Thursday, June 30, 2011

I Weep for the Future

It's good to know that our youth, and not only our youth, are concerned about things that really matter. One of my Facebook friends today latched onto this breaking news:
Oxford Comma Dropped: University of Oxford Styleguide Says No To Serial Comma
She commented: "Now my way of listing when I write is grammatically incorrect." She called the change "grammar fascism."

Well, no. A style guide is not about grammar in the first place, but about approved usage in a given environment. If I were writing for the New York Times, for example, I would follow their style guide. If I were writing a paper for a university course in the humanities, I would probably follow the MLA style guide. And so on. These guides don't set universal rules. They're meant to produce stylistic uniformity in a publication or other environment.

Even before I read the entire linked article, I noticed that the passage quoted under the headline read "
The University of Oxford styleguide has decided that as 'a general rule' use of the serial comma should be avoided." Notice those three words there, "a general rule"? They mean that there will be exceptions. The article itself quoted "the official entry":
As a general rule, do not use the serial/Oxford comma: so write ‘a, b and c’ not ‘a, b, and c’. But when a comma would assist in the meaning of the sentence or helps to resolve ambiguity, it can be used – especially where one of the items in the list is already joined by ‘and’ ...
This disposes of the objection quoted by one of my friend's friends:
"~`Those released from prison today included Nelson Mandela, a murderer and a pedophile.` Oxford, Oxford, isn't this argument enough? ~"
It's not even an argument; it's merely an exception to the rule, an exception covered by the entry.

And, of course, there's no reason why people who like the Oxford comma can't go on using it, unless they attend classes at the University of Oxford. But they should be aware that, also according to the article,
The serial comma ... had been waning in popularity. For example, most journalists in Canada and the U.S. who follow the AP or CP stylebooks do not use it.
Plenty of ignorant shlubs are throwing tantrums over the change -- I didn't bother to do more than glance at the first few comments on the article at Huffington Post. When they get over this, they can have conniptions over the possibility of a pro basketball lockout in addition to the one on pro football. I mean, what are they supposed to watch -- soccer? Meanwhile, the only President we've got has committed an act of war against Somalia, bringing the wars he's juggling up to six. (The Republicans are whupping his ass at eleven-dimensional chess, but he's a wiz at juggling wars.) But how can I care about that when the Oxford comma is in peril?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

All the Men So Good for Nothing, and Hardly Any Women at All

I'm about halfway through Julie Des Jardins' The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science (The Feminist Press, 2010), a fascinating and disturbing book with implications I want to write about more. For now, though, here's something from the beginning of the book that might look like trivia at first.

In 1921 the famous inventor Thomas Alva Edison was looking for a few good men like himself, to "develop technologies in his research facility in West Orange, New Jersey."
Edison wouldn't settle for small-time thinkers: his team of "A-class men" would be drawn from applicants who passed a rigorous test he had devised. But his recruitment efforts proved disappointing. Of the five hundred men who applied for positions, only 6 percent passed his exam. His own son failed to earn a place in his ranks of A-class men. Test-takers grew defensive; they were not common street folk, but graduates of science programs in the most prestigious universities in the country. The problem lay not with them, they claimed, but with Edison's arbitrary criteria for gauging scientific competence in the modern age. Some of the questions on his exam were what they were used to: "What pinch pressure at the driving wheels does a 23-ton locomotive require when drawing a load of 100 tons on level track?" Others, however, seemed highly irregular for testing scientific competence: "Who was Leonides?" "What is the name of a famous violin maker?" "What is felt?" One stumped job applicant wondered, "How many $10,000 annum men ... could have answered 50 percent of these tomfooleryisms." Another dismissed the test as "vulgar," an insult to his educated sensibility. "Who cares who wrote 'Home Sweet Home,'" a college graduate lashed out. "We are in an age of specialization, and men are being trained to do things in certain lines of work that do not allow them to waste time and gray matter on general knowledge that can be had by referring to an encyclopedia."

Not all reactions to Edison's questions were defensive; some thought that the test proved just how "amazingly ignorant" college men had become. "I think that any man who cannot give a prompt answer to 75 percent of the questions at least is lacking in education, and, if a college man, had wasted his time in college," asserted an anonymous reader of the New York Times. ... As erudite as Edison appeared through all this, people seemed to forget that he had become who he was without the assistance of professional degrees of any kind. He never went to college; as a boy he was homeschooled and thrown quickly into business ventures to fend for himself. He observed the world around him and learned through reading and hands-on experimentation. As an established inventor he still boasted a subscription list of sixty-two periodicals, most of them scientific but also economic and legal and others oddly eclectic. Science and technology fascinated him, but so did geography, literature, and music -- realms of knowledge that academic specialists considered "generalized trivia" in the technological age. ...

[Edison] put college men on the defensive at a time when they had sought authoritative status as experts [13-15].
I admit that I have mixed feelings about this episode. First off it's highly entertaining, and says a lot about the limitations of academic training, but making fun of pointy-headed brainiacs who have a lot of book-learning but lack common sense always been an easy endeavor, as far back as Aristophanes' mockery of Socrates in Clouds. I also wonder exactly how Edison "devised" his test; despite his own idiosyncratic success I doubt he knew any better than anyone else what testable knowledge is required for scientific success. At the same time it's funny to see young men who were looking for work with Edison trying to tell him what qualifications he ought to seek in applicants. It was his business, after all.

Ninety years later, this story also has implications for current controversies over education. There was a recent flurry of indignation over the supposedly poor showing of American students in history, in the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Although student performance had improved at all grades since 1994, the usual ignorant fussbudgets fumed that American kids were stupid, or American schools were incompetent, or both. The third fussbudget there admits that things used to be worse, because NAEP scores have gone up since 1994, but still, my goodness, these kids aren't "proficient" in US history! In reality that's because the teaching of history is highly contested, a political minefield, so what kids get is neither good history nor good teaching. When they're allowed to study real history instead of the boring propaganda that they're force-fed in school, students do quite well. But what educational "reformers" like President Obama, Michelle Rhee, and Arne Duncan want to impose on the schools will only make things worse; which may be what they want. After all, complaints about the Dumbing Down of America sell.

The anecdote about Edison's "A-class" test is a reminder of the limitations that have always obtained in schooling in the US. If our schools used to be better, as today's alarmists want to imply, then even specialists should have emerged from them with a better grounding in general knowledge. Clearly they didn't in 1921. One of the first things to be learned from history ought to be that some things are the same as ever, that the good old days weren't so good, and that our professional Chicken Littles should always be regarded with a healthy skepticism.

Friday, June 24, 2011

He's One of Them

I'm still swamped with other things I have do, so I thought I'd pass this along:

Thanks to this very funny review by Band of Thebes --
Give or take, it's about two pretty dancers in 140 A.D. (the stars of Step Up and Billy Elliot) both of whom are into leather (thus the title) and fight about who's going to be whose slave. In the first half, the buffer, more built 30 year-old muscle stud Marcus rescues the skinnier, cuter 24 year-old Esca from a brutal top in a helmet mask and makes him his slave. Fine. Lucky them. But -- and this is always a mistake -- they decide to go to Scotland a Burning Man Festival except they don't have a car or a place to stay and it rains a lot and everybody's high and howling and covered with mud or blue paint and mohawks or really dirty long hair and the bonfire isn't that much fun and the food is bloody awful, so nerves are frayed, right? When they could have gone to Rome? Well, Esca's not having it. He totally flips and is all NO, you're MY slave now! So hot, hot Marcus gets tied up and led around on a leash by a twink. Fine. Lucky them again.
-- (and there's more!) I now realize I have to see it.

And while I'm at it, Whatever It Is I'm Against It shreds Obama's Afghanistan speech. A sample:
WHAT WE STAND NOT FOR: “We stand not for empire, but for self-determination. That is why we have a stake in the democratic aspirations that are now washing across the Arab World. We will support those revolutions with fidelity to our ideals, with the power of our example, and with an unwavering belief that all human beings deserve to live with freedom and dignity.” Unless they live in Bahrain or someplace with oil or US military bases, obviously.

WHAT WE MUST RECAPTURE: “And most of all, after a decade of passionate debate, we must recapture the common purpose that we shared at the beginning of this time of war.” Revenge?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Ten days since my last post. I can't believe it; I can't remember when I last let so much time lapse between posts around here. I don't even really have an excuse. I haven't been sick, haven't been working extra. I've just been looking idly at all kinds of stuff on the Web, and felt a strange sick dread at the thought of starting a new post. I have been reading offline quite a bit, which has eaten up lots of time and energy, and I don't feel bad about that. And I've been getting plenty of ideas, maybe too many for me to choose from.

Anyway. "ITMFA," of course, means Impeach the Motherfucker Already. The abbreviation derives from the edgy advice columnist Dan Savage, who of course had George W. Bush in mind. That would have been a good idea, but of course the Democratic leadership made sure it never got off the ground, and Savage abandoned the call after a few months. Now we have a new Criminal-in-Chief violating the U.S. Constitution and just begging for removal from office, though we all know that accountability is for ordinary schlubs like you and me, not for the rich and powerful. But -- judging by the reactions of Obama apologists online -- it seems that increasing numbers of people are discussing the possibility anyway.

I first became aware of this when my friend the ambivalent Obama supporter e-mailed me a link to Michelle Bachmann's latest antics, adding:
This is the only reason I wouldn't want to see President Obama impeached. She or someone like her (or worse) might become our next President. Considering her record of homophobia and xenophobia, it could be a MUCH worse disaster than what we have now...
I wrote back:
I agree, but only to a point because it means impunity for his crimes. I know Bachmann is a pig, but the point is that Obama is a criminal. Yes, it could be worse. We could have Bachmann. We could have Stalin. We could have Hitler But that doesn't make Obama any less deserving of impeachment.
My friend replied:
If I had any faith in the people running the system, I'd happily lead the charge for him to be impeached. I have no faith in them at all. :(
Then one of my Facebook friends complained about Glenn Greenwald's detailing of the grounds for impeaching Obama: "Why does Greenwald want to impeach Obama? I didn't know he wanted to have a Republican president instead." I took the easy way out and retorted in comments that Obama is a Republican president, continuing and extending many of Bush/Cheney's worse policies. The trouble with Rob's complaint, though, as I found when I read Greenwald's comments, is that Greenwald didn't call for Obama's impeachment. What he said was this (emphasis added):

AMY GOODMAN: By your analysis, do you consider this an impeachable offense, Glenn Greenwald?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, I mean, anytime the president violates the law in a significant way, impeachment is supposed to be one of the leading remedies. So I think the President is clearly violating not only the War Powers Resolution, but also the Constitution. Article I, Section 8, assigns the war-making power to Congress, not to the executive. And even executive-power-revering jurists like Antonin Scalia have said that Article II, the Article II power that makes the commander — the president the commander-in-chief, really means nothing more than, when there’s a war that starts, the president is the top general. He directs how the war is prosecuted. But the idea that presidents can start wars on their own, without any congressional authorization, violates not just the law but the Constitution. So, sure, in theory, when the president violates the law and the Constitution, that’s an impeachable offense. At the same time, we’ve set a very low standard for our tolerance of rampant presidential law breaking. If George Bush and Dick Cheney weren’t impeached for their rampant crimes, it’s hard to see Obama being impeached for this.

That's not exactly a clarion call for putting Obama in the dock; it's more of a weary acknowledgement that, given American contempt for the rule of law where the powerful are concerned, it's not going to happen, even though Obama has committed impeachable offenses.

So it would appear that my friend Rob, like so many Democrats, owes the Republicans an apology. They don't really object to Bush's crimes -- indeed, they don't really consider them crimes, or they'd consider them crimes when a Democratic President commits them -- but they wish they could have had an excuse for removing him from office. (Shades of the Republican coup against Bill Clinton.) Since they don't appear to believe that Bush really did anything wrong, their only reason must be that he is a Republican. I'd like to believe that I have better reasons for hating Bush, or Obama, than mere party loyalty, especially since I don't belong to either party.

At times like this I realize all over again that despite what many people consider my gross cynicism about the government of the United States, I'm really a naive little boy who believes what he learned in Social Studies class: that people who commit crimes should be punished for them, no matter if they are rich or powerful, because everyone is supposed to be equal under the law. I now see that people in government, and many outside of it, think that the law is a tool for settling personal or partisan scores. The Republicans who went after Clinton wanted payback for the impeachment of Richard Nixon, aside from hating Clinton for all kinds of convoluted reasons. (I should mention that I think Clinton had committed some serious crimes, possibly impeachable ones, but having an affair with an intern wasn't one of them.) The only reason anyone who mattered could have seen for trying to impeach George W. Bush was something similar; it couldn't be because he'd actually done something wrong.

Now that President Obama has made his own contempt for the Constitution blazingly clear, his acolytes choose almost consciously not to see it. Why, Rob cried, would Glenn Greenwald want to impeach Obama? Considering that Greenwald had carefully explained how Obama is flouting the law and the Constitution, I have to say that's a willfully stupid question. The answer would be, because he's committing impeachable offenses even as we speak. What better reason could Rob ask for?

Which takes me back to my friend the ambivalent Obama supporter. I've written a few posts in the past in which I've addressed the problem that a president's success is commonly measured in terms of passing legislation -- any legislation, even bad legislation. If he fails often enough, he's weakened politically, though come to think of it that's only a problem if he then tries to pass some good legislation, which Obama hasn't shown much interest in doing. But once again I am rubbing my own nose in the fact that the political classes don't care about the quality of the legislation: it's not how you play the game, it's whether you win or lose.

At which point the cry goes up: But then you're siding with the Republicans! What will happen if the Republicans take over? O waily waily waily ... One other problem with Rob's position is that impeaching Obama will not give the US a Republican president -- Joe Biden is still a Democrat as far as I know, and as Vice President, it would be he who would become President if Obama were removed. So Rob's objection is mere alarmism; two strikes against him. Even granting that there are marginal differences between the Republicans and the Democrats, the net effect of this approach to politics is to let the Republicans win. As Avedon put it at The Sideshow the other day, quoting Chris Floyd:
"Again, I say what I have said here over and over (and will keep on saying): This is what you are supporting, enabling and continuing when you support the Obama Administration. Whether that support is wholehearted -- if you, like Kevin Drum, proudly shut down you own brain and defer supinely to Obama's superior wisdom -- or whether it is reluctant, defensive, 'to keep the other guys out' because you desperately hope the Democrats might possibly be marginally better, the results are still the same: murder, brutality, violence, corruption, chaos and suffering." Like I said last week on Virtually Speaking Susie, I have been voting against Republicans all my life, and it hasn't worked. This all has to change.
I'll go on voting against Republicans, as I presume Avedon will, but I know that if any real change is going to come, it won't come from voting. It'll come from some form of direct action, because that's where change has always come from.

Meanwhile, though, the Obama apologists are confusing the issue, perhaps deliberately, though they do seem to have surrendered to irrationality too thoroughly to realize what they are doing and saying. I basically agree with the Ambivalent Obama Supporter that impeachment would let the Republicans look like they have principles, so it's probably a bad idea. But that doesn't for a minute require me to pretend that Obama isn't a criminal, just like Bush, or hasn't committed impeachable offenses, just like Bush. Anyone who pretends otherwise, given the overwhelming evidence, is a cheap party hack who deserves and will get my eternal contempt. That might be a place to start: attacking Obama and his groupies with principled arguments. "You're either for us, or you're against us" was another Bush line that the Obama groupies have embraced, but they shouldn't be allowed to get away with it. I can call Obama a criminal without thinking that the Republican aren't criminals too.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

And Howe!

I just finished reading Florence Howe's new memoir, A Life in Motion (Feminist Press, 2011), which left me feeling inspired and exhausted. Inspired because she's done so much, though she's not as famous as many of the Second Wave feminists: she was a pioneer of Women's Studies, and a founder of the Feminist Press. That may not sound like all that much, but it kept her quite busy, which is why I feel exhausted after reading the book. A Life in Motion is almost literally what she's led since the late 1960s, traveling around the country and the world to do research, to network, to coordinate the research of others, to raise money for the Press -- she's a regular feminist dervish, and seems to have slowed down only a little at the age of 82.

I first became aware of the Feminist Press when the local women's bookstore stocked its early reprints of neglected, nearly forgotten works by women: Life in the Iron Mills, by Rebecca Harding Davis; The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman; and Daughter of Earth, by Agnes Smedley. They're well-known and readily available now, but before about 1970 they were nearly impossible to find. Howe tells of searching for copies of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God "in secondhand bookstores ... [which her students] had to return to me before they could have a grade in my course" (133). The press survived arson, sabotage by a commercial publisher, funding difficulties, disorganization, and a couple of moves before setting in at their present base, the City University of New York. They've published a remarkable range of material, and I noted several interesting titles as I read A Life in Motion.

Among their biggest projects were anthologies of works by Indian, African, and Chinese women. On her first visit to India in 1977, she visited
two women's colleges, both relatively impoverished. I began a new quest, asking students what they were reading in literature courses. I was both surprised and disturbed by their responses. They read British male writers. When I asked about Indian writers, they said sometimes they were assigned Tagore and sometimes their most daring teachers gave them American writers, predictably Hemingway or Faulkner.

In Delhi, the university was on strike, along with forty-seven other universities, but I met with feminist faculty and graduate students. Two of the people present were Madhu Kishwar and Ruth Paul, both teachers of English literature. I wanted to talk with them about writers and the curriculum they taught. I had by then talked with faculty in other English departments, all of whom had assured me that there had been no women writers ever and, even if there were any, they would not be worth reading. Madhuri and Ruth were not interested in that issue, even though they were soon to found Manushi, the first feminist journal in India [316-7].
Not too surprisingly, Susie Tharu and K. Lalita and their colleagues found more than enough work by women writers to fill two big volumes of Women Writing in India. When work began on women writers in Africa,
... many of the scholars we met with insisted that African libraries and archives had been "wiped clean" by Western scholars either for their own personal files or for library collections in places like London, New York, Washington, and Chicago. We wouldn't find enough material to fill a large volume, they told us. I laughed when I heard these stories, and sometimes I said outright that since men had been the primary scholars of African history and literature, most of them would not have touched materials relevant to women. And I was usually correct [427].
The same attitude is still with us in the West. Women do write, but their work isn't given the same respect or attention that men's work gets. Recently the Guardian had an article about "the incredible shrinking presence of women in SF", which began by asking, "Is science fiction sexist?" Much of it is, of course, but the problem isn't so much the abstraction SF as it is the very concrete readers, publishers, and fans. Some notable comments: "When I scanned the names, I just saw people. Never imagined that this could be an issue..."; "I don't get it. So... there are plenty of female SF authors, but since none of them are any good the readers must be sexist because when they buy books they don't use gender quotas and positive discrimination to decide what to read?" and my favorite, "[Margaret Atwood and Doris Lessing] didn't write SF, they wrote, unwittingly, historical pastiches of SF." Historical pastiches of science fiction and fantasy by men dominate the SF and fantasy sections of the bookstore and library; for a start, think of the many Tolkien imitators out there; then think about steampunk; then think about cyberpunk, which is basically noir in SF drag. These male writers nevertheless sell well and get critical and fan attention.

I can't find now the place where an African scholar told Howe that women's studies is "Western." I think the proper response to such claims is, "Oh, you don't have women in Africa?" Or China, or India ...?

Then there's the matter of class. Howe was born to Jewish parents who could be categorized as working-class or working-poor, and it surely didn't help that she was born on the cusp of the Great Depression. Her father was a taxi driver, and her mother returned to wage work when the factories opened to women during World War II. Howe was always bright, and did well in school despite some discouragement from her mother. She attended Hunter College, and to her surprise some of her professors encouraged her to think of graduate school; she never finished her Ph.D., and her teaching career, in small, non-elite schools, was constantly diverted by her husbands' pursuit of their own careers. (She married four times.) Like a good 1950s wife, she moved with them.

In college she rebelled against racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism, helping to found the first interracial sorority at Hunter. In the early 1960s she went to Mississippi for Freedom Summer, where she learned a different approach to teaching that she took back east with her.

So, should Florence Howe be considered working-class (because of her background) or middle-class (because of her profession)? As she tells it, she's never really gotten over the insecurity she felt about her origins, and has been surprised when people take her for the educated, cultured person she's worked so hard to appear. Even as an academic, she's worked mostly at levels below the elite universities, and struggled to ensure that women's studies as a discipline and the Feminist Press wouldn't ignore working-class women, women of color, immigrant women, women in other countries and cultures.

This weekend, in a post on "Feminist SF conversations worth reading," Nicola Griffith linked to and quoted Cheryl Morgan, who wrote of Second Wave feminism that although "[i]n theory it was about equal rights for women in all areas of life[, i]n practice it was sometimes more about equal rights for middle class white women, and occasionally about the rights of middle class white lesbian separatists." I was annoyed by that weasel-word "sometimes." This is a complaint that has often been made about American feminism of the Sixties and Seventies, not without some accuracy. For obvious reasons, American mass/corporate media preferred to focus on middle class white feminists: they were from the same class that manned the American mass/corporate media, they were colorful and articulate and media-savvy. (The Miss America protest of 1968, for example, was planned with TV and the newspapers in mind, and many feminists consciously developed ways to play the media -- by refusing to speak to any but female reporters, for example. A number of female writers who'd been confined to "lifestyle" pages found themselves shifted to the news beat for the first time, and many of them stayed there.) Given the way that even dissidents tend to believe the corporate media's claim to be reporting the news, it's hardly surprising that many Americans assumed that what they saw on TV was Feminism. Nor is it surprising that educated foreigners, including feminists like those Howe talked to in India, China, and Africa, mistook corporate media's depiction of American feminism for its reality -- they had personal and professional reasons of their own for doing so.

But while American feminism "sometimes" was indeed "about middle class white women," it was also "sometimes" (in fact, quite often) about women who were not white or middle class. I suspect that Florence Howe was one of the women that Cheryl Morgan had in the back of her mind in framing that accusation; most people who encountered Howe must have mistaken her for a white middle class woman, instead of the working class Jew she actually was. And the Feminist Press was only one press publishing the writings of women who were not white or middle class, alongside the writings of women who were.

A Life in Motion is, among other things, a valuable corrective to the record on the history of Second Wave feminism, which a surprising range of people have preferred to view as nothing but a bunch of spoiled co-eds invoking white middle-class privilege. Interestingly, Cheryl Morgan also wrote in the post linked above that Third Wave feminism "grew out of a cross-fertilization between feminism and the civil rights movement. Basically feminists realized that discrimination against women was just a small part of a much wider social problem." Well, no; Morgan's chronology is a bit off. As Howe reminds those who needed to be reminded, many Second Wave feminists (including but not only Howe) came to feminism by way of the Civil Rights Movement. (And from what I've seen, Third Wave feminism is "sometimes" a bunch of spoiled college girls complaining that their hippie feminist moms have ruined feminism for them. But only sometimes.)

There's so much more to A Life in Motion than I've mentioned here -- Howe's accounts of her marriages, of her difficult relationships with her parents, of her family of choice, of her women friends (I was especially moved by her account of Tillie Olsen, another working-class Jewish feminist of note), and more. It's a dauntingly large book, nearly 600 pages long, but those who want to know where feminism came from and where it's going ought to read it.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Advanced Spirituality

From the novel Nobody Does the Right Thing, by Amitava Kumar (Durham NC: Duke UP, 2010), page 92. There's a tendency to romanticize and idealize Eastern religions, and I think this sums them up nicely.
Binod was looking at an article on Vedic myths by one Sukumari Bhattacharji. Bhattacharji had written: “The spiritual life of the period exhibits peaks and lows. We have philosophical speculations of considerable significance in a few hymns. But simultaneously, there are many prayers for the destruction of enemies, of co-wives and rivals, and prayers for the safe abduction of a girl on a dark night, for her brothers to sleep soundly and for the dogs not to bark.”
Not all that different from the crass, materialist West. Just a thought.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

News Through the Eyes of the Investor Class

Having to get up at 5:30 a.m. to go to work does not agree with me. Fortunately it'll end on Friday, and I'll be back to my regular hours, 10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., for the rest of the month. (Working early through most of May, oddly, didn't do my posting regularity any harm. But then I was able to sleep till 7 then, an hour and a half later.)

Meanwhile, while most American media are obsessed with the Andrew Weiner scandal, life goes on, both in the US and in the rest of the world. Amy Goodman wrote an article for the Guardian, titled "A Perfect Storm of Stupid," and I thought it would be a critique of the media vortex engulfing Weiner like this one (via), say, but it's about global warming.

But this is what I meant to tell you about: Peru just elected a left-wing president. (Or "left-wing" -- I don't know yet if he's left-wing except by the standards of American corporate media, where the New York Times and the Washington Post are "liberal" and CNN and NPR are "left".) FAIR has a blog post up about US media coverage of the left's fortunes in elections, which contains this memorable conclusion:
Viewing elections through the eyes of the investor class might be helpful for some, but it's doubtful that it's a great way to understand what the people in any country are thinking.
The link to a quite good Guardian piece on the Peruvian election is worth clicking through, but isn't that a great description of the "mainstream" media in the US? Looking at the news through the eyes of the investor class isn't a bad thing per se; openly espousing an identified bias is better than pretending to be objective. The trouble is that you have to do some digging to find news coverage done through any other filter. Wouldn't it be nice if the TV broadcast and cable news networks, and the mastheads of elite print media used that phrase as a tagline? Not "All the News That's Fit to Print," not "Fair and Balanced," but "News Through the Eyes of the Investor Class." Then we'd all have fewer illusions about what we were getting.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Voulez Vous Cliche Avec Moi?

I have to be up very early for work tomorrow morning, so this will be brief.

I really only decided to watch Step Up 3 because Harry Shum Jr. was in it. He's one of Glee's most naggingly untapped resources (though I gather that's changing in the second season), and he's my current celebrity crush. Of course he only shows up in the third act of Step Up 3, and he's underused even there. And as so many reviewers said, it's a lousy movie aside from the big production numbers: awful dialogue (at times you can see the actors struggling to get out the lines, the reverse of swallowing something bad), wooden acting, and every let's-put-on-a-show-business movie cliche that Hollywood ever wore out.

The dance segments are impressive, but this number, "The Battle of Gwai," the second big dance contest, stands out. Yeah, Moose's last-second arrival on a minibike is another one of those cliches, and was there nobody in the house who knew how to shut off the water? But the choreography is the best in the movie, the dancers execute it well, the water is used inventively (notice Moose flinging out streams from the sleeves of his windbreaker near the end, like a lawn sprinkler), and I found myself wanting to watch the scene over and over again. The song, "Beggin'," by Madcon, is different in style from the hiphop that dominates most of the movie; it sounds like an old Four Seasons song from the sixties, even the singer sounds like Frankie Valli. (Oops, no wonder -- it's a cover, almost an imitation of a Four Seasons single from 1967.) I wouldn't go so far as to recommend the movie, but this scene is worth your notice.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

In a Canyon, In a Cavern

Tonight I saw Werner Herzog's documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc, which contains the oldest known paintings, believed to be 33,000 years old. By good luck I was able to see it in 3D, which despite its flaws gives a much better sense of what these images look like -- it's like the difference between a globe and a Mercator projection that flattens the earth. Some of the paintings seem to take advantage of the contours of the rock to suggest the three-dimensionality of the animals they represent. Herzog's occasional pomposity can't really diminish the power of the cave art.

Herzog also interviewed the archaeologists who were studying the cave while he and his crew were there. (Access to the cave is strictly limited by the French government to preserve not just the art but the other archaeological details -- bear and human tracks, for example, and torch trails on the walls -- so it's great good luck that Herzog was allowed to film there. Chauvet isn't going to be a tourist site as Lascaux was at first.) Much has been made in reviews of the eccentricity of the researchers, like the guy who dresses "like an Inuit" or the master perfumer who looks for new caves by sniffing around, hoping to get a whiff of ancient air. This provides some relief from the solemnity of the underground scenes and makes the film more entertaining, but I was bothered by their universal description of the Paleolithic denizens of Chauvet as "man." This could partly be because the speakers' first language isn't English, but only partly. Even the women archaeologists talked as though there were no Cro-Magnon women. Most of them, as far as I could tell, bought into antiquated and disputed conceptions of Man the Hunter.

This became especially annoying when one of the women archaeologists showed Herzog a stylized image of a woman on a stalactite, overlapped by a painting of a bison. The stalactite, a few feet beyond the stainless-steel catwalk on which visitors must remain, was never full visible in the film, even later on when the filmmakers put a camera on a boom to try to see around it. But photos of the image, like the one above, are available online. (It appears that the painting is known as the Sorcerer, which makes me wonder how secure the identification of a woman in the image really is.) Seen from this angle, the "woman" is a triangle of pubic hair sitting atop tapering legs, reminiscent of the so-called "Venus" sculptures that have been found in great numbers at European sites. The oldest of these, found in 2008 at Schelklingen, Germany, is even older than the Chauvet cave paintings by several thousand years. But the woman's figure (if that's what it is) melds with the head of a big cat at the upper left.

The film then digresses to a discussion of the "Venus" sculptures, with some nervous prurience. At this point I began thinking of a book I read a few years ago, The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory, by J. M. Adovasio, Olga Soffer, and Jake Page, published by Smithsonian Books in 2007. The authors comment (pages 188-9):
What escaped many observers, both male and female, for many years was that some of these figurines were partly clad. … But never mind – they were largely naked and had to represent fertility, menstruation, the godhead (as goddess), or (giggle) paleoporn.

Then in 1998, coming off their discovery of the many fiber artifacts from Moravian sites, which many of their colleagues considered an important rearrangement of the picture of Upper Paleolithic society in Europe, Adovasio and Soffer turned their attention to these figures. To begin with, a close inspection of the braids of the Venus of Willendorf showed that her “hair” was, on the contrary, a woven hat, a radially hand-woven item of apparel that was probably begun from a knotted center in the manner of certain coiled baskets made today by Hopi, Apache, and other American Indian tribes in which a flexible element is wrapped with stem stitches as the spiral grows. Seven circuits encircle the head, with two extra half-circuits over the nape of the neck. Indeed, so precise is the carving of all this stitchery that it is not unreasonable to think that, among the functions involved in this Upper Paleolithic masterpiece, it served as a blueprint or instruction manual showing weavers how to make such hats. Indeed, anyone who has done any sculpting in stone or wood can tell you that the fashioning of the body, while extremely closely realized, would have been easy compared to the astounding control and staying power needed to render this stitching (even a few splices) of this hat so true and precise. The carver had to have spent more time on just the hat than on the rest of the entire figurine.

Of all the scholars who have examined these figurines over the decades (and there must be hundreds), only one other, Elizabeth Barber, ever took notice of the fiber accouterments some of them wore. One British scholar who studied the Venuses in his youth never noticed any clothing because, he recalled, he “never got past the breasts.”
The same could be said of the archaeologists in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. I couldn't help wondering what other, more mature archaeologists might have to say about the paintings at Chauvet, especially the Sorcerer.

Another archaeologist clumsily demonstrates a bone-tipped spear and an altatl or spear-thrower which, he says, could be used to hunt horses. He didn't mention mammoths -- or did he? Maybe bears; there are a lot of bear bones in the Chauvet cave, including a skull set atop an altar-like rock. This made me think of The Invisible Sex again (180):
Ethnographic studies of modern people have turned up practically no instances of deliberate elephant hunting before the advent of the ivory trade in modern times. There is no evidence of Upper Paleolithic assemblages of enough hunters (maybe 40 or so) to take down a mammoth, much less the number needed to wipe out a herd. It is dangerous enough, in fact, to go after any animal the size of a horse or a bison if one is armed with a spear. Only the foolhardiest would attempt to kill an animal that stands 14 feet high and has a notoriously bad temper when annoyed. A statement that has been assigned to multiple originators suggests that it is more likely that every so often a Paleolithic hunter brought down an already wounded mammoth (or one slowed down a bit in the mud of a swamp) and then talked about it for the rest of his life. The picture of Man the Mighty Hunter is now fading out of the annals of prehistory. By far, most of the animal remains found strewn about places like Dolni Vestonice consists of the bones of small mammals like hares and foxes.
But the film is still very much worth seeing, in 3D if you have the opportunity. Then look for The Invisible Sex, which is a fascinating read.

Friday, June 3, 2011

But - I Thought He Was a Virgin!

(The video above may be NSFW; don't play it with the sound on in front of your aged grandmother, anyway.)

This morning one of my Facebook friends, whose presence there mainly consists of linked news stories which generate a lot of comments, linked to some story about the Anthony Weiner scandal-in-waiting. Oh yeah, it was this one, and the commenters went ballistic over it, as they also did over this one, which was about John Edwards, but the commenters were obsessed with Weiner, even though it still isn't known whether the "crotch-shot" photos are of him, let alone that he sent them to anyone. The friend who posted the link wrote, "It's not the 'scandal' that's the problem, so much as the ducking and dodging of questions by Weiner. It makes him come off as a liar, even if he's technically not lying."

Actually, it is the scandal that is the problem. Suppose that the photo is of Weiner, and suppose further that he sent it to someone. Whose business is it? I know I'm tripping, but I wish a politician would, in circumstances like these, say, "This is my private life. It's consensual. It's my business and the business of the people I interact with. It is none of your business. So fuck off." There is no reason I can see why there should be a scandal here, except for the frenzied prurience of the people in the corporate media.

What's a "character flaw" about exchanging sexy pictures of yourself? If the women he's been interacting with online are of age, it's creepy to characterize them as "young girls." (Of course online you can never be sure about the age of the people you're interacting with, which should also be taken into account.) I don't even believe that many of the people who are having hissyfits about this are virgins; probably they have secrets of their own. There's something very suspicious about all this excitement. I can understand why party politicians and the corporate media would rather dwell on stuff like this than deal with issues. But why should human beings get worked up over it?

One person argued that it matters because Weiner is married. But that still doesn't make it anyone else's business, let alone a scandal. According to all accounts, the person who went public with this story was not the woman Weiner allegedly sent the picture, nor Weiner's wife, but an outside party, a right-winger who had obsessively been looking for ways to sabotage Weiner's career. But I have to remember that many people (maybe most people?) can't tell the difference between consensual and forced sex. We've seen that in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal. And even more people are terrible hypocrites about sex. So I shouldn't be surprised. Despite all the cultural changes we've seen since the 1960s, the alleged Sexual Revolution we went through, far too many people are still living in the 1950s at best; or in junior high school, where talking about sex makes them all giggly and squirmy and grossed out.

Then, this evening, I found this depressing story.

Anna Fowlkes, 64, didn't date for years after her husband, Sonny, died of a brain tumor. And after she finally did, she learned she’d become infected with HIV. She taught her son about safe sex, she says, but, like many other seniors, it didn’t occur to her that she needed to practice it too.

“We are of a generation where that was not something we have to think about,” she says. “Now I know better.”

The first cases of AIDS in the US were reported almost exactly thirty years ago, on June 5, 1981. Admitting that Anna Fowlkes is a heterosexual woman who was probably married in 1981, if we're going to talk about generations, hers (and mine -- I'm four years younger than she is) is exactly the generation that had to come to grips with the syndrome and its effects on our lives. We didn't grow up with AIDS, but that also meant we had to think about it more.

So, she taught her son about safe sex? I wonder what she taught him. The relative risk levels for heterosexual males and heterosexual females remain disputed, but in the US it seems to be agreed that female-to-male transmission is much rarer than male-to-female. And, of course, "safe sex" isn't limited to HIV; there are other sexually transmitted diseases that can affect heterosexuals, to say nothing of unwanted pregnancies, and they were relevant to sexually-active persons of any sex or sexual orientation when Ms. Fowlkes and I were coming of age.

I shouldn't judge Ms. Fowlkes, but I can't help wondering why she didn't see safe sex as something she had to think about when she started "dating" again. We've heard so much about young people's tendency to think themselves invulnerable or immortal, but apparently older people can be just as thoughtless. According to this article, whose statistics seem a bit iffy, the rate of infection among older women is significantly higher than it is among younger women.
Today, Fowlkes is an advocate for HIV prevention among her peers. “I don’t want [others] to have to go down the road I’ve gone down,” she says. “I want them to get tested.”
Testing is fine, but as HIV prevention it's like shutting the barn door after the horses have gotten out. Preventing infection in the first place should be a higher priority.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Satire, Meet Reality; Try Not to Laugh Too Hard

I want to stress again that I don't think things are necessarily any worse than they were in the good old days, at least in some areas. People have always been insane. Still, certain things do make me want to bang my head against the wall and howl in despair.

For example, some students at a middle school in Arkansas included a list of the 5 Worst People in All Time in their yearbook: Adolf Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, Charles Manson, George W. Bush, and Dick Cheney. Of course, these lists are easy to quibble with. Where's Stalin? Where's Richard Nixon? Where's Mao Zedong? Henry Kissinger? Arguably any of them is worse than Charles Manson.

But as I'm sure you'll have guessed, the hissyfits inspired by this list were over Bush and Cheney.
Parents were outraged when they discovered the list, according to the station, and, in reaction, the school district had the list covered with black duct tape.

Superintendent Randall Williams says the printing of the list was "an oversight," Fox 16 reports, and said he was disappointed to learn the tape could simply be peeled off the page.
Duct tape? And the Superintendent is surprised to learn that the tape can be peeled off? How is it that every adult in Russellville hasn't been declared mentally incompetent and placed under guardianship?
"I'm furious as a parent and as a board member and as a tax payer and as a resident of Russellville," School Board Member Chris Cloud, who has two children in the district, tells the station. "It's wrong."
Of course Fox News can't do more than generate soundbytes, but why does Mr. Cloud think that "it" (whatever it is) is "wrong"? As a taxpayer, I'm furious that this sort of tempest in a teapot is happening in a supposedly free country, though as an informed person I know that it's nothing new. Political Correctness has run amuck!
Williams tells Fox 16 the yearbook sponsor -- a teacher -- is "very, very, very" upset that she didn't pay more attention to the page with the list, and that the yearbook editing process is being reviewed. "I think she maybe just scanned the whole page and went on," he tells the station, adding that he can't talk about disciplinary action.
That doesn't mean there won't be disciplinary action, of course. Someone has to pay for making trouble. You don't go to school to learn to stick out in a crowd.

I don't believe that anyone -- anyone who mattered, I mean -- would have objected if an equally meaningless but more Truely Politically Correct list had appeared in the yearbook. But why doesn't anyone talk back to Chris Cloud and his gang? I sympathize with the superintendent, who can't reasonably be expected to jeer at the school board. But if anyone in Russellville has a different view, their Fair and Balanced news station didn't bother to inform us. And just because it's Arkansas doesn't mean everybody is a Teabagger.

Then Eric Alterman had to remind me how much Stupid there is on what we laughingly call the American Left. His current blog post at the Nation is called "Stupid Is", and he doesn't notice the backwash. The post is dedicated to touting his own latest column, on the idiocy of Republicans, and then "If the recent news of stubbornly high unemployment claims, weakening jobs reports, a re-imploding housing picture, and softening manufacturing activity didn’t convince you that both our country and President Obama’s chances for reelection are teetering on the brink of disaster ..." You see? Obama's reelection and the future of Our Country are inseparable.

As for those Republican idiots:
One aspect of American politics that receives insufficient attention is that a significant percentage of self-identified Republicans—around half—are complete idiots. And the candidates who wish to be elected by them must pander to them, either by being idiots themselves—see “Bachmann, Michele”—or pretending to be. Nobody in the MSM is empowered to say this aloud. Indeed, the very act of pointing it out brands one a “liberal elitist” who is biased against proud, patriotic conservatives.
He follows this up with some poll results showing the crazy things that Republicans believe. And there's no doubt about it, they're crazy things. But what about the crazy things that Democrats believe?

I've written about this video before:
“I would like to see a cleaner earth for my child that I’m bringing into the world very soon,” says one smiling young woman. “It’s time for change,” a serious young white man agrees, “I want a better future for my children.” “I would like our environment to be safe,” an elegant African American woman adds. “Someone to actually make a difference in my generation,” says a white man with close-cropped hair and what appears to be a bruised eye, wearing a bomber jacket and hoodie. “I would like to see us in a world without fear,” says a man with his arm around a smiling woman. “Basically, um, I just want the war to end,” says a young Latina who earlier assured the viewer that “Esto es nuestro America.” The expectant mother returns with “I would like the rest of the world to think highly of our amazing country.” Also I’d like an Xbox, a Hannah Montana DVD, and a Cabbage Patch doll, okay? … If I were going to satirize this video, I’d show Obama dressed in work clothes, shuffling and scraping as he pushed a broom, mumbling, “Yes’m, I’ll clean up the earth for you right away, ma’am. A world without fear, suh, comin’ right up!”
Obama has not only failed to deliver on these fantasies (which is not unreasonable), but has delivered a third Bush term instead (which is very unreasonable) and has attacked and laughed at his Democratic critics. (His right-wing critics, however, he takes very seriously, and his response to them is careful, measured, and civil.) Yet his approval ratings currently hover around 50 percent for the whole population, but among Democrats, it is 82 percent; among liberals, 76 percent. Consider what that means: the economy is still in trouble (except for the richest), we are still waging wars in at least three countries depending on what you consider a war, the Patriot Act was just renewed without debate, and so on, but a very large majority of Democrats think Obama's doing a good job. Some presumably know what he's doing and approve of it, others presumably believe that he's still working on that Xbox for next Christmas and would have brought about a world without fear if it weren't for those rascally Republicans. Numerous Obama apologists point to his good poll numbers among Democrats and liberals as evidence (or proof) that the God-King is doing a good job; what those numbers actually indicate is that substantial majorities of Democrats and liberals are delusional.

Between the Republicans and the Democrats, that's a lot of Stupid. What can be done about it, I don't know. I'm not sure anything can be done.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


May is finally over; it seemed to last forever. Here's a song by the Korean a capella group Sweet Sorrow. When I wrote about them before, I lamented that this song wasn't on Youtube. Actually it was, but tonight I finally found it: two minutes of utter gorgeousness.

There's also a better video of their song "Sunshine," and (at the risk of spoiling the mood), a short clip of them singing "Sorry Sorry," the fiendishly catchy hit by the big group Super Junior, in which they sing the names of all thirteen SJ members.

Now I'd better get back to reading (Anne Lamott's Imperfect Birds), so I can hope to sleep early tonight -- work is early tomorrow.