"No shit" headline of the week

The "no shit" headline of the week award goes to National Public Radio for this story:

Study: Tolerance Can Lower Gay Kids' Suicide Risk

Gay, lesbian and bisexual teens and young adults have one of the highest rates of suicide attempts — and some other health and mental health problems, including substance abuse. A new study suggests that parental acceptance, and even neutrality, with regard to a child's sexual orientation could have a big impact in reducing this rate.

The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that the gay, lesbian and bisexual young adults and teens at the highest risk of attempting suicide and having some other health problems are ones who reported a high level of rejection by their families as a result of their sexual orientation.

"A little bit of change in rejecting behavior, being a little bit more accepting," says lead researcher Caitlin Ryan, "can make a significant difference in the child's health and mental health."

You think? I guess I'm glad that this study was done, and that it's getting airtime on All Things Considered -- but it's amazing to me that this is noteworthy: that loving your kid unconditonally and accepting them regardless of their sexual identity could, you know, improve their health and well being.


Winter Break Booknotes

I'm headed off tomorrow morning to Logan Airport, for my Christmas Day flight back to Michigan. As Hanna remarked as we were hauling book-heavy her duffel bags down to the rental car last Saturday, "oh, the terrible cost of literacy!" My suitcase and carry-on will, similarly, bear an over-representation of books. A quick (and no doubt incomplete) survey of what's on the reading agenda for my winter break:

  • Monster Island, and its two sequels -- Monster Nation and Monster Planet -- by David Wellington. These are apocalyptic zombie novels about what happens to earth after human beings, infected by a mysterious virus, stop staying dead and instead come back hungry for human flesh.

  • Good Omens, co-authored by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett which Hanna has warned me to read with circumspection on the airplane, since spontaneous giggling has been known to occur during reading. Giggles will be welcome after a trilogy about zombies!

  • As will Little Women and Little Men which Hanna and another friend from Simmons, Laura, have impressed upon me the need to re-read and re-evaluate since I never enjoyed them much as a child. I have promised to give them a second pass . . . perhaps with an historians eye they'll prove more enjoyable (who says scholarly analysis ruins literature?)

  • Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville. I bought this last summer after reading The Scar (set in the same world) but didn't have the emotional energy to tackle it during the term (Mieville's fantasy world is a dark one) . . . so I'll be trying again!

  • On the non-fiction front, I have the new feminist anthology Yes Means Yes, edited by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti, which asks its contributors to meditate on how a world that promotes authentic sexual pleasure and agency can help combat sexual violence.

  • Likewise, feminist Linda McClain's book on the relationship between family relationships and politics, The Place Of Families, was cited in something I read recently on childhood and sexual agency (the exact reference is escaping me) and the copy I inter-loaned at the library has finally arrived -- so I'll get to indulge in my penchant for footnote wandering.

  • Finally, I practically had kittens when I was in the brookline booksmith a couple of weeks ago and saw that Nick Hornby's third collection of "Stuff I've Been Reading" columns, Shakespeare Wrote for Money, is out. I'm saving this one for the airplane, though my seat-mates may not thank me.

And what winter break would be complete without a movies as well as books? My friend Aiden and I were thinking about trying to see Milk before he left town for the holidays, but it didn't happen. I'm still hoping to catch it in the theater at some point, as well as the new Bond flick. Hanna and I are in the midst of Dr. Who (Season Four) with the second season of Torchwood in the offing as well . . . and it's been called to my attention in recent days (as somehow we got involved in a debate about the morality of Vader's death scene in Jedi) that I'm overdue for a review of the six Star Wars films. On a slightly more historical note, I have plans to show Hanna both Goodbye, Lenin! and The Lives of Others, both of which I think are interesting companion pieces to Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n Roll.


Christmas (Un)cheer

Not that I expect anything different from Pope Benedict, but c'mon dude. It would be nice if around the Christmas holidays you could show a little more compassion and demonstrate that you're not completely out of touch with real-world problems. But no.

Gay groups and activists have reacted angrily after Pope Benedict XVI said that mankind* needed to be saved from a destructive blurring of gender. Speaking on Monday, Pope Benedict said that saving humanity from homosexual or transsexual behaviour was as important as protecting the environment.
And a note to the TimesOnline: why oh why have you decided that now is the time to re-hash this tired old story about inter-generational feminist conflict?

"One of the most unappealing things about the feminist movement right from its inception was its tendency to judge other women," says Roiphe. And, given the polarising of opinion between old-school feminists and modern young women engaged with popular culture — which, like it or lump it, is obsessed with celebrity, consumption and youth — there is much room for judgment. (See The Guide Association’s new manifesto on the sexualisation of young girls and Germaine Greer’s recent berating of Cheryl Cole as “too thin to be a feminist” as yet more proof.)

“I do feel it’s time for those feminists to step aside,” says Frangoul. “It’s like, we’re grateful for what you did, but it’s time for you to hand over. We’ve got a different world-view, and we might have something different to say.”
It drives me crazy that news stories like this don't see the irony in painting young feminist women as paragons of openness and multiplicity when they turn around and cherry-pick quotes from young women willing to dismiss their elders as has-beens. This does not have to be an either/or proposition. The existence of young feminist activists does not mean that it's time for women older than, say 25, to give up, be silenced, or silence themselves. As Deborah Siegel argues in Sisterhood Interrupted, this persistent narrative of feminist in-fighting does more harm than good, obscuring the many valuable contributions women of all ages have -- and will continue to make -- in the realm of feminist activism.

At least they linked to the F-word, which is one of my favorite places to get UK-based feminist analysis. In fact, speaking of: here's the F-word on Pope Benedict's speech.

*I guess we womenkind get to enjoy the blurring of gender as much as we like. Ecological disaster be damned!

Snow Duo

The younglings in my neighborhood were busy today (a snow day for the Boston area schools) building snow people in every available space. I snapped a picture of this curbside parent-and-child snow family on my way home through the park tonight.


Kuumaa Kaakaota*

This mouth-watering round-up of cafes which serve hot chocolate in the Boston area is at the top of the "to do" list for Hanna and I in the first month of the new year . . . with a little extra time in our schedules, and likely cold temperatures demanding the regular ingestion of hot beverages . . . who could resist?

*"Hot chocolate" in Finnish . . . 'Cause why not? Who can resist the endless fun to be had from Google Translate?


Visual Argument for Home-based Education

I doubt comic artist xkcd meant his latest cartoon to be a plug for nontraditional education, but that was my first thought when I saw this picture!


They said there would be snow . . .

. . . and they did not tell a lie.

The snow is lovely this morning, and we managed to get Hanna off for her Christmas vacation with relatively little trouble. (I even got a ride to work out of the deal -- which felt like a true luxury!) This morning, while Hanna trekked up to the rental car lot, I was sent out to procure hot beverages from the local Starbucks. I snapped a few pictures of the early morning snow on my walk.

Head over to Picasa for a larger slideshow.


"Everybody to Get from Street!"

Unlike in Portland, Oregon, here in Boston we don't even need snow to have a snow day -- just the anticipation of snow is enough to declare a "snow emergency" here in the city. They are apparently trying to forestall the great snow debacle of 2007 in which the entire city shut down at once and traffic came to a stand-still. Coming from an area where this kind of snow fails to shut down the schools I have to admit I find the situation a little humorous. Still -- it'll give me some free time to help Hanna get packed for her vacation, and pick up those last few Christmas gifts.


Children Are People: Take Two

It’s been a few days since my last post on this subject, which seems to have struck a nerve with many readers who found their way to my blog. A big thank you to all of the readers who have engaged in thoughtful and detailed conversation (critique included). It does not seem like good blog policy to try and respond to each comment individually (nor do I have the time!). But there were a few themes – particularly issues raised in dissenting comments – that I want to reflect on with more depth. So here is "take two."*

One of the oddest complaints, it seems to me, is the charge that calling attention to the dehumanizing language adults often use toward children as children is somehow indicative of white, elite, academic, heterosexual, privilege.


Last I checked, childhood is about as universal an experience as we human beings can claim. It is not as if children are only born to white, upper-class heterosexual adults with advanced degrees. The assumption that because I write about young people I belong to these categories says more, it seems to me, about the invisibility of the world’s children than it does about my own identity.** If “child” to a person who reads this blog automatically means white, rich, ivy-league-destined, non-queer child raised by white, rich, straight, ivy-league-educated parents, where does that leave the children who do not fit into that identity? Invisible? Irrelevant?

Children are a prime example of what feminist scholars sometimes refer to as intersectionality: they belong, as all of us do, to multiple human groupings, none of them mutually exclusive. Children are born into families of all income brackets and into families of all racial and ethnic backgrounds; children are born with all gender identities and sexual orientations. The argument that children are people, and deserve our respect as such, in no way implies that they are more marginalized because of their age than they (or an adult) may be marginalized by any other "ism." That is not the point. Instead, being mindful of the ways children are marginalized because of their age can help us to be mindful of the many other forms of discrimination they contend with. Just because a child experiences hatred or dismissal because of their age, does not mean they do not also experience hatred or dismissal in other ways. Being aware of children's rights, and challenging ourselves to think about children as part of the human community, means we should be paying more attention, not less, to all kinds of oppression.

Likewise, I am confused by the number of comments that suggest I am playing Oppression Olympics (a game of my-oppression-is-greater-than-your-oppression) or somehow belittling the experience of those who struggle with sexism, racism, or homophobia by using these examples as an analogy for the way I see children treated. By using these widely familiar types of othering, I am suggesting that the framework we use to understand those types of marginalization is also useful in understanding the experience of children as children, and childhood as a culturally-constructed space and set of social expectations. This is not a game of either/or but of both/and.

It is also important to remember that children are institutionally disenfranchised because of their age – there are many privileges of adulthood that we only grant to children when they reach a certain age (and, presumably, maturity), such as the right to vote. We also recognize the power differential between adults and children by writing protective legislation in areas such as child labor and sexual consent. Regardless of whether or not we believe these laws to be appropriate, their existence does mean we do treat children, legally, as a separate class of persons who have to earn many of the privileges adults take for granted.

Therefore, I don’t believe it is somehow wildly inappropriate to think about children as a group of people who are vulnerable to stereotype and marginalization based on their shared characteristic: age.

Finally, I would point out that my original post was not written in defense of particular parenting choices. I have my own very strong feelings about what children need from adults who care for them in order to thrive. From the examples given by many of you, I imagine we may disagree about what the best choices are. Yet regardless of the quality or kind of parenting they receive, children deserve – as do all human beings – our compassion and respect. Children have no control over what families they are born into, or what sort of adult modeling they see in the world around them. If they are on the receiving end of some of the anger expressed on this blog, I invite you to think about how that interaction will shape their idea of what it means to be a grown-up.

*Takes three, four, five, etc. may appear as invited or conceived of.

**Which, I would like to point out, most of you who posted are not in a position to make knowledgeable comments about. Like most of you, I am made up of a complex mix of insider/outsider identities and experience. Some of those are evident on this blog, some are not.


"Is There a Name For It?"

The following question was just posted on the Teaching Moment thread by theczech and I thought it was worth pulling out and highlighting:

Thanks for this post. It really put some pieces together for me... where do you think these child insults common in internet comments are coming from? It seems like there is a larger group of people on the web who discuss their hatred for children and exchange acidic insults that they all laugh at together. What is it that links these people together? Is there a name for it?

The closest I have come to in terms of finding a name for this type of rhetoric is "ageism," which can apply equally to our elders as well as our youngers. In a broader sense, we could also think of it as misanthropy: hatred of people. But both concepts fail to get at the very specific issues people seem to have with children and young people. The fact that we don't have a specific name for hatred of children and the perceived threat or inconvenience they cause to their elders is noteworthy. Whenever our language lacks a word to describe a phenomenon, that means the phenomenon itself is less visible.



Booknotes: Stalin's Russia

Before the end of the semester, in a burst of rebellious leisure-reading energy (read: procrastination), I began two books on Russian communism: Travis Holland's 2007 novel The Archivist's Story and historian Orlando Figes' doorstop of a book, The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia. This was partly due to seeing, over the Thanksgiving weekend, a local production of Tom Stoppard's play Rock n'Roll at the Huntington Theater. As is the case with all of the Stoppard plays I have seen or read, Rock n'Roll explores the complicated relationship between ideas and the people whose lives are affected by them: in this case, communism and a cast of characters caught up in the realities of life in Prague during the 1970s and 80s.

The devastating affect of Cold War communism on the lives of human beings is the subject of both of these books, one a work of fiction and the other of nonfiction. I am still reading both of them, but thought I would post a couple of quotations to give you a flavor of the texts and hopefully encourage you to check them out yourself.

Holland's novel follows the story of Pavel, a widowed schoolteacher turned archivist, living in Moscow in 1939. In the opening pages, he is sent to interview the writer Isaac Babel, who has been arrested and taken to Lubyanka prison as an enemy of the people. During the course of their stiff conversation, Pavel tells Babel that his wife, Elena, has recently died in a train wreck caused by politically-motivated sabotage. "I can't imagine people intentionally doing that," Pavel says. "You've read my stories," Babel replies:
"Your colleagues, when they came to arrest me at my dacha, they dragged my wife along. Did you know that? They made her knock on the door. In case I resisted. Can you imagine how she must have felt, to have to do that?" An edge of bitterness has crept into Babel's voice. "You are not the only one who has lost his wife" (9-10).
In fact, as Figes tells us in The Whisperers virtually everyone in Russia during the Stalinist period lost at least one family member to violence perpetrated by the men whom the fictional Pavel is ordered to work for. For over six hundred and fifty pages he draws on diaries, oral histories, and other surviving primary sources in an attempt to piece together a picture of private life in a repressive regime. This picture is unquestionably grim. "For the mass of the population there were always two realities," Figes observes writes:
Party Truth and truth based on experience. But in the years of the Great Terror, when the Soviet press was full of the show trials and the nefarious deeds of 'spies' and 'enemies', few were able to see through the propaganda version of the world. It took extraordinary willpower, usually connected to a different values-system, for a person to discount the press reports and question the basic assumptions of the Terror (273).
The strategies used by individual people to keep themselves from being submerged in Party Truth are both interesting, from a psychological and political perspective, and heartbreaking: "My inner self has not gone away -- whatever is inside a personality can never disappear -- but it is deeply hidden, and I no longer feel its presence within me" wrote Yevgeniia, a student of Leningrad Institute of Technology, in 1938, after both her parents had vanished into the Gulag (257). However difficult these stories of personal trauma are to read, I am looking forward to finishing both books for the powerful stories they tell about the behavior of human beings living in inhuman situations.


Teaching Moment: Children Are People Too

Yesterday, the following comment was submitted on this post from November concerning fear of children in Britain [1]:

Someone obviously needs to re-read Lord of the Flies.

On a more prosaic level, I'd argue that people's feral, shrieking little carpet apes — oh, excuse me, Precious Darling Children — are a great argument for doing as many errands online as possible.

My first impulse was to delete the comment. Then I realized that it is a perfect example of the sort of casual dehumanization of young people that the original article highlighted. I am therefore going to use this as a teaching moment: an opportunity to explain a few things about why I believe the hatefulness that adults like b.g. feel free to express toward children in our culture is not acceptable.

The casual dehumanization of children is one of my research interests as a master's candidate in history; it is something I am both fascinated with as an historical and political phenomenon, and passionately opposed to in practice. Children are people. As someone who is opposed to hatred and fear of any group of people based on innate characteristics (skin color, ethnic background, sexual orientation, gender) it appalls me how acceptable adults find it to express hatred and fear of children based solely on their age, or for behaviors that can be traced back to their developmental abilities. I see this among a wide range of adult populations, from feminists to Christian fundamentalists -- it's a form of bigotry that is in evidence across the political spectrum.

In part, I believe that this intolerance of young people is one symptom of the way, in modern culture, we have ghettoized many people who make us uncomfortable, or whom we perceive as an inconvenience. Those who slow down our over-burdened lives with their complicated needs or awkward social behavior. People whom, by their very presence, raise uncomfortable questions about our own values and our competence in a complicated, competitive society. People who are mentally ill, physically disabled, people who are struggling with poverty and old age. People who are made vulnerable by circumstance make us uncomfortable. As historian Gerda Lerner writes, in her book of essays Why History Matters [2]: "All of us, ultimately, will join one of the most despised and abused groups in our society--the old and the sick" (17). We would do well to remember, as well, that we all began life as members of a similarly vulnerable and dependent group: children.

This is not to argue that children are innately better than adults. Children are human: ergo, they are capable of human cruelty [3]. That is not the question at issue here. The question here is why people such as b.g. feel perfectly free to refer sneeringly to young human beings as "feral . . . apes" in a public space (this blog) when presumably, they would not feel free to make a similar remark about a black person. Or if they did, they would be held accountable. I have seen on countless feminist blog threads, self-identified feminists who are outraged about hateful speech directed toward women and other groups turn around and use offensive language to speak about the children.* Feminists have long argued that ostensibly "positive" ideals about women and femininity are just as dehumanizing as outright misogyny. Both obscure the complex humanity of the individual person before us. Similarly, characterizations of children as "precious little darlings" or "shrieking little carpet apes" are two sides of the same coin: neither recognize children as persons worthy of our respect. Yet as a culture, we have been reluctant to recognize these parallels.

I have read Lord of the Flies, William Golding's novel about marooned British schoolboys who resort to terror and violence in the absence of external social structure [4]. Lord of the Flies is a commentary on the nature of humanity more than it is about the innate character of children or the particular environment of childhood. Remember that the boys who have been shipwrecked in Golding's book are not, in fact, free of socialization: they have already lived upwards of a dozen years in families, and in a British boarding school, in which adults have taught them quite thoroughly what is to be expected from them as human beings. I would argue that the book demonstrates quite well the violence that has been done to these children previous to the shipwreck, in addition to offering a chilling reminder of the sort of evil that all of us, regardless of age, are capable of.

Language matters. Language can affirm the humanity of each individual being on this planet, or language can create a climate in which individual people -- or groups of people -- become easy to discount or view as unworthy of love, kindness, respect, or understanding. I will not be deleting b.g.'s comment because I think it offers us a valuable example of exactly the kind of hatred children in our lives experience on a daily basis. But let me be absolutely clear: from now on, anyone who leaves a comment on this blog using language like "carpet apes" to describe people whose sole "offense" is their youth will have their comments deleted. You may disagree with me that children constitute a marginalized group in our society. You are welcome to argue your point in comments with pertinent examples and other evidence. You are welcome to use strong language to express your feelings. You may not resort to insults. If the language you use would not be acceptable as a way to describe racial or ethnic groups, women, or queer folks, I will consider it similarly unacceptable as a way to describe young people. Because children are people too.

*It is important to recognize that many feminists do not use this language of dehumanization when speaking of children and youth, and in fact there are countless feminist activists and organizations who have placed the well-being of children and adolescents (regardless of gender) at the heart of their work. My argument here is that alongside this work there still exists a consistent current of hatred and fear directed toward young people, and that feminists are not always willing or able to see the applicability of their critique of inequality in other arenas to a critique of discrimination based on age.


OED: "Crime" against Children's Humanity?

Every abridged dictionary makes choices about what to include or exclude. Andrew Brown, in an op-ed column over at the Guardian online, questions the selections made for the latest edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary:

Imagine a childhood without gerbils, goldfish, guinea pigs, hamsters, herons, larks, or leopards; where even the idea of these things had been replaced by practical modern concepts like celebrity, vandalism, negotiate, interdependent, and creep. This is the world of the Oxford Junior Dictionary.

. . .

Dictionaries should be many things, but even the smallest should be a gateway into wonder. The child who doesn't even know of the possibility of larks and leopards has been robbed. To offer them instead the grey bureaucratic porridge of the new words is a crime against their humanity.

I'm not sure that I share Brown's level of disquiet over these particular words, but I do like the idea that to rob children of language to speak about nature is a "crime against their humanity."

Thanks to Hanna, my source for all UK-related news :).


UDHR at Sixty

Anita Sharma over at RhRealityCheck brought to my attention that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, turns sixty today. It was constructed in the aftermath of the Second World War by an international team of philosophers and political leaders and draws on the core ethical principles found in the major philosophical and religious traditions on the world. So in honor of the anniversary, I'm going to take a moment to recommend, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, written by legal scholar Mary Ann Glendon, which I read with great delight and interest when it came out a in 2002. It's a fascinating story of an ambitious international project undertaken during the rise of the Cold War, and documents an important moment in the history of the recognition of human rights.


And Again With Twilight

Despite the fact that I am deeply suspicious of the book and have yet to see the movie, Hanna has decided to hold me personally responsible for the phenomenon of Twilight, and specifically the chivalrous male lead, Edward Cullen, whom she has taken to referring to as "your stupid vampire."

Given that my name will thus inevitably--at least in our apartment--be linked to many adolescent girls' (and adult women's!) lust for "vegetarian" vampires with stalker tendencies, I figure it's only fair that I get to post links here to some of the awesome (and hilarious) deconstruction of the series that's taking place around the blogosphere.*

Thus, two links that came across my desk today:

The first is Amanda Marcotte's rant on Pandagon,
Vampires, liberals, and blood-sucking pretend liberals, which manages to connect the hate-mongering commentary about Proposal 8 to reactionary adoration of Twilight (apparently, the popularity of the series "means feminism is bound to fail") through the person of Caitlin Flanagan. I have to say, when I saw that Flanagan had reviewed Twilight over at the Atlantic this week I about popped a blood vessel. Anyone who declares halfway down the first page of a review of teen lit that "I hate Y.A. novels; they bore me" has absolutely no business reviewing (or claiming to understand the popularity of) young adult literature -- let alone explaining with condescending smugness the desires of adolescent girls with such generalizations as "the salient fact of an adolescent girl’s existence is her need for a secret emotional life." Thank you, Amanda, for giving this review the critical attention it deserved -- and most importantly connecting it to larger themes of political conservatism.

And in case political analysis is not your bailiwick, commenter annejumps on the Pandagon thread provided a link to The Secrets of the Sparkle, a three-part (plus drinking game!) send-up of the series written by an ex-Mormon. (To explain title of the post: apparently, Edward Cullen sparkles in the sun. Like, literally. It's a detail I sadly forgot from my reading of the novels last year. Damn.) It's sort of like a picture book cliff notes version of the first three books . . . through the lens of LDS theology. Trust me.

Okay. That's my fun for this evening. Back to editing the final draft of my history term paper! The semester's almost over!

*I want to reiterate here that 1) my reservations about the series does not mean I think we should disparage the pleasure girls are getting out of the romance of the books--though we can encourage them to think critically about messages that Twilight conveys about sexuality and gender, and 2) that my reservations also don't mean I fail to get pleasure myself out of stories about scary, sexy vampire bad boys. I just happen to like my heroines with a little more bite and my sex with a little less prudery.


Nighttime in Boston

Sunday evening Hanna has yoga in the North End and I often tag along to sit and read or study in the Boston Beanstock Co. coffee shop. On our way to and from the T we cross the Rose Kennedy Greenway, which has these tiny little lights studding the sidewalk. Last week, I snapped a photograph. It's not great quality, but you get the effect. I don't think they're constellations or anything, but it still reminds me of those night sky machines you can buy for bedroom ceilings :).


Fear of Children

The British charity Barnardo's, released a poll indicating that a substantial number of British adults fear children and characterize their behavior as animal-like.

Martin Narey, the charity's chief executive, said: "It is appalling that words like 'animal', 'feral' and 'vermin' are used daily in reference to children. These are not references to a small minority of children, but represent the public view of all children.

As historical examples of the use of animalistic language an imagery to describe the poor, non-white races, enslaved peoples, women, and other marginalized groups shows, describing any group of human beings in non-human terms is a powerful rhetorical weapon that encourages bigotry and denial of basic human rights. This is an incredibly blatant example of prejudice against some of the most vulnerable members of our world community. And I don't believe these sentiments are particular to the British alone. Hatred, neglect, and fear of children is equally common in the United States, despite all of the political talk about "family values."

Thanks to Hanna for the link.


Prop. 8: Was it all about sexism?

An interesting article on the politics of Proposition 8 by Slate.com's Richard Thompson Ford, in which he argues against seeing inconsistency in voter's acceptance of Barack Obama for president, yet rejection of same-sex marriage. Homophobia, he argues, is closer to (perhaps even part of) gender-based sexism than it is analogous to race and civil rights discrimination:

After all, traditional marriage isn't just analogous to sex discrimination—it is sex discrimination: Only men may marry women, and only women may marry men. Same-sex marriage would transform an institution that currently defines two distinctive sex roles—husband and wife—by replacing those different halves with one sex-neutral role—spouse. Sure, we could call two married men "husbands" and two married women "wives," but the specific role for each sex that now defines marriage would be lost. Widespread opposition to same-sex marriage might reflect a desire to hang on to these distinctive sex roles rather than vicious anti-gay bigotry. By wistfully invoking the analogy to racism, same-sex marriage proponents risk misreading a large (and potentially movable) group of voters who care about sex difference more than about sexual orientation.
On the one hand, the pernicious relationship between rigid, oppositional conceptions of gender and homophobia is familiar to a lot of us. Obviously, the anti-same-sex marriage activists have been hugely successful by framing their campaign in terms of "protecting" hetero marriage -- and this is one possible answer to the question "what do they think they're protecting hetero marriage from?" On the other hand, I guess I'm skeptical that there is a large group of straight voters who aren't anti-gay but still uber-defensive about their own sexuality and gender identity.

UPDATE 11/19: Amanda Marcotte over at Pandagon has a more thorough analysis of the article. Check it out.


First Froglets?

Dear Mr. President Elect,

It has come to our attention, thanks to the national media and your own recent press conference in Chicago, that you and your family are seeking to adopt a pet to join you in the White House when you take up residence in January. While your stated intention to adopt a shelter dog is certainly laudable, we understand that this causes some difficulties due to your daughter's allergies. We feel in a position to offer a unique solution to this quandry: adopting a froglet.

Froglets are small, orange amphibians living on the Clanger planet. Their two natural habitats are a TARDIS-like top hat and a vertical mud puddle some distance below the surface of the planet. Clangers themselves are friendly, clever pink aliens who – if history is a reliable indicator – would most likely welcome a long-distance relationship with a harmonious earth government.

The froglet diet consists of blue and white pudding soup, which is obtainable from the soup dragon on the Clanger planet (if you ask nicely), and which can also double as a convenient jumper on cold winter days. This will be of particular value in the Obama White House, as we are sure you are planning on implementing an economically responsible and energy-efficient policy.

While you have only thus far indicated an interest in a single pet, the froglets seem happiest in triads. While they have a disconcerting habit of appearing and disappearing without vocal announcement, they are otherwise quite unobtrusive – once one becomes accustomed to their habit of bouncing when showing extreme emotions such as pleasure and discontent. Their presence would, we feel, be a comfort to your daughters during this period of transition and also serve as reminder to the White House staff and all officials you meet with of the need to maintain a sense of humor even during times of extreme stress.


Hanna & Anna


Friday Night Jazz

When Hanna asked me earlier this week what my soundtrack would be for a "happy dance." I came up with the Weather Report song "Birdland" which my brother, sister and I used to rock out to on a regular basis as high-energy children. She'd never heard of it, so I (naturally) had to hunt down a version for her to here (thank you YouTube!) Here it is for a little Friday night jumping and jiving.

And now I'm off to bed.



With autumn well and truly here, the temperatures dropping, and the days getting shorter, it is most definitely time for that coziest of beverages: tea! Hanna and I were shopping down on Newbury Street today and stopped in at Tealuxe to augment our collection with two new additions. When I brought them home and added the bags to our little regiment above the stove, the effect was so pleasing that I felt compelled to take a picture (or two, or three).

Hope you're all enjoying the post-election glow . . . and now it's back to the books.


The Future Feminist Librarian-Activist Votes

Despite fears of long lines (happily unrealized) and the lack of "I voted" stickers (I was sad) and "I voted" fudge (Hanna was sad), we went and voted today in Allston at the Warren Street Elementary School (Ward 21, Precinct 8). Mine was the 569th ballot accepted at the polling place. I voted for Obama/Biden--no mystery there--and kicked myself later for not having written in the cast of Torchwood for the local house and senate seats, which are all filled by unopposed Democrats around here. Note to self for next time: Prepare to alleviate election stress with humorous write-in candidates!

As I write this, Hanna and I are swapping election trivia off respective computers, puzzling over the inexplicable method The Guardian has of calling states for Obama . . . and getting lost in the interactive election map on NPR.org. As well as, in my case, following Feministe's live-blogging of the election results (me? a political junkie? what gives you that idea?), and of course catching the britcoms on PBS. Time for some election-night cocoa!

(Hoping you) Remember(ed) to Vote!

This was supposed to go up this morning, but somehow the pre-scheduling didn't work so . . . here it is a few hours late!

* * *

I'll be voting this afternoon after class a newly registered voter in Allston, having transferred my voter registration from Michigan. Go out and appreciate the privilege of elective franchise people!

I thought I'd celebrate the day with a clip from the ever-reliable Daily Show's last interview with Obama, in which he jokes with Jon Stewart how his white half may experience some inner reluctance to vote for a black president.


Quote of the Week: Is it over yet?

Hard to believe we're less than a week away from the end of what has seemed like a never-ending campaign season. Before going home on this Friday evening to wrap up in bed with blankets, a bowl of chocolate ice cream, and Neverwhere (in honor of Hallowe'en), I leave you with Jon Carroll's incisive political commentary:

I want it to be next Wednesday. I want Obama to win, and I want to start getting fretful about something else. Imagine what mischief George Bush is going to attempt between now and Jan. 20. He's gonna pre-pardon everybody for everything. He's going to kill endangered species with his bare hands. He's going to deforest entire states. Now, that's gonna be terrible, but there will be a date certain, as they say, when he has to go back to Texas and do - well, pretty much nothing, is my guess. Jimmy Carter he ain't.

Find the whole column over at the San Francisco Chronicle: Election Jitters.


Karen Armstrong

Today in the world history class for which I am a teaching assistant, we discussed an excerpt from Karen Armstrong's history of the axial age religions, The Great Transformation. The professor brought in this twenty-minute video clip of Karen Armstrong's speech accepting one of the three 2008 TED Prizes "to change the world." I thought it was a nice introduction to some of her recent thinking on religion.


Boston With My Folks

Mom and Dad finally had the chance to visit me in Boston this weekend, and Dad--as usual--brought gorgeous autumn weather with him for the duration of their stay (although he also brought the first cold snap of the season). Mostly we wandered around my usual haunts, got food at my favorite coffee shop (the Boston Beanstock Co.) and pastry shop (Mike's Pastry) in the North End, and visited lots of bookstores (because what else does our family usually do on vacation but hunt for books!). We also stumbled into the Boston city Camp Sunshine Pumpkin Festival and the Head of the Charles Regatta. You can see pictures below.

To see a larger slideshow, click here.


If You Love Wallace & Gromit

Hanna has claimed--entirely appropriately--the finder's credit for first spotting this rather indescribable artifact of 1960s British television on a Dr. Who episode [Update: Hanna says it's "The Sea Devils"]--and later coming across a blog post (I'm sorry! I've misplaced the link), which led us to this adorable-yet-strange British stop-motion animated series called The Clangers.

This two-series show (which ran from 1968-1972) is made up of ten-minute episodes featuring the Clangers, a race of small pink knitted aliens, and a cast of characters including the Soup Dragon, the Iron Chicken, the Hoots, the (terrifying) Froglets, and the Music Note Trees.

Here is the episode called "The Treasure":

While the complete series is only available from the UK on Region 2 DVDs, you can view a number of episodes on YouTube:

The Intruder.


The Pipe Organ.

The Visitor.

And Hanna's favorite, The Iron Chicken.

They make great study-break or bedtime viewing. Just the thing by which to nod off over a mug of whiskey-laced hot chocolate with vanilla marshmallows.


Portland Sunday

Portland, Maine, that is (clearing up any confusion for you West Coasters). Hanna and I rented a Zipcar today and drove up to Portland (three states in two hours!) to meet her parents for the morning and early afternoon. We started at the local Starbucks -- oxymoronic as that may sound -- and rambled around through the bookstore, L.L. Bean outlet, and various shops before picnicking down by the ocean.

While eating lunch, we chanced to see a small steam train which ran on a narrow-gauge track along the harbor! And we also enjoyed a bit of casual leaf-spotting; Boston's trees turn color but we're often not outside in the middle of a sunny day to enjoy them!


Ref. Book of the Week: Dictionary of Bias-Free Usage

I have a mountain of sources to review and annotate for my reference class this semester, and I thought it would help to keep myself on task if I got to choose a particularly interesting, amusing, and/or valuable book each week to highlight on the FFLA. So here's installment number one: The Dictionary of Bias-Free Usage. (This was going to go up on Monday, but as you can see I'm already lagging behind on my self-assigned task!)

So, confession of a word nerd: I love dictionaries. Looking up an unfamiliar word is usually a welcome excuse to browse in my Shorter Oxford English two-volume dictionary. So one of the greatest perks of being a librarian -- and a reference librarian in particular -- is the pleasure of mucking about in dictionaries. So I knew I was going to have fun when one of the dictionaries on our review list for Reference was Rosalie Maggio's 1991 Dictionary of Bias-Free Usage: A Guide to Nondiscriminatory Language.

This dictionary is actually a combination style guide and thesaurus along with a dictionary of some 5,000 word entries. Rather than being a straightforward "meaning and etymology of this word" dictionary, Bias-free attempt to provide cultural context for how the word has been used and why people object to it. In example:
LADYLIKE. Avoid. The word lady is generally unacceptable, and 'ladylike conveys different meanings according to peoples' perceptions of what a woman ought or ought not to do, say, think, wear, feel, look like . . . (159)
Or this one, even more strongly worded:
SLAVE GIRL. Never use. In addition to its unpleasant associations with slavery, this sexist, racist term perpetuates the false notion that women secretly enjoy being enslaved (252)
Maggio also includes definitions for terms related to discrimination ("sexism," "homophobia"), demographic information in relation to professions and experiences -- so that chosen pronouns can accurately reflect reality -- and "key concept" entries which read more like short encyclopedia articles (the entry on "rape" for example, provides statistics and discusses cultural narratives surrounding rape). Her overall goal is to assist writers in editing their work for language and metaphor that is rooted in discrimination of one sort or another (sexism, racism, etc.).

It's easy to make fun of the earnestness with which this guide was put together, as well as the author's obvious value-judgements which are contained within each entry. Skeptic that I am, it is difficult to see how such injunctions as "never use" are applicable for any word, because words change their meaning according to context. While "slave girl" would be a highly inappropriate description of, say, a modern-day woman, if one is an historian (coughcough) writing about a child who was enslaved, "slave girl" may simply be a description of the individual based on age and class status. Similarly, because of the historically-specific context in which all printed dictionaries are compiled, usage and cultural meaning can quickly become out-dated. This is particularly true of politically-charged language such as is found in the Bias-Free dictionary. The use of the word "queer" in relation to sexual identity and action had a not-unrelated but significantly different cultural meaning in 1991, for example, than it does seventeen years later.

All of its shortcomings aside, the word-nerd within me enjoys reading the Bias-free in order to think about how words were perceived at this one particular moment in language and political history (during the late 1980s and early 1990s). And my feminist self applauds the intention behind the work, if not its somewhat clumsy execution.


Exhibit A

How not to use a moustrap:

"Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk."


Fruitlands Museum Visit

For my history class, we had to choose a public history site connected to the transcendentalist movement to visit and report on; my friend Laura and I chose Fruitlands, the site of the short-lived (eight-month) utopian experiment undertaken by Bronson Alcott, his long-suffering wife and children, and a British friend Charles Lane. Below are the pictures I took on the museum grounds and at the apple orchard we stopped at on the way home. (The third individual evident in the pictures is Laura's roommate Ashley).

To see a larger slide show with captions, click here.


Booknotes: Chalice

In keeping with my promise-to-self to have a non-school-related book going at all times during this semester, this week I read Robin McKinley's latest work of fantasy fiction, Chalice. I am still waiting patiently for a sequel to Sunshine -- when Robin when?! -- which Chalice is not. It is also not as inventive an alternate world as the one found in Dragonhaven(which I discussed here). However, Chalice harkens back to many of her gentle fairy tale stories collected in Door in the Hedge or Knot in the Grain. It is the story of a young beekeeper, Mirasol, who is unexpectedly called from her home to become "Chalice," one of the Circle of mages who protect her homeland; and the story of the unexpected friendship she forms with the new Master mage, a fire priest who is no longer quite human. It was just the thing for a relentlessly rainy weekend at the end of September.


Best News of the Week

I talked to my parents last night back in Michigan -- which has been a tight swing state in recent election cycles -- and they reported that the McCain campaign is so far behind that they're pulling out and leaving the state to Obama & co.! Aside from hearing that Brian and Renee have adopted a puppy, I think this might be the best news to come by way this week. Go Michiganders!

*image borrowed from handmade detroit via the sweetie pie press.


Booknotes: Bonk

A few weeks ago, the Boston Public Library finally notified me that a reserve copy of Mary Roach's latest book, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, was on hold for my reading pleasure. "Hooray!" I thought, "another fun book about sex!" . . . so I checked it out and read it.

I've heard wonderful things about Mary Roach's science writing over the years, from a variety of bibliophile friends, but have not read either of her previous books (Stiff and Spook). They were about death. But, I mean, who wouldn't be entertained by the shenanigans of researchers who dress rats in polyester knickers to test the effect of artificial fabrics on libido? Or pause to consider why in a study "of male and female genital slang carried out at five British universities, respondents came up with 351 ways to say penis . . . and only three for clitoris"? And really, who could resist the knowledge that in the Middle Ages witches were thought to be the cause of impotence: "witches with no formal training in andrology could employ a [simple] approach. They made the man's penis disappear."

Her descriptions of some of the bumbling medical interventions in humans sex lives are often not for the faint of heart, but I found them fascinating in a train-wreck sort of way: so many of our attempts to make sense of human sexuality through the lens of science have been simultanouesly terribly earnest and woefully misguided. In the end, even the most enthusiastic scientists, it seems, have come to the conclusion that what turns people on (or off) is unpredictable, varied, and irreducibly complex.

Roach ends her book with a description of one of Masters and Johnson's later works, published in 1979, which describes the experiences of a group of lesbian, gay, and straight couples, committed and not, whom they invited to their labs and put under the microscope:
Ultimately, [Masters and Johnson] set aside their stopwatches and data charts and turned a qualitative eye upon their volunteers. What emerged were two portraits. There was efficient sex -- skillful, efficient, goal-directed, uninhibited, and with a very low "failure incidence" . . . gay, straight, committed or not . . . [they] tended to have, as they say, 100 percent orgasmic return.

But efficient sex was not amazing sex. The best sex going on in Masters and Johnson's lab was sex being had by the committed gay and lesbian couples. Not because they were practicing special secret homosexual techniques but because they "took their time" (301).
What strikes me is that Masters and Johnson found this simple observation worth noting (and italicizing) in their book . . . isn't time and attention an obvious cornerstone of relational sex? Apparently, for many of the hetero couples Masters and Johnson observed in the late seventies, whatever goal they had in mind (orgasm? procreation?) eclipsed the far richer process of togetherness that the lesbian and gay couples foregrounded in their interactions. The impish side of my soul wonders what the religious right would make of that . . .


Reference 101: Source Evaluations

For my reference class, we're required to review and evaluate many different types of sources throughout the semester. This week, we had a trial run: an assignment to choose a single work in the Simmons library reference collection and review it. This process is something that reference librarians do constantly, either systematically (in recommending acquisitions for reference collections) or more improvisationally (when assisting patrons in answering reference questions). At the MHS, all of us on the Reader Services Staff take our turn highlighting a reference work in our collection as part of an ongoing "reference book of the week" project. For those of you who are interested in what goes into such an evaluation, below is the assignment I did this week for class.

Walter, Lynn. The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Women's Issues Worldwide. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2003.

The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Women’s Issues Worldwide provides researchers with an easily-navigable overview of contemporary women’s issues across the globe. The work is organized in six volumes by geographical region (Asia and Oceania, Central and South America, Europe, The Middle East and North Africa, North America and the Caribbean, and Sub-Saharan Africa). Within each volume, the contents are arranged alphabetically by country, or group of countries, profiled. Each volume was edited by a scholar who is an authority on the region, and contributors are drawn from predominantly American universities, with a healthy representation of individuals at institutions of higher education across the globe.

Each contributor was asked to profile her or his assigned country, or group of countries, with an eye toward “locating women’s agendas,” “differences among women” within the region, and the activities of self-identified women’s movements and non-governmental organizations. Each author follows the same outline, covering uniform topics that fall under the broad categories of “education,” “employment and the economy,” “family and sexuality,” “health,” “politics and law,” “religion and spirituality,” “violence,” and “outlook for the twenty-first century.” The summary narrative is augmented by a selected bibliography and resource guide within each chapter that points the researcher to further information in suggested readings, audio-visual and Internet material, and organizations of note.

With each chapter laid out in the same basic pattern, it is fairly simple for the researcher to cross-reference subjects such as “contraception and abortion” to find out how access to birth control varies depending on whether one lives in Denmark, the United States, or South Africa. Each volume contains a subject and person index for that volume, with a comprehensive index found at the end of volume six. Maps and images are included, though not in color, and are not indicated in a separate index. Appendices in each volume provide statistical information on the education, health, economic status, and political participation of women in the region.

Reviewing the encyclopedia for Choice Reviews Online in May 2004, P. Palmer describes the work as “current, well written, and informative, providing scholarly content, useful detail, and sound documentation.” Sally Moffitt, reviewing for Reference & User Services Quarterly, highlights the ease of cross-country comparisons and points out that “it will be a matter of regret if its editors fail to bring out regularly updated editions.” Indeed, since it was published in 2003 the Encyclopedia of Women’s Issues is now five years out of date as a truly contemporary source of information on global women’s issues. However, it remains the most recently-published resource attempting this level of breadth and depth, and is a valuable tool for both entry-level students of women’s studies as well as higher-level researchers seeking comparative data the status and experience of women worldwide. The target audience is students and faculty in higher education, although high school students with a particular research need will also find it accessible and informative.

[1] P. Palmer, review of The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Women’s Issues Worldwide, by Lynn Walter, Choice Reviews Online (May 2004). Available online at http://0-www.cro2.org.library.simmons.edu/default.aspx?page=reviewdisplay&pid=2658010. Accessed 27 September 2008.

[2] Sally Moffitt, review of The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Women’s Issues Worldwide, by Lynn Walter, Reference & User Services Quarterly vol. 43, no. 4 (Summer 2004): 348-349.


What Aaron Sorkin Said

As much as Maureen Dowd's views on politics and feminism piss me off, I might consider forgiving her a teensy little bit because she called up Aaron Sorkin and had him write a Bartlet and Obama meeting for her column in the New York Times.

OBAMA They pivoted off the argument that I was inexperienced to the criticism that I’m — wait for it — the Messiah, who, by the way, was a community organizer. When I speak I try to lead with inspiration and aptitude. How is that a liability?

Because the idea of American exceptionalism doesn’t extend to Americans being exceptional. If you excelled academically and are able to casually use 690 SAT words then you might as well have the press shoot video of you giving the finger to the Statue of Liberty while the Dixie Chicks sing the University of the Taliban fight song. The people who want English to be the official language of the United States are uncomfortable with their leaders being fluent in it.

OBAMA You’re saying race doesn’t have anything to do with it?

BARTLET I wouldn’t go that far. Brains made me look arrogant but they make you look uppity. Plus, if you had a black daughter —

OBAMA I have two.

BARTLET — who was 17 and pregnant and unmarried and the father was a teenager hoping to launch a rap career with “Thug Life” inked across his chest, you’d come in fifth behind Bob Barr, Ralph Nader and a ficus.

You’re not cheering me up.

BARTLET Is that what you came here for?

OBAMA No, but it wouldn’t kill you.

I miss the West Wing every day . . .

via Jill at Feministe.

*image borrowed from tvsquad.com.


Booknotes: Harmful to Minors

It isn't exactly hot off the presses, but I was following citations in Jessica Fields' book on sex education and discovered Judith Levine's 2002 work Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex. Levine is a feminist activist and journalist, and her analysis of the political, adult framework for both understanding and dealing with childhood sexuality is heavily weighted toward the legal-political framework. However, she does the deeper understanding of childhood and sexuality (separately and entwined together) that permeates our cultural narratives about situations such as sexual consent and sex education.

A common thread running through many books I read on human sexuality and American culture, from Ariel Levy's Female Chauvenist Pigs (2005) to Heather Corinna's s.e.x. (2007) and Fields' Risky Lessons is the discomfort Americans have with sexual pleasure and joy, despite the proliferation of hyper-sexual imagery. We are told through educational and entertainment mediums that sex is both highly dangerous and highly compelling -- but we're not so good at (or are frightening of) articulating sexual joy. Levine considers what this cultural skittishness means for children and young adults, who are bombarded with message of self-defense against sexual activity, but provided with few resources or protected, private, spaces in which to develop their own bodily knowledge, and consider the way in which sexuality can be an expression of positive human connection and physical embodiment.

In her epilogue, she pulls back to place the specific concern about children's sexual agency within a larger framework of children's rights as human rights:
When we are ready to invite children into the community of fully participating citizens, I believe we will respect them as people not so different from ourselves. That will be the moment at which we respect their sexual autonomy and agency and realize that one way to help them cultivate the capacity to enjoy life is to educate their capacity for sexual joy.(224)
These connections between embodiment, pleasure, childhood, education, and human rights are some of the threads I'm hoping to tease out in my history research this term, as I explore the counter-cultural (and establishment) educational endeavors of early-19th century thinkers and activists such as Bronson Alcott and Horace Mann. Levine's research is largely contemporary, but the themes she teases out are recurring tensions in attitudes toward children and the educational project.


Boats Along the Charles

I haven't posted any photos of Boston for a while, so yesterday when Hanna met me after work to walk home along the Charles River, I took my camera and snapped a few pictures.

You can see the album over at Picasa if you prefer the larger images.


Quote(s) of the Week: What Ann & Rebecca Said

In response to charges of sexism against feminist activists from the right-wing media (what alternate universe have we wandered into?), Ann over at feministing writes:

The real sexism against Palin . . . has been the flip-side of the sexism against Hillary Clinton. A sadly perfect illustration of the Catch-22 women face. You're either a scary, ugly, old, mannish harpy. Or a ditzy, perky, fuckable bimbo. . . The sexist remarks about Clinton and Palin are like our hate mail ("you ugly man-hater!" followed by "gimme a blow job!") writ large.

Rebecca Hyman, writing at AlterNet, expands on these same themes:

It's obvious that the caricature of Palin to which we're being exposed is the inverse of the caricature of Hillary Clinton. Even if you'd missed the first half of the campaign, all you'd have to do is flip the script. If Palin is "better suited to be a calendar model for a local auto body shop than a holder of the second-highest office in the land," then Clinton is a dumpy, frigid, post-menopausal, castrating bluestocking who only got women's votes because she was a victim of her husband's indiscriminate -- but hell, with that kind of wife? -- sexual transgressions. At least the Right gets the "sexy librarian"; those of us on the other side are stuck with the saccharine Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuits.
There are many reasons to be against McCain/Palin as the presidential ticket -- not the least of which is their own sexist politics -- but I'm proud that feminist writers are insisting on a more nuanced understanding of how sexism is playing out in this race, and how all women -- Sarah Palin included! -- are judged according to narrow, gender-based stereotypes.