Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Hey, I'm no Brad Pitt either!

You may have heard that the editor of the Nation, Katrina vanden Heuvel, has attempted to put Ezra Klein in his place by pointing out to him what his mirror tells him every morning.

He's no Brad Pitt.

She feels called upon to inform Ezra of his egregious failure to look like a movie star, not because she's worried that he's harboring delusions about his chances with Angelina Jolie and wants to save him from some embarrassment and a possible restraining order, but because Ezra had the temerity, the gall, the nerve, the cheek, the brass, the...the...the...my thesaurus fails me as I try to capture the eloquence of her outrage at the arrogance of Ezra's pointing out that Virginia Governor Tim Kaine is no oil painting.

Or in Ezra's words, "He's a squat, squinty, pug-nosed fellow who just won an election that largely revolved around retail politics and the endorsement of his predecessor."

Apparently, vanden Heuvel believes that only beauty queens should be allowed to judge beauty contests.

Ezra, by being deficient in Bradness, should have left off throwing stones at glass houses and instead of wasting space on his blog insulting poor Tim Kaine concentrated on issues that vanden Heuvel deems worthy of his time and his talent and her taking the trouble to read.

Abler people than I have come to the defense of Ezra's beauty, people with an eye for this sort of thing and a vested interest in making Ezra aware that they think he's kind of cute.

If Ezra keeps a little black book, he's adding pages to it by the sheaf.

Now, as it happens, I'm jealous. Not of the many sweet young things, male and female, figuratively throwing their underwear and apartment keys at Ezra's feet in his comments. I'm jealous of the attention Ezra's Kaine post got from vanden Heuvel.

Not too long after Ezra pointed out Tim Kaine's squinty eyes, he linked to this post of mine in which I too gave Kaine a low rating on the Adonis Meter.

I wasn't as blunt about it as Ezra, but I made the point.

And the odds aren't all that against it that vanden Heuvel, who appears to check in on Ezra's blog regularly, saw the link and followed it and used my post to fuel her indignation at the lefty blogosphere's "fury" at Kaine's being chosen to deliver the rebuttal to the State of the Union address tonight.

She only mentions Ezra and Arianna Huffington but I figure she must have read more than two blogs before making sweeping conclusions about the entire left side of the bandwidth.

So I'm ticked that she didn't mention me.

After all, I'm no Brad Pitt either.

In fact, I'm far less of a Brad than Ezra.

What's more, I'm not even a Joey from Friends. I'm not even a Ross, let alone a Chandler.

Phoebe could be my little sister though.

So as long as vanden Heuvel was insulting bloggers' looks I think she should have insulted mine too.

Of course, it isn't much of an insult, is it?

Ezra is no Brad Pitt, but Brad Pitt is no George Clooney and George Clooney is no Heath Ledger and Heath is no Jake and Jake is no Peter and Peter is no Matt and Matt is no Brad.

For that matter, Brad Pitt is no Brad Pitt, not compared to the young male starlet who caused fainting in the aisles of theaters all over America showing Thelma and Louise and A River Runs Through It. Few of us are as lucky as Cleopatra. Age withers and custom stales.

But vanden Heuvel really did insult Ezra. Not about his looks. About his seriousness of purpose and his intelligence and his dilligence and his success, which is based on the first three qualities---she insulted him on those matters by treating his by-the-bye post on Kaine as indicative of all his work.

She also trivialized that post by deliberately misunderstanding it (and Arianna's and mine if she read it) and discussing it as if Ezra had no other point than to make fun of Tim Kaine. Ezra's point (and Arianna's and mine) was that in choosing Kaine the Democrats were making yet another media bloomer and throwing away an opportunity. The Democrats' failure to understand how TV works and make use of it is a major problem, and the State of the Union rebuttal is only one small instance of it. The Alito hearings were an utter disaster. The Democrats on the Judiciary Committee had no idea how to play to the cameras. And this isn't something new. Oliver North's triumph during the Iran-Contra hearings and their own fumblings during the Clarence Thomas hearings should have taught them some lessons.

Tim Kaine's looks aren't the issue. The issue is that the Democrats don't care about Tim Kaine's looks one way or the other. And, by the way, we're talking about looks in the sense of being telegenic not in a man's being attractive to his own wife. The camera doesn't automatically love conventional beauties and it adores plenty of plug-uglies. Ask Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Arianna wanted John Murtha to replace Kaine. John Murtha is no Brad Pitt either. Heck, he's no Tim Kaine. But he is compelling on television to a degree Kaine doesn't dare dream to achieve.

But vanden Heuvel's insult goes further. In choosing to trivialize the work of one of the best and wonkiest of the Liberal political bloggers, Heauvel was intending to trivialize all Liberal bloggers.

If she really had wanted to make the case that some blogs are trivial she could have picked on this one. But picking on Ezra is more damning.

If Ezra's work doesn't matter, none of ours does.

The regular organs of the Media Elite have been beating up on Liberal blogs for a long time now. Washington Post ombudsperson Deborah Howell and editor Jim Brady have tried to intensify the act. Their object is to make us go away.

But vanden Heuvel's object is to make us all ashamed of ourselves.

For liberal bloggers who want to get exercised about something really important: Where are the Democrats or liberals talking about Ford laying off some 30,000 workers, the end of middle class benefits for working Americans, IBM's gutting of pension security, and the collapse of American manufacturing?

(Ezra helpfully points vanden Heuvel in the direction of a few of the many bloggers who have tackled those issues.)

Those are of course very important issues, but they are far from the only issues. And on top of which all the important issues in life aren't political, at least not in the specific ways the wonks and the activists see politics.

Vanden Heuvel apparently sees blogging as a specifically political activity. She's not alone in that. There are bloggers who see it that way too, and there are many readers of blogs who agree and get testy when the blog they're reading at the moment doesn't include a specifically political post on a specifically political issue they think is important.

Blogs that don't focus on politics don't matter, don't even exist. If vanden Heuvel does read Ezra's blog regularly she might very well have found her way here a few times because Ezra links this way more often than I deserve, God bless him, and if she has she's probably recoiled in bored disgust.

"Another geek posting about Star Wars???? Ick."

Vanden Heuvel wants bloggers to realize that life is stern and earnest. She wants them to buckle down, get serious, tackle the issues. Which issues? Her issues.

The layoffs at Ford, the end of pensions at IBM, the collapse of American manufacturing---these are big, frightening events that I don't feel at all qualified to take on. They concern my deeply, and I want to know more about what's happening. So what do I do?

I read the Nation.

For instance.

I read a whole lot of other magazines and newspapers too. But the Nation is a good example of a periodical that concerns itself with economic and political issues of this order and magnitude.

But, frankly, I see no point in turning my page into a mini-Nation.

That's what vanden Heuvel wants though. Not my blog, specifically. All leftyish blogs.

Starting with Ezra's.

And if blogs refuse to follow the Nation's lead, well, then they're wasting people's time with trivialities like Tim Kaine's looks.

To tell you the truth, I read the Nation but I don't much enjoy it. It has always reminded me of those people back in college who would wander into the dorm lounge while you and your friends were watching TV and ask loudly, "How can you watch this crap? Don't you all have studying to do?"

Their point was never to get us to turn off the TV and hit the books. Their point was to call attention to their own seriousness of purpose. These were people who understood that life was stern and earnest and knew what to do about it, and they wanted us to admire them for that.

If any of us had been struck by the example of their dilligence and rectitude and vowed to reform on the spot, I'm sure they'd have gladly told us how best to save our black and damned souls---by doing exactly what they did.

One of the biggest problems with this country is that it is full of people, of all political persuasions, who can't stand to see other people having a good time.

Vanden Heuval's little lecture to Ezra is intended to make him, and by extension all the other Liberal bloggers who waste their time on what vanden Heuvel regards as trivia and ephemera, to shape up.

We're to focus on the important issues.

And who gets to decide what those issues are?

People like Katrina vanden Heuvel.

The Media Elites want the blogs to disappear.

Vanden Heuvel wants them to stick around but tow the Party line.

I'm not sure which is more offensive.

Ezra's abler defenders include Jerlayn Merritt at Talk Left, Digby, Jane Hamsher at firedoglake, Crooks and Liars, and Shakespeare's Sister. I have no reason to believe any of them sent Ezra their apartment key.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Happiness is appointing an extremist to the Supreme Court without having to worry about a filibuster

I just don't get it, Linus.

What's the matter, Charlie Brown?

I don't understand why a Democratic Senator who already opposes the extremist Supreme Court nominee of an unpopular President and is going to vote against him anyway would be hurting himself by supporting the filibustering of that extremist Supreme Court nominee.

That's easy, Charlie Brown. Samuel Alito is not an extremist.

But all his past writings, his opinions, the entire course of his career show he's a man devoted to taking away rights from regular people and giving more power to the forces of authoritarianism. That sounds like an extremist to me.

Sounds like my sister Lucy to me.

Remind me to tell him no way if Judge Alito offers to hold a football for me to kick. But isn't the judge an extremist?

Of course not, Charlie Brown. An extremist would not have appeared at his televised hearings smiling and looking like a reasonable guy. He would have turned all red in the face at every question, fire would have come out of his nostrils, and his head would have spun completely around on his neck. He would have told the Senators when they asked him that he not only wanted to overturn Roe v. Wade, he wanted to have all women of childbearing years forcibly impregnated by their husbands and overlords. And the wife of a real extremist wouldn't have broken down in tears when a big mean old Liberal caught her husband in a lie and called him on it.

But what about President Bush? He is unpopular, isn't he?

He can't be unpopular. He's a wartime President. All wartime Presidents are popular.

But the polls...

The polls count everybody. But the only people who matter, really, are his Republican base. They love him.

So even if his approval ratings fall below 40 percent again he'll still be a popular President if his base loves him?

I'm afraid so.

But what about the Democratic base? Won't they be upset if their Senators don't oppose Alito?

The Democratic base doesn't count. The Democratic base are a bunch of overly sensitive, smug, out of touch, metrosexuals and girly men. They aren't real Americans.

Oh. So the Democratic Senators should never do anything to make their base happy because that would offend real Americans?

Sure, Charlie Brown. It's much more important that a Democratic Senator win one conservative vote than three Liberal ones. Besides, who are those three Liberals going to vote for anyway?

What if they stay home on election day because they are tired of being taken for granted and sick of their Senators never doing anything that they want them to do.

Then they are just being big babies, and that proves that they aren't real Americans. Real Americans don't pout, Charlie Brown.

But what about all those Democrats who plan to vote against Judge Alito but won't support the filibuster? If you're voting against him, doesn't that mean you don't want him to be on the Supreme Court? And if you don't want him on the Supreme Court, shouldn't you do what you can to stop him from being appointed? Shouldn't you stand up and fight for your principles?

Only Republicans have principles, Charlie Brown. The Democrats are controlled by their special interests. Whenever a Democrat takes a supposedly principled stand, he's really just kowtowing to his special interests.

So you're saying that whenever a Democrat stands up for what he believes in, he's really being weak?


So it's better when a Democrat just surrenders and lets the Republicans do whatever they want?

That's what conventional wisdom is all about, Charlie Brown.


Well, it's like the Preacher says.

You're about to smugly quote a verse from the Bible again, aren't you?

"The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the men of skill."

I can't stand it. I just can't stand it.

Cross-posted at The American Street.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Stand and Fight!

According to Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Hackett Fischer in his wonderful Washington's Crossing, the battle of Trenton and the battle of Princeton a few days later weren't only great symbolic victories for the Americans.

Both battles, and the less famous second battle for Trenton between them, when the British retook the town, at heavy cost, only to have Washington's army slip away in the night to go on to take Princeton, did have important symbolic value to the Cause. They gave Washington's men confidence, convinced them that they could stand up to the British, and inspired most of those whose enlistments were up to stay on and fight. And they rallied the country. 1776 had been a hard year and spirits were flagging. But after Trenton and Princeton there was a renewed sense of hope, and thousands of men rushed to join the Army and many citizens who were torn between their loyalty to the cause of Independence and their sense of self-preservation---why sacrifice yourself to a hopeless task?---became wholehearted Patriots.

But, says Fischer, the battles and the quasi-guerrilla war that followed, which he calls the Forage War and which raged up and down and back and forth across New Jersey all the rest of the winter, had a military significance that went beyond the questions of how many troops were lost on either side and who held what ground when the day was done.

Fischer makes the case that the Forage War broke the confidence of the British army and from that point on the Revolution was pretty much a done deal.

The British commanders hadn't had any respect for the Americans as soldiers. It was always a shock to them when the Rebels stood and fought. They were certain that if they could corner Washington's army and fight it on open ground in a real battle, they could destroy it and the Revolution at once. They were probably right, but after Trenton and Princeton and the Forage War, it began to dawn on them that Washington was never going to give them that chance.

From here on out, Washington would decide when, where, and how the war would be fought. From here on out, although it might look otherwise at times, the Americans were on the offensive and the British were fighting a defensive war.

The Americans would always be outnumbered, always outgunned, out-supplied, out-trained, sometimes outmaneuvered, and occasionally outfought---but they could not be beaten and not outshot. The Americans were deadly in their aim and they knew to pick off officers first. No matter what sort of whupping you gave them today, they would be back again tomorrow. Every "victory" would come at a heavy price.

Many of the best British officers decided that they would never win the war. British politicians, on both sides of the question---there was significant support for the American cause, at least as a fight for the rights owed British citizens if not as a fight for complete Independence, all over England---decided the same thing. From then on, only King George had his heart in the fight. For the rest of the war the British army was often fighting to keep from admitting they were losing.

You might have gotten ahead of me here and decided I'm working my way to a point about the war in Iraq. I don't blame you. There is one to make. The lesson of Vietnam was that we had forgotten the lesson we taught the British, and the lesson of Iraq is becoming that we forgot the lesson we learned in Vietnam about the lesson we taught the British.

But I'm actually thinking about the upcoming fight against Smiling Sammy Alito.

John Kerry and Ted Kennedy are at work trying to rally the troops to a filibuster.

The Democrats are going to lose it. We know that going in. If they filibuster, the Republicans will break their own rules, throw out the compromise, and get rid of the filibuster.

Lindsay Graham, one of the Republican architects of the "compromise" has already admitted that the Democrats were hornswaggled. The Democrats who "negotiated" the "compromise" left it to the Republicans to decide when it was ok for the Democrats to fillibuster. There is no situation short of the President's nominating someone to the federal bench who shows up at his confirmation hearings in a pointy hood and bedsheet that the Republicans will grant is extreme enough to warrant a filibuster.

The first time the Democrats try to fillibuster a Bush nominee will be the last.


Because we don't want them to be able to use it to stop President Hillary's judicial nominees.

The fight must cost them.

And if managed well it will cost them more than the filibuster later on. It will cost them now.

It will be fun to see Bill Frist's head exploding on national television.

It will be fun to see the Republicans set back on their heels by the shock of seeing the Democrats actually stand and fight.

It will be fun to see Bush spending political capital he doesn't have to get his man in and fun to see them try to spin a purely partisan win on the numbers as some kind of larger victory.

It will be fun to see a "popular" President have to prove he is, which he can't.

It will be fun to watch the few remaining Republicans with consciences squirm.

It will be fun to watch the few remaining Republican pragmatists have to decide whether or not the filibuster is worth saving for they will need it.

It will be fun, and inspiring, to see Democrats stand and fight.

A lot of us have a sense that the Democrats in Congress have decided that it's not worth fighting any battles they can't win. That's the definition of surrender, though, isn't it? Discretion is the better part of valor is not a rallying cry.

They seem resigned to waiting hopefully for the next election and keeping their fingers crossed while Patrick Fitzgerald and Ronnie Earle and the prosecutors in the Abramoff Affair---The Case of the Utterly Corrupt Republicans as it should be called---do any fighting that needs to be done.

They've been resigned to fighting a defensive war.

For a moment last fall, when Harry Reid shut down the Senate, the Republicans were thrown on the defensive, shocked by the sight of Democrats fighting back.

It's time to shock them again.

If the Democrats want to win elections this fall they need to rally the citizenry. They need to convince us they can fight.

Harry Reid wants to fight, but I think he doubts the troops are behind him. Call and write your Senators and tell them what you want them to do.

"Stand and fight!"

The battle cry's being raised everywhere on the web, but this morning I happened to read it again in this post by Leah and this one by Lambert, both at Corrente; and as always I got to where I needed to get---in this case Dave Johnson's postings of Kerry's and Kennedy's battle cries at Seeing the Forest---by following the links provided by Avedon Carol.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Universe is Expanding

Scott Lemieux has seen Woody Allen's newest, Match Point, and liked it.

Allen guaranteed that some people would call Match Point his best since Crimes and Misdemeanors by...pretty much remaking it, albeit with a younger mistress and bourgeois user. And the self-plagiarism is begging you to mock him: there's the scene where the mistress threatens to call the wife! The ethical discussions with imagined characters! But the thing is, it's not like the existentialist anguish was original the first time either; it's what you do with the archetypical plot that matters. And damned if he doesn't pull it off. It really is a return to form.

Granted, it ain't Crimes and Misdemeanors. Not only because the plot is inevitably better when it's used the first time, but the first one had some great comic sequences as well, and the multiple plot strands added resonance to each. But that's his best movie...

Hold on a minute, Scott.

Crimes and Misdemeanors is the Woodman's best movie?

Love and Death was his best.

Sorry. I meant Annie Hall.

No, Manhattan.

No, Hannah and Her Sisters.

No. Scott's right. It's Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Except for Sleeper.

Well, one of them!

Anyway, Scott's probably right that Match Point is Allen's best since Crimes and Misdemeanors, because as everybody knows, Woody hasn't made a good movie in 20 years.

Not counting Deconstructing Harry.

Or Sweet and Lowdown.

Or Manhattan Murder Mystery, Bullets Over Broadway, Mighty Aphrodite, or Everyone Says I Love You.

Woody Allen has had one of the most brilliant careers in the history of American filmmaking and yet he suffers from a general critical disappointment. "Well, geez," goes the reaction to each new movie, "That wasn't as good as (Put your own favorite here.)"

When it's just as easy and more realistic to say, "That was fun, and a whole lot better than most of the crap that passes for movies these days. I can't wait to see what Woody's up to next!"

And you won't have to wait long. His next movie's right around the corner. While Match Point is in the theaters, Woody's at work finishing up Scoop. The man makes close to two movies a year, an incredible pace. But then geniuses tend to be prolific.

What I've heard of Scoop makes me nervous, though. All I've heard is that Woody's acting in it himself and Scarlett Johansson is the leading lady. But that's enough and it's alarming.

Please, Woody, resist!

A rule of thumb for judging Woody's movies since Crimes and Misdemeanors is that their quality is inversely proporptional to the amount of screen time he gives to himself.

This doesn't explain Deconstructing Harry (lots of Woody but good), Anything Else (Much less Woody, but mediocre), and Alice (No Woody, but terrible).

But it does cover Match Point and Sweet and Lowdown (No Very low Woody; excellent) and Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Hollywood Ending (Wall to wall Woody in both; both regarded as disasters).

I gave the last two movies the skip, not because they sounded terrible as movies, but because I didn't want to watch Woody embarrass himself trying to play the character he played 30 years ago. Hollywood Ending sounded as if it might have been good if Woody had cast someone handsome and dashing, someone you could believe both Tea Leoni and Debra Messing would devote themselves to and want to sleep with and who could still do a pratfall---Kevin Kline would have been perfect.

Curse of the Jade Scorpion needed a younger actor who could have given a convincing impersonation of the young Woody.

Back to the point, the Woody Proportion Rule also depends on what sort of role Woody gives himself. If he gives himself a large but supporting role, the movies tend to be good to excellent, and this goes back to include Crimes and Misdemeanors and Hannah and Her Sisters.

So we have: Husbands and Wives, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Everyone Says I Love You, and even Small Time Crooks, in all of which, like Crimes and Hannah, Woody either played a supporting character or second banana to his leading lady.

Before I get on to giving my ranking of Allen movies, a quick word in praise of Julia Roberts. I'm not a fan of hers. She leaves me cold. (The blonde actively despises her.) But she's a good actress, even if the movies she's in usually don't call upon her to do it. And in Everyone Says I Love You she gives a lesson to young actresses who find themselves cast opposite Woody as his love interest. The way to handle it is to do what Julia did---shrink. Somehow she managed to turn down her movie star's high wattage and play a woman five or six years older than she was at the time, which was 29, a woman on the verge of middle age, pretty but ordinary, and vulnerable enough to be almost believably attracted to Woody Allen, sixty (!) at the time but almost able to pass for 10 or even 15 years younger.

I didn't believe Goldie Hawn would ever have married him though, even when they were both young.

I did believe they were good friends.


Great Woody:

Annie Hall
Love and Death
Crimes and Misdemeanors
Hannah and Her Sisters

Very Good Woody:

Sweet and Lowdown
Deconstructing Harry
The Purple Rose of Cairo
Oedipus Wrecks (from New York Stories).

Better Woody:

Manhattan Murder Mystery
Bullets Over Broadway
Radio Days
Husbands and Wives

Minor but Enjoyable Woody:

Broadway Danny Rose
Mighty Aphrodite
Small Time Crooks
Anything Else

Bad Woody:

Another Woman
A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy
Shadows and Fog

And the ones I haven't seen:

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
Hollywood Ending
Melinda and Melinda
Match Point

I didn't list Take the Money and Run, Bananas, and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex because they are apprentice works and although they've got lots of good jokes ("Tell funnier jokes.") they're pretty poor pieces of filmmaking, almost amateurish, in fact. As Scott Lemieux points out, over the years Allen has grown into a great director; whatever the quality of his scripts, his camera work and the performances he coaxes from his actors are tremendous. It would be interesting, if impossible for fans, to look at the movies he's made over the last 20 years and judged them only on their directing, as if he hadn't written them. Even Love and Death and Annie Hall are pretty pedestrian examples of filmmaking in comparison with Sweet and Lowdown and, except for Diane Keaton (and Carol Kane in her lovely, brief cameo in Annie Hall.), all of the actors in them ham it up and do schtick. Nobody else started acting in Woody Allen movies until Manhattan.

And I didn't list Stardust Memories because it belongs to another universe. It almost doesn't count as a movie. It's a dramatized essay.

I think some critic described it as a celluloid thumb in the eye of Woody's fans.

I also left out my favorite Woody Allen movie of the last 10 years, because it wasn't made by Woody.


Your turn.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Singers of tales

Quick quote from last week to get started:

In every culture at every point in time the ability to tell a story has been as valued by men as it has been by women. The talent for describing a process, for teaching somebody else how to do a job, has been as important a quality for a man as it has been for a woman.

And once upon time, and not that long ago a time it was, a cultured young man, that is one fit for the company of other men, needed to know how to write a decent sonnet, dash off a decent letter, tell a decent story, and give a decent speech.

All this is to say that for thousands of years, whatever our innate biological differences, the cultural pressure on boys was for them to be just as gabby as their sisters.

Something changed.

We've been watching a documentary series, In Search of the Trojan War. In the third episode, "The Singer of Tales," Michael Wood, the British historian who wrote the series and acts as narrator and guide, travels to Turkey to watch and listen to a professional bard perform. Wood is trying to show what it might have been like back in Homer's time when the Iliad wasn't a book but a performance, when the bard spoke or sung his masterpiece from memory and people heard their favorite stories instead of reading them.

The Turkish storyteller Wood visits is a man and his entire audience is made up of men.

For thousands and thousands of years storytelling was a male art. For thousands of years after the invention of writing and the spread of literacy, reading and writing were men's skills. (Women's too, to greater or lesser degrees, mostly lesser, depending on which sexist culture they had the bad luck to be born into.) Words were men's tools.

Now, all of a sudden, with boys falling farther and farther behind girls in their reading skills, we've "discovered" that when it comes to reading and writing boys are handicapped by biology. Their poor little brains just aren't wired for it the way their sisters' brains are.

And some defenders of boys are using this to argue that school, with its increased emphases on reading and writing, is "penalizing" boys and that educators need to make changes in order to accomodate boys' different learning styles and capabilities.

Sensible people should ask them how it was that for all those thousands of years boys were able to triumph over their innate biological inferiority to produce not just the likes of the Homeric bards and Shakespeare, but all those beautiful letters home from the Civil War by soldiers who, most of them, hadn't gone to high school or even, plenty of them, gone to school beyond the fifth or sixth grade.

Read a few of those letters and then read a random sampling of college freshman essays and you have to conclude that it's not boys' brains that are the problem, it's the way boys are being taught to use them---or more likely, not taught.

But before going on, I want to look at the assumption that boys are in trouble.

In his New Republic article, Richard Whitmire reports some statistics that show that while 72 per cent of eighth grade girls are reading at or above their grade reading level only 61 per cent of boys are and he uses these numbers as more evidence that boys are in trouble.

(I believe other studies come up with very similar numbers.)

There are several ways to look at that. The way that it is being looked at by the boys are in trouble crowd is that that 11 per cent difference is catastophic. This is a way of saying that that 11 per cent represent all boys, while girls are represented by their 72 per cent.

Seems unfair.

But another way to look at it is that it's just proof that more girls are smarter than boys.

This makes the girls' 11 per cent edge representive of all girls while leaving boys to be represented by their underachieving 39 per cent.

But here's how I look at it.

If you have an incoming high school freshman class of 100 boys and 100 girls, you have 61 boys who are reading at or above their grade level and 72 girls who are and you have 67 kids, boys and girls, who aren't!

67 kids out of 200 who can't read at their grade level? That's a big problem. And for 28 of those kids you can't attribute the trouble to their being boys, because, well, they're girls. Which suggests that reading skills aren't necessarily a matter of gender and that those 39 boys who are having trouble might very well be having trouble for the same reasons the girls are.

Obviously, then, if you set out to solve the problem in a boy-centered way you are going to end up slighting or even ignoring all those girls.

For a long time girls were systematically denied educations. Very few were taught to read and write. But most men during those times were illiterate too. But that didn't leave them thougtless or mute. Words are sounds. Writing is a code that when deciphered is designed to produce a music just as surely as notes on a score sheet are intended to.

Evolutionary biologists, as opposed to evolutionary psychologists, the difference being that one group limits itself to what's in the fossil record and the other gives itself license to speculate wildly based on this week's pet theories, think that the human brain, male and female, evolved into the shape and configurations it has to handle two things, the two things we do very differently from our ape cousins and primate ancestors---walking upright and talking.

Male and female, we are designed to use words.

We are born singers of tales.

A lot of our children are having trouble with their songs and with hearing other people's.

I think this is because they don't hear the words they read and write.

They can put the symbols down on a piece of paper, they can read symbols off a page in a book or a magazine.

But the music is lost to them.

Their own voices are silent to them.

In some cases this is because they don't have the vocabulary. You can't hear the music of the word if you don't know what that word means.

But in many cases, I believe, it's because we don't teach them the music.

We've divorced the symbols from their sounds.

There's plenty of evidence showing that the best readers are the kids who learned to read at home.

And those kids didn't learn how to do it the way it's taught in school.

They learned it from being read to.

They learned it because their parents and grandparents and big brothers and big sisters and baby sitters and other big people in their lives were singers of tales.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Yes, but what was he clapping not unenthusiastically for, young Lance?

There are plenty of joys to be had from keeping a notebook, but there are frustrations too, and one of them is reading something you wrote 18 years ago and discovering that the young you didn't bother to write down information the present-day you is most interested in knowing.

My non-Hoosier friends didn't believe it when I used to tell them that life in Indiana wasn't all corndogs and prayer meetings. Fort Wayne had good restaurants and what many famous visiting musicians, like Emanuel Ax and Nigel Kennedy, said was a first-rate symphony orchestra. Nancy Nall will vouch for this, glad as she is to have finally said goodbye to the City of Churches and its all-night euchre tournaments. A high school senior's lifetime ago the blonde and I and a friend attended a performance by the Fort Wayne Philharmonic and I forgot to write down who the guest soloist was and what they played. Too busy pretending to be a fashion critic and spying on the guy sitting next to us, I guess.

Another frustration of notebooking keeping is discovering that your young self was fond of rhetorical flourishes that set the present day you's teeth on edge.

His "clapping was not the least bit unenthusiastic"?

Cold, crisp, and snowy tonight. The women’s committee of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic served mulled wine and cider at intermission, steaming in silver punchbowls and steaming in ladles and steaming in cups. Crowds of people in winter are a cheery sight to me. Though they come mostly dressed in grays and browns and navy blues, and the colors of their scarves and sweaters are muted, their clothes seem brighter to me, the textures more interesting, and their shapes more eccentric and expressive of a person not a body. In spring and summer, stripped to a single layer of clothes, people’s silhouettes are only what Nature has given or denied them and what time has left or health spared them. In summer in these climes clothing serves only for ornamentation and is chosen and worn by and to serve vanity and ego. Terrible mistakes are made. For those for whom Vanity is not a weakness, it is worse because then clothing is only a nod to modesty and so we get spandex, Sansabelt slacks, and polka dot short sleeve shirts. In winter, clothing requires clear thought and common sense. It is practical, its ornamental side is subordinate, expressed in accessories, and often accidental—sweaters, scarves, gloves, and hats are rarely bought for ourselves, they come to us as gifts from people who choose them with little interest in flattering our vanity; they want to keep us warm. Accidental splashes of color, surprising and friendly and brave against the weather. A bright red scarf or sweater is instantly endearing because it might have been given by a child or a mother at Christmas and it says, Sure it’s cold and dreary, but I’m warm because I was given out of love and do my job for love. Cheer up, some one loves us all and wants us all to be warm.

Sitting beside us in the auditorium was a man who listened to the entire concert leaning forward with his eyes closed. He was middle-aged, his mustache was going gray, his skin taut but caving in under his jaw and on his cheeks, his forehead bald. His nose seemed to have been flattened in a fight, but that did not make him look less intellectual. He seemed serene as he listened, perhaps conducting or playing in his head. He smiled the whole time, but it wasn’t an altogether pleasant smile. Perhaps this was due to the wry shape on his mustache, but his smile bordered on a smirk. He had an arrogant air, it seemed to me, as though he enjoyed the music for the music’s sake not for this particular performance’s, which he judged to be less than stellar. I suspect him of being a musician himself and fancying himself more capable than the musicians on stage. His eyes opened once, and then he laughed. At what I don’t know. To tell you the truth, the horns sounded tinny to me, but what do I know? Our neighbor seemed to aim his laugh at the conductor, so perhaps the conductor had committed a comical error. Our neighbor closed his eyes and did not open them again, as far as I know, until the end. As everyone else began their ovation, he leaned over to his female companion and whispered a critical remark. Then he joined in the applause and his clapping was not the least bit unethusiastic.

Monday, January 23, 2006

"Run away! Run away!"

There are geniuses at work inside the Democratic Party who are convinced that the best way to get back inside the walls of the White House, and take back the majorities in both houses of Congress, is to build a Trojan Horse of a party.

The idea is that if a candidate talks in a vague, mushy, apologetic way sort of like a Republican, voters will mistake him or her for a Republican and vote them into office where their true Democratic warrior spirit will hop out and lay waste to the citadel.

The trouble is that they can't design and build a convincing horse.

They keep building a Trojan Rabbit.

And then forget to put the Democratic warriors inside.

Nobody's fooled and the Dems wind up having the damn thing catapulted back at them at which point they scatter in terror shouting "Run away! Run away!" and from the walls of the castle the Republicans make faces and mock them in bad French accents.

Obviously, I'm late getting the news that the Democrats are planning to have their response to Bush's State of the Union delivered by the guy who played Herb Tarlek, Jr. on WKRP in Cincinnatti.

Sorry. I mean Virginia Governor Tim Kaine.

Probably you've seen Arianna Huffington's reaction to the news that Kaine has been tapped to take the fight to Bush. Kaine, as Huffington describes him, sounds like a perfect Trojan Rabbit:

Don't ask me why, but I actually watched Kaine's inaugural address on C-SPAN, and I was stunned to hear him dare compare the cause of Virginians like Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson to our cause in Iraq: "They stood here at a time, just as today, when Virginians serving freedom's cause sacrificed their lives so that democracy could prevail over tyranny."

Iraq as a war to ensure that democracy can prevail over tyranny is George Bush's talking point. God help us if it's also the talking point of the man the Democrats have chosen to respond to him after the State of the Union.

And during Kaine's run for Governor, he adopted another Bush talking point -- that it would send "a horrible message" to "cut and run" in Iraq.

What's Tim Kaine going to say when Bush's done?


But even if Kaine held views that allowed him to deliver a real and plausible Democratic reply to the President, assuming the Democrats would let him, what good will it do if the audience tunes out the moment he opens his mouth---assuming that they didn't switch channels the second his face appeared on the screen, thinking that somebody had goofed and in place of the Democratic response they were broadcasting an infomercial for the Fisherman's Friend instead?

Tim Kaine is the opposite of telegenic.

Has nobody in the Party's upper management heard that John Kennedy won his debates with Richard Nixon way back when because Kennedy came across better on TV?

Has anybody there heard of television?

You can lament all you want about TV's pernicious influences on politics. You can bemoan the fact that if Abraham Lincoln were alive and running for office today he couldn't get elected city councilman because he was too ugly for TV (You'd be wrong. Look again at all those Matthew Brady photographs. And Lincoln knew what sort of image building he was doing when he posed for them.) but that doesn't change the fact that to be elected to high office today you have to come across well on TV.

What's more, the ability to project yourself through television, to use the medium to deliver your message, to be a kind of celebrity are necessary skills for anyone who wants to lead the country in the 21st century.

One of these men is not like the other, tell me why. George McGovern, Fritz Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton.

I think even Clinton has forgotten that a lot of his success was due to his ability to pass as a TV star.

This isn't an argument that the Democrats need to start recruiting from the casting offices of Warner Brothers. It's just a wish that they would make an effort to understand how they come across on TV.

John Kerry's a funny looking guy, but he came across very well on TV. When he wore a suit.

When he was shown running around in his shirtsleeves trying to play at being a "regular guy" he showed off the fact that he has no shoulders and no waist. In a suit he looks like a President. Dressed down he looks like a scarecrow.

Nobody in his campaign noticed that?

Apparntly not. They were too busy trying to build a Trojan George Bush instead of a realistic image of John Kerry.

Kerry won the debates wearing a suit.

He lost the election wearing a wet suit.

Tim Kaine promises to be even less exciting television than last year's pairing of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.

Democratic campaign strategists seem not to want to believe that the medium is the message. Which would be fine if they believed that their message was the message.

Instead all they have to say is "Run away! Run away!"


Shakespeare's Sister
has more reasons for thinking Kaine is not able.

Tristero, filling in for Digby, has a suggestion for how to deal with the Democratic Party leadership's timidity.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

The Crossing

For family movie night last night the Mannions watched the old Disney comedy, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, about which there is not much to say except, How did Caesar Romero keep such a great head of hair?

Last week we watched The Crossing, a movie about the American Revolutionary War's Battle of Trenton that focused, of course, on Washington's crossing of the Delaware on Christmas night, 1776.

Wasn't bad for a low-budget made for TV movie. Jeff Daniels played Washington. The boys were surprised to see an actor they considered young in the part. But the movie was made in 2000 and at the time Daniels was almost exactly Washington's age in 1776.

Daniels was 45.

Washington was 44!

Being 44 was a bit different for a man in 1776 than it is for us now, but not as different as we'd like to think. We say that considering how people had a habit of dying well before they hit 40 back then, 44 was considered old. This is a way of flattering ourselves that 44 now is still young.

But it was young back then too. Or at least Washington was still young. Youthful anyway. He was thin, in excellent shape, full of energy and stronger and more vital than many men ten and 15 years younger. Part of the reason he surrounded himself with a staff of twentysomethings----Hamilton was 21 in 1776, Layfayette, who wasn't at Trenton but was at Valley Forge a year later, was 20 when he joined Washington's staff.---was that they were the only ones who could keep up with him. There's a story of how when he was middle-aged, Washington came across a group of much younger men who were competing to see who could throw an iron bar farthest. Washington asked for the bar and gave it a lazy heave. It went way beyond the farthest throw so far. The young men were stunned. Washington shrugged, said something like, "When one you beats that, come and get me and I'll better it," and strolled off, confident that he wouldn't be asked to make a second throw. He was right.

The other and more important way Washington was young was that his character wasn't fully formed. He was still growing. He was still learning, how to be a great military leader of course, but also how to be a good man. He was conscious of this and kept himself open to advice, to change, to the fact that he might be wrong, and very often was wrong, and he disciplined his thinking, his temperament, his temper, and his actions accordingly.

In short, Washington became the father or our country because he could admit his mistakes, learn from them, and not just admit them and teach himself a lesson, he could listen to others tell him when he was wrong and learn from what they had to say about his mistakes. He could seek out advice and take it. If this reminds you of any President you know because that President is the very opposite of Washington in this way, I agree with you.

The movie doesn't spend too much time examining this aspect of Washington's character. It's more interested in his determination. It wants to show how important Washington's own example was to keeping the army together, saving the cause of Independence, and winning the war. But it does show it, particularly in his contentious relationship with Colonel John Glover.

Glover was a New Englander, a ship owner and captain from Marblehead, Massachusetts, who had raised a regiment of his fellow New Englanders, most of them sailors, fishermen, or men in trades and businesses directly related to making a living from the sea. Washington's army was made up of many companies like Glover's. They weren't militia. They considered themselves professional soldiers in that they had signed up with the army and were subject to its generals' commands. But they were also apart from the regular army. They were jealous of their own rights, defiant towards authority, and not inclined to just go along because a superior officer ordered them to. They expected to have a say in deciding their own fates. They were democrats.

Washington was an aristocrat.

Glover was an excellent commander and his regiment was one of the best and toughest in the army. Their skills as sailors helped save the army after the defeats on Long Island and Manhattan and their skills got Washington and his men across the Delaware that night. But Glover's men, being New Englanders and used to their independence and their rights, with a long tradition of self-reliance and self-government, did not much care for aristocrats. That's why they were in the fight.

The Crossing has several scenes in which Washington and Glover clash over some decision or wish of Washington's that Glover believes is wrong or ill-advised. Glover tells Washington what he thinks, plainly, rudely, even, with no deference. He is not awed by Washington's reputation, rank, or social standing.

These scenes are true to life, not just in that Washington and Glover really argued like this, but also in that Washington regularly had similar run-ins with many of his commanders and sometimes even with sergeants and privates.

The men loved him, respected him, and were willing to follow him anywhere, but that didn't mean they weren't going to say what was on their minds, stand up for their rights, or do what they knew was wrong or foolhardy just because some general, even the General, told them to do it.

Even after years of hard fighting and training had professionalized the army, it still remained mainly an army of citizen-soldiers who did not put a greater emphasis on the word soldiers than on the word citizens.

When he assumed command of the army, Washington expected to command it as an aristocrat. He expected that when he gave an order his officers and troops would just hop to. It didn't work that way. For Washington this was maddening. An army had to obey its commanders if it was going to fight and not come apart in battle. It was personally insulting as well. And for a while Washington tried to bend the army to his will through corporal punishments and courts martial. Slowly, but a lot faster than it would have on lesser, more vain and stubborn men, it dawned on him that he had to change tactics. He could not run his army the way British commanders ran theirs. He needed to consult with his officers and he needed to let his men, through their officers, have their say.

He needed to be able to admit his mistakes, admit when he didn't have an answer, and admit that there were others who knew what needed to be done better than he did.

There were plenty of people back then, in the army and in Congress, who saw what Washington was doing as a sign that he was weak and indecisive. (They didn't like it that he wasn't an optomist either and never developed a habit of sugar-coating the bad news from the field.) They wanted him relieved of his command and replaced with someone who would be more "energetic" by which they meant more autocratic, ruthless, and reckless with his men's lives.

In his arguments with Glover in the movie Washington is shown to be mainly in the right, but he is also shown backing down, changing tack, changing his mind when he sees that Glover is right.

He is shown being wrong.

He is shown admitting he's wrong.

He is shown apologizing.

<>He is shown learning.

Hope you found the link to the New York Historical Society's Alexander Hamilton exhibit webpage embedded up above. But there it is again, in case. Link came courtesy of Sheila O'Malley. Sheila's a bit obsessed with Hamilton. Just a bit.

Highly recommended: Washington's Crossing by David Hackett Fischer.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Psycho killer, qu'est que c'est?

Going to stop riding one hobby horse to hop on another.

Villains in popular entertainment.

I'm close to throwing in the towel on Robert Parker's Stone Cold. I've been sticking with it because I've been listening to it on tape and enjoying Robert Forster's dry, wised-up tough guy reading. But I don't know why I even started it. I've written before how, while I like Parker's first and greatest detective-hero, Spenser, I'm not much of a fan of Parker's Jesse Stone thrillers.

For one thing, I think Parker gives himself permission to write sloppily in the Stone novels. I don't mean his prose doesn't parse. I mean that he gives in to all sorts of thriller conventions and cliches that he manages to disguise, undercut, and avoid in the Spenser novels and his plots are less carefully worked out.

Stone has already had to do something improbable and dumb that he didn't need to do and that he knew was dumb, which means that Parker was aware he was making a bloomer but he kept at either because he didn't feel like backing up and starting over, and it just made it easier to write the next scene, or he felt it kept the action going, or he's setting up an obvious and unnecesary plot complication down the line.

A lot of writers of mysteries and thrillers seem to think they have an understanding with their readers that they can violate all laws of probability, human nature, and artistic inelligence in order to keep the plot moving and the bodies falling.

In his best Spenser novels, Parker rarely imposes on his readers' patience that way. When he does he usually offers his readers something in return, like humor or a good piece of descriptive writing.

Not much of either in the Stone series.

All mystery novels and thrillers depend on improbable coincidences, but only the worst ones depend on their heroes growing suddenly improbably stupid.

And in the Stone novels the most annoying traits of the Spenser novels get out of hand. In Spenser's world the only men who count are big, violent men who either share Spenser's code of honor or who who have a special code of their own. All other men are wimps, weaklings, or fools. And in Spenser's world, all encounters between Spenser and other men are dominance games, which Spenser always wins.

The same goes for Stone's world, but without the sense of humor.

All that's annoying enough, but in Stone Cold, there's another factor. The Jen factor.

Stone spends a lot of his time off the job moping over his ex-wife Jen. He wants to get back together with her. She wants to get back with him, but she doesn't trust him to stay sober---Stone's an alcoholic who doesn't have his drinking under control but who can resist when he's working and even when he's off duty, sometimes---and she isn't sure he really loves her, partly because he won't give up the drinking, which is one thing keeping them apart, and partly because she suspects him of wanting her to control and possess. So they get together for wistful conversations that lead to nothing but frustration except for the times they lead to sex, after which comes the frustration, and Jesse mopes about it all. He mopes hardest over Jen's love life. She's seeing other men while she's waiting for him to get it together and be worthy of her. This eats him up inside, the poor guy.

But, wait, he's seeing other women. I don't mind that he's blind to his own hypocrisy on this one. I mind that every one he talks to about how miserable he is without Jen, including Jen, is blind to it too.

Nobody worries about Jen's feelings. They're all too busy feeling sorry for Jesse...or not feeling sorry for him and telling him to get over Jen and move on, but that only shows how much they care about the big lug.

So why keep going? There's a new novel coming out next month. Sea Change. I'll probably read it. Or let Robert Forster read it to me. Why?

Probably because like everybody else I enjoy mindless escapism once in a while. And because Parker and I share similar tastes in women. And because I'm nostalgic for the North Shore and Boston area locations. And because I like Spenser and the Stone novels, for all their weaknesses, are part of the Spenser universe. (Stone has made a guest appearance in one of the last two Spensers I read, either Cold Service or School Days, and it says something not good that I can't remember which, doesn't it.)

Still, I'm ready to give it up.

Because of the villains.

A pair of serial killers.

What the devil is the movies', TV's, and mystery writers' fascination with serial killers?

Is it just that they guarantee a high and bloody body count?

Or is there some facet of the twisted American pysche they appeal to that, twisted as I am in most other ways, I don't share?

Or are they just easy?

Barely able to write their names in the dirt with a stick

One of the areas where boys are falling behind is in their verbal skills.

And this is causing them to fall behind everywhere else, because you can't get very far in school, or in life, if you can't express a complex thought.

You have to be able to read and write well.

Steve Israel's article in the Sunday Record looks at this problem, but he accepts some contentions from one of his sources, anthropologist Helen Fisher, that I disagree with, hotly.

Think of it this way: Centuries ago, a man went out with a rock to slay a buffalo. He had to develop the physical skill to judge the distance between him and the animal. He had to learn to focus to kill the beast with one blow. This is what men did for thousands of years. They learned aggression and focus.

Meanwhile, a woman stayed home with her baby. She nursed her child. She watched for snakes. She taught her child to speak. When the man came home, she cooked the meat. She learned to do several things at once. She learned to communicate, to figure things out.

"Words were a woman's tools," says Fisher.

And a woman's tools are now needed to thrive in school and the world - a world that has changed so much, so quickly, that it relies less on physical strength and aggressiveness and more on processing information and cooperation.

Ok, in lazy, armchair Richard Leakeyesque moods brought on by a trip to the museum or an article in a doctor's office copy of Psychology Today, I'm halfway persuaded by images of silent men approaching a mastodon and convivial parties of women gathering nuts and berries that men might have learned the value of keeping your mouth shut more than women needed to.

And it's been my experience that when a group of men get together to work on a project they talk or don't talk as the mood strikes them---when they do talk the talk is about the tools being used or about past jobs like this one (men telling each other stories)---and when the group at work is predominately women (I'm talking about my experience here. I can only experience groups of women that are only predominately women. Every group of women I've ever been part of had at least one man in it.) the conversation is non-stop and about everything under the sun except, sometimes, the job at hand, which still gets done and done well and done right.

So from my experience I could characterize the talk of men as being laconic and mainly process-oriented and the talk of women as being more verbose, descriptive, and insight-driven, and I could conclude that I'm seeing the ancient dynamic at work still and agree that it appears that women are just naturally more comfortable, fluent, and creative in their use of words and that this translates into higher verbal skills and higher verbal scores on tests.

But I'm not a fan of evolutionary arguments to explain current cultural conditions, like the fact that American men don't tend to open up in their conversation the way American women tend to do, because we don't know. There's not enough evidence of what people were doing before they started writing down the history of what they'd been doing. From the point where we do have written evidence, lo and behold, most of the writing is by men!

Where did they learn that trick?

Fisher says "Words are women's tools," and rocks and sticks were men's and while women talked and invented civilization men stood around beating rocks together and hitting each other over the head with sticks and that's why boys today are having such trouble. The primary tools of human intelligence---words---are above their biologically innate capacity to handle.

This is just the old argument that women are biologically geared not to be able to think in three dimensions and reason linearally---that is, they can't do math---turned on its head to flatter girls in a way that is actually insulting to them as well as boys. We don't need to do math anymore. We need to talk about how we do math.

I know a lot of women writers, poets, lawyers, journalists, bloggers, and other professionals whose success has depended on their having to be highly skilled in using words who wouldn't like to hear that they didn't have to work all that hard at it because they were evolutionarily designed for their jobs, that words are "women's tools" and they just throw them around as easily and naturally as men throw rocks.

And those hunting parties of supposedly silent men? They did not include small boys.

The small boys were with their mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and sisters learning which nuts and berries to pick and, incidentally, how to talk.

Meanwhile, back in the stone age, banging rocks together had a purpose we now call tool-making, a creative act, not an aggressive one. And as an anthropologist Fisher must know that most hunting cultures built religions around the hunt, with a result that religion has traditionally had---art!

And this art was created by and for men.

While the women were inventing civilization over in the berry patch, men were re-inventing it around the campfire and on the cave walls.

Probably at no time in the whole of human existence could men get by with just a few grunts and by making a couple of crude drawings in the dust with a stick.

However it was back in the ice age, men did not spend all their time chasing after mastodons and women did not spend all their time gossiping.

When they weren't out hunting, men whiled away their free time doing what hunters do now to while away theirs. They told each other stories.

In every culture at every point in time the ability to tell a story has been as valued by men as it has been by women. The talent for describing a process, for teaching somebody else how to do a job, has been as important a quality for a man as it has been for a woman.

And once upon time, and not that long ago a time it was, a cultured young man, that is one fit for the company of other men, needed to know how to write a decent sonnet, dash off a decent letter, tell a decent story, and give a decent speech.

All this is to say that for thousands of years, whatever our innate biological differences, the cultural pressure on boys was for them to be just as gabby as their sisters.

Something changed.

Majikthise gets there first: Kevin Drum linked to an article by Richard Whitmire in the New Republic that examines boys' declining literary and verbal skills in depth. I was planning to post a reaction, and still might, but Lindsay Beyerstein beat me to the punch and she and her commenters have an excellent discussion of it going here.

Go here for Drum's take.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Classism One: Title IX

One of the choruses of Right Wing Anti-Feminists' thirty-five year rendition of "I Want a Girl Just Like the Girl Who Married Dear Old Great-great-great Grandad" contains lyrics full of fear and loathing of Title IX, the act that give birth to Mia Hamm and the WNBA.

The Right's hatred of Title IX is almost certainly just another expression of their general hatred of anything that has happened over the last hundred and fifty years to give rights, privileges, opportunities, security, and hope to people who previously didn't have many or any of those---Civil Rights, the Labor Movement, Welfare, Social Security, the Women's movement---and lessened the power and prerogatives of people who were rich and overprivileged---the progressive income tax, workplace safety regulations, environmental protection laws, affirmative action.

But they seem to think they hate Title IX because they believe in fairness.

Title IX takes opportunities away from boys and young men, they protest. And that's unfair!

The usual line of reasoning goes like this:

Because Title IX requires schools that get federal money to offer as many sports scholarships to women as it does to men (I'm simplifying; it doesn't require exactly that.), schools have had to end some of their men's sports programs.

The critics of Title IX rarely suggest that another way to achieve parity would be not to shift funding around but simply increase it for women. But that would cost money, some of which, in the cases of public schools and state universities that exist on government funding, would have to be raised by increasing taxes, and being good "conservatives" they're not about to advocate that.

Besides, like I said, their object isn't fairness anyway. It's the opposite.

Now, it is true that some schools have gotten rid of or defunded some of their male sports---men's tennis teams, men's swimming teams, men's fencing teams, men's gymnastics, and in not a few cases men's baseball have all suffered.

But there are two men's sports programs that never suffer.

Football and basketball.

Can't touch those.

They bring in serious money.

Title IX isn't unfair to men. It's unfair to men whose athletic prowess is not a contingency of their height or muscle mass.

Which is to say that's it's not Title IX that's unfair; it's this country's obsession with football and basketball and winning that's unfair.

As it turns out, schools have cut or defunded plenty of women's sports too---women's tennis, women's fencing, women's gymnastics...

And they have poured the money saved into women's basketball and soccer and, in some of the more civilized areas of the country like upstate New York, lacrosse.

So an outcome of Title IX has been an unfairness to women whose athletic prowess does not reside in their height or ability to shrug off a body check.

I understand that it can be cheaper to maintain one big team sport in place of four or five little sports. Savings in transportation costs alone can be huge. If you have to get 40 student athletes to their next competition, it's better, cheaper, if they all have to be at the same place at the same time and can all ride the same bus.

But Division I colleges do not do anything on the cheap when it comes to their sports programs.

The big team sports are also where the money is. More paying customers will turn out to watch a women's basketball game than a men's fencing match.

The problem with Title IX is capitalism.

But you won't hear a "conservative" point that one out.

You will hear one claim that the problem with Title IX is that it's not just keeping men from playing sports at college; it's turning them away from college altogether.

That is, you'll hear one say it if you follow a link ManDrake of Daffodil Lane sent me to a post by the Carpetbagger.

The Carpetbagger has found and deconstructed a rant against Title IX by Phyllis Schlafly.

Schlafly is concerned that the elimination of the manlier of the manly sports is causing young men to give up on the idea of going to college. She says:

The Rose Bowl proved that public demand is for all-male sports, not female contests. Boys do not want to go to a college that eliminates the macho sports, and that is true even if the boy does not expect to compete himself.

I guess all those young men who want to get into Harvard and Yale want to because of those schools' powerhouse football programs.

Graduates of the University of Chicago can tell us how that school's elimination of its football team several generations ago has resulted in its turning into an all-girl's school.

Schlafly appears to be worried that Title IX is unfair not just to men who want to fence, swim, or play tennis. It's unfair to all those guys who want to go to college to sit on their duffs, drink beer, watch other, more talented and active men achieve, and then burp and high five each other while they incidentally, even accidentally, pick up a business degree.

Sadly, there are a lot of those, but since they can sit on their duffs and drink beer in front of the television as well as in an actual stadium, I doubt they much care if the teams they're watching wear their school's colors.

But Schlafly isn't as worried about them as much as she's worried about all the young women who will be denied the chance to marry those guys.

No sports means fewer guys on campus. Fewer guys means fewer potential mates for the women on campus. All these thousands of young women losing the opportunity to marry their sports obsessed, beer-drinking, fat-assed C student college sweethearts! A tragedy!

Ok, we long ago figured out that Schlafly is an obscenely-blatant hypocrite whose anti-Feminism has been a decades-long crusade to deny other women the chance of the sort of career, wealth, status, and freedom to live her life as she pleases that she's enjoyed.

But hypocrisy is her job.

She's a professional hypocrite whose service is to enable hypocrisy in others.

It doesn't matter that what she says is nonsensical, counter-factual, and fantastical---What schools are eliminating their football and basketball programs?---and even insulting to the people she claims to be championing---are there any guys who will be flattered by Schlafly's opinion of their reasons for going to college? She's not in the business of providing real arguments. She's in the business of providing strings of words that sound as if they might be real arguments that "conservatives" can deploy to distract other people, and distance themselves in their own minds, from their racism, classism, elitism, and just plain I Got Mine You Get Yoursism.

Schlafly's new argument is just more of the same, ridiculous on its face, hypocritical at its core, but it did inspire two very good comments on the Carpetbagger's post.

The first one is pertinent to the whole Boys are Flunking Life 101 issue. Whenever people, on either side of the question, discuss it, they often bring up the fact that there are now college campuses where two-thirds of the student population is female. Steve Israel's article in the Sunday Record mentions it as does this USA Today article linked to by Shakespeare's Sister a few weeks ago.

I haven't seen any lists showing which schools these are. If one of them's Bryn Mawr, I'm not interested.

But angry young man provides an interesting list...of 25 schools, good schools, where the student population is far more than 50 percent male, including some that are more than 66 per cent (or two thirds) male.

Probably won't surprise you that these are major engineering schools or schools with large and highly regarded engineering programs.

Topping the list is Pop Mannion's alma mater, RPI, a school that has one decent sports program. Hockey.

Somehow I doubt very many men are enrolling at RPI for the chance to watch a good hockey game.

Although that's definitely a perk.

Engineering, however, is still a male-dominated profession, so it's not surprising these schools are predominately male. But this raises the question: Are schools with larger female to male ratios schools that have major programs in fields that are traditionally female-dominated?

A school that, with all other things being equal, has a nursing program is going to have more women on campus than men.

What we are looking at here may be just a sign of something that we all know is true already. Young men can begin careers in blue collar fields without having to go to college, while young women who are beginning careers in pink collar and lower level white color fields on an economic par with their brothers' jobs as cops, plumbers, electricians, and auto mechanics need a degree.

(It's important to keep in mind that an awful lot of young men who don't go to college don't wind up as cops, plumbers, electricians, and auto mechanics, jobs that can take you into the middle class. They wind up on factory floors, on loading docks, and on non-unionized road crews. There are plenty for whom the only tool they will handle is a broom or a shovel or a grapple. So it's not to be supposed that we don't have to worry about young men who don't go to college because they'll all end up as skilled craftsmen and technicians. And a good high school education is necessary for boys who want to go into those skilled jobs, and high school is where a great many boys are having trouble.)

The other interesting comment is from Davis X. Machina, a high school teacher, who makes two vital points:

There have to be serious economic & cultural disincentives tending to keep young white men on the margins going to college.

The good ones still go — but the 'maybe I should go' cadre has certainly been somewhat priced out, and maybe a little driven off by the 'real men are pig-ignorant'-Sean Hannatzi factor, who knows?

By "good ones" I'm assuming Davis means the best students, the very brightest who are motivated by their own achievements. Doing something very well tends to make you want to keep doing it and want to keep getting better at it. But it's the average students, the ones whose grades are only ok, good enough to get them into college, but not good enough to earn them any academic scholarships, who may be deciding college is not worth it.

More financial aid would be a big incentive for those young men, but we have a Republican Congress that attacks federal financial aid programs every chance it gets and a lot of states that can't afford to fund generous programs of their own, for a variety of reasons, including the fact they aren't getting help from the Republican Congress.

And while those young men are on the fence about whether or not to go on to college, what are they hearing from the Right Wing Noise machine?

The continuation of a now six year old argument that being smart, well-educated, well-read, intellectually curious, thoughtful and even intelligent aren't necessary to being successful at the most important job in the world.

This is another hypocritical argument, different from the hypocrisy of Schafly's, because it has different victims.

The people who've been arguing that it's ok that George Bush is an ignoramous don't really believe it. That is, they don't want their own children to be slackers and goof-ups. They just want George Bush to be President and to be thought a successful President and they will say anything they can think of to help that cause.

But who else is listening to them, if not their own sons?

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Someday they're going to erect a statue to her in this town

This actually has something to do with the series of upcoming posts on the trouble boys are having in school, particularly the last paragraph.

The only writing I find more annoying than Caitlin Flanagan's is that of people writing about how annoying Flanagan's writing is.

Flanagan writes about "women's issues" for the New Yorker and the Atlantic---her appearance in the latter is more proof to me that my paranoid suspicion is correct, that in the not too distant future the magazine will have turned itself into a glossier version of the defunct American Spectator, as soon as the publisher can dump Cullen Murphy and Jack Beatty or put them out to grass the way he did with fiction editor Michael Curtis and replace them with the likes of P.J. O'Rourke and Mark Steyn. But nevermind.

Flanagan is a supposed feminist who despises feminists and writes lightheaded---sorry, lighthearted---essays all with a single theme: "My life may not be perfect, but compared to yours it's heaven and next to you I'm a saint among mothers and wives."

What really annoys me about her work is that every now and then, without varying her theme, she writes things I agree with and even admire.

I start off one of her essays expecting the worst and she defies my expectation completely, so I start the next one hopefully, thinking it'll be as good as the last, and wind up throwing the magazine across the room three graphs in. She's the cause of constant intellectual whiplash and it drives me nuts.

It's no wonder, though, that her motherlier-wifelier-sex kittenier-but-still-feministier than thou attitude ticks off other women. Unfortunately, it seems that most of them feel called upon to respond in the same vein.

Oh, yeah?---they tend to say---Well, my life is just fine, thank you. In fact, it's darn near great and how dare you suggest somebody as smart and good as I am might have made unwise or selfish choices. Why, not only have all my life choices been the right ones for myself, all women would be better off if they lived and thought just like me, as well!

Except Maud Newton.

Maud despises Flanagan with the pure, withering, angel-approved contempt that a self-confessed sinner and chronic backslider has for the minister's wife and her klatsch of church ladies.

Maud's objection to Flanagan isn't that Flanagan's criticizing her, Maud's, life. It's that Flanagan can't even imagine Maud's life or any real human being's life, come to that.

Maud's feminism is not idealistic or the least bit self-aggrandizing. It's a perfect expression of the personal is political in that it sees people as persons and persons, in her experience, female persons as much as male persons, are crazy.

They're not just crazy, they're foolish, too. Mixed up, confused, conflicted, blind to what's good for them, too open to what's bad and so inclined to make very bad choices, to walk off cliffs and out into traffic, to go right where they should have turned left, to make a thorough hash of their lives and then they'll go and try to impose their cracked opinions, rotten choices, and other forms of self-descructive insanity on other people as the model of how to live the good life.

She's not as complete a cynic as I am. I don't think she believes that people stink and they are stupid.

But she makes allowances for their being often both. She knows that there's no heaven on earth and life is mostly a struggle to get over last week's disaster.

Of course, I don't really know all this about Maud. I'm making assumptions based on things she has written on her blog, particularly her habit of presenting herself, despite being a lawyer, a talented writer, and an all-around smart cookie, as the comic victim of her own incompetence and the absurdities of life in New York City, and her affection and admiration for the novels of Harry Crewes and Graham Greene, neither of whom tends to portray human beings as heroes and heroines or life as a bowl of cherries.

At any rate, the way Maud goes after Flanagan's posing for a monument to Motherhood appeals to what passes for feminism in me---my belief that life is unfair, unpredictable, mostly disappointing, and hard enough without lots of other people telling you how to live it so people---persons---should generally be left alone to figure it out for themselves and choose the best way for them to get through it.

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