Mrs. Palin’s Mangina: on the pregnancy hoax, feminism, and baby Trig

Laura Novak, the writer who interviewed me for a story on circumcision at the Good Men Project, has been writing a great deal lately about the so-called “Sarah Palin pregnancy hoax.” She’s done a series of interviews with Brad Scharlott, a professor at the University of Northern Kentucky who’s convinced that Sarah Palin faked the pregnancy of her most recent child, Trig.

Count me in the camp of those who instinctively reject conspiracy theories — and who find it find it difficult to believe that Palin faked a pregnancy to cover up for Bristol (or some other family member.) But Novak tends to side with Scharlott, and both she and the professor have achieved some considerable recent notoriety as a consequence.

In any case, Laura shot me some questions and we did a little interview about Palin, pregnancy, and feminism. Read it all here, in a piece she calls Mrs. Palin’s Mangina.

Among other things, I say:

When it comes to sex, we’re all somewhat dishonest. We don’t have the vocabulary, most of us, to take the truth about our messy private lives into public spaces. Even if we want to tell our stories, our fears and our shame and our concern for others lead us to be less than forthcoming. And if Sarah Palin did pull off an elaborate hoax, I’m not sure that speaks to her essential truthfulness as a politician. When it comes to sex (our own and our children’s), we lie when we’d tell the truth about anything else…

Weinergate, penis pics, and the longing to be hot

In response to Anthony Weiner’s press conference yesterday in which he admitted using the internet to send semi-nude pictures of himself to young women, Irin Carmon suggests at Jezebel that this latest scandal is — like many others before it — rooted in male narcissism.

All over the Internet, men are photographing their own bodies and sending the shots to women who are maybe not their wives and girlfriends. It’s a risk for most any non-professional, but it’s one that predictably costs male politicians like Anthony Weiner — and the men before him — so much more. So why do they do it?

“Hottttt.” That’s the Facebook comment on a video of Weiner speech that launched Meagan Broussard’s Internet flirtation with the Congressman, complete with cockshots clothed and maybe less so. “You’re so hot,” was Rielle Hunter’s opening line to John Edwards; eventually, he thought it was a good idea to make a sex tape with her.

In the Venn diagram of narcissism, the overlap of men in political office and men whose sexual narcissism verges on self destruction is increasingly visible. If you want to blame the Internet for anything, blame it for manifesting — and giving an outlet to — what surely must have always been present: Men (and they are still overwhelmingly men) who not only want your votes but for you to adore their waxed pecs. And they think they can get away with it.

Carmon isn’t entirely off base. But she misses the key point, though it’s one she hints at. “Hot” has such extraordinary power in these men’s lives not because they are all narcissists (though some may meet the clinical definition of that term) but because they so rarely hear the word. Powerful men who risk everything to send pictures of their penises or pecs to strange women aren’t filled with cocky self-regard. They’re filled with a desperate hunger for a very specific kind of validation.

In a piece I wrote for the Good Men Project in March, I suggested:

So many straight men have no experience of being wanted. So many straight men have no experience of sensing a gaze of outright longing. Even many men who are wise in the world and in relationships, who know that their wives or girlfriends love them, do not know what it is to be admired for their bodies and their looks. They may know what it is to be relied upon, they may know what it is to bring another to ecstasy with their touch, but they don’t know what it is to be found not only aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but worthy of longing.

I’ll bet Anthony Weiner doesn’t doubt his own intellectual or political abilities. Like many men who are good at what they do (and Weiner has been one of the most able members of the Democratic caucus for years), he exudes a confidence that borders on arrogance. I don’t think that’s feigned. But like so many men sliding towards middle age, there’s an unmet hunger for sexual validation. Men like Weiner know women may be attracted to their power or their status, but they want more — they long for validation that their bodies aren’t gross and disgusting. They want to be “hot.” Continue reading

Daughters Make Their Daddies More Liberal

This post is two years old, but if anything, I’ve grown more resolute in my liberal politics as a result of being a father to my darling, independent, assertive toddler Heloise.

There’s been a lot of research done over the years on the impact that becoming a parent has on one’s political preference. The common wisdom has generally been that becoming a parent, particularly to a daughter or daughters, would push that parent rightward in his or her politics. Indeed, back in my own youth, I heard some variation on this line from several sources: “What’s the definition of a conservative? A former liberal with a teenage daughter.” It “sounded” right, and not being a parent (but being quite left-wing), I was prepared, however reluctantly, to believe it might be so.

My student Hilary sends me a link, however, to this post at the wonderful FiveThirtyEight: Having Daughters Rather than Sons Makes You More Liberal. 538 provides a link to a PDF file of a forthcoming paper which summarizes a number of recent studies, all of which indicate that the presence of daughters in father’s lives (more so than in mother’s) tends to move men leftwards. This trend is true in both the UK and the USA (the two nations studied), and true both for ordinary voters as well as for politicians. For example, the study cites the work of economist Ebonya Washington:

By collecting data on the voting records of US congressmen, Washington… provides persuasive evidence that congressmen with female children tend to vote liberally on reproductive rights issues such as teen access to contraceptives. (She also) argues for a wider result, namely, that the congressmen vote more liberally on a range of issues such as working families flexibility and tax-free education. Her data — compiled partly but not wholly from voting record scores compiled by the three interest groups of the National Organization of Women, the American Association of University Women, and the National Right to Life Coalition — cover a cross-section of 828 members of four congresses of the US House of Representatives for the years 1997 to 2004. As her
final sentence puts it:

“Not only should we consider the influence that parents have on
children’s behavior, but we should acknowledge that influence may flow from child to parent.

Read the whole study, the comments at 538, and check out the fun graphs and charts. A statistician’s delight!

I argued in March that “strong public institutions which offer alternatives to traditional family structures and allow for maximum personal autonomy and responsible self-expression are a key way to promote a feminist vision on a macro-economic level.” That was and is my view, but it’s interesting to see that having daughters seems to lead other men (politicians and ordinary voters alike) towards that same position. It’s not the case that those who have girls are automatically more liberal; it’s difficult to argue that on most issues, Dick Cheney was somehow made more progressive by having two daughters and no sons! One shudders to think how much more extreme he might have been had he had “Larry” and “Mark” instead of Liz and Mary. (It’s worth noting that his nuanced and moderate position on gay marriage, rare for a right-wing Republican, was certainly influenced by having a lesbian daughter.) Continue reading

Osama and the policing of joy

In the late winter of 1953, my mother was a 15 year-old student at the International School in Geneva. One day, the entire student body was gathered for an unscheduled assembly, at which it was announced that Joseph Stalin had just died. The students (who came from all over the world) spontaneously cheered. The headmaster then gave them all a firm dressing down, reminding them that while some human beings are genuinely evil, no death is ever a cause for celebration.

I thought of that story last night when I heard the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death. And I’ve read with interest on Facebook, Twitter, and progressive blog sites an unfolding debate about what sorts of responses are appropriate. At times, it seems as if the debate over whether feminists could celebrate the royal wedding had simply morphed into a nearly identical bout of navel-gazing about whether progressives could rejoice (and if so, how much rejoicing was appropriate) in the aftermath of this American military operation in the heart of Pakistan.

I recall a similar debate on the left after Jerry Falwell’s death in 2007. In this thread at Feministe, disagreement broke out over how much celebration was appropriate following the passing of the arch-fundamentalist pastor turned right-wing activist. I made the mistake of saying “shame on” those who were jubilant, and was quickly reminded that Falwell himself had been an agent of shame in the lives of millions, particularly gays and lesbians. Those who had suffered more than I had because of that Baptist preacher didn’t need my moralizing about self-restraint. I learned an important lesson about scripting other people’s responses. My mother’s Swiss headmaster may have been right, but those of us who aren’t in his position need to be awfully careful not to prescribe (or proscribe) particular modes of grief or exultation.

My youngest students were only eight or nine when the Twin Towers fell nearly a decade ago. Osama Bin Laden has been a bogeyman figure for them, the man behind the plot that made their world (and that of their parents) so much less safe. The years and years in which he eluded justice became a symbol, at least for some, of the limits of American power. While television, movies, and video games featured heroes who could always get the bad guys, in real life the baddest guy alive continued to be out of reach, a phantom reminder of our vulnerability. It’s not surprising that the most impassioned and excited reactions I saw on Facebook and Twitter last night were from my youngest acquaintances. For many of my students, Bin Laden’s death ends a story that has been going on over half their lives.

Even if he was less in the news in recent years, even if he had been largely neutralized as a danger — he existed as a spectre, especially for the young. Little wonder that it was those who would have been in elementary school on September 11, 2001 who seemed most visible in the streets last night, shouting their patriotism and releasing a generational demon.

As for me, I’m glad he’s gone. I’m not heading out into the streets to wrap myself in Old Glory and chant “USA!”, but won’t begrudge those who did react with glee their celebration. I’ll think of my mother’s story about Stalin, about Ezekiel 33:11, and about the billions spent and the countless other lives lost in the wars that have unfolded since 2001. And I’ll not tell anyone how to respond to this news.

On Westboro and the Right to be Cruel

It is with both relief and anguish that I note the Supreme Court’s decision today in the free speech case involving Westboro Baptist Church.

“Speech is powerful,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority. “It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain.”

But under the First Amendment, he went on, “we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker.” Instead, the national commitment to free speech, he said, requires protection of “even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”

I agree, as did every major media organization in the country.

There’s no question that the members of Westboro Baptist Church (infamous for their “God Hates Fags” campaign and their penchant for vulgar, cruel protests at military funerals) hold views that are repugnant to virtually everyone outside of their tiny community. But it is also true that the First Amendment exists to protect deeply unpopular speech. In affirming Westboro’s right to protest today, the Supremes affirmed the rights of all of us who at one time or another feel called to express a view that others may find repulsive or appalling.

As a feminist who writes about sexuality and gender justice, I know the damage that hateful words and images can do. But I also believe that invariably and without exception, using the power of the state to ban those words and images compounds rather than heals the damage. It is why I continue to be a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union, and why I stand in reluctant solidarity with those who defend the right of the Klan and the Nazis to march. Though I know that “slippery slope” is a logical fallacy, it is not unreasonable to be vigilant about protecting the free speech rights of those whom we find repugnant. It is not unreasonable to suggest that a law that could be used against Westboro could quickly be used against those of us who advocate exuberantly and often explicitly for an inclusive sexual ethic.

In the end, the right to offend must trump the right not to be offended. With the exception of Justice Alito, the overwhelming majority of the court understood that principle today. I am heartened that from Sotomayor, Kagan and Ginsburg on the left to Roberts, Thomas and Scalia on the right, the Supremes stood for the right to be offensive, to be unpopular. Even, perhaps, for that most unhappy and yet vital of rights: the right to be cruel.

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Home is where the left is?

I’ve been very fortunate to do a lot of traveling in my life. But though I’ve been around the world, I’ve called California “home” for all of my life. I lived for nine months in Vienna when I was five, and spent three months teaching abroad in Florence, but with those exceptions, my trips abroad — or even out of state — have never lasted more than six weeks.

And I’m proud to say that I’ve only lived in areas currently represented by Democrats. Our home today is in Henry Waxman’s district. I teach in Adam Schiff’s district. I was born in Lois Capps‘ district, and spent most of my childhood in what is now Sam Farr‘s district. The family ranch is in Jerry McNerney‘s district, and I got my bachelor’s degree in Barbara Lee‘s district.

My brother manages to live in the only Labour-held constituency left in Southwest England. (Though my grandparents lie buried where my father grew up, in a tiny town now represented by a Tory.)

I love to travel. But I love to come home to the liberal enclaves of the Golden State.

A note on Wikileaks

I’m fascinated by the WikiLeaks story, but have little to add to the commentary we’ve heard so far.

I will say this: there are some government secrets that need to be leaked. When a government is engaged in illegal activity (either a violation of its own laws or international agreements), then that should be exposed. If we’re killing civilians or violating another state’s sovereignty in the conduct of a war, then the details should come to light. The Pentagon Papers deserved to see the public light of day. I’m not sympathetic to the argument that providing evidence of illegal activity in time of war is aiding the enemy. We deserve a government that conducts its business — including war — with methods that are congruent with our laws and values. For a democracy that respects the rule of law, means matter as much as the end result, and we can’t achieve a just end with unjust means. So, three cheers for sites like Wikileaks when they expose genuine corruption, bureaucratic malfeasance, or violations of international law.

But it’s a huge mistake to assume that all secrecy is evidence of illegality. It’s an equally colossal error to assume that secrecy is invariably incompatible with democratic values. None of us would like our frank assessments of our colleagues or cousins to be recorded and replayed for those people. Few of us would like our children to overhear our intimate conversations with our spouses. As with private citizens, so too with diplomats — it is perfectly legitimate for the US government to want to keep secret the candid judgments of our ambassadors abroad.

Nations, like individuals, work in private and public spaces. And just as we have no right to commit crimes in privacy, neither do governments. But not everything we wish to hide from the world is illegal or unethical. Wikileaks and Julian Assange would have far more credibility had they been more judicious about what they’ve chosen to bring to light. We need figures like Assange and sites like WikiLeaks. But we need them to do a better job of distinguishing that which governments have no right to hide from that which we have no right to know.

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California love

I love you, California, you’re the greatest state of all.
I love you in the winter, summer, spring and in the fall.
I love your fertile valleys; your dear mountains I adore.
I love your grand old ocean and I love her rugged shore.

— “I Love You, California”, Francis Silverwood (the state’s official anthem)

Throw it up
Let’s show these fools how we do this on that west side
Cause you and I know it’s tha best side

Yeah, that’s right
west coast, west coast
Uh, California Love
California Love

— “California Love”, Tupac Shakur

I’m a sixth-generation Californian on my mother’s side. And I’ve never been prouder to be a native son of the Golden State than I am this morning. While much of the rest of the nation swung hard to the right, Californians moved triumphantly left. We replaced a Republican governor with Jerry Brown, a quirky but undeniably progressive figure who was first elected governor when I was seven. (My father was Jerry’s philosophy T.A. at Berkeley in the early ’60s.) By a much wider margin than many anticipated, we returned a proud and unapologetic liberal, Barbara Boxer, to the senate. Both Democrats had to beat enormously wealthy Republican dilettantes; both did so handily. Pending the results of the attorney general’s race, Californians have elected Democrats to every statewide office, and even gained a seat in the state legislature.

Though we did not vote to legalize pot for recreational use, Californians voted overwhelmingly to reject Proposition 23, which would have suspended implementation of our landmark emissions law. Over 60% of voters chose to reject the appeals from big oil and other polluters; Proposition 23 even failed in famously conservative Orange County. I couldn’t be more thrilled and prouder of my fellow state residents.

All of this splendor for California comes on the heels of a glorious World Series, where the San Francisco Giants bested a team from the reddest of red states, the Texas Rangers. (I’m an Oakland A’s fan from childhood, but Bay Area pride triumphs in my heart.)

Yesterday, I spent five hours at the polls, working with the Feminist Majority’s “protect choice” campaign. Staying a careful 100 feet from the voting booths as required by state law, I stood with student volunteers (mostly my students, I’m proud to say) at a northwest Pasadena polling station and handed out literature for Barbara Boxer. We were jeered and cheered, but it was fun (and, as it always is, deeply moving) to play the part of activist on election day.

Exhausted and sweaty, I then drove over to the Beverly Hills offices of Feminist Majority for a victory party, where student volunteers and professional organizers gathered to celebrate California’s triumphs and to shake our heads in wonder at the choices made by Americans in other states. We found moments to cheer from other parts of the country, of course; I was especially heartened by the victories of Barney Frank and Raul Grijalva, two progressive congressmen who had been targeted by the right. The strangest moment came when we all stood and clapped for Harry Reid’s upset victory in Nevada. Reid, whose record on women’s issues is mixed at best, was applauded less for his own virtues than for his success in defeating a particularly extreme “Tea Party” candidate. Conservatives may be rejoicing today, but they would be rejoicing far louder had they sacked Reid and Boxer. There is no small satisfaction in denying them the fullness of their triumph.

But as we think about triumphs, it is good to reflect upon what John Pitney, writing at the National Review, remembers from Nikos Kazantzakis:

“A prophet is the one who, when everyone else despairs, hopes. And when everyone else hopes, he despairs. You’ll ask me why. It’s because he has mastered the Great Secret: that the Wheel turns.”

Filled with healthy dollops of both hope and despair, and staggering on three hours sleep, I’m off to teach.

Please vote

I won’t post tomorrow. When I’m not teaching, I’ll be volunteering with GOTV (get-out-the-vote) efforts with the Feminist Majority’s Barbara Boxer campaign. In an old post of mine about “voting memories”, I wrote about my “love affair” with elections. And even if the polls look especially dismal this time around for we of the left, that love affair continues.

Of course, my endorsements here.

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Losing Cyril: politics, abortion, Dr. Tiller, and saying goodbye to a friend

My friend “Cyril” and I are no longer speaking. After more than a decade of friendship, we stopped talking recently. We didn’t get too busy for each other; we didn’t have a misunderstanding. We stopped talking because of abortion and sexual ethics.

Cyril and I met at a time when I was first coming back to Christ at the very end of the 1990s. Infatuated with progressive evangelicalism, I found a natural ally in Cyril, who was slightly to my right but still deeply committed to social justice. For years, we met for breakfast to talk theology and politics — and to talk intimately about our personal lives. He was the first person I told when I started dating Eira. Cyril and I drove half-way across the country together many years ago — to his wedding. We ran together, lifted weights together. For the better part of a decade, Cyril was my best male friend.

In 2004, when I left the Mennonite Church, I also abandoned the “seamless garment” position on the life issues I had taken since my conversion. A staunch pro-choice advocate from the cradle, a fourth-generation Planned Parenthood supporter (my great-grandparents gave money to that fine organization back when it was still the Birth Control League), I briefly turned in my religious enthusiasm towards an anti-abortion position. It was always nuanced; I never favored making abortion illegal, but did regard the termination of pregnancy as deeply tragic and problematic. I soon came back to the more emphatically pro-choice position, and that caused tension with Cyril.

We agreed to disagree about abortion, about gay marriage (he favored civil unions only), and about pre-marital sex. We were so fond of each other, and found each other’s company so refreshing, that we made our friendship work despite those differences. As I moved back to the left and he skewed more and more to the right, we each remained the other’s loyal interlocutor, debating enthusiastically over vegetarian burritos and guacamole each week at our favorite hole-in-the-wall.

But then came my post on Dr. Tiller’s assassination last year: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die”: of a doctor, an usher, and the answerer of a call. Writing in explicitly Christian language, I compared the martyred doctor to the great Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Cyril and I had read Bonhoeffer together and discussed his influence. For a staunch pro-lifer like my friend, the post (every word of which I continue to stand behind) created deep cognitive dissonance. Cyril loved me, but couldn’t comprehend how I could speak of a man whom he saw as a murderer as a martyr. Though Cyril repudiated violence against those who perform abortions, he had grave doubts about the state of Dr. Tiller’s soul. I made it clear that I thought the doctor had been doing God’s work. And the gulf between us, Cyril realized, had now grown too vast for even a history of deep friendship to span.

We didn’t speak for several months. I had moved to West L.A. and was busy with my expanding family; Cyril and his wife had also just had a child. My calls weren’t returned, but I figured he was just incredibly busy. Finally, I sent him an email, and got a kind, serious, thoughtful reply. Cyril explained that he loved and respected me and was grateful for our years of mutual friendship. But, he said, ideas have consequences, a view he knew I shared. None of us agree with one another on everything, but there are certain core issues that are so central that the absence of a common view can strain even the best of friendships.

Cyril suggested, and I agreed, that to smooth over our differences over abortion for the sake of friendship would do violence to the seriousness with which we held our positions and to our long history of mutual respect. We would still be cordial when we happened to speak; we are both men for whom civility is an important value. But we are also people for whom there are higher values still. And because of those higher values, our friendship has ended.

(Parenthetically, we both agreed that this was where friendship and family relationships differed. Neither of us would ever abrogate a relationship with a relative over even this issue.)

I miss Cyril. But I honor both what we had and why it ended. Politics is not sports; it does have consequences. Our beliefs should never be so passionately held as to render us incapable of decency and empathy. But our core beliefs shouldn’t be worn so lightly that they can be tossed aside for the sake of amiability. I’ve lost friendships in the past because of my reckless behavior (sleeping with other people’s spouses, for example). If there is a good and honorable reason to lose a friendship, it’s the way Cyril and I lost ours. I love him and his family very much, and they remain in my heart. But my commitment to justice (as I prayerfully understand justice) trumps even friendship.