Friday, January 30, 2015

Friday Facts And Some Fun: On Marissa Alexander, Colleen McCullough, Scott Walker And Others

1.  This American Life has a segment on Internet trolling of comedian Lindy West and another segment about the complaints people make about vocal fry, but only when it's young women's voices which have it.  Both are worth listening.  The Lindy West segment links to the online nastiness in general and in a bizarre way to the question whether we need a different kind of language policing when the message sent is a simple IHATEYOUBITCHDIE.

2.  New fragments of Sappho's poetry may have been found.   Her work is tantalizing because of its current scarcity despite the great reputation she possessed in antiquity.

3.  Marissa Alexander is out of prison but not free.  Her case is worth learning about because of the Stand Your Ground excuse didn't apply to it and because she almost received a mega-sentence for shooting a gun in the ceiling.

4.  An Australian newspaper begins the obituary of the best-selling author Colleen McCullough  like this:

Do a gender reversal on that.  Pick some famous guy whose books sell really well and begin the obituary by stating that X was a charmer, with a red ugly nose and a big belly, but he was still able to attract women, he said.  It's not impossible to imagine such an obituary, but it's much more unlikely than similar obituaries of famous women which far too frequently are grounded in the fact of them being women first.  That's why cooking skills or looks enter those kinds of obituaries.  Because they still matter for how we judge women and because famous women are still sometimes viewed as little dabs from the giant womanhood mountain.

5.  I adore this Freudian slip by Scott Walker, a Ringwraith and the Governor of Wisconsin:

But Walker did have a small Freudian slip in this part of his spiel. Walker said:
"I think that looking ahead as Republicans, we need to make the case that we are going to promote policies that promote and support and defend hard work in this company - er, in this country once again."

It's delicious, because Walker does the bidding of the Koch brothers, and also because many conservatives indeed see no real difference in how to run a country vs. Walmart:  Both are to profit the few who are viewed as the proper owners.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

More on The Travails Of The Intrepid Factual Feminist: Deciphering Hoff Sommer's First Sexual Assault Myth

I feel mean enough to share some of the work that the anti-feminists make me do*.  This example is about the first item Christina Hoff Sommers talks about on her vlog as sexual assault myths.

It juxtaposes the one-in-five figure about college sexual assaults with a new figure which quickly flashes on the screen:  That one in 53 women experience sexual assault during the four years of college.  Before a quick look at a table which provides that number the vlog argues that a new report has come up with the "right" figure for the rate of sexual assaults during women's college experiences.

Got it?  Good.  Then next find out that report.  Read it.  Realize that it doesn't have a table with that one in 52.6 women figure.  Then realize that it doesn't have the other numbers in that table, either.

But...  The table with the calculations argues that its source is that very report.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Language Police Is Coming To Get You

You may have read Jonathan Chait's opinion piece on the way language policing is perverting liberalism.

I read the piece a few times, but I'm still not clear on how his different examples relate to the topic he wishes to address, and I'm not 100% clear on what that topic is (freedom of speech issues?  what hurts the liberals?  what hurts Jonathan Chait?).  They span a range of cases, from wrecking someone's house because of what a person wrote, via the demands for trigger warnings in some college courses and campaigns to have controversial campus speakers banned, to an author being strongly (if humorously) criticized in a Twitter hashtag.

On the first and last of those examples almost everyone would agree:  nobody's house should be attacked because of something that person said and honest criticism of an author's work on Twitter is a legitimate form of debate.   The case of demanding trigger warnings (not a very widespread phenomenon, as I understand it, and criticized by several feminists) isn't about suppressing speech as such though I guess it could have a "chilling" effect on the courses of the professors responsible for reacting to the demands.  That leaves the question whether one should try to ban speakers or speech on campuses.  Those attempts are carried out by both the left and the right in this country, though in slightly different forms (e.g. firing a professor versus getting someone's invitation to speak cancelled).

Indeed, Chait's piece has so much material in it, much of it not of the same general species, that I had great difficulty making a straightforward summary about it.

Glenn Greenwald's response links to several other responses which you should read if you are fascinated by the topic of how we speak and do not speak, whom we listen to and do not listen to, and what it is that some people experience in online debates and how they interpret those debates.   But I agree with Greenwald that Jill Filipovic's tweet on all this makes a good point:


Julian Sanchez writes about some of those issues.  An example:

Let’s take it as given that this is not the case, and that any subjective chill experienced by folks like Jon Chait is not usefully understood as a problem of social justice. We can grant all that and still ask: Is there something unhealthy about discursive norms that lead to substantive self-censorship, even by the obviously privileged?  Not because these norms constitute an injury to the reticent privileged, or interfere with anyone’s sacred right to unfettered self-expression, but because they yield less robust, less interesting conversations?
Think of Solomon Asch’s famous experiments in group conformity, or the broader social psychology literature on information cascades.  The problem isn’t so much that some precious snowflake’s project of expressive self-realization has been constrained, but that constraints deprive groups of deliberative input that can help them make better decisions. When the constraints are on the order of “don’t use sexist or racist language,” probably nothing of value is lost.  When the constraints include “under no circumstances express any skepticism about any claim of sexual assault,” to pick a salient recent example, you may end up with bad journalism that hinders the ultimate goal of getting society at large to treat survivors’ stories more seriously and respectfully.

This is an important point.  To give another example, suppose that a social activist group is preparing a statement based on six cases of labor market discrimination against women and/or minorities.  Suppose one of the cases, the sixth,  isn't really like the other cases.  It's different and weaker and may not be an example about discrimination at all.  Suppose you think so, but say nothing because of the fear of group ostracism*.  Then the list of the six cases goes out and conservatives tear that sixth iffy case apart and imply that all the cases on your list are like that one.

So certain group norms can affect not only how robust a conversation is but even the outcomes from that conversation.
*The fear of group ostracism is probably less if people meet in person than on the net.

By the way, I found the juxtaposition of rowdy public discourse and the question of ostracism interesting in the various takes.  They range from essentially arguing that if you can't take the heat stay out of the kitchen (which are even hotter for the more oppressed groups, by the way) to wanting all online mockery to cease because it's a form of language policing.  So what is free speech here?  The speech you like? 

I may be mistaken about that.  But it was one of the sticking points I had with Chait's arguments.

The End of Blogs?

Andrew Sullivan is killing his blog.  Dylan Byers comments on that and tells us this:

Sullivan was able to keep blogging alive (and lucrative) long after the era of blogs had come to an end -- at The Atlantic, at The Daily Beast, and, in recent years, through the funding of readers. It's also true that Sullivan's influence has waned of late. While there is still some demand for Sullivan's outspokenness -- he's at his best when he's arguing, aggressively -- there is far less demand for unspecialized aggregation.
Sullivan deserves immense credit for keeping his project alive, but its days were numbered.
So the blogs are waning.  What is waxing?  According to some, it's the Twitter.  But that's a distribution channel, not the content producer. 

The economic jargon in all that fascinates me.  We look at the demand side of the market:  What do people want?  They no longer want some smartass opining on everything and anything between heaven and earth.  They want, according to Byers, specialization and original content.

But what IS that demand for?  Writing?  Information?  Commenting?  Hanging out with friends and enemies?

Then there's the idea of "content."  To someone like me who adores and venerates that stuff called content the term sounds as if birthday presents exist only to justify an industry in wrappings and bows.

Still, I get the point, because people have to eat and to climb up career ladders.  But if blogs are dying (and as a general category they probably are), what is taking their place online? 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Mike Huckabee And Trash-Talking Women

This little snippet is worth thinking about, believe it or not:

Appearing last Friday on Mickelson in the Morning, an Iowa-based radio show, Huckabee recounted the culture shock he experienced when hearing profanity in the workplace while working for Fox News in New York City.
“In Iowa, you would not have people who would just throw the f-bomb and use gratuitous profanity in a professional setting,” Huckabee said. “In New York, not only do the men do it, but the women do it!”
He continued: “This would be considered totally inappropriate to say these things in front of a woman.” But “for a woman to say them in a professional setting,” Huckabee went on, “that’s just trashy!”

The quote makes two different points.  The first is about the kind of language which is appropriate in a professional setting for everybody.  The second is about different rules for men and women.  It's the latter which interests me.

Huckabee notes that men in the US mainstream culture were once frowned upon if they used profanities in front of women.  Note that this means they could use them when in all-male company.   Huckabee then adds his shock and horror when even women participate in such profanities!

So, you go, yawning.  Get to the point here.

Okay.   The point is that certain kind of speech was regarded as acceptable, but only by men and only to other men.  Swearing, using the fuck-words etcetera.  Perhaps calling someone you quarrel with a motherfucker?  Or asking that person to get on their knees for a blowjob?

On one level Huckabee is just pining for the imaginary past where women were ladies, at home and in the kitchen, and barely knew the facts that made them pregnant, while men were out there, fighting other men for the money that would support the little lady at home.

But on a deeper level it's well worth asking why women couldn't hear profanities or why women using profanities is the worst thing ever.

Is it the fact that uttering profanities is an act of aggression, and women are not supposed to be aggressive?

Or is it the possibility that using profanities means the user is taking an active sexual role in the verbal fights?  For example, telling someone to go and fuck themselves.  In Huckabee's world that's not the role women are supposed to have.

Then we come to the idea of purity, something not far removed from the Mediterranean concept of family honor as being preserved in the women's vaginas.  That's the root of honor killings, by the way, the idea that the behavior of the women in a family shames the men in that family and that they must revenge that shame.  A woman using profanities cannot be assumed to have shouldered the burden of purity right?

That's probably too far-fetched.  I have one further candidate to explain the rule that what goes in men's locker-room talk does not go in mixed company, and that's the fact that some of that locker-room talk, at least, is openly misogynistic and objectifying.  This explanation has the advantage of accounting for the reason why men are not supposed to continue the locker-room talk in front of women.  Just consider a guy calling an other guy a motherfucker when the mothers of both are present!  It's not really the swearing or whatever that is the problem there, but the use of the mother's sexual live as a slur against another man.

Monday, January 26, 2015

One Of Those Days... On How to Critique Research And Bad Popularizations. Or the Factual Feminist! (Guess Who That is)

I spend quite a lot of time avoiding research.  That's because almost anyone can quickly type out some outrageous claim and put it out on the net where it spreads like the Ebola virus.  When the claim is wrong, you could just put out a quick message saying that it's wrong.

Which would be like soggy toast.  But to do the actual work, the work of learning where the stupid thing came from, which studies it utterly ignores, which definitions it uses incorrectly etc. requires research.  Research takes a lot of time.  And nobody pays me for this type of research.  It's just my inner firm librarian which won't let me press "publish" on about three long draft posts because I haven't yet achieved complete expertise in umpteen different fields.

That stinks.  It stinks especially hard when most propagandists don't care about research at all.  The usual way someone like David Brooks -- to pick an example -- does this is by starting with his desired conclusions, then going back to the one study he chose, then -- utterly astonished --- he finds that the particular study supports what he says, to a tee!  And therefore that must be what research has established.

I was thinking about this when I looked through my arsenal of possible skills.  That I know how to read social science research in general is a big plus.  But I cannot be an expert in every single field of research, however ageless goddesses are.  Yet writing criticisms of studies often does require that.  It's a bit like playing tennis as an amateur with fifteen professional opponents at the same time, all of whom have an axe to grind with the issues.

To take a recent example, writing about how sexual assaults are measured in statistics, how the survey samples are arrived at, what the numbers mean etc. requires some pretty hard-tack chewing and work.  The minute I put a post on any of those up on the blog I get comments from people who spend all their time on just that one issue.  Some of them are real experts, others are real propagandists or whatever you might call them.  Well, most seem to be the latter. 

All that really means is a clear need for a group blog where people with all the proper expertise can shoot out well-written posts on iffy research.  Those group blogs might even exist!  I don't have to try to support the globe up on just my shoulders!  I could deflate my arrogance balloons!

But not as long as Christina Hoff Sommers, perhaps the best-known feminist-hater in the US, can write a video blog called "The Factual Feminist."  That's very funny, of course, that name, both the "feminist" label and the "factual" label.*  When you combine all that is funny in the title you get a post where women are bashed 99% of the time.

The idea of a five-minute vlog appeals to me, however.  Imagine a vlog by me called The Goddess With All The Facts! I'd spend five minutes of air time to refute or elaborate on Hoff Sommer's arguments on, say, the "correct" rape statistics or on the question how many women might lie about being raped.

Except that you CANNOT do that.  You cannot fly glibly over a whole large field of research, and you cannot just state that as all studies have some problems (actually varying from pretty good studies to utter rubbish), let's just refuse to put any number on, say false rape reports.

Then there's the additional confusion in that Hoff Sommers vlog**:  Of confusing activity on behalf of rape victims with the processes which are used to assess whether rape happened and what the conclusion of those processes might be.  The two are different things.  And no, colleges are not run by rabid feminists, and no, the processes do not necessarily result in a judgement which always finds for the alleged victim.  Though it may well be the case that having the colleges process sexual assault cases isn't working terribly well for anyone.

All this is very sad for me.  My inner librarian has now donned a whip and wants me to spend the next five years sorting out the facts.  But what she doesn't get is that the work I'd do would be partly wasted.   We lack the kind of agora where people actually try to search common ground and more reliable statistics.*** And in any case, some totally different game about data would attract her interest next.
*If you haven't met Christina Hoff Sommers, the factual feminist, yet, here's some material for you:
Fun with Christina Hoff Sommers.  And a three-part series by me on her views about how much women deserve to earn.  Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.
**There's also the very big question about how we define "rape culture."  I once wrote ten pages on that for my own notes.  If people cannot agree on what constitutes rape, how can we even start with the idea of a rape culture?  And what do we call societies which require four male witnesses for a rape (which suggests that very few rapists would ever get caught)?  But at the same time, what do we call the kinds of values which clearly exist among sub-groups of young men (and some older ones coughBillCosbycough)?  What is the role of pornography in defining what "sex" means nowadays?  The role of entitlement to sex from that?
***We need one of these, by the way.  I resent the idea that because I'm a feminist my thoughts are supposedly known in advance or that I'd somehow on purpose pick poor research to support.  The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Is Consistency the Hobgoblin of Little Minds? On the Death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia

The hobgoblin reference is to Ralph Waldo Emerson.  It's also a reference to Western attitudes, both political and journalistic, to the extreme Wahhabi sect of Islam.  When the Saudi government pushes it on the rest of the world (by funding mosques and by sending preachers to those mosques) there's not much loud criticism.  But when the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) decides to use it as a blueprint to create its own nightmare world there's much loud criticism.

The difference is in oil, my sweetings.  Sadly, this suggests to me that if ISIS ever gets hold of enough oil resources, whatever president the US has then will hold hands with their leaders.

It's true that the late king Abdullah did push for certain minor improvements in the position of women.  But women in Saudi Arabia are still unable to drive themselves, are still subject to the custodianship and rule of their male relatives, and as far as my research has been able to prove anything, the only creative addition* ISIS has introduced to their version of the Wahhabi teachings is the idea of taking slaves (as long as they don't have one of the three Abrahamic religions), selling them to the highest bidder in legal slave auctions and justifying rape of female slaves as just appropriate use of war booty.

The rules about chopping off the hands of thieves, the rules about killing those suspected of homosexual activity and the rules about stoning adulterers**, those are all practiced not only in the Islamic State but also in Saudi Arabia (and a few other countries).

I'm welcoming any reforms that Saudi Arabia can carry out towards greater human rights, of course, just as I feel great urgency about getting rid of the "values" that ISIS is touting.  Any reform is better than none, and I also understand that resistance to reform inside Saudi Arabia is a powerful force and hard to fight.  Still, we cannot remember that half the population there (women) have far fewer rights and much less freedom than the other half.  Neither should we forget that the rulers in the country are not democratically.
*Crucifixion as punishment (or as a way to display a corpse after death) may be another innovation by ISIS
**Women appear to be the victims of stoning more frequently than men, by the way.

Potential Moms and Painkillers! Today's Study Popularization.

If you ovulate you are a potential mom.  Indeed, you can be regarded as one if you are a woman between the ages of fifteen and forty-four!   It doesn't matter one whit if you are not going to become pregnant any time soon (or ever).  You are still a potential mom.

And perhaps you should just take any serious pain you have, without mega-strength painkillers.

Here's a story about all that with the headline:

Potential moms using painkillers, study finds

That means women between the ages of fifteen and forty-five, and the painkillers the headline refers to are opioid painkillers, such as Vicodin and OxyContin.  Those can cause birth defects in a fetus.

But how does that relate to women in that age group who are not pregnant or not planning to become pregnant?

Well, my dears, here's the answer:

Previous studies of opioid use during pregnancy suggest that the medicines could increase risk of major defects of the baby’s brain and spine, heart and abdominal wall.
But this is the first time that the CDC has looked into opioid painkillers specifically among women of child-bearing age, which is important because many pregnancies aren’t recognized until well after the first few weeks, and half of all U.S. pregnancies are unplanned, officials said.

Emphasis mine.

The study summary I discuss here gives not one single recommendation for all those "potential moms" out there.  It's hard not to read it as implying that pain is something "potential moms" should just bear bravely, or at least seriously consider that alternative.

I got carried away a bit thinking about all the stuff "potential moms" aka women do.  They might drink (gasp!), they might ski downhill at a rapid rate, they might dance all night through!  Perhaps all women of the fertile ages should be moved into protected housing where their diet and lifestyles could be controlled?

The CDC's own summary on the study is quite a bit saner.  It recommends this:

“Women, who are pregnant, or planning to become pregnant, should discuss with their health care professional the risks and benefits for any medication they are taking or considering.” said Coleen Boyle, Ph.D., MS.Hyg., Director of CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. “This new information underscores the importance of responsible prescribing, especially of opioids, for women of child bearing age.”

But to return to that bolded bit in the above quote:

It's based on an interesting flaw in how that statistic is used.  That half of all US pregnancies are unplanned does NOT mean that half of all pregnancies of every US woman are unplanned.  In particular, it doesn't take into account the difference between women who use contraception and women who do not use contraception.

Here's the Guttmacher Institute on that distinction:

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

I'm not quite certain why that distinction is so seldom made in these types of studies.  If it was made, angry Echidne wouldn't have to keep going all haywire* over the same stuff.

This distinction also matters, because now health care providers can ask women in the fertile age categories whether they practice birth control or not, and they can also tell the women who are prescribed opioid painkillers to be very careful not to get pregnant.


*I've tried to figure out why I get so angry with the particular flavor of the pieces which use the "half of all pregnancies are unplanned" in this manner.  The reasons are  1)  that the assumption takes away all agency from women in the fertile age category (it doesn't matter what the women themselves do, pregnancy just "happens") and 2) that there is often a sense in these articles that fertile women really are just temporarily empty fetus aquaria rather than full human beings.


Thursday, January 22, 2015

Huckabee on Theocracy

Huckabee is going to toss his hat in the presidential ring, I read.  It would have been a lot harder to write sarcasm without his presence so I'm grateful.  mm.

He's a man of God, Mike is.  He is going to run on the divine side:

"We cannot survive as a republic if we do not become, once again, a God-centered nation that understands that our laws do not come from man, they come from God," he said on the show "Life Today."
When Huckabee added that he wasn't demanding a theocracy, host James Robison said, "We have a theocracy right now. It's a secular theocracy."
"That's it!" Huckabee said, describing the current political order as "humanistic, secular, atheistic, even antagonistic toward Christian faith."
I need to take out my brain and vacuum it before returning it to its nest, what with the idea of something called secular theocracy. 

But what is the difference between theocracy and "understanding that our laws do not come from man [sic], they come from God?"  Please someone tell me.

I have difficulty with the extremist Islamic ideas (ISIS) of how a country is run as a theocracy, and I have difficulty with Huckabee's version, too.  Many years ago:
 ...former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee forcefully defended an earlier statement backing the biblical admonition that wives should submit to their husbands.
"I'm not the least bit ashamed of my faith or the doctrines of it," Huckabee said. "I don't try to impose that as a governor, and I wouldn't impose it as a president. But I certainly am going to practice it unashamedly.... "
He went on to explain that the Bible also commands husbands to submit to their wives and that marriage requires each spouse to give 100 percent to the other.

That's gobbledegook, that idea of mutual submission, based on the Bible.  But if you grant Huckabee his god ideas, it would suggest that in the past he wasn't going to use those to run the country.  How can you both have theocracy and not have theocracy?

The real problem, naturally, is that nobody truly knows how a divine power would rule a country (well, you could ask me about my rules).  What we have instead are writings by human beings who lived thousands of years ago and who lived inside a society which looks very different from many societies existing today.  Adulterous women were stoned, men had absolute rule over their families, homosexuality was a crime punishable by death and so on.  That the writers or recorders believed all this to be the will of god doesn't prove that it is.

But those are the writings the extremist literalists and fundamentalists attribute to gods in all religions today. Thus, Huckabee is a brother under the skin with those who planned the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq.  Granted, he's a much kinder and gentler brother, but he uses similar books as his guide to what should be.

The difficulty with that approach is pretty obvious for the rest of us:  How do you debate issues with someone who believes that he speaks for God? 

More On The No-Go Zones in Europe

Have you noticed that the debate about the Muslim no-go zones in Europe tends to take the final form of YES, THEY EXIST! NO, THEY DO NOT!   Rinse and repeat.

That isn't terribly helpful.  Neither is the invitation to go and see whether they exist or not, given that most of us cannot hop into our private jets and organize extensive visits of the world.  Why does it seem to be so hard to delve into the next layer and look at evidence which might point either way?  Or towards something more complicated?

I did a little bit of that work, starting with the assertion about 55 Swedish no-go zones (mostly because I can read a little Swedish).  This quote refers to it:

That night, on Anderson Cooper’s program, the concept crept again into the conversation, as retired CIA officer Gary Berntsen told the host, “Anderson, the Europeans and the French in particular have problems that are the result of also 751 ‘no-go zones’ in France where you have Islamic communities that have formed councils that are managing these areas. And the police don’t go in. If you look at Sweden there are 55 ‘no-go zones’ there. You know, firefighters or ambulance drivers go in there and they’re attacked. Their vehicles are lit on fire, their tires are slashed, and the Europeans have not pushed back against this. They can’t surveil people inside the ‘no-go zones’ if they get and go in there,” said the analyst, who called the zones “enclaves that are completely separated from the government.”

The idea of 55 Swedish "no-go zones" comes from a report by the Swedish police.  The report itself does NOT use the term "no-go zones" and as far as I can see it says nothing about religion. either, or about religious councils which are supposed to run the areas.

Instead, the report is about criminal networks (mostly dealing in narcotics) and loose criminal gangs in certain areas, and the power of those gangs.  Crimes are not often reported to the police, parked police cars are sometimes attacked, rocks are thrown at police and firefighters and it's difficult to find witnesses for crimes.  The one reference to alternative governments in the report refers to the criminal gangs themselves as being in power in a few areas, via the use of fear and threats in the local communities.   But the report also states that most areas do not fall under the concept of a "parallel society."

Could those 55 areas have a high percentage of Muslim immigrants?  That's possible, given that crime tends to hide in poorer areas and immigrants mostly begin as poor and are therefore more likely to settle into higher crime areas.  It's probably also the case that immigrants are among those criminal networks or run at least some of them.

But are those areas run as some type of miniature caliphates?  I found no evidence of that.  Note, however,  that it's not unknown for religious minorities to try to control the area in which they live.

What's the point of what I wrote here?  That crime might be what the idea of the so-called "no-go zones" are about, and that any "parallel societies" would be more tied to crime lords than mullahs, say.   Still, it is obviously important to avoid segregation along religious lines, especially when it coincides with economic and social segregation.