Monday, August 29, 2016

The Wounded Young Hero of Literature, Arts, Politics And Especially Journalism . A Re-Posting.

Originally from here.


This post has no mothers, but it has multiple fathers, the wounded young men of arts and literature who rebelled against the society from their garrets, hungry and full of erotic lust and rage, the wounded young actors who portrayed "rebels without a cause,"  the wounded young political writers who were allowed to rage and rant against unfairness and inequality, but who were also allowed to wear proudly those mystical scars which womanhood had cut into their hearts and brains, thus turning them into misogynists.

I call these men wounded young heroes, though they were not always young when they gained the label or wounded in the way most of us would define the term.  Being "wounded," being "imperfect," is what makes them into truth-speaking heroes.

Philip Roth proffered us his misogyny like an orchid reeking of dying flesh and he was applauded for it.  Picasso painted women as the deepest nightmares of his soul and he was applauded for it.   Norman Mailer, John Updike, Milan Kundera, and many other famous mainstream male writers celebrate their fear, loathing and just plain misunderstanding of women in their literary works, and though they have been criticized for it, they still wear the laurel leaf wreaths of public approval and fame.

Now flip that over.  Assume that it is the hatred or fear of men or the analysis of those feelings which largely fuel the art or writing of some talented woman.  What will her reputation be?  Into what box will history place her art?

Women cannot be mainstream artists or writers if they knit their hatred of men into their art or writing.  But it takes much, much more for a man's work to be discounted in history than just loathing towards half the humanity.  He can still be mainstream, he can still be adulated, his work can still be widely taught.

He can Break The Rules.  He can be a rebel while supporting an ancient and traditional part of human history with his misogyny.  He can rebel against the capitalists and oppressors and be a protector of the weak, except when he rails at women, the weakest in many societies.

He can show us the scar some woman has inflicted on him (or so he believes), praise that scar, generalize that scar to all womanhood, use that scar to sell sexual humiliation of women as the rightful outcome in a rebel's world (Henry Miller), and we, the audience, take him seriously, accept his young-hero status, his truth-speaking status.  We, the audience,  honor the great Tolstoy's writings*, even though he assigned women to only their biological roles and frequently employed the Madonna/Whore dichotomy.  We, the audience, don't slam the door in his face. 

And we shouldn't slam that door.  But that door would be slammed against any woman who did the reversal.  Even the term "wounded young heroine" elicits utterly different images in our minds, and women cannot be wounded young heroes.  Not really.

This is the hi-falutin prologue to a post  which is about more mundane writing and about more mundane concerns.  Still, my central concern is to ask if we switched the gender of the main protagonist in these stories, would the stories still read the same, would the consequences of the stories be the same, would we even have reversal stories of this type published anywhere.

I have selected examples which are not all so clear-cut as those I mention above, but they flow from that same archetype:  The truth-telling young rebel whose misogyny scar doesn't invalidate the hero's ascent but validates it.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Friday Fun. A Re-Posting

From here, and just because I think it's funny.  (Also this.)

David Brooks has written an ode to the hard-boiled Sam Spade characters as the proper role models for young idealists who try to save the world:
The noir heroes like Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon” served as models for a generation of Americans, and they put the focus squarely on venality, corruption and disorder and how you should behave in the face of it.
A noir hero is a moral realist. He assumes that everybody is dappled with virtue and vice, especially himself. He makes no social-class distinction and only provisional moral distinctions between the private eyes like himself and the criminals he pursues. The assumption in a Hammett book is that the good guy has a spotty past, does spotty things and that the private eye and the criminal are two sides to the same personality.
He (or she — the women in these stories follow the same code) adopts a layered personality. He hardens himself on the outside in order to protect whatever is left of the finer self within.

He is reticent, allergic to self-righteousness and appears unfeeling, but he is motivated by a disillusioned sense of honor. The world often rewards the wrong things, but each job comes with obligations and even if everything is decaying you should still take pride in your work. Under the cynical mask, there is still a basic sense of good order, that crime should be punished and bad behavior shouldn’t go uncorrected. He knows he’s not going to be uplifted by his work; that to tackle the hard jobs he’ll have to risk coarsening himself, but he doggedly plows ahead.
This worldview had a huge influence as a generation confronted crime, corruption, fascism and communism. I’m not sure I can see today’s social entrepreneurs wearing fedoras and trench coats. But noir’s moral realism would be a nice supplement to today’s prevailing ethos. It would fold some hardheadedness in with today’s service mentality. It would focus attention on the core issues: order and rule of law. And it would be necessary. Contemporary Washington, not to mention parts of the developing world, may be less seedy than the cities in the noir stories, but they are equally laced with self-deception and self-dealing.
I have bolded the actual message in that piece, the conservative message.

But the reason I write about this at all is that a long time ago I wrote a few sentences from the angle of a noir heroine:
Today was a day like all other days that are also called Sundays. The same slowness, the same newly starched faces in all the same church pews, the same drunks at the street corners worshipping in their own way. I wake up with a hangover next to the face of a stranger. The whiskey bottles on the floor are empty, and I have a headache down to my kidneys. Remind me not to go out with gorillas in the future, especially when the keyboard sits there idle, filling me with guilt. I slug down the eau de toilet from the bathroom cabinet and light up a stogie end I find under the sleeping gorilla. Time for some heavy lifting. The audience is out there, somewhere, and one day they will hear about me and even pay me. Until then I'll be ok with the booze and my karate skills. The roads are hard for a gal all alone but you knew that already.
Then the doorbell rings and it's a client for my one-woman blogging agency: David Brooks, banging on the door, falling into my arms, sobbing, when I open it (after I hide the stogie under the pillow). Someone is threatening to publish his murky past as a Maoist activist in Nepal* and he wants me to whitewash it all for him. Hmm. That could work as a story.
*This past is my invention. I think.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Conservative War Against Teachers. A Re-Posting.

Originally from here.

US conservatives have an odd schizophrenic angle to the power of markets:  They are all-important (godlike, even), and must not be meddled with in finance, for instance, but when it comes to teaching professions those same markets can be totally ignored.  Indeed, the conservatives like a command economy there, as in "We command, teachers obey."

The point I've made before is that conservatives shouldn't completely ignore markets in their attempts to behead the political power of all teachers' unions.

To give you an example, cutting back on teachers' retirement benefits means cutting back on their total compensation packages.  In Chicago, for instance:

The district, which says it is wrestling with a $1.1 billion deficit weighted with pension payments, wants to save millions of dollars by having teachers pay more into their pension fund. The district wants to end a long-standing agreement that limits teacher paycheck deductions for pensions, the union said.

That CTU said the result would be a 7 percent cut in take-home pay for members. The union also says health care premiums could take another 3 percent under a district proposal.

What do you think a seven-percent compensation cut would mean for the supply of new teachers?  Remember that they must invest in a college degree which is not getting cheaper, even as the financial pay in the occupation declines.

Here's the answer:

The number of students interested in becoming educators continues to drop significantly—From 2010 to 2014, the number of ACT-tested high school graduates interested in education majors or professions decreased by more than 16%, while the number of all graduates who took the ACT increased by nearly 18%.
Those who express interest in teaching tend to score lower in all areas except English than those who express no such interest.

This is another case of short-sighted politically motivated dinners where the politicians happily eat the seed corn to make sure that the Democrats don't get today's bread.

The topic matters for women's employment.  Traditionally*, teaching has been one of the few areas which has allowed an easier combination of childcare duties with paid work (getting home at the same time as the kids, being at home during their vacations).  The lower pay, compared to other jobs which have similar college investment requirements, has been acceptable because of that flexibility.  But if the pay keeps going down further we will see a drop in the supply of teachers and the quality of the incoming teachers.

*In the bad-old days US women had three somewhat wide job paths into middle class earnings.  They were teaching, social work and being a secretary.  See what is happening to teaching, then read what is happening to secretarial jobs, and the importance of opening the IT jobs to more women looks pretty clear.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Terry Pratchett Thoughts. On the Role of the Media and On Citizens as Consumers. A Re-Posting

Originally from here.

I've been re-reading many of Terry Pratchett's books, in his memory.  I often come across little jewels (or chocolate truffles) of ideas.  For example:

"the public is not interested in public interest."

Which is true.  The reasons for that are many and varied, but it's almost impossible to try to write about topics of public interest on a commercial basis (so send money).

My most recent re-read is The Truth, about the first newspapers in Ankh-Morpork.  Mr. William de Worde starts the very first one, with actual news in it (though also stories about funny-shaped vegetables).  A competitor soon catches on with scandalous stories such as "a woman gives birth to a cobra."

de Worde gets a statement from the king of the area where this miracle-birth was supposed to have happened, at some cost for himself.  The king denied any cobra-human births to have happened.

The response of the readers was that of course the king would deny everything, of course.  In any case, stories about women giving birth to cobras are a lot more fun than stories about politics, say.

All that reminds me of American politics, in a gently ridiculous sense. Weird people writing or nattering about Hillary Clinton's cankles (a term for fat ankles) as if it matters what size ankles a president has and as if we ever otherwise measure the ankles of presidential contenders.  Presidents being judged on the basis of whether we'd like to have a beer with them.

Imagine using that way of judging for picking your neurosurgeon.

All this links in a vague way to a Finnish article I recently came across, on the new approach to citizens as consumers.  This is the part I wish to translate:

Kun on riittävän monta vuotta toisteltu, että kansa tietää parhaiten kaiken, ovat sivistysinstituutiot alkaneet nöyrtyä.
Korkeakoulujen oletetaan palvelevan paitsi liike-elämää ja politiikkaa, myös oppilaitaan, joista on tullut asiakkaita.
Lehdet ovat luopuneet vanhanaikaisesta valistajan roolista ja kyselevät yleisöltä, mikä on tärkeää. Nettiäänestyksissä media tenttaa lukijan mielipidettä asioihin, jotka eivät ole mielipiteestä kiinni: tuliko lama, lämpeneekö ilmasto, tappavatko rokotteet, mitä mieltä jengi.
Asiakkaan rooli voi imarrella meitä hetken, mutta demokratian ja sivistyksen osalta se on tylsä loukku: olemme aina oikeassa, ja siksi meidän ei tarvitse omaksua uutta.

My approximate translation:

When we have repeated for many years that the people (here meant as the audience) know best all the cultural institutions have begun to agree.  Universities are assumed to serve both business and politics but also the students who are now customers.  Newspapers have given up their old-fashioned role as educators and enlighteners.  Instead, they ask the public what is important.  In online polls the media wants the reader's opinions on matters which are not based on opinions:  did we have an economic recession, is the climate warming, do vaccinations kill.  What do you guys think?

The role of a customer can momentarily flatter, but it's a boring trap from the point of view of democracy and culture:  we are always right and that's why we don't have to learn anything new.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

For Your Toolkit 3: The Need to Distinguish Between Small And Large Numbers

This post was originally published here.

I've always liked statistics as a science  but never thought it hawt and sexy.  Now I wish we could make statistics more sexy (bare more skin?) in order to save more of us from falling into those hidden wolf traps of the net.  They don't have sharpened sticks, those traps (holes in the ground, covered by branches), but they do hurt our understanding in somewhat similar ways.

An example of the wolf trap:  Someone writes on, say, racism or sexism in recent events and then gets attacked by trolls.  Suppose that in one scenario there are five very active trolls hammering at the poor writer, in an alternative scenario there are five thousand such trolls.

The two scenarios are not the same, they don't tell us the same story about the likely number of people "out there" believing whatever those trolls believe.  That's why it's very wrong to argue that the presence of five Twitter trolls in one's mentions means that the troll-opinion is extremely common in the real world.  Yet in the last week I've seen several people take that view of events:  The mere existence of any nasty trolls (and nasty they are) means that those trolls have sizable backing in the world of opinions, ideas and values.

So that is about proportions or percentages.  There will always be people with extreme nasty values, there will always be some who troll.  To unearth a troll comment and then to write about it as if it represents a sizable number of people in the real world is lazy and just wrong.  Even utopia would have a few trolls, hankering for life in hell.

It matters whether 0.1 percent or 60% of Americans believe that broccoli should be banned.  Those who don't get that difference are going to create "the-sky-is-falling" stories, and they are not ultimately helpful.

Add to all that the problem of self-selection, which means that those who comment on any particular incendiary topic are much more likely to be the ones who hold the extreme opposite view of the one any particular writer has used in a piece (broccoli haters, whether 0.1% or 60%, will be much more likely to be in the comments section of your Broccoli Is King article than anyone else).

That's why the comments sections, especially if not moderated, are dominated by angry voices and often opinions better suited to critters who just crawled out of the primeval slime*.  You know, the way any article about gender inequality that focuses on women gets comments from angry meninists.

People who agree with the writer tend not to waste time scribbling that down under the article, and people who aren't that bothered either way tend not to spend time in the comments, either.  The Twitter discussions work on somewhat similar principles, though the fact that people have followers makes them less hostile to the imagined writer here.  But those who hated what you wrote are the ones with real energy to look up your handle and then enter the "discussion."

These two problems I've described above are a) ignoring the actual prevalence of various beliefs  and b) ignoring self-selection on the net.  That double-ignorance can have bad consequences:  We may be misled into believing that a molehill is a mountain, we may initiate much larger angry fights with an imaginary enemy (windmills?) and we may misunderstand the scope of the problem altogether.

A similar problem is born when someone writes an article starting with the planned plot.  Suppose that the plot is how much people hate broccoli.  The intrepid journalist will then go out and interview people.  What if the vast majority of those interviewed aren't bothered about broccoli at all?  That statement will not have a prominent place in the planned story.  Instead, even if it takes a very long time, the journalist will find a few people who reallyreally hate that green tree-pretender among the vegetables, and it is the opinions of those few people that we all will then read.

The next stage (and believe me I've seen this stage recently, though not about broccoli hating) is for people to talk about the vast camp of broccoli haters and mention the opinions of the interviewed few as representative of what that vast camp thinks.

This doesn't mean that anecdotes cannot reflect majority views or the views of an important numerical minority.  But strictly speaking an anecdote, if true, tells us only that one particular person held a particular opinion.  It doesn't tell us how common that opinion is.  For that we need the collection and analysis of statistical data about the whole relevant population (all vegetable eaters in the case of broccoli).

So all this was what has stopped me from writing on various interesting topics yesterday.  Aren't you glad I shared?
*With all due apologies to critters from the primeval slime who are probably charming and empathic ones.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Alcohol And Fertile Women Who Don't Use Contraception. Or: Hi, Baby-Making Factories!

This post, on the CDC recommendations about alcohol consumption by fertile women not using contraception was first published last February.  It's worth re-posting, given that what it describes is a part of a longer-term trend.

1.  The USAToday's Summary of New CDC Recommendations

The Big Brother has arrived!  According to the USAToday:

Women of childbearing age should avoid alcohol unless they're using contraception, federal health officials said Tuesday, in a move to reduce the number of babies born with fetal alcohol syndrome.
“Alcohol can permanently harm a developing baby before a woman knows she is pregnant,” said Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “About half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, and even if planned, most women won’t know they are pregnant for the first month or so, when they might still be drinking.
"The risk is real. Why take the chance?” Schuchat asked.
The CDC estimates 3.3 million women between ages 15 to 44 are at risk of exposing a developing fetus to alcohol because they drink, are sexually active and not using birth control. Even when women are actively trying to get pregnant, three in four continue drinking after they stop using birth control, according to the CDC report.
There is no known safe level of alcohol at any stage of pregnancy, according to the CDC. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends women abstain completely from alcohol while pregnant.

The bolds are mine.  Read the first bolded sentence and then the second bolded sentence.  Notice any difference?  The hook in the article tells us that all women not using contraception who belong to a usually fertile age group should stop drinking, for the sake of future babies (whether planned or completely imaginary, and even if they will be born to someone else).  Even Lesbians, hermits, nuns, other celibate individuals and infertile people should abstain from alcohol!  Any woman might accidentally fall upon a penis, I guess.

Now imagine the Pre-Pregnancy Police coming for you if you try to get a drink and don't have enough wrinkles to prove your new legal drinking age! (1)  Bartenders and other volunteers might refuse to serve you that glass of wine or at least first demand to know if you are on the pill, and then decide if you are allowed to drink.

The Pre-Pregnancy Police doesn't yet exist.  But the Pregnancy Police, in the form of not only actual police but also concerned volunteers is a real thing and a real pest for pregnant women. I guess one advantage of this new recommendation is that now those helpful strangers can pester all younger women equally and not just the ones who are visible pregnant.

After writing that rant about the USAToday summary I read what the CDC  actually says:

An estimated 3.3 million women between the ages of 15 and 44 years are at risk of exposing their developing baby to alcohol because they are drinking, sexually active, and not using birth control to prevent pregnancy, according to the latest CDC Vital Signs report released today. The report also found that 3 in 4 women who want to get pregnant as soon as possible do not stop drinking alcohol when they stop using birth control.
Alcohol use during pregnancy, even within the first few weeks and before a woman knows she is pregnant, can cause lasting physical, behavioral, and intellectual disabilities that can last for a child’s lifetime. These disabilities are known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). There is no known safe amount of alcohol – even beer or wine – that is safe for a woman to drink at any stage of pregnancy.

Bolds are mine.

That is not the same as the first sentence in the USAToday story.  I wish newspapers didn't promote shitty journalism.

2.  The CDC Recommendations.  On Statistics And Medical Studies.

But even more I wish that the people at CDC had a better understanding of statistics, more transparency about what  medical research actually shows and doesn't show.  I also wish that they had hired someone who would have edited the writing  in this sentence:

 An estimated 3.3 million women between the ages of 15 and 44 years are at risk of exposing their developing baby to alcohol because they are drinking, sexually active, and not using birth control to prevent pregnancy.

Those 3.3 million women don't all have "a developing baby".  They are potentially at risk for becoming pregnant.  Those two are very different things, and what is developing during any resulting pregnancy is not called a baby until it is born. 

For the statistical problems, consider this quote that was used in the USAToday article as well as in the original CDC report:

About half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, and even if planned, most women won’t know they are pregnant for the first month or so, when they might still be drinking.

That half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned does NOT mean that every woman has a 50% chance of having an unintended pregnancy!  Yet all public health announcements aimed at fertile women seem to assume that the 50% frequency difference applies to every single fertile woman, even those who don't have heterosexual intercourse.

The actual situation is quite different, as this Guttmacher Institute graph shows:

I quote from the graph:  The two thirds of US women at risk of unintended pregnancy who practice contraception consistently and correctly account for only 5% of unintended pregnancies.

I suspect that the CDC researchers who wrote the recommendation did take that Guttmacher information into account, because the recommendation doesn't extend to women who use reliable contraception.  But the USAToday made a hash of it all and the CDC still parrots the statement without giving that sentence I bolded.

Even the more moderate statement from the CDC is not moderate when it comes to certain hidden assumptions about what various groups of women can be asked to sacrifice and for what types of reasons. To see why that is the case, let's talk about the medical evidence on fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS).

Friday, August 19, 2016

On High Heels And Other Clothing Coded As Female. A Re-Posting

The post is originally from here.  For other posts about female clothing, see, for example,  this, this and this post.

Richard Stainthorp's  wire sculpture (hat tip to Rabih Alameddine) makes the pain of very high heels visceral:  Ouch!

High heels are almost compulsory in fashion photographs, even so high heels that nobody could run in them should a saber-tooth tiger attack.  The reason is that they make women's legs look longer and tilt their butts to an inviting angle (for saber-tooth tigers?).

Many items of clothing which are intended to signal female gender hurt*.  Think of girdles which American women wore until fairly recently, think of Victorian corsets, think of those high-heeled shoes, think of dresses as tight as fish skin or belts pulled so small that the stomach commits suicide.  All those are intended to showcase female beauty.

From the other end, modesty clothes (to hide female beauty),  long dresses, niqabs or face veils, abayas or long cloaks,  hurt in a different way.  Abayas are stifling in hot climates, their bagginess means that they can catch on things which can result in accidents, and burqas, say, make women likely to stumble because they restrict vision .  Hearing is harder through several layers of fabric, too.  And in the colonial America women's long dresses could catch fire in the kitchens.

What both the "revealing" and the "covering" female-coded clothing share is that they make it much harder for someone to be physically active.   A woman or a girl cannot run in them, she cannot play soccer in them, she cannot climb a tree in them.  Even knee-length dresses make that tree climbing impossible, if anyone can look up that dress. 

Is it female passivity that these gender-coded clothes are intended to promote**?

Never mind.  No laws currently require American women and girls to wear girdles or high-heeled shoes or abayas, and it can be fun to take a little bit of pain when dressing up for a wild party.

But not all women on this earth are in an equally free position when it comes to their clothing.  Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have laws which stipulate that all women inside their country's borders must wear the government's approved version of Islamic dress, including women who are not Muslims.

And then there's this recent British case:

A receptionist claims she was sent home from work at a corporate finance company after refusing to wear high heels.
Nicola Thorp, 27, from Hackney in east London, arrived on her first day at PwC in December in flat shoes but says she was told she had to wear shoes with a “2in to 4in heel”.

Thorp, who was employed as a temporary worker by PwC’s outsourced reception firm Portico, said she was laughed at when she said the demand was discriminatory and sent home without pay after refusing to go out and buy a pair of heels.
Thorp found out that nothing in the British laws stops firms from requiring that their female workers wear high heels***.  I wonder if a British firm could demand that its male workers wear, say,  codpieces?  They don't seem to have the health risks  that high heels do, after all.  And I think they would look great!

Please support this blog.  It's the fund-raising week and I promise I won't spend the money on clothing.

*  This tends not to be the case for clothing intended to show that someone is male, though men's business uniform (suit, tie, clunky dark shoes etc.) might be more restricting today than the equivalent women's business uniform (unless high heels are required).

That is an exception to the rule.  In my opinion the reason is that the male business suit has not changed for roughly a century.  When it was first created it was considerably more comfortable than female clothing of the era.  But in the West women's clothes have changed a lot during those hundred years, while men's business suits have not.

**  And if so, was it always the case?  In the medieval era European women and men dressed more alike than they did for several centuries afterwards, with both sexes wearing tunic-type outfits.  Women's tunics were longer than men's tunics, but close enough in style so that medieval wills sometimes leave clothing to individuals who are not the same sex as the person who made the will.  I believe that it was the available technology and the great expense of cloth that caused this similarity.  Gender was signaled by head-dresses and jewelry, not by most clothing. 

It is only recently that the everyday clothing of the sexes has once again become pretty similar.

*** She launched a petition to change this.