Friday, February 29, 2008

Prostitution, Commodification, and Power

For the past couple of weeks, I've been thinking about the objectification, sexualization, and commodification of women, and now my friend figleaf has brought the topic (inadvertently) to a boil by questioning the motives of men who pay for sex. I have a lot of sympathy for his perspective – not so much for people who immediately take umbrage at any discussion of the ethics of sex work, or for those who willfully misconstrue people's arguments. Being "sex positive" doesn't oblige anyone to gloss over ethical issues related to sexuality.

So, while I welcome comments on this topic, including from those who disagree, I'll only entertain those that are civil. I see no point in engaging with people at either extreme of this issue who consider either sex work or any criticism of its structure as ipso facto offensive.

I say "its structure" because my intent here is to reflect on the structural relationships that sex work entails – specifically in prostitution since that's what prompted the dust-up at figleaf's and got me thinking. I won't make any arguments about the experiential level of sex work because I'm simply not qualified to do that. Many sex workers say that they're satisfied with their work on the whole, and I have no wish to call their feelings or experiences into question. I recognize that not all are coerced (though too many are), and that sex work may be the best-paying option for many women. (But this in itself says something damning about the choices society offers us: Something is seriously screwed up when women write to advice columnists asking why they shouldn't finance their Ph.D. work by stripping. And getting that degree might not help. I suspect many sex workers make better money than I do as an adjunct college instructor, never mind my fancy-pants diploma.)

Anyway: A key structural feature of prostitution is that it commodifies sex workers' bodies. This is one thing that sets it apart from most other occupations under capitalism. Instead of selling only one's labor power that has been alienated from one's body, one is selling one's body itself. One's body becomes a commodity.

The relationship between the buyer and the seller in prostitution is thus characterized by more intense exploitation than in most other sorts of occupations. This doesn't deny the prostitute's agency: nearly all humans take part in exploitative relationships of one sort or another, without totally giving up our own agency, intelligence, etc. It does mean that this particular relationship merits closer scrutiny.

I want to emphasize that exploitation entailing the body itself and not just labor power is not specific to sex work. Traditional marriage, in which women essentially cede unlimited access to their bodies in return for economic support and protection, is a more extreme form of such exploitation because it's usually a life-long, irrevocable contract. Surrogate motherhood (for remuneration beyond medical expenses) is a similarly exploitative type of relationship because a woman's body is rented out and sometimes her genetic material is sold outright. Most medical ethicists condemn the sale of human organs for analogous reasons.

As in any exploitative relationship, ethically the onus would rest on the buyer to put a stop to the exploitation. Practically and politically, it's almost always the seller of labor power who throws a wrench into the gears of exploitation because they are the ones who stand to benefit. But that doesn't neutralize the buyer/employer's ethical obligation.

This is why it's the client and not the prostitute who enters into an ethically problematic transaction.

Does this mean it's always wrong to hire a prostitute? Maybe not. In some cases, where a person would truly have no other access to sexual activity over the long term, it might be the lesser harm. That's a question for individual judgment. But I think such judgments can only be made fairly if one first acknowledges that buying a prostitute's services isn't just ethically neutral. I also suspect that such situations are quite rare, unless you accept the premise that people have a right to sexual gratification that requires little patience or effort on their own part.

So far, I've been writing as though this were a gender neutral problem. Of course, it's not. Whether the prostitute is a man or a woman, the client is almost always a man.

And here's where I think ethical reasoning alone is inadequate, because at a macro level, this is an issue of gender, class, and power, not just a matter of individual rights and choices. If you assume a right to sexual satisfaction not just through solo sex but through access to another warm body, why then has our society basically guaranteed that right to men but not to women? Yes, there are male prostitutes who cater to women, but they are very few. You sure don't see them on street corners (or at least I never have).

The ethics of prostitution thus have a political dimension, and figleaf is absolutely right: As an institution, prostitution shores up masculine sexual entitlement. It also undergirds the idea that there's one class of women willing to have sex with men for money but not so much for their own pleasure, while the majority of women are consigned to what figleaf calls the "no-sex class" – a scheme that envisions female sexual pleasure as largely irrelevant to both groups of women.

Photo by Flickr user Love_is, used under a Creative Commons license.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Mother of All Imbecilic Debates

The feminist blogosphere -, in particular - descended into nasty, holier-than-thou shitslinging today, mothers against non-mothers, all in reaction to an article published by Reason magazine defending from a libertarian perspective the decision to forgo childbearing.

I was dishearted by how quickly the thread at feministing crapped out into pure judgmentalism. The actual news item was perfectly reasonable, but the comments quickly degenerated into defensiveness about childfree lives and excoriation of women who opt to have children without first achieving perfect financial security. The mothers in the crowd then responded in kind. While I have more gut-level sympathy for the mothers' arguments and thought they were generally more civil, in the end it was the sort of debate no one can ever win.

I fully agree that women who choose to have no children aren't selfish, or at least no more so than the average human being. They contribute to society in a whole variety of ways - through work, activism, non-parental relationships to kids, etc. Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon states this position well.

Those without kids do have an obligation not to whine about school levies and loud children in down-scale restaurants. We share our communities, we share our futures, and poorly educated, unsocialized kids who become equally rough-edged adults are in nobody's interest. As a mother, I have a return obligation to honor their choices and to defend them particularly when they're exposed to the sort of criticism that childfree men rarely face.

At the same time, I'm frustrated by purported feminists who imply that women who choose to become mothers are dupes. We can contribute through raising children who are feminist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic, and just plain kind and wise - who will leave the world a better place than they found it, or so I dearly hope. And mothers contribute in other ways, too, because raising children is rarely a whole life's work. Bitch Ph.D. puts forth these arguments at eloquent length.

Mothers and fathers have an obligation not to whine about the alleged shallowness of the childfree, and to appreciate when those without kids pick up some of the loose ends that parents of young children can't (and vice versa, of course - think of the SAHMs whose volunteer work is essential to many communities). We parents have an obligation to teach our kids to behave considerately in public. But we shouldn't have to face opprobrium from people who've never had to manage a child's sudden earache on an airplane (and yeah, we know about the drinking trick), nor should we have to apologize for our parenthood as a burden to the community or as an ostensibly anti-feminist choice. (Our kids will be bankrolling all of our Social Security, after all.)

But what I saw in the feministing thread is what I see in the culture at large: women eviscerating each other for the choices they've made. Welcome back to the Mommy Wars, now raging between the mothers and the non-mothers, instead of between mothers who work for pay and those who don't.

And who wins? Neither group of women, you can be sure. The only true winners are the capitalists who want us all to believe that material values and performance as "ideal workers" ought to be our preeminent goal.

I'd have said all the above before kids, and I'll maintain it even now that I have two lovable little stinkers who make my life both wonderful and sometimes nearly impossible. Kids change everything, yes. But that's at the personal level. Politically, it sometimes feels like nothing has changed since the mid-1970s. Motherhood remains the great tangled conundrum of feminism.

Gustav Klimt's Hope II at MoMA – image from Flickr user wallyg used under a Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Test for Ovarian Cancer?

Researchers report that a new blood test combining six different biomarkers can detect early-stage ovarian cancer with 99.4% accuracy. (For the scientifically inclined, the six markers are leptin, prolactin, osteopontin, insulin-like growth factor II, macrophage inhibitory factor, and CA-125.)

This matters to me because I had a big ovarian cancer scare when I was 26. I'd been feeling fatigued and vaguely sick for months when an ultrasound picked up a mass on my right ovary. A subsequent CT scan indicated it was solid. Everyone got good and scared; my usually calm mom was so freaked, she ran a couple of red lights while driving me to the doctor. I confronted the possibility of never having kids even if I didn't die from it.

I went into surgery, only to wake up with all my parts intact. The doctors were all so red-faced they wouldn't say anything except that the laparoscopy showed no signs of a cyst, much less cancer. Another doctor who wasn't involved in the snafu later theorized that I'd had a cyst that looked solid on the CT because it contained blood, and that had burst during a rough exam. That was a good enough answer for me. I was still left with the first real intimation of my own mortality.

The new test, if it pans out in the phase III clinical trials already underway, will be a huge blessing for a whole host of reasons.

1. The biggie: Ovarian cancer won't so often amount to a death sentence. It might even do for ovarian cancer what the Pap smear did for cervical cancer: transform it into a scary but usually curable disease, instead of a major killer. Now, it's the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths among American women, accounting for an estimated 15,280 deaths in 2007 according to the American Cancer Society. When it's found early, still confined to the ovaries, the five-year survival rate is 93%, as compared to 45% for all cases. But fewer than 20% of all ovarian cancers are caught that early, again according to the ACS. It's hard to diagnose because its physical symptoms are quite unspecific: bloating and pelvic heaviness, indigestion, nausea, back or pelvic pain, vaginal bleeding or abnormal periods, and weight gain or loss.

2. The best test currently available gives 1 in 20 women a false positive result indicating cancer where none is present. The new test will mess with people's minds only 4 times out of 1000. If you're one of those women faced with fear of impending death, that's a huge difference – as I learned the hard way.

3. This improved accuracy will avoid unnecessary CT scans (which are costly and expose the patient to considerable radiation).

4. Better accuracy will avoid unnecessary surgeries – again, I can testify what a boon this will be.

5. Women who carry one of the BRCA genetic mutations, which predispose them to both breast and ovarian cancer, may be able to choose watchful waiting without quite so much worry. Currently, many women with the BRCA mutation choose elective removal of their ovaries, but that plunges them into instant menopause at a young age.

The big open question – assuming that the test proves itself in its final trials – is whether insurance companies will cover it, and if so, for whom.

To learn more about ovarian cancer, visit the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition or the National Cancer Institute. For the original study, go to the abstract; you can download the full article for free from there.

Photo by Flickr user herby fr used under a Creative Commons license.

Signs of the Apocalypse

And by "apocalypse," I mean for the other candidate.

I've been informally tallying the signs around town. I've now seen several dozen for Obama, including in neighborhoods populated by older folks where people tend to be more conservative, though still Democrats. (My little town seems to aspire to an East Bloc-style single-party system.)

I've seen one brave and lonely sign for McCain.

I've seen none for Clinton. But I know for a fact that at least one friend of mine (and occasional partner in political mischief) would love to put up a Clinton sign, if she could only get her hands on one. (We've agreed to disagree on this, though it feels strange; we're almost always in sync politically.) Rumor has it that Clinton's people – and signs – were supposed to arrive toward the end of this week.

So why does this admittedly unscientific survey of signs and portents matter? Frank Rich had a marvelous New York Times column this weekend in which he assailed Clinton's campaign for its poor ground game. Rich suggests that if Clinton can't run a competent campaign, it's not a great recommendation for putting her in charge of the United States government:
In the last battleground, Wisconsin, the Clinton campaign was six days behind Mr. Obama in putting up ads and had only four campaign offices to his 11. Even as Mrs. Clinton clings to her latest firewall -- the March 4 contests -- she is still being outhustled. Last week she told reporters that she "had no idea" that the Texas primary system was "so bizarre" (it's a primary-caucus hybrid), adding that she had "people trying to understand it as we speak." Perhaps her people can borrow the road map from Obama's people. In Vermont, another March 4 contest, The Burlington Free Press reported that there were four Obama offices and no Clinton offices as of five days ago. For what will no doubt be the next firewall after March 4, Pennsylvania on April 22, the Clinton campaign is sufficiently disorganized that it couldn't file a complete slate of delegates by even an extended ballot deadline.
(Original is in the New York Times, but the version at Alternet won't require you to register. The whole article is well worth reading.)

Clinton's Ohio operation seems to be equally lagging, if my town is representative. And even if it's not, she's missing an opportunity here. Though my town itself is rife with students and the over-educated (core Obama constituencies), its poor Appalachian environs are populated mostly by people who demographically belong to her base.

To be fair, Bill Clinton did come here to speak (as will Michelle Obama tomorrow). But a single star-powered appearance can't fully substitute for a tight, enthusiastic get-out-the-vote effort. Obama's crew hopes to knock on 3000 doors here over the weekend, and with the hordes of students lining up to help, I bet they'll come close to their goal. His staffers opened an office here a couple of weeks ago already.

[Correction: It's 30,000, according to my source, Rence, whom I thank for setting me straight. Gotta love those order of magnitude errors. Now you know why I'm not a chemist or physicist.]

Obama's campaign is only words? You be the judge.

Photo of the Obama sign by me, in front of my house. I swapped an old vacuum cleaner (on loan) for it so the poor staffers hopefully won't have to continue working in the midst of dreck. It was a small price, even if the vacuum meets its demise.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Grief, Interrupted

I'm not sure I know how to write about this. It's the kind of event where we inevitably seek meaning, and where the meaning just as surely eludes us.

Last week my former sister-in-law had a massive stroke. She is 43 years old. (I just caught myself writing that in the past tense, even though she's still alive.) Initially, the prognosis was horrible. The doctors were sure she would never walk or talk again. They thought she might be unable to hear.

She'd been very health conscious until she and my brother split up two and a half years ago. After that, she was depressed, so I don't know if she continued exercising as regularly as before. In any event, she was fitter than most people her age and certainly not overweight. She had no glaring risk factors except possibly the recurrent migraines she'd suffered for years.

Here's where the story, and my feelings, get more complicated. I haven't talked to her since they separated. I was never terribly close to her, just fond in the way people sometimes are when they've got little in common except for a shared loved one.

The divorce was about as ugly as they come, especially for a couple with no children. This was her stated reason for leaving my brother: He still didn't want kids, but she changed her mind about them once she hit 40. Within weeks of leaving him, she changed her mind about the divorce, too. She eventually begged my brother to take her back. He'd been too deeply hurt, and he adamantly refused. She responded by dragging out the proceedings and driving attorney costs toward infinity. He took out a restraining order after the night she and her mother tried to break into his house. Another night, someone broke into his truck, leaving the stereo but stealing the one item – his piano-tuning toolbox – whose worth only an insider could know. We never found out who did that, but the family couldn't help speculating.

And now, in the wake of all that spitefulness, just weeks after the final divorce decree was finally, mercifully signed, she ought to be able to start making a new life for herself. Maybe that's one reason why grief has ambushed me. Another obvious reason is her youth. She's just a year younger than me. This sort of disability is an outrage of nature when it happens to an 80-year-old. In a person her age, it's unfathomably cruel.

And then I imagine what it must be like, trapped in a body unable to move, unable to communicate. While the doctors are now cautiously hoping for more progress than they originally indicated, it's still unclear if she'll recover her ability to speak. She can definitely hear. All of this must be impossibly hard – and all the more so if you're simmering in bitter recent memories.

Even her mother – who helped make my brother's life miserable in many ways other than the break-in attempt – has my compassion. Whatever her failings (which frequently crossed the line to criminal behavior), she's still feeling the anguish of a mother watching her child suffer.

Having said all this, I don't feel any wiser. I don't know if there's any lesson to learn beyond the usual one of not wasting the precious time we have. That's a cliché, sure, but it's also something I forget over and over again.

I just know that I'm surprised by my grief, even though I know this is not my story. I'm not even sure it was mine to tell.

Maybe I felt compelled to tell it anyway because the solace of words is reliable, as solid to me as our fragile and suffering flesh - the words pouring out of me, each of them declaring I am, I am, I am.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Ralph's Nadir

Via ROTUS, a precious LOLralph:

It's a darn shame that he's not an actual cat, or we could keep him off the ballot for being insufficiently human.

Then again, an actual cat would be less narcissistic than Nader. That's a scary thought.

Patriot Games

The AP committed an astonishing act of fake journalism this weekend. It's a topsy-turvy world when the self-proclaimed "fake journalists" of the Daily Show are among our best truth-tellers, while a "serious" institution like the AP hawks innuendoes and just plain bullshit.

AP "journalist" Nedra Pickler made herself a tool of the right-wing machine that's ramping up to smear Obama every which way. She quotes Republican consultant Roger Stone:
"Many Americans will find the three things offensive. Barack Obama is out of the McGovern wing of the party, and he is part of the blame America first crowd."
[If you're having trouble counting past two, apparently so did Pickler, because the third "offensive" thing never appears in her article.]
She quotes Steve Doocy of Fox News:
"First he kicked his American flag pin to the curb. Now Barack Obama has a new round of patriotism problems. Wait until you hear what the White House hopeful didn't do during the singing of the national anthem."
She quotes former radio host Mark Williams, who was also speaking on Fox:
"He felt it OK to come out of the closet as the domestic insurgent he is."
Pickler does debunk the rumor
based on the Internet that falsely suggests he's a Muslim intent on destroying the United States. Obama is a Christian and has been fighting the e-mail hoax, which also claims he doesn't put his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance, and he's been trying to correct the misinformation.
If asked to defend herself, Pickler would probably point out that she devoted more lines to responses from Obama and his surrogates than to his attackers. It's a classic example of he-said, she-said journalism that Jon Swift has skewered just beautifully.

But that defense would be missing the point: This slime should never have become news in the first place. The conventional media still has the power to set the agenda for politicians and journalists alike. Those who propagate innuendo and lies are almost as blameworthy as those who invent the lies in the first place. Folks, this is not journalism; it's propaganda.

Glenn Greenwald describes how the process works:
This is a "news article." And Pickler and AP wrote it by sitting in front of Fox News, writing down the most baseless and reckless accusations from the worst morons, and then turning it into a "news story" along the lines of: "Conservatives accuse Obama of X." That's how Drudge rules their world. He posts some completely irresponsible and scurrilous rumor; they then write a news story about how the rumors are circulating, and it then becomes mainstreamed.
(Read his whole post here.)
Greenwald is surprisingly sanguine about the effects of this, mostly because Obama is going on the offense – not just rebutting the lies but actively redefining patriotism. He thinks this robust offense might just redefine the terms of the debate. He contrasts Obama's reaction to the standard Democratic backbone-of-cooked-spaghetti approach:
* Even though I am kind of against the war and a little bit against the new FISA bill for now, I love my country and want to protect Americans, too, just like the Republicans do -- honest (the standard Democratic response); and,
* If anyone's patriotism should be considered suspect, it's those who want to send Americans off to die in a worthless and destructive war and those who want to eviscerate our basic political values by torturing, detaining people with no rights, and spying on American citizens with no warrants (the gist of Obama's response here).
(Read his whole analysis here.)
I'm not quite as sanguine as Greenwald about this. The reeking garbage that Pickler circulated is only the beginning, of course, and we can expect it'll get a lot more odious if (when!) Obama wins the nomination. Then again, maybe the Republicans will be flummoxed by someone who stands up to bullies.

We could sorely use a redefinition of patriotism – one that sees human worth, and not militarism, as its raison d'etre. The costs of equating militarism with strength have been astronomical, and they keep rising.

The Political Cat reported last week on one case of truly horrific fallout from the Iraq War: A 27-year-old veteran returned from Iraq, only to physically and sexually assault his very own three-month-old daughter. TPC writes:
This is the end of his life, which is sad enough. Because he will be proved to be a sex offender, regardless of whether he is convicted of this particular crime. Sadder still, it is the end of the life of a three-month-old girl, who suffered bleeding on the brain because her own father assaulted her. Her mental capacity will always be affected. Who knows what these assaults have done to her emotional development. That her physical well-being is no more is a given.
(More details are included in TPC's post. Fair warning: The whole story is deeply disturbing.)
We don't know what problems he may have had prior to deployment. But he clearly returned to civilian life in a profoundly fucked-up state. Statistically, we know that PTSD is widespread among returning veterans. And we know that the military's mental health services have been woefully inadequate.

I'm reminded of the first student I ever taught who was a Iraq veteran. Reynolds (obviously not his real name) was a few years older than my other students, affable and active in class discussion. He was also a bit of a fuck-up, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. (I have a soft spot for students who are interesting and original but don't quite have their act together. Note to any of my current who may be reading this: I am so not giving you license to screw up.)

Reynolds got in trouble for DUI and I found out because he had to go to court during my class. But that's one of the reasons I liked him; it wouldn't have occurred to him to lie to me or give me a snow job. He missed one day due to a hangover. He skipped class on the day we were scheduled to discuss gender and militarism and later apologized, saying he just couldn't handle the memories. That's when he told me he still couldn't sleep for fear the air might explode around him at any moment.

The quarter after that, I happened across a brief story in the online version of one of the local papers about a fight that had broken out at a bar, not in itself an unusual event in this town. A patron and a bouncer had mixed it up, and the bouncer literally tossed the patron out of the bar and onto the sidewalk. The story made the paper because the patron had to be transported to Columbus with head injuries.

The patron was my sweet, funny former student, Reynolds.

Will he ever show up in the official casualty stats? Not bloody likely. I tried emailing him, with no response. Since I was in Germany at the time I never did find out what happened next. He doesn't seem to be enrolled anymore.

I want a patriotism that doesn't wantonly squander young lives; that respects the Constitution; that embraces constructive dissent; and that isn't afraid to admit mistakes and make amends. That's worth more to me than any number of flag pins. Although it'd be nice if the flag could stand for my flavor of patriotism once again.

"High-Flying Flag" by Flickr user GeneC55, used under a Creative Commons license.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

A Worthy Cause: Gender and the Commodification of Desire

Figleaf had an interesting post yesterday reacting to Killing Us Softly III, the video on sexism in advertising that I've shown so often in class, I've just about memorized the script. He makes the point that not only does advertising propagate a rigid beauty ideal and the objectification of women, it also socializes men into rigid ideals of masculinity.

Now, Jean Kilbourne (the lecturer in the film) does say that "stereotypes wound everybody," men and women alike. But when it comes to analyzing men in advertising, she concentrates mainly on images of violent and emotionally stunted masculinity.

Figleaf's point is a different one. He argues that ads help teach men that in order to get the hottest girl, they need to measure up to an ideal that he calls "worthiness":
They teach women what they're supposed to look for, to sacrifice to achieve, to measure themselves against and ... they also teach men what we're supposed to strive for as well, what we're supposed to prove ourselves worthy in order to get. That's all bad enough -- obviously two rats in a squirrel wheel is *not* an improvement over only one. What's *particularly* bad, however, is that those ads teach men is how to use women to measure *our* achievement. In other words if there's a continuum for men that ranges from young man who's too shy to ask anyone out because he has no car, to the old man in the ad who's affluent enough to "have" women clamoring after him, then at each stage of that progression women in media are used, objectified, buried face down and legs up, stripped of humanity in favor of their utility as mile markers.
(Read his whole post here.)
I think this is a fruitful way to reframe the problem, not least because it may speak to the great majority of men who are not even tempted to become violent. (The violence problem, while all too real, is something I think Kilbourne overplays when she says objectification of women in ads inevitably leads to violence against women.) Figleaf's marvelous "squirrel wheel" image offers a chance to vastly expand the group of men who might find feminism relevant – who might find they'd actually stand to gain from gender equality.

His "mile marker" analogy also nicely captures how much more is at stake here than just who dates and marries whom. Much as women compete among themselves and establish hierarchies based on looks, men who conform to cultural expectations may view women as trophies marking their place in the food chain.

The French feminist Luce Irigaray writes that women are essentially regarded as commodities – and that as such, they have primarily exchange value rather than use value (if you want to spell it out in Marxian terms). The whole notion of "use value" as applied to sexuality may initially seem odd. First, keep in mind that there's a metaphorical dimension to this as well as a literal one. Second, insofar as we use our own bodies and those of others for pleasure, the predominance of exchange value helps explain why pleasure too often is secondary to status, and why the sociocultural order ultimately denies pleasure to men and women alike. (She suggests that one reason for stigmatizing homosexuality is that it short-circuits the commodification process and reclaims a right to pleasure.)
Woman exists only as an occasion for mediation, transaction, transition, transference between man and his fellow man, indeed between man and himself.
(Luce Irigarary, "Commodities among Themselves," in This Sex Which Is Not One, p. 193)
I remember thinking when I first read this nearly 20 years ago (!) that she overstates her case. I'd still be more fully persuaded if she'd strike that devilish word "only." But I think it's reasonable to claim that "exchange value" is a major explanation for why are expected to compete for the "hottest" women. Or is it just coincidence that from one end of the political spectrum to the other, our politicians so often sport trophy wives? I'm sure that the lovely young wives of Fred Thompson and Dennis Kucinich are also lovely human beings, but their spectacular good looks also serve to underscore their husbands' power. Even Kucinich's. You can't tell me that his leprechaun looks are the male counterpart to his wife's beauty.

These men clearly have proven themselves "worthy," as figleaf would put it. I'm still curious exactly what all fits under his rubric of "worthiness." It seems to me like it might have a lot of overlap with the four "rules of masculinity" that Deborah David and Robert Brannon expressed in the mid-1970s (which I know through Michael Kimmel's work). They are
1. No sissy stuff (don't ever act girly)
2. Be a big wheel (amass as much power and money as possible)
3. Be a sturdy oak (contain your emotions; be reliable at all costs)
4. Give 'em hell (be aggressive and take risks, preferably stupid ones)
On the surface of it, it seems like "be a big wheel" is closest to what figleaf means by worthiness. But I wonder if these "rules" aren't also partially fungible. That is, men who "fail" to become a big wheel might attempt to prove their worthiness in another realm of masculinity. I'm thinking of my former hair stylist who tended to meet men at the stock car races. They tended to be men in the "give 'em hell" mode, guys who proved themselves by drinking beer out of a can while driving and cutting out once a baby was on the scene. (The sadness of this is one reason I found a different stylist.) Another scenario is the guy who's uneducated with lousy job prospects but acts ultra-macho ("no sissy stuff"!) in order to appear worthy of women's desire.

One consequence of all this for men is that it may alienate them from becoming the person that they'd actually prefer to be. It may rob them of pleasure and happiness, insofar as it warps not just their choice of partner but their own behavior and sense of self. Irigaray suggests that the commodification of women may mediate "between man and himself." Doesn't this suggest that it first drives a wedge between a man and his truest self?

Of course, you could also argue that men, too, are commodified through women judging them on their worthiness. It's not precisely a mirror image of the commodification of women. For one thing men are much less likely to be literally commodified through such practices as sex trafficking or the mail-order bride business. For another, in women's case their looks are commodified, while for men it's money and power that primarily determine their exchange value. But it's still true that as long as "worthiness" matters, they too are reduced to a means to an end. And women's desires, too, may be warped away from the men who might actually make them happiest.

Commodifi-cat from I Can Has Cheezburger?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Provincially Presidential

This is one of the things I adore about small-town life. Bill Clinton is scheduled to speak here Monday afternoon, and this is how the local daily, the Athens Messenger, reports it:
Former President Clinton is planning a stop in Athens Monday, stumping for his wife, and the venue, the Athens Community Center, should be in good shape for the visit. ...

And because of a bridal show being held Sunday at the community center, the gym should be in good shape for the occasion, [assistant director of the center Rich] Campitelli said. A floor covering will already be in place from the bridal show, Campitelli said. ...

"It's really perfect timing because of the bridal show, so little will have to be done," Campitelli said. ...

If timing goes right, the gym should be cleared and ready for a basketball game that will be held at 7 p.m., Campitelli said.
Okay, to be fair I realize that the assistant director's job is to worry about precisely those kinds of logistics. And the local paper necessarily deals with the most local of local stuff.

But: a former president just barely getting sandwiched between a bridal show and a basketball game??!!

Am I the only one who thinks this sounds like the last scenes in This is Spinal Tap? The part where they're playing Holiday Inns and retirement centers, but before they go to Japan and revive their career? All Bill Clinton needs is a tin-foil wrapped cucumber, a la Harry Shearer's character, Derek the bass player ... No wait, that's far too 1998.

Cucumber or not, it's clear this campaign is no longer going to eleven. Even so, if the Tiger's fever is down by then and he's healthy enough for day care, I'll be there, squeezing with the crowd into that modest gym, hoping to catch a glimpse of fame and power and perhaps a bridesmaid's dress or two.

Safe School Lunches? Good Luck with That

My kids get to have breakfast for dinner tonight. Their dad has been out of town for two days and won't be back until tomorrow night. The Tiger is running a high fever (just south of 103 this morning). So we're breaking out the "magically delicious" multicolored marshmallow pseudo-food as a rare treat.

Golden tofu in peanut sauce with green veggies will be served sometime next week when we're at full strength again.

In the meantime? Yes, I'm pandering. Shamelessly. Unapologetically.

And you know what? Even taking into account the yellow dyes, which my chemist friend assures me are the devil's own nutrient, our dinner will be a heck of a lot healthier than some of the staples of the school lunch program.

Brilliant at Breakfast has some smart and biting commentary on recent revelations that a California slaughterhouse was routinely abusing sick cows (and not treating its workers so great, either) while allowing meat from downer cattle into the foodstream in a move that Melina likens to Soylent Green. Jill at BaB points out that variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob, aka mad cow disease, has an incubation period of up to 30 years - and that much of this meat went straight to the school lunch program:
I guess this is what "No Child Left Behind" means. It means that when the Bush Administration gets done with its virtual elimination of oversight over the pharmaceutical and food industries, there will be no children left. They'll all be dead from tainted food and drugs.

But at least the embryos will be saved.
Salon reported yesterday that the resulting recall affects
143 million pounds of beef products, most of which has already been consumed. About 40 percent of that meat went to the National School Lunch Program and other federal nutrition programs.
The really scary thing, again according to Salon, is that the Humane Society sting that uncovered these abuses had no reason to single out the offending slaughterhouse, Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. in Chino, California. They picked the plant at random. What are the odds that this is the only rogue plant in the bunch? And why did federal inspectors, who were present in the plant, do nothing?

Only one of my children is old enough for school lunches. And the Bear is a vegetarian by his own choice, an outgrowth of his involvement in kid-initiated animal welfare clubs. (The first group raised $100 for the local dog shelter through lemonade stands and donation jars. The second has decorated the elementary school with posters of hand-drawn bears and other critters begging "don't kill me!" in speech bubbles.) I'm happy to cook veggie because I learned cooking from the Moosewood Cookbook while living in a large co-op house in the mid-1980s, and even now I eat very little meat: poultry a few times a year, seafood as often as I can, and that's pretty much it. So while the Bear made his own decision, his dad and I have happily supported it. He does make a couple of exceptions; gummi bears and marshmallows (see above) are still on the menu.

But that's just one kid who's not at risk from potentially contaminated meat. There are millions of others whose parents can't be sure of their safety. Shouldn't they be able to depend on government regulations and inspections? Or must they rely on luck and charms?

Magically delicious image from General Mills, which holds the copyright. I use it here under fair use provisions that permit reproduction for purposes of non-commercial critical scholarship and journalism.

Oh, the Chaos in Ohio!

Edward Foley has a smart and perceptive analysis of Ohio's potential voting problems on March 4 up on Alternet. I encourage any of you who plan to vote in the Ohio primary - or anyone who fears that as Ohio goes, so goes the nation - to read Foley's piece. My modest contribution is an oh-so-clever mnemonic that sums up his points:

C - Confusion and inequalities at the polling places

H - High rates of provisional voting

A - Absentee voting leading to irregularities

O - Optical-scan ballots in Cuyahoga County potentially going missing in transit to the centralized locations where they're to be read

S - Shortages of voting machines or ballots leading to disenfranchisement

Read it vertically, and you've got what we can expect on March 4. Yay for democracy, Ohio-style.

Friday, February 22, 2008


I'll admit it: The plagiarism accusations leveled against Barack Obama earlier this week made me slightly queasy. Among all possible ethical lapses, plagiarism strikes at some of my most deeply held values as a writer and a teacher. Also, it pisses me off when I bust a student at it, because it's a huge googlicious time sink and because I always have to wonder, just how stupid do they think I am?

So I took some time to look at what Obama actually did. In the end I'm persuaded that what he said last night in the Texas debate is true:
[F]irst of all, it's not a lot of speeches. There are two lines in speeches that I've been giving over the last couple of weeks. I've been campaigning now for the last two years. Deval is a national co-chairman of my campaign, and suggested an argument that I share, that words are important. Words matter. And the implication that they don't I think diminishes how important it is to speak to the American people directly about making America as good as its promise. ...

And the notion that I had plagiarized from somebody who was one of my national co-chairs who gave me the line and suggested that I use it, I think, is silly, and you know, this is where we start getting into silly season, in politics, and I think people start getting discouraged about it.
(Source: CNN transcript of the February 21, 2008, debate in Austin, Texas)
But you shouldn't take his word for it. Slate has debunked the plagiarism charge thoroughly and convincingly.

If I have anything to add to the debunking, it's from my perch as a certifiable hardass - a self-appointed captain in the Plagiarism Patrol. If Obama were a student of mine, I would've busted him, big time. He'd have failed this assignment, no matter how willingly his friend had loaned him his words.

But he's not my student, and that's the crucial difference. The rules of attribution are profoundly different in politics than in scholarly work. Comparisons to famous recent plagiarists such as Doris Kearns Goodwin are so far off the mark that they just sound looney. Goodwin, as a historian, has a professional obligation to credit the ideas and language of others. Anything else is tantamount to cheating and stealing. This was just about the first thing I remember learning in my history Ph.D. program. In my memory, the ABCs of scholarly ethics are all jumbled up with reading Foucault's Discipline and Punish, which may have not-so-subtly reinforced the lesson with its graphic descriptions of torture and constant surveillance through the Panopticon.

But if the same rule against borrowing other people's rules applied in politics, then no politician could ever rely on speechwriters. (I'm not sure if their speeches would be even more wooden in that case, or if they might actually improve.) Heck, I would've made myself an accessory to plagiarism back in the mid-1980s, when I wrote a couple of speeches for members of the California Public Utilities Commission.

Speechwriter Jerome Doolittle, who in 1984 gave Walter Mondale one of his better campaign lines - "In Reagan's America, a rising tide lifts all yachts" - tells us that the art of political speechwriting is all about recycling:
To criticize a politician for plagiarizing, then, is no more sensible than to criticize a fish for swimming. It is what both animals are designed to do. The only sensible criticism would focus on how effectively political speech does the job for which it is intended. How skillfully does the politician mix and administer the small dose of simplistic placebos that the patient is considered able to handle?
The problem for the Clinton campaign is that Obama does this fairly skillfully indeed. The plagiarism charge is a desperate attempt to convince people that his campaign is "only words."

But here's the thing. Words do matter. At times, words have made me fall in love - or lust - almost singlehandedly. Words can transport me into entire worlds of fiction or the long-dead past. Words can explode a friendship. Words can inspire - a trick that the Christian right and movement conservatives have not lost sight of since the Reagan era. Words can be the medium for triggering not just change but transformation and even transcendence, as Gary Hart recently wrote.

I'm not much given to citing Scripture, but I love the beginning of the Book of John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Words aren't just transformative; they can even be generative and creative, bringing forth something from nothing. Words matter. And as long as we're not in the dusty, arcane world of scholarship (much as I love it!), it's okay to pass lightly-used words back and forth among friends, especially in the service of creating something bold and new.

This post is certified 100% plagiarism free. Gratuitous Panopticon image is Jeremy Bentham's original blueprint for his ideal prison, taken from Wikimedia Commons. LOLcat from - where else? - I Can Has Cheezburger?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Lunatic Is in My Head

After a long day of snow flurries, temperatures plunged just in time to clear the heavens for the total lunar eclipse.

My dear mate got a pretty good shot of it around 10 p.m. I did my part by serving as the tripod - or, as the Bear said, the "two-pod."

NASA did us one better but I doubt they had a chatty eight-year-old distracting them. The Bear was - shall we say - over the moon.

As for me, I can see how the encroaching black smudge turning to brown and then mottled copper would feed millennarian fantasies.
And if the dam breaks open many years too soon
And if there is no room upon the hill
And if your head explodes with dark forebodings too
I'll see you on the dark side of the moon.
(Roger Waters/Pink Floyd - but you knew that.)
So far the apocalypse hasn't dawned, although today in class one of my students wanted to talk about a case of priapism caused by a megadose of Viagra, left untreated and leading to amputation. (Yes, it's apparently possible, though I was skeptical at first.) I guess that's close enough to the end of the world for a lot of folks.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

This Is What a Real Snow Day Looks Like

After all my snark about our unnecessary snow days, we got a real one today, with five or six inches of snow and more still falling.

Marring the view in the foreground are my ratty tomato cages, still up from last summer. I'd like to say I left them there on purpose, a promise of summer's bounty even in frozen February. But if they hold any deeper truth, it's as a symbol of my chaotic life.

The kids will pay for their pleasure with a make-up day in June. There's no doubt an abstemious lesson to be learned from that, but you know, I'd just rather not.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Tased and Confused

The latest incident in the annals of Taser-mania unfurled today right here in my cozy little town of Athens, Ohio.

The background: About ten days ago, a university employee threatened to kill himself by jumping from the fifth-floor balcony of our new, mall-like student center. The Ohio University police sent in their crisis response team and negotiated him down from the brink. I was impressed that the crisis team - cobbled together after the Virginia Tech massacre - actually performed as advertised. Local media gave credit to a Campus Crusade for Christ group who left the chapel to hold vigil outside the building. The students prayed and wrote letters to the man assuring him that they - and God - loved him.
"It was nice the outpouring of support he received," OU police officer John Stabler said, adding that some students had asked for the man's name to pray for him.
(Athens Messenger)
Now, I'm skeptical that any divinity intervened. If a benevolent puppetmaster god exists, would she allow people to get so desperate in the first place? But even in earthly terms, the response was a grand success.

So yesterday, the same man climbs to the top of the city parking garage. (That's the kind of town I live in: we have one public garage.) He again threatens to leap. This time, Athens city police respond.

And do they call in the prayer brigade again? The crisis team that talked him down last time around?

Hell no. They break out the Tasers.
Officers spotted K. with a knife and cell phone by the southeast corner of the garage’s sixth floor, and they later discovered a three-page handwritten suicide note in his car parked on College Street, according to the police report. K., who was talking on his cell phone to 911 operators from the top of the garage, said he would jump if officers approached him, according to the police report.

K. paced back and forth about four times between the wall and Officer Roger Deardorff, who had been talking with K., according to the report. That allowed APD Officer Destry Flick to get behind K. and shoot him with his Taser, according to the report.

Flick shot K. with his Taser to “get control of him so he wouldn’t jump,” Chief Mayer said. Flick then gave K. a second burst from his Taser when K. was on the ground and would not show his hands.

(The Post; I redacted the man's name because I don't agree with their editorial decision that the public has a right to know his identity. The rest of the story is full of equally bad ethical calls, including partial publication of his suicide note. I'd prefer to boycott it, but no other source included so much detail on the Tasers.)
Okay, so the guy had a knife. And maybe the police saw no other way to ensure he wouldn't jump. It was dark, the middle of the night. The man was six stories high. I wasn't there. I suppose you could reasonably reserve judgment on the first jolt.

But the second Taser shot? The man was on the cold, hard ground. What are the odds that he could have truly harmed either the officers or himself?

I think it was Chekhov who said if you introduce a Taser into the story in Act I, you have to make sure it's gone off before the curtain falls. Or something like that. And there's a corollary to this law: once a person has been tased, he's no longer a mental health patient but a criminal. So you'd better tase him again. All in the interest of public safety, of course.

This is Taser logic. Even a friendly, progressive, overwhelmingly white Midwestern college town is not exempt.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Occupational Hazards

I'm in the midst of grading a large stack of student essays, 80 of them, each analyzing an advertisement of the student's choice. While on the whole they're mercifully intelligent and interesting, they're bumping me up against some occupational hazards.

1) I stink. Currently the dominant scent is Calvin Klein's Euphoria, but I'm sure the top and bottom notes will become more complex as I page through more perfume ads (they're stapled to the papers) and pick up that weird mix of cologne and eau de colored ink.

2) I had to google the term "lipstick party" to see if it's the same as a "rainbow party." In case you were wondering too, the answer is yes. If you're wondering what a rainbow party might be, well, I've kindly done the work for you (but don't follow the link if you have delicate sexual sensibilities or are prone to moral panic). The ad that prompted this high-brow research is from Cointreau's Be Controversial series. (Warning: Cointreau's site is based on Flash-for-beginning-readers; it's excruciatingly slow. The ad here gives you the flavor of it, so to speak.)

3) I learned from this ad that I had my babies a few years too soon.

To think we could've at least taken turns!

4) I'm immune to ads after all this analysis. That's why I'm off to the kitchen to mix me a nice, cold cocktail.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Yearning, German and American Style

Update 7-26-08: Since this post is getting a lot of hits following Obama's Berlin speech, you might also check out my analysis of its reception, since I was lucky enough to have practically a front-row seat.


This isn't grounds in itself to vote for my buddy Barack (that's how he signs his emails to me). But it's a pretty good supporting reason:

Translated, the cover of this week's Spiegel (the German counterpart to Time or Newsweek) reads:
The Messiah Factor:
Barack Obama and the Yearning for a New America
No, I'm not suggesting that Obama is any sort of messiah, religious or secular. If I really thought he were, I'd be deeply mistrustful and disinclined to vote for him. (Jon Swift has a great post satirizing all this messianic blather.)

I do think the subtitle's important, though, because it reflects a new perception abroad that we Americans might be ready to try something different, seeing as how perpetual war hasn't made us safe, rich, or happy.

When I was in Germany in summer 2002, an otherwise reserved acquaintance, a distinguished professorial type, asked me, "How are things in the rogue state?" It took me a moment to realize he meant the United States. I thought an attack on Iraq was already inevitable. (Andy Card - remember him? - was bloviating on how August was a poor month to sell a war.) And yet, I was shocked - not by his bluntness but by the truth of it.

If Americans are indeed yearning for a new America - for hope, for change - it's a damn safe bet most of the rest of the world wants it even more fervently. I say only most of the world, because the old America still has its fans. They're huddled in a few remote caves and sheltered valleys on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, in militia headquarters around Baghdad, in secret cells scattered around the globe.

The only way to thwart them and the politics of fear is to begin rebuilding all the bridges burned over the past seven years. We can call ourselves lucky if any of our old friends are eager to help with reconstruction.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Good V-Day Vibes in Texas

Just in time for Valentine's Day, a federal appeals court has overturned the ban on selling sex toys in the state of Texas.

Seems like there ought to be some sizable niche markets in Texas. I'm imagining a vibrating longhorn? Real Dolls dressed as Dallas cheerleaders? Or for BDSM cowboys and cowgirls, perhaps some rope to lasso your filly or stallion?

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals followed the reasoning in Lawrence v. Texas, which held state prohibitions of homosexuality to be unconstitutional. What people do consensually in the privacy of their own home, the judges wrote in their opinion, is not a matter of public morality and thus outside the scope of the law.

One of the two remaining states with similar bans is Mississippi, whose law was presumably invalidated by yesterday's ruling because it's within the 5th Circuit - unlike Alabama, whose sex-toy ban is also being contested in the courts.

As one of my students said in class today (with much glee and dry wit): Happy vajayjay day! Indeed it is, for the gals in Texas.

(And yeah, vajayjay is such an absurd term.)

LOLcat by Flicker user Last NYC Hero, used under a Creative Commons license.

Happy Valentine's Day!

This is what my kids gave me to mark the day: a heart and a Valentine Cat made from Perler Beads.

Here's wishing y'all an equally sweet and silly Valentine's Day.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Obama, Snow Days, and the Domino Theory

Coming of age right after the Vietnam War, I learned about the domino theory as a mass delusion of the foreign policy establishment. The theory held that the U.S. had to stop Vietnam from capitulating to the Reds - or the next to fall would be Laos and Cambodia and Japan and Samoa and Hawaii and click click click click click click click all the way through to North Dakota. Because, you know, the godless Soviets had set their sights on little towns like mine, which had fewer than 500 inhabitants but seven (!) churches.

Fast forward to 2008, and all of a sudden the domino theory just might be making a comeback.

Exhibit A: the psychology of school districts canceling classes due to winter acting like winter. It all starts with a forecast of snow flurries featuring the dreaded A-word, accumulation. Now, back in my North Dakotan childhood, when I had to walk two whole blocks through the snow wearing nothing but snowmobile boots, a snowsuit, mittens, three scarves, and a space-age pseudo-mylar-and-foam face mask, we scoffed at subzero temperatures and an inch or two of accumulation. If it wasn't gusting at 30 mph, it did not count.

Here in Southeast Ohio, we've had school canceled with nary a flake, just because the mercury read -3 F. Or maybe a flake is spotted wafting its way down from Columbus. (So far this year, we've burned up seven snow days in this fashion, the last two knocking out the long Presidents' Day weekend.)

By these standards, school would've been canceled from November through April in my hometown, and all of us adorable little North Dakotan children would've grown up illiterate.

But here in balmy Athens, Ohio, on an evening like yesterday's with snow in the forecast, all of us parents are transfixed by the list of school closings on the web. We hit refresh compulsively, watching in testy fascination as first Meigs County falls to the two-hour delay, and then Vinton, and then Nelsonville-York, until some brave superintendent pushes his district into the cancel column. It's a slow-mo version of the arrival board at the airport, except it's evident that Kafka's in the control tower and there ain't nobody going nowhere. And then the less remote districts fall, too, in a frenzy of last-minute actions around 5 or 6 a.m. to maximize parental scrambling: Alexander and Marietta and Fairfield and Columbus and Athens and click click click click click click click all the way through to North Dakota.

(Actually not all the way; I'm thinking there must be a firebreak somewhere around Duluth. And there's another one at the perimeter of our university's campus, which apparently is run by a secret cabal of North Dakotans.)

Fortunately, the domino theory can serve happier ends, too. My dear husband gets credit for seeing how it applies just as well to the Obama campaign: Washington and Nebraska and Louisiana and Maine and Virgin Islands and Maryland and DC and Virginia and Wisconsin and Hawaii and Texas and click click click click click click click all the way through to ... Ohio?

Obama now holds the lead in delegates and is making sizable inroads into Hillary Clinton's core constituencies: women, Catholics, working-class voters. Doesn't this call for a Howard Dean yell?

Oh, and I'm proud to say that North Dakota caucused for Obama, too.

Now I'd better go feed a snack to the four kids I'm tending (in my slacker fashion), because yes, today is another snow day.

Domino photo by Flickr user aussiegall, used under a Creative Commons license. Dora dominoes from the Tiger's toy collection.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Can We Do It? No We Can't!

A few days ago, I made the link between Barack Obama's "Yes we can" chant and the key catchphrase-cum-moral-lesson from Bob the Builder. It's an obvious association for any parent brain-damaged by too much kids' TV. (So far, the combo of "Bob the Builder" and "Obama" has been the most frequently-searched terms leading to my blog. Maybe that ought to give me pause ...)

Anyway, Bob the Builder featured a terminally negative mobile crane called Lofty, whose motto - never stated - might as well have been "No we can't."

I think we've found the Lofty candidate in this election cycle, showcased here in the bookend to the Obama "Yes we can" video. (Thanks to Rence for pointing me to the video, which y'all have probably seen by now. I'm not exactly on the bleeding edge.)

Lofty Lego image from

Monday, February 11, 2008

Who's Afraid of Mike Huckabee?

Bizarrely, the Washington state Republican party has refused to tally all of the votes in the caucus it held Saturday. With only 87% of the vote counted and John McCain leading Mike Huckabee by less than two percentage points, state party officials simply declared the count over and McCain the winner. Unsurprisingly, Huckabee will sic his lawyers on the Washington Repugs.

It's not just my inner six year old, still obsessed with fairness on the playground, who wonders what the heck is up with this. I mean, Huckabee frightens me, but I'm starting to think he scares the Republican establishment a whole lot more.

Mathematically, it's still possible for Huckabee to win the nomination. A total of 1191 delegates are needed to win. CNN's delegate scorecard (which omits the Louisiana and Washington results) says McCain has 723, Romney 286, Huckabee 217, and Ron Paul 16.

The odds are stacked tremendously against Huckabee. I'm not seriously suggesting he'll sweep all the remaining states. But he won two out of the three contests over the weekend (and maybe three, though we'll likely never know). If he keeps this up, he'll expose his party's deep divisions for all to see.

Media reports have oddly tended to portray Mitt Romney's withdrawal from the campaign as removing the last potential roadblock to McCain's nomination. Consider this AP report from last week:
Mitt Romney suspended his faltering presidential campaign on Thursday, effectively sealing the Republican presidential nomination for John McCain.
This overlooks the niggling little detail that McCain benefited hugely from Mittens and Huckadoodle splitting the conservative vote between them. And while Huckabee was widely portrayed as the spoiler, couldn't you just as easily view it the other way around?

The Coolest Nerd!

I always thought I was a pretty cool nerd, but now I have hard scientific proof. (Oops. I'm afraid that last statement just disqualified myself from coolness of any stripe.) says I'm an Uber Cool History / Lit Geek.  What are you?  Click here!

What flavor nerd are you? Take the quiz and tell me in comments. And don't tell me you're not a nerd; you wouldn't have read this far if you weren't.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Cheney = Gandhi Redux?

A few days ago on the Today Show, Pat Buchanan stated that if elected President, John McCain "will make Cheney look like Gandhi." Every once in a while Buchanan is such an unfiltered loony that I have to think he knows something we don't.

Maybe he was channeling fellow wingnut John Bolton, who later in the week endorsed McCain because McCain's approach to Iran promises to be more "robust" than Bush's has been? (In Bolton's version of Newspeak, "robust" translates into "bombs away.")

Watch the video and quake. The money quote comes at the end. Let's hope we'll never see Cheney barefoot and humble.

Video via Think Progress.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Gardasil for Everyone!

When Gardasil, the vaccination against human papilloma virus (HPV), came on the market in late 2006, I figured it's about 30 years too late for me. HPV has been proven to cause cervical cancer (as well as genital warts). But Gardasil is approved only for girls and young women aged 9 to 26, on the assumption that they're less likely than older women to have already been exposed to all four strains of the virus covered by the shots.

So far, those of us over 26 don't have any way to prevent HPV infection and its potentially disastrous consequences (other than abstinence - not bloody likely!). Yet we're increasingly confronted with the knowledge of our HPV status, as testing for HPV gradually becomes routine. My ob/gyn offered it to me last spring, and my insurance covered it.

Luckily, the test showed I'm not currently infected with HPV. I'm pretty sure I had an active infection for several years in my twenties, when I kept getting moderately abnormal results on Pap smears. Most people eventually clear the virus spontaneously; I assume that's what I did.

One nasty feature of HPV, though, is that it can be reactivated, a trait it shares with a number of other particularly nasty viruses. Some of these just cause great misery - like the varicella zoster virus, which causes chicken pox in kids but shingles if it's reactivated later in life. But others, including Epstein-Barr (the mono virus), have been implicated in causing certain types of cancer.

I'm speculating a bit here, but it seems to me that reactivation is the most plausible explanation for at least some cases of cervical cancer in older women - those in their 50s or 60s and older who've been monogamous for decades, with a monogamous partner, and who probably weren't actively infected for all those decades.

But maybe it's not too late for me and my ilk, after all. A recent study by Merck, Gardasil's maker, found that it reduced the rate of HPV infection and pre-cancers in women aged 24 through 45. I'm wondering if the vaccine might help the body keep the virus in check at undetectable levels, even though Merck's press release on the study doesn't suggest this. To qualify for the study women had to be free of at least one of the flavors of HPV that Gardasil targets. But the vaccine's impact was so dramatic, it doesn't seem plausible to me that its only effect was to prevent fresh infections:
Also as a primary analysis, GARDASIL prevented 83 percent (95% CI: 51 to 96%) of persistent infection, low-grade cervical abnormalities and pre-cancers, and external genital lesions caused by HPV types 16 and 18 alone (23 cases in the placebo group and four cases in the vaccine group). In a secondary endpoint, GARDASIL prevented 100 percent of persistent infections, low-grade cervical abnormalities and pre-cancers, and external genital lesions caused by HPV types 6 and 11.
The press release doesn't say anything about the sexual habits of study participants - whether their sex lives were more like Samantha's in Sex and the City, or more like, well, mine. Obviously this information would help us understand whether Gardsasil mostly blocked new infections or mostly prevented reactivation of old ones.

This isn't just a theoretical question. It matters because if Gardasil hinders reactivation, then women of any age ought to consider getting the shots.

Gardasil might benefit men, as well. HPV has been pretty conclusively linked to oropharyngeal (mouth and throat) cancer, as well as cancer of the penis and anus. Having oral sex with six or more partners triples one's risk of oropharyngeal cancer. What's more, vaccinating men would contribute to herd immunity, thus reducing the risk to the entire population.

And no, I don't work for Merck. I realize this is a new vaccine and it might still turn out to have some untoward side effects. So far, though, its benefits seem to vastly outweigh its risks.

Unless, of course, you buy the wingnut idea that immunizing young girls will turn them all into sluts. Lynn Harris at Broadsheet has brilliantly put their objections into limerick form:
Why block a vaccine? Here's our answer.
Gardasil is no values-enhancer.
To prevent HPV
Causes sex, don't you see?
And quite frankly, we prefer cancer.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Skinny on Male Fashion

Remember how Madrid's Fashion Week banned emaciated models from the runway in fall of 2006? Madrid's action didn't change the bony face of fashion, but it did shine a spotlight on how female models are starving themselves.

Well, being cavernously thin has now become an equal-opportunity deformity.

The New York Times just ran a story in its Style section (not in Health, where it rightly belongs!) on the evolving standard for underfed male models. Or maybe this is devolution rather than evolution. Aptly titled "The Vanishing Point," the Times story persuades as much with images as with arguments. Pictures like this one tell the whole tale:

It's refreshing that men no longer need to look like they eat 'roids for breakfast. If these skinny dudes represented just one possible image, I'd say fine. Lots of very young men are naturally built like this, and why shouldn't they see guys who look like them?

But of course, in a high-fashion world that loves conformity even more than novelty, the new look is rapidly becoming the new dogma. The Times reports:
George Brown, a booking agent at Red Model Management, said: “When I get that random phone call from a boy who says, ‘I’m 6-foot-1 and I’m calling from Kansas,’ I immediately ask, ‘What do you weigh?’ If they say 188 or 190, I know we can’t use him. Our guys are 155 pounds at that height.”
If your 6'1", you'd better weight 155? So we're now ditching the bulky muscles but paring the men down to bare bones, all while maintaining the bizarre fiction of the hairless man.

To me, the most disturbing aspect of the trend is captured by a fashion expert, Kelly Cutrone, who told the Times:
"People are afraid to look over 21 or make any statement of what it means to be adult.”
It's not that this look is downright pedophilic, exactly, although it does lean in that direction. And it's not terribly hard to find examples of ads that do go for the little boy image, such as this ad for American Apparel found by copyranter. (It'd be one thing if this were an ad for boys' clothing, but it's not.)

Here's a revolutionary idea: How about male models who look like men? What if they actually had a normal amount of body hair? What if they looked more handsome than average, but otherwise rather ordinary? Now that would be sexy.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Deep Throat

I saw my larynx today.

And no, it wasn't nearly as titillating as this post's title suggests. No one has ever confused me with Linda Lovelace. Although now that I think of it, the larynx seen from above has a distinctly lace-y, yet muscular appearance. Maybe that's how she got her stage name.

My larynx looked a bit like the one pictured, except cuter, of course.

The experience was not so much a porn movie as an episode of House, with a few key distinctions. In my show, the patient, not the doctor, was irascible and prone to mask her vulnerability with humor. The doctor resembled Anthony Perkins more than Hugh Laurie. Sexy young assistants were nowhere to be seen. No one bled from the eyeballs or was wrongly diagnosed with lupus or Guillain-Barré. And the patient had self-administered a Vicodin prior to the procedure, while the doctor had not (or so I hope).

Even so, the patient was pretty much terrified of the procedure in question, flexible fiberoptic laryngoscopy. (Follow the link only if you want to see the instrument used, plus a more technical description that calls the patient "awake and relaxed." Ha!) In crude terms, the doc squirts anesthetic up your nose with a device that's half old-fashioned perfume atomizer, half garden sprayer. Once the drugs kick in, he snakes a 1/4" tube up your nose and down your throat. It burns a bit as it goes around the bend. It doesn't feel as big as it looks. (Maybe Linda and I did have something in common, after all?)

Then, remarkably, a little TV screen shows you everything from the interior of your nose to the base of your tongue to your vocal cords and epiglottis.

What the doctor found: swollen lingual tonsils, a part I didn't even know I had. This is tonsillar tissue at the very base of the tongue, just above the epiglottis in the pre-epiglottal space (another anatomic discovery for me). It's not removed during tonsillectomy, and it appears more likely to swell in people (like me) who lost their tonsils as kids. The swelling apparently accounts for the feeling I've had since last fall of constantly having a lump in my throat. It's not a danger, just a nuisance.

Once I got home and googled all of this, I learned that this lump sensation actually has a name: "globus," which is short for "globus hystericus." Neurotic I may be, but I'm relieved to have a non-Freudian explanation. At least I'm not outright hysterical.

Larynx image from University of Pittsburgh Voice Center. Photo of Hugh Laurie as Dr. Gregory House from E Online.

Oh Crap! My Vote Will Actually Count

Okay, I'll admit I'm secretly pleased that thanks to the Democrats' split results for Super Tuesday, my vote won't be totally irrelevant - even though my nerves may put me in the loony bin by the time my primary actually rolls around on March 4. This election is giving me worse belly-butterflies than I had for my dissertation defense.

But here's the catch: I live in Ohio. Home of Diebold, evil maker of hackable voting machines. Epicenter of the 2004 election debacle.

Speaking as an Obama supporter, I think he may be able to swing Ohio, but it'll be an uphill struggle. Our Democratic governor, Ted Strickland, has already pledged his support to Clinton. This will no doubt give Clinton an organizational boost on the ground in a state that's already seen as tilting her direction. Even so, Obama's campaign coffers are full, and I think people here are hungry for hope and change.

Speaking as a proponent of democracy (a radical position these days!), I worry about bigger issues. The voting machines throughout the state are frankly junk, and they'll still be in place for our March 4 primary election. Last December, the New York Times reported
All five voting systems used in Ohio, a state whose electoral votes narrowly swung two elections toward President Bush, have critical flaws that could undermine the integrity of the 2008 general election, a report commissioned by the state’s top elections official has found.

“It was worse than I anticipated,” the official, Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, said of the report. “I had hoped that perhaps one system would test superior to the others.”

At polling stations, teams working on the study were able to pick locks to access memory cards and use hand-held devices to plug false vote counts into machines. At boards of election, they were able to introduce malignant software into servers.

I'm not suggesting that Clinton's people would try to hack the machines. But even short of outright fraud, the system is vulnerable to technical snafus. For reasons both financial and logistical, it's highly unlikely that this equipment will be replaced by November, and there's no chance of any improvements before March 4.

In the fall 2006 general election, our spanking new machines malfunctioned during the counting process right here in my little town. It took hours for a tech to be located who could service them - and he then hit a deer while driving into town. We didn't know the results of our tightly contested Statehouse race for another two days. And the problems didn't end there. (The linked article is by a friend of Kittywampus, Nick Claussen, who does excellent work reporting for the Athens News, our twice-weekly independent local paper. Read it!)

Yeah, some of this is just dumb bad luck. That doesn't reassure me in the least. We've got lots more deer in them thar woods.

Map shows the distribution of voting machine shortages and other snafus. Note that my county isn't even represented on it, so the map probably understates the scope of the problem. The map is taken from Wikipedia's article on the irregularities in Ohio's November 2004 election. Read the whole piece, and abandon all hope.