24 April, 2012

Reading, Part I: Literature

It's amazing how much of a luxury real literature becomes when the bulk of one's reading is confined to The News and various articles of political analysis. Certainly not all of these are abysmal from a literary perspective; the latter genre tends to be by far the better of the two, with writers like Walter Russel Mead, Peter Berger, David Brooks, and Charles Krauthammer furnishing consistently readable columns for the more grammatically snobby among us.

However, it's beyond refreshing to be getting back into (English language) literature mode of late. (There's been plenty of French literature, which is fun in its own right: my current read in that language is Monsieur Larose, est-il l'assassin, a wonderfully vocabulary-and-slang rich psychological parody of the detective novel by one of Belgium's greats, Fernand Crommelynck.) Of course, getting back into the English stuff has required that I reconcile myself with the (rather abhorrent)  idea of "reading books online." I'm not a fan for several reasons, not restricted to my Bourgeois bias in favor of the smell of paper and the palpable roughness of its surface (I tell you, it makes a difference, seeing the way the ink has sunk into the slightly porous pages, rendering the letters coarser, individualizing them in a way you don't get onscreen). Reading something on a laptop also  a.) restricts your movement to places with an (accessible) wireless connection, b.) kind of wears on your eyes after a while, and c.) makes the reading feel cursory. However, it's not like there are English used-book stores everywhere around here, and I'm not about to buy any book that I don't love for full price at one of the many Barnes and Nobles-like establishments in the city. Admittedly, "not everywhere" and "unavailable" are two very different things: I could find the used English books if I wanted to, but motivation is lacking, since I then face the problem of transporting them back to the States.

Fortunately, I did bring one American novel, Saul Bellow's The Victim, along with me; I've been hoarding it up for the "ideal moment" as stingily as I used to hoard up Easter candy as a child. With the end of the semester now in sight, I've begun it, but am still reading it very slowly, preferring to savor it in the park during those rare afternoons when it is actually not raining. It's a good book so far, though I'm loathe to judge before having finished the story. The writing, at any rate, is elegant--simple in the best of senses, and adept at conveying and making realistic an emotional state (chez the main character) that could be easily overwrought or absurd. The violence of the "antagonist's" emotion and the sense of self-disgust that begins to pervade the protagonist's  mindset about halfway through the novel reminds me a lot of Dostoevsky. In fact, I'd have to say it's one of the most thoroughly Dostoevskian post-Dostoevsky works I've encountered. The notable difference here is that the most "Dostoevskian" character is in fact not the protagonist, but someone who's set himself up to work on the protagonist and force the poor guy to share (penitentially, as it were) in his own sentiments of self-loathing.

My more recent online reading (after an excellent short story by Edith Pearlman, available at Commentary magazine) has been Kate Chopin's Awakening. Once again, I'm only about halfway through and thus unable to comment on the story itself. The writing, however, is lovely; not quite Virginia Woolf lovely, but certainly lovely enough to lure the reader into the romanticism of Old Louisiana even as the plot remains somewhat critically aloof of the society it describes. Should be interesting to see how it concludes.

Apropos of little, I've also been reading a lot of Foucault and Hume lately. Mostly for my own "edification" (if one can say "edifying" of either one with a straight face--I am doubtful). Hume I'm rereading mostly out of interest (causality is a continually fascinating topic). However, Foucault's discussions of the discourse of power inherent in any formulation of history and of the way that history itself shapes notions of ethics is certainly relevant to my studies regarding the development of national identities and nationalism (and the ways the different historical circumstances of the Middle East makes certain presuppositions about those societies frankly absurd).

19 April, 2012

Feminism, Wages, and How Protest Movements Support "The Man"

I guess I'm kind of a feminist. I'm an educated woman living in the 21st century. I have a B.A., I'm enrolled in a Master's program, I've spent a year in Belgium on a Fulbright grant. I intend to have a career. I hate movies and books with weak, fainting heroines. I get angry when I hear about Muslim women being stoned to death at the mere accusation of "impurity," and I find it repulsive that until 1981 in Italy, a “crime of honor”—killing your wife for being unfaithful or your sister for having premarital sex—could be treated as a lesser offense than other murders (and that the attitudes allowing for that law seem to have been operative as late as 2007--though I don't know the details of the case).

But then again, maybe I'm not. Not a feminist, that is. It all depends, really, on what you want the term to mean, and as I've gotten older I've come to realize more and more that like most labels in contemporary life ("capitalist," "conservative," "liberal," "environmentalist"), the term is wildly ambiguous. That ambiguity is one of the more frustrating aspects of the contemporary experience; how can you expect to have a fruitful, rational discussion about, say, political positions, with anyone when the terms "conservative," "Tea Party," "liberal," "progressive," and so on all need to be painstakingly redefined before the conversation can even begin?

See, my gut instinct is to recoil from the term "feminist" as though it were the verbal equivalent of a big, hairy wolf spider (the worst kind, barring tarantulas). That's because when I hear the word, I immediately envision State Representatives at the Governor's mansion scribbling the words "Girl Power" in bubble letters on a white board within a border of bloated, magic-marker flowers. I recall sitting around in circles at Girl Scouts, weaving and painting flower pots while being encouraged to talk about "feelings"--because apparently "Girl Power" means casting off boyish things, such as actual fun (camping, hiking, canoeing -- isn't that what scouting should be about?). I also remember heartily despising it all. This sort of feminism (and its proponents) appeared rather stupid...even to a second or third grader. I also despise several positions that by many are considered staples of feminism:  most importantly pro-abortion-ism. (I disagree with the typical secular feminist positions on contraception and the "bias against women" evidenced by an all-male priesthood, but I don't despise them, because for those lacking the proper theological background they're not without a logic of their own.) I certainly despise the idea that to be a strong woman, in charge of your own body, you need to have a "right" to kill babies--half of whom are, of course, future women. (Whatever happened to Madeleine Albright's "I have always said, there is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women"? Ah the hypocrisy.)

But I'm not primarily writing to complain about bad childhood experiences with a Spice Girls-inspired girl power doctrine, nor to rant about our cultural blindness to "murders of convenience." I'm writing because of this article recently published in the Atlantic. The issue it treats, that of the oft-cited income disparity between men and women, is one about which I have mixed feelings.

Now, speaking from my experience alone, the idea that women are discriminated against appears more than a little ridiculous. I've definitely grown up in a time, place, and social circle that tends to a.) see women, especially young women, as much more dependable and therefore job-worthy than guys of the same age, and b.) explicitly privileges women in many of the ways that the author of the above piece mentions. I know that I've had greater access to scholarships than many of my male peers, and I've sensed in more than one college class (even at a school as conservative as the University of Dallas) a certain bias towards female students (in that my reasons for being late or missing a class were often given more credence than a guy's equally valid ones). To an achievement-oriented personality, this privileged position can actually chafe a bit. I want to achieve things because I achieve them, not because of my gender. It's vaguely humiliating to imagine that some of what I've accomplished has been enabled by the fact that I was born a woman, and the mere possibility lessens the amount of satisfaction I find in having accomplished "this much." I look at the demographics of the Fulbright grantees in Belgium (one guy, eight girls), for instance, and have to wonder whether, as a male student from UD, I would have won the position.

The article above also brings up the highly misleading quality of statistics. It's another pet peeve of mine that people tend to put so much faith in one of the most inexcusable instances of reason-from-instantiation of which I can conceive (I hold a grudge against Auguste Comte for essentially founding the social sciences on this basis. Adolphe Quetelet was at least as responsible though). I've already given a few examples in this blog--Ron Paul can be read as a pro-abortion radical if you take certain votes out of context, much as Rick Santorum can be read as a raving progressive. If you only poll in the bluest of the blue states, the "pro-life" movement appears to be a fringe crusade; if you look at the unemployment numbers in the states without realizing that they account for only a fraction of the actually unemployed, our economy doesn't look so bad. Seventy-seven cents to the dollar looks like a pretty bad statistic. Maybe it is. Maybe women really are still secretly being discriminated against in a way that I've never had an opportunity to see. I admit: that probably is the root of some portion of the disparity.

The real question though, is "is gender-based discrimination a sufficient causal explanation for the wage disparity between men and women?" While the answer may or may not be as cut and dry as Marty Nemko suggests, it seems to me that there are plenty of other possible explanations for this "hard evidence that women are still subject to widespread discrimination." One bit of information that I found particularly interesting is summarized in a table reporting wage disparity in relation to age (about a third of the way down on this page).  Essentially, we see here that the "77%" statistic is by no means a constant as people age. At my age and slightly older, women's earnings are very close to equivalent with men's: nearly 93%. The percentage drops at a fairly constant rate until it comes to women's earnings after age 65, at which point it rises slightly. To some, this would indicate one thing and one thing only: women's status in the workforce is improving, if slowly; the greater wage disparity between older men and older women indicates that when these women were entering the workforce, they faced greater discrimination and enjoyed less opportunity for advancement than did their male peers. This might indeed explain some of the gap. There's another rather important point to consider though. What about all the women who take time off to raise children between the ages of, say, twenty three and forty? What about all of those who prefer to hold a part-time position while their children are still young? Now, I'm not saying that the wage disparity is explained by averaging the earnings of working women with the lack thereof of non-working women (or the low ones of the part-time employees): these statistics are only looking at full time employees, obviously. No, what I'd like people to consider is the very very basic question "how do people get raises?" From what I understand, you tend to get bumped up to a higher pay rank after you've worked in a place for a long time. Higher levels of experience also count for a lot when you're applying to a higher-paying job. Think of what that does to wages: for the men (and women) who remain in their careers long-term, wages rise gradually, almost inevitably with time. If you're returning to the full-time workforce after several (or more)  years away from it, or of only part time involvement, of course you won't be making as much. It's a fairly simple observation, and one that certainly holds true at least to some extent. Whether it can account for the entirety of the wage gap is another story. It probably can't.

Another, oft-cited point is that women and men tend to make different choices regarding their type of employment. Women often choose to find work in the education profession (especially elementary school), in secretarial positions, as nurses rather than doctors and as dental hygienists rather than dentists. It's not that they can't handle the higher levels of education and experience required of say, college professors (though that's by no means a male dominated field), CEOs, doctors, or dentists. But if you are a woman who does want a family, you're facing essentially the same dilemma that many career women in their twenties face: a family or a high-powered job/extra education? When people point out that men tend to earn more in many of these traditionally female-dominated careers, I have to wonder how much of that is sexism and how much of it might be a.) encouragement (male elementary school teachers are unfortunately hard to come by), or b.) if a man is going to choose such a profession, it's probably because he's either unusually good at it or because it's a higher-paying position in the first place: you're more likely to find a man working as a secretary for a CEO than a man working as the secretary at your local dentist's office.

Now, one may argue of course that women shouldn't have to choose between family and a great career. They should be able to have it all. Society should help them with childcare so that they can go ahead and get that education, so that they can grab that promotion. Maybe one would be correct. I know that, for myself I can't help at least sympathizing with the frustration, only because, as already mentioned, I'm achievement-oriented and want a career. And a family.

I also want to be the world's greatest mountaineer, a black belt in every variety of martial arts, a marathon runner, an expert in botany and a much better pianist.

Sometimes we have to choose between "wants."

Maybe there is still gender discrimination out there in the US. There certainly is in the rest of the world. But see, what really gets me riled up about the whole gender inequality debate is the way it privileges a certain definition of "success" and "worth" over any other. The same goes for most formulations of the race debate. And the social class debate. We've gotten so used to seeing success and worth in purely economic terms that even those who rail against "corporate America and its amorality" are still using the same definitions to give an account of what makes life worth living. (That's my biggest problem with Marxism too, incidentally.) How is it liberating to argue that what we need to do to destroy the monopoly of big business and the allure of excessive wealth is to ensure that those who by some standards don't have it, get it? Women are only really liberated if they are just as interested as men in high-powered careers (because if they're not, the only possible explanation is that the male-dominated hierarchy has been brainwashing them from infancy to be submissive). They're only liberated if they're willing to put academia and a paycheck above family and friends.

So, the best way to be a feminist is to encourage women to become the worst possible version of the (male) WASP stereotype? Remind me again why it's bad to want children? Oh, right, because they get in the way of education/career. Why is education/career better than children? Because it just is! Because we (feminists) say so. Because if you think otherwise, you must be conforming.

As I already said, and as is probably fairly evident from this blog, I'm the last person to start devaluing education. Or careers. And the satire in the above paragraph is, like all satire exaggerated. The feminist movement has, over the past hundred and fifty years or so, accomplished a lot of good, in my opinion. And most individual feminists are probably (especially now) willing to admit that children are not an inherently bad thing and may even be to some extent desirable. Nonetheless, even that mild version of feminism buys into the pervasive rhetoric of money-as-power, and degree-pursuant education as the primary worthy achievement. Insofar as it does that, feminism is useless. It's useless because it can't change anything fundamental; it can only turn the tables and make men the underdogs.

A truly counter-cultural feminism, one that would really stick it to the proverbial man, would be one that celebrated all of a woman's accomplishments as having their proper dignity. One that recognized the responsibility of caring for a human person as at least as challenging, exciting, and heroic a enterprise as that of starting a business or being granted a Ph.D.

And hey, let's not forget that that sort of cultural revolution would do an awful lot to get men on board with the child-raising. Right now we say "women should have what you have because it's worth more; get ye to the family and feed the kids." So the family remains the item of lesser importance and the men relegated to its care grow to resent it. Smart, smart move.

Note: After writing this, I remembered that I also wanted to relate our society's broken value system to our tendency to consider certain jobs as "more worthwhile" than others. What annoys me the most, for fairly obvious reasons, is the way we cast aspersions on those in the teaching profession, especially elementary and middle school educators. There are plenty of bad teachers out there, which is unfortunate. But there's nothing about the profession itself that warrants the denigration it receives. In point of fact, education is one of the most influential professions out there, and "underachieving" female teachers are in a position to shape the way the CEO's of tomorrow think. (Which is, of course, a fantastic reason to give the profession a little more respect and stop glutting it with people who can barely do basic math, but that's another point entirely.)