Monday, December 29, 2008

How about Living the Off the Grid Life

I just returned from a very hectic travel schedule for Christmas. Living up here in the hinterlands makes it difficult to get out of town. Add, on top of that, storms all over the country and you have a nightmare on your hands. I have never been so happy to return home after travel this Christmas.

While traveling, I had little access to the internet and, surprisingly, found that to be renewing. In many ways, moving up to a remote town, coupled with chasing after a toddler, has made me more Luddite than usual. I am enjoying slowing down and this change in my personality had me reflecting quite a bit on Judith Warner's "Living the Off-Label Life," which *I* sent to me (with exhortations to finish my book!). First of all, readers who know me well, already know that I am no Psychopharmacological Calvinist. I think that Henry Greely's arguments concerning enhancement technologies are fine. I do think it is problematic to make bright lines on the continuum that distinguishes morally permissible from morally impermissible enhancement.

I just spent several days with lots of children and family--negotiating airplane problems and customer service nightmares. The idea that enhancement therapies could help a frazzled person better cope with all of these demands and stresses is appealing. It really is. Self-medication is not only morally permissible in my book, but it is necessary.

But, for me, the the real problem with the "Off-Label Life," as Warner cleverly calls it, is not the individual choices of whether or not to take ritalin or ambien to get through one's multi-tasked, fast-paced day. Rather, the problem manifests as political. The technologies that we use to manage the lifestyle we have created here in the U.S. (and increasingly elsewhere) only reifies and thereby legitimates it. We don't ever step back and ask: "Really, is this what life is about?"

No American holiday brings this home for me more than Christmas. We raise children now to expect to wake up on Christmas morning with dozens of "box store" gifts that take a paycheck bonus (if families are lucky to have employed parents) and more food than anyone can eat. This past Christmas, I found myself totally alienated and downright disgusted by this behavior. I thought about how shitty the whole economy is, how many people are struggling to get food and shelter, and then when I saw how much food that me and others made that got thrown away, and how many gifts were wrapped up that cost money that people could've really used for more elemental things, I was bummed.

Now, try to change the rules on kids at this point. You can't. They have been raised to expect this. The entire culture rewards this sort of gluttony. My dad even pointed that if you don't have gifts that children like, then they will start to cry. Gratitude doesn't seem to be part of the picture. But, you can't change the rules on kids who have grown up expecting this (I can however, never have Maddie grow up this way!).

Anyway, my reflections on the waste of Christmas--and how much the consumerism detracts from the real gifts of Christmas, such as spending time together away from work--come from the same intuition I have about enhancement medications.

We build them to persist in a gluttonous, wasteful, hectic and self-indulgent life. Why do moms take Ritalin or drink lots of coffee? To have enough energy to get their children from one structured activity to the next and their equipment and snacks and change of clothes, etc. Parenting=multi-tasking par excellence.

My former colleague Kerry has a great insight about how our consumerist culture expects utter perfection from everyone. Nowhere is this more obvious to me than in the behavior of uber-mothers. And, they transmit this to their children who grow up with anxiety fits about all the variety of ways to fail or to get hurt or make mistakes. No wonder my students are so damn medicated! So, we have hockey moms souping up on enhancement drugs to get through their structured children play/practice/tutoring/extra-curricular-activities-that-look-good-on-college-applications days. Then, we have their children growing up with unrealistic, and soul crushing, expectations for what counts as success.

Let's face it. This is fucked up. And, to get through our expensive and hectic lives we take enhancement medications, which keep us going and cranking out that American work ethic.

More than ever I count myself lucky to live in this tiny town. My daughter won't grow up around ostentatious displays of wealth or "keeping up with the Jones" Wii games and Barbie Palaces. She will grow up learning how to chop wood, clear trails in the wood, fish (hunt?), cross-country ski, read, build warm fires, make homemade pumpkin pies . . .So, am I a Luddite?

Maybe. But, the alternative really sucks.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Tim Wise

My student, who I discussed in the last post, was highly influenced by Tim Wise:

I updated this and added more Tim Wise videos.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Race: The Hardest Pill to Swallow

I teach many many courses that turn to the question of race and how it cripples some people, empowers others, and generally rents the fabric of our cultural quilt. I usually need a lot of downtime when I embark on readings and class discussions that have to do with race. It is the concept that causes me the most stress in discussions. I also find myself having to keep in check my disgust at some of the comments students and other faculty make. But, I am equally able to tap into the frustrations on white students. I am white. I benefit from this aspect of my identity everyday.

Anyway, I just can't help being surprised at how unwilling students are to recognize that racism still exists today. They just don't believe the first-hand testimonies of people of color. They don't believe statistics--and look for some other explanation. For them, the only sure sign of racism would be violence on the order of the KKK. Otherwise, it is not there.

Students will, however, grant that sexism exists, that discrimination based on age, class, nationality, and religion all exist. But that is it. Race is passé.

This is only going to get worse with Obama's election. I have noted that many a blog discusses this. But, my specific contribution to this discussion is how Obama's election is allowing white students to once again avoid the uncomfortable realization that non-white people don't experience the world in the same way.

One of my most thoughtful students this semester--a young, white man--pointed out that being White is a psychologically crippling identity. There is nothing one can take pride in--at least in a way that isn't disturbing--about being White. I guess this is it. But, why doesn't it hit students as hard in their identities as Americans? Or women? What is it about being White that is so profoundly psychologically crippling?

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Monday, December 15, 2008


I have been musing on a very touchy subject and I predict that my comments will be either misunderstood or cause offense. But, here goes. I have been thinking about how many of the older academic women I know can be matronizing. In my most charitable moments, I see the overbearing advice of my fore mothers oriented at protecting me from outright and institutional sexism. I am talking about the advice, wherein I am warned about the "patriarchal" style of certain male colleagues--ones I barely know--or administrators. I am exhorted to stand up for myself, to protect myself with mounds of documentation of my excellence, and, this one always gets me, told to constantly set up boundaries with my students (or else I will be seen as their mother).

What usually irks me about this matronizing stuff is how negative it is. (Here is where I am going to be misunderstood). But, it is true. The vibe I get from matronizers is negativity and anger. Men are either sexist pigs or lecherous. In this worldview, no woman is capable of being warm, nurturing toward students and colleagues, cheerful and congenial WITHOUT it being read as unprofessional or unserious. Moreover, in this worldview, sexist pricks are out with their fangs at every turn. No man is to ever be trusted completely. Even the good guys are deficient, insofar as they are insensitive to the sexism out there.

I find this worldview oppressive. I don't see the world this way. I don't experience the world this way. And yet, I am a overt, proud, and outspoken feminist. I am passionate about the ways gender stereotypes harm women. I am concerned about female poverty rates. I LIVE the difficult balance of work and family. I have dedicated my life to fighting all of these.

But, I just cannot live in a world where I see everyone--especially men--as always out to get me. I cannot live in a world where I am to suppress my natural affection for people, in particular students, in order to be "taken seriously." I am unwilling to be grumpy. I don't see where it gets me.

So, what I am left wondering about matronizers, is: does their behavior reflect a trauma, an injury, a pattern of injuries that have made them profoundly self-protective and cynical? Am I one of those happily delusional types (some research suggests that cheerful people are more delusional about reality than depressed types)?

Or, is feminism the vehicle by which they express a kind of temperamental grumpiness?

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

Deficit Model of Schooling

I just read a truly fascinating article by Kyunghwa Lee, entitled "ADHD in American Early Schooling: From a Cultural Psychological Perspective." There is a lot to think about in this essay, including the relationship between No Child Left Behind policies and the unbelievably high rates of ADHD diagnoses and consequent Ritalin use among young school children, specifically in the United States. Lee discusses the role that teachers play in prompting parents to think about bringing their disruptive, distractable, or boisterous child to a physician for a diagnosis. Lee points out that what leads teachers, albeit ambivalently, to consider a child ADHD is how often the child distracts the teacher from the rest of the class. And, the most important insight, to me, that Lee has is that this model of distraction only makes sense in a larger model of early child schooling where the goal is to emphasize word use over bodily motion. Our schools, especially if they are overcrowded, rely on children sitting quietly, listening to the teacher and completing their tasks. Lee quotes L. Bresler ("Dancing the Curriculum"): "a moving body in school is typically regarded as disruptive."

What I want to focus this post on, following on the heels of yesterday's post, is the other valuable insight that American schools operate on a "deficit model." Quoting Bill Ayers (To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher): "We start with what kids can't do and don't know. It's as if we brainstormed a list of each of them . . . that we figured out hat they don't understand or value, what they feel incompetent or insecure about, and we then developed a curriculum to remediate each deficiency. The curriculum is built on a deficit model; it is built on repairing weakness. And it simply doesn't work."

Wow, that really grabbed my attention. While the focus of this article is on very young children, I can't help but note how often I hear colleagues frame their exprience with college students this way. The whole process seems like one of punishment and submission. Education is about smacking around young people who don't want to work hard and buckle down (like we did). No wonder students groan and panic when we mark up their papers and find not one shred of something positive to say. Who would be enticed to go on.

And, we also have a whole lot of college students turning to amphetamines, such as Ritalin, to buckle down the way we want them to and get properly disciplined.

What do you think?

P.S. I realize, by the way, that my excited endorsement of Bill Ayers' view of the deficit model is likely to elict all sorts of ire from the wingnuts out there. But, fuck 'em.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Pay Them for Their As?

My hip former-undergrad-and now-current-grad-school student sent me this link from the Colbert Report. Roland Fryer's "incentive" to get black students to perform better is to pay them for A's. I am both intrigued and repulsed by this idea.

First, full disclosure: my libertarian father used this model with me in High School and it worked like a charm. He used it with my brother and it failed. But, in my brother's case it failed because my Dad usually gave him access to money anyway for his excellent athletic achievements. So, the incentive model is not inherently flawed if properly administered. Who doesn't like money?

Here are my concerns and questions about this model.

(1) Cheating. Where there is money, there are always people trying to game the system and get their cut with minimal effort. Or at least, minimal intellectual effort. What might be the relationship between this program and the rise of bullying?

(2) Reification of a commodity view of education. Ok, I am a "pie in the sky" LAC professor who loves to learn for the sake of learning. Yes, this is probably an effect of my class and thereby relative economic security. But, I spend a great deal of time combatting the rich and middle class students' views of education as a commodity-they-are-paying-for on a regular basis. So, what sort of standing will I have in this debate if the our government starts paying students in middle and high school. What happens to the intrinsic drive to learn?

(3) Should education be vocationally focused? Certainly my former brilliant student (you know who you are!), argued that they are. She too is an economist (thankfully with some Philosophy training for good measure). But, really?

(4) What really intrigues me is that paying for grades somehow resolves all the other profound problems plaguing students in bad school districts or coming from poverty stricken and/or poorly educated families. Which students succeed in this model? Does a cash incentive really give the needed push to transcend these circumstances?

What do the rest of you think?
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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Personal Credit Crunch Woes

I am "on hold" right now waiting for a "credit decision," so I can buy a used Subaru to brave the bitter winters up here. I find this whole credit process so damn demoralizing these days. I am asking for a relatively small loan, but because I pay my student loan each month ($580 a month!) and I make less salary, they are questioning my ability to make payments.

The loan servicer came back and asked if I would like to include my husband's salary OR would I like to just put the whole loan on my very high credit card balances that I have at the bank? WTF? Do you understand this logic? I surely don't. Why would the bank prefer that I put the car on a credit card rather than underwrite the loan? I am sure they are going to approve it. But, I am surely not alone in bemusement and confusion over the recent freezing of credit and the decision making process of banks.

Does anyone out there understand?

Oh, and I forgot to add, that one option for me to ensure the loan was to defer payment on my student loans. Huh? If I stop paying my student loans and let it rack up interest (a fixed interest rate since you cannot renegotiate that shit), I can get a car loan.

Oh, and another thing. The only reason I am going through this is because I was approved at an amount and then asked to increase it by $500 so that I could roll the transfer of title and tax fees into the loan.

I am just trying to be a good consumer. Apparently, I would be a great consumer if I screwed the government their money for the loan they gave me for my PhD and just gave that money to the bank.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Only Thing Keeping You Unhappy is the Belief You Are Alone

This is what Don's "ex"-wife tells him in the penultimate episode of Mad Men. I love thinking through these sort of statements. What sense of "alone" is meant? Is she saying the Don is alone because he fails to see that he has people in his life that love him? Is he alone because he doesn't allow for the possibility of mystery--of something unexpected and unpredictable to happen that can improve one's life?

Surely there are moments when all of us feel "alone." They hit me when the person or people I am closest too cannot seem to grasp what I am feeling or when I cannot find words to express what I think. Some people feel alone when they contemplate death--the idea that in the end you are on your own in that moment.

But, for people to feel alone, while they are surrounded and loved by others seems almost like an illness, and yet it is all too common.

What I am wondering about is what is the opposite of believing you are alone?

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Got Nothin, Not Really

I went back to the Gender and Sexuality Studies course again today and because we had lost so much time with the technology problem on Monday, the whole class period was taken up with screening the rest of Boys Don't Cry.

Honestly, it was a real shame that we didn't have more than 5 minutes to discuss the movie since it is incredibly powerful and intense. I gave them the last 5 minutes to write their reflections, ask some questions, and digest.

I read the reflection from "pen chewer." He wrote that he was surprised by how powerful the film was and how glad he was to have seen it as it illustrated well the concepts that the class had discussed all semester.
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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Fragile Female Egos, Fragile Pomo Slacker Egos, and Questions

My musings in the post Fragile Male Egos yesterday got me thinking more about reactions to my teaching style in Gender Studies than the reaction of female students to disengaged male students in Gender Studies courses. I decided to rethink the same scenario changing some details to get at the assumptions of critics of my teaching style.

Case One: Fragile Female Egos

My new colleague asked me to take her Introduction to Under Siege* European Male Hegemony course this morning at 8 am! I am amazed that the students make it for that hour. I have to be up; Maddie makes sure of that.

Anyway, my colleague asked me to show Girls Shouldn't Cry Wolf and then get the students in small groups for discussion. I had some trouble getting the film started, so I threw out her plan. Showed part of the film, then had them put questions on the board and we started a discussion.

I was my usual, in-your-face-let's-talk-about-false accusations of rape-and-feminazi-revelry in victimhood self. I mostly pushed the group of women huddled together in the back of the room clinging for dear life. (They may have been perfectly at home--this was my perception based on past experience).

I wanted the students to think about the relationship of female coquettishness and false rape accusations. Why do women continually say “no” to their boyfriends sexual advances even though their eyes say “yes”? (In the back of my mind I had Kerry's observation about the normality of false rape accusations among our students).

Jane, played brilliantly by Melanie Griff, continually seduces men, winds back at their place after a few drinks, and then cuts the sexual act off. . At one point, Dirk (John Makeovich) asks her why she wears such seductive clothing and makes eyes at men in bars and then dares to accuse men of hurting her—raping her in fact—when she agreed to sex by the way she dressed and acted. Jane's response: "it just seemed like what feminists do here."

The film gets to the heart the rituals--painful ones at that--women go through to prove they are feminists. Proving you are a feminist, means proving you are frigid. That is why you have to dress sexy, then protest the sexual act, and then call rape.

In any case, I started directing some of my, admittedly, pointed questions to the women huddled together in the back row. One woman was doodling, and so I dubbed her "doodler." She didn't want to answer my question so threw it to her side kick. She lowered his eyes, hoping I wouldn't see her text messaging. Didn't work. Then a third woman said: "look, men cry rape as much as women do."

I turned back to others in the class. But, I returned to huddlers again and finally the men started "protecting" them. One man said: "they think you are picking on feminists." Another: "they feel attacked."

I found this phenomena fascinating. The men were rushing to protect the "fragile" egos of these women, because I was asking them the same questions I was asking everyone else? Sure, I was mocking doodler a little bit to get her to lighten up and answer the question. But, she further retreated into himself.

Clearly, these three women don't analyze feminazis and false rape accusations much. That's the point of the film. They get punished—violently by other feminists--if they do. But, I am still bemused by the mens' reaction to my attempt to get these women to think about these connections.

I have to go back on Wednesday. Any ideas what I could do to make this observation worthy of discussion in relation to the film?

Case Two: Fragile Pomo Slacker Egos

My new colleague asked me to take her Introduction to Epistemology course this morning at 8 am! I am amazed that the students make it for that hour. I have to be up; Maddie makes sure of that.

Anyway, my colleague asked me to discuss Searle’s account of the social construction of reality and social facts and then put students in small groups for discussion. I had some trouble finding the classroom, which cut into our time, so I threw out her plan. I gave a quick summary of Searle’s point, then had them put questions on the board and we started a discussion.

I was my usual, in-your-face-let's-talk-social facts-ultimately-referring-to-physical-facts-anti-french-pomo-social construction self. I mostly pushed the group of slackers huddled together in the back of the room clinging for dear life. (They may have been perfectly at home--this was my perception based on past experience).

I wanted the students to think about Searles’ claim that X counts as Y in C, using his example of money. Why do pomo thinkers miss the point that the value of money ultimately refers to precious objects? There is, duh, some physical fact that we then interpret socially. Ideas don’t make reality! (In the back of my mind I had Kerry's observation about the normality of Lyotard worship among our students).

I showed a tiny clip of the Derrida film to give students a flavor of the incoherence of French pomo claims about reality. At one point a young student studying under Derrida at Irvine is asked: “why do you continually subject yourself to this unintelligible drivel.” He responds: “It seems like what grad students do here!”

Searle gets to the heart of postmodern vapidity—which involves painful rituals of reality denying and extreme relativism.

In any case, I started directing some of my, admittedly, pointed questions to the slackers huddled together in the back row. One ambiguously gendered emo student was rolling his/her eyes, and so I dubbed him/her "eye roller." She/he didn't want to answer my question so threw it to his/her side kick. He lowered his eyes, hoping I wouldn't see him under his beanie* . Didn't work. Then a third woman said: "look, Searle is a right wing lunatic."

I turned back to others in the class. But, I returned to huddlers again and finally the other students started "protecting" them. One man said: "they think you are picking on post-modernists." Another: "they feel attacked."

I found this phenomena fascinating. The students were rushing to protect the "fragile" egos of these French theorists, because I was asking them the same questions I was asking everyone else? Sure, I was mocking eye roller a little bit to get him/her to lighten up and answer the question. But, she/he further retreated into himself/herself.

Clearly, these three slackers don't analyze the epistemological incoherence of their social construction theories. That’s the point of the film. They get punished—violently by other pomos--if they do. But, I am still bemused by the class reaction to my attempt to get these slackers to think about these connections.

I have to go back on Wednesday. Any ideas what I could do to make this observation worthy of discussion in relation to the film?


(1) Is the Case One ("fragile female egos") structurally equivalent to my "fragile male egos" post?

(2) Is Gender and Sexuality studies equivalent to European Male Hegemony studies?

(3) Does Gender and Sexuality studies strive to demean men as group or dehumanize them?

(4) Was asking pointed questions of the male students, who seemed unengaged, equivalent to pushing female students to recognize that feminism forces them to make false rape accusations? [For the record, in the class I taught yesterday, I didn't use the men as foils for any argument, I just pushed them to consider the content to the same degree that the women were.]

(5) In Case Two ("fragile pomo slacker egos"), does the in-your-face Socratic style unfairly beat up on 18-22 year olds?

(6) What makes Case Two different from my discussion from yesterday? I am willing to see the important differences that implies different pedagogical techniques, but let's spell them out.

(7) Does asking pointed questions to students who are unwilling to defend their viewpoint, picking on them? It might very well be.

**P.S. I think the best observation of the dynamics in my class yesterday come from Lesboprof who points out that I haven't yet earned the trust of the unengaged students in the class I was visiting. Having reflected a lot more on this, I think that is why my style could've come off as unfairly picking on the male students--given the pervasive stereotypes of angry feminists at work. This style doesn't seem to cause as much friction if the content is abstract and conceptual, e.g. what Linda Alcoff calls a "normative, familiar, trustworthy" "postural body image." ("The Phenomenology of Racial Embodiment," in Visible Identities.

*These changes are made thanks to *I*'s comment.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Fragile Male Egos

My new colleague asked me to take her Introduction to Gender and Sexuality course this morning at 8 am! I am amazed that the students make it for that hour. I have to be up; Maddie makes sure of that.

Anyway, my colleague asked me to show Boys Don't Cry and then get the students in small groups for discussion. I had some trouble getting the film started, so I threw out her plan. Showed part of the film, then had them put questions on the board and we started a discussion.

I was my usual, in-your-face-let's-talk-about-sex-masculinity-homophobia self. I mostly pushed the group of men huddled together in the back of the room clinging for dear life. (They may have been perfectly at home--this was my perception based on past experience).

I wanted the students to think about the relationship of masculinity to violence. Why do men continually have to prove their masculinity through violence? (In the back of my mind I had Kerry's observation about the normality of drunken fights and brawls among our students).

Brandon, played brilliantly by Hillary Swank, continually puts himself in risky and violent situations. At one point, Lana (Chloe Sevigny) asks him why he was willing to be tied like a dog to the back of truck (referring to "bumper skiing," wherein drunken guys hang onto the back of truck bed with a rope, while the driver twirls in circles). Brandon's response: "it just seemed like what guys do here."

The film gets to the heart the rituals--painful ones at that--men go through to prove they are men. Proving you are a man, means proving you aren't gay. That is why you have to talk a lot about fucking and get into fights and engage in risky behavior.

In any case, I started directing some of my, admittedly, pointed questions to the men huddled together in the back row. One kid was chewing his pen, and so I dubbed him "pen chewer." He didn't want to answer my question so threw it to his buddy. His buddy lowered his eyes, hoping I wouldn't call on him. Didn't work. Then a third guy said: "look, women haze as much as men."

I turned back to others in the class. But, I returned to huddlers again and finally the women started "protecting" them. One woman said: "they think you are picking on men." Another: "they feel attacked."

I found this phenomena fascinating. The women were rushing to protect the "fragile" egos of these men, because I was asking them the same questions I was asking everyone else? Sure, I was mocking pen chewer a little bit to get him to lighten up and answer the question. But, he further retreated into himself.

Clearly, these three guys don't analyze homophobia or masculinity much. That's the point of the film. They get punished--violently--if they do. But, I am still bemused by the womens' reaction to my attempt to get these guys to think about these connections.

I have to go back on Wednesday. Any ideas what I could do to make this observation worthy of discussion in relation to the film?

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Friday, November 14, 2008

The Fragility of Commitment

My new Thursday night ritual--once the little one is snuggly in her crib--is to watch a movie. I don't have to prepare for class. I give myself a break from grading. And, I don't have cable TV to distract me with tons of superfluous channels. Because we are so isolated up here in the way Northern part of the country, Netflix is the only way to survive. (There isn't even a video rental joint!)

Last night I watched a relatively recent film, directed by Helen Hunt entitled Then She Found Me. I chose the film because it had Colin Firth as one the main characters and looked like a nice melodrama. I can't help it. I like girlie films sometimes when I am burned out from lots of abstract thinking and arguing.

Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised by this gem of a film. What I loved most about was its realism in the case of human relationships. It did a great job depicting not only the giddiness of new love, the pull and attraction of the wrong lovers, the selfishness of our desires, and the fragility of commitments.

Having just written that list above, I guess other films touch on this. But, the moral of this film is that commitment is a sort of leap of faith. Here is some dialogue from the end of the film, when April (Helen Hunt) tries to get Frank back"

“I miss you, do you?”
“What do you want, April?”
“I want to look at you, for a long long time.”
“What else?”
“There’s a chance that my life may change in a few hours or may not. But it may. And before it does, I wanna say two things. I know what I did to you, to you in particular, was a nightmare kind of thing, right?…I knew that. Even at that time, I knew that.”
“What else?”
“I would do it again. I will. I will hurt you again and again. Not like that. You would have to leave me if I would hurt you like that. Even if we were together, you would leave me if I would hurt you like that again and wouldn’t you?”
“Yes. Yes. I would.”
“Good. But I would hurt you in other ways, little ways. I wouldn’t mean to. But I will. And sometimes I will mean to.”

“You would hurt me too, you know? You would hurt me and change on me. You might even leave me after you promise you won’t. How about that?”
“No, I wouldn’t.”
“But you might.”
“But I wouldn’t.”
“But…You might.”
“Yeah…I guess I might.”
“Oh, god.”
“I know. I am sorry.”

I guess I don't have a lot of smart things to say after that dialogue. For me, this is commitment.

How do the rest of you see it?

You can watch the trailer to the film with the link above.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Existentialists Get Laid More, That's Why

Steve G asks today why existentialism is so attractive to young intellectuals. I have spent a lot of time thinking about this question myself and I have a few guesses. This year, at my new job, I am teaching Existential Philosophy. I was always welcome to teach it at Gettysburg, but I chose not to do so because I don't tend to like the kind of student it attracts. Yes, I am going to be crass, but what I think it attracts is: an alienated, white boy, who feels compelled by family to live a sort of proper bourgeois life, but wants to rebel, smoke gauloise, watch black and white french films, drink a lot of wine, and womanize.

In fact, let's take Camus.

He just oozes a certain kind of bad ass masculinity. My current student says: "He is so cool." What do these male existentialist writers write about? Do they take on racism (no, with the exception of Sartre in Anti-Semite and Jew). Do they tackle poverty? (n0) Do they tackle sexism or homophobia? (no). What do they write about? Individualism, Self-expression, freedom, atheism and authenticity. What does this translate into?

That I don't have to live up to my parents bourgeois expectations of my life. I don't have to grow up, get a job, pay a mortgage, get married, and pay taxes. That I can be a sort of free spirit (think Michel Poiccard and Breathless). [No one really wants to look like Sartre, but they wouldn't mind getting laid as often as he did!]

The other focus of white male existentialism (you could read Simone de Beauvoir, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Frantz Fanon, Aimee Cesaire, Steve Biko, Lewis Gordon, Cornel West) is liberty. And, the way these writings, particularly Sartre, get translated into the American idiom is a "pull yourself up from your bootstraps" and stop whining way. My father loves existentialism. He also loves Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. What appeals to my dad and the libertarians who love existentialism is a romantic view of the self: the idea that anyone can transcend their dire circumstances and become great.

This sort of narrative appeals, in my view, more often to white boys of a certain class. Maybe it says: look you don't just have to be a provider or a cog in the machine (think Office Space). You can be great. Really great. You can change the rules. Hell, the rules don't even apply to you. What matters is that you are true to yourself, your desires, and your vision.

This, I think, is why existentialism appeals to young intellectuals. I think it appeals to a certain level of cognitive development, i.e. when students stop believing that anyone has the answers and therefore think that there are not answers. In other words, relativism. It also encourages narcissism and egoism.

And, as Steve G has often theorized. Existentialist boys get laid more than the pocket protector analytic types (with comfortable shoes).

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Resist the Storm

A wise friend of mine wrote to me yesterday and said that a valuable way to think of relationships with others is to think of them as relationships with yourself. I have been mulling this over quite a bit and thought I would put it out there to see what the rest of you think.

I take her to be saying--and this follows on the discussions we have been having about teaching and the logic of victimization--that if one always looks to the other's behavior, actions, and words as signs of the health of the relationship--the betweenness--then one will inevitably find him or herself regularly unfulfilled. The idea here, again, is that happiness is not to be found in Others. In fact, happiness is not to be found in other things.

Happiness is a more mysterious process. Perhaps happiness is a by-product of engaging in activities that justify your life, that bring you health, and that make the world a bit better. Happiness, therefore, comes to us when we stop demanding it. This theme was explored well in a film by former philosophy major, Jill Sprecher, 13 Conversations about One Thing. In this film, Sprecher borrows quite a bit from Bertrand Russell's The Conquest of Happiness.

Back to my wise friend's view about relationships--that one should view a relationship with another as ultimately a relationship with oneself--I cannot help but think that she is right about this. We have so little control over the lives of others. This is abundantly clear in my attempts to mold my daughter's life. Already her personality is emerging with its own ideas, preferences, and attitudes towards things. We have more control over our own ideas, attitudes, and actions.

I do not mean to endorse an overly stoic view of relationships. I am not really a very good stoic. I am too passionate about life. But, I think that the challenges that arise in all relationships, particularly in the student-teacher relationship, invites us to reflect not on how to exhort the needy other to pull his or her own weight, but rather on what is required to sustain us and weather us through the storms of others.

The attraction to be drawn into the dance of anger and the logic of victimization is too great. It requires constant vigilance to ward off this temptation. The student who wants to pick a fight with us because she overwhelmed or frightened is better served by our resolve to "will cheerfulness" in the face of her storming. If we don't get pulled into her drama, if we stand firm and perhaps offer a model of weathering a storm, she is ultimately better served. But to be able to do this is to give up a need or expectation that others need to be someone else to warrant our concern.

Others are who they are. They are on their own paths of becoming and their own rates. Our job is to perhaps be the "resistance" to their more destructive acts. I am borrowing this notion of resistance from both Sartre and De Beauvoir, who argue that our nature, as humans, is to negate what is given and move beyond. In this act of negation, we inevitably run up against resistances--either people, events, or things. And, some resistances might present us with a helpful invitation to reorient our direction.

I wonder if in relating to others by relating to ourselves, we are posing ourselves as a kind of important resistance to threatening projects.

What do the rest of you think?

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Victimization and Anger

71 encouraged me to keep on this line of thought by asking me why I would frame the reaction of professors who feel exhausted by needy students as adopting the "victim" narrative. I am not sure I have a good answer to 71's question, so instead of answering his question, I will think out loud a bit more about the relationship of the logic of victimization to anger.

Part of what I would need to better work out is what the logic of victimization is. In part, I see victimization as a particular expression of anger. For those who are physically overpowered by others or who are politically oppressed in various ways, feeling a victim is a wholly "natural" and comprehensible response. One feels without power in the face of their oppressor. Victimization is an expression of powerless. But, victimization is also an expression of anger, e.g. one is angry precisely because one is powerless to change his or her circumstances.

The particular way that anger can express itself is either in a self-injury or self-hatred or in hatred toward the other. The hatred toward the other, it seems to me, can be expressed in a variety of ways. The particular expression of anger that interests me lies in how victims come to characterize those who they perceive to be injuring them.

At this point, I want to move away from discussing victims of physical violence of political oppression, and back to discussing people who perceive themselves as being injured by another party. The precise nature of this injury is to rob the victim of his or her "happiness" (or pursuit of happiness?)

These sorts of "victims" are what I have in mind in my notion of a "logic of victimization." The idea here seems to be that one can adopt a view of oneself as a victim as an expression of anger toward someone who seems to be robbing one of his or her happiness. The teacher who has to slave away at bringing students up to a certain skill level and thereby spend so much time that he or she feels exhausted (perhaps guilty as Laura in the comments said to yesterday's post) and thereby unhappy because his or her labor, as teacher, is not turning out the desired product.

We see this unhappiness in personal relationships or in our attitudes toward drug addicts or the poor. We see many people as undeserving of our love, our respect, and our help because "they are not taking responsibility." What I am suggesting is that the logic of victimization adopts that particular rhetoric as an expression of anger. The anger follows from the frustration in not being able to change someone into an idea of what would make me happy.

I dunno. What do you think? I just wrote this up . . .

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Monday, November 10, 2008

The Dance of Victimization and the Demand to Take Responsibility

I am someone perpetually fascinated by the labor of teaching--the psychological and emotional toll of teaching as well as the absolute joy and life affirmation that follows from a good class or a great student. Lately, in my new teaching post, I have been reflecting quite a bit on the "individual responsibility" attitudes that some colleagues have toward their students. What always fascinates me is that many of my ultra ultra left wingers take this attitude toward students and these are folks who may very well be sociologists. They find themselves exhausted by the endless labor of teaching--labor that is not unlike a long term relationship or raising children--and they decide that the students need to start stepping up to the plate and "take responsibility" for their learning.

Such faculty will often cite the "millennial kids" mantra and then argue that we need to stop coddling these students and begin to teach them to be "responsible" adults. Now look, I am a fan of taking responsiblity and for being accountable to others. But, where I differ from the groans of my colleagues is this view that "failure to take responsibility" is what at the root of our students' learning problems. No doubt this is true for many slacker types, but in my experience, the slacker types don't really complain when you give them bad grades. They get it. They don't have any interest to do better.

The students that complain a good deal about their grades are often neurotic and panicked. They probably haven't obtained to what William Perry calls the skill of "procedural knowledge." These students believe either that all knowledge is true or false facts that authorities teach us or that there is no truth. The latter are a real bitch to teach. The former, I believe, are the neurotic students that drain us and send many of my colleagues into the "they need to take individual responsibility" mantra.

So, what I started thinking about in relation to this dance between the burned out professor and the needy student is how it echoes another discourse in American culture: the "individual responsibility" discourse of cultural conservatives. What hit me like a train wreck was that those who decry that their students, or their partners, or their children, or their co-workers, or poor people, or drug addicts (you get the point, right?) aren't "taking responsibility" for their lives are most often people who feel "victmized."

That's right. The discourse of individual responsibility flows from the sense of victimization. And, it is the latter that interests me the most. The assumptions that victimized folks make about the world and relationships. I am interested in working those out and so I am very keen to hear what the rest of you think of my partial list:

  • All relationships depend on each person "holding her own"
  • Relationships should not involve a lopsided caring for others when others are sick, hurt, or in need of help
  • Human happiness is a right
  • My time and freedom to control my time is paramount
  • If individuals that I am in relationships with are making mistakes, bad choices, or sick and they do not seek help, then I can cut them out.
  • My sense of well being comes from relationships with individuals who never make mistakes, act badly, or demand too many of my emotional or financial resources
  • If I am feeling hurt or drained by another person who is in some way needy, I will be better off breaking off the relationship and surrounding myself with people who are more self sufficient

So, these are just what came off the top of my head. I am still interested in working this idea out, because if I am right, this means that the disintegration of families and communities are more likely the result of a hard line ideology of "individual responsibility" that emanates from conservative pundits (i.e. Dr. Laura), than "liberals." Moreover, if I am right, this means that the rhetoric of "individual responsiblity" flows from folks who continually feel victimized by others and thereby do not recognize their own resources for finding happiness despite the fact that relationships with others are fraught with inescapable tragedy.


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Monday, August 11, 2008

Can One Hope Without Anxiety?

There is nothing like uprooting yourself, putting all of your crap in boxes, moving to a very isolated place in the way North to put you into the introspective mood. While I am walking around the streets and alleys of my new village, my mind seems to be circling around moments from my past or fixating on undone things or obsessions. It seems that uprooting oneself is not so good for escaping what ails you, but rather ties you to the past in a way that is overbearing.

I find myself coping with my new move by making the most comfort of all comfort food. I made homemade Chicken Noodle Soup this weekend. My god. What have I done?

On one of my interminably long walks this weekend (hey, I think the final baby weight is totally gone!), I started thinking about hope and anticipation. Both of these concepts are ripe for an inquiring phenomenological mind. I have been thinking of 'hope' lately because I am planning to write a conference paper on the way in which enhancement technologies, such as taking Prozac or Ritalin to boost performance marks the end of an era of hope. (I am fully aware that my preoccupation with hope is conditioned by the rhetoric of our current political candidate).

I wanted to work out in my mind what was different about hope from general anticipation or future planning. The latter seems to cause me neurotic, anxious fits that keep me up at night. I think about what my classes will be like at my new job, I wonder how much research I can get done, I wonder if I can afford to buy another house with mortgage rules so tight, I wonder if I will ever pay of my student loan debts, I wonder if Maddie will be happy here . . . you get the picture. And, as long as my mind is future-oriented--caught up with making plans for the future--I am a wreck.

My question--during the walk--was: does the anxiety that crops up when I start thinking about the future a product of future-oriented thinking? Meditation, for example, is aimed at getting us to live in the present and stop worrying so damn much about the future.

But, to have hope is to think about the future--to project into the future (to sound like an existentialist). Is having hope somehow a kind of future-orientation that is free from anxiety and worry?

I just don't know and I want to know. Thoughts?

Monday, July 21, 2008

Moving Hell

I hate packing. I hate moving. I don't want to ever do it again. I wish I could say that I will never have to do this again, but . . .

I am in the middle of travels. Half of my stuff is in route up north. Some is still in my soon-to-be-sold house. And, some with me.

I hate stuff.

And, no matter how much stuff I tried to get rid of for this move, I still have too much stuff.

What kills me is that half--literally half- of our Pod was books. WTF? Who needs that many books?

Ok, so to cheer me up. Tell me some funny moving stories.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Inevitability of the Male Ego?

I started watching Denis Leary's show, Rescue Me, the other day after hearing an interview he did with Terry Gross. I remember he addressed the male ego as one of the motivations for the plot--that is the difficulties men find themselves in because of their male ego. Because I am fascinated with all things gender, I had to rent this show and take a look. I can honestly say that I am glad that I did, but what I have discovered has left me in a sort of quandary.

What I think the show does well is explain why men--especially men in very stressful lines of work such as firemen--don't have much capacity for intimacy. We follow the life of Tommy--as played by Leary--and thereby learn that he is haunted by the friends he lost in September 11th and by several children who died while he was trying to save them. He actually sees their ghosts, which is not as cheesy as it sounds, since it works well to demonstrate how ever present these losses are to Tommy. We begin to understand why Tommy wants to end his sobriety and drink again--to cope with all of these ghosts. We get a better understanding why his marriage is failing.

Overall, I think the show does a pretty good job making the male ego sympathetic, even though in real life my experiences with the male ego have made me unsympathetic and angry with men. Even when I am able to understand why some men withdraw, why they find intimacy so impossible, why they drink to cope . . . I have been unwilling to forgive them their flaws. But, the gender studies prof in me wants to get a better handle on the forces shaping men--at least the general dude on the street--so I can see it as part and parcel of all gender relationships.

But, here is my quandary. Much of the literature in gender studies comes from sociologists. And, for most sociologists, human behavior and human identity are a product of institutions. If men are sexist, it is because of sexist institutions. If we want to liberate women, we focus on changing those institutions and then men and women's attitudes will follow.

This sort of analysis can both be devastating and hopeful. The devastation follows from the realization of how pervasive gender roles are in all our institutions; the work of reforming those institutions seems overwhelming. The optimism comes from a worldview that gender roles are malleable and thereby we are not inevitably locked into harmful gender roles, such as the average heterosexual male in the U.S.

And, yet, I watch Rescue Me and I think: wow, this is the way it is with men and women. Sure, I am being uncritical here. And, sure, this is largely about straight, white, men and women--working class and professional class. But, I cannot help but watch this show and think--is the lesson of this show that sociology is not what will liberate us? Perhaps, what will liberate us is that we all get a bit more compassionate and understanding of the inevitable stresses and forces acting on men and women--quite differently--which lead to the end of relationships, male violence, and self-destruction?

Do we get better?

Monday, July 07, 2008

Pro-Choice is a Moral Position

Kate Michelman (former Presdient of NARAL) and Frances Kissling (President of Catholics for Free Choice)--both Obama supporters--co-wrote the following piece, "Are Democrats Backpedaling on Abortion Rights," in Salon, published yesterday. I am not yet sure what their response is to Obama's recent interview with Relevant Magazine. But, what they do write here is worth quoting:

What then should Democrats and Sen. Obama do?

We need not wait for either the Democratic convention or the election to move forward on reducing the need for abortion. Two perfectly good bills are languishing in Congress. One, the Prevention First Act, was introduced by Sen. Clinton; the other, the Reducing the Need for Abortion Initiative by Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Rep. Tim Ryan, a pro-life Democrat. These bills need to move forward and perhaps be consolidated. (The Clinton bill does more for family planning, and the Ryan-DeLauro bill more for women who want to continue pregnancies.) Sen. Clinton is in a perfect position to make that happen, and we will work with her on that goal. Moving these bills before the election will give us a yardstick by which to measure members of Congress' commitments to meeting women's needs while recognizing their rights.

Sen. Obama will also have opportunities to show leadership. If and when Wallis approaches him to talk about abortion reduction, Obama should point him to the record of the Democratic Party on preventing pregnancy, honoring a woman's right to choose and supporting women who need economic help in raising children. That's worthy of praise, not criticism. He could call on Wallis to become a supporter of family planning for all women, and to defend the progress women have made on their journey to full and equal rights.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Wallis' self-described search for a moral statement on abortion is his apparent ignorance of the moral basis of a pro-choice position. Thirty-five years of safe and legal abortion, and solidarity with the millions of American women who have had abortions, have led to pro-choice values that are sweeping in their scope. Women of color, in particular, have had a profound impact in defining "choice" by insisting on situating reproductive choice within the much larger context of jobs, healthcare, human dignity, child care and educational opportunities for low-income women -- to make pregnancy and motherhood a real choice for everyone; to make sure abortion is a choice and never a grim default and, when it is a choice, is safe and legal and never stigmatized by Democrats. Obama's skills could be used to enlist Wallis and others to support this expansive vision of women's rights and well-being.

Finally, Sen. Obama needs to set the tone within the Democratic National Committee as well as within his campaign and reach out to women. The development of a women's rights policy must be as high a priority as a plan for world peace and an economic agenda. While both men and women have a stake in women's well-being, women's preeminent role in developing policies that affect their lives must be a central commitment of the senator and the party.

As feminists who have proudly and enthusiastically supported Obama for some time, we are convinced that this is exactly the approach he will take. And while this approach is as old as feminism, it will be a breath of fresh air in the party.

I have highlighted the paragraphs that contain the most crucial point that needs to find its way to the Obama camp. Pro-choice is a moral position. Pro-choice is part of a larger reproductive rights movement that is wholly commensurate with the Democratic platform: better jobs, affordable health care, better and affordable education, safer communities, etc.

I think all of us are hoping that Obama will make good on his promise to change the way things are done in Washington. This DOES include changing the existing frames on the abortion debate. Not only do we need to make it clear--as Michelman and Kissling point out--that pro-choice is a moral position, but we also need to remember that there are folks who are anti-abortion-such as Wallis--who, nonetheless, are sympathetic to the work pro-choice activists are doing to promote human dignity and well-being for all people, especially low-income women.

Has anyone seen if Michelman and Kissling have responded to Obama's interview?

Sunday, July 06, 2008

So Much for Obama Changing the Way Things are Done in Washington: Is Obama Anti-choice or Pandering?

There is nothing like a candidate's comments on late-term abortion to compel me to post. Many of the readers of this blog have probably already been clued into the fact that Obama gave an online interview to Relevant Magazine about his views, including abortion. From what I gather from the website, Relevant is a progressive Christian magazine and hence not the favorite periodicals of the wingnuts and moral majority. I am genuinely sympathetic to these folks and so I am all the more disappointed by how Obama handled the question on late-term abortions.

Strang: Based on emails we received, another issue of deep importance to our readers is a candidate’s stance on abortion. We largely know your platform, but there seems to be some real confusion about your position on third-trimester and partial-birth abortions. Can you clarify your stance for us?

What Obama said to the question was:

Obama: I absolutely can, so please don’t believe the emails. I have repeatedly said that I think it’s entirely appropriate for states to restrict or even prohibit late-term abortions as long as there is a strict, well-defined exception for the health of the mother. Now, I don’t think that “mental distress” qualifies as the health of the mother. I think it has to be a serious physical issue that arises in pregnancy, where there are real, significant problems to the mother carrying that child to term. Otherwise, as long as there is such a medical exception in place, I think we can prohibit late-term abortions.

The other email rumor that’s been floating around is that somehow I’m unwilling to see doctors offer life-saving care to children who were born as a result of an induced abortion. That’s just false. There was a bill that came up in Illinois that was called the “Born Alive” bill that purported to require life-saving treatment to such infants. And I did vote against that bill. The reason was that there was already a law in place in Illinois that said that you always have to supply life-saving treatment to any infant under any circumstances, and this bill actually was designed to overturn Roe v. Wade, so I didn’t think it was going to pass constitutional muster.

Ever since that time, emails have been sent out suggesting that, somehow, I would be in favor of letting an infant die in a hospital because of this particular vote. That’s not a fair characterization, and that’s not an honest characterization. It defies common sense to think that a hospital wouldn't provide life-saving treatment to an infant that was alive and had a chance of survival.

There is a lot that I find disappointing in Obama's answer to this question. First of all, I think it is a shame that he didn't practice what his campaign preaches and "change the way politics is done." Secondly, I am disappointed that Obama didn't take the time to further educate the readers of this magazine about all of the real moral dilemmas involved in late-term abortions and the actual percentage of women who seek late-term abortions. Thirdly, I cannot believe that he is so unsophisticated as to offer up a rather Cartesian mind-body dualism--echoing such anti-psychiatrists as Thomas Szasz (who believe that there is no such thing as mental illness, that it is not as serious as physical illness, and thereby does not warrant our concern, interest, and medical attention (read Szasz's classic essay "The Myth of Mental Illness"). Let me tackle each one of these in turn.

Failed to Change the Way Things Work in Washington and Lost Chance to Educate Readers.

We all know that Obama, as a "pro-choice" candidate will get thumped by the religious right in the general election. There is no appeasing these folks. But, there is an opportunity for a real moral dialogue with progressive Christians. Sure, many will be unpersuaded by pro-choice stances and even the stances of pro-choice candidates on late-term abortions, but it is still worth being candid and open about why one holds the position he does. What I read in Obama's response, particularly the line that I highlighted is pandering. The complex decisions that mothers seeking late term abortions must wrestle with have been wholly eclipsed by the religious right's fanatical campaign to overturn Roe v. Wade, using "partial birth abortion" bans as its strategy. The very name of the ban is problematic--invoking public disgust at the practice by consciously making a connection between abortion and infanticide. Rarely in the public debate about late term abortions have there been thoughtful considerations of the reasons why women seek these abortions.

To clarify this, let's take an example from my own life. Some of you may remember a post I wrote concerning my sister-in-law in October. I also wrote a post about my own difficulties with getting a timely genetic screening of my fetus. The point is this. Let's say that you are pregnant, you want the baby, you are dutifully getting pre-natal care, and yet, through no fault of your own, you discover late in your pregnancy, let's say 20 weeks that a test indicates your baby might have Tay-Sachs disease. You need to undergo more tests and those results will come after the cut-off point for late term abortions. You are in a tough situation. If you go for the tests and they conclude that indeed your child will be born with Tay-Sachs, you no longer have the option to abort due to the Supreme Court. If you abort before, you have to live with the decision that it may not have had Tay-Sachs. This dilemma is a product of bad legislation crafted by intolerant anti-choice folks who don't think that a woman (and her husband) are the ONLY people who should have had the right to make that decision. (see Reproductive Rights Prof Blog for more analysis of Obama's position).

Furthermore, late term abortion bans--and Obama seems to be wholly in agreement with them as long as they have a health exception for the woman--do not give a mother the right to terminate a pregnancy wherein the fetus has a horrible genetic disease. So many opponents to late term abortions think that the women seeking these procedures are "loose" and thereby need to be punished for their sinful behavior. They also paint these women as callous, murderous, and selfish. But, the real stories show that these women are anything but. They are facing real dilemmas and the last thing they need is a bunch of politicians who have no real connection to their lives and choices dictating what they should do.

Obama had this opportunity to explain this to Relevant Magazine. Sure, the readers might not have liked his answer, but he would have been changing the way things are done in Washington had he done so.

Either Obama is pandering, which is what I suspect, or he actually believes what he says. If it is the latter, then I am worried. I sincerely hope that he reads the criticism out there now of his recent interview and digests it. If he doesn't believe in late term abortions for mental distress, then as Jan Crawford Greenburg points out, he is expressing views only held by Thomas and Scalia. I doubt these are the justices that Obama really wants to identify with.

Before moving onto my third point, I want to direct you to the Bitch Ph.D.'s excellent argument for why pro-choice candidates should not qualify their support of abortion entitled, "Do You Trust Women?"

Unfortunate Mind-Body Dualism

I wonder if major organizations that advocate for the mentally ill, such as NAMI, will take issue with Obama's statement that "mental distress" doesn't count. One could be charitable and assume that Obama wanted to make a distinction between mental illness and mental distress, but if he did, I am not sure how useful that distinction is. My fear is that what he revealed in this answer is a sort of intolerance to mental illness defenses that many Americans unfortunately hold. Such intolerance is a consequence of our puritan heritage, which sees mental illness as weakness and malingering (acedia/sloth). It is a pervasive view. The upshot is that this view of mental distress turns those who are suffering into folks evading moral responsibility for their own lives. Mental illness becomes moral problems, pure and simple.

I alerted you above to Thomas Szasz, who took this view to a new height, and still inspires all sorts of anti-psychiatrists (including Scientologists like Tom Cruise). Such a view that mental illness is not real illness, and thereby not deserving of medical intervention (which was exactly Szasz' argument) is cruel.

I think it would be interesting to see how Obama reacts to further questions about his view of mental distress. Does rape or incest constitute a mental distress? What exactly does he have in mind when he dismisses mental distress as legitimate grounds for an exception to the late term abortion ban?

Mental illness is as real and devastating as physical illness. In fact, the very distinction between the two is untenable unless you have a very naive view of mind as some sort of ethereal God Stuff. The mind is part of the body and thereby is as prone to suffering and illness as the other organs and systems of our mortal coil.

In sum, if Obama believes what he wrote, then his pro-choice credentials are seriously suspect. What he is saying is that (a) we cannot trust women to make the difficult moral decisions before during their pregnancies and (b) that women with mental distress (mental illness) are not to be taken seriously.

If Obama doesn't believe what he is saying, then he is pandering. And, we can really question if he is going to change the way things are done in Washington.

UPDATE: Here is a partial list of other feminist blogs on Obama's interview: Melissa at Shakesville, Bitch Ph.D., Amanda at Pandagon, and Violet Socks at Reclusive Leftist.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

What Would Oscar Wilde Think of Californication?

My husband doesn't usually go for serial TV programs--with the exception of Joss Whedon's Firefly and more recently, though at first reluctantly, Angel. Recently we discovered Californication. Za is attracted to the main character Hank Moody for the same reasons that he revered Spike from Buffy and Angel and Jayne from Firefly. I won't say that there is an obvious connection between these three characters. But, what Za sees, I think, is the unrestrained id. These characters flout convention, act on their impulses, and all with a grumpy wit. I guess Za admires them because they reflect parts of himself--or anyone for that matter--that he is forbidden to be if he wants to be an upright, kind, moral citizen.

I am attracted to Hank Moody, however, for very different reasons and it has bugged me enough that I thought I would write about it here and see what others think. Moody strikes me as a classic Oscar Wilde character--someone like Lord Goring from An Ideal Husband. That is, Moody appears to be a rogue, a real scoundrel and yet, he turns out to be morally consistent and thereby admirable; Lord Goring and Moody have in common a distaste for behaving in accord with convention and good manners in favor of being authentic.

Moody seems like a drunken womanizing bastard from the outset, and yet the more you get to know this character, the more you admire his devotion to his daughter, his ex-girlfriend, his friends, and frankly, to women in general. I particularly liked the scene in episode two (Hell-A Woman) with "Sonja" (played by Paula Marshall from the beloved short-lived show, Cupid) where she asks him to evaluate her naked body. (Remember: this is in the land of fake boobs, vaginal rejuvenation, the worship of youth and particularly youthful bodies, and lots-o-plastic surgery). After making clear that Sonja has real boobs and none of the other marks of L.A. plastic, he says something like "you might be the most beautiful woman that I have seen in a long time." She follows up with something like, "I would really liked to be fucked stupid by a guy who actually loves women." This, then becomes his trademark: he loves women, all women.

*I* was over last night and watched a few episodes with us and she found Hank Moody and the entire show appalling. She asked: what possible redeeming qualities does this guy have? We all scrambled to come up with some: he is only an asshole to people who deserve it, he is devoted to his daugther, underneath it all he is a good guy . . . nothing convinced her. Not even my comparison between Moody and Lord Goring. I was at a loss to explain to *I* why I liked him and the show so much, and so I was inspired to write about it here.

I am curious if there are any other fans out there who either like or hate Hank Moody and why. My impression is still that Hank is not only a sort of existentialist hero, but that he is a feminist. I know. I said it. But, the show never portrays women as mere sex objects, as weak, as dependent on men. The women are all--for the most part--self-realized, complex, and interesting. If a woman appears to be slavish or objectified, it is usually to mock the L.A. fake world that manufactures them.

So what do you all think?

Friday, June 06, 2008

Bye Bye Hillary, Hello Sexism

With Hillary Clinton out of the race, we can finally focus on Obama and winning the White House. I am thrilled to have Obama as the Democratic candidate for President, but I am still sore about the lessons I have learned from this primary season. What was made evident to me was how pervasive and appalling sexism is in this country. I have never felt an occasion as great as this past Democratic primary to renew my commitment to feminism and educating young women about the ill effects of sexism on their futures.

Sitting around the table with some good friends a few nights ago, I finally exploded with anger about how disgusting Clinton was treated--not only by the press--but by other women and feminists. There was never a moment during her entire campaign where gender was not an issue and used in some way to discredit her. Sure, the sexism brought out many female supporters, but the damage it did not only to her--but to all women--will linger for quite some time.

Gloria Steinem (in)famously asked why the sex barrier was not taken as seriously as the race barrier? I think perhaps she didn't push this point further. There is no way, for example, that you would've seen a political cartoon representing Obama with overt racist overtones the way Pat Oliphant painted Hillary Clinton in this cartoon:

Even if I concede that Hillary made some really bad moves during her campaigning or that her tactics were ugly, that would never justify sexism--EVER. And, the take away message I got from this campaign was that any woman seeking positions of power and authority can expect heaps and piles of unforgivable sexist treatment--references to feminine weakness or manipulative tactics, bitchiness, ball breaker, emotionalism . . . the script is there to turn not just men, but all sorts of women, against other women who wish to seek positions of power.

I remember vividly something my Political Science prof told me when I was an undergraduate. She was discussing what can often happen to women in politics--that they have to play like men to achieve powerful and prominent posts and that they either leave behind their feminist ambitions to change institutions or they alienate themselves from other women. I doubt that Hillary has given up her feminist ambitions. But, I do think that the kind of person she had to make herself into to compete with men in powerful positions ticked off more than one woman. She has been paying FOREVER for her "baking cookies" comment, for example. And, I have always found it interesting that she made the comment. Why? Because, well, let's face it, that is still what we expect a First Lady to do in 2008.

I have also been appalled by fellow feminists criticizing Hillary for "staying with Bill" or "being too masculine." Shame on you! When I hear these sorts of comments coming from other feminists, I can't help but shudder at the numbers of angry and moralistic types that fill the pews of feminism. I may be rare or a dying breed, but I still believe that feminism is aimed at fighting sexism in all of its forms and helping to promote a world where a woman is judged as a person. Hell, feminism should, in part, be aimed at making it possible for a woman to be mediocre at a job (just like many men are), to be allowed to make foolish decisions (just like men are), and to project herself in any manner without being penalized and punished for not being "feminine."

As I write this, I still feel angry and depressed about how shitty we are about gender in this country. I fully acknowledge that we have made a lot of progress. But, I am not at all optimistic that my daughter can avoid the bullshit that most women have to navigate daily to succeed. I don't want her to be considered a ball breaker or ruthless if she is ambitious. I don't want her to be seen as unfeminine if she doesn't delight in pink, stroking male egos, or typical feminine pursuits. And, PLEASE, I wish she didn't have to endure some young boy or man telling her one day that she is on the "rag" if she is upset. I know that I have my work cut out to not let her be crushed by the variety of messages out there designed to lower the self esteem of women and girls. I cannot protect her from it. And, no doubt she will have to struggle with self esteem issues like so many young girls and women do.

I will continue to admire Hillary for staying in this race, for making her case, for trying to achieve the highest office in this country--all against the back drop of crushing sexism that most women would refuse to face.