Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Catching up (2): Gender-norming science?

In a May 22 post, Jeff Goldstein rightly slams an absurd proposal to use Title IX (which prohibits gender discimination in higher education) to go after science programs that fail to satisfy feminist criteria of gender parity. It comes, not from a political activist, but from Richard N. Zare, chair of the department of chemistry at Stanford University.

Zare, who offers a Cultural Revolution-style confession of his own sins of unconscious racism and sexism, argues that women in science are still held back by subtle discrimination. As proof, he cites a 1997 Swedish study showing that female applicants for postdoctoral positions are rated less favorably than male applicants. Says Zare:

Many regard Sweden to be a progressive country and the behavior of committees in 1997 to be not much different from what might be expected today. The conclusions that discrimination exists and is entrenched in our judgments seem hard to deny.

But maybe Sweden is a little too progressive. The generous parental leave policies and other support structures that enable women to stay in the workforce but drastically curtail their work commitments once they have children create a situation in which many women are no doubt viewed as suspect when it comes to their future productivity. (Many of these programs are also available to Swedish men, but they are far more likely to remain employed full-time while raising a family.) Can we universalize from the Swedish findings? A few years ago, a British study -- which admittedly measured different things -- found no evidence of discrimination against women scientists in the awarding of research grants and postdoctoral fellowships. The study did find that women scientists who had young children, or had taken a break from their careers for family reasons, were considerably less likely to apply for grants.

So, once again, this brings us to the work-family conundrum. And Zare actually acknowledges this, noting that the slow progress in achieving gender parity on the faculties of leading science departments has to do with

the failure to take into account the asymmetric burdens of childbirth and child care as well as elder care, and the failure to structure faculty jobs to better reflect a balanced lifestyle. ... Currently, the reward structure of the academic rat race in science, engineering, and mathematics presents a real barrier to women choosing a career in academics. We must dispel the notion that working day and night equates to productivity. Many of us know coworkers with limited time available who nevertheless make outstanding contributions to the success of a research project.

In my 2001 article on women in science, I commented on somewhat similar proposals:

A 1993 article in Science on women's attrition from scientific fields deplored such "outmoded stereotypes" as "an emphasis on scientific knowledge independent of real-world uses and an image of scientists as obsessed with science to the exclusion of other human endeavors."

But what if trying to jettison these "stereotypes" results in the loss of something essential to scientific pursuit at the highest level?

It seems fairly indisputable to me that by and large, if two people are equally talented, smart, and hardworking, the one who gives 80% of herself to her work is going to achieve more than the one who gives 50%. I'm all for changing societal norms to make it easier for ambitious and talented women to relegate the role of primary caregiver and homemaker to their husbands. But lowering the standards so women can succed is not an answer, it's an insult -- to both science and women.

Catching up (1): Individualism is racist?

Catching up with some must-reads from my blogging hiatus.

As reported by Eugene Volokh on May 17, the Seattle Public Schools' website identifies the following among various forms of racism:

Cultural Racism:
Those aspects of society that overtly and covertly attribute value and normality to white people and Whiteness, and devalue, stereotype, and label people of color as “other”, different, less than, or render them invisible. Examples of these norms include defining white skin tones as nude or flesh colored, having a future time orientation, emphasizing individualism as opposed to a more collective ideology, defining one form of English as standard, and identifying only Whites as great writers or composers.

I think there is some validity to the criticism of the use of "flesh-colored" to mean the color of "white" flesh. But "a future time orientation" (a phrase that baffled many Volokh readers, and which apparently means an ethos that stresses achievement and progress as well as planning forward)? And "individualism as opposed to a more collective ideology"? Personally, I think "racism" is a pretty good description for the belief that some people, by dint of their race or ethnicity, are forever bound to "collective ideologies" and ill-suited for individualism, or for "future-oriented" progress and achievement -- or for proper English.

As for the "racism" of "identifying only White as great writers or composers," it depends on the context. I concur with Eugene, who writes:

I should say that assuming that only Whites can be great writers or composers is of course indeed racism; but providing a list of the greatest composers and writers that consists only of whites may be perfectly legitimate, depending on your criteria (which could be entirely fair, though not indisputable, criteria) of greatness.

The real racism here comes from the pseudo-multiculturalists who put racial labels on values and ideas.

Pictures from Israel

My photos from Israel are now up on my website.

A few of my favorites:

A mosque and a church in Acre (Akko), a city held at various times by Jews, Greeks, Romans, Cruaders, and Muslims.

On Ben Yehuda street, a pedestrian mall/shopping center in Jerusalem, the city's three religions mix, and a sign in a shop window expresses appreciation to foreign visitors.

Ceasarea: Roman-style ruins, a Crusader fortress, Israeli flags (and my father).

Jerusalem: The Armenian quarter and a map of the Armenian genocide on a wall (I saw several of those on a single block).

Jerusalem: Via Dolorosa and the "Christ Prison Shop."

Jerusalem: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, believed to stand on the spot where Jesus Christ was crucified and to house the tomb in which he was buried prior to the Resurrection. Recapturing the "Tomb of the Lord" from the infidels was the main objective of the Crusades.

The Western (Wailing) Wall (the women's prayer section is on the right), and another view of the wall with the golden Dome of the Rock (a famous mosque) behind it.

Seen from the back (not on purpose), the camel handler on the Mount of Olives who complained to our cabdriver that the terrorists had almost ruined his business. Oh, and the camel, of course.

The Damascus gate and the market in the Muslim Quarter.

The Gethsemane Garden, with eight olive trees said to date back to the time of Christ.

The lime rocks and grottoes at Rosh Hanikva.

In Yafo (Jaffa), an unusual monument symbolizing the rebirth of Israel: a tree growing out of an egg-like rock.

Monday, May 29, 2006

In Britain and Canada, a win for hypocrisy

England's National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) has voted for an academic boycott on Israeli institutions of higher education that do not renounce Israel's "apartheid policy." reports:

The move to boycott Israeli academics reopened a front which formerly involved a different British teachers’ association, the Association of University Teachers (AUT), which advanced a motion in April of last year to shun Haifa and Bar Ilan Universities. Responding to the urgings of Palestinian organizations, AUT declared the boycott and decided to exclude the two institutions from conventions and research projects.

A month later following a wide Israeli lobbyist campaign, the union voted to cancel the boycott. Soon after Monday’s Blackpool summit, the two teachers’ organizations are expected to unite into one association.

At the Blackpool summit, two motions were put to vote. The first called to help aid, protect and support Palestinian institutions and universities in light of the continuing attacks by the Israeli government, and to maintain ties with the Palestinian government to underscore this support. This motion also accuses Britain of scandalous incitement against Hamas.

The second motion called to renew last year’s boycott, and mentions “Israel’s persistent apartheid policy,” which includes the construction of the security fence and other discriminatory practices in the education system.

Whether the NATFHE boycott will be binding for the AUP, which reversed himself on a similar boycott earlier, remains to be seen.

The British Foreign Office deplores the decision, calling it "counterproductive and retrograde." The reaction from Israel is even stronger:

The chairman of the Knesset Committee for Science and Technology, MK Zevulun Orlev, asked his British counterpart to condemn the decision.

"We expect the British to decry the anti-Semitic and racist decision to encourage institutions for higher education to tighten cooperation with Israeli academic institutions," Orlev wrote in a letter addressed to members of the British parliament.

Also today, the Ontario division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the largest labor union in Canada, voted in favor of a boycott of Israel because of its treatment of Palestinians.

Are these boycotts anti-Semitic? Maybe not, but, as I noted the other day, they are hypocritical, sanctimonious, and deeply wrong. No one is demanding a boycott of Russian academics over Russia's occupation of Chechnya and the atrocities committed there (which dwarf, to put it mildly, Israel's human rights abuses in the occupied territories). Or, as Ari Paul points out in an article at, a boycott of Chinese academics because of the occupation of Tibet and other assorted abuses by the Chinese regime. Or ... sadly, the list could go on and on.

Partly, this double standard is rooted in the all-too-familiar leftist mentality which strenuously condemns bad behavior by Western or pro-Western governments while turning a blind eye to the far worse misdeeds of communist and/or Third World regimes. (It's not quite clear into which category Putin's Russia falls.) But the movement to boycott Israel is especially repulsive because it combines this anti-Western, anti-democratic bias with an element of "picking on the little guy." No one in his or her right mind, even among the British intelligentsia or Canadian public employees, would propose boycotting American institutions because of the occupation of Iraq. Why? Because, obviously, such a boycott would cripple any institution's ability to conduct its business; in the case of an academic boycott, it would cripple a country's academic life and scientific research. But lashing out at Israel as a proxy for America is something one can do with minimal inconvenience.

An American boycott of any institution that participates in this shameful enterprise would be an appropriate response. It would be too much to expect the American Association of University Professors, but the AFL-CIO and the American Federation of Teachers should step up to the plate.

More: An interesting comment from a generally non-political diary, reflecting on the irony of the British boycott to protest Israeli "apartheid" policies:

How incredibly ironic, considering that it was Britain who created this "apartheid" in the first place!

In 1917, the British government pledged to support the establishment of a Jewish "national home" in what was then part of the Ottoman Empire. But they also had a debt to pay to a certain tribal chieftain, Abdullah of the Hashemites, who sided with Britain against the Turks. When Britain was given mandate over the entire area in 1922, they lopped off 80% of the land, called it "Trans-Jordan", and gave it to Abdullah. The remaining land was then once again partitioned by the UN, once Britain gave up its mandate. The Jews accepted this partition, the Arabs did not, precipitating the war of 1948.

It was Britain, and Britain alone, who was responsible for giving Jordan to the Hashemites to rule, even though they did not represent the majority of the local population (and still do not).

Heaven forbid that knowledge of history should interfere with anyone's sense of self-righteousness! And how odd that Israel should be singled out, when there are so many more worthy candidates, from Turkey to Russia. And let's not forget Britain itself - Northern Ireland, anyone? And I don't see an Australian Aboriginal state being formed in this former British colony, either.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Israeli academic boycott: Same old double standard

And speaking of Israel: proposals to boycott Israeli academics in protest against the occupation of Palestine are cropping up again in Britain. Ari Paul reports at

The boycott effort picked up steam again this May in Britain, where it has the most support. The National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) will vote on a measure to support a boycott at their annual conference on Monday. And some British academics have signed on as individuals. In May, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Richard Seaford, a professor at the University of Exeter, declined an offer to write for an Israeli journal due to his support for the boycott. The Association of University Teachers (AUT) also signed onto the boycott in 2005, but later backed off.

Paul writes that there is a similar "movement in American universities to divest from companies that do any business with Israel." He adds, on the other hand, that even prominent critics of Israel among American intellectuals and academics (such as Juan Cole and Tony Judt) do not support the boycott.

What's truly astounding about this proposal is the blatant double standard of it. No one is demanding a boycott of Russian academics over Russia's occupation of Chechnya and the atrocities committed there (which dwarf, to put it mildly, Israel's human rights abuses in the occupied territories). Or, as Paul points out, a boycott of Chinese academics because of the occupation of Tibet and other assorted abuses by the Chinese regime. Or ... well, sadly, the list could go on and on.

Partly, this double standard is rooted in the all-too-familiar leftist mentality which strenuously condemns bad behavior by Western or pro-Western governments while turning a blind eye to the far worse misdeeds of communist and/or Third World regimes. (It's not quite clear into which category Putin's Russia falls.) But what makes the proposed boycott of Israeli academics especially disgusting is that it combines this anti-Western, anti-democratic bias with an element of "picking on the little guy." No one in his or her right mind, even among the British intelligentsia, would propose boycotting American academics because of the occupation of Iraq. Why? Because, obviously, such a boycott would cripple academic life and scientific research worldwide. But singling out Israel as a proxy for America is another matter: it's something the British acaemics can do without inconveniencing themselves too much. I don't think it's anti-Semitic, as some would say. Just hypocritical, sanctimonious, and deeply wrong.

More: An interesting suggestion from my father: if the British academy, represented by the NATFHE and the AUT, decides to go through with the boycott of Israeli academics, maybe the American Association of University Professors should consider a boycott of British academics. I'm not sure I like the idea of eye-for-an-eye censorship, but still -- perhaps the question is worth raising. Though, as another friend points out, if the AAUP did weigh in, it would likely be, almost reflexively, in sympathy with the pro-boycott side.

Friday, May 26, 2006


First of all, apologies for the long break. After getting back from Israel and Italy, I came down with the cold from hell (still recovering), and have had a lot of catching up to do.

To start with, here's my Boston Globe column about the trip, including a line that got cut for space from the version in the Globe.

''BUT ISN'T IT dangerous?" several people asked me when I told them I was about to make my first trip to Israel, for a week. Yet during my stay in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, I felt safer than in most American cities. Life feels normal. Once in a while, there are the small reminders that it's not. At the entrance to Tel Aviv's Opera Tower shopping mall, security guards search the bags of people coming in.

The Israelis I spoke to were mainly preoccupied, like people anywhere else, with things other than politics. Even the Iranian president's virulent anti-Israel rhetoric and the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran does not seem to be a cause of major worry. Yet many of them, in the back of their minds, are aware that their country is one of the epicenters of global conflict.

''So," said one cabby in Tel Aviv, ''you see Israel all the time in the news, and now you finally decided to come and see for yourself what it's really like, yes?"

Of course, a weeklong vacation in two Israeli cities, mainly spent doing the usual tourist things, does not exactly qualify one to come to any conclusions. But even in a few days, this country makes a powerful impression.

In Jerusalem and in other places that are popular spots for excursions -- Jaffa, Cesarea, Acre -- one is vividly reminded of this land's extraordinary history, from Roman conquest and Jewish resistance to the ravages inflicted by both Christians and Muslims as they vied for possession of the Holy Land. Historic ironies abound. Today, a virulent strain of religious intolerance in general and anti-Semitism in particular infects far too much of the Muslim world, to such a degree that some claim these traits are endemic to Islam.

Yet listen to any local tour guide talk about the history of Jerusalem, and it becomes overwhelmingly clear that historically in this region, Christians were far more intolerant toward Muslims and Jews than Muslims were to Christians and Jews.

In today's Jerusalem, the three great religions seem, at least on the face of it, to coexist in peace. An Orthodox Jew can be seen walking peacefully through the Old City's Muslim quarter. The golden dome of the Mosque of Omar can be seen above the Western Wall that is probably Judaism's most sacred site; and Christian churches of many denominations are only a few steps away. Priests, monks, and nuns mix freely with Hasidic Jews and Muslims in traditional garb.

In the Old City, the sense of religious reverence coexists oddly with a sometimes jarring commercialism of endless vendors and stores peddling religious and other souvenirs. The Via Dolorosa, Jesus' road to Calvary, features a souvenir shop with the quaint name ''The Christ Prison Shop."

And yet, in the age of faith, Jerusalem's heritage as the holy city of three religions often became a cause of war and great suffering for the city's inhabitants; today, it's the source of busy and peaceful trade that contributes to local prosperity. There's something to be said for crass commercialism after all.

Like the impression of safety, the impression of peaceful coexistence can be deceptive. The Muslim suburbs of Jerusalem, which is surrounded by a patchwork quilt of Jewish and Arab villages, are generally regarded as places where Jews do not venture. And yet in Jerusalem, one realizes that separating the Jews and the Arabs would be truly a hopeless task.

The cabdriver who drove my parents and me from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and then volunteered to give us a free tour of Jerusalem, a man in his 40s named Itzik, said that he had few hopes for real peace in his lifetime. Yet he also spoke sympathetically of the Arabs and the Palestinians, the majority of whom, he strongly believed, want nothing more than to work and raise their children in peace. Unfortunately, he added, it takes only one crazy man to ruin everything.

While we took pictures of the city's panoramic view from the Mount of Olives, Itzik chatted with a young Arab man who was selling postcards, picture books, and camel rides to tourists visiting the spot. Business had picked up again, the young man told him; at one point, it got so bad because of terrorism that he and his partner had even stopped bringing out the camel because it was too much trouble to pay off. He had, according to Itzik, some choice words for the terrorists.

Normal life and hints of a war zone under the surface; a peaceful diversity and conflict with no end in sight; profound faith and crass commercialism. In the end, the strongest impression I had was of a place of paradox.

Of course, this doesn't even scrape the surface of my impressions; and, as I think of what to add, I'm not quite sure where to begin.

I was struck by the high level of patriotism among Israelis. The first day my parents and I got to Tel-Aviv, it was Israel's Independence Day, and there were Israeli flags everywhere -- on cars, on balconies, in the windows of homes. But then the holiday was over and a lot of the flags were still there. It's the only place in the world where I have seen the national flag displayed more frequently than in America.

Most of the Israelis to whom I had a chance to speak felt a mix of frustration with their country's problems -- not so much the terrorist threat as the high cost of living and the difficulty of living decently on a single paycheck (and that's for a single person, not a family) -- and pride in its achievements. Even our cabdriver Itzik, who said he would emigrate from Israel if he could, also spoke proudly of planting trees on the harsh soil of the hills near Jerusalem.

That the Israelis turned a desert into a blossoming land may be a cliché and perhaps an exaggeration, but it really does resonate when you see the amazing wealth of flowers everywhere: not only in the parks but in the streets, and along the roads and highways.

Another striking presence: the Russian language. Someone told me that a third of the Israeli population speaks Russian, due to the heavy influx of ex-Soviet Jews. I certainly believe it, judging by the number of shop signs in Russian and the number of times I heard Russian spoken. Even the market sellers in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem speak rudimentary Russian: when my mother and I were picking out some apples and conversing in Russian, the vendor said, "Chetyre?" ("Four").

And more on the mix of nationalities: I never realized until this visit that Armenians were a strong presence in Jerusalem. The Old City has an Armenian quarter by the Jaffa gate, adjacent to the Christian quarter; there is a diocese of the Armenian Patriarchate, and in fact on our last evening in Jerusalem my parents and I had dinner at an excellent restaurant run by this diocese, called Select. (I had never heard of a diocese of the Church running a restaurant before, but why not!) Walking through the Armenian quarter, I saw several identical posters on the wall inside an arched passage that turned out to be a "Map of the Armenian genocide" (photo to follow soon), and then the poignancy of the historical parallel struck me: the Jewish capital had become a home for a diasporah of another people that was the victim of an infamous 20th Century genocide.

Another observation on the issue of security: as I mentioned in the column, the Israelis I talked to did not seem particularly fearful of annihilation from a nuclear-armed Iran -- but it also worth noting that many of them were not discounting Iran's aggressive intentions. They were simply convinced that either the United States would stop Iran ("Saddam Hussein also talked tough, and where is he now?" said one cabdriver), or that Israel would wipe Iran off the map if Iran ever showed any sign of seriously wanting (and being able) to do the reverse.

The Israelis in the tourist industry, or in the trade sector which is also related to the tourist industry (many of whom are Arabs/Muslims) are acutely aware of the danger that terrorism poses to their livelihood. A shop on Ben Yehudi Street in Jerusalem -- a large pedestrian mall -- had a sign saying in large letters, "DISCOUNTS FOR HAVING COURAGE -- FOR LOVING AND SUPPORTING ISRAEL." American tourists can expect expressions of gratitude from shop owners, and often effusive professions of love for America and Americans from Arab shop owners (the sincerity of these protestations is left entirely to the reader's -- and tourist's -- judgment).

The air of normality notwithstanding, it is worth noting that all international flights to and from Israel are now to and from Tel Aviv. The Jerusalem international airport closed a few years ago, because, our helpful cabbie Itzik explained, it was too dangerous to maintain.

On the day of our departure from Israel, we took a walk on the beachfront promenade and the beach in Tel Aviv. Life seemed peaceful and as normal as ever. On the plane, I picked up that day's edition of the International Herald Tribune. There was one front-page story about a clash between the Israeli troops and the Jewish settlers in Hebron; and another about the medical problems faced by Palestinians due to the international boycott of the Hamas-run government.

Land of paradox, as always.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Trent Lott's problem (one of them, at least)

Check out Gay Patriot West's hilarious skewering of Sen. Trent Lott. In a 1998 interview, Lott suggested that homosexuality is a disease akin to alcoholism or kleptomania:

And you should not try to mistreat them or treat them as outcasts. You should try to show them a way to deal with that problem, just like, you know, my father had a problem, as I said, with alcoholism. Other people have sex addiction. Other people, you know, kleptomaniac.

Examining Lott's uncontrolled addiction to pork-barrel spending, Gay Patriot West comes to the tongue-in-cheek conclusion that the reference to kleptomania was Lott's desperate cry for help hinting at his own problems. Stop him before he spends again!

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Todd Gitlin on the self-immolation of the academic left

One of my favorite authors on the left, Todd Gitlin, has an excellent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled "The Self-Inflicted Wounds of the Academic Left." (Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan.)

Gitlin writes:

Truly this is a bizarre time for the life of the mind in America. The airwaves and best-seller lists are noisy with anti-intellectual jeers. The ruling party embraces the nostrums of "No Child Left Behind" while tossing the teaching of all subjects besides reading and math to the winds. Many of its leaders declare that the Republic was founded not in the name of enlightenment but as a "Christian nation." When the topics of evolution, climate change, stem cells, and contraception arise, the president of the United States blithely jettisons scientific judgments. On the evidence of his dialogue with reporters, and his behavior toward underlings like former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and the former Environmental Protection Agency chief, Christine Todd Whitman, his interest in and capacity for reason are impaired.

Conservative pundits apologize for him. ...

In this perverse climate, dissenting intellectuals might gain some traction by standing for reason. They might begin by asking how it came to pass, over recent decades, that reason in America was defeated. They might explore the subject of public ignorance, its origins, tactics, and prospects. They might also study contrary tendencies, including scientists' resistance to ignorance. They might investigate how it happened that the academic left retreated from off-campus politics. They might consider the possibility that they painted themselves into a corner apart from their countrymen and women. Among the topics they might explore: the academic left's ignorance of main currents of American life, their positive tropism for foreign saviors, their reliance on intricate jargon, their commitment to keeping up with post-everything hotshots of "theory" from more advanced continents. Instead, in a time-honored ritual of the left, a number of academic polemicists choose this moment to pump up rites of purification. At a time when liberals hold next to no sway in any leading institution of national government, when the prime liberal institution of the last centuryorganized labor wobbles helplessly, when most national media tilt so far to the right as to parody themselves, the guardians of purity rise to a high pitch of sanctimoniousness aimed at ... heretics. Liberals, that is.

Gitlin notes that he is attacked, from the right and from the left, in three recent books on academic politics: The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual by Eric Lott, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America by David Horowitz, and Wars of Position: The Cultural Politics of Left and Right by Timothy Brennan. Good for Gitlin, who offers some choice nuggets from Lott's book. For instance:

"The crimes committed in the name of communism are real," he acknowledges, "but they ... are certainly no match for the atrocities launched by liberal capitalism, which, far from being officially acknowledged, are completely disavowed or excused."

Plus ça change...: I vividly remember a young man in a black beret spouting similar tripe in the college cafeteria at Rutgers circa 1985. (One of his argument was that capitalism kills people by encouraging them to smoke for the sake of corporate profits. He was somewhat stumped when I pointed out that the rates of smoking were far higher in what was then the Soviet Union than in the United States.)

But back to Gitlin, who concludes:

Professor Brennan is right that the academic left is nowhere today. It matters more to David Horowitz than to anyone else. The reason is that its faith-based politics has crashed and burned. It specializes in detraction. It offers no plausible picture of the world. Such spontaneous movements as do crop up in America — like the current immigrant demonstrations — do not emerge from the campus left. Neither do reformers' intermittent attempts to eject the party of plutocracy and fundamentalism from power, to win universal health care, to protect the planet from further convulsions, to enlarge the rights of the least privileged. If more academics deigned to work toward reforms, they might contribute ideas about taxes, education, trade, employment, investment, foreign policy, and security from jihadists. But the academic left is too busy guarding the flame of nullification. They think they can fortify themselves with vigilance. In truth, their curses are gestures of helplessness.

Read, as they say, the whole thing. I don't agree, of course, with all of Gitlin's indictment of conservatism and conservative policies, but I think that he has a point, in particular, about the rise of anti-reason, anti-Enlightenment attitudes on the right -- attitudes that a principled liberalism should be in a position to counter. Instead, the intellectuals of the left make it all too easy for the Bill O'Reillys of the world to mock the academic elite as a bunch of "pinheads" who spend most of their time out there in what Bill likes to call "la-la land." Left-wing intellectuals began to assail reason as a white male bourgeois prejudice long before the current wave of conservative attacks on the legacy of the Enlightenment. They not only abdicated what should have been their role as reason's defenders, they joined forces with its enemies.

In his own comment, Andrew Sullivan gives an interesting specific example of the moral and intellectual banktupcy of the left-wing academy:

I think particularly of the gay academic left, so busy tying themselves into "queer studies" knots that they were utterly absent in the battles for marriage equality and military service. (And when they were not absent, they were busy criticizing advocates for gay equality for being "assimilationist.")

The same can be said of the feminist academic left, so busy tying itself into knots over such issues as whether Newton's physics are a metaphor for rape, whether "seminar" is a patriarchal term, and whether logic is inherently biased against women to address the issues that are still holding back gender equality (above all, the problems of work-family balance).

Today, the academic left fiddles while the Enlightenment legacy burns.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Duke scandal and the politics of rape charges

I'm currently on a trip to Israel and will try not to fall too far behind on blogging. To keep the blog fires burning, here's my latest Boston Globe column, on the scandal at Duke over the charges of rape against several lacrosse team members.

The noroious case of alleged rape at Duke University has an explosive mix of elements: gender, race, class, and charges of sexual violence. Three members of the school's lacrosse team, privileged young white men, are accused of sexually assaulting a stripper who is African-American.

The facts of the case remain murky. According to media reports, medical evidence seems to support the woman's claim of sexual assault, but no DNA match to any team members has been found, and two of the accused may have an alibi. The police report suggests that the woman was initially picked up when heavily intoxicated. The other exotic dancer who was on the scene initially disputed the alleged victim's claims but then changed her story somewhat, and apparently made inquiries about profiting from her role in the case.

In the current trial by media, charges of a rush to judgment abound. Women's advocates and many others claim that the alleged victim is being smeared as a slut by a sexist culture which holds that an ''unchaste" woman who is raped must have been ''asking for it." (Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh charmingly referred to charges that lacrosse team members had ''raped some hos.")

Meanwhile, some say that the quick assumption that the players are guilty reflects antimale prejudice. Writes columnist Kathleen Parker, ''Reaction to Duke's sad chapter is but the inevitable full flowering of the antimale seeds planted a generation ago. Thus, we need little prompting to assume that where there's a guy, there's a potential rapist."

Feminism has achieved real and important progress in the treatment of sexual assault victims. A couple of generations ago, a stripper at a party with athletes would have been viewed by many as fair game. That this is no longer the case surely makes us a more decent society.

But even some people who applaud this change believe that in some cases, the pendulum has swung too far. Many feminists seem to think that in sexual assault cases the presumption of innocence should not apply. Appearing on the Fox News show ''The O'Reilly Factor," Monika Johnson-Hostler of the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault declared that her role was ''to support a woman or any victim that comes forward to say that they were sexually assaulted."

To O'Reilly's question, ''Even if they weren't?" Johnson-Hostler replied, ''I can't say that I've come across one that wasn't." Feminist pundits discussing this case, such as Wendy Murphy of the New England School of Law, exude an overwhelming presumption of guilt.

In some cases, activists have even protested what they believe is excessive coverage of false accusations of rape and innocently accused men.

False charges do exist. FBI statistics show that about 9 percent of rape reports are ''unfounded" -- dismissed without charges being filed. This usually happens when the accuser recants or when her story is not just unsupported but contradicted by evidence. Some studies, including one by pioneering date rape researcher Eugene Kanin, put the rate of false accusations at one in four or even higher.

The results can be devastating. In 1996, Los Angeles police officer Harris Scott Mintz was accused of rape by a woman in the neighborhood he patrolled, and then by his own wife as well. At a pretrial hearing, the judge pronounced that he had no doubt about Mintz's guilt. Then, his wife admitted that she made up the charge because she was angry at her husband for getting in trouble with the law; subsequently, Mintz's attorneys uncovered evidence that the first accuser had told an ex-roommate she had concocted the rape charge in order to sue the county and that she had tried a similar hoax before. By the time the case collapsed, Mintz had spent five months in jail.

To recognize that some women wrongly accuse men of rape is not antifemale, any more than recognizing that some men rape women is antimale. Is it so unreasonable to think that a uniquely damaging charge will be used by some people as a weapon, just as others will use their muscle? Do we really believe that when women have power -- and there is power in an accusation of rape -- they are less likely to abuse it than men? As Columbia University law professor George Fletcher has written, ''It is important to defend the interests of women as victims, but not to go so far as to accord women complaining of rape a presumption of honesty and objectivity."

If that's the lesson of the Duke case, then some good will have come of it after all.

An interesting comment from Eugene Volokh, who writes:

You are absolutely right to point out that there is substantial reason to think that false rape accusations are not highly uncommon. But the 9% number, it turns out, isn't reliable.

First, the number is supposed to be not just the "dismissed without charges being filed" number, but the number where the charges were dismissed because the police thought no crime had occurred. (Reports can, of course, be dismissed without charges being filed for many reasons, including that the perpetrator is never identified [no charges filed, though perhaps one might say that's not "dismissed"] or the victim refuses to go forward because of fear of retaliation or misguided affection for the perpetrator [no charges filed, and the complaint really is dismissed].)

But, second, and more important, I've looked at the raw data underlying this 9% number, and the result is stunning -- some jurisdictions report "unfounded" counts that translate into a rate of 20% or so, others report "unfounded" counts of *zero*, not just for rape but for all crimes, and others have rates in between. This suggests that some police departments are just not tracking or reporting this information (which would mean the actual rate is higher than 9%) and also likely that others are interpreting "unfounded" very differently (which would mean the actual rate can't be inferred at all from the data). So the result is garbage in, garbage out -- if many departments are not interpreting "unfounded" to mean what it's supposed to mean, which is that the police think no crime had occurred, then the average of those reports, many of which are unsound, is unsound, too.

So keep banging the drum; but I think the 9% number can't be part of a sound analysis.

Eugene makes an excellent point; there is definitely a need for more sound research on the incidence of false rape accusations (though, given the politics of the issue, it's not very likely).

A fascinating, and disturbing, new wrinkle in the case comes from the revelation that ten years ago, the accuser reported another rape, also by three men. Those men were never charged, possibly because the accuser backed out of the case; her own father has said that he thinks she was lying. Distrcit Attorney Mike Nifong says this will have no bearing on the present case:

Nifong said in a prepared statement that the decade-old allegation -- which the woman's father said was false -- likely would never arise in court thanks to the state's rape shield law, which generally keeps a woman's sexual history out of open court. A judge could decide that the previous case is relevant and set conditions for its airing, Nifong said.

Now, we don't know for sure that the 1996 rape report by the Duke accuser was false. But if it was, how on earth is that irrelevant to the issue of her credibility in the Duke case? How and when did a false complaint of rape become part of "a woman's sexual history," rather than a part of a woman's criminal history?

For more on the use and misuse of rape shield laws, see my 2002 column in Reason, "Excluded Evidence."