Monday, August 31, 2015

Historical quote of the day

“[S]uppose for a moment that we lived in a world where psychologists used women as the basis of comparison. We might then be reading articles and books that analyze the following problems that plague men:
• Men are more conceited than women.
• Men overvalue the work they do.
• Men are not as realistic and modest as women in assessing their abilities.
• Men are more likely than women to accuse and attack others when they are unhappy, instead of stating that they feel hurt and inviting sympathy.
• Men have more difficulty than women in forming and maintaining attachments.
Now the same ‘problems’ have to do with male overconfidence, unrealistic self-assessment, aggression, and isolation, not with women’s inadequacies. But you won’t find many popular books trying to help men like George Steinbrenner or Donald Trump, who, as far as I’m concerned, suffer from excessive self-esteem.”
- Carol Tavris, The Mismeasure of Woman (1992), p. 29

She didn’t ask him to answer on behalf of the State Department and CIA

...or to fail to mention his own warmongering. But this is how Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch decided to respond to Amy Goodman’s question about the US role in creating the conditions for mass migration to Europe:
AMY GOODMAN: So what does the United States have to do with it? I mean, you have these massive conflicts that have roiled the globe. Do we have a responsibility here?

KENNETH ROTH: Well, yes. If you look at why people are fleeing—let’s take the Syrians, who are the largest percentage. In an ordinary war, you can get some degree of protection by moving away from the front lines. But in Syria, Assad is dropping barrel bombs in the middle of civilian neighborhoods that happen to be controlled by the opposition. There is no safe place to move in Syria if you’re in opposition-held territory, which is why we have 4 million refugees from Syria today. So one very important thing to do is to go to the root causes of this, to try to put real pressure on Assad to stop barrel-bombing civilians, and to take comparable steps in the other major refugee-producing countries, like Somalia, Eritrea and Afghanistan. You know, let’s not forget why we have this crisis. It’s not that everybody woke up this morning and thought it would be nice to move to Europe. These people are being forced out because of severe conflict and persecution.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Women’s street names in Paris and Ankara

An action this week by a French feminist organization
A feminist group in France has been transforming the streets of Paris after noting that just 2.6 per cent are named after notable women.

Tourists on the Ile de la Cité got a surprise when they found that almost all of the street signs in central Paris had been changed overnight.

…Rather than walking down the Quai de la Tournelle near the Notre Dame, signs told passers-by that they were in fact on the Quai de Nina Simone. Other famous French figures such as record-holding sailor Florence Arthaud and pioneering lawyer Jeanne Chauvin were paid tribute to.
has spread to, and been radicalized in, Ankara:
After women in Paris intervened to name street names after women this week, the action has spread to the Turkish capital of Ankara.

…In Turkey's capital of Ankara, the Nar Women's Solidarity Network has taken up the direct action in their own city. They have so far renamed streets after women like Nevin Yıldırım, serving a life sentence for killing her rapist; Ekin Wan, the woman guerrilla tortured and displayed by Turkish police; sociologist Pınar Selek, framed for a bombing for her political activism; and artist Pippa Bacca, who was raped and killed in Turkey while taking part in a women's performance art action to promote peace.

Quote of the day – “They insisted on our surrender”

“Friends, I am not here today to drum up support for Greece’s crushed democracy.

I am here to lend the Greek people’s support and solidarity to France’s democracy. For this is what is at stake. French democracy. Spanish democracy. Italian democracy. Democracy throughout Europe. Greece was and unfortunately remains a laboratory where the destructive power of self-defeating austerity was tried and tested. Greece was never the issue for the Troika and its minions. You are!

It is not true that our creditors are interested in getting their money back from the Greek state. Or that they want to see Greece reformed. If they were, they would have discussed seriously our proposals for restructuring Greece’s public debt in a manner ensuring that they get most of it back. But they could not care less. They instead insisted on our surrender. It was the only thing they cared about. They cared uniquely about one thing: To confirm Dr Schäuble’s dictum that elections cannot be allowed to change anything in Europe. That democracy ends where insolvency begins. That proud nations facing debt issues must be condemned to a debt prison within which it is impossible to produce the wealth necessary to repay their debts and get out of jail. And so it is that Europe is turning from our common home to our shared iron cage.”
- Yanis Varoufakis, speech at Frangy-en-Bresse, France, August 23, 2015

Friday, August 28, 2015

Uprising in Guatemala

“Now, there’s fear in Washington. There’s fear among the oligarchs that this whole Pandora’s box could be opened, because the people are in the streets. Now the people are in the streets talking about the corruption, but if they start more intensively talking about the blood, if they follow that trail of blood, it leads directly back to Washington. It leads directly back to the suites of CACIF, the oligarchs who own Guatemala.”
Allan Nairn returned to Democracy Now! yesterday to talk more about the mass protests in Guatemala and the continuing role of the US government in propping up the oligarchy:

(Transcript available here.)

Quote of the day

“Over the past couple of years, SeaWorld’s visitor numbers have fallen, its stock has plummeted, lawsuits have confronted their business practices, legislation has challenged what goes on at Shamu Stadium, and reported profits were down 84% on the previous year.

People ask me whether this is a win. I can only say that it was inevitable, and that I hope it’s only the beginning. Today’s kids are increasingly becoming part of the ‘I can’t believe we used to do that’ generation. They know that killer whales are not suitable for captivity.”
- Gabriela Cowperthwaite, director of Blackfish

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Quote of the day - a reasonable standard

“In this murky area of standards for retraction, there are some no-brainers – fabrication of data and plagiarism as prime examples. I would propose that journals add another no-brainer. When an article is part of a conviction or settlement for a crime, it is by definition ready for immediate retraction.”
- 1boringoldman, January 10, 2013, referring to Study 329 (see here for more)

Restoring Study 329

“Study 329: The Final Chapter Coming Soon”:
Arguably the most controversial drug study ever, Study 329, published in July 2001:
1. Concluded that paroxetine was a safe and effective medication for treating major depression in adolescents;
2. Is still widely cited in the medical literature, providing physicians with assurance about the usefulness of paroxetine;
3. Was criticized by a few alert and concerned journalists and academics. Their voices were buried by a tsunami of positive marketing and promotion by vested interests;
4. Resulted in a successful New York state fraud lawsuit against GSK;
5. Resulted in 2012 in the biggest fine in corporate history – $3 Billion; and
6. Remains unretracted.
In June, 2013 Peter Doshi and colleagues published “Restoring invisible and abandoned trials: a call for people to publish the findings” in the British Journal of Medicine (BMJ).

They referred to this proposed protocol as RIAT, and described its purpose as follows:
Unpublished and misreported studies make it difficult to determine the true value of a treatment. Peter Doshi and colleagues call for sponsors and investigators of abandoned studies to publish (or republish) and propose a system for independent publishing if sponsors fail to respond.
A team of researchers undertook to re-analyze the original data and publish a new analysis under the RIAT protocol.

In August, 2015, after a year and seven drafts, BMJ notified the team that their submission would be published in September, 2015. This will be the first ever trial with two completely different takes on the same data.

This new study, Restoring Study 329: Efficacy and harms of paroxetine and imipramine in the treatment of adolescent major depression: restoration of a randomised controlled trial, should shock all who care about integrity in drug safety. Find out the inside story when this site goes live.
How does this thing - resulting in a $3 billion fine for GSK, almost invariably referred to with adjectives like “infamous” and “notorious” - remain unretracted?

Some background here:

(Transcript, of sorts, available here.)

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Catastrophe in Yemen

“4,500 killed in Yemen in 150 Days of Saudi-led bombing.”

Quote of the day

“It’s a moment where the entire system of Guatemala is shaking. And in some senses, Guatemala is leading the world. They’ve achieved a level of civilization far higher than that of the U.S. It’s inconceivable that the U.S. could bring an American president to trial in an American court for mass murder of civilians. But Guatemala has done that. And now the people who are in the streets demonstrating are trying to take it farther by bringing down a sitting president.”
- Allan Nairn on Democracy Now!

Of course, we in the US hear little of these protests, or those in Honduras, or Beirut,…

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Historical quote of the day

“Anti-American activism caused by resentment of U.S. policy is open and pervasive in the Middle East. To improve the climate, Americans need to bypass commercial media and become aware of the core grievances held against U.S. policy. First, the U.S. is held directly responsible for the imposition of oppressive regimes against the wishes of their people. It is unlikely that the Jordanian, Egyptian, Kuwaiti, Bahraini, Tunisian, and Moroccan regimes would have survived until today if it was not for direct U.S. military, intelligence, and political support. And despite the lofty language of human rights and democracy during Carter’s administration and beyond, the people of the Middle East know better. They understand that the U.S. support is based purely on economic and military considerations, and that those interests are fundamentally at odds with democratization and human rights. So when U.S. officials speak about ‘moderate’ and ‘friendly’ Arab governments, the American public needs to realize the people living under those governments do not find them moderate or friendly. But moderation and friendliness are defined purely in terms of subservience to U.S. interests, not the interests of the country’s civil society.”

…“The U.S. has certainly dominated in the initial military phase of the campaign. But responses are sure to follow, regardless of whether bin Laden is killed or survives. U.S. military actions are certain to produce more angry youths and more clerics and leaders, just as successive Israeli oppression of Palestinians has not succeeded in ending the violent methods of struggle by Palestinians.”

…“The war against terrorism will likely not come to a clear end. It could drag on for years, if not decades.”
- As’ad AbuKhalil, Bin Laden, Islam, and America’s New “War on Terrorism” (2002)

The existentialism of Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (2015) is almost an existentialist manifesto. Here are a few quotes:
“Hate gives identity. The nigger, the fag, the bitch illuminate the border, illuminate what we ostensibly are not, illuminate the Dream of being white, of being a Man. We name the hated strangers and are thus confirmed in the tribe.”

“There is no them without you, and without the right to break you they must necessarily fall from the mountain, lose their divinity, and tumble out of the Dream. And then they would have to determine how to build their suburbs on something other than human bones, how to angle their jails toward something other than a human stockyard, how to erect a democracy independent of cannibalism.”

“I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free. In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers. To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.”
Coates’s Dream is Sartre’s and Beauvoir’s bad faith. It’s Baldwin’s innocence. And his vision of living and struggling authentically is an existentialist one. The book contributes to the long and great tradition of humanistic, atheistic political writing.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Quotes of the day

“If disorders flare up in Iran as a result of nationalization, the Russians may intervene, grab the oil, even unleash World War III. To call Mossadegh a fanatic may be correct, but it explains almost nothing. Mossadegh is a far more complex character than the most baffling men the West has yet had to deal with, including misty yogis like Nehru and notably unmisty commissars like Josef Stalin…. Mohammed Mossadegh, with his faints, his tears and wild-eyed dreams, is a whirling dervish with a college education and a first-rate mind.” - Life magazine, 1953, quoted in Stephen Kinzer’s The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War (2013)
“For a fleeting few years the South American nation of Venezuela and its histrionic late President Hugo Chavez made waves on the global stage. While he upended the country’s economy and exploited class conflict at home, he blamed the world's woes on the U.S., insulted the American president at the United Nations, and exhorted other leftists in the region to challenge the prevailing economic model and follow his path to ‘21st century socialism’.

Since Chavez died, the world mostly stopped paying attention. That, however, may soon change.

The Venezuelan people have endured a catastrophic economic collapse that is sure to grow worse in the months ahead. If someone had set out to destroy the country they could hardly have done it more effectively than Chavez and his chosen heir, who has followed the same disastrous policies, driving the country into the abyss.

As his predecessor did, Maduro blames the shortages on the opposition, on his political enemies, and on the rich. But the real reason why the economy is simply not functioning is that the government has introduced wrong-headed policies that defy all logic.” - Frida Ghitis, CNN oped, days ago

Friday, August 21, 2015

Chomsky on the real threat

“Rogue States and Nuclear Dangers”


“Why Are We Ignoring the War on Yemen?”

Quotes of the day – On the contrary, Judge Doumar, I believe you do have a problem understanding Title IX

Judge Robert Doumar:
“Your case in Title IX is gone, by the way. I have chosen to dismiss Title IX. I decided that before we started.”

“I have no problem understanding Title IX. It’s specific and exact.”

“I am sorry for the Department of Justice. Sanctuary cities. Where are we going?”

“Where the U.S is going scares me. It really scares me.”

“Maybe I am just old fashioned.”
Gavin Grimm:
“All I want to do is be a normal child and use the restroom in peace. I did not ask to be this way, and it’s one of the most difficult things anyone can face. This could be your child. I’m just a human. I’m just a boy.”
[Source] [Source] [Source]

Thursday, August 20, 2015

So cute

Even better, I saw this, with other touchingly cute pictures, in a story about a California couple who have become vegans and started an animal sanctuary, and are converting their goat’s milk cheese business into a vegan cheese business.

Quote of the day

“Committee chair Avi Himi noted that Amponsah hadn’t attempted to meet any women or ‘act on her alleged preference’ since arriving in Israel, and that this is ‘contrary to what might be expected of someone fleeing persecution for a sexual preference’, according to Haaretz.”
[Source] [see also]

Dean Spade, Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law

“Trans resistance is emerging in a context of neoliberal politics where the choice to struggle for nothing more than incorporation into the neoliberal order is the most obvious option. We are invited to seek recognition in law that will deliver no actual redistribution of life chances. We are being offered a limited form of visibility, only to the extent that that visibility can prop up existing norms about whose lives matter and whose do not. We are encouraged to fight for inclusion in the systems that the most important movements of our times are trying to dismantle. The paths to ‘equality’ and ‘success’ being modeled by lesbian and gay rights will not reduce the premature death that pervades trans communities, and, in fact, those paths lead to legitimization and expansion of the very systems that most endanger trans lives.”

“[T]he picture of economic marginalization, vulnerability to imprisonment, and other forms of state violence that trans communities are describing suggests that the ‘successes’ of the lesbian and gay rights organizations do not have enough to offer in terms of redistribution of life chances – and that their strategies will in fact further endanger the most marginalized trans populations. If formal legal equality at best opens doors to dominant institutions for those who are already closest to inclusion (i.e., they would be included if it wasn’t for this one characteristic), very few stand to benefit.

A critical trans politics imagines and demands an end to prisons, homelessness, landlords, bosses, immigration enforcement, poverty, and wealth. It imagines a world in which people have what they need and govern themselves in ways that value collectivity, interdependence, and difference.” - Normal Life
Dean Spade’s Normal Life, with its criticism of the elitist priorities and hierarchical structures of mainstream LGBT organizations and celebration of grassroots trans groups mobilizing to dismantle oppressive systems in coalition with other social and economic justice movements, is of course welcome reading for me. His radical, essentially anarchist, vision of trans politics is naturally one I can support, even if in some cases I think he pushes his critique too far. (On a personal note, it was refreshing to read something on the subject that wasn’t a treatise on identity or a personalized argument about bigotry.)

The LGBT movement hasn’t been immune from the effects of neoliberalism, the reactionary backlash against the radical politics of the 1960s and ‘70s, growing inequality, the expansion of the police/prison/security state, and the “professionalization” and NGOization of leftwing organizations. Spade does a fine job of showing how many of the largest LGBT organizations have succumbed to these pressures and enticements in their priorities, practices, and structures. More generally, drawing on the insights of Critical Legal Studies, he argues that the top-down law-centered battles prioritized by these organizations do little to improve the lives of the vast majority of LGBT people, marginalize and exclude those not seen as “deserving” of liberal equality, and often serve to perpetuate the same systems that do the most harm to these groups. His description of an effective and inclusive trans movement is equally thorough, especially in that he addresses several of the obstacles radical activists face in the present context (though he could have said more about the organized opposition of powerful countermovements).

One of the most interesting sections of the book argues for a shifting legal focus. Spade suggests that an exclusive focus on reformist efforts to include trans people in marriage, the military, antidiscrimination and hate-crime laws should give way to campaigns that challenge the administrative systems that categorize and shape people’s life chances – healthcare institutions, welfare programs, employment, shelters, addiction “treatment” programs, immigration bureaucracies, prisons, and so on – and their practices of categorization and surveillance. These systems control “access to food, transportation, public safety, public health, and the like.” As such, they’re “the legal systems that distribute security and vulnerability at the population level and sort the population into those whose lives are cultivated and those who are abandoned, imprisoned, or extinguished.”

I was especially intrigued by the discussion of the “War on Terror” and the expansion of the security state and its surveillance apparatus. The security state, as it always has, attempts to shore up traditional categories and to exclude and police anyone whose identity or behavior is seen to threaten them. The ID programs of recent years also, as Spade points out, push in the direction of fixed and stable identities. “The augmentation of US security culture,” including the sharing and cross-referencing of information across agencies, “has raised the level of stability demanded of our identities and has sharpened the tools that heighten the vulnerability of those who are not ‘fully authorized’ in any particular administrative context.”

For trans people, this creates an impossible dilemma, given the widely varying requirements for altering identity documents (when they can be altered at all). More generally, in this sense, the state itself, in its most seemingly prosaic administrative acts, institutionalizes and enforces the practice of bad faith. While “people who find the commonly evoked societal norms used in classification familiar and comfortable tend to take these classification systems as neutral givens in their lives,” “the ubiquity of gender data collection in almost every imaginable government and commercial identity verification system” is necessarily “an area of great concern” for trans people and many others. “The consequences of misclassification or the inability to be fit into the existing classification system,” Spade shows, “are extremely high.”

Also significant was his discussion of the administrative denial of health care needed by trans people. I’ve been arguing that this care is comparable to reproductive care and should be socially and materially supported. But Spade introduces another aspect which also relates to bad faith and the essentializing of identity:
Much of the care provided to nontrans people but routinely denied to trans people by Medicaid programs has the sole purpose of confirming the social gender of nontrans patients. Reconstruction of breasts or testicles lost to cancer, hormone treatment to eliminate hair that is considered gender-inappropriate, chest surgery for gynecomastia, and other treatments are provided solely because of the social consequences and mental health impact faced by people who have physical attributes that do not comport with their self-identity and social gender.
Once again, systems prop up “given” identities while denying some people the possibility of living their identities authentically in practice. The costs to trans people, as Spade describes, are enormous: profound emotional suffering, lack of access to other needed services, vulnerability to illness through unsafe procedures, and vulnerability to harassment and violence. But there are costs to all of us.

I do have some criticisms. For one, this is probably the most repetitive book I’ve ever read. One sentence – about mainstream LGBT organizations’ equality and antidiscrimination campaigns pinkwashing, perpetuating, and even expanding the systems that are destroying the lives of LGBT people – appears in some form or another literally dozens of times. But several sentences and ideas reappear frequently throughout the text. I’m OK with this to a point, but here it’s excessive and leaves less space for other worthwhile information.

For example, I would have loved to have seen more, in the last chapters and the afterword, about grassroots trans organizing for social and economic justice in other countries and about cross-national efforts and solidarities. Spade mentions the role of Palestinian activists in bringing attention to Israeli pinkwashing efforts, but provides no sense of what Palestinian or other Middle Eastern LGBT activists are doing on the ground. Similarly, despite the solid discussion of grassroots movements against immigration enforcement in the US, there’s no mention of, for example, Honduran activists and their struggles against the US-supported coup.

While the section on the history of neoliberalism and the deradicalization of the LGBT movement is strong, I do think it leaves out the role of the AIDS epidemic, which has killed hundreds of thousands of gay men in the US since the 1980s, including many leading activists. You could of course argue that this could have led the movement to become more radical had people made different choices – especially given the continuing crisis - but any such history has to recognize the psychological, emotional, and social toll of that plague, and the impact of a deadly sexually transmitted disease on efforts to organize around sexual liberation. (The women’s and gay health movements, the struggle for reproductive freedom and care, and the psych rights movement are also the precursors of the trans health activism Spade recognizes as so important today. In those cases, too, some organizations and campaigns have been co-opted and “mainstreamed,” but others have remained radical. This history could have been emphasized more, especially given the wide potential for solidarity and coalitions in this area.)

The book is also missing a full discussion of what movements are doing, in practical terms, in the area of administrative systems. Spade makes a solid argument that legal efforts should be focused on these systems, but he doesn’t say enough about what these efforts entail on the ground. In some cases – concerning prison and immigration enforcement, for example – he argues that the ultimate goal is abolition, and the movements he discusses in depth are fighting for the abolition of the system as they support those most trapped in and endangered by it. But in terms of the more immediate struggles – eliminating the various impediments to changing identity documents, fighting for the public provision of trans health care, and so on - he provides less information. There’s one interesting discussion of a grassroots New York campaign, but I wanted more detail.

I recommend this book for anyone concerned with the struggles of trans people, the landscape of LGBT politics in the US, and larger questions about movement priorities and practices and the role of legal struggles in advancing radical goals.


This brings me great joy.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Pictures of the week

Tel Aviv sur Seine promotional image:


Tel Aviv sur Seine reality:


Friday, August 14, 2015

Pinkwashing Exposed: Seattle Fights Back!

I just learned of the film from listening to this interesting interview with its director Dean Spade. Here’s the trailer, but you can watch the whole thing – it’s a little under an hour – on Vimeo for free, or at the film site, or right here:

Pinkwashing Exposed: Seattle Fights Back! from Pinkwashing Exposed on Vimeo.

I think Spade did a great job with it. As he describes:
This film is useful, I hope, because it tells a story of what some local activists did to speak truth back to propaganda, and how we made our city confront uncomfortable truths. It doesn’t spare the details of the backlash - and it was ugly - because being prepared for backlash is part of doing work against well-organized opposition. But I think it demonstrates that despite the backlash, our work built a great deal of awareness and relationships and strengthened our resistance network.
For more about pinkwashing (origins), see here.

And because I still love it:

And a live version I just learned of:

“Because there is nothing hot about cruising in an apartheid state.”

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Title IX covers trans and “gender nonconforming” people

Last April, the Office for Civil Rights of the US Department of Education issued a guidance stating explicitly that: “Title IX’s sex discrimination prohibition extends to claims of discrimination based on gender identity or failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity and OCR accepts such complaints for investigation.”

I’m somehow just learning about this now, and I have several thoughts:

First, it’s big, and it was a great development, certainly for the trans activists who no doubt led the push for this explicit guidance. The full significance will probably only gradually become apparent.

Second, however, it’s a remarkable development not only for trans people but for everyone. The inclusion of protection for “nonconformity” with stereotypical notions of masculinity and femininity potentially affects everyone in an educational community. That’s why I’m a bit bothered by how the guidance was narrowly framed in many reports online as a victory for or recognition of trans people. The way protection against discrimination based on “gender nonconformity” was presented, moreover, for the most part tended to reify the very stereotypical categories from which the policy is meant to protect people. It was almost as though conformity-nonconformity was being portrayed as a spectrum, with trans people at the extreme end of nonconformity. In this way, it was suggested that “nonconforming” people were a subset of the trans spectrum, further reinforcing the idea that the guidance applied essentially to trans people.

Not only do I not believe this is an accurate view of identity and presentation – “conformity” with stereotypical gendered behavior has no necessary or inherent relation to being trans, and vice versa - but it’s inaccurate insofar as the text of the guidance makes clear that any discrimination related to stereotypes, including against characteristics or behavior which are seen as conforming, is prohibited:
It also prohibits gender‐based harassment, which may include acts of verbal, nonverbal, or physical aggression, intimidation, or hostility based on sex or sex‐stereotyping. Thus, it can be sex discrimination if students are harassed either for exhibiting what is perceived as a stereotypical characteristic for their sex, or for failing to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity and femininity. (pp. 7-8)
Of note, the guidance has this to say about discrimination based on sexual orientation:
Although Title IX does not prohibit discrimination based solely on sexual orientation, Title IX does protect all students, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students, from sex discrimination. When students are subjected to harassment on the basis of their LGBT status, they may also…be subjected to forms of sex discrimination prohibited under Title IX. The fact that the harassment includes anti‐LGBT comments or is partly based on the target’s actual or perceived sexual orientation does not relieve a school of its obligation under Title IX to investigate and remedy overlapping sexual harassment or gender‐based harassment. (p. 8)
I’m surprised and disappointed that the coverage of the guidance by advocacy and civil rights organizations didn’t emphasize that the guidance is a victory for everyone and that it challenged the enforcement of stereotypes rather than reinforcing them. If nothing else, this could have been helpful in countering anti-trans propaganda, which often suggests that laws and policies protecting trans people work against, for example, feminist challenges to these stereotypes.

Third, I don’t care for the language of “conforming” and “nonconforming.” It suggests that the policy protects types of people rather than types of behavior or traits or interests, which minimizes the reality that people can’t be sorted in this way. While some characteristics are relatively stable, we’re all at different times behaving in ways that can be seen as either congruent or incompatible with gender stereotypes. Phyllis Schlafly’s actions, for example, have been in many ways gender “nonconforming” (and, like her gender “conforming” actions, would all be protected from discrimination following this guideline). It’s important to keep the focus on the characteristics and behaviors themselves.

It also tends to conceive of all characteristics or behaviors as inherently gendered. A kid plays video games, is a vegan, enjoys crafts, wears their hair long or short, wears a skirt, plays hockey, is sensitive and nurturing, joins the drama club or the debate team,… - none of this is by any means necessarily an element of gender presentation, conforming or nonconforming. It could be, subjectively, for some individuals, but it could also be kids just living their lives as who they are and doing what they enjoy. Just because others want to see it as gendered and use it as a basis for policing and discrimination, it doesn’t follow that the choices and behaviors have a gendered meaning for the person involved. The choices and behaviors themselves are generic. The DOE guidance generally seems good and neutral in its language – e.g., “exhibiting what is perceived as a stereotypical characteristic for their sex” – but this subtlety often tends to get lost in the larger conversation, especially given the suggestiveness of the idea of “nonconformity.”

The notion of “nonconforming” is also misleading in that it implies that dress or behavior which fits with existing stereotypes is “conforming.” In our culture, nonconformity is valued, which can lead to those behaviors, interests, or traits regarded as stereotypical, and the people exhibiting them, being viewed with disdain. (Since we live in a patriarchal culture with a feminist opposition, being seen as conforming to “feminine” stereotypes can be especially scorned.)

As noted above, people make choices for a number of reasons, and not all choices viewed as “nonconforming” are rebellious (in fact, some might be a means of conforming to a different reference group). Of those that are rebellious, the rebellion can have various meanings (for example, it can be a refusal to act in accordance with any rules, or with gender roles specifically, or a specific choice to live according to your own interests, needs, and desires, and so on). And, as I’ve argued, without knowing another person’s subjective reasons for acting in ways that appear to “conform” to stereotypes, we can’t know that they’re actually conforming rather than living freely as themselves. And the idea that simply acting in ways that have been stereotyped itself contributes to oppression serves to delegitimize especially traits and behaviors associated with “femininity”: caring, emotional sensitivity, etc. Instead of concerning ourselves with questions of “conformity,” we should be thinking about choices and actions in terms of our values.

Quotes of the day

“If you identify yourself with something for so long, and suddenly you think of yourself as not that thing, it leaves a bit of space.” - Paul Haggis, quoted in Going Clear, p. 362
Truthout features an interview with Robert Whitaker and Lisa Cosgrove, authors of the new book Psychiatry under the Influence: Institutional Corruption, Social Injury, and Prescriptions for Reform (which has recently been added to my list of recommended readings in psychiatry, skepticism, and social justice). Bruce Levine asks the two about the possibilities of reform coming from within psychiatry, in light of the depth of the institutional corruption, the cognitive dissonance it entails, and the tendency among psychiatrists in response to “construct a narrative that protects their self-image.” They both answer that the chances seem slim.

I share their pessimism (which isn’t a general pessimism, I should emphasize, but specifically skepticism about moves for reform coming from within the institution itself – they do believe change can come from outside). The quotes by past presidents of the American Psychiatric Association at annual meetings that Whitaker and Cosgrove provide late in the book struck me as well, especially because I read it around the same time as I read Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (2013). The quotes all evince an effort to construct a particular narrative and collective self-image, to cast off doubts and criticisms. Two that stood out:

Herbert Pardes in 1990:
Psychiatry in 1990 is at the height of its powers. We have had a spectacular decade… Psychiatry works, psychiatry is respected for it, and we can hold our heads high.
Jeffrey Lieberman in 2014:
We have been waiting, many of us our whole lives, for the chance to change the way the world thinks of psychiatry and the way we think of ourselves as psychiatrists. Let’s use the momentum we have to plunge ahead into the next year with our confidence brimming, our energy renewed, and our sights set high…this is our opportunity to change the practice and perception of psychiatry for the better and as never before. Last year, standing on the stage in San Francisco, I told you that ‘our time has come’. Today, I say to you that our future is now!
These speeches remind me of little as much as the meetings and rallies shown in Alex Gibney’s documentary version of Going Clear. I don’t believe the similarity is entirely superficial, and there’s a tragic element in both cases. How difficult it must be to have dedicated years of your life to an institution; to realize it’s corrupt, built on a harmful mythology, and has led you to act unethically; and to face up to that knowledge. What a struggle not to let yourself continue to be seduced by the self-serving narrative that would put your mind and conscience at ease. And how rare are the people like Haggis who can bring themselves to do it.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Chicago will cover transitional care for city workers beginning this fall

Once the policy takes effect on October 1,” RH Reality Check reports, “Chicago will become the largest city to provide transition-related care to its employees. San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. have also started including transgender-specific health care in their insurance plans.”

The recognition that transitioning is of fundamental importance to some people – the difference between a life of suffering and a life well and freely lived – and thus that it should be socially and materially supported is growing. As I’ve been arguing over the past week especially, it’s analogous to the need for social and material support for reproductive technologies and services – birth control, abortion, sterilization, maternity care, fertility treatments,…

Sunday, August 9, 2015

My favorite jewelry shops

For no reason I can think of, it occurred to me to post a list of my favorite jewelry shops. In general, I like them for their classic, inexpensive silver pieces.

J.H. Breakell & Co., 132 Spring St., Newport, Rhode Island

Down Under Jewelry, 479 Thames St., Newport, Rhode Island

Village Silversmith, 20 Bearskin Neck, Rockport, Massachusetts

♥ Idee d’Arte, Via Leucosia 3, Positano, Italy

♥ Gioielleria Rita Innacoli, Corsa Italia 137, Sorrento, Italy


Via Our Hen House, I discovered Chickpeas and Change (now added to my blog list on the left). Via Chickpeas and Change, I learned about MyTransHealth, which is dedicated to “Connecting the Trans Community with Doctors Who Care.”

They’ve already exceeded their initial $20,000 fundraising goal on Kickstarter

and will evidently launch in the fall. They’ve been featured in Business Insider and The Daily Dot, so it doesn’t appear to be a scam (I’m always suspicious everything is a scam). Sounds like a useful service.

Historical quote of the day

“Remembrance of the past may give rise to dangerous insights, and the established society seems to be apprehensive of the subversive contents of memory.

Remembrance is a mode of dissociation from the given facts, a mode of ‘mediation’ which breaks, for short moments, the omnipresent power of the given facts.

Memory recalls the terror and the hope that passed. Both come to life again, but whereas in reality, the former recurs in ever new forms, the latter remains hope.” – Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man [sigh] (1964)
There’s much that annoys me about Herbert Marcuse: his vicious attack on the neo-Freudian “revisionists” [gasp!] Erich Fromm and Karen Horney (and Harry Stack Sullivan), wrong on so many levels; 90% of Eros and Civilization (the other 10% is splendid); his excessive fondness for the word “explosive”; and even some of the central arguments in One-Dimensional Man, including in the chapter from which these lines are taken, on “The Closing of the Universe of Discourse.” But there’s also a lot that’s worthwhile, and the section on “the subversive contents of memory” and their suppression in contemporary political language stands out.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Historical quote of the day

“Either we will have a coup, quick and dry, or another kind, or the proposal we’re making [for the Chávez government to step down]. There’s no other way to get past the deadlock being played out here in Venezuela.” – Venezuelan rightwing opposition leader Leopoldo López, April 11, 2002
This statement from an interview on a morning talk show is quoted in Roberto Lovato’s Foreign Policy article, “The Making of Leopoldo López.” Lovato was interviewed yesterday on Democracy Now!:

The full transcript is here, but the interview is a bit rushed and potentially confusing to anyone unfamiliar with the context. Better to read the FP article itself. (I do wish citations or video links had been provided for all of the quotations. That really should be standard practice.) A couple of thoughts:

The US rightwing propaganda and psyops experts, aided by the US media, have convinced our resident dupes that these people are progressive democratic activists and not far-Right, fat cat, violent coup-plotters. It’s the Cold War all over again.

And speaking of which, what is it with Kenyon College? The evidence presented in Frances Stonor Saunders’ The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters was surprising given my previous image of the school. And now I learn that López and several rightwing figures in the US involved with the Venezuelan opposition are alumni…

Quote of the day

Rule the first. Have a fucking sense of perspective. This is a blog. It is an ephemeral arrangement of electrons. Someday I will die, and it will fall into unread neglect, and maybe it will get archived somewhere, temporarily, but it will be completely forgotten. And when our civilization falls, it will fade into nothingness, lost and unreadable forever. Eventually our species will go extinct, and no one will even mourn the loss of the great things, let alone a blog. You are a mere burble in the flux of energy through the universe, and this collection of transient words is little more than the almost undetectably tiny hiss of static briefly put out by the collision of burbles.” – new Pharyngula commenting rules

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Quote of the day: state-backed censors

“Protecting the private interests of a powerful industry, which produces the public’s food supply, against public scrutiny is not a legitimate government interest.” – Judge B. Lynn Winmill, striking down Idaho’s unconstitutional ag gag law
Hooray! The first domino to fall. You can read the whole decision at the link here. It’s a lesson in the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Congratulations and thanks to the ALDF and all the other plaintiffs.

Monday, August 3, 2015

James Baldwin’s existentialist critique of gender, misogyny, and homophobia and its value today, Part 2

[I just learned from this nice piece in Salon that yesterday was Baldwin’s birthday. One featured quotation seems apt: “[O]ur humanity is our burden, our life. The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his [sic] beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.”]

My previous post, drawing on a 2013 article by Molly Farneth, discussed existentialist themes in James Baldwin’s work, focusing on the influence of Simone de Beauvoir’s “maturational model” on his thought about bad faith (or, as he called it, innocence) and authenticity. To summarize, for Baldwin as for Sartre and Beauvoir, living authentically meant recognizing and accepting the contingency and ambiguity of identities – choosing existential freedom and its attendant responsibility rather than hiding behind essentialist claims. In that post, I challenged Beauvoir and Baldwin’s contention that a moment of choice between authenticity and bad faith occurs as we mature, particularly in adolescence, when a small portion of people bravely (but inexplicably) opt for authenticity while the rest retreat into what is no longer the natural innocence of childhood but has become a bad-faith innocence.

While I don’t think their coming-of-age model best captures how people grow into authenticity or bad faith, I’m impressed by the fact that they wrote about gender and sexuality in these terms in the middle of the last century. It’s difficult to overestimate the misogyny and homophobia that pervaded the political culture of the era, or how strongly these were linked. The work and thought of Jean-Paul Sartre, despite his perspicacious analysis of the bad faith of racial, nationalist, and other identities, were suffused by misogyny and homophobia.1 In this, Sartre was simply representative of his time. The woman and the homosexual (or “invert”) were seen as fundamentally threatening to the survival of the “Free World,” linked in the political imagination to totalitarianism and decline. This was true not only among conservatives, but across the political spectrum.2 Few were those who spoke out against the concrete treatment of these groups in political life, and even fewer who dared openly challenge the ideology at the core of their marginalization, exclusion, and policing.

In this context, Baldwin’s 1949 essay “Preservation of Innocence” was remarkable. He didn’t seek merely to defend the victims of homophobia and misogyny from false and harmful stereotypes, but turned the tables on their oppressors, going after the celebrated masculine identity and calling it out as a form of bad faith. Subverting cultural prejudices, he recognized that this identity made for a perfect case study of “innocence.”3

As Farneth describes, in “Preservation of Innocence,” Baldwin
turns his attention from racial categories to gender and sexual categories. In the first half…, Baldwin defends homosexuals against the claim that homosexuality is unnatural, by speculating on the concept of the ‘natural’. In the second half…, Baldwin turns to a discussion of hypermasculinity in contemporary American fiction. In connecting the two, he claims that homophobia results from people’s fear of the instability of gender categories; it is a violent effort to stabilize particular conceptions of manhood and womanhood.” (180; my emphasis)

…Baldwin discusses the nature of man and woman and their relationship to each other in the context of his discussion of homosexuality for two related reasons. First, Baldwin is trying to show that ‘natural’ gender categories are, in fact, human made. Like Beauvoir, who…argued that appeals to ‘nature’ attempt to oppress and silence those who threaten the status quo, Baldwin contends that such appeals attempt to eliminate uncertainty and ambiguity. …[I]n the second section of his essay, Baldwin argues that homophobia itself is the violent response of the ‘immature’ men and women who refuse to recognize the paradox of the sexes toward those who threaten gender categories. In this way, his argument about the contingency and complexity of gender identities is linked to an argument much like Beauvoir’s, about the tyranny of individuals who refuse to acknowledge the ethics of ambiguity and instead attempt to shore up the given world. (182; my emphasis)
Baldwin recognized that efforts to find essences of gender and sexuality are quixotic, Farneth writes:
Every attempt to establish the ‘natural’ qualities of men and of women fails. The evidence for the essence of gender or sexuality that one might try to amass from myth, legend, literature, and human experience is wholly contradictory and confounds the effort. (180)

…Baldwin notes the vast quantity of literature that has attempted to pinpoint the nature of the sexes and their relation to one another. Every such attempt, however, has simply added to the impossibility of the endeavor, for each assertion of what constitutes man or woman is confronted with an ever-growing number of counter-assertions, throwing these categories back into confusion. And yet it was this discomfiting ambiguity that produced the desire for clarification in the first place. (181)
As he wrote:
The nature of man and woman and their relationship to one another fills seas of conjecture and an immense proportion of the myth, legend, and literature of the world is devoted to this subject. It has caused, we gather, on the evidence presented by any library, no little discomfort. It is observable that the more we imagine we have discovered the less we know and that, moreover, the necessity to discover and the effort and self-consciousness involved in this necessity makes this relationship more and more complex. (quoted in Farneth, 181)
Given this, to live authentically (and thus ethically), “one must accept the ambiguity of these identities; thus, Baldwin notes, concluding the first section of the essay, ‘the recognition of this complexity is the signal of maturity; it marks the death of the child and the birth of the man [sic…and sigh]’ (598) (181; Farneth’s emphasis).

But Baldwin argued that US society was particularly incapable of living with this complexity and ambiguity, leading to identities and attitudes in grotesque bad faith: “Baldwin claims…the American male attempts to ‘preserve his innocence’, to remain like a child in the world of clear-cut and ready-made categories” (182) “One may say,” he suggests,
with an exaggeration vastly more apparent than real, that it is one of the major American ambitions to shun this metamorphosis. In the truly awesome attempt of the American to at once preserve his innocence and arrive at a man’s estate, that mindless monster, the tough guy, has been created and perfected; whose masculinity is found in the most infantile and elementary externals and whose attitude toward women is the wedding of the most abysmal romanticism and the most implacable distrust (597). (quoted in Farneth, 182)
“Violence against homosexuals” in the fiction of popular writers like James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler, “that brutality which rages unchecked in our literature,” was, according to Baldwin, “part of the harvest of this unfulfillment, strident and dreadful testimony to our renowned and cherished innocence” (599) (quoted in Farneth, 182-3).

I believe that this existentialist framework - focusing on authenticity (the recognition of the complexity and ambiguity of identities, the acceptance of freedom and responsibility), bad faith (the retreat to the security of essential, “clear-cut and ready-made categories”; the denial not only of one’s own freedom and responsibility but of other people’s authentic projects; the policing - sometimes violent – of established categories and identities), and how “innocence” perpetuates oppression – is robust and extremely useful in talking about gender and sexuality. I’ve been wrestling with what this means in practice. What does it mean to live gender and sexuality authentically?

My ideas about this are still inchoate, but I’ve been working out a few principles:
first, approach gender using the existentialist definitions of “authenticity” and “is”; second, frame all questions about gender in a way that applies to everyone – we all share the same existential condition – rather than to one category or another (e.g., cis women or trans women), while remembering that people have different bodies and bodily experiences and therefore different problems and needs that we collectively need to address; and third, always keep in mind that our thinking about gender has developed in a patriarchal, male-supremacist society and that our actions will either perpetuate this system or challenge it.

The existentialist approach. In one sense it comes down to the difference between the existentialist meaning of authenticity and the traditional, essentialist meaning, which, I’m sorry to say, means that we need to be clear about what our meaning of “is” is. In the traditional framework, to say that someone is, for example, a man is to say that there exists a category “man” with an essence – biological, psychological, spiritual - which exists prior to and apart from any person’s self-identification or any group’s definition. A person is a man in the same sense that a table is a table. So authenticity is determined by congruence with this essence. Some who might self-identify as men are not authentically men because they lack the qualities deemed essential to this identification.

The existentialist approach is pretty much the complete opposite. People aren’t identities in anything like the sense that tables are tables. We’re free – and we’re all equally “condemned” to be free in this way – to create and recreate our own identities as long as we live. Authenticity, in stark contrast to the traditional view, means recognizing this freedom and the contingency and complexity of identity – that there are no “clear-cut and ready-made categories” existing apart from how we define and live our identities. Again, this is a moral question: refusing to accept the contingency of identity and retreating into pre-formed categories is dishonest, hinders our own development, and contributes to oppression.

The shared condition. This understanding of authenticity can move us in a fruitful direction. But only if we appreciate that we’re all authentic, or, conversely, in bad faith, in exactly the same way, and we’re all equally capable of being either. It’s not a question that only affects certain categories of people. As Christina Richards argues,
[G]iven that gender is not considered one of the existential givens, everyone is ‘condemned to be free’ with regards to their gender. We may further reasonably consider that anyone who is not trans (in that their gender is unconsidered) is in bad faith for refusing to recognise their choice (about what aspects of masculinity and femininity they take on), and for refusing to act upon it.4
I would put it slightly differently: Because living gender authentically means rejecting essentialism and recognizing that we’re necessarily free (in the existential sense) in our choices of how we identify and live gender, we can’t assume that trans people are living authentically from the fact of being trans, because we don’t know – until we ask people – that they’ve rejected essentialism and accepted their existential freedom. But we can’t make any such assumptions about non-trans people, either. If someone’s living as the gender they were assigned at birth or performing their gender in ways considered stereotypical, we don’t necessarily know whether or not they’re acting out essentialist beliefs or conforming to societal expectations or living their own free project. And this is all complicated by the fact that as social beings our understanding of gender comes shaped by society, so it can be difficult to tease out conformity from what’s freely chosen, even within ourselves. We can only resist essentialist thinking, abandoning the search for essences of any sort at the core of our identities and living with contingency and ambiguity.

The patriarchal context. Recognizing that gender categories aren’t, in contemporary society, neutral is of great importance. The essentialization of these categories, their association with differently evaluated qualities, and the policing of their borders are all driven by a hierarchical system of oppression. All of these have to be resisted – individually and collectively - in order both to fight oppression and to enable people to pursue their free projects. Existential freedom isn’t the same thing as social-political-economic freedom, and in living our free projects regarding gender we face different problems and have different needs (involving law, policy, reproductive and other health care,…); reducing the problems and fulfilling the needs are social obligations. It’s also important to keep gender in perspective. It’s not the only identity, and often it isn’t especially salient; it’s also not the only axis of oppression.

So these are my thoughts as they’re developing. I’m still struggling with some questions which aren’t at all specific to trans people, but also continuing to read those perspectives (Anne Enke’s Transfeminist Perspectives in and beyond Transgender and Gender Studies is in my queue). And I remain impressed by Beauvoir and Baldwin.

1 One could point particularly to “What Is a Collaborator?” and “Holes and Slime,” but misogyny and homophobia aren’t incidental to a few works – they run through his philosophy as a whole. Even works addressing the bad faith of racism, fascism, and nationalism are frequently framed in homophobic/misogynistic terms.

2 See especially K. A. Cuordileone’s great Manhood and American Political Culture in the Cold War; The Lavender Scare; and chapter 6, “Literary Fascism and the Problem of Gender,” in David Carroll’s French Literary Fascism.

3 In fact, I often wonder whether Sartre would recognize the similarity between the rightwing anti-Semites whose bad faith he describes and, for example, contemporary Russian gangs who target gay and trans people for harassment and violence.

4 2011. “Transsexualism and existentialism.” Existential Analysis 22:2 (July).