Archive for September, 2009

Via Ann at Feministing, I came upon Dana Goldstein’s excellent analysis of why a public option sans reproductive health coverage is doomed. She notes that while our congresscritters are under pressure not to fund abortions with taxpayers’ money, women will be less likely to choose the public option if it excludes abortions and other basic reproductive care:

After all, the typical woman spends five years of her life pregnant, or trying to become so, but a full 30 years avoiding pregnancy. Without good reproductive-health coverage and strong buy-in from women — who use more health care than men — it is difficult to see how a public plan would gain strength over time.

(Read the rest here.)

And there’s more: Women with private insurance may find their plans dropping reproductive care, whether due to market forces (as Ann implies) or conservative lawmakers’ meddling in insurance regulation (as Dana suggests).

Really, though, this whole debate rests on false premises. While the Hyde Amendment has prohibited Medicaid from covering abortions for over 30 years, abortions are already financed indirectly by taxpayer subsidies. Anyone with an employer-sponsored health plan gets their insurance tax-free. That’s a massive federal subsidy. Ann cites a NYT story that claims 50 percent of employers offer abortion services among their health benefits.

So taxpayers are already subsidizing abortion for women of the more prosperous classes. It’s just those poor women who’ve been excluded – ironically, the very same people whom anti-choicers demonize for having too many children. (I’m not advocating eugenic abortions for the poor, just noting the logical and fiscal inconsistency of many dogmatic foes of abortion.)

Up ’til now, even after a quarter-century of supporting abortion rights, I’ve tended to think, “Get reform passed, and then we’ll worry about specific services.” But Dana has convinced me that this isn’t just a distraction, though the ‘wingers will surely conflate public subsidies for reproductive health with their phantom death panels. This is a matter of reproductive justice for poor women, and a sustainable system for all Americans.

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I had the following phone conversation with my dad this afternoon:

Dad: I meant to call you last night.

Me: Oh, that’s all right, today is my birthday.

Dad: Oh, what day is it?

Me: The 29th.

Dad: And when did you say your birthday is?

Me: Today.

Dad: And what’s the date today?

Me: The 29th.

It was one of those conversations where you have to laugh about it later with siblings, because otherwise you might have to cry.

I have to admit, though, that even I didn’t remember it was my birthday until nearly noon. Such is the course of my days lately.

But then I got a really awesome present, although it wasn’t technically a present at all. Lately I’ve dreaded spending time in my office because it’s so cold – often in the low 60s, and I am a tender creature. A colleague told me that there are space heaters available for our offices, and she gave me one. I plugged it in, cranked it up to high, closed my office door, and just basked in it.

Later, my older son’s soccer team played their first game, and all of a sudden these fourth-graders are playing real soccer! With clever passing, good position play, and generally amazing teamwork! I said it was the most fun I’ve had watching soccer since Germany nearly made the finals of the 2006 World Cup – and I meant it.

Now my work is done and the champagne is cold. That is all I have to say, until I’m one day older again.

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Tuesday Recipe: Sungold Quiche

I’m past the peak of my tomato season. Even the cherry tomatoes have slowed way down. It almost doesn’t matter because I’m too swamped with work to make a real meal. (Today was quesadillas, sandwiched between teaching, soccer, homework, and another tidal wave of student emails.)

But this quiche was wonderful just a few weeks ago, so I want to mention it before the season is over entirely.

First things first: You will have planted Sungolds at the start of your growing season. :-) Go out into your garden and harvest them. They’re sweetest when they’re orange, not just deep gold. Alternatively, check a local farmer’s market; they’re usually available at our Athens Farmer’s Market, in season.



  • One 9-inch pie crust
  • 1 small onion
  • 3 eggs
  • Approximately 3/4 cup milk
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup fresh corn
  • 3/4 cup grated cheese (I’ve used Swiss or cheddar, depending on my mood)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • A generous handful of chopped basil


I typically start with a Marie Callendar frozen crust. You can obviously make a crust of your choice, but Marie’s are pretty good, and it’s way better than never making pies on a worknight. Purists might scoff, but then, those purists might not have grown those tomatoes from seed! I guess I’m just my own kind of purist.

Preheat the over to 425. Chop the onion and saute it. While it’s cooking, whisk together the eggs, milk, salt, and pepper. Stir in the cheese, onion, corn, and chopped basil. (I used fresh corn shaved off a cob left over from the previous night’s dinner.) Pour the egg mixture into the pie crust and place the whole tomatoes as desired. I used a few red cherries here for the color contrast. I often end up bailing out a bit of the egg mixture, since I don’t really measure anything properly.


Turn the oven down to 350 at the start of baking. Bake for about an hour, or until the filling is set, taking care not to get the crust too dark.


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I was really struck by this opening paragraph to an article by Tracy Clark-Flory at Salon on the difficulty of raising a gender-neutral child:

A Swedish couple has refused to reveal the sex of their 2-year-old to anyone — except those on diaper duty. When word got out about their decision to eschew personal pronouns and sex-appropriate clothing, the parents made international headlines. The mother explained her thinking to the press: “It’s cruel to bring a child into the world with a blue or pink stamp on their forehead.”

I’ll admit that if my sons played with Barbies, I’d worry for their safety. For a long time, until he was about six, the Bear claimed purple was his favorite color. I was totally down with that. I like purple, and he had this great purple T-shirt with an orange stegosaurus printed on it. Purple can be spun in a boyish direction. It’s even socially okay for boys to like sparkly stuff. Hey, what kid doesn’t like coins? I’ve encouraged them to nurture and snuggle their stuffed animals, which they do without any urging at all; I haven’t bought them baby dolls because I always thought they were freaky, especially when their eyes rolled back into their heads and got stuck there. But oh, Barbie! That could get a boy beat up.

So this quotation from the Swedish mother really made me think. What if one of my sons was seriously gender variant? How would I navigate that? I feel like I’ve learned a lot from and about transgender and genderqueer people during the past few years. Whatever understanding they gave me would have come too late, though, if one of my sons had appeared to be clearly transgender at the point when they entered school and started to experience bullying. Heck, even now I don’t think I’d be thoroughly prepared to provide all the support they’d need, though I’m sure their dad and I would be their fierce defenders.

These Swedish parents have been sensationalized in the press as performing weird experiments on their child. What they’re doing is is reminiscent of X: A Fabulous Child’s Story, Lois Gould’s feminist short story from the early 1970s that speculated about how kids could be raised free of gender constraints. Less radically, it recalls that flagship children’s TV program of 1970s feminism, Free to Be, You and Me.

(There’s a lot of pathos in this, what with young Michael Jackson singing “Will I be on the moon?” You can view the clip here if you’re not seeing the embedded version.)

Really, when you think of it, isn’t the true scandal that we press children into little gendered boxes, regardless of their own inclinations? Does that rise to the standard of abuse, especially for those kids who are shaped more like spheres than like cubes – that is, children who are gender variant or intersex? I’m curious what you think, dear readers.

(And I realize that it’s a mark of cis privilege to even be posing this question in the first place. Nonetheless, I think it’s worth discussing, because I’m willing to bet that 80-90% of parents don’t question it much at all.)

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In response to the comments sparked by my post last week on reverse racism, I’d like to let Stephen Colbert have the final word. But first, I’ll try to be concise for a change and offer the two best reasons I know for not using “racism” to refer to hatred or prejudice against the dominant race:

1. It’s very useful to have a term that describes prejudice which is also backed by social power. If “racism” denotes this configuration, we can then talk about its systemic impact and not just its interpersonal effects.

2. “Reverse racism” has long served to deflect attention away from discussions of systemic racism, even when people of good will use the term. It tends to imply that racial hatred toward whites is as big a problem at the societal level as is racial hatred toward people of color. It also tends to derail the discussion. That’s just what’s happening in the United States right now, with people like Glenn Beck claiming that Obama is a “racist.” Clearly, Beck’s claim is a cynical exercise in demagoguery. However, the same effect occurs even when the person who raises the specter of “reverse racism” bears no ill intent.

But enough pontificating. Stephen Colbert makes some similar points, and he’s a lot funnier than me.

posted with vodpod

Update, 9/28/09, 9 a.m.: I bungled embedding the video on the first try (WordPress isn’t very friendly to embedded media), and alert reader Michael wondered if I’d meant to embed the following Colbert clip. I’m including it, too, because it documents how the “reverse racism” meme took off last summer. (Thanks, Michael!)

posted with vodpod

If you can’t view the clips (they don’t show up on my Google Reader), the first one is here, and the second one is here.

Update, 9/28/09, 3:30 p.m.: Mom’s Tinfoil Hat has a thoughtful post on this same theme. Check it out!

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Actually, everything is getting away from me. And it’s doing so a lot less cutely than this, which my boys pronounced the Funniest LOLcat Ever. I didn’t quite LOL along with them – maybe because it’s just, um, a hair’s breadth from being a metaphor for my life?


From I Can Has Cheezburger?

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The charity Rethink Breast Cancer, which just produced a moronic video to “raise awareness” of breast cancer? Or LA Times reporter Dan Neil, who thinks this ad, entitled “Save the Boobs,” is a swell idea? (I think something may be rising and swelling, but I highly doubt it’s awareness.)

Jeff Fecke of Alas has already laid out the main reason why this ad is objectionable: However compelling breasts may be, and however much pleasure he may take in them, they don’t trump the well-being of the whole woman.

I can think of a few more gripes. The ad implies that the breasts are worth our sympathy are big, bold, and bodacious. Those of us who have A and B cups, or who don’t choose to wear skimpy bikinis, or whose sexuality is just more private – well, our breasts just don’t command that sort of “awareness.”

The breasts that deserve care are obviously young. They haven’t nourished babies. They haven’t drooped due to the changes of pregnancy, nursing, or just plain old gravity and time.

I’m trying to imagine how I’d feel if I’d undergone a mastectomy or lumpectomy and then seen this ad. I had a breast cancer scare that went on for about a year. I had lots of time to wonder if a lumpectomy would leave my left breast completely misshapen; indeed, if anything whatsoever would be left of it. Peggy Orenstein has written of the scars left by just lumpectomy and radiation, and her experience sounds to be fairly common among us small-breasted women. Maybe I’d be self-confident enough not to care. More likely, I’d already feel insecure about my scars, and an ad flaunting “perfect” breasts in the context of breast cancer would feel like another blow.

Does raising awareness really require an ad that might lower breast cancer survivors’ self-esteem?

For that matter, is there any sentient adult in American who’s not already “aware” of breast cancer? Even my young sons know about it. They comment on the pink Yoplait lids and worry about the Bear’s teacher, who’s undergoing treatment.

I’m not sure we need more “awareness.” What we need is research targeting more effective, less harsh treatments that go beyond the “slash, burn, and poison” paradigm that we’ve had for the past half-century. We need a better understanding of breast cancer’s pathogenesis, including the role of toxins and other environmental factors. We need to hear the stories of women undergoing treatment. We need to unveil the brutality of treatment, not just so patients know what to expect, but also to light a fire under the asses of the legislators and other government officials who can choose to fund research, or not. And we need this not just for breast cancer, but for cancer in each of its ugly guises.

Instead, we get this drivel from Dan Neil in the LA Times:

If this were a Budweiser commercial, the bluestockings, psalm singers and family focusers would be going completely mental, but in this case the morals police have no grounds to object unless they want to come off as somehow pro-breast cancer.

In recent years, the increasing frankness of breast cancer PSAs has been a bright spot of adult sensibility in what is Americans’ generally neurotic relationship to the female anatomy. Bear in mind that our national dialogue was brought to an inane standstill when Janet Jackson’s breast was briefly exposed during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. Compared to the “Save the Boobs” spot, Jackson might as well have been wearing a burqa.

Also, this ad — and a couple more like it — represent one of the few occasions when the male tendency to objectify the female body is put to good use, as opposed to selling beer and premium football cable packages. They seem to answer a question that must have nagged breast-cancer-awareness advocates: How to get men to care? With rare exceptions, men don’t suffer from breast cancer. The earnest, sad-violins spots invoking moms and grand-moms of the past probably haven’t gained much traction among men.

Feminist film theory has a name for the camera’s eye here: The “male gaze,” which is to say, the camera’s view is that of the male spectator and unseen protagonist regarding the female as an object (cf. Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”). This is the camera’s-eye of pornography and it’s inherently misogynistic. The “Save the Boobs” spot spoofs the male gaze and turns it into something positive.

This isn’t awareness; this is objectification. Dan Neil has some nerve, using feminist film theory as cover! Did anyone see the male gaze being “spoofed” in this ad? Nope, me neither. I’m confident Laura Mulvey wouldn’t, either; she’d just see scopophilia: erotic pleasure derived from a controlling, objectifying gaze, which is male or at least male-identified. And by the way, Janet Jackson got flak because she exposed a nipple, which this ad never does. Women have been showing this much flesh ever since Baywatch, at the latest; it’s the nipple that remains taboo. A niggling point, maybe, but also further evidence that Neil’s critical faculties shut down while watching that ad. Oh, and objecting to this ad on feminist grounds has nothing to do with moralism or neurosis. For me, part of being “sex positive” is insisting that women can be agents of their own desire and not mere objects of men’s lust.

Making breast cancer sexy won’t solve a damn thing. Any of us who’ve lived with cancer, first-hand or in our immediate family, knows that it’s the diametric opposite of sexy. Cancer does its best to replace life with death, vigor with fatigue, comfort with nausea and pain. The pleasures of the body are undermined by alienation from one’s own flesh, which is now treacherous and unreliable.

Indeed, the sexualization of breasts has never helped Americans deal more intelligently with breast cancer. In the bad old days before the late 1970s, the stigma of breast cancer wasn’t just a consequence of cancer generally being hush-hush. It also stemmed from the fact that breasts meant sex, and sex wasn’t often openly discussed before the 1970s.

Titillation won’t bring back the old taboos, but it still trivializes the problem. I don’t think such ads need to be tearjerkers. When cancer takes up residence in your family, black humor can be a saving grace. But this ad isn’t particularly funny, nor is a joke between people who’ve been there. It’s using a deadly disease to justify objectifying women one more time – and if that seems too simpleminded, well, it worked with Dan Neil.

If you’re still inclined to give Neil the benefit of the doubt, here’s one last bon mot from him:

The only people who could object to such ads are advocates for other kinds of cancer awareness. Women don’t gossip behind their hands about the largeness of a man’s prostate as if it’s a good thing. These breast cancer ads are tapping into a built-in constituency that doesn’t exist for other organs. Unfair but true.

Um, no, women don’t chat about prostate size, but most of us know that our male partners’ sexual health depends on a healthy prostate. Damage or remove the prostate, and erectile function will almost always suffer. And dude, if you think there’s not a bipartisan and pan-gender constituency for erections, I’ve got news for you!

But I doubt we’ll see an equivalent ad for prostate cancer awareness in my lifetime. A tanned, muscular young man striding shirtless around a pool … the camera zooms in on his Speedo … women gape at him as his man-parts jiggle … and begin to bulge and rise … the screen fades to white with stark black lettering: “Save the Boners.”

That’s not an ad I’d especially want to see, either. But Neil’s implication that women don’t care about their partners’ sexual health – including erectile function – isn’t just stupid, it’s sexist. It’s also heterosexist, because some of the women who appreciate “boobs” are other women – duh! And apart from sexual politics, it’s plain heartless to focus so much on individual organs, because as much as we might appreciate our partners’ parts, we love them as whole people. When cancer strikes, we want them to survive as whole people. That might be a little hard to capture in a 60-second ad, but ads could at least refrain from sabotaging it. Or am I asking too much?

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Both my boys just got tucked in for the night, but I expect them to come untucked again momentarily. They’re a bit like Weebles when you try to coax them into bed: Weebles wobble but they won’t go down. And if you’re old enough to know how the original Weebles slogan went, you might just recall the Carol Burnett Show, too.

I’ll admit that the young Sungold was just as impossible at bedtime. In grade school, I’d sneak downstairs, hoping to catch my parents watching her show. I’d cajole them to let me watch “just for a few minutes,” which somehow usually stretched to the end of the show.

This classic sketch, with Tim Conway as an inept dentist and Harvey Korman trying hard not to laugh, was one of my favorites back then. It still tickles me.

By the way, if anyone wondered why I’ve been slow to respond to comments lately, I’m coming off a week of my husband traveling and two weeks of being sick with not-quite-swine-flu. I’m teaching three classes, aka one too many. Yesterday I suddenly had to grade 80 essays that normally would go to a grader, and it kept me up half the night. I’m not complaining; my grader just spent the past few days in the hospital, and I’m still not sure that all’s well with him.

Posting and commenting might both be a little erratic while I try to get back on my feet. It’s not because I don’t love y’all. I’m just utterly exhausted. I’m going to watch the season opener of “House” (on DVR; I’ve had no time for TV) and hope the Bear and Tiger might finally be down for the count.

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So you may have already heard about Tom Coburn’s chief of staff, Mike Schwartz, declaring that all porn is actually gay porn; I heard it first from Sir Charles at Cogitamus:

all pornography is homosexual pornography because all pornography turns your sexual drive inwards. Now think about that. And if you, if you tell an 11-year-old boy about that, do you think he’s going to want to go out and get a copy of Playboy? I’m pretty sure he’ll lose interest. That’s the last thing he wants.” You know, that’s a, that’s a good comment. It’s a good point and it’s a good thing to teach young people.

(More from Sir Charles here; Amanda at Pandagon and Tracy Clark-Flory at Broadsheet also give it the drubbing it deserves.)

Sir Charles suggests that the generational decrease in homophobia is great enough that many if not most young teens won’t be so easily deterred by calling porn gay. I agree. I’ve noticed a very significant shift in men’s attitudes toward homosexuality among the students I teach. They’re increasingly live-and-let-live about other people’s orientation, and this lets them feel more secure about their own desires. Just today, my intro class discussed this in connection with the rise of the bromance movie. Compared to guys I taught five years ago, my current male students are comfortable getting closer and more physical with their guy friends – although, as one male student hastened to add, “Not too close!” Okay, so they’re not yet perfectly secure, but hey, change takes time.

Schwartz’s argument is also ludicrous because really, he’s implying that all solo sex is homosexual. That objection probably wouldn’t faze him, because I’m willing to bet that Schwartz is also officially anti-masturbation. (What he does in private is a whole ‘nother question, and given the family values crowd’s track record on sexual hypocrisy, we can’t rule out his harboring a secret kink or two.)

Of course Schwartz’s argument is silly. But for a while I’ve thought that any porn that shows M/F couples has potentially homoerotic elements. (Note: my argument below is directed only toward visual material showing both a man and a woman; I’m not addressing fake lesbian scenes or actual gay porn.) Where else but in porn do straight men routinely watch other naked, aroused men? I understand that the viewer is intended to identify with the male porn star or imagine that the female lead might prefer the viewer over the actor; hence the prevalence of money shots and the transcendent ugliness of Ron Jeremy. I don’t doubt that such identification occurs.

Even so, imagining oneself taking the place of the male actor doesn’t nullify porn’s homoerotic elements. First, there’s its visual language. The simple fact that men have an outie and women have an innie makes the man’s genitals easier to photograph than the woman’s. And so they’re apt to loom large, even if they’re of average size (which Ron Jeremy is not, and boy, that’s a sight I’d have rather left unseen). Close-ups of blowjobs showcase an aroused cock and … a part of a woman’s anatomy that’s visible every day, an entirely public feature: her mouth. Of course, you also see her expressions of faked ecstasy, which only serve to underscore that only one participant is definitely aroused. Even in footage of intercourse, the cameramen have to work hard to find angles that show the ladyparts as clearly as the manparts.

Then there’s the structure porn creates: a lone male viewer symbolically occupies the third position in a threesome. It’s not, however, the threesome with two women that quite a few men readily admit to fantasizing about. It’s a threesome involving two guys. Now, my life is dull enough that I’ve never experienced either of those scenarios personally, so I’m relying on second-hand knowledge, but from what I’ve read,  straight men are typically less enthusiastic about a threesome involving another man – if they’re not entirely put off by it – and of those who try it, many try to avoid contact with the other man’s genitals. I know that some men do consider an MMF threesome a hot scenario, and bisexual men wouldn’t be so squeamish about other men’s genitals, but these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Finally, there’s the social setting in which men watch porn. Most often, they’re alone, and some watch with a female partner. Sometimes, though, they watch it together with other men. I understand this is supposed to be an exercise in male bonding, but again, what does it mean to watch material meant to arouse you while in strictly homosocial company?

Luce Irigaray’s essay, “Commodities among Themselves,” suggests one answer. She theorizes that the exchange of women as commodities – be they as wives, mothers, or prostitutes – serves to cement bonds among men, and those bonds harbor a homoerotic element that must be repressed:

The use of and traffic in women subtend and uphold the reign of masculine hom(m)o-sexuality, even while they maintain that hom(m)o-sexuality in speculations, mirror games, identifications, and more or less rivalrous appropriations, which defers its real practice. Reigning everywhere, although prohibited in practice, hom(m)o-sexuality is played out through the bodies of women, matter, or sign, and heterosexuality has been up to now just an alibi for the smooth workings of man’s relations with himself, of relations among men.

(Luce Irigarary, “Commodities among Themselves,” in This Sex Which Is Not One, p. 172. The creative spelling of “hom(m)o-sexuality” is a play on words in the French, where “homme” means “man” or “husband.”)

Certainly, industrial pornography commodifies women. It commodifies men, too, though the fact that female porn actors vastly out-earn the men suggests that the main wares are in fact female – if that’s not already evident from the fact that straight-identified men are its main consumers. Applying Irigaray’s framework, pornography is one more area where repressed homosexuality and homosociality are at once enacted and denied through the commodification of women.

So no, I’m not at all suggesting, along with Mike Schwartz, that pornography turns boys and men gay. What intrigues me is a more subtle idea: that heterosexual porn featuring M/F couples allows male viewers to indulge possible homoerotic impulses even as it confirms their orientation as unimpeachably straight. I’m not saying, either, that all purportedly straight men are actually gay or strongly bisexual. I’m just speculating that porn offers a culturally safe place for any repressed homoerotic impulses to take flight, perhaps on an unconscious (and thus unverifiable) level. In order to feel “safe,” though, any such impulses have to be instantly repressed again; and so, instead of dismantling homophobia, the homoeroticism in straight MF porn ultimately reinforces it.

I could be wrong – there’s a good chance of that whenever I drag Luce Irigaray into a discussion! Plus I obviously can’t inhabit a man’s body and feel what he feels when he views porn. So I’m keen to know  what other folks make of this.

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In comments to my post on different notions of liberty and the health care debate, a person called “Person” disputes that there’s more than one meaningful type of liberty. She or he is arguing from the tradition that recognizes the importance of “freedom from” but not “freedom to.” That is, Person emphasizes negative liberty to the exclusion of positive liberty:

The truth is that statists – Liberals and Conservatives – do not believe in liberty at all. If they were honest about it, that would be fine, but they’re not. The Liberty to which I subscribe is this: That is is unethical for Person A (or a group) to aggress against the person or property of Person B, so long as Person B has not previously aggressed against others. More government in Health Care sounds like such a great plan and it is well-intentioned. But it won’t work, and even if it could would be unethical and against liberty.

Why? Because people living under a system of liberty are free to do what they want with their own property; coercion of any kind is wrong. To fund heath care the government must first tax, which is directly and undeniably antithetical to liberty. If I earn money by voluntarily working for another person (or firm), it is mine. It would be obviously wrong for a person on the street to pull out a gun and take the money from my pocket. While Liberals and Conservatives agree with that statement, they disagree that it is wrong for the government to do the exact same thing. Taxes are not voluntary; if you do not pay you will go to jail at the point of a gun, just ask Wesley Snipes. Of course, I have no problem with people who want to set up a VOLUNTARY system, to which you or anyone else could contribute as much money as you want. But to COERCE people to forfeit their rightful property is theft, plain and simple. I don’t think theft is an element of liberty.

(This is an excerpt; read the rest here.)

Person’s argument, unless I misunderstood, is that *any* form of taxation is an infringement on liberty. Period. I agree that both liberals (in the present-day sense) and conservatives see an important role for government (though they practice different forms of redistribution) and therefore stand in opposition to Person’s position, which – if I’ve understood it correctly – is radical libertarianism. If I trace out the implications of Person’s position, federal and state funding for education would be equally illegitimate. That would hold true for K-12 as well as higher ed. And in fact, many, many Americans do object to paying higher taxes to finance the education system – as schoolkids in several central Ohio districts and, more locally, the Federal Hocking schools can attest. These districts are seeing school closures, cutbacks in basic classes, and the complete eliminations of “specials” such as music and art.

Myself, I see education, along with police and fire services, public libraries, and yes, health care, as crucial to positive liberty. If we are illiterate, in poor health ill, and/or terrified of crime, we can scarcely exercise the duties of citizenship, much less reap its benefits. We’ll be unable to perform work that contributes to our individual betterment, as well as the advancement of society. Elevating people above the level of ignorance, fear, and ill health contributes to the liberties of each individual, and to my mind this easily justifies the infringement on liberty that taxation necessarily represents. The same argument applies to the payroll taxes that finance Social Security and Medicare.

Seen from this angle, taxation isn’t aggression. It’s a trade-off of one liberty (freedom from seizure of property) for another (the freedom to be able to live one’s life without avoidable impairment of health). The latter is crucial if one is to work and earn money; taxation is irrelevant when disability results in long-term unemployment. In addition, lots of individual initiative is stifled because health insurance is prohibitively expensive or unavailable on the individual market.

Personally, I could afford to teach as an adjunct from 2002 up ’til fall of 2008 only because my husband’s insurance covered me. Had that not been the case, I would have been forced to seek out other work. Locally, that probably would have meant a secretarial job at the university. (I’m assuming Wal-Mart wouldn’t have me, and there aren’t many other games in town.) This would have seriously restricted my liberty to work in the field for which I’m trained. And while I was a darn good secretary back in the day, it would have prevented me from contributing to society in the area where I believe I have the most to give. It would also be a waste of many years’ training, much of which was subsidized by generous, privately-endowed grants.

My story repeats itself throughout our economy millions of times over. The present system creates perverse economic incentives for people to stay in jobs just for the insurance, and to avoid striking out and taking risks. This, too, stifles liberty. Entrepreneurship becomes well-nigh impossible when you literally risk your life by entering the individual insurance market.

Finally, the current system already does impose a de facto invisible tax on everyone who pays health insurance premiums. Emergency room doctors are ethically obligated to treat all comers, regardless of their ability to pay. Those who are insured subsidize ER patients without insurance. I’d much rather taxation be open and aboveboard, instead of smuggled in through the back door.

Update, wee hours of 9/23/09: Ballgame left this in comments, and oh my goodness you have to watch it if you won’t get in trouble for LOLing at work! Go Somalia! Go go go malaria!!

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Caturday Tribute to Grey Kitty

You’ve got to be a hardcore lover of feline foolishness to watch this clip to the end. I am. I did.

Physically, the cat looks remarkably similar to Grey Kitty, except her whiskers were more irregular and she had a small scar on her chin from when she did a five-point landing from a tree and broke her jaw.

Intellectually, I’d like to think GK was brighter than this, but then again, she regularly went wading in the bathtub to drink the post-shower puddles.

(Via Badtux.)

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One of my vivid memories of graduate school is also one of the darkest. And I mean that literally. One day I showed up to discuss modern German history with my adviser and a few of my fellow students, only to find the lights off and the curtains dimmed. My professor was there, though, and ready to teach, even though she had such a ferocious migraine she couldn’t stand the light.

It’s not that German history, with its assorted atrocities, draws peculiarly hardened people to its study. Virtually every professor and instructor I’ve known has shown up for classes no matter how sick they were. A colleague of mine once taught while she had pneumonia. I’ve only missed one class in my years of teaching, and that was last winter, when I had to see a specialist at the Cleveland Clinic to rule out a ticking time-bomb in my brain possible cerebral vasculitis. I’ve taught through countless episodes of bronchitis, laryngitis, and all of this past year’s tribulations. I’m not saying this to claim I’m especially virtuous. I’m just a perfectly average college instructor.

Enter swine flu. Now, all of a sudden, if we get sick, we’re supposed to stay home. In terms of public health, this is absolutely the right course. I’ve altered my syllabi to encourage students to stay home if they’ve got a fever and cough – no biggie, since I’ve always relied mostly on an honor system for excusing absences.

But much of flu planning at universities ranges from utopian to delusional. The CDC recommends placing desks six feet apart. In one of my classrooms, the students are lucky if they can keep two feet away from their nearest neighbor. We’re packed like sardines and the air is accordingly (un)fresh. The CDC recommends isolation of sick students. Most of them share a dorm room with at least one roommate. The best idea I’ve heard is that sick students should go home to their parents if they’re within a few hours’ drive.

And then there’s the idea that technology will to keep instruction afloat, no matter how severe the pandemic. On September 1, just a week before classes started, my colleagues and I received an email from the provost urging us to make emergency preparations. It included this advice:

If it becomes necessary to protect the health of our students, faculty, and staff, the university may need to suspend classes and other activities on some campuses. Consider how you might be able to use technology to help your students continue to master the material in your course. Duke University has a useful website on how to “Flu-Proof” courses. [my emphasis]

Um, yeah. I visited Duke’s website. It presupposes all kinds of technology that we don’t have at Ohio University. I can has Adobe Connect, pls? Videotaping lectures, as Duke suggests, would be marvelous – if only we had a small army of support personnel. Back here on Earth, though, one of my classrooms lacked Internet access until a more senior colleague went to the mat for me. Another was short five desks for our first class meeting. The third room is subject to random invasions by mathematicians – but that’s a whole ‘nother story. On Thursday one of my classes was disrupted by a nonfunctioning remote for the DVD player. Our tech people are supportive but understaffed. Tell me again, who’s gonna tape my classes?

The responsibility for essentially converting classes to an online format – with one week’s notice, in our case! – is falling squarely on the shoulders of faculty. And we’re being impugned in the national press if we’re not up to it. In late August, the New York Times reported:

And though talk of online classes is common, few universities are fully ready. Computer science professors are a lot readier than social science professors are, one administrator grumbled privately.

In what universe would this come as a shock? Many of us who teach in the humanities and social studies rely on discussion, not just lecture. We teach subjects that involve actual human beings, not just computers. Is it any surprise that our classes don’t translate as easily into an online format? Last spring I taught feminist theory online, and while my students seemed to judge the course a success (according to their evaluations), I knew how much they missed out on. I started the quarter determined to keep the difficult poststructuralist texts on the syllabus. By the end, I’d purged Judith Butler, Luce Irigaray, and a few more.

And yet, just today, Inside Higher Education ran an article urging faculty to find ways to adapt their courses for online teaching. I appreciated its acknowledgment that many courses won’t transfer readily and that faculty may have to rely “stopgap” improvisations. But then it mentions a variety of online tools, and we’re back in Utopia. My university has just one of those tools: Blackboard.

If you’ve been a student or teacher in recent years, you might know Blackboard as the clunky software that allows instructors to post documents, assignments, and syllabi online. It has a discussion forum that’s fairly cumbersome to use, compared to most such forums on the web. My university just purchased a new version, Blackboard 7, which for an exorbitant price incorporates wiki and blogging tools far cruder than their free equivalents on the web.

So yeah, I could hold a discussion on Blackboard, but what we’d cover in two hours of in-class time would require six to ten hours with a lot less learning.

The idea that you can teach as effectively on Blackboard as in the classroom rests on a moronic assumption: that learning is a process whereby the instructor funnels information into students’ heads. You might call it the trepanation approach to teaching. Drill a hole in your students’ skulls, post some Powerpoint slides, and voila! The job is done. Never mind that for years, the university has touted “active learning.” In my experience, students are more passive online, yet the same silly assumptions undergird the pressure faculty are under to teach online courses. (A number of my colleagues have said they suspect that swine flu may be used as an excuse to put course content online and make faculty partially redundant. But that too is another story.)

My university’s recommendations only reinforce the idea that students are passive consumers. The email to faculty contained this advice:

As you may experience higher than normal absences, consider planning now for how you can best help students make up for lost time. [my emphasis]

Actually, students need to take responsibility themselves for getting notes from a classmate! It’s not as though swine flu is the first illness ever to strike humanity. I spent a few minutes on the first day of class having my students swap contact information with a few of their classmates. So far, this buddy system has worked beautifully.

The most fatal flaw in such planning, though, is the unspoken assumption that professors will remain healthy. Last I heard, the CDC only categorized students as high-risk enough to qualify for the first doses of flu vaccine; those of us who teach them are equally susceptible to the virus (assuming we’re not over age 60), but we’ll have to wait for the shot. (This is also an issue in K-12 education.) Heck, my university didn’t even get enough seasonal flu vaccine to cover nominally healthy employees and it won’t arrive until October, while our local Kroger and my gynecologists had it two weeks ago. The provost did urge us to figure out who would cover our courses if we couldn’t teach, and I’m pretty sure I could find someone to fill in for me. That’s not always possible, though. The idea of sitting at home with flu and tending to Blackboard with a high fever is enough to make me feel ill already. I’d rather just show up for class.

While we’re planning for an uncertain future, the swine flu isn’t waiting for us to transfer all of our course content to Blackboard. Even before school started, Miami University and Xavier University – both in Ohio, just a few hours away from me – reported outbreaks. My students rolled their eyes when I discussed swine flu contingencies on day one. They’re already not taking it seriously.

All this chatter about shifting courses online is equally unserious. It’s the higher ed equivalent to exhorting people to wash their hands, which – as Revere argues at Effect Measure – has little evidence to support it as effective against flu, but gives people the illusion of control over events that may prove completely uncontrollable.

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One of the favorite slogans of the town hall protesters has been “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants,” a statement from Thomas Jefferson. I’d like to propose that the tree of liberty has many branches, and that the teabaggers, freepers, birthers, and deathers are fixated on just the lower ones.

We’ve been discussing liberal feminism in my feminist theory class, and so we’ve looked at competing conceptions of liberty. Early on, until the years following World War I, a liberal was someone who believed that humans were naturally endowed with liberty and that any restrictions on liberty needed to be justified. As John Stuart Mill wrote, “the burden of proof is supposed to be with those who are against liberty; who contend for any restriction or prohibition…. The a priori assumption is in favour of freedom…” For early liberals from John Locke forward, the purpose of government was to protect liberty, and to restrict it no more than that goal required.

The teabaggers subscribe to this, which is basically a negative conception of liberty: freedom from interference.

(via Cogitamus)

In the twentieth century, though, a concept of positive liberty has emerged. “Positive liberty” can refer to the capacity for autonomous, self-directed action; young children and alcoholics thus can’t be said to enjoy liberty, because they are subject to internal compulsions and lack the capacity for critical reflection. “Positive liberty” can also refer to having the means to act and exercise one’s liberties; this may require economic, social, and political resources.

For proponents of health care reform, such as myself, the second definition of positive liberty is crucial. If you don’t have decent health, your liberty may be starkly constrained. If you’re tied to an employer just to keep your insurance, your liberty is likewise highly restricted.

I’d love it if the opponents of reform could see that we’re all in favor of liberty, we just subscribe to different understandings of it. I don’t suppose this is gonna happen, but it should would take some of the venom – and potential blood – out of the debate.

(Anyone interested in reading more about the various notions of liberty might check out the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on “liberalism,” which I drew on for this post, and which gives the citation for the quotation from J.S. Mill.)

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I don’t normally blog about frustrations in teaching. Well, I did vent about the flood of email I got last week (which has blessedly abated, and I’ve washed up on the beach like inert seaweed until the next deluge). As a rule, though, I don’t bitch and moan about student behavior. I don’t want my students to think I despise them, because in fact I’m very fond of them. I also don’t want them to worry that what they do and say will end up all of the intertubes, read by the audience of millions that Kittywampus reaches every day. (Ahem.) So to any students (past, present, or future) who might read this post: This is not about you. This is about me, as a teacher, and my thought process when I’m blindsided by a discussion that runs off the rails.

And so I need to think through what happened in my intro to women’s and gender studies class this morning. The topic of the day was racism. We read Peggy McIntosh’s classic “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Patricia Hill Collins’ “Black Feminist Thought in the Matrix of Domination,” and Renee Martin’s blog post, Womanism/Feminism … Feminism/Womanism. We started off by talking about white privilege, which was framed (as always in my class) by emphasizing that structural racism usually looms larger than interpersonal bigotry, and that we can discuss the legacy of slavery more fruitfully if we don’t get all tangled up in guilt about the past but instead focus on our shared responsibility for a less-racist future.

Quickly, though, the discussion veered into the potential ills of affirmative action and reverse racism. And there we remained for most of the second hour. I tried to introduce the idea of intersectionality (which was on the syllabus, after all) to defuse the idea that there’s a hierarchy of oppressions. They loved the term Oppression Olympics, but then we were right back to affirmative action. I’m fine with devoting some time to the problems of justice that affirmative action can create for individuals. Having once administered a summer program that included affirmative action goals, I know there are better and worse approaches. However, we spent so much time on “reverse racism” that ACTUAL RACISM racism got short shrift.

I tried again to keep the train from derailing by repeating a definition of racism that Renee often uses at Womanist Musings: prejudice + power = racism. A couple of the students got solidly on board with that formulation, but others were visibly and audibly pissed off. I pulled the teacher trump card and said, “I don’t care if you guys don’t personally embrace this definition; it’s the one that we’re going to use in this classroom.” I stopped short of saying, “And it will be on the test!” but only because I was too slow on the uptake. :-)

So, even though I resorted to borderline bully tactics, that train drove straight into the ditch. And I’ve gotta take responsibility for it jumping the tracks, since I was the only engineer on board.

I’m not sure why the discussion unfolded as it did. This has been a group of open-minded students so far. During today’s discussion, they demonstrated more sensitivity to issues of socioeconomic class than is typical (and since class is the focus on Thursday, I’m hoping that discussion will be more fruitful). My students are overwhelmingly white. I myself am ultra-white (see my avatar if you doubt me.) This complicates my job as a teacher: When you’ve got maybe 15-20% people of color (POC) in the classroom, you’ll get a range of viewpoints, but no one will be able to sustain the fiction that racism hurts white people just as much as it hurts people of color.

A few hours later, while I was discussing my frustrations with a colleague, the puzzle pieces finally snapped into place. My friend (and occasional Kittywampus commenter) Sorra said, “Well, it’s no surprise, what with all the talk of Obama being a racist.” Ka-ching! As much as I’m tempted, I’m not trying to pass the buck from me to Glenn Beck, whom most of my students surely don’t watch anyway. It’s still my job to be an effective moderator in the classroom, no matter how the cultural climate degenerates. But even folks who don’t watch cable news absorb the vibe that Beck and his minions are spreading. Suddenly, with a black biracial man in the presidency, we’re allegedly living in a colorblind society where any expression of prejudice is considered equally harmful. While I don’t countenance hateful remarks or behavior toward any group, it’s just silly to say resentment of white people by POC is anywhere near as virulent as the systematic, structural, and pervasive racism backed by a multitude of enforcement mechanisms that most POC experience every day.

This video by Victor Zapata of Think Progress (via Lindsay Beyerstein at Majikthise) illustrates how the “reverse racism” meme is circulating. It might be hilarious if it weren’t so horrifying. Unfortunately, it’s not a parody.

I can only think that the resonance of “reverse racism” – which is just ludicrous applied to Obama! – testifies to the return of the repressed. In some of my fellow citizens, what’s repressed is plain old-fashioned racism. In others, it’s guilt over racism – theirs or their parents. In still others, it’s the denial of persistent inequality by basically good-hearted people who want to believe we inhabit a colorblind society. And of course affirmative action is a lightning rod for all of these feelings.

I really do believe my students are a bunch of good eggs, and so I’m optimistic that when we meet again on Thursday, we can move past the Oppression Olympics. We had a wonderful, empathetic discussion about Caster Semenya at the start of today’s class, with several students expressing their disgust at her loss of privacy and the freak-show tone of much of the coverage. More than arid intellectualizing, it’s empathy, after all, that can lead to an understanding of racism that’s broader than one’s own personal experience.

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Today my second hometown – my adopted one in California, not my hometown-by-birth in North Dakota – landed in the news. Twice.

Placerville, California, is a town nestled in the Sierra foothills. I moved there with two years left of high school, when it dawned on my father that there were warmer places to live than North Dakota. I finished high school there. It’s where I travel when I go “home” to see my family. To this day, my parents are both very casual about locking doors. (I am, too.) The area is a mix of upwardly mobile young families whose parents commute to Sacramento and, well, less mobile people who’ve been planted in the hills for a while. The landscape is gorgeous and the people are mostly pretty great, too, but it must be admitted that Placerville’s congressional district gave the country the wonderfully named John Doolittle (R-Wingnuttia, still linked to the Jack Abramoff scandal).

Anyway, Placerville surely has its share of fools and knaves, but its crimes are usually quite local – one classic was a man-bites-man case fueled by near-lethal quantitites of vodka – and it basically never makes the national news. Today it did. Twice.

You may have heard about the first instance: Phillip Garrido, the kidnapper and rapist of Jaycee Dugard, is being held in Placerville’s county jail. Today a judge set bail at $30 million. I’ve driven by that courthouse hundreds of times. My mom has gone to that jail on occasion to give a ride to a released inmate. Once she did this on Christmas Eve, to the consternation and worry of her children. (No, my mama is not a criminal; this was part of her work at her very liberal church). Like everyone who’s not morally deadened, I was already shuddering at the thought that Garrido was being held pratically around the corner from my mom’s house. It’s a universal protective mechanism to feel safe as long as the beast is at someone else’s back door.

But the next news story I hadn’t heard until today, and it shook me deeply. Annie Le (pronounced “lay”) was a 24-year-old Yale doctoral student in pharmacology who’d gone missing. Yesterday, on the day she’d planned to marry her college sweetheart, news came that her body was discovered, hidden in the building where her laboratory was located. Her fiance is not a suspect.

Annie Le came from Placerville.

When I read that, I just burst into tears. It’s surely a failing of humans that we can more easily empathize with those whom we perceive as being like ourselves. Le was quite unlike me in a couple of respects. She was the child of Vietnamese immigrants, very petite, and apparently a very hard worker. I’m none of that.

But the arc of her education looked a little like mine. We were both girls who were smart enough that our high school teachers remember us vividly; her science teacher was so upset by her disappearance that he refused to speak with reporters. We were both high school valedictorians from Placerville who landed in Ivy League doctoral program. There aren’t so many people who fit that bill. She also volunteered at the local hospital where I had exploratory surgery back in 1990.

While I know her story is not mine – it belongs to Annie Le and those who knew and loved her – I read the place names, and I see where our paths crossed, and I realize: We both had charmed lives that were a generation apart but ran along parallel tracks. Until her life was ended, presumably by someone who had a sick obsession with her. (No suspect is in custody, but the Yale police are saying they don’t believe her murder was random.)

I realize that if we always identified painfully with the victims of atrocities, we wouldn’t be able to get through the day. And yet, I can’t tell myself that the crimes committed against Jaycee Dugard and Annie Le have nothing to do with me. They have to do with us all, just as every harm inflicted on the bodies of innocent children, women, and men have to do with us all. If we could hold that in our hearts, might we be able to avert the next atrocity?

I don’t know if I’m making any sense at all. I’m coming from a place of emotion, not logic. I just know that I’ve lost my insulation against the horrors of the world, and while I’ll probably feel thicker-skinned in the morning, I’m not at all sure that’s a good thing. Increasingly I think it’s not language or an opposable thumb but empathy that makes us human.

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So the Tiger was invited to a birthday party this weekend, which lots of his first-grade classmates attended. Including the one boy who’s always brimming – nay, boiling over! – with aggressive energy. If this boy (let’s call him Jayden, because all boy names must now end in “N”) successfully reaches adulthood, he may have a great future in professional sports or on the floor of the NYSE. For now, though, he mostly chases his classmates, using whatever blunt object is at hand. This time it was the plastic baseball bat intended for later use with the pinata.

Scene one: I’m sitting with the dad of one of the Tiger’s friends.

He says: You ever notice there are two kinds of boys? The gentle ones and, well, the crazy ones?

Me: Yep. The Tiger is full of mischief, but he’d never run after other kids with a baseball bat.

Him: Yeah, there’s energy, and then there’s brutality.

[We laugh, grateful for our relatively calm boys, perhaps a little too smug, but most just grateful.]

I make a half-hearted attempt to confiscate the bat, but Jayden is too fast for me and we both know it. Eventually the birthday girl’s mama grabs the bat. Through sheer luck, no one has gotten whacked, and no one is in tears.

Scene two: A mom of girls surveys the scene, still driven by Jayden, though the kids are now playing an organized game that involves stomping balloons attached to other kids’ ankles.

She says: Boys are different, aren’t they?

Me: Mmmmmph.

The bat is somehow still in play, and guess who’s swinging it? The rest of the boys are acting … well, pretty much like the girls, squealing and screaming and running.

Scene three: Jayden’s mom studiously avoids getting involved in all the bat-whacking activity. I understand why – really, I do – she needs a respite, I’m sure. All parents walk the line between maintaining our own sanity and giving our kids some direction, and we all have to draw that line a little differently. But also, Jayden’s mom doesn’t seem to think intervening would do much good. She evidently thinks certain behavior just falls under “boys will be boys.”

Now, I’ve been a parent long enough to know that temperament plays a key role in kids’ personalities. You can’t trump that entirely as parents. But I’ve also been a parent long enough to realize that you can guide and develop traits that are likely to help your kids live a good and satisfying life, while discouraging antisocial tendencies. If the Tiger had been wielding that bat (a less likely but still not impossible scenario) I would have confiscated it pronto. I would not have assumed that setting rules was a lost cause, just because he’s an energetic boy.

Anyway, the next time some psychologists want to study how kids – and parents! – learn and do gender, they could do worse than to turn up at a kids’ birthday party. There are hazards of course, including obligatory strawberry cupcakes and the allure of beer on a hot Sunday afternoon (for the parents only, obviously; I resisted temptation). But the interactions around Jayden serve as a perfect laboratory for how all of us learn and reinforce gender.

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My son the Tiger is lefthanded. He’s getting pretty good at invented spelling, which our teachers stress in kindergarten and the first grade. His classmates’ writing is often tricky to decipher, but the Tiger’s requires skills in cryptography. Or a mirror. Because if he’s not prompted otherwise, he’ll write right-to-left and produce a perfect mirror image. Just like Leonardo da Vinci!

If the Tiger had been born 30 or 40 years earlier, none of us would have been amused. His teachers probably would have beaten his lefthandedness out of him, probably quite literally. His mirror writing – a skill linked to lefthandedness – would have been cause for discipline, not fond amusement. His late talking, which I think has to do with the Tiger’s brain being wired differently than most, would have branded him as stupid. This is exactly what happened to his uncle in the early 1960s.

I can’t help but see a parallel between the persecution of lefthanders, which is now unthinkable, and the barbaric treatment of intersex children today. In both cases, the bodies of very young children are forced to fit a rigid norm. In both cases, kids’ lives were distorted and their sense of self irrevocably harmed in an attempt to shoehorn them into society’s expectations.

Obviously the analogy has its limits. Sex is binary and dichotomous; there are “two right answers.” Handedness is either right … or wrong. More seriously, the physical damage wrought by infant surgeries is irreversible. The psychic and developmental scars once routinely imposed on lefthanders can be irreversible, too, but there’s at least the possibility of undoing them through therapy and time. The Tiger’s uncle started to stutter as a result of being forced to write with his right hand, and he struggled in school, but as an adult he went back to school and has built a vibrant career.

On the other hand (so to speak), the analogy offers hope, too. I don’t know of any Western society where lefthandness is still demonized (though we still see vestiges of this in such terms as “lefthanded compliment” or “sinister”). If we can leave behind our rigid thinking about hand preference in a generation, we just might be able to do the same with intersex conditions. Maybe I’m an optimistic fool but I can see how lefthandedness is correlated with some pretty cool qualities in my son: freewheeling creativity and a talent for drawing, math, and music. I certainly don’t expect the Tiger to be Leonardo incarnate, but seeing his gifts, I can’t get too worked up about his quirky use of pronouns or his insistence on making all verbs regular. I’m hopeful that we can gain a similar appreciation for persons who just happen to be born intersex.

Darned if I know how this relates to the current uproar around the runner Caster Semenya, who was found to have undescended testes instead of ovaries. Odds are pretty high that she has androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS), which would mean her body can’t actually make much use of her high testosterone levels; more likely, it’s almost all converted to estrogen. I’m not a huge sports fan and I don’t know how international sporting authorities should deal with intersex athletes. I just know that I’d rather live in a world in which her gifts are recognized and celebrated, instead of one where she’s treated like a freak and her medical information is publicized even before she’s informed of her test results.

Update, 9/13/09, noon: Based on comments, I can see that I took an overly rosy view of how far we’ve come in revaluing lefthandedness. Apparently there’s lots of variations in how it’s treated. I don’t know this for a fact, but I wouldn’t be surprised if those locations where it’s still discouraged also go in for corporal punishment in the schools and general, all-around conformity. Also, one point I should have made in the original post is that the shame attached to being intersex also partakes of the shame that’s still associated with genitalia, and so it’s going to be more resistant to change.

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Sometimes I’m mystified at what gets picked up and treated seriously even by bloggers and scholars I respect. Earlier this week, Courtney Martin at Feministing mentioned a post by Virginia Rutter at Girl w/Pen. Virginia Rutter is a smart, serious scholar. But I wasn’t convinced by this post, where she argues that monogamy is on the rise even as couples are talking more about potential affairs:

Are people really having less sex? Well, at the very least, it looks like they are having less sex outside of their committed relationships, according to a new study written up in Scientific American. But it also looks like people may be making up for having less sex outside of committed relationships by talking about it more. And that is good news for sex.

First the news: In each category surveyed—gay, lesbian, straight—people report fewer affairs now than in the 1970s. Everybody has changed in terms of monogamy: gay men do it (where do it means doing non-monogamy) 59% now versus 82% in the 1970s. Nowadays, straight men do it less—14%. Meanwhile, 13% of straight women and 8% of lesbians do it. As we keep seeing again and again in recent surveys on monogamy, women—lesbian and straight—still report fewer affairs than their male counterparts, but they are catching up with the boys, as UW psychologist David Atkins has shown. On the one hand, affairs overall may be on the decline because of STDS and the like; on the other hand, women may be catching up because they have greater autonomy and economic independence.

That is all interesting, but this is also potentially good news for wild, free-for-all sex. The investigators from Alliant International University in San Francisco showed that over the same period people have also increased how much they talk to their partners about the idea of sex outside of their relationship. (What’s happening in those conversations, report these psychologists, is that they are talking about outside liaisons, and deciding against them.)

But the other discovery here is about the talking. Increasingly, this study hints, people are talking about the notion of sex outside their relationship–talking about forbidden, off-the-approved-roster sex with someone who isn’t an official or legal sweetheart–even if in the end they decide against it. Conversations like that—no matter what the outcome—mean that more and more people are acknowledging, countenancing, and admitting that they and their partners are completely capable of having sexual fantasies about someone other than their official one. We all know that being in a committed relationship doesn’t change our brain structure and doesn’t stop a great, diverse sexual imagination about all manner of things, people, and situations. But when people don’t talk about it, they have to tell one another lies, and pretend like their fantasies don’t exist.

So, maybe people are saying no to the reality of sex with their hot new colleague, but if they are saying yes to a conversation about it with their partner, it might mean that those partners will be better at dreaming up their own edgier, more interesting sex. And, by the way, in a world where women have greater sexual freedom to have affairs, they also have greater freedom to acknowledge desire and have conversations about it that can lead to fewer affairs.

(I’ve reprinted the whole thing so as not to distort her argument.)

This is a utopian vision, isn’t it? People are actually communicating about sex, women’s desires are being legitimized, and everyone is having hotter sex while treating their partners with more integrity?

I don’t want to be a party-pooper. I respect Virginia Rutter immensely. When I teach about sexuality, I rely partly on the work she’s done with Pepper Schwartz. But, nerd that I am, I went to the Scientific American piece – and what I found there looked considerably less utopian.

First, the data compare a survey from 1975 to one conducted in 2000. The latest data in the comparison are thus nearly a decade old. They don’t represent “now.” Sure, there’s always a lag time between research and publication, but this one is a doozy.

What we’re seeing is not a new trend by any means. We’re simply seeing the impact of fear of AIDS. Both Rutter and the Scientific American article note the effect of STIs, but neither discusses the chronology. I’m only guessing, but I’m pretty confident that if comparable data were available from 1990, they’d look a lot like the figures from 2000. The headline in Scientific American, “Monogamy Is All the Rage These Days,” makes it sound like we’re at the bleeding edge of a new trend. That might be true on a geological scale; otherwise, not so much.

But maybe I’m just being a curmudgeonly old historian, insisting we get the chronology right? Maybe the real story is that people are talking about affairs with their partners, yet deciding not to stray? Here’s what Scientific American said on that point:

It’s worth pointing out, however, that [in 2000] 43.7 percent of those gay men said they “discussed sex outside the relationship and decided that under some circumstances it is all right.” Only 5 percent of lesbians and about 3.5 percent of straight couples had a similar agreement. Again, all groups report many fewer of these open relationships than they did in 1975, when about 20 percent of straight couples, 34 percent of lesbians and nearly 68 percent of gay men agreed to forgo monogamy.

And the percentage of couples who are decidedly closed to sex outside the relationship—they discussed extra-partnership sex and decided that “under no circumstances is it alright”—just about doubled in every group (from around 43 percent in 1975 to around 80 percent in 2000) except in gay men, among whom it more than tripled (13 to 44 percent). “It was surprising to us that in all groups, the trend is toward monogamy,” said Gabrielle Gotta, lead author of the study.

(The rest is here.)

Unfortunately, there’s no link to the original study, and perhaps Rutter was privy to more information than Scientific American provides. But assuming this précis is accurate, it doesn’t even hint that Gotta and her colleagues discovered ongoing conversations about desires and fantasies. Instead, they found that people decided that extra-partnership sex was not okay. Ever. That sounds to me much more like a one-time agreement, likely struck early in the relationship. It doesn’t sound like constant negotiation and communication, much less sharing fantasies about hot co-workers.

In fact, though I realize some people get off on swapping fantasies about specific people, I’m not at all convinced that this is a recipe for spicing up sex in most long-term relationships. Fantasies are one thing; fantasies about a specific, flesh-and-blood individual are quite another. Such “extra-partnership” fantasies are liable to evoke jealousy. They can be used manipulatively, to stoke insecurities and keep one’s partner in line. People who are committed to polyamory often still struggle with jealousy. What happens to a couple who are “decidedly closed to sex outside the relationship” when one of them discloses daydreams about an affair? Will this heat up their sex life? Or will it just plant the seeds of suspicion?

So yeah, it would be wonderful if none of us felt jealousy. It would be even better if we could freely communicate our desires and fantasies without fear of being judged or hurting our partners. But that’s not the world we live in – and nothing in the description of this new study suggests we’ve edged much closer to a utopia of freewheeling desires.

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The 24/7 Professor

Anyone with a desk job knows what a great labor-saver email has turned out to be. But if you’re old enough to remember how it was originally hyped back in the ’80s, you probably also recall that students didn’t contact professors outside business hours unless there was a dire emergency.

By the end of yesterday, which was the second day my Religion, Gender, and Sexuality class met, I had sent or received 281 messages for that class alone. Many of them related to setting up the class, hiring discussion leaders, and dealing with classroom technology. Even so, 70 of those messages fell on Wednesday alone, and nearly all of them were to or from students. As soon as I’d answered one email, another would appear.

I do expect this will settle down a bit once freshmen learn the ropes; plenty of them don’t even know how to read a syllabus. But there’s an expectation that professors will be available 24/7, and that won’t fade away. People write me at 3 a.m. about an assignment due six hours later. I regularly get emails from students who miss class and write to ask “if anything important happened” while they were absent. Note to students, present and future: Never do this! It implies that usually nothing important happens in class! It also presumes that your professor will spoonfeed you with notes. Just get notes from a classmate, like we did in the Dark Ages before email was widespread.

By now I’ve internalized these expectations, too. If I’m planning to spend a Sunday at the zoo, I’ll send out an email to my classes to let them know I won’t be reachable. On a Sunday! It’s as if I’m a mail-order call center. Or Wal-Mart. And yes, I see how my emailing them plays into the 24/7 expectation, but it’s a lot less hassle than fielding a bunch of emails that presumed a quick reply.

During the few minutes it took to write this post, I got another student email. I answered it. Before another one arrives, I just might turn off my computer and sneak a nap.

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Just over five years ago, my husband suffered an autoimmune attack on his nerve system. It was sort of like Guillain-Barré, but not exactly. It may have been a mix of a paraneoplastic syndrome (the body running amok due to cancer) and a case of MADSAM (aka Lewis Sumner syndrome), which damages peripheral nerves, though usually over a longer time frame. Whatever the origin, he was in horrific, world-shattering pain, and he quickly suffered wide-ranging paralysis.

The first morning after his nerves came under attack, his left hand was immobilized. He told the neurologist, “I guess I can write off guitar-playing.” The neurologist made noises in Austrian-German that I didn’t fully understand but clearly promised a full recovery. That didn’t happen. In November 2007, my sweetheart underwent surgery to re-route a tendon to restore some mobility to his left hand. The initial gains were limited. He took his guitar out once or twice, then packed it away again.

Tonight he is playing his guitar. Before all the trauma, he was a gifted classical guitarist, good enough to teach lessons. He is still gifted. And his fingers are now slowly catching up to his gifts – haltingly,  sometimes frustratingly – but so beautifully I can only tear up and wallow in gratitude.

I want to hear this music for the rest of my life.

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