Cartoon: We’ve Not Anti-Immigrant, They Say



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Posted in Uncategorized | 93 Comments  

Cartoon: What We Tell Fat People


I have a new cartoon up at Everyday Feminism!

Posted in Cartooning & comics, Fat, fat and more fat | 1 Comment  

Everyone Who Reads Rumi in English Should Read This New Yorker Article

Written by Rozina Ali, the article is called “The Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi,” and it says something that Iranians I know have been saying for a very long time—something that I learned from them, in fact. It just hasn’t ever been said, at least not to my knowledge, in a mainstream publication with the kind of intellectual, cultural, and literaryweight of The New Yorker. Basically, the idea is this: if you’re reading Rumi in English, which almost certainly means you are reading the versions produced by Coleman Barks, then the Rumi you know has been denuded of his 13th century Persian culture and transformed from a traditionally observant, well-respected Muslim scholar and cleric into a generic, easily digestible, and at times platitudinous New Age mystic. To be fair, neither Ali nor the people she interviewed for her article say it quite as strongly as I just did, so I will admit that some of the bite in my description comes from my own dislike for Barks’ verse. The larger point, however, still stands: If you’re reading Rumi in English, and you’re reading the versions produced by Coleman Barks, or Daniel Ladinsky, or (for goodness’ sake) Deepak Chopra, then the Rumi you know is not the devout Muslim Rumi in fact was. Further, and perhaps more to the point, the Islam in which Rumi’s wisdom is ineluctably and inescapably rooted has been completely hidden from your view. This erasure, Ali argues, especially now, has some very serious implications.

Ali begins her article by talking about the famous people—Coldplay’s Chris Martin, Madonna, Tilda Swinton—who claim their lives have been transformed by Rumi’s work. Multiply their number by the many tens, if not hundreds of thousands for whom Rumi has come to represent an, if not the essence of spiritual enlightenment—a mystic whose teachings welcome all people, of whichever persuasion, onto the path towards God, or whatever it is they call the ultimate Truth they are trying to reach—and you end up with an inordinately large number of people who do not understand that the openness they so value in Rumi was made possible for him by, would not have existed for him without, Islam. More to the point, and adding insult to injury, given the demonization of Islam that is so pervasive in our society right now, people could be forgiven for thinking that the teachings of this English-language Rumi are diametrically opposed to the teachings of Islam, rather than being a significant thread within them.

The demonization of Islam, it’s important to recognize, did not begin in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11; nor is it merely an unfortunate but unsurprising response to the barbarous excesses of ISIS or other similar groups. For her article, Ali interviewed Omid Safi, professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at Duke University, who points out that Western readers began to separate the mystical poetry of Islam from Islam itself during the Victorian period. “Translators and theologians of the time,” Ali is paraphrasing Safi here, “could not reconcile their ideas about a ‘desert religion,’ wth its unusual moral and legal codes, and the work of poets like Rumi and Hafez.” The only explanation these Western “experts” could come up with was that the poets, and these are Safi’s words, were “mystical not because of Islam but in spite of it”—which is essentially what Coleman Barks has to say about Rumi. “Religion,” Ali quotes Barks as saying, “is such a point of contention for the world. I got my truth and you got your truth—this is just absurd. We’re all in this together and I’m trying to open my heart, and Rumi’s poetry helps with that.”

According to Barks, in other words, Rumi’s truths, his wisdom, his openness, do not emerge from Islam, are not the product of the life Rumi lived through Islam. Rather, they exist, or—in the hands of someone like Barks—can be made to exist, in a realm outside of religion. This extraction, for me at least, is where what I think of as “platitudinous Rumi” comes from. Ali gives a good example of this when she quotes one of Barks’ most famous couplets:

Out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing, there is a field.
I will meet you there.

As an idea, “ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing” is so vague as to be meaningless, so all-inclusive as to be useless as a guide to anything. One might argue that this is precisely the point, that anyone can find themselves anywhere in that phrase, but so what? To follow the metaphor to its logical conclusion, if anyone can find themselves anywhere among “ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing,” who’s to say that the field beyond them is the same for each of us? Barks’ Rumi may assert that there is one field where we all can meet, if we get there, but if, as Barks’ says, we each have our own truth, why wouldn’t we each also have our own field?

Look at Rumi’s original language, even in translation, and you can see very clearly what Barks leaves out and how that omission impoverishes the verse. As Ali indicates in her article, Rumi says nothing about “rightdoing” and “wrongdoing.” Instead he talks about iman (religion) and kufr (infidelity), a very different and far more complex (and, to me at least, more interesting) opposition than right and wrong, one that would require a good deal of disciplined religious learning, as well as deeply experienced religious/spiritual feeling, fully to understand and grow beyond. This doesn’t mean, of course, that you have to be a Muslim, or a religious person of any sort, to study, appreciate, learn from, grow from, or be completely transformed by Rumi’s work. Rather, it is to suggest that taking Rumi’s work seriously, whether for personal reasons or because you’re going to presume to make translations of it, means being responsible and accountable enough to take seriously both who Rumi actually was and the historical and cultural context within which he lived.

For me, one of the more telling ironies in Ali’s article comes when she asks Coleman Barks why, after removing Islamic references from his versions of Rumi, and despite his feelings about how the absurdity of religion gets in the way of Rumi’s message, he nonetheless chose to keep Christian and biblical references, such as those to Jesus and Joseph. In response, Barks tells her that he “can’t recall” if he made a deliberate choice not to mention Islam in his translations. Yet that deliberate choice is precisely what he made. He said so himself in his introduction to The Essential Rumi: “I obviously am not trying to place Rumi in his thirteenth century locus. That is fine work, and I am grateful for those who do it. My more grandiose project is to free his text into its essence.” Since placing Rumi in that “13th century locus” would by definition have required Barks to include the Islam that was part of Rumi’s daily life, choosing to ignore the historical Rumi was precisely “a deliberate choice to remove Islamic references.”

Omid Safi characterizes quite nicely the irony of both this decision and the forgetfulness Barks claims. “I see,” Ali quotes Safi as saying, “a type of ‘spiritual colonialism’ at work here: bypassing, erasing, and occupying a spiritual landscape that has been lived and breathed and internalized by Muslims from Bosnia and Istanbul to Konya and Iran to Central and South Asia.” Safi is absolutely spot on. Still, I’m not suggesting that people who like Barks’ versions of Rumi, who have been transformed by them, should now reject them. What I do think is that they, that we, have a responsibility not to indulge and perpetuate the spiritual colonialism Safi describes. As I suggested above and as Ali argues in her article, it’s not just literary culture that’s at stake here, but also how we as a society understand and value Islam and the many Muslims who live among us. One way of taking this responsibility is to go beyond Barks and seek out translations—not only of Rumi, but Rumi is who we’re talking about now—that commit themselves to the original work and to a historically accurate understanding of the person who wrote it and the times in which he lived. Here are a couple of suggestions:

Finally, I would again urge you to read Rozina Ali’s article.


Posted in Iran, Islam, Writing | 5 Comments  

Open Thread and Link Farm, My What Big Protests You Have Grandma Edition

People gather for the Women's March in Washington U.S., January 21, 2017. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

People gather for the Women’s March in Washington U.S., January 21, 2017. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

  1. Women’s marches: More than one million protesters vow to resist President Trump – The Washington Post
  2. Do Political Protests Matter? Evidence From The Tea Party Movement.
    “Policy making was also affected, as incumbents responded to large protests in their district by voting more conservatively in Congress. Our estimates suggest significant multiplier effects: an additional protester increased the number of Republican votes by a factor well above 1. Together our results show that protests can build political movements that ultimately affect policy making and that they do so by influencing political views rather than solely through the revelation of existing political preferences.” PDF link.
  3. Pictures From Women’s Marches Around the World – The New York Times
  4. The photo at the top of this article is, I think, the best illustration of how the media covers protests I’ve ever seen.
  5. Protesters Face Increasing Criminalization in Trump Era | Informed Comment
  6. Donald Trump Mad That Women March Bigger Than Inauguration | The Mary Sue
  7. The Women’s March is massive. Here’s how organizers can give it staying power. – Vox
    A lengthy interview with Becky Bond and Zack Exley.
  8. Women’s March Guiding Vision and Definition of Principles (pdf file)


And in other news…

  1. A Mixtape For Survival and Resistance in the Trump Years | Literate Perversions
  2. Voter Suppression Works Too Well
    Overview of recent GOP voter suppression efforts.
  3. Stop boring on about babies – the gender pay gap isn’t about “choice”
  4. Whaa? Neo-Nazis shocked to discover that a popular Neo-Nazi podcaster has a Jewish wife :: We Hunted The Mammoth
    For your schadenfreude needs.
  5. North Carolina Republicans sue to preserve racial gerrymandering
  6. This is literally what happiness looks like.
  7. Open Letter: An Open Letter to the Stranger on Facebook Who Convinced Me Not to Be Transgender Anymore – McSweeney’s Internet Tendency
  8. Stop boring on about babies – the gender pay gap isn’t about “choice”
  9. A key Obamacare advocate tells us how he’ll fight repeal in 2017 – Vox
  10. Did Inadequate Women’s Healthcare Destroy Star Wars’ Old Republic? | Motherboard
  11. Automated book-culling software drives librarians to create fake patrons to “check out” endangered titles / Boing Boing
  12. The Story Behind the Maternal Mortality Rate in Texas Is Even Sadder Than We Realize | The Nation
  13. Today in Obamacare: the one question Republican senators really don’t want to answer – Vox
  14. What You’re Really Doing By Dismissing US Feminism for ‘Real’ Issues – Everyday Feminism
    Cartoon by Alli Kirkham.
  15. Congress is feuding over a teen’s controversial painting that dramatizes events in Ferguson – Vox
    I love this story. Yes, there are serious issues to discuss here, but at another level it cracks me up.
  16. The Fantasy of Being Thin | Shapely Prose
  17. Democrats Should Run a Celebrity for President, Too | New Republic
  18. Rogue One: the CGI resurrection of Peter Cushing is thrilling – but is it right? | Film | The Guardian
  19. The movie that doesn’t exist and the Redditors who think it does
    Hundreds of people have detailed memories of the movie “Shazaam,” starring Sinbad – a movie which never existed.
  20. More Than 500,000 Adults Will Lose SNAP Benefits in 2016 as Waivers Expire | Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
    Even someone diligently looking for work, and willing to accept any job, will have their food stamps cut off. Of course, Congress could easily fix that… but we all know Republicans in Congress won’t allow that.
  21. This 90-Year-Old Lady Seduced and Killed Nazis as a Teenager – VICE
  22. The Ritual (translation of poem by Dmitry Bykov) – Medium
    Sometimes I am reminded of how much people in other countries here about US celebrities and politics, and I feel deeply embarrassed for us.
  23. The Real Story Of 2016 | FiveThirtyEight
    538’s post-election analysis begins.


Posted in Link farms | 115 Comments  

Cartoon: Our Choices


Transcript of cartoon:


(The title of the comic strip, “Our Choices,” is printed in large letters at the top of the cartoon.)

Panel 1

(A woman and a man talk, the woman holding her hands out, palms up, in a “let’s be reasonable here” gesture.)

CAPTION: Option One

WOMAN: We should give President Trump a chance! It’s too soon to panic.

MAN: Exactly!

Panel 2

(The background is filled with huge fires. Two armed soldiers, both wearing armbands and hats marked “T,” stand in the background looking stern. In the foreground, the man and the woman hurry along, bent downward, looking fearfully towards the ground.)

CAPTION: 8 Years Later

MAN: Why didn’t you resist when you could?

Panel 3

CAPTION: Option Two

(We see dozens or hundreds of angry demonstrators, yelling and waving fists in the air and holding up protest signs that say “RESIST!”. One of the protesters is the woman from the previous two panels.)

Panel 4

(The woman and man from the first panel. The woman looks annoyed, the man is making fun of her, his arms spread wide..)

CAPTION: 4 Years Later

MAN: So Trump didn’t destroy the country… Don’t you feel silly now!

Posted in Cartooning & comics, Elections and politics | 7 Comments  

Free Speech On Campus, Attacked By The Right And The Left – Which Somehow Gets Reported As A Near-Exclusive Threat From The Left

free speech conditions apply

(Although she may not agree with everything I wrote here, I want to acknowledge that this post was improved by a discussion I had with Jaz Twersky. Thanks, Jaz!)

Four stories that I’ve run across recently:

1. Attacks on Tenure. (Coming from elected Republicans.)

Judge José A. Cabranes, in the Washington Post, writes:

Academic tenure is essential to democracy itself. A free society “depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition,” as the American Association of University Professors noted in 1940. Tenure allows professors to pursue the truth and teach it without fear of retaliation.

Until recently, attacks on tenure came mostly from the political right. […] The tables have turned. Academic freedom now attracts opposition largely from the left…

Cabranes is right to say that tenure is essential to academic freedom – but wrong to imply that tenure is no longer under attack from the right. Like so many  of our current free speech defenders, Cabranes gives right-wing attacks on free speech – even attacks on tenure, which Cabranes claims to be especially concerned about – a pass.

Lawmakers in two states this week introduced legislation that would eliminate tenure for public college and university professors. A bill in Missouri would end tenure for all new faculty hires starting in 2018 and require more student access to information about the job market for majors. Legislation in Iowa would end tenure even for those who already have it.

The bills, along with the recent gutting of tenure in Wisconsin and other events, have some worrying about a trend.

The Missouri, Iowa and Wisconsin legislatures are all controlled by Republicans. As far as I know, there is not a single example of a Democratic legislature trying to destroy tenure.

2. Legislators censoring courses and classes they don’t like. (Coming from elected Republicans).

At least three times in the past six months, state legislators have threatened to cut the budget of the University of Wisconsin at Madison for teaching about homosexuality, gender and race.”[…]

A state representative heading a committee that oversees higher education asked for the cancellation of a course that examined white identity called “The Problem of Whiteness” and the dismissal of its instructor. The representative, Dave Murphy, said the course was “adding to the polarization of the races in our state.” If the university “stands with this professor, I don’t know how the university can expect the taxpayers to stand with U.W.-Madison.” Mr. Murphy also promised to direct his staff to screen courses in the humanities “to make sure there’s legitimate education going on.”

Meanwhile in Arizona: “Rep. Bob Thorpe, is proposing a far-reaching law in Arizona, House Bill 2120, banning virtually every college event, activity or course which discusses social justice, skin privilege, or racial equality.” Thorpe’s bill could become Arizona law – as an earlier law banning Mexican-American studies in Arizona public schools did.

There is no more problematic and extreme form of censorship than the government literally telling academics what they can or cannot teach. But those people who claim to be concerned about free speech on campus rarely focus on legislative censors – for example, they were for the most part silent when South Carolina Republicans attempted to punish a university for teaching Alison Bechdel’s lesbian coming-of-age memoir Fun Home. They seem so wedded to the “left wing censors” narrative that they’re essentially given Republican lawmakers a free pass to censor as much as they want without facing sustained criticism.

3. Physically preventing a lecture at UC Davis by blocking the entrances. (Coming from lefty student activists.)

This just happened at UC Davis, where professional loathsome bigot scumbag (cw: transphobia) Milos Yiannopoulos was prevented from speaking.

I’ve written that “no-platforming” is not censorship. Students have a free speech right to give their opinions on who invited speakers should be, including asking that some speakers’ invitations be rescinded. But preventing a lecture by physically blocking the entrances to a hall is another matter entirely; that’s the use of force to prevent speech. It may not be coming from the government, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s censorship.

To tell the truth, I don’t give a fuck about Milo Yiannopoulos’ speech rights, beyond favoring them as a matter of principle. The fact is, nothing campus protestors do will change that Yiannopoulos has a platform that gives him far more ability to speak and be heard than anyone short of the most famous celebrities and politicians.

But nor do I trust lefties – not even myself – to never make mistakes in their judgements of whose speech does and does not have value. Remember when NOW tried to exclude lesbians? Being a progressive activists is not a guarantee against being wrong. Today’s campus activists aren’t going to make that specific mistake, but they’ll make others (see below).

In addition to being ethically wrong, this is tactically awful; the UC Davis activists essentially gave a huge gift to the alt-right, in exchange for which they’ve gained nothing of substance. Yiannopoulos benefits more from leftist students blocking his speech, than he would from delivering the speech; he will receive more news coverage (and look more sympathetic) compared to if he had simply given his speech. There are other forms of protest and resistance that wouldn’t have helped Yiannopoulos this much, that should have been used instead.

(BTW, the protesters have also been accused of more extreme forms of violence, including using hammers and breaking windows, but campus police say those reports are not true.)

Some folks argued that the UC Davis students were acting in defense of local trans students; Milo recently used a campus appearance as a forum for singling out and verbally attacking a local trans student, which led to her dropping out of college. Her access to free speech was injured in a much more meaningful way than Yiannopoulos’ has been. But where have any of the well-known critics of campus misbehavior condemned Yiannopoulos’ disgusting behavior? (Conor? Christina? Jonathan? Get on that any time now.)

I have a lot of sympathy for the argument that the UC Davis activists were acting in defense. But I think it’s still bad tactics, because I don’t see how it can work. Yiannopoulos is not dependent on speaking at UC-Davis to have a platform; on the contrary, the few hundred students he might have spoken to there are a tiny fraction of his actual audience. If he decides to continue using his platform to single out trans students for attacks, unfortunately neither blocking this speech, nor any other action I can think of, can stop him. And in the long run, actions like what happened at UC-Davis make Yiannopoulos’ platform even bigger, enabling him to do more harm in the future.

4. Using misogyny to attack a groundbreaking queer filmmaker. (Coming from lefty student activists)

And a local story: “Reed students protested a talk by the director of Boys Don’t Cry by putting up posters stating ‘Fuck this cis white bitch.'”

This is the most marginal form of censorship on this list; I wouldn’t call it censorship at all, really. The protest was not intended to stop Kimberly Peirce from speaking at all, and she did speak, and also did a Q&A with students afterwards. But it’s still disheartening (as one Reed student wrote); the Reed activists, by and large, come off as intellectually rigid and uninterested in hearing Peirce’s point of view. That some (not all) of them embraced crass misogyny is a pretty clear example of why we shouldn’t assume campus activists won’t screw up.

Nigel Nicholson, dean of faculty at Reed, noted, I think correctly, that this sort of activism has a chilling effect on speech:

The actions that I saw were not animated by the spirit of inquiry or the desire to learn that usually animates Reed audiences. The students had already decided what they thought, and came to the question-and-answer session to make their judgments known, not to listen and engage. Some brought posters bearing judgments and accusations. Others asked questions, that, while grammatically questions (that is, they ended with question marks), were not animated by a genuine desire to explore a question, but rather sought to indict the speaker. It felt like a courtroom, not a college.[…]

What happened that night will undoubtedly reduce intellectual traffic and exchange on this campus for the future unless we can swiftly repair the community’s confidence that our guests will be treated well. Outside speakers may or may not learn about what happened, but people within the community will rightly think twice about inviting speakers, given what this speaker was subjected to. People will surely particularly avoid speakers who engage with identity politics and other topics and questions that are especially politically charged.

Speaking of chilled speech, a genderqueer Reed student, writing anonymously in the student newspaper, described feeling silenced by the activists:

I believe that what transpired last Thursday was disheartening. I feel silenced by the very people who I thought I could turn to against the backdrop of a horrifying national climate, and know that if I addressed this with my name attached I would either have to declare my gender identity or have my opinion tossed aside as another unsympathetic cis person.

There are legitimate criticisms to be made of Boys Don’t Cry; but the approach of some Reed activists was misogynistic, bullying, and deeply unhelpful. And it silences people – including some of the people these actions are supposed to help.

* * *

Here are some more examples right-wing attacks on academic freedom, that many free-speech writers like Judge Cabranes are bizarrely unwilling to acknowledge.  This isn’t even close to a comprehensive list:

  1. Professor Watchlist Is Seen as Threat to Academic Freedom – The New York Times
  2. Science under Attack: Legal Harassment of Climate Scientist Michael Mann by the Attorney General of Virginia | Union of Concerned Scientists
  3. Top scientists accuse House panel of harassing climate researchers | Science | The Guardian
  4. Settlement Reached in Case of Professor Fired for “Uncivil” Tweets | Center for Constitutional Rights
  5. Right-Wing Media Misquoted a Gay University Official and Tried to Get Him Fired – WATCH – Towleroad
  6. Thousands of People Sign Petition Trying to Get Professor Fired After His Husband Confronted Ivanka

That’s quite a list. And most of it isn’t coming from teenage activists or online petitions; it’s mostly coming from powerful, wealthy people, and even from elected politicians. It’s plausible that the government harassment of academic speech is going to get worse during a Trump administration.

And yet most pundits who write about campus speech – even putative liberals like Jonathan Chait – routinely ignore right-wing attacks on campus speech, or only mention them in a CYA manner before going back to their real concern, which is attacking left-wing campus activists. And of course, a disproportionate number of those activists are from marginalized communities; many are black, many are trans. An enormous discourse machine of well-placed individuals like Chait and Judge Cabranes seem convinced that campus activism is the only threat to campus speech worth responding to. Or even acknowledging.

In some cases – such as the claim that trans activists at Southwestern caused the cancellation of a production of the Vagina Monologues canceled – the alleged left-wing censorship turns out to be a complete fabrication. But I still see that story uncritically brought up again and again, in significant outlets like the National Review. In other cases, a trivial incident – like a handful of Oberlin students complaining about the inauthenticity of Asian food in Oberlin’s dining hall – becomes, bizarrely, national news.

Meanwhile, a far more serious and frightening form of censorship – censorship by legislators, who are using their governmental powers to get rid of books and classes they have ideological disagreements with, and often specifically targeting lgbt and minority subject matter – is all but ignored. That’s very out of balance.

Posted in Free speech, censorship, copyright law, etc. | 29 Comments  

More on the (Gender) Politics of Artificial Insemination

In order for sperm banking to become the multimillion dollar industry that it is, sperm had first to be commodified, and since commodification is both economic and cultural, that is neither a simple nor a straightforward process. As Cynthia Daniels points out in Exposing Men, the book I’ve been reading to prepare for a talk I’ll be giving in April, there are two conditions that must be met before something can be commodified. First, it must be considered “profane” by the community in which it exists, meaning that it can be valued in monetary terms. That which is “sacred,” by contrast, is generally understood to be unique, not simply without price, but beyond our ability to put a price on it. The second characteristic of commodifiability is that the object to be commodified must be “alienable,” meaning that it can be separated from the person who owns it. What Daniels calls “reproductive assets” (85)—sperm, eggs, embryos: and it’s interesting to note that she uses the vocabulary of the market place to talk about this—have all been made to fit these conditions of commodifiability, though not completely. What’s more, the degree of commodification that has been applied to them, she argues, seems to depend in large measure on our notions of gender and the gendered lens through which we view human reproduction as a whole.

It’s not that human beings or body parts are never subject to social exchange. Marriage, adoption, and organ donation, for example, are all ways in which such exchanges take place. Nonetheless, as Daniels puts it, we tend to think of them less as commercial transactions, even when money changes hands, than as incidents of gift giving that “solidify bonds between individuals in a community.” To put it another way, we see these gifts as both existing within and producing social relationships that we actively imagine as absent from the buying and selling of products. So, for example, we generally see donated organs as carrying with them something of the social identity of the donor—not just the facts of her or his genetic/biological makeup and medical history. As a result, we recognize and value relationships that form between the donor’s family and the organ recipient, like, for example, this bride who was walked down the aisle by the man in whose chest her father’s donated heart was beating. Had the heart been purchased outright, the organ recipient would have owned it in a way that rendered the connection to the bride’s father’s identity at least irrelevant, if not entirely invisible.

Even after death, in other words, we do not consider our bodily organs totally alienable. Indeed, we resist it, even as we resist the alienability of ova and embryos and the wombs of people who agree to become surrogate mothers. In the case of surrogacy, the reasons for this resistance are obvious. The surrogate mother’s womb is still inside her body, and the specter of what it would mean fully to commodify that womb—explored in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale—is truly horrifying. In the case of ova, however, the resistance to alienability is a little more complex. After all, people born with ovaries carry many more eggs than they will ever use in a lifetime. So, even though they are not what Daniels calls “a renewable resource”—a characteristic that contributes to the relatively easy commodifiability of sperm—eggs could be bought and sold without at all compromising the future fertility of the person from whose body they were taken. Eggs might not come as cheaply as sperm—they are more difficult to obtain—but price point is not by itself an obstacle to commodification. You just have to know your market.

Eggs have been commodified, of course, at least to some degree, but the fact that there is no such thing as an “egg banking industry”—or at least that we don’t talk about it in such crassly commercial terms—suggests some discomfort with the very idea of buying and selling them. In part, Daniels asserts, this discomfort is rooted precisely in the fact that eggs are not “renewable” and that they are so much more difficult, and so much less risk-free, than sperm to obtain. Taken together, she says, these two realities lead us to see eggs more like body parts than body products, more like the heart of the bride’s father that I mentioned above, say, than, leaving sperm out of it for a moment, the blood that man might have donated to help an ailing friend or relative. Still, understanding the logic by which eggs are valued more highly than sperm does not by itself illuminate the lens through which we see and therefore create that value. It’s here that Daniels suggests gender politics come into play. “[O]va are more likely to be considered more humanly precious than sperm,” she writes, “[because] women are [considered] more central to human reproduction than men….”(87).

This idea, that our understanding of men as peripheral to human reproduction has serious consequences for how we value men and men’s bodies, is central to Daniels’ thesis. “[I]deals of masculinity,” she writes in her introduction, “have skewed the science of male reproductive health and our understanding of men’s relationship” to the perpetuation of the species. For example, she says, “[These ideals] perpetuate assumptions about the superior strength of the male body, [which] lead[s] to a profound neglect of male reproductive health [and has] implications..for how we think about not only men’s relationship to…reproduction but also broader social relations between men and women” (4). Those social relations and the gender inequalities they embody may be in flux, Daniels argues, but the inequalities themselves are also deeply and inescapably rooted in the assumption that “the [reproductive] functions…men and women perform…[along with our assumptions about their relative importance] are beyond social contestation” (5). She goes on:

I am not arguing for a denial of all biological differences between men and women in reproduction—in gestation, lactation, or even the hormonal differences between the sexes—but that these have taken on social meaning far beyond biology….I do argue that men and women are more similar than different in their contributions to reproduction and that assumptions of reproductive difference have been used to justify social, political, and economic inequalities between men and women. I argue that until assumptions of reproductive difference are challenged, gender inequities for both men and women will continue. (5)

Just to be clear, Daniels is not claiming suddenly to have discovered, for example, the Victorian notion of the separation of the spheres. Rather, she is asserting that the understanding of reproductive difference used to justify that notion still informs how we understand human reproduction today; and she is arguing that, despite the progress we have made, until we challenge our assumptions about the social meaning of male and female reproductive biology and function, the same fundamental gender inequities will persist.

To offer one relatively straightforward example that I think is in keeping with Daniels’ logic: Making women more central to reproduction than men, and women’s “reproductive assets” therefore more valuable than men’s, serves the interests of male dominance in that it makes the need to control women’s sexuality a “logical” conclusion. Indeed, an awful lot of the right wing push to roll back women’s reproductive rights and control their sexuality can be read as a push to create a modern version of the “separate spheres” that I mentioned above. In a similar vein, making men peripheral to reproduction gives a logical infrastructure to the sexual freedom men arrogate to themselves in a male dominant culture. By now, the harm such a system does to women is, or should be, obvious. The harm it does to men, however, is less so, until you consider—as Daniels does in the chapter previous to this one—that it has been essentially to protect the manhood to which that sexual freedom is so central that scientists and governments have failed to examine and address adequately the problems of male infertility.

The commodification of sperm, the mere fact that it could be commodified in the first place, is yet one more example of how we see men as peripheral to human reproduction, but this commodification is in many ways rooted in the same desire to protect manhood. Making sperm a product that can be bought outright is a way of erasing the social identity of the man from whose body it was taken, which in turn erases any social claim he might make on the child his sperm is used to produce. His anonymity—and, remember, Daniels is talking in her book (at least so far) about artificial insemination involving couples—protects the fatherhood, and therefore the manhood, of the infertile man whose sperm needed to be replaced. I don’t know where Daniels will take her argument next, but I am curious to see if there emerges from her work a different way of valuing sperm so that it’s “cheapness” is not a source of men’s alienation from our bodies and reproductive potential.

Posted in Abortion & reproductive rights | 9 Comments  

I honestly feel bad that I only scored 14


Posted in Conservative zaniness, right-wingers, etc. | 10 Comments  

Cartoon: Special Treatment

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Panel one shows a man wearing a suit and sitting behind a desk, talking to a woman who looks unhappy about what he’s saying. The man is a banker.

BANKER: I’m sorry, sir… er, ma’am… but our bank’s name change policy doesn’t recognize court orders.

Panel two.
The same woman is talking on a cell phone, looking annoyed. We can hear a voice coming from the cell phone.

VOICE: We can’t cover your gall bladder surgery because your insurance excludes transgender healthcare.
WOMAN: Seriously?

Panel three.
The same woman is at an open door with a sign that says “building manager,” holding a sheet that says “rentals” in her hand. A man with a beard, presumably the building manager, stands inside the doorway talking to her.

MANAGER: I don’t think you’d be a good fit for our building…

Panel four
A woman in businesswear stands behind the woman, who we now learn is named “Brenda.” Brenda is walking out, angry, carrying a cardboard box of in the classic style of someone who’s just been fired.

BUSINESSWOMAN: I’m sorry, Bob – I mean, “Brenda” – but the other workers just aren’t comfortable working with you.

Panel 5
Brenda stands at a counter, talking to a man behind the counter. There’s a “help wanted” sign visible taped to the counter. The man looks like he’s raised his voice angrily.

BRENDA: But the sign in the window says…
MAN: There’s no job opening here!

Panel 6, the final panel.

A man with curly hair raises his hand in the air, grinning, while Brenda glowers.

MAN: Oooh, “pronoun preferences.” Trans people always want special treatment!

Posted in Bigotry & Prejudice, Cartooning & comics, Transsexual and Transgender related issues | 8 Comments  

Thinking Some More About Antisemitism

(Note: The image above was taken by Naomi Ellis, the mother of the family discussed in the Washington Post article I discuss briefly below.)

In the context of a discussion we’re having about an essay I published recently on Unlikely Stories called The Lines That Antisemitism and Racism Draw, my friend Nancy reminded me of a conversation a group of us had around the same time the essay published about antisemitic graffiti that was showing up on the campus where I teach. It gave me, I said, a real feeling of déjà vu, and I started telling the group stories—some of which are in the essay—about the antisemitism, violent and otherwise, that I experienced growing up on Long Island in the 1970s and early 80s. She’d never heard me tell those stories before, she said, and asked if writing about them had helped me speak about them. Her comments struck me because I have never thought of myself as not speaking about my experience with antisemitism. When the subject comes up, I share the stories quite readily, but I guess that’s the point: the subject very rarely comes up. Indeed, it seems to me that antisemitism often gets treated as an “oppression apart.” It is sometimes—but not always and, in my opinion, not often enough—paid lip service in the list of oppressions people of good will are supposed to reject. Rarely, however, except by Jews, is it taken seriously as a social, cultural, political, and institutional manifestation of privilege that people who are not Jewish need to account and take responsibility for in their lives. (This is not true of Nancy, whose essay about her own negotiation/navigation of white privilege, Meeting the Man on the Street, you ought to read.)

There are reasons for this, some of which are understandable, given the deeply problematic assimilation of Jewishness into whiteness in United States culture; others result pretty unambiguously from straight up, old fashioned antisemitism. Regardless of the reasons, however, what Nancy’s comments made me think about is how important it is for Jewish people to tell the stories of our encounters with antisemitism. We need to tell them and tell them and insist that they be taken seriously, not simply as expressions of an unfortunate and perhaps residual hatred, left over from “a time before” when people were not as enlightened about Jews as they are now—a not uncommon attitude I have encountered—and not as what we ought (sadly and resignedly) to expect given how Israel behaves in the world, especially towards the Palestinians; but as the systemic form of hated and oppression that it is, woven no less ineluctably into the secular Christian culture of the United States than racism and Islamophobia. (I realize, of course, that antisemitism is also a worldwide phenomenon, but I live in the United States, and my experience is in the United States, and so it’s about the United States in particular that I am thinking right now.)

In blog posts that I’m not going to link to because the context in which I wrote them would distract from the point I am trying to make here, I told some of my own antisemitism stories, and in a good deal more detail than in the Unlikely Stories essay. I’ve decided it’s time to tell them again. For the reasons I gave above, I think they are a necessary response to things like the call for an armed, neo-Nazi/white supremacist march targeting the Jews of Whitefish, Montana, and to the appearance of swastikas on my campus and so many other places throughout the United States, and because of incidents like the one illustrated by the photo at the top of this post, in which vandals turned a family’s homemade menorah into a swastika. The stories, which take a while to tell, start below the fold.

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Posted in Anti-Semitism | 10 Comments