Political Flavors

Archive for January, 2011

Political Flavors: Guilty of Blood Libel Since 2011

Posted in Editorials on January 13th, 2011

On Saturday, liberal blogger Atrios tweeted “The real victim today is Sarah Palin.” When I read Sarah Palin’s statement yesterday, at first I was relieved. She spoke about peaceful assembly, shaking hands and finding common ground. Over the past week I have heard calls for unity from people on the right – moderates that I know personally. But nothing from people with a lot of influence. Finally, someone in power on the right is stepping up. Palin, however seemed not to be able to help herself. She did not stop with simple condolences and a call to tone it down. Palin proved Atrios right when she compared criticism of her rhetoric and the idea that it might have played a part in Saturday’s violence in Arizona to “blood libel” – the anti-Semitic belief that Jews kill Christian children and use their blood to make matzoh for Passover. This is especially appalling, considering that Congresswoman Giffords is Jewish.

Sharon Angle issued a similar statement, denying that repeatedly calling for “Second Amendment remedies” would influence anyone to actually shoot someone. What else could she have been calling for?

I do not believe that Sarah Palin or Sharon Angle are guilty of the deaths or injuries of the people shot on Saturday. I think that the violent, hateful and eliminationist rhetoric of the American Right as a whole – including talk radio, television shows, internet forums blogs and comments, and the signs and slogans of the Tea Party did play a part. No one person saying or writing something inflammatory is to blame, but as a whole their impact on the political climate in America was significant. In addition there was the actions of the shooter, (hat tip) our insufficient mental health services, and the ease at which a person, a deeply troubled person no less can acquire weapons that can do so much harm so quickly. However, I stand by my statement that it’s dangerous to deny the role that our political climate plays in these things.

I’m not the only one. Several moderate Republicans have resigned this week because they have been receiving threats from Tea Party members. In addition, some Republicans are speaking out against the vitriol they see in their party. Mike DeMoss, a conservative Christian tried to get Governors and Members of Congress to sign a civility pledge. He has since given up

The worst e-mails I received about the civility project were from conservatives with just unbelievable language about communists, and some words I wouldn’t use in this phone call,” he said. “This political divide has become so sharp that everything is black and white, and too many conservatives can see no redeeming value in any liberal or Democrat. That would probably be true about some liberals going the other direction, but I didn’t hear from them.”

After listening to President Obama’s speech, I considered my point of view. I was deeply moved by his words and I liked that he was calling for unity. However, I must concur with Peter Daou:

Nothing contradictory about praising Obama’s speech and simultaneously warning that one side’s language of incitement risks more tragedies

Finally, this video from Media Matters founder David Brock on the subject should be re-posted everywhere.

Congressman Gary Ackerman Responds On Net Neutrality

Posted in Editorials on January 12th, 2011

I mailed this letter to Congressman Gary Ackerman (D-NY) on December 28, 2010. I received this response (via email) on January 10. Kudos to him and his staff for keeping good records (I did not include my email address in my letter but I have sent him emails before on issues that included my home address as proof I was a constituent.)

I am posting this because I want to encourage others to write to their members of Congress – you might get a response! Also, I wanted to acknowledge Congressman Ackerman for his fast response and highlight his position on Net Neutrality.

Thank you for contacting me to express your views about government regulation of the internet. I appreciate the opportunity to share my thoughts with you on this important issue.

The internet has transformed the way we communicate and share knowledge; it has spread information, spurred innovation, and connected the world in ways that were inconceivable just over a decade ago. Like no other advancement in history, the internet has become an indispensible ingredient of our education, our culture, and our democracy.

To ensure continued access to, and increased content on, the internet, it is absolutely essential that the flow of information over the internet is kept free. Unfortunately, under current law, internet providers are able to restrict the flow of online content that competes with the other services they offer. For example, this past summer, one national company began charging their customers based on bandwidth usage, limiting users’ ability to stream videos. Another large provider was recently exposed for restricting the connection speed of any users engaging in file sharing.

Fortunately, the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission has proposed regulation codifying six principles of so-called “net neutrality” to ensure that the internet remains an open forum over which information and ideas are spread free of discrimination. The proposed regulation would forbid providers from giving preference to certain types of material and force them to disclose any restrictions they place on their customers’ online usage. I strongly support the administration’s continuing efforts to promote net neutrality and internet freedom and will continue to advocate for its implementation.

Once again, thank you for contacting me. Of course, if I can be of any further assistance to you, please do not hesitate to contact me.


Member of Congress

On Denial

Posted in Editorials on January 11th, 2011

One thing that has been on my mind in the wake of the horrific shooting in Arizona on Saturday is the depth of the denial that exists left, right and center in the United States on the amount of violent and eliminationist rhetoric that is spouted every day. It’s not politicizing the tragedy to talk about this, a federal judge and a Congresswoman were shot at a political event. Assassinations and attempted assassinations are inherently political.

Loughner may be mentally ill or he may not be. That is irrelevant when you consider the scope not only of the violence that has been perpetrated, but the scope of the threatening rants and vile hatred that are broadcast, not just on the internet, or radio or television – but by official candidates for Senate and other offices in the Republican party. One of the ideas that seems to be recurring lately is that any individual can soak up toxic ideas in the culture around him or her and they can manifest themselves in surprising and unpredictable ways. This is true.

To call for “both sides” to tone it down is meaningless. On the left, there is no talk of “second amendment remedies” for “domestic enemies in Congress.” No one dares suggest that “if ballots don’t work bullets will.” There have been no calls to “gather your armies” or “break their windows” (with subsequent broken windows, cut gas lines and threatening phone calls). Howard Dean, Bill Richardson or Kirsten Gillibrand – all Democrats who are also strong 2nd Amendment supporters have never ever held fundraisers where people shoot M-16’s to signal their enthusiasm.

A conservative acquaintance brought up the example of Congressman Manchin shooting a copy of the cap and trade bill in a commercial. But to me that proves my point. He was outdoors, with a rifle that looks more appropriate for hunting deer than armed insurrection, (Newt Gingrich however has said that the 2nd amendment is not for those tree hugging hunters-it’s for shooting the gubbermint) and Manchin wasn’t shooting Waxman and Markey – the people who introduced the bill – or any facsimile of their faces or bodies. He was destroying the actual piece of paper their ideas were on that he disagreed with.

In fact our leaders on the left take pride America for being a peaceful country. Nancy Pelosi pointed out how amazing a non-violent transfer of power was when she passed the gavel to John Boehner. Contrast this with the American Family Association claiming that we have sullied the Medal of Honor in recent years by giving it more often to service members who save lives than those who kill on the battlefield.

For anyone still insisting that somehow liberals are as violent as conservatives, how would you explain why Barack Obama has received an unprecedented number of death threats? George W Bush was thoroughly reviled on the left. Liberals broke Godwin’s Law every day. Any yet, there were no records broken with regards to actual violence.

I like Amanda Marcotte’s post about how pointing this out is hard to do, even when you know it’s important. She compares it to putting a cat in their carrier. But it must be done. If no one is calling out rhetoric that incites violence, people can go about their lives ignoring it. And when tragedy strikes, we think “oh that’s terrible” and then after a day or two we continue about our lives until the next time it happens. We must analyze these events together and alongside the causes. If no one is telling specific individuals that they need to take responsibility for what they say, their intensity and vitriol will grow – as will the number of people who take those messages to a twisted conclusion.

Can I have my monogamy and happiness too?

Posted in Book Reviews on January 10th, 2011

Sex at Dawn
The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality
by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha

I’ve been reading Dan Savage’s love and sex advice column for eleven years, since I was seventeen. At first I was shocked and titillated by the openness of his writing about sex. I had halfway decent sex education at home and in high school. But nothing my teenage classmates put into our Health teacher’s question box was like the letters printed in “Savage Love.” As I got older I came to appreciate Dan Savage on a different level. There are lots of websites with basic information about sex, but there’s something about a personal, yet public response from a knowledgeable person who will occasionally make fun of you that drives thousands of people to ask his advice every week.

I’d noticed that in the past 2 or 3 years Dan had started to question the premise of monogamy. He would often point out to a person grieving their partner’s infidelity, that so many people are bad at staying faithful and ask if a partner has extra marital sex once or twice in their entire life, is that really worth a messy breakup or divorce? In his book “Skipping Towards Gomorrah” Savage presents a picture of American swingers as very happy people with stable relationships. He often writes about this alternative in his column.

As some of you may know, I have recently gotten married, so monogamy has been at the forefront of my mind for most of the recent past. I freely admit to having a happy and healthy newlywed glow. Any criticism I have of “Sex at Dawn,” I have thought seriously about – I don’t want to fall into the trap of letting my current status poison my analysis. But in case I have failed, let the record show that I have admitted my bias freely.

Before deciding to marry I did think seriously about the concept of monogamy; if it were possible and if my partner and I were capable of it. Being young and in love, and at the beginning of a marriage is the wrong place to ask those questions however. It would be like asking all of the runners of a race at the starting line if they will finish. Surely some will sprain ankles or give up. But who would admit the possibility of failure when filled with the adrenaline and optimism of race day? Dan Savage’s advice to his readers gave me hope – he seemed to be saying that some people are just not cut out for monogamy. Just like some people are gay, or straight, or bisexual. If that was true, then I was good to go – monogamy feels as natural to me as my heterosexuality.

Then Dan Savage started raving about “Sex at Dawn.” I rolled my eyes. I have a really bad habit of lurking on MRA/PUA blogs until my mood is absolutely spoiled. Now I’m going to have to hear about how I’m made for hypergamy, incapable of love and should be dehumanized from Dan Savage too?!

I read the Salon review of the book, which piqued my interest.

I listened to the Savage Lovecast where Ryan said “It’s not that women are whores. It’s that they’re sluts.” And that’s when I knew I had to read the book. I had often wondered if there was an argument to be made about why and how so many cultures spend so much effort repressing female sexual desire if it did not exist, but did not know where to look. Sex at Dawn sounded like it would explore this question.

The thesis of the book is that human beings evolved in groups where men and women both had multiple sexual partners. Monogamy only came about when people adapted to agriculture. The evidence is vast, ranging from the behaviors of our chimp and bonobo cousins to specific features of the human reproductive system (Mark Twain said it best when he remarked that women should probably have harems and not men, since men could only satisfy one partner per night). What I found most convincing was the evidence that early hunter-gatherer tribes probably shared food and other resources equitably. There are different groups of people all over the world who most likely still live in the way that our early ancestors did. In those societies, some of whom have never had contact with the others, hoarding food or refusing to share is the greatest taboo. Things started to click in my mind before it was spelled out in the book. If a man must share the meat from his hunt with all of the children in the tribe, how could he possibly favor the ones that are biologically his? What purpose would it make to try and assure paternity if that knowledge could not be used? If our concept of possession and property did not extend to the very food we labored to acquire, how could we have been jealously guarding pair bonds of one man and one woman? The theory that humans were not monogamous for the vast majority of our history was becoming more difficult for me to simply dismiss.

Christopher Ryan has been careful to say that just because people did not evolve to form monogamous pairs doesn’t mean that they should not attempt it. He has famously compared it to being vegan – a worthy goal fraught with difficulty and lots of temptation.

The authors do come dangerously close to committing the fallacy that they so artfully dismantle. There is frequent reference to the “standard narrative” which both resembles the idealized version of 1950’s sexuality and the bleak perspective of those who insist that men and women must always be at war with one another because they have diametrically opposed reproductive strategies. They make the argument that women’s sex drives are powerful and capable of a lot more than any Western societies have been willing to admit. The authors dare to ask the question – if women are so naturally reserved, why are so many restrictions required of women? Would a truly asexual gender need them?

And yet their chapter about modern day marital infidelity only includes one case study of a man cheating on his wife. I will say that they did a very good job of skillfully and sensitively presenting the evidence of why a man with so much to lose would do such a thing, and making it clear that they do not mean to rub salt in the wounds of the wives who are so hurt. But there is no corresponding narrative of why a woman would cheat or why her husband should make an effort to understand her natural drives and hormonal confusion. Simply presenting evidence that men who have more partners have higher testosterone levels, and that low testosterone can lead to all sorts of issues up to an including death is sobering. But it doesn’t fiat away the fact that this does lend strength to the “standard narrative” that they are so opposed to. Instead of falling back on “Sorry honey, my sperm is cheap, her eggs are expensive and my secretary is young and fertile,” will it now become “Sorry honey my Testosterone was getting low so it was pretty much sex or death?”

I do love the fact that Sex at Dawn does acknowledge how complicated the human brain is. It has always frustrated me that so little popular Evolutionary Psychology narratives seem to address the higher brain functions performed by the neocortex. Human beings have a lot more grey matter than just our reptile brains. If we could master our environment enough to put a man on the moon couldn’t we also create an equally sophisticated view of gender roles? I had been taught that our large brains evolved because the ability to use language, solve problems systematically and build tools were tremendous advantages. Ryan and Jetha speculate that the neocortex evolved because of the complicated webs of human relationships that a large brain was required.

Another thing I appreciate about Sex at Dawn is the understanding the authors have of the context in which they are writing it. Christopher Ryan’s blog posts appear to acknowledge that many evolutionary psychology studies are used to uphold the status quo, justify sexism or just plain right wing politics (and he is unabashedly liberal.) I don’t think that scientists should self censor for fear of a particular political climate or backlash. But the way they present their work should be informed by an understanding of its consequences.

Dan Savage’s quote on the front cover of the book calls it, “The single most important book on human sexuality since Kinsey unleashed Sexual Behavior of the Human Male on the American Public in 1948.” Christopher Ryan has balked at this, and his modesty is very becoming. I’m not an expert on human sexuality so I can’t speak to the veracity of the claim, but it did make me more interested in evolutionary psychology than I had previously been.

Ryan and Jetha criticize people who encourage married couples to get divorced simply because of infidelity, citing studies that children are better off when their parents are married and suggesting that many of those couples would be happier trying to work past it or changing their arrangement to allow sex with other people. It has become fashionable to say that people shouldn’t make promises that they cannot keep. It’s usually my response to celebrity infidelity scandals. However there are huge pressures to marry and it’s not wise to ignore those pressures when doling out advice.

If I could ask one question of the authors, it would be this: Is there any research on what characteristics or behaviors of people who are “good at monogamy” have in common? It might seem like wishful thinking. But I have applied social science research to my personal life before. When I was in graduate school, I was living away from my husband. I read this book by a psychologist who interviewed people in long distance relationships and reported on the behaviors and circumstances that the couples who stayed together and were the happiest had in common. The book was a great source of comfort to me and we did apply some of the suggestions to our relationship.

Another acquaintance of mine set her mind on a goal of losing weight – something 95% of the people who do fail. And yet Greta has been successful. She started by researching extensively the habits and methods of people who have done it before.

I know that Ryan and Jetha wanted their book to spark debate and conversations, but ones more along the lines of “knowing what we now know about human sexuality, how should we apply this to our relationships?” I think that’s an important discussion to have as well. I have no objection to polyamory for those who wish to partake in it. But just as they have convincingly rejected the “standard narrative” of human sexuality I’m not as eager to jump on the bandwagon of another. I reject the premise that failure is inevitable. If, as they report in the book, 38% of couples report being happily married – even if half of them are lying – the odds of being happily monogamous are still more than three times better than the odds of successfully losing weight. The message that love is possible without monogamy is a vital one that needs to be repeated. But I admit to wanting both.

Letter Writing Sunday #2 – Move The Game

Posted in Editorials on January 9th, 2011

As a supporter of Civil Liberties, a baseball fan, and an American with Latino heritage, I am very interested in the controversy over this years Major League Baseball All Star Game. It’s scheduled to take place in Phoenix, Arizona. Activists opposed to Arizona’s immigration law which requires people to prove they are not “illegal immigrants” have called for a boycott of the state. Thus began “Move The Game” an organization dedicated to convince baseball Commissioner Bud Selig to move the All Star Game out of Arizona.

The intersection of sports and politics has always fascinated me. Desegregation, the Olympics, the growing popularity of women’s sports and other events show that what’s happening in the world is often reflected on the field. I outright reject any argument that a boycott of the ASG should it not be moved, or other political actions are illegitimate simply because they have to so with sports.

There is a precedent for Arizona and sports impacting the broader political discussion. In 1987, after the newly-elected governor rescinded the Martin Luther King holiday for Arizona, the NFL voted to move the Super Bowl from Arizona to the Rose Bowl in California. After Arizona voted to restore MLK day as a holiday, the NFL finally chose to host the Super Bowl in Phoenix.

I do not know if this movement will be successful, their web-page has not been updated since September. However, Spring Training is on the horizon (less than a month!) and I hope that more will be done.

I will be sending the following letter to Bud Selig, at his office address:
245 Park Avenue, 31st Floor
New York, NY Zip Code 10167

It is modified from the suggested letter on the Move the Game Website:

I have been a baseball fan since I was a little girl. My father taught me to play catch and all about the rules of baseball. It was one of the first things we bonded over and a love of the game is a special part of our relationship even now that I am an adult. He’s a proud American citizen, a veteran and also an immigrant. My dad came to this country as a child from Colombia.

I was shocked and angered when I heard that the state of Arizona passed SB 1070. I am opposed to racial profiling, especially that of American citizens like my father who, despite their service to our country might be singled out unfairly because of their appearance. It is for this reason that I fully support the Boycott Arizona movement and the Move the Game movement – to attempt to convince you, Mr. Commissioner to move the 2011 All Star Game anywhere outside of Arizona.

Arizona’s extreme immigration law is an invitation to racial profiling and harassment of Arizona residents and anybody who visits the state, including MLB players, an large number of whom are Latino or Black, their families and fans, an equally large number of whom are people of color and upstanding Americans.

Baseball is America’s National Pastime. It’s estimated the All-Star Game could bring as much as $60 million to the host region. Arizona doesn’t deserve to profit from discrimination and to host one of the great annual sporting events with your consent. Do what’s best for baseball and move the 2011 All-Star Game unless Arizona changes its harmful and hateful immigration law.

I have shared this letter on my blog, and via other social media on the internet and encouraged my friends, family and contacts to send you similar letters. I hope that we will convince you.

Fun Fridays: Cosmetics Reviews #1

Posted in Green Product Reviews on January 7th, 2011

UPDATE 9/2/15: I must temper my glowing review below with the advisory that Origins uses child labor to produce it’s products.

Ever since I read “Not Just A Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry” by Stacy Malkin, I’ve slowly started to change the way I purchase and use cosmetics. I frequently consult the Skin Deep Database at The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. I don’t have any hard and fast rules, but I try to purchase products that are at least one of the following: fragrance free, have organic ingredients and/or do not contain phthalates or parabens.

I will be reviewing some of the brands of natural cosmetics that I use regularly. To see all of the posts in this series, click here.


Origins is my absolute favorite brand of makeup. I was first introduced to them when a friend gave me a gift set containing bar soap, lotion and lip gloss. When I was experimenting with different looks for my wedding, I splurged on a few different lip sticks (both flower fusion and rain and shine brands) and eye liners to test shades and was not disappointed. The quality is excellent. I have purchased the products from Macy’s department stores and also from stand alone locations. The staff are always very helpful and will always let you test products. This year they have put out a natural ginger scented perfume. It’s not quite my style but worth sniffing the tester if you see it around.

Physicians Formula Organic Wear

This is the brand of makeup I can use every day. It’s in most drug stores and fairly affordable. I’m not a fan of foundation in general but have used their line. My every day powder is Physican’s Formula, and they make cases out of bamboo and recycled cardboard and also sell refills for your compacts to reduce packaging waste. I like their mascara although it is not waterproof. Their eyeshadow is also good quality but they do not have many colors to choose from currently.

The Naked Bee

The Naked Bee products are usually sold in gift shops, and cannot currently be purchased online unless you are buying in bulk for retail sale. I do stock up when I come across them. The lip gloss has a nice honeysuckle scent and the lotion is one of my favorites to cool irritated or dry skin.

The Meatball Shop: Wait Until the Crowds Die Down

Posted in Food and Drinks on January 5th, 2011

Sliders from The Meatball Shop

My first restaurant review!  I love trying out the new “insert specialty food” place.  Whether it’s “that taco place,” “that bao place” or “that falafel place” I get super excited when a new restaurant opens up that has one particular specialty dish.  So, when The Meatball Shop opened up in the Lower East Side, I was dying to try it out.  Of course, I had to wait a few weeks until the crowd died down a bit, and it didn’t help that Yahoo!  had an article on their front page about the place.
But finally, a couple weeks ago, on a Sunday night, a fellow foodie friend and I decided to check out the place.  Even then, the place was still pretty crowded.  At about 5PM a wait for 2 was 45 minutes.  If you don’t want to wait, there are a couple options.  The bar seating is first come first serve, and they serve the full menu.  Or, if you’re lucky enough to have a place nearby, you can walk right up to the take-out counter and get your food to go.

The space itself is a bit cramped, especially when there are a lot of  people waiting.  There is a large bar that runs the length of the dining area, and the dining tables are one very large communal table (where my friend and I ended up sitting) and a handful of two-tops around the edge.  I’m not the biggest fan of communal tables.  It’s kinda like getting the middle seat on a airplane where you have to share the space; also it seems like everyone is eavesdropping on your conversation.

When you sit down, you get a laminated menu and a dry-erase marker to mark up the choices of what you want.  There are a lot of choices to make:  You pick the type of meat, the type of sauce, whether you want them “naked” (served plain), in a hero, over pasta, in a slider, in a salad, or in a brioche.  There are also several sides you can order.  Every day there are specials – for the types of meatballs and sauce as well as the sides.

We wanted to get a good sampling of the meatballs.  We ordered the “Special” meatball which that night was lamb – served “naked” style.  We also ordered 1 slider each of chicken, pork, beef, and vegetable.  We tried to sample all the sauces as well:   Tomato, Spicy Meat Sauce, Mushroom Gravy, Parmesan and Pesto.  If that weren’t enough we also ordered the Daily Green – which was Kale, and the Daily Roast Veggie – which was Squash.

The meal was pretty good.  My favorite meatball by far was the beef.  Sometimes you can’t change a classic.  A close second was the lamb – which was great!  The one disappointment was the veggie meatball.  Although the owners claim that this is one of their most popular orders for health nuts.  But, for me, I just don’t think you can have a meatball without meat!  The consistency just didn’t do it, it was falling apart on the plate, and it had a very plain taste.  Maybe we picked the wrong type of sauce to go with it – but I probably wouldn’t order that again.

If you do go: do NOT skip out on desserts.  The Ice cream sandwiches were excellent! You get to pick the cookie as well as the ice cream flavor (and yes, you can pick 2 different flavors of cookie) Hehe.  Again, we went with the special flavor – Oatmeal Ice cream.  With an oatmeal cookie and a ginger snap cookie.  My only complaint was that the cookies were not soft, so it was a little hard to eat with a spoon.  We also ordered an ice cream float – which were good, but not noteworthy.

Overall, I think it’s a fun place to visit.  While the beef and lamb meatball was excellent, a meatball is just something that I don’t usually crave, and it’s just not special enough food that I can’t easily get somewhere, or a food that can really be made so uniquely that a restaurant would be known for it.  If you do go, try to go at an off-time and make sure you go with a smaller group.  But I would wait until the hype dies down.

The Meatball Shop

84 Stanton Street
(between Allen & Orchard)
New York, NY 10002
Phone (212) 982-8895
Fax (212) 982-8859

Thursday-Saturday: Noon-4AM

Sunday-Wednesday: Noon-2AM

No Reservations

Are critics of Paterson racist? Are supporters blaming the victim?

Posted in Editorials on January 4th, 2011

One of former New York Governor Paterson’s last actions in office was to commute the sentence of John White. Mr. White, who is Black, was convicted of second-degree manslaughter and third-degree criminal possession of a weapon. White, 57, shot Daniel Cicciaro Jr. on Aug. 9 2006 when Cicciaro was part of an angry mob of white teenagers who came to his house threatening violence against is son, and some say his wife. There was a rumor that White’s son Aaron had threatened to rape a classmate, but this was untrue.

I believe that in all respects, the story is tragic. Cicciaro was only 17 years old and I cannot imagine what his death must have been like for his family. I have never met him but it makes me sad to think of anyone dying at such a young age. However, I believe that Governor Paterson’s decision was justified. Although I believe in the Unitarian Universalist Principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person, I do not see what choice White had- at the moment that he pulled the trigger he was acting in self defense. If his story is true, and the gun accidentally discharged when Cicciaro tried to grab it, then there is no action on his part to criticize. No one is above the law, but the law cannot forsee each circumstance that may arise, and that is one of the many reasons pardons and commutations exist.

This sentiment is reflected in Paterson’s statement:

“On August 9, 2006, a young life was lost, beliefs were challenged, lives were ruined and a community became distraught,” Paterson said of the White case. “No one intended this, yet everyone suffered. … The action I am taking today is one of understanding, forgiveness and hope, which I believe are the essential components of justice.” Read the rest of this entry »

Lady Brains and Delusional Minds

Posted in Book Reviews on January 3rd, 2011

Delusions of Gender

How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference

By Cordelia Fine

The Female Brain

By Louann Brizendine

Just-so stories abound in our media about how women “naturally” talk too much, are over-emotional, bad at math, or just plain stupid. How much of it was earnest science badly reported and how much of it was just mean-spirited evolutionary psychology, I never knew. And somewhere, lurking in the darker corners of my brain was the thought that maybe it was all true; and grounded in strong, peer-reviewed science that was easily replicated. But when those doubts loomed, I would always stop myself – the difference between men and women on a genetic level is the difference between XX and XY. How could having a little more genetic material make me a stupid, frivolous, gold-digger compared to all the smart, serious, chivalrous men? It never made sense, but was that because I had a puny lady brain?

I read Louann Brizendine’s “The Female Brain” immediately before “Delusions of Gender.” It had been sitting on my bookshelf since it’s controversial publication. I read it first; knowing that it is one of the works Fine is highly critical of.

Brizendine acknowledges my quandary – if men and women have almost identical genetic makeup’s, how could our brains be so different as a result of biology alone? Her answer: hormones. The way I understood her hypothesis was that she saw men’s and women’s brains as computers with identical hard drive space and RAM. But estrogen and testosterone were like different operating systems – an iPhone and a Droid. This is a seductively simple point of view, and absurdities appear quickly. Brizendine actually suggests that women should schedule job interviews or oral exams on the days of their menstrual cycle when estrogen levels are highest because there is evidence that estrogen can increase verbal skills. When she also recommends not making important decisions while experiencing PMS or menstruation, it’s near impossible to take seriously.

Fine’s work is cut out for her as she proceeds to destroy Brizendine’s book and others like it (John Gray, etc). Her book is divided into three parts, “Half-Changed World, Half-Changed Minds”, “Neurosexism,” and “Recycling Gender.” She makes a convincing case that there is less evidence for hard wired sex based differences in behavior than most people think there is, and that actually there’s a lot of reasons to think men and women are similar in almost of the ways that the brain works.

It is common for parents to state that they know gender differences are real because although they have tried to be egalitarian, their little girl just loves her princess costume, and refuses to wear any color but pink. Fine questions the assumption that the parents are capable of bringing their children up in a world free of information about gender stereotypes. If all of the media they consume tells children how their gender is supposed to act, simply offering both a truck and a doll isn’t going to cut it. She then goes on to talk about how children, especially at preschool age, are trying to learn their place in the world. They don’t understand much about nationality, religion, or cliques. But they can latch on to the very salient gender stereotypes all around them.

The strongest evidence Fine presents for women’s intellectual equality with men are in the studies of what is called stereotype threat. The theory is that if you remind a person that they fit a stereotype of a person who is bad at the task at hand (math, for example) they will spend a lot of mental energy thinking about that fact rather than the actual task. One of the most shocking studies presented in “Delusions of Gender” was on this topic. The participants were enrolled in a calculus class. On average, the men and women had the same grades. In one group, the students were given a very difficult test and told that it was designed to try and find out what makes some people better at math than others. The average score was 19% correct for both genders. In the other group, students were told the same thing, but it was added that “despite testing on thousands of students, no gender difference had ever been found.” The women in this group scored a whopping 30% correct. If this evidence is to be believed, the amount of energy women spend trying to combat internalized sexism is tremendous. When these messages permeate our culture and our brains, they take so much away from our potential abilities. It may in fact be true that women have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good.

Finally, Fine makes the case that much neuroscience reporting is inaccurate, and favors studies that “prove” old tropes about gender to be true rather than communicating what was actually found. For example, women have a larger corpus collosum than men. (To the non-psychology majors reading: it’s the part of the brain in between the right and left hemispheres; what relays information back and forth.) This is said to explain things like why women are better at multi-tasking, and why men can’t talk about their feelings. The problem is that its simply not true; not only have fMRI imaging studies of the brain failed to show that women have more activity between hemispheres than men, but the fact is that if corpus collosum is correlated with anything it’s body size. People with larger bodies require slightly larger brains. “A large brain is simply not a smaller brain scaled up. Larger brains create different sorts of engineering problems and so – to minimize energy demands, wiring costs, communication times – there are physical reasons for different arrangements and different sized brains.” This is quite an important fact and it is routinely ignored.

Some reviewers on Amazon.com have criticized Fine’s sarcastic humor and at times downright flippant tone. I found her delightful. It can be tedious and overwhelming to realize that so much of what you have been taught is wrong. But Fine does it with style and is never tedious. One of my favorite parts was when she skewers those who spout sexist beliefs under the cover of “speaking truth to power.” Fine reigns them in and does the world a great public service.

Letter Writing Sunday #1 Net Neutrality

Posted in Editorials on January 2nd, 2011

Letter writing Sunday is a meme I saw on Vegankid‘s (now seemingly defunct) blog a few years ago. The idea is to write a letter every Sunday “of social importance.” It could be to a Member of Congress, state or local government or to a corporation about an important issue. It’s something I’ve always wanted to make a habit, and so every time I write such a letter I will cross-post it here and encourage others to do the same.

Net Neutrality means that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) treat all content the same. Such a policy is fair to everyone and keeps the internet a place where innovation and free speech can thrive. Activists like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have been urging the government to take action and codify this policy into law or as an official FCC rule. The reasoning is that if this is not done, ISPs could charge more for some types of content than others or even ban some websites. For example, if you get your cable television and high speed internet from Comcast, they may decide that you have to pay more to stream movies from Netflix because Netflix service directly competes with Comcast’s on demand service.

The fear is that since there are so few ISPs and in many areas of the United States only one to choose from, they could use their power to do more than further their own economic interests. What if they charged more to access websites about political ideas they didn’t like? Or banned religious or other content they found objectionable? The flip side of the coin is that some websites could pay the ISPs for their pages to load faster. So if you wanted to order a book from that neat independent bookstore online, it might load slower than Barnes&Noble or Borders. Or what if Rupert Murdoch paid for Fox News to load faster than any other news websites? This type of scheme would undermine the freedom we have on the internet today for ideas to compete on an even playing field. Considering that right now most media companies including television, radio and publishing are owned by only six firms in the United States, making the internet a place where everyone could not equally participate would be a serious detriment to free speech.

I have read the arguments against Net Neutrality. The can be summed up as follows: The internet is not broken, and so we should not fix it. Any attempt to codify net neutrality is a power grab by big government to intrude into our lives and therefore unacceptable. It is a detriment to the free market.

The first point, that making Net Neutrality the law is a power grab is not true. It would be enshrining into law the policy that has allowed the internet to grow over the past decades. We would simply be preserving the status quo. Secondly, Net Neutrality enhances the free market. One of the central tenets of capitalism is that there be low barriers to entry. Allowing some players to pay for more and better access would create an unreasonable barrier to entry for new start-ups. Also, the internet improves the free market in real life by giving consumers more information about the goods and services that are available. Allowing big companies to have better access than smaller ones would create an externality.

The FCC has recently created rules about Net Neutrality. They are a half-measure full of loopholes and are the same rules that telecom companies have been lobbying for.

It is for these reasons that I will be sending the following letter to my Congressional Representative and both of my Senators:

I am writing to you today to ask you to take action and support Net Neutrality. I urge you to support Internet Freedom Preservation Act should it be reintroduced to Congress. The FCC’s recent rules do not go far enough to ensure free speech and fair competition on the internet. Please take a stand for this important cause.

For further reading:
How to file a complaint with the FCC
On McIlheran’s disastrously simplistic opposition to “net neutrality”
Steve Wozniak to the FCC: Keep the Internet Free
The Most Important Free Speech Issue of Our Time by Senator Al Franken
Save The Internet