Saturday, May 29, 2010

Friday, May 28, 2010

A mother caught in the system (by Suzie)

It's the perfect storm for bigots: A black woman with 15 children lashes out at the state for not helping her enough. Read the hateful comments on the latest episode. I just reported some for calling her a whore or hoping she would die.

Of course, it's fodder for racists. But gender and class play a large role, too. The readers who dominate the comments are mostly conservative white men who love eugenics, whether or not they know the term. Whenever someone with little or no money gets accused of wrongdoing, these readers jump in to say the person is worthless. If the subject is a woman, she is put down for her presumed sexuality, unless she happens to be young and gorgeous, and then the men talk about how they'd like to do her. Generally, I don't read comments.

Searching for other views, I Googled the mother's name and "racism" and then "feminist," only to get racist & sexist sites. I did find Cris D'Angelo, however, who notes "Angel Adams didn't construct the ridiculous system we now have that pays so many workers poverty wages ..." Read more at the Rabblewriter blog.

Others might say Adams has been penalized for being an angry black woman who refuses to stay "in her place," who won't bow down to people in power. They might discuss reproductive justice, which SisterSong says has these core principles:
Every woman has the human right to:
• Decide if and when she will have a baby and the conditions under which she will give birth
• Decide if she will not have a baby and her options for preventing or ending a pregnancy
• Parent the children she already has with the necessary social supports in safe environments and healthy communities, and without fear of violence from individuals, corporations or the government.
Adams would disagree with the second principle: She opposes abortion. Although some critics call her a welfare queen, she didn't seek government assistance until 2008, when her partner was arrested for dealing drugs. Before then, the fathers of her kids and her own large family helped her. One of her brothers would give the children a home again, with state assistance. Read this article for more details of her life.

Whenever I read an installment of this sad story, I think of one of my sisters who has spent much more of her life in poverty than I have. Sometimes I take the naive view: Let's report this and get more help!!! She gives me a sideways look and repeats her aphorism: "The system is not your friend." By this, she means: The system will intervene in ways that you may not want.

My sister, who works in an ER, has another saying that applies: "Don't anger people who can hurt you." This occurred to her while watching patients berate nurses who were trying to find a vein for an IV or put in a catheter or perform some other procedure with the potential for "a little discomfort."

That's why both of us would ask Adams: "What were you thinking?"

I support women's rights, including reproductive rights. I've gotten in trouble for speaking up or taking action. Still, sometimes, I want to say: Choose your battles. Use common sense. Don't yell and curse at people who can take away your rights to see your kids. If you want assistance, assume that the people giving it may want something in return, whether it's gratitude or a say in your life. This may sound insulting, but it's the way of the world until we change it.

Happy Memorial Day weekend! (by Suzie)

From the NYT:
The House voted Thursday to let the Defense Department repeal the ban on gay and bisexual people from serving openly in the military, a major step toward dismantling the 1993 law widely known as “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Talk about compulsory heterosexuality. This is a victory for all women in the military, some of whom suffer sexual abuse or harassment because they are thought to be lesbians or because they "need to prove" they aren't.

Friday critter blogging (by Suzie)

Bonnie Blossom says Mi Hija hated the water, but loved the sand at the beach.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Female Genital Cutting (FGC) And The American Academy of Pediatrics

Some time ago the American Academy of Pediatrics made a policy statement which suggested that families who want their daughter's genitals cut should be offered a safe ritual alternative in the United States:

Some physicians, including pediatricians who work closely with immigrant populations in which FGC is the norm, have voiced concern about the adverse effects of criminalization of the practice on educational efforts.32 These physicians emphasize the significance of a ceremonial ritual in the initiation of the girl or adolescent as a community member and advocate only pricking or incising the clitoral skin as sufficient to satisfy cultural requirements. This is no more of an alteration than ear piercing. A legitimate concern is that parents who are denied the cooperation of a physician will send their girls back to their home country for a much more severe and dangerous procedure or use the services of a non–medically trained person in North America.33,34

The American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement on newborn male circumcision expresses respect for parental decision-making and acknowledges the legitimacy of including cultural, religious, and ethnic traditions when making the choice of whether to surgically alter a male infant's genitals. Of course, parental decision-making is not without limits, and pediatricians must always resist decisions that are likely to cause harm to children. Most forms of FGC are decidedly harmful, and pediatricians should decline to perform them, even in the absence of any legal constraints. However, the ritual nick suggested by some pediatricians is not physically harmful and is much less extensive than routine newborn male genital cutting. There is reason to believe that offering such a compromise may build trust between hospitals and immigrant communities, save some girls from undergoing disfiguring and life-threatening procedures in their native countries, and play a role in the eventual eradication of FGC. It might be more effective if federal and state laws enabled pediatricians to reach out to families by offering a ritual nick as a possible compromise to avoid greater harm.

To summarize the quote, a ritual pinprick of the girl's genitals might satisfy the parents without doing any real harm to the child.

Now the American Association of Pediatrics has done an 180-degree turn from this:

The policy statement ignited a storm of criticism from opponents of female genital cutting. Dr. Judith S. Palfrey, president of the academy, said: "We're saying don't do it. Do everything that you can to support that family in this tough time, but don't be pulled into the procedure."

I followed some of the debates on the initial policy statement, but never wrote about it here because I didn't have enough facts.

To see what is needed, go back to the above link and look at the three pictures showing the three different types of FGC. The third one, in particular, has severe health consequences for the woman. These include the need to have her re-cut and re-sewn after every vaginal delivery.

Which of the three types would a family want to have performed on their daughter? If it is the third type, a ritual pinprick will NOT be viewed as an acceptable alternative, and I suspect that it wouldn't serve for the second one, either. But I may be wrong.

Ultimately what one would need to know is the deepest reason for why a girl or a woman would be subjected to FGC. Is it just to do with traditions? Then go with the ritual pinprick. Is it about making a woman into a "good woman", one less likely to take lovers once she is married, by reducing her ability to feel in the genital area? If that is the explanation, a pinprick will do nothing. Or is it about making her vaginal channel narrower, for the sake of the enjoyment of her future husband while also numbing her nerve endings in that area (this would be the third type of FGC) to guarantee fidelity? Once again, a pinprick would not suffice.

I don't know these reasons, but a Sudanese friend I had in college told me that his parents had had his sister cut because without it a woman was regarded "loose" and not someone good men would want to marry.

What Matters In Politics. Nasty But Divine Thoughts.

This is another post of my musings and a bitter one at that. I was reading Eschaton, and Atrios linked to this post:

With the deficit hawks in high gear, people are prepared to say anything in pursuit of the goal of deficit reduction. Remarkably, the NYT is apparently willing to print almost anything. Today the deficit cutting crusade is led by hedge fund manager David Einhorn. In a lengthy column Einhorn bemoans the fact that at least some people in the Obama administration are more concerned about getting people back to work than reducing the deficit.

Einhorn is a bit more knowledgeable about basic economics than many of those who worry that the United States will be unable to find investors to buy its debt. Since he has heard of the Federal Reserve Board, he recognizes that the actual concern should be inflation, not insolvency, since the Fed can always buy up government debt.

Atrios notes:

That so many people are given platforms to assert something which is quite obviously not true is mystifying.

We're at panic levels of national unemployment. If only people would panic about that.

If you didn't break out of the egg yesterday you remember that the Republicans were always ranting about the deficit in the 1990s, then became as quiet as a winter night all through the Bush administration (which racked up gigantic deficits), then woke up screaming and yelling again about a year ago.

There is no economic logic in that but the logic of power is clear to even little children or those just out of the egg: It's about what those in power want, and all means are justified in getting it. And largely people want to have lots of goodies and fun for themselves, less goodies for anyone outside the circle of people just like them and nothing else changed at all.

Hence the deficit concern by the Republicans when they are not in power. They want people to vote the Democrats out so that they can be back in power, to keep on doling the goodies and the fun to their friends and themselves. They are not really concerned about the deficit at all. If that was the case they would have ranted about it all through the latest Bush administration.

This applies to people without much power, too. The Teabaggers suddenly woke up to defend the Constitution, a smaller government, a white United States, their right to have guns everywhere and their own very grumpy god in power. But they were sweetly dozing when Bush indeed was tearing up the Constitution, because they didn't care about the bits which got torn up. They'd go right back snoring if a nice fascist state could be erected.

These examples are all from the wingnut side because I'm "biased" in what I worry about and because the harm greed and selfishness cause is greater when their policies are operating.

But neither are the Democrats driven by some totally alien motives. They want power, they want money, they want to be adulated and accepted and all that crap, and they don't want to deal with unpleasant stuff.

Just like Americans in general: The reason why most in that last opinion poll were just fine with continued offshore drilling is simply that most people don't live in Louisiana, most people want to run their heating and air-conditioning systems and their cars and most people don't really care about animals in the ocean or the environment unless they themselves start slowly roasting to death. When it's too late.

The only way you can quickly change that phlegmatism is through fear. We have all seen how it worked with the terrorists, how it works with unrelated threats such as child kidnapping and how it works with illegal immigration. There's something about fear that can be brought home to people in a way which compassion or general concerns cannot. If we could make those oil-smeared animals appear to be under everyone's bed we would get rapid change in our oil politics. Or would we?

Those are the four horsemen of the apocalypse: greed, lust for power, fear and phlegmatism. (The last one needs a better moniker.) They are going to lead us all on the wild ride into the abyss.

OK. So I exaggerated a lot in this post. It was fun to do and let me ride most of those apocalyptic horses. We are all also motivated by better emotions and values. I'm just not sure how they can be harnessed easily.
P.S. Though this post is not directly on feminist politics, feminists also need to understand its contents and how they apply to pro-choice politics, say.

A Certain Kind Of Lumpiness

This post is about thoughts just beginning inside my head and elsewhere, most likely, and I'd love you to chime in.

I was thinking about lumpiness last night, not in terms of bodies but in terms of economic systems and markets. In theoretical terms competitive markets are not supposed to have "lumps", such as needing to have lots of resources before one can enter a market as a buyer or a seller. If those lumps exist the market will veer toward monopolistic structures and such. A competitive market requires all participants to swim around smoothly, like little tadpoles or like atoms or something. The lumps throw a hammer into the works: If you need a college degree to work in a certain labor market then people need to have the money and time to get one first, and all who don't have those will be kept out of the market.

That's not quite the technical term, that lumpiness, but it will serve for what I want to talk about which is the way the American markets are becoming lumpier.

Think of cell phones. A great invention, provided that they turn out to be safe to use. But also an invention which has essentially killed public telephones. It was possible to make a phone call in most urban places if you had a few coins. Now you need to have enough money to buy your own phone. Increased lumpiness, fewer public services.

Or think of the postal services: Many believe that the U.S. Post Office and similar institutions will not exist in the future. Mail will not be carried to your door by the government. Instead, you must make your own arrangements for getting the parcels delivered, and the minimum prices on the private carriers look to me to be higher. Greater lumpiness?

But then we have electronic mail, these days! Only you need a computer to access it and though there are places where one can use free computers they are not in your house. You can't just send a letter at the cost of a stamp.

Public transportation hasn't been common in the U.S. for a long time, but its replacement by private cars and cabs creates a similar greater lumpiness. You need more money to get a cab than a bus, and you need quite a lot more to buy a car. Lumpier and lumpier.

Technical change and innovations are often very good things. But there's a pattern towards greater atomization in the services I've mentioned and that pattern, paradoxically, creates more lumpiness, more trouble for the very poor or the temporarily broke, and less general sharing.

I'm not sure where this is going. Just wanted to write it down.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

1950s Advice For Wives. In 2010.

I'm sure you have seen this 1955 advice column, all on the topic of how to be a Perfect Wife. It's pretty funny:

* Have dinner ready. Plan ahead, even the night before, to have a delicious meal ready, on time for his return. This is a way of letting him know that you have been thinking about him and are concerned about his needs. Most men are hungry when they come home and the prospect of a good meal (especially his favourite dish) is part of the warm welcome needed.

* Prepare yourself. Take fifteen minutes to rest so you'll be refreshed when he arrives. Touch up your make up, put a ribbon in your hair and be fresh-looking. He has just been with a lot of work-weary people.

* Be a little gay and a little more interesting for him. His boring day may need a lift and one of your duties is to provide it.


* Don't ask him questions about his actions or question his judgement or integrity. Remember, he is the master of the house and as such will always exercise his will with fairness and truthfulness. You have no right to question him.

* A good wife always knows her place.

I looked it up because this post on Lemon Drop reminded me of it:

Yesterday a post on Psychology Today caught our eye: Why Men Use Porn (And How to Get Them to Stop).

Interesting, we thought. Porn is a divisive issue in a relationship. It can help. It can hurt. And it can also be hard to talk about.

Now a real psychologist would provide real insight: Dr. Mark Goulston, a former online couples therapist and, more recently, author of a book called "Just Listen: The Secret to Getting Through to Anyone, Anywhere, Anytime." OK.

We listened long enough to get to the bottom of his response to a woman who had written in, complaining that her husband was addicted to pornography. Now they have an 8-month-old daughter and, she writes, "It's hurting me. When I make love with him, I'm flooded by all these images and I get sick to my stomach."

What turned ours was Goulston's reply.

Before we get to that reply, please think about how psychiatrists and psychologists treat their patients. Who is it that they prioritize in the treatment, the patient or other people around him or her? In short, whose side do they take if they take sides?

Keeping that in mind, here's Goulston's reply. First he argues that he has some secret hidden evidence that men need orgasms to reduce stress whereas women just need to talk a lot to get the same outcome. Then he turns the tables on the woman asking the porn question:

"To give you an idea of the stress men feel, one man asked me a few months ago if I knew what the definition of a shower was. I told him I didn't. He told me: 'A shower is the place where grown men go to cry when they're afraid they can't keep the promise they made to their wives and children to always take care of them and don't want their family to see how afraid they are.'

If you can show your husband that you understand the pressure and responsibilities on him, he may feel less alone and less stressed out. And if he feels less stressed out, he may not need to resort to pornography as much. Take him aside and say to him, "Nobody, including me, knows how awful the pressure from all your responsibilities makes you feel. And nobody, including me, knows that sometimes -- even though you love me and our children -- you wish you could be single and have nobody to worry about but you. Isn't that true, honey? I'm sorry it's so tough." From there, you may be able to start a dialog about what is worrying him and help him find positive ways of dealing with the pressures in his life.

Didn't that sound a bit like the 1955 list of womanly duties?

But notice how it takes something like a nasty goddess to make that clear. His advice doesn't sound terrible if you ignore

a) that nowhere does he show any sympathy toward the woman who presents the problem in the first place,

b) that instead he adopts her husband as the patient and assigns the responsibility for the treatment to the woman,

c) that he employs a theory of all men needing porn for stress reduction and all women just needing to talk to someone (and in this case Goulston isn't even listening to her) without telling us how he knows that this is supposed to be true,

d) that he diagnoses the husband's porn use on some nebulous basis as stress-induced while paying no attention to the likelihood that a new mother of an eight-month-old baby is surely under stress, too, and

e) that he assumes the husband is out there working very hard for the family whereas the wife's not.

It's like a lot of icky spider webs sticking to your face, that list of mine.

And then the necessary declaration: Of course loving partners want to listen to each other and to help each other cope better with stress. But that thing is supposed to be mutual, that love bidness. And therapists are also supposed to have ethics and more than just biased opinions to offer.

Not Sure What To Say

This is a sentence I never thought I'd read*:

A 20-year-old former Hooters waitress filed a lawsuit against the restaurant chain yesterday, claiming that she was forced to resign from her server position due to weight discrimination.

Her suit is based on Michigan's Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, which "prohibits discriminatory practices based upon religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, familial status, marital status and, of course, weight."

I truly don't know quite what to say, partly because it's hot as hell in this room (95F) and my brain is gently sizzling, but mostly because everyone in that case is perfectly content with discrimination based on boob size. It's a relevant job characteristic, after all! Not to mention the teeny weeny fact that Hooters discriminates on the basis of gender all the time, though that is aimed against men rather than women when it comes to job openings.

But if boob size is a fair job requirement, we might as well argue that so is the server's weight. If her job is to carry trays AND to titillate then she has to remain titillacious at all times, right?

On a completely different level weight discrimination of the kind the woman in the story describes is of course wrong. It has nothing to do with health or safety or anything but titillating looks. Still, I cant quite get over the idea of suing Hooters for anything but for them being total a***oles. Which they are.

Just have a look at the Hooter defense:

"No employee in Michigan has been counseled about their weight," Mike McNeil, the Vice President of Marketing for Hooters America said in the press release. "However, we will say that our practice of upholding an image standard based on appearance, attitude and fitness for Hooters Girls is both legal and fair."

I hope the woman in this story wins her case, though. Note that she is asking a total of 25,000 dollars for lost wages and so on.** That pitiful sum (when compared to what many similar cases would ask) tells us why women have to work for Hooters and why they have to listen to a guy who upholds standards having to do with their "appearance, attitude and fitness." And who calls them Hooters Girls while doing that.
*For those who don't know what Hooters Restaurants are: Imagine a Playboy Club where waitresses wear corsets under bathing suits. Then make all this a bit more informal: The waitresses now wear small t-shirts and shorts, and you've got Hooters. Hooters means tits. It's supposed to be a family-friendly way of ogling those because you can take your kids there. Honest.

**Emma in the comments points out that my interpretation of the 25,000 dollars is incorrect: "She's not suing for $25,000, she's suing for more. $25,000 is the jurisdictional limit for the Circuit Courts in Michigan. You have to allege damages of at least $25,000 in your complaint to get in Circuit Court. If you allege less, you're in District Court (sort of small claims court)."

Today's Teh Funny

Oddly enough, it's from Washington Post. The story concerns a new Republican website which solicits for new ideas from people free to comment. You can guess the rest. An example:

"A 'teacher' told my child in class that dolphins were mammals and not fish!" a third complains. "And the same thing about whales! We need TRADITIONAL VALUES in all areas of education. If it swims in the water, it is a FISH. Period! End of Story."

House Republicans, meet the World Wide Web.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Fishing In The Memory Hole

For today's YouTube video:

Good News Tuesday: Nazia Is Free

Remember Nazia Quazi? I have blogged about her detention in Saudi Arabia before on at least two occasions. She has now been allowed to leave the country and marry her boyfriend in Dubai.

It's wonderful. Still, don't you think the plot of the story has been rewritten to get to the happy conclusion? I don't remember it being all about not letting Nazia get married, but that's what it is now.

The new plot is not about her right to determine her own life, not about her being a Canadian citizen kept in Saudi Arabia by her father and not about how the powers-that-be let Nazia's incarceration continue. The new plot is a Romeo-and-Juliet story.

Nothing to see here. Move on, ladies.

Like Oil And Water

BP is now running full-page ads about how well it is fixing the world it broke and also appears to own:

In Boston Globe op-ed today, columnist Derrick Z. Jackson hits BP for its ads:

It is difficult to conceive of a more resounding insult to our intelligence than BP's full-page advertisements in the New York Times and USA Today about its response to the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The most intriguing paragraph of the BP ad was, "This is an enormous team effort. More than 2,500 of our operational and technical personnel from around the world are working tirelessly in coordination with the U.S. Coast Guard, and federal, state and local government agencies.''

But until Deepwater Horizon exploded, BP's idea of working tirelessly with government agencies was lobbying them to bypass environmental-impact reviews for well permits. Yesterday, the Times had yet another story on how drilling projects have proceeded with environmental waivers, despite President Obama's so-called moratorium on permits. Deepwater Horizon received an environmental waiver last year and received another one just before the April explosion.

Bolds are mine.

Also Code Pink is protesting the oil.

Monday, May 24, 2010

On BP's Property Rights To The Ocean

Who owns the oceans? Who owns the wild animals? Who owns the right not to be poisoned by oil? Who owns the right to find out what is happening?

What I get from the coverage of the oil catastrophe is that the British Petroleum has powers far beyond what it should have. It appears to have all sorts of property rights: the right to keep journalists away, the right not to give good information on what is happening, the right to manage the ocean.

But I bet you anything that when it comes to covering the costs of all the destruction the BP will suddenly have no property obligations whatsoever.

Someone (sorry, can't remember who) pointed out that if terrorists had broken the oil pipe we'd have a very different reaction to the same level of damage.

If there's any useful lesson from this utter horror it is that we are giving corporations powers of the type only countries usually have and that this is not a good idea.

On Pro-Life Feminism

Colleen Carrol Campbell has written an opinion piece on pro-life feminism. She is very much for it and argues that it is the flavor of the future. She does have some support in the recent opinion polls which show that young women declare themselves increasingly pro-forced-birth (though of course those women may not be any kind of feminists):

The very notion of pro-life feminism is an affront to the vociferous leaders of America's abortion-rights lobby and the aging ranks of its feminist establishment - two groups that are, for all practical purposes, indistinguishable. The overlap between these two groups and their shared indignation at organizations like Feminists for Life and women like Sarah Palin is no accident. It is a consequence of their decades-long campaign to make feminism synonymous with a woman's right to abort her child and to marginalize any free-thinking feminist who dares to disagree.


Many women are not buying it. They are attracted instead to the message of groups like Feminists for Life, which tells women facing unplanned pregnancies that they should "refuse to choose" between having a future and having a baby. They believe that the best way for a woman to defend her own dignity is to defend the dignity of each and every human person, including the one that grows within her womb. And they reject the false dichotomy of abortion-centric feminism that says respect for human dignity is a zero-sum game in which a woman can win only if her unborn child loses.


This rising pro-life sentiment among women has begun to surface in public opinion polls. A 2007 study from Overbrook Research tracked the abortion views of women in Missouri, considered to be a bellwether state on such issues. Researchers found that the share of Missouri women identifying themselves as "strongly pro-life" rose from 28 percent in 1992 to 37 percent in 2006, with the ranks of the "strongly pro-choice" shrinking from about a third to a quarter of Missouri women. This pro-life shift was even more pronounced among young women.

I put that "pro-forced-birth" above the quote because Ms. Campbell chooses to use equally biased language. The fetus is an unborn child, for example, and the aging feminists are identical with the abortion industry.

We could talk about what it means to define oneself as pro-life in an opinion poll. It doesn't necessarily mean that the respondent would ban all abortion for all women, even those who will die if forced to go on with the pregnancy. But I do think that fewer people are pro-choice than was the case in the past.

The reasons for that are many. The most important are the insistent campaigns of the forced-birth people and the fact that a world in which abortion is legal doesn't give us much scope for talking about the women bleeding to death in hidden hotel rooms or about rusty and bloody coat-hangers. Or about young women in jail because they had an abortion. I also get a strong impression that most people don't really believe that abortion could ever become illegal again, so declaring yourself to be absolutely against abortion doesn't cost you or your wife, girlfriend, sister or daughter anything at all.

But what I really want to write about is the idea of "pro-life feminism", the kind of feminism where women are supposed to work for equality with men everywhere except in one single area: The right to control one's own fertility. Could this ever work?

It could if we lived in a world where safe, absolutely effective and cheap birth control was routinely installed in everyone until the point when they really want to have children. In the real world it would not work. At all.

To see why, let's start with the most extreme abortion bans, the case where abortion is always illegal. When that is the case every fertile woman going out of the house (and many fertile women not going out) are at risk of not only rape but rape with a forced pregnancy and a forced birth. If the most rabid pro-lifers were in power they would also ban the contraceptive pill. There would be no way of making sure that a fertile woman would not conceive from a rape. Offering a condom to a rapist will not work. Thus, every single fertile woman would then live in a world where the risks of sexual violence have risen to a higher level: One where she might not only be raped but might also be forced to give birth to the rapist's child and then work out the tremendous psychological problems having to do with the question of adoption vs. keeping the child and so on.

In such a world all fertile women would have an additional risk from violence, one that men would not have to worry about. Even if a man were raped he would not have to go through nine months of possibly dangerous pregnancy and then childbirth. But fertile women would have to take all this into account.

A total ban on all abortions would also increase maternal mortality rates. Difficult and life-threatening pregnancies would be made to go to term and that would mean more dead women.

You may think that I'm choosing the most extreme case on purpose. After all, most pro-forced-birth activists would allow legal abortion in three cases: danger of death for the woman, rape and incest. Let's leave aside those cases, then, and look at a world where other types of abortions are banned.

Something odd crops up the minute I do that, and that is the effect of children on a woman's economic well-being. Children are expensive in two ways: First, they cost money to bring up and to school. Second, having children makes it much harder for a woman to go to school herself or to work long hours in order to get a promotion. If a woman cannot control her own fertility she cannot control her economic status.

Add to that the way discrimination works in the labor markets: Whenever a firm does not want to hire or promote women we find children somewhere in the calculus:

Women are seen as more likely to take time off from work if they have minor children, women are seen as more likely to drop out of labor force altogether for the sake of children, women are viewed as less focused on their careers if they have children. And many people in charge of human resources believe, somewhere deep inside themselves, that women with children should stay at home. All this affects women's earnings today. How much more the impact would be in a world where women's fertility is controlled by others?

Ms. Campbell writes:

Many women are not buying it. They are attracted instead to the message of groups like Feminists for Life, which tells women facing unplanned pregnancies that they should "refuse to choose" between having a future and having a baby.

Now wouldn't that be nice? But this statement completely ignores the fact that the world will do the choosing if the woman refuses. It's the world which doesn't have child care in corporations, the world which doesn't offer paid maternity leave of any reasonable length, the world which requires 24/7 attendance in graduate schools and important jobs and so on.

And the problems I discuss are not just economic ones. A man who wants to climb Mount Everest is a hero, even if he has a baby at home. A woman in the same situation? She is widely viewed as irresponsible. She should not be climbing mountains.

The ultimate point I'm trying to make here is this: If women cannot control their own fertility they cannot have equal rights with men. This is especially true when bringing up children is regarded as the sole duty of women and when this process is seen as taking almost two decades.

Note that this is not really about abortion. It is about the woman's ability to control her own fertility. The two cannot be separated, given the world in which we actually live, and until they can be separated any attempt at pro-life feminism will be a big failure.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

On Martin Gardner And The Degradation of Skepticism [Anthony McCarthy]

Martin Gardner the author of puzzles and polemical attacks on anything he deemed to be too strange to be allowed, died the other day. He was 95. I wasn’t much of a fan of his work. While I have nothing at all against people who like puzzles, I’ve got to admit, I never thought they were more than a waste of time. I don’t think I ever learned anything from doing a puzzle that I couldn’t have found more quickly by using a dictionary or reference work. Puzzle information tends to be of an extremely elementary nature. Randomly opening up a good dictionary or encyclopedia and reading what you find was one of my favorite childhood leisure activities, one I’d recommend. World Book, the Americana and various editions of the Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary were the ones I practiced this form of educational bibliomancy with.

I’ve also never found puzzles remotely useful for learning anything about math or logic. While some people might find them useful for that, it just didn’t take with me at all.

As to his anti-paranormal activity, I think it’s of mixed usefulness. Exposing outright frauds that actually bilk people and talk them into dangerous activities, and inactivities, are a valuable contribution. Of course, beyond question. Beyond that, it quickly turns into a mean-spirited exercise in derision and coercion and mockery of people with totally innocuous beliefs and practices. I think that Gardner crossed that line, though not generally as often or always as far as his pals in things like the old CSICOP.

I don’t believe in astrology but don’t have any problem with people who do, as long as they’re not causing any harm or making national policy on the basis of what they believe they have discerned with it. Some, few, are cheated by unscrupulous people using what they say is astrology. Though far, far fewer than are routinely cheated, harmed and even killed by insurance companies. [Not to mention petro-geology and weapons science.] Astrology is almost entirely innocuous in the wider population. If it’s a waste of the time of the people who do believe in it, that is for them to decide just as it is for the people who spend money and time on puzzle books. I always figure that what people do with their own lives only becomes other peoples’ business when they impinge on other people.

While he was somewhat cagey on the subject, from what I’ve read Gardner wasn’t exactly honest about his views on Psi (ESP)*.

I know that saying so will mark me as having violated one of today’s strongest taboos among the intelligencia but the meta analysis of controlled experiments on the subject by Jessica Utts and analyzed by Dean Radin produce far stronger evidence that there are unexplained effects in the experiments than huge swaths of conventional psychology which are routinely cited and taught in universities, with little controversy. The controlled experiments are, generally, of a far, far higher quality in methodology and execution than much of conventional psychology, the phenomena tested, often far less outlandishly complex and the claims of what was found far more in keeping with the actual experiments. But, thanks to Gardner and his pals, it is taboo to even admit you’ve read the literature on the subject with anything like objectivity. And it can be professional suicide to even whisper that you are interested in the subject. I think Gardner must have known this was the case but wouldn’t go on record with it for a number of reasons. I don’t think it would be possible to honesty look at the situation and conclude otherwise.

The position of the psi-busters in the general culture is a curious thing. Even articles published in their magazines have admitted that after decades of organized opposition to all things paranormal, more people seem to openly believe in them than ever before. On that alone, you’d think that they would rethink their methods and the scope of their activity. Why throw more work into a failed effort to browbeat the general culture into conformity with their views? After decades of failure, that’s the definition of irrationality. You’d think they’d abandon that and go after phony faith healers and the such.

Their primary success has been, exactly, in enforcing a taboo on all expression of interest in even the most chaste and controlled experimentation into well documented effects among the would be educated population. The casual charges of fraud that come from the old CSICOPs – not actually discovered evidence of fraud among reputable researchers but the most outlandish and extravagantly concocted charges that the researchers are either idiots or cheats – would shut down every single lab in every single branch of science, were those standards applied to them. Psychology would never survive it, not with their present practices and standards.

One of Gardner’s associates was the late Carl Sagan who, among other things, at least once lamented the occasionally encountered skepticism that held the achievements of the space program were simulations and a fraud. I don’t know if he or anyone else ever made a connection between that skepticism and the kind of skepticism that his associates championed. I don’t recall Sagan lamenting the frat boy pack level meanness and even cruelty of a lot of his close associates in that effort. The entirely unscientific James Randi, chief among them. Maybe if they had practiced a higher level of skepticism they could have done something to raise its practice in the general culture. Today “skepticism” as commonly practiced is of as low a quality of intellectual endeavor as there is. Skepticism has definitely been damaged by organized “skepticism”. The skepticism about the science of climate change and other impending disasters is in the same species as much of it.

Sagan, apparently, was enough of a scientist to admit that there were documented effects, he made a list of three* that he deemed sufficiently well documented to be respectable to have an interest in.
1. The ability of people to affect random numbers generators.
2. That people under sensory depravation could send and receive information.
3. That young children sometimes report accurate information about previous lives.

I’ll point out that I’m extremely skeptical of the third one, myself. My hoping that reincarnation isn’t true, perhaps, being a motivating factor in my skepticism of it.

And this is Carl Sagan, early and famous member of CSICOP and one of the great heroes of organized “skepticism”. Obviously he, himself, had to admit that these phenomena had produced his kind of “extraordinary evidence”.

That Sagan didn’t destroy his reputation among his friends or the general public by admitting that these phenomena are credibly established to that extent, is an interesting phenomenon in itself. As is the reason of why, so many years after he said it. that saying exactly the same thing will get anyone else ridiculed into the margins by his biggest fans.

Skepticism without honesty is not skepticism, it is merely being contrary. And that’s at its best. At worst, in the animal house atmosphere of “skepticism” it is a nasty form of enforced conformity. I’ve never liked that kind of thing. I don’t think it’s good for the culture. It’s certainly not intellectually honest. I’m more impressed by the skepticism of the late Marcello Truzzi, who was thrown out of CSICOP for wanting to take a more scientific and scholarly approach to skepticism. That kind of skepticism is not as flashy and it’s more intellectually challenging than the pop-skepticism that is all the rage among middle brow sci-jocks, but it’s certainly more honest. Honesty is supposed to be the goal of the effort, isn’t it?

So, knowing what this will do to whatever reputation I might have, but being compelled to be honest about it, this is dedicated to my Wiccan, Pagan, astrology believing, ghost seeing, etc. friends. Long may you follow your own inclinations, so long as it harms none. And you vote progressive.

* Note: Gardner wasn’t always a model of honesty in his skepticism. He was quite able to make false statements, as have many of the other big names in “skepticism”. For example:

The fact that most skeptics do not conduct counter-studies to prove their claims is not well known. For example, in 1983 the well known skeptic Martin Gardner wrote the following:
How can the public know that for fifty years skeptical psychologists have been trying their best to replicate classic psi experiments, and with notable unsuccess [sic]? It is this fact more than any other that has led to parapsychology's perpetual stagnation. Positive evidence keeps coming from a tiny group of enthusiasts, while negative evidence keeps coming from a much larger group of skeptics.

As Honorton points out, "Gardner does not attempt to document this assertion, nor could he. It is pure fiction. Look for the skeptics' experiments and see what you find." In addition, there is no "larger group of skeptics." There are perhaps 10 to 15 skeptics who have accounted for the vast bulk of the published criticisms....

I did check it. I was unable to find the asserted “replications”. I did find accusations made against researchers with no evidence that the accusations were founded in reality.

At the time of writing there are three claims in the ESP field which, in my opinon, deserve serious study: (1) that by thought alone humans can (barely) affect random number generators in computers; (2) that people under mild sensory deprivation can receive thoughts or images “projected” at them: and (3) that young children sometimes report the details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation. Carl Sagan: The Demon Haunted World

Also Note: By some odd coincidence, I happened to listen to this lecture by Dean Radin last week while transplanting seedlings.

Spooky, huh?

UPDATE: It has been pointed out that the pop and professional “skeptics” are often very bad at knowing the first thing about even their own side. A hunch in sync with their predigested party line always suffices.

As in the e-mail I just got accusing me of promoting “ religious superstition” with this post, slandering the great Gardner in the process. Maybe the callow “skeptic” should bother to read his alleged hero. Here’s something Martin Gardner wrote in 1983 (as quoted in the Field Guide to Skepticism, linked to in the post).

As for empirical tests of the power of God to answer prayer, I am among those theists who, in the spirit of Jesus’ remark that only the faithless look for signs, consider such tests both futile and blasphemous..... Let us not tempt God.

Perhaps Gardner’s entire career as a “debunker” of psi was due to his religious feelings on the topic, similar to the non-religious ones I admitted to feeling about reincarnation. So, as Radin points out, his co-debunkers would have to discount anything he said about it as tainted. Or to be guilty of a double standard and hypocrisy.

I don’t have any religious objection to reincarnation, just the ones I noted in the comments.