Thursday, November 26, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving

I am thankful for all my readers, for all those who have donated money to my chocolate reserves, for all people who are kind, smart and ethical (which covers most of you),  for all people who want a fair, just and peaceful world.

*Raises a toast:  To you!*

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

On Writing in November 2015

1.  I would never make a journalist.  I can't write the way journalists are expected to write (if I can write at all).  All interesting interviews or long articles in politics weave the ideas into a story with trees, sunrises, hard beds, the smell of exotic cooking, openings which set you into a place and time and which flavor what's to come.

I can't do that.  I dive straight into the swimming pool of ideas and chase them (or they chase me).  That's boring, antiseptic and smells of chloride.  So I tried to do an imaginary interview article with some wingnut governor at his mansion:

There is a sun in the sky, there are trees.  They are vertical.  There is a building with a door and a parking area for my ancient car.  My hands are gripping the worn steering wheel, my cheaply-shod feet walk up the stairs to the office of the governor.  He wears silk pants, his belt has a golden NRA buckle,  dandruff lies gently on his shoulders.  He has eyes and they are aimed at me.  Other people come and go, speaking of Donald Trumpo, with automatic weapons hanging off their belts.

You see, my hands and my feet are in the story to keep me in the story but peripheral,  and to focus on the pants and the belt buckle and the hairy backs of the hands of the governor (not yet mentioned above) is to make him central, to cast a harsh light on him.  All that is to prepare you so that you are ready to dislike his ideas, whatever they might be.  The hint of my ancient car (he can vote!) is to make you side with the poor (i.e. me, though goddesses of course are not poor).  All that can be reversed if you wish to write on the side of the capitalists or fundamentalists or whatever.

2.  The innocence of my archives twelve years ago!  I want that innocence back, that time when writing didn't make me feel that I was hanging my laundry out to dry so that all neighbors could come with magnifying classes to see if the underwear has any stains on it, to see if the shirts have been laundered too many times, to assess the cheapness of my clothes, and the number of rips and tear they have.

The past always looks more innocent, of course, and I'm sure that most people simply admire the astonishing cleanness of my drying laundry!  So.

3.  Sweet potato pie for Thanksgiving.  It is an abomination:  A turnip hiding in a dessert dish.  I always eat only the edges of sweet potato pies, even though doing so is extremely uncouth.  But serving turnip-wannabes instead of chocolate cake is a real crime in my books.  I don't care how traditional it might be.  Stoning people is also traditional and also utterly loathsome. 


Women's Curves Explained. Or Wonders Never Cease.

Caitlin Flanagan has written a book review in the Washington Post.  That's not in itself very surprising, but two things about the book review made me go oooh and aaah.

The first one is that the book (The Origins and Power of Female Body Shape),  telling us what women's curves are for (hint, they are for men's benefit the same way a door handle is for the benefit of those who use the door), is by a veterinary scientist, David Bainbridge.   Now, veterinary scientists clearly are experts in the evolutionary theories about women's bodies, clearly.

The second surprising reason is that Caitlin Flanagan seems to be writing from my side of the aisle!  She's even somewhat surprised that Bainbridge comes across as an MRA warrior type. Flanagan is, after all, famous for her hatred of women's rights, a firm proponent of male supremacy in the family and adamant that all women should be housewives.  So kudos where it belongs.  Perhaps Caitlin is seeing the light?  Though she still says this:

“Evolution is not feminist,” he tells us soberly. Neither is he, apparently, which gives the book a refreshing frisson. Most pseudo-scientific books aimed at a female readership (as this one clearly is) are devoted to proving the superiority of women or at least their full equality to men. The “I’m just telling it like it is” tone of “Curvology” is appealing: What dark truths have we been unwilling to face? Read a chapter or two, however, and you discover that “Curvology” merely — and mildly — repeats the assertions of the manosphere: Evolution has caused men to like big breasts, big buttocks and small waists. We know, we know! Didn’t the Commodores teach us long ago that 36-24-36 is a winning hand?
I never quite understand how someone can get a refreshing frisson when preparing to read how she herself will be deemed inferior to the other half of humanity.  I get a chilling frisson wondering what could have happened in her own life to make her so capable of cutting herself away from the rest of the womanhood.

And then there's the idea that the pseudo-scientific books in this field are telling women that they are at least equal to men if not better*:

Did Flanagan read Louann Brizendine's  pseudo-scientific books about the male and female brain, I wonder.  The subtext in those books is much more dangerous than superficial skimming might suggest, because they trot out iffy (sometimes very iffy) evidence, pick certain studies over others and then state that the biological differences between men and women are now (insert today's date, any date) quite understood (and immutable).

Sure, the books might have been marketed on the basis of some weird type of grrrl power (I may be dumb in maths but I'm really really good at personal relationships!), but in their core they are about reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes.  Very much like the old guides that sprouted from John Gray's pseudo-scientific Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.

Flanagan's review is not about the pseudoscience Bainbridge appears to practice, as the above quote shows, and that is the one flaw in the review.  There's  evidence from several studies that some constant, perfect waist-to-hip ratio isn't a universal ideal, there's  evidence that cultural norms affect which aspects of women's bodies are deemed most erotic and so on.

But inside the weird kind of evolutionary psychology, the kind I use capital initials for, the cult of the waist-to-hip ratio rules untouched.  Mostly because external criticism cannot enter a sealed bubble.

It is that lack of scientific critiques in Flanagan's review which makes me feel the old horrible guilt (like a Jesus-syndrome):  I should immediately go and read Bainbridge's book to tell you everything that is wrong with it.  But life is so very short and the criticism is probably already available in my blog archives.  Besides, Flanagan's final quote from the book makes me want to run screaming right off this planet:

There is exactly one truly happy female in “Curvology,” an unnamed girl who appears in two italicized passages that Bainbridge has dreamed up as a sort of homage to “Clan of the Cave Bear.” We meet her in “the rust-red light of another dawn.” Her family has traded her to a tribe of strangers, which might seem like a raw deal, but her full thighs and round bottom have led to the assurance that “she would be cherished by her new tribe and her man.” Indeed, this man has already planted his seed in her. All this — the human trafficking, the rape, the pregnancy — leads to the deepest delight: “She cupped her breasts in her hands. They seemed to be getting slowly larger ever since the wiggling thing in her belly had appeared. She could not explain why, but this made her laugh out loud.”

*Just as an aside:  Almost all Evolutionary Psychology (EP, see post above for definition) articles tell women how impossibly inferior we are, and that goes for many of the books which popularize EP, too.   That may be the reason I had to read Flanagan's assertion twice before I got what she meant (the focus on a narrowly tailored concept of pseudo-scientific books aimed at women).  She hasn't evidently spent her time getting refreshing frissons and learning dark "truths" the way I have.  But I guess that whole field of literature consists of pseudo-scientific books aimed at MRAs.

Monday, November 23, 2015

How The Online Debates About Terrorism Go in The US. Where Echidne Grumbles.

US online debates about terrorism, the proper treatment of refugees and other related issues leave me exasperated.  Also sad and angry, of course, given the topics, but the exasperation part should be fixable.

I'm exasperated, because too many people have trotted out  their hind-brains for that thinking purpose.  On the US political right this shows up in widespread fear and hatred of all Muslims (register them!  refuse all Muslim refugees!), on the US political left it becomes a knee-jerk reaction against whatever the right does*, as opposed to actually looking at the issues and the evidence.

This creates some very odd bedfellows among political values and ideals:

Suddenly religious freedom is not the conservative cause it has been in the Hobby Lobby case, for example, but a liberal, lefty cause.  Suddenly the unequal treatment of women (but only in Islam) is a right-wing worry,  not something that would greatly worry liberals or progressives or feminists.  Suddenly the Syrian refugees contain large numbers of hidden ISIS members (the right-wing view) or they are all orphans and widows fleeing the very same ISIS the US conservatives fear so much (the left-wing view).

Reality is nuanced, ambiguous.  It's not good that so many of these debates can't seem to handle ambiguity.

To clarify what I mean, take that last sentence of the preceding paragraph.  The one study that has been done among Syrian refugees in Europe suggests that more of them are fleeing the bombings and violence of president Assad than the violence of ISIS.  This does NOT mean that the refugees who answered the survey in the study would support ISIS or any other militant group in Syria, not at all. But the majority in the survey** see Assad as the culprit in the Syrian civil war, not rising jihadism.

The vast majority of the Syrian refugees are people fleeing unspeakable circumstances, and they need help.  That ISIS would try to infiltrate that group goes without saying.  It's the job of the western governments, including the government of the United States, to weed out as many potential terrorists as possible***.  I think that the job of the rest of us is to learn to deal with the residual ambiguity or to surrender our claim to compassion.

The longer-run job of everyone in power should be to end the wars in the Middle East.  That's what the refugees want, too. 

*  I don't mean that the left should actually consider those vile proposals, but the automatic response shouldn't be to match "their" demons with "our" angels.  Neither view is realistic of human beings in general.

** I looked at the survey.  It's hard to judge how representative it might be.  If Syrian refugees in Berlin are a random sample of all Syrian refugees in Europe then the study is representative.  On the other hand, if Syrian refugees in Berlin are, say, more likely to come from areas where Assad is in power or fighting over power, then the results might not be representative.

***  The United States has a much better chance of doing this than most European governments, what with the enormous refugee numbers in Europe.  Against that background, the bill passed by the US House and the reluctance of more than half of US state governors to accept Syrian refugees seem exaggerated.