great honor. Feminism was never meant to be restricted to suffrage and equal pay, held in reserve like a finite quantity that could run out if it's used for "the little things." Feminism is a renewable resource.

Read the whole post. It has many important observations, one concerning the way our space to breathe and to exist will be shrunk, day by day, if we feminists agree to avoid and to skip and to ignore and to stay away from the places where misogyny thrives. And yes, we already do pick our battles and, yes, we already ignore much of what goes on, lest we otherwise explode in a pink fireball against that patriarchally blue sky.

And of course some topics are much more worth writing about than others. Still, there is special value to exposing the tiny pinpricks of sexism, to pointing out that wink-wink-nudge-nudge is only funny from one side of the equation, and that special value is not some satisfaction in being the best nitpicker ever. The value comes from the fact that the jokes we tell, the plots of our television soaps or reality shows, the things we say about the dresses of actresses at the Oscars, all those things reflect the society and its norms, and some of those norms are sexist. Yet almost all of us can go blind to that, because of the ordinariness of these messages and because of their ubiquity.

It's like that story I recently read about some construction workers finding 1970's porn magazines inside a house wall cavity and trying to figure out what was wrong about the women portrayed in them. Something about their breasts was really off. Of course, the breasts in 1970's pornography were still natural breasts. Today's "natural" porn breast is a silicone one. Think about that.

Small things can tell as a lot about the wider culture. So can the way we use words or the way we tell jokes. To dissect those small things is important, not because of some concern for every little thing that happens but because of what they tell us about the underlying relationships, about who it is who has power in this world and who it is who has power applied to them.

A man once told me this joke (and no, he wasn't a reader of the pseudo-evolutionary-psychology):

Q: Why do women have smaller feet than men?
A: Because evolution has shrunk them so that women get closer to the kitchen sink.

Why is the joke funny, if you find it funny? And why would a reversal of this joke not be funny? Then to the wider connections: Do you think that this man would hire women and promote women without any concerns about their foot or breast size? Perhaps. But surely a culture which finds this sort of a joke funny will also think of women as excellently adapted to the kitchen and thereby perhaps not so adapted to the labor market.

So looking at the small things, picking at the nits in the scalp of a culture, is a way of seeing the cultural underpinnings, the very same ones which ultimately will affect the likelihood that women will be safe from sexual violence or that they will have the same legal and human rights as men, all over the world, or the same respect as human beings. Finding those nits and writing about them does not mean that feminists want people to shut up about all that stuff, or at least it does not mean that I'd want people to shut up. The idea is to show the connections, to make us more aware of what it is we are laughing at in some cases, to make us notice why we got that sudden moment of blankness when something was said on the television screen.

Not Gonna Write On This

I'm biting my tongue so hard it bleeds. But I shall not write about this.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

An Economic View of Life Degrades Everyone by Anthony McCarthy

According to the morning paper and, apparently, Barbara Walters a “cougar” is an old woman who likes having sex with younger men and is able to find a supply. And that’s the problem with the idea, not the age difference, the view of people as commodities to be graded and sorted by age and quality like eggs. That’s The View, view of human relationships, apparently. Thinking women will most likely have a more sophisticated knowledge of this kind of economic objectification than most men, its language is one of the most insidious features preventing their full ownership of their lives. But, while Joanna Weiss’ article is a place to start, it gives up too soon on what this pop-culture phenomenon can tell us about what is wrong with us. All of us.

Deep in the article are keys to unlocking the box that keeps us from freeing ourselves from this view of other people and ourselves in terms of utility and conspicuous consumption.

Everyone loves a label, Gibson says, but the "cougar" type has actually existed for centuries. Catherine the Great dabbled in younger men because she could.

Start with the false idea that “everyone loves a label”. What is a label used for? It is a statement about an item to be consumed, allegedly an indication of contents, a bill of fare. What would a woman who embraces the label “cougar” expect of herself? What contents does she think the label represent and for what reason would she want that label?

The attraction, one supposes, is that it allows a woman to assert her will on less powerful people in the way that powerful men have always assumed was their natural right. That is also indicated in the article.

Self-defined cougars take their aging seriously. And they consider themselves elite.

"Not all women who date younger men are called cougars," Gibson says. "It's a particular, sophisticated group of older women . . . what they are is very free.”

The idea that anyone who thinks of themselves in terms of a predetermined role is “free” reaches one of its most absurd manifestations in masculine stereotypes. It is one of the biggest lies men are taught about their gender. There are no people less free than tough guys, jocks, bikers, cowboys,... The insecure insistence on rigidly following the role in these phony individualists is so great that violators will either be mocked out of the pack or physically attacked in order to suppress their expression of individuality. The idea that assuming a rigid role will set women, or men, free is just stupid. Why would anyone think that one of the more repellent aspects of traditional patriarchy is "sophisticated" or that it "frees" anyone, especially women, involved with it?

The idea in both of these gender roles is to use other people as resources. In both cases it is the idea of powerful, older people asserting what they see as their droit des seniors, using younger people, perhaps against the interest of the younger person. My guess would be that the woman would be assumed to have an advantage in terms of wealth, in most cases. If that is true, the somewhat mocking, “cougar” analysis is distinctly disadvantageous when compared to the old-fashioned “gigolo” analysis of past lives. It’s my impression that today a younger man who hooks up with a wealthy older woman is seen as "smart", using their cougar for what they can get out of her as compared to a younger woman who is seen as a cheap slut or a gold digger. How free can women be in a transactional analysis of their personal relationships? The advantage men have in that view of human relationships is so long established that the bias will just about always turn to favor the male.

It’s tempting to go on looking at this here, but there is something much more topical in this election year in the article.

In fact, Franklin wants to expand the "cougar" definition altogether. That part about dating younger men isn't essential, she says. A cougar, instead, is "a woman over 40 who is strong and confident and sexy and independent. . . . She knows what she wants and she knows how to get it."

By her standards, Hillary Clinton could be a cougar, too.

A cougar in a pantsuit? Hold on a minute. If we're going to set Barbara Walters straight, we should admit that the whole idea started with sex. So says Valerie Gibson, a Toronto-based sex and relationship columnist who takes credit for spreading the "cougar" label through the United States.

When I look at Hillary Clinton I see a dedicated public servant. In one of the most trumped up of the trumped up “Clinton Scandals”, her very short history of high stakes investment, we found out that she was smart enough to make an enormous amount of money in a very short time, while, notably, staying within the law. Hillary Clinton could have chosen to be enormously wealthy and powerful, exercising power over both the private and public sectors of the United States, instead she has chosen public service at enormous personal cost. Whatever reasons Hillary Clinton is a Senator putting up with the constant lies and smears - Ted Kennedy WITHOUT his more irresponsible, past, personal indulgences - she is clearly not just in it for herself. Her life’s work , with all its successes and follies, which we have been taught for sixteen years to view as being all about her and her husband’s power, deserves more respect than it is ever given.
The rebellion against and rejection of the all consuming, nearly universal, disease of viewing other people and ourselves in terms of commodities and objects for use, neglect or disposal is the very heart of the life of the left. Its manifestation in feminism was the most wonderful and most subversive aspect of the movement, it was the part of feminism that had to be suppressed by all means. For feminism or any other part of the left to turn from the struggle to assert the universal person hood of everyone in favor of the privileges of an elite of any kind is a capitulation of the most basic part of why it exists. And in the end it will not leave anyone free it turns us all from living beings to things. Older women who form relationships with younger men, or women, for that matter, should not settle for having a toy boy of better or lesser quality, they should insist on a real, relationship with another person on the basis of mutual regard and respect. That kind of living, mutual, affection and regard, can’t be reduced to some thing that is a suitable fashion or fad, it will never be the kind of “thing” they discuss on TV shows or in pop-sociological scribbling.

Note: Objectification among gay men is the heart of why we continue to be oppressed, it is the most appalling aspect of what we are encouraged to see as “gay culture”. Gay men will never be free until we stop encouraging the view that we are to be seen as commodities in exactly the same way that women are regarded by straight society. That women of means are also being encouraged to view men like this is not progress. It is one of the most successful tools of oppression that members of subjugated groups are taught to regard themselves and others in their groups in these terms. That is the worst part of hip-hop culture, which has important lessons to tell us about self-oppression. Objectification of other people and of the living environment is the heart of most of the political evil in the world.