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Archive for July, 2010

This isn’t news for my local readers, but I want to say a few words in tribute to Art Gish, who was killed in a tractor accident earlier this week. Art was a fixture around Athens, Ohio, selling his organic produce at the farmer’s market, often including such exotica, by American standards, as dandelion greens. You’d see him on campus if a progressive speaker came to town. You’d see him and his wife Peggy in front of the courthouse, demonstrating and holding vigils.

But sometimes you wouldn’t see him, or Peggy, because they were somewhere in the Middle East delivering a message of peace and compassion that was inspired by their Mennonite faith. Peggy, who was once taken hostage, was in Iraq when Art was killed. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to get such news while far from home. Neither she nor Art ever fliched because something was hard. Still, my heart aches for her.

There’s a terrible irony in his own tractor causing his death, on his own land, after he had stood up to tanks and bulldozers far from home in the West Bank. Here’s an AP photo of Art facing down an Israeli tank.:

(Source: Phil’s Clippings)

Art’s life and work were honored on Democracy Now yesterday; I can’t embed the clip, so go here and then fast-forward to about 9:35. Last year, DN interviewed Art and Peggy here about their work with the Christian Peacemaker Team. (It’s also impossible to embed, so I’ll include the transcript at the end of the post.) But Art was no publicity seeker. To the extent that the AP and DN recognized his work, he would want us to direct our attention to the work yet to be done, the peace yet to be made.

Art was just 70 – no longer young, to be sure, and with a full life behind him, spanning all the way back to his work in the civil rights movement of the 19960s. I didn’t know Art well – just to say hi to him – but I know his work was not done.

It seems almost trite to wish him eternal peace, and to wish his family peace in the here and now. But that’s what Art stood for, and that’s what he and his loved ones deserve. Peace – and the living memory of the work to which he dedicated his life.

————

The DN interview, fall 2009:

AMY GOODMAN: Five years ago this month, in April of 2004, the first photographs from inside Abu Ghraib appeared in the US media. The photos showed Iraqi prisoners being tortured, abused and humiliated by US forces and private contractors.

While the first photos were broadcast on 60 Minutes and published in the pages of The New Yorker, the initial reports of torture actually came months earlier. Beginning in 2003, members of the Christian Peacemaker Team in Iraq began documenting dozens of cases of torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners inside US military facilities.

We’re joined right now, here at Ohio University in Athens, by two local peace activists, longtime members of the Christian Peacemaker Team, Peggy and Art Gish. Peggy Gish has worked in Iraq with Christian Peacemaker Teams since October of 2002. She helped document the first reports of abuse inside US prisons in Iraq. She’s author of Iraq: A Journey of Hope and Peace. Her husband, Art Gish, has been part of the Christian Peacemaker Teams in the West Bank since 1995. He’s the author of several books, including Hebron Journal: Stories of Nonviolent Peacemaking.

Thank you so much for being with us. It’s wonderful to have you with us. Peggy Gish, let’s being with you. President Obama just took a surprise trip to Iraq. You, yourself, were kidnapped there in Iraq.

PEGGY GISH: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Just talk to me.

PEGGY GISH: I’m sorry, I’m not hearing you right.

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, just listen to what I’m saying, just as I’m talking to you here. What happened to you in Iraq?

PEGGY GISH: What happened in Iraq?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes.

ART GISH: What happened to you in Iraq?

PEGGY GISH: In Iraq, yes. Well, two of us were traveling to a very impoverished area in northwestern Iraq, and there were groups of people who wanted to work nonviolently to deal with the struggles there. And two of us were abducted on the way home. I was kept only two days, and my—

AMY GOODMAN: Where?

PEGGY GISH: In the compound out in a desert. And my colleague was kept for another six days. Then we were released unharmed, which we think has something to do with them hearing about the work of CPT and the kind of work that we were doing.

AMY GOODMAN: Of the Christian Peacemaker Teams.

PEGGY GISH: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk about that, and your work being seminal in getting out the photographs of Abu Ghraib.

PEGGY GISH: Yes. We started this work in the summer of 2003, and what—it grew out of just helping the Iraqi families that had people detained among their family. And then we began discovering gross abuse in all of the prisons of Iraq, not just Abu Ghraib. And there was a lot of brutality from the very beginning of the house raid in the middle of the night, where soldiers acknowledged that they had thirty seconds or forty seconds of absolute terror to subdue the people, and then brutality in the questioning, the interrogation process, torture going on in that process, as well as in the imprisonment time. So we were hearing stories from men and women who had been in Abu Ghraib and other prisons, and we compiled a report on seventy-two prisoners that became part of a pool of evidence, and we were one of several organizations, Iraqi and international groups, that put tremendous pressure on the system to make it public.

AMY GOODMAN: Why have you chosen to live in Iraq for so many years under the gun, I mean, in the midst of the US attack, why you’ve chosen to live in Iraq?

PEGGY GISH: Yes, why do I go back? I go there because I’ve been given a deep love for the Iraqi people, and love is really what has overcome the fear that I have to struggle with when I go there, but also because I am from a country that has done tremendous damage to their society, to the people, devastated the lives and culture of a people, and I want to do some small part in trying to help the people of Iraq, but also to let the people here know what is really happening there. So part of our work is just truth telling, witnessing what the occupation has done, what that has meant for people.

And it has been a horrible thing for the people of Iraq. It has meant up to a million people killed, a continued physical devastation of the country. There’s still very little clean water or electricity, very poor medical care. People have been traumatized. Friends tell us that they are so despairing and depressed and do not see much hope for the future of their country, at least not for generations. And so, it is a devastated country. And people say, “I don’t feel like it’s getting better.”

AMY GOODMAN: When were you last there?

PEGGY GISH: Two weeks ago. I just came back.

AMY GOODMAN: What was your reaction to President Obama’s recent surprise trip this week and his calling for troop reductions in Iraq?

PEGGY GISH: Yeah, I didn’t catch all that question.

ART GISH: What was your reaction to Obama going to Iraq this week?

PEGGY GISH: Yeah, I wish that Obama would be speaking out clearly, acknowledging the harm that the US has done there more clearly. And what we see and what Iraqis see is that Obama is just following in the same policies concerning Iraq that Bush has. The timetable for withdrawing is very similar to what Bush had put on the table. And they—I guess I’m afraid that he’s just being sucked into it, being pressured into a kind of aggressive military policy for dealing with the struggles of the world.

What’s happening with Iraq is now being transferred over into the work with Afghanistan, so we’re going to take troops from Iraq, but we’re going to increase the war there, the war on terror. And that is what we ought to be addressing, is our whole foreign policy, the way we are dealing with this whole problem of terrorism in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Peggy Gish. Her husband Art Gish, also a Christian Peacemaker. Art, you spend your time in the West Bank, in the Occupied Territories.

ART GISH: Yes. Since 1995, I’ve been going to the West Bank every winter for three months. And I just came back from spending another three months there.

AMY GOODMAN: Why? Why have you chosen to go there? And explain how the Christian Peacemaker Teams developed.

ART GISH: Christian Peacemaker Teams came out of the peace churches, the Quakers, the Mennonites, the Church of the Brethren, out of the idea that if we’re really serious about peace, we ought to be willing to take the same risks as soldiers take and go into a nonviolent—into violent situations and be a nonviolent presence there. What if people who want peace made the same kind of commitment that soldiers make?

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

ART GISH: That we go there, and we take risks, and we stand in the middle, and we work for peace in there.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you’ve done in West Bank.

ART GISH: OK. The most important thing we do is listen. And we listen to all sides. We act as international observers. I like to say we have the grandmother effect. There are things nobody would do if their grandmother is watching. So, in any conflict anywhere in the world, it’s really important to have outside observers there who are a presence there, and the people know they’re being watched, and that will reduce the violence.

And then, third, we also engage in nonviolent direct action. If the Israeli military wants to demolish a Palestinian house, we’ll sit on the roof of the house. We stand in front of tanks and bulldozers, and our slogan is “getting in the way.”

AMY GOODMAN: We just passed the anniversary of the death of Rachel Corrie on March 16th.

ART GISH: Yes, I knew her.

AMY GOODMAN: A few days before the invasion of Iraq—

ART GISH: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —she was killed in Gaza by an Israeli military bulldozer. She stood in front of a house—

ART GISH: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —just like you, standing to prevent it from being crushed. How did you know her?

ART GISH: I did some work for ISM. That’s the group she was working with, International Solidarity Movement. And I led the training for two days of nonviolence training for her, so I trained her to stand in front of bulldozers.

AMY GOODMAN: And your thoughts, your reaction after she was killed?

ART GISH: Well, that touched me very deeply, since I have some responsibility in that. But she’s one of my heroes, of course. And, you know, I think of the times I stood in front of tanks and bulldozers, and it could have happened to me.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened in those cases? Explain exactly what you do. For example, talk about your experiences in Hebron. Did it happen there?

ART GISH: Yes. There was—in the main central produce market in Hebron, I saw two Israeli bulldozers, two Israeli tanks smashing the whole area. And a big tank came toward me, and I stood there, and it stopped, right in front of me. I didn’t realize that day that maybe I saved my wife’s life that day, because while she was kidnapped, she showed a picture of me standing in front of the tank to the kidnappers, and they were quite impressed and said we’re going to let you go.

AMY GOODMAN: You were in the West Bank. But you, when you were kidnapped, in Iraq.

PEGGY GISH: I was in Iraq, yes.

ART GISH: She was in—yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And you had this photograph with you?

PEGGY GISH: I had the photo with me and the photos of my family, my children, right, and showed that to them. And then they went out with it, and ten minutes later the guard came back in and said I would be released the next day with our translator.

AMY GOODMAN: What drives you to devote so much time to this kind of activism? For our radio listeners, your white hair, Art, your white beard. For kids who might think, what on earth are you doing? You live safely here in Athens, Ohio, but you’re constantly going off to places where you put your own lives in danger.

ART GISH: Well, first of all, it’s a privilege and a gift to be able to stand with the victims, with the oppressed of the world. That’s a privilege. I wouldn’t want to give it up for anything. What motivates us is our religious faith, our faith in God. And as Peggy put it so well, it’s love. It’s our love for the people that drives us.

AMY GOODMAN: Where were you born, Art?

ART GISH: Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

AMY GOODMAN: And Peggy?

PEGGY GISH: I was born actually in Nigeria. My parents were working there when I was very young. And then I grew up in Chicago.

AMY GOODMAN: And what got you involved in this peace work, Peggy?

PEGGY GISH: Ah, what got—well, we started our activism with civil rights work, and it a just opened the door to all kinds of other issues for us. Then we became involved with the anti-Vietnam War protests and draft resistance, death penalty abolition. And so, we began to see the interconnection with so many oppressions and problems, economic problems, with the war machine. And then we heard about a group that had a different kind of response, one that would be of standing with people and working with them nonviolently within their countries in those situations.

And so, as we worked in Iraq, we looked for those creative people who were interested, and we did a training with a group of Shia Muslims in Karbala in 2005, and they became known then as the Muslim Peacemaker Teams. With them, then we went into the city of Fallujah seven times during the year of 2005 to work for reconciliation between Sunni and Shia. So that’s the kind of thing that we do. And it’s exciting because we’re a part of a movement of the local people who are doing that and building that up for their country.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you planning to go back to the West Bank, Art? Peggy, to Iraq?

ART GISH: I hope to.

PEGGY GISH: I hope so.

ART GISH: Insha’Allah.

PEGGY GISH: Yes, we hope.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both very much for being with us, Peggy and Art Gish.

ART GISH: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: They’ve written a number of books. Peggy’s book,Iraq: A Journey of Hope and Peace. Art Gish’s book, Hebron Journal: Stories of Nonviolent Peacemaking and At-Tuwani Journal: Hope and Nonviolent Action in a Palestinian Village.

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My Wonky Computer

I probably should know better than to wade into a controversy when my computer is acting wonky, but no. I don’t. Earlier this evening, here’s how my screen looked after it froze and I relaunched it:

This lovely image has appeared several times in the past week, but this time I couldn’t go back to normal simply by restarting a couple of times. I had to unplug it, remove its battery, and hold down the start button for five seconds. Since then, it’s acting happy, but I’m not deceived into believing it’s really okay. So this is to say if I disappear without warning, it’s not because I don’t care. It’s because my machine is kaputt. I’m supposed to fly back to the U.S. on Wednesday, and I’m trying to –

oh hell, I just had to restart again! Okay, so I’m trying to nurse my machine along until I can get it to a tech back home who knows me enough to trust me to say I haven’t abused it. I also have a kaputt CD drive, and I want my AppleCare coverage to cover it. Because honestly, I have treated my computer with love and kindness. It is my auxiliary brain. I only do bad things to my real brain. But you might just find comfort in a glass of wine, too, if your computer looked like this.

In the meantime, if anyone knows what the Stripes of Death mean on a MacBook Pro (vintage spring 2008), I’d be most grateful. They are usually preceded by a freeze-up that gives me lots of pixilated, groovy, pastel colors. But those groovy colors herald one heck of a bad trip. :-(

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The worst plane flight of my life was a transatlantic hop in which a baby cried pretty much uninterrupted from takeoff to landing. To make it worse, the child was really too old to be a baby anymore. He was a chunky twenty-month-0ld! His parents appeared to have no strategy able to calm him! Things got so bad, a nun offered advice at great length to the obviously hapless parents.

Yes, that was a long flight. Numerous passengers would have happily pushed the eject button on that child, even if it had landed him in the Arctic Ocean.

Did I mention the “baby” in question was my own beloved Tiger?

And short of a direct appeal to the Ceiling Cat, we tried everything to calm him. He was just pissed. To keep his ears from clogging, we’d given him a sippy cup during takeoff (one piece of advice that the well-meaning but ostentatiously helpful nun shared with us, after the fact). We’d packed a few toys. We tried walking the aisles with him. We tried rocking and singing him to sleep. Nothing worked.

At twenty months, the Tiger had no stable words. None. Not even “no”! We had no way of knowing why he was so upset. We couldn’t reason with him. Short of wrapping a gag around his mouth, we couldn’t “control” him. We were seasoned travelers with kids by then. My husband had just completed a grueling round of chemotherapy in Germany, and we weren’t traveling on a whim. We were just trying to get home after an eight-month unplanned stay in Germany that began as a brief vacation and reached its zenith months later in the ICU. We were lucky my mate survived. And now we were doing our darndest to comfort the Tiger and let everyone sleep.

So when discussions of “childfree spaces” on a feminist blog (Feministe) quickly jump to saying that sharing a plane with kids is tantamount to a “hostage situation, I’d like to know exactly who’s the hostage here? I’m fairly sure only two people suffered worse than I on that flat: the Tiger and his dad. Well, maybe the nun, too.

We’re in the midst of another shitstorm in the feminist blogosphere, this time about parents’ rights to take their kids anywhere, anytime. The post that touched if off (by guestblogger Mai’a at Feministe) framed it in absolutist terms: We parents should be able to take our kids to bars where the patrons are inebriated and watch the sun come up. Obviously, this is risible. What kid will benefit from spending the whole night out with a parent, sidestepping being trod upon by drunks? Karmithia at Alas sagely pointed out the obvious: late nights at bars are good for neither parent nor child.

It’s unfortunate that Mai’a chose such an extreme example, because I can’t recall seeing a child at a bar – ever – as opposed to a relatively family-friendly bar-restaurant. Had she chosen a less silly example, her post would have still attracted the virulently childfree, but her main argument – that excluding children also marginalizes their mothers – would have been much more defensible. The central question she raised – are children an oppressed class? – also deserved more nuanced discussion. What happened instead was the far more predictable volley of accusations against “entitled” parents. (Much of the incivility came from people who’ve raised kids themselves, so this wasn’t merely a debate between mothers and non-mothers).

Most of the gripes raised in that comment thread addressed strawmen (or strawkids?): the presence of kids in adult-only bars, the ubiquity (?) of kids in upscale restaurants, and the notion that most (maybe all) parents just let their kids run wild 24/7. I have sometimes seen the last problem in family-friendly restaurants, and I’m not here to defend the fairly small minority of parents who seem unconcerned about their child tripping up a server laden with drinks and burning-hot food. I’ve rarely seen kids in pricier places, but I’ll be honest: I prefer to stick to family-friendly restaurants for everyone’s peace of mind. (Or, rarely, go out for a nice meal while a sitter watches our kids.) And bars? Seriously, I don’t get around much anymore, but I have yet to see swarms of kids at cocktail bars or at any grow-mutt party.

There’s just one area where I’ve seen systematic parenting fail: dragging wee ones to PG-13 and R-rated movies. I first noticed this a decade ago, pre-parenthood, when my husband and I took in a matinee of the first X-Files movie. The theater was full of tots who really, really didn’t belong there. Sure, they were loud, and that was annoying, but the real failure impacted the kids. Maybe they weren’t overtly disturbed. I don’t care! I have deep qualms about desensitizing small children to violence, which is what happens when they’re fed a steady diet of violence as preteens and even preschoolers. Yeah, a babysitter costs money. So do cinema tickets. Prevail upon your friends and relatives if you must keep up with Scully and Mulder.

But even the bad judgment of a few parents at the movies is red herring. Judging from the Feministe discussion and perennial nasty Internet comments about kids, the real issue is not R-rated movies, upscale restaurants, grown-up bars, or parties where you can gleefully drop the F-bomb.

Here’s the real problem: Some folks aren’t willing to accept kids in public, period. People really hate sharing airplanes with kids. Too many resent kids in downscale restaurants. Feministe commenters complained about kids on the subway – and oh boy, you need to keep your kids close on the subway as a safety measure, but I have never seen kids run wild on any form of public transit in Berlin. Sometimes, like my Tiger, they like to twist around and kneel on the seats to peer out windows, but they are not posing a public danger. Yet, even when they perch on their seats like little Victorian dolls, they’ve still gotten the evil eye. I thought this was just a Berlin issue, but perhaps U.S. coastal cities are even worse? Feministe commenters pissed and moaned about kids making noise in Target and supermarkets. I mean, really – supermarkets? Who has the cash to hire a babysitter while we buy the food we need to survive??! And does this mean Target’s now off bounds for me, but Wal-Mart is okay?

Basically, anytime people feel they can’t quickly escape, a few of them insist that children better not make a peep. At the same time, these same folks systematically ignore the drunken passengers lurching through the subway car, or the couple on the transatlantic flight who carry on loud conversations in the aisles from Halifax to Ireland. (Actually, I suspect some of them are the drunken and chatty passengers.)

I understand their irritation. I remember feeling similarly at times before I had kids, but if I could see their parents hadn’t fully checked out, I got over myself. I recall only one time when the parents were obviously slacking: yet another transatlantic stretch with a Gameboy turned up to 11 and no headphones in sight. (The parents read and slept while the Gameboy beeped cheerfully all across the ocean.) Nowadays, when a child starts to wail in the plane or grocery store, I feel a nanosecond of irritation, followed by a massive wave of relief: Hey, that’s not my child anymore! And then I feel empathy with the parent and child. If we pass each other, I’ll flash a smile, unless the situation seems too far gone.

I do agree that there are a few places where kids categorically don’t belong: nightclubs, sex clubs, extremely upscale restaurants, and yes, bars while the sun is rising. Heck, parents need a few kid-free spaces, too, for those times when we get to escape! Kids shouldn’t stay any longer in a university library than their desperate parent needs to pick up a few books and leave again. (My little town has a great city library that’s welcoming to them.) Concerts, theater, and hospitals may be perfectly appropriate places, depending on the kids and the circumstances. (I will note that once my mate escaped the ICU but was still in the hospital, the Tiger behaved like a little angel, confined to his stroller and fed continuously with Butterkeks, the German equivalent of graham crackers.)

Parents are responsible for discerning how well their sprouts are able to behave. And yes, I do think kids need to learn to be civil, unlike a few Feministe commenters at the other extreme, who decried that as authoritarian. Civilization happens by gradually stretching the limits of what kids can gracefully handle, and by giving them clear boundaries that gradually expand.

But geez, we shouldn’t have to lock ourselves inside Chuck. E. Cheese until all our children have left for college. I’ve read extremists who say parents should just avoid all air travel until their kids are young adults. Parents remain people, too (often with family four times zones away). And kids are people. I really like how Sierra put this at Strollerderby:

I’m a mom who believes that the well-being of our children is a shared responsibility of everyone. My kids are not an exotic hobby, or a bizarre lifestyle choice. They are little people with all the rights and privileges people are entitled to. Their emotional and physical well-being is in your interest as well as mine.

One of the most important points to be made here about kids being people is that their parents, particularly their mothers, are not their puppetmasters. If my kid starts wailing and throwing boxes of cereal in Aisle 7, I can’t just apologize and turn the volume off the way I can if my cell phone goes off in a crowded theater.

I can do my best to help her behave well; keep her well-rested and fed and entertained. But if she’s losing it, she’s just like any other person with a problem. What she needs is help. You’d never go up to a 25-year-old sobbing two tables away from you at a restaurant and tell them to be quiet; you’d either stay out of it or offer help. Kids deserve to be treated the same way.

Similarly, if a kid crosses a line with you, the thing to do is to gently hold the kid accountable. Politely ask her to quiet down, return your toy or get off your foot.

Generating a culture of fear around moms in public, that they’d better get those kids to shut up and act sweet or else, only serves to make us more fearful as parents. Frightened moms are stricter, less flexible and ultimately less able to handle stressful situations that crop up with their kids. Ease up a little, and the kids will have fewer meltdowns to begin with. Everyone wins.

(Read the whole post here.)

Also: They will pay for our Social Security someday. Now might be a propitious time to start treating them kindly. If we do that, they might actually grow up to be nicer than the commentariat at Feministe (or heaven forbid, the even nastier trainwreck on Jezebel).

In my own life, I’ve been nothing but lucky to have friends and family who’ve embraced my kids, even whey they’re stinkers, and even when said friends have chosen not to spawn. I honor their choices, and they honor mine. My boys are surrounded by love. It’s really just a few strangers who’ve made it hard at times. Hmmm … is that what they mean by “stranger danger”?

By now, the Tiger is a pretty good flyer. We had one more horrid flight (Minneapolis to Columbus, just me with the two boys) where he howled for most of it. My husband met us at the airport. He’d already heard that the Tiger had been a terror. One of his colleagues had been sitting in one row ahead of us. I didn’t spot her, though I knew her casually. She sure didn’t identify herself; it was far more fun to report on my child’s misbehavior, with great relish, after the flight. I’m sure my husband was the first to know, but certainly not the last.

I’d like to credit my parenting – or even the global village – for the fact that on every flight since, people have complemented us on our kids. But when I’m out with kids among strangers, that global village scarcely, except to meddle and gossip. As for our parenting – well, it’s been eclipsed by the invention of the portable DVD player.

(From ICHC?)

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I came upon a banner ad for a very NSFW enterprise in the Berlin subway yesterday. What’s not work-safe in the U.S. is evidently subway-safe here. I’d have snapped a photo but didn’t have the gumption to explain to my kids why it was funny and disconcerting. (Oh, kids, we’re not in Ohio anymore!) At seven and ten, they seem to tune out the soft-porn mags prominently displayed at newsstands, but this ad would’ve required a lot more explaining. So instead I grabbed an image from their website  …

… and yeah, it’s really not work-safe, so do look over your shoulder before scrolling down.

The subway ad included only the company name, plus the charming red-and-gold logo. It was much more subtle. No Crisco, either. (Since when do Germans use Crisco? It’s not organic enough! Oh, never mind. If you explore their website, the answer very quickly, um, slips into sight. Or slips somewhere, anyway.)

Seriously, I’m all in favor of sexual openness, but faced with a triple cock, I’ve got nuthin’ to say.

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In my last post, which discussed the racism behind the conviction of a Palestinian man, Sabbar Kashur, of “rape by deception”, I promised to address the fundamental problems of “rape by deception” in a separate post. I deferred this for two reasons: First, I wanted to address issues of racism and purity separately (insofar as possible). Second, I intend the present post to be the second in a series exploring the issues around defining rape and sexual assault. Last winter, I began this with a post on the spectrum of sexual assault and the limits of the law, in which I concluded:

the law is a necessary but not sufficient instrument for transforming sexual relations. We need a feminist sexual ethics as well. To that end, I teach my students about the importance of enthusiastic consent. If they take it to heart, their chances of committing a crime ought to be nil.

And yet … there’s an area between sexual assault and enthusiastic consent. I don’t want to call it a gray area, because I don’t want to endorse the notion of “gray rape” (which is just a euphemism for defining acquaintance rape out of existence). Still, people are going to continue having sex under conditions of consent that’s defective or problematic or just lukewarm. We need to find ways to discuss this problem without either trivializing it or calling it “rape” or “assault.” In other words, we need a feminist sexual ethics that recognizes the complexity of social and sexual relations, affirms pleasure and autonomy, and emphasizes compassion and communication. “Yes means yes” is a good start, but it’s only a start.

(The whole post is here.)

After I wrote that post, life and work intervened to keep me from tackling the problems of defective consent, but I’d like to pick it up again now that I’m off from teaching and neither of my offspring has broken any bones lately. I think it’s crucial to find ways to talk about sexual violation that both respect the integrity of people who feel violated while also ensuring that the terms “rape” and “sexual assault” aren’t used in such inflationary ways that they become meaningless.

Jill at Feministe circumscribes “rape by deception” in a way that I thought (in my little non-lawyerly way) made loads of sense. She too remembered that case where a man impersonated his brother to extract sex from his brother’s girlfriend. The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled it wasn’t rape because no force was involved. This incident, which occurred in a dark room where the woman couldn’t recognize the man, strikes me as precisely the sort of gross violation of consent where the law can and should intervene. The facts are clear-cut, the man’s intent was obvious, and the woman had no opportunity to offer or refuse reasonably-informed consent. So I agree with Jill that there is some place in the law for “rape by deception” or “rape by fraud.” Maybe you wouldn’t categorize it as a first-degree felony, but such conduct deserves to be criminalized.

However, once you move from cases such as impersonation to cases where someone tells a garden-variety lie, you’ve just criminalized 95% of the population. (Or maybe 99.999%)  I do not think it is noble that people lie and misrepresent themselves in pursuit of romance, sex, and love. But neither is it felonious. It shouldn’t even be a misdemeanor, legally speaking.

On the Feministe thread, a few people argued that since lying to a potential sexual partner undermines enthusiastic consent – or really, consent period – it should be criminalized. One commenter who’s a lawyer argued that it should be treated as a misdemeanor, since such lies are more serious than commonly-prosecuted crimes such as trespassing. I agree that lies – even glaring lies of omission – diminish consent. Where I disagree is on the proposition that the criminal justice system could offer appropriate remedies for this. (And as for the trespassers – can we stop prosecuting them too, in the absence of other crimes?)

In part, the problem is simply a matter of numbers: the prosecution of liars would give the U.S. a chance to build more prisons than schools (if we’re not already there yet). Some of the commentators at Feministe echoed Dr. Gregory House’s line: “Everyone lies.” A couple of people protested that they, personally, were always honest, but by and large, I think House is right. Consider online dating. Whether it’s OK Cupid or eHarmony or Adult Friend Finder, people misrepresent themselves. They exaggerate their height, play down their weight, puff up their job titles. They post a photo that’s a year old – or ten. Perhaps the only reservoir of honesty is on Chatroulette, where the naked dudes look pretty much exactly like themselves. ‘Cept they’re not looking to date you. I guess that, too, is refreshingly honest.

And it’s not just men who lie, exaggerate, misrepresent. Take your humble blogger, for instance. I know that when I met the man I eventually married, I didn’t say to him, “By the way, I’m still sort of messed up from my last boyfriend.” In my sexual past, I’ve misrepresented a few other things, including multiple failures to indicate clearly when I was not interested. These days, I’m not even on the market, and yet I own a couple of bras that overplay my actual assets. And that’s just me – a generally honest gal from North Dakota.

Of course, what’s at stake are lies and distortions that could be dealbreakers for a potential partner. Even there, the list is infinite. Would you rule out Republicans? Or only go for Republicans? Do you require gainful employment? Upward mobility? A yacht in the Mediterranean? Are you open to coupling with a trans person? Or would you freak out if your potential partner wasn’t cisgendered? Would you only sleep with someone with long-term potential, or would you rule out anyone seeking a relationship?

A law that criminalized garden-variety lies to potential partners would hit certain groups especially hard:

  • people of color – see the “War on Drugs” for millions of precedents
  • trans people, whose murder is still sometimes excused under the “trans panic defense,” and who already suffer from being branded “deceptive”
  • women whose partners assumed them to be virgins (as Alara Rogers argued compellingly at Feministe)
  • people with STIs, who do have a duty to disclose (in my view), but who would be discouraged from even getting tested
  • pickup artists (okay, my sympathy is lukewarm, but I still don’t want to toss them in jail)

So if we don’t turn to the law, then what? And how are we to respond to the very real feelings of violation that people feel when they’ve been deceived – feeling that are not limited to women, by the way?

I don’t think it’s wrong to spread the word to one’s friends and acquaintances about someone who has told a materially important lie. Politeness often stops people from doing this. Women, especially, are also likely to be deterred by the fear that no one will believe them (which runs parallel to the fears of rape victims), and by fear of slut-shaming. But if someone has behaved like a first-class jerk, we have no obligation to protect his or her reputation. I’m lukewarm on public shaming (as apparently occurs sometimes on Facebook, for instance), but in private conversations, there’s no reason to hold back one’s experiences.

We also need to educate young people – boys and girls alike – on the importance of asserting themselves with a potential partner and asking about those potential dealbreakers before they have sex. The major roadblock here is the difficulty people have in talking about sex, period. From my students, I get the impression that this is slowly improving, certainly compared to my generation. And we need to expose kids to enthusiastic consent as an ideal. Enthusiasm is a pretty impractical legal standard, but it’s an excellent social norm.

Actually, we need to get all those messages out to those of us in our middle years and beyond, too. (It’s just easier to reach kids, since they’re often a captive audience and they’re still more malleable.)

Finally, we also need to propagate the hope that more honesty in sex and courtship will help dismantle rape culture. We’re never going to get rid of lies. We can, however, hope to increase honesty. One way to do that is to reframe sex as a duet instead of a game of conquest.

As for how we respond to the sense of violation when a person has been deceived – well, there I diverge from most of the discussants at Feministe, including Jill, who said the woman in the case ought to be able to define her experience in whatever terms ring true to her. If that means she gets to call it rape, then I disagree.

First, if every person who feels violated or just emotionally hurt can call their experience “rape,” we move into the realm of metaphor. I’ve already argued that “rape” ought not to be used that way. It diminishes the actual offense. It also leads to sloppy thinking and to an elision of the difference between the legal realm and ethics. And frankly, ethics can help in these cases, where the law simply cannot.

Second, if a person claims the label of “rape,” she or he may seek legal redress. That quest will be doomed to failure if their experience has no correlation with the legal standard of rape.

Third, the bad guy in this scenario certainly deserve to have his (or her) reputation smudged. She or he does not deserve to be called a rapist, with all the attendant emotional baggage and social harm. That stigma is nearly as damaging as being convicted in court. (And no, this isn’t “what about the menz,” because women tell plenty of sexual lies, too, and anyway this is about basic fairness.)

So what can we do to honor those who’ve been lied to? Those who’ve seen a partner climb off them, post-coitus, and run straight for the door? Those who’ve placed faith in a faithless partner, or trusted their own heart too hastily?

We need new words. Maybe some of the old ones can be repurposed. In my last post, I described the accused as a “cad.” While “asshole” works pretty well, too, it doesn’t capture the specifically sexual aspect of assholishness that “cad” does. Some of the related words – scoundrel, fraud, even creep – don’t have particuarly sexual connotations. I’m curious if any of you have any better ideas.

Perhaps we need a notion of “sexual violation” to describe situations where dishonesty significantly interfered with a partner’s ability to consent. This wouldn’t be a criminal offense. It would be an ethical category. It would give the victim a way to understand her or his experiences as real, and important, and worthy of a caring response.

And we need to offer victims of sexual violation sympathy and support, instead of slut-shaming. I’m not so sure I could do that for the woman in the Kashur case. Her sense of violation was rooted in her racism. But most men and women who fall victim to liars and manipulators in sex do deserve our support. They should get it.

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Most likely, you’ve already heard that an Israeli court last week convicted a Palestinian man, Sabbar Kashur, of “rape by deception.” He met a Jewish woman on the street outside a Jerusalem grocery store. They struck up a conversation. She assumed he was Jewish due to his nickname, “Dudu,” which apparently is common among Jewish men. Within 15 minutes, the two adjourned to a nearby building and had sex. Afterward, he took off before she even was dressed. She believed he was a Jewish bachelor who was seeking a long-term relationship.

The woman then filed forcible rape charges. Later, she stated that the sex had been consensual but on false premises, and the charge was downgraded to “rape by deception.”

I’d prefer to table the fundamental problems with “rape by deception” to another post. Here, I just want to say that the notion of purity expressed by the presiding judges in this case is deeply troubling. As Haaretz reported:

In the verdict, deputy president of the Jerusalem district court Tzvi Segal, along with fellow judges Moshe Drori and Yoram Noam, wrote that although this wasn’t “a classical rape by force,” and the sex was consensual, the consent itself was obtained through deception and under false pretenses.

“If she hadn’t thought the accused was a Jewish bachelor interested in a serious romantic relationship, she would not have cooperated,” the judges wrote. …

“The court is obliged to protect the public interest from sophisticated, smooth-tongued criminals who can deceive innocent victims at an unbearable price – the sanctity of their bodies and souls,” Segal wrote.

“When the very basis of trust between human beings drops, especially when the matters at hand are so intimate, sensitive and fateful, the court is required to stand firmly at the side of the victims … otherwise, they will be used, manipulated and misled, while paying only a tolerable and symbolic price,” he wrote.

The parallel that pops into my mind is one that I realize may be offensive to some folks: the charge of “race defilement” in Nazi Germany. No, I’m not equating these judges (much less all of Israel) with the Nazis. But there’s a notion of racial purity behind this verdict that is reminiscent of Nazi ideas about racial purity as expressed in the Nuremberg Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor (the Blood Protection Law, for short).

Under the Blood Protection Law, only men could be charged. That went for both “Aryan” and Jewish men, though the primary targets were of course Jewish. Women were interrogated and their privacy and reputations destroyed, but “Aryan” women were also viewed as victims. This legal practice followed Hitler’s bilious depiction of male Jewish sexuality in Mein Kampf:

The black-haired Jewish youth lies in wait for hours on end, satanically glaring at and spying on the unsuspicious girl whom he plans to seduce, adulterating her blood and removing her from the bosom of her own people.

(p. 270 in the James Murphy translation of Mein Kampf that’s freely available on the Web)

Compare this with the language in Segal’s opinion:

The court is obliged to protect the public interest from sophisticated, smooth-tongued criminals who can deceive innocent victims at an unbearable price – the sanctity of their bodies and souls.

In both instances, men in the out-group are envisioned as predatory and deceptive; they’re sexual beasts, but they’re also terribly clever. In both instances, women belonging to the in-group are portrayed as passive, innocent, and unsuspecting. In neither case are women conceived – or even conceivable – as sexual agents. In both cases, women will be despoiled if the state fails to protect them. In both cases, community, honor, and racial purity are at stake.

You see the assertion and protection of honor, too, in Segal’s insistence that the woman would not have consented to sex with Kashur if she had not imagined him to be 1) Jewish, 2) a bachelor, and 3) interested in a long-term relationship. While it’s crucial not to slut-shame women (and that includes the woman in this case), let’s not forget that insisting on protecting purity enables slut-shaming in the first place. And when it comes to protection, the racial element in Segal’s reasoning is clear: He didn’t object to Kashur’s failure to disclose that he was married. He only emphasizes that the women was deceived into thinking Kashur was Jewish. (Never mind that Kashur apparently never made such a claim.)

Just for the record, I’m not defending Kashur’s actions as ethical. Not at all. He behaved like a complete cad toward the woman who brought charges, and he was an even bigger asshole toward his wife. I’m just trying to tease out the racial implications of his conviction.

Israel was born out of deep historical oppression and trauma. It’s not surprising that some Israelis overcompensate for this. It’s sad and disturbing, though, that any Israeli would support a rape conviction that rests on notions of race defilement similar to those used historically to oppress Jews.

Fortunately, some Jewish jurists are voicing their dissent (again via Haaretz):

Elkana Laist of the Public Defender’s Office yesterday said the Jerusalem District Court had gone too far in its application of the approach of the High Court, “opening the door to a rape conviction every time a person lies regarding details of his identity. Every time the court thinks a reasonable woman would not have had sex with a man based on that representation, the man will be charged with rape. That approach is not accepted around the world either.”

Laist needs to go further and condemn the racist aspects of the verdict (and perhaps she did but Haaretz didn’t quote it). Here in the U.S., Michelle Goldberg says all that needs to be said:

If such a verdict is allowed to stand, it will be evidence of the deep and corrosive racism menacing Israel. Earlier this year, Haaretz reported on a poll showing that 56 percent of Israeli high school students would ban the country’s Arab citizens from election to the Knesset. “Around half the respondents say Israeli Arabs should not receive the same rights as Israeli Jews,” the story said. We’ll soon see to what degree they get their wish.

(Her whole post is terrific – read it here.)

Like Goldberg, I too support Israel’s right to exist. But as she says, “It’s getting harder and harder to be a liberal Zionist.” If Israel is to continue to exist as a democracy, its leaders, judges, and citizens need to repudiate racist notions of blood and honor and reaffirm the humanity of everyone living within its borders.

Note to anyone who’s not a regular reader: My Ph.D. is in modern German history. While most of my teaching is in women’s and gender studies, I just taught a college course on the history of Nazi Germany. That’s why I happen to be acquainted with Mein Kampf - I’m not a neo-Nazi in disguise!

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Once upon a time, when I was a feisty college-aged feminist, I could hardly stand to watch a James Bond movie. The sexism just pissed me off. Now, I wouldn’t necessarily shell out money to see Bond in the theater, but if he turns up on the television, I’m mostly amused. That doesn’t mean I’m happy about sexism in the media. I’ve just learned, with age, to pick my battles.

Gustav Klimt painted a lot of women. Not all of them would pass a hypothetical “feminist correctness” test. (Was Judith really so sultry, and so bloodthirsty?) But you know what? I have very little desire to critique his paintings. I just want to enjoy them. I think that’s perfectly fine. Sometimes pleasure just is. Sometimes it can be left unanalyzed. Even on a blog dealing with gender and feminism.

Here’s Klimt together with Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Enjoy! (Or if you don’t, you can be the critic in comments.)

(Go here if you can’t see the video.)

Video via the Suspect Guru Museum, which has lots of other wonderful art clips.

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Via the Daily Dish, here’s some rank foolishness from evolutionary psychology. Time magazine has a woefully uncritical recap:

A new journal article suggests that evolutionary forces also push women to be more sexual, although in unexpected ways. University of Texas psychologist David Buss wrote the article, which appears in the July issue of Personality and Individual Differences, with the help of three graduate students, Judith Easton (who is listed as lead author), Jaime Confer and Cari Goetz. Buss, Easton and their colleagues found that women in their 30s and early 40s are significantly more sexual than younger women. Women ages 27 through 45 report not only having more sexual fantasies (and more intense sexual fantasies) than women ages 18 through 26 but also having more sex, period. And they are more willing than younger women to have casual sex, even one-night stands. In other words, despite the girls-gone-wild image of promiscuous college women, it is women in their middle years who are America’s most sexually industrious.

So far, so good – or so I thought, until Time noted one of the most egregious failings of this “study”: the older women (or “cougars,” as Time repeatedly calls them) were recruited from Craigslist! Dudez!!! Has anyone explained to Buss Easton & Co. that folks on Craigslist – even the women – are mostly looking for one thing, and it ain’t quality used furniture? Did they even stop to make sure that the Craigslist participants weren’t offering paid erotic services? And did they notice that there’s no section in Craigslist for “women not seeking anything”? No rubric for “not interested in sex”?

I’m willing to believe that women do gain interest in sex from their late twenties through menopause, but the authors haven’t even proved this. Also, they’re comparing apples and oranges. The other one-quarter of participants were students at UT Austin, who presumably participated for extra credit and weren’t actively advertising for sex partners.

But let’s grant Buss Easton at al. their facts. Their interpretation (again via Time) is still complete bunk:

Why would women be more sexually active in their middle years than in their teens and 20s? Buss and his students say evolution has encouraged women to be more sexually active as their fertility begins to decline and as menopause approaches.

Here’s how their theory works:

Our female ancestors grew accustomed to watching many of their children — perhaps as many as half — die of various diseases, starvation, warfare and so on before being able to have kids of their own. This trauma left a psychological imprint to bear as many children as possible. Becoming pregnant is much easier for women and girls in their teens and early 20s — so much easier that they need not spend much time having sex.

However, after the mid-20s, the lizard-brain impulse to have more kids faces a stark reality: it’s harder and harder to get pregnant as a woman’s remaining eggs age. And so women in their middle years respond by seeking more and more sex.

(The rest of the Time article is here.)

First, why conclude that seeing children die would always spur women to have more babies? An alternative would be to invest more resources in a smaller number of children. Women also regularly saw other women die in childbirth. By the authors’ own logic, this trauma would have motivated women to avoid excessive pregnancies.

Also, jumping from individual psychological trauma to species-level hard-wiring of our lizard brains? They might as well leap over the Grand Canyon.

And then there’s the idea that just because we have some procreative hard-wiring, our sex drives can be reduced to our lizard brains, even today. Again: Dudez!! Lots of us lizard-brained women will not have sex with partner unless we’re confident we won’t get pregnant. A few years have passed since the advent of paleo-women. I do not think the same as a woman 200,000 years ago. (I wonder, though, if she’d reject the Pill out of hand. I kind of suspect she wouldn’t. After all, she would have known numerous women who died in childbirth.)

Interpreting the “data” is confounded by researchers’ age categories, which are incoherent and puzzling. For many women, there’s a huge developmental gap between 27 and 45. We become different people, changed by our work, our romantic relationships, and (often) motherhood. All of those changes also impact our sexuality.

There are also major issues with the way that age group is characterized. By whose calculus is a woman in her “middle years” already at age 27? Sure, paleo-women were lucky to live past menopause. So were my great-grandmothers. Today, the only people who consider 27 to be “middle years” are middle-aged men who think they’re entitled to a 20-year-old girlfriend. (I’m sure they’re prowling Craigslist, too).

But even in terms of biology, 27 is not past a woman’s supposed reproductive prime. Fertility undergoes a gradual decline. It’s still pretty high until one’s mid-thirties. It only plunges steeply past age 40.

(Source: Management of the Infertile Woman by Helen A. Carcio and The Fertility Sourcebook by M. Sara Rosenthal, via BabyCentre UK)

The arm of biology that’s relevant here isn’t evolutionary psychology, it’s endocrinology. Women’s hormonal levels do contribute to libido (though in ways that aren’t yet well understood; otherwise, testosterone would offer an easy fix to women troubled by low desire). Hormones begin to fluctuate in the run-up to menopause. For a few women, hormonal changes become noticeable in their late thirties. Others notice them in their forties. Some women note a drop in sexual desire during perimenopause, while others feel it surge, and still others see it fluctuate.

But even granting hormones their due, it would be silly to think they’re the only – or even main – factor in shaping women’s desires. A recent study (via Charlie Glickman’s sexuality blog) found that even at menopause, social and psychological factors matter at least as much as hormones when it comes to sexual desire and activity. Science Daily summarizes the findings of Dr. Sharron Hinchliff et al. in the Journal of Health Psychology (15:5):

Almost all [study participants] had experienced some form of change but the findings indicated that these were down to a number of external factors such as providing care for a relative, partner´s low sexual desire and the quality of the relationship, alongside biological factors such as perceived changes in levels of hormones. The findings therefore concluded that women go through many lifestyle changes during mid-life which are also contributing factors.

(The full summary is here.)

This study  further found great variability among women, with a minority actually reporting a resurgence of desire post-menopause. It’s easy to imagine social and psychological reasons for an uptick in libido: Kids leave home and empty nesters can romp with abandon. Menopause frees women from fears of unwanted pregnancy. Birth control is no longer a hassle. Experience and self-knowledge beget better sex. A great follow-up research project would be to identify those women who get more enjoyment from their sexuality after menopause, and figure out why their mojo has increased. This study suggests that looking at women’s relationships with their partners would be the obvious place to start.

Similarly, anyone with an imagination bigger than an earthworm’s could cook up more convincing interpretations of the Buss Easton et al. data. (Again, we’re overlooking that little Craigslist issue.) Past their mid-twenties, most women are more likely to be in a stable relationship than during their college years. Stable relationships lead to more opportunities for sex. We’re more likely to feel at home in our bodies. With more confidence, we find it easier to let our partners know what warms us. Not least, experience makes sex more fun, not less.

I’m not asking for rocket science. I only expect researchers to remember that we’re more than our reptile brains – and that even our reptile brains might be driven by more than just the drive to reproduce. Like the drive to feel pleasure. Or the desire for intimacy.

In other words, I’m looking for plain old science. The Buss Easton et al. study is LOLscience. Too bad I’ve stopped laughing. (Except for the Craigslist brainfart – that still tickles me.)

Note: I haven’t taken the time to read the original journal article by Buss et al, as its problems are on such a macro level that a closer look doesn’t seem necessary. I did look at the Hinchliff piece, whose major limitation is its small size (twelve in-depth interviews). Still, it suggests interesting avenues for future research.

Update, 7/21/2010: Upon being challenged by a commenter, I did go dig up the original journal article by Easton et al. (This commenter also pointed out – correctly – that Easton is listed as lead author, though it’s clear that Buss – as the only investigator with a Ph.D. – bears ultimate responsibility for overseeing the three graduate students on the project.) Here’s how I revised my assessment.

I read the original journal article closely and carefully. And I don’t think Time was unfair to this study at all.

In their original article, the authors never explain or defend their use of Craigslist to recruit study participants. That’s a massive omission. It boggles.

The full-length article raises other methodological issues, too. For instance, menopausal women made up only 6.2% of study participants (51 out of 827). This calls into question the robustness of any statistical conclusions drawn about the menopausal group – and this is a quantiative study, so sample size does matter.

Perhaps more damningly, the pool of respondents in the 27 to 45 group skewed very heavily toward the younger end of that range. Average age within that group was just 32.86. In other words, women over 35, whose fertility was beginning to decline more steeply, are not underrepresented within that group.

With respect to the researchers’ interpretation, Easton et al. do admit that sexual experience could play a role in women wanting more sex, but they immediately discount it because desire typically drops after menopause, when women have even more experience. Yet they don’t consider obvious confounders: the hormonal and social changes that accompany menopause. That makes their dismissal of experience awfully unconvincing.

Also, nowhere do they acknowledge that women’s material lives (children, relationships, homes, jobs) and psychological outlooks often change quite drastically between 27 and 45. This age group is drawn entirely from their hypothesis that declining fertility is the driver in making women more horny. It does not allow for any other distinctions to be made. (For instance, in the real world, I’ve known very few women in their late twenties who were worried about their fertility, while I’ve known quite a number of them in their late thirties. This matters crucially – unless we’re prepared to believe we’re merely automatons responding to the evolutionary pressures that existed many millennia ago.)

Finally, in actually reading through the study, I am dumbfounded by how teleologically the researchers proceeded. The women in the 27-45 bracket (those Time so cutely branded “cougars”) appear in the study as “reproduction expediting” women. In other words, something that the study ought to be testing for (are these women really seeking to become mothers?) is completely short-circuited and posited as fact by labeling these women as seeking to reproduce as fast and as often as possible. Once it’s assumed that sexual activity is identical with trying to maximize fertility, you no longer have to prove it. It becomes a background assumption. And yet, this is a massive logical leap.

Now, you might argue that women today are still just following the same program their foremothers did, back in the hunter-gatherer age – the so-called environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA) – and that even when we think we don’t want a baby, we actually do, because our evolved hard-wiring says so. Fine. But women today overwhelmingly break the link between sex and reproduction. Most of us quite consciously pursue sex lives that will allow us pleasure – to the point that many women (and men!) find it odd when they actually, intentionally try to conceive. The authors completely ignore the convulsive changes that effective birth control has wrought in women’s desires and their willingness/ability to pursue them.

Humans continue to adapt. We didn’t stop adapting in the EEA. Birth control is a monumental adaptation. Easton et al. would be far more convincing it they took it into account. Same goes for other social factors, such as slut shaming, which affects young women most acutely, and would tend to inhibit sexual behaviors. I’m not arguing that we’re blank slates. We have some biological hard-wiring (but with tremendous variation – not all women want children!). I’m even willing to say that some of that hard-wiring is a result of the EEA. However, when science dabbles in teleological thinking and unsupported assumptions and assertions, we might just as well discuss theology instead.

Mixed flowers in Berlin’s Rose Garden. I took the picture but can’t speak to their evolved psychology. The blossoms on the right appear to be hardy geraniums. The lavender flowers are not actually lavender, as far as I could tell. The dried foliage on the left may be post-menopausal?

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My “cleverest” parenting ideas are like radioactive compounds. They start out relatively stable, but shortly they begin to decompose. Soon, their positive effects can be measured in nanoseconds, while their toxic fallout is guaranteed to outlive me.

Such was my clever idea of challenging the kids to a “quiet contest” in the stairwell of our Berlin apartment building. We’re there for six weeks this summer, and we expect to return next summer, too. I don’t want to be an asshole to the neighbors who will hear most of our kid chaos. The stairwell has the kind of acoustics you’d expect in a medieval castle. Everything is amplified to eleven and beyond.  Drop your keys, and they crash like a freeway pileup. Normal kid tromping, stomping, and shouting echoes until you imagine someone must be bleeding, though it’s only your own eardrums.

The first few “contests” went well, with the boys tying for first place and Mama (that’s me) losing decisively. But now the kids have begun to bicker about which of them “won.” They won’t drop the contest, even though they’ve proven to me, and to themselves, that they can be wonderfully considerate. They want to stick with it until it ends in a howling match that sets a new decibel record for the building.

It could be worse, though. Until last winter, kids were legally forbidden to make noise in Berlin. In other words, kids were forbidden to be kids! By law! Then Berlin became the first of Germany’s 16 states to allow children to make noise. (Berlin is a state in its own right, as well as a city.) Here’s how the BBC reported it last February:

Until now, only church bells, emergency sirens, snow ploughs and tractors have fallen outside the stringent rules on excessive noise in Germany.

In Berlin alone, hundreds of complaints are made each year about noise levels in kindergartens and children’s playgrounds.

Some day-care facilities have even been forced to close after local residents have gone to court in search of a quiet life.

Here’s how a BBC reporter, Joanna Robertson, experienced the harassment in her own family:

In the beginning, it was the telephone.

“Frau Robertson?” “Yes?”

“I know your daughter’s up there. She’s playing, isn’t she?”

Then came the doorbell.

Neglecting, for once, to peep through the spy-hole I opened the door, all unawares.

There she stood, square in the hallway, the neighbour from the third floor.

A successful detective novelist with a penchant for Parisian murders, she muscled her way in and could not be muscled-out again for quite some time.

The problem? My three-year-old daughter, Miranda – weight: under three stone; footwear: soft bedroom slippers – was allegedly making a noise. Only she was not. …

“Excessive child noise,” warranted a police call-out to our building for the crying of a newborn baby and, one Saturday afternoon, a group of cheerful 12-year-olds playing a game of Monopoly.

Berlin leaves me baffled. True to the spirit of the Brothers Grimm, childhood here is filled with wonders, but is unexpectedly grim.

(Read the whole thing here.)

We never had any formal complaints filed, though last week a woman in the subway was shooting poison darts out of her eyes at my two boys, who were the very picture of quiet civility. (At that moment, anyway.) But neighbors living upstairs from us had to contend with constant harassment and even a lawsuit from a hostile neighbor who simply hated kids.

Even with the new law, I’m not gonna get too smug. Childhood is officially authorized between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. At all other times – including all of Sunday – they are not to be heard. Maybe the kids’ next contest will involve putting their noise on a schedule?

Meanwhile, the garbage trucks make as much noise as they like, even at 7 a.m. Oh, and jackhammers seem to enjoy similar rights. No word on the legality of vuvuzelas.

(Intolerant kitteh from ICHC?)

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The heat spell grinds on. The German Rail company now blames global warming for its massive breakdown of high-speed trains. They were built to a “Norm” (standard) of functioning that went all the way up to 32 C (90 F), so all must be well! In the early 90s, no one could imagine such high temps (although I experienced the mid-90s and beyond in those years). So everything and everyone followed the rules!

This is the sort of head-in-sand reasoning that also ensures you can’t buy a simple fan when the mercury rises. Germany never gets really hot. Therefore stores don’t carry fans. The few fans in stock sell out immediately. An email list I run for scholars in Berlin is bubbling with desperate queries on how to locate a fan without having to mail order it. My family and I own three, which seems positively immoral – as though we’re hoarders in wartime.

If it weren’t so darned uncomfortable, I’d feel gleeful about the U.S. not being the only country that struggles with being “reality based.”

By now, though, I’m begging for mercy. The city smells nastier by the day. The collection of municipal compost – so laudable under ordinary conditions – creates walls of stench that sucker-punch passers-by. Things die, and their remains grow ever more pungent. My sweet children stink unless washed thoroughly each day. As for myself? Be grateful this blog has no scratch-n-sniff function.

The heat wave is supposed to break today, with rain and thunderstorms and more rain. Otherwise, expect me to resemble this kitteh (from ICHC, as usual).

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I periodically vent here about my squabbling offspring, but I need to pause now and celebrate a moment of pure glory.

A few days ago I crashed into a major professional roadblock. I was fretting about looming unemployment after next May. Feeling bitterly rejected. Trying to act brave while actually, literally crying into my ice cream at the edge of a busy Berlin street. (It was good ice cream, too: creme caramel gelato. It deserved better from me. As did my kids in that moment.)

After I wiped away my tears, I explained to the kids that I’d just gotten an email with some very disappointing news about my future job. They listened quietly. For once, no one interrupted.

We finished our cones and proceeded down the street, one child on either side of me. Each of them inserted their ice-cream-sticky hands into mine. Breaking the silence, the Tiger said: “Mama, the goodest thing is that you’ve got me and [the Bear].”

A child is not a job. Kids and paid work are not fungible – and what a mercy that is. But the Tiger is absolutely right. I got teary again for a whole ‘nother reason. And I remembered – I knew – I’ll be okay.

(Happy mama kitteh from ICHC? not intended to essentialize this post to bio-mothers; loving, engaged parents of all stripes and spots can be blessed the goodest thing, too.)

Update, 11:55 p.m. CET, 7/16/10: Not to leave anyone hanging: If you want details on my career roadblock, I don’t want to air them on my blog but am happy to discuss them in private with people whom I trust: sungold85 [at] gmail.com.

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I’m still waiting for someone to help me understand what the financial reform package will and won’t do. (So far, I suspect that my understanding is vague partly because the reforms themselves are vague; on German TV, I heard them described as more of a framework than a set of concrete reforms.) Until the lights breaks upon me, here are the two most helpful explanations I’ve heard of how we landed in our current financial pickle.

The first comes via Sir Charles of Cogitamus. It’s Marxist flavored, which is no surprise, since it’s a presentation by noted Marxian scholar David Harvey. But it’s not dogmatic. Harvey begins by laying out a lot of the competing theories and acknowledging that all hold some truth. If you’ve got a smidgen of Economics 101 background, it should make sense to you, whether or not you agree with Harvey’s conclusion that it’s time to opt out of capitalism.

(Here’s the clip if you can’t see it.)

The second cogent explanation aired on This American Life, “The Giant Pool of Money.” It predates the actual global market meltdown, but it does a brilliant job of connecting the American mortgage crisis to the crisis on Wall Street and the financial markets. So go here and listen: The Giant Pool of Money. The reporters on this story, Alex Blumberg and NPR’s Adam Davidson followed up after the mega-meltdown with Another Frightening Show About the Economy. Note that both of these shows aired in fall 2008 (early September and then early October). They still provide a beautifully lucid explanation of whodunit – and how.

If someone enlightens me equally on the financial regulatory reforms, I’ll be sure to share. :-)

(Kitteh in a pickle from ICHC?)

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Via Echidne, I took one of those silly internet quizzes, this one purporting to correlate one’s own humble prose with that of famous dudes. (I suspected they were all dudes because I took it multiple times and did not turn up Margaret Atwood, to my overwhelming sorrow. A commenter at Echidne’s subsequently turned up a discussion elsewhere of the dudeliness – and whiteness – of the allowable matches.)

First my truly shameful revelation: my latest post on Sarah Palin’s wild ride churned up “Dan Brown” as my famous-dude counterpart. It’s enough to make a gal stop dabbling in conspiracy theories.

Otherwise, though, I came out as “David Foster Wallace” and “H.P. Lovecraft.” I am churlish. Despite my assumption that Atwood was off the list, in fact other commenters at Echidne’s did match Atwood’s style. So why, in the name of the holy Magdalene, do I resemble Dan Brown, even if only on the margins? I’ve read virtually all of Atwood’s corpus, including lots of obscure early poems. (Circe, anyone?) From David Fucking Foster Wallace, I’ve read not a word. Maybe it’s time I began?

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

All I know of H.P. Lovecraft is that he wrote horror and sci fi, which are not my bag. Otherwise I couldn’t distinguish him from H.R. Pufnstuf.

(Image from here.)

Knowing that most of my readers are writers of some stripe, I’m curious how y’all might come out. Go here and run your blog posts, lab reports, or Great American Novel through the robot. Leave your results in comments; post ‘em on your blog. If you’re anointed the new Margaret Atwood, just be kind enough to refrain from gloating. For what it’s worth, the robot thinks Atwood writes like James Joyce.

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Since the intense heat is keeping us partly apartment-bound, I’ve been grateful for any and all kid distractions. A few days ago, I came upon a wonderful set of bird pictures by photographer Andrew Zuckerman (via Andrew Sullivan and the Daily Telegraph). The Bear and I had a great time looking at them. The Tiger enjoyed them too until he started to complain that the site was woefully short on tigers.

Zuckerman’s site includes multiple views of the birds, all photographed in intricate detail against a white background. There are even recordings of their calls. The various macaws are especially stunning. Here’s a hyacinth macaw …

and a blue-throated macaw …

and finally, in honor of my blogging pal Badtux the Snarky Penguin, and because the Bear obviously enjoyed read its name out loud, the jackass penguin:

Go here to enjoy the whole set!

All images here are obviously copyrighted by Andrew Zuckerman; I will take them down if anyone objects, but I hope they’d be seen in the spirit of friendly promotion. He’s got a book with the set of photos, called Bird.

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Evidently, one ill-fated night soccer and American football got together in a drunken hookup. The fruit of their conception was last night’s World Cup final, a monstrosity of a match between Spain and the Netherlands. It was probably the most foul game I’ve ever witnessed, and I’ve watched quite a lot of soccer.

If you haven’t been living under a rock, you know that Spain won, 1-0, on an elegant goal scored in the 117th minute (that is, nearly at the end of overtime). But the rest of the game was just plain ugly. In the 2006 finale, France’s Zinedine Zidane was sent off after he head-butted an Italian player. His red card was nothing compared to the worst foul of last night’s game, where the Netherlands’ Nigel de Jong intentionally kicked Xabi Alonso in the chest. He only got a yellow card, where red would have been deserved – and frankly, I would like to see de Jong barred from international play for a while. This was more than a foul; it was battery.

(Video of the foul is here, but I expect it’ll disappear soon at FIFA’s behest.)

When Germany’s not playing, I tend to root for the underdog, so I was initially pulling for the Netherlands, but that foul lost my sympathy. Spain played quite foul, too, but at least they weren’t vicious.

In the end, I was glad for Spain. Despite their flailing in the group stage, in the end they lived up to the hype (see: the Germany-Spain match). They also gave me one great reason to root for them: their goalkeeper, Iker Casillas. He did a couple of fantastic saves that spoiled apparently sure-fire chances for the Netherlands. He got emotional when Andres Iniesta finally scored for Spain. And he’s nice to look at, too.

(Photo from the blog Girls Like Soccer Too – which has more yumminess here, too.)

(Photo borrowed from Sky Sports.)

The game for third place was far more exciting than the final, as it was in 2006. Okay, so Germany won third place then, too, but I don’t think I’m just biased. Uruguay and Germany both played fair and the game actually flowed – which can’t happen when a foul interrupts the action every 15 seconds or so. I would have been just about as pleased for Uruguay to win.

Happily, one of my absolute favorite players, Uruguay’s Diego Forlan, won the award for best overall player (the Golden Ball). Yay!! Casillas won the Golden Glove (for best goalkeeper). Germany’s Thomas Müller won both Best Young Player and the Golden Boot (for most goals – he won with five, plus the most assists). (The full list of awards is here.) Müller – who’s only 20 – is still so unassuming, he makes me think of a North Dakota farm boy.

I am perfectly satisfied.

My only gripe is that the World Cup is over. Now whatever shall I blog about?

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Scene 1: I spend most of the year freezing. I’m usually the first person to complain about air conditioning running too cold. I can hardly function in an office that’s cooled to 60 F, as our university consistently does to the Women’s and Gender Studies offices. I don’t think well when I’m cold, and (rather inconveniently), thinking is in my job description. We’ve taken to running space heaters when it gets really bad, since the university seems incapable of fixing its HVAC system.

At the same time, the university regularly sends out emails exhorting us to save energy.

Scene 2: The university also has trouble keeping its AC system working, period. Way back in April, we had our first heat wave, which provoked one of my students to complain to the school newspaper:

I began my day in Porter Hall at 9 a.m., measuring a comfortable 72 degrees. I had class from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. in Clippinger measuring 83 degrees, and immediately following a different room in Clip from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. measuring 85 degrees. Thinking that the worst of my overly warm classes were over and that the last would surely be comfortable, I entered Bentley and climbed to the second floor to find a room that was 98 degrees.

As our professor teased that class would end if she passed out, and I watched the sweat of my neighbor form a puddle on our desk, I found that what little focus I had for history was quickly diminishing in the unbearable heat. I began to wonder instead how, even in light of necessary budget cuts, Ohio University could think that students could actively learn in such an uncomfortable environment. Having soaked through my shirt I found myself racing outside to “cool down” in the 80 degree weather outside after class (well cool down in the sense that at least there was moving air).

(Read the rest here.)

Yep, I was that professor in the 98-degree room. And no, I didn’t pass out, but my students weren’t the only ones who struggled to stay focused.

Scene 3: The temperature in Berlin is 99F, as I write this. No one has AC in their homes. Not even all movie theaters have it. Lots of people don’t even own fans, and in fact, many Germans believe that any moving air constitutes a draft. When the city gets this hot, the apartment houses stay cool for a day or two, but then the cement and stone start to heat up, and they retain the heat instead. We’ve been opening windows whenever it’s cooler outside, closing them when it’s not, pulling drapes, and running fans. It’s not enough to live with any comfort. Last night the low was in the upper ’70s. Tonight we’ll be sleeping in a sauna. Or not sleeping, more likely.

All of which made me keenly interested in Salon’s interview with Stan Cox, who urges us to radically shut off our AC. (Amanda Marcotte has some very reasonable commentary on it at Pandagon.) I agree that we overdo it like crazy – do restaurants really need to be cooled to 65 or below? – but he underestimates the health impact where there’s no AC in a heat wave:

But I think we need to look at it is as a fail-safe mechanism and recognize that a lot of the health problems that we need A.C. to solve, it may have contributed to in the first place. We need to look at the conditions under which people die in heat waves, the harsh life conditions that they’re enduring more generally. That’s the real root of the problem.

(The rest is here.)

No. It’s not just a matter of harsh life conditions, though poverty, old age, and isolation are huge risk factors for dying in a heat wave. There’s no mystery to it. But if there’s nowhere cool to escape, people will die. In Europe’s 2006 heat wave, at least 20 died in Germany and at least 40 in France, even though both are wealthy countries with excellent social welfare safety nets. These are preventable deaths.

Basically, our systems are poorly designed, with too much cooling delivered to lots of places, and none to others. My university offers some prime examples of this. Here’s another. My sister- and brother-in-law traveled from Frankfurt to Berlin on Friday in a train where the AC failed. The windows are hermetically sealed because it’s a high-speed train whose name, ironically, is abbreviated “ICE.” Yesterday, three similar trains had to be evacuated after their AC failed. (Sorry, the linked article is in German.) It seems the system is not designed to function in high temperatures! On one of the ICE trains, 27 teenagers on a school trip collapsed from the heat, and some required IV infusions right on the platform once they were evacuated. The desperate mother of a young boy tried to break a window with an emergency hammer. Temperatures topped 120 F.

So yes, by all means, let’s talk about AC. But I agree with Amanda that urging people to go cold turkey – as Cox does – vastly oversimplifies the matter. Complex societies cannot simply ditch AC, unless we abandon any notion of productivity and give up travel by mass conveyance. (I’ve recently been on an airplane and a city bus whose temperatures rivaled those of the ICE trains.) In other words, late capitalism depends on AC, and unless you think we can topple capitalism, we’re not likely to abolish AC. Nor should we, because it really does save people’s lives in a heat wave. But we can and should discuss where it’s used profligately and stupidly. We should think about where we really need it, and where it’s optional. We can adopt other strategies, like using a whole-house fan at night, running ceiling fans, or (in dry climates) installing a swamp cooler. We can drop dress codes that require pants and ties in July. Why not wear shorts to the office?

Oh, and when it’s really hot, we might be wise not to cuddle up to our laptops. I’m off to grab a cold drink and a good old-fashioned, paper-based book.

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Sooner or later, most parents end up in the ER with their offspring. And if you’re a frequent customer, chances are pretty good you’ve bumped up against the increasingly ubiquitous CT scan (aka “catscan”).

Our Tiger has racked up more than his share of visits, including one when he was three when he ran a fever over 104 F and complained of a terrible tummy ache. At our local hospital, the doctors ordered an abdominal x-ray, which indicated a dramatic case of … constipation. But since his fever was high and appendicitis couldn’t be ruled out, we were sent up to Children’s Hospital in Columbus. There, the resident on duty wanted to do a CT scan as soon as possible.

“Can you really diagnose appendicitis with a catscan?” my husband asked.

“Well, no.”

“Could we talk to your attending about this?”

The resident’s boss agreed that there wouldn’t be much point to a CT scan. They didn’t want to release us, though, because if we went home we’d be an hour and a half away. And so the attending took a truly radical step: she admitted us. We spent a short and restless night with the Tiger, his dad sharing the bed with him, me scrunched into a recliner. (The Bear stayed with friends who generously took him in at short notice.)

In the morning, the Tiger pooped. He felt better. His fever was dropping. We were sent home that afternoon. A few days later, bloodwork came back with signs of a bacterial infection in his blood (a strain of pneumococcus not covered by the vaccine). He got antibiotics and never had another unexplained high fever again. To this day, his appendix is just fine.

Most parents probably wouldn’t have resisted the resident’s suggestion. Heck, if I’d been alone, I wouldn’t have questioned it, even though I’m usually quick to ask. When you’re scared and alone with a sick child in the middle of the night, it’s hard to challenge authority. It was only my husband who had enough presence of mind to weigh the long-term danger of radiation. The resident’s only concern was not to miss something – anything – that modern medicine might ascertain. Long before young doctors learn all they need to be expert diagnosticians, they learn not to discharge a patient until everything possible has been done, no matter how pointless, expensive, and possibly hazardous. This is classic defensive medicine, driven more by fear of lawsuits than by the patient’s optimal treatment.

Don’t get me wrong. CTs are a great tool. They are just overused, whether out of technophilia or fear or liability, or both. And the New England Journal of Medicine notes in its July 1, 2010 edition that the use of CTs is underregulated. Rebecca Smith-Bindman’s article, “Is Computed Tomography Safe,” was initially available as a free full text, but it has disappeared (here’s a .pdf of the onscreen free version that I’m using as reference). Essentially, Smith-Bindman argues: 1) Hospitals somewhat rarely but regularly make devastating errors when CT equipment is improperly monitored, which sometimes results in severe accidents. 2) There are no clear guidelines stating when a conventional CT versus a more precise CT (with greater radiation exposure) would be appropriate. 3) There are no guidelines in place for minimizing radiation exposure, period. 4) The FDA approves technology and devices but it doesn’t oversee the actual usage of equipment. 5) Unnecessary radiation from the ostensibly “safe” CT can kill:

We [Smith-Bindman and colleagues] found that the risk of cancer from a single CT scan could be as high as 1 in 80 — unacceptably high, given the capacity to reduce these doses.

The NEJM article neglects any discussion of children, but the literature to date has raised even bigger red flags about pediatric uses of the CT scan. This is only logical. Kids’ bodies are smaller. They are still growing, so damaged DNA will have many more opportunities to go rogue. They have many years ahead of them – or so we hope – such that rogue cells have many decades to exact their revenge. A 2008 article in Time magazine puts the risk of a fatal cancer from a single pediatric CT scan at 1 in 500, and vividly illustrates why parents should be skeptical:

When doctors first ordered a CT scan for Jen Houck’s six-month-old daughter in 2003, the new mom was more worried about the risks of anesthesia (used to keep children from squirming in the machine) than of radiation exposure. In 2006 and 2007, her daughter, now 5, had two additional CT scans, 6 months apart, for what doctors initially thought was a growth abnormality. They’ve since determined the child was perfectly healthy. “All that, just to find out her head is bigger than normal,” says the 27-year-old mother of two in Boone, North Carolina. In hindsight, Houck wishes she had done things a bit differently. “I would have asked more questions about the necessity for a third scan so soon after the second.” She also says no one mentioned the option of a low-dose scan, and she has no idea how much radiation her daughter received. “I wish I’d known to ask the question.”

(It’s a good article – read the rest here.)

So today’s Caturday post is a bit of a PSA, or at least a cautionary tale (tail?): Don’t be afraid to question the risks versus benefits of a proposed CT scan. Even if it’s your kid’s health at stake. Especially if it’s your kid’s health.

(from ICHC?)

Editorial note from the patron cat of Kittywampus: Grey Kitty would have approved of the simpler, lower-energy greyscale catscan. Nice tail, too – very similar to GK’s own.

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Still wondering why Sarah Palin’s politicization of her motherhood is fair game for political scrutiny? Watch and cringe:

(Go here if you can’t see a functional clip.)

(Click here for a visual description and full transcript at Shakesville; bless them for having a community that provides accessibility even for Sarah Palin’s gibberish.)

Others have already noted the unbearable whiteness of being in this ad and its complete and utter lack of substance. I still can’t resist enumerating some of its truly empty phrases:

  • What kind of “common sense solutions” do Palin and her acolytes seek? Starve the poor? Drill, baby, drill? Pray for the Rapture? That last solution is elegant because it would supersede all others.
  • WTF are “these policies coming out of DC right now”? Health care? Or just any policy promulgated under a Black president?
  • What is this “fundamental transformation”? And why is it so scary to grizzly mamas, who should fear nothing and no one?
  • Just who is going to do something “adverse” to my “cubs”? I need to know, since I’ve got two of ‘em (one bear, one tiger).
  • Also, how do we morph from the mama grizzly to the herds of pink elephants? The mixed metaphors are giving me the spins!

It’s a mess, all right, but I think it’s a mess with a mission. So what is it trying to do, anyway?

Palin starts off talking about women but fairly quickly shifts to addressing “kind of a mom awakening … because mom’s kinda just know when somethin’s wrong.” In targeting women, she’s building on her recent rhetoric about feminism. But when she talks about women, she almost instantly collapses all women into the category of the “mom.” Perhaps she assumes that all Republican/conservative women are mothers. (Obviously, they’re not.) Perhaps she’s wary of claiming the “f-word” too consistently and wants to hedge her bets by appealing to “moms.”

In this ad, her one and only platform – and her single credential – is her motherhood. Sure, you can learn plenty from motherhood, if you’re open to it. One of the things most of it learn, even as we improvise and scrape through our days, is humility. Most of us learn something about our strengths and limitations. (By the way, fathers have the chance to learn the same difficult lessons if they’re deeply involved with their kids. I’m not applying a sexist double standard here.) Palin remains blissfully ignorant of her own limitations, and so I’m skeptical that she’s gained any wisdom from mothering five children. Palin seems to think it’s enough to assert her shared motherhood, and women will stampede after her.

Stampede toward what, though? If Palin’s ambitions are wholly slaked by her current stint at Faux News, then why cook up a SarahPAC ad? No, the über-Mama Grizzly is running for something. And I don’t think it’s dog-catcher.

Perhaps she’s running for bear-catcher? As one of Andrew Sullivan’s readers reports, Palin pushed legislation to authorize shooting bears from the air, and she oversaw an expansion of bear-snaring, which caught up grizzly mamas and their cubs as well as black bears.

She’s not even a credible Mama Grizzly. As the mother of a Bear, I resent this. I also fear that some women will fall for her “vote for mama” act. That’s why I applaud Sullivan and Litbrit for trying to shed some sunshine on the contradictions and lies Palin tells about herself as a mother. (Litbrit has a really thought-provoking post today, by the way, in which Bristol refers to Trig as her infant. Curiouser and curiouser.)

If motherhood is Palin’s main qualification for higher office, then she’s obligated to represent it honestly – and she ought to do it better than the average bear.

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You know you shouldn’t do it. You know your heart will be broken. Your beloved is unsteady, fickle, transient. He’s bound to let you down. When he does, you’ll be crushed. And your friends will either be equally crushed by the same unreliable cad – or they’ll mock you for being such a trite stereotype. Now you feel bereft and stupid. Worse, they’re right … unless reversing genders is enough to undo the stereotype?

This is what happens when you fall for a soccer team. Similar heartbreak transpired in 2006 after Germany’s semifinal loss to eventual world champion Italy. But in 2006, we (that is, my family and I) were buoyed by the spirit of the whole German nation celebrating a World Cup in their collective backyard. Games were being played a few miles from our apartment. Strangers were smiling foolishly at strangers, and that in too-cool, too-busy, too-insular Berlin! We also had the lovely distraction of Jürgen Klinsmann as coach.

This year, the tournament is on a distant (though very deserving) continent. German flags still fly from people’s cars and dangle from balconies. But with last night’s 1-0 loss to Spain, the “air is out” of it, as they say here. I picture this as our hearts hanging empty, like deflated balloons, though I supposed only a foreigner would come up with this image. Walhalla (where we watched the game) was the Saloon of Despond; the Spanish team was an Armada that appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Today my husband decreed it was time to take the German flags off the back of the kids’ bikes. (All three of us – Bear, Tiger, and I – screeched NO, it is not time!)

So just what happened yesterday? Well, Spain delivered its best game of the tournament. They showed the Germans how a passing game is really done. The German’s version of passing and counter-attacking got no traction until the Spanish side scored on a set piece with just 15 minutes to go. Carlos Puyol was utterly undefended by a team known for decades as punctilious, whatever its other faults. No one marked up. Puyol headed it into the net. Germany rallied, but they were too late. Given the number of chances Spain had woven out of its passing game, the German defense actually did just fine with last-minute saves – except for that one fatal moment.

To quote the excellent “Mike’s Best Guess” at Open Salon:

Die Mannschaft were finally eliminated because they forgot to be, well, German during decisive moment of Wednesday’s semifinal against Spain.

That decisive moment came in the 73rd minute when Carles “Rambo” Puyol barreled unmarked through the box like a crazed Spanish kamikaze fighter and headed the winning goal past the towering German Luftwaffe.

It was shocking. It was the little, skillful, artistic Spaniards beating the Germans by being better at, well, being German. …

… Instead of scoring from open play (the way they probably would have preferred), the Spaniards out-Germaned the Germans by converting on a header by a center back from a corner kick — and by grinding out a result despite often failing to play beautiful soccer.

To put it more bluntly, the Spanish were well worth their win, but the goal probably should have never happened. Rambo Puyol, for all his grit and determination, is 5-foot-10: not short for a soccer player by any means, but not tall by German standards. But even with their sizable height advantage, the Germans failed to do what they’ve done better than anyone for decades: Mark up. Indeed, if Puyol hadn’t gotten a head to the cross, his partner in crime, the fantastically facial-haired central defender Gerard Piqué, would have.

(More here – and I agree with all but the Blitzkrieg analogy **shudder**)

Piqué, by the way, amuses Mike with his facial hair, which my son the Tiger would surely call “nifty whiskers.” Personally, I think Piqué has got some hedgehog ancestry, judging from his bristly brace of head-hair.

(This photo was shamelessly swiped from here to illustrate Piqué’s hedgehog hair and not his injuries. The Germany-Spain match was one of the least foul that I’ve seen.)

O, for another 30 minutes plus penalties! That might have won the game for Germany. We certainly weren’t going to win it through standard means. Spain were (gulp) better. Spain won verdient.

But the Spanish virtues are only half the tale. On the German side, I think two factors intensely demoralized “our Jungs” and kept them from unfurling their creativity, their passing game, and their coolly hot counterattacks:

1) The utterly unearned yellow card for a “handball” that was actually Lionel Messi’s work in the previous match against Argentina. Thomas Müller paid for Messi’s sins in a game marked by shitty officiating. Müller had to sit the game out last night, with paralysis on the right side the logical result. But Spain also managed to largely shut down Özil and Podolski as well, freezing up our entire offensive midfield.

2) The embarrassing and divisive debate in the German press on who will lead the team as captain after the World Cup. Will it be the injured star midfielder Michael Ballack, whose absence must sting terribly? (He’s old enough that this would have been his World Cup.) Or will it be the calm, even-tempered, modest defender Philip Lahm, whose leadership has been exemplary? I favor Lahm, myself, not least because I agree with my friend who thinks the team plays better without its anointed star. But allowing this debate to seep into the tabloids was just foolish. It can’t have helped the number one asset of the team, its esprit de corps. Worse yet, the gossip about the captain’s position may well have split the team. Perhaps its apearance in the boulevard press signals a disintegration within the team, in which case the leaks to the press are only a symptom of a deeper problem. At any rate, a team that can’t talk to each other probably isn’t gonna pass to each other, either.

Oh, my lovely young men, too soon departed! Why, oh why, did I let me self fall? Why so besotted, when we never had a chance?

So today I mope. I eat Nutella on Ritz crackers. I sneak licorice snails while the kids aren’t looking. I nurse my bruised feelings. I’ll be my sober self again soon. Really, I will. For now, I’m still pining for the Weltmeister title. Looks like I’ll have to settle for Waldmeister jello. With vanilla sauce. Lucky me, I’ve got some in the fridge. It’s just not quite solidified. Much like the German team.

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In a recent interview at Salon, Cacilda Jetha and Christopher Ryan, authors of the new book Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, conveniently tell us what sex is really like. They start with gay couples as their reference point, which is an interesting move, but then their theorizing goes straight down the Mars/Venus rabbit hole:

First of all, they’re both men, so they both know what it’s like to be a man. They both know from experience that love and sex are two very different things, and it seems that for women the experience of sexuality is much more embedded in narrative, in emotion, in emotional intimacy. But also it’s really hard to judge what women would be like if they hadn’t been persecuted for the last five or six thousand or ten thousand years for any hint of infidelity.

(The full interview is here.)

Nothing wrong with reversing the usual assumption that heterosexual couples are the norm and all other combinations deviant. This can help normalize same-sex relations, as well as shining a new light on heterosexuality. But Jetha and Ryan’s statement doesn’t do this. Instead, it’s swimming in oppositional sexism – the idea that men and women are opposites. It’s also traditionally sexist, in that it sets up a norm rooted in male experience, “know[ing] from experience that love and sex are two very different things.” Note that this compartmentalization is presented as knowledge, not as emotion, opinion, or preference.

It may well be true than on average, more men than women can easily separate love and sex. What to make, then, of the many women I’ve known who quite handily compartmentalize them? I know it’s possible, because I’ve done it (though I also couldn’t do it easily at this stage of my life). How are we to understand the men for whom sex is unthinkable, or at least quite hollow, ouside a context of caring and intimacy? I’ve known quite a few of those, too – more than enough to explode the dichotomy that Jetha and Ryan describe.

There’s a whiff of traditional sexism, too, in their last sentence, which positions men as a biological norm and women as different only due to the distortions of society. Yes, women have been persecuted and their sexuality brutally controlled by patriarchal forces. However, men’s sexuality is also molded by social and cultural forces, some of them highly repressive and cruel (see for instance the latest post in Richard Jeffrey Newman’s series on men’s bodies). It’s just silly to imply that men’s sexual desires and behavior simply reflect their biological drives, while women’s have been warped by culture.

At least in this interview (I can’t speak to the book), Jetha and Ryan appear to think that infidelity is mainly a male behavior. But how much do we really know about women’s capacity and propensity to be unfaithful? As I’ve argued here in the past, all those cheatin’ men have to be doing it with someone. Unless you accept the theory that there’s a huge pool of single women just panting after married dudes, it’s more logical to conclude that married/committed women systematically underreport their infidelity. In other words, women already engage in plenty of infidelity. By now, the impact of millennia of persecution is much reduced, in the Western world, anyway. We don’t stone women anymore for adultery. History casts a shadow of greater stigma on women who cheat, compared to men – and thus greater pressure to lie about it, even to researchers. Infidelity is no longer the province of men.

Regardless of whether monogamy is hard (it is), and regardless of whether women are naturally angels (we aren’t): Do we really want to work toward a new norm of keeping sex and love separate? Jetha and Ryan appear to be saying that since humans aren’t hard-wired for monogamy, the desire for sex-with-intimacy is not only confined to women, it’s also somehow aberrant. I’m not convinced. While I see nothing morally wrong with casual sex between two honest, enthusiastic partners, I recognize that getting to know a partner can enable wider arcs of pleasure. I’ve observed that casual sex with even a semi-regular partner tends to become less casual over time. Non-committed sex also has some built-in pitfalls that Lynn Gazis-Sax evocatively describes:

I also think that there are some drawbacks to having sex with people you don’t know well, that are worth talking about, and not brushing aside with “anything is fine as long as your both consenting.” Anything is not good if your consenting, and it’s fair to talk about why some initially consenting experiences turn out badly, as well as some turning out splendidly. Sometimes, the reasons those experiences turn out badly involve not knowing things about your lover that you might have found out if you’d waited a bit, or not realizing just how badly the two of you communicated, or overestimating your ability to be happy with more casual connections.

On the other hand … Sometimes it’s the relationship itself that’s bad, and those aren’t problems that are improved by making the sex more committed.

(Read the whole post here.)

In other words, sex can be toxic inside or outside of relationships. If “love” signifies manipulation, emotional indifference, or just a joyless shell of a marriage, of course sex won’t be any good either. And yet, we lose an awful lot if we assume that love always decays. Jetha and Ryan may well be correct that monogamy and decades-long love are not “natural,” but how much of our sexuality is merely “natural”? Isn’t it always shaped deeply by our culture? And even though we’re all creatures of biology and culture, don’t we all make choices – to be faithful, to tend the fires of lust over time, to value love – or not?

We lose even more if we replace the old imperative of sex-with-love with a new rule that’s simply its opposite. Because even if there’s nothing ethically wrong in principle with casual sex, in practice sex has the potential to be more rewarding with a partner who cares. If we don’t let it become humdrum, the rewards needn’t just be emotional either. Sex with a loving partner can be hotter – sexierwhen we dare to be to be our most naked selves. That’s not just a girly thing.

(Just because any post about sex and love deserves a flower. This one was blooming in my garden a few weeks ago. Photo by me, Sungold.)

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