Thursday, August 07, 2008

Mutterings and Stutterings

Josh Marshall has posted a video compilation of McCain's bloopers. The campaign must be hard work and I understand that the candidates must "misspeak" just because of fatigue. But I'm still a little bit concerned about the number of various types of errors McCain has made.

Tacky Tactics

Are often suggested on the comments threads of political blogs. For instance, when the wingnuts attack Michelle Obama, the frequent recommendation I read on liberal blog threads is to counter the attack by going after Cindy McCain. It's as if the wives of the presidential candidates are part of their husbands' private property and therefore a fair target in the campaign battles. You know, like trying to destroy the artillery units of an opposing army. But spouses are not artillery units.

I'm aware of the American political tradition here and also of the fuzzy line between public and private roles of, say, the presidential candidates' wives, and I'm often worried about possibly crossing that line inappropriately in my own writing. But I'd say that character assassinations of the candidates' family members certainly cross that line. Inappropriately.

Today's Deep, Deep Thought

It's about certain types of comments on the Internet, especially on YouTube and it's by the Onion:

"We are blessed to be living in an age when we have a global communications network in which idiots, assholes, and total and complete wastes of fucking human life alike can come together to give instant feedback in an unfettered and unmonitored online environment," Mylenek said. "What better way to take advantage of this incredible technology than to log onto the Internet and insult a complete stranger?"

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Buffalo Chips and John McCain

Funny how memes are created in the media. It's mostly the right-wing memes that seem to stick in that so-called liberal media. Even the progressive/liberal blogs spend much of their time refuting the right-wing memes instead of making up new ones and on the whole that helps the memes to stick more. Sad, is it not? Also the reason why today's topics are whether Obama is too arrogant or too inexperienced and young. And all the time the alternative topic of McCain being too out-of-touch and too old just sits there, like an invisible elephant on your living-room couch. We "libral demon rats" have avoided the easy schtick of ageism but nothing of the sort holds back the right-wing meme machine. So now we can discuss Obama's age but not McCain's age.

Here's my offer for a nice meme about McCain which has nothing to do with his age: He wants his wife to participate in a beauty pageant of this sort:

This is the Buffalo Chips beauty pageant at least a year ago, having to do with bikers and biker chicks and consisting of various things, including pretend fellatio of a banana. John McCain would like his wife Cindy to participate in a similar pageant:

On Monday, John McCain appeared at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, a veteran-friendly event that featured Kid Rock, Def Leppard, REO Speedwagon (?!) and a biker beauty pageant called "Miss Buffalo Chip" that the presumptive presidential nominee may or may not have known featured topless women.

"I encouraged Cindy to compete," he told the crowd. "I told her [that] with a little luck, she could be the only woman to serve as both the first lady and Miss Buffalo Chip."

Now to parse this all: It's obviously McCain's attempt to make a joke and I'm pretty sure that he didn't know Cindy would have to suck a banana in that competition.

But note that he didn't bother to find out anything about the pageant beforehand and he hasn't bothered to apologize for his statements afterwards, or at least I found no mention of such an apology. Yet he was violating family values in a way which I'd think the fundamentalist right would deplore, as a minimum, and he was also telling us in no uncertain terms that respect towards women is not high on his pyramid of values. Anything to get a cheap laugh beats that.

Here's the fascinating aspect of all this: Imagine what would have happened if Barack Obama had cracked this joke about Michelle? Or if Hillary Clinton had earlier offered Bill Clinton as a participant in some semi-naked hunk competition? The media treats McCain as if he was fragile and above all criticism. Even something as juicy as this story gets no traction as a meme.

Guys On The Pill

Is that ever going to be the norm? A piece in Time discusses the reasons why we should all be quite pessimistic about the likelihood of a male contraceptive pill or injection or something of the sort. To create a safe and effective form of male-controlled birth control (other than the condom) is tricky for both scientific reason and cultural reasons. The latter have to do with both the assumption that not enough men are interested in having access to medical male-controlled birth control and that women wouldn't trust men to take care of contraception in the first place, unless they can see it happening with their own eyes (as is the case with the condom).

The Time article also mentions the high costs of developing new forms of birth control. If the market just isn't there the costs are not justified. But is the market there or not? I can see the reluctance of anyone (including us women) to possibly mess with the health of their bodies just for the sake of birth control. But many women do exactly that, and one might think that men might also be willing to do so because of the many advantages that control has.

As examples of those advantages one might mention the ability of a man to take over contraception when his partner can't tolerate the pill or uterine devices and when the couple doesn't like or trust condoms. But perhaps more importantly, a man cannot be the "victim" of paternity suits after one-night stands if he used good birth control himself. I would think that the Men's Rights Activists would be loud and vociferous in their demands for better male contraceptives. Wouldn't you?

If it is indeed true that the market for the male pill, say, is insufficiently large, the reason might be the simple fact that we already have the female pill. There is less need in general for additional forms of contraception. But note that the recent Bush administration attempts to equate the birth control pill and the intra-uterine devices with abortion might change that comfortable status quo. A male pill would do the prevention inside the male body and no stretch of pro-life imagination could make that into abortion!

Wouldn't it be weird if that was what made the male birth control pill a reality?

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

From My Self-Promotion Files: Do Women Have An Inner Glass Ceiling?

You might like to read what I have to say about the scarcity of women in American politics. I worked very hard for the piece, by the way, even going out and playing girl reporter.

Peace and Punditry

Picture from Scarlet. More here.

Wouldn't peace be nice right about now? We could then focus on arguing about all the nitty-gritty stuff, such as rebuilding the dangerous infrastructure of this country. Of course Banana Republics require a dangerous infrastructure and as a Banana Republic seems to be on the plank of the Republican Party as the future of this country I guess that we won't see those bridges fixed. Could someone tell me, please, how much work has been done since last summer's bridge collapse? And how much money has been spent in Iraq during the same time frame?

On the other hand of the scales of victory, there is a new Kentucky Fried Chicken store in Fallujah.* So the troops can come home now and start fixing the bridges, right? I love being a naive goddess.

Naive goddesses don't understand why the coverage of the presidential campaigns is like this:

For those who can't watch the video, the pundits go on about how saintly McCain is and how much he is isolated from what really matters which is discussing Obama's arrogance (who does he think he is?) and his use of the race card and how all that was created by the meanies in McCain's campaign while McCain was just being all honorable and stuff.
* The store appears to be an unauthorized knockoff, not part of KFC.

One Day in the Life of Alexander Solzhenitsyn

I wonder if he would have selected his last day for a book with that title? I'm ripping off his famous One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, of course, a book which captured the odd taste of happiness as extremely relative. As anyone who has been very ill knows, a small reduction in the symptoms can give you the highest high of your life. Similarly, Ivan Denisovich could be happy in his horrible prison experience, because on that particular day there was just a little bit more bread, a little bit more time, a little bit more independence.

Or so I recall that book. I read Solzhenitsyn pretty early in my life, around the age of fifteen. Indeed, my first book essay at school was on the Cancer Ward. I loved writing about death and the gloominess and so on, and the teacher was a bit concerned until he got to the end of the essay which had an ode to the victorious human spirit. So that was all right.

Much has been written about the political meaning of Solzhenitsyn recently and a lot less about his actual talents in writing. His message about the horrors of Soviet communism struck a cord with his co-patriots and obviously with the other side in the Cold War, and his currency soared high. Later the reverse happened, because Solzhenitsyn's forced exile in the West revealed his hatred of the West and because he decided to become a fundamentalist Russian Orthodox on his return to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union.

These political waves may have brought him first too high and then too low. I tend to think of his actual literary merits as somewhere in the middle. We shall see what the future will say about them. At least he doesn't have to worry about being now forgotten for his gender. (I just had to turn this all into a feminist discussion,didn't I?)

Knowing the opinions of a living author always makes the enjoyment of her or his work more difficult, especially if those opinions are unpleasant. It's a little like being invited to see a wonderful artistic piece of furniture in the context of the workshop. There it stands, beautiful, but surrounded by sawdust and bits of lumber and tools all helter-skelter and the smell of varnish and paint remover and dust everywhere. It's hard not to look at the room instead of the furniture, and it's probably true that the state of the workshop does tell us something about how carefully and well the piece was made. But mostly we'd prefer to see the final work of art against some more neutral background.

Monday, August 04, 2008

From Austen to Dowd

The most recent Maureen Dowd column is called "Mr. Darcy Comes Courting." It employs Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice as the pattern into which Obama's election campaign is to be fitted. Yes, you guessed it: Barack Obama is Mr. Darcy. Who is Elizabeth Bennet, then? That's a tad unclear.

Dowd ends up arguing that the United States is Elizabeth, but most of the column is spent on berating Hillary Clinton, the women who voted for her, working class women and American women in general. That's Dowd's usual m.o. and somehow based on the idea that she might, after all, not be a woman herself. Good luck with getting the guys to accept her honorary guyness.

I shouldn't be writing about Dowd's misuse of Jane Austen's book. Molly Ivors has put together an excellent literary response, but I would still like to say a few small words about this bit from Dowd:

The odd thing is that Obama bears a distinct resemblance to the most cherished hero in chick-lit history. The senator is a modern incarnation of the clever, haughty, reserved and fastidious Mr. Darcy.

Jane Austen belongs to the history of chick-lit? Only if you are willing to see Rembrandt or da Vinci or Rubens as the forerunner of your family snapshots. Note, by the way, that this is not in any sense intended to demean the writers of chick-lit (if such a genre really exists in the first place); only to point out that Jane Austen was one of the few great geniuses of the English language and that her books are not about love-and-marriage anymore than Rembrandt's paintings are about trying to take photographs before photography was invented.

Here's an interesting question: Does Maureen Dowd herself write the kind of chick-lit she deplores? I rather suspect so, given her obsession of turning everything about politics into a teenage drama, replete with cheerleaders and burly guys playing football and rather nasty geeks who shouldn't get the girls. All this made me Google what else she may have said about Jane Austen and chick-list. This is what I found in a 2007 column titled "Heels Over Hemingway", a piece deploring the omnipresence of chick-lit, its pink covers turning bookstores into a sea of pink in which the testicle-driven Important Classics are drowning:

Suddenly I was swimming in pink. I turned frantically from display table to display table, but I couldn't find a novel without a pink cover. I was accosted by a sisterhood of cartoon women, sexy string beans in minis and stilettos, fashionably dashing about book covers with the requisite urban props — lattes, books, purses, shopping bags, guns and, most critically, a diamond ring.

Was it a Valentine's Day special?

No, I realized with growing alarm, chick lit was no longer a niche. It had staged a coup of the literature shelves. Hot babes had shimmied into the grizzled old boys' club, the land of Conrad, Faulkner and Maugham. The store was possessed with the devil spawn of "The Devil Wears Prada." The blood-red high heel ending in a devil's pitchfork on the cover of the Lauren Weisberger best seller might as well be driving a stake through the heart of the classics.

I even found Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar" with chick-lit pretty-in-pink lettering.

"Penis lit versus Venus lit," said my friend Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, who was with me. "An unacceptable choice."

"Looking for Mr. Goodbunny" by Kathleen O'Reilly sits atop George Orwell's "1984." "Mine Are Spectacular!" by Janice Kaplan and Lynn Schnurnberger hovers over "Ulysses." Sophie Kinsella's "Shopaholic" series cuddles up to Rudyard Kipling.

Even Will Shakespeare is buffeted by rampaging 30-year-old heroines, each one frantically trying to get their guy or figure out if he's the right guy, or if he meant what he said, or if he should be with them instead of their BFF or cousin, or if he'll come back, or if she'll end up stuck home alone eating Häagen-Dazs and watching "CSI" and "Sex and the City" reruns.

Weirdly enough, Dowd in that column warns us all from confusing chick-lit with Jane Austen's love-and-marriage stories. I guess she has changed her mind about that.

But do you spot something else fascinating about those paragraphs I quoted? Do you spot one of the oldest tricks in the tool kits of us propagandists? Suppose that I wanted to make the reverse argument from Dowd's point. How would I accomplish that?

I'd pile the books in a bookstore into two imaginary piles, one consisting of Lady Murasake's The Tale of Genji, the books by the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf and so on and the other consisting of potboilers written by guys: books all about killing other guys and about having sex with lots of women, with a few military cartoons and Superman stories thrown in. Then I'd compare what's in the two piles and conclude that bookstores are drowning all the important classics written by women in this horrible sea of testosterone, whatever its color might be. And that's the trick Dowd uses except in reverse: She compares the best of male authors with female authors from a genre that she dislikes.

Time now for a very different literary metaphor, one having to do with Charlie Brown, Lucy and the football. For those of you not familiar with this cartoon, Lucy repeatedly holds a football for Charlie Brown to kick, but every time she lifts the ball up at the last moment, causing poor Charlie to fall back after kicking into air.

Charlie never learns the lesson not to kick. Now replace Lucy with Maureen Dowd and Charlie with me and what do you get? A setup where every stupid column written by Dowd elicits an angry response from me, and that's exactly what the New York Times wants from their opinion columnists: The loonier the better! Bring them all in: Brooks, Kristol and Dowd! They can always be trusted to say something vile and nasty about womankind and that's how we like it here at the Gray Lady.

No wonder that Maureen Dowd as Lucy is one of their favorite girls. Just see how many people e-mail Dowd's columns to each other. Sadly, most of them probably feel like Charlie Brown, wishing that they could stop reading the dratted thing.

Sigh. Let's return to the idea of applying Pride and Prejudice to this election campaign, if we must. Who in the book is John McCain? Dowd suggests the wily Wickham, but I think a much closer model would be Mr. Collins, the boring and calculating clergyman with friends in high places. He was even quite a maverick, easily switching to a different woman when Elizabeth Bennet refused his courting.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

My Day So Far (by Phila)

I woke early, just like my hypervigilant ancestors did back in the Pleistocene. I considered getting out of bed, but then I realized that I ought to read for a while. After all, being able to display a wider range of knowledge than the next fellow could very well enhance my reproductive fitness.

I spent a pleasant hour with Baron Corvo's The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole, which he wrote in 1909 in order to advertise his health and virility to the wealthy dowagers of Venice. Afterwards, I decided to go downstairs and see how things stood on the Internet. While it may seem to you like a medium of communication, I see it as a battlefield. Yes, a battlefield! For it is there that I go to overawe my male rivals, and dazzle those members of the fair sex who strike me as adequate receptacles for my precious seed.

As usual, the conflict was ferocious. Supporters of Barack Obama sought to improve their chances of passing on their genes by defeating supporters of John McCain, who were hoping that associating themselves with a powerful, aggressive male would help them to attract mates. I waded boldly into the fray; with my help, the tide was soon turned, and McCain's supporters retreated as quickly as a frigate bird with an undersized chest pouch. A pleasant stirring in my groin told me I had done well.

My wife was tending to the garden, meanwhile...just as one would expect, given the typical division of labor among our ancestors. (I think she may have spent a little time on the Internet too, but if so, it was probably just to get tips on gardening, or knitting, or the menstrual cycle.) After making a mental note to knock her up, I turned my attention to the world of Science.

And that's how I learned that Geoffrey Miller of the University of New Mexico has solved the riddle of music (and, in so doing, made himself that much more appealing to prospective sex partners).

Here's how the whole business works:
[W]hy do we find musicians and singers so attractive? Looking at things from a biological point of view, we would normally expect women to be attracted to men with qualities that indicate good genes that can be passed on to her children or those that show he can look after a family, like a wad of cash for instance. Music doesn't seem to serve any practical purpose.

Musical ability, along with other creative skills, are rather like a human version of the peacock's tail; something that has no survival value, but has evolved precisely because it is found attractive by the opposite sex.
The gist of it is, men became creative in order to attract women. Women, by contrast, have learned to dabble a bit in the arts "because the ones that could entertain their men could keep them around to help raise the kids."

You'd think that'd be the last word on the subject. But male rivalry is as endlessly productive in science as it is in every other civilized endeavor, and so Miller has already been elbowed aside by John Manning of the University of Central Lancashire, who claims that "men who make lots of good music make lots of sperm" (thanks to testosterone), and that women accordingly flock to them like flies to dogshit.

If you question the logic here, consider these statistics, which certainly didn't come out of nowhere:
If men can advertise their prowess through music then we'd expect a lot more men than women to be making it. Manning points out that in a sample of more than 7,000 jazz, rock and classical albums, there were ten times as many male as female musicians.

Classical orchestras also show a preponderance of male musicians, but when Manning and a colleague looked at the gender ratio of the audience it was a different story. Those sitting closest to the orchestra during performances were much more likely to be female than male, lending support to the idea that the music might be serving some mate advertising function.
If experience is any guide, I may be taken to task for presenting too crude a picture of Evolutionary Psychology. But I think I have a long, long way to go before I'm as crude as some of its professional advocates.

The Stranded and the Mobile (by Phila)

An article in the Toronto Star argues that rising airline costs could signal the start of "a new, global class divide between the stranded and the mobile."
In Europe's late medieval period, the labouring masses rarely travelled further than a few dozen miles from where they were born. For them, travel was dangerous, onerous and slow.

But wealthy aristocrats travelled far and wide in the name of diplomacy, meeting leaders from other countries and extending their power and influence.
Of course, such a divide already exists, since air travel has always been beyond the means of countless people around the globe. The article's analogy between the late Medieval laboring class and the "U.S. leisure travel market" is problematic at best, as is its conflation of homeowners in Newfoundland with "the masses." But it's apparently preferable to discussing currently existing forms of strandedness, many of which are on display in countries that the leisure travel market advertises as escapes from the pressures of modern life.

To the limited extent that this reference to the late Medieval period is anything more than shorthand for some vague, ahistorical idea of privation, it's applicable to a sort of life that's not only being lived all around us, but is often held up as exemplary of progress away from poverty. In Sao Paolo, Brazil, shoppers take helicopters to department stores in order to avoid slum dwellers (whose opportunities are greater than ever, thanks to globalization). In China, the poor are being hidden behind makeshift walls, in deference to the aesthetic delicacy of leisure travelers. And here in the USA, we're contemplating building a border wall to restrict the mobility of migrants who are desperate enough to cross the Sonoran desert on foot (despite their excellent chances for advancement in post-NAFTA maquiladoras).

If anything, the attempt to draw some sort of equivalence between reduced access to air travel among the North American middle class and actual abject poverty is suggestive of the detachment from real suffering that was supposedly typical of Medieval aristocrats. Being forced to take a train or a ship instead of an airplane may involve hardships of one sort or another, but it's not the same thing as being "stranded," nor is it necessarily dangerous or onerous. And yet, we're encouraged to view people who have these options and others as "casualties" (but not, unlike the average ghetto dweller, of some inherent self-destructiveness in their culture):
If we are on the brink of a shift toward the local economies and lifestyles long advocated by antiglobalization activists, the transition will not be without casualties.
We'll just have to throw 'em on the pile, I guess.

Mania Contradicens (by Phila)

After responding to a dramatic decline in the population of cactus ferruginous pygmy owls by removing them from the Endangered Species List, and addressing the question of pesticide overuse by canceling the only government program that tracked it, the Bush Administration turns its gimlet eye on the problem of overfishing...and concludes that we need to give the fishing industry power to override the National Environmental Policy Act.
As written, the Bush administration’s proposed rule would undermine NEPA by severely limiting the public’s right to participate in fishery management decisions and even shutting out the public from future participation if they don’t weigh in during the initial round of public comments. It would also allow regional fishery management councils to control environmental reviews. Many of these councils are dominated by fishing interests and have mismanaged our oceans for decades. Additionally, the proposal gives fishery managers the power to make fishing decisions without adequately considering the impacts on other components of ocean ecosystems such as sea turtles, seals, corals, and other precious ocean life.
You can comment on the proposed NEPA rule here.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Politics & the golden rule (by Suzie)

         After the UU church shootings, Echidne and others discussed conservative media that fan the flames of political hatred. The question arose: If liberals don’t fight fire with fire, what do we do instead?
        As a journalist, I grew disgusted with colleagues who wanted to make issues black or white, with no grays. They presented “both sides,” not a multiplicity of views. The worst examples were on the op-ed pages.
        Simple is easier to do than complex. Plus, simplistic and outrageous stuff sells. As long as the public buys it, people will sell it.
        I like that Echidne is more likely to raise questions. Her civility stands out in a blogosphere where anger and ridicule rule. I don't want liberals to stoop to the level of the conservatives who say hateful things and twist facts. If we do right, will this change those doing wrong? I’m sort of doubtful, but I still want us to do right.
         I want to apply the golden rule to politics. (Not as a rule, but a guideline.) If I object to people demonizing me, then I better think twice about demonizing them.
        If I employ a certain strategy, I can’t complain about that strategy if it's used against me. For example, I’m happy to boycott most of talk radio and its sponsors. But I have to understand that conservatives also run boycotts of media that they consider harmful. I can criticize their political views, and I can support my own, but I can’t talk about them stifling free speech if I use the same tactics.
        This week, the RNC put up a web site that parodied Obama. Bloggers on Kos suggested people flood the site with pro-Obama posts, and a few comments urged people to get the site to crash. If Republicans tried to crash Kos, these particular Kossacks could not argue that what the Republicans were doing was wrong, without being hypocrites.
         Yeah, I know. I’m no fun.

Public vs. private terror (by Suzie)

         People have discussed whether the shootings at the UU church in Knoxville should be considered terrorism since the shooter hated liberals. Joe Lauria writes:
Even if this man hopefully acted alone it is chilling to all progressive people and groups ... Are we free to express our views …?
          The possibility that the killer targeted this church because his ex-wife had been a member carries less cache because domestic violence is so common. In December, a member of the Clearwater, Fla., UU church killed his two young children, his ex-wife and her new partner before shooting himself. This crime did not attract the same publicity. But can’t we ask the same question Lauria did: Isn’t a crime like this chilling to all women who want to leave abusive men and start a new life?
          Merriam-Webster defines terrorism as “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.” It’s debatable whether the killings in Clearwater or Knoxville fit this definition. In regard to Clearwater, the killer appears to have systematically used fear and abuse to coerce his wife to do as he wanted, a pattern common to domestic violence. It’s quite likely that he did not think how his actions would affect others. But they do. A lot of women restrict their actions because of the threat of male violence. Why do I end up repeating this in post after post? Because a lot of people fail to see the political implications of what happens in private.
           Our culture ties masculinity to financial success. When some men fail at that, such as the unemployed and struggling killer in Knoxville, "they have to find a plausible scapegoat," says Brian Levin, professor of criminal justice and director of the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.
"They will take that intense personal feeling of emasculation and failure and find some societal or political overlay that makes the failure seem not of their doing."
          Or, they may blame a woman. 
          Perhaps what happened in Knoxville disturbs men more than what happened in Clearwater because men were shot in Knoxville. Random killings may be scarier to both men and women because they feel powerless to protect themselves. With domestic violence, however, women can convince themselves that it would never happen to them, they would never get involved with a violent man, they would have done things differently. This may reassure some women. It does not console me.

Women & rock 'n roll (by Suzie)

          In the 1980s, Rolling Stone published a few of my poems. It didn’t bother me that the magazine was paying next-to-nothing for poetry to use as filler. I understood that most of the writers, editors and musicians were men, but I was proud that women were infiltrating the ranks.
          Any hope that mass-market music magazines might have any concept of gender equity was dispelled by this MarketWatch article on Blender, whose editor, Joe Levy, spent 10 years at Rolling Stone.
         Blender is about “sex, more sex and rock and roll,” Jon Friedman writes. He uses the word “sex” repeatedly as a stand-in for women dressed and posed sexually. In other words, the magazine is all about women as the objects of men’s sexual desire. Women = sex. Friedman defends it:
Blender is more than just a string of babes adorning the covers. It features whimsical writing and analytical reporting.
         So, guys, don’t worry. You can say you subscribe for the articles.
         Friedman writes on economics, but doesn’t seem to see the market effect on women. If women are seen first and foremost as sex objects, they are less likely to reach parity with men in the music business.
        In other Rolling Stone commentary: Deeky notes that the magazine commented on Ludacris's rap on Obama, without mentioning what he said about Clinton. I guess it considered her irrelevant.