Monday, October 23, 2017

The State of The Media Address, 2017. By Echidne

1.  Most news web pages now won't let me read an article without white-listing the page or pausing my Ad Blocker.  This means that I cannot read those sites without being exposed to their ads.

I get the reason: The free rider problem is enormous in journalism, and the development of Craig's List and other similar web markets have largely destroyed the old way newspapers used to fund their activities: By selling ads.  Indeed, the whole industry is dying a painful death, because most everything can now be obtained without paying for it, so why pay?*

But if few are willing to pay for news, then very few journalists will be able to make a living, foreign news bureaus will no longer exist, and ultimately we will all be stuck with trying to guess which rumors on Twitter or Facebook might be news and which might be fake news**.  Besides, money will be available for propaganda (which is at least biased news if not fake news) for much longer than it will be available for news, and the Republicans have a lot more money.

That makes subscribing to mainstream news important, even if they do a less than perfect job, and I do subscribe to all the major news sources I use for my blogging (thanks, nice donors).  But I can't afford to subscribe or donate to every single site I might need to read when I research a topic.  Instead, I read the allowed free articles and use an Ad Blocker.

Why block the ads?  Because moving GIFs and videos performing at a certain frequency give me an almost instant 24-hour migraine.  The sites I have contacted have not been willing to guarantee that their ads won't use those frequencies.  If I want to read that free article, I must take a health risk.  It's only fair.

So it goes.

2.  A recent Politico / Morning Consult survey found that 46 percent*** of the registered voters in the survey believe that the nation's major news organizations (p.146) fabricate**** stories about Donald Trump and his flying circus (administration).  How sad that they did not list those major news organizations!

It makes quite a bit difference if, say, Fox News is listed among them or not listed among them.

Republican men and women are the most likely to believe that the media lie about Trump, however, so it's probably the case that the findings reflect this new world where Republicans and Democrats sit inside their own information bubbles and simply refuse to believe anything from outside that bubble.

Republicans have long decided that the so-called mainstream news are not neutral at all, so it doesn't come as a great surprise that when the weird stuff about Trump's escapades comes out it's simply rejected as "fake news."

After all, that's what he tells his acolytes in plentiful tweets.  Though the weird stuff is also in his tweets and easily available to those acolytes!  Now think of those two facts together inside someone's head,  and your own head will start feeling dizzy.  Mine did, in any case.

Why didn't the survey ask if the respondents think Trump himself fabricates stories?  That's a lot more likely than some kind of a vast conspiracy where all the major news media secretly collaborate with each other.  Besides, it would have been fun to see if the political tribalism is equally fervent when the question is put that way.

What's troublesome about this trend is that I see no easy way to correct the tribal refusal to interrogate news sources of all kinds or to learn, more generally,  how facts can be established.


*  The free rider problem is an example of the kind of economic behavior which is individually optimal and rational (you get stuff for nothing), but which is destructive from a wider angle:  Ultimately the news we are able to read without paying will no longer be produced as the people working to produce them will not be paid.

Potential readers often argue that the news media would be paid if they worked in a more objective and better way, and cancelling subscriptions is a fun way to show our disapproval.

But even if the media was perfect (which will never be the case), the free rider problem would remain, as its basis is technological.  We really must think of some other way of paying for news, because a free press IS indispensable for democracy.

**  The problem is not limited to the fact that propagandists have a great incentive to disseminate biased or fake news.  It also includes the fact that becoming a good reporter takes skill, practice and learning, and producing news takes money.  Volunteer laypeople can provide anecdotal evidence and their private experiences, but they cannot replace professional news production.

***  Thirty-seven percent of the respondents don't think that the media fabricates such news, seventeen percent don't know.

As a complete aside, the same survey also tells us 66% of the respondents support the provision of contraceptives in health insurance, either strongly or somewhat.  Even the plurality of Republican men (the group which tends to oppose such things) supports that, and so do the majority of Catholic respondents.  This suggests that the current war against contraception is based on some desire by one of the shadowy figures behind Trump (either the white supremacy boyz or some billionaire with a particular pet hatred).

But what's fascinating about the answers to the question are the very large differences  (pp.119-120) between male and female respondents, both overall and within each party.  Contraception benefits both participants in a heterosexual intercourse when no pregnancy is desired, so heterosexual men, too, benefit from contraception used by heterosexual women for the purposes of preventing pregnancy (and without any side-effects to them).  Yet more men than women oppose the idea altogether.

The interesting question is whether the same men who express opposition in these answers would also oppose the coverage of a safe and effective male contraceptive pill in health insurance.  The answers to that would tell us if the opposition is about not wanting to pay for other people's sex or about something quite different.

****  This footnote was added later, because it occurred to me later:  The question actually has "fabricated" in it.  It's not a good word to use, and it's just possible that some respondents didn't realize it's the same as lying.  Why not call it lying? 


Friday, October 20, 2017

Abortion Rates Are Down, But The Trump Administration Seems To Want To See Them Up Again

According to the Guttmacher Institute:

Between 2008 and 2014, the overall U.S. abortion rate declined by 25%, from 19.4 to 14.6 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15–44. Key data points that may help explain this decline, including trends in unintended pregnancy, are not yet available for this time period. However, the available information suggests that improvements in contraceptive use—particularly among women aged 20–24, who account for one-third of unintended pregnancies in the United States—were an important driver behind the decline. Abortion rates declined among all demographic groups from 2008–2014, but the declines varied widely by group.

It's too bad that the necessary data to explain the decline isn't yet available, though note that the above excerpt singles out improvements in contraceptive use*.  That the Affordable Care Act made contraception more affordable could well be part of the explanation.  If it is, what the Trump administration is doing right now could reverse that falling trend.

Such an outcome should be the very opposite to what the so-called pro-lifers (who largely voted for Trump) want, if they indeed were motivated by the desire to reduce abortion rates.

But it sounds like the Trump administration has added an anti-contraception stance to its anti-abortion stance. Erin Gloria Ryan writes the following about a leaked memo which is supposed to have come from this administration:

If the Trump administration got its way, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) budget for family planning would be slashed, with “no other family planning programming for girls except fertility awareness methods.” Lapsed Catholics should remember the phrase “fertility awareness” from confirmation class; it’s just a scienced-up term for “the rhythm method,” a form of birth control that doesn’t work for one-quarter of couples who use it.

Title X funding, which helps poor women afford contraception, would be slashed in half if Team Trump gets its way. Money would be diverted from sex education that emphasizes “risk reduction” and instead flow toward “sexual risk avoidance,” which is another term for “abstinence-only education.” Abstinence-only education doesn’t work. A report published this year declared the practice both “ineffective and unethical.”

Bolds are mine.

There was a time when I believed that writing about a conservative attempt to make birth control harder for women to access would be joining the tinfoil brigades.  Sadly, that doesn't seem to be the case anymore.

I'd love to know who is behind this memo.  Is it the extremist anti-contraception Catholics or some other fundamentalist group?  Why do they appear to support policies which will cause suffering and poverty at home as well as abroad?

And what about the impact of such inherently stupid policies (not letting women avoid pregnancies they don't want) on overpopulation in poorer countries,  on increased fights for arable resources and water, on higher levels of conflict, on greater levels of political radicalization,  and ultimately on much vaster numbers of economic migrants?

The goals of world peace, global economic well-being and the empowerment of women both at home and abroad are all at risk if the Trump administration actually manages to reduce poorer women's access to contraception.  But given what else we know about this administration's policies, this could well be the intended effect.


*  Other explanations are possible, either alone or in combination with the one mentioned in the body of this post.  For instance, the Republicans' strong push to make abortion unavailable in practice, however legal it might be in theory, could have resulted in larger numbers births to women with unplanned pregnancies.  To gauge that theory, we need data on pregnancy rates.  But the available evidence is more likely to support the explanation based on improved contraception use:

And contrary to what anti-abortion advocates might hope, this historically low abortion rate also does not mean that more people are choosing to carry their pregnancies to term instead of having abortions. The abortion rate in the United States has been declining for the last 25 years. As of data from 2011, unintended pregnancies have declined, and as of this past summer, the birth rate in the United States is at an all-time low.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

#MeToo: A Few Statistical Points

I plan to write about the #MeToo hashtag more later, but right now it seems useful to point out that the hashtag (used on Facebook and Twitter to denote that the woman (or man) posting or tweeting it has also been the target of sexual harassment and/or sexual violence) does not directly measure the percentage of all women (or of all men and women) who have experienced sexual harassment or sexual violence.  That's because a) not every person is on social media, aware of the hashtag or willing to use it, and b) there's no comparable #MeNeither hashtag that those would use who have had no such experiences or at least do not recall them.

For us to get more accurate data of the overall prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual violence, as well as on how such behaviors are divided into, say, street harassment and workplace/school harassment, we still need surveys based on random sampling from the general population. 

What the #MeToo hashtag tells us is that sexual harassment, at least, seems to be pretty common.  But it cannot tell us exactly how common*, and it cannot tell us what percentage is of the Weinstein-type harassment taking place at work or at school, possibly by individuals who have career-breaking power over the target,  and what type consists of, say, street harassment by strangers.

This seemed worth writing, because I have come across a few essays asking if anything at all could be done about a phenomenon which appears so ubiquitous.  That kind of despondency is unwarranted, in my opinion.

* Both because the hashtag doesn't measure the percentage of all women who have experienced sexual harassment and/or sexual violence and because it doesn't differentiate between one experience and several experiences per each respondent.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Trump Giving Condolences

In the most recent installment of Trump-scapades, we are told that Trump's telephone call with the widow of a slain US soldier, Sgt. La David T. Johnson, might have gone in a way most atypical of condolence calls:

Twelve days after four Americans were killed in an Oct. 4 ambush in Niger, the president called the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson, who was among the slain, and said that her husband “knew what he signed up for,” referring to the soldier only as “your guy,” according to Sergeant Johnson’s mother and a Democratic congresswoman, who both listened to the call.
Mr. Trump angrily disputed that account, insisting that he “had a very nice conversation with the woman, with the wife, who sounded like a lovely woman.” The White House accused the congresswoman, Frederica S. Wilson of Florida, of politicizing a sacred ritual after Mr. Trump initially said she “fabricated” it.
Without very clear proof to the contrary, I'm going to believe Sergeant Johnson's mother and Congresswoman Wilson.  That's because the quote sounds like Trump.  He has always had difficulty expressing empathy or sympathy, as if he was trying to speak a language he didn't know very well.

That inability to empathize was clearly discernible during his presidential campaigning.  So all who voted for him knew what they signed up for.  

And The Birds Still Tweet. Or On Twitter.

Two articles I have recently read are the reason for this post.  First, Buzzfeed reports that Twitter was warned, several times, about a Russian troll account masquerading as an organ for the Tennessee Republican Party:

Twitter took 11 months to close a Russian troll account that claimed to speak for the Tennessee Republican Party even after that state's real GOP notified the social media company that the account was a fake.
The account, @TEN_GOP, was enormously popular, amassing at least 136,000 followers between its creation in November 2015 and when Twitter shut it down in August, according to a snapshot of the account captured by the Internet Archive just before the account was "permanently suspended."

Some in the Trump campaign retweeted tweets from @TEN_GOP before the elections.

 Second,  Mike Monteiro wrote a long piece about his disenchantment with Twitter, as a way of expanding freedom of expression.  A snippet from that:

Twitter would have you believe that it’s a beacon of free speech. Biz Stone would have you believe that inaction is principle. I would ask you to consider the voices that have been silenced. The voices that have disappeared from Twitter because of the hatred and the abuse. Those voices aren’t free. Those voices have been caged. Twitter has become an engine for further marginalizing the marginalized. A pretty hate machine.
The whole piece is worth reading.  I don't agree with every bit of it, but I must admit that I'm slightly uncomfortable with Twitter's format.  Those short tweets are almost custom-made to create misunderstandings and to be taken out of context.

And once someone does that, the effect can be like blood in the water for sharks:  The Twitter gangs* start cycling around the chosen "victim" and fun and games will follow.

That's not exactly what Monteiro writes about, I think, but it's related.  The conversations on Twitter can be one-on-one, between a handful of people, one-on-many (Trump, say) and many-on-one (and that's where the nasty aspects of Twitter are).

Twitter is not all bad.  It can be wonderful in quickly telling me what some people are talking about (not "all people," because none of us follows everyone) and it can bring news quickly to our attention.  It's also a place where the more marginalized groups can communicate with each other and create a more powerful representation.

But it does appeal to certain nasty aspects in us humans, probably because of the pretend-anonymity and the relative lack of negative consequences from harassing someone in the Twitter format.

Add to that the commercial and popularity incentives which  Monteiro discusses (which even include such weird practices as buying followers),  and we clearly have something with not only benefits but also distinct problems.


*  These gangs can be of different types.  Many consist of misogynists and/or racists, many of people with particular and strong political affiliations, and some are of the type which remind me of the Scarlet Letter:  People who delight in taking down someone who said something nasty or stupid, going as far as making sure that someone not in a public role is going to be fired.   There's overlap between those groups and the list is not exhaustive.

Monday, October 16, 2017

On That Passive Voice. Or How We Get Ourselves Sexually Harassed.

You may have come across this tweet (which is chopped off as shown here).  It refers to a Ted Talk (which I couldn't find on quick Googling) and points out the frequent use of passive voice in how pregnancies or rape etc. are reported:

When I saw that tweet I felt that I must have written something about this.  And, indeed, I did, in 2013 on rape, and several times, including here in 2013 and here in  2017, on pregnancy.

What's the point of this post?  To show you that I'm usually about four years too early when it comes to the topics of the day.   Also that I won (I can't be perfect all the time!).

A Trump Mélange: Empathy and Its Lack, Health Care and Judeo-Christian Values

A neat title, eh?  I keep trying to learn more fancy English words, and mélange is the word for the day.  Coleslaw would have been good, too, because it's a bit the way Trump's brain seems to work.  In any case, the point is to show the vast reaches of the damage he is causing by going chop-chop-chop on varying fields, from American health care to American basic political norms and even stomping on such basic human values as empathy.

This is going to be fun.

1.  First, note how Trump must be dragged kicking and screaming into noticing the pain and suffering of anyone else?  Puerto Rico, anyone?  Remember how he was just going to lie down and have grapes peeled for him while Puerto Rico drowned? 

Or, if you prefer, remember how he was playing his fiddle while Rome burned?  As an aside, I'm developing a lot of empathy for those who had to live under the power of emperors Nero and Caligula.  Empathy:  That thing Trump lacks completely.

His lack of reaction to the death of four US soldiers in Niger has been similarly odd:

On Saturday October 7, the day the body of 25-year-old Army Sgt. La David Johnson was returned to Dover Air Force Base after he was killed in an ISIS ambush in Niger, President Donald Trump was golfing. 
From another angle the events in Niger would have been the new Benghazi, had Hillary Clinton been the current president, right?  But Trump couldn't be bothered to say anything about this at all, until he was goaded into it.

And what do we get then?  This:

President Trump on Monday claimed former President Obama and other past presidents didn't call the families of fallen soldiers.
Trump made the remark after being asked about the four U.S. soldiers killed in Niger last week. 
The president said he planned to call the parents and families of those who were killed, something he said he has done "traditionally."
Does that exchange remind you of anything?  Anything at all?  How about two children squabbling, an adult telling them to behave, and one of them grumpily whining:  "He started it!?"  Well, Trump lied in that statement.

This, my friends, is the man tens of millions of Americans thought would be a great choice to steer one of the most powerful countries on earth.

Some psychologists and psychiatrists have suggested that he suffers not only from pathological narcissism and impulsive behavior borderline personality disorder, but also from total lack of empathy.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Losing Memory

The losses mount. 

First she forgets where she put her keys, then where she parked her car, then she forgets that not all keys open all doors. Next she forgets her children, not remembering where she put them, where she parked them, what they might be for.  Last she forgets the words, the sentences, the chains which bind meaning together.  But the meaning, the meaning she remembers.  It is in her eyes.

We sit by the window when a hare leaps into the picture the window frames.  It stops, cranes its head, turns its long ears toward us, and looks at us with meaning in its eyes.  

She points at the hare, smiles, turns toward me and whispers: "Hare!"  

We hold hands.

This we still have.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

And the First Women's Convention Presents: Drum Roll....Bernie Sanders!

The Women's Convention, organized by the organizers of the Women's March, opens on October 27.  Guess who its headline speaker will be?  Senator Bernie Sanders.

There's nothing wrong with male politicians supporting an event such as the Women's Convention by attending or even by speaking.  But the choice of a man as the headline speaker is most unfortunate, however progressive he might be.

It makes the women who organized the convention look weak and in need of male leadership or — if it really was true that no famous woman could be found to speak on that night — it echoes the familiar anti-feminist argument that there just aren't enough good women in the various pipelines, but a good man could easily be found.

One of the organizers gave an "inclusiveness" reason for the choice of Sanders as the headline speaker:*

...“we believe as women … that we ought to have more than just women at the Women’s Convention.”
And that is wonderful.  Bernie Sanders**, and other male allies,  should certainly have been invited, both to attend and to speak if their message merited that. 

But I have always understood, based on what I've seen progressives state online and in various protest instructions, that the allies to a cause are not to take center stage, are not to march in the front, are not to steal the limelight.

In this particular case the limelight and center stage seem to have been handed to an ally, though.  The fault thus belongs to the organizers of the convention.

*  I interpret the message as about inclusiveness, though, to be honest, I'm not quite certain what the quote is supposed to say.  I couldn't find the omitted part with some quick Googling. 

Inclusiveness can be a tricky concept, by the way.  It's important to make sure that previously marginalized groups are included in social justice movements which concern them, and it's important to make their voices heard.

But general inclusiveness is not always an asset.  If it extends to the goals of a protest (as was, to some extent, the case with the Women's Marches), then some of the goals are bound to stand in direct contradiction with each other, assuming that all different groups can contribute their own goals.  Thus, initially both pro-life and pro-choice groups were invited to participate in the Marches, and even later, when the former were dis-invited,  theoretical contradictions between feminism and some of the other goals remained.

Likewise, if the attendance is encouraged to be as inclusive as possible, the Convention will then no longer have much anything to do with women, per se.  Theoretically it would then be possible to have the convention halls full of men and women who oppose gender equality, even if the topics weren't expanded to cover such concerns.

** (This footnote added later)  Note, however, that Sanders has several opinions which might raise an eyebrow or two among many progressive women and at least some progressive men. For example, his opinions about so-called "identity politics" are perhaps not terribly nuanced, and he appears to view reproductive choice as somehow not related to the economic advancement of women, but a completely separate issue.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Alt Right Web

If you haven't read this Buzzfeed article yet on the spider web we politely call Alt Right and less politely white supremacy/nationalism, you should.  The big spider in the middle of the web appears to be one hedge fund billionaire called Robert Mercer whose money has financed the construction of the web.  The flies dangling for it are provided by the rest of us.

I met many familiar names from manosphere while reading that article.  The reason for that is made clear in this Media Matters piece which looks at the connections between the various misogyny sites and the Alt Right.  Lots of overlap there, my dear readers.  And in case you haven't noticed, those marching for white nationalism (the ones who chant "You Will Not Replace Us") are overwhelmingly not only white but also male.

That's because the role of white women in the white supremacy movement seems to be that of a breeder.*  It's a better outcome than genocide or being evicted from a country, sure, but it's not exactly appealing, and it's certainly not the same as equal rights for men and women.

Other fainter connections between the misogyny groups and Alt Right also become evident with not much thought.  Yiannopoulos, repeatedly mentioned in the Buzzfeed article, has toured college campuses preaching that "feminism is a cancer," has published an article with this title: “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy.”**

Add to that the latest snippet about the Alt Right's Stephen Miller, Trump's Rasputin-like speech writer:

But make no mistake, Miller has plenty of infuriating stories. And perhaps none more so than this next anecdote from the piece.
He jumped, uninvited, into the final stretch of a girls’ track meet, apparently intent on proving his athletic supremacy over the opposite sex.

None of that is intended to remove our focus on the main message of the Alt Right which is white nationalism or white supremacy or at least a system where race determines one's placement on the power ladders.  But that Alt Right spider web is wide and sticky and all sorts of insects are food for the spiders who manage it.


*  When I first learned the term Alt Right, I surfed several sites and blogs which my research suggested were central to their thought processes.  I found enormous amounts of racism, obviously, given the explicit focus of the movement, but I also found a lot of contempt for women as a sex, a lot of pieces copied from the misogyny sites and several ruminations about whether white women in the planned utopia of those folks should be allowed to vote at all, or perhaps only vote once they had birthed at least three new citizens for the Reich.

I also found several sites which were explicitly against democracy.  They wanted democracy to be replaced by something which resembles feudalism, and for some weird reason the writers assumed that they would be the feudal overlords in such arrangements.

**  This might be directly linked to the view of women as good for nothing else but breeding new soldiers for the movement.

Friday, October 06, 2017

This Week in the Politics of Women's Sexuality: Hugh Hefner, Harvey Weinstein and the Coverage of Contraceptives in the Trump Era

1.  I had a long post on Hugh Hefner (the 91-year old Playboy (!) who died in late September) almost ready for publishing when I came across Katha Pollitt's take on his importance and influence.  It's so beautifully written, so elegant and so exhaustive that you should just read it instead of whatever scribblings I had in my draft version.

What struck me when reading many of the accolades to Hefner was the frequent assertion that he was the vanguard fighter of the sexual liberation, the sexual revolution, and all the good and bad things that came from that.

My parable to his influence is this:  Suppose that people in the past had eaten their dinners only huddled down in dark street corners, with whispered conversations, all the time pretending that they didn't eat at all, and then along came this man, Hefner,  who laid it all out in brightly-lit dining rooms, course after course of delicious morsels, rare tidbits, juicy steaks, and all were invited to openly eat and enjoy!

Except that being invited to that dinner meant different things to different guests.  Some were given forks and knives and napkins and a comfortable seat at the end of the table, others were told to lie down naked on a large platter while holding bunches of parsley in their armpits, carrots in their groins and an apple in their mouths.

So.  That's a little exaggerated, of course, but the point is that Hefner's sexual liberation was mostly aimed at his market of heterosexual men and consisted of the kinds of daydreams that group might have about sexual titillation.  The question of what sexual liberation meant for, say, women in general wasn't part of his agenda.

The Calm Before The Storm

Our Dear Leader gave us an ominous message while meeting some military leaders yesterday.  "The calm before the storm," he mused.  When a journalist asked about what he meant, he answered "You'll find out."

So great for the ratings of this reality show!  Every one of us will tune in to watch the next show, if only to check who it was who got nuked and how close the danger is.  Perfect.

And utterly horrible.  This is what you get when you elect a reality show president.  Was he talking to all his favorite enemies abroad?  To North Korea?  Iran?  Did he really drum his chimpanzee chest promising a rain of bullets and bombs somewhere?  Was that statement meant to be taken seriously by some foreign power?  

And did he, or anyone else in his administration, count the number of people in this country who now have to get up every morning with just one thought in their heads:"Are we at war yet?"  The psychological costs of that are very high if the whole utterance was just part of Trump's ordinary careless blurting of whatever comes into his mind.

It would benefit Trump to start a war, because Americans have historically been reluctant to get rid of their war-time presidents, perhaps even presidents who blurt out whatever might make most people pay attention to him. 

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Here We Go Again: Banning Abortions

A ban on abortion after twenty weeks has passed the US House, with pretty much the Republicans voting for it and the Democrats against it.  Exceptions to the ban would be granted when the life of the pregnant woman is at risk and in the case of incest and rape.

The Republicans justify the ban on the grounds of fetal pain, arguing that fetuses can feel pain at twenty weeks of gestation.  Scientific consensus doesn't seem to agree.

All this is according to the usual Republican playbook.  The fundamentalist Christians and extreme Christianists vote for that party — despite the fact that its general principles are very much against the preaching of Jesus* — in the hopes that abortion would be made completely illegal** and the Republicans always deliver by offering various partial obstacles to abortions.

They don't want to actually make abortion illegal, because then they might lose those fundamentalists as voters.  They simply want to always "almost-succeed," never quite getting there.  That is a tricky game to play.

Here's another interesting game the Republicans are playing:  Justifying the timing of this bill with an appeal to the Las Vegas massacre:

In the aftermath of two recent acts of gun violence, the House GOP caucus has been inspired not to pursue gun control legislation that could prevent future mass shootings, but instead to crack down on reproductive rights.
“As we mourn the lives lost in Las Vegas this week, and welcome Whip Scalise back to Capitol Hill, we are reminded just how precious life is,” the GOP caucus writes in a blog post about new anti-abortion legislation approved by the House on Tuesday. “This message weighed heavily on the hearts of House Republicans as we spoke of the potential of life — especially lives cut short through abortion.”
So an older man kills at least fifty-eight people and the first thing that enters the minds of those Republican politicians is that they have to do something about all those women having abortions!  What interesting brains they must have.

But then something like 80% of white Evangelical Christians in the US voted for Trump, who was anything but the obvious choice for a believer.  What interesting religions people have...


*  Jesus wasn't exactly for free markets or for not paying taxes to the government, and he chased the money lenders out of the temple.

**  Given that the Bible doesn't even mention abortion, the immense focus on it among the fundamentalists is best explained by their strong desires to make this society properly patriarchal, with most women staying at home and their husbands deciding how many children they will have.

They also appear to heartily dislike the idea that women would have any agency about sexuality.  Women should be first virgins and then chaste (except when their husbands decree otherwise), and  all wanton women should face the proper punishment for an unplanned pregnancy:  to give birth.  There's so much weird about those values.

That's even visible in the exemptions the new ban would provide.  The three grounds given for exemptions: the life of the woman at risk, incest and rape, all seem to have different rationales.  The last two are hard to justify based on presumed fetal pain.  But so is the fact that no exemption is given to those children who are going to born into short and painful lives due to congenital abnormalities.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Three Thoughts on the Las Vegas Massacre, in Time Order

1.  I was awake that night when the first news from the Las Vegas massacre appeared in the social media, and almost simultaneously with the news that "an active shooter situation" (using police jargon) was developing I began seeing heaps of fake news about what might be going on.  The nastiest aspect* of those came when the Las Vegas police gave the name of the suspect's partner as "a person of interest" the police wished to contact.

The keyboards of a few thousand 4chan trolls were smoking hot, their owners Googling the name, trying to find someone who might be the killer that way, and they hit the jackpot (in their reality):

A woman with the same name, whose husband appeared to demonstrate anti-Trump politics.  Thus, it was convincingly (!) proved that this man, this husband,  was the Las Vegas butcher.

Sadly, all those trolls were wrong:

When they woke up and glanced at their phones on Monday morning, Americans may have been shocked to learn that the man behind the mass shooting in Las Vegas late on Sunday was an anti-Trump liberal who liked Rachel Maddow and, that the F.B.I. had already linked him to the Islamic State, and that mainstream news organizations were suppressing that he had recently converted to Islam.

They were shocking, gruesome revelations. They were also entirely false — and widely spread by Google and Facebook.

In Google’s case, trolls from 4Chan, a notoriously toxic online message board with a vocal far-right contingent, had spent the night scheming about how to pin the shooting on liberals. One of their discussion threads, in which they wrongly identified the gunman, was picked up by Google’s “top stories” module, and spent hours at the top of the site’s search results for that man’s name.
In Facebook’s case, an official “safety check” page for the Las Vegas shooting prominently displayed a post from a site called “Alt-Right News.” The post incorrectly identified the shooter and described him as a Trump-hating liberal. In addition, some users saw a story on a “trending topic” page on Facebook for the shooting that was published by Sputnik, a news agency controlled by the Russian government. The story’s headline claimed, incorrectly, that the F.B.I. had linked the shooter with the “Daesh terror group.”

Google and Facebook blamed algorithm errors for these.

So.  Algorithm errors...

The above example is not unique about the difficulty of finding facts and truth about some recent horrible event on social media.  It might even be representative.

What truly does seem representative to me is the chaos and the noise in social media, the short opinions rarely based on any evidence at all, the refusal to wait and see what the authorities will be telling us.  Instead of rubbernecking only when we pass a car accident on the highway, the Internet has gifted us all with the chance of becoming global rubberneckers.

Add that to the old dilemma about how to report on mass killings:  Excess focus of the butcher can cause copy-cat crimes, and  instructions on how to alter a weapon can make it easier for those copy-cats to alter their weapons, too.  So better get that all into one article!

Friday, September 29, 2017

Scoring Your Professors. Evidence on Gender Bias.

Many colleges and universities use students' evaluations of their professors as part of the evidence which determines the raises and promotions awarded to professors.  But increasing amounts of recent evidence suggest that such evaluations are not free of (probably implicit) gender bias.  Now yet another working paper suggests that students don't necessarily rate their professors only on the basis of objective factors*.

The study**, carried out with data from the Maastricht University, Netherlands, exploits an institutional feature of the university which divides the students in each of the analyzed courses into three sections, led by either male or female teachers.  Each course has one course leader who assigns the reading material to all three sections, and the students cannot self-select into sections based on, say, their preferences for female or male teachers in those.

The study abstract summarizes its findings:

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Death And Taxes: The Trump Administration Tax Plan

Jared Bernstein has written a good long-form article which explains Trump's "tax reform" proposal in some detail, tells us that the Democrats really should create their own tax reform proposal, explains the reasons for that, and also explains, in a fairly simple and chatty style, the economics of various tax plots.  Despite the label "long-form," the article is not hard reading at all, and serves to clarify many basic issues to a non-economist.  Or so I think.

I especially like the bit about the Kansas experiment which seems to be the role model for this new plan the Trump administration has hatched, and which ended in disaster.

The title of this post is a riff on the idea that only two things are unavoidable: death and taxes.  But it's also about one aspect of the Trump tax plan: To eliminate what's left of the federal estate tax.

Currently 99.8% of estates owe no federal estate tax at all.  This might suggest, to a rational person, that repealing it is not a particularly urgent task or one which would truly make the lives of most Americans easier.  That impression should be strengthened when we learn that those 0.2% of estates which do owe federal estate tax owe it only on the part that exceeds a fairly sizable exemption.  In 2017 that exemption is $5.49 million per decedent.

But the repeal of the federal estate tax and the elimination of the alternative minimum tax are high on the wish-list of the Big Money Boyz (such as the Koch brothers) whose influence on American politics has grown immense ever since the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court which, in my opinion, gave every dollar the same power in political speech.  Those who have more dollars can speak much louder, of course.

What we have so far learned about the Trump administration "tax reform" is that one of its intended consequences is to increase income inequality in the United States, even though it's already very high, and even though a new Pew survey tells us that the majority of Americans don't want to see corporate taxes lowered and a plurality wants to see the taxes on high incomes raised:


Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Master Baiter

Have you noticed how clever our Dear Leader is in manipulating the topic for our public political debates?  The Harvard study found evidence on that during the elections, i.e., that the media tended to talk about the policies Trump wanted them to focus on, even if the coverage he received from that was mostly negative.  The coverage Hillary Clinton received was not on her policies, but on her "scandals."

In one sense we are all Trump's puppets.  The New York Times speculates that Trump's recent Alabama speech on football and peaceful protests* was red meat for his white and conservatively patriotic** base:

“It’s not a coincidence that the same week he did the DACA deal that he just flooded Twitter with a bunch of red meat for the base,” Mr. Conant added. “I think his fundamental problem is he needs to figure out ways to grow his base, and his instinct is instead to double down on what he’s already got. Whenever he tacks to the middle, his numbers tick up. But he just can’t bring himself to move beyond his base.”
That is not how Mr. Trump sees it.
In private, the president and his top aides freely admit that he is engaged in a culture war on behalf of his white, working-class base, a New York billionaire waging war against “politically correct” coastal elites on behalf of his supporters in the South and in the Midwest. He believes the war was foisted upon him by former President Barack Obama and other Democrats — and he is determined to win, current and former aides said.

I speculate that another reason why he was let loose on Twitter by his minders are the recent news which are not good for Trump, his administration or the Republican Party:

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Too Much Push For Gender Equality In Tech? The MRAs Speak.

I cannot decide if today's New York Times article "Push for Gender Equality  in Tech? Some Men Say It's Gone Too Far" is to be taken seriously or if it's a very deep type of sarcasm.  The latter interpretation is supported by the way the author, Nelly Bowles, begins the article:

Silicon Valley has for years accommodated a fringe element of men who say women are ruining the tech world.

Now, as the nation’s technology capital — long identified as one of the more hostile work environments for women — reels from a series of high-profile sexual harassment and discrimination scandals, these conversations are gaining broader traction.

One of those who said there had been a change is James Altizer, an engineer at the chip maker Nvidia. Mr. Altizer, 52, said he had realized a few years ago that feminists in Silicon Valley had formed a cabal whose goal was to subjugate men. At the time, he said, he was one of the few with that view.

Now Mr. Altizer said he was less alone. “There’s quite a few people going through that in Silicon Valley right now,” he said. “It’s exploding. It’s mostly young men, younger than me.”

Emphasis is mine.  We move swiftly from the concept of a push for more gender equality in tech to quoting one man who believes that such a push is but the first step in the planned feminist subjugation of men!  Because there's no country on earth where men are subjugated to women (though plenty of examples of the reverse relationship exist), I decided that the article was sarcasm.

That it quotes Paul Elam and Warren Farrell, two famous Men's Rights Activists who believe that men are the truly oppressed sex, made me even more convinced that the author is having us on.

After all,  this is Paul Elam, one of the experts quoted in the article:

A Voice for Men’s founder, Paul Elam, who is a friend and protégé of Farrell’s, has justified violence against women and written that some of them “walk through life with the equivalent of a I’M A STUPID, CONNIVING BITCH—PLEASE RAPE ME neon sign glowing above their empty little narcissistic heads.” 

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Trump On Football And Patriotism

Trump's Friday night speech in Alabama is a very good example of the message he wants to send to his base.  That it was about football, the American version, that it was about a sport women are not allowed to join, except to cheer for the players, is not an accident.

Football is a men's game, a warrior game for those (both men and women) who enjoy* the vicarious participation in the pretend-battles waged by well-paid gladiators, and for Trump and his base it is a game where political protests by black players are not welcome:

President Trump took aim at two of the world’s most powerful sports leagues and some of their most popular athletes, directly inserting himself into an already fiery debate about race, social justice and the role athletes play in highlighting those issues.
In urging N.F.L. owners to fire players who do not stand for the national anthem, and telling the N.B.A. star Stephen Curry that he is not welcome at the White House, the president has driven a divide between the players, many of whom are black and opposed to the president’s views on race, and the team owners, who are almost all white and in the N.F.L. largely conservative.

Neither is attention to the possible health risks of football (such as degenerative brain damage) allowed to distract viewers from enjoying the game:

Regarding his nostalgia for the dangerous hits that college and pro football have been trying to take out of the game, Trump said: “Today if you hit too hard—15 yards! Throw him out of the game! They had that last week. I watched for a couple of minutes. Two guys, just really, beautiful tackle. Boom, 15 yards! The referee gets on television—his wife is sitting at home, she’s so proud of him. They’re ruining the game! They’re ruining the game. That’s what they want to do. They want to hit. They want to hit! It is hurting the game.

Trump comes across as scatterbrained in that direct quote.  But read more carefully, and note how his deeper message can be found in that "his wife is sitting at home..." section:  The people who are ruining the game ("they") are people like the referee's wife.  She has no business expressing any opinions about football.

The online dissection of Trump's speech is, as usual, a cacophony of different voices, stressing different problems with the speech**.  And that is normal and expected and many of the criticisms are to the point and matter.  But what might need more emphasis is this:

Trump's message to his base in that speech was consistent, logical and clear:

Power in the US naturally belongs to one demographic group (largely, though not only, consisting of white Christian men), football is an American masculine game, and therefore power over how it should be defined also belongs to that same demographic group. 

The roles of others in the game are to play and be quiet (players of color) or to look pretty and cheer from the sidelines (female cheer-leaders).  Trump can state that those who march for white supremacy include many good people, and he can simultaneously state that all NFL players who kneel in protest during the national anthem should be fired, because the former at least support the racial hierarchy Trump supports, whereas the latter wish to dismantle it.

Trump's great talent is this:  He hits the deep veins of resentment among his base and he does it in a language they fully understand:  Though nothing about football will bring American jobs back or rejuvenate dying rural towns or provide people with health care, traditional football stands as a powerful symbol of all that Trump's base desires, and to depict it as threatened by "others" will further fan the flames of anger and frustration among that base which feels similarly threatened.

*  I'm not trying to disrespect those who love to watch the game.  I watch ice hockey and lots of other sports!  My point is to remove all that patriotic veiling from the game and to look at what it is we are actually watching.

** The vast majority of the reactions are critical, I should note. 

Friday, September 22, 2017

Today's Short Posts: Should Rick Santorum Be Silent? Jimmy Kimmel? And Betsy deVos Speaks.

1.  Why is Rick Santorum allowed to have an active role in politics after he failed his campaign to become the president?  As Frazer in the comments to my previous post noted, the new rule is that failed candidates should exit and be silent.  Well, at least some failed candidates.  But Santorum seems to have written a lot of the Graham-Cassidy bill.  I eagerly await all those articles about how he should exit stage right.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Trump Administration on Sex Education: Girls, Keep Your Legs Crossed

Because the little beavers in the Trump Administration have been busily chewing away the underpinnings of democracy, all sorts of other policies have been changed while I was yelling about something else.

Thus, I missed that Trump has stopped all funding for broad-based sex education programs which were intended to reduce teenage pregnancy rates and also abortion rates.  The closing of one such program was in today's news:

Colorado Youth Matter received 75 percent of its funding from the federal grant, about $750,000 per year. The grant had been scheduled to run through 2020, but the Trump administration ended the federal Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program grants as of next summer for all of the 84 organizations around the country that received them. The administration cited concerns about whether the programs were effective, a rationale critics have questioned.
Compare that to this report from last May:

Not only would President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 budget harm women and families by barring Planned Parenthood from receiving any federal government funding, it would also invest $277 million in abstinence-only education, which has been shown to be a completely ineffective means of sexual education.

Both bolds in these quotes are mine.

The lessons here are several:

First, the Trump administration uses weak excuses which are not based on evidence to cut any program that the Obama administration instituted, and any programs which benefit women and/or minorities at all.

I've read that various policies are "too cumbersome" or "too costly" or "possibly ineffective," where no actual cost-benefit analyses are performed.  We are never told how many people are inconvenienced by those horrible safety regulations, for example, or why it's too cumbersome to keep earnings data separately by demographic category or why broad-based sex education is just deemed to be ineffective, while abstinence-only education doesn't require any proof of effectiveness at all.

All that is irritating and demonstrates contempt toward the voters.  And major intellectual laziness.

Second, the so-called Christian "pro-lifers" who voted for Trump (the thrice-married adulterous pussygrabber) don't really want to reduce abortions via the reduction of teenage pregnancies.  They are for the ineffective abstinence-only education and against any wider sex education, even if that actually did end up reducing abortions (as it seems to have done in other countries).

This suggests that they want the sluts to suffer for their fornication by becoming pregnant.*

Third, this is yet another example of shifting money from people who probably didn't vote for Trump to people who probably did vote for Trump.  The Graham-Cassidy health insurance bill, initially crafted by the right-wing religious radical, Rick Santorum, is another example of that.  The blue states are intended to suffer in that plan.


*  A lot of abstinence-only education sounds similarly hell-firish:  Sex is yucky, disgusting and dangerous, so better save it to marriage with the person you love best.  Besides, premarital sex turns women into used tissues or something similarly gross in the minds of fundies, though men  who have premarital sex can still be playahs.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Trump Speaks To The Nations of The World

At the United Nations. The message that was put into his mouth (perhaps by Stephen Miller)  is one of patriotic ethno-nationalism, of strong nation states putting themselves first, of big military expenditures guaranteeing future peace and prosperity.   Giving a speech like that is a little bit like spitting in the eye of the UN which was, of course, created as a more international attempt to maintain peace.

The speech also lists Trump's enemies:  North Korea, Iran,  Cuba and Venezuela, and mentions his "frenemy,"  Saudi Arabia, twice.   First in a slightly positive indirect way:

In Saudi Arabia early last year, I was greatly honored to address the leaders of more than 50 Arab and Muslim nations. We agreed that all responsible nations must work together to confront terrorists and the Islamist extremism that inspires them.

But later the speech is slightly more negative, hinting at a criticism of Saudi Arabia as one unidentified party with egregious human rights records that sits on the UN Human Rights Council:

For example, it is a massive source of embarrassment to the United Nations that some governments with egregious human rights records sit on the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Mmm.  And from 2018, Saudi Arabia will also sit on the UN Women's Rights Commission!  What miraculous value-compromises the ownership of oil produces!  Actually, that the worst violator of women's human rights gets to sit on that commission proves to me the sense of sadistic humor us divine creators possess.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Short Missives From Trump Reich, 9/18/17: Trump As New Normal, Health Insurance As No Insurance and Republican Women's Federation

1.  Jay Rosen has written about the normalization of Trump as president.*  His list of six simple points is worth reading, and so is his explanation why they conflict with the fact that millions and millions of American voters decided that this carnival barker was a good idea for the most powerful man in the world.  How does a journalist stay polite to those voters, while telling the truth about Donald Trump?

2.  The Graham-Cassidy plan to kill Obamacare dead at the last possible moment is a weird one.  Many believe that it's not a viable candidate at all, just a gesture, but who knows?  Its anatomy is the same as that of all the earlier attempts:  Move money up the income hierarchy, as high up as possible, and let insurers discriminate against customers almost as much as they wish:

In reality, Graham-Cassidy is the opposite of moderate. It contains, in exaggerated and almost caricature form, all the elements that made previous Republican proposals so cruel and destructive. It would eliminate the individual mandate, undermine if not effectively eliminate protection for people with pre-existing conditions, and slash funding for subsidies and Medicaid. There are a few additional twists, but they’re all bad — notably, a funding formula that would penalize states that are actually successful in reducing the number of uninsured.

Haven't we been here twice already, fighting the attempts to abolish the Affordable Care Act?

The fatigue of resistance!  The fatigue of having to fight the same wars, over and over again, while the Republicans just rearrange the chess board and start another round.  The battles are asymmetric, because the opposition is scattered and needs to be reassembled and reactivated every time, while the powers-that-be have full-time workers organizing the next atrocity.

In any case, the best strategy is to fight the Graham-Cassidy bill as if it was a serious plan, even if it isn't, just in case it then becomes one, due to our fatigue.  See how stacked the games are?

3.  This is the picture of the press conference which announced the birth of the Graham-Cassidy bill:

So many fathers...

Which brings me to the National Federation of Republican Women which had their biennial convention in Philadelphia last weekend.  The website of the federation tells us that it has been "engaging and empowering women since 1938," but

Allison Ball, 36, told the assembled delegates — the women’s wing of the GOP, bedecked in Trump pins and American-flag scarves — how instrumental the women of the party had been in her successful campaign for Kentucky state treasurer. How important it was to encourage more women to run for office.
Still, Ball said, grinning: The crowd in the ballroom “prove there’s no such thing as women’s issues. Only people’s issues.”
It was a theme the federation, at Philadelphia’s Downtown Marriott for its 39th biennial meeting, would return to throughout the weekend — a convention for women, organized by women, that kept insisting that the necessity of political action on behalf of women is a fantasy of the left.
 The bolds they are mine.  I like that confusion, by the way:  There are no women's issues, but more women should be encouraged to run for office.

But nothing stops them from running already, given that there are no women's issues.  Or if there are such issues, they are the women's own fault (nothing to do with what they are taught at church or in their communities):

Women are more likely to assume they’re not qualified for office, and “Republican women tend to be very oriented around raising a family,” said Cynthia Ayers, who spent two decades in the National Security Agency and is running in Pennsylvania’s Republican Senate primary next year. “Men don’t necessarily keep that in mind when running for office. It’s harder for women to break in at that point. And the funding seems to be there for men when they run.


* hat tip to ql at Eschaton for the link

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Birka Viking Warrior Burial. A Female Warrior Or Not?

Archeologists in Sweden have had a new look at a very famous Viking-era burial in Birka, Sweden.  The grave goods in the burial are many and associated with warfare:

a sword, an axe, a spear, armour-piercing arrows, a battle knife, two shields, and two horses, one mare and one stallion; thus, the complete equipment of a professional warrior. Furthermore, a full set of gaming pieces indicates knowledge of tactics and strategy...
Thus, the grave has always been interpreted as a warrior grave, though some researchers in the 1970s suggested that the bones of the buried warrior demonstrated female characteristics.  This new study applies both osteology and DNA sequencing and argues that the results show that the grave was that of a tall woman who had died in her thirties.

It's fun to Google this topic.  Many of the headlines one finds that way state that "a Viking warrior was a woman" or that "new research that women were Viking warriors" or that the "debate about whether women were Viking warriors" has been ignited.  Some criticisms of the study argue that no such conclusion can be drawn from the findings.

And of course we can't draw such conclusions about the possible gender roles of the Viking era from one single grave, and neither can we draw any such conclusions about the ancient world, in general, even though several other recent findings argue that  women have been buried with weapons and stereotypically male tools in other parts of Europe and Asia, too. As if they had been warriors, that is.

Let's take a step back and ask the following question:  Suppose that you find an ancient grave, the bones in it are female, and the grave goods consist of pots and pans and weaving tools.  What would your conclusions about that ancient person's role be?

Most of us very readily accept that she cooked and wove fabric, that her grave goods described her job during her life.  Very very few would bother wondering if we really can make such a conclusion. 

So why is it so much harder to apply the same logic to the Birka warrior grave?

The answer is an easy one.  The example I made up agrees with our prior expectations, our understanding of history and our biases, if you will, whereas the Birka example does not.  Yet we don't know, exactly,  how men and women in the Viking-age Sweden divided chores between them.  Some women (how many we can't tell) may indeed have been warriors, and a few women may have been the kind of military leaders Elizabeth I of England was, which could have been reflected in how they were buried.

We cannot be certain, of course.  At the same time,  it's long been customary* to sex ancient burials by the included grave goods, so that if cooking and weaving implements (or jewelry) were found to be in the majority, the grave was assumed to belong to a woman, while weapons and the kinds of tools which code male today were used as the basis for designating a particular burial male. 

These rules used the gender roles that prevailed in the archeologists' own cultures, or had recently prevailed in them, but even after knowing that it can be difficult to see that in-built bias they contain.

All that is worth keeping in mind when reading this criticism of the study, too:

Writing on her blog, University of Nottingham professor of Viking studies Judith Jesch says, "I have always thought (and to some extent still do) that the fascination with women warriors, both in popular culture and in academic discourse, is heavily, probably too heavily, influenced by 20th- and 21st-century desires." Today, many of us are eager to find examples of woman leaders in the past who are just as badass as our woman leaders today. And that might lead to misunderstanding history.
That's a bias worth keeping in mind.  But so is the opposite bias I discuss above.


** Especially when no bones etc. survived.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Random Thoughts on Facebook

Isn't Facebook wonderful?  In a few short moments you can check on all your friends, learn what they had for dinner or lunch and see how they look in their Facebook pictures, as compared to real life.  There's practically no need to ever talk to anyone outside the cyberspace, as is easily seen by noticing how people having dinner together are all staring into their own cell phones.  Mmm.  Alone together.

I'm not particularly fond of Facebook for all sorts of reasons, some personal but some political.  Among the latter is the fact that Facebook is almost a worldwide monopoly in social media, that it's policies about advertising and news dissemination affect millions and millions, yet it's not viewed as a regulated utility or even held accountable in any meaningful legal sense.  It doesn't have to check that the news it transmits are factual, and what can be posted on Facebook depends on what Facebook decides can be posted*, including Russian ads (fake news) intended to affect American elections.

We are still living in the lawless Wild West era (as depicted by movies) of online communication, and one day, perhaps, regulations will specify the rights and responsibilities of such "platforms" as Facebook and eBay and other cyber-firms which insist** that they are simply technical tools when it benefits them, which insist that they are marketplaces when it benefits them, and which insist that they are firms when that benefit them.  But only social media firms will have to face the question whether they are direct political players or not.  Right now one man, Mark Zuckerberg, wields enormous power over what information those who consume their news in the social media receive.

All this is uncharted territory.


* Users can ask for certain pages to be removed, and Facebook will decide if that happens or not.  Past campaigns by various organizations (including feminist ones) may have succeeded in making Facebook moderation a little better when it comes to outright hate speech, but it's not that difficult to open a new page when the previous one has been closed.

Then there are ghastly videos of murders and such.  The New York Times wrote this last April, in the context of covering one murder posted on Facebook:

Now Facebook is facing a backlash over the shooting video, as it grapples with its role in policing content on its global platform.
It is an issue that Facebook, the world’s largest social network, has had to contend with more frequently as it has bet big on new forms of media like live video, which give it a venue for more lucrative advertising.

Note the reference to "lucrative advertising."  That's the firm-version of Facebook, the one which tries to make sure that you can't avoid seeing ads when you check what's happening with your friends and family.

Note, also, that Facebook moderates some postings only because it decided to do so.

**  The cyber-firms are usually all of those things.  We don't have a very good understanding of how such behemoths should be regulated or treated, what the long-run consequences of their power might be and so on.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Hillary Clinton, Get Thee Into The Wilderness!

I adore the coverage of Hillary Clinton's new book about the 2016 elections!  To see why, first read this piece "Hillary, Time To Exit The Stage."  Then read this fun piece, along (somewhat) similar lines: "It's Time For Hillary Clinton To Gracefully Bow Out of Public Life, Along With All Other Women."

The demands that Hillary Clinton pack her suitcases and gets a one-way ticket to the heart of the sun are psychologically interesting.  Why not just ignore her book if she so annoys particular journalists or readers?  And if she is as unpopular as Doug Schoen writes in the first article I link to, why would it matter what such an unpopular ice queen from vampire hell might scribble?  Go for a walk or bicker about something else in politics, Doug.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

On Pornography And Misogyny: Questions.

The UK Guardian interviews two film-makers, David Simon and George Pelecanos,  who have created a new TV drama on the impact of porn in the US.  A few snippets:

Simon continues: “There was always a market for prostitution, and even pornography existed below the counter in a brown paper bag, but there wasn’t an industry; that had yet to find its full breadth in terms of the American culture and economy, but we all know what was coming.
“It’s now a multibillion dollar industry and it affects the way we sell everything from beer to cars to blue jeans. The vernacular of pornography is now embedded in our culture. Even if you’re not consuming pornography, you’re consuming its logic. Madison Avenue has seen to that.”


Pornography “affected the way men and women look at each other, the way we address each other culturally, sexually,” he says. “I don’t think you can look at the misogyny that’s been evident in this election cycle, and what any female commentator or essayist or public speaker endured on the internet or any social media setting, and not realise that pornography has changed the demeanour of men. Just the way that women are addressed for their intellectual output, the aggression that’s delivered to women I think is informed by 50 years of the culturalisation of the pornographic.”
The bolds are mine.

An interesting hypothesis, and one which I would dearly love to see properly studied*.

I have earlier written about one of my great fears:

That many teenagers get their "sex education" from porn which may be contemptuous of women, which may be violent or even outright misogynistic.  Even at its most innocent level, porn is not meant to be the depiction of real human relationships.  It's fluff candy for its consumers, intended for masturbation, and since the majority of its consumers are heterosexual men, the women acting in porn naturally pretend to ultimately like everything the men in porn do to them, however much they initially resist. 

Now I have been given a second possible fear about the false lessons that can be learned from misogynistic porn, sigh.**

Pelecanos, the second film-maker that was interviewed in the piece,  suggest that the way men talk to each other about women has changed in ways which don't seem completely random:

Pelecanos, 60, thinks about the two sons he raised and the conversations he overheard when their friends came to the family home. “The way they talk about girls and women is a little horrifying. It’s different from when I was coming up. It’s one thing what was described as locker-room talk, like, ‘Man, look at her legs. I’d love to…’ – that kind of thing. But when you get into this other thing, calling girls tricks and talking about doing violence to them and all that stuff, I’d never heard that growing up, man. I just didn’t.

Is that change because of pornography, or because others say similar things online and it then becomes acceptable, perhaps even a male bonding device?  These explanations don't have to be mutually exclusive, of course.  Those who consume the most misogynistic pornography may go online and menace women, and then that infection spreads to others.

I never enjoy writing about this topic, because the debate that usually follows tends to veer to all sorts of pornography, not just the clearly misogynistic type, and because it seldom distinguishes between private consumption choices and possible negative externalities.  Also because I get called a prude and told that I can rip the porn out of someone's cold hands only after they are dead and so on.

Yet it is only the possible harmful externalities (effects on third parties, other than the producer and consumer of a particular piece of porn) of woman-hating pornography that I want to address in this post, the possibility that   

"Even if you’re not consuming pornography, you’re consuming its logic. Madison Avenue has seen to that.”  
We need more studies of those possible externalities, because if they exist and if they are large, well, then we women are f**ked.


*  That would be a difficult endeavor, but not impossible.  We could, for instance, collect data on people's pornography consumption, on their online trolling behavior and its contents and on their general views about women.  There's a chicken-and-egg problem that needs to be solved, though.  See ** for more on that.

**  There are several possible theories, in addition to any direct impact of violent, misogynistic or demeaning porn on cultural views about women.  For instance:

1.  It could be that those who view misogynistic pornography do so, because they already hate women and get turned on by seeing violence done on women, say. 

That misogynistic online speech seems to be a growth industry does not have to mean that the levels of misogyny in the society are rising because of the widespread consumption of online pornography. After all, those consumers who choose to consume it have chosen a particular type of pornography, presumable because it excites them.

Thus, there might have been a large pool of hidden misogyny which is now breaking out on the surface, given that online opinions are mostly anonymous and usually don't result in social sanctions.  In short, we may be inadvertently validating the expression of misogynistic views by letting them go unchallenged.

2.  Something else may have changed during the most recent decades, and that "something else" may be the reason why we observe more open misogyny.  One possible candidate for that "something else" is the considerably improved position of women in the society and the general backlash which has resulted (the MRA movement etc.).  In that sense the campaign of Hillary Clinton and the advances women have made in politics could trigger dormant fears of women "taking over everything!" and also  desires to re-define women's roles as less powerful.  Sexual objectification is one way to get there.

3.  Finally, there might be no connection between the consumption of misogynistic pornography and the extent of expressed misogyny.  It's hard to measure how common the latter is, in any case, because just a small group of very busy trolls can leave their scat on several online sites.  A good study might be able to help us here.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Lady Justice on Campus: Show Us Your Tits! Or Betsy DeVos on Campus Sexual Assault.

Betsy DeVos, Trump's Secretary of Education,  is planning to rewrite the rules on how sexual assault is to be treated under Title IX on college campuses:

Saying that the Obama administration’s approach to policing campus sexual assault had “failed too many students,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said on Thursday that her administration would rewrite the rules in an effort to protect both the victims of sexual assault and the accused.
Ms. DeVos did not say what changes she had in mind. But in a strongly worded speech, she made clear she believed that in an effort to protect victims, the previous administration had gone too far and forced colleges to adopt procedures that sometimes deprived accused students of their rights.
“Through intimidation and coercion, the failed system has clearly pushed schools to overreach,” she said in an address at George Mason University in suburban Arlington, Va. “With the heavy hand of Washington tipping the balance of her scale, the sad reality is that Lady Justice is not blind on campuses today.”

Nope, Lady Justice is not blind on campuses today, but she might be naked, or at least should show us her tits.

Let's leave aside the important question how best to police and prosecute sexual assault on campuses.  Let's, instead, make a note of the most obvious aspect of this speech:

DeVos is doing Trump's bidding and filling his promises to his base.  This move is part and parcel of this administration's war against uppity women.  In that it's linked to what the administration is attempting in the labor markets by making it harder for women and/or minorities to sue employers for discrimination, and in what the administration is attempting to do when it comes to violence against women.  It's also linked to Pence's hoary Christian patriarchal values and his wish for forced-birth rules for women.  These all share a certain sense of "putting women back into their proper places."

Note, also, how DeVos was appointed by a president who openly boasted about pussy grabbing.  In such an atmosphere banners like these meeting new first-year students and their families are just innocent fun and not a symbol of perhaps a certain kind of sexual entitlement:

Finally, note, once again, this common refrain I've seen so many times when the media writes about sexual assault:

Critics of the Obama administration’s guidance to colleges complained that it was unfair to use a standard of proof that was far lower than that used in criminal law, since disciplinary actions and expulsions that result from ambiguous sexual encounters can stigmatize young men long into the future, affecting their educational and job prospects. The critics argued that if sexual assault had, in fact, taken place, it should be a matter for the police.
It is that concern for the future effects on the accused that is the common refrain, and it is not applied to only those who have had "ambiguous" sexual encounters, but even more widely:  to those who have clearly committed the crime they were accused of.

Yet I rarely see similar reminders of the stigmatizing effects of rape on the future of the young women and how that might affect their educational and job prospects, not to mention their mental health, or how such stigma might become even stronger if the perpetrator of the crime walks free (perhaps because his future is more important than hers).

I want to make absolutely clear that falsely sentencing or punishing the innocent is wrong and its consequences dreadful.  But not sentencing or punishing the guilty is not right, either.

Since many rape or sexual assault cases do not have the kind of evidence which every single person would deem sufficient*,  the probabilities of someone being convicted depend on the rules which are used by those judging the cases.  DeVos seems to be proposing to make those rules stricter on campuses, by demanding that the current "preponderance of evidence" rule be replaced by "clear and convincing" standards of proof.

What that might mean in practice is this:

Some of those wrongly accused of sexual assault might not be unfairly punished.  But some actual sexual assault, too, would go unpunished, both because the the evidence did not reach that "clear and convincing" level, even though it might have exceeded 50% of all evidence, and because fewer victims of sexual assault would bother to report the attacks.  Whether such changes would increase the number of sexual assaults on campus is not clear to me.


*  It really is crucial here to remember that most victims of sexual assault, worldwide, do not go to the police or other authorities, and this seems to be the pattern on US campuses, too.  Thus, it's fairly rare for a random perpetrator to be convicted,  but very strict rules about what type of evidence is viewed as "clear and convincing" reduce the likelihood even further.  — If we call those falsely accused the "false positives" (as in a medical test), then there clearly is a very large number of "false negatives" in the general population.