Thursday, September 29, 2005

Notes from the Prozac Nation, Vol. 1, No. 6

  • Male Melancholy=Genius: Lance Mannion blogged here about his friend’s refusal of the diagnosis “clinically depressed”:

    “What he is, most likely, is clinically depressed. But he won't accept that when I've tried to suggest it to him. "For one thing," he says, "Depressed people don't move at all. They don't get out of the house. They don't get anything done. They just sit there or they don't even get out of bed."

    However, he will admit:

    "I'm not depressed," he insists. "I'm just prone to melancholy, like Abraham Lincoln."

    This anecdote illustrates well the gendering of melancholia: men are melancholic geniuses, while women are plain mad and diseased. I wrote about this in “Why Mad Melancholic Feminista?” To be affilicted with the dark moods of melancholia is to also be compensated with intellectual greatness. That is, only if you are male. If you are female, you are depressed and thereby deprived of this heightened creativity (this is according to the history of medicine and traditional writings on melancholia).

    Lance also discusses Joshua Wolf Shenk’s book, Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, and relays its central thesis: melancholia is a source of genius. In the course of Shenk’s essay in the Atlantic he mentions William Styron’s bout with depression, which he describes in Darkness Visible. I want to emphasize a different aspect of Styron’s book that resonates with Lance’s post. Styron also refuses to call his suffering depression:

    “When I was first aware that I had been laid low by the disease, I felt a need, among other things, to register a strong protest against the word ‘depression.’ Depression, most people know, used to be termed ‘melancholia,’ a word which appears in English as early as the year 1303 and crops up more than once in Chaucer, who in his usage seemed to be aware of its pathological nuances. ‘Melancholia’ would still appear to be a far more apt and evocative word for the blacker forms of the disorder, but it was usurped by a noun with bland tonality and lacking any magisterial presence, used indifferently to describe an economic decline or a rut in the ground, a true wimp of a word for such a major illness.”

    Depression is just plain wimpy, it’s a girlie man disease. Real men are melancholic.

  • What if the Cure is Worse than the Disease?: Shakespeare’s Sister also has an excellent post on creativity and depression, inspired by Lance’s post. Her writer friend is concerned that any treatment he may get for his black moods will deprive him of his creativity:
    “The thing is, he’s a writer, and there is, of course, a rich tradition of thought (as alluded to with the reference to Styron in Mannion’s post) that depression, and indeed other afflictions and the addictions appropriated to mask them, are the very things that drive an artist’s artistry, and that seriously addressing something like depression may stifle the muse. Would I be as interesting, as thoughtful, as creative, if I weren’t afflicted? It’s a terrible thing to be scared of one’s potential cure, to worry that the cure might be worse than the disease.”

    A discussion ensued in after this post over whether or not the belief that melancholy moods were also wellsprings for creativity was a rational belief or mere romanticization of the illness. Peter Kramer’s new book, Against Depression, was mentioned.

    Kramer wrote Against Depression after years of speaking to various audiences about his earlier book, Listening to Prozac. The earlier explores the ethical permissibility of giving SSRI drugs such as Prozac to patients who are not clinically depressed, but who respond well to the drug and feel “better than well.” However, in the course of giving talks on Prozac and “cosmetic psychopharmacology (see this entry),” he discovered repeatedly that his audience had an aversion to treating even clincal depression with SSRIs, arguing that it would rob the patients of some special perspective gained through depressive episodes. This led him to debunk any claim that clincial depression is an artist’s illness. In a short piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Kramer compares depression to illnesses such as epilepsy or tuberculosis.

    “Infectious disease can be idealized. Tuberculosis once had romantic overtones. Susan Sontag traced the form of that fantasy in her famous essay, "Illness as Metaphor." TB was a disease of recklessness, longing, sensuality, serenity, decadence, sensitivity, glamour, resignation, instinct, and instinctual renunciation, that is to say, of passion or passion repressed, but in any case a disease of emotionally enhanced or refined creatures. Sontag quotes a passage in The Magic Mountain where a character holds that "disease is only love transformed."

    This romanticization follows from an incomplete scientific understanding of the illness. Once we discover the pathogen responsible for the suffering, we recognize that this illness descends upon its sufferer independently of broken hearts of magical powers, or so Kramer’s argument goes.

    “One confounding concern had to do with depression as a source of creativity. Why is depression different, less than fully worthy of decisive treatment? Is a link to art enough to alter the way we think about a syndrome -- to move it from straightforward disease to disease-in-a-manner-of-speaking?

    Sometimes I ask my audience to consider epilepsy, the set of disorders characterized by seizures, sometimes alternating with a variety of mental auras and intense experiences of emotion. Chronically, between attacks, patients with a subtype of epilepsy can be afflicted with hypergraphia, the tendency to write compulsively and at length. They may also display a characteristic personality style, one that includes intense enthusiasms, often religious fervor, and an alternation between aggression and emotional clinginess. Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Tennyson, Swinburne, Byron, de Maupassant, Molière, Pascal, and even Petrarch and Dante have been named as presumptively epileptic in one or another medical treatise. Poe's name often makes the list.

    Epilepsy is another sacred affliction or was once. And there are medications -- anticonvulsants -- used to prevent or manage epilepsy. But you might give a dozen talks about quirky uses of anticonvulsants and not hear a single joking question about an artist. The vividness of the pathology and the consequent solidity of epilepsy's status as a disease cast their shadows over attempts at humor. To withhold treatment would be cruel. In the context of seizure disorders, a what if question, if asked, might point to the ironies of medical practice -- how necessary interventions have unknowable consequences. But the question would not be funny. To put the matter differently: While we are protective of depression, we would be happy to eradicate epilepsy.

    For me, the what if question led directly to another: What would it be like for depression to go through the transformation experienced by tuberculosis? Depression might be on the verge of that metamorphosis, from romanticized affliction into ordinary disease. Hard-to-ignore evidence was accumulating, about the bodily harm depression causes, and about the brain pathology that underlies its symptoms. Increasingly, the prevailing scientific myth had it that depression is neither more nor less than illness, but illness merely. I wanted to imagine how our beliefs, our art, our sense of self might change as the medical view became a cultural commonplace. But I had no illusion that the moment was at hand. My work with patients and my conversations with readers reminded me daily that we retain a confused -- partial, anachronistic -- understanding of depression.”

    I am not sure that Kramer is comparing apples to apples by drawing analogies between consumption, TB, epilepsy and depression. It is less clear in the case of depression that we are dealing with something that has a disease structure. It is unclear what causes depression, what enables us to recover from depression, and what it does to us if we live with chronic depression. I am not arguing against medical intervention, nor am I arguing against a medical model, if it is helpful in treating suffering.

    I do think that depression, in many cases, has made its sufferers more empathetic and sensitive to human frailty. John Stuart Mill’s descent into depression is the classic example. In his autobiography, Mill recounts that when he asked himself if he would be happy if he could bring about all the social reforms he wanted, he instantly realized that he would not. Ask yourself if you are happy and you cease to be so. Mill recovered from his depression by reading Wordsworth’s poetry, which taught him to find more happiness in the “higher pleasures” (Better to be an unhappy Socrates than a contented pig). Mill’s rethinking of pleasure in terms of the base and higher pleasures was a rejection of Jeremy Bentham’s hedonism and perhaps we are all the better for it.

Texas Judge Orders Teen Barred From Sex

I found this article today while browsing the Times, here's a snippet......

SHERMAN, Texas (AP) -- A state district judge has ordered a 17-year-old drug offender barred from sex as a condition of her probation. Judge Lauri Blake made the ruling that bars the girl from having sex as long as she is living with her parents and attending school.
It is one of several unorthodox rulings Blake has imposed since she was elected 10 months ago in the 336th District Court covering Fannin and Grayson counties.
She has also prohibited tattoos, body piercings, earrings and clothing ''associated with the drug culture'' for those on probation.

Barred from sex? This is scary....I don't even want to know how the judge plans to enforce such an order.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Universities Have Become Less Male-Friendly!

A student alerted me to an essay by Glenn Harlan, entitled "Where the Boys Aren't." The premise of this article is that young males are underrepresented in colleges in the United States. More women are attending college, more women are graduating from college, and therefore more women are better competing for jobs that men who don't go won't get.

The fact that men aren't attending college at the same rate as women bothers Harlan so much that he considers this a social problem worthy of serious attention. I notice that his column's subtitle is "where free markets meet technology." So, how free market is this dude? Does he want state intervention into admissions policies for colleges that ensure 50/50 admission rates for men and women? Does he want state sponsored outreach programs that spend tax dollars recruiting underrepresented men to college campuses to ensure they don't get disenfranchised by a "matriarchal" system designed to bring men down and keep they systematically disempowered?

Barely halfway into his piece he writes:

One would be to treat it the way we treat other "underrepresentation" issues in higher education: By wondering what universities are doing wrong. There seems little doubt that universities have become less male-friendly in recent decades, to the point of being downright unfriendly in many cases. The kind of statements that are routinely made about males and masculinity in classrooms and hallways would get professors fired if they were made about blacks, gays, or many other groups. Sexual-harassment policies start with the presumption that men are guilty, and inherently depraved. And colleges now come at the tail-end of an educational system that is (compared to previous decades) anti-male from kindergarten on, meaning many males probably just want to get out as soon as they can.

Universities are less male-friendly. What a statement. This, of course, flies in the face of reality. Male faculty are still paid more than female faculty at the same rank. At my own college only one female is tenured in the Physics department. She received tenure last year (2004) and was the first female to ever get tenure in that department. 18% of all Ph.D.s in Physics are women and it took that long for the all male department to hire a female? What year is it? The majority of university Presidents are men. The majority of full professors are men. The list goes on and on and on.

It astounds me that Harlan considers universities to not be male-friendly places. You've got to be kidding me that the fact that many universities have Women Studies or Gender Studies programs that point out irrefutable facts such as those I just mentioned above or that most rapes (over 90%) are commited by men on women or other men has deterred men from attending college. This is what counts as not being male-friendly?

Not too long ago I had my students undertake an assignment to illustrate to them the representation of women in higher learning by consulting the syllabi of 10 friends (3 syllabi each). I asked students to consult these 30 different syllabi to determine how many female vs. male authors were taught. Unsurprisingly, women authors, academics, intellectuals, experts in the field, etc. were woefully missing from every one of these students' syllabi (and that is an omission made by both male and female faculty).

What is also just plain wrongheaded in this essay is to compare the act of pointing out institutional sexism, like I just did, or pointing out the real data on violence against women, to racism or homophobia. That just strains logic. But, that's not surprising, right? This is the new rhetorical strategy of the right: appropriate the language of victimhood to advocate for your cause. In this case, the social blight is that men, who artificially prevented women's entry into higher learning and the professions until the late 60s, are being outperformed by women.

Let's keep in mind here that women are not preventing men from being admitted to colleges by claiming that they are not intelligent enough to attend or that they won't need college to perform their appropriate roles in society.

All this article show is that men are losing out to women now that the playing field is a bit more even. And, this, gasp, is the a social problem? Moreover, a social problem that warrants reparations such as affirmative action for men?

Before I end this post I should point out that at my college's Admissions office already does have "affirmative action" for men. Out of all the applications, women are better qualified, based on G.P.A's and S.A.T.'s. Yet, the college decided they would rather have more of a gender balance so they admit men, who "strictly speaking" don't make the cut if we attend to just these numerical measures. Moreoever, women outperform these same men every year. You can tell they do so because they get first choice on housing (housing being awarded by G.P.A.).

Mr. Virtue Ethicist Bennett Still Losing His Virtue?

Bill Bennett, author of The Book of Virtues, and hero to such pro-life champions as Rick Santorum, just argued:

"[Y]ou could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down."

Bennett mangled the argument in Freakonomics. Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner did not argue that the crime rate dropped precipitously due to black women aborting babies after the legalization of abortion in Roe v. Wade. The arguement was about poverty and how future criminals often hail from poverty stricken backgrounds or mothers too young to be capable of raising their children well.

Mr. Virute Ethicist Bennett, however, makes a pro-abortion argument (not a pro-choice argument) that is racially motivated.

Earlier today on Feministe, Jill got into a "debate" (in the comments section of her entry, "Looney Bin Round Up") over whether or not the GOP is has a history of racism.

Well, I wouldn't want to embrace or affiliate myself with Bennett at the moment if I was trying to attract African Americans to the party.


Tom DeLay has been indicted with conspiracy in a campaign finance scheme.

Prepare for hysterical spin meisters telling us how this is a partisan attack aimed at discrediting the GOP.

Check out Crooks and Liars for evidence of the above prediction.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Liberal Arts My Eye: Shame on the Thomas More Law Center

My local newspaper ran a story today on the Intelligent Design case (regarding the legality of the Dover school boards decision to teach it to 9th graders) that is taking place in Harrisburg.

Patrick Gillen of the Thomas More Law Center was quoted as saying: "This case is about free inquiry in education, not about a religious agenda . . . Dover's modest curriculum change embodies the essence of a liberal education."

No, no, no! Give me a break!

First of all, this is not a case about "free inquiry in education." This is a case that has come forward because well-financed right-wing organizations succeeded in pummeling a school board to adopt its agenda: infiltrate the school district and get I.D. in the curriculum. This is not a case of some well-intentioned parents worrying over their children's lack of access to a range of ideas.

Secondly, the Thomas More Law Center has a CLEAR agenda:

(1) "To defend the religious freedom of Christians." Translate: to push the agenda of uber-conservative Christians.

(2) "Restoring Time Honored Family Values." Translate: to empower these uber-conservative Christians to spew their homophobia as well as their hatred and disgust with feminism.

(3) "Protecting the Sanctity of Human Life." Translate: force women to carry fetuses to term, even if it puts the mother's life in danger, while sending their children to Iraq where they may contribute to the increased violence that takes innocent lives, and by gum, uphold the death penalty.

Lastly, there is a big difference between the liberal arts and relativism. The mission of the liberal arts is not to teach whatever you feel like teaching in your class. Not all ideas are equally valid. No one at my liberal arts college would force me to teach about, say, muslim women's collectives in my Ancient Philosophy class, because, hey, these forms of organization are "ancient" and full of important philosophical wisdom. When the college hired me, it sent a message: "hey, I trust you are an expert in your field and you will teach your students based on your expertise and knowledge of the scholarship in your field."

Why are we now calling liberal arts: big dollars that force ideas into classrooms by duping school boards with talking points and muddled arguments (that sound reasonable, but are really crap)? What exactly is "free" about this inquiry?

If you respect free inquiry, then respect the teachers' ability to teach subjects they are experts in. Don't force teachers to teach philosophy or religious ideas in a 9th grade science course. It's science, i.e. empirical methods. It's not super-natural methods.

If this was truly "free inquiry," we should let the Moonies or the Scientologists in too. Hey, where is their policy institute masquerading as a non-partisan supporter of the liberal arts?

Why Don't They Just Leave?

It is also estimated that 3 to 4 million women are victims are physical violence inflicted by their intimate partners each year constituting the figure that between 1/5 and 1/3 of all women in the United States will be physically abused by their partners in their lifetime (Fact Sheet on Gender Violence, UNIFEM). Acts of spousal assault can include, the rape of a woman in front of her children, forced prostitution or pornography, forced sex when the woman is ill, heavily medicated or unconscious, and forced sex without a condom putting the woman at risk for becoming pregnant or contracting an STD (Renzetti, Edleson, and Bergen 2001). In some cases women are held as prisoners in their own homes, they are beaten with sticks, or whips, choked, and burned with cigarettes and in some cases acid, and are victims of intimate femicide (Amnesty International).

The statistics are chilling. And yet most chilling is that in my experiences discussing violence against women in my college courses, someone ALWAYS brings up the argument that women who are being abused are making the choice to stay in said relationships. The question is also raised in the following Salon article entitled "Why Don't They Just Leave?"

In the United States, October is the month designated to draw attention to domestic violence. But unless things take a miraculous turn for the better, this October, in the United States, every nine seconds a woman will be battered -- just as she is every other month of the year. Each year in the United States, approximately 4 million women are beaten, most of them by husbands or boyfriends. Such attacks result in more injuries than muggings, rapes (by strangers) and auto accidents combined.
Domestic violence is not a popular topic. (Some of you have already stopped reading this.) As a member of Maitri, a South Asian group against domestic violence in the San Francisco area, I know it very well. While other nonprofit groups in our community who raise money for flood victims or for literacy projects or events promoting culture among the second generation are generously welcomed, we are often greeted with stony faces or uncomfortable silence. When people talk to us, or -- as is more common -- talk about us to other people, these are some of the things they say:
Domestic violence may exist among other communities and ethnicities, but not in ours.

Domestic violence is a terrible thing, of course, but since it primarily occurs among ill-educated working-class families, or among alcoholics and substance abusers, or in other countries, it doesn't really concern us.
Marriage/relationship problems are private things and need to be resolved within the home. How do you know the woman didn't bring it on herself, anyway? When you encourage women to air their dirty linen in public, you're helping to break up families.
If a woman is in such a terrible situation, why doesn't she just leave?

Many complex answers, backed with eye-opening statistics, can be given to each of the questions above. Being a writer, I will offer, instead, a story from my own experience.
Seven years ago, soon after I started volunteering with organizations against domestic violence, I was called one morning to come into the office of the Support Network for Women in Mountain View. There was a South Asian woman there, and they needed help talking to her. When I got there, I found, in one of the inner rooms, a young woman with a baby boy. She was a beautiful young woman. Her face, with its strikingly dark, long-lashed eyes and sculpted lips, would not have been out of place on the cover of a fashion magazine. From her designer-label clothes I could see that she, or at least her spouse, was well-to-do. But she was emaciated, as though she hadn't eaten properly in months, and when later, in the course of our conversation, she raised her shirt, I could see that her back was completely lacerated, as though she'd been dragged over a rough surface like a concrete patio.

That day, sitting in that tiny room, I learned the smell of fear. It was an odor like rusting metal, rising from her skin. Every breath coming from her was laden with it.
The first thing she said to me was, "I've made a terrible mistake, leaving home like this. My husband will kill me if he finds out, or worse. I've got to get back before he returns from work."
I told her she had been brave and right to leave a home where she was obviously abused. The agency would place her in a safe shelter where her husband wouldn't find her.
She told me of her family back in India, how ashamed they would be that she left her husband's home, that she couldn't make her marriage work. I asked her if they knew about the abuse. She shrugged her shoulders. It didn't matter, she said. What mattered was that she had a younger sister who wouldn't be able to find a good marriage-match if people came to know of her situation. "You have to think about yourself," I said. "You have to take care of yourself and your baby."

She started crying then. That was what was bothering her the most, she said. She'd deprived her son of a good home, all the love and opportunity his father could provide him with -- for he was a good father, her husband, and rich also. How could she, who'd never been trained to work, provide for him in America? "There are programs to help you with money and training," I told her. "Your son will be safer and better off in a poorer home, if it is one without abuse." But I could see she wasn't convinced.
I told her how, in most cases of battering, the abuse gets worse if the woman goes back to the abuser. I told her of women who had died or been damaged for life. I urged her to report the case to the police and ask for a restraining order, but from her eyes I could see that the idea of turning her own husband over to the police was a horrifying one to her. "You have many other options," I said. "You can start a new life. We've seen hundreds of women do it."

But not me, her eyes said. It's hard for eyes to say otherwise when for years they've seen hate and anger and lack of respect on the face of the man who's supposed to love them more than anyone in the whole world.

"At least think it over carefully before you make any hasty decisions," I said. "You can always go back, but once you're back, you may not be able to leave."
Finally she agreed to let us put her in a shelter. She agreed to think about options other than returning to her husband. That was the last time I saw her. Sometime the next day she called her husband from a street phone, and he came and got her. Since she had not given us her name or an address, we never found out what happened after that.

I think of her often as I last saw her, climbing into the car that is to take her to the shelter. She clutches her baby tightly as she looks over her shoulder, her beautiful eyes full of fear and guilt and self-doubt and love and family duty and hopelessness.

Can you blame her for the choice she made, even as you see how wrong it was for her to go back to a violent home? Can you say that in her situation you could have done better? No matter what your ethnicity or background, can you say she is that different from you in wanting what she wanted: security, caring, a chance at happiness? I can't.

It is my hope that in this coming month, as all over America we speak about the lives and deaths of women, for their right to be free and uncrippled by abuse, a few more people will think a little more about the place in which the battered woman finds herself: dark and cold and suffocating, like the bottom of a well. I hope they will look beyond the popular stereotypes of weakness, lack of education and low self-esteem to see into her heart. I hope they will feel for themselves the many conflicting and confusing forces pulling her this way and that in the darkness as she tries to climb out.

For some of us, that climbing out takes years, perhaps a lifetime. But it can happen. And it can, perhaps, happen a little sooner if people around us are a little slower to judge us.

Brownie Hearings

I caught about an hour worth of Brownie hearings on CSPAN as I was driving back from D.C. I was sort of in awe by his approach, which seemed to be stupid. He shifted the entire blame of Hurricane Katrina's catastrophic aftermath on the LA politicians.

At one point when he was questioned (I don't remember who was questioning him), he claimed that Governor Blanco excluded Orleans parish from her request for emergency assistance. Does anyone else know if that claim is credible?

I heard Rep. Christopher Shays basically ripped him a new one for failing to be Guiliani.

And, of course, Brown bemoaned how "emaciated" FEMA was since he became the head

What are others' reactions?

Monday, September 26, 2005

Melancholy Monday: Emotional Overload

A little over a year and a half ago, 4 friends of mine were driving in my friend Ethan’s car on their way to get some breakfast on a Saturday morning. The scene plays in my head like a movie, the four boys, laughing and carrying on, speeding along the wet, country road close to our former high school. The car spun out of control, going 40 mph over the speed limit, flipped over, and crashed into a tree. The boys were pinned there for hours while rescue workers tried to get them out of the mangled car. Two of the boys, including Ethan (the driver) walked away from the accident, one of the boys broke his neck and was paralyzed from the neck down, and the other died before he could be extracted from the vehicle.

Ethan was charged with vehicular homicide after a jury heard testimonies from the other two boys who claimed that they were screaming for him to slow down, and let them out of the car. The picture that that sentence paints haunts me….. they were screaming for him to slow down. I was so angry with Ethan, and perhaps unjustifiably so, perhaps he was the convenient scapegoat that I used to release my anger and frustration upon. But just the thought of seeing Ethan after that made my stomach churn, my anger and pain was real, whether or not it was projected in the right direction.

I went home this past weekend, for what I thought was going to be a much needed break for work, a time to sit around, watch TV, and relax. I wasn’t home for more than an hour when the phone rang, an old friend called explaining that Ethan had died the night before from a relapse of leukemia. What’s bothering me most is that I can’t seem to pinpoint my emotions about it. In the most convenient definition of things, I feel conflicted. Had the accident never occurred I would be mourning the tragic loss of a friend, and yet the accident did happen, he was to blame, and I don’t know if I’m particularly sad about his death now, as heartless as that sounds. I don’t know if I can find it within me to cry, or to face his family at the services and tell them how sorry I am, when in all honesty I’m not. There was a time when I did feel sorry for Ethan, I thought how hard it must be to live with the fact that you walked away from such a horrific accident, when your friends did not. And yet, those feelings are overshadowed for me right now. And they’re mainly overshadowed by that image of those boys screaming to let them out of the car. Everyone has always been screaming for Ethan to slow down. He considered himself invincible, and lived his life believing that the rules did not apply to him. He drank too much, hit too hard, and drove too fast, always seemingly tempting fate at every turn….. and it seemed like fate caught up with him in the past year. I know that sounds uncharacteristically callous for those of you who know me. Deep down, I know that the anger isn’t real; I know that it was never really about being angry with Ethan, but more about using anger as a veil to hide my own prison of pain that I didn't want anyone to see. And yet I can’t seem to clear the hurdle of being angry to get myself to a place where I can begin to grieve. I know that I’ll get there, in a few days the underlying emotions will catch up with me, and I’ll finally be able to cry. But for now I’m trying to hold onto the anger as long as I can, because once the anger wears thin, and the emotional tidal wave hits, I’ll be forced to deal with the harsh reality that come with burying another friend.

Pro-life "Arguments": A Dog's Breakfast of Illogic

Scott Lemieux writes a truly inspired blog entry today on the illogic of Pro-life arguments.

Here is a snippet:

The positions of the vast majority of the American pro-life movement with respect to abortion, far from representing a coherent set of principles that may be used to evaluate other conservative policies and criticize the allegedly unprincipled positions of those who support reproductive freedom, are in fact a dog’s breakfast of illogic and staggeringly atavistic conceptions of gender roles and sexuality.

Go read the rest, now!

Melancholy Monday: Speak Plainly

I just arrived in Washington D.C. at the Washington Hilton in Dupont circle, you know, the one where John Hinckley attempted to assasinate President Reagan. This is how my mom and I always refer to this hotel. The first time I ever came to this hotel was with my mom back in 1992 (she was here for a conference). Then I returned again in late 1992 during the first December of my graduate school career. The second time I stayed here was because this is where the American Philosophical Association (APA) holds its meetings every four years. I have since attended the APA here 3 times.

The first time I attended the APA, I was the girlfriend of a Ph.D. on the market. I was mesmerized by the whole conference and the ways I was interacting with the participants, since 6 months earlier any one of them could have been my undergraduate professor. The second time I stayed here, I was interviewing for two jobs (Vanderbilt University and University of Memphis). The third time I was here, I had a job and just came down to D.C. to see old friends.

When I walked into the lobby of this hotel, pass the bar, I was transported back to several scenes from over a dozen years spent in this hotel lobby. I transformed from a wide-eyed, idealistic philosophical upstart to an anxious job seeker, and finally, to a securely employed undergraduate Philosophy professor.

The first time I was in this bar (where I am sitting now sipping a glass of Sauvingon Blanc), I was desperate to be as smart and articulate as the "grown ups" I was surrounding myself with were. I had become a Philosophy major late, changing from Chemistry, which was a subject that I felt secure in but uninspired by. All my philosophical insecurities revolved around writing. I hated writing papers in high school, feeling safer with balancing equations or doing derivatives.

Yet, I wanted to challenge myself to do something I wasn't good at, and become good at it. I suffered while learning how to narrow my claims, focus my argument, and offer reasons/evidence in a logical manner. I was bursting with big ideas and my mind tended to wander in all sorts of directions on the page. I loved learning new words and trying to incorporate them into my sentences, which often rendered my writing affected.

Only now, 13 years later, after hours and hours of perspiration, do I understand why affected writing sucks. It says: "gosh I want to impress you with how smart I am, even though I am terrified that I don't understand this stuff, nor that I have anything interesting to say." Affected writing, full of fancy sounding phrases and words newly discovered from the thesaurus, signals to an attentive reader that the writer is scared of telling you what she really thinks.

I just taught the end of the Euthyphro today, and after Euthyphro fails once again to define, satisfactorily, what piety is, Socrates says:

I think that you could have answered in much fewer words the chief question which I asked, Euthyphro, if you had chosen. But I see plainly that you are not disposed to instruct . . .

I was especially struck by this passage today because I had just handed back a graded paper to a bright young student in my class. She received a B-, something I doubt she is used to earning. Her face blushed when she looked over the grade and read my comments. A student from across the room yelled "hey, did you get the A" (they knew the grade distribution, because I had put it on the board). She looked down quickly and said "NOOOOOOOO."

She wasn't mad (which is not an unusual reaction from some of my students who have never been pushed to do good work). She was embarrassed. She had told me a week before that she was a tutor for the writing center and was curious what writing standards philosophers followed and how they instructed writing.

When I read her paper, I immediately noticed the affected tone that might make her stand out among very, very mediocre English students, but signaled to me: "I don't know what I want to say and I don't think I really understand Parmenides' criticism of Heraclitus, so I will mask it with artful sentences."

Philosophers don't stand for such ornamentation, especially when it does nothing to advance the argument. And, what I saw in her reaction to my grade was a recognition that I had seen through her smoke and mirrors. She was embarrased, not angry. She was embarrassed because deep down she knew what she had done, and felt exposed.

I felt for her. I was her 13 years ago. I wanted so desperately to be taken seriously, seen as smart, and I was too afraid to admit that I just didn't yet know what to say. I was too afraid to ask for help.

While I was driving up to the Hilton, a flash of images of the insecure girl that I was paraded before me. I started second guessing what I had done to her.

Did I do the right thing by calling her out? Was I too rough? Would she go home and berate herself in a way that was ultimately unproductive. Or, would she take to heart my words and just speak plainly next time?

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Reality is Getting Used to Reduced Freedom

I witnessed a fascinating conversation last night between three players: a scientist from China, a scientist from Russia, and a scientist from Canada. I was at a dinner party for Za's work, and when Za abandoned me to get some wine, I found myself in the middle of one of the more interesting conversations I been privy to: a Chinese man and a Russian man discussing their views of Communism and their native countries. The scientist from Canada offered interesting perspectives on how poorly news is reported in the U.S. compared to Canada, and the scientist from China responded that in the U.S. "reality is getting used to reduced freedom."

I tried not to think too much about what that statement meant, for fear that I would lose the thread of the conversation, which was so uncommon to the sorts of political discussions that I am used to among my mostly American, lefty colleagues.

The whole conversation started with a discussion about tap water. Our Chinese scientist remarked that given he was from a rural, small village in China, and grew up as a farmer, he was happy to drink tap water. He didn't see any reason to drink bottled water. Then, the Russian scientist slinked up to the conversation (I was sort of frightened by him at first), and he pointed out that nowadays, people might want to drink tap water because they are frightened that the water supply could be contaminated by terrorists. He was from Russia, we soon learned, from another small village in the Urals. Contrary to how this statement might sound, he wasn't really paranoid. I later found out that he was simply annoyed, at first, with the Chinese scientist, so he decided to contradict him.

The conversation evolved into a debate about how the U.S. journalists depicted China before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Before the collapse, although China was still a Communist state with human rights' abuses, the U.S. journalists didn't decry these because they preferred hating the Soviet Union. Our Russian scientist then suggested that our Chinese scientist friend was a bit too sympathetic to China; China deserved all of this negative reporting since living in a state with a totalitarian government is awful.

Chinese scientist argued that because the Chinese were gaining more freedoms since the government changed its economic policies before its political system (the opposite of the former Soviet Union), that citizens would no longer tolerate extreme fascism from the government. The Russian wasn't sold.

The particular case to think this through was the internet. Our Chinese scientist claimed that even in rural, tiny villages that his country men and women had reliable and cheap (25 cents an hour) access to the internet. And, that while the government did in fact limit certain word searches, that citizens could nonetheless access almost everything.

Russian scientists, tainted by his own experience of living under Communism, pointed out that the Chinese government could decide to totally control peoples' access to the internet as well as take away whatever freedoms they had gained thus far. Chinese scientist didn't think that was likely. (We all joked about the possibility of a second Tiananmen square over internet access). Moreover, our Chinese scientist (who, btw, is now an American citizen, who works at the NIH, and so is our Russian scientist, who works with Za) defended a strong central state government, which is good for the country. His case in point was how dastardly Russia collapsed into greater poverty and chaos after the fall of Communism. If Chinese scientist could do science in China, that is, if the Chinese government could afford the infrastructure for science, he would go back.

This was interesting. Our Chinese scientist did not hate the idea of living in his native country as much as our Russian scientist did. I made some stupid comments about the different attitudes toward Communism being the result of very different cultural values, e.g. loyalty, duty, community in China (blah, blah, blah).

However, when the conversation was ending (just before the food was served), all three scientists (remember the Canadian) turned to a discussion of how similar they found U.S. news to the news in Communist states. The government creates a fear among citizens of a threat, e.g. terrorism. Then, they give themselves more power to fight that threat, and keep the citizens constantly insecure in their reporting as well as build a patriotism for the state.

This conversation is what lead to the observation that Americans are being taught by their journalists that reality is getting used to reduced freedom. That is, we are being taught to give up our liberties in order to empower the state to fight the terrorists and other potential threats. Hence, we are giving up liberty and, through militarism, building a strong, central government.

While I have heard this account of our media before, it is much more telling to hear it from a Russian and Chinese citizen, both who lived under Communism and have different views of living under that system.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

More About the Elite College "Story"

Via Alas, A Blog I discovered this blog entry, exposing the serious flaws with Louise Story's NYTimes article, here on Mediabistro. Something is definitely fishy here.

Let's Not Be Blind When We Call for Withdrawal [Guest Blog: D.C. Dude]

“I have this feeling that world will be destroyed in my lifetime.”

For this student – times are bleak. They are, but weird things are happening.

I read in a news report out of Tripoli, Libya that Moammar Ghaddafi is going to make a surprise visit to Israel. Talk about the ironies of history. Change sometimes appears out of nowhere, kind of like an epiphany.

What about Iraq? Should we completely withdraw? Many friends say, “YES!!” These same friends also say that Iraqi lives are as important as American lives. Hmmmm. Being in Iraq no longer mandates discussion as to whether we should have gone into Iraq, except to expose the Bushies for their deception.

The question now is what to do with Iraq. We are Iraq’s security forces, albeit it does not look very secure. We certainly need a plan for Iraq and the Bushies don’t seem to have one. I do not think leaving in the Sheehan sense is the right thing to do. I believe it will leave a power vacuum in which we will see a civil war that produces the death tolls of Rwanda or the Congo.

But our approach is clearly wrong. We need to beg the UN for more assistance. We need to allow other countries in on the re-building contracts in exchange for troop support. And most importantly, we need to beg the Arab league to commit security forces to stabilize the region. If this is achievable, then we can talk about diminishing the U.S. role in Iraq and saving the lives of Americans and Iraqis. We need to do more for the infrastructure in Iraq, perhaps city by city. Instead of going in and cleaning out the insurgents and then leaving when they’re gone, we need to stay and stabilize the city so that the insurgents do not return.

We seem to be fighting the same battles over and over in Iraq. With troops staying in the city, we can then focuses on stabilizing the local infrastructure and help people receive basic needs like water, electricity and oil. Through time, perhaps word will spread that things are getting better for Iraqis. I believe the step in allowing for three federated states with loads of autonomy is better than one autocratic state. But we also have to accept that Iraq may not be receptive to democracy and think of alternative governments instead of exporting our government.

Although, I agree that getting out of Vietnam was the right thing to do, many scholars say the cost of that was the Khmer Rouge coming to power and committing genocide.

Let’s not be blind when we call for withdraw, let’s make sure if we do it we do it in a way that diminishes the possibility of civil war and genocide. And that way, we will be showing that Iraqi lives are as important as American lives.

Sayonara Lester Crawford

I won't be losing any sleep over Crawford's resignation from the FDA.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Notes from the Prozac Nation, Vol. 1, No. 5

  • Post-Partum Daddy Depression: More on the the University of Oxford report on male post partum depression and its impact on their children.
    postpartum depression (PPD) in fathers doubles the risk that the child later will have behavioral problems, especially if the child is a boy.
    More alarming were long-term effects:
    By preschool age, "we saw emotional problems, disruptive problems, fearful behaviors, over-reactive behaviors," says O'Connor. "We know this happens for boys and girls when the mom has PPD. But if we're talking about a dad's PPD, the effects were stronger on boys." And, it remained noticeable even after the parents' depressions had been controlled.

    I find this study well timed, since we have returned to an era of blaming single, poor mothers for our failing and chaotic cities. Obviously, both parents have an impact on the later mental health of their children.

  • Spirituality After Prozac: I wish that I could attend some of the lectures that will be presented in this series on depression and the clergy:
  • Chrysalis Counseling Center and the Presbyterian Counseling Center will sponsor a series of programs for clergy on "Depression and Faith," because people often question whether something is wrong with their faith when they are depressed. All sessions will be from noon to 1:30 p.m. on Wednesdays at Christ United Methodist Church (410 N. Holden Road, Greensboro). The cost will be $8 for lunch.
    I particularly like the title of the third talk, "Spirituality after Prozac," because it seems to me that the biomedical model of depression really challenges the traditional (and often stubbornly entrenched view) that depression is a spiritual struggle. The idea that we should not treat the severely depressed with the best that medicine can offer, but instead leave them to battle with this challenge issued from their maker is, to my mind, disturbing. I am happy to see that this series will be more sophistiated and nuanced.

Weasel Words

Many other great bloggers already ranted about the NYTimes piece: Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood. From my standpoint (and I am echoing others) all this piece shows is that rich, privileged women will choose to stay home and raise their kids. So what?

The women they are counting on to lead society are likely to marry men who will make enough money to give them a real choice about whether to be full-time mothers, unlike those women who must work out of economic necessity.

My friend, Emma, also pointed out that the article really only illustrates that a small portion of the society is getting richer.

But, the best criticism I have seen of this article is from Slate Magazine. Go check out Jack Shafer's article, "Weasel Words Rip My Flesh!." The weasel words at issue her in this piece are many, few and some. Here is a snippet:

None of these many's quantify anything. You could as easily substitute the word some for every many and not gain or lose any information. Or substitute the word few and lose only the wind in Story's sails. By fudging the available facts with weasel-words, Story makes a flaccid concept stand up—as long as nobody examines it closely.

For instance, Story writes that she interviewed "Ivy League students, including 138 freshman and senior females at Yale who replied to e-mail questions sent to members of two residential colleges over the last school year." Because she doesn't attribute the preparation of the e-mail survey to anyone, one must assume that she or somebody at the Times composed and sent it. A questionnaire answered by 138 Yale women sounds like it may contain useful information. But even a social-science dropout wouldn't consider the findings to be anything but anecdotal unless he knew 1) what questions were asked (Story doesn't say), 2) how many questionnaires were distributed, and 3) why freshman and seniors received the questionnaires to the exclusion of sophomores and juniors. Also, 4) a social-science dropout would ask if the Times contaminated its e-mailed survey with leading questions and hence attracted a disproportionate number of respondents who sympathize with the article's underlying and predetermined thesis.

To say Story's piece contains a thesis oversells it. Early on, she squishes out on the whole concept with the weasel-word seems. She writes, "What seems to be changing is that while many women in college two or three decades ago expected to have full-time careers, their daughters, while still in college, say they have already decided to suspend or end their careers when they have children."

To say the piece was edited would also be to oversell it. Story rewrites this seems sentence about two-thirds of the way through the piece without adding any new information. "What seems new is that while many of their mothers expected to have hard-charging careers, then scaled back their professional plans only after having children, the women of this generation expect their careers to take second place to child rearing." [Emphasis added.]

Halfway through, Story discounts her allegedly newsworthy findings by acknowledging that a "person's expectations at age 18 are less than perfect predictors of their life choices 10 years later." If they're less than perfect predictors, then why are we reading about their predictions on Page One of the Times?

While bogus, "Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood" isn't false: It can't be false because it never says anything sturdy enough to be tested (my emphasis).

Why get drawn into the trap set up by this article and claim that these women are "male identified" or "regressive." Much better to show that the entire article is an example of the Emperor having no clothes.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Bye Bye Civil Rights, Bye Bye Civility

General William K. Suter, Clerk of the Supreme Court, spoke last night about the Rehnquist Court. I went, hoping to hear what he thought would be the direction of the court now that two new Justices are to be confirmed. His only reference to this was to say, repeatedly, that Roberts was soon to take the job.

The gist of his talk was to paint the Rehnquist court as moderate or, better yet, defying the political categories of "liberal" or "conservative." He also regularly bashed the media for politicizing the SCOTUS, by its "results oriented" reporting of decisions.

I sat in the audience largely irritated with this speaker. I do respect that the family who brings these speakers; they choose them in order to represent a variety of viewpoints. I just found this speaker to be disengenuous. He wanted to talk about the court outside of a political framework, and emphasize how Justices are beyond politics and focus on the law. And yet, every example he gave (the girl who was "raped" wouldn't even testify before the grand jury--United States v. Morrison), the phrases he used to describe things (e.g. "retards" "race, class or whatever") made it clear where this man stood politically.

I think what really irritates me is the suggestion that reading the "plain meaning" or the "common sense" meaning of the Constitution suggests that the courts should keep turning cases like Lawrence v. Texas back to the states, the championing of federalism. I find this a convenient way to hide your real views. In Castle Rock v. Gonzales the SCOTUS claimed that women do not have a "protected entitlement" of police enforcement of protection orders. Jessica Gonzales' husband kidnapped her three daughters who were found dead inside his truck. Gonzales had repeatedly asked the police to enforce the protection order. They didn't do their job! Right? But the SCOTUS overturned the 10th Circuit decision, deciding this was a state matter. So, if you live in Colorado you can file a protection order against an abusive spouse, but its meaningless since you cannot ensured its enforced. I guess Jessica should go about changing the state legislature, right?

While it might be true that social change should come about through state legislation, the reality is we face all sorts of difficulties (and not the ones the framers had in mind): gerrymandering that deprives minorities (and even women) full represenation in Congress, state legislatures, or even city councils; a Republican controlled Congress and Executive branch; Voting rights violations, etc. Once Bush gets his new appointees on the court, every branch of government will be Republican and some shade of conservative. That seems to be to fly in the face of what the framer's had intended.

What is even more concerning, is how Congress can still regulate state decisions through the commerce clause (thanks to Scott Lemieux for clarifying this to me). So, even if we focus all of our energy on state legislatures, the federal government can strike down this legislation or restrict it, or make it rather useless. In the case of abortion rights, this is what is going on with the TRAP laws.

So, the ideal picture of what the SCOTUS should do and what Congress should do is a pipe dream. What is actually happening is a coordinated effort to roll back and whittle away at many of the freedoms that women and minorities have gained since the Civil Rights Movement. Suter argued that the fact the Rehnquist Court upheld Roe in Planned Parenthood v. Casey showed that this was a moderate court. And yet, what he didn't mention is that lots of state and federal laws have been passed since Roe that make it quite difficult for many women, including those who most need abortions, to obtain one.

What was the most disturbing spectacle at this talk, however, was the way three male students sitting in front of me treated a woman speaker. A older woman, with short hair and perhaps a bit overweight got up to make some comments. She began by claiming that the Rehnquist court decided every bankruptcy case wrongly. Suter didn't take the opportunity to discuss with her why this was the case. She explained that she had been a bankruptcy lawyer for 20 years. His only response, rather trite, was: "that is what is so great about this country, that we can disagree." I found this so hollow. Sure, we can disagree, but you didn't even allow a conversation that would demonstrate why you disagree with her. But, even more disturbing, the three male students in front of me started making horrific comments about the female speaker, one of them saying "shut up you dyke."

I started thinking about what my life will be like when I get older. I found this female attorney to be reasonable, forthright and assertive, the sort of qualities you want in an attorney. These young men in front of me found her loud, overbearing, and . . . a lesbian. I was aghast out how disrespectful they were. I can't wait to be a recepient of this sort of male hatred of older, smart and assertiveness. And, if youth and "attractiveness" are failing, you are certain to be called a lesbian.

UPDATE: I just found out that the woman who got up and spoke was the wife of the faculty member who introduced the speaker. I am even more outraged now.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The Legal Status of Academic Freedom for Faculty

I attended an audio conference today on the the legal status of academic freedom. The speaker, Gary Pavela, addressed student, faculty and institutional rights to academic freedom. What I learned was that at this particular moment, the rights of faculty in higher education are being whittled away while rights of students are expanding.

In Urofsky v. Gilmore (4th Circuit, No. 98-1481, June 23, 2000), the court argued:

Appellees ask us to recognize a First Amendment right of academic freedom that belongs to the professor as an individual. The Supreme Court, to the extent it has constitutionalized a right of academic freedom at all, appears to have recognized only an institutional right of self-governance in academic affairs.

What Pavela argued was that (a) all our our federal circuit courts are headed in the direction of the very conservative 4th Circuit, (b) hence we are facing a situation where our academic freedom is likely to disappear. One avenue of staving off this inevitabilty, according to Pavela, is to set up some sort of "code of ethics." akin to what lawyers and physicians have. Pavela also argues that faculty rights to academic freedom can come from contracts they establish with their academic institution.

I am wondering what others think of the "code of ethics" route. Yehudster, who was also present for the conference, pointed out that this code of ethics can bite us in the ass too. Students will have grounds for suing faculty if they perceive a failure to uphold the code of ethics.

This means that faculty are open to lawsuits on two fronts now: if the ABOR passes, students are given legal remedies from state legislatures and if you pass a code of ethics, you give students are right to sue if you breach this code.

I think one outcome of these restrictions on faculty is that students will be harmed. I brought the whole issue of academic freedom up in my Ancient Philosophy class today because we are discussing Plato's Euthyphro. The students' were discussing whether a case, like the one brought against Socrates ("corrupting the youth or disowning the gods") would come forward today. So, I took this opening for introducing to them to these current legal issues around academic freedom.

One of my brightest students, who I am pretty sure is rather conservative, said: "If they limit your academic freedom, then they are limiting my academic freedom."

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Feminist Bloggers Say No To Roberts

Liza Sabater at Culture Kitchen has written an excellent letter to the members of the Judiciary Committee and the Senate that outlines why feminists, particularly feminist bloggers, do not want John Roberts as the next Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Go read this letter and sign it (by leaving a comment).

Here is an excerpt:

To members of the Judiciary Committee and the Senate:

We are a group of writers who are passionately committed to supporting women's basic freedom as citizens of the United States. We are appealing to you as free citizens dedicated to political growth, fairness and the spirit of Liberty guaranteed in the US Constitution.

We are not paid pundits or political operatives. We are concerned citizens who represent the diversity of the United States: women and men, straight and gay, single and married, religious and atheist, of different races, religions and ethnicities. Some of us are even parents even after having abortions. And we all blog because we have to.

We have taken to this citizen media to create communities of hope. In our blogs people rant and rave, discuss and debate to share the one thing we all agree about : The United States Constitution is about creating common ground among the many, not limiting freedom for the benefit of the few.

Yes, the battle for the Supreme Court is about the right to privacy.

Yes, the battle for the Supreme Court is about civil rights.

Yes, the battle for the Supreme Court is about state rights.

Yet what is at stake in the the reconfiguration of the Supreme Court, is the fundamental right to freedom for all peoples living under the Bill of Rights and unenumerated rights retained by the people. Roberts' has consistently opposed the interests of the people in his career. The decisions, dissents and legal documents that have been released for scrutiny point to the man's willingness to find ways to use technicalities to curtail freedom and not expand it. Although it would be easy to demonstrate this willingness through his involvement in cases dealing with reproductive rights, it is the following three cases that show a road map to what could happen to the US Constitution under a Chief Justice Roberts :

Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992)

Rancho Viejo, LLC v. Norton, 334 F.3d 1158 (D.C. Cir.2003), cert. denied, 124 S. Ct. 2061 (2004)

Hedgepeth v. Wash. Metro. Area Transit Auth., 386 F.3d 1148 (D.C. Cir. 2004):

In defending a religious minority's demand to impose their religious customs on the majority (1), in attacking Congress' right to regulate commerce under national standards (2) and in stating that using the full extent of the law in cases involving minors is necessary to promote "parental awareness of commission delinquent actsÓ (3); John Roberts has advocated positions which

(1) are skewed to the ideology of religious extremists,

(2) balkanize the country into a loose mesh of little republics

(3) use a restrictive fundamentalist view to coerce a moral outcome through legal means

The extremist religious minority in this country have used the excuse of states' compelling interest in children's welfare as a reason to seek limits to the Constitution. Parenting rights are being used to impose unfettered limitations of reproductive rights on the state level. All across the country laws have been passed curtailing the movement of minors from one state to the other in search of abortions. Some states have even made it a capital offense punishable with the death penalty to aid a minor with no parental consent. This is appalling.

These laws have been passed as an affirmation of parents' right to choose in private what is best for their families. Some of us are mothers and fathers and we would most certainly want the government to uphold our rights to choose how to parent our children without intervention of the government. But laws protecting parenting rights should do no harm nor become precedents in the limiting of individual rights.

These laws impose a view of parenting that may actually be harmful to many underage women in need of an abortion. To restrict their individual rights and define them as extensions of their parents or guardians endangers not only endanger young women's lives but are an attack on the very idea of individual rights and personal freedom.

Judge Roberts' rulings can become a weapon for extremists who would impose their reproductive agendas against the will of their underage yet sexually mature daughters. It exposes young women in abusive or coercive situations to further abuse and physical danger.

We advocate Freedom.

The right to determine one's own sexual and reproductive behavior is a fundamental aspect of liberty. A woman's ability to control her reproductive options has a profound effect on her health and on every aspect of her life. It can affect her educational opportunities, her career and is the single most profound change that can occur in her life. Pregnancy is a life-altering and potentially life-threatening experience. Consider these statistics:

* The United States ranks below 20 other developed nations in the rate of maternal deaths.

* The maternal death rate has not gone down since 1982.

* The Rate of maternal deaths for black women has been three to four times that of white women since 1940.

* Complications of pregnancy include ectopic pregnancy, premature labor, hemorrhage, blood clots, high blood pressure, infection, stroke, amniotic fluid in the bloodstream, diabetes and heart disease. Poor women suffer disproportionately due to lack of prenatal care and inadequate health insurance.

* The number one cause of death in pregnant women in America is murder.

The choice to have a child must be made by an individual, without coercion from any external source or influence, if the individual is to be considered truly free. The current anti-choice movement has revealed itself repeatedly as uninterested in preventing unwanted pregnancies or reducing the number of abortions performed in this country. If this were truly their goal, they would be anxious to make "Plan B" contraceptives readily available. We know it is not an abortificant, and merely prevents pregnancy from taking place. If the goal was to protect young women's lives, they would encourage educating women about the use of condoms in preventing the spread of HIV and other venereal diseases, and the prevention of unwanted pregnancy.

Here also are the signatories to this letter:

Monday, September 19, 2005

Melancholy Monday: A Gift You Can't Receive

I am an IPod devotee. I bring it with me when I work out to drown out the grunts and groans from the body builders at the Gym. I also bring it to listen to the music I developed a taste for in college. My theory is that your music tastes get pretty fixed in College. I rarely listen to a new group unless I accidentally hear them at a friend's house.

When I was in graduate school, I dated my first musician. I made the mistake of dating three more. In my early twenties I was drawn to musicians because they seemed so "sensitive" or "profound." I found the artistic temperament stimulating. The mercurial nature of a musician tended to augment passion. Thankfully I got over that phase (sadly, it took until late twenties).

I dated my last musician when I was 30. And, unlike the temperamental musicians from my twenties, he was a rather steady and predictable fellow. He liked sports, played softball with the "guys," drank beer, farted (alot), and held a steady, blue collar job.

When I first met him, I wasn't swept off my feet.

I found him stable, honest and predictable which is what I thought was all I needed at that time.

I had come off a horrible relationship. The first and only time I was ever engaged was to a man who I later realized was profoundly abusive. I got out of the relationship pretty quickly after that realization, but the scars of it lingered for years. I withdrew into my home. I slept all the time. I didn't like leaving my house during the daylight.

Then I met my steady musician boyfriend. He seemed to care. Soon after we dated, I contracted a high fever that put me in the hospital for 6 days. He visited me everyday, and snuck in milkshakes. This behavior was so different from my ex-fiancee that I thought it was supererogatory.

He attended to many details in my life that I simply couldn't handle in my advanced depressed state. So, I tried to be his girlfriend.

While doing sit ups at the gym, a song that my stable musician wrote for me came up on my playlist. A few weeks ago all of my playlists mysteriously got erased, and so now when I listen to the songs on my IPod, I never know what is next. I started listening to the lyrics of this love song that stable musician boyfriend wrote, and I struggled to identify the song.

That is the truly melancholy part of the story. After hearing the refrain, twice, I figured out it was his song. 30 seconds more and I remembered that he wrote it for me. I sat a few minutes longer and remembered, finally, why he wrote it.

He wanted so desperately to rouse me from my depression, my heartbreak, and to inspire me to love him. The first time I heard him play this song publicly, I decided to give him a chance. I had never been so moved by a gesture and I figured that any man likely to write a song like that was worth being with.

It didn't work. In fact, it ended really badly. And, truth be told, I broke his heart. I make no excuses for this. I broke his heart because I simply could not return his love. One of his lyrics goes: " I will wait till the sunlight's in your eyes. I will wait till your meadows are gold." The title of the song is I'll Never Rise, which comes from his lyric: "because without your love, I'll never rise."

I couldn't love him. There are all sorts of complicated reasons why I couldn't. And to, hopefully, stave off all comments that I just don't like nice guys, let me say that is simply not the best description of what happened.

What haunts me is that I didn't instantly recognize a song that he wrote for me. I played it three more times after it accidentally showed up on my random playlist. For, perhaps, the first time, I heard how desperate he was for my love. I couldn't give him what he wanted.

He handed me this gift of a song, and I simply couldn't receive it.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Democrats for Life: WTF?

As a member of NOW, and one likely to set up a booth at a local festival, I am pretty used to getting some ire from anti-abortion folks. I have a thick skin. I can take it.

But, today, I got that "look," you know, the look of disapproval and disgust, from one of the local leaders of the Young Democrats. He had a booth, "Democrats for Life," at our local festival.

It broke my heart. I think that it's time for me to deregister from the Party. Now, the question is do I go Green, No Party, or Independent?

Boys Will Be Boys? How to Deal With a Feminist Partner

Is teasing your loved one, especially if she is a feminist, a recipe for a successful relationship? I am serious. And, no, I am not being a humorless feminist.

K (aka Goddess o' Universe) and I were reflecting on how our partners tend to tease us when they get around our Friday beer drinking crowd. I brought Za to the P'ok Fest on Saturday night and for the first time he really got to talk to Uncle Ben and Mr. Moderate. He has been around K's husband before, but never have all four of these guys sat down and drink beers together.

Now, as you know, Uncle Ben is "to the right of Attila the Hun," and Mr. Moderate leans more right of center than either Za or K's husband. Yet, when all four of them are together, they quickly fell into a pattern of making jokes that either make fun of feminists or that suggest that they are the pants-wearers. Za joked at one time "Darlin' go get me a beer." And all four of them giggle. Then Mr. Moderate tells me to try the gin "It'll put hair on your chest." Pause. "Well, you are a feminist right?" All four laugh.

Now, I am fully aware that none of them really believes that either K or I should be submissive or serve up their pleasure. Za is wholly aware that he is with a feminist, and a pretty active one at that. K's husband is far more liberal than Za, and has done a fantastic job sharing, truly sharing in the raising of their son.

And yet, when four men gather together on a Saturday night to eat some BBQ'd pork, they can't resist snickering and giggling about feminists.

K and I are good sports. We mostly roll our eyes and talk about something else. But, we were talking about this phenomena today a bit while knitting and womaning our NOW booth at the local Heritage festival.

K says, "do you notice how they like to tease us in front of the other guys?"

"Yeah," I say. And we leave it at that.

Yet, now that I am at home (and avoiding grading), I am pondering this. What drives them to do this? Is it a sort of performance that says to the other guys: "look, we are with these feminists, but it's ok, they aren't uptight." Or, is it a way to broadcast that they are still men, and therefore manly, even though they ended up with feminists?

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Portrait of a Friendship

After reading Aspazia’s post about the power of sharing stories, I was inspired to dig up this old article which was published in New York Magazine 2 years ago. The article was written by Ann Patchett about her friendship with Lucy Grealy (author of Autobiography of a Face) who passed away 6 months before the article (and Patchett’s book Truth and Beauty) was published. Both books are incredibly moving, honest accounts of internal struggle, depression, drugs, sex, and the ties that exist between women….. while I recommend reading both books, the article serves as a good summary, it's lengthy, but brilliant..... here's the link.

Saturday Morning with Uncle Ben: Where is the Government Dependency?

The more I talk to Ben, the less I understand some of the comments he is likely to make. Yesterday was a rather tame and cordial conversation. In fact, I think we have started to disappoint the others at the table, since they got a lot of pleasure out of our arguments.

Ben was asking me, repeatedly, how long people should be allowed to receive government assistance. The phrase he used for this is "womb to tomb." His concern is that giving money to help people creates a dependence, and they never will wean off that dependence. I am not surprised by his view, however, I find it frustrating that he is so broad and sweeping in his condemnation of welfare.

I place students each year in various social service agencies and non-profits. I also sit on the board of a local non-profit. Last week I attended a 5 hour session on handling personnel policies and finances for non-profit organizations. And, given my experience and exposure to this world, I don't understand why Ben can accuse these agencies of encouraging dependence among its clients.

First of all, since 1996, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was abolished. President Reagan was hell bent on dismantling AFDC, and under his administration, we inherited the image of the black, welfare queen. It was President Clinton, however, who "revolutionized" welfare and now we have Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF).

What is interesting about the renaming of welfare to TANF is the stress placed on the duration of these benefits. Under TANF, you will receive benefits only for 5 years and you must be employed. If you are able to get a raise or promotion at your job, you will get a bonus. TANF stresses employment, not education. The benefits for education are much more complicated and messy.

My friend works at a Community College. She regularly sees students, who are returning mothers, try to figure out how to keep their subsidized housing while attending school. These mothers have to work a minimum of 30 hours to receive the subsidy for their rent. Now, if they want to attend CC, they are put in a real bind: how do you pay for your rent, work 30 hours a week, care for your children and take classes to eventually lift you out of poverty? The system is a nightmare to work with. It can be done, but it takes a lot of people helping you to work with the various agencies involved. And, that takes time, which is a precious commodity in such a woman's life.

The goal here, which I think Ben and I share, is lifting people out of poverty. He categorically rejects any government program to do so. In his view, the government does a bad job. I disagree that the government, by nature, does a bad job. I do think, however, that various state agencies, straight-jacketed by nonsense legislation or by administrations who want to cut social services (which they think is the "fat" in goverment) make programs worse off.

Let me add another perspective, since I mentioned that I attended a workshop on the financial end of non-profits. The regulations on non-profits that ensure they run with complete transparency and accountability are significant. For example, if you go to GuideStar, you can look up the tax returns (the 990s) of all non-profit organizations. You can see how much federal grant money they receive, how much the director of the agency makes, how much is donated to the agency etc. Moreover, non-profits set up rather sophisticated "whistle blower" policies as well as policies for ensuring that no one person is in charge of all the money handling.

Mismanaging money at non-profits does exist. But, so does having to spend great sums of money on all of this bureacracy that is imposed by federal and state regulations. Frankly, many non-profits don't have the staff or equipment dedicated to just the administrative side of the agency, so you have people working their butts off in direct services and putting together by-laws, and fundraising, and keeping the books. These people get paid squat. Go look it up.

Now, compare what someone at say Halliburton makes off a government contract to what a non-profit employee makes.

I want to end this post with some "common ground." Ben and I want to figure out how you get people out of poverty. And, I think he is invested in education as one avenue, since he taught in public schools for most of his life. I agree with this strategy. I also agree with Ben that there is unbelieveable mismanagement and nonsense legislation that tampers with our public school system. But, what is the solution?

I honestly want to hear what people think.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Notes from the Prozac Nation, Vol. 1, No. 4

  • Judges and Prescription Drug Dependency: Ralph sent me an interesting link to a discussion on Chief Justice Reinquist's drug habit at TalkLeft. Reinquist consumed great quantities of the sedative-hypnotic Placidyl, indicated for insomnia. Prescription drug abuse really illustrates the class lines of the war on drugs. There is a lot to think through here about what consitutes illicit use of "enhancement" drugs. Here is more from Slate on Reinquist's habit.

  • Pharma and Higher Learning: Merck & Co is forming an "educational partnership" (not quite sure what that is a euphemism for) with Drexel University. Merck employees will be able to take online courses and receive discounted rates. What does this merger mean for the content of those courses?

  • College Students and Enhancement Drug Use: A colleague of mine, who is a Psychiatrist, sent me "Getting an Edge--Use of Stimulants and Antidepressants in College" with an attached note that "this is what you've been talking about with us." The "us" is a group of Philosophers and Psychiatrists that I belong to called the Association for the Advancement of Philosophy and Psychiatry (AAPP), which is a fantastic intellectual group. A preview of this article:
    Increasing numbers of students, and sometimes their families, request medication to provide an 'edge,' even if the students have no clinically significant impairment of functioning. They think of such drugs as safe 'brain steroids' that help maximize performance with minimal risk, and they know the symptoms to describe in order to persuade a doctor to write a prescription.
    The line between treatment and functioning is now so hopelessly blurred. Considering the powerful forces of Pharma convincing all of us we have at least one treatable mental disorder, and psychiatrists will regularly find themselves having moral dilemmas about whether or not to give their friends' children a prescription for ritalin to help them get an "edge" in college.

  • Teen Suicide Risk: A very distrubing study revealed that 900,000 teens and tweens (12-17) have made plans to commit suicide during a severe bout with major depression.

  • Compassion Fatigue: This story covered by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution warns that those worried over the fate of Katrina's victims threaten to collapse into a depression.

  • Irish Workplaces Less Tolerant of Mental Disorders: A study of workplaces in Ireland find that bosses are less tolerant of employee claims of depression. While I find this troubling, if indeed there is a high rate of depression among the workforce, I have to say that I am not surprised by this trend. The aim to destigmatize depression, particularly the Pharma ads bombarding us on TV, have the unintended consequence of empowering malingerers to feign a depressive disorder because of the higher social tolerance for mental disorders. I see this among students.

  • Male Depression and Work Woes: A study done at University of Newcastle upon Tyne discovered that men who lost their jobs or were downgraded were at a greater risk for becoming depressed than women were.
    Their findings could be explained by the fact that men born in this era gained much of their self-esteem from their careers, whereas women found fulfilment from other social pursuits outside work, such as children and friendships. It’s also possible that women are more emotionally resilient in this type of situation, say the researchers.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Act Like a Man

It’s fascinating how the dynamics of a modern day preschool classroom are governed by gender roles. While teaching preschool in college it amazed me how the majority of the 3 and 4 year old girls came to school in dresses and stockings every day, despite the apparent discomfort (as evidenced by constantly adjusting their stockings and taking off their dress shoes), and embarrassment (other children would tease them if for instance that pretty skirt flew up while on an outdoor walk) that this form of dress caused. The practice of dressing little girls like dolls almost seemed like a conditioning exercise: where the learned behavior was sitting in a restricted position with arms and legs crossed, ensuing a sort of defense mechanism against the threat of exposure. However, the gender roles of preschoolers aren’t simply manipulated via dress; I can recall a particular incident where a father expressed his displeasure over the teachers allowing his son to play with baby dolls or dress up in women's clothes while in the "dress up center", insisting that a more “gender appropriate activity” be offered as another option in the future. Although it was explained to this parent that all of the children played with the same toys at any given time regardless of their gender, this didn’t appease the fuming father who insisted that his son liked played with dinosaurs and dump trucks, that he “wasn’t gay”. Unfortunately we live in a society where our gender roles are in set in stone from the minute the doctor announces our sex, and from that day forward the toys we play with, the clothes we wear, the activities we participate in, and the way we act is determined depending upon which label we happen to fall under, male or female. As a culture, we feel that there are certain behaviors and characteristics that personify each sex, and that these behaviors are evident of a “normal” child of the respective gender. What about the kids who don’t conform to their specified gender role?

Another jewel courtesy of subtitled "what do you do when your son doesn't act like other boys?"

“Act Like a Man”
During my two pregnancies, the air was thick with my wishes for my babies. I searched for dandelion fluff, wayward eyelashes and the first star. I wished every chance I got. I wished for my children to be healthy, brilliant and happy. And I threw in an extra wish, a wish I didn't share with my family and friends.
I thought about that wish as I watched my 3-year-old boy bustle about the play kitchen, scrambling plastic eggs and setting them on the checkered tablecloth next to a vase of yellow plastic flowers. Red toenails peeked out from sparkly pink high heels. My little homemaker deftly fed orange juice to the baby doll while pretending to wash the dishes.

While the other boys in preschool tossed balls, my son played house with the girls. The boys in the playground climbed the jungle gym; Matt hunted for four-leaf clover in the grass. His friends wanted Power Rangers for their birthdays; Matt wanted a toy vacuum cleaner.
"He's just copying his big sister," people said. But he wasn't. Liza, two years older than Matt, climbed trees, raced toy cars and rejected most things feminine. Her first word was "ball." When a friend gave her a Barbie for her fifth birthday, Liza cut off the doll's hair and dumped her, stripped and clipped, into the wastebasket. No, Matt's preferences were completely his own, and as natural as his preference for chicken fingers over fish sticks.

In the beginning, I was delighted by my children's gender-defying personalities. My feminist credentials are impeccable, beginning with ERA marches and a stint at Ms. magazine and continuing through my children's hyphenated last names. So it was understandable that the special wish I made was for an active, tomboy daughter and a sweet, sensitive son. A fairy godmother must have been listening.
My husband, Richard, loved Matt's gentle nature too, but he thought I was dangerously naive. He tutored me on what being a boy is all about, which I can sum up in one word: sports. "It's how they form friendships, it's how they judge each other, it's what they talk about," he said: If a boy is a klutz on the baseball field, the other boys will shun him. What about a boy like Matt, who didn't even want to set foot on the field?
I tried to dismiss Richard's worries. "You're talking about Cleveland in the '60s," I said. "Times have changed, and anyway, sports aren't such a big deal in San Francisco."
"You're dreaming," Richard replied.
So when Matt started kindergarten, I signed him up for the soccer team. The team was coed, the uniforms were cool, and the kids got treats after each game. I was optimistic.
Anyone who has watched 5-year-olds play soccer knows there is a pattern when the ball is in play. Ball gets kicked. Team members abandon positions and swarm toward the ball. Fastest kid kicks ball.
I suppose you could say Matt was just making sure his section of the field was covered. He stayed put, inspecting his cleats, watching the seagulls swoop. He was Ferdinand the Bull in the middle of the field, sniffing daisies while the other little bulls charged. If the ball happened to come his way, he watched it pass by with mild interest.
I wasn't surprised by Matt's aversion to soccer (and every other sport), but I was disturbed that he seemed to be the only one. What happens to boys who don't follow the boy script? I remember a fairy tale about a lad who spends his days quietly tending the fire at home instead of going out into the world like the other men. The young man is an outcast, scorned and pitied, but he has a secret: a magic horse hidden in the woods. One day, the king announces that he has placed his daughter atop a glass hill and he will give her hand and half the kingdom to the man who can ride to the top. All the strong princes and knights of the land try, but it is the gentle lad with his magic horse who prevails.
I am not heartened by this story. There is no magic horse in our backyard for Matt.
So I understood when Richard refused to give up on getting his son interested in sports. He decided to take Matt to a San Francisco Giants game, hoping the excitement of live professional baseball might rub off on him.
They came home after four innings. Matt was bouncing with excitement; Richard looked frazzled. "How was the game?" I asked.
"Really great!" Matt said. "I got cotton candy, and lemonade, and peanuts, and red licorice!"
That explained the bouncing. "What was the score?"
"I dunno."
"Who were the Giants playing?"
I looked at Richard. "We spent the first two innings eating, and the next two at the giant slide. Then he wanted to come home."
We backed off on the sports. Richard contented himself with pitching balls to Liza, who was developing a wicked line drive.
My friends who have sons talk knowingly about "boy energy": constant motion, wrestling, boisterous laughter, arm punches and the occasional animal sound. Matt is overwhelmed in the midst of boy energy. He covers his ears; he retreats. He flinches at the poking and grabbing that passes for communication among most boys. The offhand comments that boys toss at each other on the playground -- "Hey stupid, you dropped your hat!" -- strike Matt like blows. He is a foreigner in the land of boys.
Matt's native land is the world of imagination. He plays with the toy cars he inevitably receives as presents, but instead of racing them, he sends them to run errands and pick up carpools. He loves to invent whole worlds with their own rules: "What if people did everything backwards? Let's pretend that!" While other boys sometimes play these games with Matt, most are quickly bored and demand to go outside and throw a ball around. The world of most boys is the concrete, physical world.
I confess that the typical male terrain seems alien to me, too. I love my son's quiet, gentle demeanor, his sensitivity, the way his gangly limbs melt into my lap whenever I sit down. At the same time, though, I ache for him. When I send him off to school, I feel as if he's a sheep in wolf's clothing. The wolf pack is still young; they overlook the placid creature in their midst. But any day now, I fear, they will smell the tender skin beneath his sweatshirt and turn on him.
don't know how much Matt is conscious of the danger. At recess, he wanders among noisy clusters of peripatetic boys, watching them, keeping his distance. "I like to play by myself," he says. Perhaps, but he's not playing. He's observing, listening. It's not as if he wants to be more masculine; he doesn't even know what that means. He's trying to learn the language, maybe, but maybe also defending himself. Isolation is easier than being the target of a playful tackle, a hurtful joke.
But he can't always avoid their world. One afternoon, he told me he didn't want to play "Capture the Flag" at school anymore. "I'm usually on the losing team," he said, "and when we lose, the boys on the other team say Ha ha, you're losers!. It hurts my feelings." His shoulders were slumped, his voice forlorn and bewildered.
"And what do you say when the other team loses?" I asked.

"I say, 'Good job!'"
I am so proud of him, and so sad.
How does it feel, I wonder, to be different from the other boys? Matt doesn't like to talk about these things much. But sometimes at night, as I put him to bed, when I can't see his face and he can't see mine, and my arm is wrapped securely around his warm body with his hand tucked in mine, we talk. I tell him that he feels things more deeply than most people, that being sensitive is hard, but also wonderful. "But Mom," he countered, "what if I'm 17, and a friend asks me to go see 'Lord of the Rings' with him, and I'm still too scared to go?" Oh baby, you'll toughen up way before then, I said, but I was glad for the darkness that hid my tears.
Liza pays about as much attention to gender expectations as she does to my entreaties to keep her braids out of her dinner plate. When she wrestles with the boys, no one perceives her behavior as a "problem." So why should Matt have to toughen up? What's wrong with being scared of violent battles? Our expectations of how boys should behave are as deeply rooted in our psyches as our expectations of wolves. Wolves, and boys, are not supposed to step out of character.
A friend asked if I'm scared my son will be gay. Right now, the question seems irrelevant. And right now, like any mother, I love my son in all his specialness. Like any mother, I just want him to feel accepted. I don't want him to change; I want the world to change.
Even if the outside world tries to force Matt into the boy mold, I expect that our extended family will cherish him for who he is. Most do, of course, but not all. At a family event last year, Matt was dancing and spinning with his cousin, a young girl. They laughed giddily as their twirls turned into tumbles on the floor. Watching him, one of my relatives smirked and turned to me. "I'm sorry, Jill," she hissed into my ear, "Matt just doesn't act like a boy!" I took a deep breath and willed myself to ignore the comment, but her words stayed in my mind. I thought of all of those fairy tales where the children are cast out by their families.
What if that fairy godmother, the one who was listening when I wished for my backwards children, comes again? What if she offers to reverse my wish, what would I say? I would keep my daughter exactly the way she is. But my son? Would I wish him to give me a high five instead of rubbing his cheek softly against mine? Would I wish him to spend afternoons shooting hoops instead of baking brownies? Would I trade his sensitivity for a sense of belonging, his gentleness for acceptance? He wouldn't be Matt anymore, of course. But would I make that trade, if I could be assured he would have an easier life ahead of him?