Tuesday, November 24, 2015

On Writing in November 2015

1.  I would never make a journalist.  I can't write the way journalists are expected to write (if I can write at all).  All interesting interviews or long articles in politics weave the ideas into a story with trees, sunrises, hard beds, the smell of exotic cooking, openings which set you into a place and time and which flavor what's to come.

I can't do that.  I dive straight into the swimming pool of ideas and chase them (or they chase me).  That's boring, antiseptic and smells of chloride.  So I tried to do an imaginary interview article with some wingnut governor at his mansion:

There is a sun in the sky, there are trees.  They are vertical.  There is a building with a door and a parking area for my ancient car.  My hands are gripping the worn steering wheel, my cheaply-shod feet walk up the stairs to the office of the governor.  He wears silk pants, his belt has a golden NRA buckle,  dandruff lies gently on his shoulders.  He has eyes and they are aimed at me.  Other people come and go, speaking of Donald Trumpo, with automatic weapons hanging off their belts.

You see, my hands and my feet are in the story to keep me in the story but peripheral,  and to focus on the pants and the belt buckle and the hairy backs of the hands of the governor (not yet mentioned above) is to make him central, to cast a harsh light on him.  All that is to prepare you so that you are ready to dislike his ideas, whatever they might be.  The hint of my ancient car (he can vote!) is to make you side with the poor (i.e. me, though goddesses of course are not poor).  All that can be reversed if you wish to write on the side of the capitalists or fundamentalists or whatever.

2.  The innocence of my archives twelve years ago!  I want that innocence back, that time when writing didn't make me feel that I was hanging my laundry out to dry so that all neighbors could come with magnifying classes to see if the underwear has any stains on it, to see if the shirts have been laundered too many times, to assess the cheapness of my clothes, and the number of rips and tear they have.

The past always looks more innocent, of course, and I'm sure that most people simply admire the astonishing cleanness of my drying laundry!  So.

3.  Sweet potato pie for Thanksgiving.  It is an abomination:  A turnip hiding in a dessert dish.  I always eat only the edges of sweet potato pies, even though doing so is extremely uncouth.  But serving turnip-wannabes instead of chocolate cake is a real crime in my books.  I don't care how traditional it might be.  Stoning people is also traditional and also utterly loathsome. 


Women's Curves Explained. Or Wonders Never Cease.

Caitlin Flanagan has written a book review in the Washington Post.  That's not in itself very surprising, but two things about the book review made me go oooh and aaah.

The first one is that the book (The Origins and Power of Female Body Shape),  telling us what women's curves are for (hint, they are for men's benefit the same way a door handle is for the benefit of those who use the door), is by a veterinary scientist, David Bainbridge.   Now, veterinary scientists clearly are experts in the evolutionary theories about women's bodies, clearly.

The second surprising reason is that Caitlin Flanagan seems to be writing from my side of the aisle!  She's even somewhat surprised that Bainbridge comes across as an MRA warrior type. Flanagan is, after all, famous for her hatred of women's rights, a firm proponent of male supremacy in the family and adamant that all women should be housewives.  So kudos where it belongs.  Perhaps Caitlin is seeing the light?  Though she still says this:

“Evolution is not feminist,” he tells us soberly. Neither is he, apparently, which gives the book a refreshing frisson. Most pseudo-scientific books aimed at a female readership (as this one clearly is) are devoted to proving the superiority of women or at least their full equality to men. The “I’m just telling it like it is” tone of “Curvology” is appealing: What dark truths have we been unwilling to face? Read a chapter or two, however, and you discover that “Curvology” merely — and mildly — repeats the assertions of the manosphere: Evolution has caused men to like big breasts, big buttocks and small waists. We know, we know! Didn’t the Commodores teach us long ago that 36-24-36 is a winning hand?
I never quite understand how someone can get a refreshing frisson when preparing to read how she herself will be deemed inferior to the other half of humanity.  I get a chilling frisson wondering what could have happened in her own life to make her so capable of cutting herself away from the rest of the womanhood.

And then there's the idea that the pseudo-scientific books in this field are telling women that they are at least equal to men if not better*:

Did Flanagan read Louann Brizendine's  pseudo-scientific books about the male and female brain, I wonder.  The subtext in those books is much more dangerous than superficial skimming might suggest, because they trot out iffy (sometimes very iffy) evidence, pick certain studies over others and then state that the biological differences between men and women are now (insert today's date, any date) quite understood (and immutable).

Sure, the books might have been marketed on the basis of some weird type of grrrl power (I may be dumb in maths but I'm really really good at personal relationships!), but in their core they are about reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes.  Very much like the old guides that sprouted from John Gray's pseudo-scientific Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.

Flanagan's review is not about the pseudoscience Bainbridge appears to practice, as the above quote shows, and that is the one flaw in the review.  There's  evidence from several studies that some constant, perfect waist-to-hip ratio isn't a universal ideal, there's  evidence that cultural norms affect which aspects of women's bodies are deemed most erotic and so on.

But inside the weird kind of evolutionary psychology, the kind I use capital initials for, the cult of the waist-to-hip ratio rules untouched.  Mostly because external criticism cannot enter a sealed bubble.

It is that lack of scientific critiques in Flanagan's review which makes me feel the old horrible guilt (like a Jesus-syndrome):  I should immediately go and read Bainbridge's book to tell you everything that is wrong with it.  But life is so very short and the criticism is probably already available in my blog archives.  Besides, Flanagan's final quote from the book makes me want to run screaming right off this planet:

There is exactly one truly happy female in “Curvology,” an unnamed girl who appears in two italicized passages that Bainbridge has dreamed up as a sort of homage to “Clan of the Cave Bear.” We meet her in “the rust-red light of another dawn.” Her family has traded her to a tribe of strangers, which might seem like a raw deal, but her full thighs and round bottom have led to the assurance that “she would be cherished by her new tribe and her man.” Indeed, this man has already planted his seed in her. All this — the human trafficking, the rape, the pregnancy — leads to the deepest delight: “She cupped her breasts in her hands. They seemed to be getting slowly larger ever since the wiggling thing in her belly had appeared. She could not explain why, but this made her laugh out loud.”

*Just as an aside:  Almost all Evolutionary Psychology (EP, see post above for definition) articles tell women how impossibly inferior we are, and that goes for many of the books which popularize EP, too.   That may be the reason I had to read Flanagan's assertion twice before I got what she meant (the focus on a narrowly tailored concept of pseudo-scientific books aimed at women).  She hasn't evidently spent her time getting refreshing frissons and learning dark "truths" the way I have.  But I guess that whole field of literature consists of pseudo-scientific books aimed at MRAs.

Monday, November 23, 2015

How The Online Debates About Terrorism Go in The US. Where Echidne Grumbles.

US online debates about terrorism, the proper treatment of refugees and other related issues leave me exasperated.  Also sad and angry, of course, given the topics, but the exasperation part should be fixable.

I'm exasperated, because too many people have trotted out  their hind-brains for that thinking purpose.  On the US political right this shows up in widespread fear and hatred of all Muslims (register them!  refuse all Muslim refugees!), on the US political left it becomes a knee-jerk reaction against whatever the right does*, as opposed to actually looking at the issues and the evidence.

This creates some very odd bedfellows among political values and ideals:

Suddenly religious freedom is not the conservative cause it has been in the Hobby Lobby case, for example, but a liberal, lefty cause.  Suddenly the unequal treatment of women (but only in Islam) is a right-wing worry,  not something that would greatly worry liberals or progressives or feminists.  Suddenly the Syrian refugees contain large numbers of hidden ISIS members (the right-wing view) or they are all orphans and widows fleeing the very same ISIS the US conservatives fear so much (the left-wing view).

Reality is nuanced, ambiguous.  It's not good that so many of these debates can't seem to handle ambiguity.

To clarify what I mean, take that last sentence of the preceding paragraph.  The one study that has been done among Syrian refugees in Europe suggests that more of them are fleeing the bombings and violence of president Assad than the violence of ISIS.  This does NOT mean that the refugees who answered the survey in the study would support ISIS or any other militant group in Syria, not at all. But the majority in the survey** see Assad as the culprit in the Syrian civil war, not rising jihadism.

The vast majority of the Syrian refugees are people fleeing unspeakable circumstances, and they need help.  That ISIS would try to infiltrate that group goes without saying.  It's the job of the western governments, including the government of the United States, to weed out as many potential terrorists as possible***.  I think that the job of the rest of us is to learn to deal with the residual ambiguity or to surrender our claim to compassion.

The longer-run job of everyone in power should be to end the wars in the Middle East.  That's what the refugees want, too. 

*  I don't mean that the left should actually consider those vile proposals, but the automatic response shouldn't be to match "their" demons with "our" angels.  Neither view is realistic of human beings in general.

** I looked at the survey.  It's hard to judge how representative it might be.  If Syrian refugees in Berlin are a random sample of all Syrian refugees in Europe then the study is representative.  On the other hand, if Syrian refugees in Berlin are, say, more likely to come from areas where Assad is in power or fighting over power, then the results might not be representative.

***  The United States has a much better chance of doing this than most European governments, what with the enormous refugee numbers in Europe.  Against that background, the bill passed by the US House and the reluctance of more than half of US state governors to accept Syrian refugees seem exaggerated.


Friday, November 20, 2015

The Global Gender Gap Report, 2015

  The 2015  Global Gender Gap Report is out.  It's part of an annual series published by the World Economic Forum, focusing on how equal men and women appear to be globally in employment, education, health outcomes and political participation*.

The top ten countries (with the greatest gender equality measures overall) in 2015 are:  Iceland (1), Norway (2), Finland (3), Sweden (4), Ireland (5), Rwanda (6), Philippines (7), Switzerland (8), Slovenia (9) and New Zealand (10).

Slovenia is a newcomer to that group.   Note that because the reports focus on gaps between men and women, not overall levels of, say, political access, poorer nations can rise high in these rankings.

The bottom ten countries in 2015 are Egypt (136), Mali (137), Lebanon (138), Morocco (139), Jordan (140), Iran (141), Chad (142), Syria (143), Pakistan (144) and Yemen (145). 

Yemen has stayed firmly at the bottom of these rankings for several years.  I went back several years to check what might have happened to Syria's relative ranking, given the civil war that is raging there.  Data on Syria was first included only in 2006 (some partial data), but it does look like Syria has slipped somewhat in the last few years.  Still, with the exception of 2008, Syria's rankings were either in the bottom ten countries or just above that group. 

You can look at the overall index and the four sub-indexes for all the included countries in Table 3 of the report.  That will also give you some ideas about what is driving the above results.  Note that it gives you no idea if any particular ranking in that table is that country's desired outcome.  One might argue that gender equality is so high in the Nordic countries because it IS a desired outcome there.

The United States ranked 28th in the overall index this year.  The report goes into much more detail about the reasons why individual countries, including the United States, moved up or down in the rankings.

*  Somewhere I have a long post criticizing some of the methodological choices in that series, but, alas and alack, I cannot find it.  This short post from 2009 must suffice instead. 

Still, the gist of my criticism is partly to do with the way the four sub-indexes on gender equality are created and how they are aggregated.  The actual data the reports use consist of a handful or two of easily available statistical indicators (the health index, as an example, uses only two measures).  It's important to keep in mind that those statistics are  the information in  the reports; to end up with the various sub-indexes and the final overall index requires decisions about how to manipulate the initial statistics and how to aggregate them.  These choices are by their very character somewhat arbitrary.

On the other hand, selecting a few widely available statistics and then following how countries do on them over years is not a bad starting point.  It guarantees that the maximum number of countries can be included in the reports.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Birthday Post

Guess how old this blog is in November 2015.  Thanks for the years.

How To Defeat ISIS And Other Fables On Terrorism

Care to read a short story by a Townhall conservative columnist Kurt Schlichter?  The blogs of Digby and No More Mister Nice review this imaginary masterpiece.

It's about what it would take to defeat ISIS, in the dreams of one conservative guy (as in "When I dream I'm a Viking").  The story has all the wish-fulfillment aspects of bubble-gum literature aimed at teenage boys (except for the tits and ass): 

Macho men killing everything that moves (but for the good, of course), refusal to negotiate with any foreign power  (stomp over them), the utter humiliation of liberals (enemies), Democrats (enemies) and anyone opposing easy access to guns in the US (individual citizens successfully kill terrorists in public places but only in Republican states), simplistic scenarios where the hero faces no real obstacles (because of extreme use of military power), unending cheering by the grateful American crowds (who love the rising dead body counts from Iraq and Syria).  And a glorious victory at the end.

What struck me about the story was the glimpse into the id of the writer:  The imaginary Republican tough-guy president in the story fires his wimpy CENTCOM commander and replaces him with a marine called Wildman (!), known for his aggressiveness.  It is Wildman who then goes out to defeat ISIS.

Just think about that for a moment!  Schlichter wants the barbaric hind-brain to take over, along the lines that it takes a barbarian to fight one.  This short-cut bypasses all those parts of brain which take care of higher levels of thinking, ethics and so on.

But it works in the story!  Of course it does.  I always win in my daydreams, too.

Let's see how Wildman manages to destroy ISIS in the story:

The first wave of 12 B-52H’s emptied their bays of 750-pound dumb bombs directly over the heart of Raqqa, followed by a second wave, then a third. Crack Air Force ground crews were waiting back at the base in Saudi Arabia, and rearmament took less than two hours. Then they headed north again. In 24 hours, Raqqa ceased to exist.

The jihadis initially attempted to dig in, believing the Americans would pause to root them out of the urban areas. Instead, the Americans leveled the towns, often using the napalm that had just been reintroduced into the American arsenal, and followed up with infantry. At first, the jihadis tried to hide behind the few remaining civilians but the Americans never hesitated, and ISIS quickly learned that to try to hold ground meant a swift death.
So.  Raqqa has over 220,000 inhabitants.  But in this story worrying about civilian casualties is "secondary."  Will there be a second installment to this story, about the predictable response by most of the Middle East when people there learn that at least 220,000 civilians have died in these attacks?

Well, probably more than that number of collateral damage, because:

Covered from interference by Russian aircraft by a protective screen of F-22s, the B-52s worked their way from urban target to urban target, literally obliterating any ISIS-supporting town in Syria. This supported the Wildman’s strategy of depriving ISIS of any of the vestiges of an actual nation state. The caliphate, to the extent it governed anything, would rule over rubble.
That's pretty cruel, given that ISIS wasn't exactly invited into the towns in Syria it now controls.  It invaded them and killed lots of people.  In this story those civilians still alive would also die.  And of course all this carnage would sprout a thousand ISIS-type organizations.

Literary works don't have to worry about that, of course.  As an aside, I'm not writing about Schlichter's short story because of its interest or relevance, but because my recent reading about terrorism suggests that imaginary stories also fuel many  acts of terror. 

Granted, those stories are filled with religious imagery, not patriotic imagery, but the assumption that extreme violence for "good" is necessary to combat the violence of "bad" is something these stories share.  They also share the macho plot:  The only proper revenge against any past collective humiliations (however distant in time) is violence. And they share that aggregation of everyone "on the other side" as irrelevant collateral damage.


Sunday, November 15, 2015

Paris. First Thoughts.

Paris bleeds because it is part of a river of blood:  The Russian plane dying in the skies over Egypt, the Hazaras of Afghanistan being relieved of their heads, the suicide bombings in a Shiite neighborhood of Beirut, Libanon.

Or so the propagandists of Daesh or ISIS or ISIL tell us.  Some of those rivers of blood may be from old rivulets, sourced from old racial hatreds (the Hazara massacre), old religious schisms (the Shias vs. the Sunnis, the Muslims vs. the Christians).  But the Daesh river of blood is real and has not yet been dammed.

And its sources are many.  I read my Twitter feed and was told that everything the deranged god-soldiers of ISIS did was caused by American oil politics and Western colonialism, as if those neo-Salafist clerics who designed ISIS had no agency, no way of choosing another form of rebellion but an extreme life-denying religious one, as if the religion they had created for themselves* from what the Saudi Wahhabism supports and funds in this world**  has played no role.  Instead, millions and millions of westerners are equally to blame, for genetic or historical reasons or at least for not voting various politicians out of power. 

I read my Twitter feed and was told that everything the deranged god-soldiers of ISIS did was caused by their religion, that  every single of hundreds of millions of Muslims is just waiting to behead the first infidel they come across.  Once again, as if those neo-Salafist clerics who designed ISIS had no agency, as if millions and millions of Muslims are equally to blame, just because ISIS calls its religion theirs.

And I read my Twitter feed and was told that everything the deranged god-soldiers of ISIS did was caused by western discrimination and racism or by old religious discrimination in various Middle Eastern countries, as if those neo-Salafist clerics who designed ISIS had no agency at all.

Puppets.  ISIS consists of nothing but puppets.  Who holds the strings depends on the tweeter's own prior beliefs, on whom he or she would wish to blame.  There are even some who believe that US has created ISIS on purpose and funds it!

And what was tweeted on Friday night and later, truly reflected the hobby-horses of various tweeters.  Frank Bruni writes and I concur:

Can’t we wait until we’ve resolved the body count? Until the identities of all of the victims have been determined and their families informed? Until the sirens stop wailing? Until the blood is dry?
Or must we instantly bootstrap obliquely related agendas and utterly unconnected grievances to the carnage in Paris, responding to it with an unsavory opportunism instead of a respectful grief?
 Is this the famous death of empathy possibly caused by staring at an inanimate screen while talking to real people?  Is it the masks we wear in cyberspace which allow us to act as if we have mislaid our hearts altogether, as if all that matters is the well-being of whichever group or theory we hold most dearly?  And in counterpoint, is empty sentimentalism or patriotism  the answer we assume if then accused of heartlessness?

It's as if many in social media forgot about the ones who lost the most in those terrorist attacks, whose lives were prematurely discarded, whose pain served a political function, whose personalities were erased, whose families were left with bleeding wounds, perhaps never to close.  In that they appear in agreement with the Daesh who also regarded the victims as less than nothing:  a bit of filth to be sucked up by the divine vacuum cleaner.

The old customs about the immediate aftermath of death serve a function:  Spend some time thinking about the deceased, give support to the family who is bereaved, sit in silence for a while, offer a cooked dish and offer help.

We don't really have a cyberspace version of that respect for the individual.  But surely all the different commentators with their pet issues could wait a day or two before forgetting all about the actual human lives which were ended or permanently mutilated by the terrorists?   

*  Access to sex slaves from war booty is an ISIS-invented extra benefit, something current Wahhabism doesn't condone.   The men and the older women can be killed in the ISIS religion.  Older women couldn't be killed even in those far-distant times of the prophet, but ISIS adjusts its religion as it sees fit.

**  The source of Daesh as a religious movement is firmly in the countries which fund the petro-dollar Islam, the most fanatic, the most extremist, the most unforgiving type of Islam.  The flavor of religion comes with the clerics and the clerics come with the funding of the mosques everywhere, including in Europe.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Daniel Holtzclaw Case

The Daniel Holtzclaw trial is in its second week in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  Holzclaw was a police officer (now fired) who is alleged to have sexually abused* (at least) twelve women and one 17-year-old girl while on duty during the three years of his employment by the Oklahoma police.

What is it that the prosecutors say Holtzclaw did?  They say that he demanded sex** from women by using an extortion tactic:  They say that he targeted poor women with outstanding warrants or who had other reasons to avoid the police.  They say that he then offered to turn a blind eye should his personal sexual needs be catered for.

Holtzclaw was caught when he allegedly used his tactic on a woman who didn't have any outstanding warrants or other reasons to avoid the police, and who went and reported Holtzclaw.

The case has a strong racial flavor:  Holtzclaw's alleged victims were black women, usually middle-aged and poor black women, and Holtzclaw himself is white (with a Japanese mother)***.

What would drive a man to do something like that?  A desire to assault black women?  Picking victims based on the kinds of indicators which would suggest the smallest chance of being caught?  Or both?

I cannot answer those questions, and Holtzclaw hasn't been found guilty yet, so in a legal sense speculation about his possible motives is premature.

But let's think about how gender, race and social class interact in a case like this:  A heterosexual male police officer might target black women, both because they are women and because they are black (at least partly because this reduces the chances of being caught, especially if the women are poor and already in some difficulty with the police).

Thus, the statistical probability that a person becomes the victim of sexual extortion and/or sexual assault by a police officer would be higher for black women than for black men, higher for black women than for white women and higher for poor black women than for wealthier black women (who are less likely to have outstanding unpaid fines etc.)****. 

A rotten police officer of this type could be profiling his victims, seeking those who are least likely to provoke an uproar of any kind.  That his selection would raise the risk of being assaulted by a police officer more for black women than for either black men or white women (or men) is important to understand.  Note that those ending in his net don't have to have had a criminal history or anything similar.  Race and gender become the signals which this man would use.

That's why this problem is not just one about female victims or not just one about black victims.  It's both, and deserves a response which takes those interactions into account.

*  He is tried on

36 counts, including eight counts of rape. He also faces counts of sexual battery, forcible oral sodomy, burglary, stalking, indecent exposure and procuring lewd exhibition.

**More examples here, here and here.

*** The jury finally selected for the trial is also 100% white.  Oklahoma population is 7.7% African-American, based on this source (which probably under-counts African-Americans because of the definition it uses "Black or African-American alone"), so it's not at all impossible to get an all-white jury, even without manipulation, in some areas of Oklahoma.  But is this the case in the Holtzclaw trial?  Oklahoma City has a higher African-American population (14.0% or more based on this source), so much depends on the catchment area for the jury and whether defense lawyers can bar candidates in the jury pool without giving explicit reasons for that.  My apologies for not knowing the necessary legal issues here. 

Still, an all-white jury doesn't create confidence in those following this trial for possible racial bias.

For more on possible jury biases, read here.

****  That's a very dry way of addressing some of the issues Treva Lindsay writes about.  Or a way to put the extra harassment black women receive into the framework of statistical discrimination.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Today's Very Shallow Thought

My shampoo bottle back label says:  Healthier hair.

I thought hair is dead.  How can it become healthier? 

Will mine rise from the tomb, wave in the air and then strangle all the people around me?  Like the hairdo of Medusa?

In any case it's good for the closing of the scales.