More Lives That Matter

The United States has among the highest rates of infant and maternal mortality in the developed world. Worse, according to official statistics, the rate of maternal mortality in the U.S. has shot up in recent years, even as the rate is going down just about everywhere else

(Maternal mortality rate refers to the number of women who die as a result of pregnancy and childbirth per 100,000 pregnancies/births. Infant mortality rate refers to the number of infants per 1,000 births who die between birth and their first birthday.)

Maternal mortality has jumped from 7.2 in 1987 to 18.5 in 2013; I understand the U.S. is roughly tied with Iran and Hungary in the maternal mortality department. And keep in mind that those numbers are averages; some states are not that bad, and some are worse.

However, a recent article in Scientific American argues that the maternal mortality rate really isn’t going up; it’s always been that bad, and we just didn’t know it.

Until relatively recently most states relied on a death certificate form that was created in 1989. A newer version of the form, released in 2003, added a dedicated question asking whether the person who died was currently or recently pregnant—effectively creating a flag for capturing maternal mortality. Specifically, this recently introduced question asks if the woman was pregnant within the past year, at the time of death or within 42 days of death.

The addition of this question means that the apparent increase in maternal mortality in the U.S. “is almost certainly not a real increase. It’s better detection from the new certificates,” says Robert Anderson, chief of the Mortality Statistics Branch with the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. “The numbers are going up but it’s most likely not because women are more likely to die,” he contends.

In other words, maybe the problem isn’t getting worse; it’s just that the way we used to collect data camouflaged how bad things were before. That’s so … not a relief. However, other researchers quoted in the same article think there is an increase that can’t be entirely accounted for by the change in data collection.


One aspect of maternal mortality that has not changed over the years is the extent to which it varies by race. The risk of maternal mortality has remained about three to four times higher among black women than white women during the past six decades. Since 1999 maternal mortality has climbed among both black and white women—potentially due to those changes in death certificates and also how deaths are now coded in the U.S. using the ICD-10. Yet even with the cross-race increases in deaths related to pregnancy, in 2007 the maternal mortality rate for black women was still nearly three times higher than the rate for white women.

Researchers have shown that black women are not inherently more likely to have underlying pregnancy complications. Indeed, one national study that looked at five major common causes of maternal death and injury that collectively account for more than a quarter of all pregnancy-related deaths found that black women did not have a significantly higher prevalence than white women of those conditions—preeclampsia, eclampsia, obstetric hemorrhage, placental abruption and placenta previa. Yet black women were two to three times more likely to die than white women with the same complication.

Increased poverty and stress are an obvious reason why black mothers are at increased risk, IMO, but the medical science guys who look at this stuff aren’t persuaded that’s the entire story.

Whatever the cause, the data tell us that a lot of women die in the U.S. who would have lived had they gone through pregnancy and childbirth in any of about 50 other countries, including Estonia and Qatar. And a disproportionate number of those women are African American, and nobody knows why.

There are huge differences from state to state, for that matter. Maine has a maternal mortality rate of 1.2, according to data aggregated from the Center for Disease Control. Michigan has a rate of 21.0. The District of Columbia is even worse — 38.2. We’re in Third World territory with that number.

Similarly, the United States lags behind most of the developed world in infant mortality, and a disproportionate number of those infants also are African American. Conservatives for years have dismissed the data with claims that these are mere reporting anomalies. If an extremely premature infant dies immediately after birth, for example, it’s usually counted in the infant mortality data in the U.S. but would not be counted as such in some other countries.

An article in the Washington Post from September, 2014 blows that argument out of the water

Despite healthcare spending levels that are significantly higher than any other country in the world, a baby born in the U.S. is less likely to see his first birthday than one born in Hungary, Poland or Slovakia. Or in Belarus. Or in Cuba, for that matter. …

… One factor, according to the paper: “Extremely preterm births recorded in some places may be considered a miscarriage or still birth in other countries. Since survival before 22 weeks or under 500 grams is very rare, categorizing these births as live births will inflate reported infant mortality rates (which are reported as a share of live births).”

Oster and her colleagues found that this reporting difference accounts for up to 40 percent of the U.S. infant mortality disadvantage relative to Austria and Finland. This is somewhat heartening.

But what about that other 60 percent?

“Most striking,” they write, “the US has similar neonatal mortality but a substantial disadvantage in postneonatal mortality” compared to Austria and Finland. In other words, mortality rates among infants in their first days and weeks of life are similar across all three countries. But as infants get older, a mortality gap opens between the U.S. and the other countries, and widens considerably.

See the chart in the article. We’re not losing newborns as much as we are losing infants from one to 12 months old, and the gap widens as the infants get older. It appears many babies are dying in the U.S. who would have lived if they’d been born in Finland. And the biggest factor seems to be income; in the U.S., babies born into poor families die a lot more often than babies born into wealthy families. There also are big discrepancies from one state to another.

The U.S. rate of 6.1 infant deaths per 1,000 live births masks considerable state-level variation. If Alabama were a country, its rate of 8.7 infant deaths per 1,000 would place it slightly behind Lebanon in the world rankings. Mississippi, with its 9.6 deaths, would be somewhere between Botswana and Bahrain.

Needless to say, a disproportionate number of those poor families are African American. I couldn’t find raw numbers, so I don’t know how many African American women and babies die what must be preventable deaths in the U.S. every year. Maybe someone else can find that number. I don’t know how many White, Native American, Asian American and Latina women and their babies die, either. In 2013 about 800 women of all races died of complications of pregnancy and childbirth in the U.S., and if you have the data and can do math better than I can perhaps you can figure it out. I found no raw numbers of babies who die before their first birthday, just the rates.

The bottom line, though, is that access to health care, including reproductive health care, is a life and death issue for American women. And our lack of attention to this problem is a national disgrace. Yet instead of addressing it we’ve been manipulated into a phony controversy about Planned Parenthood. Really disgusting.

Feminisms and Other Feminisms

Sort of staying with the theme of the last post — I’ve argued for some time that there is no feminist movement any more, but just a lot of different “feminisms,” many of which are at odds with each other. And I haven’t been fully active in any of them for some time, although as you regulars know I am passionate about reproductive rights and equal protection under the law for everybody.

This morning I came across a “radical feminism FAQ” that I found disturbing

Radical feminists are critical of gender itself. We are not gender reformists–we are gender abolitionists. Without the socially constructed gender roles that form the basis of patriarchy, all people would be free to dress, behave, and love others in whatever way they wished, no matter what kind of body they had.

Patriarchy is a caste system which takes humans who are born biologically male or female and turns them into the social classes called men and women. Male people are made into men by socialization into masculinity, which is defined by a psychology based on emotional numbness and a dichotomy of self and other. This is also the psychology required by soldiers, which is why we don’t think you can be a peace activist without being a feminist.

Female socialization in patriarchy is a process of psychologically constraining and breaking girls—otherwise known as “grooming”—to create a class of compliant victims. Femininity is a set of behaviors that are, in essence, ritualized submission.

As I tried to explain to some jerk in the comments in the last post, biological womanhood and cultural womanhood are two very different things that often don’t line up very well. To grow up in the 1950s and 1960s, as I did, was to be conditioned into a kind of cultural bifurcation in which we were locked into rigid gender roles — Friedan’s “feminine mystique” — while at the same time our actual biological functions were to be kept carefully hidden and never talked about.

Yes, we had at least gone beyond the Victorian upper-class ideal of pregnant women confining themselves out of sight once the pregnancy could no longer be kept hidden under clothes. But otherwise our bodies were a mystery even to us, because so much of our experience of ourselves was Not To Be Discussed.

Menstruation was a big one. I was introduced to the subject with a book titled “You’re a Young Lady Now!” that had a picture of a pretty girl in a sweater set and pearls on the cover. There was a lot of filler about dating that managed to not say anything about anything and advice about taking a lot of baths to stay fresh! and clean!, with maybe two pages of actual information about The Monthlies. The subliminal message was that this is a secret among us young ladies that we were supposed to pretend doesn’t actually happen and that we were to manage discretely, preferably by using the product of whatever tampon manufacturer published the booklet.

I’m sure a lot of us as teenagers had the experience of being doubled over with menstrual cramps while sitting in class, but we couldn’t just say that because menstruation was unmentionable in mixed company. So we’d say we had a headache and ask to see the nurse. I don’t know what we would have done if there’d been male nurses back then.

And, of course, while dating we were supposed to package ourselves in a somewhat sexually provocative way while pretending we weren’t really interested. Back in the day it was often assumed we wouldn’t be interested, actually, because young ladies don’t think those things. What we were supposed to do if we were interested was not discussed. But we were supposed to want to get married and have babies, in that order, because we were girls. Just as boys were supposed to want to have sex all the time and were not to blame if they couldn’t control themselves. But the unfortunate young lady who got pregnant out of wedlock was put through unimaginable emotional wringers and basically was screwed for life in several different ways.

Meanwhile, boys were put through their own very negative conditioning. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but the best book I’ve ever read on gender conditioning was written by a man, Sam Keen, and is titled Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man. And he discusses the emotional armoring culture requires of men that cuts them off from large parts of themselves. If you have never read it, I still recommend it highly, even though it was first published in 1992.

But here’s the thing — to say that our cultural and social ideas about gender role are screwed up and hurting all of us is not to say gender makes no difference whatsoever. To ignore the very real physical and emotional needs generated by our different roles in the reproduction process is to just put ourselves into a different set of self-denial boxes.

Self-other dichotomies are tricky things that you can’t get rid of by ignoring actual differences. It’s understood in Zen that the only way to liberate oneself from self-other dichotomies is to realize that the individual “self,” or whatever identity we cling to, is an artificial construct without substantive reality.

But while identity is artificial, experience is real (sorta kinda; this gets us into yogacara, which is hairy stuff). And the experience of life as a woman differs in many ways from the experience of life as a man, and it’s not helpful to anybody to pretend otherwise. We have different sorts of physical abilities, which is why there are sex-separated Olympic sports. Pregnancy and childbirth are significant life events that reverberate in every part of one’s being. Just the potential for pregnancy and childbirth can take up a huge part of a woman psyche even if she chooses to avoid them. And I understand the brains of men and women are organized in somewhat different ways, although I’m not sure we fully appreciate why that’s so or how that affects us.

So even though there is a lot about cultural femininity and masculinity that is artificial and limiting, to say there is no difference at all also is artificial and limiting. The ideal, seems to me, is to respect and appreciate real differences while letting go of culturally conditioned ones.

Getting back to feminism — it was Sigmund Freud who said “anatomy is destiny,” and Freud was far from being a feminist. This morphed into “biology is destiny,” and feminists have long said that biology is not destiny, particularly when thinking in terms of careers. But anatomy does shape experience, and it’s our experience of life that matters. Not role playing; not identity. Those things are artificial. Experience is not artificial, and it has a lot to do with how we understand ourselves.

Consider race. Racial differences are social constructs that have no physiological reality. But because whites and non-whites in our culture have radically different life experiences as a result of culture, sometimes we might as well be living in different worlds. The stubborn refusal of many whites to understand and appreciate this reality of experience perpetuates our divisions. Even more so, to deny that men and women have different experiences of life because of our anatomies is not going to help any of us.

Back in the day patriarchy defined everything about women as inferior, and this included our roles as child-bearers and nurturers. I remember an early issue of Ms. magazine, ca. early 1970s, that featured a cover photo of a young man cuddling a baby. The idea that fathers should play a role in the care of their own children was radically crazy at the time, and conservatives went ballistic about it. Now, weirdly, conservatives and misogynists have embraced fatherhood (or, in the case of misogynists, an idea of fatherhood) and have gotten the notion that feminists are against fatherhood, which certainly was never true. It was 1970s-era feminists who made joint custody the norm instead of some weird newfangled thing, for example.

I’m not sure if young people today appreciate that for a long time the Patriarchy took childbirth away from us. Not that men could give birth, of course. But in the 19th century the male medical establishment got in its collective head that childbirth was too important to be left to women and their female midwives. It was to be brought into hospitals where men with medical training could manage it. Never mind that maternal death rates soared in those hospitals, where puerperal fever was rampant and spread from one woman to another by the doctors themselves.

(Suggested reading: Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution by Adrienne Rich [1976] , one of the most gut-wrenching books I ever read, details how the war between patriarchy and maternity go back to ancient times.)

General anesthesia, while sometimes merciful, robbed a few generations of women of the experience of childbirth and put infants at risk. By the 1950s physicians had settled on a “safer” drug that didn’t block the pain but rendered women incapable of taking part in or remembering childbirth. As Sylvia Plath wryly noted in The Bell Jar, “it sounded just like the sort of drug a man would invent.”

The early natural childbirth movement was embraced by many women, but it was quickly joined by something called the Bradley Method, or “Husband-coached” childbirth, which effectively put the husband in charge of his wife’s labor. Soon some women felt they were being pressured by their husbands and doctors to avoid anesthesia when they really wanted it. Betty Friedan took a jaundiced view of natural childbirth in The Feminine Mystique, probably for that reason. (I want to add that I had both of my babies “naturally” and wouldn’t have missed that experience for the world. But some women have a harder time of it.)

(See also “The Masculinization Project of Hospital Birth Practices and Hollywood Comedies” by Shira Segal, which reviews the whole father’s part in childbirth as a culture thing. Interesting stuff.)

But I digress. The point is that women have had to fight even to take childbirth itself back from the Patriarchy. And in the larger scheme of things, it’s been a fight to have the different reproductive roles of men and women to be honored and respected, not judged inferior or superior. The experiences of pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood — when freely chosen — are empowering, not demeaning.

And parenting should not be ghettoized into some female thing that goes on out of sight of the Mighty Male Breadwinners, which is what had happened to it by early in the 20th century. Rather, parenting ought to be respected by our culture, and it should not be thought demeaning to men to fully engage in taking care of children.

And so today, NBA star Stephen Curry can take his adorable little daughter to press conferences and not be thought less of a man. We’re making progress. Fifty years ago if an athlete had done that it would have been the beginning of the end of his career, I suspect.

Going back to the beginning of this very long post, it seems utterly unhelpful to me to deny that there are real gender differences that ought to be respected and honored. And going back to the last post, this is why I take issue with trans women who want to define “womanhood” purely as a cultural role unrelated to reproduction. This actually is taking us in the opposite direction of feminism as I have always understood feminism.

And for those who want to define uterus-owners as “females” instead of “women,” I’m sure I’m not the only one who has noticed that “female” as a noun is the preferred term used by genuine misogynists when referring to women. Many misogynists avoid using the word “woman.” It’s kind of a tell of a woman-hater if he uses “females” as a noun when most people would say “women.” In some contexts “female,” especially as a noun, has long been a kind of gender equivalent to “Negro.” That’s not true in all contexts, of course.

But “womanhood” to me is the centered and intimate experience of being that part of the species that gives birth (although one doesn’t have to give birth to be a woman), with all the messiness that goes with it, and I’m not conceding the word. I have no problem with trans women taking on a cultural identity as women, but I am opposed to defining “womanhood” as being purely social and cultural. As I said, this is a fight engaged in for too long to be abandoned now.

Rachel Dolezal, Caitlyn Jenner, and Identity

Rachel Dolezal was born a white woman but has been passing for black for some time, apparently by darkening her skin and getting aggressive perms. She became president of the Spokane NAACP and a spokesperson for the African American community in Spokane, which I understand is small. Now a lot of people are really pissed at Dolezal for passing herself off as something she wasn’t.

Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as Bruce, has been surgically made over so that Jenner can live as a woman instead of a man. Many of us have been defending her. I’m of the “it doesn’t pick my pocket or break my leg” school of thought on this, frankly. If being a woman makes Jenner happy, I don’t have a problem with the gender reassignment.

So is this inconsistent? Not exactly. I wouldn’t choose Jenner to represent women’s interests or to become head of NOW. The life experiences of trans women are not the life experiences of biological women. Trans women have never had to deal with menstrual cramps or leaks. Pregnancy, childbirth, abortions, miscarriages — or avoiding those things — are huge parts of a biological woman’s life but are not on the transgendered’s radar. Have they ever had to find a place to nurse a hungry baby away from home? How about the joys of menopause? And then there’s the fact that someone who has lived into adulthood as a man is unlikely to have lived with the constant putdowns and sleights, socially and professionally, that all women experience. They may experience those things after the reassignment, but they didn’t have to grow up with them and have to struggle to not let it define them.

A few days ago in the New York Times, Elinor Burkett wrote an op ed arguing that transgendered women are threatening to derail progress for biological women. I was unaware of some of the stuff that has been going on —

…it’s growing harder to avoid asking pointed questions about the frequent attacks by some trans leaders on women’s right to define ourselves, our discourse and our bodies. After all, the trans movement isn’t simply echoing African-Americans, Chicanos, gays or women by demanding an end to the violence and discrimination, and to be treated with a full measure of respect. It’s demanding that women reconceptualize ourselves.

In January 2014, the actress Martha Plimpton, an abortion-rights advocate, sent out a tweet about a benefit for Texas abortion funding called “A Night of a Thousand Vaginas.” Suddenly, she was swamped by criticism for using the word “vagina.” “Given the constant genital policing, you can’t expect trans folks to feel included by an event title focused on a policed, binary genital,” responded @DrJaneChi.

WHEN Ms. Plimpton explained that she would continue to say “vagina” — and why shouldn’t she, given that without a vagina, there is no pregnancy or abortion? — her feed overflowed anew with indignation, Michelle Goldberg reported in The Nation. “So you’re really committed to doubling down on using a term that you’ve been told many times is exclusionary & harmful?” asked one blogger. Ms. Plimpton became, to use the new trans insult, a terf, which stands for “trans exclusionary radical feminist.”

In January, Project: Theatre at Mount Holyoke College, a self-described liberal arts college for women, canceled a performance of Eve Ensler’s iconic feminist play “The Vagina Monologues” because it offered an “extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman,” explained Erin Murphy, the student group’s chairwoman.

Let me get this right: The word “vagina” is exclusionary and offers an extremely narrow perspective on womanhood, so the 3.5 billion of us who have vaginas, along with the trans people who want them, should describe ours with the politically correct terminology trans activists are pushing on us: “front hole” or “internal genitalia”?

Even the word “woman” has come under assault by some of the very people who claim the right to be considered women. The hashtags #StandWithTexasWomen, popularized after Wendy Davis, then a state senator, attempted to filibuster the Texas Legislature to prevent passage of a draconian anti-abortion law, and #WeTrustWomen, are also under attack since they, too, are exclusionary.

“Abortion rights and reproductive justice is not a women’s issue,” wrote Emmett Stoffer, one of many self-described transgender persons to blog on the topic. It is “a uterus owner’s issue.” Mr. Stoffer was referring to the possibility that a woman who is taking hormones or undergoing surgery to become a man, or who does not identify as a woman, can still have a uterus, become pregnant and need an abortion.

Let me repeat that last one —

“Abortion rights and reproductive justice is not a women’s issue,” wrote Emmett Stoffer, one of many self-described transgender persons to blog on the topic. It is “a uterus owner’s issue.”

You see the problem. Seems to me some of the trans ladies may have lost their penises but not their sense of privilege. Now they’re mansplaining to us what womanhood is.

I also agree with Burkett that a lot of trans women seem to have embraced some aspects of the feminine mystique that Betty Friedan raised hell about back in 1964. No, dears, let’s not go backward now.

So, while I have no problem with people choosing to live with a different gender identity than they one they were born with, it has to be said that they are not fully biological women and they have not had the life experiences of fully biological women. Therefore, they don’t get to define womanhood or decide what issues are important to biological women. They need, in short, to STFU about what’s important to women or what words women are allowed to use to discuss their own bodies. End of discussion. If that makes me a “terf,” bite me.

Burkett also said,

Imagine the reaction if a young white man suddenly declared that he was trapped in the wrong body and, after using chemicals to change his skin pigmentation and crocheting his hair into twists, expected to be embraced by the black community.

And that brings us back to Dolezal. I’d be curious to know if she could have gotten away with the charade in a less white part of the country; Mississippi, say, instead of Spokane. She wouldn’t have had the same life experiences as someone born black, and genuinely intimate experience is hard to fake.

Without knowing Dolezal’s motivations or how her head is wired it’s hard to know what was going on, but it seems to me that if her interest in African-American well-being were genuine she would have respected the African-American experience enough to not try to fake being one in order to take leadership roles. That’s what strikes me as odd. I could see that someone white might fall in love with black culture and come to admire the unique beauty of African American women and want to copy that, but Dolezal went far beyond that.

The whole identity issue is a tricky thing. From a Buddhist perspective, things like race and gender are just temporary conditions, empty of self-nature. They are not who we are. However, they do have a big impact on how we live our lives, so we can’t very well ignore them.

Wanting to be something other than what one is comes under the heading of bhava tanha, “craving to be” or “craving to become.” It’s a particularly nasty sort of craving that has a lot to do with why people get stuck in samsara. And note that the craving itself is the problem; one can desire to be something good, like a nun or a heart surgeon, and it’s still a problem, especially if it’s more about enhancing one’s status than living on behalf of others. As soon as we think in terms of what we want to be, and not just what we hope to do, we’re in trouble.

So this whole issue of changing gender or race or anything else about oneself has a great many facets — biological, cultural, social, and spiritual — that we’re not really discussing, and which people need to consider and work out for themselves. In short, it’s complicated.

What Is It With Some Guys?

Since complaining about the upcoming elections is too depressing — even Sam Wang is giving the GOP an edge in the Senate now — I will complain about something else.

An article this morning on the culture of misogyny at Uber brings up the question of stubborn clusters of misogyny in our culture that cling to certain ideological groups. Why would libertarianism apparently attract so many women-haters? For that matter,  why are activist or “movement” atheists so often blatantly insensitive to women? You’d think that the New Atheists, dedicated to exposing the Evils of Religion, would bend over backward to show how non-patriarchal they can be. But, apparently not. Richard Dawkins in particular has revealed himself to be a real dick. And then there are gamers and online culture generally.

And yes, institutional paternalism is everywhere. But 50 years after the publication of The Feminine Mystique, there are these new movements and/or institutions that are dedicated to challenging the status quo, in some way or another, and they’re as bad if not worse as some of the Old Guard as far as women are concerned. Why is that?

When Women Don’t Count

A couple of unrelated stories saying the same thing — first, following up yesterday’s post on how gun rights “trump” everything else these days, here’s a story from South Carolina about prosecutors who say “stand your ground” laws don’t apply to domestic violence situations.

In November 2012, Whitlee Jones fatally stabbed her partner, Eric Lee. She has testified that she did not mean to kill Lee when she issued the fatal wound, but that she only meant to fend him off while he blocked her from exiting the house with her belongings, attempting to leave him for good. The incident occurred just hours after Lee had punched Jones repeatedly and dragged her down the street by her hair.

People had witnessed Lee brutalizing Jones and called the police. Naturally, when the police showed up they talked only to Lee, who told them there was no problem. So the cops left. Brilliant. Shortly after the police left Jones tried to get out of the house, and she says he attacked her again, so she stabbed him. And he died, and now she is facing homicide charges.

And why doesn’t “stand your ground” apply to this situation?

But prosecutors say the 2006 SYG law does not apply to housemates in episodes of domestic violence, as that was not the legislation’s original purpose.

“[The Legislature’s] intent … was to provide law-abiding citizens greater protections from external threats in the form of intruders and attackers,” Assistant Solicitor Culver Kidd, the case’s lead prosecutor, told The Post and Courier. “We believe that applying the statute so that its reach into our homes and personal relationships is inconsistent with [its] wording and intent.”

So, in other words, stand your ground only applies if one is defending oneself from a stranger? On what planet does that make sense?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, from 1980 to 2008, among all homicide victims—

  • Females were more likely than males to be the victim of intimate killings (63.7%) and sex-related homicides (81.7%) .
  • Males were more likely to be involved in drug- (90.5%) and gang-related homicides (94.6%).
  • Female murder victims (41.5%) were almost 6 times more likely than male murder victims (7.1%) to have been killed by an intimate.
  • More than half (56.4%) of male murder victims were killed by an acquaintance; another quarter (25.5%) were murdered by a stranger.

Self-defense laws that apply only to defending oneself from strangers are, therefore, self-evidently screwy even for men, but more so for women.  This same document says men represent 77 percent of homicide victims and 90 percent of perpetrators, but given that male homicides tend to be drug and gang related, it’s not clear to me what the stats are regarding men not involved in gangs and drugs, and that’s something I’d be curious to know.

Even so, it seems to me a lot of white Americans are obsessed with unreasonable fear of the “other,” whether of brown Guatemalan toddlers sneaking across the Rio Grande or drug-crazed black people breaking into their homes and killing them. I actually couldn’t find authoritative data on how common it is for armed criminals of any color to break into homes while the occupants were inside. Burglaries are common, of course, but burglars prefer it if the homeowners are not home.

A lot of men also have a hard time accepting the fact that most rapes are not, in fact, perpetrated by strangers lurking in dark alleys but by men the victim knows.  Conservative men in particular will denounce rape in the abstract but defend it in the particular, especially when the accused seems like such a regular guy. And they nearly always seem like such regular guys.

But the point is that, if the prosecutors are right, then South Carolina’s “stand your ground” law was written to address threats that probably don’t actually happen that often to real law-abiding citizens, but it doesn’t apply to the ways people really are threatened, especially women.  Again, brilliant.

The other story showing that women are still a variation from the default norm in America comes from the sharp-eyed Josh Marshall.

For years there was a constant refrain in American politics which would speak of two electorates, even two elections: election results among white people and then the results when you counted the votes of black people. There were more denigrating and racist versions of this talk. But the most revealing were the versions that weren’t consciously racist at all. They were at their peak of popularity in the 80s and 90s and went something like this: “Democrats haven’t won the white vote in decades. Without blacks, they’d barely be holding on as a national party.”

There were various permutations of this refrain. But, as I’ve discussed before, all carried with them the tacit assumption that black votes, while legal, were somehow a second-rate product in the grand economy of voting.

We’ve come a long way, baby, or not —

I raise this history because we seem to be seeing a similar trend in attacks upon or diminishment of single women. Last week long-shot New Jersey Senate candidate Jeff Bell noted that he’d actually be ahead if not for single women. He then went on to blame his opponent’s double digit margin on single women and single mothers who vote Democratic because they are “wed” to the social safety net and “need benefits to survive.”

Josh goes on to quote other voices of the Right, including Rushbo, saying variations of the same thing. And of course the reason there is a gender gap is that there are women voters who, sensibly, vote according to their self-interests, whether for equal pay or reproduction rights or protection from domestic violence, and Democrats overwhelmingly support such things while Republicans overwhelmingly oppose them. And why might single mothers be more concerned about the social safety net, pray tell?

Every now and then I still run into men who actually cannot understand why gender and racial diversity is a good thing in a governing body. Why can’t a legislature or board of directors made up almost entirely by white men make perfectly sound and reasonable policies that apply to everybody?

Because so often they don’t, that’s why.

War on Women Update

Dave Weigel has moved from Slate to Bloomberg News, at at Bloomberg he tells us that the GOP has a bigger and bigger problem with women voters.

The most interesting part, to me, is that in many races around the country Republicans are having to backstep and fudge and are genuinely on the defensive about their stands on “women’s issues,” including abortion. I can remember not many years ago it was conventional wisdom that socially liberal candidates should probably not discuss abortion unless directly asked about it, and then frame all responses in “safe, legal and rare” language.

But now the tables are turned, at least in some parts of the country, and now it’s Republican candidates who have to be careful to not come across as too extremely anti-choice. It seems the overreach of many Republican state legislators, as well as Republicans in Washington, to deny women not just abortion but even reasonable access to birth control has finally triggered the realization that Republicans are dangerous to women.

Again, looking back, I remember the “wink” campaign of George W. Bush in 2000. Dubya was explicitly anti-choice, but he had plenty of women surrogates winking at voters and saying, in effect, he doesn’t mean it. He has to say that to get elected. His mother is pro-choice; his wife is pro-choice. Don’t worry about it. But this truth is that Dubya never saw a women’s rights-restricting bill he wasn’t eager to sign. Fool me once, etc.

In Michigan, for example, Republican Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land ran what was supposed to be a “killer” ad pooh-poohing (with silence) the very idea that she was part of the war on women. Voters weren’t fooled; she’s now trailing her Democratic opponent among women voters by 17 points. “Land’s defense of her agenda that cuts access to mammograms, restricts access to contraception, and opposes equal pay for women is summed up in that now infamous 14 seconds of silence,” a Democratic spokesperson said.

I don’t think that Republicans entirely grasp that female genitalia do not a pro-women candidate make. It’s the issues, stupid.

Amanda Marcotte wrote recently that Republicans around the country are running away from “culture war” issues, notably same-sex marriage and access to birth control, and this is causing a rift between the GOP and the religious Right. Marcotte adds,

It’s almost possible to feel a small twinge of pity for the true believers on the religious right. For decades now, the Republican party has depended on them to endorse right wing ideology as a religious belief and to organize voters to get Republicans elected. But now the religious right is finding they only love you if they need you. Of course, religious conservatives shouldn’t fret too much. Just because Republican politicians may not want to engage in the culture war now doesn’t mean they won’t return to pushing the religious right’s agenda against gays and women once safely ensconced in office.

That’s probably true, although if (please) women’s votes cost the GOP the Senate in November, the next wink campaign may be aimed at religious conservatives.

What We Don’t See

Of all the conceits common to humankind possibly the most insidious is that any of us are entirely rational. And often the most irrational people are those who brag about how rational they are.

Even if a person’s basic reasoning skills are sound, the outcome of his reasoning nearly always will be imperfect. That’s because nearly all of us “live” within limited conceptual frameworks that filter and sort information in artificial ways. The way we conceptually interface with reality is based partly on our own experience and partly on how we are culturally conditioned to understand things.  And most of us are blind to this, because if we and everyone we know is artificially filtering and sorting information in pretty much the same way, we assume our understanding of reality is the only possible one.

(I wrote quite a lot about this in my book, by the way, explaining the way our limited conceptual frameworks have impacted religion and have largely rendered it ridiculous, but it doesn’t have to be that way.)

Breaking out of the conceptual box we live in usually takes some extraordinary experience — and often a shocking one — to see that we’re living in an artificial world and that the “real” one outside the limits of our awareness is largely alien to us. And most of us amble through life without ever having that experience.

Even though few of us ever perceive that we’re living inside a conceptual box, if we run into people whose conceptual boxes are very different from ours we think those people just don’t understand the real world (meaning our “real world”). I could define maturity, even wisdom, as the ability to appreciate  and respect that other people’s “worlds” are just as valid as ours even if they are wildly different. I wrote a few years ago,

My view is that everything we think comes from a complex of psychological discriminations and impulses, little of which have anything to do with “logic.” The way we understand ourselves and the world begins to be shaped from the moment we’re born and continues to be shaped by the culture we grow up and live in. In other words, all of our understandings are biased. This is pervasive and inescapable. Often the difference between “logical” and “empathic” people is that an “empathic” person has at least a dim appreciation of his own biases, whereas a “logical” person is utterly oblivious to them. …

… Our conscious, cognitive understandings of things are based on internalized models of what we’ve been conditioned to believe is “normal.” We may be able to articulate our ideas and perceptions in a coolly logical way, but the process by which we arrive at our ideas and perception is “complex, unconscious and emotional.” This is always true, whether we want to admit it or not. …

… Generally being “fair” is not losing one’s biases, but perceiving one’s biases as biases. If you recognize your biases as biases, you are in a position to overrule them as the facts dictate. But if you are so unconscious of yourself that you don’t recognize your biases as biases, then your “thinking” generally amounts to casting around for support for your biases. Then you put the biases and the cobbled-together “support” together and call it “reason.”

And this takes me to what we don’t see. I’ve written before about the “default norm” syndrome, also called the invisible baseline fallacy, which in our culture means white maledom is the default norm, and perspectives and experiences that deviate from those common to white men are not respected as legitimate. If you are a woman or racial minority in this country you have bumped into this iron wall of assumption many times, but the iron wall is invisible to a lot of white men. Not all, thank goodness.

This is basically the same thing that people are calling “male privilege” or “white privilege,” although I don’t like those terms. The degree to which one’s assumptions, biases and experiences are “privileged” depends on a complex of factors that include health or physical condition, class, and wealth. A white male lower-income paraplegic is considerably less “privileged” than the Koch brothers, for example. As wealth inequality becomes more extreme a whole lot of white people are being left behind to a degree I believe is unprecedented in American history, and I assure you most of these people don’t feel all that “privileged.”

Money is privilege. People who have always been financially comfortable have no idea how much lack of money can be an obstacle to basic functionality in our society. The poor are taxed in myriad ways, from paying higher bank account fees on their meager balances — causing the very poor to not use banks at all, but then one must use check cashing services that also take a bite. Without a car you take public transportation, which eats a lot more time out of your day. And if you don’t have money for a bus you simply don’t go anywhere out of walking distance, which puts a huge limit on your job opportunities. Those left out of Medicaid expansion still have limited access to health care, and chronic, debilitating conditions often go untreated. Poor parents often are caught in the day care trap — they aren’t paid enough to afford reliable day care, but without that it’s hard to hold a job at all. So one is perpetually making seat-of-the-pants arrangements with people to watch the children, and then worrying if the kids are safe. Etc. etc. Many conveniences people with money take for granted are not available to the poor, and the inconveniences pile up and make day-to-day life an exhausting exercise in barely coping.

And then it is assumed the poor can’t get ahead because they are lazy. And it is just about impossible to explain the problem to someone who has been cocooned from it. It’s not part of his, or her, experience; therefore, it isn’t “real.”

As a woman I am sometimes surprised at how much even liberal men are oblivious to the extreme misogyny that still lingers in our culture. I wrote earlier this year,

Even those of us who have never experienced physical assault have experienced sexual intimidation, belittling and humiliation, aimed at us only because of our gender. And most of the time we put up with it, because what else can we do? Confronting some sexist bozo could turn an unpleasant situation into something genuinely dangerous. So how has the political Right responded to #YesAllWomen? Mostly with more belittling. Charles Cooke at NRO, for example, dismisses the social media phenomenon as “groupthink.” We women can’t possibly know our own experiences, apparently, and simply imagine misogyny because we’ve read about it.

Especially to conservatives, problems that middle- and upper-income white men rarely if ever encounter are not “real” issues worthy of being addressed by society or government, but are exceptions that the individuals affected must take care of on their own. The fact that these issues may impact all of us, directly or indirectly, and that the cause may be widespread cultural and institutional bias that upper-income whites feed on a daily basis, is invisible to them.  And you can’t explain it to them. No amount of real-world data or well-constructed logic makes dent in the iron wall. If it doesn’t conform to the conceptual box they live in, it can’t be true.

This is why it is good to have diversity of experience represented in decision-making bodies such as governments, for example. White men like to tell themselves they can make decisions that affect everybody else just fine because they will apply reason. But their reason is based on biased perspectives that fail to take many things into account. Publius provides a good example here — many rape laws used to require a woman to show she had resisted an assault to prove she had not consented. But this is a male-centric view. A woman understands that if she is being assaulted by a violent man much stronger than she is, her only hope of surviving may be in not resisting. (I remember a bitter joke from many years ago that the only woman almost certain to win a rape case is a dead nun.)

And don’t get me started on reproductive issues. Just a few days ago I was told I was too emotional because I passionately disagreed that abortion must be criminalized. Naturally it was a man, who will never be pregnant, who said this. Yes it’s easier to be emotionally detached from a issue when it’s not personal, and when the real-world experiences and consequences of that issue are merely hypothetical. It’s easier to be emotionally detached when you’re behind the iron wall.

Michael Brown is being buried today. If his killing, and what we’ve learned about Ferguson, hasn’t given us a clear picture of the evils and pervasiveness of institutional racism I don’t know what else will. Yet just last week I encountered a forum populated largely by white men who couldn’t understand why people are always going on about race. Why is race such a big deal? Isn’t it  all about making white men feel guilty?

But I certainly don’t give a rodent’s posterior whether anybody feels guilty. Guilt doesn’t so much as butter toast. Our country is becoming increasingly dysfunctional, in part because our institutions, especially government, increasingly reflect the views of only the most sheltered and privileged among us. And it is increasingly unresponsive to everyone else. And, weirdly, a big chunk of the population being left behind still clings to the cognitive biases that support policies that are hurting them.  Their collective conceptual frameworks are not adjusting; they still can’t see past the iron wall.

See also: Andrew O’Hehir, “White Privilege: An Insidious Virus That’s Eating America from Within.”

Watch All the Nasty Beasties Crawl Out From Under the Rocks

Although you’d think the Right couldn’t do anything to surprise me any more, I have been unsettled by the visceral disgust of female sexuality that’s spewed forth from the Right in the past few days. In tweets, on blogs, in most of the usual quarters, the monster being revealed is something terrible to behold.

But let us not forget this is an old beast that’s been with us all along. It’s just that recent events have coaxed the creature into the light of day.

That right-wing extremists see women as a substandard Other is a given; it is, in fact, a universal characteristic of reactionary politics and religions, in all their many forms. But it’s been fifty years since The Pill became available, and wingnuts still can’t handle the thought of women as sexual free agents. Male sexuality is fine with them, of course. I don’t see objections on the Right to Viagra, or the idea of health insurance paying for Viagra, even though its primary application is to allow some men to have more sex. But The Pill, which has a variety of medical applications beside contraception, is Evil and Immoral because it allows women to have “consequence-free sex,” a condition not placed upon Viagra-enhanced men. And Erick Son of Erick is not the only troglodyte spouting that line.

Even though religion is the most common excuse given for this sick view of women, there is nothing in the Bible that forbids women from using birth control. I don’t know enough about the Q’ran to comment on that, but it appears opinions against birth control are coming only from the most conservative parts of Islam.

I’ve never heard of objections to birth control coming from Buddhism or any other Asian religion, even though Asian cultures often are as patriarchal as cultures get. However, these cultures generally are less hung up about enjoying sex.

Some religious traditions, such as Orthodox Judaism (although not Conservative or Reformed), point to the “be fruitful and multiply” line from Genesis to declare that God forbids birth control. But notice that nobody’s running around demanding restrictions on the sale of condoms. This is because of deeply entrenched sociocultural values, not religion. Those values say “consequence-free sex” is a birthright for men. It’s only when women are given some power over their own sexuality and reproduction that alarm bells go off, and the sickos grab frantically for anything they can grab to support their bigotries. And some grotesque misapplication of religious dogma is about all they’ve got, although I have seen some other even more bizarre and fact-free appeals to “science” and “nature.”

If you’ve read my book (Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World), or if you’ve read up on current research in sociology, you know that our moral views are mostly dictated by our emotions, and the “moral judgments” we create in our rational minds are all post hoc. See, for example, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (Pantheon Books, 2012).

Why is this craziness apparently coming from right-wing Abrahamic religion? This is from my book —

… Haidt says that’s basically what we’re all doing — allowing our rudimentary emotions to dictate what we think. And the rudimentary emotions come from our cultural programming and many other influences, such as the groups we hang out with. Researchers have found they also can influence people’s responses to moral questions by exposing them to foul odors, giving them something pleasant or unpleasant to drink, or even keeping a hand sanitizer within view. Reason actually has little to do with it, however much we might want to think otherwise.

When you understand that much of “morality” is about rudimentary emotions and biases, you might also understand why conservative and dogmatic religions of all persuasion tend to get hung up on sex and on keeping women under control, often going way outside the teachings of revered founders as they do this.

For example — going by the Gospels, Jesus said very little about sex and nothing at all about homosexuality, abortion, or birth control. And we know that there was homosexual sex, abortion, and attempts at birth control going on in his time, and he must have been aware of these things. But it appears he didn’t bother to address them.

Instead, he went on and on about loving God and everybody else, including your enemies. He was also big on feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, and visiting prisoners. The episode with the money changers in the Temple suggests he was not keen on people trying to make themselves wealthy on other peoples’ piety. For a man of his time and culture he was extraordinarily courteous to women, sometimes speaking to them in public (which was a tad scandalous, I’m told) and telling Martha that Mary didn’t have to go to the kitchen to make coffee and sandwiches if she’d rather listen to his sermon.

Flash forward to today’s right-wing Christianity. See the difference? Do I really have to point it out to you?

The obsession with sex and repressing women and their tempting ways is one of the most common features of conservative, dogmatic religion, whether we’re talking about Christianity or Islam or any other major spiritual tradition. Currently factions within Islam are going to unprecedented and grotesque extremes to subdue women. But I say there are factions within many other faith traditions that differ from the Taliban only in degree, not in kind.

And this tells me that the men in charge of things are channeling their own anxieties about sex and women and projecting them into their scriptures. In doing so, they sometimes wander quite a distance from what their scriptures actually say, revealing how pathologically deep those anxieties are.

Ultimately, all this flap about birth control has nothing to do with genuine religious devotion. It’s coming from sick, neurotic weenie-men (and some women, e.g. Ingraham and Coulter, who notably are unmarried and childless, although Ingraham has adopted children) who are terrified of female sexuality and can’t deal with the world unless women are kept under control. They are using the authority of religion — with assistance from conservative men in the courts — to impose their bigotries and emotional pathologies on the rest of us.

So let us be clear that the Great Divide in the birth control issue is not between the secular and the religious; it’s been the emotionally healthy and the deranged.

See also:

Why Patriarchal Men Are Utterly Petrified of Birth Control — And Why We’ll Still Be Fighting About it 100 Years From Now

Rape Victims At Christian College Told To Repent For Their Sins

Clergy Pass Out Condoms at Hobby Lobby in Protest

Biblical birth control: The surprisingly contraception-friendly Old Testament

The Court Ladies Are Pissed

Adam Liptak at the NY Times:

In a decision that drew an unusually fierce dissent from the three female justices, the Supreme Court sided Thursday with religiously affiliated nonprofit groups in a clash between religious freedom and women’s rights.

The decision temporarily exempts a Christian college from part of the regulations that provide contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

The court’s order was brief, provisional and unsigned, but it drew a furious reaction from the three female members, Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan. The order, Justice Sotomayor wrote, was at odds with the 5-to-4 decision on Monday in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, which involved for-profit corporations.

“Those who are bound by our decisions usually believe they can take us at our word,” Justice Sotomayor wrote. “Not so today.”

The court’s action, she added, even “undermines confidence in this institution.”

Preach it, Sister Justice Sonia! See SCOTUSblog for more detailed explanation. Sister Justice Sonia wrote a 15-page dissent that probably is still smoking. See also Corporations race into Ginsburg’s ‘minefield’ to claim post-Hobby Lobby religious exemptions.

By Their Tweets Ye Shall Know Them. People who are celebrating the Hobby Lobby and subsequent decisions do seem to have one thing in common, which is huge disgust at female sexuality. No surprise.

Rally Round the IUD

One of the several weird things about the Hobby Lobby decision is that it appears to leave open the possibility that just about any employer can withhold mandated coverage from employees for any “religious” belief, whether that belief makes factual sense or not. For example, Dahlia Lithwick writes,

Having read the opinion only briefly I am not at all clear on why Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, is so certain that he can hold the line here to closely held corporations and that the parade of “me too” litigants promised by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing in dissent, won’t show up on the court steps in the coming months and years. For one thing we are—going forward—no longer allowed to argue the science. “It is not for us to say that their religious beliefs are mistaken or insubstantial,” writes Alito. Also, going forward, we are not allowed to argue the depth of religious conviction. Once those are off the table in this case, they are either off the table forever, or the court will decide in the future what’s off and what’s on.

The science part refers to the fact that Hobby Lobby objected to emergency contraception and IUDs, in the belief that they cause abortions, and medical science says they don’t. Justice Alito apparently said that it doesn’t matter what the science says, it’s the belief itself that is sacred and unquestionable. But neither are we allowed to question the sincerity of that belief. This seems to me to open many industrial-size cans of big, nasty worms..

I don’t think most employers are going to suddenly drop contraception coverage, if only because it probably wouldn’t reduce their insurance costs much, if at all. It wouldn’t be worth the bad publicity. But the world is full of whackjobs who own companies and employ people.

Justice Alito claims this decision won’t open the door to denial of other kinds of coverage, but why it wouldn’t is not clear. Lithwick says this either means some religions — Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Wiccans — are not to be taken seriously. Or, he’s saying that some kinds of medical coverage don’t need to be taken seriously.

… while they concede that the government has a meaningful interest in assuring that Americans receive reproductive care, it’s actually only kind of serious, and not nearly as serious as the interest in preventing, say, the spread of disease (in the case of denied vaccinations). Here is Justice Alito: “HHS asserts that the contraceptive mandate serves a variety of important interests, but many of these are couched in very broad terms, such as promoting ‘public health’ and ‘gender equality.’ ”

Silly, silly gender equality. In silly quotation marks! You know what isn’t in quotation marks in this opinion? Infectious diseases. Because there’s a real government interest. Or, as Erick Erickson, the conservative blogger put it today: “My religion trumps your ‘right’ to employer subsidized consequence free sex.”

Erick Son of Erick is such a prince, ain’t he?

Anyway, early indications are that Dems intend to campaign on this decision. Dave Weigel writes that this decision potentially could cost the Republicans in November. Let’s hope.