Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Advanced Hymenomics

One suspects that it’s a hoax. Yet another exquisitely beautiful woman is auctioning off her virginity. This time, the comely lass goes by the name of Elizabeth Raine. Apparently, she is a 28-year-old medical student. The current high bid, per her website, is over $500,000… which is not even close to the record. The most expensive virginities are listed here.

Real identify: The 27-year-old medical school student, pictured, who is auctioning off her virginity on the internet has already received bids in excess of $300,000, as she reveals her face in an effort to attract more hefty offers

One remembers Natalie Dylan, a Women’s Studies major from California who tried to auction off her virginity several years ago. The bidding reached nearly $4,000,000 before the winning bidder pulled out… so to speak. No further news about Dylan is available, so people sensibly believe that she was perpetrating something of a fraud.

For some strange reason, many of the women who engage in this form of hymenomics have been inspired by their courses in Women’s Studies. The same applies to women who are selling their bodies for tuition money.

Think about famed Women’s Studies major, Belle Knox, the Duke University freshman who has been working her way through college by starring in porn… and by doing the rounds of the nation’s finest strip clubs.

For her part, Elizabeth Raine offers a theoretical rationale for her action. She does not want you to think that she is just a body. She has a mind too.

She especially does not want anyone to believe that her actions as what she calls a “virgin whore” in any way suggest that she has no self-respect. Evidently, Raine is at the cutting edge of advanced feminist thought.

In her words:

What makes my virginity auction truly distinctive is that I am exceptionally well educated, financially independent, and entirely willing to lose my virginity in this manner; in fact, I think it is a fantastic idea! However, I hope I have not given you the impression that I do not value my virginity, because this is not the case at all. I value my virginity enormously, just not for the typical set of reasons. I do not believe it is a sacred gift that should be reserved for the man I love, nor is it a testament to my honor, virtue, or purity (not to say that I am void of these traits). Rather, I value my virginity as something that is very much my own and a testament to my free-spirit and independence. Please consider this as you contemplate your bid. Lastly, I would like to add that while my virginity does have a price, my self-respect is absolutely priceless.

To which she adds her more modern view:

As you probably know, in almost every society a high value is placed on a woman’s virginity. Unfortunately, far too often, this value is wielded as tool of female suppression - usually by chaining virginity to morality, in place of more important virtues such as intelligence, kindness, courage, and good humor. In stark contrast to this, my independence, education and freethinking mind place me in the very unique and powerful position of being able to do with my virginity what I will. While I do not wish for such a high value to be placed on virginity, this is the current reality. Considering this reality, I ask you, shouldn’t the value of virginity benefit women rather than hurt them? I see no good reason why I should not take advantage of mine. So while my virginity auction may be and should be a topic of debate, I hope you can tell it is my sincere belief that I am not on the wrong side of this social issue. I will also say, at its core this is a very personal matter, and no one who dares to judge has the same perspective I do or will be as affected by this decision as me. From where I am sitting, this feels right and just plain clever. Is it possible it will turn into a mistake? They say anything is possible, but there really is only one way to find out!

Is it a hoax? Who knows?

If it isn’t, then someone will recognize her picture and will reveal her true identity.

Feminine Beauty and Public Health

A cynic might imagine that Betty Friedan’s extended screed on “the feminine mystique” was yet another battle in the ongoing culture war between the pretty girls and the not-so-pretty girls.

Mystique or not, femininity is real. It is associated with fertility. Men value it. Women seek to project it.

Naomi Wolf notwithstanding, femininity is associated with beauty, and with characteristics that can be measured. It is no more a myth than it was a mystique.

For all the feminist caterwauling it appears that men still associate femininity with beauty. And yet, there is a limit. Recent studies have shown a direct correlation between what men find to be attractive in women and the overall healthiness of a nation.

In a nation that enjoys generally good health men are more likely to find more feminine women more attractive. In a nation that suffers generally bad health men are more likely to find more masculine looking women more attractive.

Surprisingly, it’s not just about the health of an individual. It involves the general health of the nation, the group, the community.

Moreover, it does not correlate with the ratio of men to women.

The Economist reports:

THAT health and beauty are linked is not in doubt. But it comes as something of a surprise that who is perceived as beautiful depends not only on the health of the person in question but also on the average level of health in the place where she lives. This, though, is the conclusion of a study just published in Biology Letters by Urszula Marcinkowska of the University of Turku, in Finland, and her colleagues—for Ms Marcinkowska has found that men in healthy countries think women with the most feminine faces are the prettiest whilst those in unhealthy places prefer more masculine-looking ones.

If you examine the chart you will find that the United States falls in the middle of the nations on the basis of health.

Apparently, in a country where people are more sickly, men prefer women with more masculine features. The researchers suspect that in such conditions, men are not confident that they will live long enough or be strong enough to support their families on their own:

Previous studies have shown that women with feminine features are more fertile. A man’s preference for them is thus likely to enhance his reproductive success. Ms Marcinkowska speculates that testosterone-induced behavioural characteristics like dominance, which might be expected to correlate with masculine-looking faces even in women (they certainly do in men), help in the competition for resources needed to sustain children once they are born. But why that should be particularly important in an unhealthy country is unclear.

And yes, we know that a statistical correlation does not spell causation, but still….

Finding Equality in Texas

Virginia Postrel wants us to know that it wasn’t just taxes and regulation that caused Toyota to move its American headquarters from Torrance, CA to Plano, TX.

It was quality of life… that is, inexpensive real estate coupled with good public schools:

With its cheap suburban housing and good public schools, Plano in fact offers a 21st-century version of the middle-class California dream that built towns like Torrance. It’s just been updated, with more immigrants, better restaurants and a lot more marble countertops.

In contrasting Texas and California, politicians and pundits tend to emphasize taxes and business regulation. But for most people on a day-to-day basis, the biggest difference between the two is the cost of housing.

Although Plano is one of the country’s richest cities, with a highly educated population and a median income of $85,333 compared to Torrance’s $70,061, it offers a much wider range of housing options. You can pay nearly $7 million for a five-acre estate in Plano -- $3 million more than the most expensive listing in Torrance -- but the average home costs less than $200,000, compared to $552,000 in Torrance. A Redfin search for three-bedroom houses costing less than $400,000 turns up 149 in Plano versus four in Torrance; lowering the threshold to $300,000 cuts the Plano supply to 73, while yielding nothing in Torrance.

As I’ve written elsewhere, Plano’s combination of inexpensive real estate and excellent public schools has cultural consequences. It allows for more traditional lifestyles, since many families don’t need a second income to live a comfortable middle-class life. Many mothers choose to stay at home or to work, often part-time, for personal fulfillment and luxuries such as family vacations. For both men and women, a life oriented around work rather than family is less common than in coastal enclaves of similarly highly educated people.

Whatever the executives at Toyota were thinking, they have done their employees a favor.

Funny thing, Plano, TX sounds like equality. Torrance, CA looks like inequality. 

Plano seems to be the inverse of New York City, where extremely expensive real estate, coupled with extremely bad public schools produces gross inequality… two cities, one rich and the other poor.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Are We Ruled by Economists?

Should academic economists be running the nation’s economy? Should we just hand it all over to Paul Krugman and await further developments?

Then again, is Paul Krugman still an economist?

Would it be better if, instead of having capitalists allocate capital, we allowed politicians and bureaucrats do the job? And, what if these politicians and bureaucrats were following playbooks written by the world’s leading economists, men like Thomas Piketty?

In an impassioned screed against economists, John Tamny argues that government spending does not really promote economic growth and wealth creation:

… government spending on its very best day merely facilitates growth through enforcement of property rights, but otherwise spending subtracts from it. By definition. If readers doubt this, then they must explain how it is that John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Mitch McConnell are better allocators of capital than are Warren Buffett, Ken Fisher, Paul Tudor Jones, and Peter Lynch. The economics profession actually believes politicians are good capital allocators, but that just speaks to why we should tune so many economists out. 

Tamny’s point is well taken, but he is exaggerating if he believes that all economists favor higher taxes and excessive regulations. Many reputable and even a few disreputable economists know very well that government spending does not grow the economy. The arguments for free market solutions to economic problems were formulated by… economists.

Tamny detracts even further by treating Henry Paulson as an economist. To his credit or discredit, former banker and treasury secretary Paulson was never an economist.

In a larger sense Tamny wants to analyze modern China’s extraordinary economic resurgence. He does so to submit some modern economic theories to a reality test.

Take the importance of education. Many economists believe that if only America can improve educational opportunity, the economy would naturally benefit.

Tamny writes:

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed from last year titled "The Vital Link of Education and Prosperity," scholars Paul E. Peterson and Eric A. Hamushek attempted to prove this widely held belief. As they remarkably put it, "raising student test scores in this country up to the level in Canada would dramatically increase economic growth." Their view was that "long-run growth rates are mainly accounted for by differences in cognitive skills as measured" by "standardized tests of math and science such as PISA and NAEP." 

China appears to be telling a different story. Tamny points out that in the early 1980s, when China started to boom, it was suffering from an educational deficiency:

So while most in China by the early ‘80s had no access to college-level instruction, [Fox] Butterfield found that 35 percent of 18-21 year-old Americans were in college, 23 percent of Soviets were, and even the Philippines, despite a population that was a fraction of China's, could claim more college students "than in all of China." Not a country known for a media that was or could be honest about its presumed weaknesses, Butterfield wrote about how the Guanming Daily "groused that China ranked 113 out of a list of 141 countries in the world in percentage of its young people who get a post-secondary education."

True enough. Yet, we must also add that, as China has grown and prospered, its educational system has improved vastly.

When China began its economic revival over 80% of the people were living in extreme poverty. Given the primitive nature of economic activity, an educated workforce was not necessary. Today, with China booming, highly skilled and highly educated employees are becoming far more important.

We can also be fairly confident, to Tamny’s point, that today’s Chinese college students are not studying political correctness, critical theory and deconstruction. Even when they attend American universities they are more likely drawn to majors like science and engineering.

Tamny is on more solid ground when he examines the excuses that pundits and economists have been giving for America’s anemic, Obama-led economic recovery.

In his words:

Considering job opportunities and a limp "new normal" when it comes to the creation of work, Keynesian economist Robert Samuelson recently wrote about the relatively weak U.S. economy that you might compare it "to someone who's recovering from a serious illness. At first, everyone hopes the patient will return to normal. Then it's gradually realized that the patient suffered permanent damage and will never be the same. So, perhaps, with the economy." 

Tamny challenges the argument by pointing out that China was in far worse conditions after Mao:

Whatever damage the Bush and Obama administrations have done to the U.S. economy, no reasonable person would compare the ineptitude they foisted on Americans to what Chinese leaders did to their own people. If the individuals who comprise China's economy can recover from the brutal horrors of communism, surely we Americans can bounce back from the softer idiocy of our own leadership.

Taking this narrative further, economists like to talk about how long-term unemployment makes those who experience it unemployable for depriving them of modern work skills. It's an interesting idea, but one utterly devoid of reason. The Chinese were deprived of real work experience for over 30 years, but once their economy was freed of government meddling, its "unskilled" workers quickly adapted to the work norms of capitalism. Since the Chinese rapidly evolved, so can Americans put out of work by hubristic politicians quickly adapt to modern work standards once our political class gets out of the way.

China’s success vindicates those who believe in free markets and free enterprise. It does not vindicate those who believe in liberal democracy. Politically speaking, China continues to be a dictatorship. And, as Tamny notes, when bureaucrats are allowed to influence the economy, the results, either in America or in China, are rarely beneficial to anyone but the bureaucrats.

At the same time, the Chinese nomenklatura has known enough not to interfere in the economy.

China does not exemplify a small government. It does show what can happen when government officials are smart enough to allow the private economy to do what it does best-- to create wealth-- without interference.


The Economist wants to know why Thomas Piketty, the best-selling French author whose critique of capitalism has become all the rage among the American intelligentsia did not elicit a similar adultation when his book was first published in France last year.

Happily enough, I have already addressed the issue. Piketty’s policy proposals echo those of the French Socialist Party. Everyone but American intellectuals knows that policies based on those proposals produced an economic and, more recently, a political calamity.

The Economist echoes my point:

A more serious explanation could be that Mr Piketty was too closely linked to a proposal by François Hollande, France’s Socialist president, during his 2012 election campaign to introduce a now-discredited 75% top income-tax rate. The 75% tax rate sent an important message, Mr Piketty said approvingly at the time, and “lots of other countries will inevitably follow this route”. In fact, the millionaire tax was denounced by one of Mr Hollande’s own advisers as “Cuba without the sun”, ruled unconstitutional by the French constitutional court, and was hastily watered down.

From which we must conclude that the French public is a step ahead of elite American intellectuals. This tells us that American intellectuals do not really care whether the policies that derive from Piketty’s analysis work.

More importantly, American leftists are ginning up their media machine for the upcoming elections. They know that they must change the conversation. If the nation is talking about the calamity of Obamacare and the pathetically weak economic recovery the Democrats will lose.

In order to motivate their base Democrats are generating a conversation about inequality. And, of course, racism and sexism and homophobia and transphobia and so on.

How better to motivate Democratic Party voters than to tell them that the fault for their chronic joblessness lies with predatory capitalists. It’s called shifting the blame.

Besides, when the national debt is approaching $18 trillion, the last thing you want to talk about is how you are going to pay for it. If you did, you would have to explain why, at a time when your policies should be geared to producing new wealth, you are obsessing about how to redistribute old wealth, bloating the public sector at the expense of the private sector, thereby diminishing wealth.

American intellectuals want the nation to become more like France. French citizens know better. They know that Pikettynomics does not work.

Adios, California

Yesterday, Toyota Motor Company announced that it is moving its North American headquarters from Torrance, California to Plano, Texas.

That’s 4,000 jobs, five percent of the city’s workforce and a loss of $1,200,000 in tax revenue. The city’s annual budget is $271,000,000.

No one is really surprised. One businessman offered the epitaph:

Frank Portillo, a co-owner of Los Chilaquiles Mexican Grill next to the Toyota headquarters said he did not blame Toyota, although he might lose business himself. "The taxes are lower in Texas. There are fewer regulations. It's cheaper for a company there. Why wouldn't they leave California?"

Monday, April 28, 2014

Marriage or Nagathon

I know you are going to find this hard to believe, but the opening sentence of this Daily Mail article is deceptive:

Being married can make people more prone to depression, a study reveals.

In fact, being married does not make people more depressed. The study shows that when a marriage is filled with nagging and conflict, the spouses are more likely to be depressed. Also, when people are depressed and stressed out they are less likely to be about to respond to positive experiences:

Constant nagging and domestic spats are significant triggers of long-term stress that cannot be outweighed by the positive aspects of wedlock, scientists found.

It can also make husbands and wives far less responsive to positive experiences.

In a successful marriage both spouses work to cultivate domestic harmony. They know what their roles are and they fulfill their duties. If they believe that each household task should be the occasion for a nagathon, a struggle over who does or does not do what, the strategy will breed depression.

I will leave it to you to figure out why so many marriages have become nagathons.

Of course, when it happens, many spouses decide that the best cure for a marriage-based depression is divorce.

Sad, but true.

Andrew Sullivan on Friendship

Andrew Sullivan’s 1998 book on friendship, Love Undetectable, is somewhat dated, but it is still worth mention and notice.

Maria Popova has recently done so on her Brain Pickings blog, and, if her rendering is correct, Sullivan wrote an important book on a topic that is often ignored.

Popova summarizes Sullivan:

He argues that our world has failed to give friendship its due as “a critical social institution, as an ennobling moral experience, as an immensely delicate but essential interplay of the virtues required to sustain a fully realized human being.” 

Of course, friendship is the centerpiece of Aristotle’s ethics. For the philosopher, friendship, as a voluntary social tie, requires good character. After all, the Greek word ethos means character.

Aristotle’s book is a guide to building character. To get along with other people, to develop and sustain a friendship you need to have good character. It is far more important than emotional authenticity.

Sullivan summarizes Aristotle well:

In Aristotle’s hermetically sane universe, the instinct for human connection is so common and so self-evidently good that there is little compunction to rule certain friendships out of the arc of human friendliness. There is merely an attempt to understand and categorize each instance of phila and to place each instance of the instinct in its natural and ennobling place. Everything is true, Aristotle seems to say, so long as it is never taken for anything more than it is. And so friendship belongs to the nod of daily passengers on a commuter train, to the regular business client, and to the ornery neighbor. It encompasses the social climber and the social butterfly, the childhood crush and the lifelong soulmate. It comprises the relationship between a boss and his employees, a husband and his wife, a one-night stand and a longtime philanderer, a public official and his dubious contributor.

Most importantly, Sullivan wants to distinguish friendship from romantic love. He will eventually make the very important point that our current cult to romantic love has militated against friendships.

For the purposes of this blog, what Sullivan calls a cult to romantic love bears the stamp of Freudian theory. It also recalls Socrates’ remarks, channeling Diotima, in Plato's Symposium, to the effect that Eros is not a god, but a daimon. Surely, it is not an accident that the word is the forebear of our word, demon. Doesn't this tell us that Eros is a demonic force?

Sullivan explains that friendship requires activity and that it must be reciprocal:

Unlike a variety of other relationships, friendship requires an acknowledgement by both parties that they are involved or it fails to exist. One can admire someone who is completely unaware of our admiration, and the integrity of that admiration is not lost; one may even employ someone without knowing who it is specifically one employs; one may be related to a great-aunt whom one has never met (and may fail ever to meet). And one may, of course, fall in love with someone without the beloved being aware of it or reciprocating the love at all. And in all these cases, the relationships are still what they are, whatever the attitude of the other person in them: they are relationships of admiration, business, family, or love.

Moreover, you cannot force someone to be your friend:

But friendship is different. Friendship uniquely requires mutual self-knowledge and will. It takes two competent, willing people to be friends. You cannot impose a friendship on someone, although you can impose a crush, a lawsuit, or an obsession. If friendship is not reciprocated, it simply ceases to exist or, rather, it never existed in the first place.

Friendship’s greatest enemy has been the modern version of romantic love. Here Sullivan’s analysis is brilliant:

The great modern enemy of friendship has turned out to be love. By love, I don’t mean the principle of giving and mutual regard that lies at the heart of friendship [but] love in the banal, ubiquitous, compelling, and resilient modern meaning of love: the romantic love that obliterates all other goods, the love to which every life must apparently lead, the love that is consummated in sex and celebrated in every particle of our popular culture, the love that is institutionalized in marriage and instilled as a primary and ultimate good in every Western child. I mean eros, which is more than sex but is bound up with sex. I mean the longing for union with another being, the sense that such a union resolves the essential quandary of human existence, the belief that only such a union can abate the loneliness that seems to come with being human, and deter the march of time that threatens to trivialize our very existence….

We live in a world, in fact, in which respect and support for eros has acquired the hallmarks of a cult.

He continues:

Of course, the impossibility of love is partly its attraction. It is an irrational act, a concession to the passions, a willing renunciation of reason and moderation — and that’s why we believe in it. It is also why, in part, the sober writers and thinkers of the ancient and medieval worlds found it a self-evidently inferior, if bewitching, experience. But their confidence in this regard was based not simply on a shrewd analysis of love but on a deeper appreciation of friendship. Without the possibility of friendship, after all, love might seem worth the price. If the promise of union, of an abatement to loneliness, of finding a soulmate, was only available through the vagaries of eros, then it might be worth all the heartbreak and insanity for a glimpse, however brief, of what makes life worth living. But if all these things were available in a human relationship that is not inherently self-destructive, then why, after all, should one choose the riskier and weaker option?

Where our therapy culture suggests that when people are depressed they need to fall in love, Sullivan, following Aristotle, suggests that it is far better to make a friend.

In his words:

And in almost every regard, friendship delivers what love promises but fails to provide. The contrast between the two are, in fact, many, and largely damning to love’s reputation. Where love is swift, for example, friendship is slow. Love comes quickly, as the song has it, but friendship ripens with time. If love is at its most perfect in its infancy, friendship is most treasured as the years go by.

And also:

If love is sudden, friendship is steady. At the moment of meeting a friend for the first time, we might be aware of an immediate “click” or a sudden mutual interest. But we don’t “fall in friendship.” And where love is often at its most intense in the period before the lover is possessed, in the exquisite suspense of the chase, and the stomach-fluttering nervousness of the capture, friendship can only really be experienced when both friends are fully used to each other. For friendship is based on knowledge, and love can be based on mere hope… You can love someone more than you know him, and he can be perfectly loved without being perfectly known. But the more you know a friend, the more a friend he is.

Romantic love is a passion. It consumes those who get too close to it. It makes more and more imperious demands, to the point where it appears to be insatiable:

Love affairs need immense energy, they demand a total commitment and a capacity for pain. Friendship, in contrast, merely needs tending. Although it is alive, a living, breathing thing, and can suffer from neglect, friendship can be left for a while without terrible consequences. Because it is built on the accumulation of past experiences, and not the fickle and vulnerable promise of future ones, it has a sturdiness that love may often lack, and an undemonstrative beauty that love would walk heedlessly past.

In a culture where passionate intensity is the hallmark for authentic experience, friendship has unfortunately been relegated to the shadows. All manner of relationships suffer for as much.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The War on Women, Egyptian Style

In 2008 the government of Hosni Mubarak criminalized female genital mutilation in Egypt.

The law had little effect.

In 2011, during the Arab Spring the Obama administration was happy to see the dictator Mubarak overthrown. When the Egyptian people elected Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi as their president, the Obama administration celebrated by immediately sending then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Cairo.

Clinton was the first foreign leader to meet with Morsi.

The fact that the Muslim Brotherhood was notably in favor of female genital mutilation did not faze Hillary Clinton, supposed champion of women’s rights.

British journalist Bel Trew—possessor of one of the world’s great names, even though it seems to be misspelled-- reports in The Daily Beast:

“In the era of the Muslim Brotherhood, the people perceived that they encouraged these practices,” [Vivian] Fouad [of the National Population council] said. Even though it is not addressed or endorsed in the Qur’an, genital mutilation fit into the kind of traditionalist view of Egyptian life that the Brotherhood exploited for its own ends. 

In 2011, local media reported that the then-ruling Muslim Brotherhood was offering subsidized female circumcision at mobile clinics. The Daily Beast obtained a leaflet, dated April 2012, emblazoned with the logo of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and detailing discount medical services being made available….

In a televised debate in 2012, then-President Mohamed Morsi, who was overthrown by the military last July, brushed off female genital mutilation as a personal issue between mother and daughter. 

As you know, the Obama administration was not at all pleased by the military coup in Egypt.

Now, however, under a military dictatorship, the Egyptian government will, for the first time, prosecute a physician for mutilating a child.

Trew reports:

It was supposed to be a routine “operation.” The parents of 13-year-old Soheir al-Batea, from a village in Egypt’s Nile Delta, took her to be circumcised at the local clinic that had been recommended by friends.  They had done the same with her older sister a year before. A doctor typically cuts off the whole clitoris or a part of it, sometimes in extreme cases removing the labia as well, in a procedure that is now illegal but still deemed necessary by many Egyptians to preserve the purity of the child and control sexual desire. 

Dr. Raslan Fadl, a well-respected imam and employee of the nearby government hospital, performed the illegal procedure as he had done on dozens of other girls. He typically treated 10 women a day, locals said afterward. But something went wrong and Soheir, described by friends and family as bright, smart and lively, died en route to hospital.

According to the forensic report issued shortly after her death last June, an allergic reaction to penicillin administered during the controversial operation is what killed her. 

This little girl’s case, like many before her, would normally have been buried and forgotten. Since female genital mutilation  (FGM) was criminalized in Egypt in 2008, both parents and practitioners fearful of arrest have kept quiet when there are complications….

But now, for the first time in Egyptian history, a prosecution is under way. Both Soheir’s father, a farmer, and Dr. Fadl are to stand trial charged with illegally mutilating the child’s genitals and with manslaughter. The opening session in court is scheduled for next week…. 

If Dr. Fadl is found guilty he could face 10 years in jail.  The law calls for those performing FGM to be fined up to $700 and given three years behind bars, but because the operation resulted in death, he faces a longer sentence. It is still unclear what the punishment of the girl’s father might be. 

As has been noted, on this blog and in many other places, this barbaric practice is extremely widespread in Egypt. It is also practiced in other North African nations. 

The facts are depressing:

Egypt has one of the highest rates of FGM in the world: a staggering 91 per cent of women between the ages of 15 and 49 have been cut, according to a 2013 report released by UNICEF (PDF). Genital mutilation is practiced in various forms across the African continent, from Nigeria to Somalia. In Egypt, it is most common—indeed, almost universal—in rural areas like Diyarb Buqtaris village where Soheir grew up. But it crosses all class boundaries.  The West often labels the excisions an Islamic practice, but cutting occurs in Egypt in both Muslim and Christian communities, and it goes on despite the fact that the Egyptian Coptic Church and Al Azhar, the country’s leading Islamic authority, have condemned it. 

At the least, we understand that outlawing female genital mutilation did not stop it, not at all. And we know that a democratic election is just as likely to elevate a candidate who finds nothing wrong with it.

Now, what should a government do when faced with such deeply engrained disrespect for the law, such visceral misogyny? What will it take to put an end to this barbarism?

Aside from a show of martial force, perhaps the world's opprobrium would have some effect. Exposing such practices to the whole world, shaming those who do it, seems like a step in the right direction.

Naturally, Islamists strongly oppose a public exposure of depravity that is carried out in the name of their religion. Recently, they have been hard at work trying to shut down Honor Diaries, a Clarion project film about Muslim honor killings, among other misogynist practices.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Benjamin Franklin Effect

How can you turn an enemy into a friend? How can you cause (or encourage) someone to like you?

Many of today’s therapists would recommend an open, honest and frank discussion of your differences, sprinkled with heartfelt expressions of how you really, really feel.

They advise you to get it out in the open, to clear the air. Then you will presumably discover how a minor misunderstanding caused the two of you to despise each other.

Therapists of a more cognitive bent would follow the example set by Benjamin Franklin.

Maria Popova of Brain Pickings sets the scene:

When Franklin ran for his second term as a clerk, a peer whose name he never mentions in his autobiography delivered a long election speech censuring Franklin and tarnishing his reputation. Although Franklin won, he was furious with his opponent and, observing that this was “a gentleman of fortune and education” who might one day come to hold great power in government, rather concerned about future frictions with him.

Need I mention that some people would deal with this problem by fighting back, by returning slander for slander, by attacking the man’s reputation in order to diminish him.

Franklin believed that revenge was a bad idea. He knew that he might have to work with the man, so he tried to win him over.  

David McRaney describes how our Founding Father handled the situation:

Franklin set out to turn his hater into a fan, but he wanted to do it without “paying any servile respect to him.” Franklin’s reputation as a book collector and library founder gave him a standing as a man of discerning literary tastes, so Franklin sent a letter to the hater asking if he could borrow a specific selection from his library, one that was a “very scarce and curious book.” The rival, flattered, sent it right away. Franklin sent it back a week later with a thank-you note. Mission accomplished. The next time the legislature met, the man approached Franklin and spoke to him in person for the first time. Franklin said the man “ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death.”

Note well, Franklin did not express his anger. He did not confront the man. He did not sit down to have a conversation with him. He followed a venerable old rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

We can provide a fuller analysis of the transaction.

First, Franklin reached out to the other man.  He did not offer a gift; he did not challenge the man to a duel.

When someone trashes you, the last thing he expects is that you reach out to him. And yet, Franklin knew that he could not do so from a servile position. He could not act as though he was confirming the other man’s ill opinion of him.

Also, reaching out presupposes that the man did not really mean what he was saying. It suggests that Franklin wanted to take it as “politics.”

He did not know from the first whether the man really meant what he said, but he was willing to assume the best.

Second, Franklin asked for a favor, one that would cost the other man nothing.

When someone asks you for a favor that will cost you nothing, you are naturally inclined to grant it.

Franklin had found a way to test whether the other man’s enmity was for real or for show.

When the man agreed to do the favor, Franklin accepted it. A week later he returned the book with a thank-you note.

The transaction completed, both men had taken the opportunity to behave as honorable gentlemen.

Popova and McRaney explain that the story shows that if you want someone to like you, you should find a way to induce him to act as though he does. We like people we are kind to. We tend to like people more the more we act well toward them.

As per my analysis, this also involves reaching out to the other person and giving him the opportunity to reciprocate. It places the two of you in a neutral transaction that does not address contentious issues. It does not involve challenging him to justify his poor opinion of you.

It’s not the wish, as King Henry IV told his son, that is father to the thought, or even the deed, but the deed is father to the sentiment.

From here we can enter some forbidden territory, unexplored by Franklin, McRaney or Popova.

Let’s imagine a couple of young people who are out on a date. Let’s imagine that she wants him to like her more than he does. Should she allow him to make kind and courteous gestures toward her or should she let him know that all such gestures will be unwelcome? If he learns that his wish to hold the door for her or to help her with her coat or to pay the bill are signs of misogyny, will this make him like her more or make him feel more like a misogynist?

Micturate Like a Man

At first glance, it reads like a parody. Has feminism grown a sense of humor? Has it gotten to the point where it parodies itself?

One suspects that it did not have to go very far to arrive there.

Have feminists given up their grand cause in favor of proving Freud right? Are they really all suffering from penis envy?

Are they all taking their cues from Henry Higgins? You remember Henry, the male lead in My Fair Lady, who once famously asked: Why can't a woman be more like a man?

The more you read Katy Waldman, the more you suspect that she is not kidding. Of course, she cannot announce the news with a straight face, so she wraps it in something that resembles humor.

It turns out that the big, bad patriarchy has forced women into the undignified posture of having to squat to pee. OMFG. I am not going to suggest that you try to visualize the indignity, because good feminists are certainly up to that challenge.

You recognize that it isn’t a joke when you read that when good feminists face a gross and manifestly unhygienic toilet, they think to themselves that no man would ever submit himself such an indignity. That’s why the patriarchy created urinals, so men did not have to pee sitting down.

By the logic of the argument no man has ever had to perform any excretory function seated. WTF.

So, a San Francisco feminist, a Stanford grad who used to work for Michelle Obama, invented an easy-to use device to allow women to stand up and pee. It’s a wet dream come true.

Will college feminists now start a campaign to have urinals installed in Womyn’s Rooms across the nation?

In some parts of the world—think India—toilets are so filthy that women need to have one of these little gadgets. But, in America. The mind boggles.

I am imagining that most of the women who constitute the market for this gadget use public restrooms that are designated for women. It feels like a fair assumption. We accept that America has not yet arrived at the point where it has dozens of different restrooms to accommodate Facebook’s dozens of different gender identities.

But then, how did it happen that these restrooms got to be so dirty? If men were not allowed in, how did they become such a health hazard? The mind boggles some more.

Waldman writes about the latest feminine hygiene aid, Stand Up. I assume that the called it Stand Up because Lean In was taken:

Like the Shenis and the Go Girl before it, Stand Up is about empowerment through both hygiene and body language—after all, hovering uncertainly over a grimy toilet seat and possibly peeing down your own leg is not just a public health risk, it's also demeaning. The patriarchy does not suffer a squat.

But then you say, this has to be a joke. Could feminists have developed a sense of humor? It's probably too much to hope for.

Waldman encourages her fellow feminists:

So stand tall and stand proud as you micturate like a man into a little pink envelope that looks sort of like a party hat.

Party on, ladies.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Israel's "Pivot to Asia"

New York Times columnist Roger Cohen has hardly been a staunch defender of Israel. Jonathan Tobin reminds us of Cohen’s record in regard to the Jewish state:

A reflexive critic of the Jewish state, Cohen has been rightly criticized for sloppy writing and threadbare clichés, and he earned lasting infamy in 2009 for a series of columns he wrote seeking to whitewash the Iranian regime of the charge of anti-Semitism.

Yesterday, however, Tobin notes, Cohen offered a clear-headed assessment of the situation in Israel. Better yet, he drew a sharp and much-needed contrast between the Obama administration fiction about Israel and the facts on the ground.

As you know, John Kerry, the master of diplomatic futility, imagined that he was going to broker a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians. Obviously, the idea came to him from on high, from the president himself. When you spend twenty years at the feet of Jeremiah Wright you are likely to conclude that Israel is one of the world’s great problems, and that Islamic terrorism would instantly cease if only Israel would make more concessions to Palestinian terrorists.

By all appearances, Israel does not have too many friends in the West these days. Intellectuals who worship at the shrine of Marx are deeply offended that a nation built on capitalist and democratic principles has been so successful.

In the past it might have been a slur to call Western intellectuals Marxists, but now, as they thrill to a French Marxist analysis of the flaws of capitalism, they will probably not be quite so offended.

Just as Piketty insists that capitalism will flounder on its own contradictions, the Obama administration has insisted that unless it makes peace with the Palestinians, Israeli success is unsustainable.

Cohen wrote:

Throughout this year the Obama administration has pushed the unsustainability argument to make its case for peace. “Today’s status quo, absolutely to a certainty, I promise you 100 percent, cannot be maintained,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in February. “It is not sustainable. It is illusionary. There’s a momentary prosperity, there’s a momentary peace.”

More recently, President Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg View that his question to Benjamin Netanyahu was: “If not now, when? And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who?”

Cohen remarks that the reality is otherwise:

Tel Aviv, one of the world’s most attractive cities, has a boom-time purr about it. For all the talk of its isolation — and all the efforts of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (B.D.S.) movement — Israel has an economy as creative as it is successful. Yes, it is sustainable.

While Europeans wring their hands in despair at the absence of a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians, the Israelis, Cohen explains, have made a pivot toward Asia.

As it happens, the pivot toward Asia was supposed to be a touchstone of Obama administration foreign policy. Since Obama’s promises are, as always, empty words, it was left for the Israelis to do what Obama had said.

In Cohen’s words:

Hearing an Indian official talk the other day about Delhi’s booming arms trade and ever-closer relationship with Israel, I had a thought that also struck me while listening to Israeli businessmen in Beijing. The idea may be summed up in three words: It is sustainable.

“Pivot to Asia” is a term that might be applied to Israel. Its trade with China has boomed, reaching more than $8 billion in 2013 from a pittance when diplomatic relations were established in 1992 (the same year as with India). Europe huffs and puffs about the West Bank settlements; Asia does business. [Boldface mine] India has already bought sea-to-sea missiles, radar for a missile-intercept system and communications equipment from Israel.

A rising Asia does business; a declining Europe huffs and puffs about settlements and occupation.

Clearly, the current political situation is not ideal. But, life is not ideal either. Cohen gnashes his teeth about the betrayal of gauzy ideals, but survival matters more.

Since Israelis have concluded that those who have been waging war against it are not ready to have a sustainable peace, they will continue to prosper, without a so-called peace treaty.

In Cohen’s words:

But the evidence is that Israelis, in their majority, prefer to live with [slightly tarnished ideals] than believe in a sustainable peace with Palestinians. Trust your neighbor? Been there, tried that. 

Of course, Cohen still imagines that Israel can make peace with Hamas. He believes that bringing Hamas into the peace talks would leaven its rage against the Jewish state.

Allow Tobin the last word:

Given the choice of making peace with Israel or with Hamas, PA leader Mahmoud Abbas chose Hamas. The idea that Hamas or even most of Fatah is willing to accept peace with Israel is a myth that is every bit as baseless as the one about Israel’s impending doom.

Stop Headshrinking Now

The human brain shrinks with age. It shrinks even more in cases of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Now, science has discovered a treatment: regular exercise.

The Daily Mail reports:

Regular exercise may keep Alzheimer’s at bay – even in those whose genes put them in the dementia danger zone.

A study of men and women in their 60s, 70s and 80s found that being active at least three times a week stopped the brain from shrinking.

Strikingly, even those with a common gene called APOE-e4 were protected by brisk walking, jogging, swimming and cycling. Strenuous household chores also helped.

It continues:

The APOE-e4 gene is carried by up to 30 per cent of the population. It increases the risk of Alzheimer’s in old age but not everyone with the suspect DNA will develop the disease.

The latest finding suggests the exercise may be one of the factors that decides if a brain is able to overcome its genetic inheritance.

Researcher Dr J. Carson Smith, of the University of Maryland, said: ‘We found that physical activity has the potential to preserve the volume of the hippocampus in those with increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease, which means we can possibly delay cognitive decline and the onset of dementia symptoms in these individuals.

‘Physical activity interventions may be especially potent and important for this group.’

So, if you have to choose between four hours a week on the Stairmaster and four hours a week lying supine on your analyst’s couch… the former will contribute to your physical and mental health while the latter will teach you a habit that might shrink your brain.

Apparently, people had good reason to call therapists: “shrinks.” 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Forever Prudence

The most interesting dilemmas are moral dilemmas. Today, a woman writes to Dear Prudence with a problem:

My husband and I moved from the liberal Northeastern town we both grew up in to a small, conservative Southern one several years ago. One of the biggest adjustments has been the way people very openly talk about religion and assume that everyone else should as well. We mostly kept quiet about the fact that we don’t practice any religion and politely explain (over and over) that we’d rather not come to their churches. Our elementary school daughter recently told us that her teacher led the class in prayer each day before lunch in her public school. All the children had to bow their heads and recite a lengthy prayer. My daughter said she didn’t know if she should do it, but thought maybe it was “being a good American.” We told her that no one should ever force you to pray against your will. My husband and I wrote the principal about this and asked our child not be mentioned by name. The principal said she’d send a general reminder about not praying in class, but the tone of her email made it clear she thought we were overreacting. Our child reported the praying stopped immediately with no explanation. My husband and I think the teacher should have told the students why she shouldn’t have led them in prayer. He wants to press this issue, while I feel as long as we let our child know what’s right and wrong, we should let this go and accept this is part of where we live. Our child will be in this school for several more years. We did tell a few acquaintances about this and they said “people like us” were ruining the community of faith. Sometimes, I feel like I’m being a coward not standing up for religious tolerance.

Let’s stipulate, as Prudence does, that it is unconstitutional to lead open prayers in public schools. Let’s also stipulate that these parents have likely also harmed their child.

Their neighbors do not see them as having stood up for religious tolerance. These parents have, in the eyes of their neighbors, suppressed a religious practice that presumably meant something for the other children. Members of their community see them as intolerant of the religious beliefs and practices of other people.

The couple in question is on the right side of the constitutional issue, but they are also making their child a pariah at school. Prudence recommends that they remain cordial with other members of the community, but that is not the problem. They have damaged their relationships and those of their child.

The question is not so much whether or not they are right on the constitutional question. The question is whether or not they think it was worth the price.

Prudence prudently closes her advice with a note to the effect that sometimes it's better to let things go.

Next, Prudence offers a letter from the wife of an executive, living in Beijing:

My husband and I have a wonderful marriage, a great sex life, and are very happy together, with the exception of one argument that we are continually having. Shortly after my husband and I married, he was offered “the opportunity of a lifetime” to help set up a new division at his company’s office in Beijing. This was supposed to last 12 to 18 months and was going to be our big adventure. It’s now six years later, we are still in Beijing, and I hate it. The first year I tutored, took Mandarin lessons, and made friends with other expats and some locals. We now have two lovely children and I have continued to be involved with the community: I volunteer at a charity teaching English to migrant workers, I write articles and reviews for a local English magazine, etc. But the pollution is horrendous, and I miss my friends, my family, my old life, and the U.S. My husband has no desire to move back. His career has advanced at a pace he couldn’t have dreamed of back home and he’s the youngest person in the company worldwide in his position. I think my husband is being extremely selfish by putting his career ahead of what’s best for his family and we’ve been fighting for two years over this. We’ve seen a therapist several times and that’s gotten us nowhere. I’m ready to pack my bags and take the kids back to the States and live with my parents and tell him to call us when he comes to his senses (though I would never actually do that). But what should I do?

Prudence recommends that the wife and children take a vacation away from the family. And she suggests that she do this unilaterally, regardless of what her husband thinks.

In her words:

So you need to stop talking and start acting. Summer is coming up and I suggest you and the kids spend it with your family. Please don’t do this in a punitive way, or make it into a trial separation. Instead, explain to your husband the break in the school year is the perfect opportunity for you and the children to spend some serious time with your family, for the kids to feel more like Americans, and to give all of your lungs a break. Tell your husband you hope he can arrange to join all you for a good chunk of vacation time. 

We all know that the air pollution in Beijing is horrific. We appreciate the fact that this woman is terrified to expose young children to a daily dose of poisonous air.

It is worth asking whether there are other, less drastic solutions, like weekends outside of the city.

The husband might agree that his family spend part of the summer abroad. But, if the wife picks up her children and leaves for the summer, regardless of her husband’s wishes, she will be damaging her marriage.

Of course, the marriage might already be sufficiently damaged. We do not know whether the problem is the husband’s attitude, the wife’s manifestly bad attitude, or both of them.

Note that the woman’s letter is a litany of complaints. It’s all about her. She does not see herself as part of a couple with her husband. She does not grasp that his successes are hers and her family’s. She seems not to care that he is on the fast track to corporate stardom.

Second, neither the letter writer nor Prudence shows any real appreciation of the man’s position.

I suspect that Prudence was telling the woman what she wants to hear. In truth, I suspect that the woman would be unwilling to hear anything else. I appreciate the difficulty of offering advice to people whose minds are closed. If you don’t tell them what they want to hear they will go out and find someone who will.

Obviously, the challenge lies in not telling them what they want to hear while letting them think that you are.

Prudence seems to believe that the man has many other work options. She does not know it, and neither do I. None of us knows the intricacies of his job and his career position. It is altogether possible that his acceding to his wife’s demands will be read by his employer and future employers as an act of disloyalty, an abrogation of responsibility.

When husbands step down from jobs that hold great responsibility it can often kill their career prospects.

The wife does not seem to care about her husband’s career. She seems resentful of his success. It is fair to say, as we mentioned in a prior post, that if she manages to sabotage his career, nothing good will come of it, for him or for her.