The Pause that Reflects

This shooter is mentally ill. This other shooter is a terrorist.

Or perhaps this shooter cracked under economic pressures. And this other shooter cracked under anti-religious racism and the pressures of war.

Whenever these violent outbursts occur, I never feel that the explanations for them are adequate. Yet how we explain them — and our arguments over which explanations are better than others — say more about our prejudices and biases than the horrible events themselves. Certain factors come up again and again: mental illness, economic struggles, war trauma, religious extremism and racism. Not all of these elements are present in every case — and based on the two most recent events, I have neglected to list other forces that strongly influence “active shooter” cases, such as misogyny and homophobia. I think a big mistake some folks make, especially those in the punditry profession (which is congenitally given to conclusion-jumping), is latching onto one of these factors in isolation from the others. Those with an axe to grind against Muslims have seized upon the Ft. Hood shooting as a case that proves all their other condemnations of Islam as a religion, political correctness, multiculturalism, and, for good measure, Barack Obama and the “liberal media.” None of that is very helpful, but it isn’t much better to cite the other factors of war, racism, mental illness, etc. without considering them all together as systemic forces that will eventually combine to produce random acts of violence, whether of the active shooter kind, or in cases of rape, domestic abuse, and/or suicide. After all, most people with mental illnesses (a nebulous category that we should refrain from generalizing upon, anyway) do not go on shooting rampages. So far Marc Armbinder is the only high profile media professional who has urged restraint:

Does shooter story today focus on Islam, on the man himself and his demons, on the Army and war? Lots of data points = context needed.

This event, like the Columbine shootings ten years ago, will be endlessly pored over. I still have not figured out Columbine, but there is at least the positive influence of The Columbine Project to help teens address the kinds of issues that were brought to light by that awful event. Armbinder is right, however: context is needed, and to fully appreciate it, we need time to think before we speak.

So, ya know, STFU.

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More on Celebrity Coverage of Clinton

From the NYTimes article on Hillary Clinton’s “fit of pique”:

As one journalist covering her trip put it: “She is a celebrity. We have a celebrity secretary of state. When you have a celebrity, you get celebrity coverage.”

Well, there’s a deflection of responsibility if I ever saw one. Read: Just cuz we have treated her like a celebrity since day one, it’s not our fault if coverage of her official trip as Secretary of State to Africa focuses on trivial shit like her marriage or her husband’s “overshadowing” diplomatic efforts or even the possibility that she has been “marginalized” by the Obama administration.

I touched on this in the post underneath my cartoon on the so-called “outburst” today, but I feel like elaborating, so indulge me. Inheriting a steaming pile of foreign policy crap, Obama has deployed not only Clinton, but Dennis Ross, Richard Holbrooke and other high-level diplomats with considerable “celebrity” status of their own. We can debate the merits of these deployments; but the main mission is clear: salvage US relations with other powerful regional countries and seek to serve national interests while pursuing multilateral objectives on terrorism, nuclear proliferation, global warming, resource competition and other important issues.

So the main story should be about the success or failure of these efforts, the details of negotiations, the competition among major world players, the effects on the billions of people living in poverty, human rights, war, violence, etc. Not Hillary Clinton’s career. Her marriage. Her psychological state, at least vis-a-vis her role in the Obama White House. Her efforts in Africa deserve attention, debate, scrutiny. It is interesting that the NY Times article cites among the factors contributing to Clinton’s irritability, such as jetlag, the awful use of rape as a war weapon in the Congo in the context of a corrupt, patriarchal ruling class. Then there was this:

Her talk with the students had started out friendly enough, with questions about human rights and the environment. But it got a little edgy when several students pushed her on why Congo, whose first prime minister was ousted with the help of the C.I.A., should now trust the United States. She then became a little prickly.

Uh, Patrice Lamumba was not simply “ousted” — he was fucking murdered. So Clinton is “prickly”? It’s a reasonable question: “You fucked us over in the past, why should be trust you now?” The focus on her celebrity and her temperament allow the corporate press to not only perpetuate stereotypes of women in power as “bitches”; it obscures the history of US and European sponsored violence and resource exploitation that continue to plague Africa. No, we are not all to “blame,” but WOW have US geopolitical and corporate interests played a significant part in disrupting the continent (and, yes, European colonialism, it goes without saying.) It’s one thing to lecture Nigeria on political corruption, but it would be nice to acknowledge the corrupting influence of US and British oil companies — and hey, maybe seek to redress it.

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Sexist Marketing Friday

Not that it’s a regular feature of this blog or something. But today two tweets by friends of mine pointed out separate instances of sexist marketing.

First, the stupid: Dell has created “Della,” a laptop that is also a fashion accessory. As a Mac user, I understand wanting a stylish piece of computing hardware; and I can see the appeal of turning a laptop into a handbag. But this is just plain condescending.

Link courtesy of LJonte.

And then, the overwhelming. Kip Manley tweeted merely “NO” in response to this eye-stabbing symphony of pink Scrabble games, Ouija boards, and others.

Really? After nearly a hundred years and several generations of girls and boys playing these games together — often with their parents, mom and/or dad — do the game-makers really need to resort to such desperate measures to get female customers? Do they think girls are that stupid? Or are they just aiming at that narrow demographic of stupid girls who eat this shit up? Like the young women on The Hills or something.

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Zero Shame Game

At the Washington Post, Patrick Welsh wrings his hands over the more supportive treatment pregnant teens and teen moms are receiving from some school districts. He is dismayed that teen moms are openly flaunting their motherhood.

The somber statistics about teen motherhood are the reason the day-care center, run by the local nonprofit Campagna Center, was opened in T.C. Williams two years ago. The idea is to keep the girls in school, let them get their diplomas and help them avoid the kind of fate described earlier. I’ve been a teacher for more than 30 years, and I want the best for my students and to help them succeed in every way possible. I know that these girls need support. But I can’t help thinking we’re going at this all wrong.

On the surface, Alexandria seems to be striving to stem teen pregnancy. Every high school student is required to take a “family life” course that teaches about birth control, sexually transmitted disease and teen pregnancy. The Adolescent Health Center, a clinic providing birth control, was built a few blocks from the school. The city-run Campaign on Adolescent Pregnancy sponsors workshops for parents and teens. But none of this coalesces to hit the teens with the message that getting pregnant is a disaster. And within the school, apart from the family life class, the attitude is laissez-faire, as if teachers and administrators are afraid to address the issue for fear of offending the students who have children.

Once a girl gets pregnant, though, the school leaps in to do everything for her. But I wonder: Is it possible that all this assistance — with little or no comment about the kids’ actions — has the unintended effect of actually encouraging them to get pregnant? Are we making it easier for girls to make a bad choice and helping them avoid the truth about the consequences? 

Heavens! Helping people without censuring them? As one nurse observes, “There is zero shame.” Zero shame! Ooooh God, Nooooo! How can we expect people to act more like us responsible middle class types if we don’t instill them with self-loathing?

In fact, as you no doubt suspected, these people are bringing it on themselves. (Aren’t they always, those lazy, shiftless people?) Our anguished writer cites the same school nurse to dredge up the “pregnancy pact” myth spread last Summer by a high school principal in Massachusetts. Say, whatever happened to that story? Oh, that’s right — two weeks after fomented another reason for adults to fear their irrational teens, it was refuted. By the mayor. So whatcha bet that the school nurse in this article has no direct knowledge of such a pact among her students; that she overheard some “buzz” somewhere (conservative talk radio? news headlines next to her email? an opinionated colleague?); and that she parroted this bit of conventional wisdom for the benefit of our gullible writer?

And if you detect a slight trace of racial privilege mingled with the classist overtones, your nose will soon get out of joint. Welsh notes that overall teen pregnancies have dropped significantly:

The birth rate among teens, after falling 36 percent since 1990, went up 3 percent in 2006, the first increase in 15 years. And most of the rise is due to pregnancies among Hispanic girls.

Sensitive liberal guy that he is, Welsh hastens to note that white teens get pregnant, too, but it’s a class thing, and where he lives, class translates into ethnicity. Fair enough. Poverty and disadvantage hit people of color a lot harder than people of, um, non-color. But this is the point where Welsh starts dredging up the “pregnancy pact” myth and quoting high school students of, um, non-color whose disapproval is hard to conceal. These Hispanic teen moms “are living in a dream world” so says a girl in AP English. I was relieved (surprised, too) that Welsh got around to talking to at least one of the young women he spends so much time discussing with other people.

I’d be less than honest if I didn’t admit that I’m torn about T.C’s teen moms and the Tiny Titans center. As upset as I get at the recklessness I see in some of the girls and their boyfriends, I can’t begrudge someone like Cynthia Quinteros the help she needs to raise her one-year-old son. “If it wasn’t for the day-care center, I would have to quit school to take care of Angel,” says the 16-year-old. “My mother is a single mom, and my brother is 11. My mom has to work.”

Cynthia’s days are grueling. She gets up at 6 a.m., feeds and dresses Angel and is at school by 7:50. She drops Angel off at the center, eats breakfast in the cafeteria and heads for class. Her mom picks her and the baby up at 3:15 p.m. At home, Cynthia eats, plays with Angel, starts homework and then leaves at 4:50 for her supermarket cashier’s job. She gets home at 10:10, does a little homework and goes to bed.

See? He’s a nice guy! He’s “torn”! He doesn’t “begrudge” Cynthia. He’ll even go into details about her “grueling” day — and, indeed, he chose the right word. But it doesn’t take him long to revert to ethnic stereotypes — and with Cynthia’s corroboration: a lot of her friends “actively tried to get pregnant” (but not Cynthia; she missed a Depo shot one day.) And according to a medical director, “most of these girls and their families see no problem with being unmarried and having a child at 16 or 17.”

Waiting for the “drain on public services” argument? Here it co-oo-omes!

Most of the mothers are in free and reduced school-lunch programs, and few have insurance. So when they get pregnant, a whole tax-supported industry kicks into action: The Health Department assigns a nurse to the girl, a group called Resource Mothers is notified to pick girls up at school or home and drive them to doctor’s appointments, and the Campagna Center plans day care for the child. The school dietitian plans nutritious meals for the mothers. The federally funded WIC program provides free formula, milk, cheese, peanut butter and the like to the teens and their babies. In Virginia, girls from 13 on up are eligible for free reproductive services — prenatal care, hospital visits and delivery.

According to a study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, teen childbearing nationwide cost taxpayers $9.1 billion in 2004. Teens 17 and under — the ages of most of the girls at T.C. — account for $8.6 billion of that total, or an average of $4,080 per teen mother annually.

Welsh repeatedly singles out Latina teens and “the rising birth rate among Hispanics” as sources of trouble for befuddled and overworked social workers, educators and health officials. Get it? They are a burden. They’re a drain on tax dollars that should be going to bailing out the financial industry or failing to reconstruct countries we’ve bombed into chaos and desperation. Damn these poor people and their grubby demands!

Look, no matter what age a woman becomes a mom, our society is not prepared to support the needs of children. Period. If “shame” needs to be directed at anyone, it’s the opponents of universal health care, education and a living wage. It’s the unthinking voters who have consistently clamored for tax cuts and psuedo-patriotic war-mongering. We’re momentarily in a “season of Hope/Change/Transformation/Whatever” but all along there have been these undercurrents of resentment against Hispanics and of frustration with our broken social safety nets. An article like this only feeds the fire.

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Is “Douchebag” Sexist?

From Ann at Feministing:

It’s pretty easy to see why this evolved as an insult. Douchebag is funny because it’s anachronistic. It was a device once promoted for health reasons, but as science has marched on, douching is generally just thought of as an embarrassing (and definitely not-talked-about) product for women who are paranoid about good old-fashioned vagina smells. If we’re honest, we also laugh at it because it grosses us out. (Call it the bro-ish side of some feminists, myself included.) Like Dodai at Jezebel, I’m not calling for a ban on the word. Just asking feminists to think about it a bit more before saying it. To consider whether using “douchebag” as an insult is just another way of saying “everything associated with vaginas is icky!”

No, it’s saying that some things associated with vaginas are icky. Some things associated with just about every part of the human body in general and male or female bodies in particular are icky. Smegma, anyone? Spooge? I don’t think there is anything misogynist in acknowledging that some of the fluids emitted from the female body can be a little gross. Genuinely gross. And as such they form a legitimate basis for insulting someone.

“Douchebag” is funny not only because it’s icky, but because it sounds funny. Take care of the sound, the sound will take care of the sense, as Lewis Carroll once said. Not always true, but in cases like this, it works. How about “ass-hat”? Does anyone really know what that means? No! But it sounds funny. Dickhead, butthead, shithead, and my son’s favorite, poopyhead — a lot more sound is at work than sense.

Does the word’s relationship to female anatomy or to anachronistic female hygiene put it off limits*? Ann provides a thoughtful discussion of the history of the douching practice and how social attitudes varied depending on the marital status of the woman performing it. Shorter version: it’s okay if you’re married, but single women who do it are sluts. Pretty reprehensible stuff — but, sadly, just about anything a single woman did was viewed as having slut potential. “Naughty” nurses and secretaries, especially; teachers and librarians, not as often, but they pop up even now as part of sexual fantasy. Personally, I deplore the slut-shaming as much as the sexist assumptions regarding single women. But I don’t think “douchebag” inherently connotes either of these stupid ideas. Moreover, I feel there is a risk made in the opposite direction: by putting female bodies or anything associated with them completely out of bounds as the basis of ridicule, would we not be putting them on a pedestal, idealizing them beyond their human qualities.

Human beings are funny. Their bodies are funny. And gross. And weird. And awkward. Zits, farts, dangly bits, hairs, snot, phlegm — as biological beings, we contend with these strange, uncomfortable aspects of our bodies. We have developed lotions, cleansers, trimmers, and other methods to manage them, if not completely eliminate or hide them (and in the process making some people very rich.) The same holds true for those things unique to female and male bodies: pricks, tits, twats, balls and all the wonderful fluids they bring forth. They all serve important functions, but they can be quite embarrassing. And embarrassment, discomfort, inconvenience, grossness — these are the basis of humor. Not the most sophisticated variety, to be sure, but unless you are a total snob (and thus likely trying to distance yourself from your body and all its problems), you should recognize the value of humor derived from our most intimate experiences. Nothing especially “bro-ish” about that.

* Yes, Ann states that she is not trying to ban the word. And the discussion is certainly worth having — hence, my engaging in it. But for some folks it’s a short step from raising the question to calling for a ban, so I feel it’s necessary to address that possibility. Back to whence ye came

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Anti-LGBT Violence in Schools

Julie at Schooling Inequality posts recent news and some commentary on homophobic violence in schools, including the Alliance Defense Fund’s “Day of Truth” response to GLSEN’s Day of Silence to honor the memory of a 14-year-old lesbian murdered by her classmates; and the beating of an outspoken lesbian advocate by three girls, one of whom videotaped the incident. It’s a very informative post, so go read the whole thing.

But, wow, does it make a feller see red. The so-called “Day of Truth” violates even the basic respect we afford the dead, which apparently the ADF does not feel extends to queer folk.

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RAND Study Totally Hot for Virginity Pledges

Based on a study of 1,461 adolescent virgins age 12 to 17 who shared similar characteristics of religiosity, parenting and friendship, the RAND Corporation finds that teens who made a virginity pledge were significantly less likely to have sex before marriage within a three year period after making the pledge. According to Scientific Blogging:

Forty-two percent of those who did not make virginity pledges but were otherwise similar to those who did started sexual intercourse within three years, while just 34 percent of those who made virginity pledges reported having sexual intercourse within the same period.

“Making a pledge to remain a virgin until married may provide extra motivation to adolescents who want to delay becoming sexually active,” [study author Steven] Martino said. “The act of pledging may create some social pressure or social support that helps them to follow through with their clearly stated public intention.”

Some researchers have speculated that abstaining from intercourse might increase participation in other sexual activities, like oral sex. But the RAND study found that those who pledged were no more likely to engage in non-intercourse behaviors than comparable youth who did not take a pledge.

The abstract of the study concludes, “Making a virginity pledge appears to be an effective means of delaying sexual intercourse initiation among those inclined to pledge without influencing other sexual behavior; pledging does not appear to affect sexual safety among pledgers who fail to remain abstinent.” As reported at Scientific Blogging, Martino puts forward some important caveats:

Martino said virginity pledges are unlikely to be a viable means to encouraging all adolescents to delay the initiation of sexual intercourse.

“These findings do not suggest that virginity pledges should be a substitute for comprehensive sexual education programs, or that they will work for all kinds of kids … But virginity pledges may be appropriate as one component of an overall sex education effort.”


“Virginity pledges must be made freely for them to work,” Martino said. “If young people are coerced or are unduly influenced by peer pressure, virginity pledges are not likely to have a positive effect.”

I’m glad Martino is so careful. But I have doubts that, say, the Bush Administration, culture war conservo-pundits, and parents obsessed with their children’s virginity (usually the daughter’s) will cut such fine distinctions. Four years ago, some of the BushAdmin’s favored abstinence-only programs were found to be promoting disinformation about HIV/AIDS and the causes of pregnancy. Today ABC News reports that J. K. Flores, the administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, funneled $500,000 toward a golfing youth program –passing over more deserving sex education programs for at-risk youth– because, according to his former assistant, he “favors programs that promote sexual abstinence.” Paul Peete at the Huffington Post adds that Flores “refused to consider any grant application that dealt with gay/lesbian teens — presumably trashing their applications.”

And lastly, I think the headline for this Bloomberg article says it all:

Teen Sex Didn’t Decline as Abstinence Spending Rose

Mind you, I’m not criticizing the RAND report. I just have doubts that something as creepy as a “virginity pledge” will be truly effective –or, for that matter, desirable– when filtered through the politics of the real world.

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