Sunday, March 31, 2013

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

Today, despite all of the gains we have made, neither men nor women have real choice.  Until women have supportive employers and colleagues as well as partners who share family responsibilities, they don't have real choice.  And until men are fully respected for contributing inside the home, they don't have real choice either.  Equal opportunity is not equal unless everyone receives the encouragement that makes seizing those opportunities possible.  Only then can both men and women achieve their full potential.

In a lot of ways, Lean In is somewhat of a sequel to The Feminine Mystique.  Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, doesn't tackle as broad a scope as Friedan, preferring to focus on women's experiences and opportunities in corporate America, but she addresses and gives updates on many of the issues that Friedan explored in her classic.  On one hand, we've come a long way in the last fifty years.  I also appreciate that Sandberg recognizes that things are a lot worse in other countries and even for women in America who aren't the target audience of this book, which is clearly educated, middle to upper class women.  On the other hand, Sandberg says that "knowing things could be worse should not stop us from trying to make them better" and that "it is time to face the fact that the revolution has stalled."  She notes the disparities in the numbers of men and women leading countries and large companies, and exhorts us to push toward real equality, not just the promise of equality.

Sandberg's focus, unlike Friedan's, is less on society and more on women themselves.  She argues that many times women hold themselves back, refusing to take advantage of opportunities or contribute.  Sandberg exhorts women to "lean in," to sit at the main table and not take a chair at the side of the room, among other things.  She also argues that it totally makes sense for women to sit back and let men push for promotions or get raises.  One of the most interesting parts of the book is when Sandberg cites the Howard/Heidi study done at Harvard several years ago.  In the study, subjects were given the same description of a businessperson's career, strengths, weaknesses, personality, etc, but the name on some of the descriptions was Heidi and on the others it was Howard.  Despite the fact that the stories were identical in everything but the gender of the subject, the participants, both men and women, in the study found Howard more likeable than Heidi.  Heidi was seen as pushy, uncaring, and basically a bitch, while Howard was seen as driven and hard working.  (I was bothered by how reminiscent this was of the college student Friedan interviewed who said, "It's not too smart to be smart").  Sandberg gets into some amateur sociology and describes how women are expected to focus more on the community and the well being of others, while men are free to look out for themselves.  Given these expectations, is it any wonder that women don't lean in?

Sandberg provides advice, both on an individual level and on an institutional level.  On the individual level, the advice is basically be more like men.  In some cases her perspective is constructive; it's appropriate to tell women to have more self confidence and not to give up opportunities just because maybe, some day down the road, they'll want to have a family.  In other ways, I feel like she should be instructing men to be more like women, or at least advising both to stop doing some things.  For example, she relays an anecdote about an attorney friend who was much more conservative in her billing.  If she didn't feel like she was doing her best work, she'd discount the amount of time she'd spent, while men bill even when they just have a passing thought about a client while in the shower.  Sandberg argues that the men are more valuable to their firms and that therefore they will be more likely for advancement and that women should follow their lead.  As an attorney myself, I found her friend's practices much more ethical.

On the institutional level, her advice has made more progress, in part by pointing out inequalities and male privilege.  As much as this book is addressed to women trying to make their way in corporate America, it's also addressed to the men leading it, and it's already having an impact.  Cisco CEO John Chambers made headlines when he came out with a positive review.  "While I have always considered myself sensitive to and effective on gender issues in the workplace, my eyes were opened in new ways and I feel a renewed sense of urgency to make the progress we haven’t made in the last decade,” wrote Chambers. “After reading Lean In and listening to Sheryl, I realize that, while I believe I am relatively enlightened, I have not consistently walked the talk...”  The failed aphorism notwithstanding, Chambers touches on a very important theme explored in this book.  A big step we need to take toward achieving true equality is for men and women both to recognize the barriers that women still have to overcome.  Sandberg even cites a study that shows people are even more likely to unconsciously prefer men over women when they think they are unbiased.  Hopefully Chambers's public reaction is a catalyst and a sign of things to come.

The male corporate leaders of America aren't the only men Lean In is for.  Sanberg also devotes a lot of pages emphasizing the importance of having a supportive partner.  Even though women still do a disproportionate amount of housework and childcare, I do think this is an area in which we're improving.  

In the end, this actually is an area where consciousness raising can have a tangible, material effect, and I think Lean In does a good job of drawing attention to some important issues.

I am not going to devote a whole post to The Host, I just felt like I should explain myself a little.  I read an interview the other day in which Stephanie Meyer said that she was a feminist.  With so many female celebrities eschewing that label, I figured I should investigate.  I certainly wasn't going to read the Twilight books again, so I went with The Host instead (which, it turns out, was actually a lot better than the vampire ones.  Not super great, but a lot better).  My verdict is that while The Host doesn't have a lot of the traditional feminist themes you see female protagonist based media like Buffy, that doesn't make it anti-feminist, necessarily.  Sure, Wanderer/Melanie are primarily motivated by the men in their life/lives, but at least the book has a female protagonist who is honorable and heroic, plus the movie will pass the Bechdel test (two or more women in the movie that talk to each other about something other than a man.  It actually happens in a lot fewer movies than you'd think).  So not really a feminist manifesto, but not as dubious as the Twilight books and not as terrible a read, either.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Don't Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America by David Kennedy

Because nobody likes what’s going on now.


We can’t see it because we’re all too locked in opposition.  The cops are writing off the hot neighborhoods, the hot neighborhoods think the cops are race predators, the street guys hate the cops and people who call the cops, the cops think the street guys are sociopaths, it all goes full circle.  Everybody thinks everybody else is doing this because they want to, nobody talks to each other, when we do it’s all anger and accusation, it never goes anywhere.  It’s hiding in plain sight, but we can’t see it.

Nobody’s having fun.

Problem: gang violence spinning out of control, bystanders (read: innocent children) are getting shot in the cross fire.

Kennedy’s approach: 1) investigate and surveil the gangs to determine who the members are and build cases against them; 2) call them all together in a meeting with community organizers, prosecutors, and police officers; 3) tell them, “We know who you are, who is behind the violence, and we need it to stop.  Now.  The next gang involved in a shooting is getting shut down.  All these cases we’ve built, we’ll prosecute them against everyone in that gang;” 4) offer them connections to community resources.

Kennedy believes one of the causes of gang violence is the breakdown between law enforcement and the community they’re supposed to be protecting.  The community believes that officers don’t care about them, that officers are racist and are looking for any excuse to send young black men to prison.  If officers cared, the reasoning goes, why do they allow the neighborhood to be in such bad shape?  The officers, on the other side, believe that the communities want to suffer the pervasive violence of their neighborhoods.  If the community cared, why would they refuse to call officers with information about crimes?

Kennedy’s approach seeks to resolve this problem by getting the community involved and engaged with law enforcement.  The outreach allows officers to speak directly to gang members and convey that they do, in fact, care about them.  Officers don’t want to send people to prison unnecessarily.  On the other side, by putting gang members in front of the officers, officers see that the gang members are not sociopaths.

Of course some violent offenders are sociopaths.  But, Kennedy’s approach is not aimed at officers controlling individual behavior; rather, the approach is aimed at giving individuals within the gang an incentive to control each others’ behavior.  “Make sure your colleagues are under control, or we’re shutting your entire gang down.”  By creating a group incentive to prevent each other from engaging in violence, individual gang members no longer have the legitimacy that justified their actions before.  

And, Kennedy’s approach works.  In the cities where the approach was taken, violent crime rates dropped (the book is essentially a summary of Kennedy’s work with cities and his academic work collecting data).  This without widespread violation of constitutional rights and without rifts between community and police officers.

Why do we care?  Because this is a cost-efficient and effective method of crime deterrence.  It’s deterrence without the destructive social costs of stop-and-frisks, arrests, or prison. 

For those of us invested in the criminal justice system, this approach offers a chance to put us out of business.  We can say “no” to the prison industrial complex.  Put differently: it’s great to vindicate a defendant’s constitutional rights and prevent the state from over-reaching; it’s better if the defendant never got arrested because he didn’t commit a crime.  Or, for the prosecutors out there: it’s great to send a criminal to his deserved punishment; it’s better to have prevented the crime altogether.

Kennedy’s point is that we can prevent crime without destroying lives and communities.  Given that we can, why aren't we?

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Deconstructing Jacques

Jacques Derrida, who I'm not smart enough to read yet, was an interesting guy. My favorite thing about this review of Derrida: A Biography by Benoît Peeters, however, is its wonderful explanation of one of the key tenants of deconstructionism, exclusion:

Through a series of deft and delicate maneuvers, Derrida sought to show that speech is inextricable from writing, no more or less authentic. The difference between the two depends, as all differences do, on a process of enforced absence or repression: a is a only because it is not b, and thus b is never entirely out of the picture. With the tenacity of a gumshoe, he haunted texts by Plato, Rousseau, Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Marx, and Hegel, among dozens of others, exposing the ways in which the subjugated or banished half of a crucial pair—inside/outside, man/woman, reason/madness, signifier/signified—continued to plague its partner.
The rest of the article is well worth reading. Check it out here.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Capital of the World by Charlene Mires

When discussing government infrastructure, as I often do, the question sometimes arises, “Why is this organization located here, and not here?” I have always assumed that most buildings are placed by playing a riveting game of “Pin the Building on the Map” and then having a few drinks. I kid, but in truth, this is not a topic most people, myself included give a lot of thought to. Charlene Mires’ Capital of the World, which follows the United Nations from conception to finding its own place, reveals the truth behind the process: it’s not a game of darts, it’s more like a finely tuned farce, where dozens of setpieces move ridiculously before dovetailing, in the end, to a denouement that seems inevitable. One of the people in the book says it should be a movie; I’d like to nominate the Marx Brothers to star.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression: Mires’ book is not a work of humor. It’s a scholarly work whose bulk is nearly 25% endnotes and other appendices, and, though Mires is a good writer, she isn’t aiming for comedy. It’s just that, as the story plays out, it’s hard not to laugh. There’s a large cast of characters and the story is writ large on the world stage. Apparently, everyone wanted the U.N. in their backyard (except Concord, CT) and residents, from average Joes to the Rockefellers, fought to get it there. The size of the “capital” also went through various metamorphoses during the process: originally conceived as a small town, the U.N. eventually became a large compound instead.

There’s far too much content in Mires’ book to go into much detail about the process, but Mires keeps the book moving at a pretty steady pace, even if I did get a little bogged down once or twice in the endless litany of names and places presented for consideration. Of course, even that isn’t necessarily a bad thing--it probably accurately replicated how the U.N. felt after being approached dozens of times by boosters from South Dakota, Michigan, San Francisco, and, of course, New York. The material, which could potentially be very dry, is handled well, and I suspect that someone more attuned to world history or any of the civic areas the book touches on would enjoy it even more than I did. There are also numerous photos and sketches throughout, and they serve as a powerful illustration of how crazily monomanicial the various boosters got in pursuit of their cause.

In the end, the U.N. ends up in New York City, of course, and, to us 75 years later, the competition for the U.N. looks a little silly. Mires is aware of this, but she addresses it well at the end of the book when she says:
Looking back, if it all seems a little crazy, then we have lost touch with the atmosphere of determination, hope, and anxiety the characterized American society at the end of the Second World War. We have forgotten the time when people in cities and towns across the United States imagined themselves on the world stage--and not just the stage, but at its center as the stars of the show.
If you want to see if your hometown was a contender, check out the full list at Mires' blog, Capital of the World.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Monk by Matthew Lewis

'Return to your home?' repeated the Monk, with bitter and contemptuous mockery; Then suddenly his eyes flaming with passion, 'What?  That you may denounce me to the world?  That you may proclaim me an Hypocrite, a Ravisher, a Betrayer, a Monster of cruelty, lust, and ingratitude?  No, no, no!  I know well the whole weight of my offences; Well, that your complaints would be too just, and my crimes too notorious!  You shall not from hence to tell Madrid that I am a Villain; that my conscience is loaded with sins, which make me despair of Heaven's pardon.  Wretched Girl, you must stay here with me!  Here amidst these lonely Tombs, these images of Death, these rotting loathsome corrupted bodies!  Here shall you stay, and witness my sufferings; witness, what it is to die in the horrors of despondency, and breathe the last grown in blasphemy and curses!

Ambrosio, the title character of Matthew Lewis' The Monk, is the most renowned man in Madrid, a man so virtuous that he never ventures out of the walls of his monastery, except once a week to deliver a sermon to the people of the city.  He's so virtuous that someone jokes that he "knows not the difference between man and woman"--but this naivete becomes the breeding ground for his corruption.  Ambrosio, seduced by a devoted female follower who gains access to the monastery by pretending to be a monk, slowly but surely gives himself over to his insatiable lust, which leads him to kidnap, rape, and murder.

The Monk caused quite a scandal.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge lamented that a member of Parliament could write such a book.  It shocked Ann Radcliffe, because its method is so different from hers--instead of teasing us with the spectral suggestion of horrible events, Lewis makes us face the gruesome head-on.  This works because Lewis has a sense of humor, and even when writing about the most shocking material, he seems to understand that its fundamental ridiculousness.  I said in my review of Radcliffe's The Italian that I don't think her work holds up in the 20th century because the bar of what shocks us is so much higher, but The Monk remains engaging because, while it doesn't really shock either, it remains a terrific black comedy:

As She uttered these last words, She lifted her arm, and made a motion as if to stab herself.  The Friar's eyes followed with dread the course of the dagger.  She had torn open her habit, and her bosom was half exposed.  The weapon's point rested upon her left breast: And Oh! that was such a breast!  The Moon-beams darting full upon it, enabled the Monk to observe its dazzling whiteness.  His eye dwelt with insatiable avidity upon the beauteous Orb.

In fact, what makes this passage and others like it so great is the way that it treats this material with so little seriousness: I can understand why the Coleridges and Radcliffes of the world found such a dark mixture of violence and sexuality disturbing, but the winking pretentiousness of the phrase "beauteous Orb" seems like it ought to deflate such revulsion. 

(One exception to this--and here I'll issue a SPOILER ALERT--is the episode late in the novel when a pregnant woman named Agnes, separated from her lover and forced into the nunnery, is locked in the dungeon by the evil Prioress where she gives birth.  Without food, the child dies and Agnes begins to waste away, but she is unable to part from the body of the child, so she holds on to it until it becomes a "mass of putridity."  That I found legitimately shocking.)

Lewis uses the story of Ambrosio as a back-drop for a collection of Gothic tales he's collected from other sources: There's the kindly homeowner who murders the travelers who pass the night in his house, and the ghost of the Bleeding Nun, who appears at the stroke of one every five years.  There are incantations of Lucifer, who appears as an attractive young man.  (Lewis himself was more or less openly homosexual.)  Each of these stories is really fantastic (and if I hadn't just written a fifteen-page paper on the novel, I'd have a lot more to say about them).  You get the sense that, even though the Gothic tradition he was working in wasn't something as codified or established as we think of it today, Lewis was really interested in pushing the boundaries of the expectations of the genre, and his frenetic, voracious use of these tales is surprisingly seamless.

Ultimately, Lewis was taken to court, and forced to republish The Monk without murder, rape, descriptions of nudity or accounts of witchcraft.  (All that was left, I imagine, was the introductory poem.)  Someone accused me the other day of liking "stuffy" novels--which, in some cases, is a fair dig.  But The Monk is pretty much "Exhibit A" why equating "old" with "stuffy" is idiotic: How many novels from the twentieth century are as bold, irreverent, or cathartic?

Friday, March 22, 2013

"There is that great proverb -- that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter..."

"Once I realized that, I had to be a writer. I had to be that historian," he said.

"It's not one man's job. It's not one person's job. But it is something we have to do, so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail -- the bravery, even, of the lions."

It's hard to overstate what Achebe meant to the literature of the world and of Africa in particular, I think.  For much of the Western world, Achebe basically was African literature.  In that way, I think his influence and his importance outstrip the quality of his books.  If that sounds backhanded, I don't mean it that way--Things Fall Apart is a good novel, but its legacy will always be greater than its literary value.  Very few authors did more to share the "bravery... of the lions" of the world.  RIP.

Achebe on 50BP:

Things Fall Apart (Christopher)
No Longer At Ease (Christopher)

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Mr. Collins and the "Friend Zone"

"How do you feel about 'Friends with Benefits?'"
When I blogged earlier this year about Ron Rosenbaum's article in Slate asking whether Jane Austen was overrated, I used Mr. Collins' proposal to Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice as an example of what really makes Austen great, and to try to push back against the idea that her books aren't serious.

Lo and behold, that very scene cropped up in Slate today, in a discussion about "the friend zone":

All this demonstrates what Jane Austen was trying to tell us 200 years ago: Sometimes it doesn't pay to let a guy down easy. Many a woman has uttered the phrase "Let's just be friends" on the theory that something a little more direct would result in an angry reaction. But really, even if your suitor goes so far as to cough up a word that starts with a b or even a c, is that really worse than having him go on Tumblr and write self-pitying posts about how the woman who belongs to him refuses to accept her fate? If you suspect that you're dealing with a guy who is comfortable with the term friend zone, then there's no reason not to be blunt in your rejection, preferably by saying, "I could never be with a man whose beard smells like Cheeto dust."

The highlighted link goes to Mr. Collins' proposal.  I'll spare you my very complex thoughts on "the friend zone" (which boil down to: certainly it's appropriately used SOME of the time) and just say that I'm pretty amused by the image of Mr. Collins galloping back to Lady Catherine and explaining that Elizabeth had "put him in the friend zone."

And now that I think about, didn't Jane Austen write a book that was precisely about a guy who manages to escape "the friend zone?"

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Prague Winter by Madeleine Albright

The sepia-tone picture of a young Albright on the cover may lead you to think of this book as a memoir. This wouldn't necessarily be wrong, depending on your definition of a memoir. However, the subtitle of the book, A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948, provides a better indication of the type of book Prague Winter is.

The book is a personal story, but it is a personal story told by one of the most powerful women of the 20th Century, a woman whose family suffered through harsh conditions during the war. The resulting story is a unique mix of personal, Czechoslovakian , and international history that is at once complex and highly readable.

Prague Winter opens in the 1990s, with Albright discovering that her family has Jewish ancestry, and that members of her extended family perished during the Holocaust. This is the beginning of Albright's incredible personal journey, and she invites readers to join her on her quest for discovery.

Anyone who has done genealogical research knows that it can often be slow going, and that it must be coupled with historical context to give it meaning. Some of this process is replicated in the pages of this book. Albright supplies her readers with the context necessary to fully appreciate and understand her personal story.

Prague Winter is not a simple recollection of memories. It is a multifaceted work of history, both personal and informative. Readers will learn as much about the former Czechoslovakia as they will about Albright and her family.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

That's what fiction is about, isn't it, the selective transforming of reality? The twisting of it to bring out its essence?

This book is a triumph.  The story begins in Pondicherry, India, with the son of the a zookeeper named Pi Patel. Pi's life in India is unique and sets up the main part of book. Pi is a curious and eternally optimistic young boy. In the setting of the religious diversity of Southern India, Pi becomes a follower of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam.  Pi, the eternal optimist, webs together the most hopeful messages of the three religions.  Foreshadowing a much larger test of faith, Pi has a chance encounter in the market with his three religious masters.  Previously unaware of Pi's divided loyalties, the three men of god have a nasty fight over Pi's faith, highlighting all the nasty parts of the three main faiths.  This encounter makes an impression on the young Pi, but his own faith in god, and not the humans who define god, endures.  And is yet to encounter its biggest challenge.  Pi's family decides to move from India to Toronto.  They make arrangements with a Japanese freighter because they have to transport and sell their animals in North America.  The freighter sinks and, amazingly, Pi ends up on a life raft.  That's when the challenges, and the brilliance of Martel's book begins.

“I must say a word about fear. It is life's only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unnerving ease. It begins in your mind, always ... so you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don't, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.” 

It is also where my plot summary stops, for reasons that will only become clear once you read the book yourself (which, you will).  Suffice the say, the book takes on a sublime quality reminiscent of Moby Dick (a book Pi actually references in one of his many soliloquies). Pi creatively applies his knowledge base of animals, nature and religion to ensure his survival.  The books does drag a bit as Pi gets progressively more discouraged by the challenges of surviving on his own, but Martel's imagery,  symbolism and Pi's intellectual tangents allows the reader to power through the long plot lull.  The comes the end, which will blow your mind and, more importantly, change your perception of everything you just read.

"If you stumble about believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?"

We know Pi survives because current day is intermixed at random points of the story.  Until chapter 99, the message of the book is not very clear, but then it suddenly hits the reader. The book questions why choosing to believe the most optimistic version of reality from equally unlikely versions is viewed as a form of naievte instead of immensely logical.  At its heart, the book reaffirms faith.  Its a rarity to find a serious book that reinforces, instead of questioning, faith, optimism and hope without being hokey.  

Even more remarkable than Martel's narrative is the fact Ang Lee was able to make this into a movie.  Obviously the movie is not as good as the book.  But I can see why many called this book unfilmable, and it took a special person with the vision to create a movie that matches the depth of the book.  Read it first - the surprise is gone, but the sutibility of Lee's directions become more apparent and genius.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

What to Read at Your Next Papal Conclave?

Just a day late.

The Myth of Persecution by Candida Moss

Let’s start with my biases. In some ways, I might not be the target audience for this book. I’m a pretty conservative Christian and believe that the Bible is what it says it is. I don’t put a lot of stock in biblical textual criticism that appeals to things like “Q”, and I think a lot of liberal theology is a joke. On the other hand, maybe I’m exactly who it’s for: a believer who wants to know the truth even if it’s difficult or different. Unfortunately, The Myth of Persecution was disappointing--not only did I disagree with Moss’ conclusions in many instances, but I also didn’t find many of her arguments rigorous enough to be worthy of serious consideration.

But first, the good. Moss is a good writer, and the book moves along at a nice clip, covering a lot of material that could have been dull in a quick, enjoyable way. I also really appreciated her attitude throughout, and her desire for open dialog and honest examination of even the most sacred of Christian cows. When she discussed Christians and their modern day martyr complex, I found myself agreeing with her that positing an “us-vs.-them” approach to life ultimately stifles dialog and and prevents open communication and fellowship from taking place. I’ll even go a step further and say that, when Moss draws conclusions at the close of each section, I often agreed with her big picture points, even while i disagreed with the manner in which she reached them.

I don’t want to go through the issues I had point by point, but here’s a summary, followed by a couple examples. Primarily, Moss seems to operate from the perspective that Christian writers can’t be trusted. In virtually every instance where a Christian document disagreed with a non-Christian document--or, in some cases, was simply not corroborated by a secular one--the Christian document is treated as though it were clearly incorrect. Christian writers are repeatedly referred to as “shrill” and Moss clearly views them as uncredible. There are a lot of semantic games as well, one in particular that I’ll touch on below, and data that seems to contradict the thesis of the book--that Christians never experienced sustained persecution--is frequently glossed over lightly.

For example, when discussing Saul, who later became the Apostle Paul, and his persecution of believers, she allows that this may, indeed be an example of actual persecution; however, she then reframes it thusly:
“It wasn’t until the end of the first century that Jesus followers began to refer to themselves as “Christians”. The historical period when Stephen died and Paul was writing cannot be considered a period in which Jews persecuted Christians, because Christians did not yet exist.”
This is semantic hair-splitting of the worst kind. “Christian” literally means “little Christ” and the obvious implication is that a Christian is simply a Christ-follower. By Moss’ logic, Christ-followers who call themselves something besides “Christian” cannot be broadly thought of as persecuted Christians even if they are identical in all but name.

This isn’t the only instance of such pedantry either. Moss develops much of her thesis by carefully delineating between persecution and prosecution. Persecution, in the sense Moss uses it, covers only instances of violence targeted toward a specific group. Therefore, when Decius passed a law forbidding Christians from defending themselves in a court of law, this is not “persecution” but “prosecution”. She draws this same distinction between governmental “persecution” and personal “prosecution”. This seems ridiculous on its face: would anyone seriously argue that the Jews were not persecuted when they were ghettoized in Germany? Did their persecution begin only when violence against them was systematized?

Throughout the book, Moss relies on specious constructions like these, as well as examples that end with “We simply can’t know for sure” but carry the strong implication that her conclusions are correct. She takes traditional stories of martyrs, picks apart the embellishments, and then, frequently, dismisses the story altogether. She even does this with the story of Christ himself, whose death she unconvincingly compares to Socrates, after which she states,
“Every time someone is referred to or described as dying like Christ they are actually dying like Socrates and the Maccabees”
Moss is a scholar of martyrdom, and to some extent, I’m willing to believe that her more scholarly works--this is her first for a general audience--are more substantially argued. The history she covers is fascinating, and her advocacy for historical skepticism is valuable. Her ultimate point--that a martyr complex inhibits, rather than enhances, the Christian life, is strong, and one that many Christians I know could stand to learn. Unfortunately, Moss’ biases and over-reliance on semantics severely undercut her arguments and the book as a whole.

A positive review of the book, from an atheist perspective

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Italian by Ann Radcliffe

I want to get this out of the way now: The Italian is a dumb title.  The whole damn book takes place in Italy, and there's not a single character who isn't Italian, so who is this supposed to refer to?  The young protagonist, Vivaldi?  His beautiful but common love interest, Ellena?  Or the sinister monk Schedoni, who secretly plots on behalf of Vivaldi's mother to prevent an unfavorable marriage by kidnapping Ellena and hiding her in a nunnery?

Now that I've gotten that off my chest, I can focus on the book itself.  You know, I had two basic impressions of Radcliffe from Austen's parody of her work in Northanger Abbey: Her books were pulpy and engaging, but overall she was a poor writer--the Dan Brown or Stephenie Meyer of her day.  Both of these impressions are wrong.  The Italian continuously impressed me by the quality of its language, but it fails to be engaging after the first few chapters.

Coming as I was from the rather stilted and laborious prose of Caleb Williams and Maria, Radcliffe's quick, capable prose was really refreshing.  She has a particular knack for scene-setting--descriptions of towering mountain vistas, or obscure ruins, or shadowy dungeons--that supports her interest in 19th century ideas of the sublime, the idea that the soul can be enlarged and developed by the majesty of nature.  Ellena, trapped in the nunnery with the help of the cruel Prioress (Catholics don't come off too well in this genre), is secretly given access by a friendly nun to a tower overlooking the tremendous beauty of the Italian landscape, which gives her the strength to go on.  The passage I want to share here, however, is the one where Vivaldi is being carted off to Rome to face the Inquisition:

After quitting the Corso, it proceeded for some miles through dark and deserted streets, where only here and there a lamp, hung on high before the image of a saint, shed it's glimmering light, and where a melancholy and universal silence prevailed.  At intervals, indeed, the moon, as the clouds passed away, shewed, for a moment, some of those mighty monuments of Rome's eternal name, those sacred ruins, those gigantic skeletons, which once enclosed a soul, whose energies governed a world!

I love this because 1.) I'm really fascinated by the fact that Rome, once the center of the Western world, had become nearly a ghost town for centuries, vacant except for the Holy See, and 2.) It's a good example of the kind of suspense and terror that Radcliffe tries, and only infrequently manages, to achieve.

Radcliffe believed that terror was also an agent of the sublime, and could enlarge the soul, but she contrasted it against horror, which was more explicit.  Terror is only beneficial when it is ambiguous, predicated on the fear of the possible and not the shock or disgust of real violence.  But this philosophy, at the extremes to which she takes it, is untenable.  First of all, when there is no payoff for our apprehension, the threat diminishes.  Like a 19th century Velma, Radcliffe loves to go back and explain away the sources of fear.  We must know, for example, that the bloody surplice discovered in the ruined palace belonged to a character who had been shot with a stray bullet fired by a character we had forgotten about, and who was inserted just so that such an explanation can be dredged up later.

Secondly, Radcliffe has no conception that there are diminishing returns to this stuff.  As if one scheming, shadowy monk wasn't enough, Radcliffe introduces a second one, and then in the final scenes where Vivaldi must go in front of the Inquisition, suddenly we're in a dark room filled with like twenty scheming, shadowy monks and it all seems a little ridiculous.  Was it really necessary for Austen to parody this, when it does such a good job of parodying itself?

There are elements to The Italian that really work.  The love story between Vivaldi and Ellena, devoted to each other across class barriers, is wonderfully compelling even though the characters themselves are thinly drawn.  But I think that it's not a book one can love in the 21st century, when our bogeymen are made by Industrial Light and Magic.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

The feminine mystique says that the highest value and the only commitment for women is the fulfillment of their own femininity.  It says that the great mistake of Western culture, through most of its history, has been the undervaluation of this femininity.  It says this femininity is so mysterious and intuitive and close to the creation and origin of life that man-made science may never be able to understand it.  But however special and different, it is in no way inferior to the nature of man; it may even in certain respects be superior.  the mistake, says the mystique, the root of women's troubles in the past is that women envied men, women tried to be like men, instead of accepting their own nature, which can find fulfillment only in sexual passivity, male domination, and nurturing maternal love.

I can only imagine how amazing and revolutionary The Feminine Mystique was when it came out.  I found it fascinating, though, fortunately, a little hard to relate to.  Some of the ideas and paradigms that existed in the 50s and early 60s were just bananas (one of my favorite parts of the book was when Friedan listed a selection of articles found in women's magazines of the day, including, "How to Snare a Male," "Really a Man's World, Politics," "Don't Be Afraid to Marry Young," and, of course, "Do Women Have to Talk So Much?").  Sometimes I wondered if it really could have been that crazy, though I don't doubt that it was.  I look forward to getting a chance to talking to some of my older female relatives who grew up in the teeth of the feminine mystique to find out what it was like.

Anyway, Friedan explains how after the feminist successes of the 1920s and the cultural transformations that followed World War II, the American middle class was swept by what she calls the feminist mystique, which encouraged women to stay at home and fostered the belief that a woman's highest purpose was to bear and raise children, the keep up her house and cater to her husband's needs.  Unless a woman worked toward those ends, and only those ends, she couldn't truly fulfill her femininity or her true nature as a woman.  The (incredibly patronizing) belief was that women were intrinsically different than men and that there was something special and magical about them that gave them these unique abilities to be wives and mothers, and that it should be celebrated.  (But while you're being all mystical, get back in the kitchen and make my dinner).

The feminine mystique was reinforced by many media and influences.  Women's education was dominated by "functionalist" philosophies and classes, which taught women how to fulfill their function (bearing and raising children), how to adjust to being a wife and mother, and other relevant skills, like cooking and cleaning.  Increasingly, women got married and had babies before even graduating high school, but those who did get to college didn't engage or pursue career ambitions; instead of B.S.s or B.A.s, they only sought MRSs.  Girls were taught that studying too hard or pursuing a career (beyond a temporary, low skill job like a typist or operator) was too masculine and would make it harder to find a man to marry (without which they'd be unable to fulfill their roles as women).  One girl is quoted as saying, "It's not too smart to be smart."

Even though, Friedan says, companies and their advertisers (or "manipulators") didn't invent the feminine mystique, they absolutely spread it and strengthened it.  It served their interests to have women at home, buying things to make being a housewife easier (though not too easy; she still had to feel like she was important to the process).  The chapter on the manipulators was really fascinating.

The catalyst for The Feminine Mystique was Friedan's observation that many women were suffering from "the problem that has no name," which she saw as a frustration, disappointment and depression with being just a housewife.  Because of the pervasiveness of the feminine mystique, women suffered alone, wracked by guilt and afraid of being judged for not being wholly fulfilled by embracing their femininity.  The problem that has no name manifested itself in various sinister ways, including depression, alcoholism, and suicide attempts. Women tried whatever they could to feel alive, including seeking sex, both in an out of marriage, to destructive extents, trying to find an identity by filling their houses with material goods, and smothering their children until their sons become as emotionally stunted and immature as they are (it doesn't really matter that the girls are emotionally stunted and immature, because that's what makes a good wife and mother).

Friedan's answer to extinguishing the feminine mystique was through actual education and finding something that actually fulfilled her and made use of her talents (this latter point seemed pretty focused on middle and upper class white women who had the luxury of finding their calling, however long it took or however little it paid).  She acknowledged that women who had career ambitions and planned on being "career women" were more stressed out as seniors in college than those who planned on just being housewives, but argued that being stressed is part of growing up and facing the challenges of the real world, as opposed to trying to escape to the relative ease and safety of moving from your parents' house to your husband's and never having go through the growing pains of maturity.  According to Friedan, women are as much subject to Maslow's hierarchy of needs as men, and those women who self-actualize are happier, have happier husbands and marriages, and raise more independent, self-sufficient kids.  I believe Tina Fey would certainly agree, based on what I read in Bossypants.

As insightful and powerful as this book is, it is not without flaws.  One of the things I've focused on most in my feminist renaissance is recognizing my privilege.  As a upper class, straight, white male, there are a lot of things that are a lot easier for me than for other demographics that I have to remember not to take for granted.  Friedan, though, has privileges of her own.  I don't want to diminish the seriousness of the issues that Friedan addresses in this book, because they are very important, but there is an extent to which they are first world problems.  Sure, forcing women, through education and societal pressure/expectations, to surrender their individuality and live their lives "defined only in sexual relation to men - man's wife, sex object, mother, housewife - and never as persons defining themselves by their own actions in society" can be dehumanizing.  That being said, it does make it seem pretty crass when she compares the effects of the feminine mystique to the Holocaust (seriously, she calls a housewife's home a "comfortable concentration camp"), especially less than two decades after an actual genocide (another word she uses).  Her perspective on homosexuality also isn't the most progressive (I'd like to think that most feminists today wouldn't say that " spreading like a murky smog over the American scene.").  I also found her a little repetitive at times and thought she sometimes tried to shoe horn issues or ideas into her theories in a way that wasn't really necessary or convincing.  However, on the whole I thought it was powerful and fascinating.

As foreign as some of the descriptions of life in the early 60s were, I also thought there were some interesting parallels to today.  A common topic that keeps popping up on various sites, like The Atlantic, Slate, New York Times, etc, is whether women can have it all.  Friedan would say that women shouldn't have to choose between having a family and a career (that choice is the one imposed by the feminine mystique), and that having a family and a career is almost essential.  One thing I wonder, though, is whether Friedan goes too far in denigrating women who are "just" housewives.  Is there a way to be a stay at home mom (parent) without losing your individual identity and suffering all of the ills laid out in this book?  Does a woman who chooses to stay home with her children today, when the pressure to do so isn't nearly what it was when the book came out, still suffer from the feminine mystique, or does the increasing interconnectedness of the 21st century mean that one can stay at home without letting the world pass her by?  And how does this apply to men who stay at home?  Meagan and I haven't made any decisions about what we'll do when we have a kid, but we know that we'll do whatever is best for our family.  This may mean that one of us stays home, and I fully accept that it may make sense for that parent to be me.  We'll see, though I think it's evidence of progress not only that our decision won't be determined by anatomy, but that we generally won't be scorned or judged because of it.  That being said, I wonder how much my male privilege prevents me from realizing the more subtle ways that the feminine mystique still exists in America.  I know that we have much less flexible and generous maternity leave than in other countries and that when women do take maternity leave, there is sometimes an assumption that they won't come back to work, at least not for long.  I also know that women are still responsible for more housework and childcare than their husbands (though that ratio is certainly better than it was 30 years ago) and that a presidential candidate of a major political party said just last year that if you're going to have women working for you, you have to be flexible with their hours so they can go home and make dinner for their kids.  So yeah, we've come a long way, but I definitely don't think we're there yet.  In fact, I think this book is almost equally as important today as a reminder of where we've been so we don't go there again.  When women like Suzanne Venker are spouting off on about how women just don't want to be CEOs and that women actually had it better back in the day (who cares if you feel intense societal pressure to conform to some rigid, unfulfilling paradigm when you get to get off the Titanic first!), it's clear that we need to remain vigilant.

On the other hand, I wonder if we're moving toward a "new feminine mystique," where women's strengths are actually valued and not just invented as a way to oppress and patronize women.  I haven't yet gotten to Hannah Rosin's The End of Men, but I read the summary article she wrote and have read enough articles about it to get the gist.  In it, Rosin argues that the days when the most economically valuable traits were physical strength have passed us, and there are more jobs that require communication and compromise, which women traditionally excel at to a greater extent than men.  As a result, there are more opportunities for women than for men, and that trend is becoming more pronounced.

On the whole I thoroughly enjoyed The Feminine Mystique and thought it was very well written and thought provoking.  I definitely recommend it, because as I mentioned, even though it came out 50 years ago this year, it isn't a relic of the past and is still relevant today.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

"Vladimir Nabokov is, once again, controversial."

"...Ever since the wave of urban protest that hit the country in late 2011, Vladimir Putin and his United Russia Party seem to have decided to cut their losses with the country’s finicky élites and focus on demonizing them as Western agents for the benefit of a poorer, older, more rural voter base. So far, this strategy has brought about a ban on U.S. adoptions of Russian children, harsh prison terms for the punk band Pussy Riot, new tools for policing free speech on and off the Internet, and the banishment of USAid on a fresh wave of anti-American paranoia. A simultaneous emphasis on “traditional values” has resulted in the whitewashing of Stalin’s legacy and the reëmergence of the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church as a major political player. (Nabokov once endowed some of his own characters with a similar vision. In “Pnin” he described the loathsome Makarovs, “for whom an ideal Russia consisted of the Red Army, an anointed monarch, collective farms, anthroposophy, the Russian Church and Hydro-Electric Dam.”) Everything blunt, homespun, and orthodox is in. Everything multifaceted, foreign, avant-garde, or deviant is out. “Lolita” didn’t stand a chance."

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft

But, born a woman--and born to suffer, in endeavouring to repress my own emotions, I feel more acutely the various ills my sex are fated to bear--I feel that the evils they are subject to endure, degrade them so far below their oppressors, as almost to justify their tyranny; leading a the same time superficial reasoners to term that weakness the cause, which is only the consequence of short-sighted despotism.

Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin really did belong together.  Her Wrongs of Woman is cut from the same cloth as Godwin's Caleb Williams.  Both focus on members of unrepresented groups--for him, a servant, for her a woman.  Both of them depict their protagonists as being unfairly imprisoned, both to expose the injustice of the English legal system, and to serve as a symbol for social repression ("Was not the world a vast prison, and women born slaves?").  Both pepper their accounts with stories culled from real life accounts of injustice so that we might see that they are more than novels--they are what really happens on a daily basis.

Both are boring as hell.  Wollstonecraft is a better nuts-and-bolt writer than her husband, but her heroine, Maria, has a shadow of Caleb Williams' already paper-thin personality.  Perhaps some of that isn't her fault;  she died before Wrongs of Woman could be finished and so it remains fragmentary.  But I often get the impression that she felt that giving her heroine any kind of weakness or flaw that might make her seem realistic would only play into the hands of her detractors as exemplary of women overall.

Maria is generous, intelligent, and compassionate, but when the story opens, she finds herself committed involuntarily to a mental institution at the behest of her cruel husband, George.  She finds a sympathetic soul in the equally unjustly imprisoned Henry Darnford, to whom she spills out her sad, sad tale: George only married her for access to her uncle's wealth, and when she spoke out against him, he used his superior legal and social clout to have her committed, separating her from her newborn child.

In the late 18th Century, this might have been a moving piece of literature.  Scenes like the one in which a judge, though faced with the cruelty of Maria's husband, admonishes her impertinence in speaking out against him, might have inspired rage.  Or the one where Maria's husband, mired in financial difficulties by his own licentiousness, tries to pimp her out to a friend for cash.  But Wollstonecraft doesn't need to persuade me, and though we have our own breeds of sexism to combat in the 21st Century, The Wrongs of Woman seems like an answer to an already resolved question.  It's so much of its time that it doesn't seem interesting except as a historical artifact.  Maybe that's a good thing.