Notes and Comment Blog

A principle virtually no one contests

Dec 19th, 2015 3:58 pm | By

Speaking of Al Jazeera…last January it had some issues with Charlie Hebdo. National Review saw the emails.

As journalists worldwide reacted with universal revulsion at the massacre of some of their own by Islamic jihadists in Paris, Al Jazeera English editor and executive producer Salah-Aldeen Khadr sent out a staff-wide e-mail.

Khadr urged his employees to ask if this was “really an attack on ‘free speech,’” discuss whether “I Am Charlie” is an “alienating slogan,” caution viewers against “making this a free speech aka ‘European Values’ under attack binary [sic],” and portray the attack as “a clash of extremist fringes.” “Defending freedom of expression in the face of oppression is one thing; insisting on the right to be obnoxious and offensive just because you can is infantile,” Khadr wrote. “Baiting extremists isn’t bravely defiant when your manner of doing so is more significant in offending millions of moderate people as well. And within a climate where violent response — however illegitimate — is a real risk, taking a goading stand on a principle virtually no one contests is worse than pointless: it’s pointlessly all about you.”

Excuse me? A principle virtually no one contests? If virtually no one contests it, what were all those dead bodies then? If virtually no one contests it, why did the Kouachi brothers murder 12 people at Charlie Hebdo? If virtually no one contests it, why do so many people get in such a rage of opposition to it? What a cowardly, blaming, contemptuous, horrible thing to say. The whole point is that a great many people absolutely do contest it, and a great many of them contest it with violence. They contest it by murdering people. Those guys with machetes in Bangladesh? They contest it. Those people who draw up lists of people to be killed in Bangladesh? They contest it. Those people who threaten to kill my dear friend Taslima? They contest it. That guy who shot up the conference in Copenhagen, killing a Danish film director, and then later killed a guard outside a synagogue? He contested it. I could go on. People do contest it and they use force, they use murder, to make their contesting stick. So yes, actually, the people at Charlie Hebdo were bravely defiant.

His denunciation of Charlie Hebdo’s publication of cartoons mocking the prophet Mohammed didn’t sit well with some Al Jazeera English employees.

Hours later, U.S.-based correspondent Tom Ackerman sent an email quoting a paragraph from a January 7 blog post by Ross Douthat. The New York Times’ Douthat (film critic for National Review) argued that cartoons like the ones that drove the radical Islamists to murder must be published “because the murderers cannot be allowed for a single moment to think that their strategy can succeed.”

I hate having to agree with Ross Douthat, but these things happen.

H/t Lady Mondegreen

Carbon fibre as a prosthetic form of masculinity

Dec 19th, 2015 11:58 am | By

Lots of people are passing this around, and I think the original spark for the passing around may have been Dawkins, but all the same, I’m going to pass it around too, because it is just that whatever it is.

Carbon Fibre Masculinity: Abstract.

This article examines material economies of carbon fibre as a prosthetic form of masculinity. The paper advances three main arguments. Firstly, carbon fibre can be a site in which disability is overcome, an act of overcoming that is affected through masculinized technology. Secondly, carbon fibre can be a homosocial surface; that is, carbon fibre becomes both a surface extension of the self and a third-party mediator in homosocial relationships, a surface that facilitates intimacy between men in ways that devalue femininity in both male and female bodies. Carbon fibre surfaces are material extensions of subjectivity, and carbon fibre surfaces are vectors of the cultural economies of masculine competition. Thirdly, the article gives an account of Oscar Pistorius as an example of the masculinization of carbon fibre, and the associated binding of a psychic attitude of misogyny and power to a form of violent and competitive masculine subjectivity. The paper unpacks the affects, economies and surfaces of “carbon fibre masculinity” and discusses Pistorius’ use of carbon fibre, homosociality and misogyny as forms of protest masculinity through which he unconsciously attempted to recuperate his gendered identity from emasculating discourses of disability.

Let’s see…

One, what does it mean to say “carbon fibre can be a site”? Why call it a “site”? I know it’s theory jargon, but why use it? Carbon fiber is a material. What is added by calling it a “site”? Other than obfuscation?

Two, why call it “masculinized technology”? No doubt this is explained in the paper, but it’s taken to be self-evident enough to work in the abstract, and I wonder why.

Third, how can carbon fiber be “a third-party mediator in homosocial relationships”? That obviously will be a big part of the article, but on its face it looks desperately arbitrary. Women can make use of carbon fiber prostheses too, surely?

Then of course I wonder how carbon fiber can be a surface that “facilitates intimacy between men in ways that devalue femininity in both male and female bodies.”

The rest – well I can see the drift. Oscar Pistorius may have felt less of a man because of his missing leg. I would guess that most people feel less of a human if they lack a major limb, but whatever – maybe Pistorius felt it especially acutely. But the special carbon fiber aspect…?

Oh well. I prefer clarity to deliberate obfuscation. So it goes.

Article? What article?

Dec 19th, 2015 10:51 am | By

Cora Currier reports apparent censorship by Al Jazeera.

The corporate headquarters of Al Jazeera appears to have blocked an article critical of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record from viewers outside the United States. The news network, which is funded by the government of Qatar, told local press that it did not intend to offend Saudi Arabia or any other state ally, and would remove the piece.

The op-ed, written by Georgetown University professor and lawyer Arjun Sethi and titled, “Saudi Arabia Uses Terrorism as an Excuse for Human Rights Abuses,” ran on the website of Al Jazeera America, the network’s U.S. outlet. It comments on reports of 50 people recently sentenced to death for alleged terrorist activity and criticizes the U.S. government’s silence on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.

The article ran on December 3, and is still available in the United States, but people attempting to view the link in other countries were given an error or “not found” page. (For international readers, we’ve reprinted the full text of the article here.)

Al Jazeera said in a statement that it’s “investigating what the source of the problem may be.”

Last week, the Saudi Arabian newspaper Okaz quoted a director of Al Jazeera apologizing for the article and saying that it would be removed. Another news story, from a Bahraini website, shows a tweet from Al Jazeera America’s account with the article’s headline. That tweet appears to have been deleted. A spokesperson for Al Jazeera America would not comment on the tweet or on the discrepancy between the parent company’s statement to The Intercept and the comments in Okaz.

There’s nothing unusual about Sethi’s article, and he says Al Jazeera America commissioned it from him.

A few days after publication, Sethi’s Twitter feed was flooded with attacks from pro-Saudi accounts. David Johnson, senior opinion editor at Al Jazeera America, retweeted many of the attacks. (He declined to be interviewed for this piece.)

Scuzzy. It all looks very scuzzy.

While Al Jazeera’s international coverage has been praised — particularly in the years after the 9/11 attacks — this is not the first time that the network has appeared to cater to the interests of Qatar and its Gulf allies. (Disclosure: prior to joining The Intercept, I wrote an article for Al Jazeera America as a freelancer.)

It has been criticized for lack of coverage of protests against the government of Bahrain, for example, and in 2012, several journalists complained that they had to edit coverage of Syria to feature the emir of Qatar’s position. In 2013, staffers in Egypt resigned in protest of the network’s bias toward the Muslim Brotherhood after the military deposed the president, Mohamed Morsi.

But staffers at Al Jazeera America say this kind of blocking is new.

Tomorrow it will be people who march in the streets

Dec 18th, 2015 5:04 pm | By

Julie Bindel talked to some secular feminist women in Paris about the current situation.

The Left has allowed its tendency to blame the West for everything to offer a justification for terrorism as resistance to colonialism, imperialism and capitalism. As a lifelong feminist, and firmly of the Left, I have long been bitterly disappointed with those who supposedly campaign for women’s rights yet capitulate to Islamofascist men. Such women, in the UK, France and other European countries, have given their support to Sharia courts, the wearing of the full-face veil, arranged marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM), and gender segregation in public places. Supporting traditional Islam flies in the face of feminism, and even of basic equality between men and women.

Ana Pak is an Iranian secular feminist who works with refugees arriving in France from Iran, Afghanistan and Syria. Pak grew up during Khomeini’s rule. “The word Islamophobic comes from 1979 when [Ayatollah] Khomeini came to power and women went to the streets and marched to be free of the veil,” she says. “Khomeini and the Islamists obliged them to wear the veil, and that’s when they started calling these women Islamophobic.”

Pak had to leave Iran for France because of the whole secular feminist thing – that’s not what Khomeini had in mind.

Having escaped prison, she expected to be able to continue her anti-Islam activism in the democratic, secular country of her exile. “I was shocked to find that the French Left was capitulating to the Islamists, and that I was soon labelled as Islamophobic for resisting its doctrine. I have never stopped working against or fighting Islamists, in Iran first of all, and then in France. In Iran I was involved with the Left, but the Left has lost its raison d’être. Now the Left use the same words that the Islamists have used in their own campaign.”

Pak was dismayed by the reaction of some French citizens to the Charlie Hebdo attacks. “Immediately following the attacks at Charlie Hebdo I went in the evening with some feminist friends to the Place de la République, where we assembled to support the people who were killed. Two of my friends had banners with typical feminist slogans, like ‘No to the veil’ and ‘No extremism’, but the French people that were already there asked them to remove them because they could cause offence.”

This was immediately after the slaughter at Charlie Hebdo.

“After the Hebdo killings, a common reaction was to blame the journalists who ‘dared’ to criticise Islam, saying they were guilty of blasphemy. Now Islamists are killing those who drink wine and who go to concerts. Tomorrow it will be people who march in the streets. Islamists are taking power in France, and what they want once they are in power is to achieve absolute submission.”

Those who use the history of French colonialism to justify the massacres are misguided, she says. “Islamists have taken power in Iran against Iranians, in Syria against the Christians, in France against those who go out and drink wine. So the people who blame colonialism are wrong.”

I want to know Ana Pak.

There’s a lot more: read on.

Saints should always be presumed guilty until proven innocent

Dec 18th, 2015 4:37 pm | By

In the news: the pope “confirmed” a second “miracle” by “Mother Teresa” so the church will be able to go ahead and declare her a “saint.” In the spirit of my hostile scare quotes, Slate republished a 2003 piece by Christopher Hitchens on the Albanian fanatic.

As for the “miracle” that had to be attested, what can one say? Surely any respectable Catholic cringes with shame at the obviousness of the fakery. A Bengali woman named Monica Besra claims that a beam of light emerged from a picture of MT, which she happened to have in her home, and relieved her of a cancerous tumor. Her physician, Dr. Ranjan Mustafi, says that she didn’t have a cancerous tumor in the first place and that the tubercular cyst she did have was cured by a course of prescription medicine.

And a miracle.

During the deliberations over the Second Vatican Council, under the stewardship of Pope John XXIII, MT was to the fore in opposing all suggestions of reform. What was needed, she maintained, was more work and more faith, not doctrinal revision. Her position was ultra-reactionary and fundamentalist even in orthodox Catholic terms. Believers are indeed enjoined to abhor and eschew abortion, but they are not required to affirm that abortion is “the greatest destroyer of peace,” as MT fantastically asserted to a dumbfounded audience when receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. Believers are likewise enjoined to abhor and eschew divorce, but they are not required to insist that a ban on divorce and remarriage be a part of the state constitution, as MT demanded in a referendum in Ireland (which her side narrowly lost) in 1996.

She did harm.

MT was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction. And she was a friend to the worst of the rich, taking misappropriated money from the atrocious Duvalier family in Haiti (whose rule she praised in return) and from Charles Keating of the Lincoln Savings and Loan. Where did that money, and all the other donations, go? The primitive hospice in Calcutta was as run down when she died as it always had been—she preferred California clinics when she got sick herself—and her order always refused to publish any audit.

She said pain was Jesus kissing you.

She was not someone to admire, much less to emulate.

The rich world has a poor conscience, and many people liked to alleviate their own unease by sending money to a woman who seemed like an activist for “the poorest of the poor.” People do not like to admit that they have been gulled or conned, so a vested interest in the myth was permitted to arise, and a lazy media never bothered to ask any follow-up questions. Many volunteers who went to Calcutta came back abruptly disillusioned by the stern ideology and poverty-loving practice of the “Missionaries of Charity,” but they had no audience for their story. George Orwell’s admonition in his essay on Gandhi—that saints should always be presumed guilty until proved innocent—was drowned in a Niagara of soft-hearted, soft-headed, and uninquiring propaganda.

Which the church is perpetuating, naturally.

The United States is somewhat exceptional

Dec 18th, 2015 3:31 pm | By

iknklast made this very important point in a comment:

When I was in Texas, the divide between the money spent on educating minorities and educating the white citizens was notable. I had students of color in my classroom who struggled to keep up because they had less preparation. This fed into the preconception of people who assumed they were not as smart. Because they had less opportunity earlier in life, they came to college with less preparation, therefore they typically did worse (especially at first) than white students. Ergo, they were less capable by nature.

Sometimes it required a little extra work on my part when teaching a student from a poorer school, usually a person of color, and for a lot of people, that proved their prejudice. It never occurred to them that this was the work that had been done with the other students earlier on in life, and being three steps behind everyone else meant it was an amazing feat when the students finished even.

A few minutes after I read that comment, I opened this article by Roberto A Ferdman at Wonkblog at the Washington Post, and read:

Wealthy parents aren’t just able to send their kids to top pre-schools—they can also purchase the latest learning technology and ensure their children experience as many museums, concerts and other cultural experiences as possible. Low-income parents, on the other hand, don’t have that opportunity. Instead, they’re often left to face the reality of sending their kids to schools without having had the chance to provide an edifying experience at home.

That might sound foreboding if not hyperbolic, but it’s a serious and widespread problem in the United States, where poor kids enter school already a year behind the kids of wealthier parents. That deficit is among the largest in the developed world, and it can be extraordinarily difficult to narrow later in life.

Especially in a country that, collectively, frankly doesn’t give a fuck that poor people are held back by poverty, and in fact think it serves them right for being poor.

This is one of the key takeaways from a new book about how United States is failing its children. The book, called Too Many Children Left Behind, is written by Columbia University professor Jane Waldfogel, a long-time researcher of poverty and inequality. And it will force almost anyone to reflect on the impact of unchecked inequality on children.

Waldfogel says the massive achievement gap in the United States is a blemish for a country that aspires to be the greatest in the world. In her book, she shows that achievement gap is pronounced to a startling degree in the first years of life.

And then it’s made even worse by people like Scalia who conclude that poor people are just stupider than rich people.

Ferdman and Waldfogel had a conversation about the issue.

How serious is the achievement gap between poorer and wealthier children in the United States?

It’s pretty frightening.

We find that for both reading and math, the children whose parents had low levels of education—meaning they only got a high school education or less—are lagging behind the children of more educated parents by a full standard deviation at school entry. A standard deviation is huge—it’s a big gap; it’s at least an entire year of development.

By comparison, in the other countries we looked at, the gap was closer to half a standard deviation. So the gap is substantially and significantly larger in the United States.

Wow. And we’re talking about kids who are only four years old. So four years in to life they are already a full year behind?

Yes, it’s terrible.

And we do a crap job of catching them up, and we’re an outlier in both of those ways – the bad start and the bad finish.

The United States is somewhat exceptional in this regard. Can you talk a little about how the size and shape of the achievement gap in this country is distinctive?

Where the United States really stood out was in having significantly more inequality at school entry and at the end of school compared to peer countries we found around the world—those are Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada. For most of the things we looked at, the U.K. was in second place behind the U.S. in terms of the level of inequality. Australia and Canada really stand out as having much more equality of outcomes among kids than the United States. And this is carried through as kids go to school. The achievement gap grows as kids go to school in the U.S., but it doesn’t really elsewhere.

And…what’s more important? Apart from climate change and continuing to have a planet that can sustain life? What’s more important than doing everything possible to give everyone an equal chance in life?

Black students come to the physics classroom for the same reason white students do

Dec 18th, 2015 12:17 pm | By

Jedidah C. Isler sets Scalia and Roberts straight on some things.

The truly damaging part of Chief Justice Roberts’s question is the tacit implication that black students must justify their presence at all.

Black students’ responsibility in the classroom is not to serve as “seasoning” to the academic soup. They do not function primarily to enrich the learning experience of white students. Black students come to the physics classroom for the same reason white students do; they love physics and want to know more. Do we require that white students justify their presence in the classroom? Do we need them to bring something other than their interest?

No, we don’t, and you know what that does? It frees up white students to learn and do physics. (The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to people from other categories that are expected to justify their presence in the classroom.)

By suggesting, and sadly litigating, that diversity — and more important, inclusion and equal opportunity — aren’t paramount to the production of new scientific information, we wrongly imply that the most important part of scientific discovery is in the classroom.

The purpose of the classroom is to build a tool kit and to understand what we know in the hopes of uncovering something that we don’t. It’s the door through which we create new physicists. Closing that door to students of color unless they can justify their presence is closing the door to the kinds of creativity that can be shown only after a student has mastered basic skills.

A physics class should interrogate and transfer the canon of scientific knowledge. Those students will go on to consider the many unanswered questions at the frontiers of what is known about the universe.

If we limit the physics classroom to white students, or students whose presence in a classroom we leave unquestioned, we also limit the production of new information about the world — and whose perspective that world will reflect. If that’s the case, then we all lose.

So let’s don’t do that.

See the table

Dec 18th, 2015 11:51 am | By

Peace talks. Paris. The table. See the table.

A general view shows U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (4th L, seated), French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (4th R) and other leaders at the start of the ministerial meeting on Syria at the Quai d'Orsay, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in Paris on December 14, 2015. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)


Notice anything?

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Paris on Monday for a ministerial meeting with his counterparts from France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Qatar, and Turkey to discuss possible solutions to the ongoing crisis in Syria. Take a good look at the photo above. Noticeably absent are … you guessed it … women. Sure, there are a few in the room, but not one woman is seated at the table in a position of power — because not one of the above countries has a woman foreign minister. Such an abject lack of gender parity at high-stakes talks like these is shameful.

It’s shameful the same way it’s shameful there are no women in the hierarchy of the Catholic church. The crisis in Syria affects women, to put it mildly, yet there is not one woman taking part in that discussion.

In a 2012 report on women’s participation in peace negotiations, U.N. Women observed that a “limited but reasonably representative sample of 31 major peace processes between 1992 and 2011 reveals that only four percent of signatories, 2.4 percent of chief mediators, 3.7 percent of witnesses and 9 per cent of negotiators are women.”

The report adds that “the underrepresentation of women at the peace table is much more marked than in other public decision-making roles, where women are still underrepresented but where the gap has been steadily narrowing. This includes the roles that typically dominate peace talks: politician, lawyer, diplomat and member of a party to armed conflict. Women’s structural exclusion from peace talks has significant consequences for the extent to which issues of concern to them — such as violence against women or women’s citizenship rights — are addressed.”

Women aren’t just bystanders. Women aren’t passengers or baggage. Women aren’t Roombas or Siris. Women are real people, just as men are real people. Women should be included in these discussions.

So that women are not silenced on the new streets of social media

Dec 18th, 2015 10:46 am | By

MP Yvette Cooper in the Guardian on social media harassment of women:

The comedian Kate Smurthwaite received 2,000 abusive tweets for objecting when a men’s rights activist called her “darling” in a TV debate. Some called her “bitch”, “slut”, “harpy”; some were explicit threats of violence and rape.

I remember that. It was The Big Question, and it was Milo Yiannopoulos who called her “darling” in a patronizingly insulting way.

After going on Question Time, the historian Mary Beard received hundreds of messages attacking her appearance. And the scientist Emily Grossman received so many hostile, sexist tweets when she talked about sexism in science, she was forced to take a break from social media.

I remember those, too. I’ve blogged about all this. A lot.

But it’s not just public figures. I’ve heard stories of teenagers who have stopped going into college, women who have withdrawn from social media or been forced to change their work after being bombarded with online attacks.

And, she points out, we shouldn’t stand for it. We all use social media, and abuse shouldn’t be the price we have to pay.

[W]e can’t ignore this issue any more. A century ago, the suffragettes fought against the silencing of women in public and political life. In the 70s and 80s feminists began the campaign against the violence, threats or harassment that silenced women in the home or on the streets – founding the first refuges and organising marches to “reclaim the night”.

Each time, campaigning women challenged and changed culture. We need to do the same again now so women are not silenced on the new streets of social media, so no one is drowned out by bullying and abuse.

It’s time for women and men to stand together against sexist abuse, misogyny, racism and violent threats online – so the web can be the amazing democratic space we need it to be. It is time to reclaim the internet.

Sign me up.

Remember the breastfeeding fathers

Dec 17th, 2015 5:28 pm | By

From last month at the Huffington Post blog – The Troubling Erasure of Trans Parents Who Breastfeed.

When we think about breastfeeding, the image that comes to mind — the one pushed on us by society, medical professionals and the media alike — is that of a mother nursing her newborn baby. Brochures, websites and PSAs promote the picture of a woman lovingly looking at her child as the baby suckles at her breast. The language accompanying this imagery is inevitably gendered, specific to cisgender women who are nursing a baby that they themselves gave birth to.

Isn’t that awful? Women are always shoving themselves forward that way, hogging the mic, taking up all the slots, erasing everyone else. Imagine women pretending breastfeeding is something women do. Slags.

For a long time, no one has questioned that language. But in recent years, as acceptance of genders outside the binary grows, our understanding of many things that have long gone unchallenged have needed to shift. There has been a push for gender-neutral language when talking about reproductive justice, from abortion to pregnancy.

Yeah! Because what better way is there to overturn women’s relegation to second-class status than to stop talking about the reproductive realities that are the source of that second-class status? Godalmighty can we please finally stop talking about women? By the way did you know that for every word a man says, a woman says seven hundred million words? Fact.

Despite acknowledgment by many in birthing communities that pregnancy is not limited to women, the language used by most people still hasn’t changed. Jasper Moon, a genderqueer parent who prefers to be called “ren” by their child (short for “parent”), notes that when they hear the term “nursing mother,” they know “that obviously doesn’t apply to me.”

The term “mother” is itself problematic. As J. Kathleen (Jake) Marcus, an attorney in Philadelphia who specializes in parenting and gender legal issues, notes, “Kids are nursed by people who are not their mothers all the time.” While this is less common in Western culture, people have been nursing their friends’ and family members’ kids throughout history.

Yes: wet nurses. They were women though. It wasn’t men who did it. It wasn’t “people”; it was women. Trans people shouldn’t be erased, but neither should women.

A canonical body of literature in which women’s stories are taken away from them

Dec 17th, 2015 12:28 pm | By

Don’t miss Rebecca Solnit’s magnificent essay on Lolita and female characters in literature and reading while female, Men Explain Lolita to Me.

The rest of us get used to the transgendering and cross-racializing of our identities as we invest in protagonists like Ishmael or Dirty Harry or Holden Caulfield. But straight white men don’t, so much. I coined a term a while ago, privelobliviousness, to try to describe the way that being the advantaged one, the represented one, often means being the one who doesn’t need to be aware and, often, isn’t. Which is a form of loss in its own way.

Straight white men don’t, so much, because Ishmael and Dirty Harry and Holden Caulfield can stand in for them to some extent. The rest of us don’t have that. Whole movies are about men only; most movies are like that. It’s unpleasantly clear that many men imagine the world as populated by men. They’re men to want to fuck women, to be sure, but that doesn’t make the women real people who matter.

There’s a currently popular argument that books help us feel empathy, but if they do so they do it by helping us imagine that we are people we are not. Or to go deeper within ourselves, to be more aware of what it means to be heartbroken, or ill, or six, or ninety-six, or completely lost. Not just versions of our self rendered awesome and eternally justified and always right, living in a world in which other people only exist to help reinforce our magnificence, though those kinds of books and comic books and movies exist in abundance and cater to the male imagination. Which is a reminder that literature and art can also help us fail at empathy if it sequesters us in the Boring Old Fortress of Magnificent Me.

The men with the stunted imaginations and defective ability to notice the world around them are doing their fellow men no favors by portraying the world as populated almost exclusively by men.

I sort of kicked the hornets’ nest the other day, by expressing feminist opinions about books. It all came down to Lolita. “Some of my favorite novels are disparaged in a fairly shallow way. To read Lolita and ‘identify’ with one of the characters is to entirely misunderstand Nabokov,” one commenter informed me, which made me wonder if there’s a book called Reading Lolita in Patriarchy.

You can read Nabokov’s relationship to his character in many ways. Vera Nabokov, the author’s wife, wrote, “I wish, though, somebody would notice the tender description of the child, her pathetic dependence on monstrous HH, and her heartrending courage all along…” And the women who read Nabokov’s novel in repressive Iran, says Azar Nafisi of Reading Lolita in Tehran, identified too: “Lolita belongs to a category of victims who have no defense and are never given a chance to articulate their own story. As such she becomes a double victim—not only her life but also her life story is taken from her. We told ourselves we were in that class to prevent ourselves from falling victim to this second crime.”

When I wrote the essay that provoked such splenetic responses, I was trying to articulate that there is a canonical body of literature in which women’s stories are taken away from them, in which all we get are men’s stories. And that these are sometimes not only books that don’t describe the world from a woman’s point of view, but inculcate denigration and degradation of women as cool things to do.

Dilbert comic Scott Adams wrote last month that we live in a matriarchy because, “access to sex is strictly controlled by the woman.” Meaning that you don’t get to have sex with someone unless they want to have sex with you, which if we say it without any gender pronouns sounds completely reasonable.

It also means that Scott Adams too is thinking of the world as populated by men. He’s thinking of the point of view, the receptor for his remark, is male. By “access to sex” he means “a penis’s access to a vagina.” Women don’t “control access to sex” across the board, or for women or for gay men – women “control access” to themselves. Scott Adams sees women’s expectation of being able to say no to sex as strictly controlling access to sex in general – which betrays an incredibly stunted ability to realize that people not like him exist.

But if you assume that sex with a female body is a right that heterosexual men have, then women are just these crazy illegitimate gatekeepers always trying to get in between you and your rights. Which means you have failed to recognize that women are people, and perhaps that comes from the books and movies you have—and haven’t—been exposed to, as well as the direct inculcation of the people and systems around you.

Yep. That’s why culture matters, and that’s why we get to say what’s wrong with it.

Investigative journalists T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong just published a long piece about how police caught a serial rapist (and how one of his victims was not only disbelieved for years but was bullied into saying she lied and then prosecuted for lying). The rapist told them, “Deviant fantasies had gripped him since he was a kid, way back to when he had seen Jabba the Hutt enslave and chain Princess Leia.” Culture shapes us. Miller and Armstrong’s grim and gripping essay, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” bears witness to both the impact of popular culture and of women’s stories being discounted and discredited.

Oh look there, she picked out exactly the passage I picked out. We’re passage-noticing buddies! But yeah: that stuff matters.

But “to read Lolita and ‘identify’ with one of the characters is to entirely misunderstand Nabokov” said one of my volunteer instructors. I thought that was funny, so I posted it on Facebook, and another nice liberal man came along and explained to me this book was actually an allegory as though I hadn’t thought of that yet. It is, and it’s also a novel about a big old guy violating a spindly child over and over and over. Then she weeps. And then another nice liberal man came along and said, “You don’t seem to understand the basic truth of art. I wouldn’t care if a novel was about a bunch of women running around castrating men. If it was great writing, I’d want to read it. Probably more than once.” Of course there is no such body of literature, and if the nice liberal man who made that statement had been assigned book after book full of castration scenes, maybe even celebrations of castration, it might have made an impact on him.

It’s the same failure to notice. There is no such body of literature, but there is a massive body of literature of rape, and that’s not just some random fact.

I had never said that we shouldn’t read Lolita. I’ve read it more than once. I joked that there should be a list of books no woman should read, because quite a few lionized books are rather nasty about my gender, but I’d also said “of course I believe everyone should read anything they want. I just think some books are instructions on why women are dirt or hardly exist at all except as accessories or are inherently evil and empty.” And then I’d had fun throwing out some opinions about books and writers. But I was serious about this. You read enough books in which people like you are disposable, or are dirt, or are silent, absent, or worthless, and it makes an impact on you. Because art makes the world, because it matters, because it makes us. Or breaks us.

It’s worth being serious about this.

Happy holidays

Dec 17th, 2015 10:52 am | By

The Texas Commissioner of Agriculture, Sid Miller, on Facebook yesterday:

If one more person says Happy Holidays to me I just might slap them. Either tell me Merry Christmas or just don’t say anything.

That’s not nice. That’s not necessary. This is a big country; Texas is a big state; not everyone is religious and not everyone who is religious is Christian. If someone says a friendly “happy holidays” why get in a rage about it?

But I guess he’s not that kind of guy. His most recent post:

Good morning my friends. I hope your day is off to a great start. We are just a few days away from welcoming the birth of our savior. As we prepare for Christmas and the joy that accompanies it, I pray that you will thank God for the blessings that come with living in “one nation under God.” Merry Christmas and may God bless you, your family, our great state, and the United States of America.

No. That’s just rude. Trying to force his god on everyone is just rude. “Happy holidays” is (deliberately) inclusive of everyone; “under God” very much is not.

(Also – what’s with the guy riding a longhorn? Why’s he riding a longhorn to the pharmacy? Who does that?)

$750 per pill

Dec 17th, 2015 9:39 am | By

It’s not nice to rejoice in a misfortune that befalls someone else, but sometimes the misfortune fits the apparent character of the someone else in question so well that…

…well I won’t rejoice but I’ll just quietly point out.

Martin Shkreli: busted.

Martin Shkreli, a pharmaceutical entrepreneur and former hedge fund manager who has been widely criticized for drug price gouging, was arrested Thursday morning by the federal authorities.

The investigation, in which Mr. Shkreli has been charged with securities fraud, is related to his time as a hedge fund manager and running the biopharmaceutical company Retrophin — not the price-gouging controversy that has swirled around him.

Different thing, and yet so similar at its core.

Mr. Shkreli, 32, is now chief executive and founder of Turing Pharmaceuticals, which has drawn scrutiny for acquiring a decades-old drug and raising the price of it overnight to $750 a pill, from $13.50. In a recent interview with The New York Times, he acknowledged the regulatory and criminal investigations into claims of wrongdoing at hedge funds he once controlled as well as at Retrophin, but was dismissive of their importance.

But the feds weren’t so dismissive.

Playing the get out of male free card

Dec 16th, 2015 5:57 pm | By

Glosswitch has a fiendishly brilliant post about the old sexism and the new.

Back in the olden days, sexism was so straightforward, even a person with a uterus could understand it. It was the belief that men were superior to women — more intelligent, more important, more human — and while it affected different groups of women in different ways, feminists were in a position to identify who benefited from it and who was harmed. Of course, nowadays we can see that this was a very simplistic way of understanding gender-based oppression.

So dreadfully crude, isn’t it? Probably, as she says, because women thought of it. But now we have a better kind.

These days sexism is different. It isn’t about the appropriation of female sexual, domestic and reproductive labour or anything so crude. These days we’ve realised that the people who do this unpaid work are privileged enough to want to do it, freeing us up to focus on the more important task of validating everyone else’s sense of self.

Women’s sense of self doesn’t need validating, you see, probably because women are so busy doing the unpaid work they don’t bother to have a sense of self.

That also means women are out of touch, so they still think some things are sexist.

Porn is one area where they make this mistake, stupidly assuming that men getting off on women being abused could be in some way related to men getting off on women being abused. Drag is another. There are proper, long, thinky explanations as to why porn and drag subvert the very systems that those with an old-style understanding of sexism think they reinforce. Haven’t read said explanations? Then simply take your gut reaction and assume the direct opposite.

Take pantomime dames, for instance. Yes, a grown man calling on all of the misogynist stereotypes of the older woman — vain, bitchy, sex-starved, deluded — and playing them for laughs might look bad. But to think it actually is bad would just be too obvious. You don’t want to look like one of those stupid women who still bases her feminism on things that she feels are wrong.

Oh god no. No no no no no, never. It’s only nonbinary and genderqueer and trans people who really understand gender. The problem with drag and pantomime dames has nothing to do with women – what a silly idea! It’s all about transphobia and erasure and mocking people’s sacred identities.

“That looks a bit … off,” you might say, whereupon some young non-binary type, playing his — sorry, their — get out of male free card for all it’s worth, will ask you whether you’ve read up on the long, colourful history of drag as resistance to gendered norms. Because believe them, they totally have, back when you were too busy washing underpants and cooking fish fingers and all the other crappy, boring things women like you do because you’re lucky enough to have no inner life.

Just read the whole thing.

So nobody else would get hurt

Dec 16th, 2015 5:25 pm | By

The end of that terrible story:

After O’Leary was linked to Marie’s rape, Lynnwood Police Chief Steven Jensen requested an outside review of how his department had handled the investigation. In a report not previously made public, Sgt. Gregg Rinta, a sex crimes supervisor with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, wrote that what happened was “nothing short of the victim being coerced into admitting that she lied about the rape.”

That Marie recanted wasn’t surprising, Rinta wrote, given the “bullying” and “hounding” she was subjected to. The detectives elevated “minor inconsistencies” — common among victims — into discrepancies, while ignoring strong evidence the crime had occurred. As for threatening jail and a possible withdrawal of housing assistance if Marie failed a polygraph: “These statements are coercive, cruel, and unbelievably unprofessional,” Rinta wrote. “I can’t imagine ANY justification for making these statements.”

Jensen also ordered an internal review, which was similarly damning. Mason’s judgment was unduly swayed by [Marie’s foster mother] Peggy’s phone call. The detectives’ second interview with Marie was “designed to elicit a confession of false reporting.” The false reporting charge arose from a “self-imposed rush.”

Despite the reviews’ tough language, no one in the Lynnwood Police Department was disciplined.

The perp raped five women after Marie was bullied into recanting. Violent rapes; stranger rapes; the stuff of nightmares. He had a knife; he tied them up; he took pictures; he made threats.

In 2008, Marie’s case was one of four labeled unfounded by the Lynnwood police, according to statistics reported to the FBI. In the five years from 2008 to 2012, the department determined that 10 of 47 rapes reported to Lynnwood police were unfounded — 21.3 percent. That’s five times the national average of 4.3 percent for agencies covering similar-sized populations during that same period. Rider said his agency has become more cautious about labeling a case unfounded since Marie. “I would venture to say we investigate our cases a lot more vigorously than many departments do,” he said. “Now, we’re extra careful that we get the right closure on it.”

Better late than never, I guess.

Two and a half years after Marie was branded a liar, Lynnwood police found her, south of Seattle, and told her the news: Her rapist had been arrested in Colorado. They gave her an envelope with information on counseling for rape victims. They said her record would be expunged. And they handed her $500, a refund of her court costs. Marie broke down, experiencing, all at once, shock, relief and anger.

She sued, and Lynnwood settled for $150,000. Not much.

Marie left the state, got a commercial driver’s license and took a job as a long-haul trucker. She married, and in October she and her husband had their second child. She asked that her current location not be disclosed.

Before leaving Washington to restart her life, Marie made an appointment to visit the Lynnwood police station. She went to a conference room and waited. Rittgarn had already left the department, but Mason came in, looking “like a lost little puppy,” Marie says. “He was rubbing his head and literally looked like he was ashamed about what they had done.” He told Marie he was sorry — “deeply sorry,” Marie says. To Marie, he seemed sincere.

Recently, Marie was asked if she had considered not reporting the rape.

“No,” she said. She wanted to be honest. She wanted to remember everything she could. She wanted to help the police.

“So nobody else would get hurt,” she said. “They’d be out there searching for this person who had done this to me.”

Instead five more women got hurt.

When he had seen Jabba the Hutt enslave and chain Princess Leia

Dec 16th, 2015 5:07 pm | By

People are talking about this story today – Pro Publica’s long report on a teenage girl in Lynwood, Washington (a suburb just north of Seattle) who reported being raped, was doubted by her foster parents and then by the cops, and ended up with being charged with the crime of false reporting. Spoiler: she wasn’t lying.

In the part late in the story that narrates how the rape happened, there’s this bit that brought me up short:

He had a term for what he was about to do: “rape theater.” Deviant fantasies had gripped him since he was a kid, way back to when he had seen Jabba the Hutt enslave and chain Princess Leia. Where do you go when you’re 5 and already thinking about handcuffs? he would ask himself. He was only 8 the first time he broke into a home. It was such a rush. He had broken into more than a dozen homes since.

Uh. Aren’t we always told that violent movies don’t inspire real life violence? I’ve never believed that, but aren’t we always told it?

Training revolutionaries

Dec 16th, 2015 4:07 pm | By

Sarah Tuttle explains to Justice Roberts what unique perspective a minority student brings to a physics class.

I am a white woman about to start a faculty position in astronomy at the University of Washington, Seattle. Justice John Roberts wants to know why I would care who was in my class. Although I find it baffling that a man who leads the court of a country built in an attempt to honor and value those disparate experiences and backgrounds doesn’t understand the strength of that diversity, I will do him the service I do for all of my students. I will assume that his intentions are good and explain to him why his question is easy to answer, if only he spent any time thinking about it.

Her explanation is a thing of beauty. Read it all; here’s just a taste:

I care who is in my class because I’m training revolutionaries. Revolutions come not from walking down the well trodden path, but from finding new paths. How does that happen? The act of physics is an act of rigorous creativity. Our creativity flows not from the set of equations we drape over the top, but from our personal experiences and knowledge of what comes before. New ways of thinking come from daydreaming, and pushing the limits of what we think we understand. If I am not putting those tools of knowledge into a broad range of hands, I’m failing our next generation.

She asks herself why are her classes so white.

John Roberts doesn’t want us to ask these questions because the underlying reason is ugly and exposes the systemic racism that is institutionalized at the deepest levels of our society. The laws that John Roberts and his colleagues nominally clarify and protect are created to keep Justices Roberts, Scalia, and their ilk of mediocre white men at the helm of our country. This is particularly ironic because our Justice seems to require minority students to justify their existence in any classroom they might wish to join. Since when is access to education something that must be earned through demonstrated greatness? For those of us that are white, seats at the table have always been available for the mediocre.

That’s one good definition of privilege: seats at the table for the mediocre.

H/t Jen

The press should treat such studies with skepticism

Dec 16th, 2015 3:38 pm | By

Another one: a worked-up panic about anti-depressants and autism. David Auerbach reports at Slate:

The alarm has been sounded: Antidepressants cause autism! Or so one could easily think based on a new study in JAMA Pediatrics. Four researchers in Quebec conclude that “the use of antidepressants, specifically selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors [SSRIs], during the second and/or third trimester increases the risk of [autism spectrum disorder] in children.” In a ResearchGate interview, study senior author and perinatal pharmacoepidemiologist Anick Bérard of the Université de Montréal and the CHU Sainte-Justine Research Centre firmly advocated avoiding antidepressant use during pregnancy: “Depression needs to be treated during pregnancy but with something other than antidepressants in the majority of cases. The risk/benefit ratio is clearly leaning towards no use.”

Risk to whom and benefit to whom? Depression can be a very serious health problem; it can be fatal.

…other researchers have stressed a note of caution about the new antidepressant study and its methods. Yet even these dissenting voices do not, I think, go far enough.

Study co-author Bérard, it turns out, has been criticized by a federal judge for cherry-picking results to link antidepressants to birth defects. The press should treat such studies with skepticism rather than leading with their findings. Sober pieces in Science, Wired, and NPR rightly questioned whether the study was significant and whether Bérard’s advocacy for stopping antidepressant usage during pregnancy was justified. In particular, Emily Underwood in Science wisely led off by writing “Many epidemiologists and psychiatrists say the study, published today in JAMA Pediatrics, is flawed and will cause unnecessary panic,” which is the most important point to make about this study. But too many journalists failed to make this point, and with autism research, such credulity is downright dangerous.

And dangerous for whom? In this case, women; pregnant women.

In response to such critiques, Bérard told NPR, “We have to be vigilant even if the risk is small,” and told me in an email: “You need to consider other treatment options such as exercise or psychotherapy,” and again emphasized the supposed risk. This is misleading, however, since treatment is a matter of balancing competing risks, and the study runs the risk of playing up one unproven danger to the exclusion of far more established dangers—such as the impact of untreated or insufficiently treated depression. Bérard’s position smacks too much of banning liquids on airplanes and making people take off their shoes in airport lines—but with far worse potential consequences if women are persuaded to stop antidepressants that they genuinely need. Exercise and psychotherapy might be effective substitutes for some, but expectant mothers should make that decision without the unjustified specter of autism hanging over them.

And is it just random that it’s women who are being told to give up anti-depressants here? Is it just random that it’s women who are being told to forget about their own health and well-being because their bodies now belong to the pregnancy?

In Science, Emily Underwood reports that Bérard “serves as a consultant for plaintiffs in litigations involving antidepressants and birth defects,” suggesting that she might not have approached the study with a disinterested attitude toward antidepressants. In 2014, she served as a plaintiffs’ expert witness in the Pennsylvania Zoloft birth defects lawsuit against Pfizer, until her testimony was excluded by Judge Cynthia M. Rufe on the grounds that Bérard’s methods were “not scientifically sound.” In her ruling, Rufe excoriates Bérard for 25 pages, writing:

The Court holds that Dr. Bérard’s opinion is not grounded in the methods and principles of science … [the report’s] methodology is not reliable or scientifically sound. … Dr. Bérard takes a position in this litigation which is contrary to the opinion she has expressed to her peers in the past, relies upon research that her peers do not recognize as supportive of her litigation opinion, and uses principles and methods which are not recognized by the relevant scientific community and are not subject to scientific verification…

Not helpful.

Breeding program

Dec 16th, 2015 11:37 am | By

So we’re not rid of the Duggars after all. They’re back, in the form of two of the daughters who show us what it’s like being raised as a breeding cow by fanatical Christians.

I spotted it while channel-surfing and watched a few minutes. (I can’t take them for very long – the hostage smiles freak me out.) It’s horrifying watching one very young woman, pregnant for the first time, talk to her slightly older sister who has already given birth, her “nervousness” about what childbirth is going to be like. It’s horrifying because we know she was raised to do exactly this, so it’s not a matter of a very young woman who is keen to have a baby for her own reasons and based on her own feelings, it’s a matter of her Christian Duty. It’s also horrifying because we know she’s expected to keep doing it as many times as she possibly can. It’s horrifying because the Duggars are Quiverfull.

The Washington Post reports on the “what about that Josh guy now, huh?” aspect.

Now, “Jill & Jessa: Counting On” was a fairly brutal emotional look into what his siblings have gone through since Josh’s “wrongdoings” went public, as they talked about feeling betrayed by their brother. In between updates about Jill’s missionary work and Jessa’s pregnancy, the special interviewed eight Duggar siblings, as producers asked them to describe the last four months. On-screen text helpfully popped up to remind viewers: “Several months ago, a police report was released containing allegations that, as a minor, Josh inappropriately touched five people.”

The Duggar kids all followed the same script in their responses: They couldn’t believe that (a) the police report was released and (b) the media was so interested in events that happened in Josh’s past so long ago. Jessa and Jill, who already sat for an interview with Fox News’s Megyn Kelly, described how (as two of Josh’s victims) they had already forgiven him and moved on.

“So the police report was released to the world. And I know that wasn’t right,” Jill, 24, said. “We had to work through it because as a victim, you’ve already worked through that — you’ve already dealt with it and you’ve already moved on. And you don’t want that rubbed in your face all the time and for everybody else to see.”

She said, on tv.

Advanced falling

Dec 16th, 2015 10:54 am | By

A Saudi millionaire has been acquitted of raping a teenage girl; he claimed he accidentally tripped and fell on her. Could happen to anyone, couldn’t it. So tragically easy to do.

Updating to add: this was in Southwark Crown Court, in London.

Ehsan Abdulaziz, 46, was accused of forcing himself on an 18 year-old-girl who had slept on his sofa in his Maida Vale flat after a night out drinking.

The businessman had already had sex with the teenager’s 24-year-old friend, whom he already knew, in the bedroom and said his penis might have been poking out of his underwear when he fell on the teen.

The young woman said she had woken up in the early hours of the morning, with Mr Abdulaziz on top of her, forcing himself inside her.

But no: he was on top of her, but he wasn’t forcing himself inside her, it’s just that his penis was poking out of his underpants and it just happened to fall up inside her vagina. We all know how easily that can happen, right? We can all see the mechanics of it with no problem at all? A man trips and falls on top of a woman and whoops! there’s his penis accidentally fallen up her vagina. Half the people on earth are a result of how easy that is.

His semen and DNA was found inside the young woman, but he said it was possible he had semen on his hands from having sex with the 24-year-old earlier.

And his hands also accidentally fell up her when he fell on her. That too is so absurdly easy it’s amazing anyone ever brings a rape case at all.