24 April 2005

The Times' coverage of the Pope; a policy proposal in Science

One of the publications and commentators that I regularly read online is the New York Times' Public Editor, an ombudsperson and "reader's representative". This Sunday's column is on the Times' coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict. It's nice, if not particularly deep; I'm hoping that he discusses soon the more newsworthy issue of the Times' coverage of the Pope. To this end I sent him the following e-mail:
I would love to read your views on the recent coverage of the death and election of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. In particular, I've found it very amusing comparing the Time's coverage of John Paul II, which was relatively glowing, discussing his work against communism and for peace, with that of, say, 365gay.com, an online gay daily newspaper, which uniformly condemned the Pope's homophobia (see, for example, <http://www.365gay.com/newscon05/04/040105popeDies.htm>, their lead story announcing his death). The coverage of Pope Benedict, on the other hand, began with a number of articles describing various reactions from American and international Catholics. He is very conservative (I've seen the word "fascist" attached to his name in a discussion of his recent career as Cardinal Ratzinger), and the Times did not let its readers forget this, nor that many Catholics are concerned that he is too conservative.

It is extremely unlikely that the Pope will live for very many years. Will the Times then remember him as a great man, a well-educated polyglot who travelled the world encouraging Christianity and good spirit, and reaching out to Secularists and Jews, or as a misogynist and homophobe, theologically conservative even for a Catholic leader, who restricted (if there's any room to restrict) the role of women within the Church, and spoke out even more strongly than his predecessor against homosexuality, feminism, and religious tolerance?
We'll see if he picks up the story.

Science Magazine on Friday published a one-page Policy Forum piece (the weekly Policy Forum is, by design, read by congressional staffers) on child sexual abuse. In it the authors outline our society's present failure at addressing issues of child abuse, and suggests, among other things, that the NIH should introduce a new Institute (these come along every five years or so) on Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence.

I'm hoping that Congress follows the suggestions, and more generally that consciousnesses are raised about this public health issue. The article is available through the Science Website, to which many universities subscribe:

Freyd, J.J., Putnam, F.W., Lyon, T.D., Becker-Blease, K. A., Cheit, R.E., Siegel, N.B., & Pezdek, K. (2005). The science of child sexual abuse. Science, 308, 501.

SUMMARY: http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/summary/308/5721/501
FULL TEXT: http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/308/5721/501
PDF: http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/reprint/308/5721/501.pdf

14 April 2005

Sexism in taxes and Harvard presidential remarks

I would like to direct your attention to two recent writings by other people on gender and sexism.

(1) In an editorial in The Register-Guard, Sandra Morgen and Linda Basch argue that Bush's tax cuts are specifically unfair to women.

(2) Like most e-mail lists, that of my house at school had a flury of e-mails when Harvard President Summers made his inflamatory comments about women in math and science. That flury died down, but a recent e-mail from a housemate asking for comments for a Women-in-Science-conference preview article prompted the following response from another housemate:
While I agree with [one resident, who suggested that we should investigate the possibility of innate differences rather than ruling them out due to a worry that they are un-PC] that ignorance should be avoided rather than sought, I think that it's high time for nativism to give up the ghost. Darwinian process-oriented thought should long ago have driven nature-vs.-nurture debates into obsolescence. There is no such dichotomy. What traits individuals possess are conditioned by the constraints of genetics as well as by social/environmental influences, and differences in either can significantly affect the results, especially in the case of such things as high-level cognitive processes. There is no benchmark, no zero state of social conditioning against which to measure the effect of genetics; if it weren't for our intensive social conditioning, we would all be pre-symbolic wild beasts. Nature selects for pathways that lead to certain ultimate phenotypic results, and it makes no difference whether these pathways rely more or less on genetic determinism rather than on given environmental circumstances to constrain their trajectories to the selected-for result.

It also seems clear that the variables in question are (in our current set of historically determined genetic-environmental circumstances) particularly sensitive to minor changes in social conditions, well beyond the range of what is considered significant, as evidenced by such facts as that presently much higher proportions of Eastern European women are very successful in hard sciences than are women from other areas. Innateness is a useless category, an illusion. It seems to me that the fire behind every nature-vs.-nurture debate arises entirely from the desire to avoid responsibility for the trait in question (or, reciprocally, to assume (or at least pin) such responsibility). But whether something is natural does not determine whether it is ethical. Besides, in the near future genetics themselves are likely to increasingly become a matter of conscious choice, as we gain the ability to manipulate them (assuming we avoid major apocalyptic catastrophe), which will further destabilize the effectiveness of nature-based arguments at eliminating responsibility. The only relevant aspect of reality plausibly affected by such a classification of attributes is how difficult they are to change, not whether we should try to change them.

In summary, (i) NOTHING is immutable; (ii) the fact that something may be very difficult to change does not in any case morally justify it; (iii) the only ethical action is to choose desired states of the world (locally & globally), & use whatever abilities we possess to try to achieve these goals. The question, in the final analysis, cannot be whether a dream is "natural", but only whether it is good; & if so, how it may be attained.
Well said.

03 April 2005

We Should Promote Same-Sex Marriage

I would like to direct your attention to Galois, a New York-based mathematician who blogs about same-sex marriage. In particular, his most recent post, titled Encourage, Not Just Permit, Same-Sex Marriage raises some good points. I think, however, that it is not radical enough. Gabriel continues to focus more on individual health than on broad trends in gender and sexuality in society, and in my response to his post I outline a much more radical argument as to why encouraging same-sex marriage is so important.

I will certainly have future posts in this space on the same topic. For my records, as much as your laziness, I will reprint all but the first two paragraphs of my response here (the first two paragraphs are directly addressed to Gabriel, and the third paragraph could be a first). I encourage your comments; they will help me develop this into a full essay.

Conservatives worry that SSM will threaten the institution of marriage, and they're right. Same-sex marriage does threaten the institution: specifically, it threatens the patriarchal, oppressive regime that is traditional heteronormative marriage. By legitimizing female-female and male-male romantic and sexual couples as the same as married female-male couples, SSM suggests that traditional marriages, with well-defined gender roles in which the women are regularly subordinate, are unneeded. A world with gender-neutral marriage is a world with gender-liberated and empowered marriages, in which women need not stay in their place and men can behave in manors traditionally feminine (and hence inferior). Many arch-conservatives are smart, and they know exactly what's going to happen. They're simply wrong about whether it's a good thing or a bad thing.

I support marriage equality primarily because it helps women. Perhaps, as an added benefit, it will discourage gay men from the kind of unsafe sex that continues to spread STDs even fifteen years after the AIDS epidemic became big news. There are many positive things about queer subcultures that should be adopted into mainstream culture and many things (like male promiscuity) that should not.

There has always been, in every culture, some form(s) of homosexuality, and most of them were/are tolerated, since they don't particularly threaten the patriarchy (e.g. Classical Greek and modern Catholic Bishop male-male pedophilia). Women and men have always been intimate with people of the same and different genders. The culture wars now center on a new, pernicious homosexuality that purports to establish gender as irrelevant.

That's the radical gay agenda, and that, not some concern over whether an individual homosexual has the best and healthiest family life, is why we should support same sex marriage.