Friday, April 05, 2013

The Hottest President of the United States of America

This was created after Obama's comments about the looks of Kamala Harris. It's one of those "hottest this or that" lists but, for once, consists of men.

The comments Obama made, to create that response, were these:

At the fundraiser, Obama called out Harris along with several other Democratic leaders in California.
“You have to be careful to, first of all, say she is brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough, and she is exactly what you’d want in anybody who is administering the law, and making sure that everybody is getting a fair shake,” the president said. “She also happens to be, by far, the best looking attorney general in the country.”
When the crowd started laughing, the president added, “It’s true! C’mon.”

He has now apologized for referring to her looks.

The reactions to all this have been predictable, taking the form of people either arguing that a man can't even compliment a woman anymore without all those feminazis rushing in or arguing that for the boss to talk about his subordinate's looks in public is inappropriate for all kinds of reasons, and mostly for the reason that traditionally women have been ranked first on their looks.  Thus, talking about those looks in some ways puts a woman back in her "proper place" in the grand scheme of things.

It is that gendered  history of certain types of compliments that might matter here.  In fact, I can't quite imagine anyone introducing Obama at an event by adding to a list of his achievements the fact that he probably IS the hottest president we have had for some time.  And if anyone actually did that it would look and sound very weird.

At the same time, I don't think Obama tried to do anything but compliment Harris.  And if these kinds of compliments were equally commonly received by both men and women I wouldn't see it a problem.  Indeed, it's not a problem in the grand scheme of things (fistulas, poverty, legal subordination of women in many countries and so on).  But analyzing it can be useful as one of those "my life experience is different" moments of shared understanding.

But this I have a little bit of trouble with:
During a discussion on the topic Friday on TODAY, celebrity guest Liza Minnelli said she didn’t see anything wrong with what Obama said.
“He can’t say she’s pretty?” she said. “When this lovely woman gets up in the morning and looks in the mirror and puts on her makeup and does her hair, don’t you think she wants to be attractive and wants to be thought of as attractive? She’s not doing that for no reason.”
If I have a shower in the morning do I want my boss to praise me on how clean I smell?  To want to be viewed as presentable or attractive or whatever is not the same thing as to want that vocally discussed in a professional context.  And compliments which are wonderful in certain private contexts are not so wonderful when they are publicly expressed.

Then there is the fact that many men would love to get compliments on their hotness because traditionally they do not get them.  It sounds like a really fun thing, and it may well be, the first one hundred times or so.

That's where the gendered history enters the picture.  The kinds of comments the manager of an exclusive men's financial club in Finland gave, about whether the club would ever admit women.  He pointed out that women would be lovely eye-candy.  I mention that example, because it sorta demonstrates why many women are uncomfortable with public comments about their looks, however complimentary they may be.
Added later:  Garance makes the case much better.

Sunday Political Shows and Diversity

Media Matters has done another study about the numbers of Republican, Democratic and neutral people on those shows.  Republicans are, in general, overrepresented.  Last time I looked at one of these studies someone argued that it was because they were the administration.  But this time they are not the administration.

This graph shows the percentage of men and women in the studied seven shows during the first quarter of 2013:

 The reason I don't terribly care for the term "diversity" is that we could argue that this graph does show diversity!  Women are included, after all. 

The problem, for me, is that just talking about "diversity" ignores the population percentages of various groups.  A spoonful of that and a pinch of this in the soup provides a diversity of flavors.  But women, for example, are more than half of the American population.  All other things being equal, we would expect their percentage of those shows to be slightly more than half, too.

I get that those other things are not equal.  But a nonstop focus on diversity puts less focus on that concept of fairness.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Meet Professor Steven Landsburg. Rape and Intellectual Games.

Contents Warning:  Rape and Intellectual Games

Steven Landsburg is an economics professor at the University of Rochester and a former Slate columnist. He is  known for "controversial" arguments (meaning sexist ones), as an aid to sharper thinking, we are told.

And of course that can be the consequence if you can wade through the sexism first.  For instance, his textbook once argued that polygamy (one man with more than one wife)  is good for heterosexual women (and not for heterosexual men) because it expands the market of potential husbands, whereas it makes it harder for men to find any wives at all, at least for some men.

Thinking about that clarified to me that he deems a fraction of a husband every bit as good as a husband or a father than a whole husband.  Husbands as a kind of a public good, like lighthouses sending their messages to as many boats as fits in the ocean, equally.  But the time, resources and attention of a husband (or a wife) are not public goods of that sort, and a fragment of a husband is not the same as the whole man.

He also ignores the fact that real-world polygamy is not exactly an egalitarian system but one in which the husband has the lion's share and each wife much less power than she had were she the only wife.  Those criticisms mean that his argument (based on fairly competitive marriage markets)  is flawed.

So yes, such examples can sharpen one's thinking.  But how odd that professor Landsburg's examples almost always veer in that direction.  Now he has come up with an argument which suggests that raping an unconscious person might be hard to justify as a crime if a) the rape victim didn't get sick or hurt or pregnant from the rape and b) if she or he never learned about it all.  After all, what's the harm in something you never knew about?  And light particles and air enter our bodies all the time, which means that our bodies are continuously  penetrated  and nobody calls that anything criminal.

The practical example he ties his argument to is the Steubenville rape case:

Let's suppose that you, or I, or someone we love, or someone we care about from afar, is raped while unconscious in a way that causes no direct physical harm—no injury, no pregnancy, no disease transmission. (Note: The Steubenville rape victim, according to all the accounts I've read, was not even aware that she'd been sexually assaulted until she learned about it from the Internet some days later.) Despite the lack of physical damage, we are shocked, appalled and horrified at the thought of being treated in this way, and suffer deep trauma as a result. Ought the law discourage such acts of rape? Should they be illegal?
Later he writes (emphasis ours throughout):
As long as I'm safely unconsious and therefore shielded from the costs of an assault, why shouldn't the rest of the world (or more specifically my attackers) be allowed to reap the benefits? And if the thought of those benefits makes me shudder, why should my shuddering be accorded any more public policy weight than Bob's or Granola's? We're still talking about strictly psychic harm, right?

Benefits, eh?  What bizarre minds some people have.   Suppose I turn into a vampire and decide to visit professor Landsburg every night and drink some of his blood.  Suppose the bite mark would vanish right away and suppose I never take so much that he'd feel any negative health impact.   Suppose, also, that I'd not mess up his house or bedroom or wake up anybody in the process.

 Nothing wrong with any of that, I guess.  After all, Landsburg clarifies his argument this way (where the third case is the rape that nobody but the rapist knows about):
Edited to add: Some commenters have suggested that Question 3, unlike Questions 1 and 2, involves a violation of property rights. This seems entirely wrong to me; in each case, there is a disputed property right — a dispute over who controls my computer, a dispute over who controls the wilderness, a dispute about who controls my body. To appeal to a “respect for property rights” solves nothing, since in each case the entire dispute is about what the property rights should be in the first place.
In short, Landsburg argues that we haven't really decided yet who has the property rights to women's (and men's) bodies, for the purpose of sexual uses.  And obviously we haven't decided yet if I have the property rights to his blood or not, though he seems to lean towards the idea that I might have those rights!   Because clearly there are benefits for a vampire of having more unconscious food.

The term "property rights" is used in the economic sense in that blog post, not in the common parlance sense.  But its meaning isn't really that different.

I would argue that we have already decided that people have the general property rights to their own bodies.  Slavery is no longer legal, for example.  Landsburg seems to want to take the debate back a few centuries, at least within his imaginary case where nobody suffers at all and the rapist benefits.

But his example is far too unrealistic to matter in the first place.  Someone using an unconscious person sexually that way (to avoid calling it rape inside Landsburg's thinking game)  would have to be female or a vasectomized male, would have to carry a recent certificate of having no sexually transmitted diseases, would have to somehow get training in how to have intercourse with an unconscious person without leaving bruises, pain or bleeding and would also have to go through a process which kills all germs and bugs, including influenza viruses.  Because, remember, that the rules are the only suffering would be "psychic."  Add to that what being unconscious might mean:  A person could be seriously ill or extremely inebriated.  It is very difficult to see how someone could sexually use that unconscious body without leaving any traces at all or without causing some harm.

The point is that Landsburg's example  is invalid in any real world situation if his intention is to suggest that certain kinds of rapes shouldn't be regarded as crimes at all.  And though I like Amanda's take on this matter,  the picture attached to it suggests that Landsburg's imaginary case is like:
"If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
But it isn't, because the "sexual user" was in the forest.  What this means is that at least one person knows what happened and at the very minimum that knowledge could alter his (or her) behavior in ways which have repercussions to the person whose body was used.  Smirking, for instance, or condescension.  And getting away with such a "crimeless" crime could increase the chances of that person trying the same again.  And again.

Enough of that game.  Let's look at the wider game professor Landsburg was playing here.

Suppose he has both female and male students who read his blog.  Does this particular example affect them exactly in the same manner?

Could it be the case that because of different life realities the female students might find their adrenaline levels rise, their hearts start pumping faster, their emotions turn to thoughts of self-protection and such?  If such sex differences exist, could it be that the example is easier to think about for some students than others?  Would this be good teaching?  Fair teaching?

The use of the Steubenville rape case where the victim was not only unconscious but also a minor might remind the students of the many defenses of the young rapists in the media, might even suggest that the whole post is somehow linked to such defenses.   Another way to explain why some rapes really are not rapes?

I believe the use of such an example elicits different average reactions from women and men, even though most men might find it distasteful, too.  And that's what makes it an example of sexism.


Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Stuff To Read on Women And Girls

This article on girls who wrestle is thought-provoking.

The use of a child bride as a form of debt payment in Afghanistan.  A harrowing story, on many levels, even if this particular one may have a happier ending.  This deserves a much longer post and shouldn't be included in a mere list but I have nothing useful to add, sadly.

What happens when a journalist takes the role of a judge in a rape case and decides that the accusation was false when proper analysis of evidence suggests the reverse?

How a blond Barbie might look without makeup.

On the Texas Prosecutor Murders

The awful murders of Texas prosecutors and the wife of one of them:

On Tuesday, the Kaufman County district attorney’s office reopened for business on the second floor of the local courthouse, three days after the county’s top prosecutor, Mike McLelland, 63, and his wife, Cynthia, 65, were found shot to death in their home in Forney. The shootings came after another prosecutor, Mark E. Hasse, 57, was shot and killed on Jan. 31 in an employee parking lot in a still-unsolved case that one law enforcement official described as “cold.”
Investigators have been interviewing members of the prison gang known as the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, but officials said that they have found no evidence linking the killings to the gang and that they were viewing its potential involvement as one of a number of possibilities. They have also talked to a former justice of the peace who was sentenced last April to two years’ probation and fined $2,500 for stealing computer monitors from a county office in 2011. Mr. McLelland and Mr. Hasse were both involved in that case.

Mr. Hasse and Mr. McLelland were killed after the state’s top law enforcement agency, the Department of Public Safety, issued a bulletin in December warning officials that the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas was planning to retaliate against law enforcement personnel involved in an investigation that struck a heavy blow to its leadership. Their deaths came less than a year after Mr. McLelland’s office prosecuted a case that led to a member of the gang, James Patrick Crawford, receiving two life sentences for his role in a 2011 shooting and kidnapping. Mr. Hasse was shot the day that two other members of the gang pleaded guilty to racketeering charges in Houston.
The investigation that led to the guilty pleas and prompted the law enforcement bulletin involved a multiagency task force that included Kaufman County prosecutors and three other district attorneys’ offices. The task force helped secure an indictment against nearly three dozen senior leaders and other members of the gang in federal court in Houston in October.
One of the federal prosecutors in Houston handling the case, Jay Hileman, the assistant United States attorney, is withdrawing because of security concerns, according to defense lawyers who were notified via e-mail of his decision.

I have no knowledge about the three killings or whether they have anything to do with the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas.

But when I was reading about them I wondered what the reaction of the pro-Second-Amendment people would be to this case if it, indeed, was an attempt to terrorize all prosecutors in Texas.

After all, the argument ist that the right to bear arms is a necessary tool against government tyranny.  But such tyranny might depend on the eye of the beholder.  One woman's freedom fighter is another woman's terrorist kinda thing.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Missives From The LIzard People. Or on the National Conspiracy Poll.

The National Conspiracy Poll is out.  You can read the whole thing here (pdf) and a shorter summary of some results here.

It may be fun to think of people believing that shape-shifting lizard people rule the world (ahem), but what really matters in those results are the answers which show large differences on the basis of party affiliation.  Because that suggests either that information matters less than basic wishes about what is desirable  or that the respondents believe in different sources of information.  Most likely the latter.

The findings which show differences by party affiliation are about whether global warming is a hoax,  whether there is a New World Order, whether Obama is the anti-Christ, whether Bush misled on Iraq WMDs, whether Saddam was involved in 9/11 atrocities and whether the CIA spread crack in inner cities.  (Note that I haven't done statistical tests on the significance of these differences, just picked the ones which show large percentage differences).

The questions with the largest party-based differences, large enough to create reversals of what the majority in each grouping believes, are whether Bush misled on Iraq WMDs (72% of Democrats believe he did,  73% of Republicans believe he did not, Independents were divided with 48% believing he did and 45% believing that he did not) and whether global warming is a hoax or not (58% of Republicans believe it is,  77% of Democrats believe it is not and 51% of Independents believe it is not).

The rest of the questions are kinda fun, too.  There are a few differences by gender in some of the questions though I spot no overall pattern.  But the youngest age group among the respondents seems more likely to believe in lizard people and bigfoots (bigfeet?) and so on.

Woman's nudity may have led to man's death

This post was going to be about an Australian article with that headline, about a gruesome killing.  But being the careful goddess I am, I just double-checked, and today the same link gives a completely different headline:  
 Vic man 'stomped on backpacker's head

But the link still talks about the woman's nudity.

The old version began like this:

An Irish backpacker may have been killed after he accidentally saw his housemate's girlfriend semi-naked, a Melbourne court has heard.

    David Greene saw the woman, Shayla Pullen, topless when he walked into the bedroom of housemate Luke James Wentholt to tell him a joke, Melbourne Magistrates Court has heard.
Wentholt, 31, of St Kilda East, is facing a charge of murder and three counts each of intentionally causing serious injury, intentionally causing injury and assault over the incident in August last year.
Ms Pullen told the court she believes the topless incident led to the confrontation that left Mr Greene dead and another man seriously injured.

And the revised version like this:

Melbourne man was acting like a "crazy monster" as he repeatedly stomped on an Irish backpacker's head during a housewarming party at their home, a murder hearing has been told.

Luke James Wentholt, 31, has pleaded not guilty to the murder of housemate David Greene in their St Kilda East house last August.
Two witnesses told Melbourne Magistrates Court that Wentholt stomped on Mr Greene's head as he lay unconscious after a confrontation between the pair at the party.
Wentholt's then-girlfriend, Shayla Pullen, said Mr Greene saw her topless when he walked into his housemate's bedroom to tell him a joke.
Ms Pullen told the court she believes the topless incident led to the confrontation that left Mr Greene dead and another man seriously injured.

What can I say?  Kudos for the site to have fixed this, because the initial framing implied that it was the woman's nudity which was the guilty party in the killing.


Monday, April 01, 2013

An April Fool's Post

I'm itching to give you all sorts of April Fool examples from research popularizations when it comes to studies on women or gender.  But I've learned my lesson:  The more I give out freely, the less money I will ultimately get from my perhaps-book! 

Now wasn't that about the nastiest paragraph you have read today?  Nyahnyah.

Even goddesses must sometimes eat, and monsters, though easy and cheap to catch, are not good in nutritional balance.  Hence the need for money.

But I CAN tell you that much writing about research should be re-shelved under "creative writing" or "looking for controversy, if not found, manufacture it".

The second aspect of this writing experience that retains a permanent April Fool aspect is the imbalance between feminist and anti-feminist voices in the mainstream media.  It's incredibly easy to get money and a comfy chair as an anti-feminist; it's about as easy to get a few cents and a rickety stool as a feminist as it is for a herring to start a world war.  Not impossible, just unlikely.

And why?  This is the other jokey bit:  Because feminism is assumed to be so dominant that its opponents need to be heard.   The real reason is that the anti-feminist side has most of the moolah.

The way all this comes about is that Hillary Clinton is labeled as a radical feminist.  Any woman or man who even makes a quiet note about a few feminist arguments while also discussing the anti-feminist arguments is labeled a rabid feminazi.  But someone advocating the removal of women's right to vote is just a valuable critic of the general debate.  That's how we get the same drag-the-center-to-the-right that we have observed in general political debates.

I've written before that the debate on women and gender is biased, to begin with, by the fact that the two sides are assumed to be men-are-better-than-women-except-in-childbirth and men-and-women-are-equal*.  The obvious third alternative is completely missing in those debates.  I am certainly not advocating it, but its absence puts the men-and-women-are-equal group not in the center where it belongs but at one extreme.  Then the center gets pulled somewhere between men-are-better-than-women and the-two-are-equal.
*"Equal" here does not mean the same.  Neither does it mean not-same.  It has nothing to do with that aspect and all to do with equal opportunity and equal valuation.

I Make A Mean Pesto And Know How To Iron A Man's Shirt

Don't forget to put that in my obituary, should I ever evaporate.  Don't mention that I don't iron.

All this is because of a New York Times obituary for Yvonne Brill, a rocket scientist.  It initially began like this:
She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.
After many complaints, the lede was changed into this:
She was a brilliant rocket scientist who followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.
 The obituary then continues:
Yvonne Brill, who died on Wednesday at 88 in Princeton, N.J., in the early 1970s invented a propulsion system to help keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.
The system became the industry standard, and it was the achievement President Obama mentioned in 2011 in presenting her with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.
Her personal and professional balancing act also won notice. In 1980, Harper’s Bazaar magazine and the DeBeers Corporation gave her their Diamond Superwoman award for returning to a successful career after starting a family.
Mrs. Brill — she preferred to be called Mrs., her son said — is believed to have been the only woman in the United States who was actually doing rocket science in the mid-1940s, when she worked on the first designs for an American satellite.
So weird.  The obvious interpretation of all that is to reassure people that Yvonne Brill may have been a rocket scientist, but don't worry.  She put her family first and cooked, too.  She was still a woman.

And that's how most of the criticism goes.  It is deserved, I believe, but I don't think the writer necessarily intended to write such an obituary.  This is because the little shock caused by the first and second paragraph has some literary merit:  You lead the reader in one direction and then flip her or him over and present something quite different.  That way the "different" will stick to your mind.

Where it failed is in the invisibility of how women are viewed in general, and that's how it became ripe material for those reversals the Salon article posts.  Something that would have worked for the obituary of a generic Great Man (pick a hobby, such as fly fishing, to begin with, say)  does NOT work for the obituary of a generic Great Woman, because of the gender role schema.   Women are expected to cook and expected to be great mothers if they have children.  Women are not expected to be rocket scientist.

I'm trying to think how Einstein's obituary would have read had we started with what kind of a father he was. Hmm.
Added later:  This post supports my guess that the transition was intended as something different:
“I’m surprised,” he said. “It never occurred to us that this would be read as sexist.” He said it was important for obituaries to put people in the context of their time and that this well-written obituary did that effectively. He also observed that the references in the first paragraph to cooking and being a mother served as an effective set-up for the “aha” of the second paragraph, which revealed that Mrs. Brill was an important scientist.
But his surprise was because of that invisibility of the way female researchers are traditionally regarded.