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What To Read To Your Kid During The Trump Administration

Posted in Book Reviews, Editorials, Personal Essays, Pregnancy And Motherhood Thinkpieces on January 20th, 2017
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My son is still a baby by but I try to read to him every day. He doesn’t understand the words yet but he likes looking at the pictures and hearing my voice. In some ways I’m glad I don’t have to explain Donald Trump to him yet, and my heart goes out to parents who do. When I was a kid I liked topical books like “How My Parents Learned to Eat” and “The Lorax.” My Dad gave me a copy of Jack London’s “The Scab” when I was about ten. And I plan on continuing the tradition of including political books with my own son. Here’s some kids books covering themes that may come up in the net few years:

For Very Little Ones
A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara
An alphabet board book which covers the A-Z of activism from “Advocate Abolitionist Ally” to “Zapatista of course.” Some people may balk about introducing radical politics to young children. But I love this book. I will unapologetically share my Unitarian Universalist faith with my son, and he’ll be hearing a lot of these words at coffee hour after services, or while I’m playing “Democracy Now!” in the background of a quiet day at home. So why not read him this remarkable book of rhymes about activism?

For Your Budding Feminist
Rad American Women A-Z by Kate Schatz and Miriam Klein Stahl
About a year before I had my son, I reviewed this book on Goodreads: “This book is amazing and I want to buy a copy for every child I know.” Children will enjoy learning about historical figures they’ve heard of and those they haven’t. Although it’s written for children, it does not hold back. It begins, “A is for Angela. Angela Davis was born in 1944 in Birmingham Alabama into a neighborhood known as ‘Dynamite Hill’ because a group of racist white men called the Ku Klux Klan often bombed the homes of black families who lived there.”

The authors have also written a sequel “Rad Women Worldwide.”

For The Elementary School Age Peacemaker
The Sandwich Swap by Queen Rania of Jordan
This is a simple story of two girls who are best friends, one white and one Arab, but who secretly think each other’s food is gross. You can probably guess what happens next. It’s a sweet story with charming pictures.

If Things Get Really Bad
The Butter Battle Book by Dr. Seuss
Dr. Seuss wrote this during the Cold War, and it’s an unflinching look at the prospect of nuclear war through the eyes of a child. I read it when I was about 11 in 1994. By that time, both the Berlin Wall and the USSR were things of the past. For children who lived through times where the prospect of mutually assured destruction was very real, this book was much more relatable. It’s also a good tool to teach kids about allegory and how literature can simplify real world problems into stories we can talk about.

Some thoughts on the UUA Common Read: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Posted in Book Reviews, Editorials on May 23rd, 2016
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Last week, I co-led a service at my UU Congregation about this year’s UUA Common Read, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Here’s what I had to say:

In 2005, the UU General Assembly passed a Statement of conscience, which reads in part:

As Unitarian Universalists, we are committed to affirming the inherent goodness and worth of each of us. As Americans, we take pride in our constitutional promise of liberty, equality, and justice for all, including those who have violated the law. Yet the incarceration rate in the United States is five- to tenfold that of other nations, even those without such a constitutional promise. Our corrections system is increasingly rife with inequitable sentencing, longer terms of detention, racial and ethnic profiling, and deplorable jail and prison conditions and treatment. The magnitude of injustice and inequity in this system stands in stark contrast to the values that our nation—and our faith—proclaim. We are compelled to witness this dissonance between what America proclaims for criminal justice and what America practices. We offer an alternative moral vision of a justice system that operates in harmonious accord with our values as a community of faith. This vision includes the presumption of innocence, fair judicial proceedings, the merciful restoration of those who have broken the law, the renunciation of torture and other abusive practices, and a fundamental commitment to the dignity and humane treatment of everyone in our society, including prisoners.

Although Americans take great pride in the freedoms we espouse, the American prison system violates basic human rights in many ways. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the United States endorsed in 1948, states in Article 5, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” American correctional practice often subjects inmates to abusive treatment, such as torture and rape, and neglects basic human needs such as health care and nutrition. Some suspects are detained without charge, legal counsel, or access to family. While indigent defendants have exactly the same rights to competent counsel as non-indigent defendants, in many states indigent defendants are not provided equality of representation.

The American penchant for retribution squanders opportunities for redemption, rehabilitation, and restoration of the individual offender. Failures in the criminal justice system have created a disenfranchised, stigmatized class who are predominantly from lower-income backgrounds, poorly educated, or from racial and ethnic minorities. The punishment for crime is often simply separation from society, and the sentence one serves is the punishment. In our penal system, punishment often continues even after those convicted have completed their sentence. They are often stripped of voting rights, denied social services, and barred from many professions. If convicted of a drug crime, they become ineligible for federal student loans to attend college. Our criminal justice system makes it exceedingly difficult for anyone to reintegrate into society. People returning to their communities find that they lack opportunity, skills, and social services to fully function in society and hold down jobs, maintain families, or participate in their communities. Therefore, an unacceptable percentage of those released from our prisons and jails recidivate.

Not all prisoners who enter the system leave. One of the most shameful aspects of our current criminal justice system is the death penalty. Many countries have abandoned the practice of capital punishment. Studies fail to demonstrate that the death penalty actually deters crime. While the United States Supreme Court has ruled against the execution of juvenile offenders, the death penalty is still legal in the United States. Experience shows that judges and juries wrongly convict defendants. Given the number of death row inmates released on account of innocence, it is highly likely that we have executed innocent people and will do so again in the future unless we abolish the death penalty.

The first two Principles of Unitarian Universalism address the inherent worth and dignity of every person and justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. Consistent with these fundamental principles, a new corrections policy must place a primary emphasis on community alternatives.

Appalled by the gross injustices in our current criminal justice system, we the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association commit ourselves to working in our communities to reform the criminal justice and correctional systems and effect justice for both victims and violators. We act in the spirit that we are indeed our sisters’ and our brothers’ keepers. Love is our governing principle in all human relationships. Therefore, that we may speak with one voice in unity, though not uniformity, we commit ourselves, our congregations to make good on our Unitarian Universalist heritage and our American promise to be both compassionate and just to all in our society. Through our diligence and perseverance in realizing this promise, we can live the core values of our country and extend the values of our faith to the benefit of others.

And so with this in mind, it is easy to understand why the UUA chose “Just Mercy” as the common read for this congregational year. The book, by Bryan Stevenson chronicles his career as an attorney working to for people on death row, mostly in Georgia and Alabama who have no other access to representation. He built the Equal Justice Initiative which litigates on behalf of condemned prisoners, juvenile offenders, people wrongly convicted or charged with violent crimes, poor people denied effective representation, and others whose trials are marked by racial bias or prosecutorial misconduct. EJI works with communities that have been marginalized by poverty and discouraged by unequal treatment.

Just Mercy’s main thread follows the story of Walter McMillian, a man wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to death on scant evidence, false testimony and racist rumors. And while his story is compelling, Stevenson puts it in context of the criminal justice system we have today. It’s clear that his work isn’t just about one person. It’s to address the ongoing crisis of our broken criminal justice system.

I was left in awe and amazement at the tenacity and patience of Bryan Stevenson. I am so astounded by people who can spend their whole lives fighting an uphill battle. The book is not about him and gives few details about his personal life. He is very modest about his many great accomplishments in fact. And this perspective of humility and hope frame the book.

Something I keep coming back to when I think about the death penalty is that I, like everyone else, am a fallible human being subject to amoral impulses. There is an anecdote in the book about about a man who was the victim of abuse as a child and was suffering from PTSD after serving in Vietnam. After returning to the United States, he tried to win back an ex girlfriend by PUTTING A BOMB on her porch. In his distorted mind, he would save her from the bomb, and win back her love. But that didn’t happen. It went off, killed a young girl and maimed another in the process. It was and is very hard for me to feel sorry for him. But I think that’s exactly why we need to be careful in how we adjudicate these crimes. Our emotions cloud our judgement. In my outrage over his crime I do not care about the mitigating circumstances of this man’s victimization as a small, helpless child or the mental illness he could not avoid after his country drafted him and sent him to fight in a war. But Stevenson included this story in the book to show how brutal the death penalty is. The chapter details the visceral horror of the electric chair, which this man was put to death in. And even though somewhere in my heart I want vengeance for his victims, I know that his execution did nothing to help them. In fact, the surviving girl’s family approached Stevenson and asked him for help. They told him that putting someone else to death would not heal her. And I do feel some dissonance that we, to quote and old slogan kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong.

Although I know this book was meant to expose the injustice of our current system, I was also left with the gladness that people like Bryan Stevenson exist. His optimism and his accomplishments are an inspiration.

My Favorites of 2013

Posted in Book Reviews, Editorials, Podcast Reviews, Site News on December 31st, 2013
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Happy New Year everyone! Here are some of my favorite things about 2013.

Favorite BookEighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman. In 1889 two women writers raced around the world to see if they could beat the fictional record from the famous Jules Verne novel. This is an amazing story and Goodman writes this non-fiction book like a novel. I feel like I have a grasp on what New York and other cities felt like in the late 1800′s and although a lot is different now, in many ways the more things change, the more they stay the same.

I read Around the World in Eighty Days before I read this book so I could understand the inspiration for the trip. Like Gulliver’s Travels, many people think this is a children’s story. But it’s mainly an homage to British Imperialism. Jules Verne is to H G Wells what Stephanie Meyer is to J K Rowling.

Verne was terrible at writing women, something that is actually addressed in Eighty Days. Bly gets to meet him on her travels and Verne’s wife says she thinks his books need more women characters. And although it seems redemptive that two women took on the challenge of Verne’s male heroes, unfortunately Bly and Bisland still had many of the same racist attitudes as Verne did.

Still this book is a fascinating read. Every page is better than the one before it. And send these quotes to anyone who tries to justify something sexist by making an appeal to tradition. Bly and Bisland quite frequently expressed feminist sentiments.

“After the period of sex-attraction has passed, women have no power in America.” -Elizabeth Bisland

“A free American girl can accommodate herself to circumstances without the aid of a man.” -Nellie Bly

“Criticize the style of my hat or my gown, I can change them, but spare my nose, it was born on me.” -Nellie Bly

New TV ShowMaron I don’t watch a lot of television these days, but I do really like Marc Maron’s show in IFC. The show brings to life all of Maron’s delicious and sardonic humor.

Podcast Host – Lindsay Beyerstein. Lindsay is a new host for the Center For Inquiry’s Point of Reason Podcast. Check out her interviews with Katherine Stewart, Paul Offit, Barry Lynn and Kathryn Joyce.

Blog PostThe Retro Husband by Ruth Fowler is my favorite blog post by anyone on the internet in 2013.

Video GameFiz: The Brewery Management Game This game is similar to the classic Lemonade Stand or newer Facebook games in that you are running a shop and have various aspects of products and personnel to manage. But it is so much more than that. There is a storyline that I got wrapped up with and very clever dialogue and plot twists. I played it through in a week, which took me about 22 hours total. Good thing I’m on vacation, it’s hard to put this game down once you start it.

Most Popular Posts at Political Flavors in 2013:
What’s Wrong With The Lingerie Football League? I didn’t know how many people search for the LFL online. I’m also quite pleased that I was linked by the Huffington Post and the French women’s magazine madmoiZelle.

For our Girls to Succeed, We Must Reign in Rakish Boys
aka “What if dress codes for boys looked like dress codes for girls?” I had fun writing this post although at times I felt that I was being incredibly creepy. I’m very glad people like it.

Best wishes for 2014!

Quiverfull: Inside The Christian Patriarchy Movement by Kathryn Joyce

Posted in Book Reviews on March 8th, 2013
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Kathryn Joyce’s Quiverfull makes clear the inherent conflict between The Bible and feminism. Although the idea that this conflict exists is still controversial, even among feminists, this is the implicit message of the book.

Quiverfull is divided into three parts: wives, mothers, and daughters. Although the title refers explicitly to the Bible verse that informs a specific view of childbearing, the book looks at Christian Patriarchy as whole. Christian Patriarchy is a way of life defined by a strict interpretation of the Bible’s prescriptions for gender, marital and family roles – including that wives be submissive to their husbands, that men be the heads of their households and that children – especially daughters – be subject to their fathers in all matters.

The first section explains the Christian Patriarchy’s view of marriage. Joyce spent a weekend at a retreat of “The Apron Society,” an event designed to fulfill the commands in Titus 2, which calls older women to instruct the younger ones about marriage and family life. The weekend did not focus on improving communication skills or child care, but about Proverbs 31 and hospitality. What struck me as I read about these incredibly earnest women was a comparison between their attempts at “Biblical Womanhood” and that of Rachel Held Evans. Evans made her attempt to live precisely by the Bible in good faith, but also with a smile and an easygoing, carefree attitude. There was no friendly wink to the reader here. To the women of The Apron Society, being a good hostess wasn’t just something to do for fun or to be kind – it was a matter of their eternal salvation itself.

A disturbing undercurrent of Christian Patriarchy is that women’s lives don’t matter. This is made clear when Joyce reviews the writings of Debi Pearl, author of Created to Be His Helpmeet and other books about marriage for Christian women. Perl explains how women don’t need to enjoy sex, that close female friendships can be a sinful “spiritual masturbation” and that your life itself is worth sacrificing for the sake of being a properly submissive wife. Perl writes about a woman who came to her for advice after her husband had tried to kill her with a knife while she was pregnant. Perl said this might be grounds for divorce, but that she could also try to win him back by being kind and never speaking of the abuse again. According to Perl, once the woman kept quiet, everyone lived happily ever after. That this is extremely dangerous advice is beside the point. Perl sees nothing wrong with suggesting the woman risk her life and the lives of her children for the sake of her religion.

The section on motherhood was very different than what I had expected. I thought I was going to get a TLC like view into homes with dozens of smiling and identically dressed children, or alternately, horror stories about endless housework and abuse. What Joyce described was a group of people who worship fertility almost as much as they worship Jesus. When common sense or medical advice suggests something incompatible with their worldview, they of course side with their faith.

Christian Patriarchy is not just an ideal for family life. There are a set of political values and beliefs that go along with it. Conservative think tanks and churches have funded such projects as the Natural Family Manifesto the World Congress of Families, and the Population Research Institute. And these aren’t just places for conservative Christians to get cushy jobs. Their lobbying has real impact on the laws of the United States. Joyce does not go into the policy implications specifically – but it’s easy to guess what some of them might be. The WCF has lobbied extensively against the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and of course, CEDAW – the Convention on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women. Within our own borders, PRI would like to make all abortions illegal. Reading through the parts of the book about these organizations made clear to me the links between theocracy, natalism and fascism.

The section about daughters is the shortest in the book, and much of what Joyce talks about is similar to what Jessica Valenti covered in the Purity Myth. Young women in these homes are taught to prize virginity above all else, to revere their fathers as the ultimate authority in their lives and to wait patiently to be betrothed.

Although Joyce meets many Christians in the book who are kind and warm to her, and some who seem like they are genuinely nice people, it was clear to me that their fundamentalism has elegantly solved the obvious conflicts between feminism and Christianity. While I think that treating women with dignity and respect is more important than leaving yourself open to charges of hypocrisy, the choice is not as clear for others as it is to me.

To be clear, I know lots of Christians who are also feminists. How they resolve their belief in women’s equality with their belief that the Bible is a Holy Book is something I don’t understand. It must require a complicated set of caveats and a faith so strong as not to be shaken by the conflict between their belief in women’s autonomy and the Bible’s decrees that women are unworthy. The Christian Patriarchy movement is by comparison incredibly simple. Dark, bizarre, harmful and hurtful. But as plain as the words on the page.

How To Be A Woman

Posted in Book Reviews on January 17th, 2013
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I picked up Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman over the summer in London. It’s part memoir and part Feminism 101. In the beginning of the book, Moran describes herself as an awkward teenager with a hopeless crush on Chevy Chase. I settled in hoping for the best. But while Moran is good at naming sexism and patriarchy, she’s not very clear on blaming it.

Moran explains her two step test for spotting sexism:

Is this polite or not? And, are men doing it too?

This is excellent. It’s a very simple thing to understand and can be explained without the use of jargon or making anyone feel defensive.

But then Moran goes on to say that she thinks the cause of sexism in the world is just that men are used to being the people with the most power and resources. And men don’t like the idea of losing that special status. This is not an original observation, but instead of expecting men to reject patriarchy as a matter of justice and embrace equality rationally, we should understand their actions as logical. You see, the reason for sexist behavior from men is that,

A quiet voice inside – suppressed, but never wholly silenced – says, “If women are the true equals of men, where’s the proof?

For even the most ardent feminist historian, male or female, citing Amazons and tribal matriarchies tribes and Cleopatra – can’t conceal that women have basically done fuck all for the past 100,000 years. Come on – let’s admit it. Let’s stop exhaustingly pretending that there is a parallel history of women being victorious and creative on equal with men, that’s just been comprehensively covered up by The Man. There just isn’t. Our empires, armies, cities, artworks, philosophers, philanthropists, inventors, scientists, astronauts, explorers, politicians, and icons could all fit, comfortably into one of the private karaoke booths in SingStar. We have no Mozart; no Einstein; no Galileo; no Ghandi. No Beatles, no Churchill, no Hawking, no Columbus. It just didn’t happen.

Nearly everything so far has been the creation of men – and a liberal, right-on denial of it makes everything more awkward and difficult in the long run. Pretending that women have had a pop at all this before but just ultimately didn’t do as well as the men, that the experiment of female liberation has already happened but floundered gives strength to the belief that women simply aren’t as good as men, full stop. That things should just carry on as they are – with the world shaped around and honouring, the priorities, needs, whims, and successes of men. Women are over without having been begun. When the truth is that women haven’t begun at all. Of course we haven’t. We’ll know it when we have.

There are several problems with this. First that “everything so far has been the creation of men” is just a flat out myth. There have been many brilliant women artists, architects, philosophers, philanthropists, inventors, scientists, astronauts, explorers, politicians, and icons. We know the names of some, others have had their work stolen by men or posed as men when they were making their contributions. Moran is either severely uneducated in women’s history or is just plain disingenuous.

Secondly, when we celebrate women’s contributions to the world, we aren’t “pretending that women have had a pop at all this before but just ultimately didn’t do as well as the men.” We are celebrating women that achieved in spite of the odds. We are saying, Look at what these women did, even though they everything about their culture or was telling them they could not! Isn’t that great?! Imagine what women could do if they didn’t have any of this bullshit to deal with all of the time!

And third, it’s a cop-out. Men are capable of understanding nuance just as easily as women are. If they really don’t know why there aren’t as many famous women as men in history, and because of this they don’t think that there’s a problem with the way women are treated, then they are a lost cause. And we should tell them so. Women taking their rightful place in society is not an act of aggression toward men. And there’s no reason to soothe men’s egos if they imagine this to be an insult.

Later in the book, Moran returns to this point and says that women are still trying to come to terms with not being chattel anymore, and with throwing off the psychological scars of oppression. She does this much more conversationally, but she also explains that this is why she thinks women haven’t caught up with men yet. I can agree with this, but again, there’s no reason not to celebrate the accomplishments of women in the past.

In a chapter about strip clubs, Moran writes,

Women have been shafted by the simple fact that men fancy them. We can see that men’s desire for women has, throughout history given way to unspeakable barbarity.

This idea that men cannot control themselves is one of the biggest myths of rape culture.

Moran goes on to say that strip clubs are the “light entertainment versions of the entire history of misogyny” and then compares them to minstrel shows. There’s several comparisons in the book of women’s oppression and racism. I think that this can be done sensitively, but the book draws the parallel in a very blunt way. Moran does say that she sees space for the erotic in our culture and praises the art of burlesque accordingly. But to blame sex workers and not the men who abuse and degrade them misses the mark completely.

Despite all this, How To Be A Woman might be worth the read just for the humor. Moran is extremely funny. But the analysis behind the jokes falls short. There is a lot of good stuff in this book which calls out sexism in pop culture, double standards and toxic messages women get about body image and motherhood. However I think there are some parts that could be confusing to someone just starting out with feminism who might not have a good grasp on intersectionality or the many different kinds of feminists that are out there.

The Happiness Myth: A History of What Really Makes Us Happy

Posted in Book Reviews on January 15th, 2013
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Right now, we know more about our universe than ever before. But as we advance in knowledge, are we advancing in happiness? Jennifer Michael Hecht explores the idea of happiness from a historical and philosophical perspective in The Happiness Myth. The book challenges popular notions about what should make us happy.

Hecht explains about how ideas about happiness have changed over time, and how even though we might be living longer and having more material wealth than ever before people report that they are basically as happy as they were in 1950. After a basic overview on happiness advice throughout the ages, she explores ideas about drugs, money, our bodies, and celebrations and what they meant to different people in different times and places and explains how we might use this knowledge to make ourselves happier today. Often this is a matter of reconsidering notions that “everyone knows” to be true. For example, in the past, people spoke rapturously of how tea or coffee made them feel. Today, we value these beverages first and foremost for the way they increase our productivity. Or, that women used or wear restrictive corsets or girdles to achieve an hourglass figure. Now, women are expected to look just as shapely through diet and exercise alone. I was especially fascinated by the descriptions of the Greek Festivals and how they might compare to today’s parades and holidays.

One of the things I liked about this book was how it challenged a lot of assumptions I hold that I haven’t given much thought to. And every time it happened, I was more amused to consider why I thought what I thought instead of feeling defensive or sheepish.

The Happiness Myth drives home the point that “there is nothing new under the sun,” but instead of using it as an admonishment, it’s meant to provide comfort and guidance for the future.

Hecht encourages us to get out and see for ourselves if what our culture is telling us really true, or if people from the past might have had a better idea on how to be happy. The book isn’t an argument for a return to any bygone era but rather a critical examination of current assumptions with a little help from those who came before us.

A Year of Biblical Womanhood

Posted in Book Reviews on January 3rd, 2013
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Rachel Held Evans is an American Christian from Tennessee. Her book “A Year of Biblical Womanhood” is an attempt to live by according to the rules Bible prescribes out for women.

Evans writing is very accessible, and she’s immediately likeable. I do wish that she would have explained exactly what her theology is though. I see that on her blog she has said she is not a fundamentalist, but that doesn’t offer much. What exactly does she believe about the Bible? Her faith in God and Jesus are apparent, but after that I don’t know much about her beliefs. And if I don’t know what she believes, it’s hard to know what she’s asking for when she calls for reform in the way Christians view women and the Bible.

Each month, Evans focuses on a different aspect of Biblical Womanhood – modesty, purity, obedience, etc. Some people would call this a cop-out. But I understand why she did it. One of the overarching themes of the book is that any one rule could be emotionally crippling or logistically impossible. To follow them all at once would lead to burnout and not as interesting of a narrative. She studies each topic in depth and applies what she learns to the next.

One thing I was reminded of is that the Bible contains misogynist ideas that are still with us today. That women are gossips, that they lie about being raped, that they are the other and require special rules to be constrained.

I think the most fascinating part of the book was when Evans and some of her friends held a mourning ceremony to remember women in the Bible who were killed or abused. She was inspired by the passage in the Bible that says “From this comes the Israelite tradition that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah.”

It’s easy to see why this book makes some Christians uncomfortable. She writes of Mary,

That a woman who managed to be both a virgin and a mother is often presented as God’s standard for womanhood and can be frustrating for those of us who have to work within the constraints of physical law.

She writes about her doubts, and her “pesky insecurities” in her faith, facing them head on.

Evans comes to the conclusion that there is “no such thing as Biblical womanhood.” There are too many contradictions, too many proscriptions and too many impossible demands for one woman to embody them all. It was gratifying for me to see her come to the conclusion she had been building all along. However, as a Unitarian Universalist, I am not limited to the Bible in my search for truth or in my spiritual practice. I am not bothered by the idea that it is possible to pick and choose what you need from the Bible. I think that Evans makes a strong case for this when she says that Christians should spend more time with the troubling parts of the Bible and not less. It’s important to understand why you believe what you believe and also why you reject what you do not believe.

Even if I’m not exactly sure how she defines it, Evans lives her faith and is not afraid to ask questions. This is a refreshing contribution to the discussion about the conflict between religion and feminism.

Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser

Posted in Book Reviews on January 1st, 2013
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Clarisse Thorn is a feminist writer and activist. Her book, Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser: Long Interviews with Hideous Men delves into pickup artist culture and examines it from a feminist perspective. But in doing so, Thorn takes us with her on a journey that’s equal parts exposé, personal memoir, social commentary and feminist critique.

This is a book about insecurity. Both the insecurities of the author and of the men she “chases.” I tried to keep an open mind, and while I don’t know if I can be persuaded that there is anything redeeming about pickup artist culture as it currently exists, I was very curious to see why a self-identified feminist thinks so.

Thorn writes about sex with a focus on BDSM from a feminist perspective. In the book, she spends a lot of time drawing a parallel between kinksters and the pickup artist community. She explains how people who engage in BDSM need strong communication and negotiation skills. This compares negatively with PUAs who think little of women’s consent. And yet, coming from a community where sexual negotiation is extremely specific, she is intrigued by the way some pickup artists are more ambiguous in their approach.

The book follows Thorn through her interviews with pickup artists, and also tells the story of her relationship with a man she met while writing the book. It’s very good, and I found myself wishing that the entire book was a novel singularly focused on this romance.

What I found irritating about this book is the lengths to which the author went to cover up for pickup artists, and the number of qualifiers she added to almost any criticism of their tactics.

Maybe there were some PUAs who talked about fatties and warpigs and hot bitches more because that was the subcultures social standard, and less because they thought that was a reasonable way to discuss actual people. But I couldn’t help it; I disliked them for it nonetheless.

Why would she apologize for disliking men who refer to women as pigs and bitches? She goes on to say (emphasis original):

There were a few guys in the PUA subculture who I liked – who I even trusted – who never used the worst PUA Language and never tripped my misogyny meter.

Perhaps they were self censoring? How could anyone who wasn’t a seething misogynist keep the company of those who were without absorbing some of it? The book describes how spending time with these men causes Thorn much turmoil. Why wouldn’t it have the same effect on anyone else?

Thorn writes about how much she wants the pickup artists to like her, even though it starts to take an emotional toll on her. The more time Thorn spends with them, the more confused, insecure and depressed she feels.

I never had the guts to ask PUA acquaintances to rate me on the number scale. Just thinking about it makes me feel queasy and anxious.

Perhaps because it’s supposed to? “Rating” women is a way for these men to feel more powerful than the women they are attracted to. If it was uplifting and life-affirming, it wouldn’t placate their fragile egos. They are taking advantage of your insecurities to feel better about their own.

Emphasis original:

I can’t deny that I wanted PUA’s approval.
….
I wanted to feel the judgement of men who spend all their time judging women’s fuckability.

What isn’t clear is if she wanted their approval from the start, or if it arose from spending so much time around men who work hard at getting women to crave their approval. The title of the book is about this dynamic – we are warned that this is a confession of someone seeking the approval of PUA’s. I’m not the only one who noticed this.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be liked, wanting to be wanted, wanting to be hot and fuckable. But to want it from men who have such toxic attitudes about women can lead to nothing good. Thorn starts to analyze her own (meticulously negotiated) relationships by PUA metrics, and of course they fall short. She admits she is developing a bit of a fetish about pickup artists, but instead of thinking about the harm this can do to herself, she scolds herself all the more harshly:

I didn’t yet recognize that I was doing exactly what feminists complain PUAs do to women: viewing these guys primarily as objects.

Despite all of this, Thorn does an excellent job of analyzing pickup artist methods and explaining what’s wrong with the coercive and manipulative techniques. She provides extensive appendices and even explains her own classification of the different types of men that get involved with this subculture. My biggest problem with her analysis though, is not just that she is very generous to pickup artists or how effusively she praises the ones who are not blatantly sexist or abusive but how her own words contradict her argument that there are some good things about pickup artistry.

Emphasis added:

Hypothetically, PUA advice could fill the gaps left by S&M and polyamorous advice. But generally speaking, typical PUA writings emphasize manipulation and objectification and unspoken communication whereas typical S&M and polyamory writings emphasize straightforwardness and mutuality and direct verbal communication.

There’s a lot of discussion in this book about what Thorn calls “strategic ambiguity” and how some people like to flirt and play around without being explicit about their intentions, and how that is a part of the fun. That’s all well and good, but there’s a difference between being coy and being manipulative. This is an important distinction that someone as thoughtful as Thorn must understand and appreciate. Yet somehow, a body of work that typically “emphasize[s] manipulation and objectification” has many redeeming qualities? This frustrated me to no end.

It gets worse when Thorn dives in to the most vile PUAs who encourage each other to rape. When a woman says no to sex when she has been making out with a PUA, or when they are in a place where they might have sex, this is called “Last Minute Resistance.” And there are a number of “tactics” PUAs are supposed to use when they encounter this to try to get to have sex anyway, instead of just taking no for an answer. Some of them called “freeze outs” are about being passive aggressive and pouting, while other PUAs advise to just keep going and ignore what she says, until she says no at least three times, or “unless she really says NO!

Thorn explains in detail why these approaches will most likely lead to sexual assault. But this is somehow not enough to turn her away from the entire community.

There’s even more slime to be uncovered (emphasis original):

[I]t’s hard to avoid thinking that PUAs don’t care about how women actually feel, just how women act. It makes it sound like the priority is not a partner who feels okay; rather the priority is an object that provides an orgasm.

These are Thorn’s own words, her own analysis. And it contrasts harshly with the flirtations she has with pickup artists throughout the book. Many of the men see her as a challenge and hit on her unabashedly. She doesn’t go along as a ploy to get more information or view the advances as evidence that these men don’t take her writing seriously. These sexually charged interactions are savored and recounted almost pruriently. I think we are meant to swoon, although I found myself gagging and rolling my eyes instead.

Thorn is not unaware of how problematic her titillation with the subculture is. In addition to writing a feminist analysis of pickup artist culture, Thorn writes extensively about how all of this makes her feel.

Emphasis original:

There was something so hot about the idea of pickup…but at the same time, so many PUAs are so focused on using women, and I heard so much self-justification for ideas that made my skin crawl. I felt such satisfaction in “turning tables on that bullshit, I occasionally lost sight of the fact that PUAs are real people. Presumably, that’s how misogynist PUA’s feel about women.

Gotta love those adversarial gender roles.

There’s a lot to unpack there. And as distasteful as I find her argument that her intrigue was on par with our culture’s routine objectification of women, I have to admire her brutal honesty and self assessment. An entire book could have been written about Thorn’s conflicting feelings of attraction and disgust at PUA culture, and how this conflict led to a meta analysis that filled her with doubt. Asking for more seems almost like too personal and to demanding of a request. But this underlying conflict fueled most of the narrative. It’s impossible to separate Thorn’s analysis from her visceral attraction to the idea of pickup and by association to the men who engage in it. She is self aware enough to be reliable. And this should not be ignored by anyone who reads the book.

In an interview with Neil Strauss, Thorn called wading through the pickup artist community “panning for gold in a sewer.” I think that would have made a perfect subtitle for her book. Pickup Artists frequently say that men who are a part of their community have “gone down the rabbit hole.” Confessions is about a woman trying to climb out of it.

Reality Bites Back

Posted in Book Reviews on July 19th, 2012
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I don’t often disclose that I can occasionally be found watching reality television. I first started watching Tool Academy because of this withering critique of it in Bitch Magazine, but somehow I stayed a loyal fan through all three seasons. And while I knew there was something disquieting about the show’s sexual politics and the cartoonish way race relations were portrayed I didn’t give it much more thought than a few eye rolls. I didn’t expect a sophisticated or egalitarian view or sex, gender or racial politics from a VH1 reality show, so I didn’t bother getting upset. But maybe I should have.

Jenn Pozner’s book Reality Bites Back breaks down the dismissive argument that “it’s just television.” She not only critiques the harmful sexist and racist (and classist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist…) messages perpetuated by reality television, but she explains why it’s profitable for these shows to be made (constant product placement, to the point of surreality) and how networks consider themselves beyond reproach.

The things Pozner uncovers are truly shocking, even for people who are generally grossed out by reality television. For example, the women who auditioned for “Joe Millionaire” didn’t think they were trying out to win a marriage proposal from a wealthy man. They were told that they were going to a casting call for a Real World meets Sex and the City in Paris show. Instead they wound up fodder for water cooler gossip and national mockery for being “gold diggers.” This is unconscionable.

All hope is not lost, and Pozner encourages readers to take action and let networks know what kinds of programming they find objectionable and why, and what they would like to see more of on television. There’s an extensive appendix of resources for would-be activists, and an accompanying website with even more information.

What I liked most about this book was that while the issues of sexist and racist messages in reality shows are taken seriously to task, there’s still a genuine appreciation for the medium of television. Pozner isn’t telling us to kill our televisions, just that we should expect better.

Book Review: The Baby Trap by Ellen Peck

Posted in Book Reviews on March 19th, 2012
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My husband just turned 30, and I’m on my way there as well by the end of the year. Sometime during this decade we will probably decide to have children. People who are childfree remind me that this is not my only option, and I want to discern my own desires from the cultural and social pressures that surround me. In part, I have been reading up on the childfree movement. Several times, I heard mention of a book, “The Baby Trap” by Ellen Peck. It’s out of print, but available for free online in several formats.

Published in 1971 – it was one of the first books to advocate not having children as a valid option. For that reason, I understand why it’s considered a classic and revered by childfree people. However, the book is so incredibly sexist that I don’t understand why anyone would encourage women to read it today.

Peck’s argument about the cultural pressures on women to have babies and the vapid consumerism that is selling maternity as much as it’s selling toys and clothes is worthy of praise. It was groundbreaking. But in praising her for that, people seem to overlook the overarching theme and argument she relies most heavily on in her book – directed entirely at women – which is that if you have children, you won’t be able to spend all of your effort on pleasing your husband and he will stop loving you and divorce you.

Other arguments made in the book are about the cost of having children, financially, socially and medically to the parents – and also ecologically. In the 1970′s many people believed that the world was so overcrowded as to be headed for an epic disaster, and so I can forgive her alarmist rhetoric on that topic. Despite that, an ecological argument for not having children is still valid today.

In fact, I think any reason for not having children is valid. People who don’t want to be parents should not be parents. Whether they are concerned about climate change, want to travel or just plain don’t feel like it – I would never impose my opinion on any other person’s reproductive plans.

However, where Peck’s book disappoints me is where she veers off into implying that no one should have children (just as silly as saying everyone should) and that grown men are incapable of adjusting to fatherhood, which is why I found the entire book so distasteful.

Lori is thirty and looks eighteen. She’s fickle, irresponsible, and inclined to fly off to the Azores for weekends, not, usually, alone. She dates married men, because most of the men she knows are married.

The last time I saw her I asked if most of the married men who took her out had children. Her answer was immediate.

“Are you kidding? All of them. In fact, when they pull out the kids’ pictures at a cocktail party, I know they want to get serious for the evening. Lots of times it’s an unmistakable signal. Almost code for, ‘Look, I’m married, honey, I won’t fool you, but it’s just because of these kids; my wife means nothing to me.’

“Sure, it’s the guys with kids,” she continued; “the ones who don’t have kids still like their wives.”

The ones who don’t have kids still like their wives.

That’s not a typo. Peck restated that sentence for emphasis, hoping to make the readers’ blood run cold. She also had an annoying habit of calling women “girls” throughout the book.

In her chapter on the consumerism of modern parenting (probably the best in the book) she included this vignette:

And the salesman was approached by a distraught- looking man, whom I’d seen wandering around the store for some time, come to think of it. In a barely audible voice, and with nervous glances at the other girl and me, he asked the salesman for a “a . . . a . . . do you have … a … a breast pump?” His embarrassment had made the last two words shrill. He glanced over his shoulder at us again, then the salesman led him cheerfully down the aisle.

What was wrong? That man’s wife had evidently needed a breast pump; he’d gone to buy one for her. What was wrong with that, I asked myself. Well, the fact that he had seemed so nervous about it— embarrassed would be more the word— that was what was wrong with it. He looked like a twelve-year-old boy looks when his mother sends him to the drugstore for Kotex. And I think Philip Roth has described that feeling well.

Yes, because the character of Alexander Portnoy is to be taken as representative specimen of healthy male sexuality. Perhaps we should do a case study on Humbert Humbert and responsible step-parenting next?

I wanted to figure this out. Why does a boy or a man feel embarrassed or humiliated at having to buy a woman things like Kotex or a breast pump?

….

They’re accoutrements to female reproductive physiology. In asking a man to get them, is there kind of an implicit subjugation involved? Is there?

A psychologist I’d interviewed the day before, Nathaniel Branden, had said, “To the degree that aspects of reproduction are overemphasized, aspects of sexuality are de-emphasized.” Would that man, that night, see his wife’s breasts as, well, alluring or romantic?

There is no way to tell, of course. But it is possible that wife-as-babynurse is not at all the same as wife-mistress.

Apparently fatherhood is demeaning, subjugating and emasculating to men, and motherhood makes a woman lose all sex appeal forever and ever. That’s why no one ever has more than one child!

The book continues with a much more coherent analysis of media and cultural messages about parenting, and how these pressure people into making choices they otherwise might not have. But these chapters are also littered with anecdotes about how great it is to be child free because you can buy other things with your money and go on vacations. Apparently materialism is okay if it’s not related to parenting. There are several times where this is stated explicitly,

I freely admit that spending nearly all your money on clothes seems a bit unjustifiable in this troubled world. But I would defend her doing so for two reasons. First, I see nothing wrong with self-indulgence if it doesn’t have any negative social consequences for anybody else. (There are, by contrast, brands of self-indulgence that are destructive. In case it hasn’t come across, I think that indulging yourself with a large family is a destructive kind of self-indulgence. But the surface materialism of fashion, while it does nothing particularly good for the world, doesn’t really hurt anybody, either.)

Her environmental analysis is way off if she thinks that rampant consumerism of any kind is okay.

Chapter Six, “Husbands and Babies” is the one where the sexism is the most egregious.

[A] wife who has no children to preoccupy her time and attention can give that time and attention to her husband. She is more of an attentive companion and a loving woman than a mother-of- two-or-three has time to be. And her husband thrives on this attention.

Nearly every man wants this kind of attention from a woman. I don’t think many men have enthusiasm at the prospect of offspring.

The adult male, it would seem, who has a clear and confident grasp on the world and on his life wants to live that life himself, rather than spend most of it “watching his young grow up.”

Now, there are husbands who want their wives to stay home, be “domestic,” have children. In the opinion of therapist Helena Lopata, “Such a husband is either not very wise, or inwardly he does not love his wife very much. Let’s look at such a situation in real terms. He wants her confined to the home, while he is out in the world of work. He gives her limited and routine tasks while he is out growing, learning, creating, being challenged and stimulated by conditions of competition within his field. He is, by asking for such a situation, creating marital incompatibility: first, in terms of conversation; then sexually. And there is virtually no way around that. Such a husband, in long-range subconscious terms, is aiming toward the dissolution of his marriage, denying future possibilities of relating to his wife as a companion. These men, you see, do not feel comfortable with emotional closeness and intimacy. This is their way out.”

I know in the 70′s there weren’t mommy blogs and all, but I’m pretty sure women who were stay at home mothers did things other than stay indoors all day cleaning and changing diapers. And while I am not a psychologist, I doubt “becoming a father is a passive aggressive way to divorce your wife” and “men are emotional children who need their wives to mother them” makes any sense at all as generalizations.

The chapter continues, and Peck gives several examples of men angry that when they became fathers…they were no longer men without the responsibilities of fatherhood.

“I used to break my neck getting home,” a taxi driver in Dallas told me. “I knew just how to get every green light and make it home in fifteen minutes flat after my shift. We’d have a beer; we’d put the steaks on; we’d talk about the kooks that turned up that day… Or go to this bar a few blocks away for a nightcap and dance… It was great. All the guys thought I had the greatest wife around. Now, I get home to a kid screaming, and a wife who doesn’t notice if I’ve come in the door or not half the time, she’s that busy with the kid. I take the longest way around I can find.”

If anyone was reading this book did not know that having children means that you can’t just randomly go out drinking on weeknights, Peck has done a public service. But I think everyone else on the planet who isn’t that guy is left puzzled.

Peck goes on to talk about the financial stresses of having children, and the way it limits one’s career choices. Again, this is something that should be obvious to anyone who thinks about it for more than two seconds.

Then there is a bit on how parents have less sex than they did beforehand. Again, it makes sense that this is a source of stress to parents, but the way Peck frames the argument – we should sympathize with men who divorce their wives for that reason, as if women who become mothers maliciously withhold sex by definition.

As a British husband who had just left his wife explained to me, “There were few occasions when we could be free of the babies’ needs. There were fewer occasions of sex, it was as simple as that. And therefore there were fewer occasions when everything went right and was fulfilling. This led to some trouble in other ways. It was simply not the same. It was not the marriage I had bargained for; she was not the wife she had been before, not responsive to me …”

As someone who is not a parent, I can’t begin to imagine the demands of taking care of an infant. But what did he expect to happen? That all of Peck’s empathy is with him, and not his wife who now must take care of the demands of parenthood entirely on her own is astounding.

The next chapter, about how women change after becoming mothers is not much kinder.

Since a mother is with a baby all day rather than with her husband, she is more aware of that baby’s needs than she is of her husband’s needs. She knows the baby’s schedule for feeding, changing, cuddling, and check-ups. How can she possibly know that her husband has had such a terrific strain at work today that he needs one hour of complete silence between 6 and 7 p.m. How can she know that he just lost an account at 3 p.m. and could really use a night out as an ego boost? The baby’s needs are simpler, and she’s in more direct touch with them, and the baby is small and helpless, so it’s almost inevitable that baby’s needs come first.

Or perhaps if the husband needs something from his wife, he can open his mouth and ask for it, given that he is a grown man, and not an infant?

A husband can see his wife’s devotion to the baby, and it’s pretty for a while. (Usually for at least one month.) His wife exhibits new qualities: concern; motherliness; responsibility; maturity.

But there’s a catch. These new qualities may not be adding on to the qualities that attracted him to his wife in the first place. They may be displacing those prior qualities: freedom; humor; impulsiveness; youth. Before a husband’s eyes, the girl he married gradually disappears and is just as gradually replaced, by a mother.

Peck continues on, with examples of more men cheating on their wives because they became mothers, seemingly seeking to validate the madonna/whore complex of every man who has ever had one. She does give examples though of women who cheat on her husbands out of boredom – but these have a much less understanding tone.

I know that this book was written a long time ago, and I tried not to come down too hard on it for being dated. I concede that at the time, academic feminism was in its infancy. I have mixed emotions about criticizing so harshly the work of a woman who put so much effort into her marriage only to get divorced anyway and die alone. But that does not make this book a good one, and I cannot understand why childfree activists continue to recommend this book when so much other more egalitarian and coherent writing has been done since. There have been studies that marital happiness decreases after children are born. But suggesting that the only reason a man would want to be a father is because he wants a divorce is ludicrous. And fear mongering about divorce, based solely on an assumption of immaturity on the part of men, is not an argument.