Saturday, March 14, 2009

Math Class is Tough! (by Phila)

New research into mathematical ability and gender offers an intriguing explanation for the fact that men are more likely than women to succeed at math and the physical sciences. Apparently, men see the hard sciences as a source of authority that complements and reinforces their dominant social status, and are therefore willing to make an extraordinary effort to master the skills that define success within these fields, and to create normative obstacles to female competition.

I'm just kidding. Actually, it's the female deviation from the male standard that cries out for a simplistic explanation.
Women tend to choose non-math-intensive fields for their careers -- not because they lack mathematical ability, but because they want flexibility to raise children or prefer less math-intensive fields of science, reports a new Cornell study.
In other words, if you have a man and a woman with identical mathematical skills, the woman is more likely to avoid math, because she needs to remain "flexible," and pursuing a math-intensive degree offers her much less flexibility than studying millennial subcultures of the English Civil Wars, or mastering Chinese, or becoming a doctor.
"A major reason explaining why women are underrepresented not only in math-intensive fields but also in senior leadership positions in most fields is that many women choose to have children, and the timing of child rearing coincides with the most demanding periods of their career, such as trying to get tenure or working exorbitant hours to get promoted," said lead author Stephen J. Ceci, professor of human development at Cornell.
Women sometimes get pregnant and give birth. And having given birth, they remain more likely than their male partners to sacrifice their careers for childcare, whether they're studying low-dimensional topology or Nuer folkways. This is known as "choice."

It seems to me that we're on pretty familiar ground, so far. But perhaps the real revelations are forthcoming.
Women also tend to drop out of scientific fields -- especially math and physical sciences -- at higher rates than do men, particularly as they advance, because of their need for greater flexibility and the demands of parenting and caregiving, said co-author Wendy M. Williams, Cornell professor of human development.

"These are choices that all women, but almost no men, are forced to make," she said.
Alright, now we've learned that women are forced to "choose" to drop out. But why does this happen more often in scientific fields?
Women today comprise about 50 percent of medical school classes; yet women who enter academic medicine are less likely than men to be promoted or serve in leadership posts, the authors report.
So women often don't get promoted and aren't usually put in charge. Could this have something to do with why they drop out?

Apparently not.
[A]lthough "institutional barriers and discrimination exist, these influences still cannot explain why women are not entering or staying in STEM careers," said Ceci. "The evidence did not show that removal of these barriers would equalize the sexes in these fields, especially given that women's career preferences and lifestyle choices tilt them toward other careers such as medicine and biology over mathematics, computer science, physics and engineering."
I'm losing my bearing here, so let me recap. It won't help to remove barriers to promoting women, because women's "career preferences and lifestyle choices" — the ones they, but "almost no men," are often forced to make — will ultimately ensure that women are underrepresented in computer science.

Could these "preferences" have anything to do with the existence of "institutional barriers and discrimination" that women recognize in advance, and choose to avoid? And if so, isn't it a little high-handed to call that a "career preference," as opposed to — I don't know — oppression?

The study may actually address this issue. But as usual, the press release doesn't. Quite the opposite, in fact.

And I still have no idea how they reached the conclusion that "women tend to choose non-math-intensive fields for their careers... because they want flexibility to raise children," considering that "non-math fields are also affected" by female "choices," and "only 19 percent of the tenure-track faculty members in the top 20 philosophy departments are women." (I guess philosophy doesn't provide much flexibility either, despite everything you've heard about the Deleuzian plane of immanence.)

They do offer some solutions, for whatever that's worth:
The authors recommended that universities and companies create options for women with math talents who want to pursue math-intensive careers. These could include deferred start-up of tenure-track positions and part-time work that segues to full-time tenure-track work for women who are raising children, and courtesy appointments for women unable to work full time but who would benefit from use of university resources (e-mail, library resources, grant support) to continue their research from home.
Sounds good to me. Then, all they'll have to worry about is the ongoing imbalance in childcare responsibilities, and being passed over for promotion 'cause they're women. And so on.

Cell Groups (by Phila)

Xicano Pwr discusses the increase in secessionist talk on the far right, as exemplified by the noted constitutional scholars Chuck Norris and Glenn Beck:
Has secessionism become mainstream? It might have. A 2008 Zogby International poll revealed that 22% of Americans believe that “any state or region has the right to peaceably secede and become an independent republic.” Some 18% “would support a secessionist effort in my state.” It is obvious Chuck Norris is part of the 18 percent.
Of course, "peaceable" secession is not what Norris and Beck are talking about. As with so many other conservative undertakings, the process is the goal: violent upheaval is an end in itself. What we're dealing with is racist and misogynist rage, period; maudlin references to the flag and the Constitution and liberty are simply alibis that allow followers to build a dirty bomb — or fantasize about it — with a clear conscience.
[Norris] continues; calling on a second American Revolution and concludes that there are “Thousands of cell groups will be united around the country in solidarity over the concerns for our nation.” More concerning, Norris feels we are on the eve of war. He closes with the words of Sam Houston.
“We view ourselves on the eve of battle. We are nerved for the contest, and must conquer or perish. It is vain to look for present aid: None is at hand. We must now act or abandon all hope! Rally to the standard, and be no longer the scoff of mercenary tongues! Be men, be free men, that your children may bless their father’s name.”
This is nothing new; it's always one minute to midnight in the radical-right imagination. The crisis Norris anticipates is not some gun-grabbing socialist takeover, but the violence conservatives themselves are constantly yearning to commit. The conflagration they foresee is the one they hope to bring about, so they describe it as an objective threat they must deal with preemptively.

The fact that people like Norris and Glenn Beck are clownish, inarticulate, and painfully stupid is exactly what makes them so dangerous; there's no better type of person for the job. If a new Civil War breaks out, Beck is more likely to accidentally shoot his own dick off while watching cable coverage than to lead a battalion of flabby kulturkampfers against The Yale Divinity School Latina/o Association. But that doesn't matter; he'll still be a hero of the people. In revolution, as in foreign wars, the role of the conservative firebrand is to inspire someone else to kill people, enjoy it vicariously while staying out of harm's way, and blame the victims for the body count once the smoke has cleared.

The funny thing is, the alleged forward march of collectivism is the excuse for forming a brutally conformist, hive-mind collective that's "united around the country in solidarity." The new world that this uprising will achieve is vague, but definitely glorious, much like Heaven. There's little intellectual need for a post-revolutionary plan, and no need at all to worry about the law of unintended consequences, which presents an obstacle only to relatively sane endeavors. The demands of women, minorities, and "liberals" are analogous to the regulations that prevent the free market from working its magic; the New Order will simply self-organize once these obstacles are removed. Norris's war isn't some sort of suburban putsch; it's an almost impersonal force that will spontaneously arise to restore the natural order, into which everyone who counts will then fit as comfortably as a STANAG magazine in an AR-15.

That being the case, he's not simply threatening teh socialists and feminazis; this rhetoric is also a reminder to conservatives that they're either with the "cell groups," and the natural order they represent, or against them. Which really ought to frighten them as much as us.

A Book Read Fifty Years Too Late by Anthony McCarthy

My thanks to the anonymous e-mailer who recommended that I read Aldous Huxley’s Brave new World Revisited. Having admired the novel, which I think is a lot more impressive than 1984 in its vision of domestic social and political trends, I’m ashamed to admit to never having read Aldous Huxley’s essays. There are points on which we differ, some sharply, but he said a lot of the things I’ve been harping on about fifty years earlier. And a lot better.

Here’s a link to the book online. The Art of Selling is the chapter that was pointed out to me as being very similar to some of the things I’ve written. .

- The survival of democracy depends on the ability of large numbers of people to make realistic choices in the light of adequate information.

- Effective rational propaganda becomes possible only when there is a clear understanding, on the part of all concerned, of the nature of symbols and of their relations to the things and events symbolized. Irrational propaganda depends for its effectiveness on a general failure to understand the nature of symbols.

- But unfortunately propaganda in the Western democracies, above all in America, has two faces and a divided personality. In charge of the editorial department there is often a democratic Dr. Jekyll -- a propagandist who would be very happy to prove that John Dewey had been right about the ability of human nature to respond to truth and reason. But this worthy man controls only a part of the machinery of mass communication. In charge of advertising we find an anti-democratic, because anti-rational, Mr. Hyde -- or rather a Dr. Hyde, for Hyde is now a Ph.D. in psychology and has a master's degree as well in the social sciences. This Dr. Hyde would be very unhappy indeed if everybody always lived up to John Dewey's faith in human nature. Truth and reason are Jekyll's affair, not his. Hyde is a motivation analyst, and his business is to study human weaknesses and failings, to investigate those unconscious desires and fears by which so much of men's conscious thinking and overt doing is determined. And he does this, not in the spirit of the moralist who would like to make people better, or of the physician who would like to improve their health, but simply in order to find out the best way to take advantage of their ignorance and to exploit their irrationality for the pecuniary benefit of his employers.

And from the previous chapter:

- Human beings act in a great variety of irrational ways, but all of them seem to be capable, if given a fair chance, of making a reasonable choice in the light of available evidence. Democratic institutions can be made to work only if all concerned do their best to impart knowledge and to encourage rationality. But today, in the world's most powerful democracy, the politicians and their propagandists prefer to make nonsense of democratic procedures by appealing almost exclusively to the ignorance and irrationality of the electors.

I was afraid that Huxley wouldn’t go as far as I’m afraid we’ll have to in order to save democracy but as he states the obvious truth that the prerequisites for The People to govern themselves by a representative democracy are not optional but are, in fact, absolutely mandatory, democracy won’t survive without legislation preventing mass marketed lies. From the last chapter, What Can Be Done?

- No, I repeat, there can never be such a thing as a writ of habeas mentem. But there can be preventive legislation -- an outlawing of the psychological slave trade, a statute for the protection of minds against the unscrupulous purveyors of poisonous propaganda, modeled on the statutes for the protection of bodies against the unscrupulous purveyors of adulterated food and dangerous drugs. For example, there could and, I think, there should be legislation limiting the right of public officials, civil or military, to subject the captive audiences under their command or in their custody to sleep-teaching. There could and, I think, there should be legislation prohibiting the use of subliminal projection in public places or on television screens. There could and, I think, there should be legislation to prevent political candidates not merely from spending more than a certain amount of money on their election campaigns, but also to prevent them from resorting to the kind of anti-rational propaganda that makes nonsense of the whole democratic process.

Such preventive legislation might do some good; but if the great impersonal forces now menacing freedom continue to gather momentum, they cannot do much good for very long. The best of constitutions and preventive laws will be powerless against the steadily increasing pressures of over-population and of the over-organization imposed by growing numbers and advancing technology. The constitutions will not be abrogated and the good laws will remain on the statute book; but these liberal forms will merely serve to mask and adorn a profoundly illiberal substance. Given unchecked over-population and over-organization, we may expect to see in the democratic countries a reversal of the process which transformed England into a democracy, while retaining all the outward forms of a monarchy. Under the relentless thrust of accelerating overpopulation and increasing over-organization, and by means of ever more effective methods of mind-manipulation, the democracies will change their nature; the quaint old forms -- elections, parliaments, Supreme Courts and all the rest -- will remain. The underlying substance will be a new kind of non-violent totalitarianism. All the traditional names, all the hallowed slogans will remain exactly what they were in the good old days. Democracy and freedom will be the theme of every broadcast and editorial -- but democracy and freedom in a strictly Pickwickian sense. Meanwhile the ruling oligarchy and its highly trained elite of soldiers, policemen, thought-manufacturers and mind-manipulators will quietly run the show as they see fit.

The fifty years since the book was published prove that we are living out what Huxley saw with such impressive insight. Maybe, due to his family heritage, he realized that the mass media had fundamentally changed the political environment to the extent that the old guarantees which would have provided the possibility of an informed vote no longer hold. We can only look back at the developments in politics and the media and see the reality of what Huxley saw made true.

Last year the possibility of democracy was saved, for a time, by the disgust of the public over the Bush regime or, less optimistically, by the results of his economic pillage catching up with his party. It wasn’t the “free press” that saved us from four more years, it was reality going over the heads of the press. As the biological environment won’t survive delay in facing up to the ruinous environmental results of corporate libertarianism, democracy won’t survive with the media we’ve got today. I don’t think the new media will prove to be the savior many are confident it will be. If anything lies are more easily spread online than before. We risk too much if their hunch is wrong. The dangers of requiring the press to serve the essential needs of a democratic society are real, abuses of any kind of regulation will arise. But those dangers are prospective, uncertain and remedial. The dangers of the media we have now are a clear danger to the life of a democracy and the free people it serves.

Saturday Critters

Here's 1WattHermit's Thumper (on her back) having a relaxing afternoon with her packmate (whose name I forget). You may notice that Thumper is missing a front paw. Hermit rescued her " from a cattle pen where she was being harassed by boxers and german shepherds after she lost her foot to a steel trap." She's now quite content.

And here's Pipsa enjoying the winter turning into spring:

You can click on the pictures to make them a little bigger.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Friday critter blogging (by Suzie)

Deacon, a white German shepherd, was skin-and-bones, tied up in the Texas sun, when my sister saw him and offered to take him home with her. In her house, he was ungainly, knocking over things, with no training or manners. She kept telling me that she didn't want to keep him, but she wanted to make sure that whoever adopted him would really love him and treat him well. When I visited last month, I realized that she's not giving him up.

In two cars, we took him and her St. Bernard to a vet who works out of an RV in a grocery-store parking lot. We huddled outside while the dogs got shots, plus medication to prevent fleas and heart worms. I'm looking forward to universal health care for pets because the costs are high these days even when the vet is working out of an RV. 

Rosewood, gender and domestic violence (by Suzie)

            This post relates to the one below. A white mob attacked the black residents of Rosewood in 1923. Historians have documented the deaths of six African Americans and two whites. The remaining residents fled, and the mob burned the small town. This was part of a wave of terrorism against African Americans after World War I.
         If you’ve never heard of Rosewood, or if you only saw the fictionalized movie, I encourage you to read the excellent report that led to the Florida Legislature awarding compensation to victims and their descendants in 1994.
         Unlike other lynchings, the Legislature considered Rosewood unique in Florida because state authorities had ample time to prevent crimes, but failed to do so and then failed to prosecute. 
         I did a lot of reporting on Rosewood in the 1990s, and I saw a parallel with domestic violence. Authorities have often known that crimes were being committed, but they failed to intercede or prosecute. Some women fled their homes, taking only their children. They struggled financially, as did the Rosewood descendants.
         But violence that happens in the home is often seen as a personal matter, and the public may not understand the scale of it. Similarly, more people are injured in accidents in the home than they are in plane crashes, but the scale of the plane crash and the public spectacle guarantees more attention. (I don't mean to imply that attention is always good. For starters, it can increase the terror and the spread of misinformation.)
         Domestic violence may have played a role in Rosewood. The violence started when a 22-year-old white woman was beaten in her home in a nearby town, and the woman said a black man attacked her. African Americans say the culprit was a white lover, and she lied to protect herself. They say the white lover was a Mason and he asked for protection from his black male comrades. Meanwhile, whites suspected an escaped black convict, and they thought Rosewood residents were hiding him.
         The state report rarely mentions gender, but we can assume most of the journalists – the people who helped form public opinion – were male. The white mob, law enforcement and other government officials were all, or almost all, male. Black women and a few white women helped protect black residents, especially children.
          On both sides, people believed that men proved their manhood by fighting the enemy. Men had to protect women and their communities. They had to maintain their dignity.
           Of course, I think the white vigilantes were wrong, and African Americans had a right to defend themselves. But who is right and who is wrong is not so clear in many other conflicts. That's why we need to analyze how notions of manhood and womanhood fuel violence.

Emmett Till, lynching and white women (by Suzie)

Racism and sexism are intertwined, sometimes in ways that aren’t apparent or can’t be discussed without angering people. I was reminded of that when reading an old Ms. magazine that mentioned Emmett Till being lynched for "flirting” with a white woman.

A lot of people blasted Susan Brownmiller for her 1975 commentary on the case, some accusing her of suggesting the 14-year-old deserved to be tortured and murdered for harassing a woman. Brownmiller has denied this, writing in 1999 that: “Till and the men who lynched him shared something in common: a perception of the white woman as the white man's property."

Some critics don’t consider what Till did harassment and think any mention of his actions is an attempt to blame the victim or lessen the monstrosity of his murderers, who were never brought to justice.

Others criticized Brownmiller for "centering" a white woman. Kimberle Crenshaw wrote in “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex,” published in “Feminist Legal Theories” in 1997:
While patriarchal attitudes toward women’s sexuality played a supporting role, to place white women center stage in this tragedy is to manifest such confusion over racism as to make it difficult to imagine that the white antirape movement could be sensitive to more subtle racial tensions regarding Black women’s participation in it.
Till was murdered in 1955, and the case had a huge impact on the civil rights movement. When Brownmiller wrote two decades later, she didn’t have the power to make the white woman more important than the boy, even if she had wanted to do so. Even though it’s taboo, I still think talking about her commentary helps people understand how white male supremacy has worked to control white women and people of color.

In “White Man Falling,” Abby Ferber notes how sexuality continues to be integral to the thinking of white supremacists.
Defining black women as promiscuous and oversexed, combined with the belief that all women were the property of white men, meant that the only form of rape that was actually considered such was the rape of white women by black men. In this case, rape is seen as a violation of white male property rights.
In English law, rape was a crime against men's property rights, explains Darlene Clark Hine and Kathleen Thompson in "A Shining Thread of Hope: The History of Black Women in America." They note that, after the Civil War, African Americans saw the rape of black women by white men as an affront to the manhood of black men.

Karen, in the Feminist Mormon Housewives blog, wrote about her research into rape cases in the antebellum South. She said enslaved black women had no legal recourse if they were raped, nor did any wives against husbands, although attitudes against both of these actions existed.

In the 19th century, all-male juries were skeptical of rape claims in general, and a woman had to prove that she was physically forced. If she couldn’t, she was seen as licentious. If she could prove rape, a white woman from a “proper” background would still be seen as tarnished. Before the Civil War, Karen found, enslaved men accused of raping white women usually were not brought to trial or convicted because white men wanted to protect their economic investment in slaves.

After the war, that changed, of course. White men feared black men would infringe on white men's rights to white women, and the protection of white women was used as an excuse for the political and economic domination of black men. Into the 1900s at least, the perceived morality of the white woman affected the treatment of black men accused of assault, according to Lisa Lindquist Dorr in "White Women, Rape, and the Power of Race in Virginia, 1900-1960."

During witch-burning times, women had been seen as earthy temptresses. Slavery was one strong impetus for white women to be recast as good and pure, with black women being seen as bad. "White women had to pretend to be the former, and black women were doomed to be seen as the latter," Hine and Thompson wrote. The authors also quote Hazel Carby:
The institutionalized rape of black women has never been seen as powerful a symbol of black oppression as the spectacle of lynching. Rape has always involved patriarchal notions of women being, at best, not entirely unwilling accomplices, if not outwardly inviting sexual attack.
While fighting lynching, Ida B. Wells-Barnett capitalized on this thinking about rape when "she declared that no one really believed black men were raping white women," Hine and Thompson wrote. Instead, she suggested, accusations cast aspersions on the morality of white women.

Nevertheless, she and Frederick Douglass noted that most lynchings did not stem from white women's accusations of sexual assault. Even when assault was the excuse given, the motivation often was economic, and almost all of the lynchings were committed by white men.

That brings me back to the Emmett Till case. Roy and Carolyn Bryant owned a store whose customers were mostly black sharecroppers. Roy Bryant was often on the road, leaving his 21-year-old wife alone, or with her sister-in-law and their children. She saw Till as big as a man, and she said he grabbed her and talked about dating her. If this was true, then it wasn’t flirting; it was intimidation. She didn’t tell her husband initially, but word got out in the small town.
Others say she lied, and I find that just as plausible, but it’s hard to know the truth because testimony conflicted. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that the Bryants were racist, and Roy Bryant committed murder.

But racism would have to work differently if sexism was taken out of the equation, if men no longer used women as proxies to fight each other, if men didn’t see women as property, if men no longer tied their status to women’s sexuality.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

And Some More Happy News

Spring is a-coming! Sniff the air, notice that round yellow thing up in the sky, hear the squeaking of the birds (the more musical ones are not here yet)! If you put your mind in your toes while standing quietly you can feel the earth pushing. New life being birthed.

And president Obama restored funding to the United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA)! The global gag rule removal and this restoration mean that the American pro-lifers no longer can release their anger at the women of the world. That is very good news.

Ross Douthat is the new New York Times extra-conservative columnist. He's taking Kristol's place in the columnist stable. Probably switching his tail at all the flies buzzing around Maureen Dowd while chewing the conservative oats with fellow-wingnut, David Brooks, to take the horses-in-stable analogy too far.

Even that hiring is good news, because I've been waiting for a good sarcasm-target. Sometimes a goddess must work very hard to turn yet-another-male-conservative hire into good news. But it will be fun to take a magnifying glass to Mr. Douthat, to see what might be hiding under his hat and to poke around there a little.

The Winnenden Barbeque. TRIGGER WARNING.

The most recent school killer in Germany fits the usual pattern: young, male and angry. Some killers appear to shoot randomly, some butcher mostly teachers, some focus on killing girls and women. The Winnenden slaughter was of the last type:

Almost all of the victims were female. Eight of the nine students killed were girls, and the three teachers shot by Tim Kretschmer were all women. Seven other women are recovering from serious injuries at a nearby hospital.

Officials have refused to speculate about why the gunman singled out women. But as Heribert Rech, interior minister for the Baden-Wuerttemberg region, said at a news conference. "It is noteworthy that primarily girls were killed -- eight girls and one boy. The teachers killed were women."

As his victims lay wounded on the floor, Kretschmer screamed: "Are you not all dead yet?"

May all his victims have peace. May those who loved them have peace.

But I'm not wishing peace on the journalists and politicians who after noticing the gender of the victims blithely go on to speak about how to prevent similar future massacres without suggesting a single thing to combat the hatred of women that this butchery demonstrates.

Sure, we need better mental health care. Sure, parents and teachers and other adults should pay more attention to depressed teenagers. Sure, guns should be controlled better at home (or shouldn't be there in the first place). But we shouldn't just skim over the misogyny of the Winnenden barbequer.

In fact, the time right now is not to focus on him but on his victims and their lost lives:

Witnesses said that a woman school teacher threw herself over a student to protect her and was shot in cold blood.

Bless her.

Today's Funny Post

Ari Fleischer (who used to work for the Bush White House as an interpreter) has come back visiting everyone to polish George Bush's reputation for the posterity. This interview with Chris Matthews is a particularly hilarious yelling match. Watch carefully after about 1:10:

The White House Council On Women And Girls

President Obama signed an executive order for first such council:

The council, which will meet regularly, will include members of the Cabinet and of several other agencies and will be led by senior aide Valerie Jarrett. Tina Tchen, deputy assistant to the president and director of the Office of Public Liaison at the White House, will serve as the executive director.

Obama made special mention of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who stood near him on stage at the East Room event, as an example of women breaking barriers, and he noted that he had had the privilege of participating in a "historic campaign with a historic candidate who we now have the privilege of calling Madame secretary."

"But at the same time, when women still earn just 78 cents for every dollar men make, when one in four women still experiences domestic violence in their lifetimes, when women are more than half of our population but just 17% of our Congress," he said before signing the order. "When women are 49% of the workforce but only 3% of our fortune 500 CEOs, when these inequalities stubbornly persist in this country in this century then I think we need to ask ourselves some hard question and we need to take a hard look at where were falling short and who were leaving out and what that means for the prosperity and the vitality of our nation."

Read my Gender Gap series at to get a better understanding about the gender gap and what causes it. The reality is more complicated than either of the two commonly expressed political views (gender gap is women's fault, gender gap is discrimination) can express.

It is certainly important to address, though, especially, because that figure the quote gives us only applies to full-time workers, which means that women actually earn a lot less than men, because many more women work part-time during the childbearing years of their lives. That also means less retirement income for women later on.

When I first read about the creation of this Council my emotions were mixed. I could already hear the piping and chirping from the anti-feminists, all about women getting a special council for just themselves when all men have is the whole world. At the same time, the inner Echidne was grumbling that she didn't want a special council for women but a world where women's issues were included in a matter-of-factual way and everybody saw those issues just as human issues. Then the sceptical me worried that whenever one starts a committee or a council, that's all one is going to get on a particular issue.

Lisa Belkin writes about some of the doubts she has. Though my views are not the same in many ways, I agree that the Council could be used to ghettoize some issues which really are everybody's issues. But then not having the Council at all would have the same effect and with much less attention to those issues. I hope that the net effect of the Council will be positive for women and girls by reminding everyone in the government about their existence, if nothing else.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Today's Deep Thought

How long before we start hearing that in this great recession women don't need jobs as badly as men?

This Bob Herbert column provoked a commenter on Eschaton to wonder if Herbert had something of that sort in mind when he wrote this:

The seeds of today's disaster were sown some 30 years ago. Looking at income patterns during that period, my former colleague at The Times, David Cay Johnston, noted that from 1980 (the year Ronald Reagan was elected) to 2005, the national economy, adjusted for inflation, more than doubled. (Because of population growth, the actual increase per capita was about 66 percent.)

But the average income for the vast majority of Americans actually declined during those years. The standard of living for the average family improved not because incomes grew but because women entered the workplace in droves.

As hard as it may be to believe, the peak income year for the bottom 90 percent of Americans was way back in 1973, when the average income per taxpayer, adjusted for inflation, was $33,000. That was nearly $4,000 higher, Mr. Johnston pointed out, than in 2005.

Men have done particularly poorly. Men who are now in their 30s — the prime age for raising families — earn less money than members of their fathers' generation did at the same age.

What Herbert fails to mention is that the fathers of the men who are now in their 30s made, on average, a whole lot more than the mothers of the women who are now in their 30s, for instance. He also fails to mention that men in their 30s still earn more, on average, than women in their 30s.

Merit Pay For Teachers

This is what Obama has proposed today, together with longer school days and charter schools:

President Barack Obama called for tying teachers' pay to student performance and expanding innovative charter schools Tuesday, embracing ideas that have provoked hostility from members of teachers unions.

He also suggested longer school days — and years — to help American children compete in the world.

I'm in total agreement about the longer school days and years, for several reasons, including the fact that children in many countries do spend more time studying and that the school days and years here are no longer very well matched with the working lives of the children's parents. I also want to get more art, music and similar creative things back into schools and the only way that might happen is through longer school days. It could be that I just feel bitter because my school days were really long and that I want revenge. Who knows?

The charter school bit is more problematic, because it's not clear that charter schools necessarily do better than normal schools.

The merit pay idea is problematic in a different way: It's very hard to define the output of a teacher in an objective way and that's what we need if we wish to reward merit fairly. I imagine that merit pay might be used as a power tool in some schools in the absence of such fairness.

The problem in measuring teacher output has to do with the way that output is produced: with the inputs of both the student, the teacher and the teaching environment. An excellent teacher could have bad outcome measurements if she or he taught at a school with no resources and lots of poorly prepared students who don't want to learn. Think of the output of a physician and you might spot some similar problems.

Why is nobody proposing that we pay physicians on the basis of merit, hmh? Could it be that physician pay is already very good? What does good salary produce in this context? More people with great skills entering the field? Do the countries which lead the international education statistics use something like shitty salaries and then merit pay? Or do they pay their teachers well to begin with?

None of this means that we couldn't introduce a merit pay system. But it needs to take into account those other factors: how well or poorly the children are prepared, what their homes are like, how much money the school system has and so on. And if teacher pay, on average, is not rising, introducing merit pay is just introducing another testing hurdle for people who consider going into the field, a hurdle they might not pass. That means that the expected pay in the field would look even worse and the outcome would be fewer and fewer people going into teaching.

The Excellent Slave

Do you think people used to write guide books about how to be a perfect slave in, say, the old Athens with its many slaves? And if they did, would it contain stuff like this:

Those priorities may include rising early to feed the owner's family, being available anytime to satisfy the owner's desires (barring a few "ungodly" or "homosexual" acts), seeking his approval regarding work, appearance, and leisure, and accepting that he has the "burden" of final say in arguments. After a slave has respectfully appealed her owner's decision—a privilege she should not abuse—she must accept his final answer as "God's will for her at that time," Peace advises. The godly slave must also suppress selfish desires (for romance, a career, an equitable marriage), practice addressing her owner in soothing tones, and maintain a private log of bitter thoughts to guide her repentance. "If you disobey your owner," Peace admonishes in The Excellent Slave, "you are indirectly shaking your fist at God."

That's not a real quote. I changed the word 'wife' to 'slave' and the word 'husband' to 'owner', but otherwise left the message as it stood in the original article which is based on a book about Biblical Womanhood and the Quiverfull movement. As far as I can figure out, the concept of biblical womanhood equals the concept of willing slavery. It puts no demands on the way the owner should behave and it gives the slave no other support except to learn to love the chains that bind you. Or bite you.

I do get very upset when I read about all this. I do. Note that it's not only about the women who reallyreally want to be slaves; it also applies to the rest of us wimmin:

Their concerns extend to questions—on Christian marriage counseling; on women speaking in church or exercising authority over men as, say, teachers or cops—that are nearly as divisive in conservative churches as gay marriage is in mainline denominations. "A lot comes into this," Peace tells me. "Not just husbands and wives, but women as pastors, women in church. It's not a matter of 'Good Christians can differ on the issue.' This is a slippery slope they're on. It's like wherever the world goes, 30 or 40 years later, the church goes, too."

The reference to women as teachers or as cops has to do with the belief that no slave should ever wield power over any owner.

It's striking how similar all this advice is to the advice I have read from extreme Islamists. Peas in the pod, these religious nuts are, to mix my food metaphors.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Retouch Me, Please

Lindsey Beierstein (of Majikthise) pointed out this interesting video about retouching and how very common it is in magazines, these days. The pictures we see are not about real people. Even the beautiful models are not beautiful enough. What that does to us all is an interesting question, and the video points out some possible consequences as well as some ways to combat the false standards that retouching everything has created.

Good News


US President Barack Obama announced Friday the creation of a new foreign policy position designed to tackle global women's issues.

Obama named Melanne Verveer, an aide in former president Bill Clinton's administration, as ambassador-at-large for international women's issues. She will serve at the State Department under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The appointment, which has to be approved by the Senate, "is unprecedented and reflects the elevated importance of global women?s issues to the president and his entire administration," the White House said in a statement.

Clinton has put efforts to improve the lot of women at the heart of boosting international development, which she says must be an "equal partner" with diplomacy and defense in US foreign policy.

This is good news, because it's important to view international relationships with other countries not just through their mostly male leaderships, and because the usual way of thinking tends to make us blind in some ways. As an example of the latter, remember how George Bush was to liberate Iraq? Yet that liberation was seldom viewed from the point of view of the majority of living Iraqis, women. It was as if the term 'citizen' only applied to men.

It Hurts, Baby

Violence hurts. It's not love. But something has gone missing in the recent chatter about domestic violence or intimate violence, a fundamental distinction which should be there. Or so I think, even though I'm hesitant to write about it should I be wrong.

But in my mind there's a difference between violence used as a slave collar around someone's neck and the kind of violence that two people might get into in a furious, drunken fight. They are not necessarily always two different things and the latter is not necessarily a healthier sprout in the garden of emotional problems but the two really are not quite the same. For instance, it's possible for a person to stop using physical violence in a warped relationship and to simply substitute something else for that slave collar, to continue the almost-total control of another human being in other ways.

I think the distinction used to be made in the past? At least I recall reading about the controlling behavior and the way violence was used to make someone's power total over another person. But the most recent takes appear to treat all physical violence on the same terms. Sometimes yelling and screaming are seen as physical violence, too, or the phenomenon is talked about without any attention to degrees of violence and so on.

What I'm wondering if this is the best way to get at the first type of violent behavior I depicted, the kind which ultimately paralizes the victim and makes her (or perhaps him) unable to escape. It's not the beating per se that does this. Or is it? I believe it's the overall setting of extending total control over someone. Physical violence is a tool in that but not the ultimate disease that we should address. The ultimate disease is the desire to be the total master of another person or persons.

So if we tell young people that violence in an intimate relationship is wrong, are we telling them enough?


My new favorite word, one which combines scorn, world fatigue and "whatevah" all in one short syllable. Say it while facing the dark winter sky and you feel like the god/dess of everything you survey, or at least liberated from the burdens of always having to care about something, to care for something, to care.

It doesn't really work. But it's fun to pretend. Besides, you can mutter it under your breath if you are not alone and only you know that now you are free! Free to be bad! Free not to give a shit. Try it. Your fangs might grow over your lips, your eyes might glow red in the darkness, your claws might retract, then grow long. Then you could go and suck the life out of a carrot. Sigh. I shall never be a famous writer of horror stories.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Mmm. Sudsy!

The Vatican tells us what all women may celebrate on the International Women's Day (which was yesterday): A washing machine! Yup. That's what has liberated the little ladies:

As International Women's Day is celebrated, the Vatican had a novel message for the women of the world: give thanks for the washing machine. This humble domestic appliance had done more for the women's liberation movement than the contraceptive pill or working outside the home, said the the official Vatican newspaper, Osservatore Romano.

It would have to be something of that sort, would it not? Something which doesn't change the job-assignments at all, something which doesn't actually affect the gendered division of labor or the unequal valuation those roles have. Women are still seen as responsible for doing the laundry and not allowed to be priests in the Catholic Church and so on.

Note that it's quite possible to be very grateful for the washing-machine and yet find this particular contribution to the International Women's Day utterly insulting as a trivialization of the severe economic, health and social problems women in so many countries struggle with.

Goody Two-Shoes

I had the misfortune of reading the original Goody Two-Shoes story, misfortune, because its moral is an odious one. Nevertheless, it serves as an introduction to the fascinating topic of shoes. Or the way they are used to describe people: well-heeled, down at heel, a woman with round heels.

A woman with round heels is one who is easy to get on her back, I learn, though that term is now rather ancient. But what would a heelless woman be called? Here's a picture of the new Nina Ricci heelless shoes (the first pair on the left):

They might be good for kicking someone, but I doubt having the balance of the body weight on one's toes that way does much good to the spine. If we need to wear impossible-looking shoes I'd like them with little engines and wings and possibly coffee-making facilities. And rhinestone snake embroidery.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Happy International Women's Day!

I'm sure that you have been swamped by it in the media. Hours and hours about women on this day! All the bobble-heads on television suddenly being female! Articles penned by women on the front pages of all newspapers! Demands that women be treated equally by laws and cultures of all countries! And so on and so on.

Of course if you live in the U.S. you wouldn't know that today indeed is the International Women's Day. It's not an important day here at all. March, by the way, is supposed to be women's history month, too. Crickets...

Real Freedom is Dependent on Equality by Anthony McCarthy

A common fault of our political discourse is that crude labels, terms and slogans are used as stand in for ideas when they, in fact, only stand for attitudes and opinion preferences*. I don’t know if this is due to our ingrained habits of practicing reductionism, so useful in physical science, frequently so wrongheaded and fallacious when dealing with complex areas of life.

The idea that freedom and equality are separate and opposing ideals is often stated in attacks made on liberalism. The idea that forcing equal treatment of all people will damage the freedom of some of them seems to make sense. After all, when there is a clash of interests and the mandated results are equal, someone is usually not going to get to do something they want to do. But that assumes that all of what we call freedoms or, as some like to say, liberties, are all the same in value and necessity. It pretends that things we call “freedoms” are really the same sorts of things.

The ability to do what is necessary for the simple sustenance of life is clearly not in the same category as exercising a preference in entertainment options, though both are talked about as being “freedoms”. The freedoms of most interest to people who don’t confront a daily danger of starvation or disease are frequently those which fall decidedly into the category “optional”. I’d guess the largest number of the pixels and spots of ink spent on passionately discussing “freedom” in the United States today would fall into the range of the somewhat unimportant to the entirely frivolous and on to the clearly stupid. The English language isn’t used very precisely to distinguish between the freedom to ask for enough to eat to live another day and to freely promote the non-regulation of “new financial instruments”. And there are real consequences in that inability to rank the two in importance as the politics of the past several decades shows. It is a tell-tale symptom of a fatally sick country when there is more freedom to grab the media and political office to lie on behalf of con men and thieves than the advocates of economic equality have.

Is there a right to lie? Is there a right to promote fraud? Does the freedom to lie, as the advocates of unregulated markets have enjoyed in abundance, have any real value that we need to protect? Is it a “freedom” when the results rob millions of their money and their ability to exercise the freedom to keep what they earn and to live in a home instead of on the street?

I don’t think there is any right to lie. Especially when the lie is magnified in the mass media and produces a real loss of rights to innocent people. The “freedom” to lie isn’t a freedom that I need to defend. I think a political and legal system that doesn’t make the distinction between the freedom to lie and right to tell the truth is not viable in the long run. I don’t think a political or legal system that treats contracted lies, based in clear and well funded deception, as instruments of “freedom” granting con men the force of law is sustainable. The enormous number of means devised to lie and deceive for profit during the past forty years are what has produced the situation we are in today. Pretending that those duped by them are free agents only makes the courts and the government the allies of the thieves.

There is also no justice to be had in a legal system in which those with the financial means can hire lawyers to grind down those they wrong. There is no democracy when those with money can turn an election to those who will serve them instead of the deceived public. Any government and legal system which willfully ignores the inequality in a system such as ours and treats the entirely predictable overall result is an engine that ensures the elective freedom of the few and destroys the real freedom of the many. Real equality isn’t opposed to real freedom, it is a prerequisite for it to exist. Real justice doesn’t allow someone with vast resources to ‘freely’ use them while the opposition has no such resources. Any judge that pretends they are administering justice in such an unequal match is a fraud. A real justice system would make certain that the resources brought to bear in legal cases were the same.

While the dolor expressed by those deprived of their “freedom” to exercise their ability to cheat by deception or to enjoy the dividends of legalized theft may be quite genuine, it isn’t the same kind of thing as the anguish of someone who has been roped in by the whiles of a con man and robbed of what they need to survive. There is no equality in the cleptocracy we live in, and the freedoms are as ill distributed as the money is.

* I think this substitution of merely symbolic concepts to stand in for more complex realities accounts for a lot of the intellectual stagnation we experience. It’s harder to look at what is really there and face that there isn’t going to be any way to fit that reality into a logical or statistical engine to get an entirely stable result than it is to pretend that you can. I think that accounts for some of the more brutal blog brawls you see among people who are generally in agreement. You can reduce reality down only so far, then trying to force further reduction, however convenient it seems, doesn’t work to produce either a realistic view or something that really works.