Archive for January, 2011

You Won’t Fool the Children of the Revolution

I sometimes tease my dedicated communist friend about when the revolution is coming to England. I am all for a grassroots movement to shift the existing democratic structures in such a way that the government actually functions to provide the greatest good to the greatest number while doing no harm, but I think, perhaps with too much optimism, that in a country like England, this can and should be done gradually, through rational discourse.

Day of Anger water cannon firing in air

The revolutions, for there is no other word, now taking place in Tunisia, Egypt, and rippling protests in other parts of the Arab world, are amazing. They represent something quite magnificent about the human character – an ability to move together to insist upon change.

In the American news, as Philip Weiss at Salon.com discusses, a rather fearful tone in the reportage. Why? Because this kind of seismic political shift in part of the world that is already a crucible for a variety of political, religious, and financial (oil!) tension threatens the structure and investments Western countries have made with existing governments.

It is to be expected that the government of each country will act to protect their national interests. However, these events are drawing attention to the relationships that exist between the challenged dictators and governments, and the leaders in Europe and North America. And this, in turn, raises some interesting moral questions, where it has become clear that international policies have, essentially, been founded on the principle of ‘better the devil you know’.

I’d like to think that the democratic governments with such obvious diplomatic relations hoped for a shift towards democracy. History would suggest otherwise, but a girl can dream.

There are a lot of political things to be worried about: revolutions do not always end peacefully, and there is some question of how a shift in government in the area will affect the situation with Israel.

I hope that the protesters and revolutionaries succeed in reshaping their countries (and region) into fairer, safer places.

Healthy Marriage Improves Health

via jezebel

The Daily Mail reports that (happy) marriages keep you healthy. More so than long term relationships without the official title.

“Analysis of 148 studies of social relationships found their legal status and the amount of emotional support involved were linked to death rates, with marriage coming out on top. There is no evidence available to judge the health of people in civil partnerships,” said Dr Gallacher.
(…)
Exclusive and supportive relationships confer substantial mental and physical health benefits that grow over time.
(…)
Last year, a World Health Organisation study revealed marriage could reduce the risk of anxiety and depression and those who tied the knot were much less likely to suffer the blues than those who stayed single.

Therefore: marriage should be available to all, not just the straight folks, as it is unfairly denying potential physical and mental health advantages to a subset of the population.

Also worth noting, staying single is way better for your health than being in an unhappy relationship. (I’m looking at you Lori Gottlieb).

Until they don’t

Inspired by the new films Friends with Benefits and No Strings Attached, Tracy Clark-Flory at Salon asks “Does ‘friends with benefits’ Work?”.

Since brevity is the soul of wit, I will be brief:

As one of Clark-Flory’s interviewees (her one-time FWB) pithily says “I’ve been in so many of these situations and, basically, they work until they don’t.”

And that is the point.

All relationships, whether they are serious/monogamous/long-term, open, sex-only, sex-free, or entirely platonic, work until they don’t.

People change. Sometimes changes affect compatibility, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes people decide to work through changes together, sometimes they don’t, for an infinite number of reasons or no reason at all.

To pretend that FWBs and NSAs are the only relationships subject to human mutability is fatuous.

image from the Telegraph.co.uk

Those Pesky Feminist Bigots

Evening Standard Headline


This is the cover headline on today’s Evening Standard (article here).

My first thought on reading this headline was, naturally, ‘this is news?’ followed closely by ‘why is this on the cover?’

In actual news today, Moscow’s Domodedovo airport was bombed, and leaked papers give fresh insight (maybe) into the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Also, two Sportscasters get the boot after making sexist comments on air.

Part of me thinks that some lame politician that no one’s ever heard of (Dominic Raab. See?) decided to start broadcasting his sexism and ignorance to get attention, and that the best way to deal with such a deluded nincompoop is to treat his comments with the contempt they deserve.

But of course, London’s (kind of) respected free evening paper had to go and make it the cover story, which lends a kind of second hand dignity to Raab’s asinine comments. Really, Evening Standard, is this an argument that needs rehashing? Do people really need to be reminded that feminism is about equality, and feminist activism is about drawing attention to cultural and infrastructural issues that cause and sustain bigotry? Is the appalling stupidity of claiming that “some of the most flagrant discrimination [is] – against men” not painfully obvious?

Do we really need to point out the false dichotomy Raab invents when he says that if you say people are inherently equal then you can’t complain about extrinsic inequalities? That Raab refers to the “outdated and obsolete equality and diversity agenda” just exaggerates the painful irony of his statement. (As does the image which accompanies the article – a posed portrait of Raab and his wife).

It’s not even a case of the pot calling the kettle black – it’s more like the pot calling the mirror black.

Really, Evening Standard. Is it ever a slow enough news day to make ‘moron says sexist crap’ the main headline?

Even if the subtext is ‘Conservative MP Voices Underlying Sexism and Racism in Party Platform.’

Blog for Choice Day

Yesterday was NARAL’s Blog for Choice Day.

I don’t currently live in the US. However, I have a lot of friends who happen to have uteruses who live there, and the right to abortion is not solely an issue for citizens and residents of the US.

As the owner and operator of a uterus myself, I think it’s important to review why abortion is important, and so contentious.

Roe v. Wade was 38 years ago. According to Wikipedia, the US Supreme Court concluded that the woman’s constitutional right to privacy covered pregnancy termination until the fetus is viable (viability tends to depend on size rather that strict developmental age, between 24 – 28 weeks), wherein the state’s right/obligation to protect the fetus’ life begins to supersede.

The philosophical difficulty is the question of when a fertilized egg becomes an individual with rights, rather than a part of the woman’s body.

This is not a person

The critical elements here are the woman’s autonomy over her person, and the medical condition or pregnancy. People opposed to abortion object to the termination of what they see as a human life, often assuming that abortion is being used as a form of birth control, and a reflection of extreme selfishness.

Let’s look at the facts, shall we?

Pregnancy takes nearly 10 months. In a healthy, normal pregnancy, one can expect several weeks of vomiting, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, mood swings, structural changes to the body (skin stretches, hips widen, etc), headaches, cramps, swelling in the legs and feet, and changes in eyesight.

Here are some possible complications of pregnancy:
– Anemia
– High blood pressure
– Pre-eclampsia (persistent headaches, flashing light, blurred vision and seeing spots, upper abdominal pain and sudden excessive lower leg swelling)
– Eclampsia (seizures and coma)
– Ectopic pregnancy (life-threatening)
– Fibroids

Here are some possible complications that can happen to the fetus:
– Downs syndrome
– Sickle cell anemia
– Tay-Sachs disease
– Phenylketonuria

(read more about these exciting conditions here)

Choosing to become pregnant is probably the biggest decision a woman can make. If a man chooses to get a woman pregnant, he may support the woman throughout the process, or be held legally responsible for some financial support, but it is physically impossible for a man to experience the same intense physical and emotional changes that result from pregnancy and birth.

A woman’s body is changed permanently, and she puts herself medically and psychologically at risk. Choosing to have children can make this process delightful and exciting. To have it forced upon you is torture.

The state has no right to force anyone to go through the process of pregnancy.

Here are some statistics on abortion rates from Guttmacher.org:

– Nearly half of pregnancies among American women are unintended, and four in 10 of these are terminated by abortion.

– Twenty-two percent of all pregnancies (excluding miscarriages) end in abortion.

– 18% percent of U.S. women obtaining abortions are teenagers

– Women aged 20–24 obtain 33% of all abortions, and women aged 25-29 obtain 24%.

– 54% percent of women who have abortions had used a contraceptive method during the month they became pregnant.

– About 61% of abortions are obtained by women who have one or more children.

The reasons women give for having an abortion underscore their understanding of the responsibilities of parenthood and family life. Three-fourths of women cite concern for or responsibility to other individuals; three-fourths say they cannot afford a child; three-fourths say that having a baby would interfere with work, school or the ability to care for dependents; and half say they do not want to be a single parent or are having problems with their husband or partner.

Sexism and misogyny make life hard enough for women. It affects how we are educated, how we work, how much we’re paid, how we feel about ourselves, and how others treat us.

The idea that something as intimate and drastic as pregnancy has anything to do with the state is obscene. Laws that hinder and prevent abortion arise from a notion that the woman cannot be allowed complete autonomy over her body.

Such laws are inspired by a ‘morality’ that determines that a fetus has a right to life at the expense of the person carrying it. This kind of morality would not be possible in a world where women were perceived as equal to men in value and capability.

Who is Responsible?

After any tragedy, this is what we ask ourselves. We are rational animals (sort of), so even if we don’t approve, we can understand crimes of passion, crimes of necessity, and (however grotesque) ‘collateral damage’.

We want to know why. Hopefully because this will help prevent similar acts in the future.

In light of the recent appalling murders in Arizona, some commentators are suggesting that the violent rhetoric used by various rightwing people creates a climate in which violent acts are implicitly encouraged.

It is easier to see the link between the odious hit-lists of abortion providers created by the ironically ‘pro-life’ crowd, where the rhetoric goes beyond ‘these people are murderers’ to, explicitly, ‘murder these people,’ than the one between people like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin’s political rants (whereby those who disagree with them manage to be both fascist and socialist) and some psychotic 22-year-old with a gun.

Our environment guides our behaviour: our society and culture create rules – boundaries within which we are expected to confine our otherwise free choice. Some of these rules are made explicit in the legal code, and our peers socially reinforce others, as do the media and figures of authority.

But what happens when these guides seem to contradict one another? Murder is wrong, but having semi-automatic weapons with thirty shots in a round is a Constitutional right! (Ignore that bit about a well-organized militia). Voting is how we make sure the government looks after our needs, but the person I voted for didn’t win, and instead there’s a socialist/fascist having a socialist/fascist public meeting!

Obviously, this does not lead everyone to buy a gun at Walmart and go on a rampage.

Does speech cause violent action? Speech in and of itself can be violent action. (See: It Gets Better). Violence is about power. What could be more powerful than taking someone’s life, with words or with bullets? If you are convinced that there is only one, rather irreversible way, of being heard, and that this need to be heard supersedes the right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of everyone around you…

Even if every conservative (and liberal) pundit starting speaking like reasonable, rational people (as lovely and refreshing as that would be), I don’t think that would prevent people from being violent. People are assholes. Scared, stupid assholes.

We can’t entirely stop people from being stupid, or angry, or scared. We can’t stop people from thinking that they are an exception to the rules (see: Crime and Punishment), or that they are immortal (see: teenagers).

If we could eradicate guns, or, perhaps more realistically, give everyone a futuristic impenetrable personal force field, maybe even the pathologically violent would be forced to express their displeasure with words. Maybe then we could help the stupid get information, the angry get therapy, the scared feel safe. Maybe the sense of immortality and exceptionalism could be used to encourage feelings of responsibility rather than entitlement.

To be clear, I don’t think a national policy of psychotherapists and teddy bears is what murderers deserve. Everyone is responsible for his or her own actions, and looking too much at social causes can lead one to forget the immediate cause – i.e. someone has decided to murder. People should not have to guard their tongues because a select few do not understand metaphor, heightened rhetoric, or irony. However, there should be something in place to protect the many from the select few, and if that in turn makes the select few ever fewer, so much the better.

If everyone, not just media pundits and authority figures, were more respectful, and treated those who disagree with them like rational human beings rather than some kind of Nazi Yeti, would violence in general decrease?

I’d like to think so. Surely it’s worth a try?

Happiness and Optimism for 2011

We are now in the second decade of the 21st century.

It certainly sounds quite impressive. The future is now!

In an attempt to leave the misfortunes of 2008-2010 behind, several countries have inspired massive social unrest with ‘austerity measures’ – cuts to social programmes and civil service pay that can no longer be sustained by the international equivalent of Mastercard (which is apparently China).

This is on top of the riots and demonstrations inspired by police violence in France, a threefold increase in university fees in the UK, certified nutbar Silvio Berlusconi, the G20 in Toronto, and, um the Lakers (to select only a few – google ‘2010 demostrations’ and ‘2010 riots’).

Hilariously, and ‘look! The Goodyear blimp!’-ily, the UK Conservative/Liberal Democrat government has decided to start measuring ‘gross national happiness’, (just like that shining beacon of justice and democracy, Bhutan) rather than the terribly outmoded ‘gross national product’.

What’s funny (aside from the blatant attempt at misdirection), is that the imbalance inherent in the current austerity measures is almost guaranteed to increase unhappiness.

Because, you see, scientifically speaking, the wealth of a country has no real effect on people’s individual happiness. Moreover, income beyond a certain sustaining rate has no long-term effect on happiness, it just temporarily boosts it.

People are happiest in egalitarian environments, where there is a smaller gap between the income of the richest and poorest members of a society. This is mitigated somewhat by the fact that, in societies where social mobility is considered high and meritocratic, there is a greater level of contentment with income disparity. (Remember that perception is not necessarily a reflection of truth)

In either case, the common element is the perception of fairness.

From the age of about 3, every child is told that life isn’t fair. However, we learn just as quickly that we, as individuals and as groups, can be fair. That is, after all, the premise for every justice system in the world. The success of said attempt at fairness is often dubious at best, but it is something for which we, as humans, strive. Life isn’t fair, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be.

So will 2011 bring greater happiness, now that governments are attempting (or pretending) to measure it?

Well, if the key factor is equality, probably not. The cuts to national programmes make life considerably more difficult for those lower on the income totem pole (single mothers, the physically and mentally challenged or disabled, children). David Cameron’s Big Society so far is hobbling a lot of federal institutions and charities that supported the little guys. I don’t think that’s going to make anyone happy.

Science has shown that the rich folks who get to keep whatever percent of their income won’t really notice, the businesses that get to keep a greater percent of their profits won’t feel anything, because they are institutions and don’t actually have feelings, and in times of financial difficulty tend to retrench rather than reinvest so they can’t boost people’s happiness by employing them, and the banks, the source of all the trouble, are already back to playing Russian roulette with everyone’s finances, giving gigantic bonuses, and refusing to loan the money they have received free from the taxpayer to revive the economy.

The other difficulty is that as individuals, we are terrible at gauging what will make us happy.

I suppose it’s only fair that governments be as obtuse on a national level as people are individually. However, there’s a lot more science on what makes groups of people happy.

Then again, there’s also a lot of science on why people maintain and defend their pre-existing beliefs despite significant evidence to the contrary (I’m looking at you, climate change deniers).

One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to stop being so pessimistic.

If it’s backed by science, it counts as realism, right?


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