Monday, February 27, 2006

Apologies for no blogging: on vacation

Sorry for the lack of blogging in the past few days: I was in Venice for a short trip for the carnival, and the festive atmosphere has kept me away from even light blogging. Heading home right now, so from tomorrow morning things will be back to normal.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Burn the witch!

In the past few days, this blog has seen some rather heated discussions of intolerance, attempts to suppress "offensive" speech, and elevation of dogma over science on the part of the religious right. Now comes an example of the same from the politically correct left: Harvard president Lawrence Summers has announced that he will resign at the end of this academic year. His decision is widely seen as stemming in large part from the brouhaha over his speech last year in which Summers said, in part, that the underrepresentation of women in science may be partly due to biological differences between the sexes (and thus irremediable), which prompted an outcry from the faculty. In his letter to the Harvard community, Summers notes that "the rifts between me and segments of the Arts and Sciences faculty make it infeasible for me to advance the agenda of renewal that I see as crucial to Harvard's future."

Here's my March 1, 2005 Boston Globe column on the Summers controversy:

THE REAL scandal at Harvard is not that university president Lawrence Summers suggested, at a private symposium, that the small numbers of women in math and science departments at top research institutions may be due less to sex discrimination than to personal choices and inherent sex differences. The scandal is that his fairly innocuous, carefully hedged remarks sparked an irrational, intolerant outcry and that Summers was forced to offer groveling apologies in order to save his job.

Now that the transcript of Summers's remarks at the National Bureau of Economic Research Conference on Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce on Jan. 14 has been released, let's clarify what Summers did not say. He did not say that women are intellectually inferior to men or that women can't be great scientists. He did not say that young women shouldn't be encouraged to pursue careers in math and science or that there is no need to combat discrimination. (In fact, he said just the opposite.) He did suggest that even with the best efforts, full parity might be unattainable.

One reason for the imbalance, Summers said, is that science is one of those fields where highly successful people must have "near total commitments to their work" and fewer women than men are willing to make such a commitment, particularly women with families. (He added, "That's not a judgment about how it should be.") That is, quite simply, true. In a 2001 study by University of Vanderbilt psychologists David Lubinski and Camilla Persson Benbow, nearly a third of talented female graduate students in math and science and only 9 percent of the men said it was important to work part-time for at least a part of their careers. More egalitarian family roles would solve the problem.

Summers also touched feminism's third rail: biological differences between the sexes. The issue isn't average mathematical ability, which is quite similar for men and women; it's that many more males are clustered at the high and low ends of the scale, among the geniuses and the learning-disabled, while women are more likely to be found near the middle.

Is it "crazy," as Harvard physics professor Howard Georgi averred, to suggest that this may be due partly to scientifically proven brain differences? These differences aren't absolute (about a third of each sex usually fits the pattern more typical of the other), but they're significant enough to result in uneven distribution. Few would question the role of biology in the fact that four out of five children with autism are male.

Why deny it so strenuously when it comes to mathematical and scientific geniuses? Why refuse to consider that innate differences in temperament may make women more likely to prefer people-oriented occupations? Discrimination can't explain why women have made far greater inroads in formerly male-dominated fields such as law and medi cine than the hard sciences.

Summers's comments are hardly beyond criticism. He may well have underestimated the role of culture in gender differences. His story about his daughters calling their toy trucks "daddy truck" and "baby truck" belongs to the annoying "how my kids confirm gender stereotypes" anecdotal genre. Still, his informal talk was more grounded in solid research than the 1999 Massachusetts Institute of Technology report on the status of women faculty, a largely data-free hodgepodge of broad claims about discrimination and women's feelings of marginalization and misery.

The anti-Summers backlash is a scary display of know-nothingism, an embarrassing spectacle of academics rushing to denounce the mere statement of an unorthodox hypothesis. Like the MIT study, it's likely to create a climate that ultimately won't be good for women scientists. In his talk, Summers warned that an aggressive push to hire and promote more women i.e. preferential treatment may cast a shadow on women's merits, even when their advancement is based solely on talent. A number of women scientists such as Lynn Hillenbrand, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology, have expressed similar concerns.

It has been suggested that Summers's comments could discourage scientifically talented young women. But exaggerated claims of pervasive, subtle discrimination could have an even more discouraging effect. Our message to these women should be that they are individuals whose talent is not diminished by the male-to-female ratio in their field and whose personal choices play a key role in shaping their careers not victims whose fragile egos must be protected from dangerous ideas of gender difference.


The witch-hunt against Summers may not have been quite up there with Stalinist show trials, as some have rhetorically claimed; but it was an egregious display of PC intolerance, and now the witch-hunters have had their burning at the stake, which is likely to have (pardon the mixed metaphor) a chilling effect on other administrators who would raise similar contentious issues.

For those who want to read Summers' heresy for themselves, here it is. Stanley Kurtz thinks Summers' real sin was the apology (his Galileo moment, so to speak), and he may be right.




Monday, February 20, 2006

Russia: Everything old is new again?

More disturbing news out of Russia. According to The Independent:

After a number of delays, a "Stalin museum" dedicated to the once venerated Father of the People is to be opened at the end of March in Volgograd, the Second World War "hero city" once known as Stalingrad.

The project is being financed by local businessmen but will controversially enjoy pride of place in the official complex that commemorates the epic Second World War Battle of Stalingrad.

The museum will display a writing set owned by the dictator, copies of his historic musings, a mock-up of his Kremlin office, a Madame Tussauds-style wax representation of him and medals, photographs and busts.

Svetlana Argatseva, the museum's curator, said she felt the project was justified. "In France, people regard Napoleon and indeed the rest of their history with respect. We need to look at our history in the same way."

But Eduard Polyakov, the chairman of a local association of victims of political repression, is among those who believe the project is an insult to the millions who suffered in Stalin's purges and were sent to their death in the Gulag. "I don't even want to hear about this," he said.

....

The comeback of a man whose bloodied hands are often compared to Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot and Mao Zedong, has alarmed the more liberal wing of Russia's political class. The Soviet Union's last leader Mikhail Gorbachev has warned that neo-Stalinism is on the march again while Russia's first post-Soviet President Boris Yeltsin has said he can't understand why Stalin is still so popular.

Between 30 and 40 per cent of poll respondents regularly rate Stalin's achievements as "positive" and a survey last year named him the most revered Communist leader the USSR produced. Admirers cite his turning the Soviet Union into a superpower, the country's defeat of fascism and the "order" he enforced.


Significantly, there has been no reaction so far from the Putin government, which -- without quite resurrecting Stalinism -- has made moves to restore "pride" in the country's Soviet past. Given the autoritarian climate in Putin's Russia, it is highly doubtful that those Volgograd businessmen would have had the nerve to open a Stalin museum without at least implicit approval by the government.

Incidentally, February 25 is the 50th anniversary of the speech Nikita Khrushchev gave at a closed Party leadership meeting denoucing the Stalin "personality cult."

In the meantime, Putin has been the object of something of a "personality cult" of his own. A Russian friend has sent in this sample:


It's a Putin pocket calendar, complete with glitter, the Kremlin towers, and billowing banners.

It all reminds me of a Russian limerick that made the rounds after Khrushchev was deposed and forced into retirement in 1964:

How embarrasing! How shameful!
How could this have come about?
We've kissed ass for near a decade --
But the wrong one, it turned out.

Still, the nation marches onward,
Quite unfazed by such a mess,
For we're confident as ever
That we'll find another ass.


(Translation by yours truly.)

On a less facetious note, Michael McFaul in The Weekly Standard reviews a new book on the Putin regime's slow strangulation of Russia's infant democracy. He concludes:

If democracy's erosion in Russia is as serious as it is portrayed here, why does President Bush seem so blasé about it? In his second inaugural address, and in many other inspiring speeches, Bush has pledged to stand against tyranny and with democrats in all parts of the world. Yet he continues to mute his message when meeting with Putin, even though Russia has experienced a more dramatic rollback of democracy than any other country in the world while Bush has been president. In their chapters on diplomacy, Baker and Glasser only tiptoe toward an explanation. The subject demands its own book. But in this truly definitive account of the Putin era, Kremlin Rising may help to be part of the solution. No one can read it and not feel uneasy about Russia's short-term future.

The next time Natan Sharansky visits the White House to offer counsel on how to advance liberty around the world, Kremlin Rising is the book he should give the president.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

False rape charges: a feminist responds

Recently, Jeff Goldstein challenged feminist bloggers to respond to a bizarre California story about a false accusation of rape that was disproved only by the existence of a videotape, and to the fact that such charges -- which can potentially lead to years of imprisonment for the falsely accused -- are generally treated lightly by the legal system. I responded to the story here.

Now, Jill at Feministe -- one of the bloggers Jeff addressed -- has a response of her own. Jill points to an absolutely horrible story from Iran, involving a teenage girl named Naznin, who has been sentenced to death by hanging for stabbing a man to death when he and two other men tried to rape her and her niece in a park after chasing away their male companions by pelting them with stones.

Jill then comments:

There isn’t much else to say about this one, is there? It’s disgusting beyond words.

But of course, I shouldn’t take this girl’s word on its face. I mean, we all know that women lie about rape for fun and no one lies about other crimes, and this girl especially had something to gain. Perhaps we should consider a higher legal bar in evaluating rape charges. Right?


Of course, if a male blogger posted some terrible story about an innocent man being lynched on a false accusation of rape, and then added a snarky aside along the lines of, "I mean, we all know that women never lie about rape and we should just believe the women," then we'd all know he was a misogynist... right?

I've seen Jill's posts before, at Feministe and on others blogs. I've often disagreed with her, but she always struck me as someone willing, at least, to engage in an honest exchange of ideas. But now, confronted with an open-and-shut case of a woman lying about rape -- a lie that could have sent six men to prison for many years -- she can do no better than to use Nazanin's tragic story to try to score a cheap rhetorical point.

Disappointing, to say the least.


Saturday, February 18, 2006

Hyping the Muslim peril

I did say that this would be my last word on the Mohammed cartoons, but here's something that's more or less directly connected to that topic, and that deserves a response.

Andrew Sullivan, who ever since the start of the cartoon controversy has been beating the alarm about the threat posed by Muslims to liberties in the West, has a post titled "How Muslim Blackmail Works."

Moscow has now canceled its Gay Pride parade. It was canceled after the chief Muslim leader in Russia warned that marchers would be "bashed" if they dared to walk the streets. Money quote:

"Earlier this week Chief Mufti Talgat Tadzhuddin warned that Russia's Muslims would stage violent protests if the march went ahead. "If they come out on to the streets anyway they should be flogged. Any normal person would do that - Muslims and Orthodox Christians alike ... [The protests] might be even more intense than protests abroad against those controversial cartoons." The cleric said the Koran taught that homosexuals should be killed because their lifestyle spells the extinction of the human race and said that gays had no human rights."


Sullivan then laments "appeasement of these religious terrorists."

But when you read the article he references, from The Independent, a rather different picture emerges.

For one thing, the parade was not "canceled," which would imply that at one point it had been approved. Rather, it was preemptively vetoed by the city government. According to the story:

Mayor Yuri Luzhkov's administration said yesterday it would not even consider an application for a parade, prompting Russia's gay community to threaten legal action in the European Court of Human Rights.

Gay and lesbian activists have been campaigning for permission to stage the country's first gay pride event on Saturday 27 May.

The date marks the 13th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Russia in 1993.

After quoting the Mufti, the story continues:

The Russian Orthodox Church has called [the parade] "the propaganda of sin". Bishop Daniil of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk yesterday condemned the plans as a "cynical mockery" and likened homosexuality to leprosy.

The mayor's spokesman, Sergei Tsoi, said a parade would not be allowed. "[The plans] have caused outrage in society, particularly among religious leaders," he said.

In the Communist era Russian homosexuals were jailed for five years and their "condition" was classed as a mental disorder. In post-Soviet Russia public acceptance of homosexuality has been glacial. An opinion poll last year showed 43 per cent of Russians believed gay men should be incarcerated.


There is, in other words, a great deal more to this story than "Muslim blackmail." In fact, I would venture a guess that "Muslim blackmail," in this case, is not part of the story at all. We're talking about Moscow, where ethnics from mostly Muslim regions are routinely harassed and abused by the police; and about Russia, where the government would rather risk hostages' lives than negotiate with terrorists. That the government in Putin's Russia would capitulate to the threat of violent protests is unlikely to the point of being absurd. (In fact, many believe that Putin's government has often used extremist groups for its own purposes, to intimidate opponents.) It's just as absurd to think that the authorities needed any Muslim pressure to ban a gay pride parade. Russia is a deeply homophobic society (where, two years ago, the Russian Orthodox Church razed a chapel after it was "defiled" by a wedding ceremony between two men). It needs no help from Muslims in that regard.

I do agree, of course, that in many European countries, there is a genuine conflict between the conservative values of Muslim immigrants and the openness and pluralism of the societies around them. But this is simply not one of those cases. I also think that intimidation is definitely a factor in this conflict, and the sensibilities of Muslim immigrants are respected out of fear as well asmulticulturalist deference. But not everything is about the Muslim peril. If Amsterdam had canceled its gay pride parade in response to threats from Muslim leaders, that would have been a clearcut, and appalling, case of intimidation. In Moscow, there is little doubt that the ban reflected the authorities' true wishes.


Friday, February 17, 2006

And speaking of intolerance....

The Arizona state legislature wants to protect college students from any course materials that might hurt their poor little feelings.

According to Inside Higher Ed:

The legislation ... would require public colleges to provide students with “alternative coursework” if a student finds the assigned material “personally offensive,” which is defined as something that “conflicts with the student’s beliefs or practices in sex, morality or religion.” On Wednesday, the bill starting moving, with the Senate Committee on Higher Education approving the measure — much to the dismay of professors in the state.

The Arizona bill ... goes so far that David Horowitz, the ’60s radical turned conservative activist who has pushed the Academic Bill of Rights, opposes the measure. “It doesn’t respect the authority of the professor in the classroom,” he said. “This authority does not include the right to indoctrinate students or deny them access to texts with points of view that differ from the professor’s. But it does include the right to assign texts that make students feel uncomfortable.”

... Although the legislation has a long way to go before it could become law, the idea that the Senate committee charged with overseeing colleges would approve the measure is upsetting to academics. They are also angry because the evidence cited by lawmakers to support the bill appears to be based on a misreading of an acclaimed novel.

The sponsors of the bill did not respond to messages seeking comment. But local news coverage of the session at which the bill won committee approval quoted Sen. Thayer Verschoor as citing complaints he had received about The Ice Storm, a novel by Rick Moody that was turned into a film directed by Ang Lee. “There’s no defense of this book. I can’t believe that anyone would come up here and try to defend that kind of material,” Verschoor said at the hearing, according to The Arizona Star. Other senators spoke at the hearing, the newspaper reported, against colleges teaching “pornography and smut.”

Actually, there are plenty who would defend teaching The Ice Storm, including the professor whose course appears to have set off Verschoor. The course — at Chandler-Gilbert Community College — was “Currents of American Life,” a team-taught course in the history and literature of the modern United States. The literature that students read is selected to reflect broad themes of different eras, according to Bill Mullaney, a literature professor. For example, students read John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

The Ice Storm was a logical choice for teaching about the 1970s, Mullaney said, because the novel looks at suburban life at a crucial point in that decade: the collapse of the Nixon administration. While two families’ lives are dissected, Watergate is always in the background and the relationship between private morality and public scandal is an important theme.

Adultery is central to the novel and one of its most famous scenes involves a “key party,” in which couples throw their car keys in bowl, and then pull out keys to decide which wife will sleep with which husband (not her own) after the party. From comments at the Senate markup of the bill, it seems clear that lawmakers had heard about the wife swapping, but Mullaney and others doubt that they actually read the book. If they had, they might have realized that Moody’s portrayal of ’70s culture is far from admiring.

....

Chandler-Gilbert officials said that Mullaney and all of their professors take a number of steps that indicate that they do respect students’ rights to avoid certain material. Mullaney, for example, had a reference on his syllabus to the controversial nature and “adult themes” of some works, and he draws students’ attention to that reference on the first day, when they have time to switch courses or sections. In the case of the student whose complaint apparently set off the bill, however, he ignored the warning and demanded an alternate book several weeks into the course, saying he hadn’t paid attention when Mullaney noted the material earlier. The student’s mother also called the college president (although the student is over 18).

Mullaney said that he respects the right of students to decide which courses to take, but that students can’t dictate books to be taught. “This is totally unworkable in the classroom,” he said. “If you have students demanding alternative books, and one student is reading one book, and one another, and one another — it doesn’t make any sense in terms of how you teach.”

If the bill became law, he added, professors would have to avoid controversial books so they wouldn’t risk losing control of their reading lists. “I joke that what I’ll do is just teach To Kill a Mockingbird — all the time,” he said.

Faculty and administrative groups are opposing the bill. ...

The Arizona Daily Star
quoted Senator Verschoor as acknowledging that additional negotiations might be needed. He said that he doubted colleges would follow the bill’s provisions now “because of the whole academic freedom thing.”


Oh yeah, that. The whole academic freedom thing.

Well, all right, it's not on a par with issuing fatwahs and lopping off heads. But hypersensitive students can dictate what books a professor can assign? A parent complaining about her grown son being exposed to a book with (gasp!) sexual content? One doesn't know whether to laugh or to cry. Given that this bill is actually moving through the legislature, I think alarm is a more appropriate response.

By the way, Prof. Mullaney shouldn't be so confident about teaching To Kill a Mockingbird. In recent years the book has been criticized on feminist grounds, for its unsympathetic treatment of a (white) woman accusing a (black) man of rape. And can anyone doubt that if the Arizona legislature gets the bill through thanks to special pleading from affronted traditionalists, it will also end up being used by affronted feminists, minorities, and others?



Obesity, medical studies, and gender politics

The other day, at the American Enterprise Institute conference called "Panick Attack" (focusing on modern culture's proneness to exaggerated fear), James Glassman talked about government- and media-promoted hysteria about obesity. Obesity is, by the way, an interesting issue politically: hostility to what some see as a campaign to exaggerate the dangers of fatness is found both on the libertarian right, which sees it as elitist do-gooder meddling with people's lifestyles, and on the cultural left, which sees it as an attempt to give medical validation to oppressive standards of beauty and body shape (you know -- fat liberation, fat-is-a-feminist-issue, etc.).

As an example of how misguided this campaign supposedly is, Glassman cited the recent study, publicized by Gina Kolata in the New York Times, claiming that reducing dietary fat does not reduce the risk of cancer and heart attack. This study, a part of the Women's Health Initiative, is the largest of its kind; it followed nearly 49,000 women ages 50 to 79 over the course of eight years, about 40% of whom were assigned to a low-fat diet. This led one researcher quoted by Kolata to call it "the Rolls-Royce of studies."

Well, it's certainly a Rolls-Royce cost-wise, at $415 million. But it may be a defective Rolls-Royce.

For instance, the Columbia Journalism Review daily points out, relying on a Wall Street Journal article:

The problem with the study, the Journal went on to point out, was that it did not distinguish between so-called "good" fats, like omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, and "bad" fats, such as the saturated and trans fats found in fried and processed foods. Also, the Journal noted, the women on the low-fat diet didn't do a great job of sticking with it. As a result, the overall difference between the two diets ended up being fairly minimal. That the resulting health differences were also fairly minimal, therefore, was not exactly big news.

Some of the same points are made in letters to the Times (no longer available online at the Times site).

For instance, Dr. David L. Katz of the Yale School of Medicine points out:

The diet component of the Women's Health Initiative compared some 20,000 women advised to cut dietary fat and increase their intake of produce to a comparable group given the federal dietary guidelines.

The difference in these interventions was modest; the advice to cut fat without attention to kinds of fat, questionable; and subject compliance, limited.

Thus, there were only rather trivial differences in the diets between groups, and despite that, a trend toward reduced rates of both breast cancer and cardiovascular risk factors in the intervention group.

That there were any discernible differences in outcomes at all is more surprising than how modest those differences were, particularly given that cancer and heart disease develop over decades and that this intervention occurred relatively late in life, in women well past menopause.

My convictions in the fundamentals of a healthful diet are unshaken.


Another writer notes:

In the mid-1990's, when my mother first became a subject of the Women's Health Initiative study, of which the low-fat study was a part, she complained after her first orientation session, ''They make no distinction between lard and olive oil!''

A slim, healthy senior citizen with no medical background, she was already aware, a decade ago, of mounting evidence that all fats are not equal.

But the study's designers paid no attention to this, and we went ahead and paid $415 million to carry it out.

It would be highly irresponsible of the American medical community if, as Dr. Michael Thun of the American Cancer Society suggests, this were to be the last word. The study was flawed and dated from the get-go.


Actually, it was. And some people even pointed it out at the time.

On November 2, 1993, The New York Times reported:

A committee of the Institute of Medicine said today that it was skeptical of the merits of a women's health study planned by the the National Institutes of Health at a cost of $625 million. The committee said much of the anticipated data could probably be obtained with smaller, better-focused and less costly projects.

The committee, which spent six months examining plans for the Women's Health Initiative at the request of the House Appropriations Committee, said it questioned the value of the nationwide study as designed and recommended changing it.

Much of the criticism, as it happens, focused on the low-fat diet/breast cancer study. (Among other things, according to a Washington Post report on the same date, committee members expressed doubt that the necessary diet modification could be carried out with such a large pool of subjects.) The panel also warned that the cost estimates for the study were far too low and that it would end up costing at least twice as much as projected. Considering that the low-fat diet study was only one of its many components and that it has already run up a $415 million tab, that seems likely.

All these recommendations were rejected. Why?

Well, let's recall how the WHI came into being in the first place. In the early 1990s, there was a big to-do about alleged neglect of women in medical research. For the most part, this neglect was a myth. For instance, while members of the Congressional Women's Caucus were outraged by a report showing that less than 14% of National Institutes of Health spending in 1987 was for research on female-specific illnesses, they apparently didn't noticed that fewer than 7% of the NIH budget was allocated to male-specific problems (the rest went to the far more numerous diseases that afflict both sexes). And, while there were a lot of claims that breast cancer research had been underfunded because it was "only" a women's disease, breast cancer was in fact one of the most extensively studied and most generously funded diseases long before the rise of women's health activism. In 1991, the National Cancer Institute allocated more research dollars to breast cancer than to any other single type of cancer -- indeed, more than to lung cancer and prostate cancer combined. From 1981 to 1991, the NCI spent $658 million on breast cancer research and $113 million on prostate cancer. Medline, the comprehensive database of medical journals, has nearly 18,000 entries for breast cancer in 1966-1991, compared to fewer than 1,800 for prostate cancer and about 8,600 for lung cancer.

Nonetheless, just about everyone picked up the "sexist bias in medicine" meme and ran with it. Then-NIH president Bernadine Healy, a major proponent of this myth, pushed for a major study to remedy this supposed bias. And so the WHI was born. Its champions' reaction to criticism of the study was telling.

According to The Washington Post:

Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), co-chair of the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues, said that the IOM report is shortsighted. The Women's Health Initiative, she said, addresses a historical lack of interest in women's health issues; to make it shorter or less costly would repeat past inequities. "We just want to make sure," Schroeder said, "that nobody cuts the corners on us one more time."

The cry of sexism was echoed by Healy, in The New York Times:

"Billions of dollars have been spent to do research in men, and now a relatively modest study comes along to do studies in women, and it is subject to this kind of scrutiny," Dr. Healy said. "However, when this study is over, we will know a lot more about women's health than we do today."


(By the way, seven of the committee's 11 members were women.)

And so the study went forward as planned.

At this time, it is perhaps fitting to quote the words of Yale epidemiologist Dr. Kelly Brownell, one of the IOM panel members, who told The Washington Post, "the science has to be good or the money will be wasted."

Well, yeah. That's what happens when you get politics-driven science, whether the politics are based on religion, feminism, or any other type of ideology.

The last word on the Mohammed cartoons (mine, at least)

My Globe column and blogpost on the Mohammed cartoons controversy caused quite a bit of displeasure among some commenters, who felt that I was unfairly comparing radical Islamists to Christian fundamentalists (and conservative Catholics) in the West, and specifically in the United States. In fact, I very specifically made a distinction between violent and nonviolent reactions to offensive speech. I agree that violence and threats of violence, which are a fairly common modus operandi for the radical Islamists today, exist only at the margins of Christian fundamentalism and other religious ultraconservatism in the West. (Though one can't, in my opinion, entirely brush aside such facts as the threats of arson and other violence in 1998 against the New York production of Terence McNally's play Corpus Christi, and the jubilant reaction from the Catholic League's William Donohue when the play was temporarily canceled because of these threats.)

My point, which I will reiterate again, is that despite these important differences, there are certain common threads between different kinds of religious ultraconservatism. The backlash against Enlightenment values (tolerance, intellectual diversity, freedom of expression, scientific knowledge) exists not only among radical Islamists -- as David Brooks asserted in his New York Times column -- but also among Protestant fundamentalists and Catholic traditionalists. What's more, many American religious conservatives are openly sympathetic to the radical Muslims' effort to banish speech that offends them from the public square, though not to their violent means.

Is it impermissible or even absurd, as some of my critical commenters seem to imply, to see and analyze common threads and themes in violent and non-violent movements and phenomena? Hardly. No one, for instance, would say that it's absurd to point out that anti-Semitism exists not only among neo-Nazis and Klansmen but among non-violent people and groups as well. Conservatives have not infrequently drawn parallels between communism and far milder varieties of leftist ideology. I also recall quite a few people on the right pointing out similarities between the Unabomber's manifesto and mainstream environmentalist ideas, including the ones advanced by Al Gore in Earth in the Balance -- even though, as far as I can tell, Al Gore has never mailed anyone a bomb.

Why, then, are such comparisons out of bounds when it comes to religions that reject modernity and intellectual tolerance, and regard criticism as blasphemy?

I might add, too, that some of the commentary on the Muslim response to the cartoons seems to conflated non-violent protests (i.e., peaceful demosntrations, boycotts against The Philadelphia Inquirer after it reprinted the cartoons) with violent ones.

Let me explain, too, why I think this issue is important. I absolutely believe that radical Islamism is a threat to civilization, and that it's important to take it seriously. But I am also troubled by the fact that in too many cases, the reaction to radical Islamism does take on the form of bigotry against all Muslims. There is always, of course, the incomparable Ann Coulter, whose comments about "ragheads" got a standing ovation the other day at the Conservative Political Action Committee conference; but look at the email that Andrew Sullivan posted on his blog a few days ago, from a "liberal reader":

"I'm honestly starting to suspect that, before this is over, European nations are going to have exactly four choices in dealing with their entire Moslem populations -- for elementary safety's sake:
(1) Capitulate totally to them and become a Moslem continent.
(2) Intern all of them.
(3) Deport all of them
(4) Throw all of them into the sea.

This sounds a bit shrill even to me -- but what the hell else can you do with several tens of millions of potential Branch Davidians?

The whole worldwide situation would be SO much easier to deal with if Pakistan didn't already have the Bomb. Think how much more interesting it will be when Iran has it, too."


What I found especially troubling is that Andrew cites this email uncritically, as evidence of "some very hard thinking on the left."

In the face of such attitudes, I think it's time for some hard thinking on the right. Yes, modern Islamic radicalism has no exact or even close counterparts in Western Christianity; even Pat Robertson is not seeking the imposition of Biblical law that mandates killing gays and stoning adulteresses. But many conservative Muslims' problems with an open, tolerant, pluralistic society are not substantially different than many conservative Christians' and Jews'; and neither is their reaction to the mockery of their faith.

[Edited to add: Please note that the "many conservative Muslims" in the previous paragraph refers not to the violence-preaching (or -practicing) extremists, but to the far more numerous conservative Muslims -- in Denmark, for instance, and here in the United States -- who have protested the cartoons through non-violent means, whether through peaceful demonstrations or boycotts. As I noted above, the two have often been conflated.]

Commenting on the Mohammed cartoons, the Harvard conservative paper, The Harvard Salient, writes:

It almost goes without saying that similar depictions of Christ, or the pope, or a crucifix would have hardly elicited a response save a handful of letters to the editor. In the 21st century, a violent response would, in any case, be unfathomable.

I agree about the violent response part. But if a major newspaper such as The New York Times ran a cartoon showing, for instance, Jesus shooting up an abortion clinic, I don't think it's so farfetched to think that conservative Christian groups could have whipped up a major campaign against the paper, with boycotts, demonstrations, and demands for apologies. In other words, the same kind of response American Muslims had to the publication of the Mohammed cartoons in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Rape, lies, and videotape

Via Jeff Goldstein, a bizarre story (warning: the linked article contains sexually graphic material and some very bad language) with serious implications. An Orange County, California woman, Tamara Anne Mounier, goes to the police and claims she was abducted at gunpoint, gang-raped, and forced to perform degrading sexual acts on tape. A week later, six men are arrested. When they turn the videotape over to the police, it turns out that the sex was entirely consensual; the woman repeatedly laughs, directs the action, berates some of the men for being unable to perform adequately, expresses her enjoyment verbally and vocally, and at one points talks to someone on a cell phone, enthusiastically describing the goings-on.

Apart from the baffling question of what possessed Mounier to go the police with her story and mention the videotape, which she had to know would disprove her claims, there is also the issue of punishment. The most Mounier could have faced for her false accusation, which could have sent the men to prison for life, was a misdemeanor charge resulting in a maximum of six months in jail. In the case she has actually been charged with two felonies because she also defrauded the state victim assistance program out of several thousand dollars. If convicted -- so far, oddly enough, Mounier has refused to take a guilty plea -- she could go to prison for up to 44 months. (Should the case go to trial, with the videotape as evidence, this is going to be be one time people won't be wiggling out of jury duty.)

Jeff asks what feminists, including yours truly, think about this. I'll gladly answer.

In some legal systems, a false accuser faced the same penalty that the accused would have faced if convicted on the false charge. That may be excessive, but the penalties for false accusations -- whatever the crime -- do need to be tougher. There are legitimate concerns that women who are raped may not come forward if they have to worry that they'll go to prison for a long time if unable to prove the charge. But no one is talking about punishing accusers whose charges cannot be proven (resulting in the accused going free). If a woman or a man is charged with a felony for falsely accusing someone of a serious crime, the prosecution will have to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the person knowingly made a false charge. That's a tough burden to meet, and it should be. But in those cases where the falsehood of the accusation is clear, the punishment should be fittingly serious.

There is another issue here as well. In response to pernicious myths and stereotypes about women routinely "crying rape" -- stereotypes that, among other things, often branded any "unchaste" victim as a lying slut -- many feminists have gone to the other extreme of asserting that women don't lie about rape (or hardly ever lie about rape), and that women in he said/she said sexual assault cases should be given what feminist sociologist Margaret Gordon called "the benefit of belief." In some cases, the very discussion of false charges of rape has been treated as misogynist hate speech. And while it's certainly not true that, as some men's activists claim, all it takes to send a man to prison these days is one word from a woman, the new rape myths -- the feminists ones -- have taken enough hold to result in some very substantial injustices.

We need a serious, honest, open discussion on false accusations of rape. Being able to accuse someone of rape is a form of power (of course that's true of any accusation, but a charge of rape packs a unique emotional and legal punch); and it would be naive to expect women never to abuse the power they have, just as it would be naive to expect it of men.

For more on the topic see:

Prosecuting rape allegations (The Y Files, December 4, 2005)

Who says women never lie about rape? (Salon.com, March 10, 1999)

Kobe's rights: Rape, justice and double standards (Reason, April 2001)

How much should we know about the sex life of Kobe Bryant's accuser? (Salon.com, March 26, 2004)

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Whose ox is being gored?

Al Gore's recent U.S.-slamming speech in Saudi Arabia, which is causing quite a stir in the blogosphere, seems almost like a deliberate effort to live up (or down) to the "crazy Al Gore" meme.

According to the Associated Press:

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- Former Vice President Al Gore told a mainly Saudi audience on Sunday that the U.S. government committed "terrible abuses" against Arabs after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and that most Americans did not support such treatment.

Gore said Arabs had been "indiscriminately rounded up" and held in "unforgivable" conditions. The former vice president said the Bush administration was playing into al-Qaida's hands by routinely blocking Saudi visa applications.

"The thoughtless way in which visas are now handled, that is a mistake," Gore said during the Jiddah Economic Forum. "The worst thing we can possibly do is to cut off the channels of friendship and mutual understanding between Saudi Arabia and the United States."

Gore told the largely Saudi audience, many of them educated at U.S. universities, that Arabs in the United States had been "indiscriminately rounded up, often on minor charges of overstaying a visa or not having a green card in proper order, and held in conditions that were just unforgivable."

"Unfortunately there have been terrible abuses and it's wrong," Gore said. "I do want you to know that it does not represent the desires or wishes or feelings of the majority of the citizens of my country."


Did some of the abuses Gore decries happen? I'm sure they did, though I suspect he makes them sound much more large-scale than they really were. Is it always wrong to criticize your country when abroad? (Assuming, here, that we are talking about a country such as the United States where it is possible to criticize government policies at home, and not, say, the former Soviet Union. Or Saudi Arabia, for that matter.) Actually, I don't think so -- though at the moment, with so much anti-American sentiment already existing in the Arab and Muslim world, it is -- to put it charitably -- imprudent to inflame those passions in an Arab Muslim country.

But even leaving that aside, Gore's comments are disgraceful and bizarre for two reasons.

(1) Gore fails to mention the fact that non-Muslims in America, too, are often held in shockingly bad conditions after being arrested for minor immigration violations. This is, admittedly, a fact that does not (in my opinion) flatter our country. But Gore's version is far worse, particularly when told to a Muslim/Arab audience, because it implies a concerted campaign to mistreat Arabs and Muslims in the United States. And I do think there is a good argument to be made that in the wake of 9/11, there were legitimate reasons for some ethnic/national profiling when looking at people whose presence in America was of questionable legality. I suspect, even, that most Americans -- without endorsing anyone's ill-treatment -- would back such profiling.

(2) Gore was speaking in Saudi Arabia, whose human rights record speaks for itself (particularly with regard to the rights of religious minorities). To go before a Saudi audience and complain about human rights violations in the United States is like talking to a known serial rapist and expressing outrage at the actions of an occasional sexual harasser.

Gore should do the decent thing and apologize.

More: It's worth noting that Gore also decried the Iranian regime:

On Iran, Gore complained of "endemic hyper-corruption" among Tehran's religious and political elite and asked Arabs to take a stand against Iran's nuclear program.

Iran says its program is for peaceful purposes but the United States and other Western countries suspect Tehran is trying to develop nuclear weapons.

"Is it only for the West to say this is dangerous?" Gore asked. "We should have more people in this region saying this is dangerous."


That may be a good point, particularly about the need for other nations in the region to confront the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran (though one might also argue that Saudi Arabia is in its own way no better than Iran). But that's hardly excuses the totality of Gore's statement.

On a side note, it's rather ironic that while many on the left (Michael Moore, for instance) have assailed Bush for being too cozy with the Saudis, Gore assails him for an overly tough policy on Saudi visas.


Monday, February 13, 2006

Flanagan's follies

Caitlin Flanagan, the self-styled "anti-feminist" who first made a name for herself in The Atlantic and later started writing for The New Yorker as well, is a writer who provokes strong feelings. I have found some of her work quite interesting and thought-provoking, whether agreeing or disagreeing with her. Flanagan's 2004 Atlantic essay on Dr. Laura Schlessinger (subscriber-only, I believe) cheers for some of Schlessinger's unpopular tough-love advice (unpopular with the Atlantic set, at least) but also takes her to task for her slippage into anti-gay bigotry and advocacy of rigid gender roles, as well as her hypocrisy. Her first New Yorker essay, about her mother's brief attempt to resume her career (published in July 2004 but not available online), was a subtle and thoughtful piece, refreshingly free of ideological preaching.

Flanagan has had some annoying lapses into what sounded to me like a deliberate effort to bait and to push feminist buttons: take, for instance, her comment in The Atlantic that her husband is "head of household" and her later elaboration to The New York Observer that "if my husband pops a button, I sew it back on" -- contradicting a statement only a year earlier that she had never been asked to replace a popped button in fourteen years of marriage. But still, I was hoping to find in Flanagan an intelligent, non-stereotypical, non-cliché commentator on gender issues.

But in her latest Atlantic essay, I think, Flanagan jumps the shark.

Flanagan's subject is oral sex, specifically an alleged oral sex epidemic among teenagers. To this issue, she devotes a sprawling, overblown (sorry!), nearly 9,000-word-long tract, tied to a review of Paul Ruditis' book The Rainbow Party -- a fictional treatment of the urban legend about parties at which girls wearing different color lipstick take turns fellating a boy.

The essay gets off (pardon the expression) to a promising start, as Flanagan pooh-poohs the notion that nice middle-class American girls have taken to routinely servicing near-strangers and makes light of parental panic on the issue. But then, Flanagan turns around and decides that the blowjob epidemic is real after all:

[T]he axe came down in September. A huge report was issued by the National Center for Health Statistics. It covered the topic of teenage oral sex more extensively than any previous study, and the news was devastating: A quarter of girls aged fifteen had engaged in it, and more than half aged seventeen.

After this, Flanagan embarks on a long Wendy Shalit-style diatribe about how the erosion of traditional protections has left girls vulnerable to predatory sex. Here's a part of the conclusion (after detours into filthy rap lyrics and a teenage memory of Flanagan's mother instructing her to never invite a boy up to her room because "he might go to school and tell other boys what your comforter looks like"):

If I were to learn that my children had engaged in oral sex -- outside a romantic relationship, and as young adolescents -- I would be sad. But I wouldn't think that they had been damaged by the experience; I wouldn't think I had failed catastrophically as a mother, or that they would need therapy. Because I don't have daughters, I have sons.

I am old-fashioned enough to believe that men and boys are not as likely to be wounded, emotionally and spiritually, by early sexual experience, or by sexual experience entered into without romantic commitment, as are women and girls. I think that girls are vulnerable to great damage through the kind of sex in which they are, as individuals, as valueless and unrecognizable as chattel. Society has let its girls down in every possible way. It has refused to assert -- or even to acknowledge -- that female sexuality is as intricately connected to kindness and trust as it is to gratification and pleasure. It's in the nature of who we are.

But perhaps the girls themselves understand this essential truth.

As myriad forces were combining to reshape our notions of public decency and propriety, to ridicule the concept that privacy and dignity are valuable and allied qualities of character and that exhibitionism as an end in itself might not be beneficial for a young girl, at the exact moment when girls were encouraged to think of themselves as victims of an oppressive patriarchy and to act on an imperative of default aggression -- at this very time a significant number of young girls were beginning to form an entirely new code of sexual ethics and expectations. It was a code in which their own physical pleasure was of no consequence -- was in fact so entirely beside the point that their preferred mode of sexual activity was performing unrequited oral sex. ... The modern girl's casual willingness to perform oral sex may -- as some cool-headed observers of the phenomenon like to propose -- be her way of maintaining a post-feminist power in her sexual dealings, by being fully in control of the sexual act and of the pleasure a boy receives from it. Or it may be her desperate attempt to do something that the culture refuses to encourage: to keep her own sexuality -- the emotions and the desires, as well as the anatomical real estate itself -- private, secret, unviolated. It may not be her technical virginity that she is trying to preserve; it may be her own sexual awakening -- which is all she really has left to protect anymore.

We've made a world for our girls in which the pornography industry has become increasingly mainstream, in which Planned Parenthood's response to the oral-sex craze has been to set up a help line, in which the forces of feminism have worked relentlessly to erode the patriarchy -- which, despite its manifold evils, held that providing for the sexual safety of young girls was among its primary reasons for existence. And here are America's girls: experienced beyond their years, lacking any clear message from the adult community about the importance of protecting their modesty, adrift in one of the most explicitly sexualized cultures in the history of the world. Here are America's girls: on their knees.


Before you bring out the violins, here's a minor point to ponder. The NCHS study that Flanagan cites for its supposedly devastasting results actually found that girls are just as likely to receive oral sex as they are to give it. (The full data can be found here, but be warned: this is a large PDF file.) In other words, all of Flanagan's philosophizing is based on a demonstrably false factual premise, and one that she should know to be false. In fact, the study's finding that oral sex among adolescents is quite likely to be reciprocal was widely discussed, precisely because it contradicts a widely held stereotype. As a Washington Post article put it:

"This is a point of major social transition," James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth, a reproductive health organization, said yesterday. "The data are now coming out and roiling the idea that boys are the hunters and young girls are the prey. It absolutely defies the stereotype."

Of course, the image of teenage girls (and even women) as victims of sex and of predatory male lust is so entrenched that some experts were undeterred. The Post went on to say:

Joe McIllhaney Jr., chairman of the Medical Institute for Sexual Health, said the new data confirm trends he has seen as a physician, but he has doubts about some of Wagoner's conclusions. "I question how much girls enjoy" oral sex, he said."I'd like to know a whole lot more about the pressure boys put on girls."

And now here's Flanagan, continuing to peddle the myth and not even acknowledging the evidence that contradicts it -- from a study she herself cites. And all in the service (it's difficult to avoid cringeworthy puns when writing about this, isn't it?) of the well-worn conservative shibboleth that women, and girls in particular, have been victimized by sexual liberation and the loss of patriarchal protections.

More on those cartoon wars

Is everyone tired of the Mohammed cartoons story? Too bad, because that's the topic of my newest Boston Globe column.

AS THE DANISH cartoons satirizing Mohammed continue to cause violent protests throughout the Muslim world, and Western newspapers grapple with the issue of whether to publish the offending cartoons, many people are asking what this incident says about the ability of Islam, at least in its current state, to coexist with modern democratic civilization and its cherished freedoms. That is a legitimate question, and we should not be deterred from asking it by either political correctness or intimidation. But the tension between traditional religion and modernity, between piety and freedom, are not limited to Islam alone -- though Islamic radicalism today represents a uniquely deadly form of this tension.

In a New York Times column, David Brooks contrasts the Islamic extremists' attitudes with ours: The West, with its ''legacy of Socrates and the agora" and its ''progressive and rational" mindset, is open to a multiplicity of arguments, perspectives, and ''unpleasant facts," while radical Muslims cling to ''pre-Enlightenment" dogmatism and shrink from the ''chaos of our conversation."

Yet Brooks overlooks the fact that a large segment of the population in the West, and especially in the United States, rejects the progressive, rational mindset and embraces pre-Enlightenment values as well. Fundamentalist Christians, traditionalist Catholics and ultra-Orthodox Jews do not, with very few exceptions, call for violence in response to heresy; that is a key distinction. But they too often equate criticism (let alone mockery) of their beliefs with ''religious bigotry" or ''hate speech." And they, too, often seek not simply to protest but to shut down offensive speech.

In 1998, when a Broadway theater announced the production of Terrence McNally's play ''Corpus Christi," depicting a gay Jesus-like character, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights launched a letter-writing campaign against it. There were also threats of violence and arson, which at one point swayed the theater to cancel the play. The Catholic League reacted with jubilation, and while formally deploring the threats it also warned that if another theater picked up ''Corpus Christi," it would ''wage a war that no one will forget." (The theater eventually revived the production.)

Interestingly, the head of the Catholic League, William Donohue, recently applauded the decision of most American newspapers not to publish the Mohammed cartoons and lamented only that his group's protests against offensive material have been less successful. Many of the same newspapers that decided -- quite wrongly, in my view -- not to reproduce the cartoons even as part of a news story about the reaction to them have run photos of controversial works of art considered sacrilegious by Christians, and defended the display of those works in tax-funded museums.

Donohue makes an important point when he says that this double standard reflects fear of violence by Islamic extremists, and that caving in to such intimidation is a deplorable message to send. But he, too, agrees that freedom of the press should take a back seat to respect for what is sacred to believers. Respect is of course a fine thing, but where does one draw the line between insult and criticism or questioning? A few years ago, the charge of ''Christian bashing" was leveled at the ABC show ''Nothing Sacred," which questioned Catholic doctrine on birth control and priestly celibacy.

Others from the Christian right, such as Andrea Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition, have echoed the notion that the media should show the same deference to conservative Christians that they show to Muslims. And a few have openly voiced sympathy even with violent manifestations of Islamic extremism. Pat Buchanan recently wrote:

''When Bush speaks of freedom as God's gift to humanity, does he mean the First Amendment freedom . . . of Salman Rushdie to publish 'The Satanic Verses,' a book considered blasphemous to the Islamic faith? If the Islamic world rejects this notion of freedom . . . why are they wrong?"

The truth is that modernity with its ''chaos of conversation," its chaos of lifestyles, its attitude that there is nothing more sacred than freedom of expression, is profoundly threatening to many religious traditionalists of different faiths. (Last year, quite a few American conservatives applauded Pope Benedict XVI's assault on ''the dictatorship of relativism.") At the present moment, for a variety of historical and cultural reasons, radical fundamentalism holds a particular sway in the Muslim world, where it is wedded to political violence in ways that have no parallel in other religions. To ignore this difference and this danger would be foolish. But it is also unwise to ignore the religious backlash against modernity right here in the West, and its own tensions with individual freedom.


I am not, as some have implicitly or explicitly done, equating the Taliban or the Al Qaeda with the Christian Coalition or the American Family Association. They don't have similar goals or similar means. (The Christian Reconstructionists who do have a Talibanesque theocreatic agenda don't wield any political influence to speak of.) But I do think that it's ludicrous to deny that ther are forces in the West, in America in particular -- and, sadly, in David Brooks's own political camp -- that do represent a traditionalist backlash against the Enlightenment. (The left, of course, has its own anti-Enlightenment faction, but that's not the point here.) To equate Jerry Falwell and Osama Bin Laden would be an absurd exercise in moral equivalency; but Brooks goes to the other extreme of exaggerated Western self-congratulation.

I agree, too, that many of the people lamenting the offensiveness of the Mohammed cartoons have had little to say not only about the steady stream of Nazi-style Jew-baiting cartoons in the Arab world, but even about anti-Israel cartoons in the European press that have had a clearly anti-Semitic tint. At the same time, there is no denying that some of the response to the cartoon controversy has had an anti-Muslim (not just anti-extremist) tint. For a good response, see this column by Steve Chapman.

Writes Chapman:

To assume that Muslims in Europe universally aspire to rule by ayatollahs is like assuming that Christians in the United States would all love to see Pat Robertson elected president.

It's true that vicious extremism does occasionally emerge -- as when a Dutch filmmaker who publicly disparaged Islam was murdered by a radical Muslim in 2004. But the killer is hardly typical of his co-religionists on the continent.

In Denmark, local Muslims responded to the cartoons in law-abiding ways -- gathering petitions, talking to the newspaper editor, filing a criminal complaint, marching peacefully in Copenhagen. Only when the issue got attention in the Middle East did mayhem erupt. Even then, it occurred in only a few places, not all across the Muslim world.

There is no reason to believe that Muslims in Europe favor the torching of embassies. The head of one of Germany's biggest Islamic groups denounced what he called "an incensed and thoughtless mob," and said, "We abhor such actions."

There is no doubt, though, that Europe has a Muslim problem, stemming from its reluctance to embrace immigrants as full citizens. ...

If Europe wants to remain a free and tolerant place, the answer is not to treat Muslims as a dangerous alien presence. It's to get busy turning them into Europeans.


Oh, and that criminal complaint filed by Danish Muslims against the cartoons? As Chapman notes, the law that enabled them to do that was not passed in deference to Muslim sensibilities:

Well, it turns out that some parts of Europe already ban the sort of blasphemy at issue here -- under laws written to protect Christian sensibilities. Denmark, as it happens, provides up to four months in jail for anyone "who publicly offends or insults a religion." In Germany, reports the broadcast outlet Deutsche Welle, one magazine has been sued eight times under an anti-blasphemy law enacted in 1871.

The danger, I gather, is that Europe's Muslims will be just as intolerant of criticism of their faith as Europe's Christians used to be of theirs. That would certainly be a bad thing. But to assume that more Muslims will inevitably turn France or Germany into a turbaned theocracy brings to mind the bumper sticker that says, "I get all the exercise I need jumping to conclusions."


A popular exercise, that.



Saturday, February 11, 2006

A jihad against Denmark: predicted in 1931!

A Russian friend has tipped me off to an extraordinary passage in the 1931 Russian novel, The Golden Calf, by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov. The book, a sequel to the much-better known The Twelve Chairs (made into a 1970 Mel Brooks movie), deals with the adventures of a charming con man named Ostap Bender; at one point, Bender and a fellow crook have to travel through a Central Asian desert on camels, and then ....

For seven days, the camels trudged through the desert carrying the newly minted sheiks. Early in the journey, Ostap was having the time of his life. .... He called himself Lawrence of Arabia.

"I'm a dynamite emir!" he shouted, swaying on the camel's high back. "If we don't get some decent food in two days, I'm going to start a rebellion among some tribes. I swear! I am going to apoint myself a representative of the Prophet and declare a holy war -- jihad. Against Denmark, for instance. Why were the Danes so mean to their Prince Hamlet? In the current political environment, even the League of Nations will have to find that a satisfactory pretext for war. As God is my witness, I'll buy a million's worth of rifles from the British -- they love selling weapons to tribesmen -- and then, off to Denmark we go! Germany will have to let us through, by way of reparations. Can you imagine the tribesmen storming into Copenhagen? With me leading the way, riding a white camel?"

A jihad against Denmark. A joke, of course. But it's uncanny, you must admit. And, as another friend of mine comments, full of other contemporary references: Replace "the British" with "the U.S. and/or the Soviet Union," the League of Nations with the U.N., and "reparations" with "post-colonial white guilt," and it all fits.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Friedan legacy

My take on Betty Friedan, at Reason Express.

If there was a modern-day feminist matriarch, it was Betty Friedan. She looked the part, in her later years: a grande dame never conventionally beautiful but strikingly majestic, a lioness in winter with a grizzled mane.

Friedan, who died last week at 85, was widely credited with—or blamed for, depending on one's point of view—launching the modern women's movement with her 1963 best-seller, The Feminine Mystique, in which she challenged the 1950s ideal of female fulfillment through marriage, motherhood and suburban domesticity. A woman of paradox, she often found herself on the losing side in the ideological disputes within the movement she helped create; and the loss was as much the movement's as hers. As American feminism marks the passing of its founding mother, it also finds itself looking for direction, and still grappling with some of the dilemmas Friedan faced more than 40 years ago.

Since the revelation a few years ago (in the 1999 book, Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique, by historian Daniel Horowitz), that the pre–Feminine Mystique Friedan was not the apolitical housewife and writer she made herself out to be but a journalist with a background in far-left labor union activism, some of Friedan's conservative critics have tried to paint her as a radical intent on subverting the American family and society. But actually, the radicalism of The Feminine Mystique was in many ways surprisingly un-radical. Friedan sought to change women's roles and bring them out of the private domestic sphere, but she wanted to integrate them into the mainstream of the public sphere, not to revolutionize it.

The vision of a good life that emerges from her book is saturated with a very traditional Western and American humanism that, in some ways, harkens back to the 19th century. She celebrated the "unique human capacity...to live one's life by purposes stretching into the future—to live not at the mercy of the world, but as builder and designer of that world" (a capacity that, she argued, "occupation: housewife" did not truly fulfill with its endlessly repetitive domestic tasks), and urged women to join men in "the battle with the world."

The Feminine Mystique has its rhetorical excesses, most notably the outrageous metaphor of the suburban home as a "comfortable concentration camp" (on the grounds that it, too, reduces its inhabitants to purely biological living). But one thing it never did was pit men against women as enemies or victimizers, or fall into a "women good, men bad" trap. If anything, Friedan tended to view men as victims of domineering wives who, frustrated in their own ambitions, had to seek status and identity through their husbands and treated a man as an "object of contempt" if he couldn't meet those needs. Women's "wasted energy," she wrote, was bound to be "destructive to their husbands, to their children, and to themselves."

Recent scholarship has challenged the notion that that modern liberal feminism sprang fully armed from The Feminine Mystique like Athena from the head of Zeus. Horowitz argues that many of its ideas were being widely discussed by the time of its publication, even in the very same magazines that Friedan blasted for promoting the happy housewife myth. (While Friedan claimed that she had to uphold the ideology of domesticity in her own writings for those magazines, Horowitz showed that most of her articles celebrated independent women with achievements outside the home.) Nonetheless, there is little doubt that Friedan's best-selling book helped channel and focus the already simmering female discontent, and in that sense she played a vital role.

A co-founder of the National Organization for Women, Friedan later found herself sidelined. Part of this had to do with her abrasive personality. As Judith Hennessee records in her warts-and-all 1999 biography, Betty Friedan: Her Life, Friedan saw herself as the alpha female of the feminist movement and had a tendency to be hostile and paranoid toward anyone who could threaten that status—she even accused Gloria Steinem of being a CIA plant—as well as rude and bullying toward subordinates. But there were ideological conflicts as well, with Friedan in opposition to the movement's growing radicalism.

Friedan was appalled by activists who wanted to pattern feminism on what she called "obsolete ideologies of class warfare," activists who saw the family as inherently oppressive. She deplored men-are-evil rhetoric and the obsession with male violence against women. (Interestingly, Friedan's own marriage, which ended in 1969, was marked by recurring violence—though, by all accounts, she was at least as much aggressor as victim.) Friedan's initial antipathy to the movement's embrace of lesbian rights has been rightly seen as having a homophobic tint (particularly in view of a cringeworthy passage in The Feminine Mystique in which she decried the rise of male homosexuality in America and blamed it on frustrated housewives smothering their sons). However, it also needs to be seen in the context of the 1970s advocacy of lesbian separatism as a political revolt against men.

In the end, Friedan was marginalized if not ostracized by the feminist movement; by 1991, Susan Faludi was proclaiming her a part of the "backlash" because of her insistence that marriage and motherhood are essential to most women's happiness. But, partly because of that, feminism itself ended up being marginalized by American culture.

In 2006, it is increasingly clear that Friedan was right about one thing: the central issue of feminism should have always been the work-family balance. It is an issue that women confront again today, as debates rage about educated professional women "opting out" to raise children. Friedan didn't necessarily have the right answers—she was, to the end of her life, a fan of institutional, government-subsidized day care—but she raised, at least, the right questions. Dated though it is in many ways, The Feminine Mystique deserves to be read today as an eloquent reminder of the dangers of defining female identity through home and motherhood.

Friedan was highly critical of Freud's views on women, but she embraced his view that love and work are the two basic elements of a fully human life, and passionately believed that women's lives should have both of those elements. In that, she was right. And perhaps, after all the battles between gender warmongers and latter-day champions of The Feminine Mystique, Friedan's vision of feminism as an equal partnership between men and women is the one that will endure.



A few additional reflections. I had two occasions to meet Friedan in person. In 1995, we were together on C-Span's Washington Journal show, discussing the day's news; though generally genial and friendly, Friedan made one comment that struck me as quite rude, and a cheap shot to boot. (Ironically, when I popped my tape of the program in the VCR the other day and randomly fast-forwarded, that was the exact spot on which I hit "play.") When we were discussing welfare reform and I said that it would be good idea to allow more experimentaion by the states, Friedan shot back, "You haven't been in this country long enough to know that the states won't do certain things unless the federal government makes them." By that time I had been in the U.S. for 15 years, hardly a new arrival fresh off the proverbial boat.

Several years later Friedan was a keynote speaker at a conference of the Women's Freedom Network, a "dissident feminist" group I had helped launch. The WFN was explicitly identified as being in opposition to establishment feminism (as well as traditionalist, Phyllis Schlafly-style anti-feminism), so in a way it took guts, and true intellectual independence, for Friedan to agree to attend and speak. I have to report that the conference organizers experienced firsthand, when working out Friedan's travel arrangements, some of the primadonna-ish ways chronicled by her unsparing biographer Judith Hennessee. Yet in her appearance at the event, she was gracious, warm, and charismatic.

Is Friedan's legacy compromised or even discredited by the revelation that she shaded the truth about herself in The Feminine Mystique, downplaying both her past political radicalism and her professional activities? A reader responding to my Reason.com article yesterday suggested that Friedan was feminism's James Frey. In fact, as Alan Wolfe argued in this 1999 essay in The Atlantic, Friedan's self-presentation as a trapped suburban housewife just like the ones in her target audience had a lot to do with her book's appeal. But at the same time, Friedan did not not exactly make things up. (As Judith Shulevitz noted in her reply to Wolfe, Friedan had, in fact, been a victim of sex discrimination: the union newspaper where she had worked fired her after she got pregnant a second time.) And her case does not really stand or fall on the total accuracy of her depiction of her own experiences. The Feminine Mystique was not a memoir.

Friedan's depiction of the culture was not wholly accurate, either. The ideology of domesticity was not -- as one would sometimes think reading The Feminine Mystique -- enforced with a quasi-Stalinist rigor. Some years ago while doing research for my book, Ceasefire, I came across a library book published in 1960, titled College for Coeds. While hardly feminist, it decried the notion that "girls must choose between marriage and a career" and described working women in glowing terms as "acquiring a sense of fulfillment" and realizing "their importance as individuals."

And yet the larger picture holds. Friedan wrote in a culture in which, when Sandra Day O'Connor graduated third in her class at Stanford Law School, she could get no job offers from law firms except for secretarial jobs; in which, when the future Elizabeth Dole told her mother she was going to law school, her mother was so distressed she became physically ill.

To some extent, Friedan glamorized careers. (Her New York Times obituary featured a quote from The Feminine Mystique in which a college-educated housewife complains that very little of what she does during the day is "really necessary or important"; but surely, quite a few professionals could describe their jobs the same way.) And while she asserted, in a 1963 interview, that her slogan was not "Women of the world unite — you have nothing to lose but your men," but "You have nothing to lose but your vacuum cleaners," she seemed to give little thought to the question of who, come the revolution, would do the vacuuming. (The Feminine Mystique never mentions any changes in men's family roles, and sometimes Friedan seems to assume that women would have no problem balancing work and home if they just used their time more efficiently.) While she addressed many of those issues in her subsequent work, her proposed solutions were too one-size-fits all and too government-oriented.

Does this diminish Friedan's stature as a visionary? Not to me. She forcefully asserted that women's humanity transcends their biology; and she just as forcefully asserted that women's bonds with men, and with children, transcend patriarchy. And that's enough.


Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Radio heads-up

I will be discussing Betty Friedan on John Carlson's show on KVI radio in Seattle, around 4 p.m. Pacific (7 p.m. Eastern). You can listen online here.

Funereal politics

At the funeral of Coretta Scott King, attended by President Bush and the First Lady (as well as former Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Carter and their wives), the Rev. Joseph Lowery, former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and former President Jimmy Carter used the occasion to take very thinly veiled jabs at Bush.

According to Reuters:

Lowery, former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King helped found in 1957, gave a playful reading of a poem in eulogy of King.

"She extended Martin's message against poverty, racism and war / She deplored the terror inflicted by our smart bombs on missions way afar," he said.

"We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction over there / But Coretta knew and we knew that there are weapons of misdirection right down here / Millions without health insurance. Poverty abounds. For war billions more but no more for the poor."

The mourners gave a standing ovation. Bush's reaction could not be seen on the television coverage, but after Lowery finished speaking, the president shook his hand and laughed.

.....

With Washington debating the legality of Bush's domestic eavesdropping on Americans suspected of al Qaeda ties, Carter also drew applause with pointed comments on federal efforts to spy on the Kings.

"It was difficult for them personally with the civil liberties of both husband and wife violated, and they became the targets of secret government wiretapping and other surveillance," he said.

And there's more, from Carter:

"We only have to recall the color of the faces of those in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi who are most devastated by Katrina to know that there are not yet equal opportunities for all Americans."

(For more on that topic, see here.)

Eric Muller sarcastically points out that Mrs. King was an intensely political woman, and that it's ridiculous to talk about the wrongness of politicizing her memorial ceremony. Well, that's one way of looking at it. Another is that today, the ideals represented by Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King are ideals that unite, rather than divide, America. In a society where political polarization is increasingly rancorous, her funeral could have been a rare moment that united. It shoudl not have been a time for division, or for scoring political points. Mrs. King herself, I think, would have understood that.



Monday, February 06, 2006

Betty Friedan, RIP

Betty Friedan, the matriarch of American feminism, is dead at 85.

Friedan was a complex figure; a thinker and social critic who was right about some things -- both in her critique of traditional female roles and in her critique of radical feminism -- and very wrong or shortsighted about others; a champion of humanitarian ideals who was often less than kind to the people around her. Ultimately, I think she was a far more positive than negative figure in American life. I'm writing about her for Reason Express, for tomorrow, but in the meantime here is an article I wrote for The Washington Post in 1999 reviewing two books about Friedan.

Its last paragraph, pretty much, sums up my thoughts about Friedan.

Friedan may have exaggerated the feminine mystique's grip on American culture and women (including herself), and may have taken too much credit for shattering it. These correctives could be seen as diminishing her stature. However, they also confirm that her feminism was not foisted on women but came as a response to their aspirations and drew on already existing trends. Most of the social change that followed would have happened with or without Friedan. But she was able to crystallize the spirit of that change in a way that had unique popular appeal. She has had her share of excesses and dubious ideas. Yet one can only hope that after all the battles between gender-war feminists and anti-feminists still pining for the feminine mystique, her vision of feminism as an equal partnership between men and women is the one that endures.

The "boy crisis"

My column in today's Boston Globe deals with the so-called "boy crisis."


IN THE EARLY 1990s, talk about girls as an endangered species was everywhere. There were studies purporting to show that patriarchy-damaged girls suffered a disastrous drop in self-esteem in adolescence. The American Association of University Women published a report titled ''How Schools Shortchange Girls," which landed on the front pages of many newspapers. Educators and legislators alike rushed to tackle the problem of gender bias that was allegedly keeping girls from reaching their full potential -- despite the fact that, by then, girls were already graduating from America's colleges in higher numbers than boys.

Today, it's the ''boy crisis" that's making headlines, from The Weekly Standard to Newsweek. We are presented with alarming numbers: 58 percent of first-year college students are female. Because male students are more likely to drop out, their share will shrink to 40 percent by graduation. ''Man shortage" is the new bane of campuses. While the gender gap in academic achievement has long been a serious problem in the black community -- by the mid-1990s, two-thirds of college diplomas earned by African-Americans went to women -- it has been growing among Hispanics and whites as well.

What's going on? Some blame an antimale bias in education. A few years ago, Christina Hoff Sommers, a scholar at the right-of-center American Enterprise Institute, wrote a book, ''The War Against Boys," arguing that feminist zeal is causing many teachers to treat maleness as ''toxic" and to try to reshape boys in a female image. Gender differences in the ''wiring" of the human brain are an increasingly popular explanation as well. Psychologist and author Michael Gurian is a leading proponent of the view that boys and girls learn differently and that these differences must be taken into account if we want to ensure a quality education for everyone. Some believe that in many instances, single-sex classes are the answer.

Attention to the issue is welcome. For years, the justified celebrations of female achievement have overshadowed the fact that boys and young men were starting to lag behind. Many feminists have dismissed the college attendance gap as insignificant, arguing that men can get well-paying jobs even without college while women need a degree just to catch up. Yet the fact is that in this knowledge-based economy, men without a higher education are increasingly falling behind.

What about the remedies? No possible solution should be off-limits. It would be ridiculous, for instance, to refuse to consider the possibility of biological sex differences in learning styles because of political correctness. Yet it's also important to remember such differences are often dwarfed by individual variation. Helen Smith, a psychologist and blogger who has championed the cause of boys in school, cautions that, while recognizing differences, we should not lapse into stereotyping: In general, boys may be more physically active and girls may be more verbal, but a lot of children will not fit those patterns. Some of the fashionable talk about boys getting in trouble due to their more rebellious and individualistic ways has an alarming tendency to paint girls as dull, diligent sheep.

And sometimes, the talk of a ''war against boys" can lapse into a victim mentality that rivals the worst excesses of radical feminism. Last month, 17-year-old Doug Anglin, a student at Milton High School, filed a federal civil rights complaint charging that his school discriminates against boys. How so? Anglin claims that rewarding students for following rules, obeying teachers' orders, and turning in homework is unfair to boys, who ''naturally rebel." He also wants boys to be exempt from community service, to get credit for playing sports, and to be able to take classes on a pass/fail basis. And, according to his father -- a Boston attorney who wrote the lawsuit -- boys' grades should be retroactively adjusted to make up for past discrimination.

Yet the absurdity of this suit should not blind us to evidence of a chilly climate for boys in schools. Boy-bashing by girls, including T-shirts with such slogans as ''Girls rule, boys drool," is sometimes treated as an expression of ''girl power." In numerous surveys, both boys and girls agree that teachers generally favor girls over boys. Perhaps sensitivity training is in order to make teachers more aware of biases. Bringing more men into schools as teachers and mentors may also help.

The problem is out in the open, which is a positive step. Now, we should try to address it without pitting girls against boys, or treating either as victims.


One thing that troubles me about the current discussions of boys and their problems is the easy lapse into "boys are like this, girls are like that" rhetoric. Examples can be found, for instance, in this thread at Dr. Helen's blog. I fully agree with Dr. Helen that it's ridiculous to dismiss all talk of sex differences in learning as "anti-feminist," as does feminist sociologist Michael Kimmel (SUNY). But I also cringe at comments like these, from one of the posters:

I have twin 9 year-old step-children: a girl and a boy. These children were raised in the same setting, have sat in the same classrooms, and have had virtually identical life experiences.

Yet they couldn't be more different. The girl is calm, thoughtful, mature. She can sit still, follow instructions, and concentrate. She thinks things through before acting. She can carry on a real two-way conversation, and can make new friends and relate to them. Most importantly, she seems to have control over her impulses. The boy on the other hand can not control his impulses no matter how hard he tries, has trouble relating to others, and is constantly in trouble at school. He doesn't think before acting. And it's a constant source of frustration and sadness to him because he really does try!

This is a common story. It's ridiculous that some people are still hanging on to the canard that biology doesn't matter. Have they never met any children?

Well, I can think, without even trying too hard, of two couples I know with (fraternal) twin girls who have completely different personalities, dramatically different levels of aggressiveness, impulse control, and so on. I'm not in favor of doctrinaire unisex feminism, but going to back to putting boys and girls into little boxes labeled pink and blue is hardly preferable.

This post by Dr. Helen, about the Boston Globe article on the David Anglin lawsuit (which mentions, among other things, girls getting extra points when they "decorate their notebooks with glitter and feathers"), contains an anecdote that illustrates the dangers of fitting such issues as "rewarding creativity vs. rewarding orderliness" into a neat gender-based framework:

This reminds me of an education class I was forced to take as a requirement for my PHD degree in school/clinical psychology. The professor--a male--told us to keep a log of our activities with students or patients in my case on notebook paper and turn them in for a portion of our grade. I was out for the class when the instructions were given so got the assignment second-hand from other students. I was shocked when I received an F on the assignment--the reason? Writing outside the margins of my paper. The professor cared nothing about the content I had so carefully written out as best I could--he only cared about appearances.

And here's another good Dr. Helen thread, with some cautionary words from Dr. Helen about the need to pay attention to individual differences as well as sex differences, and a comment from a mother of a physically active, non-stereotypical girl.

More from a Reason essay I wrote about this issue back in 2001:

"Boy partisans" can exaggerate too. ... In The War Against Boys, [Christina Hoff] Sommers asserts that recent data on high school and college students clearly lead to "the conclusion that girls and young women are thriving, while boys and young men are languishing." Yet this dramatic statement is contradicted further down the page by her own summary of Valerie Lee's study of gender and achievement, which she lauds as "responsible and objective." Lee reports that sex differences in school performance are "small to moderate" and "inconsistent in direction"-boys fare better in some areas, girls in others.

More boys flounder in school (and, as Sommers acknowledges, more of them reach the highest levels of excellence, from the best test scores to top rankings in prestigious law schools). But it's important to put things in perspective. Boys are twice as likely as girls to be shunted into special education with labels that may involve a high degree of subjectivity or even bias, but we are talking about a fairly small proportion of all children. About 7 percent of boys and 3 percent of girls are classified as learning disabled, 1.5 percent of boys and 1.1 percent of girls as mentally retarded; just over 1 percent of boys and fewer than half as many girls are diagnosed with severe emotional disturbances.

Clearly, many boys are doing well; just as clearly, it's an overstatement to say that girls in general are "thriving," since all too often the educational system serves no one well. Twelfth-grade girls may do better than boys on reading and writing tests, but their average scores still fall short of the level that indicates real competence-the ability to understand and convey complicated information.

There's quite a bit of exaggeration, too, in the notion of schools as a hostile environment for boys. Few would dispute that boys tend to be more physically active and less patient than girls; but these differences are far less stark than the clichés deployed in the "boy wars." In a 1998 Department of Education study, 65 percent of boys and 78 percent of girls in kindergarten were described by teachers as usually persistent at their tasks, and 58 percent of boys and 74 percent of girls as usually attentive-a clear yet far from interplanetary gap.

(One has to wonder, too, to what extent these differences reflect reality and to what extent the teachers' stereotyped perceptions.)

Still smaller are the differences between boys' and girls' views of the school climate. Surprisingly, in a 1995 survey by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, virtually the same percentages of female and male high school seniors said they liked school. When the question "Whom do teachers like more?" is posed in such a way that they must select one favored sex, kids are likely to answer "girls." Yet when asked about their own experiences, boys are only slightly less likely than girls to say that teachers listen to them, that they call on them often and encourage them, and that discipline and grading at their school are fair.

....


Judith Kleinfeld, who authored the 1996 paper "The Myth That Schools Shortchange Girls," published by the Washington, D.C.-based Women's Freedom Network (of which I am vice president), credits Sommers with drawing attention to an often-ignored problem but wishes her argument had been more nuanced. "We used to think that the schools shortchanged girls; now the news is that schools are waging a war against boys, that girls are on top and boys have become the second sex," says Kleinfeld. "Neither view is right. We should be sending a dual message: one, boys and girls do have characteristic problems, and we need to be aware of what they are; two, boys and girls are also individuals. Unfortunately, there's a lot of exaggeration going on, and a lot of destructive stereotyping by both sides."

My essay also addressed the still-debated issue of whether boys are at greater risk from "patriarchal" hypermasculine values or from creeping androgyny.

To be sure, there are educators eager to impose their egalitarian vision on other people's children by banning toy guns from preschools, prohibiting "segregated" play at recess, or herding boys into quilting groups and prodding them to talk about how they feel. It's difficult to tell how widespread this is outside the elite Eastern private schools from which Sommers gets several of her examples, where parents not only choose but pay big money to send their offspring. On the other hand, in many communities, boys still face strong pressure to be jocks-and the jock culture probably is more damaging to boys' learning than the occasional quilting circle.

Not unlike the feminists, many conservatives have a vision of a monolithic, virtually unchanging "culture of manhood" that boys must join. Yet one does not have to believe that gender is only a "social construct" to know that standards of male behavior and beliefs about male nature in different times and places have varied as greatly as male dress. Two hundred years ago, it wasn't unusual or inappropriate for men to weep at sentimental plays and for male friends to exchange letters with gushy expressions of affection.

The truth is, both efforts to produce "unisex" children and efforts to enforce traditional masculine or feminine norms are likely to warp children's individuality. Kleinfeld had a chance to observe this when raising her own children: a girl who liked mechanical tools and had an aptitude for science, yet resisted efforts to get her interested in a scientific career and chose humanitarian work instead, and a quiet, gentle boy who was an avid reader. "We tried to get him active in sports, but we were fighting his individual nature," says Kleinfeld. "The one time he made a touchdown in football, he was running the wrong way."

In The War Against Boys, Sommers praises feminists who came to honor and cherish their sons' masculine qualities, among them a pacifist-liberal writer whose son chose a military career. But would conservative champions of boyhood also praise traditionally masculine fathers who came to honor and cherish their sons' "soft" qualities, even when those sons chose to become elementary school teachers or hairdressers?


(My review of Sommers' The War Against Boys can be found here.)

A closing thought. How many of the problems of schoolboys today have to do with father absence?