Tuesday, 31 March 2009

It's them islands over there! Them's the ones!

It was only a matter of time before the long finger pointing from the global North in the midst of the financial crisis extended outward towards the Caribbean. Much is now being made of the role tax havens have played in this economic depression, and the Obama administration is being joined by its European counterparts in stamping out "harmful tax competition", with the Cayman Islands featuring high on the US's hit list. While Obama's laudable come-in-and-clean-up attitude has undone many of the foolish and frankly unconscionable practices of his predecessor's 8-year term in office, he has to take some responsibility for the facts not only that George W Bush halted the OECD plan to ferret out secrecy jurisdictions at the beginning of his term, so sending these economies a very clear message of non-pursuance, but that small island states have increasingly been pressured to implement "more competitive tax policies" in order to grow their financial services' sectors. So while it may be desirable to uncover the tax practices and offshore destinations that have removed a large part of the tax burden from the wealthiest citizens of the US and Europe, and to have a small, convenient scapegoat in the South at whom to point the finger, we need to consider the repercussions of such an immediate blow to some of our smaller island economies.

Now one might argue that each territory has its own responsibility for how they structure their outward-facing industries, and that the onus is on developing nations to diversify their economies away from products that are so wholly subject to the whims of larger countries. But we all know the politics of the international financial architecture, and a big voice from a small territory is still just a squeak in the grand scheme of things.

For years, Caribbean countries have been doing the rating agency dance - nipping and tucking their financial practices in order to avoid the damning "inhospitable business environment" label of the S&Ps and the Moodys. And for as many years, the haves of the North has been benefiting from the very practices they now seek to condemn. To be fair, Obama has always been ideologically in favour of a Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act, which in itself is not undesirable, but whose implementation and economic fallout for the developing world have to be fairly weighed before ploughing full steam ahead.

And let us not be fooled that "more compliant" territories like Barbados are exempt from scrutiny simply because we employ a silly little thing called a Tax Information Exchange Agreement (TIEA). TIEAs are quite close to useless, since the requesting body has to know what information it's looking for in order to request that information. Wrongdoing can only be uncovered if specific wrongdoing is suspected. So TIEAs aren't fooling anyone, least of all the big sticks that are going to be coming poking around in the affairs of small, Caribbean offshore financial centres. Negotiation (and by this I mean real negotiation rather than economic threats) of new terms for TIEAs would be one possible, measured advance towards the elimination of tax haven abuse.

I have always been uneasy about the irony of the offshore financial centre: we provide the means by which richer nations can increase the global inequality that maintains us as essentially colonies to their empires. So I am not at all opposed to increased regulation that is introduced in a way that does not leave developing nations disadvantaged and stripped of fundamental sources of income. What I am not in favour of is the demonization of these nations at a time when it is convenient to pass the buck - for governments to say "No it wasn't us, it was the bankers," and for financial institutions to say "No it wasn't us, it was the evil island economies." Seriously? Of these players, with whom does the majority of power disproportionately lie? You can argue over whether it's the government or the finance industry, but you for damn sure can't say it's Caribbean economies. It's not that tax havens have not contributed in some measure to the poor regulation that led to economic collapse, but who were their beneficiaries and originators? Let's keep things in perspective, and acknowledge that when you ask the right questions, the fingers are going to point right back in the opposite direction.

Our "let's see what they hand us" approach to doing business with the world's economic superpowers is not going to cut it this time around. (Did anyone notice how the region's grand policy idea for a response to the crisis was to beg for more money? That's some inspired economics right there!) We're going to have to do our homework, get it together and strongly represent our interests.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Note to future self: nopales are never delicious

In one of my moments of silly idleness breaks from a hectic and wildly exciting life, I came across FutureMe.org, a website that allows you to send a message to your future self.

I can think of several uses for this handy little tool (or at least I could if I turned my brain on today. So far, it seems not to be cooperating), including a portal for reminders of lessons that you've learnt and want to remember when confronted with similar situations. It would certainly have come in handy for me when I was trying to end a particularly toxic relationship with a man whose manipulation arsenal included the manoeuvres of pretending he hadn't heard the "we're through" from a previous conversation, and then showing up for the regular movie night with a tape (yes I'm old) and candy while you blink and wonder if you'd dreamt the whole ordeal the night before; or trying to distract you from what he knew was the impending breakup conversation with news of some manufactured crisis: "Do you remember Charles who came with us to the grocery store that one time and didn't have enough money for cheese and we had to buy it for him? Well his mother's neighbour's dog stepped on a nail at the airport and was detained by security and Charles had to borrow the car to get her out but when he was driving into the airport ran over one of the nails too and now I have to go get them all with just my bicycle!"

So after I had had enough of all this, I decided to make breakup reminder posters. So that the next time he revealed his true asswipey self - which he inevitably did since he was made of pure, 100% unfiltered asswipe - I made a large poster that said "BOB (let's call him Bob) IS A ****! BREAK UP WITH HIM NOW!" and stuck it above my bed. And since I'm hapless before self-imposed instructions and to-do lists, it worked. And Bob was no more.

Of course, if I had had Futureme.org, the whole process could have been considerably more labour-saving and private, and Bob would not have had to see the actual poster. (You are not allowed to feel sorry for Bob. Bob was a ****, remember?)

So while I coax my brain over the Monday lag, regale me with stories of how you could have used or would use Furtureme.org. (By the way, the title refers to my apparent inability to remember that I do not like nopales and never will. As much as I love my Mexican sistren that I've spent so much time with, stop trying to feed me that thing. It is cactus and tastes like it.) What do you want the future you to learn or know or remember? I await your brilliance.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Quick! Flush the mauby!

Well now I've seen it all. Arrest on suspicion of mauby possession?
Police have issued an "unreserved apology" to a musician who was wrongly arrested at gunpoint on suspicion of owning potential bomb-making materials. He said police also pointed guns at his partner and their 12-year-old daughter who were at home at the time. He was arrested on suspicion of "possessing materials likely to be used for making explosives". Police told him there was a list of "suspicious items" which were found at the music studio including a broken guitar, a broken tape machine and a West Indian non-alcoholic drink called mauby found in a fridge.

Having run out of bogus but socially acceptable reasons to persecute immigrants, we've now turned to the downright stupid and bizarre. I guess we're all supposed to drink only PG Tips. Learn the language, drink the beverage, and get out of here with your backwoods, voodoo concoctions.

Real Women, Fake (White) Noses

I haven't so far been very impressed by the exploits of Coleen McLoughlin Rooney (she seems to go by both names separately) in Coleen's Real Women. (Are we not meant to notice the Photoshopping in the promo pic?) The premise of the show is that each week, Coleen - who became famous for marrying footballer Wayne Rooney and then carving out her own career as a writer, model, businesswoman and wearer of expensive clothes - does her own casting calls to find 'real women' who will compete with career models for high-profile modelling contracts or spokesmodel positions. As you'll guess from the name of the show, it's based on the notion that there are in fact beautiful, non-model women walking British streets who are just as appealing as and perhaps more representative of certain brand philosophies than your typical (UK) size 4 model. Ignoring the annoyingly over-used and disingenuous 'real women' caption (which implies that smaller women are either Barbies come alive or figments of our imagination), I was willing to give the show a chance, mainly because I like (the media image of) Coleen, who seemed confident, not very far up her own trasero and earnest in her quest to make everyday beauty more visible.

Except, I don't think she's doing that well. She does find gorgeous women of all sizes, but the women who ultimately win the contracts are not too far off from the model industry standard of beauty. I've also found it curious that one of Coleen's candidates always secures the job, but let's assume that I'm willing to suspend disbelief concerning that, and just go along with the idea that Coleen is just so convincing and pioneering, that all of a sudden these industry professionals see the light and are lured to the fat side. The thing is, they aren't really lured to the fat side. If anything, they're lured to the just as conventionally beautiful and carrying a little water weight side.

But the show fails in other ways, and that failure could not be more evident than in last night's re-aired episode, where Coleen and her assistant were trying to satisfy a Superdrug spokesmodel brief in Birmingham. As usual, they found some really striking women and narrowed them down to the three who would be put forward for the job, my favourite of whom was Cara, the biracial daughter of a Black, Jamaican man and White, Belgian woman. I was drawn to her serenity: I felt that if she were on a Superdrug billboard, she would probably catch my eye.

So after all the show's preamble about embracing your own height, size, unique features and personality, Coleen's casting expert Camilla then promptly spends the entire episode registering her discomfort with Cara's wide nose, and agonizing over the ways in which they might make her nose appear more narrow. (She's also concerned, but considerably less so, that Alana looks too old and Liz seems to lack confidence.) She consults the photographer about the angles he'll use to diminish her gargantuan nose, and at one point has what resembles a nose intervention with Cara, confronting her about the 'problem' and reassuring her that they'll do whatever they can to hide her big, fat, black nose. At one point during Cara's shoot, Camilla, smiling and relieved, tells her, "Your nose looks beautiful!" which, given the woman's ethnic heritage, can only mean "Don't worry...it hardly looks black at all!" Way to help women embrace their features. Cara, meanwhile, seems a little nonplussed by the nose debate. When pressed about what abuse she suffers because of her clearly inadequate nose, she confesses that her husband says she has a 'pig snout'. (Yeah...you might want to trade him in for a less asswipey model.) Just for your own reference, here's Cara:




















I guess it's ok to be fat, but not too fat, short but not too short, and black but not too black. If you can have dark enough skin to make their campaign seem edgy and inclusive, but white enough features to not scare off the consumers with your big, black nose, then you're a real woman.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Institutionalized sexism in the Metropolitan Police Service gave rapists freedom to terrorize women

Two very high-profile, recent sexual assault cases have uncovered the immense failings of the Metropolitan Police in investigating and prosecuting rape. Two weeks ago, John Worboys was found guilty of 19 charges of drugging and sexually assaulting 12 female passengers, including one case of rape, and is thought to have attacked more than 500 women during his 13-year career as a licensed taxi driver.Worboys "was arrested by police in the summer of 2007 but was freed to attack scores more women, at least 30 while he was on bail." The case triggered an internal review by Scotland Yard, which found that the Metropolitan police failed to investigate dozens of rape allegations because officers did not record them as criminal offences. In the Worboys case, one of the victims was told by a police officer to "fuck off, black-cab drivers don't do that sort of thing".

In a more recent case, Kirk Reid was convicted yesterday of 2 counts of rape, 3 of assault by penetration and 21 indecent assaults. It emerged during his trial that
He had been identified as a suspect for a series of sex attacks in 2004 and crossed the police radar at least 12 times, but no one pursued inquiries into him. He went on to attack at least 20 women.
While most of these newspaper accounts treat the issue as one of bureaucratic failing from the perspective of the Metropolitan police, who sound duly apologetic but hardly outraged, another story in the Guardian follows the experience of Rebecca, a victim of rape who at the time was 15 years old. After her mother noticed her constantly crying, taking several baths a day, not sleeping and having nightmares, she told her mother that she had been raped and the two filed a complaint.

But as time went on mother and daughter became increasingly concerned that no arrest had been made. This was despite the fact that officers had been given a mobile phone number, address and car registration details for the alleged attacker.

Unknown to them, this was not the only failure. No attempt was made to obtain forensic evidence from the flat where Rebecca claimed she had been raped. No one went to the local shop where she had gone in a distressed state afterwards, and although both her mobile phone and the man's were sent away for examination, the wrong tests were carried out. By the time this mistake was recognised it was too late to obtain the correct information.

The defendant was found not guilty. [Following emphasis mine]:

Earlier this month it became clear just why the case had floundered. Having made a complaint about the police handling of the investigation, a damning internal inquiry revealed a string of mistakes that had been made by the inadequately supervised, overburdened and untrained police constable who was left - in breach of the Metropolitan police's own rules - to handle it. This showed that there weren't enough detectives in the elite Sapphire sex crimes unit; in fact, the unit's then manager was pleading with her superiors for more staff, pointing out that the car crime, burglary and robbery teams all had more detectives. Another senior officer in the Sapphire unit told the inquiry that it was "not at all" a priority for management, claiming the motor vehicle crime team had greater priority.

There can be no clearer statement on the way women are valued than the fact that the safety of cars is prioritized above the safety of women.

The [rape] conviction rate remains at a dismal 6.5%, compared with a figure of 34% for criminal cases in general. The government estimates that between 75% and 95% of rapes are never reported to the police, but of those that are, only a quarter end up in court, and complaints persist that women are not being taken seriously, witnesses are not being interviewed and potential evidence is going uncollected.

Representatives of Women Against Rape, which worked alongside Rebecca and her mother on their complaint against the police...believe that one way to change this is for heads to roll when specific failures are identified. "They won't solve anything until people are held to account," says the group's Ruth Hall. "It's not enough to say lessons have been learned - they've been telling us that for 30 years."

The group also suggests that there needs to be a distinct change in police priorities. "The problem really starts at the top and this report proves that," says Lisa Longstaff. "The priorities for downgrading rape and under-resourcing rape in relation to other crimes are set by the very highest in the police. It's about orders from the top that make it clear this is a priority crime to be investigated ... In many cases the police just aren't doing the job once someone reports a rape to them. They're not interviewing witnesses, they're not taking forensic samples, they're not visiting the crime scenes. They're dismissing a lot of reports because of who the woman is and the circumstances in which the rape took place - if she's been drinking, or she's young, or has a history of mental health problems, or is an immigrant."

More on Institutionalized sexism in the Metropolitan Police Service...:
Police took four years to arrest serial sex attacker
Metropolitan police accused of institutional sexism over serial sex attacker cases

Thursday, 26 March 2009

The new fish fingers: breaded, fried and willing to strip on demand

This ad skeeves me out:



Pink. Fish. Female. Hmmm....whatever could they be getting at? Notice how the oversexed, female fish finger is so anxious to remove her breaded exterior to prove her worth to the random, male fish fingers that she doesn't know. Because that's what women do, or should be doing, apparently.

The thing is, the last two lines, after the other fish fingers are overwhelmed by the 'pink', would actually be funnier if they hadn't made it so sexualized - if pink were some attribute prized all on its own among the fish finger community, but not associated with human anatomy. As it is, the lines seem funny, but then are immediately a little disturbing.

The Mattesson's Smoked Sausage ad is even more imaginative. Don't even try to guess the association here unless you're a Mensa member:

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

It is when there are no words that words are most important

I have two older sisters who are proof of the idea that some people, like me, are just born into exceptionally lucky circumstances. I just spent the last few hours talking and laughing and mmm-ing and ahh-ing with them on the phone. They're in Barbados and I'm here, so after we've caught up on all our respective goings-on and yelled about who wet the bed the longest and who used to eat Bournvita from the tin, they eventually get around to relating the local happenings that haven't shown up in the online newspapers.

They told me about a new local TV series called Bajan Women, in which the presenter each week investigates issues affecting women and includes person-on-the-street perspectives as well as studio panel commentary. In the last programme, they looked at domestic violence, and interviewed a man on the street whose contribution I'm going to report now. Now I don't have a transcript of the show, and what I'm about to tell you is not only paraphrased from someone else's account, but also redacted a touch to account for his Bajan vernacular.

The man declared that he does in fact beat his partner ("I does have to share licks") because she provokes him. He said that by wiggling her fingers suggestively in his presence as a way of waving to friends, as opposed to just shaking her hand from side to side, she was driving him to beat her. He said that he would see her talking to men in the neighbourhood, which is also grounds for a beating. My sisters related how in telling his story, the man was so gripped with anger at the effrontery of this woman, that his lips were trembling with rage as he spoke. In their analysis, he was doling out punishment for perceived wrongs. He was, in fact, the victim, who was now labouring under the added burden of having to perpetually abuse a disrespectful partner until such time as she was set right.

"What did the women on the panel say?" I asked them. I was imagining all the discussion that could be teased out of this account, about the notion of women as property; the acceptance of violence as the only way to correct "uppity women" in a rabidly patriarchal society; the lack of self-censorship in expressing these ideas that should be overwhelmingly embarrassing for this man to express - but that he is not ashamed of because he enjoys tacit support from the rest of the society.

"They didn't say anything really," they said. "They pretty much just laughed it off. I think they were embarrassed."

So now we're embarrassed on behalf of people who should be ashamed to leave their homes, to say nothing of appearing on camera, when those people in fact have no compunction at all about bragging about their criminal activity. And we, given an opportunity to categorically reject everything that this man represents, to say something on behalf of that terrorized woman who is as that show is airing also being laid bare and placed in the most horrifyingly vulnerable position before her community, choose instead to be embarrassed, to laugh it off and then tell more polite, more appropriate stories.

I can't comment on the rest of the show. I'm glad it at least exists, but I've already said enough about something I didn't witness firsthand. I simply could not let this go uncommented. Because at some point, someone has to stop laughing and blushing and being embarrassed, and start helping to save some lives.

British rule for Caribbean people

There are quite a few issues flying about my head today, and they feel related in more ways than I may be able to articulate at the moment. The first involves the state of government in the Turks and Caicos Islands and the suspension of their Constitution by the British government. The second issue has to do with the ever more alarmist ways in which the British media reports on immigration figures, and some recent immigration policy decisions being discussed here.

Amidst this recession, there is not only growing public anger directed towards those we feel should either have performed better to head off the crisis, should have warned us once an oncoming crisis was evident, or should be considerably more penitent now in the aftermath of a declared depression; but there is also a growing willingness to express that anger, to find someone to blame. Heads are rolling, but not enough, and not as steadily as some of us would like. And when that happens, we tend to point the fingers closer to home. As much as people may argue that recessions do not lead to measurable acts of intolerance, there's at least a strong wind blowing, and it smells like anti-immigrant spirit. Last week, home secretary Jacqui Smith announced new measures to not only prevent tens of thousands of non-EU foreign workers from moving to Britain to work, but also to potentially prevent the families of skilled migrants already working in Britain from joining them. So it seems the British government is not as interested in fostering complete lives among new residents as it is in simply sapping their labour to grow the economy. British work-life balance for British workers.

Arguably, some of the policies developed to respond to a downturn might and should include immigration policy, but one gets the sense that the home secretary might be taking advantage of a general "bloody foreigners taking all the jobs" recession discontent to announce changes to immigration policy, changes we had heard mutterings of before but that had so far not been formalized. After all, British people who are facing unemployment are hardly going to object to what they perceive as less competition. And when mutterings arise from those affected, they are more likely to be shot down in the current climate. One also gets the message that in a downturn, it is perfectly acceptable to cut migrants off from their families - to invest less in the well-being of the non-British living and working here in favour of nationals.

In the meantime, the media continues its poorly contextualized updates on immigration numbers and predictions, with the figures flashing menacingly across the television (cleverly interspersed with stories on how the economy is about to fall off the edge of the earth), as if to warn Brits that the enemy is adding to its numbers. You start to imagine there's a club out there, and that with every news update people run to change the figure in their notebooks. "They've got 12 more, Harriett! Change your number and add another board to the shutters!" And Harriett carefully marks off 270 52335 and fetches a board.

Now, I have a lot to say about these things. Harriett isn't the only one squirreling news away. I've been seeing so many "Immigration! Halp!" stories since news of the recession hit, that I've started filing them away, assuming that at some point, they will randomly combine to form some special message. I'm looking at the file and no message is yet apparent, except the one that says quite a few fingers are pointing straight from the difficult economy to the immigrant population. Over the next few weeks, I'm going to try and make sense of some of these stories from my perspective as a perpetual immigrant (although I've tended not to self-identify as such, for reasons I want to explore in another post).

But I also wanted to touch on my discomfort with the fact that in the midst of all the above, Britain also plans to partially suspend the constitution of the Turks and Caicos islands within the next month, and hand power over to the British Governor, Gordon Wetherell. Following this announcement, Premier Michael Misick made the following statement:
“I call on the international community, including CARICOM, the Commonwealth, the United Nations and other such bodies, to intercede on our behalf as we are vulnerable to the strong arm of modern day colonialism,”

Since that announcement, Misick has resigned, and seems to have in fact been involved in a fair deal of shadiness that if true, is embarrassing to contemplate. But he is right that the strong arm of modern day colonialism is still being felt, even as we chat away in our progressive-sounding, anti-imperialist rhetoric. I know that the elected Turks and Caicos government back in the 1980s was seen as largely pro-dependency. But it is extremely unsettling, as a citizen of a former British colony, to watch the same colonialism responsible for slavery still alive and well, and personified by Wetherell's proud, smiling, white face accompanying the related stories. The idea that we would want to suspend rather than facilitate democracy is disturbing to me, and this combination of events - from immigration to colonization - is today really making me feel my ancestry.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Peanutbuttereggdirt au gratin

My dearests, I'm afraid I'm having another peanutbuttereggdirt day today, exacerbated by the fact that the article I wanted to write about this morning, that I've been saving as a draft until I could come to terms with all the deliciousness I wanted to express about it, has disappeared. The Nation newspaper has switched over to a new format, and apparently, "How to Redirect Your Links and Establish Archives" isn't being covered until next semester, along with "RSS Feeds: Actually Important" and "Making Links Clickable 101".

And since I have a really busy week ahead to which there is as yet no rhyme or reason, I'm using my Monday and this space to utter random things and clear my head. To wit:

Shivnarine Chanderpaul
> Andrew Strauss

What rabid strain of delusion are the creators of this show suffering to think they can recreate the insane awesomeness that is Absolutely Fabulous?

When I buy a house, it shall have a lanai, and The Lanai shall be the Sacred Place where my family/group of friends/whoever the hell is living there goes to resolve conflicts and gain perspective, just like the Golden Girls did. It shall also be the place whose better light we use to answer the question "What is that? Like...a rash...or a bunch or pimples or...?"

Ah these Londoners and their 'T-shirt weather', which is apparently anything warmer than 'arctic blast'.

What the hell kind of g-ddamn Spring is this? Outside looks like a scene from Pan's Labyrinth.

It would be great if a funding proposal could consist of just the words: "Me bright. You send money. Me do things."

How can I already have my year planned right up to Christmas? Man, 2009 is going to be the shortest year ever.

If another person pulls that "equality means never having to say you're sorry for hitting back a woman"* bullshit I'm going to eat Aretha Franklin's hat.

There's a bird in our little lagoon whose call sounds exactly like a snore. Or maybe she's watching a Clive Owen film.

Yogurt is what evil would taste like.

Guy pushing the stroller: I can see you have an infant in your giant, starship Enterprise pram, but as much as I would love to fling myself into oncoming traffic to accommodate you, I don't think room to tiptoe along the edge of the pavement is too much to ask.

Chuck Bass wants to eat my soul. Don't look directly at him!

I'm sure there's more stuff in there. But I think I have to get on with life now.

*Much more on this in a subsequent post.

Friday, 20 March 2009

On racism, pop culture and political correctness: comment response

Yesterday, in the Comments section of the Watchmen review, we got to talking about representations of race and sexuality in the Zack Snyder-directed film adaptation of Frank Miller's 300. And a reader made the following comment:
I've been meaning to write about this kinda thing. Do you think it was a consciously done racist thing? As in, it may have been consciously done, but was it done with purposeful racism in mind? I am not trying to make excuses for it either mind you, but I find we over analyse and make more out of some things that for the most part are innocent coincidences. To avoid it, we would all have to spend our time politically correcting everything we say and do so as not to piss off some demographic, race, social group etc.

So I thought I would share some thoughts on the questions he raised, both in relation to the film and in a general context. A bit heavy for a Friday, yes, especially when my brain synapses are pretty much through firing for the week and are already heading down the pub. But let's give it a shot anyway.

First, the idea of intent:
"...was it done with purposeful racism in mind?"

I think that the question of whether someone sets out to denigrate an entire group of people, or whether it happens as a result of their own unexplored or unresolved prejudices, is not as important as we make it out to be. In fact, I might argue that the latter is more insidious and therefore more dangerous than the former. If racism has become so ingrained in the business of living that it is evident even when people aren't trying, then that is a much sadder reality than if there are fringe elements of people out there going "you know what? I hate black people and I'm going to make a movie about it." But aren't we lucky! We don't have to choose, because both exist.

So yes we'll find people like the bus driver in the DR who let the fair-skinned people board but left my friends and me at the bus stop because he thought we were Haitians and he "doesn't stop for 'negros' (spanish)". But perhaps much more common in our lifetimes will be the films, TV shows, songs, comedians that reinforce ugly stereotypes about certain groups of people. And for these cases, "I didn't mean it" does not cut it as an excuse. Because what "I didn't mean it" really means is "I didn't care enough about these people to do better".

It's comparable to my work as an economist. You go to talk to Ministers of Finance or budget directors and they say "We didn't develop this budget to discriminate against women" or "The economy is gender-neutral!" Well no it isn't, because you're operating within a system that since it existed has made much of women's work invisible. So the results that you get if you depart from that system are also going to exclude those women, whether you 'mean it' or not. It is your responsibility to interrogate your own assumptions and do better. Because otherwise, you're hurting the group in question, and that hurts everyone.
"...we over analyse and make more out of some things that for the most part are innocent coincidences."

Definitely, for 300, these weren't innocent coincidences. This wasn't a film that included one walk-on role of an Asian person in a laundromat, which after they saw it made three white University anthropology majors in Seattle somewhere roll their eyes and mutter about stereotypes. We're talking about a film that, in depicting an epic battle between Persians and Greeks, digitally manipulates the features of the players to make the Persians appear as dark, faceless (therefore inhuman, unimportant) devils and the Spartans white gods. It excludes any redeeming characteristics about Persian society at that time like their famed religious tolerance and focused only on Xerxes' obsession with enslavement. It called the Athenians "boy lovers" (bad) and portrayed the Spartans as hypermasculine (good). None of this is coincidence, especially when you consider Frank Miller's Islamophobia, which I didn't know of until after the film when I went searching to find out what all that mess had just been about . (I couldn't possibly explore this as well or as thoroughly as others have done, so I've included some links for further reading at the bottom.)

Yes, we can say that comics and films are meant to have a good guy and a bad guy, and that the Persians were in fact invading Greece for the second time so doesn't that pretty much make them the bad guys? Of course. But what films like this do is make one-dimensional, faceless demons out of people of colour, and then celebrate their mass slaying by a white superior race. They say it doesn't matter what their faces look like (and face here is a metaphor for actual identity and value system), just where they come from and the colour of their skin; because odds are if they come from there and look like that, they have one intent, so better to pre-empt that. And the effects are not harmless. People are not as adept at separating out fiction from reality as you might think, especially in an environment of cultural tension between the groups in question. The Persians were not Muslim, but many people, after having watched the film, equated the two and transferred the images from one to the other.

In terms of innocent coincidences in other films, I can understand the dilemma. You see black people represented in certain ways and don't know if you should follow your natural urge to laugh or your intellectual urge to be offended. For me, some things are clearly, neck-bristlingly offensive; or just annoying, old, unimaginative stereotypes; or perhaps born of generalizations but true and therefore hilarious. But honestly, when I do get really offended or annoyed, it isn't as a result of an innocent coincidence. For example, in all my years watching ER (which has now hideously jumped the shark), I've seen my fair share of black crack addicts and drug dealers and Mexican gang-bangers. But not only have some of those characters been treated with complexity, to show other elements of their realities, but there have also been people of colour as doctors, activists, little nerdy kids, anything that people might be; and there have also been white criminals and drug addicts, some among the 'heroes' of the cast. So while I'm not going to necessarily get annoyed because the drug addict on a particular show happens to be a black man, I'm damn sure going to be annoyed if it is always a black man, or if they make a point to pit black ignorance and helplessness against white perfection.

I'm going to finally say just a little about political correctness. The reader wrote:
To avoid it, we would all have to spend our time politically correcting everything we say and do so as not to piss off some demographic, race, social group etc.

I think there's a growing backlash against political correctness. People now think that refusing to indulge others' sensitivities will make them seem cool and smart, like mavericks who are willing to take back their speech from hypersensitive tree-huggers. Yeah I call bullshit on all that. How about trying to seem smart the old-fashioned way? By actually being smart, and informed, and analytical, and socially responsive. Unfortunately, I sense this more acutely in Barbados and other parts of the Caribbean, where we're so used to other people looking and behaving like we do, we carry on indefinitely not being challenged on our bigotry. It is firmly entrenched and we find it comforting. We are so used to yelling slurs at gay people, Asian people, fat people, Guyanese people, that we act like it's just a quaint part of Barbadianna: it's cultural and harmless. Well it's not. And if we stepped back and considered it, we would realize that we're not only perpetrators of it, we're also victims. But some of us are too stupid and too busy trying to seem edgy to figure that out.

I know it can seem like the acceptable language is constantly changing. So what? Change it. You don't need to "spend all your time" doing it: it's not as if groups are meeting every week trying to see how they can piss people off by making them learn new words. And no one is going to put you in a pillory because you had a slip and said 'disabled' and not 'differently able'. But if a group of people gets up and says "listen, we really hate this word, and here's why, and here's what we prefer," who the hell am I to say "yeah well I don't like that word so I'm just going to call you Blackie"?

In my experience, the people who rail most against political correctness are (as just one example) the pigs who not only want to persist in calling women bitches and whores, but also want them to like it. So these people aren't the ones who find themselves having to change their lexicon every day and get genuinely confused but want to do better; it's in great part the ones who just don't want to bother with anyone but themselves and the group to which they belong. They want their bigotry to be sanctioned not only by their peers but by those they're bigoted against. It's another case where "I didn't mean it" really means "I don't care enough about these people to do better."

And I wouldn't call any of it innocent.


See also:
Osagie K. Obasogie on The Rebirth of a Nation?
Touraj Daryaee on Go tell the Spartans: How "300" misrepresents Persians in history
Jehanzeb Dar on Frank Miller’s “300″ and the Persistence of Accepted Racism

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Violence against women: the language of the courts and media

Ok, I promise that someday I'm going to stop being annoyed by the idiotic ways in which journalists write about violence against women, but apparently today is not that day.

I came across two articles in the Nation this morning. The first covered the pre-sentencing hearing of a man in Barbados who confessed to 'unlawfully killing' his wife in 2007. (Can you lawfully kill someone? Perhaps this has to do with the language of the legislation, akin to manslaughter versus murder, but it sounds bizarre.) And the second describes a murder/suicide committed by a man in Trinidad, in which a 15-year-old child was the murder victim.

Here is how the first one begins:
RESTRAINT in the face of adversity.

This, according to two lawyers, best describes wife-killer Marvin Harmon's attitude towards his blatantly cheating wife until he lost control of his emotions and snapped.

And the second one:
PORT-OF-SPAIN - Driven out of his mind by an obsession with a teenage schoolgirl, a 27-year-old PH driver beat her to death and then drank poison, police said Tuesday.

Do we notice what is happening here? In the first case, the woman contributes to her own death by cheating. And in the second, the child contributes to her own death just by being. There isn't much agency or responsibility represented here on the part of the murderers: men can't be expected to control their baser natures when women are traipsing around being adulterers and...teenage schoolgirls.

The first article goes on to describe the victim's alleged cheating, along with the contention that she attacked her killer first, which makes me wonder why this is not a case of self-defence, if this account is to be believed. Now obviously there are such things as mitigating factors. I'm not saying that in no cases that result in the murder of a woman are there times when a man has 'snapped' under emotional abuse. But it seems as if the traditional message in the media is that man on woman violence is a response to provocation by women who are always cheating or nagging or checking men's messages.

For crap's sake. Raise the level of dialogue, please. Look at the behaviour of the perpetrator rather than the victim. Try some responsible adjudication and journalism for a change.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Yes, slaves were starved and tortured, but at least they could attend dances

As much as I bemoan the low standards of journalism that often assault us, I would sometimes rather believe that what I'm reading is more a reflection of these standards or of plain misunderstanding than of people's real, human thoughts.

The Nation today ran a story describing the content of a lecture delivered last week by historian Dr Karl Watson. In it:
Watson emphasised that slavery was an era of brutality and exploitation of Blacks by white plantation owners, with at times severe periods of malnutrition.

But he said there were some truths and not widely publicised facts that helped to balance the picture - including slaves' ability to travel long distances to attend dances, their access to money through the important ginger crop, and the esteem in which obeah people, midwives and other knowledgeable slaves were held.

Um.

As a former student of history, I'm all for expanding knowledge, especially of the lifestyles and relationships underpinning historical institutions like slavery and colonial plantocracy. But let's maintain some perspective here. First of all, go ahead and discuss your little-known facts, but please don't frame them to suggest that a little ginger money and a line dance in any way 'balance the picture' of centuries of colonial exploitation.

Second, you're a white dude. I'm sorry, but you are. No one seems to want to say these things, but the fact is, that makes your words more loaded than if they had been coming from someone who is the descendant of a slave. Dr. Watson contributes much to natural conservation and the exploration of the island's history. We value that, but let's not pretend that the identity behind the message doesn't matter. And that particular message can often sound like white apologism, especially among a wider public who may not recognize Dr. Watson as an ally of black history.

Now I'm not saying that Barbadians who are not descendants of slaves can't talk about slavery; of course they can, slavery is everyone's legacy. And we know that indentured, imprisoned or exiled Scottish and Irish who had previously worked in servitude on plantations also fathered white Barbadian descendants. But given the racial history of the place, I would think that non-Black academics especially would be more sensitive than to imply in a lecture that slaves didn't have it so bad because they could cross the parish border to attend dances.

I get annoyed because so much of the public discourse that takes place in Barbados surrounding blackness is 1) about slavery, but seems to have little practical, interrogative purpose other than to say "oh look what happened." And 2) oriented towards, or at least includes, some commentary on how slaves didn't have it as bad as people say. We very neatly separate out current experiences of whiteness and white privilege, current experiences of blackness, and that slavery thing that happened way back when. And we're always happy to talk about the latter, but not in any critical way that takes us to an ongoing dialogue on the former.

I have to stress that I wasn't there. As I said initially, it could have been that the reporter just highlighted some of the more controversial parts, as they are wont to do; and that the lecture was a perfectly benign, highly analytical effort to look at a more layered plantation system, and how that might reflect in current social hierarchies and habits. In fact, I'm hoping it was that, and not "slavery sucked but whee dances!" as the article suggests. Because that would be bad.

Is it coming? 'Cause I am

Viv Groskop writes in The Guardian today about women who climax during labour. The writer talks to Amber Hartnell, a mother whose natural, water-birthing process is featured in the documentary film Orgasmic Birth, and who says she did not actually experience pain during labour, but rather, intense [orgasmic] sensations. The film examines such experiences in the broader context of ""undisturbed birth" - natural labour in a home setting, without drugs, or even gas and air."

According to the article, and as one would expect, the notion of orgasm during birth is meeting with disapproval and opposition in several places [emphasis mine]:
The response to the film has been one of both fascination and horror. For many women the idea that childbirth can be orgasmic is at best hippyish and possibly offensive - a notion that at once piles pressure on to women to find pleasure in giving birth, and seems to deny the pain the vast majority experience. One heavily pregnant blogger writes that she "can understand pain being natural in childbirth and letting your body take over and making it as enjoyable as you can. But orgasmic? No. Whoever finds that orgasmic needs help, in my opinion." Another suggests that they "wouldn't like to think my mother had an orgasm while giving birth to me."

I'm not sure why this would be a problem. What does it mean that my mother may have climaxed while giving birth to me? Does this writer feel like she had sex with her mother? Because if we're counting being forced out of someone's uterus, I need to change the date on that "had sex for the first time today! w00t!" entry in my diary.
The film's producer, birth educator Debra Pascali-Bonaro, says a woman's ability to feel intense physical pleasure during childbirth is "the best-kept secret". So well-kept that many women would argue that the phenomenon does not exist. There is debate over whether these women have really been experiencing a sexual climax, or are simply having some form of sado-masochistic response, mistaking intense pain for pleasure. After some critics in the US wrote the idea off as a "fairytale", one of the film's orgasmic subjects, Tamra Larter, a mother of two from New Jersey, clarified that she "felt something resembling an orgasm" and that the sensations she experienced "were something different than sex, but similar enough I feel OK using the word orgasmic."

G-spots were a 'fairytale' too. In any event, I don't see that this precise definition matters, or why we feel the need to invalidate what women say they experience because it makes us squirmy. Is it that we would only like a woman to achieve orgasm during a narrow set of controlled circumstances in which she is 'being satisfied by' a man either directly during partner sex or indirectly while presumably thinking of a man during self-pleasuring? (People who think this way tend to account for lesbian relationships as man-haters trying to approximate the heterosexual act of sex, so men are pretty much central to that orgasm too.) If so, there are some spin bikes in various gyms around the world that may have to be brought in for questioning.

Or is it that childbirth should hurt, g-dammit. Otherwise, without the fear of (i) being forced to give birth (which is the 'children as punishment' agenda that some pro-life advocates advance) and (ii) the accompanying excruciating pain, what's to stop women from having all the sex they want? The earth would descend into madness!

Perhaps some of us are just plain uncomfortable with mixing sex and childbirth. It's not like they are in any way associated with...oh wait.
Women in the documentary have been criticised online for kissing their husbands too much during labour, which some viewers find distasteful.

So in a scenario where people are coming out of my vagina, it's kissing my partner that you find too intimate to watch. Got it. I'd imagine these are the same people who find swearing during contractions unladylike. You would think that further partner bonding during labour would be encouraged.

British birth specialist Sheila Kitzinger, who was also interviewed for the piece, has an explanation for the discomfort people feel over the issue:
"It crosses the margin of decency - which I think is wrong," says Kitzinger, "We're told that sex is different from childbirth. In the same way, it is considered indecent to experience intense physical satisfaction from breastfeeding."

I agree, as the article acknowledges, that orgasm during childbirth should not be held up as some standard for women to achieve, and of course we don't want to encourage the "Well my ex-wife orgasmed during labour. She loved it. What's wrong with you?" dialogue. That would be insane. But people need to get over the policing. If I ever find myself in labour, and happen to climax when all I'm expecting are paroxysms, rings of fire and general torture, then I say bring on the O.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

BBC Radio 4 discusses the 'F' word

I've only just gotten around to listening to the first in a 3-part series by BBC Radio 4, entitled Call Yourself A Feminist and hosted by historian Bettany Hughes, which aired last Tuesday. The second one aired this morning, and I managed to catch that one as well.

My very first post* on this blog, ending with the exact words as the title of this series, encouraged women to not be ashamed to claim feminism according to their own definition of the word.

I tend to feel strongly that many people who oppose the idea of feminism like to hide behind age-old, over-simplified connotations that they know are wrong in order to suit their purposes. So while you can't deny all the historical incarnations of the definition of the word, it is disingenuous to persist in representing some caricature of feminists as all man-eating, separatist lesbians advocating female domination, when we know that in 2009, this is far from the case (and arguably never was, although some earlier waves needed to be more revolutionary in their time). It is not enough to sit back on our haunches and allow ourselves to be consumed by irrelevant definitions. In this internet age, We interrogate everything else; we search for the definitions that are important to us. So I refuse to accept responsibility for some false image of feminism people have managed to conjure simply because they are too intellectually lazy and ideologically insular to hit Enter on their keyboards.

And it is people like the ones above by whom I encourage would-be feminists - men and women who believe in equal rights for both sexes - to not be cowed. If you want to call yourself a feminist, if this word suits you as it does me, then go ahead. Other activists for women's equality choose to call themselves other things, as is their prerogative. But 'feminist' is still a viable word.

In the first part of the BBC series, journalist Ann Leslie, American academic Elaine Showalter, activist and historian Sally Alexander and co-founder of the US National Organisation of Women, Sonia Fuentes talk to Hughes about first-wave feminism in the US and UK from the 1960s. The only thing I took issue with in this first part is when Leslie declares that the real feminists are in places like Africa and the Middle East where they mount their campaigns in very dangerous situations, nothing like the cozy activism in which we engage in the West. Well, I hardly think such a hierarchy of struggle is necessary. It is important to engage, support and try and understand the work of feminists from the global South and do away with the notion that feminism is owned and pioneered by the global North. But I'm not sure that this requires the pooh-poohing of US and UK activism. And I say this as a feminist from the global South who operates within and draws on both contexts and both bodies of knowledge.

In the second part of the series this morning, former local government leader Linda Bellos, businesswoman Roz Morris, academic Lynne Segal and author Beatrix Campbell spoke about feminism in the 1980s, touching on the still current issue of making visible other identities within the women's movement, and discussing them simultaneously; and on the points at which it is necessary to create a safe, separate, women's space, or to include men in order to better integrate popular constructions of masculinity and relationships with men. They also looked at feminism in the Thatcher era, and the extent to which Thatcher politics damaged women's rights, and made difficult the progress of any movement concerned with egalitarianism and social justice, even up to this day.

This will be part of the historical context for next week's final episode, when journalist and critic Miranda Sawyer, Feministing founder Jessica Valenti and Rachel Bowlby, writer and professor of Modern English Literature, will join Hughes to discuss what she calls the post-post-feminist era, painted as taking place largely online and with a whole new agenda.

The first episode is no longer available for listening, but you can hear the second one here. It will be available until next Tuesday March 24, when the final episode airs.


*The title is of course a play on the film They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, and the photo pictured is an advertisement for the film. It is meant to reflect the notion of women as broken in some way if they possess feminist ideals, and the final sentence 'they're not allowed to shoot you for it' invokes a democratic society in which we are entitled to represent those ideals. However, in the current climate of increasing violence/harassment against women activists overseas, especially over the last few weeks, I might not choose that title now, at least not with that content. But I've left it there for the moment to reflect the original meaning of the post while it is being linked here.

Monday, 16 March 2009

More victim-blaming and patent idiocy over at The Root

Rihanna reportedly took a peek at Chris Brown’s PDA and set off the course of events we’ve been reading about for the last few weeks. With all the different reports, I’m all kinds of conflicted and disgusted overall by the Chrianna incident, but one thing I’m sure of: if you love someone, you don’t read their text messages.
This gem came from Jimi Izrael over at The Root.

I'm still trying to figure out whether this is some kind of Onion-style joke. Because the man can't really be this clueless. This has to be the most flippant, overt case of victim-blaming I've seen since this thing began. If you want to write some pseudo-analytical little blurb about why you don't want women reading the messages on your phone, I suppose you can go ahead and do that. But don't use a horrifying attack perpetrated by a man against a woman to preface your stupidity, managing to blame her for said attack in the process.

I can't even spend any more time on this mess. Go on over and read it yourselves, and come back and let me know if it really was meant as a joke. Because I can't imagine that grown men who call themselves progressive don't know better by now.

LolTimes: 10 Most Expensive Vacations

Reader Camel sent this Times story with Barbados topping the list of 10 most expensive places to vacation. She says, "I think they're lying," and I'm inclined to agree, at least if not lying, that they're being disingenuous. Their calculations are based on a basket of vacation goods. This basket costs over £150 in Barbados: £55 more than it does in the number 2 country on their list, Mexico. The exchange rate they use for Barbados is wrong (it is closer to 2.80 to the pound than their 2.58), and as for the list of vacation goods, well, I have some responses:

-Cup of coffee, Bottle/can Coca-Cola:
Many hotels have free/price-inclusive breakfast drinks. Besides, you aren't likely to be knocking back 3 cups of coffee a day in 28 degree weather. Plus, um, Diet Coke is actually cheaper in Bim than it is here. Ssh.

-Bottle of Heineken:
Drink Banks!

-Bottle of mineral water:
The tap water is perfectly drinkable, and locally-bottled brands are much more affordable than say Evian or Volvic.

-Factor 15 suncream and Insect repellent:
Just buy this crap at the chemist's or in the airport. As Bajans would say, bring it from home (or walk wid it)!

-Three-course evening meal including bottle of house wine in a local restaurant:
They say that for this you can pay £135.52. Of course you can. You can pay a lot more than that if you feel like getting rid of your money. But you can also pay a lot less.

This article is such inconsequential, poorly-researched rubbish. It's amazing what people are paid to write. That is all.

Snyder's Watchmen almost redeems him for 300. Almost.

One of my neighbours and friends from primary school was that child your mother made you hang out with because she was friends with his mother, who was worried that he didn't have any friends. I wanted to tell my mum that the boy seemed perfectly happy squirreled away in his room inventing secret languages and building radios from paper clips and bits of gauze. But that was one of those pick your battle things. Besides, he turned out to be alright: he introduced me to chess and to Watchmen comics. Chess never really was my bag, but Watchmen was comic book genius: the perfect deconstruction of your average, pretty-boy superhero and the good/bad dichotomy in which he operated. And Zack Snyder's 2009 film adaptation does a decent, albeit flawed job of replicating that idea.

If I were to write a real review, it would end up being an analysis of all the things the Watchmen novel got right, and how they are or are not mirrored in the screen adaptation. I would still be here typing tomorrow, and you would all wonder if I've gone completely off my gourd thinking that anyone wants to read such a giant pile of blah. Instead, I'm going to talk about the things that struck me about the film, so they'll probably seem like random thoughts, but that's what you people get for not wanting to indulge in the true range of my brilliance.

All the elements that make the Watchmen comics/graphic novel the best of the genre - the disturbed superheroes with no obvious super powers (except Dr. Manhattan); the alternate historical reality; the politically astute and satirical narrative - are more or less present on the screen. But there can be no doubt that they are infinitely better represented in the novel. I am a firm believer that the comic form, particularly one as pioneering as Watchmen, is not meant for film adaptation, especially without careful attention to the nuances of the structure, art and composition of the source. This is why Sin City was, in my mind, such a colossal failure. So taking for granted that there are certain given limitations, there were some things that the film did not do well, but there were also a few elements that I quite admired.

The role of the soundtrack in this film is crucial: each track is not only well-chosen to portend the scene that is to come, but it acts as a bit of a stamp to signal a new "frame" or "page". I'm pretty sure I wasn't imagining that, and it worked brilliantly. The music was used to help replicate the kind of pacing of the drama that the nine-panel grid would have achieved on the page, and was also a satire in itself, like the ridiculous, hippie Sounds of Silence at the hippie-shooting Comedian's funeral. The slow-motion opening sequences that served to establish the background for the original characters were also well executed. The limited screen time devoted to them mirrored the lack of public attention and outrage for the ways in which the characters were disposed of, especially striking in the case of the hate-crime murder of Silhouette.

I quite enjoyed too the use of light and angles, casting and costuming to try and replicate those heavy pencil strokes that we would have seen in the novel. I don't know that it worked, but the effort was noted. I always thought (not as a child, but later) that the hard lines were meant to lend to the hard edge of the characters as compared with other superheroes. The characters have considerably less edge on screen, except perhaps for Jeffrey Dean Morgan's The Comedian and Carla Gugino's Silk Spectre, which - along with Patrick Wilson as the second Nite Owl and Jackie Earle Haley as Rorshach- were my favourite performances.

I wasn't that crazy, however, about Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre II. Aesthetically, I suppose I see why they cast her, although she wasn't who I imagined. Akerman's body has some interesting, strong lines that help convey the sexy but not outrageously voluptuous Silk Spectre form to the screen. But as such an important character to the on-screen story, Akerman's acting should have been at a higher level. On the page, the story itself is less important than the links among its different parts, but on screen, it's a whole different ball game. And we need the characters' performances to help us enjoy and make sense of the plot. We can't go back a page or read it again: they only have one shot to bring it home, and bring 'it' home Akerman did not. Between the awkward sex scenes and the vapid stare, 'it' is still out there somewhere, lost and gathering change for a taxi.

I also really did not care for the prison riot scene, which I didn't recognize as fitting in anywhere with the original Watchmen. In the original, the prisoners are not your one-dimensional bad guys: they are also victims of a degenerative society, borne out by the fact that they are the innocents wiped out in Ozymandias's last stand. In the film, however, what with all the sawing off of arms and silly blockbuster mayhem, that subtlety is lost. The point at which Silk Spectre and Nite Owl join Rorshach's dark side is painted as simply a rescue mission of one of the Superfriends, when it is really meant to be the point at which the two characters come face-to-face with the type of violence begotten by their own violence. And from here, well, it all comes undone, and the film starts to feel exceptionally long and improperly edited because they start to tell the story in a different way. The Comedian's awful confession to his nemesis - which is meant to represent a convergence of the methods of 'good' and 'evil' to prove that the two do not that simply exist, and is meant to anchor his own shooting of demonstrators with his violence against the two women, the killing of prisoners in the riot and the final annihilation in New York into a common thread - instead seems weird and out of character, and all the potential irony is lost. By the end, all of the tragic, moral agonizing has been stuffed into Ozymandias's final blaze of glory, so that you're not so much steadily fed the ironic message as you are whacked over the head with it and kicked out of the theater. Of course, by this time, you're glad to leave because you're sure the sun has started to rise and it's time for breakfast.

There's a lot more that can be said about this film, but overall, after the drawn-out, sensationalized gigantic bore that was 300, Zack Snyder did a whole lot better with Watchmen. Sure it wasn't meant for the screen, and all its political and philosophical anarchy are difficult to 'get' off the page, but Snyder did justice to most of the film. And if he had only stayed the course, instead of being just a good film, it could have been brilliant.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Nerds of the World, UnPi(e)!

To begin with an aside, being a nerd is now a cool thing, and has been for some time. So you people out there who say in your fake self-deprecating way "I'm such a nerd", which really means "I am such an enigma in the way I manage to be cool, hot and insanely smart all at once", you're not fooling anyone. Also, the fact that you watch Battlestar Galactica doesn't make you "such a nerd"; it makes you someone who watches Battlestar Galactica.

That said, today, 3/14 is Pi Day! (And also Einstein's birthday.) I'm not sure what you math nerds out there do in commemoration. Do you learn a few more digits? Play Pi Ball? If you're stuck for activities, websites like the ones above have no end of suggestions. I'm no mathhead, though many of my friends are. I hated it at school, but having had to learn to at least be civil with it as an economist (in fact, I fell in love with Econometrics. Who woulda thunk?), I realize that the issue was probably less about me and more about how it was taught, and how students are often encouraged to either be artsy or sciency. I'm interested to see that there's a Resolution in the US Congress "to recognize March 14th for its mathematical significance as Pi (3.14-ish) in an effort to promote the importance of math and science education to a knowledge-based economy and American competitiveness."

The resolution itself is somewhat hilarious in places. I think it's the 'whereas'. Here are some snippets:
Whereas the Greek letter (Pi) is the symbol for the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter;

Whereas the ratio Pi is an irrational number, which will continue infinitely without repeating, and has been calculated to over one trillion digits;

Whereas Pi is a recurring constant that has been studied throughout history and is central in mathematics as well as science and engineering;

Whereas mathematics and science are a critical part of our children's education, and children who perform better in math and science have higher graduation and college attendance rates;

Whereas aptitude in mathematics, science, and engineering is essential for a knowledge-based society;

Whereas Pi can be approximated as 3.14, and thus March 14, 2009, is an appropriate day for 'National Pi Day': Now, therefore, be it

Resolved, That the House of Representatives--

(1) supports the designation of a 'Pi Day' and its celebration around the world;

(2) recognizes the continuing importance of National Science Foundation's math and science education programs; and

(3) encourages schools and educators to observe the day with appropriate activities that teach students about Pi and engage them about the study of mathematics.

And I loved this interview with Larry Shaw, technical curator emeritus and former physicist at the San Franisco Exploratorium which claims to have invented the celebration 21 years ago. Incidentally, there's also a Pi Approximation Day on July 22 (22/7).

He's wearing a skirt! After him!

What the...?

Homophobia and intolerance are reaching new, saddening, embarrassing and absurd heights in the Caribbean.
In recent weeks, Guyanese police have been arresting male cross-dressers.

Last month, a Guyana magistrate fined seven men GY$7,500 (US36dollars) for wearing "women's clothes", an offence under local law.

It also happens that the "wearing of female attire by men" is also forbidden.

I am so tired of Caribbean politicians hiding behind 'preservation of morality' as an excuse for not bringing their countries out of the Dark Ages with respect to human rights.
Guyana's health minister, Leslie Ramsammy, told BBC Caribbean the issue of laws that impact on homosexuality was a sensitive matter for politicians in the region.

He said he didn't think the Caribbean public was ready for major changes in this area.

What a cowardly, bullshit excuse that translates simply to "We need to preserve the status quo in order to get re-elected." I love my Caribbean, but I would not for a minute object to donor organizations and governments placing aid freezes on countries who do not adhere to the human rights conventions to which they are signatory. Perhaps then, these spineless politicians will realize that their duty is to serve all citizens, not just the ones who behave in the way they like.

Hating mothers: the new American pastime

Along with shoulder pads and shiny jumpsuits, mother-hating is having a banner year. Madeline Holler's Babble article 50 Moms We Love To Hate is a strange kind of witch-burning festival that isn't tongue-in-cheek enough to make it seem harmless. That is to say, if Holler was trying to satirize our obsession with having opinions on the way women mother, the satire isn't effective enough that people wouldn't take it seriously. (At no. 50, she names one of the moms we love to hate as "Moms who hate on other moms", but it's at the end of the article, so it comes off as kind of a 'Haha fooled you!' after the damage has been done. We don't think that the writer necessarily actively hates all these women, but she doesn't exactly distance herself from the hostility either, so presumably she's doing her share of mom-hating as well.)

Just like Maxim's Unsexiest Women and Least Appealing TV Women and Women Too Ugly to Live (oh wait, was that not one?) lists, this one encourages us to hate women on the basis of their (only) purposes as women: eye candy or incubator of humanity. Somewhere, someone is right now compiling a list of 30 Women Whose Meatloaf Sucks Most.

Holler's list is an antithetical mishmash of women who, according to our idealist notions of motherhood, are either getting it very wrong, or getting it too perfect for anyone to possibly compete. In a time when the way we perform as mothers is up for judgment by all - when absent mothers are blamed for emotionally unavailable men, single mothers are blamed for criminals and overbearing mothers are blamed for the gays - it does seem like a list of offenders would be the next logical development. I think the pillories are coming soon.

Unsurprisingly, the revoltingly-nicknamed 'Octomom' Nadya Suleman tops the list, with Angelina Jolie in second and the prolific bearer of offspring Michelle Duggar at number three. Notice the trend? You must have kids, but not too many. Otherwise, you're just being smug and greedy. Women should only be reasonably fertile.

All the stereotypes of why women are supposed to hate other women are also represented here. Apparently, we hate Heidi Klum because three weeks after giving birth she was back on the catwalk: "She explained her lack of flab as "good genes." We hate that she just won't tell us it was surgery", and Kelly Ripa disgusts us because she's a hot, privileged mother who 'pretends' to mundane tasks like laundry. Will no one stop this insanity? Will no one speak up for those of us who enjoy seeing happy, confident women going about their business not ashamed of being hot? Not all of us despise attractive women and take pleasure in people looking like crap. So please keep your pitiful schadenfreude to yourselves.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Offset the effects of your strained marriage with power-walking and celery

As those of us working within feminist economics have been saying for some time now, the economic work of reproducing and sustaining the population from within the domestic economy is not an inelastic, constantly renewable input. That is to say, women, who are in general tasked more than men with unpaid care work* in the home, cannot, unsupported, continue performing this work indefinitely and not have it adversely affect their health and well-being. And such negative effects mean that women's unpaid work will not necessarily be there no matter what, as policymakers often take for granted.

Add to this a strained marital relationship, and the prognosis looks even worse. That is, at least, according to a study presented to the American Psychosomatic Society, which finds that
Women are more likely than men to suffer damage to their health from being in a strained marriage.

US psychologists found wives in tense marriages were prone to risk factors for heart disease, stroke and diabetes. In comparison, husbands seemed relatively immune from such problems.
The factors the study sought to assess were those related to metabolic syndrome, a cluster of related risk factors for heart disease, diabetes and other health issues.

But the researchers are of course not suggesting that those in poorly functioning marriages seek to lower these risk factors by working on their marriages or dumping their husbands. Because that would be absurd! Their suggested fix? It will look familiar: diet and exercise.
Professor Tim Smith, who co-led the research, said there was good evidence that a healthy diet and regular exercise could reduce a woman's risk of metabolic syndrome.

However, he said: "It's a little premature to say they would lower their risk of heart disease if they improved the tone and quality of their marriages - or dumped their husbands.

So, following their interpretation of the findings, if your bad marriage is killing you, trying to fix it or getting the hell out is not necessarily as indicated as say, going for a run and eating a salad. Treat the symptoms and not the cause, people. You heard it here first.

* "I'm not reading all that crap". Of course you're not. Just scroll down to the graphic on Page 6 and you'll notice the 'depletion of human capabilities' from the domestic economy, i.e. the household.

Listen to soca? Congrats, you're a moron

CalTech graduate student Virgil Griffith has come up with the very poorly conceptualized Music That Makes You Dumb, which, using SAT scores as a proxy, correlates music tastes with intelligence. His methodology is to compare test results with people's favourite bands as declared via social networking sites, and the result is, as would be expected, absurd. Griffith calls them 'hilarity incarnate': apparently, suggesting that listeners of non-American/non-White forms of music (who are themselves often non-American and/or non-White) are intellectually inferior is pure, knee-slapping fun. I would normally not comment on this kind of pseudo-intellectual, self-congratulatory nonsense, but I wanted to show my readers this: cast your glance towards the 'painfully stupid' end of the scale. Recognize that four-letter word? Yep. I'm sorry to have to be the one to tell you, but if you listen to soca music, you are stupid, stupid, stupid.

Now I'm going to ignore most of the problems with this analysis - which are many - as I'm sure you guys, soca-loving though you may be, can figure them out straightaway. They have to do with definitions, the problems of using self-declared data, sample sizes, assumptions, lion and tigers and bears. Oh my.

But even accepting the widely-contested notion that SAT scores are a decent indicator of intelligence, the fact is that most of the Caribbean students I know who took the SATs (and these were many, since I used to teach secondary school) enjoy soca, and they all basically dispensed with the SATs as if they were a word search puzzle. With very little preparation, they took the test, scored high (anecdotally, almost everyone I knew scored above 1250), and got on with life. One might argue that were greater percentages of Caribbean students to take the SATs - if it were to be considered an academic rite of passage there as it is in the US - the results would be different, since those who do seek the test out are already the academically-minded ones who plan to obtain advanced degrees. Perhaps so, but the numbers who do take it still represent enough of a sample to make Griffith's findings bullshitary.

And notice where reggae falls? And jazz? The boy done lost his mind. If you want to take an unscientifically-rendered piece of research, declare it as such, and then have a laugh about it in the proper context, great. But don't present it as science. That just makes you dumb.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Keep that spit to yourself

Perhaps it represents a point of cultural divergence - like the tipping system in the US, which I'll come to in another post - but whatever the source of my intolerance, the fact is, I cannot abide it. I just read an article suggesting that more anti-litter fines are needed in order to offset the fact that littering has soared by 500% since the 1960s and now costs the UK £500m each year. Fine. Good plan. And you know what else should be included in those fines?

Fines for spitting. The thing is so thoroughly vile and vomit-inducing, and I can't understand it.

Someone is always spitting in my immediate environment, and I am bothered both by the act of expulsion and by the product as it rests menacingly on the pavement: all globulous and frothy, threatening either to make me retch or to make me fall if I step in it and slip. Then parts of my person would be covered in someone else's sputum, and I might be forced to run home and boil myself in bleach. (Obviously, I probably pick up all manner of human issue without even knowing it. I'm fine with not knowing about it - that probably means it was negligible anyway. But knowing about it is the thing that would do me in, especially in the case of spittle. I'm afraid it's too much for my weak constitution.) I'm torn between looking straight ahead because I don't want to see the stuff every ten paces, and looking down to make sure I don't step on it. I usually stick to keeping my head up and using preemptive peripheral vision to avoid suspicious pools on the street. And people ambush me to too, the double-crossers. I very rarely look at strangers, although now, with all the random beheading going on, it's probably advisable to do so. But the moment I break my pattern to smile back at a pleasant-looking fellow, he turns out to be one of them: a spitter, who as soon as he has finished smiling at me, turns the other way to hack something up. Then he looks back my way to smile again! I'm not smiling at you, fella. You have just completely forfeited your smiling privileges.

Seriously, people. What is up with all the spitting? What is the source? Talk to me. What's going on in there that you constantly feel the need to eject something from your body? I'm genuinely curious because it is alien to me. And whatever it is, why is it that women seem less afflicted with it? Surely, if there were some condition creating festering pools of phlegm that needed to be expectorated every five minutes, women might have it too. I swear this didn't start as a 'women rule, men (quite literally) drool' exercise, but thinking about it, I can't recall seeing very many women lobbing spit at the sidewalk. We also tend not to pee against people's guard walls, so I'm guessing we're just in general greater fans of decorum.

I have spit stories too: like the time a man walking on a busy street dredged up a huge bastard of a loogie and let fly, only he misjudged the wind and it went splat onto the face of a little girl behind him as she held her father's hand. Her father looked at once pained, angry, violated and confused, and then promptly homicidal.

And my friend swore to me that people spit inside the trains all the time. I told her she was surely mad; and that no one would have the gall to spit indoors on a hard surface (!). How wrong was I. No sooner had we had that conversation than I saw a man cheerfully spitting up his entrails in a corner of the train. I, who have been known to yell at strangers for sticking gum under seats, was stupefied into silence.

The problem is, people in big cities tend to have a very low glare factor. In a place where people don't even bother to look at each other and where we act like we're each floating about in our separate bubbles, registering disgust with a look is rare. So people either don't know what such a look means, or more to the point, probably don't care. Growing up, spitting was frowned upon. People still did it, of course, every now and then, but Bajans have a high glare factor, and a low tolerance for public nastiness. I've seen people caught in coughing fits unwittingly cough up phlegm, and then sit on the bus looking nervous with a mouth full of spit, waiting until they could get off and find a hidden patch of dirt to get rid of it. It's at least acknowledged as an indelicate exercise, so even when you're forced to do it, you try to make it inconspicuous. I much prefer that approach to the sport spitting approach: just dropping little blobs of squickyness all willy-nilly as if you're being scored on it.

People might balk at the idea of being fined for spitting, but it's not like being fined for vomiting or for crying. Presumably you have some control, or at least enough forewarning to be more discreet about it. I might throw an apple core under a bush where I know it's hidden and will bio-degrade, but I won't leave it on a bench or drop it on the pavement. And in these cold months, spit doesn't dry for ages. It just hangs out, watching the game, drinking a Bud. So it's almost as much of an eyesore as solid litter. Plus, it just grosses a mongoose out, man. Bring on the spit police.
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