Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Hillary Lesson

One recent morning, as my 4-year-old daughter and I strolled to our favorite diner, she pointed to a bumper sticker plastered on a mailbox. A yellow, viraginous caricature of Hillary Clinton leered out from a black background. Big block letters proclaimed, “The wicked witch of the East is alive and living in New York"...Look, Mama,” she said. “That’s Hillary. What does it say?”...I wondered what to tell her — not only at this moment, but in years to come...Voting against Clinton does not make a person sexist — there are other reasons to reject her. But contemplating the “Life’s a Bitch, Don’t Vote for One” T-shirts, the stainless-steel-thighed Hillary nutcrackers, the comparison to the bunny-boiling Alex Forrest of “Fatal Attraction,” I struggle over how, when — even whether — to talk to girls truthfully about women and power.

...Right now, my daughter doesn’t know about the obstacles she may face someday, and I’m not sure of the wisdom of girding her in advance...The same quandary crops up with older girls. They are sports stars, yearbook editors, valedictorians. We have assured them the world is theirs, and they have no reason to disbelieve us. Like Clinton, our daughters are no victims. And yet, all is not quite well...Not when a woman who runs for office is accused of harboring a “testicle lockbox.” Clinton, whatever else she may be, has become a reflection, a freeze frame of the complications and contradictions of female success. Her bid for the White House has embodied both the possibilities we never imagined for our daughters — shattering not just the glass ceiling but the glass stratosphere — and the vitriol that attaining them can provoke. Both are real; so Godspeed, girls.

My daughter is older, in fact in college. I'm no fanatic (I hope): I got her Barbies, but looking through discarded junk in the attic realized that I'd given her pastel-colored, fully-fitted girls' toolboxes at least two Christmases running. She didn't care for the tools--or the Barbies.

My daughter and her friends are smart girls, ambitious girls who loaded their resumes with 4.0+ high school GPAs and extra-curricular activities, and who brought hoards of AP credits to college. I have students like that too. They'll all do well, I think: things have changed dramatically since I was their age. I'm not all that worried about the figures cited in this article about the dearth of women at the very top either:

[W]hile women make up 48 percent of new lawyers (and have hovered in that range for around a decade), the percentage of women who are law partners at major firms remains stuck at a pitiful 18.

I never wanted that kind of job. If I were a lawyer I'd want to be something more along the lines of Peter Kingdom operating a cozy little practice in a small town. I have a suspicion that most men who are partners in major law firms don't particularly want the job either, or rather that they're driven by the stick rather than the carrot. For men in management and the professions there's more pressure to get on the fast track and keep running, fewer opportunities to have a balanced life and more social opprobrium for what the world sees as a stalled career.

I was driven more by the stick than by the carrot myself. I wasn't one of those smart, ambitious high school girls cranking GPA and extra-curricular activities. I wasn't even planning to go to college until, after high school and a spell of clerical work, I realized what the alternatives were for women. It was fear, screaming terror of being stuck in a boring women's job, a job that was physically confining or involved endless repetition or contact with the public, that drove me through college, through grad school, to the PhD and tenure.

I was scared out of my wits, and that was probably a good thing. If I were a boy, given my miserable academic performance I would have been shunted onto the "vocational" track. After high school I would have gotten a tolerable blue-collar job and stuck with it. I don't mind physical work or getting dirty, and I love doing anything mechanical. I would have stuck with it and been reasonably happy, though not nearly as happy as I am in my profession, a career I pursued largely because I was scared out of my wits, scared of getting stuck doing a repetitious, sedentary job where there was nothing to show at the end of the day, where every day was like a long plane trip.

I still worry about those counterfactuals, possibly because of my interest in modal logic and sympathy for David Lewis' views about possible worlds. I stew about the dearth of tolerable fallback positions for women who don't manage to catch the brass ring, to get into management or the professions, and the fact that women by and large still can't get tolerable "bad" jobs--as mobile carpet-cleaners, gardeners, housepainters or tow-truck drivers--or skilled blue-collar jobs as mechanics, plumbers or carpenters. I get no sympathy from male colleagues--these are the jobs that they went to school to avoid.

No one, for that matter, including my fellow-feminists take me seriously: they can imagine wanting to make partner in major law firms but can't imagine being reasonably happy as plumbers and, in any case, don't seem to understand that all "bad" jobs are not the same. There's some interest in getting better wages for pink-collar workers but little or no interest ending sex-segregation at the lower end of the labor market. They take it as a given that working class women's concentration in "caring, catering, cashiering and clerical work" is a matter of choice.

And it is. But it's not always, or I suspect even usually, a reflection of ceteris paribus preferences. Women know, without even formulating that knowledge to themselves, that there is a wide range of jobs for which you just don't apply. You'll feel funny applying, the guy (or woman!) who takes your application will think you made a mistake, that you're trying to make some feminist statement or that you're just weird, and you won't get the job anyway. And if women consider the possibility they know that even if they get "non-traditional" jobs, they're not going to have the easy camaraderie with mates that guys can take for granted, which they would have working at conventional women's jobs.

But maybe feminism (at least as I understand it) will trickle down. Here I think Hillary may even have made a difference. After all the slicing and dicing of the electorate that showed her appeal was disproportionately to older, less educated, white voters it was working class women who were her base. In West Virginia she won the majority of men but the overwhelming majority of women. Young professional women, don't see themselves as having problems. The girls who got those 4.0+ high school GPAs, went to college and then got law degrees or MBAs know that they can get the same kinds of jobs as their male counterparts, and that if they don't make partner or get into the upper echelons of management, it will be by choice. Working class women know that they can't get the same jobs as their male counterparts, that not everyone can get a law degree or an MBA, and that their daughters will certainly have to spend most of their adult lives in the labor force.

It's too early now to look at the sexism that Hillary's campaign flushed out because the campaign is ongoing, and there's enormous anger and resentment--not primarily misogynistic either: people are sick of the Clintons' dirty tricks. But when this is over and Obama is safely installed in the White House, we will look back and reflect on what this whole business has brought to light. That, in any case, is my next book.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Church Times - Never lonelier, never more blessed

Who's Minding the Store?

Church Times - Never lonelier, never more blessed

Why is sexuality such a big issue?

First of all, I think it shouldn’t be such a big issue. For all kinds of complicated reasons, it has been raised to a level higher than it deserves. We should be talking about the gospel, feeding the poor, caring for the HIV-infected, solving the ecological crisis.

The Church most certainly should not be talking about feeding the poor, caring for the HIV-infected, solving the ecological crisis--or about sexuality. It should be talking about the doctrine of the Trinity, the Real Presence doctrine and post-mortem survival, about liturgy and sacred music, about how to drum up business for the church, maintain buildings and keep services going. Politicians and NGO-administrators should be talking about feeding the poor; doctors, nurses and epidemologists should be talking about caring for the HIV-infected; scientists should be talking about the ecological crisis.

The whole business of the Church is doing church. Once the clergy were virtually co-extensive with the educated professional class. Now they are not. There are secular experts who have taken over all the secular tasks that once fell to clergy by default, including professional ethicists who do ethics. But still these priests have the arrogance to imagine that they are qualified to talk about everyone else's business and the vanity to imagine that people will take them seriously. The Church is no more qualified to contribute to a solution to the ecological crisis than it is to do dentistry or plumbing.

Meanwhile, as these priests spend their time in bull sessions discussing all the world's problems, church buildings are being sold off, becoming derelict and being demolished, and in the US, the last bastion of religiousity in the First World, secularism is proceeding apace: the fastest growing "religious group" in the US is the unchurched. No one's minding the store. And the problem, as the old poster had it, is obvious: the priests who run the Church don't believe in God, or think that religion is either important or interesting. Or maybe more aptly, they think they're too important to do religion.

I went on a field trip to a Hindu temple in Los Angeles a few years ago for a course I was taking in Asian Spirituality. The president of the temple was a layman, predictably an engineer with a dozen or two pens in his shirt pocket. He showed us around and introduced us to the priests, whose job I gathered was strictly liturgical and janitorial: they maintained the facility, washed and dressed the idols, and did pujas. There was a menu of pujas on the wall, with prices: you paid your money and got your puja. As far as I could see these priests didn't think they had anything to say about solving the ecological crisis or imagine that anyone cared about their views on much of anything. Their job was menial: they were servants.

Christian clergy claim to regard themselves as servants too: they make a fuss about washing people's feet on Maundy Thursday. Of course, they don't believe it. They regard themselves as professionals, entitled to "professional-level" salaries, qualified to exercise leadership, to teach and to set us straight about everything from global warming to sexuality. So the outcome should hardly be a surprise: the Church flourishes, for the time being, in circumstances comparable to the Dark Ages, where the clergy are a relatively educated semi-elite amongst clueless peasants--in the Third World and in the American working class. Educated people drop out, not because Christianity is intellectually bankrupt but because they do not see any reason why they should look to the Church for wisdom or guidance.

I don't mind it so much that they're arrogant jackasses: who has ever listened to them? What I mind is that they're not minding the store, that they are not committed to maintaining the buildings and doing the pujas to suit us.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Charlie Brooker on existential angst | Comment is free | The Guardian

Where have all the mystics gone?

Charlie Brooker on existential angst | Comment is free | The Guardian: "Occasionally, late at night, while trying to sleep and failing...I'm aware of my entire body, the entire world, and the whole of reality itself. It's like waking from a dream, or a light going on, or a giant 'YOU ARE HERE' sign appearing in the sky. The mere fact that I'm actually real and actually breathing suddenly hits me in the head with a thwack. It leaves me giddy. It causes a brief surge of clammy, bubbling anxiety, like the opening stages of a panic attack. The moment soon passes, but while it lasts it's strangely terrifying. I asked around and discovered to my that relief I'm not the only one. Many of my friends have experienced something similar and have been equally spooked."

So far there are 166 comments on this piece, many by people describing various sorts of extraordinary experiences. Most don't have the language to describe their experiences and can't make sense of them. A few talk about existential angst. Not a one even suggests that these are the sorts of experiences which religious believers understand in religious terms.

Habitues on the Guardian's Comment is Free board have certainly heard of religion. Most are agin' it and threads on a number of topics are full of witticisms about flying spaghetti monsters and sky pixies. I should have expected at least a few derogatory remarks to the effect that some people in the bad old days might have described that sense of thrill and panic as the experience of the Mysterium Tremendum ("but of course we know better") or gone off on rants about how evil priests latched onto these experiences to persuade the gullible peasantry that the flying spaghetti monster was out to get them. But no one who's commented so far even seems to have made the connection between experiences like this and religious belief or practice.

What is depressing is not that these people are not religious believers or even that many are actively hostile to religious belief and practice, but that it simply doesn't occur to them that religion has, or ever had, any connection to such spooky, uncanny, scary or thrilling experiences. And that is the fault of the Church--the utter failure to get it across that enabling people to get these experiences and providing the language to describe them is part of the package, in fact (I believe) the most important part of the package.

Looking at the Church as it is it's no wonder that people don't get it. Look, and what do you see: a jolly little show, clean and boring, where people chat and shake hands, kiddies process in with their crafts projects, there's some singing, and an address in which the priest rehearses some old folk tales and tells people to be nice. What are they getting out of it? They go there to meet like-minded people: dull, puritanical people whose chief interest in life is stopping other people from having fun. But why would anyone want to go to such a thing in the first place? It would be like going to an exceptionally dull awards ceremony every week.

It's detestable: the Church turned itself into this, because it was embarrassed about metaphysics and imagined that this is the sort of crap people wanted. Christianity is a mystery religion--the mystery cult that happened to beat out Mithras and even more remarkably Isis. By its very origin, nature and essence it is supposed to be doing is delivering ecstatic mystical experiences and promising an eternity of the same for initiates. Around that there is a picturesque myth suitable for iconography. That is a mystery religion. The Church repudiated that, out of embarrassment and in the interests of pandering to a secular clientele. Of course they wouldn't really want that--they really want "community," the opportunity to feel useful, consolation, busywork...

And it was so unnecessary. If what they thought was that people wanted social contact and various other secular goods they could have simply done these things outside of the service. But they couldn't leave it at that. They extracted every bit of the numinous that they could squeeze out of the liturgy.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Mr. Wright

I've been reading a lot about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright lately. The discussions invariably muddle two issues: (1) Wright's angry denunciation of US foreign and domestic policy and (2) Wright's arguments for multiculturalism. I have no problem with his denunciations and anger. Wright, and black Americans generally, have a right to be angry. The history of slavery, segregation, exclusion, violence against black people and, even though things have improved, on going discrimination is something all Americans should be angry about. I agree with Wright's remarks about the "US of KKK"; I agree with "God damn America." Our chickens have indeed come home to roost. This is classic, powerful preaching in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets and I applaud it.

It is his suggestion that black kids and white kids think differently, his mythical afro-centric history, and his identity politics that are objectionable. I argue against this version of multiculturalism in my book The Multiculturalist Mystique: The Liberal Case Against Diversity which is now at last available at

Assimilation gets a bad name first, because when many, perhaps most people talk about "assimilation" they don't really mean it. The notorious case was Australia's "assimilation" policy for its aboriginal people. When it was implemented at least assimilation didn't mean that Aborigines would were supposed to join the world of white Australians as full, equal members. It meant that Aborigines were to be trained up as farm laborers and domestic servants, and learn enough English to take orders. When I say assimilation, I don't mean that.

Secondly, in the US and other receiving countries, for many of the children and grandchildren of immigrants, assimilation de facto means assimilation to what Alejandro Portes calls a "rainbow underclass." There's a good discussion of this in his book Legacies: I don't mean that either.

When I say assimilation I mean assimilation: acculturation and acceptance, as first class, equal citizens, sharing a common culture with other citizens, without any special obligation to identify with ancestral cultures defined by bloodlines.

Assimilation today, assimilation tomorrow, assimilation forever!