Thursday, February 28, 2008

Kids These Days?

Evidently, today's high schoolers know as little about history and literature as yesterday's high schoolers, which is to say, not very much at all. According to a new survey reported on by the New York Times:

The survey results, released on Tuesday, demonstrate that a significant proportion of teenagers live in “stunning ignorance” of history and literature, said the group that commissioned it, Common Core.

Incidentally, is it really "stunning ignorance" any more? I mean, these sort of surveys have been coming out on a regular basis ever since I was old enough to read the paper, I would think that in nearly two decades (at least!) we would all have gotten over being stunned. But then perhaps there are groups of people who are uniquely susceptible to stunning, since I would assume that anyone engaged professionally in wringing their hands over the ignorance of youth would also be aware of the tragic devolution of the English language brought about as once-emphatic adjectives slowly become commonplace through overuse, and would certainly not want to contribute to such a trend.

Now, I am certainly all for preserving our shared tradition of history and literature but... but... 25% of students think that Columbus sailed sometime after 1750, 6 in 10 can't identify Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and only 50% know Job is known for patience? How many potential Jeopardy champs does this country really need?

The thing that makes surveys such as these particularly unhelpful is that we all know that our school system is doing a subpar job of delivering education. Or, to be more specific, a few public school systems effectively deliver a comprehensive education to most of their students while many more are manifest failures at this task. What new information does this study provide as to the state of education in the United States? None, that I can particularly see.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

What She Said

Mistress Matisse on settling (previously discussed here):
So marrying someone just because he's a nice guy and you're tired of dating is a mistake. However, Ms. Gottlieb goes beyond that, suggesting that women should abandon the idea of passionate love altogether, and view ourselves as mere wombs that need subsidizing, and men as stud animals with paychecks. It's a repulsive notion—a variety of sex work that is truly contemptible. It makes a lie out of two people's whole lives. More than two, if you have kids.
Megan on everything, but especially:
I can have extravagant, promiscuous, incredibly good sex before marriage, with whomever I choose AND have a wonderful life in all respects. I can be thoroughly loved by a man I love outrageously, NO MATTER WHAT SEX I HAVE before that relationship. Me and my adored can also have fantastic sex and make arrangements with each other for unconventional forms of sex and still have a loving and supportive relationship. I CAN HAVE SO MUCH GOOD SEX and never be punished for it in any form. Yep. I can have all sorts of crazy kinds of sex and be a great engineer and have a good job and have friends and family adore me and never ever suffer for AS MUCH SEX AS I WANT TO HAVE. Lots of conscientious fun sex, with whomever I want, and NO BAD CONSEQUENCES. Even though I am a woman. Having sex.


Boys, boys, boys

This thread on Feministe about ways to deal with lingering sexism in otherwise rational men is absolutely fantastic any woman who sleeps with, works with, or even occasionally talks with men. My advice, gleaned from trial and (lots and lots of) error with my generally fantastic but occasionally jaw-droppingly outrageous boyfriend, is below.

1. Nobody (especially men) wants to lose an argument, admit they're wrong, or change their mind. But learning something new, discovering a different perspective, or having a great insight are all things everyone likes to do. I tend to want to go in to a discussion guns blazing and call him out on his shit, but this tends to make my boyfriend, at least, more likely to defend his position. Anything that can avoid framing what we're doing as arguing makes him more receptive to what I'm saying. Especially jokes. Jokes are fantastic because he can "jokingly" acknowledge a mistake without it becoming a big deal.

2. Once you've started your not-argument, listen to how he responds. And take what he says seriously. A lot of the really sexist bullshit men spew is coming from real fears and anxieties, albeit ones that are often stroked by the media and society all out of proportion. (For instance, I know men who are legitimately afraid that they'll be falsely accused of sexual harassment or rape, and have their lives ruined by the accusation.) Suggest ways that these anxieties can be addressed without trivializing women's needs and women's experiences.

3. Patriarchy hurts men too. I've made lots of progress with my boyfriend by pointing out things like poor paternity leave policies, or male-on-male bullying and how they're part of the patriarchy as well.

4. Patriarchy hurts men part II. I recognize that some of the sexist crap my boyfriend spews is the male equivalent of lipstick - what he does to get along in a patriarchal society (like sexist remarks with his buddies) and tend to be inclined to either let that pass, or call him on it privately. His anxieties about his masculinity and his place in the patriarchal hierarchy are real and have real consequences, and suck in their own way as much as ones about femininity.

5. Always remember that while he may occasionally say sexist things, he's not a sexist person. The line "That sounds really sexist, but I don't think you meant it that way. Can you explain further?" helps to start a discussion, not an argument (see point 1).


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Saving Family Farms with Yummy Butter

This article in the New York Times was particularly relevant for me because my mother grew up on a dairy farm in Central Wisconsin. My grandparents sold their cows when I was still quite young, but one of my aunts had her herd until several years ago, and one of my cousins married a farmer and still lives on a farm. Which is to say that the challenges dairy farmers face are quite personal to me, even apart from my desire to consume fantastic butter and yummy cheese.

On the one hand, I'm really happy about a lot of the trends in this article, but on the other hand, I'm worried that this will be too little, too late to save the sort of farming communities where my mother grew up. Specifically, while most of the affluent consumers who will happily pay a premium for local, handmade dairy products are concentrated on the coasts, most of the farming communities that are deeply hurting are in the midwest, far from the potential markets from their products.


Thursday, February 14, 2008

On Romance

Who at The Atlantic thinks that articles like this discussion of settling - where the author acknowledges that our culture has created an unhelpful panic around certain issues, then proceeds to engage in said panic for several thousand words (c.f. everything written by Caitlin Flannigan) - are either interesting or helpful? In this particular piece, the author's central claim seems to be that for a woman of a certain age, being married to anyone is better than being married to no one.

What depresses me most about this article isn't the gender essentialism on display in statements such as:

Of course, we’d be loath to admit it in this day and age, but ask any soul-baring 40-year-old single heterosexual woman what she most longs for in life, and she probably won’t tell you it’s a better career or a smaller waistline or a bigger apartment. Most likely, she’ll say that what she really wants is a husband (and, by extension, a child).

Nor is it the vague wave at the degree to which the whole notion of "settling" is gendered in our society, before rushing into the comforting embrace of "everyone else is doing it" (though there's a whole different post I could write about both the warnings to "uppity women" and the deep contempt for men on display in this article):

I’ll be the first to admit that there’s something objectionable about making the case for settling, because it’s based on the premise that women’s biological clocks place them at the mercy of men, and that therefore a power dynamic dictates what should be an affair solely of the heart (not the heart and the ovaries). But I’m not the only woman who accepts settling as a valid choice—apparently so do the millions who buy bestselling relationship books that advocate settling but that, so as not to offend, simply spin the concept as a form of female empowerment.

What really depresses me is the view of romance on display throughout the article that seems to be all about avoiding dealbreakers. She writes:

Don’t worry about passion or intense connection. Don’t nix a guy based on his annoying habit of yelling “Bravo!” in movie theaters. Overlook his halitosis or abysmal sense of aesthetics...Some guys aren’t worldly, but they’d make great dads. Or you walk into a room and start talking to this person who is 5'4" and has an unfortunate nose, but he “gets” you.

There's no sense anywhere in her article that there's a vast difference between giving up hope for passion and connection, and being willing to overlook annoying habits and less-than-perfect looks. Is the author conflating the two to add legitimacy to her argument for settling, by claiming most everyone does this to some degree or another? Or are there people out there who genuinely find what I'd perceive as trivial differences to be insuperable barriers to passion or connection?

Perhaps this is as much about the stories we tell ourselves as about realities. I could construct a narrative of settling for my current boyfriend, (he may be short, but at least he does the dishes) but it just wouldn't make any sense to me. What do minor imperfections matter when weighed against all the wonderful things he brings to my life? In which case, an article extolling the beauties of lowered expectations is only going to encourage people to think about normal trade-offs in rather dire terms. Hardly what I'd call a positive contribution to human flourishing.

It's a common trope of fairy tales and love stories that your grand passion comes to you in the form you least expect it (the son of your worst enemy, a scullery maid, a beast). Overweight and balding may lack a certain panache, but it's no repudiation of romance to fall in love with someone who fits that description. Or if it is, that's a romantic ideal I'd be happy to repudiate.

The moral is supposed to be “Don’t be too picky” but many of the anecdotes quote women who seem to be trying to convince not just the reader, but themselves, that they haven’t settled.

“I should be with some guy with a vast vocabulary who is very smart,” said Heather, a 30-year-old lawyer turned journalist. Instead, she’s dating an actor who didn’t finish college. “My boyfriend is fun, he’s smart, but he hasn’t gone through years of school. He wanted to pursue acting. And you can tell—he doesn’t have that background, and it never ever once bothered me. But for everyone else, [his lack of education] is what they see.” Another woman says she dates “the ‘secrets’ … guys other women don’t recognize as great.” How’s that for damning praise?

Your husband has imperfections but you're happy nonetheless? Congratulations! You've talked yourself into settling.

Bah, I say.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Why Psyche's Lamp?

In Greek mythology, Psyche was a very beautiful mortal woman with whom Cupid had fallen in love. However, to disguise his identity, he only came to her in the dark of night. Eventually, Psyche's curiosity overcame her, and she surprised her mystery lover with a lamp, despite warnings that if she did so, he would leave her forever. I've always identified with Psyche and her curiosity.

Read the original story


Friday, February 08, 2008

Introducing Me

I started my first blog back in 2003. I was in college, then, working (or rather, largely not working) on my senior thesis, and blogging was what I did when I needed a break from taking a break from the thesis. It's fitting, I think, that it would take another absorbing writing project to bring me finally out of my mostly permanent blogging hiatus. I never would have guessed that when I finally figured out how to sit down and write for eight (or twelve) hours a day, I'd want to go home and write some more. Yet, somehow it works that way.

I'm also motivated by the sense that our long national nightmare of pointless and bad-faith arguments about the war in Iraq is finally drawing to a close. I didn't have much to say about it when it started, beyond a general sense that wars were generally better avoided than not. I wish I'd said more at the time, but I'm not a specialist in the Middle East or political science or counterinsurgancy, and I dislike reading uninformed bloviation, so I try to avoid producing it. It didn't really occur to me that that my standards regarding who was qualified to comment on the invasion of Iraq were higher than the administration's standards regarding who was qualified to plan the occupation of Iraq. (That's a cheap political shot. I'm sorry. But not sorry enough to delete it.)

At that point in my life, I identified with the conservative movement, though I never identified as a conservative. Sometimes I'll identify as a libertarian, when I'm feeling energetic enough to explain that no, I don't mean that I'm a conservative but feel that saying "libertarian" means I'm more likely to get laid, nor do I oppose an active federal government because it gets in the way of straight white males exercising their patriarchy-given right to exploit women, children and poor people. When I'm feeling less energetic, I simply let people assume that as an Upper West Side resident who uses words like post-colonial and patriarchal unironically, I must be liberal. It's easiest, and true for the definition of liberal that most people hold.

But to move beyond the question of identification, I believe in the most general sense in a political system that trusts individuals to make decisions that are best for themselves. I dislike what might broadly be termed the welfare state because it so often ties its assistance to asinine attempts to separate out the "deserving" poor from the "undeserving" poor, because it fails to treat individuals with dignity, and because it prefers the judgments of politicians and experts to the judgments of the individuals who have to live with the results. (Obviously, these indignities are preferable to say, mass starvation, but I refuse to believe these are the only two options.)

I also dislike what might broadly be termed the virtue state because it confuses outward displays of conformity with internalized standards of morality and faith. It too is based on a profound distrust of the decisions of ordinary individuals, overlaid with a deeply unappealing stench of hypocracy. (There is just as much casual sex among young conservatives as young liberals. By and large they all seem to find it harmless fun, and eventually go on to get married and have babies. Unlike the young liberals, however, they seem to believe that everyone who is not them must be deeply damaged by and unable to handle the consequences of all of this unregulated pleasure.)

So. Trusting people is good. War is bad. On with the blog.

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