Friday, July 31, 2009

Feminism and Soviet Movies

For the past couple of days, I've been watching this great Soviet mini-series called "Shadows Disappear at Noon." It was filmed in 1971 and it is a great example of the image of women cultivated in Soviet movies.

At the beginning of the series set in 1915, we see Maria, an illiterate day laborer who is a lover of a rich mill-owner and a mother of his illegitimate child. One day, the mill-owner and his buddies are making fun of Maria because of her marginalized social status. The mill-owner tells his friends that Maria loves him so much that he can make her do anything for him. To prove this point, he comes up to Maria and says: "If you go into the woods right now, armed with nothing but this small knife, and kill a bear for me and bring me his skin, I will finally marry you and give you my mill."

So Maria goes into the woods and reemerges after a while with a huge bear skin. "I'm so sorry for doing this, my dear," says the mill-owner. "Don't worry, now I'll marry you and you will be a co-owner of my mill." "I don't want your marriage, I don't want your mill, and I don't want you," responds Maria proudly. She leaves the village to become a factory worker in a big city and provide for her child. Later, she becomes politically active and turns into an inspirational leader. The mill-owner keeps following her around, begging her to give him a second chance.

In the rest of the mini-series, one can observe a curious ideological consistency: positive female characters are assertive, powerful, and head-strong. Negative female characters allow men to walk all over them.

This mini-series was one of the last examples of the long line of Soviet films that presented images of strong, assertive women as positive. By the end of the 70ies, characters like Maria started disappearing from the Soviet movie and TV screens to give way to sad, pathetic, weepy women, who feel that they have to deserve male attention at any cost.

P.S. In the episode I'm watching right now, a female character suspects that her neighbor is having an affair with her husband. She confronts her neighbor aggressively but the sisterhood wins almost immediately and both women ask each other for forgiveness and have a nice bonding moment. It's such a pleasure to watch a film that shows female solidarity as being way more important than fighting for a man's affection.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Third Wave of Feminism

I just finished reading Heather Tirado Gilligan's article "Drowning in the Shallow End: Third Wave Feminism." The article provides a great analysis of the failings of third wave feminism. The biggest insight of the piece is, in my opinion, the following: "The third wave channeled what was left of the women's movement into mainstream banality." Even though the article itself collapses into banality right after this statement, I think it still offers a right step towards understanding why less women every day find feminism relevant.

When I first came to Canada and started attending university, I remember one of my professors asking a largely female class who among the students considered themselves feminists. I was shocked to see that nobody raised their hands. Now that I teach, I sometimes ask my students the same question. The best response I get is embarrassed giggling. The worst is a loud denial.

The most popular reason for this and one that we all have heard a billion times is that feminism has lost its relevance since it failed to address the interests and concerns of underprivileged social and racial groups. Tirado Gilligan talks about this too and immediately proceeds to lament the chauvinism encountered by Hillary Clinton in her presidential campaign. Apparently, Clinton is the only example of a socially and racially marginalized woman that Tirado Giligan could think of.

Nobody argues with the obvious reality of a horrible chauvinism that followed Clinton throughout her public career. Nobody disagrees that feminism has to learn to address the concerns of underprivileged groups. Still, the idea that my students (who until now have been preponderantly white and middle class) reject feminism because they are upset over feminism's incapacity to address the issues of marginalized group is nothing other than inane. This explanation is comforting in its political correctness. But it is inadequate if we want to understand what is really going on.

Tirado Gilligan is right when she says that "choice feminism" that is willing to "accept" and celebrate pretty much anything if it can be presented as a woman's choice is largely (although not exclusively) to blame for this: "To make feminism more appealing and less dogmatic, "choice feminism" arose as a defining element of the third wave, defined by Linda Hirschman in The American Prospect as: 'Abandon[ing] the judgmental starting point of the movement in favor of offering women 'choices'… A woman could work, stay home, have 10 children or one, marry or stay single. It all counted as 'feminist' as long as she chose it.' Choice feminism, also called lifestyle feminism, marked a transition from addressing social inequity to a celebration of the individual, focusing so much on personal choices that first-person narrative defines much of third wave writing." As a result of this attitude, it has become a feminist cause to defend women's "right" to fake an orgasm and women's "right" to wear a burqa. Instead of having the courage to analyze the reasons why these and other things take place, we hide behind the empty slogans of tolerance and inclusion.

It is so easy to dismiss the complex reality of a woman who "chooses" not to work, "chooses" to be economically and socially dependent on a man, "chooses" to cover her face, "chooses" to not have sexual fulfillment. Who cares why she chose all these things? We can just dismiss her by celebrating her choice and congratulate ourselves for our tolerance. Thank God, women's suffrage movement didn't decide that women simply "chose" the right not to have a vote, so nobody should contest that right.

Along with the vapid "choice feminism", there is another variety of feminism that survived as a legacy of previous generations of feminists. Its main interest resides in coming up with lists of grievances women can address to men. Once again, nobody argues that men have historically and still do oppress women. At a certain point in the movement's history it was, indeed, important to understand all of the instances of oppression. Still, this brand of feminism cannot be practiced indefinitely. The movement needs to evolve, otherwise it dies. This desire to see women as constant miserable pathetic victims of bad horrible men serves no useful purpose today. The time has come to accept that patriarchy hurts both men and women. It is not a system that benefits all men all the time while hurting all women all the time. It is much more complex than that. Until we are ready to acknodwledge and analyze this complexity, we will retain our one-dimensional view of this system and this is what will prevent us from destroying it.

In my opinion, in order to revive feminism we need to abandon our blind respect for anything that can be called "a choice." We need to stop being afraid of analyzing these choices, we need to start asking ourselves and others hard painful questions, we need to learn to face the answers. We also need to leave behind this "men are bad, women are good" rhetoric and look at ways patriarchy hurts men and women.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Feminist Men

I love it when men berate me for not being a real feminist. Don't get me wrong, I love feminist men. Three of them brought me up, one of them I'm living with right now, and many of them are my close friends. And, of course, patriarchy hurts both women and men. Still, no man can experience the kind of oppression that women live with on a daily basis. Unless you get paid less because of your gender, feel fear while walking down the street at night, hear demeaning comments "just because" you are of a certain gender, are pawed by your professor, etc. you aren't going to feel what I do. You can understand but you will never feel it as viscerally as I do.

I hate racism but I would never tell an African-American person that their understanding of racism is less profound than mine. I hate ableism with a passion but I would never declare to a disabled person that their vision of ableism is flawed compared to mine. Racism and ableism hurt me too, but not nearly as much as it hurts them.

Just now in a discussion on Hugo Schwyzer's great blog, I had this interesting moment where I got accused of being a victim-blaming proponent of male rights activist agenda. In the fiercely patriarchal society where I was born, I heard this "you-aren't-really-a-woman-you-sound-just-like-a-man" line a lot, so this is nothing new. What's interesting, though, is the reason why Mr. Schwyzer dislikes my kind of feminism. It's because I suggested that the idea that men reject women because of their weight is false. It's what the patriarchal society wants us to believe as part of its fat-shaming agenda. Everybody has heard the statistics that the majority of American women wear size 12 and higher. So what, are we all single? Or is the suggestion here that our partners tolerate us because there aren't enough thin women for everybody? Simple logic tells us that this can't be true.

What I find disturbing is that this condescending stance of "You poor fat chicks, you must feel so rejected by men" is proposed as male feminism. As many times as I repeat that I feel neither poor, nor fat, nor rejected, I get the response that a man knows best and I must be a bad feminist, anyways.

Mr. Schwyzer's post is titled '“More to Love” and the tentative broadening of male heterosexual desire." As a woman, I believe I have more experience with being an object of male heterosexual desire than the author of the post. And I'm sure there are tons of women of my size and bigger whose only problem in this area is attracting too much desire. Sometimes, you want to be able to walk down the street and not be approached by men all the time. Men who worry (with the best possible intentions, of course) about how difficult our love lives are do nothing other than perpetuate this myth of our lack of attraction for men.

"More to Love"

My saga of waiting for the cable person to arrive and connect our television still continues. For this reason, I haven't been able to watch More to Love, a new show by Fox that models itself on the Bachelor but has regular looking women instead of the usual size 2 heroines of the dating shows. Still, I haven't been able to avoid reading about this show on many different feminist sites.

"Finally, a show that will prove that it is possible for size 12-18 women to find love, too," people on those sites say. My only question when I read this kind of responses to the show is: has everybody suddenly gone insane? Since when do we need to "prove" something that is an obvious fact of reality? Have we reached a point where television has suddenly become more real than what we observe around us every single day? How is it possible for people to forget that nobody in real life looks like the characters on TV shows? Even the actors who play them don't look like that in life.

I love television as much (or even more) than the next person. But if the moment has come when you need televised reassurance that it is in no way more difficult for a woman who wears size 16 to find love than a woman who wears size 4, then you need to step away from that remote control right now. Go outside, walk around the block, go into a bar or a coffee-shop. That's where the real people are. Reality television isn't actually based on reality. It's entertainment, it's finctionalized, it isn't real.

Charles P. Pierce's Idiot America

I just finished reading Charles P. Pierce's Idiot America and all I can say is what a great book, people (This is really not ALL I can say, as you will see from this lengthy post but it sums up my general impression of the book). I laughed so hard my stomach muscles hurt and I don't even have any stomach muscles. The book is well-structured, beautifully written, and the author's sense of humor is unique in its power to make you roar with laughter almost against your will. This is a book in which you don't know what parts to highlight because you want to highlight the entire thing.
Pierce sets out to answer the question that has been bothering me for years now: how did it happen that in America, the country where education and knowledge were traditionally venerated, the country built on the Enlightened principles of reason, the country of immigrants who killed themselves working in order to give an education to their children, a cult of stupidity and the hatred of education, knowledge and expertise suddenly became so prominent: "The rise of Idiot America today reflects . . . the breakdown of the consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people we should trust the least are the people who know best whatt they are talking about . . . If everyone is an expert, then nobody is, and the worst thing you can be in a society where everybody is an expert is, well, an actual expert."
There were always so many people in America, Pierce says, who were total cranks, who floated around the craziest, weirdest, silliest ideas. This has been a safe haven for a religious fanatic of every ilk, for the crazy inventor, for a political visionary of insane visions. Or, as Pierce puts it: "This is still the best country ever in which to peddle complete public lunacy." And it's a great thing. When people can freely generate and circulate even the most insane ideas, society is enriched. There is debate, there is intellectual curiosity, there is passion. Even if some of these ideas are completely nutty, they can still be productive because they can provoke intelligent responses from those who debunk them. The scary things start happening, however, when this nuttiness - which can be fruitful and endearing when relegated to the margins - becomes mainstream, when it becomes the only thing on offer in politics, culture, and entertainment.
When this happens, bashing science becomes a pastime of choice for the public. Theories are widely circulated "about how liberals - or liberal fascists - use science to discredit traditional religion, as though, somewhere in a laboratory, physicists are studying the faintest echoes of the big bang and thinking, at first, not of the Nobel Prize and the nifty trip to Stockholm, but, rather, 'Bite me, Jehovah!'" The Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia quotes the fictional character of the TV series 24 as precedent in support for torture. Intelligent Design is presented as a valid alternative to evolution. Science is relegated to the status of mere opinion: "If we have abdicated our birthright to scientific progress, we have done so by moving the debate into thhe realm of political and cultural argument, where we all feel more confident because it is there that the gut rules. Held to the standards of that contex, any scientific theory is turned into mere opinion. Scientific fact is no more immutable than a polling sample."
Since we have no use for knowledge and expertise, we don't expect it from our leaders. A politician is supposed to be able to respond with memorable, snappy soundbites to questions that have come to represent the most divisive issues. Nobody cares about what the politician can actually do for us, but everybody is eagerly awaiting for the right response to the next stupid question. One of the example that Pierce gives is the conversation between Pastor Rick Warren and the presidential candidate Barack Obama: "Warren . . . asked, 'At what point does a baby get human rights?' The only proper answer to this question for anyone running for president is 'How the hell do I know? If that's what you want in a president, vote for Thomas Aquinas.' Instead, Obama summoned up some faith-based flummery that convinced few people in a crowd that, anyway, had no more intention of voting for him than erecting a statue of Baal in the parking lot." In a presidential election where people cared less about the candidate's qualifications to fix the ailing economy than about his poor bowling skills, this was just one episode of insanity among many.
Whenever a politician tries to talk about things that really matter in an informed, intelligent way, s/he immediately loses ground to the opponent who can entertain the public so much better and avoid the boring recitation of facts. In a debate between the Republican presidential candidates, the question of torture was raised: "Speaking from his experience, which was both unique and not inconsiderable, John McCain argued that, in addition to being basically immoral, torture doesn't work. He was quickly shouted down by Giuliani, who was once tortured by the thought that his second wife wouldn't move out of the mayor's mansion in favor of his current girlfriend, and by Romney, who once was tortured by the fact that gay people in Massachusetts were allowed to marry each other." (I told you he was hilarious, and I'm not even quoting the best parts.)
When you elect a politician who seems like a nice guy or a great gal, you end up in a needless unwinnable war, with a messed up economy, and with a lot of confusion about what just happened to bring us all to this place.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Standards of Beauty

The following statement just appeared at the Womanist Musings blog:
"No matter what it is that we endeavour to achieve it is always questioned. We are either too sexy or not sexy enough. Our bodies are continually deemed for male consumption and can be considered either a detractment or an enhancement to the task at hand in a way that males are never positioned. Men get to exist simply as they are. No matter the privilege for women it all comes down to the same thing…negotiating a patriarchal sexist world while attempting to maintain our dignity. "
In my opinion, this attitude stems from a deeply flawed belief that patriarchy is a 100% detrimental to all women and a 100% beneficial to all men. In what concerns physical appearance, it is true that every time we open a magazine or see a commercial we see women who look the way a normal woman wouldn't be able to achieve even if she dedicated her entire existence to it. But these women are always accompanied by equally impossibly looking men. They are all tall, wide-shouldered, muscled, have no or little body hair, no skin problems, and chiseled chins and noses. Pick up a male underwear catalogue and tell me if you actuually know any men who look this way.
We have finally arrived at a stage of our society's development, where women can at least talk about their body image issues, get diagnosed with bulimia and anorexia, and get help. Now we have to accept that men suffer from these problems just as much. There is no emotionally and psychologically comfortable public (and often also private) space today for men to acknowledge that they have body image issues, that what they experience might be anorexia or bulimia, and that it's ok to discuss it and get help for it.
Patriarchy is a Procrustean bed that gives us a set of rules that we have to adhere to because we are of a certain gender. In order to fit into this mold, we - men and women alike - have to chop off pieces of ourselves, of our bodies, of our personalities. And this is bad for everyone.

Need to Swallow Medication? Take More Medication!

For some reason, today is turning out to be a day that I discover weird medical advances. First, it was a lash-growing prescription medication. Then I went to a store and saw a spray that helps you swallow pills. It's called "Pill Glide Swallowing Aid" and it comes in a variety of fruity flavors.
According to the company's press release, this spray helps children to swallow "those tiny little tablets kids need to stay healthy." This statement seems very confusing. If the children in question are healthy, why do they need to take pills to stay healthy? How is it going to help them preserve their health to swallow this weird concoction?
Here are the ingredients for the bubble gum flavor of this spray: Purified water, glycerin, sorbitol, xanthan gum, neotame, natural & artificial flavors. Buffered with: sodium citrate & citric acid. Preserved with potassium sorbate & sodium benzoate, propylene glycol, alcohol & tocopherols. Can anybody please tell me how it can be a good thing for a child or an adult to put these chemicals into their bodies just to be able to put even more chemicals into their bodies after that? Where does this stop? Now there is a pre-medication medication, maybe somebody will come up with a pill we need to take while medicating ourselves, after we have medicated ourselves, and between doses of medication to make our bodies more receptive to even more drugs.

Is There a Prescription for Stupidity?

When I first saw a commercial for Latisse I thought it was a joke. Who could have thought that having short or, to quote their promotional website, "inadequate" eyelashes was a medical condition that needed prescription medication. The name of this condition is "hypotrichosis", which according to Latisses's website is "another name for having inadequate or not enough eyelashes." Inadequate for what? I want to ask. Not enough for whom?

To make matters worse, the makers of the product have no idea how (or even if) this quasi-scientific goop works: "LATISSE® is believed to affect the growth (anagen) phase of the eyelash hair cycle in two ways: first, it increases the length of this phase; and second, it increases the number of hairs in this growth phase. The exact way it works is unknown." Notice the "Latisse is believed" part. Believed by whom? The crooks trying to sell this junk as medication? The women who are duped into thinking that having "not enough" lashes is a disease?

Since there are still honest doctors who will be unwilling to prescribe this junk to their patients, Latisse's website offers a Find-a-Doctor tool that gives you an address of a doctor who will prescribe this "medication" to you.

The website gives you advice on "how to make the most of your treatment" (treatment again, reinforcing the idea that women with short lashes are not only "inadequate" but also sick). Part of the advice goes as follows: "When you start using LATISSE® solution, be sure to mark your calendar and take pictures throughout weeks (0, 4, 8, 12, 16), so you can have your own "Before & After Gallery." And then do what with the gallery, I wonder? Put it up on your wall and show it off to guests? Carry it around with you in your wallet? Post it on a website as a monument to how you allowed another dishonest pharmaceutical company to dupe you into thinking that looking the way you do is a disease that needs yet another prescription?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Monday Press Overview: Cosmo Advice

Since Ross Douthat failed to entertain me as much as he normally does, I turned to the magazine that some people hail as a new feminist vision of a woman: the Cosmopolitan magazine. I expected something bad, of course, but I had no idea just how idiotic it would be. The article that attracted my attention was called "What Makes Men Fall in Love." The advice dished out by some purported "specialists" (MDs, PhDs, and what not) in the field of human relationships is beyond hilarious. Here are the things women need to do to get men to fall in love with them:
1. "The Desire: To Protect. Believe it or not, the so-called stoic sex is hardwired to nurture. Sheltering you from harm makes him feel studly, which makes him feel good. . . So give him chances to take charge, and thank him after he does. " Of course, the second I hear this old rubbish about people being "hardwired", I know that some patriarchal crap is being offered to me under the guise of science. Still, I tried to imagine how I would go about getting a man to shelter me from harm: "Oooh, honey, see this big guy walking on the other side of the street," I would say gaspingly. "I feel so threatened by him, please, make him go away."
2. "Give him a job. Ask him to fix or build you something. Performing concrete tasks is a way of bonding that enhances his sense of success." That is, of course, if he is into building or fixing things. The expectation here is obviously that any "real" man whould be super psyched to start building stuff as soon as the little lady needs it. I suggest taking this advice even further. Why not trash your apartment completely, break furniture, tear out the light fixtures, etc.? This will give him a chance to build and fix for months and will bring you the added bonus of letting out the pent-up energy you'll accumulate by pretending to be a helpless little flower.
3. "Ask his opinion. Whether it’s about your 401(k) options or the best travel sites, it telegraphs that you value his brain as much as you do his brawn." So after the poor man beats up the menacing guy in the street, builds and fixes your stuff, the moment comes to make him solve your financial problems and make your travel arrangements. That is, if he still has energy to do that.
4. "Wear soft materials. Delicate textures like rayon, silk, and fur trigger an intense response in men. These fabrics accentuate your softer, feminine nature, which heightens his amorous instincts." Something leads me to believe, however, that after all the efforts he expends in beating up menacing men, sheltering me from danger, building, fixing, and looking for travel sites, I'll need much more (or much less) than fur to heighten his amorous instincts.
5. "Don his clothes. It shows that you’ve chosen him over other guys — sexy." The question here is, of course, whether he will do something like that for me. I imagine coming home from work one day and finding my boyfriend wearing my summer dress and murmuring "Sweetheart, I just wanted to show that I chose you over all other women. Now you build something and I'll go put on some furs."
The rest of advice includes such gems as turning him down every once in a while to make yourself look more interesting, do "goddesslike" things like apply lipstick in front of him, cook food in his presence to raise his oxytocin levels (I kid you not), and get him to stand between you and a menacing guy in a bar.
Now, after all this effort, he still might want to pull back if he "finds himself on the brink of falling in love" (whatever that means). One of the things that can cause this is the lack of fighting because: "A guy will worry that (a) you’re going to lash out later, (b) you’re a doormat, or (c) you’re not into him enough to care. Any of these will make him rethink your budding relationship."
I like (b) the most. Imagine, after all of this effort the ingrate might think you are a doormat. I wonder what could give him that idea.

The Beauty of Andropause

This year is the tenth anniversary of American Beauty, a movie that I hate with a passion.
The film explores a tired old story of an aging, balding suburban white male who is faced with an impending loss of his sexual function at takes it out on women in his life. The angst of a middle-class man of middling intelligence, mediocre personality and really boring everything else confronted with andropause and rebelling in extremely tedious and predictable ways has been explored by film after inane film, novel after insipid novel. As if we didn't have enough with Woody Allen's, Philip Roth's, and Co's endless attempts to create a mystique of male andropause, we had to relive the tired litany of grudges that a suburban white male has accumulated against life by the time of his middle age crisis.
The protagonists of the suburban andropause genre arrive at a painful realization that the only role they play in the world is to bring home the paycheck and pretty much shut up afterwards. This unpleasant insight, however, never motivates them to look for the reasons why they ended up this way. They never acknowledge that the only alternative to this kind of existence is not the life of fame, fortune, adventure, and excitement. Rather, the only other possibility in life that they had from the outset was that nobody would need them even for the limited purpose of bringing home the paycheck and fading into the background after that.
The male creators of the andropause genre invariably take out their anger against these unseemly realities of white suburban male's life on female characters. Kevin Spacey's character takes petty revenge for not understanding him (as if there were all that much in him to merit some kind of a profound understanding) on his wife and daughter by salivating after his daughter's teenage friend. Mina Suvari's cheerleading character is objectified as a piece of meat that is willing and eager to be consumed by the uninspiring middle aged protagonist. Kevin Spacey is, of course, a little less ridiculous in the role of a man desired by adolescent women than Woody Allen, which is probably the only saving grace of this movie.
Other than the tired plot structure, the film is unbelievably pretentious. Its heavyhanded attempt to reveal to the viewers the big news that suburban life isn't perfect is laughable simply because it would be pretty hard to find any one in need of such a revelation.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Ivy League Schools vs State Schools

When we finally graduate from our doctoral programs, we often dream about landing a job with a well-known, prestigious school, hopefully an Ivy League university. But is the fame of an Ivy League school worth it?

In recent years, I have studied and worked at two Ivy League universities. This year the economic crisis destroyed 60% of job openings in my field. As a result, I accepted a position at a younger, far less prestigious state school. To be completely honest, I wasn't very happy about this job. It was very enjoyable to work at a place whose name is instantly recognized and respected by everyone. But then I started thinking whether there was anything other than prestige that my Ivy League employers gave me. Sure, such schools have more money, but since I work in the Humanities, I never had any access to those funds. Of course, the students are very well-prepared and dedicated but their background is hardly diverse, which makes for pretty limited class discussions.

At this point, I'm starting to see the advantages that a less "prestigious" state school has to offer to a young academic. I haven't even started to work at my new university but I already feel more appreciated than I ever did after years at my previous jobs. My new colleagues really care whether I will be able to find a nice place to live. Several of them offered that I live at their places while I'm looking for an apartment. Others suggested that they go look at houses to rent since I'm far away.

At the same time, there is a lot more interest in and appreciation for my research on the part of the administration. When two of my articles were accepted for publication this month, the Dean's office congratulated me and decided to include them in an exhibition of articles published by the faculty and graduate students. When you feel appreciated and I would even say celebrated by your new school, you feel so much more motivated to do a lot in return. I wish more prominent schools realized that and invested at least some efffort into encouraging their young faculty members.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Guys' Mothers

Whenever you find yourself talking to a woman you don't know well and have little in common with, there is one failproof way to get her to open up to you and become your best buddy instantaneously: ask her about her mother-in-law and offer to tell her about yours. I have yet to meet one heterosexual woman who doesn't have a list of horror stories about her partners' mommies. This is one experience that transcends ethnic, cultural and class boundaries. We have all been there and we can all relate.
I've been asking myself for a while why this happens. Why is it that the best thing a woman can hope for in a relationship with her mother-in-law is that maybe one day she will accept your existence and not hate you too much? Why is it so difficult for mothers of grown men to avoid hating the women in their sons' lives? Why do so many mothers behave as if they were their sons' romantic partners rather than mothers?

Many mothers of today's adult men do not have a rich and fulfilling professional and social lives. They also belong to the generations that did not encourage women to pursue sexual realization as an important goal. They are unaccustomed to the idea that they can leave a relationship "just because" it doesn't fulfill them sexually. They don't have a professional sphere where they could sublimate some of these perennially repressed feelings. As a result, the affection and the energy that they could have spread between their sexual partners and their jobs is showered upon their sons. A relationship between a son and his unsatisfied mother often acquires sexual undertones. This type of mother-in-law feels deep jealousy towards the "ther women" in her son's life.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

How to Write a Doctoral Dissertation in under a Year

A certain set of circumstances in my life presented me with the necessity to write my doctoral dissertation in its entirety in under a year. When I say write, I mean come up with the topic, read the primary sources (my dissertation had over 40 of them), do research, find the secondary sources, write the text, revise it (several times), and submit it. Now that I have gone through this experience and emerged with a pretty good dissertation (my extremely demanding thesis director, my doctoral committee and now two publishing houses seem to agree), I know that this is absolutely doable. Here is my list of suggestions for people who are starting their journey towards a completed doctoral dissertation:

1. The most important thing, of course, is choosing the topic that's right for you (and that your thesis director doesn't absolutely hate). There is always a temptation to choose a subject that is fashionable right now, will look good to a hiring committee, or will be easier to turn into a book. You need to remember, however, that before the hiring committee or the publishers even get to hear about it, you will have to spend months of your life living and breathing this topic. If it doesn't inspire you a lot before you begin wiritng, there is a danger that your enthusiasm for it will peter out pretty soon.

2. Decide how many months you give yourself to do pure research before you start writing. Remember, you most definitely don't need to read every source available on your topic before you begin to write. When you start writing, you will find out that the process of writing will always lead you to look for more specific sources.

3. Every time you read what might become a primary or a secondary source, I suggest that you copy the quotes that seem like they could be useful onto a cue card. Don't leave it for sometime later on, or you will find yourself in this unpleasant situation (known to every researcher) where you have a nagging feeling that you read something somewhere about something important but cannot remember where it was. I always carried a stack of cue cards with quotes on a key chain and went through them regularly. Eventually, I arrived at a point where I knew my sources so well that I didn't need to stop and rummage around in articles and books every time I wanted to quote something. This allows for a much faster and more seamless writing pace.

4. One of my professors once told me that the best pace to write is 3 pages a day 5 days a week. I found it to be a great suggestion. This writing schedule leaves you with 10 good pages a week (after revisions) and plenty of time to explore more primary and secondary sources. I know there is always a temptation to produce 8 pages in a row on a good day when you feel inspired. In my experience, however, this feat would leave me pretty useless the next day and those 8 pages would turn out to be pretty bad anyways. Besides, you always need some distance from your writing, so there should be at least one day a week when you don't work on the dissertation at all. Otherwise, you might start hating it pretty soon.

5. Learn to let go. As hard as it is to accept it, there will always be more relevant sources, critical theories, and primary texts that can be added to the dissertation. So at some point it's ok to just leave it the way it is. There will always be time to add more when you are transforming it into a book or a set of articles.

How to Defend Muslim Women, from Fatemeh Fakhraie

Fatemeh Fakhraie's article "The dos and don’ts of defending Muslim women" has been widely circulated on feminist blogs. When I first read it, it disappointed me quite a bit. Today, after a while, I find it every bit as annoying as I did on the first reading.
The goal of Fakhraie's piece is to berate non-Muslim feminists for defending Muslim women in a manner she finds offensive and unacceptable and to suggest more productive ways for doing it. She confesses right away that anger is what motivates and colors her entire piece. The object of Fakhraie's anger isn't patriarchy or male domination, as one could have expected. Feminists are her real enemy. It is pretty obvious from the article that Fakhraie's stated goal of showing non-Muslim feminists a more productive way of defending Muslim women is pure sham. The wording and the tone of the article cannot but offend any one with an ounce of self-respect. So it's not the "correct" feminism that's being defended here as opposed to an intolerant, close-minded, Orientalizing version of the movement. What Fakhraie wants to defend is Islam. (Which is perfectly ok, of course. Recently, I saw a blog by someone who self-identifies as "a radical feminist and a housewife." After that, supporting Islam and feminism at the same time can hardly raise any questions.)
Fakhraie chooses the field of feminism to achieve her goal simply because of certain tendencies within today's liberal movements that bring together people who love being berated for their apparent "privilege." Progressive sites are filled with people who ardently denounce themselves for being privileged and never repenting enough for that. Fakhraie knows that as soon as she starts wagging her finger at them, they will absorb every shred of her contempt for them with an almost lascivious fervor (For the causes of this phenomenon, see my post on liberal guilt).
So, what are Fakhraie's dos and don'ts? The first one is arrogance, which is pretty funny coming from an author who produced the most arrogant piece of writing I have seen in a while. Fakhraie berates non-Muslim feminists for "the arrogant-but-sometimes-well-meaning “I know what’s best for you” attitude that flies in the face of respect for others’ lifestyles, worldviews, histories, and differences, and ignores or disrespects Muslim women’s personal agency." For a person who comes up with a list of what other people should or shouldn't do, this call for respecting "others’ lifestyles, worldviews, histories, and differences" is very curious. What if my worldview includes rejecting Islam (and any other monotheistic religion) because of its denigration of women? Is Fakhraie prepared to respect that? Is she prepared to respect a list of "dos and don'ts of talking to a non-Muslim feminist about Islam" that I might want to come up with?
Fakhraie's second point is prejudice which is "the refusal to listen to me or believe me when I tell you that Islam has given me wonderful things." I am personally more than willing to believe that Islam has given Fakhraie some wonderful things which she unfortunately avoids mentioning. I am equally willing to believe women who say it has given them some horrible experiences. There are tons of practices in the world that I find oppressive but that some of the objects of what I perceive as oppression find enjoyable.
Fakhraie's third don't is "the constant victim narrative that Muslim women are forced into." This comes from a person who writes an entire article to tell us how Muslim women are victimized, misunderstood, belittled and persecuted by the bad, mean and nasty feminists.
As for Fakhraie's list of what we should actually do to defend Muslim women, it is even more contradictory. here is the first one: "If a Muslim woman doesn’t ask you to be her voice or speak for her, don’t. If you wish to help a Muslim woman you feel is voiceless, help her get a voice. Never assume you have the right to speak on someone else’s behalf." If I didn't know that was impossible, this statement might lead me to assume that all these Muslim women on whose behalf Fakhraie is speaking in this very article personally asked her to do that.
The next series of commands are the most confusing and contradictory part of the article:
1. "Recognize that I might not view Islam or my culture the same way as you do". I most certainly recognize that. Now it would be great to have Fakhraie recognize that I might not view Islam or her culture the same way as she does.
2. "Don’t accept information about Islam from unqualified sources, especially those who don’t have my best interests in mind. " So now I'm expected to decide which sources have YOUR best interests in mind? And that wouldn't be condescending?
3. "Don’t demonize my faith or my culture or the men in my life, no matter what I say about them, no matter how bad my experiences have been or how I complain: they are my experiences to sort out, and no one else’s." Translation: listen to what I have to say, but don't dare have an opinion of your own.
Many people have tried in recent years to reconcile the anti-feminist message of the Bible, the Koran and the Torah with their liberal feminist values. In my opinion, these attempts always fail. You can't make a text say what it doesn't and deny what it actually does say. This is why the defense of a chauvinistic religion in feminist terms can only be done in this aggressive, shrieking, rambling, liberal-guilt-promoting tone.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

I Love Baltimore

As some people might know, I've been staying in Baltimore since mid-June. Unfortunately, I will have to leave in order to move to my new job in Southern Illinois, but before I do that, I want to express my love for this amazing, beautiful, and welcoming city.

The people of Baltimore are incredible. I've lived in many places but I have never met such warm, nice, and welcoming people as here. You literally can't go outside without passersby smiling at you, greeting you, and telling you how wonderful you look.

There are tons of places to have fun in the downtown and Mount Vernon areas. A great place to go and relax is the Baltimore Comedy Factory. After your first visit, all drinks are free, so all you have to pay is the $17 entrance fee. For those who are fed up with the inane kind of entertainment offered by Hollywood movies, a comedy club is a great alternative.

Another great thing to do is to walk around the Baltimore harbor. There are bars, resataurants, sidewalk musicians, and all kinds of fun activities going on at night and during the day. We often walk from our house in Mount Vernon straight to the port and it's the most enjoyable walk you can imagine.

The city isn't huge. As of 2008, the population of Baltimore was around 636,919. This gives Baltimore a nice, cozy, yet happening and fun atmosphere.

I'm hoping to return here many times in the coming years. This is a great city and if you get a chance to travel here, I know you won't be sorry.

Former Presidents

How does it happen that as soon as somebody stops being a President he immediately grows much more progressive?

Let's look at Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, for example. Recently, Bill Clinton revealed that his position on gay marriage is "evolving." He also expressed hope that the military’s 'don’t ask, don’t tell policy' (which as we all remember he helped institute) would be abolished and gay members of the military would be able to serve openly. It sounds great, of course, but one can't help wondering why he didn't have this epiphany while he was still in office and could do something about it.

Now, thanks to Echidne's blog, I have discovered I great article by the former President Jimmy Carter who comes out as a great champion of women's rights in "The words of God do not justify cruelty to women" published in UK's Guardian. In the article, Carter states that he decided to leave the Southern Baptist Convention because of its chauvinistic rhetoric: "My decision to sever my ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after six decades, was painful and difficult. It was, however, an unavoidable decision when the convention's leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be "subservient" to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service. This was in conflict with my belief - confirmed in the holy scriptures - that we are all equal in the eyes of God." If only we could have more political leaders saying and doing the same. So many of our politicians give pretty speeches about their support of the feminist agenda while beelining for the church to listen to a sermon that presents women as inferior by nature.

The best thing about Carter's article is that he isn't afraid of making a direct connection between religion and violations of women's rights: "Nor, tragically, does its influence stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue or temple. This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women's equal rights across the world for centuries. The male interpretations of religious texts and the way they interact with, and reinforce, traditional practices justify some of the most pervasive, persistent, flagrant and damaging examples of human rights abuses." Carter even recognizes that the gender gap in pay in the US has a lot to do with the discriminatory thinking instilled by religious teachings. All in all, Carter's article is a beautiful and inspirational piece of writing.

When I look at the recent statements by these former presidents, I have to ask myself why they didn't do more (or at least something) about these issues when they were in office. In spite of our constant hopes that Clinton would do something for gay rights, he never delivered. As for Carter, as far as I remember, his record on women's rights was always pretty poor. He used to say that he opposed abortion and after he was elected President failed to support increased federal funding for abortion services.

Still, it's great to know that it's possible for former presidents to evolve and adopt more progressive ways of thinking. Who knows, maybe one day we'll see George W. promoting comprehensive sex ed classes, campaigning against the death penalty, or supporting a woman's right to her own body.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Talks with My Mother

[Translation: "Mom, what future do you see for that women's liberation moveme... no, nothing, forget it."]
My mother: So what is your boyfriend doing right now?

Me: He's doing the dishes.

My mother: This is so wrong! You should do that instead of him. What did he get his PhD for? To do the dishes?

Me: But, Mom, I also have a PhD.

(A long pause).

Quebec against "Hypersexualization"

I new the Conservative government in Canada was bad news for women's rights. Still, knowing the progressive nature of Quebecois people, I hoped that the Conservative patriarchal agenda wouldn't be able to penetrate Quebec. But money talks everywhere. Canwest News reports : "The federal government has allotted nearly $355,000 to help reduce sexual violence, in part by promoting self-esteem and "solid values" among Quebec girls. The latest grant announced by Helena Guergis, minister of state for the status of women, is for a $144,361, three-year project in the Matane region "targeting the hypersexualization of girls as a root cause of dating violence."" I have to say that I haven't seen a statement quite as offensive for a while. Why are girls more in need of "solid values" than boys? If we want to prevent sexual violence, why do we target girls? Are they the ones who perpetrate violence? Or are they to blame for acts ov violence committed against them?

In spite of the seemingly feminist rhetoric about reducing sexual violence, the real goal of the project is to create a "purity drive" similar to the one that has been inundating public education in the US. The Canadian government feels somehow threatened by young women being in charge of the manifestations of their own sexuality and wants to exercise control over female sexuality. Here is the definition of the concept of hypersexuality provided by governmental aggencies: "Mansour [director of communications for Guergis, minister of state for the status of women] defined hypersexualization as a social phenomenon in which adolescents adopt attitudes and bearing that are too sexual for their years. Examples are young girls who wear clothes emphasizing the shape of their bodies or very young, immature adolescent couples who become sexually active in response to the influence of peer pressure, the Internet and mass media." Note how nobody cares about controlling the way men dress.

The idea that dating violence has anything to do with the way women dress is extremely offensive. After they make such statements, any attempt by the government to deny that they engage in victim-blaming cannot be believed.

Race in America

I only managed to watch a small portion of Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearings on television. The part I saw was the speech by one of the New Haven firefighters who feels unjustly persecuted on racial grounds by Judge Sotomayor. I have to confess that it was pretty surreal to see a young white male more or less accuse a Latin woman of racism. The firefighter (whose name I unfortunately failed to catch) was on the verge of tears when he talked about being racially discriminated in America.

Today, I saw a replay of the same attitude by yet another white male. This time, it was a New York Times journalist Ross Douthat who decided that somehow his perspective on racism is valuable enough to be shared with thousands of readers. In his article "Race in 2028," Douthat takes on the issue of affirmative action. Of course, no white person who is against the affirmative action will ever honestly tell you what really bothers them about the concept. The arguments against affirmative action always follow the same scenario. "Of course, I hate racism," says the white person (who now, at least in some cases, thankfully omits to say that some of his closest friends are... you know). "But we have to keep in mind," the white person in question immediately adds, "that there are inherent dangers that always accompany this practice."

The ingeniousness of these imaginary "dangers" ranges from simply bizarre to outright freaky. Douthat's justification for his dislike of affirmative action, Sonia Sotomayor and Barack Hussein Obama (don't the conservatives just love the president's middle name) is corruption. "A system designed to ensure the advancement of minorities will tend toward corruption if it persists for generations, even after the minorities have become a majority," he says and later continues: "But if affirmative action persists far into the American future, that experiment will have failed — and we will all have been corrupted by it." Of course, there is no explanation of how he manages to connect affirmative action and corruption except a hint towards "the backroom dealing revealed by Ricci v. DeStefano, where the original decision to deny promotions to white firefighters was heavily influenced by a local African-American “kingmaker” with a direct line to New Haven’s mayor." For anybody who has lived in New Haven (as I did for several years) the idea of some kind of African-American mafia that influences the mayor and corrupts court proceedings in that city sounds outlandish.

Racism in New Haven is palpable. It's something you live and breathe every single day. That's why it was so shocking to see the white firefighter who somehow managed to dissociate his speech at the confirmation hearings from the everyday reality he experiences in his town. I look at people like the firefighter and Douthat and I wonder how it is even possible for them to avoid the simple realization that absolutely everything they have, do, and experience is the result of centuries of racial discrimination in America.

Affirmative action must come "with a statute of limitations" claims Douthat. It needs to be "phased out" very soon or the white folks will start to get upset and it will turn into "a source of permanent grievance among America’s shrinking white population." It's curious to observe that Douthat honestly believes that it's the white population who has a cause for "permanent grievance." Note the weird, convoluted logic here. Centuries of slavery and segregation only deserve a couple of years of redress. The existence of affirmative action for several decades, however, will justifiably provoke a permanent sense of grievance on the part of folks like Douthat.

Another thing that bothers me in the discussion about affirmative action is this idea that affirmative action is something that racial minorites need and we, the kindly white people, give to them out of sheer niceness. Albeit in different ways, racism hurts every one. It's not the problem of African-Americans or Hispanics. It's the problem of the entire society. It's not a question of what "we" do for "them". It's a question of what all of us should do for ourselves, our society.

I'm very much in favor of affirmative action for my university. I want African-American, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American students in my class. But not because I'm so nice and kind and want to do something good for them. As a teacher, I need these students desperately. I need their contribution, their perspective, their knowledge, their presence, and their talent. I hate Douthat and Co's attempts to coopt my voice as a representative of the "shrinking and permanently aggrieved white population." Racism is what permanently aggrieves me, not affirmative action.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Biederman's ADHD Scam

I've been waiting for this for a long time. Paul Solomon reports that "Harvard child psychiatrist Joseph Biederman, whose work has helped fuel an explosion in the use of powerful antipsychotic drugs in children, has been caught up in controversy since a Congressional inquiry by Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) in 2008." I was horrified when I first heard this con artist spouting off about how perfectly normal it is to prescribe antipsychotic drugs for children as young as 2 and diagnose Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (a completely spurious diagnosis that is making a fortune for quacks like Biederman and pharmaceutical companies) and bipolar disorder (imagine diagnosing that in a 2-year-old) in such tiny kids.

According to Paul Solomon, at the hearing aimed to investigate the bribes that Biederman received from pharmaceutical companies to present these vile ideas as scientifically valid, the following exchange took place:

Biederman appeared at a deposition on February 26, 2009, and was questioned by several lawyers for the states, who were claiming that makers of antipsychotic drugs defrauded state Medicaid programs by marketing their medicines improperly. At the deposition, Biederman was asked what rank he held at Harvard.

"Full professor," he answered.
"What's after that?" asked Fletch Trammell, one of the attorneys.

"God," Biederman responded.

"Did you say God?" Trammell asked.

"Yeah," said Biederman, after which there was a moment of stunned silence.

You can read the rest of Paul Solomon's great article here.

Of course, the man who is capable of giving antipsychotic meds to toddlers couldn't have said anything other than what he did. Biederman and people like him have been playing god for decades. At the behest of pharmaceutical companies, they come up with nonexistent diagnoses to feed people more and more needless and dangerous pills.

The idea that people who find social situations difficult must have some disorder and need to be medicated is offensive in the extreme. The idea that if you have trouble concentrating on what you do you also have a disorder and need to pop pills for the rest of your life is equally idiotic. The attempt to diagnose 2 and 5-year-olds with bipolar disorder are so cynical that they defy belief. I saw an investigative report program about a 5-year-old who was diagnosed with schizophrenia because he dressed up as a superhero and went to church dressed like that (A 5-year-old pretending he's a superhero, wow, that is so unhealthy).

People like Biederman are not as much to blame here, in my opinion, as the parents of these poor kids. Biederman is just out to make himself a fortune by poisoning kids he doesn't even know. As for the parents, however, it's terrifying that they would prefer to have any kind of a wild diagnosis attached to their kids instead of working on bringing them up. They zombify their kids with Ritalin and other poisons instead of talking to them and spending time with them. It's easy to blame all of the child's problems on some fictitious "disorder". Taking responsibility for your child's actions would be much more difficult and painful. Who needs that? Let's pump 'em full of chemicals and make Biederman a fortune in the process.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Eduardo Galeano's Open Veins of Latin America, Part I

This post is dedicated to my dear friend Oli who has been suggesting I read this book for a while. I always follow your reading suggestions, my friend, and I'm never disappointed.

Galeano's book Open Veins of Latin America has been around for a while (it was first published in 1971) but it became even more famous after Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gave it to Barack Obama during the Summit of the Americas. I'm not a Latin Americanist, so I hope people will forgive me for not having read it before.
The book is beautifully written and its message is very strong: "Today, the world believes that America means the United States; as for us, we inhabit a sub-America, a second-class America of nebulous identification" (Here and everywhere else the translation is mine, so my apologies for the clumsiness of style that truly fails to do justice to Galeano's beautiful Spanish).
At the same time, as soon as I started reading it, I remembered why I had abandoned my plan of becoming a Latin Americanist many years ago and became instead a Peninsularist (a person who specializes in literature and culture of Spain). So many of great Latin American thinkers and writers are, in my opinion, sadly limited by two modes of thinking: Marxism and male chauvinism.
In the preface to the book, Galeano talks about birth control measures that developed capitalist countries supposedly implement in Latin America because "it's more hygienic and efficacious to kill guerilleros in the womb than in the fields or in the streets." Leave it to the true macho to see birth control as something negative. The idea of Latin Americans procreating and multiplying in order to be able to oppose Western capitalism in huge numbers is very pleasing to him. This is no surprise since he can never get pregnant or give birth. His life choices will never be limited by yearly pregnancies. His health will not be destroyed by clandestine abortions and endless childbearing. He wants a Latin America free and rich for men to enjoy and for women to fulfill their "natural" duties of producing more guerilleros.
Easily accessible birth control is the only thing that can give women a chance at a human existence worthy of the name. It's sad that in his preoccupation about the destiny of Latin Americans Galeano forgets female Latin Americans entirely. It's wrong to exploit people but since women aren't really human, who cares if they get exploited as human guerillero-producing factories?
(To be continued...)


When you teach language courses, you often have to get together with your colleagues who teach a different section of the same course to plan tests and exams. One of the teachers in my group once came up with the following dialogue which the students were supposed to read and fill in the blanks:
A female professor is talking to her future employer (the dialogue is supposed to take place in Havana):
The Dean: What is your marital status?
Prof. Rodriguez: I'm divorced.
The Dean: Oh, I'm so sorry!
Of course, I had to take exception to this way of framing divorce as some kind of a necessarily sad event that should provoke condolences from any one who hears about it. I suggested that "The Dean" in the story had no right to pronounce a judgment on whether the divorce was a bad thing for this particular person. What if she sees is at as a positive stage in her life? What if she welcomes it as part of her growth as an individual? What's if she is very happy about it?
Most people in our society don't spend their entire lives with one individual. And there's nothing tragic about that. Human beings have a tendency to grow and change and sometimes two people simply don't grow in the same direction. It's much sadder, in my opinion, when people who realize that they have no love or sexual desire left for each other still stay together and torture themselves and each other in a relationship neither of them needs any more.
As a divorced person, I have encountered this annoying attitude quite a few times. Now, when people ask about my marital status I always say that I'm happily divorced. This allows me to avoid observing the expression of fake pity the divorced individuals always encounter when they talk about their divorce.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Dr. Phil's Show on Breastfeeding

A couple of days ago Dr. Phil aired a show on breastfeeding that had another one of those appalling stories that leave any reasonable person angry and frustrated. Here is the way the show is described on the Dr.Phil website: "Kate, the mother of a 7-year-old, 5-year-old and 20-month-old is still breast-feeding ALL of her children. She tells Dr. Phil that she just can't say no when the kids ask to nurse."

When I see such things, I always want to ask the following questions:

1) Why isn't any one saying that this is child abuse, pure and simple?

2) How is what "Kate" says different from what any pedophile says (it's what the child wants, the child seduced me, the child needed it more than I do, I can't say no to a child who's asking for it)?

3) Where are the social services? Why doesn't any one care about the profound psychological damage this woman is inflicting on the poor children by shoving her breasts into the grown kids mouths?

4) What would happen if we saw images of a daddy putting parts of his body into his 7-year-old's mouth on television and claiming that "this is what she wants"?

5) Why should people be exposed to watching scenes of pedophilia like this one on daytime television? Hearing about it is bad enough but seeing the actual images literally turns your stomach.

6) Why is there such a permissive attitude towards pedophilia and child abuse in our society? Nobody cares about Michael Jackson confessing that he sleeps in the same bed with boys, nobody gives a damn that this woman abuses her children in front of millions of people. How is this all ok?


In all discussions about Israel, what bothers me the most is many people's desire to forget that what's going on in that country is a result of millenia of history. What's happening in Israel today is not the result of today's policies, or of what took place on May 14, 1948. We cannot understand Israel without keeping in mind at all times the millenial history of anti-semitism and persecutions of Jews.

For years, I've been very unhappy with the way Isarel is discussed in liberal circles. I hate the "yeah-sure-the-Holocaust-happened-but-that's-not-the-point" attitude. I hate the ease with which some journalists churn out miles of articles on Israel without mentioning the word "anti-semitism" once. I'm disgusted with how the conservatives adopted as their own the "we-love-Israel" routine. And I'm annoyed that the liberals let them do that and can only respond with an equally inane "and-we-love-the-Palestinians" agenda.

I hate it when politicians pretend that "the two-state solution" will stop the terrorism instead of realizing that the day the Palestinians receive their well-deserved sovereignty the number of terror attacks against Israel will grow exponentially. I'm annoyed beyond belief with literary critics who - instead of doing their job of analyzing works of literature - go to Isarel to throw rocks at Israeli soldiers. I find it unbelievable that people would actually expect the leaders of an organization that accuses the Israelis of "attempting to "destroy" the young generation by distributing libido-boosting chewing gum in the Gaza area" will walk peacefully into the sunset after they are granted their independence.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Moving to Illinois

So I have to move to Southern Illinois for work in a month. And these are the latest news from Illinois: "A federal appeals court in Chicago on Tuesday breathed new life into a long-dormant Illinois law that requires physicians to notify the parents of teenage girls before performing abortions. . . The appeals court described the measure as "a permissible attempt to help a young woman make an informed choice about whether to have an abortion."The law does not require parental consent, only that parents be notified 48 hours before an abortion for a girl 17 or younger." I mean, of all the disgusting, ridiculous, paternalistic, outrageously condescending things I have heard recently, this is definitely the worst. A woman's body belongs to her parents. Like she is a cow. Or a family dog. In any case, she is so brainless that she needs to be "helped" to make an informed choice. About her owwn body.

All enthusiasm that I had about moving to Illinois just evaporated completely. And don't even start me on what's happening with abortion laws in Arizona. Compared to Arizona, Illinois is a progressive haven.

Why are there still so many woman-haters around? Why are there so many people who would want to destroy the lives of young women they don't even know? Why do we allow these disgusting freaks of nature to call themselves "pro-life", if all they are is anti-life, anti-choice, anti-reason, anti-enlightenment, anti-simple-human-compassion?

When I imagine a 17-year-old woman in Illinois, who finds herself pregnant and terrified, and who cannot receive a medical service she is guaranteed by law without informing her parents, I feel angry beyond belief. I have a suggestion: to make things more fair, let's introduce a law forcing any man who seeks a Viagra prescription to notify his neighbors. Then we will see how fast these lawmakers will appreciate what it feels like to involve other people in the most intimate matters concerning your body.

The Right to Die

By now, everybody must have heard the story of Sir Edward and Lady Downes who committed suicide together. Lady Downes was suffering from terminal cancer and her husband decided that he didn't want to live without his wife. The New York Times reports: "Although friends who spoke to the British news media said Sir Edward was not known to have been terminally ill, they said he wanted to die with his ailing wife, who had been his partner for more than half a century."
I agree completely with Dr. Tuteur who says: "I applaud Sir Edward and Lady Downes for having the strength of character and purpose to make their own most intimate decisions and carry them through. And I have deep respect and admiration for the intense love that makes surviving alone an unbearable prospect." Respect for people should include respect for their desire to end their lives. One's own life belongs to no one but to the individual living it. If a person decides to end his or her life, we have no right to question this decision or to try and stop them. This is the most intimate act one can engage in and society needs to butt out of it.

The I-phone: Helping You Stay Pure

Jessica at Feministing reports that the I-phone now has an app that helps people make purity pledges: "For just 59p, consumers can download an application that allows them to take a purity pledge and then display a silver ring on their phone to prove their commitment to abstinence." The good thing is that purity is pretty cheap. In the bad news department, however, purity pledges notoriously achieve nothing good. At least, in the opinion of those who don't see the rise in teenage pregnancies and STD rates as a positive thing.

As somebody said, the virtue that needs to be guarded isn't worth guarding.

Here is one of my previous posts on Jessica's great book The Purity Myth.

She Just Won't Go Away!

We thought when Palin resigned after giving an incredibly weird and rambling speech she would just go away. At least for a while. At least until the memory of her extremely strange resignation (let alone her disastrous vice-presidential campaign) would fade. Not so. Now the unfortunate ex-governor of Alaska presents herself as an expert on the new energy plan. She feels she has so much to say on this subject that she even published an article in The Washington Post. The article is just as rambling and poorly organized as her resignation speech. It's the kind of a piece that you have to read and re-read and then re-read all over again in order to dig out the point she is trying to make from under the endless verbiage.

Just consider the following sentence: "Many states have abundant coal, whose technology is continuously making it into a cleaner energy source." Whose technology? The coal's? Then what does "it" refer to? Also the coal? Then again, cleaner than what? Which states have this clean coal? What kind of technology are we discussing? What is the word "continuously" doing here? No clarification from Palin. And not a single fact presented to support anything.

Obama's energy plan, she says, is very dangerous. Why? (Besides the fact that anything Obama does is inherently bad, dangerous, and ugly, of course). "Job losses are so certain under this new cap-and-tax plan that it includes a provision accommodating newly unemployed workers from the resulting dried-up energy sector, to the tune of $4.2 billion over eight years. So much for creating jobs" says Palin. The people who will lose jobs under this plan will be provided with new employment. How can that be bad? Because the plan doesn't create new jobs, Palin claims. Well, this was never the plan's goal. It's a plan to cap emissions, it can't be expected to cure all of the world's evils. And since when does a Republican care about people losing jobs, anyways?

Now let's look at the next statement: "We have an important choice to make. Do we want to control our energy supply and its environmental impact? Or, do we want to outsource it to China, Russia and Saudi Arabia? Make no mistake: President Obama's plan will result in the latter." Sounds bad, doesn't it? Of course, nobody wants to outsource to other countries. The only problem: there is no evidence of how Obama's plan will do that. The cap and trade plan is aimed at reducing the emissions created by burning fossil fuel. The idea behind the plan is simply to burn less fuel. Not less domestic as opposed to imported fuel. But simply: less fuel. I must be stupid but I fail to understand how this plan will result in America losing control over anything. My only consolation is that Sarah Palin, the author of the statement, has no idea either. She never stops to explain how she arrived at her daring conclusion. Well, she isn't Sarah Palin for nothing.

Here is the conclusion to the article: "Can America produce more of its own energy through strategic investments that protect the environment, revive our economy and secure our nation? Yes, we can. Just not with Barack Obama's energy cap-and-tax plan." OK, the readers might think. Now we are getting to it. Obama's plan is bad but now Palin will give us the alternative, a plan of her own that will achieve all of these good things (protecting the environment, reviving the economy and "securing the nation", whatever that is). But wait, these are actually the last words of the article. After I read them, I kept sitting there, staring stupidly at the web-page. There must be a continuation to the article, I thought. You are saying that all these things can be done, just not with Obama's plan. Isn't this the point where you tell us what the alternative is?

I imagined what would happen if Sarah Palin were to walk into my apartment right now and observe me blogging. "The way you blog is silly and inefficient," she would say. "There is a way to blog faster, better, and more productively. I know how to do it." And then she would just walk out without ever revealing her new and improved blogging strategy to me.

I wonder why more people don't write articles for The Washington Post? It seems so easy. Here are some ideas for future articles:

1. The way heart surgeons operate on patients is wrong. I know a better, cheaper, healthier way to operate. End of article.

2. Writers are stupid. I know how to write more engaging, stylistically beautiful, and artistically valuable novels. End of article.

3. Teachers are all idiots. I know how to tach kids better and faster. End of article.

See how easy it is to become an expert on almost anything? Just tell people how stupid they are and that you know a better way. Remember, no proof of this better way will ever be required from you.


You know this moment in teenage TV shows when the characters get back their SAT scores and "find out" which ones of them are smart? In such shows there is always a character who never studies, always skips class, gets horrible grades, but then magically gets an amazing SAT score. Then there is also the nerdy type who studies all the time, always gets straight As, but who does much worse at the SAT exam. I hate this idea of intelligence as something that just happens. The implication is that there is no need to work on your intellect. If you are born smart, then eventually it will come out. If you aren't born smart, then you should just let it go.
It isn't easy to get my students to give up on the myth of "natural" intellectual capacities, which is very strange given the incredible amount of work they do to get their high grades. They still want to believe in the existence of this mythical "talent" that flourishes all on its own. I believe in artistic talent (maybe because it's something completely incomprehensible to me), but in academic matters there is just a lot of hard work and nothing else. You work, you get results. If you work a lot, sometimes you get results that on the surface look like "talent." But I personally find it pretty annoying when people tell me "Oh, you are just talented in this area" or "You must be naturally gifted in this particular field." Such comments disqualify all of the work and effort I invest in order to get published or finish the dissertation or prepare a talk for a conference.

Pain and Childbirth

It's funny how you write something and several days later you get proof for the point you were trying to make. In my recent post about C-section, I mentioned the patriarchal nature of the idea that women should suffer a lot during labor. And almost immediately an article appeared in Daily Mail highlighting the views of precisely this kind of chauvinism: "Dr Walsh, associate professor in midwifery at Nottingham University, criticised the ‘epidural epidemic’ sweeping the NHS, and said maternity units should abandon routine pain relief and embrace a ‘working with pain’ approach."

Why should women engage in this king of masochistic practices? Because without experiencing pain, they wouldn't be able to become good mothers: "Because anaesthetic drugs undermine the mother’s bond with her baby, an expert said yesterday. Dr Denis Walsh said the agony of labour should be considered a ‘rite of passage’ and a ‘purposeful, useful thing’. The pain prepared women for the demands of motherhood, he argued." Once again, there is no discussion of how to prepare men for the demands of fatherhood. Either the suggestion is that men don't need a bond with their children (childrearing being part of the lowly female realm), or Walsh believes that men have a different, pain-free way of establishing such a bond.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Girls and Chess

Since people seem to enjoy posts narrating real-life experiences, I'm going to tell a story my friends love to hear to the point of asking me to tell it several times in a row.
I love my sister. She is an amazing, intellectual, professional woman and a true feminist. She is also a very strong chess player. Her coach back in Ukraine used to tell her that she had the potential to become a champion if she dedicated her life to chess. She didn't feel like doing it, though. So now she just plays for fun. And also in order to put male chauvinists in their place.
Several years ago, my sister and I decided to visit our city's chess club. We both love challenging people's preconceived notions and biased expectations. So when we arrived at the club, my sister was dressed in a skimpy blue shirt, tight pants, high heels, she had bangs and little blue hair clips. There were many players that day in the chess club, but not a single woman. When we came in and my sister asked if she could play, nobody wanted to play with her at first. "Erm, this is a chess club," she was told even though the presence of numerous chessboards and a huge chess tournament announcement made the statement really superfluous.
Finally, the vice-president of the club sent a junior member to play. It was obvious that the intention behind this was to make her lose fast and get rid of us. "So, do you know how the figures move?" he asked with profound condescension. Of course, my sister beat this guy (at chess, I mean) in under a minute. Everybody looked very perplexed. They sent another player, she beat him too. Then, the vice-president of the club decided to take matters in his hands and came to play with my sister. Observing their game was one of the most fun experiences I've ever had. The players were huddled around the older, bearded club leader, giving advice, discussing moves, strategizing, consulting books. My sister, in the meanwhile, was glued to her cell phone, only to interrupt to her conversation very briefly to notice the opponent's move and make her own. The club members seethed with resentment.
After she beat him 3 times in a row while conducting phone conversations with everybody she knew, chewing gum and paying precious little attention to the board, the players went to the home of the club's president. They desperately needed someone to beat this woman who defied every stereotype about chess players on the one hand and very young women on the other. Can you at this point guess what happened with the club's president? She won 2 out of 3 games.
When we were leaving, people treated us in a way that couldn't be more different from their initial reception. For a long time after that they kept begging my sister to join their club. She didn't, though. I think she was right. After their initial attitude, they didn't deserve her as a member.

Ross Douthat's Vision of Radicalism

Ross Douthat is a gift that just keeps on giving, people. I had to get up unconscionably early today (8 a.m. for me feels like it's still yesterday) to wait for the refrigerator repair person. Understandably, this put me in a mood so lousy that even massive amounts of coffee didn't help. Thankfully, Monday is a day when the journalist I love to hate published his weekly column. I laughed so hard while reading his article "The Audacity of the Pope" that I'm afraid I woke up the entire building. Making me laugh before 9 a.m. is a feat nobody has been able to accomplish before, so Douthat has a great future in standup comedy once the New York Times finally goes down.

American politics has become very disappointing, says Douthat. The Republicans are despised and "Barack Obama’s agenda looks like the same old Democratic laundry list, rewritten in a sleeker, Internet-era font." Douthat's answer to the problem? Radical thinking: "The governing party is mistrusted, the minority party despised. Yet there’s remarkably little radical thinking taking place." Good, huh? I'm the first person to agree that we need new, fresh, often even radical approaches to the problems we face. Of course, the question arises immediately of where we should look for the radical thinkers and politicians who would be able to offer strikingly new solutions. While the answer to the question has been eluding me for a while, Douthat has the response: the Pope, of course. Here is the radical new thinker whose political agenda will allow the Americans to embrace a new, progressive, non-partisan way of thinking.

Catholic or not, says Douthat, we should all read and feel inspired by Pope Benedicts third encyclical: " Catholics are obliged to take seriously the underlying provocation of the papal message. . . So should all people of good will. For liberals and conservatives alike, “Caritas in Veritate” is an invitation to think anew about their alliances and litmus tests." After this statement, Douthat proceeds to show us how he accomplishes this in practice. He poses a series of questions on important political issues one might expect from a third-grader. Since Douthat has apparently been unable to find answers to these questions on his own, I will provide him with answers.

1) Why should being pro-environment preclude being pro-life?

It doesn't. I'm very pro-environment and at the same time I firmly believe in the right of every woman to be in charge of her own life. I'm pro-life since, surely, being pro-life has to mean being against the death penalty, against war-mongering, and in favor of every individual having access to basic things (clean water, food, medical care) that will make life possible.

2) Why can’t Republicans worry about economic inequality?

Because they are Republicans, dummy. It's like asking why turtles can't fly. The answer is because it's not in their nature. Besides, the whole tone of the question aside from being childish is plain weird. What does Douthat mean by "worry about"? Do the Republicans worry that there is too little economic inequality? Does "worrying" about it include doing anything to change it? Even if they did worry about it, how would that help anybody? Worrying is hardly a very practical occupation for politicians.

3) Why can't Democrats consider devolving more power to localities and states?

Once again, this is hardly a serious question. More power than what? Which "localities" currently suffer from having too little power? What does this whole question mean?

4) Does opposing the Iraq war mean that you have to endorse an anything-goes approach to bioethics?

This is an example of a question the purpose of which is not to seek information. Rather, the point is to make baseless accusations. What's "an anything-goes approach to bioethics"? Why does Douthat accuse people who are against the Iraq war (as opposed to the Afghanistan war or any other war, I guess) of it? If I favor cloning, I have very specific reasons for it. Douthat, who endorses an anything-goes approach to journalism, would never be able to understand that, of course.

5) Does supporting free trade require supporting the death penalty?

Yes, it does, pumpkin. What you are coy enough to call "free trade" destroys so many people that a little death penalty here and there is nothing.

To conclude his article, Douthat laments the absence of such disscussions in Washington: "These questions, and many others like them, are the kind that a healthy political system would allow voters and politicians to explore. But for now, at least, you’re more likely to find them being raised in Benedict XVI’s Vatican than in Barack Obama’s Washington." What Douthat doesn't seem to realize is that a healthy educational system allows people to find answers to these question by the age of ten. Obama's Washington has more serious things to do.

Douthat laments the fact that the Pope's concerns and proposals aren't echoed in Washington: “Caritas in Veritate” promotes a vision of economic solidarity rooted in moral conservatism. It links the dignity of labor to the sanctity of marriage. It praises the redistribution of wealth while emphasizing the importance of decentralized governance. It connects the despoiling of the environment to the mass destruction of human embryos. This is not a message you’re likely to hear in Barack Obama’s next State of the Union, or in the Republican Party’s response." Of course, you aren't likely to hear this arrant nonsense in a President's State of the Union address. This sounds like ramblings of a maniac, or as an attempt of a religious leader to craft an ideology that would cover the obsolete nature of the teachings he has to follow (which is what it is). It will be a sad moment in American politics when we see elected a president dishing out this kind of insanity.