Thursday, September 28, 2006

Get Rid of Affirmative Action for the Rich

You bet I will distribute this article, from the Economist, to my WS students. I anticipate that I will be barraged by the usual Anti-Affirmative Action rhetoric once we turn to issues of equality and education. If my students have followed me this far in the semester, that is, they have been transformed by the reality of social inequality along the axes of gender, race, sexuality and class, then their usual response to this mess is to say that education is the answer. We need to better educate people.

This may be true, but if we are honest with ourselves, we know that money buys a better education and, consequently, a better education buys one better social opportunities. And, if your Dad is Bill Frist, who opposes Affirmative Action, then you will get into Princeton. Or, if your Dad is Al Gore, you'll get into Yale.

For me the defensive and rancorous reactions that rich, white people have to Affirmative Action have always been a sign that what they have been doing all along--getting preferential treatment--was somehow being exposed. Their defensiveness is guilt. While I don't think that Affirmative Action is about preferential treatment, but about social justice, I do think their anger is a reflection of what they hate about themselves.

What Will Paris Do?

I don't know if you have been following the sudden (why did it take so long) realization on the part of Madrid fashionistas that runway models were quite simply too thin? Madrid officials quite simply banned models who were too thin. What was the response?

But Cathy Gould, of New York's Elite modeling agency, said the fashion industry was being used as a scapegoat for illnesses like anorexia and bulimia.

"I think its outrageous, I understand they want to set this tone of healthy beautiful women, but what about discrimination against the model and what about the freedom of the designer," said Gould, Elite's North America director, adding that the move could harm careers of naturally "gazelle-like" models.

Milan fashion week included a plus-size show and required models to carry health certificates. This comes after a 22 Uruguayan model died in August after having eaten only leafy vegetables for months.

What will Paris do? Will the fashionistas that be take a stand in Paris? No one knows, they aren't speaking. But we do know what Armani thinks:

Italian designer Giorgio Armani, writing in the UK's Independent newspaper before London Fashion Week, admitted he preferred models "on the slender side" because "the clothes I design and the sort of fabrics I use need to hang correctly on the body".

So, it seems we have two competing goods. On the one hand, we have to weigh the concerns that the highly influential billion dollar fashion industry is sending a very unhealthy and self-loathing message to young girls about their bodies. On the other hand, we have the artiste, who needs these "naturally gazelle-like models" as hangers for his or her clothes. Hmmm. What is the right thing to do?

I remember the first time the daugther of a friend of mine picked up a fashion magazine. It was designed for teenagers and she was about 11. She read it for about 2 hours while we were in a car driving back from South Carolina. At the end of the trip, she broke down in tears. Once she had flipped through the magazine, she spent the rest of the trip writing down a severe diet and exercise regime to lose weight. She decided that her totally normal, adorable 11 year-old self was quite simply unattractive. Her father proceeded to get very angry at his sister, who had lent the magazine to his daughter. He had striven to protect her from these images her whole life.

I don't think I have ever looked at a fashion magazine since.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

How to Write a Bad Paper

Some brilliant soul put up this website on how to write a bad Philosophy paper. I usually hand this out about now, since I am starting to get evidence that the students might want to rethink their paper writing strategies. Most of you will get a good chuckle. I like handing these directions out because it appeals to my sarcastic nature. My former colleague Hanno, as I am sure he will tell you, simply stapled a drop form when he handed back bad papers.


1. Don't prepare for class. When in class make sure you listen only to those things that will be relevant to your paper topic. Don't let extraneous information clutter your mind.

2. Sit in the back row; you will be called on less. If you are called on, mumble and cover your mouth with your hand. Teachers will learn not to call on you.

3. Be sure not to open your text. After all, doing so may reduce its resale value. Don't underline important phrases or make marginal notes. If you do, the thing will be worthless at the end of the semester when you need to get money for a trip to Europe.

4. Write your paper the night before it's due. The pressure will do wonders for your powers of concentration and selectivity. Definitely don't write a draft and revise it; that takes entirely too much time that would be better devoted to non-academic fun and games.

5. Be sure that you repeat what your professor has said in class. Verbatim transcripts work best in this regard. That way it's obvious you've been paying attention. After all, if you get your stuff straight from the horse's mouth, how can you go wrong?

6. If in doubt, be evasive and noncommittal. Use words like "seems," "appears," "maybe," "I think," and "in my opinion." If possible, end your paper with something like this: "But in the final analysis, who's to say?" This is known as a rhetorical question.

7. If you quote from the text, make sure you don't comment on the quote. You might get into trouble. It's always better to say something like: "The above quotation illustrates the author's point admirably." Don't say how, though. That's for the professor to figure out! And whatever you do, certainly don't attempt to evaluate anything. After all, you might get it wrong.

8. If you must have a thesis, make sure it's nice and vague and uncontroversial. Prove something that you're sure about and that only a moron would ever question. In addition, offer only broad generalizations to support the thesis; never get pinned down on details.

9. Whenever possible, use lots of jargon. In fact, the more the better. It will give your paper an air of authority. Also, it tends to confuse professors. After all, they can't give F's to what they don't understand! Besides, jargonized morphemes are the sort of things that look good in a paper. Your professor may even think you are a logophile.

10. Don't bother to proof-read. And whatever you do, don't get someone else to proof-read for you! Professors are paid good money to catch spelling errors and grammatical faults; make'em earn it. Don't ever use a computer spelling or grammar checker! Besides, when you're out of college a secretary will do that sort of stuff for you.

11. Finally, whenever possible turn your paper in late. Your professor will probably figure that you worked on it harder and longer than your classmates. After all, 'A' is for effort, isn't it?

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Mental Illness, even Hysteria, is Real

So I have been teaching this Philosophy of Psychiatry class this semester. So far, most of the articles students have read are responses to anti-psychiatry, and more precisely, the work of Thomas Szasz, who argued that there was no such thing as a mental illness. Szasz's argument is simple. For him, an illness, or disease, is solely a physical phenomena. Diseases are well understood physical dysfunctions, such as diabetes. Mental illnesses do not look like this, hence, they are not really illnesses. If they did have physical properties, then they would not longer require the qualifier "mental."

Mental illness is a stand in for unacceptable behaviors. Szasz sees psychiatry as largely about forcing people to conform to socially acceptable behaviors, and locking them up or giving the medications--against their will--if they fail to do so. His criticism against psychiatry inspired many, many philosophers of psychiatry and psychiatric nosologists to not only defend psychiatry, but to clarify what sort of things mental illnesses are. In sum, mental illnesses are real, capable of scientific study and treatment, and require us, ethically, to respond to them. Mental illnesses may not resemble some physical diseases, but they are nonetheless rooted in nourishing/biological processes. Certainly there is an evaluative component, which in essence means: suffering is bad and so we should treat that. But, they are not arbitrary inventions, which the state uses (psychiatrists as their proxy) to coerce individuals into behaving like 'normal' people.

The whole time I have been teaching these papers that reconfigure what sort of taxonomic kind mental illnesses are, I took, naively, for granted that most of my students believed in mental illness. I was wrong. Luckily, today I assigned the first chapter from The Noonday Demon, by Andrew Solomon, wherein he describes skillfully what it feels like to be depressed. I also assigned part of William Styron's account. And, to my surprise, this was the first time that many of my students started to "get" what it means to be the kind of depressed that warrants treatment, either medication or institutionalization.

I walk back from my class, to read the Times and lo and behold discover this article on new research on Hysteria. While there is a lot to chew on in this piece, what really draws my attention is the still pervasive belief that folks suffering from conversion disorder are "faking it" or malingering.

“We don’t like them,” Dr. Black said. “Somewhere deep down inside, we really think they’re faking it. When we see a patient with improbable neurological signs, the impulse is to say: ‘Come on, get off it. Sure you can move that leg.’ The other reason we don’t like them is they don’t get better, and when we can’t do well by them we don’t like them.”

The idea that most people, or at least many people, would think that someone in distress is faking it (and I don't mean to suggest that there aren't those who do), is the real enemy here. The real challenge of mental disorders, and luckily neuroscience is helping us out here, is that we must rely on the patient's subjective accounts (if and when they give them). We may not be able to confirm their symptoms with objective signs. However, to make the automatic assumption that they are seeking attention is disturbing. In fact, I find it to be inhumane.

I just keep coming back to this odd fact about interpersonal relationships. We don't seem to believe that which we cannot see with our own eyes.

More on Women on the Front Lines

Both Jill at Feministe and Vanessa at feministing commented on this Sunday Times article on the female casualties of the Iraq war. I have always been interested in the issue of women soldiers, because it is one of those classic examples brought up, now and historically, for why men and women could never be equal. Much like the bloody posters of miscarried fetuses that pro-life fanatics parade around abortion clinics, Phyllis Schlafly invoked the horrible specter of the female soldier in combat to defeat the ERA. Despite the fact that the ERA was defeated during the Reagan era and that many Republican politician would still like to keep women out of combat, women are in combat in Iraq. Women are also coming back in body bags, and the American public seems fully capable of stomaching this reality.

What I have argued before is that keeping women out of combat is a way to continue justifying female oppression. If we learn anything from the birth of democracy in Ancient Greece, once farmers and merchants were able, thanks to cheaper battlefield garb and weapons, to fight, the aristocrats had little hope of denying them political voice. If you die for your country, it's difficult to deny you full equality under the law.

But, I think the most interesting thing to ponder from this NYT piece is exactly what Vanessa zeroed in on:

A whole crop of veterans are suffering from post-traumatic stress and lost limbs, circumstances that sometimes prove more difficult for women who often fill the role of nurturers to their families.(my emphasis)

While many opposed to women on the front lines will assuredly use this evidence to further their cause, what it really reveals to me is the real tragedy of any war, and more, specifically the ease with which we dispose of men. We take it as axiomatic that part of what men should do is risk life and limb in war, even if it means that should he live, he will never be the same again. We don't expect fathers to take an important and valuable role in families, but rather expect that women should do that work of nurturing. This is a mistake, one that both Steve and I already argued that feminism corrects.

If we are concerned that women's PTSD is harming families, we should be equally concerned that men's PTSD is.

Deep Thought--Discuss

The great tragedy of life is that we waste time when we have it.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Pain-in-the-Ass-Continental-Philosopher Post

I am preparing my lecture on the problem of personal identity today and my textbook has the following discussion:

. . .consider the sentence "Green ideas sleep furiously." Even though the individual words that constitute this sentence are familiar and the sentence as a whole is grammatical, still, the sentence doesn't make any sense. I cannot conceive of what a world would be like in which this sentence was true. Ideas just aren't the sort of things that can sleep, much less sleep furiously. Nor are ideas the sort of things that can be a color, green or otherwise."

I have read this passage many times of the past few years and I always just shake my head in disagreement. I don't see what the problem with this sentence is. First of all, in a poetic context, this sentence can make perfect sense. Imagine a poem about jealousy which ends with the line, "green ideas sleep furiously." My mind would conjure up a jealous lover's fitful sleep. I am not even sure I buy the claim that ideas cannot be a color. I take it that the author means that literally. And yet, many fancy fMRI machines can represent our neural activity with colors. Or, better yet, how about folks with Synesthesia?

I guess what I am getting at here is that I reject this kind of analysis of sentences, wherein what is implied is that we could derive some sort of perfect language purged of such "nonsensical sentences." While I know that Analytic Philosophy has become far more nuanced in its analysis of the logic of sentences, it is my response to this author's example of a nonsensical sentence that reminds me why I didn't take that philosophical route. (Although, Steve G, you taught me well, I respect the project, I do.)

All Apologies

I've always wanted to use a Kurt Cobain lyric to title a post. But seriously folks, what is up with the state of apologies these days? Steve G tackled this question over at the Baltimore Sun. In the course of analyzing the "apologies" of the Pope, Mel Gibson, George Allen and Comptroller of Maryland, William Donald Schaefer, Steve concludes:

When an apology only notes the suffering without taking full ownership of the act that caused the suffering, the apology can sound hollow, even if it is meant in all sincerity.

While Steve says this with eloquence and rigor, I think it just makes these folks jack asses. People who cannot sincerely apologize for what they have done wrong are weak; they cannot handle criticisms to the self. Only those who can take seriously that they are fallible, that they are sometimes moved by less noble motives, but who nonetheless want to become better people are capable of apologies.

I have had to apologize more times than I care to remember. And, believe me, my first instinct was to deny, minimize or deflect. When someone wiser than I showed me the path, that only through sincere apologies do you earn respect and keep your integrity, I bit the bullet.

Those who cannot apologize with the sincerity that Steve identifies are doomed to invest most of their energy into protecting their fragile ego. What a waste of a life.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Love, Money, and Manipulation

I don't believe that dreams tell the truth. I think they are fanciful illusions that entertain us at night. And yet, I woke up two mornings ago deeply affected by what seemed to me as "truth" revealed by my dream. I was asking a lover to take me to a fancy meal and, rather than happily agree, he immediately made me feel guilty for asking for money. The idea was that by asking for fine things, I was demanding that love be expressed monetarily, and therefore, I was failing to love him for who he was.

This dream was not true, in the sense that it had anything to do with me and Za. But, when I awoke, I recognized this interaction as familiar; it was the way my father and I talked about, or didn't, my need for money. I learned early on that asking him for money was tantamount to showing him I didn't love him, but rather wanted to use him for my own material gain. Certainly, as a young person, I wasn't scheming for cash. I just asked for things like most kids do. But, what I learned from those exchanges, was that asking for things (money) was a perversion of love.

The truth of this dream lies in my recognition that who I have become followed from these painful interactions around money. I have never felt comfortable when anyone pays for me or offers me nice things. When I have been on dates, I have always framed my distinct desire to pay as a principled feminist stand. The idea of ever relying on anyone else for money is a profoundly scary thought. For years, I have believed that I didn't want to be financially dependent because it would put me in the vulnerable situation that so many other women found themselves in: risking poverty if my husband or lover would leave me for another woman. I was told, countless times by my mother, to never depend on a man financially.

But, my dream revealed to me the real reason I deeply dislike taking money from others: to do so is to reduce them to what they can give me.

Certainly this is not true. To give to others is an exquisite experience. I have always striven to be generous and taken pleasure out of making others happy. But, I have been paralyzed by accepting from others. Don't get me wrong. I do. When my parents or brother give me gifts, I am grateful. But, I am always a bit worried. I fear they will feel taken advantage of if I were to give any hint that I expected something or if I were to ask for anything.

Receiving gifts or asking others for money is deeply painful to me. So much so that I have never wanted to be in a romantic situation that was defined by my lover giving me beautiful things or providing for me in material ways.

And, hence, my sense that I was financially independent for deeply feminist reasons is just a story I have told myself to avoid facing the more complicated emotional reactions to receiving gifts from another. The real fear is that I would make the one who gave me gifts feel used up.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Salsa Dancing is Way Cooler than Frat Parties

The college brought in a fabulous Salsa band named Azucar last night. Za and I (along with his Post doc and some other colleagues) went to hear the band and do a little dancing. My college has this fabulous night club on campus, built just for the students to offer them a place to go and dance. I was happy to see the eclectic group of students present. Had you walked into this campus night club, and it was your first experience of my college, you would think that this is an incredibly diverse place.

Yet, this was not a typical cross section of our students, and that got me down. Many of the students were at their various fraternity and sorority member education meetings/gatherings. Upper class students were out at local bars. And, so the only students interested in doing some salsa dancing were our international students, students of color, or freshmen, who haven't been soured to such social options. What a pity.

The Greek life on this campus dominates. They dictate what is cool and what is worth doing on the weekend. When I have asked students why they don't just leave their sorority/fraternity, they usually respond with "what else would I do?" The idea is that without the Greeks there would be no social options on this campus. Sad. Just plain sad. Something about the social scene at this college stunts our student's emotional growth; they act a lot more like middle school students than young adults.

The college built this dance club in an effort to draw away students from the Greeks. By giving them a really, really nice place to dance, play pool and a bar, the idea was that students wouldn't feel so dependent on the Greeks for entertainment. But, this clever idea has not really made a significant difference. Most students don't take advantage of this space, and instead cling to the juvenile drinking parties and pop music of frat houses. I don't get it.

Why would anyone turn down the chance to do some salsa dancing? Damn!

Friday, September 22, 2006

Feminism Indeed is Family Values

I had intended to write this post yesterday, but found myself swamped with work this past week. In any case, I wanted to point my readers to Steve G's piece, "Feminist Family Values." To my readers who are feminists or committed to progressive politics, nothing that he says here is shocking or surprising. However, I have come to realize that it is important for these things to be said often. Awhile ago, I talked to a friend of mine from graduate school about the struggles I was having writing my book. My problem was that I thought what I was saying was obvious. His wise response to me was that some of the most important work we can and should do is continue to articulate what is true, obvious, and needs to be said. Steve has done this well.

It is in fact true that feminism was and is good for men. It does make men better fathers. And, it makes for better families. It is utterly confusing to me that anyone would think that feminism harms men. This is a fabrication of the Heritage Foundation and folks like Christina Hoff Sommers. I have never in my years teaching favored female students over males students. And, frankly the idea that feminism was about a power grab says far more about its critics than the proponents of feminism. Feminism is humanism; it is about recognizing that women are as valuable as any other human. But more importantly, it is about challenging systems of domination, which unfortunately, gender is.

We do not distinguish between the sexes in order to celebrate those difference. We make distinctions, historically and presently, among masculine and feminine traits in order to justify inequalities. Let me give two examples of how we use gender as a system of domination: (1) we can use stereotypes about femininity in order to injure others: "you're such a pussy!" or "don't be such a girl!" Men use these sort of statements on each other to keep each other in line, which means to beat any sensitivity or vulnerability out of them. Being a man means being aggressive and tough. Women use these same statements on men, usually their younger brothers or even sons. And, women use these statements to harm other women, as in the case of hazing.

But, we also distinguish between the sexes in order to justify inequalities institutionally, such as "women can't do math" or "women don't have the cognitive abilities to make it in the higher echelons of science."

Feminism challenges using gender as system of domination. Men should not be penalized for exhibiting the all-too-human traits of tenderness, emotional vulnerability and sensitivity. Feminism frees men from that gender straight jacket when it asks us to dismantle these oppressive gender stereotypes. Feminism asks us to celebrate, for the first time, gender differences rather than use them to justify inequality.

More importantly, feminism might just be crucial for helping men avoid what Lynn Weber calls the "costs of domination." Perpetuating a system of gender inequality--by trying to kill off any hint of "feminine" traits quite concretely threatens men's health. Men are far more likely to die sooner than women are. Men commit, particularly white Men, commit suicide at far higher rates. Why? Because to fail is to become worthless. Feminism, when embraced by men, actually improves their physical well-being since their entire identity need not be tied up with dominance any longer.

Anyone--man or woman--who believes that feminism is a system of domination, is someone for whom domination is an abiding preoccupation. They are viewing feminism from their own lens, for their own assumptions that any social movement is about domination. If they could free themselves from this agonistic worldview, they might find, for the first time, they can breathe.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

23rd Carnival of Feminists

Lingual Tremors has done a fabulous job with the new Carnival of Feminists. Head on over there.

EC is not quite OTC

Via Majikthise, I discovered this blog entry by the Biting Beaver, who recounts her disturbing tale of being denied EC in rural Ohio. While the FDA might have made EC OTC, there are plenty of ways to continue to deny women their right to plan their pregnancies. And, of course, with all moralistic practices, the denial comes with a great deal of humiliating and intrusive questions about her life.

Hazing Season

Yes, it's back. A student is collapsed in tears on the floor of my office. This scene is all too familiar. She is watching her sorority haze the new pledges and she is disgusted. Why? Well, because she knows that what they are doing is flat out mental abuse. She remembers how much this experience scarred her. And, on top of that, she is watching the woman, who was most victimized by hazing last year, now relish in her new position as pledge master.

I am not supposed to know this stuff, by the way. If I were to unveil who told me this and what she told me, I would be setting her up for abuse from her sisters. They are already abusing her. They tell her that she is just plain crazy for complaining about hazing practices: "lighten up, relax, stop being such a whiner." And, so she sits in my office and asks me if she is crazy. No, I say. You are just in the midst of crazy behavior and you are the one sane person trying to expose it; they can't afford for you to do so; they need to neutralize you.

What am I supposed to do when I have this conversation. Do I scream at the students for doing this to each , for being so cruel? Do I take issue with College Life for allowing it to happen? Do I upbraid the Trustees and the President for allowing Greeks on campus? Whose to blame?

What bothers me, above all, is that everything that this young woman, which has been of value to her, comes crashing down upon her when she is forced, taunted, and coerced to participate in ritualized brutality of her fellow sisters. She fears staying and she fears leaving. The consequences either way are painful; she is the very definition of a double-bind. Every lecture I give about White privilege, Sexism or more generally about guilt, compassion andethical responsibility haunts her as she stands, watches, and reluctantly participates in this hazing.

There she is, a puddle of tears on my floor.

I am helpless to stop the madness. Moreover, I know that it is destroying everything we try to teach these students at my liberal arts college. Every hope that they will be good citizens, participating in a democracy, wherein coercion and fascism are anathemas, is undermined by hazing.

UPDATE: I want to point out that the faculty at my college voted--unanimously--to get rid of the Greek System. The Board of Trustees vetoed the faculty vote. If you ask administrators from College Life why they don't get rid of the Greeks, they will say because the Trustees will veto the decision. If you ask the Development office, they will tell you it would affect, negatively, donations to the college. Every office and administrator has a reason for why we cannot banish the Greeks. And, yet, the most winning strategy for getting rid of the Greek is the U.S. News and World Report Strategy: that is, if we get rid of the Greek system we will continue to rise in the rankings of U.S. News, like the institutions that we most aspire to be like. What I find ironic about that "winning strategy" is it is just like the National Academy of the Sciences strategy: it is good for the country to find untapped talent in women. So, in order to abolish institions that perpetuate inequality, violence, and serve to degrade others, we have to make a rational self-interest argument. How fucked up is that?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Wanted: Women Scientists

Aunt Hattie alerted me to this recent study (in the NYTimes) on women in science written by the National Academy of Sciences.

“Unless a deeper talent pool is tapped, it will be difficult for our country to maintain our competitiveness in science and engineering,” the panel’s chairwoman, Donna E. Shalala, said at a news conference at which the report, “Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering,” was made public.

Dr. Shalala, a former secretary of health and human services who is now president of the University of Miami, said part of the problem was insufficient effort on the part of college and university administrators. “Many of us spend more energy enforcing the law on our sports teams than we have in have in our academic halls,” she said.

The panel dismissed the idea, notably advanced last year by Lawrence H. Summers, then the president of Harvard, that the relative dearth of women in the upper ranks of science might be the result of “innate” intellectual deficiencies, particularly in mathematics.

If there are any cognitive differences, the report says, they are small and irrelevant. In any event, the much-studied gender gap in math performance has all but disappeared as more and more girls enroll in demanding classes. Even among very high achievers, the gap is narrowing, the panelists said.

A spokesman for Mr. Summers said he was out of the country and could not be reached for comment.

Nor is the problem a lack of women in the academic pipeline, the report says. Though women leave science and engineering more often than men “at every educational transition” from high school through college professorships, the number of women studying science and engineering has sharply increased at all levels.

For 30 years, the report says, women have earned at least 30 percent of the nation’s doctorates in social and behavioral sciences, and at least 20 percent of the doctorates in life sciences. Yet they appear among full professors in those fields at less than half those levels. Women from minorities are “virtually absent,” it adds.

The report also dismissed other commonly held beliefs — that women are uncompetitive or less productive, that they take too much time off for their families, and so on. Their real problems, it says, are unconscious but pervasive bias, “arbitrary and subjective” evaluation processes, and a work environment in which “anyone lacking the work and family support traditionally provided by a ‘wife’ is at a serious disadvantage.”

What I find interesting about this study is how the imperative to better recruit and retain women in science is framed as a national priority--a crisis we need to address. Policy folks are far more sophisticated in strategy, and they realize, sadly that simply upbraiding the science community for sexist institutional barriers won't get far. It is not unlike the conversation I have been having with all of you on white privilege and structural racism. You simply cannot successfully fight structural sexism or racism by pointing out that these are immoral and inhumane practices.

My colleague in Physics recently gave a talk on the situation of women in Physics. I offered up her talk as an extra credit opportunity in my WS class. The students who attended--women--seem to fixate on the insignificant cognitive findings. I was aghast. The whole point of bringing these cognitive differences up was to consider this as one of the explanations (the one Larry Summers gave) of why women aren't full professors in science. However, if you look at that evidence, the consequences of the differences--men have a greater aptitude for rotating 3-D spaces in their head--is wholly irrelevant to success in science. That particular difference does nothing to explain the disparity.

So, a few of my female students were nonetheless willing to believe this cognitive difference theory. Some might argue that these women are suffering from bad faith. Or, as Za likes to say--mostly to taunt me--women are the greatest obstacles to feminism. I reject both of these explanations for why women might cling to the belief that they are just hard-wired to be less successful in the sciences. What this suggests to me is their own sense of inadequacy in science and math, and that inadequacy is nurtured by the culture--Barbie dolls that say "math is too hard"--and parents who do not nurture scientific curiosity in young girls, and finally, sexist teachers.

I am a casualty of institutional barriers. I hate writing about it. And, when I analyze why, it is clear. I don't want to be accused of playing the victim. But, the only reason I left science was sexism, plain and simple. I clung, with dear life to Philosophy. The choice of Philosophy over Chemistry was odd; I am pretty sure there are even fewer women in Philosophy, especially at the top of the field. But, I wasn't gonna be kicked out a second time. I remember distinctly a conversation I had with my epistemology professor when I told him I was dropping his course. He stated, quite matter of factly, that he just didn't think women were capable of understanding this material. I was pissed off enough, having just left the sexist fuckwits in the Chem department, so I looked at him and pointed out that I had a 3.7 with a Chemistry major, and had placed into advanced Mathematics courses. What about these credentials suggested my lack of aptitude for analytical reasoning? Perhaps, the reason women are leaving your course is because you are a horrible teacher. (Oh, snap!). Don't think I didn't pay for that, by the way.

This icky stroll down memory lane serves one purpose in this post: to point out how useless it is to fight this kind of pervasive and insidious sexism in higher ed by calling it what it is. Moreover, even those who have experienced this kind of sexism will find themselves blaming their own inadequacies (which I surely did).

We have to use strategies--that by keeping women out of science, the whole country suffers. Fine. I endorse the move. But, shit, I wish we could invoke this reasoning in all other fields as well. I doubt the country is clamoring for more philosophers, but if they were, I hope they issue a similar report. (I'm not holding my breath).

Sunday, September 17, 2006

On Guilt, What it Is, and Why it Sucks

My post on teaching white students about race really got me thinking about guilt. I read through many of the journal entries of my students and was fascinated by how many of them expressed a sense of guilt for being white. Then I thought about comments to my post from Bitch/Lab, IsThatLatin and Lindsay, and I realized that guilt is an odd reaction to structural racism.

What makes us feel guilty? Trained as a phenomenologist, my instinct is to start with my own experience and see if I can glean more universal features of that experience. So, if I think about when I feel guilty, I mean really guilty, it is always after I have done something rather horrific: lie to a friend or say hurtful things to someone. I may have lied, for example, because I was ashamed about something else I did, or because I wanted to hurt. And, because the intention is either malicious or springs from shame, guilt creeps in. When guilt creeps in, I have a few options: overcome the shame of what I did, apologize, confront the anger of another in the process, and move toward healing OR I can deny, minimize or rationalize what I did. Some people are fantastic at the latter move. I have noticed, that those who are particularly skillful at denying, minimizing or rationalizing, are those who are the most fragile; they cannot handle criticism to their character because they have so little sense of self.

Now, this kind of guilt that I just described seems wholly out of step with the recognition that one has more privileges in the U.S. because one is White. I think Lindsay is right that one should feel hopelessness and frustration, but self-hate, shame or guilt seem off the mark. Except if you think about this in the framework that humbition did: a sort of religious guilt. Many of us are taught to feel guilt by our religious faith. In the Christian tradition, we are guilty when we sin. When we sin, we are failing to emulate God. Only by confessing to a priest or directly to God, can we find forgiveness for our mortal failings. We feel guilt without confession because we know that God sees what we have done wrong. God is disappointed in us.

From this framework, guilt makes more sense as a response to structural racism and the privileges it inequitably confers on White skin, but guilt is the wrong response. If my students feel guilty, in this religious sense of guilt, then they are interpreting their privileges as a kind of hubris, a defying of God's will. They are chastising themselves for not disavowing such privileges and doing more good works to emulate God. Many of my students wrote about how they shouldn't buy expensive products, made by slave labor or they shouldn't have attended private school, where they were isolated from poor people and people of color. If they were good humans, their reasoning goes, they should have given up all earthly possessions and badges of privilege and lived among those who were less fortunate with compassion and love.

If you are dogged by this kind of religious guilt, then learning about instiutional racism is bound to cause a great deal of anger. If you think you are being told by your professor that you are a sinner for not disavowing your white skin privilege, then you resent your professor's confessor role: "why should I have to confess my sins to this moralizing White professor who thinks she is better than me because she has disavowed her white skin?" Or, if your professor has convinced you that she too is wracked with this sinner's guilt, then the lot of you are paralyzed by your inherent failings. Both of these reactions are deadly for any sort of justice or education. Moralism, at the end of the day, does more to inspire hatred than goodness.

Guilt--whether issuing from one's shame at harming another or from one's sense that she is a sinner--is a paralyzing emotion. It tends to turn us into narcissists. We become absorbed with our wounds, with others' attacks to our integrity, or without our own nagging sense of our inadequacy. Narcissists spend all of their energy repairing their own damaged ego. They do so either by finding someone worse than they are and elevating their self-worth by comparison, or they rail against all institutions that would dare make them feel incomplete or sinful. Narcissists have no energy left over to do something that might make a difference to others.

By thinking through this problem, it appears to me that the only way to successfully teach students about race is a way that circumvents sinner's guilt. This was, of course, humbition's point. And Bitch/Lab smartly pointed out that one way to do so is to immediately illustrate how to fight structural racism.

But, I guess I am far more concerned that sources of sinner's guilt are so endemic to our culture in the U.S., that avoiding this sort of response from students is impossible. There are plenty of institutions that are quite happy fostering moralism.

To get my students over guilt requires, maybe, pointing out how narcissistic it is. But, alas, that can certainly add fuel to the fire. So, what do we do?

Friday, September 15, 2006

Conversations with a Republican Union Member

Breaking with my usual Thursday night habits--knitting and Grey's Anatomy--I ventured up to Harrisburg to see a blues jam session with friends. We drove in to the local 40 & 8 where everyone who had gotten off work and wanted a few beers, potluck and blues music gathered. I hadn't been out to see the blues for a long time and was grateful I had made the trek once I was inside.

I sat next to a guy named Barry. He was sipping his SoCo and made room for me to sit down at the bar and showed me where I could hang my purse on a hook. My friend Jamie made a silly crack about how Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays should be for the drunks--referring to absurd comment made by a politician on Colbert--and Barry smiled, held up his drink to toast Jamie and then asked: "are you a Republican?" Jamie replied, "no, I'm a Democrat." Barry said, "Shit, I was going to vote for you for President."

Barry is lifelong member of the United Steel Workers. He is in his early 60s, retired due to an awful accident and living on a nice pension. He spends his days reading everything he can get his hands on about the Civil War. He is proud of his time in the Marines and told me to thank both my Dad and Uncle for fighting during Vietnam (for the record: my Dad never left Germany, but my Uncle was a fighter pilot).

When Barry told me he was a Republican I was bewildered. "Wait a minute, you're a union member and you vote Republican?," I asked. He smiled, took a sip, and then explained to me: "I believe that money trickles down . . ." Now, I know its hard for many of the readers here to believe that I didn't immediately get Socrates on his ass to point out the contradiction, but I didn't. Ok, I am lying. Maybe I did, a little. I pressed him to clarify for me how it is that he thought money really trickled down, since he paid dues to a Union to make certain that he got a fair wage and healthcare. He just smiled. [By the way, he has an adorable smile. He covers his mouth when he does, sort of like he is giggling].

"I had to join the Union," Barry explained. He couldn't get work building the Steel factories outside of Harrisburg unless he was union. So, he was a member for 32 years and by the time he retired he made 17 dollars an hour, had a pension and good health care. When he fell through a roof--which sent him into retirement--the union paid for his multiple surgeries and 19 days in Hershey (this was in 1999).

So, bewildered, I asked again. "How can you believe in trickle down, when the very fact that you have money in the bank, you have no debt from your prolonged hospitalization, and you have health care is due to the union fighting for it from those who don't really want to trickle down so much." He cited Henry Ford's philosophy. He also pointed out that he didn't have union health insurance anymore, but Medicare. Ok, I shrugged.

Then, he said what I took to be the real clue into why he voted Republican. People shouldn't be on Welfare. I pointed out to him that he was on welfare--he was on Medicare. He shook his head and said, "No, I haven't signed up for it yet."

Barry worked hard his whole life. He shattered his arm falling through a roof and he saw one guy die a year at the Steel Mills. He is a proud Veteran. And, he can't abide people living off Welfare and not doing their part. That's why he votes Republican.

Barry also loves Playboy and promised to buy me the August, 1970 issue for my next birthday. "It's a time capsule," he said and giggled. "I love the cartoons." I asked him if he was going to vote for Santorum. He asked, "Is he Republican?" "Yes," I replied. "Well, then I will." I pointed out, in vain, that Santorum probably didn't approve of his Playboy reading. He shrugged. Voting Republican is like rooting for the Yankees. You aren't going to convince a Yankees fan to root for another team.

Before I left, he slipped me a matchbook with his number scrawled inside. "If you get lost and need me to pick you up, just call."

On the way home, I analyzed this with Ricardo. From Barry's frame of reference, people who lived off welfare were a drain to the economy. And yet, he couldn't quite make the connection to why there might be more incentive to rely on welfare than get a backbreaking job in this economy. The unions certainly did their part to exclude people of color from joining. If you were a union member, you could earn a living wage, buy a house, support a family and retire with money in the bank. But, without union membership in this working class neighborhood, there are hardly any options for finding employment with a liveable wage. The women bartending at the 40 & 8, might be making a pretty decent wage, but they certainly don't have health insurance and they are inhaling buckets of secondhand smoke every night. You could work at Wal-mart, but you aren't going to be raising a family on that. And, you could be a non-union day laborer, but you'll be working your ass off and getting paid significantly less than union guys with no benefits.

With little options, is it any surprise that some people rely on TANF (if they have children) or Medicare [what Barry means by welfare]? And, let's not forget that under TANF, lifetime benefits are limited and so they have to get a job anyway, a job that requires a lot of time away from home, their children, and still not a liveable wage or health insurance.

The more important lesson to draw here--if there is one at all--is that the conventional wisdom that Republicans are attracting fiscally conservative or moderate Dems because of social issues is wrong. Barry doesn't give a whit about the family values crusades of the Santorums. He votes Republican because it's his team. He doesn't think deeply about the connection between politics and his life. And, he doesn't have to think about it.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Farewell Ann Richards

One of my political sheros died. She was one hellva gal. Go see Echidne for a list of her "firsts."

She is survived by her daughter, Cecile Richards, who is the President of Planned Parenthood. You can send condolences to Ms. Richards at

I have to say its hard to see so many of the 2nd Wave pioneers go. I hope it serves as a reminder to all of us, who are beneficiaries of their work, that we need to keep pressing forward in our struggle to abolish racism and sexism.

Why Talking about Race with White Students is Painful

Talking about race, and particularly about racism, is one of the most emotionally draining aspects of teaching for me. I almost always start with discussing structural racism when I teach Women's Studies. Those of us who have learned well the lessons from the 2nd Wave, and in particular, the way in which the movement was structured by the concerns of white women, strive to prevent that from happening again. But, it is not easy. First, my colleague and I started off with the first two chapters of From Margin to Center, by bell hooks. This is powerful. She makes it abundantly clear how 2nd wavers were unwilling to interrogate their own racist assumptions and/or their own privileged location in U.S. culture. Students often are stunned by this piece, but it doesn't anger them quite as much as Peggy McIntosh's piece does.

The reason why is clear. When they read hooks, they can chalk up her anger to the failures of white women from the past. After all, she wrote this in the early 80s, and we have come a long way baby. McIntosh, however, doesn't let them off the hook. She has internalized criticisms of the 2nd wave, like hooks', and done the painful work of looking at how she has unearned advantages because she has white skin. If you look at McIntosh's piece (click on the link above) you'll get a sense of what she means, in very concrete terms, by white privilege. What is brilliant about this piece is that she illustrates why many white people, who are NOT overt racists of the Klan mold, but well-meaning, moral, Church-going people, tend to perpetuate racism. This happens because their own lived experience suggests that hard work means the world is open to you. If you look at the list in toto, it becomes clear that white skin means : you don't have to earn respect (no one blames your speech on your race, nor praises you as a credit to your race); you don't feel limited in where you can go (where you can buy, no one follows you around in stores . . .); and you don't have to worry about how you carry yourself (what you wear, how you speak, whether or not you tend to be a few minutes late). Hence, the world feels open to you.

If white people grow up in a world where they have that kind of freedom--where the world literally seems wide open to them--then it is nearly impossible to realize that one's freedom is the result of persistent structural racism. If you can buy in a house in any neighborhood--granted you have the money--that is because of red lining or because your parents got federally guaranteed loans that were not available to people of color.

Reading McIntosh's piece and watching part of the documentary called The Color of Fear almost always has the effect of angering my students. Yesterday, a young woman, who seems so at home in this course, raised her hand and said "these articles basically tell you to hate yourself if your white. It's not my fault that I am white." I was taken aback, but I should have known better. It is true. To take McIntosh seriously, which I think she was doing, is to have to confront some very scary emotional stuff. And, when we do, we have a choice--deal with it or deny it. Most of us work hard to deny painful truths about ourself--and in this case that the conditions of the lives of people of color is not the same as our own, and that in fact they suffer precisely because they do not have white skin. It takes intense ego strength to take seriously this criticism without being sickened or hating yourself.

But, hating yourself only fuels the racism. It fuels it by denying it. It fuels it by denying, once again, the bitter truth that to not be white in the U.S. is to confront insidious and daily acts of racism. By forcing students to look at this, I walk a very fine line of losing them for the rest of the seminar. If they can find anything that opposes the truth of McIntosh, they will cling to it. For example, we have an African American man in our class who simply denies that racism happens. When he says this, it gives a lot of comfort to many of the students in that fragile emotional place. They can say, yeah, that's right. Hey, look at Colin Powell or Condoleeza Rice, or Oprah. Tokenism. Ah, how tokenism allays the pain of white guilt. Never mind that at least four other students in the class (and by the way the only four students of color besides our African American male) insist that they experience all of the insidious racism that is the flip side of McIntosh's piece. Or, nevermind that there are hardly any students of color on this campus, not to mention faculty of color. To figure out why is to have to be in a really uncomfortable place where white people have to look at themselves in profoundly different ways.

I go through this painful trek with students alot, and no matter how many times I teach this and consciously choose to force them to confront what it means to be white, I am surprised when they resist. So, I spent some time this morning thinking about why I am surprised. And, I think I have a clue: class privilege.

I came from money, like many of my students. I went to private schools, lived in exclusive neighborhoods, and wore nice clothes. I became very aware of my class status when I decided to transfer to public school, at the protest of my parents, when I entered high school. I got a real lesson in class when I made that switch. If I drove my father's expensive car to school, I could be assured of many fellow students saying shit about me: "Man, she thinks she is really important." "Look at how she flaunts her money." At first, I tried to hide all outward signs of money, but after I tired of that, I just spent time trying to understand where they anger came from. I got to escape it once I went to college, a private school very much like the one where I teach. However, that experience in high school paved the way for me to be more sensitive to social inequality and the Jesuit college I attended was committed to social justice.

The fact is, growing up rich made me aware that the world was a lot better for me than it was for most people. I knew I got things that others didn't. But, if you grow up white and working class or white and lower middle class, then I think it is a lot harder to swallow what McIntosh is saying. And, if I think back on which students protested her the loudest over the years, it was the white students who didn't come from a high socio-economic status. They were in public school with Black kids or Latinos. They didn't get any breaks, so why should they hate themselves for being white?

When I lived on Long Island I saw this kind of anger toward any attempt to talk about racism or fight racist institutions alot. My students were either working class or middle class white kids, whose family had moved out from Queens, or they were as multi-cultural as you can get: from all five boroughs. Race relations were intense. I dated a guy who lived out in Rocky Point. This neighborhood was almost all Italian Americans whose families had bought houses cheap in the depression and then subsequent generations moved out to Long Island. This was one racist neighborhood, and I mean the overt kind. When my black friend bought a house and moved into that neighborhood, my boyfriend was stunned. He asked if he was getting hassled by people in the neighborhood.

I remember spending a Christmas down the street from where my friend lived and listened to the men of this family (and there were like 8 kids) make racist jokes, the kind I had never heard in my privileged world. If I try to make a guess where this anger came from, I would say it came from being in the crappy schools in Queens with black kids and forming beliefs that these kids were lazy, unwilling to work, or criminal. These working class Italian men didn't think life gave them any breaks and they made it; they worked hard, paid their taxes, and supported their families.

I don't know if this analysis makes sense or if I am off base. But, I appreciate any comments or insights here.

UPDATE: Before too many people start accusing me of "hating white people," like PD just did (in jest), let me clarify I don't think that white people should hate themselves because of privilege (Thanks to IsThatLatin for raising this point in the comments). In fact, it is the worse possible outcome and only fuels structural racism. I think they need to confront that fear and move through it toward action. But, here I am focusing on why it might be more of a leap for working class white people to even swallow the view that whiteness creates unearned advantages.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Either Not Enough Reason or Too Much, Which Is It?

Pope Benedict XVI lectured to a crowd that Muslims have little reason and therefore pervert God's plan. He cited for evidence a 14th Century Byzantine text, which upbraided Muslims for bringing faith with the sword. [What's that saying? Clean up your own back porch before you start criticizing another's dirty porch?]

His speech, however, didn't stop there. He next criticized the West for having too much reason. Why is this a problem:

The world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion from the divine, from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions,” he said. “A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures.”

Why can't we just talk to each other: Secular Christians and Faithful Muslims? It all boils down to having just the right proportions of reason. Too much and you're shutting the door to dialogue like us science-minded secularists. Too little, and you're all jihadi. So, what's the right amount of reason?

When reason leads humans to embrace Evolution as a powerful scientific theory for explaining speciation, have we crossed the line? If we don't think conception begins at fertilization . . .have we become too deaf to hear our Muslim brothers? What is just right?

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Monday, September 11, 2006

Five Years Later

Amanda and Bitch Ph.D. alerted me to this photo essay at Vanity Fair, commemorating 9-11. I still find it hard to believe that it has been 5 years since this tragedy. I remember quite well what I was doing the morning of: getting my teeth cleaned at the dentist. The Dentist's wife came in to announce that a plane had hit one of the twin towers. I assumed, like many, that it was a very poorly prepared pilot in a Cessna (I think that early reports had disseminated this misinformation).

When the second plane had hit, I got a call from my colleague Emma who demanded to come over and watch the BBC at my house. I cancelled class and sat in front of the tube, with Emma, for 10 hours. I haven't really allowed myself to look at much footage of that day since. I had seen enough for a lifetime.

Since that day, I have come to loath visits to my Dentist. And, oddly, I think that there is some relationship to why I won't go back and that fateful day. Shortly after the attacks, I noticed that the lobby in my dentist's office included a big, flat screen TV tuned to Fox News. And, the next time I showed up there was a huge framed poster of the American Flag and firefighters with some text attributed to George W. Bush.

How differently this attack affected me compared to my dentist. It radicalized he and his wife; making them passionately committed to the Bush administration. And, it woke me up to be more concerned and attentive to how the Bush Administration has capitalized on this tragedy to garner more political support for their own agendas. This day of tragedy has been milked for all its political worth.

So, today, I just want to contemplate this picture above and how it is both haunting and comforting.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

There is More to Truth than Objectivity

My recent post on Plan B and the problems with defining conception as fertilization of an egg invited lots of comments and some very insightful. However, thinking about this recent exchange, I find myself frustrated with how arguments about choosing to take Plan B or terminating a pregnancy can turn into abstract, metaphysical arguments that are so far from the earthly beings we are as to seem wholly irrelevant. What is perhaps, even more interesting, is how most moral debates these days tend to assume only two possible perspectives on moral matters: objective truth or wholly subjective truth. Such a construal of truth is not only wrong, but it genuinely hampers any progress on many of the profound moral and scientific questions of our day.

Many non-philosophers tend to see truth as either wholly objective and irrefutable, exemplified either by Physics or for some zealous theologians, Neo-platonism. In the first paradigm, what is true is what can be demonstrated with mathematical proofs. In ths second paradigm of objectivity, what is true is what follows from a belief in a omniscient, omnipotent, and wholly good God. The theological arguments that claim objectivity: life begins X, are incapable of appealing to any evidence to support them. They are axioms of faith, and hence the likelihood of persuading such a thinker against them is virtually nonexistent. The Physics paradigm of truth is only applicable to a small subset of phenomena in the world, not including human behavior or ethical questions.

So, those who cling doggedly to "objective truth" either try to avoid wading into ethical questions, or they do so with a blind faith that their first principles about life and death matters are correct and indubitable. If no objective code exists, guaranteed by an omnipotent, omniscient, or wholly good God, then everything is in a state of hopeless subjectivity, wherein people are left to decide for themselves what is good or bad.

The fact is that this construal of truth--either wholly objective or hopeless subjective--is a false dichotomy. If philosophers could do a better job explaining this to the world, we might make some headway on difficult questions. Some truths are true relative to a frame of reference. In order to determine the right answer, you must first clarify the context in which you are making such a judgment. A classic example to illustrate this point is time. The claim that it is 4:20 pm right now is true only by virtue to a particular frame of reference (SteveG gives fabulous lectures on this and I encourage all of you to go bug him and ask for such a lecture).

Another example, which I just discussed with my students in Philosophy of Psychiatry, is the concept of Mental Illness. A famous anti-psychiatrist, Thomas Szasz has long argued that the notion of mental illness is wholly invented by those who want to control the population. Mental illness is a description, according to Szasz, of socially deviant behaviors. He makes this argument by falling into the same trap I just outlined above: assuming truth is either wholly objective or hopelessly subjective. If it is the latter, then we are in danger because now we are in the territory of "might makes right," and so those who wield psychiatric power are able to lock up people, who are different, against their will in order to bring about better conformity.

But, what if mental illness was in fact a concept that referred to something real (which means scientifically meaningful), but could not be defined in the sort of absolute truth conditions of Physics of Theology? What if mental illness is a concept that picks out illness--harmful dysfunction--but that concept is both an empirical and value-laden notion? Are we doomed to hopeless subjectivity like Ssasz believes? Isn't it possible to articulate a frame of reference to which we compare those who are mentally ill, from those who are not, and not assume that frame of reference is TRUE in some profound metaphysical sense?

After all, disease is never a wholly empirical concept. We are always making a judgment that it would be better for someone suffering to not suffer; that is why we have medicine as a profession and medical research. If we didn't think it was important to alleviate suffering, we would let evolution or God have its way, right? But, humans intervene in the world. They make judgments that some things are not good, but they cannot base these judgments on Mathematical or Ontological proofs. What if our frame of reference in some cases is stipulation--judgments in reference to some norm that we articulate and create our worlds and relationships in accordance with. Those norms, such as suffering is that which we would like to have relieved, are not discovered in the world in the same way that the chemical structure of water is. Nor do we necessarily divine these norms from God, faith or the good book.

To assume that the concept mental illness is hopelessly subjective is to cling to a naive view of truth and knowledge. We philosophers have not been doing a good job clarifying that we can have knowledge about the world that doesn't correspond to the narrow dichotomy of objective/subjective truth. If our concepts make practical and helpful contributions to our ability to predict things about the world or to our well being, then they are true. This is not a claim to unshakeable Truth; but rather knowledge that is consistent with certain shared background assumptions or a frame of reference that is necessary to make sense of phenomena.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Give Them Just Enough Freedom to Hang Themselves

zuzu, over at Feministe, has an excellent analysis of how batshit crazy Dinesh D'Souza's argument against the American left is in his new book, The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and It's Responsibility for 9/11. According to Random House:

D’Souza shows that liberals—people like Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy, Barney Frank, Bill Moyers, and Michael Moore—are responsible for fostering a culture that angers and repulses not just Muslim countries but also traditional and religious societies around the world. Their outspoken opposition to American foreign policy—including the way the Bush administration is conducting the war on terror—contributes to the growing hostility, encouraging people both at home and abroad to blame America for the problems of the world. He argues that it is not our exercise of freedom that enrages our enemies, but our abuse of that freedom—from the sexual liberty of women to the support of gay marriage, birth control, and no-fault divorce, to the aggressive exportation of our vulgar, licentious popular culture. (my emphasis)

zuzu masterfully shows how disturbing this claim is, especially in light of rhetoric the Bush Administration adopted to bolster support for our intervention in Iraq, i.e. that we are concern ed with protecing women's rights from fundamentalism. But, I guess we are less interested in protecting our own women from home grown fundamentalist crap.

I am going to take an optimistic tack on this one and say that broader reach that D'Souza gets for making such arguments only emphasizes his affinity for the Ahmadinejad school.

God bless free speech! It gives neo-cons like D'Souza just enough rope to hang themselves.

See also Amanda, Scott and Lindsay on this.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Plan B is not an abortifacent, unless . . .

you are willing make some outrageous intellectual leaps to defend the claim that life begins when a sperm fertilizes an egg. This of course is Santorum's line and he tried to shame Bob Casey Jr. for abandoning his principles and disappointing his dead father in this debate (Crooks and Liars)

Casey agrees that life begins at conception (probably he should have clarified what definition of conception he is using). Tim Russert slips in that conception is fertilization of the egg. However, this is NOT the medical definition of the onset of pregnancy (see this paper at Guttmacher). Abortion is the termination of a pregnancy; abortion can either be spontaneous (which we call miscarriage) or induced (the practice that is hotly contested in the United States). Hence, Russert basically did the set up for Santorum's slam dunk, by narrowly defining conception, i.e. pregnancy as fertilization. If you think that this definition of conception is the moral equivalent of pregnancy, then your argument leads to absurd conclusions.

If you believe that a fertilized egg is a precious life, wouldn't it behoove right to lifers, like Santorum, to penalize women whose bodily movements or daily habits may have prevented a preembryo from implanting on the uterine wall? Since between 1/3 and 1/2 of fertilized eggs do not actually implant, then any behavior or activity that might be credited with preventing implantation should be roundly morally condemned for murder. Moreover, shouldn't right to lifers invest a great deal of political energy to ensure that OBGYNs carefully monitor women, right after sex, to ensure that the fertilized egg gets implanted; if the egg doesn't implant, then you are just standing by watching a senseless death occur.

Let's not also miss the important point that if fertilization is life and 1/3 to 1/2 of all fertilized eggs don't implant, e.g. spontaneously abort (according to right to lifers definition), then God is the most prolific abortionist around.

I suppose Santorum could counter that God didn't want this life to come into the world and so it is not up to us mere mortals to intervene. But, where was that sort of thinking in the Schiavo case? Let's say that Santorum argues that Schiavo's injury and death was the sheer product of human fault and God would want us to rectify it by keeping her alive, albeit artifically. Fine, what then do we say to women who injected contraception, e.g. Depo-Provera, and then ceased taking Depo, but found themselves unable to get pregnant for a year or so. Such women have with vain hubris (this is Santorum's viewpoint, not mine) interfered with God's plan of bringing forward life in the sacred act of martial intercourse. And, hence, we should deprive these women of their dignity (the way we deprived Schiavo of hers) by ensuring that fertilization leads to implantation. Before you know it, we are all Offred in Gilead.

What does Santorum make of IVF, which involves inserting a pre-embryo into a woman's uterus and waiting for it to implant? Is this violating God's plan by bringing forward a life that God did not sanction? If so, then is it God's plan to leave some mothers childless? If he says yes, then why might he endorse adoption, which, once again interferes with God's divine plan?

It's hard to be Santorum. But, I am more pissed off at Russert and bummed at Casey for setting up and walking into this specious argument trap.

Conclusion: If you believe life begins at fertilization, then you believe that God performs more abortions than any mere mortal.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Speaking of Intellectual Diversity. . . .

Here's one radical way to ensure different political and religious viewpoints:

Ahmadinejad calls for university purge

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- Iran's hard-line president urged students Tuesday to push for a purge of liberal and secular university teachers, another sign of his determination to strengthen Islamic fundamentalism in the country.

With his call echoing the rhetoric of the nation's 1979 Islamic revolution, Ahmadinejad appears determined to remake Iran by reviving the fundamentalist goals pursued under the republic's late founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Ahmadinejad's call was not a surprise -- since taking office a year ago, he also has moved to replace pragmatic veterans in the government and diplomatic corps with former military commanders and inexperienced religious hard-liners.

Iran still has strong moderate factions but Ahmadinejad's administration also has launched crackdowns on independent journalists, Web sites and bloggers.

Speaking to a group of students Tuesday, Ahmadinejad called on them to pressure his administration to keep driving out moderate instructors, a process that began earlier this year.

Dozens of liberal university professors and teachers were sent into retirement this year after Ahmadinejad's administration named the first cleric to head Tehran University, sparking strong protests from students.

The country's oldest institution of higher education remains home to dozens more professors and instructors who outspokenly oppose policies that restrict freedom of expression.

"Today, students should shout at the president and ask why liberal and secular university lecturers are present in the universities," the official Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Ahmadinejad as saying during a meeting with students.

The president complained that reforms in the country's universities were difficult to accomplish and that the educational system had been affected by secularism for the last 150 years. But, he added: "Such a change has begun."

It was not clear whether Ahmadinejad intended to take immediate specific measures, or was just urging the students to rally.

Perhaps Horowitz should take a page from Ahmadinejad's notebook? Why does Horowitz pussy foot around? Why not just demand a purge?

Intellectual Diversity? Excuse me?

This friday my campus is inviting the whole community to a discussion meeting about the new strategic plan. Being a good citizen, I started working my way through this document and got hung up on Strategic Objective #2, which reads "To prepare students to be citizens of a diverse world, Gettysburg College will ensure a learning experience for all students that include diversity of perspectives and that promotes a culture of understanding."

Now, don't get me wrong. I find this goal admirable. I particulary like the last phrase "promotes a culture of understanding." Moreover, I support this goal. But what sticks in my craw is the spelling out of what the committee means by diversity: "Enhance on-campus diversity of all kinds (racial, intellectual, geographic, etc) . . ." If "diversity" includes intellectual and geographic, then we have stretched this concept to meaninglessness. But, to be honest, "diversity" has become a safe buzzword. My colleague and I just lectured on this very point on Monday in our Intro. to WS course.

I understand why institutions opt to use the word diversity, but it's clear to me that this word, and the now meaningless concept that it denotes, is working against the very goals of Strategic Objective #2. Why does the committee feel the need to define diversity so broadly? Well, there are lots of reasons. Let's be charitable. Let's assume that they truly mean to recruit intellectual diversity--the kind of diversity I find most problematic. Their justification usually goes something like this: we live in the age of globalization wherein we will all confront people with different views, different political intuitions, different religious beliefs and so it behooves colleges, who are entrusted with educating our future citizenry, to expose students to a diversity of ideas. Doesn't sound half bad, right?

But, the fact is that intellectual diversity is a phrase coined and now, it seems, made indispensable by David Horowitz. The phrase is code for "conservative views." And, if we are being honest with ourselves, it is precisely this sort of mindset--aggressively opposed to any educational program that dares ask students to question their most deeply held beliefs--is directly opposed to the entire mission of a college, and particularly a liberal arts college like ours that strives to make our students global citizens.

I plan, of course, to be a bit of a pain in the ass on this point on friday. And, I want to do so precisely because I think this goal is so admirable. I think the real culprit, however, is that we have embraced the word "diversity" rather than been more honest about what our goals are: to attract students and faculty who have historically been denied access to a liberal arts institution. Either they have been denied this access because of nationalism, racism, sexism, or classism. To repair this institutionalized discrimination, we, Gettysburg College, will set a national example and thereby assiduously recruit persons who have been or continue to be denied the riches of a liberal arts education. By doing so, we are educating. We are showing, as an institution, that discrimination is not inevitable or intractable. And, we are also demonstrating that crushing poverty is largely a result of persons being denied access to elite institutions.

In response to the national tragedy that Katrina and its aftermath, our fearless leader, George W, did say:

As all of us saw on television, there's also some deep, persistent poverty in this region, as well. That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action. So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality. When the streets are rebuilt, there should be many new businesses, including minority-owned businesses, along those streets. When the houses are rebuilt, more families should own, not rent, those houses. When the regional economy revives, local people should be prepared for the jobs being created . . ."

I have no illusions that the college will drop the language of "diversity." I get its strategic importance. But when we use this language, we are simply asking for the absurd arguments made by Horowitz and his peeps. Diversity is a safe word. It makes people feel warm and fuzzy on the inside. But it doesn't say what we really want to do.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Book Meme--Finally

Both Bitch/Lab and the Happy Feminist tagged me to do this Book Meme, so I thought I would finally sit down and answer these questions about books—ah yes, books are the trophies of academia. Just the other day my colleague Kerry said—you can throw away relationships, furniture, houses, clothes—but an academic never throws away books (obviously tongue-in-cheek).

1. One book that changed your life?

Simone de Beauvoir’s the Second Sex. I decided right then and there (October 1990) to be a philosopher. If only I had known that being a philosopher was nowhere near as glamorous as de Beauvoir made it look, nor as committed to social justice. However, the question that the Second Sex asks: what sort of concept is the concept of woman continues to haunt me daily. I had never even thought to think of ‘being a woman’ as ripe for conceptual analysis to begin with. Before that book, my impression of philosophy was asking whether or not the chair I was sitting in was actually there (snore!)

2. One book you have read more than once?

See # 1. While I love to read, and usually have three or more books going at once, I rarely read a book more than once. I guess I fear that there are so many books to read and so little time to read them. But, I reread the Second Sex all the time. I also reread many of Plato’s dialogues. Mostly I read Plato because I am teaching him, but if I am honest, I have to say that I am rereading Plato because I never get bored.

3. One book you would want on a desert island?

I am sort of frightened to see the reactions of my loyal readers to my answer to this question, but I would want to have the Bible. It’s not that I would want to get closer to God, nor to be more biblical—if that means, live in accordance with God’s laws (how some fundamentalists interpret the Bible). Rather, I think the Bible is a fascinating text; it encompasses fantastic stories, parables, philosophical and theological dilemmas and paradoxes and some beautiful poetry. You find it all in the Bible: sex, violence, redemption, deceit, love . . .

4. One book that made you laugh?

Ann Coulter's Godless.

5. One book that made you cry?

Written on the Body, by Jeanette Winterson. I even wrote an article on this book. This book continues to haunt me because of how perceptive its observations of love are, while at the same time challenging my comfortable notions of personal identity.

6. One book you wish had been written?

Why the Pro-Life Movement is an Invention of the Bourgeoisie (maybe I will write that book!)

7. One book you wish had never been written?

St. Thomas Aquinas,' Summa theologioe.

8. One book you are currently reading?

Leaving the Saints, Martha Beck. Za convinced me that it was well worth the read and I have to agree so far.

9. One Book you have been meaning to read?

The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz, especially now that he has just passed. I have picked up the first volume more than once, but for some reason I always get distracted.

Now, who to tag?

Steve G, Philosopher's Playground--you're it.
71, Oxymoronic Philosopher--you're it.
IsThatLatin, Goldbricker--you're it.
Human, Secondhand Sun--you're it.


What HE said!

Saturday, September 02, 2006

More on the Politics of Breastfeeding

I am beginning to be grateful that newspapers are starting to talk more and more about breastfeeding issues. Upon finishing this latest piece in the NYT, I was reminded of one of the oddest conversations that I ever had. When I interviewed for the job here, an interesting fellow drove me to and fro the train station. On the way back, he decided to introduce as a topic for conversation: breastfeeding. It seemed, at the time, a real non sequitor. We had been discussing the Columbine shootings--which had just occurred and the perils of the internet. He then made it known to me that he would never let his (fictional) wife breastfeed in public. The idea is he couldn't stomach the way in which perverts would sexualize the act.

I never forgot that conversation because I thought it was bizarre. I am the first to admit that I am slow on the uptake, particularly when it comes to understanding how most people think in my country. I had never once thought of breastfeeding as an act that should not be done in public, for fear that prurient onlookers would get ideas. But, after finishing the NYT piece, I can't help but be amazed, once again, at how "dirty" breastfeeding is made out to be.

Now the point of the article is to create awareness that women who are still breastfeeding need accomodation at work to pump. And, surprise, surprise, women who have corporate jobs or are higher up on the professional ladder tend to have an easier time pumping at work, while the working class mommies are penalized or mocked.

If you read the reader's comments, many folks either tell stories of awkward and embarrassing encounters between male colleagues and moms trying to pump in private. Or, you have angered and annoyed readers suggesting that this sort of public display of pumping--which if occurring is probably the result of a workplace not accomodating the mother--is akin to public defecation.

This is just another example of what I find so bewildering about the American mind. While we are awash in the pro-life, pro-family rhetoric of the holier-than-thou right wing of the Republican party, mothers trying to do right by their babies by breastfeeding for at least 6 months or more are being harrassed at work.

I miss Freud. I can't believe I do. But, we have got to exorcise these repressed sexual demons. Breastfeeding is seen as an indecent public act? Pumping milk is an unreasonable worker demand? And lo and behold, the class war between breastfeeding mommies is all you need to postpone--indefinitely--any real push to change the workplace.

I suppose the reason that our pro-life group isn't outraged by this behavior towards breastfeeding mommies is that they think such womem should be shut ins. It's their fault for selfishly choosing work rather than staying at home, where they belong, to nurse their babies. Oh, how I weary of these fantastical fantasies of the religious right.

Friday, September 01, 2006

The Use and Abuse of Paternalism

I had an interesting discussion today about the use and abuse of paternalism (or maternalism) in the classroom. The conversation, in the end, suggested to me profound differences in the way that female faculty interact with students vs. male faculty. Full disclosure for my Social Scientist readers: I am not running an experiment here, nor do I have data. This is just an observation being thrown out there in hopes of generating discussion.

At a liberal arts college, the expectation is (at least on the part of the paying parents) that students get far more interaction with faculty than at a State university. What does this mean? Does it mean that we invite our students to dinner? Does it mean we get to know their family? Does it mean that we open our doors and welcome them in when they are feeling blue, frustrated, or terrified? These are interesting questions, well at least to me.

We veered into a conversation about acceptable paternalism in the classroom. One of my colleagues finds attendance policies to be unacceptable paternalism. The idea is that these students are adults; they can succeed or fail all on their own. If they don't want to show up, so be it. Now, I am not much of a fan of the whole "rational actor" view of human nature. I also don't think that many of our students quite have the skills they need to succeed well in college. Or, some of them have such self-esteem issues that they have already decided that they aren't "good" students. But, having clear expectations for attendance and consequences for not showing up has proven to be a very successful policy for me. By penalizing students for not showing up, I get them there. And, they begin to realize the benefits of being in class for better understanding material. I am not sure that this works for or is necessary for every subject, but you simply cannot teach a good Philosophy class without having your students present, prepared and willing to debate. Philosophy, to my mind, should never be a lecture course.

I sometimes wonder if my colleagues who are anti-attendance policies came from State Universities. Surely when I was teaching at Stony Brook, I would have never bothered to take attendance. Hell, I didn't even know 2/3 of their names. Too many students. And, subsequently, you develop a "survival of the fittest" mentality about students in that context. It is just plain true that only students with a healthy dose of self-assertion and doggedness in their pursuit of an education will succeed. There is no way to bring everyone along in that environment. In a liberal arts college, however, you are paying for smaller classes, more faculty interaction, and hence, more attention to your student. In that vein, I craft my rather strict policies, hoping to develop an awareness in my students that preparedness and promptness actually are crucial to learning.

But, alas, colleagues differ. And, I have noticed that most of my colleagues--certainly not all--who differ are men. But, this distaste of paternalism in the classroom really rears its head when we talk about a different kind of concern and attention toward students. That is, whether or not we should care about the psychological well-being of our students. Let's say that you have a student who hasn't shown up for a week to class. Do you do something? Do you send an email asking if he or she is ok? Do you ask Academic Advising to look into this? Now, I would. I tend to wonder what is going on, for example, if as student regularly falls asleep in my class or disappears for a long period of time. I might even worry if they are having a hard time getting their work turned it. So, I find a way to get them to talk to me.

When I mentioned this to my male lunch companions, they both said: "I'm not their parents, their priest, or their counselor." I was taken aback. It seems just plain decent to be concerned about your students. But, my colleage PD said that he would be if he had some sort of friendship with the student, but not otherwise. Maynard seemed to be uninterested in what students are doing outside of the classroom. And, so I tried to argue this point with my colleagues, not so much to persuade them, but to get a richer sense of what they thought were proper uses of paternalism.

By the end of the conversation--particularly with PD--I decided that paternalism, perhaps, is the wrong word. What I am, sadly, is maternalistic. What I mean by that is I take, perhaps wrongly, a maternal concern about the students. I am Lakoff's classic nurturant parent. I worry about the well-being of my students on multiple levels and tend to not separate out their intellectual self from their personality and connectedness to the place.

I started then seeing how this nurturant parenting style really irritates male colleagues. And, in fact, I can't help but wonder if this style of teaching or being an administrator, for that mattter, is taken as a sign of not being a rigorous or competent professional. While us liberals are scrambling to make sense of the "strict father" appeal to Conservatives, aren't some us academics playing out these same "styles" in how we approach education? Why might we cringe at the simplistic narratives of Conservative politics, yet reject a more holistic interaction with students in the academy? Is it a backlash against critical movements in education? Or is it a kind of low level sexism?