I Can’t Think of a Better Reason to Write

You never know how people are going to find your work, and you never know how it’s going to touch them or why. Earlier this month, a man contacted me asking for a copy of the uncorrected proof of my Selections from Saadi’s Gulistan, which I make available through my website to anyone who asks for it. All I ask in return is that they tell me a little bit about why they want it and how they intend to use it. I’ve gotten these requests from a wide range of people, including graduate students in Iran who are working on their MA in translation studies to people, a scholar in Russia who was preparing a multilingual anthology of selected works of classical Iranian literature, and several people from India who were studying Sa’di for their own purposes and preferred my translation to the ones that were available in their country.

The most touching request for a copy of this PDF, however, came this month from a man who, as he wrote, “happened upon [My Companion’s Scent Seeped Into Me] while reading The Male Privilege Checklist on Alas! A Blog.” I featured that poem on my blog on June 27th. Here it is again:

I held in my bath a perfumed piece of clay
that came to me from a beloved’s hand.
I asked it, “Are you musk or ambergris?
Like fine wine, your smell intoxicates me.”
“I was,” it said, “a loathsome lump of clay
till someone set me down beside a rose.
Then my companion’s scent seeped into me.
Otherwise, I am only the earth that I am.

That poem, he went on, “is a reflection of what happened to me.

I am a 46 year old male. I have recently been reunited with my ex-wife who I hadn’t spoken with for over twenty years. It has been a wonderful experience of learning and enlightenment thus far. She gave me a book to read by Don Miguel Ruiz called The Four Agreements which has had a profound impact on my life and the way I live it.  It is a book of wisdom. I would like to reciprocate by sharing this with her.

To know that my book has been a part of the experience this man describes–well, I can’t think of a better reason to write.

If you’d like to read this week’s “Sa’di Says,” it’s called “Creation Kills What It Was Made to Love.”

As usual, I’d love to know what you think.


Posted in Iran, Writing | 2 Comments  

Appeals Courts Issue Contrary Rulings On Affordable Care Act


An exciting day for ACA-watchers! This morning a three-judge panel from The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that Obamacare’s federal subsidies to help people afford health insurance can be offered to people who buy their insurance through state-run exchanges, but not to people buying health insurance through federal-run exchanges. (The case is Halwig v. Burwell (pdf link).) The ruling, if it gets to be applied (it’s on hold for appeal right now), could take away subsidies for over 7 million Americans, effectively gutting Obamacare.

Then, two hours later, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opposite ruling on the exact same question. that case is King v. Burwell.

Vox provides a useful three-sentence summary of the majority’s decision in Halwig:

1) The D.C. Circuit ruled that the Affordable Care Act never authorized subsidies for health insurance purchased on federally-run exchanges, rendering the subsidies illegal in 36 states.

2) Although this would absurdly undermine the entire purpose of Obamacare — which is to make affordable health coverage available to all — the court points to two other examples of “absurd” outcomes from the text of the law, including language that would have locked Guam and other U.S. territories into an unsustainable health insurance system.

3) The judges contend that there’s not sufficient evidence from the legislative history (like old drafts of the law, or other evidence predating this lawsuit) to determine whether Congress intended to use subsidies as a carrot or make them available in every state; without clear legislative history, the court defaults its interpretation of the plain text.

As I wrote last year, this issue is the single largest threat to Obamacare; if Obamacare can’t subsidize health insurance bought through Federal exchanges, that seems very likely to put Obamacare into a “death spiral”; prices will go up 70% or more, everyone but the most unhealthy will flee the heath exchanges, having only unhealthy people on the exchanges will cause prices to go up even more, etc etc..

On the legal merits, the courts can essentially decide one of three ways:

1) Read in full, the ACA unambiguously says that the subsidies are only available to people who buy insurance through state-run exchanges. This is what the majority in the Halwig case ruled.

2) Read in full, the ACA unambiguously says that the subsidies are available to people who buy insurance through either state or federal exchanges.

3) Read in full, the meaning of the ACA on this point is ambiguous. This is what the Fourth Circuit panel unanimously ruled. A ruling that the statutory text is ambiguous on this point is a victory for the Obama Administration, since in cases of genuine ambiguity Courts are supposed to defer to administrative agencies. (Although as Kevin Drum points out, that deference is a standard that the conservatives on the Court may be eager to overturn.)

The Obama administration has already announced its plan to appeal Halwig (which has been stayed pending appeal) to the full 11-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit. The three-judge panel that issued today’s ruling consisted of two Republican appointees and one Democratic appointee, all of whom voted along predictable party lines. However, the full 11-judge panel consists of 7 Democratic appointees (including 4 from Obama) and 4 Republican appointees, and I expect will go the other way.1

The question, then, is if the Supreme Court decides to take the case, and if so how they’ll rule. I could imagine that going either way, for reasons laid out in my earlier post.

P.S. The most quotable part of the fourth circuit’s ruling:

Appellants’ reading is not literal; it’s cramped. No case stands for the proposition that literal readings should take place in a vacuum, acontextually, and untethered from other parts of the operative text; indeed, the case law indicates the opposite.

So does common sense: If I ask for pizza from Pizza Hut for lunch but clarify that I would be fine with a pizza from Domino’s, and I then specify that I want ham and pepperoni on my pizza from Pizza Hut, my friend who returns from Domino’s with a ham and pepperoni pizza has still complied with a literal construction of my lunch order.

That is this case: Congress specified that Exchanges should be established and run by the states, but the contingency provision permits federal officials to act in place of the state when it fails to establish an Exchange. The premium tax credit calculation subprovision later specifies certain conditions regarding state-run Exchanges, but that does not mean that a literal reading of that provision somehow precludes its applicability to substitute federally-run Exchanges or erases the contingency provision out of the statute. [...]

Appellants insist that the use of “established by the State” in the premium tax credits calculation subprovision is evidence of Congress’ intent to limit the availability of tax credits to consumers of state Exchange-purchased health insurance coverage. Their reading bespeaks a deeply flawed effort to squeeze the proverbial elephant into the proverbial mousehole.

  1. Hooray for the nuclear option! []
Posted in Health Care and Related Issues | 23 Comments  

The Gunshot Hit Archie Where?


Despite the illustration, I presume the fatal shot hit him on the nose. From People Magazine:

Archie Andrews Will Die Taking A Bullet For His Gay Best Friend.

The famous freckle-faced comic book icon is meeting his demise in Wednesday’s installment of Life with Archie when he intervenes in an assassination attempt on Kevin Keller, Archie Comics’ first openly gay character. Andrews’ death, which was first announced in April, will mark the conclusion of the series that focuses on grown-up renditions of Andrews and his Riverdale pals. [...]

“We wanted to do something that was impactful that would really resonate with the world and bring home just how important Archie is to everyone,” said Goldwater. “That’s how we came up with the storyline of saving Kevin. He could have saved Betty. He could have saved Veronica. We get that, but metaphorically, by saving Kevin, a new Riverdale is born.”

I’m glad that Archie has dropped the fundamentalist Christianity and is now pro-gay. Huzzah huzzah, and all that. But does the writing have to be so hamhanded?

Oh, and the person who shot Senator Kevin? A homophobic gun activist who objected to Senator Kevin’s pro-gun-control stance. (Why did he bother? It’s not like any gun control bill has any chance of making it through Congress.)

Jon Goldwater, Archie Comics publisher and co-CEO, defended Archie’s demise being a lesson about gun violence and diversity.

“Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I don’t agree,” said Goldwater. “I think Riverdale is a place where everyone should feel welcome and safe. From my point of view, I’m proud of the stance we’ve taken here, and I don’t think it’s overtly political on any level.”

What would he consider overtly political, I wonder?

Look, I spend my work life creating all-age comics which I hope are informed by my feminist and progressive politics. But I work very hard to bury any of those messages deep under truckloads of entertainment and well-constructed stories and characters. Because a crappy comic with good politics is still a crappy comic.

Via righty Rod Dreher, who, upon finding out that a couple of minor supporting Archie characters are lesbian, commented “Seems like everybody is gay in pop culture today.” Yeah, because it’s so hard to find depictions of heterosexuality in Archie Comics.


1) I really hate the sort of patting-ourselves-on-the-back-for-being-so-brave feeling I get from events like this, when Archie or Marvel or DC or Star Trek or something makes a supporting character lgbt.

Including a gay or lesbian supporting character in mainstream American pop culture is not brave. At this point, it’s just being ordinarily decent. It would be brave if this were the 1970s or 1980s.

Making Archie gay or bi would be something. Having Jughead come out as asexual – that would be pushing some boundaries. And let’s see some trans characters, already!

I’m glad that Archie is no longer pushing the idea of a world where there’s tons of romance plotlines but never any gay characters, because that was unrealistic and sort of embarrassing. And representation does matter. They are doing a good thing. But if they want to deserve credit for being brave, they have to do a lot more.

2) I really hate it when TV shows and comics depict bigotry as a vicious murderer with a gun. The more pop culture depicts bigotry in those extreme terms, the harder it is to talk about the majority of real-life bigotry, which is far more subtle and carries around platitudes and smiles, not firearms.

It’s true, of course, that there are still bigots with guns shooting people – from what I’ve read, the per capita likelihood of being murdered is especially high for transsexuals, and that’s horrible. But that’s still an outlier. Typical anti-homosexual and anti-trans bigotry simply isn’t that obvious, and I think it’s actively harmful to our culture when our popular narratives only acknowledge the most obvious forms of bigotry.

Posted in Cartooning & comics, In the news, Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans and Queer issues | 6 Comments  

In Them Alone My Spirit Will Endure


Towards the end of his preface to Golestan, Sa’di—that’s a picture of me at his tomb in Shiraz–says:

Long after we have crumbled into dust,
and the grains of who we were are far-flung atoms,
these words, well chosen and arranged, will live,
and in them alone my spirit will endure.
Perhaps one day a sympathetic man
will offer a prayer for the labor done by dervishes.

When I was a sophomore in college, I took my very first poetry workshop with June Jordan, whose poetry and essays continue to inspire me today. I remember sitting in her office, talking about a poem of mine that did not make very much sense. She kept asking me what I was trying to say, and I kept resisting the question. I had, I thought, been very clever about planting clues to my meaning in the lines of the poem, and I wanted her to figure it out for herself. Finally, she looked at me and said, “You know, Richard, a poem is an act of communication. You are trying to say something to someone in a way that will change them, but if they can’t understand what you’re saying, or if they have to work so hard to understand you that they lose interest, then what was the point of writing in the first place? That’s how I feel about this piece you’ve brought in today. Since I don’t understand why I should bother, I don’t understand why you bothered. So why should I waste my time trying to understand you?”

Those words sound a lot more cruel when I read them back to myself than they do when I remember June saying them, but they are not so much different than the words I use with my own students when I tell them that if they don’t take themselves seriously as writers, they shouldn’t expect me to take them seriously either. I say this at the beginning of every semester to every writing class I teach, whether it’s developmental writing, which I’m teaching this month, technical writing, creative writing, or English as a Second Language composition, each of which I will be teaching in the fall. I want them to start thinking of the writing they do as more than a response to an assignment; I want them to start thinking about it as what they have to say, and I want to impress on them the audacity inherent in presuming that what one has to say is worth the time and/or money that someone else will spend in order to read it, even if that someone else is the teacher who assigned the piece of writing in the first place.

To write for publication, no matter how small the audience, is to possess a healthy dose of this audacity, but it is also, often, to take on a correspondingly healthy dose of doubt. For most of us, after all, writing doesn’t pay well enough to make a living; for many–especially poets–it doesn’t pay at all; and given that any kind of fame or enduring significance is as much a matter of chance as skill, that obscurity, if not oblivion, is the fate that awaits most of our work, it would be strange if we didn’t sometimes wonder, as June Jordan asked me, why we bother in the first place. Until something happens to reminds us. The first time I felt the power of knowing that my writing had made a real difference in someone’s life was in 1988. I had published an essay about reproductive rights with a profeminist men’s magazine called Changing Men. It was my first publication, and I was stunned, happily stunned, to find in the issue after my piece appeard a letter to the editor from a woman who said she was grateful to have read it. It had, she wrote, helped her figure out how to talk to her now ex-boyfriend about her unexpected pregnancy and her decision, which he had opposed, to have an abortion.

On another occasion, a colleague of mine told me that an essay I’d written about pornography for the long-and-unfortunately-defunct American Voice had been the subject of conversation at a dinner party she’d attended. One of the guests, not knowing that she knew me, told about reading the entire piece out loud to some of his friends, male and female, so they could have an honest discussion about porn. Then, my colleague said, he talked about giving the essay to his teenage son as way of starting a conversation about sexual values. I’ve even gotten this kind of response to my book of poems, The Silence of Men, when someone wrote an open letter to me on the Internet–it is, sadly, no longer online–about how the book had helped a friend of his come to terms with some family issues.

Most recently, however, I saw how my words have touched people when I discovered the hashtag #Saadi and learned that, without my knowledge, someone with the Twitter handle @ShaykhSaadi has been tweeting 140-character-or-less excerpts of my Saadi translations since 2012. ShaykhSaadi has more than a thousand followers, more than have bought, and certainly more than have read The Silence of Men–and they have been drawing comfort, inspiration, and guidance from the voice I’ve given in English to a Persian-speaking Iranian writer who’s been dead for almost eight centuries. Knowing this has certainly put any ambitions I have for my own work into perspective, and I am conscious that Sa’di brought that kind of perspective in thinking about his own endeavors. In the section of Golestan where this week’s Sa’di Says occurs, he puts it this way:

The nobles of my lord’s court, may his victory be glorious, are pious men and profound scholars. How could I dare to speak in their presence? If in the passion of the moment, like a child trying to speak with his parents as an equal, I added something of my own to what they had to say, my thoughts would be revealed as simplistic trifles, paltry imitations of the noble’s subtle and supple ideas. Glass beads in the jewelers’ bazaar are not worth a barley corn; in the presence of the sun, even the brightest lamp will fail to shine; and who will call a minaret’s height lofty if the tower is placed at the foot of Mount Alvend?

Granted that the conventions of writing for a royal patron demanded this kind of courtly flattery–the nobles of the king’s court, after all, could very easily have conspired to ruin Sa’di, or even have him killed. Still, it’s hard not to hear at least a hint of sincere doubt (and perhaps also mockery) in Sa’di’s tone. “Why do I bother,” he seems to be asking. “These men will never really hear what I am saying, no matter how worthwhile it may be.” Then, on the very next page, he answers his own question:

Nonetheless, trusting that the great men of the king’s court will be generous and discrete, choosing not to see the faults of those beneath them and to keep silent about the crimes their inferiors have committed, I have devoted a portion of my precious life to setting down in this book, in a shortened form, some rare events, stories, and poems about our ancient kings.

Sa’di’s answer, in other words, amounts to this: I write because I have something to say that I think it’s worth your time to read. What’s more, he goes on to say, finishing with the lines I quoted at the very beginning of this post, what I have to say is far more important than I am. It will outlive me and, because the words in which I have said it are mine, a part of me will outlive myself. Let me quote those lines again:

Long after we have crumbled into dust,
and the grains of who we were are far-flung atoms,
these words, well chosen and arranged, will live,
and in them alone my spirit will endure.
Perhaps one day a sympathetic man
will offer a prayer for the labor done by dervishes.

Sa’di’s spirit has indeed endured and I am happy to have built a home for it, with my words, in English.


Posted in Iran, Writing | Leave a comment  

Cartoon: Global Warming Can’t Be Real


Panel 1
The image shows a businessman wearing a jacket and tie and standing on a tiny planet Earth. He is angrily lecturing. In the background we see outer space.
MAN: Global warming can’t be real. Because if it IS real, then profit isn’t always right.

Panel 2
The planet is melting away under him, and he looks nervous.
MAN: Plus, after so many years of calling it a hoax, it would be humiliating to admit global warming is real. WE CAN’T LET AL GORE WIN!

Panel 3
The Earth continues melting away. Only a thin sliver of the planet is left, and the man clings to it desperately.
MAN: East coast elites made up global warming because they hate the American way of life! The only “crisis” is the government trying to take control!

Panel 4
The Earth is gone. The man is gone. We are looking at empty space.

Posted in Cartooning & comics, Conservative zaniness, right-wingers, etc., Environmental issues | 39 Comments  

Mother Arrested For Leaving Nine-Year-Old In Park

Lenore Skenazy of “Free Range Kids” reports:

Debra Harrell works at McDonald’s in North Augusta, South Carolina. For most of the summer, her daughter had stayed there with her, playing on a laptop that Harrell had scrounged up the money to purchase. (McDonald’s has free WiFi.) Sadly, the Harrell home was robbed and the laptop stolen, so the girl asked her mother if she could be dropped off at the park to play instead.

Harrell said yes. She gave her daughter a cell phone. The girl went to the park — a place so popular that at any given time there are about 40 kids frolicking—two days in a row. There were swings, a “splash pad,” and shade. On her third day at the park, an adult asked the girl where her mother was. At work, the daughter replied.

The shocked adult called the cops. Authorities declared the girl “abandoned” and proceeded to arrest the mother.

This story has gotten a lot of coverage in the blogosphere the last two days. Reading the blogosphere, it’s easy to get the impression that everyone agrees that arresting the mother was unreasonable, so as a corrective it’s worth watching the local news story, in which the anchor, the reporter, and the “citizen on the street” interviews are all clearly appalled at the mother’s behavior.

WJBF-TV ABC 6 Augusta-Aiken News, Weather, Sports

When I was a child in New York, during the summers my mom would release me and my sister into an enormous pack of children. We’d roam the back lots and the junkyard. In the afternoon, one by one, each child would hear the distant sound of their moms yelling their names out of windows, and return home for lunch, until only a few kids remained. After lunch the pack would reform. Some of us – me – habitually wandered away from the pack and explored trees or cliffs or junkpiles. Neighborhood dogs – some owned, some stray – would sometimes play with us.

Later on – when I was 9? 10? – my mom was working full-time, and my sister and I were expected to keep ourselves entertained and out of trouble until our parents got home. Honestly, although I loved my parents, I also found it a bit intrusive when they got home and I had to be correspondingly more self-conscious. :-p

I find myself thinking that if South Carolina’s standards had been applied to my childhood, my parents would both have been hardened jailbirds by my tenth birthday. (But see the quoted comment from Shakesville below).

Radley Balko points out a few more examples. So is this sort of story the inevitable result of occasional unrepresentative events in a huge country, or an example of “the criminalization of parenthood”?

And would the cop have been so quick to arrest Ms. Harrell if she weren’t Black? We can’t know, but I expect the odds of this happening go up if you’re not white.

Further reading:

A place to donate to support Ms. Harrell’s legal expenses. I’d feel better about this if the mechanism for getting the money to Ms. Harrell weren’t so up-in-the-air, but maybe it’ll get better.

Kristen Iverson:

The truth is that the driving force behind these arrests and others like them goes beyond a concern for the safety of children (because seriously, if a child’s welfare is the main concern, then maybe don’t arrest that child’s mother and force the child into foster care?) and actually has more to do with the contempt that our society shows its most struggling members, as well as exposing the lack of choices that poor mothers—usually single—face every day. These are women who have been told time and time again that their difficult situations are nobody’s fault but their own and that all they need to do to succeed is find work and be diligent—lean in—and they will be ok. But the truth is that it’s impossible to lean in if you don’t know that there isn’t some protection guaranteed lest you fall flat on your face. [...]

The real question to ask here is who benefits from the criminalization of these women’s choices? [...] The only beneficiary is a system which has long marginalized poor, usually minority women so that it can hold them up as an example of what happens when people don’t apply themselves with enough diligence, never mind the fact that these women are doing their best with little to no support.

Working Mom Arrested for Letting Her 9-Year-Old Play Alone at Park – Conor Friedersdorf – The Atlantic

By arresting this mom (presumably causing her to lose her job) and putting the child in foster care, the state has caused the child far more trauma than she was ever likely to suffer in the park, whatever one thinks of the decision to leave her there.

Jonathan Chait:

America has decided to punish Harrell if she fails to acquire full-time employment; her employment does not provide her with adequate child care; and the community punishes her for failing to live up to unobtainable middle-class child-care standards. There are many perpetrators in this story. Debra Harrell was not one of them.

Jessica at the XX Factor:

It angers me, as a citizen, to see the police overreach this way. How is it benefiting this child to be put in the custody of social services? And since I’m a parent, Harrell’s arrest scares me: How can I appropriately parent my child when doing something that seems relatively safe, if out of fashion, can get you arrested?

I asked Dorothy Roberts, a professor of law, sociology, and civil rights at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare, if state laws give any specifics about how parents should behave….


But it’s not much of an observation without including that I was a white kid with white parents in a mostly white and mostly working-middle class exurban town, and I’m not exactly sure, if I’d been a nine-year-old black girl instead of a nine-year-old white girl, that no one would have called the cops “for me” even back then.

Debra Harrell: Is the fundamental attribution error to blame for her arrest?

Child Neglect in a Helicopter World

This Widow’s 4 Kids Were Taken After She Left Them Home Alone – Conor Friedersdorf – The Atlantic

Posted in Families structures, divorce, etc, In the news | 22 Comments  

Everyone Hates Atheists Except Jews And Atheists

PF_14.07.16_interreligiousRelations_political1 Pew has polled Americans about how warmly they feel towards other religious groups. The graph to the left shows the results sorted by political party.

It’s not surprising that Republicans really, really don’t like atheists. What’s more surprising is that Democrats really don’t like us either. A lot of that result is, I suspect, being driven by Black Evangelicals, who dislike atheists even more than other Democratic-allied groups do, scoring us a 30. The only groups that liked atheists (that is, gave us an average score above 50) were Jews and, well, atheists. Atheists, it should be noted, raked ourselves on average “82,” which is very high – only White Evangelicals like themselves as much as atheists like ourselves. Except for Jews – us Jews really love ourselves, ranking ourselves an “88.” Most modest group: Protestants, 64. (See the table at the bottom of this post for those numbers).

It’s somewhat notable that – even though conservative evangelicals pundits seem obsessed with the notion that they are The Most Hated And Discriminated Against Group In America – Democrats aren’t nearly as down on evangelicals as Republicans are down on atheists and Muslims. But, to be fair, atheists do loathe evangelicals quite a lot, scoring them a 28. In fact, the only group that hates anyone more than atheists hate evangelicals is – white evangelicals, who rate atheists a 25.

I don’t really take the evangelical love for Jews very seriously – I suspect it’s more performative than it is bone-deep. Among evangelical Christians, it’s sort of a social norm to make a big show of loving Jews, presumably because the elder generation really, really, really wants to conspicuously distinguish themselves from their openly anti-Semitic parents. And good for them! That’s an understandable and positive thing for them to want to do.

But they also believe that Jews are going to burn in Hell forever, and that this is a just decision made by a just God. So I’m having trouble feelin’ the love. (If Unitarians say they love Jews, I believe that.) I don’t think that most evangelicals hate Jews. I think they mostly mildly like or are indifferent to us, which is why they’re willing to tolerate the implicit anti-semitic (and anti-lotsofotherthings) in their religion. But for various prudential and cultural reasons, evangelicals feel the need to claim that they LOVE Jews more than chocolate, when in fact they only mildly like or are indifferent to us.

Unfortunately, presumably due to low numbers, what Muslims think isn’t reported. Neither is what agnostics or the unaffiliated think, although I would have been interested to know, and I doubt the numbers on the unaffiliated were too low to break out.

Further reading:

In the Religion Popularity Contest, Atheists are in a Statistical Tie for Last Place… but There’s Hope! This is “Friendly Atheist,” who points out that the most important factor in what people think of atheists is if they know any (admitted) atheists. No, no – it turns out that those who know us are the most likely to like us.

Republicans really don’t like atheists and Muslims – The Washington Post

Poll asks: Which is your favorite faith group? Most Americans answer: My own. – The Washington Post

Weird Pew Stats | Out of the Ortho Box And for our final link, Ruchi Koval looks at what (according to Pew) Jews think makes us Jewish. Nothing reported on what the Reconstructionists think, but I assume they’d be like the Reform, only more so.


Posted in Anti-atheism, Religion | 17 Comments  

Superhero Character Changes: Thor is a Lady, Batgirl is a Hipster

There have been two superhero changes announced this week, both to fairly big-name characters. That means nothing in the long run, because big-name characters always revert back to the original form after a while, but that’s also what’s sort of cool about these mainstream comic book characters – they can continuously be retold and rebuilt in different ways, and if you don’t like the new version, just check back again in a year or two.

First of all, Marvel Comics announced that Thor will be a woman (thanks to Guthrie for pointing this out in comments). See, in the Thor comic book, anyone who is worthy (noble, brave and so forth) and picks up the big Thor hammer becomes a new incarnation of Thor (a fairly blatant imitation of Green Lantern’s ring). I don’t think this has come up in quite a while, but in the classic Walt Simonson run in the 1980s this feature was used to make Thor an orange-skinned alien named Beta Ray Bill for an extended plotline. He was also a frog for three issues.

Anyway, the new Thor:


I’m feeling underwhelmed by this costume design. First of all, boob-plates suck as armor. And is that a belly window below the boob plate? No, no, no. Plus it’s sort of a dull design – if Marvel had gone for a female Thor a quarter-century ago, it might have looked like this. It says “female Thor,” but it has no personality beyond that. Points for giving her pants, I guess.

But what about the coolness factor of Thor being a woman? Well, it might be cool, if the comic is well-written – but this costume design doesn’t bode well, because it suggests that they didn’t give much thought to this beyond the gimmick. Also, this particular character change comes with an exparation date, because there is no way Marvel won’t have Thor revert to being a big buff guy by the time either Avengers 2 or Thor 3 come out.

Meanwhile, over at DC, fan-favorite feminist writer Gail Simone’s run on Batgirl is coming to an end.1 Interestingly, rather than continuing the mood of Simone’s run – which has been classic Bat-book grimdark – the new creative team has decided that Barbara Gordon will lose all her possessions (and her current costume) in a fire, move to Gotham’s equivalent of hipster Brooklyn, attend grad school, and have a tone that they claim will be a mix of “Veronica Mars,” “Sherlock,” and – implausibly – “Girls.” Here’s the new costume design:


This is a MUCH better costume design – recognizably Batgirl, but full of personality and telling a story. (After the fire, the character puts together a new costume out of thrift store finds.) Dean Trippe at Project Rooftop (a superhero costume design blog) writes:

This look, a collaboration from Babs and Cameron, features such wonderful clarity and control. The overall vibe reminds me of the jacketed look of my first Batgirl redesign (don’t look at it, it was ages ago), which helped launch this entire enterprise here at P:R, but this has so much more detail and cleverness. It’s physical. It’s stylish. It’s practical at every level. The over-the-ears cowl, the snap-away cape, everything about this new Batgirl is wicked.

Also, all the seams in DC costumes since the “new 52″ design have really annoyed me, because they look inauthentic – as if the designer doesn’t know what seams are or how they function. In contrast, the seams here not only look good, they look plausible.

Will the comic be any good? I hope so. It’s possible that the creators will end up doing a charmless book full of sexist “she’s so girly and silly” cliches. But the costume bodes well – it suggests that they have a strong concept and have thought it through. And I like that there are women on this creative team (as there were on the previous team, of course).

P.S. There’s an amazing amount of new Batgirl fanart already.

P.P.S. The “NOT spandex” note and illustration cracks me up. (“Spandex” is a superhero term of art meaning “body paint,” it appears.)

  1. I’m not going to get into how much it sucks that DC turned Oracle into Batgirl, but it REALLY SUCKS. It does demonstrate that even great and long-lasting changes to major Marvel and DC characters eventually revert. []
Posted in Cartooning & comics | 15 Comments  

Study Shows Enormous Sentencing Discrepancy Against Men


A study1 by Sonja Starr, a University of Michigan law professor, shows that men receive average sentences 63% longer than women who commit similar crimes. (Notably, Starr’s sample was of the federal justice system. 59% of the crimes in the sample were drug crimes.)

This is a significantly larger effect than most previous studies have found. Starr argues – I think correctly – that her study improves on previous sentencing studies because, rather than just comparing trial outcomes, her data covers decisions made by the justice system from arrest through sentencing (if there is a sentencing), including pre-trial decisions made by prosecutors. The inclusion of prosecutor decisions is crucial, because prosecutors have enormous discretion, and might use that discretion to discriminate based on factors that shouldn’t matter, like sex and race.

The largest cause of the 63% disparity seems to be decisions made by prosecutors before trial. That is, most of the gender disparity in sentencing comes about because prosecutors are “selectively lenient” in women’s favor. Some of this is arguably justifiable- for example, prosecutors are a bit more likely to take pity on single parents, most of whom happen to be women. But clearly, some of it is just plain old sexism, and cannot be justified. The system needs reform.2

Unsurprisingly, the discrepancy is harshest for Black men. Among Black people arrested, Black men receive sentences that are 74% longer, versus 51% for non-Blacks: (The “non-Blacks” in Starr’s sample were nearly all white.)

Starr writes (emphasis added):

This study finds dramatic unexplained gender gaps in federal criminal cases. Conditional on arrest offense, criminal history, and other pre-charge observables, men receive 63% longer sentences on average than women do. Women are also significantly likelier to avoid charges and convictions, and twice as likely to avoid incarceration if convicted. There are large unexplained gaps across the sentence distribution, and across a wide variety of specifications, subsamples, and estimation strategies. The data cannot disentangle all possible causes of these gaps, but they do suggest that certain factors (such as childcare and offense roles) are partial but not complete explanations, even combined.

These estimates are much larger than those of prior studies, which have probably substantially understated the sentence gap by filtering out the contribution of pre-sentencing discretionary decisions. In particular, this study highlights the key role of sentencing factfinding, a prosecutor-dominated stage that existing disparity research ignores. Mandatory minimums—prosecutors’ most powerful tools—are also important contributors to gender gaps in drug sentencing. Understanding the relative roles of prosecutors and judges is important. Gender disparities have been cited to support constraints on judicial discretion, including when the Sentencing Guidelines were adopted. But such constraints typically empower prosecutors, so if prosecutors drive disparities, they could backfire.

That last point is essential. Insofar as discrimination in our judicial system is driven by prosecutors, typical attempts at reform will only make the problem worse.

It’s interesting to consider that there is, as far as I know, no good data for measuring any disparity in how likely women and men are to be arrested for the same crimes (Starr’s data sources measure from the moment of arrest). If women are systematically less likely to be arrested by police in the first place (and I suspect they are), then Starr’s results may be underestimating the sexist disparity.

  1. Starr, Sonja B., Estimating Gender Disparities in Federal Criminal Cases (August 29, 2012). University of Michigan Law and Economics Research Paper, No. 12-018. Link to paper. []
  2. For the record, I think our criminal justice system is generally far too harsh. So I would prefer that we equalize sentencing by reducing men’s sentences, rather than increasing women’s. []
Posted in Prisons and Justice and Police, Race, racism and related issues, Sexism hurts men | 17 Comments  

Say Nothing If You Cannot Say It Well

I think this week’s Sa’di Says speaks for itself:

A seasoned speaker knows his craft demands
careful thought or his words will go to waste.
Follow his example. Say nothing if
you cannot say it well; make silence
the voice of your wisdom. Don’t let others insist
you’ve said enough; and if they then complain
you speak too slowly, let them wait. They’ll learn:
the gift of speech reveals that we’re not beasts,
but even beasts are better civilized
than those who ignore this gift’s proper use.

To say anything more would be to demonstrate the value of the warning these lines contain, though they do leave me with some questions I think are worth reflecting on: When and why have you chosen silence instead of speaking up? What have you risked in making that choice? In the end, was it worth it?

Posted in Iran, Writing | 3 Comments