On sex work and demand.

On sex work and demand.

I have only occasionally paid for sex work. 

At a library booksale, I purchased a copy of The Magus intending only to read the racy bits.  At a comic shop in California, I bought a bundle of Playboy magazines from the 1970s.  After reading an interview with the Erika Lust, my spouse & I watched some of her company’s short films.  While traveling in India with friends, we visited a health center and each purchased an Ayurvedic massage.

For the massage, each of us was taken to private rooms and told to change into rather skimpy thong underwear.  Then a trained professional – a man for the males in our group, a woman for the females – rubbed our bodies with a blend of oil and spices, carefully kneading our muscles.  There wasn’t the sort of rhythmic, focused attention that I imagine to be a component of “happy endings,” but midway through I began to fret about what I would say if that was the sort of massage that I’d inadvertently purchased.

Worrying left me even more tense after the massage than before it started.  Whoops.

Although, after we had all showered and reconvened in the lobby, my friend who’d convinced us to try ayurvedic massage regaled us with a story from his childhood.  His parents were Indian, and massage was a totally normal part of their culture.  And so, during a family vacation to Mexico when my friend was fourteen, his mother purchased a massage for him at one of the tents near their beach. 

Midway through, the masseuse wrapped her fingers around his oiled penis and rapidly pumped back and forth.  My friend was alarmed but, as a naive adolescent, didn’t know how to make it stop.  So he assumed that the easiest way to get through the experience was to close his eyes and think of things sultrier than England.

The masseuse cleaned off his belly.  He sheepishly exited the tent.  His mother asked, “Was it a good massage, beta?”

He averted his eyes and mumbled, “yup.”  Most teenagers act embarrassed and cagey around their parents all the time, so she didn’t realize anything was wrong.

She would have been outraged to realize that she had hired a sex worker. 

Sex work is a slippery concept, though.  In the process of writing this essay, I tried to come up with a definition; I failed.  You could reasonably argue that all massage therapists are sex workers.  Patrons are nearly naked; there’s a whole lot of lubricated skin-to-skin contact; a body is used as conduit to satiation.

A number of other professions fit most of the definitions of “sex work” that I came up with.  In strip clubs, lap dancers rub against a patron’s body in order to produce orgasm.  After pregnancy, many women visit physical therapists who help them regain bladder control; a worker rhythmically curls her gloved fingers inside the patron’s vulva.  A model might pose for Playboy – or even the Victoria’s Secret catalog – knowing that young men will climax while gazing at her image.  An actor in a pornographic film engages in sexual contact for money; so do police officers.

A writer who drafts an erotic story is arguably a sex worker, too.  The experience is enjoyed asynchronously, but the exchange of titillating words can be a form of sexuality, and a patron can certainly reach orgasm.

In practice, these people are unlikely to face legal consequences for their sex work.  Because the term “prostitution” is so nebulously defined, prosecutors and judges get to decide what counts.

Even for full-fledged, both-parties-shuck-their-clothes, somebody’s-parts-enveloping-somebody-else’s-parts types of sex work, certain people slide right past the law.  Many clients look like prosecutors and judges – wealthy, white, and male – so it’s easy to feel sympathy for them.  Hasn’t the bad press already hurt this man enough?  And, he’s a pillar of his community!  We’d cause too much collateral damage by locking him up!

From Bloomberg.

Instead, we punish people who are already marginalized.  Poor people, Black people, brazen women, LGBTQ folks, undocumented immigrants, drug addicts … they elicit little sympathy from our prosecutors.  Go ahead and lock them up.  Fine them.  Deport them.

Juno Mac and Molly Smith have written an excellent book, Revolting Prostitutes, documenting the actual results of our laws against sex work.  On the topic of nebulous definitions, Mac and Smith write that, in England (where sex work itself has been decriminalized, but every measure that would allow sex workers to keep themselves safe is illegal):

The definition of brothel-keeping is so capacious as to easily facilitate the criminalization of sex workers: a brothel can be any place where ‘more than one woman offers sexual intercourse, whether for payment or not’ or that is ‘resorted to for the purposes of lewd homosexual practices’.  In other words, a flat-share where both housemates regularly have casual non-commercial sex could theoretically count as a brothel under British law.

Vague and misogynistic, this is exactly the sort of language that leads to injustice.  Police officers haven’t been raiding the apartments of college kids who choose to fool around with their classmates; instead, they use this law as another tool to oppress undocumented immigrants.

It should be no surprise that carceral feminists and sex-working feminists have such difficulty even discussing this topic.  We disagree not only on the solution but on the problem: for carceral feminists, the problem is commercial sex, which produces trafficking; for us, the problem is borders, which produces people who have few to no rights as they travel and work. 

The solutions we propose are equally divergent.  Carceral feminists want to tackle commercial sex through criminal law, giving more power to the police.  For sex workers, the solution includes dismantling immigration enforcement and the militarized border regimes that push undocumented people into the shadows and shut off their access to safety or justice – in other words, taking power away from the police and giving it to migrants and to workers.

Mac and Smith acknowledge that there are valid reasons to dislike the existence of sex work.  But there is a danger – if we are too focused on the risk that society might view women’s bodies as objects to be bought and sold, we might lose sight of the real problem. 

Most sex workers don’t like their jobs.  They sell sex because they need money.

When we devote resources to the criminal justice system instead of the social services that people need, we make the problem worse.

We are not here to uplift the figure of the ‘sympathetic’ client, nor the idea that any client has a ‘right’ to sex.  We are not here to prioritize discussion on whether the sex industry, or even sex itself, is intrinsically good or bad.  Nor – as we will unpack over the course of this book – are we uncritical of what work means in a context of insatiable global capitalism and looming environmental catastrophe.

In the sense that we wish to see an end to all work, particularly the gendered and exploitative nature of prostitution, many sex worker activists are in fact ‘sex industry abolitionists’.  As the English Collection of Prostitutes have said, ‘Ultimately we are organizing for an end to prostitution … When women are able to claim back the wealth we helped produce, the economic conditions which have forced millions of people everywhere to sell their mind, body, time, and skills in order to survive or improve their standard of living, prostitution will no longer be there.’

[Anti-prostitution feminists] position work in general as something that the worker should find fulfilling, non-exploitative, and enjoyable.  Deviation from this supposed norm is treated as evidence that something cannot be work. 

It’s not work, it’s exploitation’ is a refrain you hear again and again.  One feminist policymaker in Sweden told a reporter, ‘Don’t say sex work, it’s far too awful to be work.’  Awfulness and work are positioned as antithetical: if prostitution is awful, it cannot be work.

Anti-prostitution feminists and even policymakers often ask sex workers whether we would have sex with our clients if we weren’t being paid.  Work is thus constantly being re-inscribed as something so personally fulfilling you would pursue it for free. 

Indeed, this understanding is in some ways embedded in anti-prostitution advocacy through the prevalence of unpaid internships in such organizations. … The result of these unpaid and underpaid internships is that the women who are most able to build careers in the women’s sector – campaigning and setting policy agendas around prostitution – are women who can afford to do unpaid full-time work in New York and London.  In this context, it is hardly a surprise that the anti-prostitution movement as a whole has a somewhat abstracted view of the relationship between work and money.

Work may be mostly positive for those who can largely set the parameters of the conversation, like high-profile journalists.  However, this does not describe reality for most women workers or workers in general (or even many journalists). 

Most workers suffer some unfair conditions in the workplace and would not, as a rule, do their jobs for free.  Work is pretty awful, especially when it’s low paid and unprestigious.  This is not to say that this state of affairs is good, or that we should accept it because it is normal, but nor is it useful to pretend that work is generally wonderful and exclude from our analysis the demands of workers whose experience does not meet this standard.

Mac and Smith would love to live in a world where no one felt the need to sell sex.  Barring that, they would like to see sex work become less exploitative, and they offer concrete policy suggestions that would help.  Their proposals are reasonable – and very different from the laws that our predominantly wealthy, white, male legislatures have been passing.

Even in Sweden – where we first saw the “Nordic model,” which ostensibly decriminalizes the act of selling sex while punishing buyers – sex workers are harassed by the police.  There has been no amnesty for women who sell sex because they are barred from other forms of employment by their immigration status.

From the Economist.

But, even if the police chose to pursue only buyers, these laws would still harm sex workers.  If any person involved in a transaction is considered a criminal, the transaction will be dangerous.  Sex workers subject to the Nordic model are unable to take basic safety precautions, and so they are hurt by these laws.

Similarly, U.S. bills that were ostensibly passed to protect women have instead caused worldwide harm.  Mac and Smith write that:

SESTA-FOSTA [which shut down websites like Backpage for trafficking concerns] censored a huge number of advertising platforms at once in spring 2018, rendering sex workers in the US and beyond more precarious, broke, and desperate almost overnight as their source of income vanished.  SESTA-FOSTA increased the power of clients and would-be managers, as sex workers scrambled to find work in any way they could. 

One client wrote, ‘I definitely think this will end up being a win for hobbyists [habitual clients] … prices will drop because providers [sex workers] will not be able to pull in new customers and have to take whoever they can get.  Specials [such as sex without a condom] will become more prevalent … They will have to act friendlier and not have the luxury of turning away clients any longer.’

[Note: clarifications for terms like “hobbyists” and “specials” were provided by Mac and Smith.]

It could seem paradoxical that these laws, which ostensibly aim to fight exploitation, instead make exploitation easier and more prevalent.  But ultimately it is not a paradox: reducing sex workers’ ability to connect with clients always increases scarcity and makes workers more vulnerable.

When we try to suppress demand by passing laws that punish people who buy sex, the lives of sex workers become more dangerous.  When we try to suppress demand by shutting down advertising platforms, the lives of sex workers become more dangerous.

We’re doing the wrong things.

Politicians are targeting the wrong sort of demand.

In economic terms, the demand for sex work is relatively elastic.  Fooling around is fun; it isn’t necessary.  When the price goes up – because sex workers raise their rates, because there’s an outbreak of STIs, because the transaction is criminalized, because there’s a cultural norm that people share their sexuality only within the confines of a church-sanctioned marriage – most people will have less sex.

Supply and demand.  In this sort of crude approximation, elastic demand would be represented by a relatively horizontal line (quantity changes significantly if the price changes) and inelastic demand by a relatively vertical line (quantity stays the same no matter the cost). Image from GrokInFullness.
What happens to demand when the effective price goes up because of a risk of punishment. Note that the intersection point between the red & dotted lines is lower than the original intersection point. Even though sex workers aren’t being directly punished, they’re now earning less money. Image from GrokInFullness.

By way of contrast, the demand for a safe place to live, food for your children, or medicine are all inelastic.  When you’re fleeing the ravages of climate change or militarized gang violence, it doesn’t matter how much it costs.  That’s why our immigration policies have been failing – by policing our borders, we’ve raised the price of migration, but we haven’t addressed substandard living conditions in people’s home countries.

Instead, we are making people’s homes less safe.  Both the colonial legacy and ongoing carbon pollution of places like the United States and wealthy European countries have led to droughts, government corruption, and drug-sale-funded violence around the world.  We have a moral obligation to help the people whose homes we’ve ruined; instead, we’re treating them like criminals.

I’ve written previously that a global wealth tax used to fund a guaranteed basic income would be the best solution to many of our world’s problems; Mac and Smith also conclude that:

To make sex work unnecessary, there is much work to do: winning rights for freedom of movement, labor rights, access to services and to work without threat of deportation, employment alternatives, better welfare provisions, cheaper housing, support services for single mothers, and so on.  If everybody had the resources they needed, nobody would need to sell sex.

Revolting Prostitutes is an incredibly well-written, deeply researched, important book.  It deserves to be widely read – certainly by everyone who purports to care about feminism, immigration, or human rights.

I worry, though, that some readers might be turned away by an ad hominem attack.  Many authors have careers that inform their writing; I’ve never seen these mentioned in our local university’s library listings before. Wouldn’t it be enough to list “Author: Smith, Molly” with no clarification?

Misogyny dies hard.

On parenting and short-term memory loss.

On parenting and short-term memory loss.

A deep undercurrent of misogyny courses through much of the world’s mythology.  In the Mahabharata (the Indian epic that includes the Bhagavad Gita), the hero’s wife is gambled away by her husband as just another possession after he’d lost his jewels, money, and chariot.  She is forced to strip in the middle of the casino; happily, divine intervention provides her with endless layers of garments.

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In the Ramayana, the hero’s wife is banished by her husband because her misery in exile is preferable to the townsfolk’s malicious rumors.  She’d been kidnapped, so the townsfolk assumed she’d been raped and was therefore tarnished.

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In Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey, a woman asks a visiting bard to sing something else when he launches into a description of the calamitous escapade that whisked away her husband. But the woman’s son intervenes:

Sullen Telemachus said, “Mother, no,

you must not criticize the loyal bard

for singing as it pleases him to sing. 

 

         Go in and do your work.

Stick to the loom and distaff.  Tell your slaves

to do their chores as well.  It is for men

to talk, especially me.”

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In Women and Power, Mary Beard says of this scene:

There is something faintly ridiculous about this wet-behind-the-ears lad shutting up the savvy, middle-aged Penelope.  But it is a nice demonstration that right where written evidence for Western culture starts, women’s voices are not being heard in the public sphere.  More than that, as Homer has it, an integral part of growing up, as a man, is learning to take control of public utterance and to silence the female of the species.

image (2)In What the Qur’an Meant and Why It Matters, Garry Wills writes that:

Belief in women’s inferiority is a long and disheartening part of each [Abrahamic] tradition’s story.  For almost all of Jewish history, no woman could become a rabbi.  For almost all of Christian history, no woman could become a priest.  For almost all of Muslim history, no woman could become a prophet (though scores of men did) or an imam (thousands of men did).

Wills then cites the passage of the Qur’an describing the proper way to validate contracts.  From Abdel Haleem’s translation:

Call in two men as witnesses.  If two men are not there, then call one man and two women out of those you approve as witnesses, so that if one of the two women should forget the other can remind her.  Let the witnesses not refuse when they are summoned. 

Clearly, this is derogatory toward women.  But the phrase “if one of the women should forget, the other can remind her” made me think about why disrespectful attitudes toward women were rampant in so many cultures.

I think that, in the society where the Qur’an was composed, women would be more likely to forget the details of a contract.  But the problem isn’t biological – I would argue that attentive parents of young children are more forgetful than other people.  The parent’s gender is irrelevant here.  My own memory was always excellent – during college I was often enrolled in time and a half the standard number of courses, never took notes, and received almost all A’s – but when I’m taking care of my kids, it’s a miracle if I can hold a complex thought in mind for more than a few seconds.

People talk to me, I half-listen while also answering my kids’ questions, doling out snacks, saying no, no book now, wait till we get home, and then my conversation with the grown-up will end and I’ll realize that I have no idea what we just talked about.

Hopefully it wasn’t important.

Parenting obliterates my short-term memory, even though I have it easy.  I rarely worry about other parents intentionally poisoning my children, for instance.  In The Anthropology of Childhood, David Lancy discusses

image (3)the prevalence of discord within families – especially those that practice polygyny.  [Polygyny is one man marrying several women, as was practiced by the people who composed the Qur’an.]  This atmosphere can be poisonous for children – literally.

Lancy then quotes a passage from Beverly Strassmann’s “Polygyny as a risk factor for child mortality among the Dogon”:

It was widely assumed that co-wives often fatally poisoned each other’s children.  I witnessed special dance rituals intended by husbands to deter this behavior.  Co-wife aggression is documented in court cases with confessions and convictions for poisoning  … sorcery might have a measurable demographic impact – [given] the extraordinarily high mortality of males compared with females.  Males are said to be the preferred targets because daughters marry out of patrilineage whereas sons remain to compete for land.  Even if women do not poison each other’s children, widespread hostility of the mother’s co-wife must be a source of stress.

Even when we don’t have to ward off sorcery or murder, parents of young children have shorter attention spans than other people.  A kid is often grabbing my leg, or tugging on my hand, or yelling fthhhaaaddda until I turn to look and watch him bellyflop onto a cardboard box.

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Seriously, they are exhausting.

Once my two children grow up, I should regain my memory.  But during most of human evolution, mortality rates were so high that families always had small children.  And, unfortunately, our species often established misogynistic patriarchies that believed women alone should do all the work of parenting.

There are a few species, like penguins, in which males and females contribute almost equally to the task of caring for young.  But it’s more common for a single parent to get stuck doing most of the work.  According to game theory, this makes sense – as soon as one party has put in a little bit more effort than the other, that party has more to lose, and so the other has an increased incentive to shirk.  Drawn out over many generations, this can produce creatures like us primates, in which males are often shabby parents.

This is bad for children (in an aside, Lancy writes “I’m tempted to argue that any society with conspicuous gender parity is likely to be a paradise for children.”), bad for women, and bad for men.  Inequality hurts everyone – men in patriarchies get to skimp on parental contribution, but they have to live in a less happy, less productive world.

It’s reasonable for the Qur’an to imply that women are less attentive and less able to understand the intricacies of contracts, given that their husbands weren’t helping with the kids.  Caring for young children can be like a straitjacket on the brain.

In The Mermaid and the Minotaur, Dorothy Dinnerstein writes that:

image (4)if what we mean by “human nature” is the Homo sapiens physique, and the “fundamental pattern … [of] social organization” which apparently prevailed when that physique first took shape, then human nature involves the females in a strange bind:

Like the male, she is equipped with a large brain, competent hands, and upright posture.  She belongs to an intelligent, playful, exploratory species, inhabiting an expanding environment which it makes for itself and then adapts to.  She is the only female, so far as we know, capable of thinking up and bringing about a world wider than the one she sees around her (and her subversive tendency to keep trying to use this capacity is recorded, resentfully, in Eve and Pandora myths). 

She thus seems, of all females, the one least fitted to live in a world narrower than the one she sees around her.  And yet, for reasons inherent in her evolutionary history, she has been, of all females, the one most fated to do so.  Her young are born less mature than those of related mammals; they require more physical care for a relatively longer time; they have much more to learn before they can function without adult supervision.

It hurts to have talents that the world won’t let you use.  What good is a massive brain when your kid is just yelling for more Cheerios?

 

Maybe I’m not doing a good job of selling the idea that “you should pitch in and help with the children” to any potential new fathers out there.  It really does make a wreckage of your brain – but I’ve heard that this is temporary, and I’ve met plenty of parents of older children who seem perfectly un-addled.

And it doesn’t have to be fun to be worth doing.

Experiences during early development have ramifications for somebody’s wellbeing.  As children grow, they’ll forget narrative details from almost everything that happened during their first few years – but this time establishes the emotional pallet that colors the rest of their life.

It’s strange.  After all, most of the work of parenting is just doling out cereal, or answering questions about what life would be like if we stayed at the playground forever, or trying to guess how many different types of birds are chirping during the walk to school.  And yet a parent’s attitudes while doing those small things help shape a person.

 

When most older people look back on their lives, they’ll tell you that their happiest and most rewarding moments were spent interacting with their families.  By caring for your children when they’re young, you help determine the sort of person who’ll be in your family.  If you’re lucky enough to be so wealthy that you’ll still have food and shelter, parenting decisions matter more for future happiness than a few years’ salary.

The costs are high.  But equality, happiness, and establishing a culture of respect should matter to men as well as women.

The best way to show that you value something is to pitch in and do it.

On the death of Thor.

On the death of Thor.

From the beginning, Thor was doomed.  The Norse gods were fated to die in Ragnarok, after which new deities would be born.

poetic eddaIn Jeramy Dodds’s translation of The Poetic Edda, this final battle is described as

                            Wolf-time, wind-time, axe-time,

          sword-time, shields-high-time, as the world

          shatters and no one is spared by anyone.

Thor finds himself grappling with the Midgard Serpent, a giant snake that had encircled the entire planet.  Thor bops the snake on the head with his magic hammer; the snake retaliates with poison.

[Thor] steps nine steps but is finished

          by that serpent who has no fear of malice.

Both Thor and Serpent die.

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Georg_von_Rosen_-_Oden_som_vandringsman,_1886_(Odin,_the_Wanderer)Thor’s father Odin spent much of his life obsessed with prophecy.  Convinced that great sacrifice would lead to wisdom, Odin stabbed himself with a spear and hung himself from a tree till nearly dead, nine days and nights.  Later, he traded an eye for a vision of the future – who needs depth perception, anyway?

But Odin still brought destruction upon himself.

According to the prophecies, Odin would be killed by a giant beast, the Fenris Wolf.  Like the Midgard Serpent, this wolf was a child of Loki.  By rights, the wolf should have joined the pantheon.  It would have been Odin’s ally.

The_binding_of_Fenris_by_D_HardyInstead, Odin deceived the wolf – you shuck shackles as easily as Houdini will!  But let’s try one more time.  If you can’t escape this set, we promise we’ll untie you.  We just want to see, so that we can all marvel at your strength – provoking his anger.

If Odin hadn’t been such a jerk, Loki’s children wouldn’t have hated him.  Ragnarok would not have come.  Thor might have lived forever.

Or perhaps not.  Because Thor surely died again when he was forgotten.  What good is a god without worshipers?  Pious humans keep their deities alive.

It’s not clear whether Thor was ever really worshiped, but libations were probably poured for him.  I’ve never studied spiritual husbandry, but I bet the occasional splash of beer onto the ground was enough to keep Thor ticking.

Then his people converted to Christianity.  They’d celebrate Jesus instead.  Thor might have been forgotten entirely except that a few Christian scholars, years later, decided that the old stories should be preserved.  Which means, of course, that our knowledge of Thor’s escapades is laced with Christian stereotypes.

In Christianity, women have a clearly subservient role – Job’s wife was a replaceable possession; Jesus’s teachings were conveyed to us solely by men.  It’s not clear whether the Norse shared these prejudices.

For instance, contemporary genetic analysis revealed that one Viking warrior – long assumed to be male because he was buried with weapons and the regalia of high rank – was actually female.  (As soon as this discovery was made, members of our modern Christian-ish society decided that she probably wasn’t that great a warrior after all, even though her prowess had gone unquestioned until she was revealed to have two X chromosomes.)

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A sketch of the Viking warrior’s remains as found in her tomb.

In Thor’s greatest recorded battle, he wears a dress.  Within the world of Norse myth, the burly bearded man smites giants, but so might the presumed willowy beauty.  Thor was Thor, but someone you’d thought was Freya might be Thor as well.  In duress, man and woman alike could conjure the passions of battle.

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Thor limped along for centuries, partially resurrected, his stories preserved so that Christian readers would better understand the poetic devices used in Icelandic literature.  Wasn’t until the 1970s that anyone strove to worship Thor back to life.

In the beginning, the white supremacist movement in the United States was closely linked with Christianity.  Southern plantationers thumped their Bibles.  Specious theories about Noah’s grandchildren were used to justify slavery.

Drunkenness_of_Noah_bellini(Noah drank too much.  On a night while he was passed out drunk, one of his sons castrated him so that there wouldn’t be any more siblings to share the inheritance with.  Noah was understandably upset, and declared that this particular son’s lineage would become slaves.  A few thousand years later, a nation of ignoramuses convinced themselves that people with higher epidermal melanin concentrations must be descended from this son.)

(The version of this story that was eventually settled upon for the Hebrew cannon – i.e. the version in the Old Testament – is circumspect to the point of absurdity.)

The KKK hated black people, but they hated Jewish people, too.

In the 1970s, a subset of white supremacists decided that Christianity itself was a tool for Jewish mind control.  Jesus was just another cog in the great ZOG plot!  They reasoned that the whole love thy neighbor business was intended to make them weak, and that they’d been tricked into worshiping Yahweh, who was and always would be a Jewish god.  They conveniently overlooked the fact that Christians had been murdering Jewish people for millennia.

They spoke out against cultural appropriation.  White people shouldn’t latch onto other peoples’ cultures or beliefs, they said.  Instead, white people should worship their own gods.

They decided that Odin and Thor were white gods.  As though a person’s religion could be coded into DNA.  As though your genes determined which stories you should believe.

I_am_the_giant_Skrymir_by_Elmer_Boyd_SmithThor really was racist, it’s true – but he was prejudiced against the race of giants, not any particular population of humans.  And even though Thor was murderously prejudiced against the giants, it was still considered acceptable for him or other gods to drink and cavort with them, or intermarry.

The modern supremacists who’ve claimed Thor as their own think differently.  For instance Else Christensen, who distributed Odinist materials to prisons with missionary zeal, who wrote that “We, as Odinists, shall continue our struggle for Aryan religion, Aryan freedom, Aryan culture, Aryan consciousness, and Aryan self-determination.

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Thor first died battling a snake.  (This sort of bloody end would grant entrance to Valhalla – as opposed to Nilfheim, Hel’s dark cold misty kingdom, final destination for all who died of illness or old age.)

Then Thor died ignominious, his followers having dwindled, his worship having ceased.  For centuries, the mud drank no more mead for Thor.

But white supremacists still love him!

Were Thor to die again, it would be of shame.

On Syria, and the complexity of causality.

On Syria, and the complexity of causality.

Approximately one thousand years ago, the Syrian poet Abu Al-Ala Al-Ma’arri wrote:

 

God help us, we have sold our souls, all that was best,

To an enterprise in the hands of the Receiver.

We’ve no dividends, or rights, for the price we paid.

Yet should our wills choose between this corrupt business

And a paradise to come, rest assured they’d want

 

The world we have now.

 

birds(This was translated by Abdullah Al-Udhari and George Wightman for Birds through a Ceiling of Alabaster, a collection of ancient poetry from the Middle East.)

Many of our choices, moment to moment, are saddling us with a rotten deal.  We can often see how to make the world better.  “A paradise to come” might be heaven, but it could also be a more perfect world here on Earth.

If we were starting from scratch, it would be easy.

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While wrapping packages at Pages to Prisoners recently, I told another volunteer about my essay on the link between misogyny and the plow.  Sexual dimorphism in Homo sapiens is minor enough that, if we were like other primate species, we shouldn’t have much gender inequality.  Many hunter-gatherer societies that survived until modern times were relatively egalitarian.  And women have been miserably oppressed in cultures that adopted the plow, a farming tool that magnifies the differences between human physiques.

But I had to admit, afterward, that, like all explanations that purport a single cause for something so complicated, my claim was wrong.  There seems to be a correlation between the introduction of the plow and myth-making that led to worlds like our own – but there were surely many other factors.

SphcowThe world is complex.  In physics and economics, the goal is often to propose a simplified model that captures something of the world – the difference between otherwise equivalent cultures that either adopted plowing or did not, the difference between otherwise equivalent societies where GDP growth is larger than the rate of return of investments, or smaller – and hope that most of the omitted detail really was expendable.

Which brings us to Syria.

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syria_tmo_2011210Like many environmentalists, I’ve commented on the link between the horrors in Syria and climate change.  Human activities – primarily in nations that experienced a huge leap in living standards during the industrial revolution – have released long-trapped carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  This has caused a small increase in global temperatures, but can cause a large change in the climate of any particular region of the planet.  Areas that once supported many people become suddenly less habitable.

Like Syria.  The country plunged into drought, which led to widespread food insecurity, which made the violence worse.

That much seems true, but it’s certainly not the whole truth.  The violence was already there.

Al_Assad_familyWhile Syria was ruled by the Assads, there were constant human rights abuses.  Their punishment for a 19-year-old student who joined the Syrian Communist Party and expressed dissatisfaction with his country’s political regime?  The student was imprisoned for sixteen years.

After his release, the now middle-aged Yassin al-Haj Saleh still disliked his government.  Somehow those sixteen years did not convince him of the errors in his youthful ways.  He married a fellow political activist and continued to advocate for change.

Unfortunately, activism like theirs contributed to Syria’s descent into nightmare.  You should read Lindsey Hilsum’s “War of All Against All,” in which she reviews Saleh’s recent essay collection alongside three other books about the tragedy.

Saleh wrote that:

International_Mine_Action_Center_in_Syria_(Aleppo)_12It never occurred to us that there could be a more dangerous threat to their lives than the regime’s bombs.  What bestows a particularly tragic status on this abduction is that it was an outcome of our own struggle, and that we ourselves had made this horrible incident possible.

This sentiment is painfully elaborated by Hilsum:

The sentence bears rereading: so terrible is the situation in Syria that one of the region’s most long-standing and fervent critics, a man who has dedicated his whole life to fighting the Assads, father and son, is forced to wonder if it would have been better not to rebel at all.  The author’s head may have remained clear while his heart was breaking, but the carefully modulated prose of these essays does not provide the whole story.  How can we understand the Syrian revolution unless … we consider in … depth how it feels to blame yourself for your wife’s disappearance and probable death?

The writer’s personal tragedy reveals him as an authentic voice trying to understand how the genuine, progressive revolt he supported went so horribly wrong.

The regime was awful, imprisoning and torturing children for years at a time.  Student-led protests eventually led to a retreat by the regime, but then quasi-religious fanatics claimed vast swaths of the country.  They kept the old regime’s torture and arbitrary imprisonment, and added public execution.  U.S. intervention arrived late and couldn’t root out the deeply-infiltrated jihadists.

Hilsum writes that “An older woman we met might have been forgiven for cursing both sides: ISIS had expropriated her house, she said, and then the Americans had bombed it.

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While reading Hilsum’s piece, I felt a twinge of guilt.  Yes, climate change exacerbated the tragedy, but the chaos in Syria was already a tragedy.  It’s heartlessly trivializing to imply that there could be a simple explanation for such a complex, horrible thing.  I was wrong to blithely write what I did.

Plows don’t oppress women, people did.  (Which sounds unfortunately reminiscent of “guns don’t kill people,” because guns do, they potentiate far more killing than would be possible without them.)

Climate change didn’t murder millions of Syrians.  But it made an awful situation worse.

On Marlon James’s “A Brief History of Seven Killings.”

On Marlon James’s “A Brief History of Seven Killings.”

bobmarley_exclusive_49Bob Marley had such towering celebrity that, even today, he hoovers up attention & can make the world around him appear flat and undifferentiated.  When many Americans think of Jamaica, they think of Marley and little else.  When many Americans see somebody with dreadlocks, they think of Marley and little else (I’ve had countless Marley lyrics shouted at me while running, even though our similarities end at dreadlocks & a little beard).  When many Americans talk about reggae, they often mean Bob Marley’s music, not the entire musical tradition.

Even in Jamaica, Bob Marley seems to command an outsize percentage of everybody’s brainspace.  In Alan Greenberg’s vibrant documentary Land of Look Behind, many of the interviewees speak voluminously about Marley, about being like Marley, about the country needing a new Marley, at the cost of expressing their own personalities (although, two caveats here: I have no idea what Greenberg’s aims were when he was cutting his film, so maybe his interviewees would’ve come across as more unique individuals if he hadn’t selected only their thoughts about Marley, and the film was made shortly after Marley’s funeral, which might’ve put the dude in the forefront of people’s minds).

9781594633942In A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James brings into crisp focus the Jamaican populace that many people overlook because they’re so busy ogling Marley.  Yes, Marley is there, and most of the action in the book is still pulled toward “the Singer” as though by a massive gravitational field, but James explores the lives, loves & losses of numerous (extremely numerous) others nearby.  Addled cokeheads whose thoughts pulse in stream of consciousness with choppy linebreak layout like it was poetry.  Ghosts who ooze through their killers’ homes hoping but failing to affect the world they’re cursed to observe.  Poor kids speaking & thinking in slang, hoping for little more than a bit of safety, maybe a place to shower indoors so cops won’t roll up and toss ’em naked into a lineup in the middle of the street, forced to hump the road till their genitals are raw.  And many arrogant white men from the United States, sure they’re the country’s saviors.

James wants his readers to hear more Jamaican voices, to know about the bustling world so often papered over by cartoon imagery of Bob Marley’s face and marijuana plants and lion-emblazoned flags.  You get a sense of that from his interviews after winning the Man Booker prize:

_86105473_marlon-james“There’s this whole universe of really spunky creativity that’s happening.  I hope [the prize] brings more attention to what’s coming out of Jamaica and the Caribbean.”

… and from ironic passages in his book, especially when there are CIA agents thinking things like

You have to get to the point where you know how the country works better than the people who live here.  Then you leave.  The Company suggested I read a book from V. S. Naipaul before coming here, The Middle Passage.  It amazed me how he could land in some country, be there for mere days and nail exactly what was wrong with it.

James wants for readers to experience a more genuine version of his country.  He doesn’t want for the only literature that people read about the place to be stuff written by outsiders who spent mere days there.

But, if you’re going to read it, I should warn you.  The language is very gruff.  Much of the book is written in stream of consciousness, and his characters think awful stuff about women, and even more viciously awful stuff about homosexuals.  Homosexuality, the chance that others are engaging in it, the risk of other men (or dogs, or Satan) sodomizing males as punishment, seems always to be on the characters’ minds.

CaptureWhich is, as far as I know, an accurate representation of Jamaican culture.  Homosexuals are subject to horrific violence and persecution in Jamaica, much of it aided and abetted by the police.  In the Human Rights Watch article “Jamaica: Unchecked Homophobic Violence,” you can read about several such incidents, including one in which a victim was unable to sign a subsequent police report because the officers told him, “You are a battyman.  We don’t want battyman to use our pen.”

And the awful stuff about women in A Brief History of Seven Killings also seems highly representative of the real Jamaica.  Modern music especially is rife with misogynistic lyrics.  Young girls are targeted for sexual violence in huge numbers.  So, yes, it’s good that James draws attention to this, that he delves into the thoughts of a woman being driven to the middle of nowhere by the police, sure she’s going to be assaulted & abandoned somewhere far from home… but it makes the book hard to read, so I thought I should warn you.  And, to me, even grim passages from the victims go down far easier than stream-of-conscious writing from the perspective of the assailants.  It can be very unpleasant to inhabit their minds, even for just a short chapter at a time.

So I’d like to end this post by recommending a piece of music: Spice, “Like a Man.”  Feminist dancehall reggae?  That seems like a good follow-up to some of the more vicious passages in James’s book.  Her song is great, even though I wish she lived in a world where she hadn’t felt compelled to write it.

On Eka Kurniawan’s ‘Beauty Is a Wound,’ mythology, and misogyny.

On Eka Kurniawan’s ‘Beauty Is a Wound,’ mythology, and misogyny.

9781925240238I assumed I was the ideal audience for Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty Is a Wound.  It’s an epic work of magic realism, and there are bountiful parallels to Gabriel Garcia Marquez — just like everybody else, I love Garcia Marquez (some friends once used iron-on lettering to make me a shirt reading, “Almonds: The Official Scent of Unrequited Love”).  Kurniawan alludes frequently to The Mahabharata, which is like the bigger, badder, beastlier younger sibling of The Ramayana.  And a major theme of Beauty Is a Wound is the tragedy of pervasive violence against women.

Kurniawan’s interests mirror my own — why wouldn’t I love his book?  Why wouldn’t I tell you, dear reader, that you should read it too?

Well, some stylistic parallels to ancient mythology affect how enthusiastically I’d be able to recommend his book.  From The Iliad to The Bible to The Mahabharata, one common characteristic of epic mythology is repetition.  Stories are told over and over again by and to different characters, the same turns of phrases recur throughout.  This is reasonable for a work composed orally, but can seem excessive to contemporary readers: consider this passage from Mark Leyner’s egregiously-titled sendup of epic mythology:

T.S.F.N. : If we were to ask you to pick the one thing you liked most about the performance of The Sugar Frosted Nutsack you just listened to, what would it be?

REAL HUSBAND: The sheer mind-numbing repetitiveness of it.  And the almost unendurable length.

Repetition makes the parallel between Beauty Is a Wound and The Mahabharata more explicit, and even though that choice improves the work from the perspective of someone who understands why he’s doing it, I fear it might also make the book seem less accessible to the average reader.

CaptureIt reminds me of stylistic choices made for David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King (although this is dicier to write about, because Wallace did not have the chance to compile a final version).  In The Pale King, Wallace approached boredom with the same multifaceted concern he’d devoted to desire in Infinite Jest ... so it’s natural that some passages in The Pale King needed to be boring.  I understand why he did it.  At the same time, I worry that the choice may have turned away some readers, and that’s a shame because there are some beautiful ideas in the book (here’s an essay about my favorite passage).

A reader unfamiliar with the incessant repetitiveness of traditional mythology might be puzzled why so many phrases in Beauty Is a Wound recur.  This is especially noticeable with the more striking imagery in the book, like,

bananaThe other [murdered communists] had been left to rot on the side of the road, until those who couldn’t stand them anymore finally buried them, but even then it was more like burying some shit after defecating in the banana orchard.

followed, less than a hundred pages later, by,

But it wasn’t like burying a corpse — it was more like burying a turd after taking a shit in the banana orchard.

That’s a choice I wouldn’t make, but that’s fine — fans of traditional mythology are accustomed to, in Leyner’s words, “mind-numbing repetitiveness.”  So, yes, characters’ histories are recounted anew several chapters in a row, imagery recurs, linguistic tics crop up again and again.

(I’m culpable of this last one too, it seems.  I never grew accustomed to Kurniawan’s / translator Annie Tucker’s use of way where I’d say much, like “way better,” “way more modest,” “way more frightening,” but during a Skype chat about my novel with an overseas draft reader he expressed befuddlement why I’d written couple instead of few so many times, “a couple batteries,” “couple beers,” “couple hours,” etc.  All I could say was, “Whoops.”  I guess we speak worse English here in Indiana than they do in Tehran.)

The thing I found most off-putting in Beauty Is a Wound, that makes me hesitant to recommend it, is that, despite Kurniawan clearly caring deeply about the plight of women, the book still felt vaguely misogynistic.

This probably is not Kurniawan’s fault, entirely.  He seems like he might well be a feminist, protesting the callous mistreatment of women in traditional mythology — in The Mahabharata, for instance, the heroes gamble away their wife, who is then forcibly stripped in the middle of an assembly hall. That the vast majority of female characters in Beauty Is a Wound are raped, with their violations described so cavalierly, seems like a valid commentary to make.  Even that victims are then portrayed as falling in love with their rapists seems valid — in the United States, victims of sexual assault often have subsequent consensual relations with their attackers, and the Bible instructs for victims to be married to their assailants.

At the same time, it made me sad that the women in Beauty Is a Wound are so uniformly depicted as irrational and cruel.  I was reminded again and again of Scott Aaronson’s blog comment describing the way that geek culture often fears and reviles women for being sufficiently beautiful to invoke desire:

scott6-smHere’s the thing: I spent my formative years — basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s — feeling not “entitled,” not “privileged,” but terrified.  I was terrified that one of my female classmates would somehow find out that I sexually desired her, and that the instant she did, I would be scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison.

Aaronson’s case might be extreme because he began college so young, but I think the general psychological progression is pretty common amongst geeky, nervous males: desire women, fear women, dislike women.  The misogyny of geek culture seems to be rooted in the expectation that women will be cruel.

Kurniawan depicts that same feared cruelty.  This wouldn’t have seemed so odd had it come from a single character — some people are cruelbut almost every female character seems beset by similar motivations.  It’s stated most explicitly when Almanda is crushing geek dreams:

kapowEach would grow more confident, feeling like the handsomest guy on earth, like the kindest man in the universe with the best hair on the planet, and convinced by all of this at the first opportunity that arose they would speak up or send a letter spewing their prehistoric pent-up desires: Alamanda, I love you.  That was the best time to destroy a man, to shake him up, to tear his heart to pieces, the best opportunity to show a woman’s superiority, so Alamanda would say, I do not love you.

“I like men,” Alamanda said once, “but I like to see them cry from heartbreak even more.”

(It’s also unsettling that she is later “tamed” by methods prescribed by jerktastic pick-up guides like Neil Strauss’s The Game.  Alamanda rejects everyone until a character “negs” her, then she finds him irresistible.)

While I appreciate that Kurniawan is so passionate about the dire straights of women, it’s a shame that misogyny is so pervasive that it inflects even books written in defense of women.  I just began reading Franzen’s Purity, for instance, and it already bothers me how frequently Pip, a twenty-something year old woman, is referred to as “girl.”  Again, this isn’t necessarily Franzen’s fault, it’s pervasive — consider Flo, the Progressive Insurance “girl.”

Calling an adult male “boy” is noticed to be demeaning by most people, but “girl” is (still!) used so routinely that it can slip by unnoticed.  Even though it shouldn’t.  That sort of language helps perpetuate our misogynistic culture.

I don’t know much about how woman are treated in Indonesia, but judging from Kurniawan’s book the situation seems to be just as bad as here, or worse.  Which obviously saddens me from the perspective of someone who cares about social justice.  But it affects me as a reader, too.  If Kurniawan had been immersed in a culture that talked about & treated women respectfully, I bet he’d have written something I’d really enjoy.

On David Lancy’s The Anthropology of Childhood, and violence against women (again!), and proscriptive parenting advice.

On David Lancy’s The Anthropology of Childhood, and violence against women (again!), and proscriptive parenting advice.

Despite being my family’s primary daytime parent, I’ve read extremely few parenting guides.  Zero, as it happens, unless you count Everywhere Babies (if you’re interested, here is a previous post where I discussed this baby-wrangling treasure) or Far from the Tree.

51E2pM00dFLPersonally, I count Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree as a parenting guide.  I was very nervous about the prospect of having a kid.  I worried that I’d be a rubbish parent.  I worried that I’d have an unmanageable kid.  Then I read Far from the Tree, and I stopped worrying.  K & I decided to forgo prenatal genetic testing; Solomon had convinced me that we could love whomever we received.  And he taught me the one essential lesson I needed to set me on my journey to becoming at least a tolerable (I hope!) parent: relax.

I’d recommend that any parent-to-be (or parent, or person, honestly … it’s a lovely book) read Far from the Tree.  But for the moment, here’s my favorite passage from the book, one that both stresses the importance of accepting what happens and accepting people, including your own children, for who they are:

People of higher socioeconomic status tend toward perfectionism and have a harder time living with perceived defects.  One French study said baldly, “The lower classes show a higher tolerance for severely handicapped children.”  An American study bears out that conclusion, inasmuch as higher-income families are “more apt to stress independence and self-development,” while lower-income families emphasize “interdependence among family members.”  Better-educated more-affluent families are more likely to seek placement for their children, and white families do so more often than minority families, though disturbingly high numbers of minority parents lose children to foster care.  I did back-to-back interviews with a white woman who had a low-functioning autistic son, and an impoverished African-American woman whose autistic son had many of the same symptoms.  The more privileged woman had spent years futilely trying to make her son better.  The less advantaged woman never thought she could make her son better because she’d never been able to make her own life better, and she was not afflicted with feelings of failure.  The first woman found it extremely difficult to deal with her son.  “He breaks everything,” she said unhappily.  The other woman had a relatively happy life with her son.  “Whatever could be broken got broken a long time ago,” she said.  Fixing is the illness model; acceptance is the identity model; which way any family goes reflects their assumptions and resources.

A child may interpret even well-intentioned efforts to fix him as sinister.  Jim Sinclair, an intersex autistic person, wrote “When parents say, ‘I wish my child did not have autism,’ what they’re really saying is, ‘I wish the autistic child I have did not exist, and I had a different (non-autistic) child instead.’  Read that again.  This is what we hear when you mourn over our existence.  This is what we hear when you pray for a cure.  This is what we know, when you tell us of your fondest hopes and dreams for us: that your greatest wish is that one day we will cease to be, and strangers you can love will move in behind our faces.”

Once I had Solomon’s advice in hand (& re-typed & ready to share with you, dear reader!), why would I bother reading another parenting guide?  Any time I come to a situation that Solomon didn’t address, I simply close my eyes and imagine what a cave person attempting to raise a daughter to participate in our technologically-magical information-based economy would do.  Most of the time that imagined cave person (me, in fact) would simply feel perplexed (you’re telling me that your telephone is also a camera??), but sometimes cave dad would probably coo & pat his daughter’s belly, or else read her another book.

I love learning, though.  If I had access to a good book on parenting, I’d read it!  I simply assumed that I wouldn’t like most of the ones I could find at the bookstore.

onlybabybookThat’s why I was so excited when I read Michael Erand’s New York Times article earlier this year, titled “The Only Baby Book You’ll Ever Need.”  Here, let me quote a few lines from the introduction:

Professor Lancy, who teaches at Utah State University, has pored over the anthropology literature to collect insights from a range of culture types, along with primate studies, history and his own fieldwork in seven countries.  He’s not explicitly writing for parents.  Yet through factoids and analysis, he demonstrates something that American parents desperately need to hear: Children are raised in all sorts of ways, and they all turn out just fine.

That sounds exactly like what I’d enjoy reading!  A book about parenting that’s descriptive, not proscriptive.  And I’ve loved reading pop anthropology books ever since paying a quarter for a lovely hardcover edition of Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape at a library book sale in Evanston, Illinois.

CaptureI have to assume that the first edition of the recommended book, David Lancy’s The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelingswas very different from the current second edition, which was published in February of this year.  Because the book I read was intensely proscriptive.  Yes, Lancy documents a wide variety of parenting strategies.  But he also makes abundantly clear his opinion that those parenting strategies would not be appropriate in our culture.

I didn’t mind.  Lancy’s book is quite good, and his ideas about what makes good parenting align closely with my own.  But someone who’d read the Times article might expect the book to be very different from what it is.

As with Dorothy Dinnerstein’s The Mermaid and the Minotaur (would you count a work of feminist philosophy as a parenting guide?  If so, perhaps I’d read one after all.  My previous post about Dinnerstein’s book and parenting is here), Lancy’s foremost prescription is equality — most conspicuously, since not all cultures have multiple races, castes, or tiers of wealth, he’s referring to gender equality:

There is a world in which children almost always feel “wanted” and where “there is no cultural preference for babies of either sex.”  Infants are suckled on demand by their mothers and by other women in her absence.  They are indulged and cosseted by their fathers, grandparents, and siblings.  Children wean themselves over a long period and are given nutritious foods.  They are subject to little or no restraint or coercion.  Infants and toddlers are carried on long journeys and comforted when distressed.  If they die in infancy, they may be mourned.  They are rarely or never physically punished or even scolded.  They are not expected to make a significant contribution to the household economy and are free to play until the mid to late teens.  Their experience of adolescence is relatively stress free.  This paradise exists among a globally dispersed group of isolated societies — all of which depend heavily on foraging for their subsistence.  They are also characterized by relatively egalitarian and close social relations, including relative parity between men and women.**

  ** Thinking of Malinowki’s ethnography of the Trobriand Islanders, I’m tempted to argue that any society with conspicuous gender parity is likely to be a paradise for children.

And shortly thereafter, Lancy makes explicit that many of the parenting practices he’s documenting are horrible.  For instance, misogyny is rampant throughout the world, to such an extent that a significant fraction of female children are never even born.  This is rotten, & if enough parents choose to do this they’re even dooming their own (male, presumed heterosexual) children.  There parallels between this behavior and choosing not to vaccinate a child with a healthy immune system — in both cases, children are doomed if all parents make the same selfish choice, either because there won’t be enough women for the next generation to form families, or because the herd immunity relied upon to protect freeloaders will be lost.

Both China & India, where sex-selection of unborn children is rampant, are attempting legislative correctives.  In China, they’ve outlawed the practice, and in India they’ve instituted monetary incentives for female progeny… although that is conceptually problematic as well.  Here’s Jean Dreze & Amartya Sen from their book An Uncertain Glory:

j10175To illustrate, consider the recent introduction, in many Indian states, of schemes of cash incentives to curb sex-selective abortion.  The schemes typically involve cash rewards for the registered birth of a girl child, and further rewards if the girl is vaccinated, sent to school, and so on, as she gets older.  These schemes can undoubtedly tilt economic incentives in favour of girl children.  But a cash reward for the birth of a girl could also reinforce people’s tendency to think about family planning in economic terms, and also their perception, in the economic calculus of family planning, that girls are a burden (for which cash rewards are supposed to compensate).  Further, cash rewards are likely to affect people’s non-economic motives.  For instance, they could reduce the social stigma attached to sex-selective abortion, by making it look like some sort of ‘fair deal’ — no girl, no cash.  The fact that the cash incentives are typically lower for a second girl child, and nil for higher-order births, also sends confusing signals.  In short, it is not quite clear what sort of message these cash incentives are supposed to convey about the status and value of the girl child, and how they are supposed to affect social attitudes towards sex-selective abortion.  As mentioned earlier, the workings of social norms is critically important in this kind of area of values and actions, and it is important to think about the possible effects of cash transfers on social norms and their role, and not just about economic self-interest.

Paying parents for their misfortune of raising a girl still perpetuates misogyny.  And setting minimum standards on her care (you receive money if she’s vaccinated, if she attends school) likely results in that bare minimum being given.

And now, let me get back to Lancy’s horror:

More commonly, we find that the infant’s sex is highly salient in determining its fate.  Some years ago, I came across a United Nations report, on the cover of which was a picture of a mother holding on her lap a boy and a girl of about the same age, possibly twins.  The girl was skeletal, obviously in an advanced state of malnutrition, the boy robust and healthy.  He sat erect, eyes intent on the camera; she sprawled, like a rag doll, her eyes staring into space.  That picture and what it represented has haunted me ever since.

That’s not a value-less scientific description.  Which is fine.  I’m happy that Lancy’s book (the current edition, at least) is proscriptive.  Because Erand’s article, which included lines such as, “The book does not render judgments, like other parenting books we know,” also mentioned tidbits like, “In Gapun, an isolated village in Papua New Guinea, children are encouraged to hit dogs and chickens, and to raise knives at siblings.

Really?  David Lancy doesn’t judge parents who give their children unsupervised access to knives?

Oh, wait.  He does.  He thinks that letting kids play with knives is bad.  From The Anthropology of Childhood:

On Vanatinai Island in the South Pacific, “children … manipulate firebrands and sharp knives without remonstrance … one four year old girl had accidentally amputated parts of several fingers on her right hand by playing with a bush knife.”

And, later, Lancy is even more explicit.  Yes, different cultures use different parenting strategies.  To prepare a child for relatively simple life in an agrarian village — especially if you give birth to eight children and will be happy if only four of them survive — it’s fine to ignore them and expect them to learn what they need to know by watching their elders.  But attempting equivalent parenting strategies in our culture would, in Lancy’s opinion, invite disaster:

At the outset of this chapter, I set up a juxtaposition.  One view holds that, to succeed in life, children require the near-full-time attention of a mother who treats childrearing as a vocation and prepares herself assiduously.  A contrary view is that this is a task best shared among a variety of individuals, a village.  What can we conclude?  I would argue that, to prepare a child for life in the village, it is neither necessary nor an efficient use of scarce resources to put the burden on any one individual.  However, to prepare a child for the modern world, spreading the responsibility among a variety of individuals — none of whom is in charge — invites disaster.  Hillary Clinton, in It Takes a Village, tries to apply the village model to the modern situation.  She argues for improvements in schools and social service agencies, an increase in library and playground facilities, and after-school programs — among other things.  All these proposals are helpful, but all these agents — teachers, librarians, playground supervisors, Boys & Girls Club volunteers — cannot, collectively, substitute for a dedicated, resourceful parent.  They are not related to the child and, in our society, the village is not responsible.  The parent is.  At best, these agents can only assist the parent in fulfilling their plan for the child.

Having said that much, I want immediately to disavow any claim that this task requires the full-time ministrations of the child’s biological mother.  There is overwhelming evidence — not reviewed here — that fathers, adoptive parents, lesbian partners of the biological mothers, and grandparents can all do a fine job.  Any of them, or the child’s mother, can and usually do avail themselves of an array of supplementary caretakers.  A working mother, in particular, may well bring home cultural, intellectual, and, certainly, economic resources that a non-working mother cannot provide.

So parenting in contemporary society is at least somewhat like physics, as it is tough to insure the child’s future success and a close, lasting filial relationship.  But, ultimately, we come full circle in that, as long as a reasonably competent and caring individual is in charge, the more loving, intelligent, and dedicated helpers surrounding the nest, the better off the twenty-first-century child will be.

Lancy writes that those village children’s lives are often bad, and that imported practices from Western nations have made them even worse:

Numerous studies have shown the deleterious effects on children’s health in the agriculturalist’s pursuit of the “production” strategy.  However, as the land is brought fully into cultivation, population-limiting mechanisms (such as the post-partum sex taboo) should develop to curtail further growth.  And this seems to have happened in many, many cases.  However, Western influence in the past hundred years seems to have dismantled these mechanisms, including, especially, abortion and infanticide.  Improved nutrition and healthcare for mothers has no doubt brought benefits.  But missionary efforts to stamp out “pagan” practices like polygyny also undermined the post-partum taboo on intercourse, even while they simultaneously blocked the introduction of modern contraceptives.  Additionally, “fashion” and commercial interests pushing infant “formula” have drastically reduced the number of infants being breastfed [breastfeeding is often an effective contraceptive.  Also, my computer marks “breastfed” and “breastfeeding” as spelling errors.  Yeah paternalistic misogyny!].  The result has been, in many parts of the world, population growth outstripping opportunities for either employment or improved food production.

Lancy even ends The Anthropology of Childhood with a powerful statement about economic & medical ethics.  Indeed, it’s difficult to read this as being anything but proscriptive:

Even though we recoil from discussions of children as chattel, our current policies, in fact, turn children into commodities with a precise dollar value.  Effectively, we embrace the notions that anyone can have a child, everyone can have as many children as they want, infertility can be circumvented, and the fetus is human and deserves whatever measures are available to keep it alive, regardless of any handicaps or defects it may harbor.  The net result of our mindset is that the marketplace decides the fate of children.  In poor countries, food shortages mean many potentially sound children will suffer malnutrition and neglect.  Wealth in the “North” that might be sent “South” to vaccinate, educate, and feed these children is, instead, spent at home on expensive technologies and caretakers to keep alive children whose quality of life is non-existent.  While sick, premature babies born to the well-off will survive through “miracles” of modern medicine, the poor will lose their otherwise healthy children to preventable diseases.

To me, this is a sensible proscription to make — it is similar to my own reasoning for abandoning a career in biomedical research.  Medical spending will continue to spiral out of control if we focus on preserving life at all costs with no concern for quality of life, and by wasting that money we perpetuate egregious harm through economic hardship.

So, I was thrilled to read David Lancy’s book.  I assume you’d like it too, given that you still seem to be reading my post about it.

Just, don’t go into it expecting a descriptive work devoid of value claims.  Because that’s not what you’re getting, at least not if you read the current edition.

And I’m still trying to figure out why Erand had such a different impression.  Because, sure, it’s possible that the first edition was extremely different.  But I think the confusion is more likely related to a point I made at the beginning of this essay: when I imagine myself as a cave person trying to raise his daughter, I have to imagine that cave dad raising his daughter for our world.  Not his world.

It’s a common mistake when people discuss human evolution.  Like, paleo diets?  Seems like a reasonable idea, trying to eat what humans evolved to eat.  But humans also evolved for constant motion & early death.  If that’s the way you’re planning to live, then, sure, you’ve got a valid argument for eating that way.  If not, the argument seems much less compelling.

Here’s where the problem comes from in Erand’s piece.  He writes:

caIn the ‘pick when ripe’ culture, babies and toddlers are largely ignored by adults, and may not be named until they’re weaned.  They undergo what he calls a ‘village curriculum’: running errands, delivering messages and doing small-scale versions of adult tasks.  Only later are they ‘picked,’ or fully recognized as individuals.  In contrast, in ‘pick when green’ cultures, including our own, it’s never too early to socialize babies or recognize their personhood.

But, Lancy makes clear why “pick when ripe” cultures made the choices they did.  As in, huge infant mortality meant that high-investment parenting would probably be wasted: why should that parent care that a kid was on track for greatness if the kid then dies at three?  And the potential “greatness” that was perceived to be within reach was pretty meager anyway — even a neglected child could eventually catch up and learn to farm well enough.

Whereas a parent who expects his or her children to survive, and who will only attempt to raise one to three (instead of seven to ten, with 60% of them dying young), should invest a lot of time.  Especially if you’re hoping for some complex, modern version of “success,” something involving happiness, for instance, and money.

And, yes, Lancy also thinks you should teach your children to do chores.