Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Greatest Mystery Of The Last US Elections?

This must be the role of polling played in it.  At some point in the last decade (perhaps earlier),  polls became a political weapon  akin to propaganda.  It's hard to grasp the change I try to write about, because it's a qualitative one and not just quantitative.

Sure, polls have always been used in that sense.  But something vast changed in these elections:  The Republicans believed in their own propaganda.  In the past they may have pretended to believe that propaganda; this time they truly did.

Hence the stunned astonishment of Karl Rove, listening to the Ohio results, and hence the cheerful optimism of the Romneys and the Ryans all the way to the point when it was clear that Obama had won re-election.  They expected to win and they had not planned for the alternative.

There's lots of evidence of this:  Pundits confidently offered numbers based on assumptions about much greater Republican turnout and much reduced turnouts of young voters and African-American voters.  But those assumptions were assumptions, hanging off pure air.  So what made them so easily accepted as facts?

I'm not completely sure, but all this may have something to do with the ideological-bubbles phenomenon.  If you belong to the conservative bubble, then you get your news interpreted by Fox News and by right-wing bloggers, and you get tweets which tell you that is fixing all polls to look the way they should look.

Likewise, if you believe in a vast left-wing-media conspiracy, then all the polls the media reports must be biased, right?

These are just my thoughts and they may be wrong.  But I think the cows have come home on some of the costs of the manufactured political wars and the self-segregation of politically motivated people into separate ideological camps.    That most everything can be now seen through politically-colored spectacles is also part of the problem.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Things I Hate About Writing

Wordiness.  Ever since I learned my alphabet I've been the concise goddess.  It's a flaw from the reader's side because reading unedited me requires a magnifying glass, so  I work very hard to add air and cute little nothings into the sentences I write.  But o the pain!

Long erudite words.  They can be delicious.  Chili peppers can be delicious, too, but a quarter teaspoon is enough.   The snag, for me, is that long erudite words are easier than finding the needed short and crunchy expression to replace them without losing the meaning.

Bland verbs.  Verbs are the horses on which sentences ride, and bland verbs are like old and tired nags.  But my arsenal of exciting, humorous, onomatopoetic or otherwise strong verbs is pitifully meager.  That's because I write in a language I didn't learn as a pupa goddess.  It's never the same, to learn something from dictionaries and grammars, and decades of real practice still leave me feeling that I'm trying to do microsurgery with mittens on.

Stagnant sentences.  Each sentence should bring the story forwards.  Like mail being carried, quickly and precisely.  But sometimes a sentence is necessary, and still it just stands there or even shakes or tries to turn back.  Fixing it in various ways usually looks like a pileup of bandaids/plasters.  One stagnant sentence sometimes makes me kill the whole story dead.

Editing.   You must have noticed that.  Almost everything here is written and then scanned through once.  Plenty of time later to feel embarrassed about the results.  I know that editing is very important.  But it's not fun.

On the other hand, I adore writing!  I want to marry writing, have wild sex with it, make it have my babies, wrap myself in that zone only writing can offer for hours and hours.  It's a chronic disease, that writing desire.

Fun Watching For Today: Fox News and Women, Nancy Pelosi and Luke Russert

Well, fun on some levels of the term.  First, two videos from Fox News on the ever-fascinating topic of the Woman Problem.   This one debates the question whether girls should ever play in boys' sports teams:

The nine-year-old girl player is pretty wise in her game advice, too.  It can be applied to much of life.

This one reminds us that Fox always has sexists in-residence, the way some colleges have artists in-residence. Gutfeld has a long career of sexist utterances at Fox.

The last video is about Nancy Pelosi's answer to Luke Russert (the son of the late Tim Russert) who asked Pelosi about  the wisdom of her hanging around for so long, given that she is ancient and should retire for the benefit of younger people:

For those of you who might not be able to access the video, here's the question:

Nancy Pelosi was peppered with questions about her decision to stay on as Democratic leader on Wednesday, but one particular inquiry set her off: on her age.

"Some of your colleagues privately say that your decision to stay on prohibits the party from having a younger leadership and hurts the party in the long run," Russert said. "What's your response?"

The Democratic female politicians standing behind Pelosi booed the question.  Pelosi's answer, in its core:

When Russert pressed further, Pelosi responded: "So you're suggesting that everybody step aside? ... Let's for a moment honor it as a legitimate question, although it's quite offensive. But you don't realize that, I guess."


"I came to Congress when my youngest child, Alexandra, was a senior in high school, practically on her way to college," Pelosi began. "I knew that my male colleagues had come when they were 30. They had a jump on me because they didn't have children.


"So I don't have any concern about that, and as I've always said to you, you've got to take off about 14 years from me because i was home raising a family, getting the best experience of all -- diplomacy, interpersonal skills."

Now, whether older leaders should graciously step aside to let younger people have a chance is a different question from asking that of a rare powerful older woman who is giving a speech.

The time and place of that question is probably sexist, unless Russert routinely asks all men of Pelosi's age similar questions about them stepping aside to benefit younger people.

Because these concerns do not apply only to the very top:  They apply equally on other levels of politics. Ted Kennedy's successes  made it impossible for anyone younger in Massachusetts to run for his Senate seat if he, too, was running.   Maybe he should have retired earlier?  John McCain is plugging the pipeline and keeping younger Republicans from power.  Shouldn't he retire?  What about the libertarian god, Ron Paul, who was born in 1935?  Time for him to step aside!

I don't think these men are asked that question when they give speeches, and that's why I think Russert's question was a sexist one.  The fact that Pelosi is among the "firsts" (in the sense of a first woman who ever held some powerful post) adds a slight flavor of impoliteness to that question. 

Pelosi's answer, pointing out that she had started the political game much later than most men (because they probably had someone of Pelosi's sex taking care of their children) reveals a different kind of gender difference here:  Pelosi's age does not reflect the length of her political career as well as the ages of many male politicians do.  Her "real" political age is around 58.

But a young man like Luke Russert doesn't have to be aware of the problems women of Pelosi's age had in entering politics:  The culture wanted women in politics to have children  but the culture also expected women to take care of those children themselves.   That made (and still makes) it tougher for women to become politicians at younger ages.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Meanwhile, in Ireland, Savita Halappanavar Dies After Being Denied an Abortion

The Irish Times reports:

Two investigations are under way into the death of a woman who was 17 weeks pregnant, at University Hospital Galway last month.
Savita Halappanavar (31), a dentist, presented with back pain at the hospital on October 21st, was found to be miscarrying, and died of septicaemia a week later.
Her husband, Praveen Halappanavar (34), an engineer at Boston Scientific in Galway, says she asked several times over a three-day period that the pregnancy be terminated. He says that, having been told she was miscarrying, and after one day in severe pain, Ms Halappanavar asked for a medical termination.
This was refused, he says, because the foetal heartbeat was still present and they were told, “this is a Catholic country”.
She spent a further 2½ days “in agony” until the foetal heartbeat stopped.
Intensive care
The dead foetus was removed and Savita was taken to the high dependency unit and then the intensive care unit, where she died of septicaemia on the 28th.
An autopsy carried out by Dr Grace Callagy two days later found she died of septicaemia “documented ante-mortem” and E.coli ESBL.
Let's make this clear.  She was miscarrying.  The fetus could not be saved.  According to the Irish law abortion is legal to save the life of the pregnant woman.  She was in agony.  But she had to wait until the fetal heartbeat stopped.

Then her own heartbeat stopped.

Her widower:

Speaking from Belgaum in the Karnataka region of southwest India, Mr Halappanavar said an internal examination was performed when she first presented.
“The doctor told us the cervix was fully dilated, amniotic fluid was leaking and unfortunately the baby wouldn’t survive.” The doctor, he says, said it should be over in a few hours. There followed three days, he says, of the foetal heartbeat being checked several times a day.
“Savita was really in agony. She was very upset, but she accepted she was losing the baby. When the consultant came on the ward rounds on Monday morning Savita asked if they could not save the baby could they induce to end the pregnancy. The consultant said, ‘As long as there is a foetal heartbeat we can’t do anything’.
“Again on Tuesday morning, the ward rounds and the same discussion. The consultant said it was the law, that this is a Catholic country. Savita [a Hindu] said: ‘I am neither Irish nor Catholic’ but they said there was nothing they could do.
“That evening she developed shakes and shivering and she was vomiting. She went to use the toilet and she collapsed. There were big alarms and a doctor took bloods and started her on antibiotics.
“The next morning I said she was so sick and asked again that they just end it, but they said they couldn’t.”

But at least nobody killed a fetus.  Well, god did, I guess.

The Guardian suggests that the Irish law about abortion being legal to save the woman's life is not properly implemented:

Ireland's health service executive, which runs the country's public health care system, has initiated an investigation into the incident, which is also being investigated by the hospital itself.
Reports of the death sparked an outcry on Wednesday night in Ireland, where abortion is illegal unless the life of the woman is in danger.
The Fine Gael/Labour government has struggled to respond to a 2010 ruling by the European court of human rights, which found it had failed to implement laws to enable women to have an abortion when their life is at risk during pregnancy.
Rachel Donnelly, a spokeswoman for pro-choice campaigners in Galway said: "This was an obstetric emergency which should have been dealt with in a routine manner. Yet Irish doctors are restrained from making obvious medical decisions by a fear of potentially severe consequences.
"As the European court ruled, as long as the 1861 Act remains in place, alongside a complete political unwillingness to touch the issue, pregnant women will continue to be unsafe in this country."

It's hard for me to understand a culture or a religion which is willing to waste a young woman's life this way,  assuming that the above descriptions of the case are true*.  Halappanavar was miscarrying.  There was no way for the fetus to be born alive.  Yet she was made to go through days of agony and then an early death.  For what possible reason?  Malpractice?  But what IS malpractice in a system of belief where women are aquaria?

In 2011 Ohio Republicans supported a measure to make abortions illegal after the fetus has a heartbeat:

The House voted 54 to 43 for the ban, along party lines, with most Republicans voting in favor.
If enacted, the law would be a challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling which upheld a woman's right to an abortion until the fetus is viable outside the womb, usually at 22-24 weeks.
Republican Ohio House Speaker William Batchelder said he knows this bill will face a court challenge.
"We're writing bills for courts," he said.
The bill now goes to the Republican-dominated Ohio Senate.
The Ohio House also passed two other abortion restrictions Tuesday, one that would ban late-term abortions after 20 weeks if a doctor determines that the fetus is viable outside the womb. Another bill excludes abortion coverage from the state insurance exchange created by the federal health care law.
The late-term ban already was passed by the Ohio Senate.
Neither bill was as contentious as the heartbeat legislation, which does not contain exceptions for rape, incest or the life or health of the mother.
Emphasis is mine.

The rumor is that these laws are coming back during the current lame duck season.   Though the Ohio laws are designed to test Roe v. Wade, their contents tell us that Ohio Republicans would not at all mind if other women died the same way Savita Halappanavar did!  Indeed, they wouldn't even bother with having abortion nominally legal for pregnancies which threaten the woman's life.
*That's a euphemism.  I understand those cultures and religions far too well.  May everything their supporters give to others return to them threefold. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Why Do Powerful Men Cheat? The Petraeus Chronicles.

You knew these were coming, the stories about why powerful men cheat, why they are willing to throw away everything for the chance of some extramarital sex and why they go about it in the clumsiest fashion possible.  And yup, we get the evolutionary explanation for men's extramarital cheating.

This is such fun.  It's not that the arguments have no merit but the merit they have is pretty tiny.  On the other hand, the omissions are glaring and tells us loads about the cultural expectations and myths. 

Take what is currently known (or asserted):  David Petraeus, a married man, had an affair with Paula Broadwell, a married woman.  It is argued that Paula Broadwell, a married woman, sent threatening messages to Jill Kelley, another married woman, to warn her off Petraeus.  Jill Kelley, a married woman,  may have exchanged "inappropriate" e-mails with John Allen, a married man.  None of these people are married to each other.

David Petraeus was the head of the CIA and has an impressive military resume.  John Allen is a general and currently the top US commander in Afghanistan.  In short, these are powerful men.

Thus, we get headlines like this:

Why Men Like Petraeus Risk It All to Cheat
And this:

Petraeus affair raises old question: Why do men cheat?

I understand the angle of these stories.  It's Petraeus and Allen who are famous and well-known and they are men.  But the facts of the case suggest that we should also ask why women cheat, given that all alleged participants in this mess had marital partners.  Broadwell, too,  seems to have "risked it all" to cheat:  her marriage, her career as a biographer and the risk of the kind of public attention she is now receiving.  Her position may not look as powerful to us but in terms of her own life the risks she took were huge.

As I mentioned, I get the angle of these stories.  But it takes two to tango, and in heterosexual extramarital affairs both partners can be married.  Thus, the questions those headlines ask about men cheating disguise the fact that we should ask similar questions about women cheating.

That's not quite how those stories go.  USAToday, for example, begins like this:

He's a retired Army general who designed and led the military surge in Iraq and was top commander in Afghanistan. He had been deployed much of his career until he was named CIA director last year. His abrupt resignation amid news of his extramarital affair with a married Army Reserve officer brings a new wrinkle into an old story of why yet another powerful man risks so much for a woman.
Yes, Petraeus joins the list of wayward sons: Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Edwards, Mark Sanford and Eliot Spitzer — just to name a few.
Petraeus is another, says Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University who studies such behavior.
Risk takers "tend to believe they control their destiny or fate," Farley says. "The risk-taking personality has a bold quality. It's at the heart of great leadership, and sometimes it overrides what many Americans would call common sense."

A list of powerful men cheating, sure.   And we have no comparable list of powerful women cheating, though that is most likely because there aren't that many powerful women as there are men*.   What all this would look like in a world where the highest positions of power had equal numbers of men and women is anybody's guess.  Still, I suspect that we would get at least a few stories about powerful women throwing it all away for the sake of sex.  Or for the sake of sexual love.

The Scientific American piece  also explains the cheating of powerful men by them being risk-takers, though it does point out that Broadwell seems to share that characteristic, too.   But the short summary we are offered under the headline tells a different story:
The risk of destroying a career is nothing compared with the evolutionary drive to reproduce

This may be nitpicking, but what does "evolutionary drive" mean in this context?  A drive that evolved?  How did our ancestors reproduce if they didn't have that drive?  Never mind.  I think the idea is to plug into the story something that looks like science.

More from the piece:

With risks like that on the line, could an extramarital affair be worth it? As it turns out, men may become blind to risk when an attractive woman enters the picture. One 2008 study found that men who played blackjack after seeing beautiful female faces took more risks than men who played the game after seeing unattractive faces.
This was true if the men were highly motivated in seeking new sexual partners. The blackjack risks seemed calculated to impress potential mates, study researcher Michael Baker, now a professor at Eastern Carolina University, told LiveScience. [The Sex Quiz: Myths, Taboos & Bizarre Facts]
More germane to high-profile affairs, Baker said, the risk of losing one's career or reputation is nothing compared with the evolutionary drive to reproduce. In that sense, while embarking on an affair may seem dumb, it actually shows something called "mating intelligence."
"These individuals have these very high-status, high-power positions, and the whole idea behind why people might be motivated to get these positions is because it gives them better access to resources that could be used to increase their reproductive success and attract more mates," Baker said.

Did the Baker blackjack study include female subjects?  If we are to explain why men cheat, as opposed to why women cheat, say, then data on both sexes is necessary.  Something like showing 20-year-old female undergraduates who major in psychology pictures of cute male butts and then asking them to play blackjack.  Just my uninformed suggestion...

Finally, this quote is worth a few words from me:
"These individuals have these very high-status, high-power positions, and the whole idea behind why people might be motivated to get these positions is because it gives them better access to resources that could be used to increase their reproductive success and attract more mates," Baker said.
The whole idea?  That's a bit exaggerated.  I personally think that people are driven first by the desire to stay alive and to thrive within that state, and only secondarily by considerations such as sex.  To imply that sex is the only reason why someone (a man, really) would want to obtain power and influence seems cartoonish to me. 

But whatever.  I just wish to make the note that "the whole idea" Baker mentions is an idea, and not some clearly proven fact.  Perhaps the alternative idea that "sex is pretty powerful" would do equally well?

Why write this post?  The two articles I discuss are not wrong, as such, and they do contain some interesting theories to think about, including the hypothesis that powerful people get insulated from reality and thus may underestimate the risk of getting caught having an extramarital affair. 

What triggered my writing urges (they are strong!  they are a way to get more mating partners!) may have been that condensed form in both the links to the pieces and in the headline for one:  The movement from why-powerful-men-cheat to why-men-cheat.   That's not what the stories are about, of course, but the same switch is not  uncommon in discussions about this on the net:  Petraeus As Everyman.

Add to that the invisibility of at least one woman cheating in this story, too, and you get one of those easy Chinese fortune cookie answers to presumed gender differences in cheating (found on various comments threads): 

Powerful men cheat because they can (and because of that mating urge),  all men would do the same if they could, and women like Broadwell obviously only cheat because of Petraeus's power and resources.  (In one comments-thread she was called a military groupie.)

But much of that is constructed, in an odd way.  If we begin by looking at the cheating behavior of  heterosexual men on the very top of societal hierarchies, in a culture where there aren't that many women on equally high rungs of those ladders, we are going to find that the partners of those men come from further down in the hierarchy.   This, in itself,  does not prove that women cheat only because of the power and resources of a man.  It's an artifact, caused by starting from the top rungs of the hierarchies. 

Finally, the cultural rules and sometimes even the legal consequences of cheating have been very different for men and women in the past (and still are, in places such as Afghanistan).  Those norms and rules continue have residual effects in our minds.  I think that makes it difficult to regard statements about one's own willingness to cheat or not as only biologically motivated or independent of the culture.

*This is the place where I should mention Lisa Nowak.  She, too, recklessly threw away a career path as an astronaut for the sake of an affair.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Petraeus Puzzle

When I first heard about his resignation all the little wheels in my brain started turning.  The whole thing seemed somehow off.  After some cogitation, I came to most of the conclusions Jane Mayer lists here.  Also, I stole the title of this post from her, all unconsciously!  Weird stuff.

Let's face it:  Newt Gingrich did not resign because of adultery.  Bill Clinton did not resign because of adultery.  That diaper guy in Louisiana did not resign because of adultery.  But then perhaps the military is used to different moral rule-sticks?  I've heard the argument that having a  mistress would make Petraeus someone that can be blackmailed easily, and that's a security risk.  But all that he needed to avoid that problem was to tell his wife, right?  Unless he gave her girlfriend classified information, say.  Hmmm. 

The timing of the resignation made my  bells ring, too.  Not before the elections, not right after them (which could have been interpreted as distrust of Obama) but as soon after them as was otherwise feasible.

Then I wondered what kind of politics this all might have been if it was politics.  Petraeus is not exactly a flaming liberal:
Since his first combat tour in Iraq in 2003, Petraeus had cultivated a cadre of a few dozen loyal staff officers, many of whom had doctoral degrees from top universities and taught at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Usually, he personally selected these men and women to serve on his staff.
In Afghanistan, the retinue grew as people drawn to his fame and eager to launch their own careers took up positions for him in Kabul. “He didn’t seek out these people, but he also didn’t turn them away,” said an officer who spent 40 months working for Petraeus in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Prominent members of conservative, Washington-based defense think tanks were given permanent office space at his headquarters and access to military aircraft to tour the battlefield. They provided advice to field commanders that sometimes conflicted with orders the commanders were getting from their immediate bosses.
Some of Petraeus’s staff officers said he and the American mission in Afghanistan benefited from the broader array of viewpoints, but others complained that the outsiders were a distraction, the price of his growing fame.

The frightening sentences have been bolded by me.  I thought the executive branch of the government, with the president as Commander-in-Chief, ran wars and such. 

Wasn't it a good thing I didn't write any of this over the weekend, given that the real explanation might be something much more mundane:  That FBI got a complaint it had to look into:

Ex-CIA director David Petraeus has told friends he was shocked to find that his biographer and girlfriend, Paula Broadwell, was suspected of sending anonymous, threatening emails to a Petraeus friend she saw as a romantic rival.

A close Petraeus associate said Monday that FBI investigators told Petraeus that Broadwell sent anonymous emails to Jill Kelley, a Petraeus family friend from his time at Central Command in Tampa, warning her to stay away from him. The Petraeus associate spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential conversations with Petraeus. The CIA director resigned last week after confessing to the affair.

Petraeus was not shown the emails, but was told the tone and content seemed threatening to Kelley, prompting her to report them, the close Petraeus associate said. That triggered the investigation that led the FBI to Broadwell and evidence of her affair with Petraeus.

The lawmakers are not happy about the way the FBI ran the investigation.  They were not informed, for instance.

I would have had egg on my face if I had written this post earlier.  Get it?  Heh.

It would have been safer to write about the Cult of Petraeus.  I don't really get cults but that's probably because as a goddess I'm more likely to lead one than follow one. 

The nasty  bits on all this attention are what you might expect:  On The Other Woman.   This is a relatively mild example.

And did you start counting the time to the first evo-psycho article about why Petraeus, A Man With Everything,  did something so stupid for sex? 

I haven't found one yet (though I'm confident that it is in the works), but I did come across this inane television conversation with one S.E. Cupp asking why great men are willing to sacrifice everything for sex, all through the times!  

None of the people point out that Paula Broadwell, the woman Petraeus admitted having had an affair with, seems to have sacrificed pretty much everything for sex, too. 

If we call an affair just sex.  I doubt she can salvage her career as a biographer after this, and I'm not sure what the consequences are for her marriage.  The only difference between her situation and that of Petraeus is that the society ranks his success much higher.  But as more evidence accumulates on women in fairly powerful positions and the follies of love (not just sex, I think), the evidence starts looking more balanced.

This post is a nice word salad, isn't it?