Friday, January 18, 2013

Much To Be Humble About

You may have heard that old joke about humility.  Goddesses, for instance, have much to be humble about, which means that they (we) can be both arrogant and befittingly modest at the same time*.

This is harder for mere humans.  Hence the need for courses on humility.  David Brooks,  from the New York Times columnist stable, is giving a course on humility at Yale University.  Given the fact that David isn't exactly humble himself, the course has provoked the kind of friendly kidding many think it deserves.  Charles Pierce, for example:
New York Times columnist David Brooks is teaching a course at Yale on "Humility."
...with a duck on his head.
No, not really. Do not mock this. Do not mock the fact that Brooks is going to teach about humility by assigning his own writings to a captive audience.
The duck may be a reference to Terry Pratchett's Diskworld books which include a street person who wears a duck on his head but is unaware of it.

I feel somewhat divided about this.  On the one hand, the street cred needed to teach a course in humility should perhaps include being humble in the first place.  On the other hand, humble people rarely get any notice whatsoever, and are thus unlikely to be asked to give courses at Yale or write columns for the New York Times.

But then I also agree that too many people are arrogant and have inflated balloon views of their own merits.  Not taking ourselves so very seriously, not hating on others so very much, those would be most excellent achievements.  Or just being aware of what we all share:  our humanity, and what connects us all.  Or understanding that many of our talents are random happenstances, not something we have "deserved" by hard work or genetic endowment.

Here's another snag in Brooks' thoughts such as these:

"All of us have been raised in a culture that encourages us to think well of ourselves and to follow your passion and all that kind of stuff," he continued. "I don't see why it is ridiculous to spend a few months reading people who tell us not to be all that self-impressed, to suspect you aren't as smart, virtuous and aware as you think. Surely this is a potentially useful antidote for me or anybody else."

 A very large number of human beings have, in fact, always been brought up to be humble or at least to pretend humility, to let others take the center stage, to become good cheerleaders and never the stars in the field.  This is not just true of the way girls have traditionally been brought up but it is also true of the traditional norms applied to the Lower Classes in England and of the social norms for American blacks in the past.

Which leads to my question:  Who is the target group for Brooks' lectures?  Some people would mightily benefit from being taught to be more humble, others would benefit from the exact reverse.  But Brooks doesn't appear to see this complexity.
*There's a story about how I became the avatar of a snake goddess.  Fighting against a very thorough humility training is part of that story.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Labiaplasty. Why On Earth?

This story about labiaplasty may not describe a truly common new type of surgery, but that something called vaginal rejuvenation surgery exists is pretty astonishing stuff.  This is cosmetic surgery, for the most part, not surgery to correct something which causes physical pain or discomfort:

While labiaplasty is increasingly popular, it remains controversial, sparking debate within the medical profession broadly, among specialists, and in wider society. The surgery is relatively unregulated and frequently botched, as indicated by the staggering number of clinics that advertise discreet revisions of bungled previous surgeries. At the same time, detractors claim that women have been manipulated by the media to believe in a mythical “perfect vagina.” Some women undergo labiaplasty for medical or practical reasons—large labia can cause irritation and pain during sex and exercise—but the vast majority elect to undergo the surgery for cosmetic purposes, anxious to achieve a more attractive genital area. The desired “look” is consistently that of a smaller, less obtruding vulva, with “neat,” even labia, and this “streamlined” ideal is becoming increasingly minimalist.
“But I kept getting patients who wanted almost all of it off. They would come in and say, I want a ‘Barbie.’ So I developed a procedure that would give them this comfortable, athletic, petite look, safely.”
Dr. Red Alinsod, a urogynecologist in Laguna Beach, California, claims that his most requested surgical procedure is the Barbie: a procedure that excises the entire labia minora. This results in a “clamshell” aesthetic: a smooth genital area, the outer labia appearing “sealed” together with no labia minora protrusion. Alinsod tells me he invented the Barbie in 2005. “I had been doing more conservative labiaplasties before then,” he says. “But I kept getting patients who wanted almost all of it off. They would come in and say, I want a ‘Barbie.’ So I developed a procedure that would give them this comfortable, athletic, petite look, safely.”

Bolds are mine, to make you read the sentences I want you to read!

First, what is this media which manipulates women into believing in a mythical "perfect vagina?"  Could its name possible begin with the letter "p", continue with the letter "o" and end with the letters "r" and "n?"  Duh, that is really completely obvious.  For most women, relatively few people see their labia in the first place and doctors are unlikely to make comments about how they look.

When I wrote "why on earth?" in the title I meant that.  Why on earth do women think that they need to have their genital area trimmed to look like that of a prepubescent girl?  Because that's what the "Barbie look" implies, unless we wish to be literal and assume that women should look like a doll which doesn't have any genitals at all.

The answer cannot be in the advent of the Barbie doll herself.  Barbie is pretty old and labiaplasty as a cosmetic operation is fairly recent.  No, this has to do with the spread of pron views about how women ought to look.  Female pron actors may have had such surgery themselves to increase camera access.  Shaving the pubic area may have some of its (now shaved) roots in the same need for camera access.

It's my guess that "what is normal" in female genitals has become partly defined by pron.  That actors in pron may not be "normal" in the sense of not-surgically-treated-or-enhanced can be forgotten because we don't really talk about this stuff.  Pron is everywhere but consumed in privacy.  Impressions from pron are not tested in discussions and debates.

Another reason to ask "why on earth" has to do with the fact that surgeries are not without risks.  Thus, it's fair to ask why at least some women find those risks worth taking.  What has happened in their lives?  Are their vaginas and labias actually any different than the normal vaginas and labias, when defined not by beauty standards but by actual frequencies in the real world?  What or who has made them want such surgery?

These are not just righteous feminazi questions, my friends.  We can all be extremely vulnerable to any intimate criticisms and since women don't usually (or ever?) compare their labias with other women, no single woman can really know if criticisms of how her labia or vagina looks has any kind of validity (defined on whatever value system you wish or none).  So we should really talk about it, before someone dies in that surgery, for cosmetic reasons.

Third, why is the desired look that of a prepubescent girl?  I already stated that this most likely comes from pron.  But the question also links to how the question of "normality" oddly changes when women's bodies are the field.  We forget what "normal" breasts look like when so many celebrities have artificial breasts.  Artificial becomes the normal.  If you don't happen to match that artificial new-normal norm, then you need to have surgery.

“Women wanna reduce as much as possible while still looking normal,” he says. To this end, he developed the “Alter labia contouring” procedure. Rather than simply trimming or amputating the labia, this technique removes a wedge-shaped segment of tissue from the central section of each inner lip, then sutures the upper and lower edges of the excision together, creating smaller labia from the remaining tissue. The idea is to reduce the size of the labia while preserving the normal color and contour of the labia edge.
Fourth, and finally, isn't it possible that there is a reason for the labia?  Something to do with health and well-being, perhaps?  I have no idea if that's the case, but in general we humans are not terribly eager to cut out parts which our bodies might actually use for something.

None of this is exactly new when it comes to cutting and shaping the female body.  The cutting of  the clitoris and the labia, in Female Genital Mutilation  is an obvious example of such unnecessary surgery, and so are the anecdotes about Victorian women trimming their lower ribs to attain narrower waists or the Chinese foot-binding.  But I'm hoping that we can grow out of such practices.

Outsourcing of A Different Kind

If this story is correct, an enterprising worker outsourced his own job to China, paying the Chinese worker a fraction of his own salary:

A security audit of a US critical infrastructure company last year revealed that its star developer had outsourced his own job to a Chinese subcontractor and was spending all his work time playing around on the internet.

My first thought was that it must have been utterly boring to have to sit there every day, surfing the net.  Why not do the work?  It can't be more boring.

But what's more interesting about this example is that most people would find what "Bob" did unethical.  Yet we don't think that firms which do the same are acting unethically.  They are just carrying out good business practices.

The two cases differ, of course.   Outsourcing firms tell us explicitly that now their t-shirts or whatever are no longer made in the home country but abroad.  The firm saves money by this arrangement.  Whether the consumers do is unclear.  I haven't studied whether consumer prices go down after outsourcing but they don't have to.  The quality of the products may, in some cases, fall.  Yet none of this is regarded as exactly unethical in itself.

As a different example, think of the way mortgages are sold and resold and resold.  A person or a family makes a contract with one particular bank for the financial services.  Then the bank simply chooses not to be a part of the contract anymore, and the person or family is just assumed to go along with the continuous change in where to send the payments.  For instance, I picked a traditional careful type of bank for the mortgage.  After time has passed, the mortgage is now held by a company about which I read Very Bad Things in the news. 

I would not have picked that company in the first place.  But most would argue that as nothing in the initial contract has changed, why should I care?  So why should Bob's employer care how he gets his job done?

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

On The Pregnancy Police

Lynne Paltrow and Jeanne Flavin have just published a survey on the arrest rates of pregnant women since Wade v. Roe came into force:

Our study identified 413 criminal and civil cases involving the arrests, detentions, and equivalent deprivations of pregnant women’s physical liberty that occurred between 1973 (when Roe v. Wade was decided) and 2005. Because many cases are not reported publicly, we know that this is a substantial under count. Furthermore, new data collection indicates that at least 250 such interventions have taken place since 2005.
In almost all of the cases we identified, the arrests and other actions would not have happened but for the fact that the woman was pregnant at the time of the alleged violation of law. And, in almost every case we identified, the person who initiated the action had no direct legal authority for doing so. No state legislature has passed a law that holds women legally liable for the outcome of their pregnancies. No state legislature has passed a law making it a crime for a pregnant woman to continue her pregnancy to term in spite of a drug or alcohol problem. No state has passed a law exempting pregnant women from the protections of the state and federal constitution. And, under Roe v. Wade, abortion remains legal.
Yet, since 1973, many states have passed feticide measures and laws restricting access to safe abortion care that, like so-called “personhood” measures, encourage state actors to treat eggs, embryos, and fetuses as if they are legally separate from the pregnant woman. We found that these laws have been used as the basis for a disturbing range of punitive state actions in every region of the country and against women of every race, though disproportionately against women in the South, low-income women and African-American women.  
Emphases are mine.  This treatment of pregnancy as something that removes a woman's full legal rights does not fall upon every woman evenly but affects women of color, poor women and women in the South more than other women.

Many cases are about the use of illegal drugs where the pregnant woman is viewed not as a patient needing help to quit but as a criminal procuring drugs to "minors."  But not all.  In one case, a woman trying to commit suicide while pregnant ended in prison accused for murder.  And:

A Louisiana woman was charged with murder and spent approximately a year in jail before her counsel was able to show that what was deemed a murder of a fetus or newborn was actually a miscarriage that resulted from medication given to her by a health care provider.
Do read the other examples at the link.

If the "Egg-Americans Are Full People" movement starts winning, expect more of these types of cases.  They would be a logical consequence of fetal personhood measures.  If the embryo is a full person from the point of conception then the pregnant woman is no longer a full person.  She cannot have the same legal rights as other adults because she is now an aquarium or the outermost of those Russian dolls.  Everything she does can be judged from the point of view of fetal well-being.

The Paltrow-Flavin survey found a troubling trend in all this, having to do with what apparently is a practice consisting of Other People Just Deciding What Should Be Legal and then acting on it, even if laws supporting those acts did not exist.  And this trend is quite ubiquitous when it comes to pregnancy.

Thus, the current problem isn't usually a different legal treatment of pregnant women, as opposed to women who are not pregnant or men, but something nastier:  A personal decision by someone else to override the legal rights of the pregnant woman because that someone else has decided that he or she knows best what should be done to protect the embryo or fetus.  Swooping in like an avenging angel,  filled with righteousness and laws be damned.

An example of this:

For example, last week, a Tennessee woman who had been in a car accident was tested to see if she had been driving under the influence of alcohol. According to local press, her blood alcohol content was well below the legal limit. Nevertheless, because she told a police officer that she was four months pregnant, she was arrested and taken to jail. Tennessee apparently recognizes a special crime reserved just for pregnant women:  driving while not intoxicated.
 Of course she was arrested because the police officer decided she might be harming her fetus.  The Pregnancy Police is usually not an actual police officer but a private citizen or a group of private citizens.  The Pregnancy Police decides whether a pregnant woman should have a glass of wine or not.  It sometimes even decides where she is allowed to be:

Michelle Lee was catching up with friends at a nightspot near her parents' home when a bouncer pulled her aside.
"Can I ask you a personal question?" Lee recalled him asking. "Are you pregnant?"
She responded yes because, at eight months along, it would have been difficult to argue otherwise, she said later.
Lee, 29, said the bouncer who was staffing the Coach House bar near Roselle didn't care that she was only drinking water.

She said he asked her to leave shortly after midnight Thursday, telling her the bar would be liable if anything happened to her. She complied, but grew angrier over the weekend, questioning whether she had been discriminated against as a pregnant woman.
"He just said, if anything happens, if a fight breaks out and you get hurt, we are responsible," Lee said. "That can happen anywhere. If I am going somewhere, I am taking responsibility."
In that 2011 example the pregnant woman, drinking only water, wasn't allowed to stay at a place for adults because she was a container for a fetus.

But this is really about the fear that she might take a sip of alcohol from someone else's glass, I think.  Yet it's probably quite unlikely that the occasional glass of wine or beer would harm a fetus.  After all, the French, the Spanish and the Italians have drunk wine with meals for centuries, and pregnant women were not told to abstain from it.  If moderate use of alcohol was really bad for a developing embryo or fetus then all citizens of those countries should have suffered from clear signs of alcohol damage.

The health warnings about alcohol are based on studies of severe alcohol use during pregnancy, such as is the case with alcoholism.  That the health recommendations from such studies became recommendations to cut out all alcohol during pregnancy can perhaps be understood as a policy of choosing to minimize all risk to the fetus while noting that a short abstention from alcohol is unlikely to have any negative health consequences for the woman. 

But one consequence of framing the health recommendation that way is that it has flashed a green light to all the eager Pregnancy Police Officers (whether official or amateur) out there to try to control the lives of pregnant women.  Not One Sip Of Wine Will Pass Those Lips As Long As I Am Here!

In short, we, as a culture, already regard pregnant people as having fewer rights than others, including their right to privacy, and we, as a culture, already assign pregnant women our own ethical rules about how they should act.  Just imagine what an increase in state level personhood measures would do to those tendencies!  Pregnant women might have to start hiding at home if they don't want to be subjected to the Pregnancy Police.

Note, also, that the more the legal authorities treat medical problems as crimes (but only in the case of pregnant women), the less likely it is that women with, say, drug addiction problems will turn to those legal authorities for help.  One unintended (and severe) health consequence of such policies could well be that pregnant women with problems will not contact the health care system at all.  That's something we really do not want.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

And Whose Fault Is It?

Digby writes about Pat Robertson, that old-style wingnut and patriarch:

So a kid writes a letter to Maxim Magazine:

“I’m 17 years old and I’ve noticed that there has been a change in my father’s behavior. He spends too much time at the computer playing a war game. I’ve noticed how alone my mom feels. I just want my father to spend more time with my mom. What should I do? How can I talk to my father? I feel shame for him. Please help.”

And Pat Robertson, apparently a big reader of the Lad Mags, replied to the poor boy on his show:

“The romance is obviously going out of the marriage ...You know, it may be your mom isn’t as sweet as you think she is, she may be kind of hard-nosed. And so, you say it’s my father, he’s not paying attention to mom, but you know mom…..”

Robertson then tells a joke about a woman whose husband drank because she had let herself go.

But of course Robertson knows nothing about this married couple, except for the teenager's letter.  To attribute any additional cause for the possible marital problems means digging it out of Robertson's .... head.  Thus, what we learn is that dear old Pat views women as the ones responsible for how well a marriage fares.  Perhaps she isn't sweet enough, perhaps she has grown fat or hasn't had her hair styled.  Whatever, she better shape up.

And neither do I know anything about that particular marriage.  It might not even be in trouble.  The letter might not be real.  And so on and so on. 

Still, the idea that women alone are responsible for not only marriage but sex has cropped up quite a bit recently.  This responsibility is not of the type where someone, say a therapist, has actually studied a couple seeking help and has decided that the blame in that particular case lies more with the woman than with the man. 

This is something much more nebulous, having to do with deeply entrenched views that relationships are women's work, that they in some way get paid for that work, even if they do not, and that they are ultimately responsible for the outcome.  And sure, these views are most entrenched in older people such as our Pat who may regard marriage as women's work.

Does any of this share something with the victim-blaming in recent rape cases?  I'm not sure if the two are relatives to each other or not.  What do you think?

The Football Jesus

I found this Laura Nyro YouTube song recently and have been listening to it:

Until yesterday, when I checked the lyrics I heard her sing:

"I was raised on the football Jesus"

How clever, I thought!  Exactly the term for those god-bothering athletes who believe that their choice of a divine power takes an interest in the outcomes of football games.

It turns out that Nyro sang "I was raised on the good book Jesus."

Monday, January 14, 2013

A Confession Post

Which you may skip if you prefer only meaningful epistles from me.  I'm writing this in case some of you think that I'm perfect, what with being a goddess and all.

I'm not perfect, sadly.  I procrastinate when it comes to sending parcels by post to friends and relatives and I'm utterly addicted to high-quality chocolates.

When these two flaws collide, watch out!  I've been intending to send a parcel to my sister for several weeks now.  It sits on the table, with all the tools needed to finish wrapping it up and addressing it.  But I wanted to let her taste some of the wonderful Vermont chocolates, so I bought four bars.

And then bought four bars again.  And again.

The parcel must now go without chocolate...
And no, nobody paid me for this post, sniff.

Worth Reading, On Sexual Violence

Jessica Valenti and Nicholas Kristof have both written worthwhile columns on this topic. 

My brain is still cooking up (slow stewing) a post about the many meanings of the term "rape culture."  I hope to have it done by the end of this week.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Death of Journalism

Journalism is dying, and we all watch calmly while the death throes go on.  This is a severe problem.  Not so severe as the impact of climate change, but the two come together in this:

The New York Times will close its environment desk in the next few weeks and assign its seven reporters and two editors to other departments. The positions of environment editor and deputy environment editor are being eliminated.

Read the linked article for additional information.  Perhaps closing the environment desk won't affect environmental coverage, after all.  But that's not the reason the desk is closed.  The reason is money.

Journalism is in great trouble.  In the past it was mainly funded by advertising income.  Today Craigslist and similar sites have stolen that thunder, and newspapers are struggling to make ends meet.  Nobody has found a workable new funding mechanism. 

Experienced journalists are let go all over the world and those who still have jobs are expected to work 24/7 and to have expertise in everything.  Instead of carefully researched pieces, many newspapers offer space for opinion blogs which are cheap to run (I should know!) or outsource writing to a few columnists.  I have even come across a paper (not in  the US) which seems to consist mostly of the ravings of readers in "reader blogs", the kinds of Letters To The Editor which in the past found their way directly to the wastepaper baskets. But they are available for free!  And Huffington Post, for example, uses the concept of free writing to keep its site going.

The Internet is naturally the murderer of the print media, but for several reasons Internet journalism is not able to pay the piper.  Or the writers and editors.  We all know how easy it is to read everything we wish on the net for free.  Isn't it great?  The negative side, naturally, is that one day the content will not be there because nobody is paying for it to be created and very very few people can afford to work for almost nothing (perhaps goddesses).

I have followed these developments for some time, gathering opinions on what is taking place and what the solutions might be.  The ultimately problem is that the digital media has run straight into that public good aspect of information dissemination:  Once the information is there, passing it on, without paying, really is very very cheap*.  That creates the incentives for people not to pay.

As a slightly different example of the same problem, I've heard from writers whose books are pirated on the net, available for nothing.  Those writers will soon find that they cannot afford to write full-time, what with the dropping earnings, and the outcome is that they will write fewer books, perhaps no books at all.  Talent will disappear, variety will disappear, and when this is added to the much-narrowed concentration of the publishing industry on just a few "winners" we are all ultimately going to suffer.

You can all observe some of the death throes of the print media.  Those desperate attempts to punch all our buttons, to get scandal and fear onto the front pages of magazines.  The herd chase of The News Of The Moment.  The focus on celebrities and their doings.  The slimmer and slimmer print versions of newspapers.  All those failed attempts to extract payment from the readers or to attract advertising to the websites.

What is truly dying is not rubbish journalism or fun journalism but the proper production of the kind of information we really need but don't that much care to pay for.  The kind of information which requires a journalist in Afghanistan or in South Africa or in Timbuktoo.  That's expensive journalism and there is no real substitute for it.  Yes, blogs can take care of some information production but bloggers do not have the funding or the ability to send journalists to other countries or to get training in how to interpret medical studies.  If they did, they would be newspapers.

I am worried about these developments.  Knowing what is happening, understanding the events, getting the best, widest and most objective information possible, those are all crucial aspects of democracy.  They can ultimately be crucial for survival.  Given that, the relaxed attitude so many take on that show which is the demise of journalism is quite sad.  What will take its place?  And will whatever that might be happen fast enough so that we don't all end up in our small pseudo-information bubbles, the way those who follow Fox News do?
*Or, in reverse, stopping that from happening is very expensive or ineffective.  Taking people to court for infringing the copyright of books is expensive, and beyond the reach of most writers.  Blocking the Internet piracy is nearly impossible which is another way to say that it is very expensive.  Charging money for visiting websites is easily circumvented, and so on.