Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Ding-dong, the witch is dead

I'm generally not in the habit of rejoicing over other's misfortune's, but I'm making an exception for the unceremonious firing of Judith Regan from her job at HarperCollins. Regan's ultra-tacky attempt to publish O.J. Simpson's hypothetical confessional is reason enough to regard her fall as a good thing; to compound that, we've also learned that LaRegan sealed her fate by claiming that she was persecuted by a "Jewish cabal" of three Jewish staffers at HarperCollins and a literary agent. (Maybe she can now form a publishing venture with Mel "Get Over It" Gibson.)

I will here freely disclose that my distaste for Regan is, at least in part, personal, since I've had a chance to be on the receiving end of her (in)famous temperament. In May 1999, while promoting my book Ceasefire!: Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality, I was invited to appear on Regan's now-defunct weekend show on Fox News on a panel on feminism and men (alongside Barbara Ehrenreich, John Podhoretz, and my former professor Lionel Tiger). As it happens, my book contained a bit of a swipe at Regan -- funnily enough, somewhat related to the O.J. Simson case.

As some may recall, in 1995, during the Simpson trial, Gordon Clark, the husband of prosecutor Marcia Clark, filed for temporary custody of their two children, aged three and five, claiming that she was "never home" and he was better fit to care for the children. This sparked an outcry from feminists, who saw the move as an attack on career women. (Never mind that when Marcia Clark filed for divorce, she admitted in her petition that her husband had always had an equal role in raising the boys. Or that at the time of his custody bid, she was working 16-hour days and weekends while he was usually home by 6 p.m. Or that she wanted him to pay more child support -- out of his $36,000 a year to her $96,000 -- so that she could hire babysitters, instead of letting him spend more time caring for his own children.) Regan wrote a piece for Newsweek titled "An Open Letter to Mr. Clark," in which she wrote that a truly good father does not try to take the children away from the mother and flatly asserted that, while women and men are equally capable of ambition and success in the workplace, women are more capable when it comes to raising children.

I commented on this as follows:

A few champions of embattled mothers, such as publishing hotshot Judith Regan (herself embroiled in a custody fight), openly advocated discirmination against fathers: "Women are simply better equipped biologically for parenting young children."

Almost from the start of the show (unfortunately, there's no transcript available and I don't have a tape handy), Regan ripped into yours truly, claiming to be outraged by the charge that she advocated discrimination against fathers. (I'm not sure what else to call the advocacy of blatantly gender-based maternal custody preference.) She also scoffed openly at my argument that fatherlessness is often due not to men walking away from their children, but to men being pushed out of their children's lives, dismissing as irrelevant the fact that two-thirds of divorces involving children are initiated by mothers. In the second half of the show, probably irritated by my insistence on defending my viewpoint, she tried to simply shut me up; every time I tried to speak, she would interrupt me to direct a question to another guest. This became so blatant that one of the other guests, I believe Lionel Tiger, asked Regan to give me a chance to speak.

The best bits, though, were off-camera. During the first or second break, Regan told me that I must had a "cold and distant mother" because it was obvious that I hated mothers. (At that point, I probably should have walked off the set, but I contented myself with informing her that my relationship with my mother was just fine.) When the show was over and I was walking off the set past La Regan's desk, my gracious host told me once again that I was grievously wrong to think that father absence was often not the fault of fathers. "Then why is it that it's mothers who initiate divorces two-thirds of the time?" I asked. In response, Regan shrieked, "Because all those men are pigs! And I hope that some day, you marry a guy who chokes you and gives you a black eye!" (as she alleged her ex had done to her).

And there's a postscript. (No, I did not marry a man who choked me and gave me a black eye.) At a conference a year or so later, I ran into Diane O'Connell, who had co-written Sanford Braver's Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths. O'Connell, who had either seen or heard about my run-in with Regan, told me about one of her own: she was all set to co-write some sports figure's autobiography which Regan was interested in publishing, and met with Regan to discuss the project. Then, a couple of days later, the offer was abruptly withdrawn. O'Connell learned from her agent that Regan had blackballed her after learning about her co-authorship of the Braver book, which is sympathetic to divorced fathers.

I can't really say that I bear Regan a personal grudge. Being used for target practice on national television was not a lot of fun, but it probably did sell a few books (all the mail I got as a result of that appearance was sympathetic, with several people telling me they were appalled by Regan's behavior toward me). My issue with her is not that she was rude to me, it's that she's an anti-father bigot. (A friend who used to work for HarperCollins, not directly for Regan but with a few people who had direct contact with her, told me that she was famous for referring to the father of her children as "the sperm donor.") Another sad thing is that women like Regan claim -- and perhaps sincerely think -- that they are disliked because our culture labels strong, independent, aggressive women as bitches. Unfortunately, sometimes the label fits.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The father question (and Mary Cheney's baby)

My latest Boston Globe column deals with some of the issues raised by the news of Mary Cheney's pregnancy.

THE PREGNANCY of the vice president's daughter is not usually political news -- except when same-sex marriage is a divisive social issue, and the vice president's daughter plans to raise her child with her longtime female partner.

The news of Mary Cheney's impending motherhood has caused a heated controversy on the right. Some social conservatives have unabashedly blasted Cheney and her partner, Heather Poe, as destroyers of traditional values. Janice Crouse of Concerned Women for America called their decision to have a child "unconscionable"; anti-gay crusader Robert Knight asserted that the baby was conceived "with the express purpose of denying it a father."

As blogger Andrew Sullivan has pointed out, the cruelty of this rhetoric is especially
evident when directed at an actual, flesh-and-blood loving couple. And yet are there legitimate, non-bigoted reasons to worry about fatherless parenting?

The absence of fathers has been a growing trend in America in recent decades -- ironically, parallel to the trend of fathers in two-parent families being more directly involved in child-rearing. More children are also being raised by single fathers and gay couples, but their numbers are dwarfed by the increase in children without fathers.

Lesbian parenting is, of course, a tiny part of this trend, which is driven primarily by out-of-wedlock births and divorce among heterosexuals. (When some champions of "the family" focus obsessively on gays, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that their true motive is bigotry.) While there is much talk of irresponsible men, it is usually mothers who initiate divorces, and more and more women embrace unwed motherhood by choice -- often through artificial insemination.

Is this a bad trend? Some arguments for the importance of fathers rest on rigid gender stereotypes -- e.g., dads push toward achievement and growth, moms give unconditional love and comfort -- that often don't match the individuality of actual men and women.

Still, a male presence contributes something unique to a child's world, and a single mother's support network can rarely replace a father. Most research shows that, all else being equal, children with two parents tend to fare better in everything from academic achievement to psychological well-being. (Comparisons of child-rearing by heterosexual and same-sex couples remain inconclusive.)

Of course, a child's well-being is a product of many complicated factors. But there is another issue here: Single parenthood by choice almost inherently reinforces gender inequality: because of biology, it is far less available to men. (Partly for the same reason, gay male couples are far less likely to raise children than lesbian couples.) Celebrated by some as an expression of female autonomy, solo motherhood actually enshrines the sexist stereotype of child-rearing and family as a female domain -- a modernized version of Victorian "separate spheres." It also radically alienates men from the family.

Where does the Cheney-Poe household fit into this debate? In a way, the two women are upholding the ideal of the two-parent family. From a moral standpoint, I find a committed lesbian couple vastly superior to some single straight women who seem to prefer motherhood via sperm bank to the compromises and power-sharing of marriage. But if the cultural link between parenting and procreation is weakened, who's to say that a two-parent family shouldn't consist of two female relatives or best friends raising children together without fathers?

Similar questions are raised by a trend described recently in the New York Times Magazine: lesbian couples having children fathered by gay male friends who have some involvement in the children's lives, so that a child has two mothers and a father who is more like an uncle. What effect will such arrangements have on the children? Will they, as same-sex marriage foe Stanley Kurtz warns, lead to a push for legalizing some form of multi partner marriage? No one can say; social history is full of unforeseen consequences.

Sullivan notes that most people who condemn Cheney and Poe for "denying their child a father" would not advocate taking away the children of single mothers. Even legislative attempts to bar unmarried women from seeking artificial insemination have been quickly abandoned. True enough: Americans have an instinctive respect for individual freedom and privacy, and the majority will readily agree that discrimination and coercion are wrong. But, while respecting choices, can we also agree that some choices are less beneficial than others -- and that liberation often has its costs, some of them still unknown?

Andrew Sullivan's take on the issue is the cover story in the latest New Republic. (Free registration required.) I agree with much of what Andrew has to say -- for instance, about the absurdity of the myth, still enduring on the hard right, that homosexuality a freely chosen "perversion" rather than an innate sexual orientation. He also rightly skewers the moderate conservatives (such as the folks over at NRO's The Corner) who shrink from attacks on a lesbian mother who is one of their own, while either endorsing or condoning legislation that strips Mary Cheney's family of all legal protections. (The Virginia state marriage amendment bans not only same-sex marriage but the recognition of any legal partnership or status designed to approximate marriage.)

However, on the issue of fatherhood, I think Andrew ducks the tough questions a bit. For instance, in this post, which I referenced in my column, he writes:

If the argument is made that all kids should have biological mothers and fathers, adoptions would cease. If the argument is made that kids should always have a father and mother in the household, then single mothers would have their kids removed from them in order to give them to adoptive couples. Neither argument applies because we have a modicum of respect for mothers, and their right to bring up their own child as they see fit, as long as it is with care and love.

Of course single mothers don't have their children taken away; nor are unmarried mothers and out-of-wedlock children (thank God) relegated to pariah or second-class status the way they were once. Nonetheless, some social stigma surely remains attached to single motherhood, particularly single motherhood by choice and design; and few people (except for ultra-radical feminists who see any talk of the importance of fathers as a "patriarchal" mentality) would equate disapproval of single motherhood with bigotry. So it's somewhat odd to see Andrew invoke single mothers as a model of respect for gay parents -- particularly since conservative advocates of same-sex marriage, among whom I believe Andrew counts himself, have argued in the past that gay marriage would boost and even revive a pro-marriage culture that, among other things, stigmatizes single parenthood. (Indeed, in his seminal 1996 essay on gay marriage, Jonathan Rauch argues that singleness as such should be subject to some social stigma -- a position I personally find a little too extreme.) So I am genuinely curious to know whether Andrew Sullivan agrees that single motherhood by choice is a legitimate cause for concern or critique. And yes, I am fully aware that it is very difficult to criticize a social trend without appearing mean-spirited or callous toward individuals.

Again, my issue is not with gay couples raising children. It's with the widespread attitude that it's perfectly fine for a woman to raise a child without a second parent. I have been asked by quite a few people, now that I'm near the end of my fertile years and still have not met the proverbial Mr. Right, why I don't simply have a child on my own. And I have to say that I find such casual acceptance disturbing (as I do the sexist presumption that every woman craves babies). Of course a lot of father absence is due to paternal abandonment, not maternal choice; but if many women endorse the view that fathers are unnecessary, that's not exactly a good incentive to men to be responsible fathers.

I do think that gay and lesbian parenting presents an interesting conundrum (and to say this is in no way to question the love of devotion of gay parents to their children). Couples like Mary Cheney and Heather Poe are widely accepted because they essentially replicate the traditional heterosexual family model: you form a union with the person you love and raise children with them. In this model, the fact that the two partners cannot, biologically, reproduce together is of no more significance than it some heterosexual unions, one spouse is infertile.

And yet the inescapable fact is that traditionally, the reason child-rearing is associated with a martial (sexual) union is that sexual unions produce children. Without that, is there a rational basis for thinking that the best person with whom to raise children is your sexual and romantic partner? Why shouldn't two female friends pool their resources to raise a child together? Or, to keep men in the equation: why shouldn't two close opposite-sex friends who (whatever their sexual orientation) do not desire a sexual or romantic relationship have a child together, live together and raise that child while dating other people? Such partnerships might, in fact, be a lot more stable than many marriages based on romantic love. And what about the three-parent situations of two lesbian mothers and a gay dad described in that New York Times Magazine article? (In his response to Stanley Kurtz on this issue on November 20, Andrew zeroes in on the marginal issue of whether the idea of same-sex marriage originated with radical activists but does not address the more basic questions.)

Perhaps one reason many people are wary of redefining marriage is that, in an age when sex is separated from childbearing and the nuclear family from the extended family, marriage itself -- particularly modern marriage which attempts to fuse the very different goals of child-rearing and romantic fulfilment -- is in some sense an irrational institution which endures mainly out of habit. Pull out some of the bricks and encourage people to inspect the foundation, and the entire edifice just might collapse. At the very least, traditional monogamous marriage (heterosexual or same-sex) could come to be seen as just one of many equally desirable arrangements people could devise for caretaking and child-rearing.

A part of me, actually, thinks that maybe that would be just fine, given how many mutations the family has survived over the course of civilization. A "traditional marriage" the way it existed in many cultures -- one man with several wives and concubines -- was surely no more different from the modern two-parent family than a two-mother, one-father household, or a household composed of two companions and partners in child-rearing who do not have sex with each other and date other people. The other part of me thinks that giving up on the nuclear family as the cultural ideal would be a highly damaging social experiment with the potential to leave a lot of damaged children in its wake.

Friday, December 15, 2006

One Muslim voice on the Holocaust, unheard

The lovely gathering of Holocaust deniers in Tehran, spiced up by the attedance of former KKK wizard and Republican pol manqué David Duke and (compounding the theater of the absurd) of a group of anti-Zionist rabbis, has gotten a lot of attention and has been roundly condemned. But the media have missed this fascinating story, reported in today's Forward:

Khaled Kasab Mahameed waited until the very last moment, hoping that his visa would come through. A Muslim lawyer from the Israeli Arab city of Nazareth, he had reserved a seat on an afternoon flight December 10 from Amman to Tehran, expecting to address Iran’s international conference on the Holocaust. His bag was packed. His wife and two children were ready to take him at 9:00 a.m. to the Jordanian border crossing.

But at 9:00 a.m., his hopes were dashed. In a phone call to the Iranian Embassy in Amman, a clerk informed him that there was no visa waiting for him. “I was so disappointed,” he said. “I sat depressed, and I waited an hour and called again. Then another hour and called again. In the end, they said Israelis don’t get visas.”

Mahameed, 44, had been waiting for this day from the moment he received his invitation to the conference from Iran’s Foreign Ministry. In 2005, Mahameed opened the world’s first Holocaust museum for Arabs, called the Arab Institute for Holocaust Research and Education. It shares a floor with his law office.

In a way, the conference was his moment of truth. Not only would Mahameed have an international platform to teach Muslims and Arabs about the Holocaust — and possibly to get more financial support for his work. More important, in his opinion, he finally would be listened to. For the first time, he had been invited by Muslims to speak about his views. And maybe, just maybe, he could convince some to open their minds and hearts — to Jewish pain.

But it was not to be. “I thought about it,” he said, “maybe they invited me because they thought I live in the Palestinian Authority.”

Mahameed, an Israeli Arab whose family lost its land to a kibbutz when the State of Israel was created, is sympathetic to Palestinian claims. However, his approach to the subject is a unique one:

“When you don’t understand the Holocaust, it hinders the peace process,” he said. “I wanted to go tell the Iranians that when you play down the Holocaust or deny it, you are directly hurting the Palestinian refugees who are in camps. By denying it, they are making the Jewish people feel persecuted — which doesn’t allow options for peace to develop.”

“Ninety percent of the Israeli identity is based on the experience of the Holocaust — the horrors of the Nazis,” Mahameed said. “So when [the Iranians] deny the Holocaust, they are actually saying [Palestinians] are facing something that doesn’t exist. But it does exist.”

Mahameed’s knowledge is expansive, quoting from Heine and Clausewitz. But his focus is very much at home — directed at the conflict that affects his own life.

“I remember since I was 6, my father always said we are paying for the horrors of the Holocaust.”


Almost counter-intuitively, Mahameed argues that the Palestinians cannot win by talking of Israeli atrocities, but rather by acknowledging the atrocities perpetuated against the Jews.

“Palestinians talk about Israelis killing 1,000 or 2,000 in Sabra and Shatila,” he said, referring to a massacre that happened under Israeli watch after the 1982 Lebanon War. “But the Israelis have 6 million. I say, Palestinians need to adopt the Holocaust. The result of adopting the Holocaust is that then they don’t need to be violent against the Jews. That’s the power of the Holocaust. So let’s bring information to the Palestinians about the Holocaust.”

But he also believes that Jews need to make an effort: “I also request from the Jews to overcome the Holocaust. Yes, it was a horror, but why let Hitler continue to dictate our lives?”

He blames Israelis and Europeans for not teaching Arabs and Muslims about the Holocaust. “Israelis always speak of the need to preserve the security of the Jewish state. Why not explain why? Why not describe what happened to the Jews in the Holocaust so the Arabs will understand that the Holocaust is an important factor in shaping policies toward the Arab world?”

Now, one may quibble with many aspects of Mahameed's opinions. I'm not sure what more the Israelis and the Europeans can do to teach Arabs and Muslims about the Holocaust, or how they would go about it in the face of the state-run, Holocaust-denying propaganda machines in many Arab states. Something tells me that a proposal to launch European- or Israeli-run Holocaust Study Centers would not be particularly welcome in most Arab and/or Muslim countries.

Such quibbles notwithstanding, Mahameed is also someone who is placing the responsibility on his fellow Arabs and Muslims to move past the Holocaust denial and the Jew-hatred so rampant in the Muslim and Arab world, and to start by confronting the reality of the Holocaust. At the time of the grotesque assemblage in Tehran, that's a good start -- particularly when the preachers of hate have their contingent of European and American enablers.

Iran's denial of a visa to Mahameed speaks volumes, of course, about the true intent of the "scientific" conference on the Holocaust. Then again, it doesn't tell us anything about this event that we didn't already know.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The racial preferences vote in Michigan

My last column in The Boston Globe focuses on the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, passed by voters on November 7, which outlaws racial preferences in the state.

DEPENDING ON who you talk to, the passage of Proposal 2 in Michigan last month was either a great victory for freedom and equal rights or a disastrous setback for minorities and women.

The ballot measure, known as the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, attracted little national attention after 58 percent of voters approved it Nov. 7. Its language is simple: "The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting."

The initiative grew out of two Supreme Court cases challenging affirmative action programs at the University of Michigan. The plaintiff in one case, Jennifer Gratz, had failed to gain admission to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor with a 3.8 grade point average, a score of 25 out of 36 on the college entrance test and a good record of extracurricular achievements. Later, Gratz learned that an African-American or Hispanic applicant with similar qualifications would have been guaranteed admission. She filed a lawsuit, Gratz v. Bollinger.

In 2003, the Supreme Court sided with Gratz, finding that the rigid racial classification system, which automatically awarded applicants 20 points for "underrepresented racial/ethnic minority identification" (compared to five points for outstanding leadership and service), was unconstitutional. However, in the related case of Grutter v. Bollinger, which addressed affirmative action at the university's law school, the court ruled that more flexible racial preferences were acceptable as a means to achieve diversity.

Yet, while the race-conscious criteria at the law school were less clearly defined, the results were just as obvious. Admissions data showed that for an African-American
applicant, the chance of being admitted was three to 50 times greater than the chance of a white or Asian candidate with similar test scores and college grades. Hispanics also benefited from preferential treatment.

Discouraged by the high court's decision to green-light such practices, Gratz took her cause to the ballot box. With help from Ward Connerly, the African-American California businessman who had led a successful fight to outlaw racial preferences in California and Washington, she founded the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative group.

In other circumstances, Gratz -- a woman who experienced discrimination and fought back -- would have been hailed as a feminist hero. Instead, some denounced her as a racist.

Yet many people, including such black writers as Shelby Steele and John McWhorter, argue that affirmative action has in fact become the new racism. Not only does it discriminate against those denied admission to universities, but it also tells its supposed beneficiaries that they cannot succeed under neutral standards. As McWhorter once told me in an interview, African-American culture is saddled with a legacy of racism that makes many young people view academic achievement as a "white thing." Under these circumstances, "the last thing you want is a policy that doesn't expect the best of its young people. Lower the bar, and you're encouraging them to only do as well as they have to."

Some affirmative action opponents have compared racial preferences to Jim Crow. It's an inflammatory parallel, to be sure. Yet consider one deeply ironic moment during the campaign against the initiative : At a fund-raising dinner, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick declared, "We will affirm to the world that affirmative action will be here today, it will be here tomorrow and there will be affirmative action in the state forever." In 1962, it was Alabama Governor George Wallace who declared, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."

Two years later, segregation was outlawed by the historic Civil Rights Act. That act was never meant to enshrine racial preferences, only to guarantee equality. ffirmative action began as a system of outreach to ensure that minority candidates and women got an equal chance to compete. Today, it has become a system of well-meaning discrimination.

The Michigan initiative prevailed even though its supporters were outspent 2 to 1, despite opposition from both Governor Jennifer Granholm and her Republican challenger, Dick DeVoss. It won despite hysterical and deceptive ads that compared the proposal to Hurricane Katrina and Sept. 11, and despite false claims that the measure would end to public funding for breast cancer screenings.

The initiative's opponents have depicted this victory as the result of white men fighting to retain their privilege. But maybe it's really about Americans taking action to end a regrettable detour in the battle for true civil rights.

There is much more on the story. The morning after the iniative passed, University of Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman announced that the university would find some way to “overcome the handcuffs” of the new law, i.e. to get around it -- including possible legal action. Late last month the threat of legal action was dropped. Meanwhile, other Michigan schools such as Wayne State law school are considering experiments with "proxies for race," criteria that are explicitly designed to replicate racial preferences. At least one affirmative action supporter at Wayne State disagrees:

Laura B. Bartell, a professor of law, is a backer of affirmative action. But now that the state’s voters have disagreed, she said, the measure must be applied. She said she did not believe the consideration of past discrimination or tribal status could survive a court challenge. And she said that even if law professors believe in affirmative action, they need to follow the voters’ will. “I was a vocal opponent of Proposition 2, but it passed,” Bartell said. “We’re a law school. One of the things we teach our students is that they must comply with the law.”

What a radical notion.

The Michigan Civil Rights Initiative website is here, with many links to news stories and campaign ads.

Also relevant to this story: my 2001 article, "Secrets and Lies," which examines -- using the University of Michigan as its prime example -- the ways in which racial preferences have spawned a culture of Soviet-like secrecy and deception about race and academic standards at elite universities. It is no accident, perhaps, that the campaign against Proposal 2 in Michigan was based on some outrageous lies as well, such as claims that the law would end public funding for domestic violence shelters and breast cancer screening. (In California, a similar law was used to challenge women-only domestic violence shelters. I happen to think that the lawsuit had merit -- I don't believe publicly funded domestic violence programs should discriminate on the basis of gender -- but the lawsuit did not succeed.)

Similar initiatives are now being considered in other states. Stay tuned for more news on this new civil rights movement.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Litvinenko: The saga continues

My column on the death of Alexander Litvinenko (originally in the Boston Globe) is on today.

The precise circumstances of the death of Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian ex-spy-turned-dissident who died of radiation poisoning Nov. 23, are likely to remain a mystery for some time. But the tragedy and the reaction to it actually reveal a great deal about Vladimir Putin's Russia -- and the West.

Litvinenko fell ill after a meeting with a source in his investigation of the recent fatal shooting of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, another strong critic of the Putin regime. He issued a deathbed statement naming Putin as his murderer. This does not, of course, constitute proof of Putin's involvement. But the fact that Litvinenko was poisoned with polonium, a highly radioactive substance that is virtually impossible to manufacture or obtain outside a sophisticated nuclear laboratory, points to a high-level plot.

Kremlin spokesmen have derided charges of their involvement as "nonsense," and Putin has personally denied any role in Litvinenko's death. Then again, one wouldn't expect him to issue a statement along the lines of "If I did it, here's how I would have had Litvinenko murdered."

After Politkovskaya's death, Putin commented that "this murder does much more harm to Russia and Chechnya than any of her publications." Besides branding Politkovskaya's work exposing human rights abuses as harmful to her country, this cynical comment was remarkable for another reason. Putin didn't say the Russian government doesn't kill its critics, only that it had no reason to kill Politovskaya. Now, Soviet foreign intelligence spokesman Sergei Ivanov has given a similar response to Litvinenko's death, saying, "Litvinenko is not the kind of person for whose sake we would spoil bilateral relations," and "it is absolutely not in our interests to be engaged in such activity."

Yet the murder could be a very effective way to send a message to other critics of Putin and the Russian security apparatus, particularly those who seek to expose the details of the regime's misdeeds: Lie low, or else. On the other hand, those responsible for the murder may well have decided that the risk to Russia's relations with the Western powers was very low. After all, it's unlikely that the Kremlin connection (if it exists) can ever be established definitively. And, particularly given the West's current dependence on Russia for energy , it's also unlikely that any Western governments would risk a new Cold War over this murder, at least in the absence of definitive evidence.

The most likely scenario is that Russia will remain a suspect in Litvinenko's death without ever being proved guilty. And that may also be the best-case scenario for the Putin regime , with the suspicion strong enough to intimidate opponents but not strong enough to hurt Russia's interests abroad.

Does that mean Putin did it? Not necessarily. But he certainly had the motive, and it's not clear how many people with no connection to the Kremlin had the opportunity.

It is also possible that Litvinenko's death was a hit by his former employer, the FSB (Russia's Federal Security Service, the revamped KGB), acting without Putin's direct knowledge. But that hardly exonerates the people at the top.

Not everyone blames the Russian government. On his Russian-politics blog, Sean Guillory complains of the Western media's excessive willingness to believe allegations of nefarious deeds by the Russian government, noting that such asssumptions treat Russia as "some sort of abnormal society" while holding up the West as a standard of modern democracy. But while every Western government has serious faults, they do not include poisoning critics.

In 1990 on a trip to what was then the Soviet Union, I interviewed Russian economist and activist Tatiana Koryagina, who warned me that contact with her might place me in danger from the KGB because of her work exposing government abuses. I wasn't sure at the time whether to dismiss the warning as paranoia. Those were the final months of the old Soviet regime. Now, after a decade of movement toward modern democracy, Russia is once again a country where the line between paranoia and reality is often blurred, a country where the independent media and political parties are being slowly strangled. In such a situation, the suspicion that the Russian regime may be reverting to its old ways -- not only muzzling but murdering its critics -- is not that far-fetched.

Meanwhile, The Guardian reports that Russia is putting up roadblocks to Scotland Yard's investigation into Litvinenko's death:

Intense diplomatic pressure was being brought to bear on the Kremlin last night in an attempt to ensure its full cooperation with the Scotland Yard investigation into the polonium-210 poisoning affair.

Angela Merkel, Germany's chancellor, and Jacques Chirac, France's president, demanded more support and transparency from Moscow, while the Italy's foreign minister, Massimo D'Alema, pressed for greater assistance during talks with Russia's president, Vladimir Putin.

But even as those face-to-face talks were taking place a team of Scotland Yard detectives in Moscow were forced to watch as Russian officials seized control of a key part of their inquiry. The officers were told that not only would Russian suspects never be extradited to the UK, but that witnesses would be questioned by Russian police, rather than by British officers.

In issuing his warning, Yuri Chaika, the Russian prosecutor general, also appeared to pre-empt the Yard's attempts to investigate fully the source of the radioactive isotope which claimed the life of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent, in London 13 days ago, by insisting that it could not have come from Russia.

Quelle surprise.

More from The Guardian on another bizarre twist in what is shaping up to be a John Le Carré-caliber spy saga: was Litvinenko planning to use FSB documents to which he had gained access in order to blackmail high-level Kremlin officials about their pilfering of the Yukos oil company, once run by the now-imprisoned tycoon and Putin foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky? If this incredible allegation turns out to be true, it certainly tarnishes Litvinenko's halo of martyrdom, but it also provides an additional motive for Kremlin involvement in this particular "wet work" (as Stalin's secret police dubbed assassinations).

Meanwhile, runs an article on the likely Kremlin link to the assassination and gets a spate of hostile responses, likely from the same types of people for whom "anti-Soviet" was a term of opprobrium back in the old days. One reader is even moved to post this:

Merits (or lack thereof) of this article aside, I find this rush to defend Putin a little disconcerting. While I agree it's best not to be hasty in judgment and to take all possibilities into account before laying blame, this 'who benefits?' argument that's being used as a magic bullet to shoot down any criticism of the president ignores recent history and the precedent the man himself has set in dealing with political adversaries.


And of course one has to ask, what reputation would Putin be risking by such a brazen execution? This is the man whose country routinely ranks at the bottom of every list Human Rights Watch compiles, who shut down around 90% of Russia's NGOs since coming to power, who jailed their employees on trumped-up charges, kidnapped, tortured and executed family members, threw out the Peace Corps in 2003 (on charges of espionage!), routinely trades weapons to Iran and much of Central Asia, and created "Nashi", his own version of the Hitler Youth.

Read the whole post -- it's worth it.

And, for a lovely example of the convergence of far left and far right, see this gem:

Salon should be ashamed for publishing such willful propaganda. If this prevaricated interview proves anything, it is the fact that a deliberate campaign of disinformation has been let loose by the western media.

For christ sake, Putin is not an idiot. He's an ex-KGB. How can anyone even imagine that he would do something as stupid as getting rid of dissenters in such silly ways knowing fully well that the zionist press would be eager to use any such murder to sully his image?

Can't you see that ever since Putin has deviated from the policies of the globalists (stooges of western capitalistic cabals like Gorbechev & Yelstin) and embarked on path of Russia first by nationalizing Yukos oil and cutting down to size the jew oligarchs controlling the Russian economy, the political establishment along with the media has been having a go at him, continuously attempting to portray him as a ruthless dictator out to take Russia back to the bad old statilisque (sic) days.

Shame on salon for behaving like any other mouthpiece of the imperialist western empire!

Comments about "jew oligarchs" aside, I think this post provides a window into the mindset of many Putin defenders: he's their new warrior against capitalistic cabals.

Sunday, December 03, 2006


Apparently, I'm a bit ouf of the popular culture loop, because I didn't even realize there was a raging controversy over Britney Spears' naughty bits. Apparently, the recently divorced pop star has been getting photographed by papparazzi on the party circuit getting in and out of cars in very short skirts with no undies on. Apparently, too, Britney is following in the foosteps of fellow crotch-flashing celebs Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, in whose company she has been enjoying herself.

I learned about this great moment in the Decline and Fall of Western Culture from a rather mind-boggling thread at Reason's Hit & Run blog. The post by fellow Reasonite Kerry Howley, memorably tittled "The Hidden Threat of Vaginofascism," was inspired by an almost equally remarkable piece in The American Spectator, in which attorney and blogger Carol Platt Liebau laments these pantyless antics. Writes Liebau:

What's most remarkable is the deafening silence from the larger culture that has greeted the antics of the young starlets. It may be that many adults take it for granted that flashing one's privates is so tawdry and declasse that a dignified silence is the only appropriate response. But perhaps that's because they've enjoyed the benefit of growing up in a time and with a culture that was unified in its disapproval of such behavior. Sadly, such a cultural consensus has long since eroded.

It's hardly admirable that adult males say nothing about the exhibitionism, but perhaps it's understandable; while they may not respect young women like Lohan and Spears, the visuals are doubtless intriguing. But older women who fail to speak out about why Spears' and Lohan's behavior is inappropriate and wrong become complicit in it on a much deeper level. By their silence, they are allowing little girls (like they once were) to absorb the destructive message that vulgarity is the same as sexiness, that exhibiting oneself to be stared at or drooled over like a prime cut of meat constitutes "empowerment," and that it's "cool" to flaunt one's sexuality indiscriminately, rather than sharing it with a man who's shown he's interested in more than just another female body.

Just as Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears need to practice a more elegant method of leaving the car, perhaps the adults need to learn their own lesson: That if the young women of America are going to understand the importance of behaving in a way that maintains their own dignity and self-respect, it's time for men and women alike to begin stigmatizing vulgar, exhibitionist displays. Reacting to them with nothing more than voyeuristic amusement or bored indifference allows the bottom-feeders to set the standard for what constitutes glamorous female behavior -- a thought that should strike terror into the heart of every parent (or aunt or uncle) in America.

Note Liebau's unself-conscious use of the word "bottom-feeders," quite hilarious in this context: it bespeaks a peculiar tone-deafness and a severe humor impairment, characteristic, in fact, of the entire piece.

In the Hit & Run thread, some posters take libertarians to task for seeing a menace to freedom not only in governmental restrictions on personal behavior but also in social stigmatization of promiscuity, immodesty and other sexual wantonness. (Watching them make these serious arguments in the midst of bawdy banter about female anatomy is part of what makes the thread so surreal.) And they might, actually have a point. But the real irony (which Kerry Howley's post misses) is that Liebau is barking up the totally wrong tree. "Deafening silence"? Actually, Britney Spears' indecent exposure has been roundly condemned and ridiculed. Even Rosie O'Donnell on The View pleaded with the pop starlet to keep her parts hidden, and issued an appeal to Victoria's Secret to give Britney, Lindsay, and Paris an unlimited supply of undies ("it's supposed to be a secret down there!"). There's that condemnation from older women that Liebau finds lacking. Celebrity gossips, too, have been quite hard on Britney; the gossip blog, which posted the naughty shots, ran them under its "Icky Icky Poo" tag, with such titles as "This Pains Us" and "Britney, This Has to Stop" and with such inscriptions as, "GROSS!" I'd say that's a much more effective deterrent to any girl who contemplates flashing for fun and profit than tongue-clucking from Carol Liebau, Michelle Malkin, or even Rosie. And I haven't even mentioned the unkind comments from readers on various websites, ranging from "Britney, get some help" to brutally disparaging remarks about Britney's "precious flower" (to quote Kerry Howley).

So the bottom line, as it were, is that "vulgar, exhibitionist displays" are being stigmatized plenty. At least on that score, America's parents, aunts and uncles can rest easy, and conservatives can give the hand-wringing a break.

P.S.: As a follow-up to yesterday's post, I considered giving this one the title "Speaking of uncovered meat..." But then I chickened out.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Women, Islam, and the veil

The veil worn by some Muslim women has been a source of great controversy in Europe lately -- first in England, where a Muslim teacher's insistence on wearing the niqab (a veil that covers all of the face except for the eyes) made headlines, and House of Commons leader Jack Straw added fuel to the fire by revealing that he had asked niqab-wearing women to remove it in constituent meetings; now in the Netherlands, where the government has moved to impose a ban on full covering (the burqa and the niqab) in public places.

The latest Weekly Standard has an interesting story on the subject by foreign affairs consultant Olivier Guitta, pointing to the example of Tunisia as a traditionally Muslim country that banned the veil in 1981 as part of an effort to promote modernization and women's rights, and revived the ban recently in response to the spread of radical fundamentalism. The ban is unquestionably illiberal and illiberally enforced, with the police sometimes tearing headscarves off women in the streets. But the article also offers some fascinating points to ponder:

Interestingly, the Tunisian author and feminist Samia Labidi, president of A.I.M.E., an organization fighting the Islamists, recounts that she personally started wearing the veil before puberty, after Islamists told her the hijab would be a passport to a new life, to emancipation. After a few years, she realized she had been fooled and that the veil made her feel like she was "living in a prison." At first, she could not bring herself to stop wearing it because of the constant psychological pressure. But the 1981 ban on the hijab in public places forced her to remove it, and she did so for good.

Labidi's experience suggests that in both Tunisia and France the recent banning of the hijab has actually helped Muslim women who are subject to Islamist indoctrination.

For Islamists, the imperative to veil women justifies almost any means. Sometimes they try to buy off resistance. Some French Muslim families, for instance, are paid 500 euros (around $600) per quarter by extremist Muslim organizations just to have their daughters wear the hijab. This has also happened in the United States. Indeed, the famous and brave Syrian-American psychiatrist Wafa Sultan recently told the Jerusalem Post that after she moved to the United States in 1991, Saudis offered her $1,500 a month to cover her head and attend a mosque.

But what Islamists use most is intimidation. A survey conducted in France in May 2003 found that 77 percent of girls wearing the hijab said they did so because of physical threats from Islamist groups. A series in the newspaper Libération in 2003 documented how Muslim women and girls in France who refuse to wear the hijab are insulted, rejected, and often physically threatened by Muslim males. One of the teenage girls interviewed said, "Every day, bearded men come to me and advise me strongly on wearing the veil. It is a war. For now, there are no dead, but there are looks and words that do kill."

Muslim women who try to rebel are considered "whores" and treated as outcasts. Some of them want to move to areas "with no Muslims" to escape. However, that might not be a solution, as Islamists are at work all over France. The Communist newspaper L'Humanité in 2003 interviewed two Catholic-born French women who said they had converted to Islam and started wearing the niqab after systematic indoctrination by the Muslim Brotherhood.

In light of this, wearing the hijab may or may not be a manifestation of the free exercise of religion. For any individual, it may reflect the very opposite--religious coercion. In fact, millions of women are forced to wear the veil for fear of physical retribution. And the fear is well founded. According to Cheryl Benard of RAND, every year hundreds of women in Pakistan and Afghanistan alone are killed, have acid thrown in their faces, or are otherwise maimed by male fanatics.

I'm not sure all of this information is entirely reliable; I'd like to see the sources regarding the payments to French families to have their daughters wear the hijab, and the 77% of hijab-wearing French Muslim girls who say that they cover themselves because of intimidation. (I have contacted Guitta and will post more information as soon as I receive it). But Guitta makes a pretty strong case. It is also indirectly bolstered by the recent revelation in the British press that Aishah Azmi, the Muslim teacher who insisted on wearing the niqab on the job, had been guided not solely by her personal beliefs but by the instructions of an Islamic cleric from whom she has sought advice on the issue.

Meanwhile, Guardian columnist Naima Bouteldja is up in arms about the Dutch full-covering ban. She argues that it targets a non-existent problem since only about 100 women in the Netherlands wear such covering, and is an attempt to appeal to "far-right" votes. Then, Bouteldja writes:

The Dutch government's proposed ban on both niqab and burka in all public spaces takes things to a new and disturbing level. The implication is clear: niqab or hijab-wearing women, and through them European Muslims, are being asked to submit not to the law of the land, but to each country's dominant way of life.

But if the vast majority of European Muslim women do not wear the niqab or the burqa, why is the ban an attack on them? In fact, a recent column in the Middle Eastern English-language daily The Arab News argues that niqab-wearing women promote negative stereotypes of Islam in the West.

This debate offers a curious role reversal, with conservatives in The Weekly Standard backing the feminist attack on cultural traditions that oppress women (and even the argument that government power should be used to help dismantle such traditions!), and liberals (some liberals, at least) defending a viciously misogynist custom. And viciously misogynist, by the way, it is. See this essay for an excellent critique of the idea that veiling is somehow feminist-friendly or even feminist-compatible. And here, in case you missed it, is the story of the Australian Islamic cleric who preached in a sermon that women who walk around without proper covering are to blame for rape and compared them to "uncovered meat" inciting the appetite of cats.

To quote from my own recent column on women and Islam:

using the language of tolerance to justify oppressive practices is a grotesque perversion of liberalism. The veiling debate is a case in point. No amount of rhetorical sleight of hand can disguise the fact that the full-face veil makes women, literally, faceless. Some Muslim women in the West may choose this garb (which is not mandated in the Koran), but their explanations often reveal an internalized misogynistic view of women as creatures whose very existence is a sexual provocation to men. What's more, their choice helps legitimize a custom that is imposed on millions of women around the world who have no choice.

After my column appeared, I received an email from a reader criticizing me for being too faint-hearted and pussyfooting around the fact that the oppression of women is sanctioned and required by the Koran itself. That brings us, of course, to the much-debated issue of whether intolerance and extremism are intrinsic to Islam. I think the problem is one of resistance to reform and modernization; there are equally misogynist passages to be found in the Bible and in many Christian texts. The difference is that mainstream Judaism and Christianity have largely moved past the patriarchal mindset. At a symposium I attended in October at the American Enterprise Institute, Women in the Middle East: The Beacon of Change, moderator Michael Ledeen made made an apt observation: "The notion that a religion cannot change has always struck me as bizarre and it is a violation of what I understand of religious history to be all about, and for every religion."

As I noted in my column:

Several panelists spoke of Muslim feminists' efforts to reform Islam and separate its spiritual message from the human patriarchal baggage. Some of these reformers look for a lost female-friendly legacy in early Islam; others argue that everything in the Koran that runs counter to the modern understanding of human rights and equality should be revised or rejected. These feminists have an uphill battle to fight, and they deserve all the support they can get.

For Western liberals to defend misogynist practices in Islam on the grounds of multicultural tolerance is not a good way to support Islamic feminist reforms.

Update: Olivier Guitta informs me that the information on French Muslim families being paid by extremist organizations to have their daughters wear the hijab, and on 77% percent of hijab-wearing girls saying that they cover themselves due to intimidation, comes from a May 2003 series in the French newspaper Liberation. I have been unable to find the article so far. It's hard to tell, without reading the original source, whether such payments are a widespread phenomenon. I'm going to be frank and, at the risk of offending Wafa Sultan's many admirers, say that something about her story strikes me as fishy. She is indeed a very brave woman, but she is also passionately devoted to her cause; and even the bravest people devoted to the noblest causes have sometimes had lapses. Unless there was some particular reason for Sultan to be singled out at that time, I find it very hard to believe that the Saudi regime, rich as it is, has routinely offered such large amounts of money to Muslim or Arab imigrant women in the U.S. to get them to wear the hijab.

As for intimidation: I'm sure it exists, and I'm sure it's a factor in many women's "choice" to veil themselves. I just wonder if it comes from "Islamist organizations" or from family members.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Never mind!

The other day, Slate ran an article provocatively titled "The N-Word: Unmentionable lessons of the midterm aftermath" by Diane McWhorter. While the article is somewhat rambling, its main point appears to be that we shouldn't be so afraid of invoking Nazi comparisons when discussing George Bush and the Republicans:

The taboo is itself a precept of the propaganda state. Usually its enforcers profess a politically correct motive: the exceptionalism of genocidal Jewish victimhood. Thus, poor Sen. Richard Durbin, the Democrat from Illinois, found himself apologizing to the Anti-Defamation League after Republicans jumped all over him for invoking Nazi Germany to describe the conditions at Guantanamo. And so by allowing the issue to be defined by the unique suffering of the Jews, we ignore the Holocaust's more universal hallmark: the banal ordinariness of the citizens who perpetrated it. The relevance of Third Reich Germany to today's America is not that Bush equals Hitler or that the United States government is a death machine. It's that it provides a rather spectacular example of the insidious process by which decent people come to regard the unthinkable as not only thinkable but doable, justifiable. Of the way freethinkers and speakers become compliant and self-censoring. Of the mechanism by which moral or humanistic categories are converted into bureaucratic ones. And finally, of the willingness with which we hand control over to the state and convince ourselves that we are the masters of our destiny.

Where to begin?

(1) I don't think anyone objects to Nazi or Hitler analogies under any circumstances. Actually, one irony that McWhorter misses entirely in her diatribe is that conservatives/Bush supporters themselves have made free use of "the N-word" and "the H-word" with regard to Iraq and Saddam Hussein, and more recently with regard to Iran. This is also emotionally manipulative rhetoric, to be sure -- the point of any Nazi or Hitler analogy is to impress the audience with the target's Evil with a capital E, without actually having to make any arguments for it. But at least in the case of Hussein, who gassed the Kurds and tortured and murdered dissidents by the thousands, the analogy has some moral basis; just as it has a moral basis in the case of Pol Pot, or even (on a far lesser scale) Slobodan Milosevic. On the other hand, as critical as I am of Vladimir Putin, for instance, I think that to compare him to Hitler or Stalin would inevitably have the effect of trivializing genocide.

(2) For all the talk of the "banality of evil," the Germans who came to regard the persecution of Jews as justifiable were not simply decent people led astray by, say, perceptions of a threat to national security; they were people who accepted an ideology of overt and vicious bigotry based on religion and race. Are there disturbing elements in attitudes in America today toward some groups such as Muslims and illegal aliens? I would agree that there are; but the Nazi analogy is so outlandish, so disproportionate, so outrageous that, ironically, invoking it can only have the opposite effect. Instead of saying, "Hey, this could happen to us, too," people are likely to react by saying, "This has nothing to do with us."

(3) Why exactly does McWhorter need her Nazi analogies, anyway? Modern history is full of examples of governments using propaganda, trampling on civil liberties, or demonizing minority groups (McWhorter's charges against Bush and present-day America) without descending into monstrosity and mass murder. Indeed, as one Slate reader pointed out in the magazine's forum, The Fray:

isn't our own history sufficient to show how horrendous the actions of the current administration are? Do we really need to bring up Nazi Germany when referring to the declaring of US citizens to be "enemy combatants" when our own history of doing that to the Japanese during WWII is just as good an example if not better? Do we really need to reach for the Nazi card when trying to talk about the suspension of habeas corpus and expansion of executive authority when our own history of Lincoln suspending it and being slapped down by the Supreme Court over it is good enough? Why not simply point out the many things that Bush has done and compare them to our own Declaration of Independence?

The reason, of course, is simple. None of those analogies would invoke absolute evil, or shut off debate and award McWhorter's side the easy rhetorical victory.

But there is something else wrong with McWhorter's article. A key part of her Bush/Hitler comparison is this:

The official name of that 1933 National Socialist masterstroke was the "Law to Remedy the Distress of the People and the Reich," and the distress warranting
its transfer of dictatorial power to Hitler was the state crisis provoked by the Reichstag fire the month before. And so it was under the open-ended emergency
created by 9/11 that Bush's Military Commissions Act, passed in September, gave
the president authority to designate anyone he so deemed, citizen or no, an 'unlawful enemy combatant' and, habeas corpus having been nullified, send noncitizens away indefinitely.*

That asterisk you see at the end leads to this:

Correction, Nov. 29, 2006: This piece originally claimed, incorrectly, that the Military Commissions Act strips U.S. citizens as well as noncitizens of habeas corpus rights. In fact, the provisions of the act relating to habeas corpus only apply to noncitizens. (Return to the corrected sentence.)


While I have serious misgivings about various national security measures pushed by the Bush administration, in particular with regard to detainees, I also think that the Nazi comparison is outlandish at best. (Actually, the U.S. during World War II is a better analogy in some ways.) It also seems to me that the correction is not a trivial one, since McWhorter's parallel here rests largely on the assumption that the Act strips Americans in general of habeus corpus rights.

As Emily Litella used to say: Never mind.

Monday, November 27, 2006

The self-parody files: Fat studies

If "Deaf culture" strikes you as a manifestation of identity politics gone mad, check out fat studies, the subject of a depressing article in the Style section of yesterday's New York Times. This is the "fat acceptance" movement coming to campus. According to the Times:

Even as science, medicine and government have defined obesity as a threat to the nation’s health and treasury, fat studies is emerging as a new interdisciplinary area of study on campuses across the country and is gaining interest in Australia and Britain. Nestled within the humanities and social sciences fields, fat studies explores the social and political consequences of being fat.

For most scholars of fat, though, it is not an objective pursuit. Proponents of fat studies see it as the sister subject — and it is most often women promoting the study, many of whom are lesbian activists — to women’s studies, queer studies, disability studies and ethnic studies. In many of its permutations, then, it is the study of a people its supporters believe are victims of prejudice, stereotypes and oppression by mainstream society.

“It’s about a dominant culture’s ideals of what a real person should be,” said Stefanie Snider, 29, a graduate student at the University of Southern California, whose dissertation will be on the intersection of queer and fat identities in the United States in the 20th century. “And whether that has to do with skin color or heritage or sexual orientation or ability, it ends up being similar in a lot of ways.”

Fat studies is still a fringe area of scholarship, but it is gaining traction. Three years ago, the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association, which promotes scholarly research of popular culture, added a fat studies component to regional and national conferences.

The article does discuss the fact that the medical profession views obesity as a serious health hazard. Apparently, the overriding agenda of "fat studies" is to combat this perception:

But proponents of fat studies challenge the science behind those conclusions and firmly believe that obesity research is shaped by society’s bias against fat people and that the consequences of excessive weight are not as bad as scientists portray.

And we can all be sure that this is a purely scientific critique entirely free of things like wishful thinking.

The article also discusses the rather embarrassing case of fat studies proponent Kathleen LeBesco, head of the department of communications at Marymount Manhattan College and author of a 2004 book called Revolting Bodies: The Struggle to Redefine Fat Identity, who lost 70 lbs after a doctor told her she was at risk for developing type 2 diabetes. (LeBesco's journey is discussed in detail in The Chronicle of Higher Education last June.) LeBesco is apparently appalled by the focus on her weight loss:

“It’s similar to discussions within feminism,” she said. “Can you support the team if you’re a man? Or can you be into queer activism if you’re not queer?” In the end, she said, the attention to her size proved the theory that society can’t keep its sights off women’s bodies.

Nice analogy, but it doesn't fly. A gay person who decided to undergo "reparative therapy" to become straight -- which, if we are to accept the "fat acceptance" mindset, would be analogous to LeBesco's weight loss -- would be unlikely to find acceptance in "queer activism" or "queer studies." In The Chronicle, LeBesco "acknowleges uncomfortably" that most of the people who have signed up for her "Healthy at Any Size" campus group were drawn by her own weight loss. What's more, LeBesco's example undercuts some cherished "fat liberation" myths: for instance, that obesity is not unhealthy, or that it has nothing to do with lifestyle habits or self-discipline. LeBesco lost weight through diet and exercise, and in the Chronicle piece she freely admits that her past obesity was a result of her tendency to "let [her] appetite run away." (Actually, LeBesco, as profiled in The Chronicle, is an odd case study. Convinced since childhood that she was doomed to be fat because her father was, she spent her youth on a variety of diets, some of them quite unhealthy. However, even when she was thin, she always felt like a fat person who was "passing" for slim, and eventually she began to explore the politics of fat identity.)

Ann Althouse has an interesting discussion of the topic. Also, my earlier columns on obesity and "fat liberation" can be found here and here. The first of these articles discusses a study released in 2005 which purported to show that the dangers of being overweight were far less than they were made out to be. The fat-acceptance activists were quick to seize on that, despite the fact that the study's "good news" applied to moderately overweight people, not to the morbid obesity championed as a matter of "pride" by the fat libbers. Yet new research that has come out since then casts serious doubt even on the 2005 report:

In what researchers say is the largest and most definitive study yet on whether merely being overweight but not obese is harmful to health, doctors found significantly higher premature death rates in middle-aged overweight people and dramatically higher death rates in those who were obese.

There have been alarming reports, as well, on the health consequences of increasing childhood obesity. (For a rather chilling example "fat acceptance" lunacy, see the fat libbers' defense of a mother who allowed her 13-year-old daughter to balloon to the size of 680 lbs, and was prosecuted for neglect after the girl died of heart failure.)

I am not denying that obsession with thinness and unrealistic ideals of slenderness are a real problem in contemporary Western culture as well, or that quite a few people do themselves harm with yo-yo dieting and fad diets, not to mention eating disorders. Unfortunately, instead of espousing a sensible approach to weight control (healthy, moderate eating and exercise), the fat acceptance activists and their academic allies are pursuing the severaly misguided goal of "destigmatizing" fat, downplaying its risks, and depicting the obese as victims of political and social oppression.

Of course, according to the Times:

Elena Escalera, an assistant professor of psychology at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif., vehemently disagrees with the idea that fat studies perpetuates a victim’s mentality.

“This is not about victimhood, but about becoming empowered,” she said. “Did Martin Luther King and Malcolm X espouse victimhood? Did Susan B. Anthony? It’s really easy for people to feel that fat people are trying to find an excuse.”

Actually, I suspect that Martin Luther King and Susan B. Anthony would be appalled by much of what goes on in race and gender studies on American campuses today. But that aside -- yes, it's really easy for people to feel that a movement which pooh-pooh self-restraint and makes heroes of people who are "strong enough to cast aside diet mentality and live in the present" (a quote from LeBesco in CHE) is really about "fat people ... trying to find an excuse." It's really easy for a really good reason.

Of course, aside from the dubious nature of "fat acceptance" ideology, there is also the question of academic programs that exist to champion a particular point of view and a particular agenda, rather than to strive for knowledge and at least attempt an unbiased intellectual inquiry. (Thank you, women's studies.) There is nothing wrong with the idea of a college course examining the evolution of social and cultural attitudes toward body shape and size, perhaps within sociology or another social science course. But this is obviously not what "fat studies" is about.

Maybe the next frontier in the academic battle against all varieties of oppression should be "drunk studies." Why not an academic program championing the idea that "alcohol abuse" is an artificial construct based on the mainstream culture's oppressive notions of what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate consumption of alcohol? "Drunk studies" could tell us that the stigmatization of drunkenness stems from the Western valorization of such dubious values as self-control, rationality, and obedience to social norms, and reflects a pernicious fear of rebellion against inhibitions and authority. Of course, it would also question conventional wisdom -- supposedly based on scientific evidence, but really rooted in anti-drunk bias -- about the deleterious health consequences of alcohol abuse and the dangers of drunk driving. After all, the goal of "drunk studies" would be to empower drunks!

I think I should get a grant.

Update: Welcome, Instapundit and Ann Althouse readers!

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Litvinenko: A follow-up

A long article in yesterday's New York Times summarizes the information available so far on the death of Russian ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko, a prominent critic of Vladimir Putin and of the Russian federal security service, the FSB (heir to the KGB). According to the story:

Scientists were astounded at the use of the rare and hard-to-produce substance, polonium 210, which is dangerous when breathed, injected or ingested. ...

The police searched several locations that Mr. Litvinenko had visited in early November— the Itsu sushi bar on Piccadilly, his home in the white-collar Muswell Hill neighborhood of north London and the Mayfair Millennium Hotel near the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square — and said they had found radioactive traces at each of them. Television showed plainclothes officers carrying away a metal box and several tote bags of evidence from the Itsu restaurant.

A British counterterrorism official said polonium 210 was a byproduct of the nuclear industry and is used in the production of antistatic materials. But in the form believed to have been used in the suspected poisoning, it would have required high-grade technical skills and a sophisticated scientific process to produce, probably within a nuclear lab.

See also the related story on polonium, and more information in this Reuters story. One British cabinet member, Northern Ireland minister Peter Hain, has made an unusually strong public statement:

"The promise that President Putin brought to Russia when he came to power has been clouded by what has happened since, including some extremely murky murders," he told BBC television.
Meanwhile, the Times story quotes offers this gem from a Putin spokesman:

While Mr. Litvinenko’s friends have accused President Putin, the Russian leader’s own supporters have hinted at a conspiracy of a different nature.

In Helsinki, where the poisoning overshadowed efforts to resolve disagreements on European-Russian relations, Mr. Putin’s aide in charge of European affairs, Sergei V. Yastrzhembsky, said: “What is alarming is the eye-striking, excessive number of deliberate coincidences of high-profiling deaths of people who positioned themselves as opponents to the existing Russian government with international events in which the Russian president takes part.”

He added that Russia faced “a well-orchestrated campaign or a plan to consistently discredit Russia and its leader,” according to the Interfax news agency.

Deliberate coincidences! Alarming, indeed. Obviously, those devious foes of Russia will stop at nothing. Maybe Litvinenko poisoned himself just so he could discredit poor Putin!

Obviously, I don't think anyone should jump to conclusions and blame Putin personally, or the Russian intelligence services in general. Other scenarios are possible too -- though, if the murder was carried out by rogue elements within the FSB, that does not necessarily absolve the Russian regime. As a friend of Litvinenko's told Reuters:

Those rogue people are ... the direct responsibility of Mr Putin. They are the result of his ideology of force and this nationalism which is now being injected in the Russian people.

However, I don't buy the idea that the Kremlin had no reason to murder Litvinenko, or that it does not stand to benefit by his death. For one, the murder could be a very effective way to send a message to other critics of the Putin regime, particularly those who don't simply criticize but seek to expose the regime's misdeeds: lie low, or else. As for the harm to Putin's and Russia's image abroad, and to international relations: quite possibly, those reponsible for the murder consicously decided that the risk of serious damage was very low. After all, it's highly unlikely that the Kremlin connection (if it exists) can ever be established beyond a reasonable doubt; and, particularly given the West's current energy dependence on Russia at the moment, it's also quite unlikely that the Western powers would risk a real break with Russia, at least in the absence of definitive evidence.

The most likely scenario is that Russia will remain a suspect in the Litvinenko murder without ever being proven guilty. And that scenario, actually, may serve the Putin regime's interests very well: the suspicion will likely be enough to intimidate and silence many opponents of the regime, but not enough to really muck things up for Russia on the international scene.

Does that mean Putin did it? Not necessarily. But he certainly had the motive; and, at least judging by the latest reports, it's not clear how many people with no connection to the Kremlin would have had the opportunity.

Friday, November 24, 2006

L'affaire Litvinenko and perceptions of Russia

So Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian spy/defector who has fallen mysteriously ill after meeting with a source while investigating the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, died in a London hospital yesterday, apparently poisoned by a powerful radioactive substance (see many links on the page). Litvinenko, in a deathbed statement, has accused Putin of being behind his poisoning; the Kremlin denies it as "nonsense," and Putin has personally denied any role, but of course one wouldn't expect him to issue a statement along the lines of "If I had had Litvinenko murdered, here's how I would have done it."

What to make of this story? The murder of defectors/dissenters is certainly a secret services M.O. from the old communist days. Could the new Russia be up to those old tricks? Sadly, I can't say I would be shocked. After Politkovskaya's murder, Putin issued a comment that was rather extraordinary in its cynicism: "She had minimal influence on political life in Russia. This murder does much more harm to Russia and Chechnya than any of her publications." As I noted in my column on the subject, Putin thus not only dismissed Politkovskaya's work as insignificant but also branded it as harmful to her country; but there's another remarkable aspect to that comment, as well. In essence, Putin was dismissing suspicions that his agents had murdered Politkovskaya not on the grounds that the Russian government doesn't do such things, but that it had no reason to. Ironically, Soviet foreign intelligence spokesman Sergei Ivanov has made the same charming argument in response to Litvinenko's death, telling the Interfax news agency that "Litvinenko is not the kind of person for whose sake we would spoil bilateral relations" and "it is absolutely not in our interests to be engaged in such activity."

Putin, perhaps realizing that Russia is getting some serious bad PR, has responded to Litvinenko's death in a far less callous fashion than he did to Politkovskaya; he has called Litvinenko's death a tragedy and expressed condolences to his family.

Could Russia be implicated? On the one hand, it does seem improbable that Russia would risk a major scandal by assassinating a critic in a Western country. On the other hand, if Litvinenko was enough of a thorn in their side (and/or was on the trail of something important regarding the Politkovskaya case), it's conceivable that the Putin regime could have counted on his murder never being traced. And indeed, it's likely that we'll never know for sure. It's also possible that the FSB (former KGB) could have pulled off this operation without Putin's direct knowledge. Or perhaps Putin chose not to know.

While looking for articles on the topic, I came across a fascinating post on Sean's Russia Blog, the work of UCLA graduate student Sean Guillory. Guillory argues that people are too quick to blame Russia for the Litvinenko poisoning, and perhaps he has a point. He notes, for instance, that even if the poisoning is linked to Russian intelligence, it could have been carried out by rogue elements in the FSB. Fair enough. (It should be noted that Guillory made his post before the new evidence of polonium poisoning as the cause of the ex-spy's illness and death.) But then Guillory goes on to say:

The readiness for Westerns to believe that the Kremlin is behind every nefarious plot is a long standing view. In fact, suspicion, rumor and a willingness to accept conspiracy drove a whole generation of Soviet historiography. For example, many historians explain every bad thing that happened in the 1930s as a result of Stalin’s direct hand. This includes the murder of Sergei Kirov in 1934 and Ordzhonikidze’s suicide in 1937 as well as the belief that there was a plan behind collectivization and the Terror.

Evidence doesn’t matter when it comes to Stalin, Russia, and now, even Putin. They are all given magical powers to direct events and history at will. This line of thinking only shows how difficult it is to break the Cold War’s cultural and ideological structures that still inform how we in the West think about Russia. ...

This is not to suggest that Russia doesn’t share some of the blame for its negative image. Putin’s reaction to Anna Politkovskaya’s murder was cold and indifferent. In addition, Russia does have serious problems with nationalism, racism, democracy, political and press freedom, and corruption. The Kremlin’s ambivalence and lack of action feeds into assumptions about its ill intent. As an editorial in the International Herald Tribune rightly states, “instead of going into a snarling, defensive crouch over each political hit, the Russian government has to start reining in the former spies, organized criminals and Chechen quislings, and start solving some cases.”

Still, the jump to conspiracy without evidence, let alone the Tribune’s animalistic ascriptions, perpetuates Russia as some sort of abnormal society. Not only does it make Russia appear hopelessly and eternally backward, it also inevitably posits the West as normative. And this is exactly what Orientalism does: it is a position from which to claim enlightenment at the expense and detriment of the Other. If you don’t think so, take a look at the final line of the Guardian’s editorial, “Poisoning dissidents cannot be part of a modern, democratic agenda.” True enough. But who but the West is the silent measurement for what is “modern’ and ‘democratic’ in this statement?

(The Guardian editorial in question is here; Guillory finds fault with its apparently too value-laden language, such as a reference to Russia's "bad habits of bullying and intervening" in neighboring states such as Ukraine and Georgia. Tut, tut.)

Of course, no one should jump to conclusions without evidence. But Guillory pooh-poohs conclusions based on some pretty weighty evidence -- for instance, about Stalin's link to the Kirov murder, which as far as I know is recognized as likely by most mainstream Russian historians today. (This link was first suggested by Nikita Khrushchev in his 1956 speech at a closed session of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in which he first denounced the Stalin cult.) And Guillory's apparent belief that collectivization and the Great Terror "just happened" unplanned represents an extraordinary willingness to give the Stalin regime the benefit of the doubt. The argument that Stalin never planned to rule by terror but simply reacted to events and let them spin out of control -- made, inter alia, by Miami (Ohio) University historian Robert Thurston in the 1996 book Life and Terror in Stalin's Russia -- is ironically quite similar to David Irving's claims about the Nazi murder of the Jews.

So, in fact, Guillory complaint about excessive readiness to credit claims of Russian wrongdoing points to the exact opposite: a reluctance to recognize atrocities committed by Russia or some other "Other," motivated by fear of making these societies look, God forbid, "abnormal." Or fear of, God forbid even more, admitting that Western and Western-modeled governments, for all their significant flaws, are the closest we've got to a standard of democracy, modernity, and enlightenment.

Guillory's fretting about the Guardian editorial is especially ironic since there is little doubt that The Guardian would not hesitate to use equally harsh language about, say, Bush's America.

To answer Guillory's question: who, in this statement, is the measurement for what is "modern" and "democratic"? I would suggest, for starters, any government that does not either murder or muzzle its critics.

More on the faith wars

For those who may have missed it, a follow-up to my post on religious and anti-religious intolerance: an interesting piece in the New York Times on a forum titled “Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival.” With anti-religionists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris on hand, and some believing scientists apparently invited but unable to attend, the event turned into a spirited religion-bash, with such declarations as this, from physicist Stephen Weinberg:

Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization.

Of course, this is precisely the kind of talk that makes many people think scientists have an ideological agenda of undermining religion. In fact, a few speakers highlighted this problem:

“There are six billion people in the world,” said Francisco J. Ayala, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Irvine, and a former Roman Catholic priest. “If we think that we are going to persuade them to live a rational life based on scientific knowledge, we are not only dreaming — it is like believing in the fairy godmother.”

“People need to find meaning and purpose in life,” he said. “I don’t think we want to take that away from them.”

Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist at Case Western Reserve University known for his staunch opposition to teaching creationism, found himself in the unfamiliar role of playing the moderate. “I think we need to respect people’s philosophical notions unless those notions are wrong,” he said.

“The Earth isn’t 6,000 years old,” he said. “The Kennewick man was not a Umatilla Indian.” But whether there really is some kind of supernatural being — Dr. Krauss said he was a nonbeliever — is a question unanswerable by theology, philosophy or even science. “Science does not make it impossible to believe in God,” Dr. Krauss insisted. “We should recognize that fact and live with it and stop being so pompous about it.”

That was just the kind of accommodating attitude that drove Dr. Dawkins up the wall. “I am utterly fed up with the respect that we — all of us, including the secular among us — are brainwashed into bestowing on religion,” he said. “Children are systematically taught that there is a higher kind of knowledge which comes from faith, which comes from revelation, which comes from scripture, which comes from tradition, and that it is the equal if not the superior of knowledge that comes from real evidence.”

And the last word, at least for me, goes to anthropologist Melvin Konner:

By the third day, the arguments had become so heated that Dr. Konner was reminded of “a den of vipers.”

“With a few notable exceptions,” he said, “the viewpoints have run the gamut from A to B. Should we bash religion with a crowbar or only with a baseball bat?”

His response to Mr. Harris and Dr. Dawkins was scathing. “I think that you and Richard are remarkably apt mirror images of the extremists on the other side,” he said, “and that you generate more fear and hatred of science.”

The conflict may be particularly pointed because some of the science supremacists' notion of outmoded prejudices includes not only religion but the traditional humanistic belief in human agency and moral autonomy. For more, see my August 2005 Reason column on "the new neuromorality." A common line of attack on science from the right is that it destroys the foundations of right and wrong, treating people as no different in moral status than slugs. For science to actually start championing that viewpoint is not a smart thing.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The faith wars

My latest column in The Boston Globe deals with the ever-contentious debates over religion. It was inspired, in large part, less by punditry than by the squabbling I have seen on internet forums and blogsites.

BEHIND THE political divide in America, there is also a religious divide. The split is not just between people who believe and people who do not; it is between those who see religious faith as society's foundation and those who see it as society's bane. So far, the debates on this subject have generated more heat than light, as both sides preach to the converted and talk at, not to, those who disagree. In the most recent volley in the faith wars, British pop star Elton John has said that if it were up to him, he would "ban religion completely" because it promotes anti gay bigotry and hate.

A look at recent best-selling books illustrates the divide. Ann Coulter's "Godless: The Church of Liberalism" excoriates liberals for being, well, godless. Bill O'Reilly's new tome, "Culture Warrior," urges traditionalists to combat the evil influence of the "secular-progressives." For the other side, there's "Letter to a Christian Nation" by philosopher Sam Harris, who calls all religion "obscene" and "utterly repellent," and "The God Delusion" by biologist Richard Dawkins, a tome whose title speaks for itself.

Both sides in the debate traffic in simplistic stereotypes. Anti religionists such as Harris assert that religion is dangerous because it has historically promoted violence and oppression -- and, in the form of Muslim extremism, continues to do so today. Yet the greatest atrocities of the 20th century were committed by totalitarian states armed with ideologies that were either explicitly atheist (communism) or non religious (Nazism). What's more, in the past and at present, religious fanaticism has often served as a vehicle and a cover for other tribal allegiances, such as nationalism.

Equally misguided, however, is the claim made by many champions of religion that secularists lack the will to combat evil because they are moral relativists who don't believe in good and evil anyway. Pat Tillman, the football player tragically killed by "friendly fire" in Afghanistan, was an atheist who joined the armed forces after Sept. 11 because he wanted to fight for his country against the barbarians who attacked it. Andrei Sakharov, a physicist and a secular humanist, stood up to the Soviet regime in the 1970s, at great risk to himself, in the name of human rights.

A religion, like any other set of beliefs, can be used for good or bad. In America, some people used the Bible to justify slavery, but Christians were also in the forefront of the battle to abolish it. Any passionately held belief, whether or not it includes God, can make some people intolerant, closed-minded, unwilling to look at facts that
contradict their dogma, and hateful toward those who disagree.

It doesn't help that religion has become intertwined with politics. A recent column by film critic and pundit Michael Medved conflates attacks on religion with criticism of the political power of religious conservatives: Such books as "The Left Hand of God: Taking Our Country Back from the Religious Right" by Rabbi Michael Lerner, written from a religious point of view, are lumped together with Harris's anti religion screed. Meanwhile, conservative author Heather MacDonald, writing in USA Today, complains that "skeptical conservatives" feel marginalized in today's discourse. The new vogue for wearing one's faith on one's political sleeve is a prescription for religious strife.

Given the right's efforts to legislate explicitly religious values and to smuggle the pseudo-scientific religious doctrine of "intelligent design" into science classrooms, an anti religion backlash was probably inevitable. But attempts on the left to expunge all religion from the public square have contributed to the problem.

Each side in the faith wars is angry and afraid. Secularists see a creeping theocracy in attempts to outlaw same-sex unions, abortion, and stem cell research and to promote government funding for faith-based charities. Believers see assaults on their values everywhere from education to television and movies. Non religious Americans feel they are a beleaguered minority; in fact, more than half of Americans hold a negative view of people who don't believe in God. Religious Americans feel, also with some justification, that they are held in contempt by intellectual and cultural elites (remember Ted Turner's reference to Catholics as "Jesus freaks"?)

Unfortunately, the current polemics only reinforce these fears. Religious people see atheists who are hateful and intolerant toward faith, to the point of wanting to ban it; secularists see champions of religion who promote hostility toward non believers and wield religion as a political club. Under these circumstances, there is little prospect for dialogue or true understanding -- only for more shouting.

I'm sure I'll get my share of ribbing for trying to be too even-handed and find fault with both sides. No, I don't think both sides are always equally to blame in any debate, and even in specific debates involving religion -- such as "intelligent design" -- I see no point in trying to split things down the middle. But in the larger debate about religion versus secularism, I have found the intolerance to be largely equivalent on both sides. In the past six years, the religious bullies have had more power in American society at large than the secularist ones, sometimes with genuinely coercive consequences (see the Terri Schiavo case, attempts to gut stem cell resesarch and smuggle ID into science classrooms, even faith-based initiatives funding which in some cases means preferential social services for Christians or potential Christian converts). However, no one should have any illusions about secularist bullying in those sectors where the secularists have more power. Let's not forget genuine cases of intolerance toward voluntary religious speech by students in public schools, and toward other non-coercive religious expression in the public square.

There is no question that many among the literati view religion with irrational hostility and contempt; and there is no question that all too often, in responding to these attacks, religious conservatives are quick to show irrational hostility and contempt toward all who are not religious. See, for instance, this December 2005 blogpost by Gerald Vanderleun, who assails historian Peter Watson's preposterous assertion that "ethical monotheism" is the worst and most harmful idea in human history -- and ends up essentially asserting that nothing good in history or in human life is possible without monotheistic religion.

Similar extremes prevail whenever people start arguing about religion; and, typically, neither side realizes how intolerant and condescending it is. I have seen Christians react with anger to the suggestion that believers are gullible and simple-minded, and then in their next breath suggest that non-believers are less moral and/or lead spiritually empty lives. I have seen atheists denounce religion for promoting intolerance and displaying intolerance toward anything smacking of religion.

A final note: I think the encroachments of science and religion on each other's turf contribute greatly to the hostilities. The "intelligent design" movement boosts the worst stereotypes educated secularists have of religion. Conversely, scientists who speak of the very idea of the human soul with a condescending irony fan believers' worst fears about science as a cold, inhuman, anti-spiritual enterprise. Sam Harris, apparently, plans to write a book on neuroscience -- which he began to study late, as an outgrowth of his philosophical interests -- debunking the concept of free will. That's not going to win many friends.

By the way, the Michael Medved article mentioned in my column can be read here. And here is Heather MacDonald's article on "skeptical conservatives."