Body and Soul

Thoughts on the body politic, the human soul, Billie Holiday songs (and other people's) -- with a lot more questions than answers

Sunday, September 29, 2002

Artists vs. Techies III: Where do scientists fit in?

First, I don't know that it is correct to characterize computer usage/programming as science. In my opinion, it has more in common with fine arts (you're using a tool to create something). Learning C+ and trying to understand quantum mechanics or modern physics aren't all that similar. I'm also not sure if your remarks were confined deliberately to engineering (as opposed to chemistry or physics or biology, which are very different) or it was shorthand for "science." Because again, I think the mindset is going to be different. "I need to make something useful by a deadline" is a very different starting point from "why is DNA based on furanose sugars instead of pyranose" -- the former probably has a flowchart describing how to proceed (I would imagine that building a workable bridge isn't terribly mysterious, for example); the latter is a different sort of question. What is the real question, the testable question? Or at least, what do we think is the testable question? Is "furanose based nucleic acid chains have a particular melting temperature " a satisfactory answer? Is the geometry of the chains important? Maybe the reason is chance and a six-membered ring would work as well. Regardless, you're not done until you've made some of the pyranose material, probably via chemistry you had to invent, and run an experiment or two, which you also had to invent. This is a better representation, I think, of science.

Also, scientists love good writers. Science is a story. A good lecture/paper should have a plot. I have to care about why you did what you did, after all. And I won't care if I'm asleep or bored. "1000 reactions I ran" is a boring talk, even if they all worked, hell especially if they all worked. A good talk will have a certain amount of drama -- this step in the synthesis was really tricky/gave us an unexpected byproduct/led us away from our initial goal. It has to have a conclusion. It has to provide a why not just a how.

As for arrogance, I think one difference might be that the sciences have right answers, or at least wrong ones. "Why did Rembrandt do so many self portraits" can't really be answered definitively. He was a narcissist might be a perfectly adequate answer, who knows. "No definite answer" might translate to "well then, I'm right" in certain minds, especially aggressive ones. Or the lack of a clear answer one way or the other might just be irritating, which manifests as frustration disguised as anger. Just a guess.

-- Brian

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Thanks for the response, Brian. Your thoughts are very interesting and challenging.

First, yes, I was referring specifically to engineers (and threw in business majors later when I realized that I saw some of the same mindset in them), and no, I didn't mean that as "shorthand" for science (I try to be more precise about language than that, although God knows I don't always succeed.) I think -- and this came out more in the letters I got, I'm not sure if you read them -- that scientists and humanists actually have a great deal in common. It's not a common interest that either one often recognizes, and it defies stereotypes. We're still stuck in that "brainy" scientist vs. "emotional" artist notion. (Artists and humanists often get lumped together, and though there are people -- like me -- who straddle the two, they can be quite different, as different as biologists and engineers. I know there's an enormous difference in my mental processes between when I am thinking like a humanist/academic and when I'm thinking like an artist.) But the fact is, education in both lab science and humanities involves learning to think at least as much as it does acquiring a given set of facts.

One of the letter writers, who taught history, mentioned that some of his best students were biology majors. I didn't get many science majors when I was teaching. The few I had were pre-med, but pre-med majors tended to be among my better students, although they were often frustrated by the fact that they didn't get easy A's -- they assumed humanities classes were easier than science classes and therefore an A ought to be automatic. (My response was, "You're acing Chem 1A and struggling for a B in Humanities 1A. Do you think you might want to revise that thesis about 'easy' humanities classes?") Nevertheless, many of them had an appreciation of alternate ways of approaching things that I suspect their science studies had nurtured. Or perhaps it was an innate interest in different ways of approaching problems that led them to study science. I find, even today, as I write on this site, that some of my most interesting and thoughtful letters come from scientists. They appreciate the way I think. I appreciate the way they think. (Although I'm not sure they understand how hard I have to work to understand some of the things they tell me. But I do make the effort, because it always turns out to be worthwhile once the mental effort is done.)

It's interesting to me, though, that so many people seem to have misread what I said in that way. I think the science vs. the arts clash is so firm in people's heads that they see that, even when it's not there. It's an old problem: People quickly plug into the story they think they know and have a hard time even perceiving that the story has changed.

My problem was with the emphasis on technical education, which I think does not ask students to look at things from many points of view, or re-think assumptions. It's a time-consuming and difficult education, without being a challenging one.

As for the idea that humanities doesn't have "wrong" answers -- I think that's a little bit of a cliche. It's true up to a point, but humanities aren't as relativistic as most non-humanists think. "Why did Rembrandt paint so many self-portraits?" isn't the kind of question I'd expect an art historian to ask. I have only a minor in art history, so don't expect a sophisticated analysis, but I can give you some indication of the kinds of things art historians would consider.

My interest is more in Italian art, so I'll switch from Rembrandt to questions that fascinated me when I was studying medieval Italian art: Giotto began painting in the early 14th century using techniques that we associate with the Renaissance -- perspective, convincing use of space, three-dimensionality, greater attention to natural detail, close observation of facial expression, individualized faces, etc. And yet no one continued with Giotto's work. The art of the 14th century, after Giotto, appears to be simply a reworking of medieval themes, styles and iconography? Why? Why did the Renaissance "begin" with Giotto and then stop -- with no artist picking up on his innovations for another hundred years?

How do you answer a question like that? I think people without strong backgrounds in humanities think that art historians sit around throwing out any answer that comes to mind -- maybe fourteenth century artists just weren't very talented -- and since this is "squishy" liberal arts, anything goes and all answers are equal. But that's silly. First you have to look at the works created in the fourteenth century and decide if it is true that artistic development went on hold after Giotto. It's a testable thesis. And when you look closely -- and looking closely at a painting is something you have to be taught how to do -- you see that, despite first appearances, it did not. No one truly captured the spirit Giotto began, but artists used some of his innovations here and there. It's provable. You can point to the influence. So now you've got new questions. Why did artist's pick up some innovations and not others? And why, when artists clearly caught on to some of the new techniques, were they not able to build on that understanding? Why did they use them for different, more conservative purposes?

Once again, you're forced back on the work, and there are answers that are definitely "wrong." Answers that just won't hold.

I could go on and on about this, and the questions get more and more complicated. They involve history (social changes wrought by the Black Plague may have played a role, for instance) as much as unfathomables. Does "progress" in the arts come in spurts, with geniuses emerging that no one can understand for generations? That's a possibility, and a "testable" one (you'd have to look at a broad span of when and under what circumstances enormous changes have taken place in art) but there are better, simpler explanations. Just like in science -- there are explanations that cover what's known better than other explanations. And, just as in science, answered questions don't settle things forever. They just lead to newer questions.

I won't dwell on this any more -- even though I'd love to -- because I doubt many people find Trecento painting or the Bubonic Plague as fascinating as I do. But I hope you see how similar, in many ways, science and humanites are.

I realize that in technical fields you have to "test" whether something works, but, as you suggest, "how do I get this to work" is a fairly limited question compared to the kinds of questions scientists and humanists ask. I love your idea that "science is a story" and believe it absolutely because the description you give of putting together a good science lecture/paper sounds very much like the way I think when I'm putting together a story.

And that, really, was what I was trying to get at. The old science vs. the arts division isn't terribly useful. What we do is different, but not as different as the stereotype would have it. But people with straight technical and practical educations -- and nothing more -- are the new piece of the puzzle. And I think what they study asks very little of them as complete human beings, or as thinkers. That worries me. Especially because I see them more and more defining the way we as a society view things.

The current administration is composed mostly of MBAs, not engineers. And yet I notice enormous similarities between the way they speak and perceive things and the way my old engineering students thought and perceived. I just have a hunch that there is some connection between that simplistic mode of thought and the "practical" education they received.

-- Jeanne

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Eh, the Rembrandt question is one I remember being frustrating in an art history class I took. Frustrating because I was coming at it from a studio art perspective -- most of my free electives were drawing or painting classes. "Why do a self-portrait" is a very different question to the painter/drawer than to the non "artist." Or at least, it seemed that way to me. Why would I do a self portrait? I want to play with technique with no worries/expectations about how it should turn out. I got funny looks when I argued that particular point with the non-painter/non-drawer art historian in one class. And "the no wrong answers" is probably confined to studio arts, where you don't want to squash the next Shiele or Pollack or Picasso. "Did you mean/want to do that" is often the way the question is phrased. Also, you look at art in a different way in a drawing class than in an appreciation class, I think.

-- Brian

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I'm really surprised by the Rembrandt question. I can't remember ever hearing such a silly and unanswerable question posed in a humanities class of any kind. You characterize the class you took as an "appreciation" class, and I wonder if that had anything to do with it. Every university has its set of classes that exist for the sole purpose of getting people through their general education requirements as painlessly and mindlessly as possible. Usually they're not very good, and they sometimes confirm the silliest cliches about the field.

One of the classes I took to get through my science requirement in college, for instance, was an Introduction to Astronomy that simply asked me to memorize an enormous number of facts, all of which I forgot as soon as the class was over. If I hadn't known better already, the class wouldn't have served much purpose except to confirm a popular notion of science: that it's simply a huge body of facts, and that great scientists are "smart" because they know more of those facts than the rest of us dummies. Here was one of the few science classes many liberal arts majors would take, and it "taught" a hackneyed and utterly false notion of science. I suspect your "art appreciation" class might have served the same purpose.

But you raise another issue as well, and that is the difference between people who "do" art and people who study it. And you're right, people who write about the arts can be mind-bogglingly off-base about how they're produced, and about the kinds of questions artists ask themselves. But I think that's beyond the scope of what I've been talking about.

If there's a "no wrong answers" approach in studio classes, however, I doubt it has anything to do with not wanting to squash budding artists. Condescension probably has more to do with it -- a belief that "these fools will never be real artists, so just let them be." I took a couple of drawing classes too, and was encouraged by my teachers, and, believe me, no one could mistake me for the next Picasso. But once you get into "real" art practice classes, it's a different matter. I don't know anything about studio art classes beyond the basic level, but writer's workshops -- which you have to be selected for, based on a portfolio of your work, and everyone assumes that you are seriously trying to become a writer -- are famously brutal. You go back week after week to have your heart torn out and roasted, and your work savaged. I can not imagine a writer's workshop -- and I'm not talking about lower division or community "creative writing" classes -- in which anyone gave a damn about the writers' feelings, or believed that there were "no wrong answers."

-- Jeanne

Saturday, September 28, 2002

If you have a blog (or just an opinion) and are concerned about the rush to war with Iraq, please consider joining the Open Letters BlogBurst. You count. Make yourself heard.

"The repression of women [is] everywhere and always wrong." -- George Bush

There was a strange little article in Tuesday's Washington Post. Fourteen Afghan women met with George Bush, Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell in the kind of gathering usually reserved for "the most powerful foreign visitors."

Okay, I'm impressed. I was under the impression that women had been virtually shut out of the Afghan government. That there were fourteen Afghan women who had achieved positions high enough to be considered "powerful foreign visitors" was news to me. Good news.

But ordinarily, powerful foreign visitors have names. These women apparently left theirs at home. At least the Post did not consider them worth mentioning. And my instinct tells me the president did not christen them with any cute little nicknames either, because this is probably the last time he will see them. They weren't ministers of this or that, but students "selected to receive computer training."

Granted, computer training for Afghan women is a wonderful thing. And I think in the long run we get back far more than we give when we bring foreign students to the United States.

But most foreign students don't get the same champagne and snacks as Pootie-poot. And these women obviously weren't in Washington to discuss their ideas for strengthening women's rights in Afghanistan. They were there to have their pictures taken. They were there so George Bush could say something like "women must play prominent roles."

Women, you know, they just love it when you tell them sweet lies.

I'd be a little more impressed if one of the women at that meeting had been Sima Samar, the minister of women's affairs under the interim government who was forced from her position last June because of death threats. Samar would make it harder for Bush to pat himself on the back, but she would have plenty to tell him about what still needs to be done.

If he was interested.

I'm not the first (and I'm sure I won't be the last) to note the hypocrisy in the world's most powerful Deke trying to pass himself off as a feminist. In fact, Katherine Viner had a good piece in last Saturday's Guardian called Feminism As Imperialism, not only noting Bush's hypocrisy, but tracing its historical roots back to Lord Cromer, the British consul general in Egypt from 1883 to 1907, who loudly condemned the way Islam treated women, and yet was a founding member of the Men's League for Opposing Women's Suffrage.

For Cromer, as for Bush, women's rights were only an issue when they provided an excuse for attacking "less civilized" people. That doesn't mean the abuses of women are not real, but it does mean that their "champions" are phonies, and it means the issue will be dropped as soon as it's no longer needed. Cromer raised school fees in Egypt (keeping girls out) and discouraged the training of female doctors. Bush has turned his back while warlords with a history of using rape as a weapon of war run Afghanistan, and he didn't say a word on behalf of Sima Samar.

Viner makes a good case that there's more than hypocrisy at issue. By stealing feminist language and yoking it to oppression, in the long run men like Cromer and Bush make women's lives harder, because they discredit feminism, and leave women struggling for their rights without a language in which to describe their struggle. When feminism is used as an excuse to bomb a country, it's hard to be a feminist.

Roger Ebert finds an encouraging sign of a growing attention to women's rights in a recent Iranian film. And the movie screen is not the only place the struggle is going on.

The detective who investigated the beating and rape of the Central Park jogger has a new theory about the case. First, the five teenagers who were convicted of the crime bludgeoned the woman and left her for dead. Matias Reyes, who has admitted committing the crime (and DNA evidence backs him up), and insisted he acted alone, came along later, found an unconscious woman and decided to rape her and beat her more. Since Reyes wasn't described by anyone in the group, doesn't know anyone in the group, and wasn't with them at the time, that's the only theory Detective Burt Arroyo can come up with that makes sense.

I know truth can be stranger than fiction, and I don't know what cops and lawyers will make of that story, but I wouldn't want to bet my reputation as a writer on trying to sell it to a publisher.

Honey, there are holes in that plot Stephen King couldn't patch.

Via Sisyphus Shrugged

UPDATE: Ignore my gut instincts about the strangeness of the new theory, and go straight to Talk Left for a thorough analysis of the problems in the story.

If you've followed the story of Amina Lawal, the Nigerian woman condemned to death for adultery, there's an interesting article from a South African newspaper exploring the politics of Islamic law as it relates to her case.

Friday, September 27, 2002

Techies vs. Artists (continued)
I got so much interesting mail on my post yesterday on humanities as a mode of thought (and the limitations of business and tech educations), that I'd like to share some. The writers bring up lots of thought-provoking issues.

(I'm going to split the letters up into separate posts, because otherwise I suspect Blogger will simply devour the words -- so just keep reading through all the posts for today.)

I just read your bit on the arts vs. the sciences, and I think there's an even more nuanced and tricky layer to the discussion as well.

First, I was an historian (less romantic or Romantic than being able to say "I had a farm in Africa," but there you go). In my experience as a grad student (5 years) and as a TA (3 years), I encountered very few engineers at all. They hated history more than anything, because it required a rigorous analysis and a LOT of reading (much of Kevin's point about schedules and demands is well taken) that was founded ultimately on processing a wide variety of opinions and positions very different from their own experience. The unwillingness to step beyond the preconceptions and rigid formalities of the technical fields presented in their major core colored every aspect of their intellectual lives.

Equally annoying were the majors in Film Studies, Sociology and Communication Studies, who thought reading 10 pages on one subject for more than one perspective was onerous. My best students were English and Poli Sci majors, followed by Psych and Bio majors.

Scientists in general are too large a group to easily taxonomize, but I do find that they share a very defensive attitude about writing. Many of them resent that good writers often achieve a certain measure of success not based on what they see as 'real skills.' Thus, a clear communicator might get a decent job in academia or the private sector that an engineer feels is unwarranted, because writing just a waste.

Of course, the WORST offenders are the Bus/Econ guys in accounting or marketing concentrations. They fear engineers and scientists, and hate arts and letters people. This generalization may be overbroad, but the boys in the back from Fin 102 tend to be racists, loudmouths, and wastrels. They are particularly hostile to good writers who beat them out for positions in marketing and sales. Most really good companies often have more Liberal Arts people around than one might think, and the internal culture can get very nasty. I know of more than one English major hired by a merchant bank for writing skills and smarts forced out by a vicious hazing.

In truth, the well of hate that the right-wing techies on the web seem to tap into on a near continuous basis is really appalling. Kevin is truly one of the good ones.

-- Atticus Finch

QUICKIE REACTION: You're right, the issue is a lot more complex than I made it out to be in a single post. And I don't mean to jump on techies and business majors. I don't want to play Armey's game of figuring out which is the dumbest or laziest group of people. My concern is more with the fact that we seem increasingly to respect people with technical degrees more than anyone else, and believe that they will solve all our problems. That concerns me because I see so many limitations in the way most techies view the world, limitations that have their roots in extremely narrow and, in many ways, unchallenging educations.

You brought up a problem with engineering majors that I didn't mention, but experienced as well -- the unwillingness to deal with points of view other than their own. They seemed to have a sense that anyone who saw things differently was just being obstinate (another belief I see prominently displayed in the White House.) I see an enormous danger in "educating" a generation without forcing them to deal with the fact that not everyone perceives the world the same way they do.

Your ranking Biology majors high on the list of good history students interested me because I had the same impression of pre-med students. Arrogant sometimes, sure that they were so smart that they deserved A's on everything they breathed upon, and often so overworked that they had a hard time getting the reading done -- and yet most pre-med majors recognized and respected the amount and the kind of thought required of them and made at least some attempt to live up to it. I think scientists and humanists have more in common with each other than either does with people in tech fields or business.

And you're right about Kevin. Thoughtful and well-read techies are rare and wonderful. And when they can write clearly as well, they're a godsend. I wish there were more like him.

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. I am a liberal arts major who drifted into computer work because it pleased me esthetically. I've been doing it for over a quarter century now, but your observations about the arrogance of "pure" engineering types is right on, as is your observation about the apparent thought processes of our President. There are so many people (mostly men) with absolutely beautiful minds who cannot form two coherent sentences in a row and seem not to consider that a problem. I am at heart a writer, seduced by the lofty salary available to me by going over to the Dark Side, and sometimes it gets so lonely over here waiting for someone to produce or even recognize something beautifully said. Your essay cheers my heart immeasurably. I'm going to pin it up on my cubicle wall as spiritual sustenance for the next time I have to review another technical document from an author whose approach is "Writing documents is a waste of time. Why can't you just let me code? And besides, you know what I mean."

-- Roberta Taussig

QUICKIE REACTION: I know quite a few English teachers who are aesthetically pleased by computers, but have taken the opposite approach. They've chosen to teach, despite the low pay, for various reasons, but primarily because they need the daily fix of responding to writing (whether Chaucer or remedial English compositions), and yet they spend enormous amounts of time learning about computers. Everyone calls them "the techies," but of course they have more in common with people like you and Kevin than with "pure" techies (how about "techie fundamentalists" -- the people who accept code literally and unquestioningly?)

Y'know, I understand what you're saying and know exactly the kind of people you're talking about, but I think you've still got things backward.

Are there tech people who lack essential knowledge of the humanities, and don't give a damn? Absolutely. Is this a bad thing? Yep. But the problem of humanities-illiterate techies is nothing compared to the problem of tech-illiterate art-folk.

Any person with a college degree is going to have at least some exposure to the humanities; there's simply no way around it. They'll have read some Shakespeare, they'll have taken some history. But it's easy -- and common -- for humanities people to graduate college with no more science than maybe a quick, tossed-off Rocks For Jocks. Humanities people can graduate from college without even knowing how to do a simple integral.

What really convinces me that the isolation comes from the humanities side rather than the tech side is that everyone I know who straddles the line considers themselves a techie. Back in college, I double-majored in CS and early modern history; I took classes in aesthetics, physics, Greek drama, linear algebra, ethics, algorithm analysis, and the intellectual history of the 12th century. But for all that my interests fall equally on either side of the tech/art divide, I consider myself foremost a tech person -- because it's not uncommon for self-identified tech people to have deep interest in the humanities, but it's absolutely unheard-of for self-identified humanities people to have deep interest in tech fields.

Try as I might to be fair, I can't think of a single counter-example to that. There are definitely humanities people who have a shallow interest in science, who'll read Gould or Hawking's popularizations; but I can't think of a single one in my acquaintance who's ever delved into real science.

So, yeah, it's problematic that there aren't more people who know both tech and the humanities on a substantial level, but it's not primarily tech people who are stubbornly refusing to cross the divide.

-- Mike Kozlowski

QUICKIE REACTION: I'm guessing Roberta would disagree with you about how everyone who combines a humanities background with tech knowledge considers herself a "techie," and so would the computer-crazy English teachers I know. Their tech skills are just a tool in the creativity kit -- art and language are what matters to them. If most people who combine both skills consider themselves more techies than humanists, I suspect it's because of exactly what I was talking about -- that's where the money and the prestige lies.

I'm also a little amused by your idea that humanities people who read Gould (I don't believe anybody really reads Hawking; you put Hawking on your coffee table so people will think you're smart) are exhibiting a "shallow interest in science," and yet techies who have taken a class in Shakespeare (and I think that's rarer than you think -- kiddie lit and film studies are more common choices) are well-rounded. I'd suggest that humanists who read writers like Stephen Jay Gould, and keep up even with the fairly shallow coverage of developments and issues in science that you find in first-rate newspapers and general interest magazines have a far better understanding of science -- far from perfect, but better -- than techies who have some vague memory of who Hamlet and Lear are.

But once we get past "who's the worst," we basically agree -- most people don't understand much about the world beyond their specialization.

Well, this is a big subject. I just read your posting and think its quite good and very important in many ways. I was just thinking how this re-building in Afghanistan might go if the education were more about the humanities and art and less about how to build an infrastructure. If you teach a nearly illiterate society to build houses and sewage plants, you will not change the society very much, but if you toss in a copy of Voltaire and Shakespeare and a bit of Dostoyevsky and Melville you will, in a generation, actually change the way people live. Why this isn't obvious is a bit beyond me. Americans have always been Puritans.....and suspicious of anything that couldn't be measured or weighed.....anything deemed impractical. This was simply the legacy of our founders....practical meant what could serve an observable purpose....and it followed an Enlightenment notion about progress (which also is what haunts Marxism).

So now we have a government run by a figure head President with little education and who is close to functionally illiterate and is vaguely proud of it. I was reading some old Paul Goodman essays just recently, and was astonished to hear him bemoan the coming tide of ignorance.....that education was coming to mean the ability to follow orders and be employable. I wrote an essay for the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival about some of this in regards to that "alternative" festival, and how when one has nothing to "sell" one is looked upon as useless and marginal. This seems to reinforce the reasons for the paucity of good and serious works of fiction and theatre and even painting -- the culture industry (which I worked in for far too long) wants only distraction, things that are familiar and which support a fantasy about "real life". Today's right wing tends to be made up of engineers and wonks and technicians of one sort or another who revel in a faux-populism that accepts mass culture as good because it is mass -- all with an odd trope of irony tossed in (the trivia games about Gilligan's Island etc) -- and part of this stems from (or is caused by) the post modern mind set of absolute relativism. I argued with a colleague several years ago who maintained a Harlequin Romance was just as valuable as King Lear, it was only a matter of what "games" and "rules" one had learned. Now, to so torture logic and reason as to arrive at something this idiotic speaks volumes about the bankruptcy of academia, but it also points to some greater failures of the left these days. From cultural relativism comes moral relativism -- and apologetics.

Anyway, I could go on and on -- but I do think the new Imperium is in part so scary exactly because of this anti-humanist bent and the loss of historical perspective that goes with it. Russell Jacoby's End of Utopia touches on some of this....as do many others -- and certainly the mass media and marketers out there don't want to suggest to anyone that reading some Milton might deepen their lives and make them better people -- reading Milton doesn't make you want to run to the mall and shop.

-- John Steppling

QUICKIE REACTION: There's so much here, your comments deserve a lot more than an off the cuff reaction, and I will probably come back to some of your ideas later (interesting ideas often linger in my brain for a long time before germinating), but I'm immediately drawn to your insight about the rebuilding of Afghanistan (to the extent that it's going on at all) being purely a matter of infrastructure. Please excuse the disorganized nature of these fetal thoughts, but two things came to mind when I read your comments. One was an essay I read about a year ago, and unfortunately I can't remember who wrote it, so I can't dig it up. It was written by a film critic who had been involved in some kind of cross-cultural program in which he showed American films to filmakers in Eastern Europe, I believe in the '70s. He also watched and critiqued their films, which were mostly turgid Communist propaganda. The filmakers weren't stupid and they weren't party hacks, they just had not been exposed to much of what film could do beyond propaganda. The critic discussed the excitement of these filmakers when they encountered American films that were critical of the American system in some way. I remember that he mentioned two films in particular -- "All The President's Men" and "Twelve Angry Men." The Watergate film was a revelation -- writers with nothing but the truth on their side can overthrow a president? That's an oversimplificaton, of course, but it was an empowering thing for artists in Communist countries to realize, and it also, ironically, taught them something very good about the United States. Similarly, "12 Angry Men" deals with racism and injustice -- not what you would ordinarily think to use as pro-American propaganda. And yet at its heart the message of the film is that each individual's conscience matters in a democracy -- again, an empowering message to artists and one that offers a positive message about the U.S. (although few right-wingers would perceive it that way). The Bush administration seems to understand that "hearts and minds" count, but their reaction is to send in the advertising people to sell a product. I think we would be better served by a generation of leaders who had a deeper understanding of American culture (and Western culture as a whole), who could explain it better than we ever could to their own people.

The other thing that came to mind is that if an education focused too tightly on technical fields encourages an unquestioning mindset, an unwillingness to engage with different ideas -- as I think is the case -- then pushing technical training, rather than a broader humanistic and scientific education, in a part of the world where black and white, moralistic, fundamentalist thinking is rampant, and dangerous, does not seem like a very good idea.

Once again, fetal thoughts -- not well-reasoned or consideredÉ

You are correct about the differences. To be fair to the engineers, they cannot see shades of grey and they cannot be educated to do so. Humanists see the grey shades and can have a scientific outlook too.

In my opinion, the world's population is roughly 50-50 black & white types (including engineers) to humanistic types. Obviously, if there were more humanists the world would be a finer place. If there were more of the black & whites, we'd be wearing burqas while driving our perfectly engineered tanks on our last day of life.

-- LT

QUICKIE REACTION: An interesting thought to keep in mind in relation to what I just said above about emphasizing tech skills and education in rebuilding Afghanistan.

I just finished reading your wonderful post on the benefits of a true liberal arts education. I think that the disdain that many feel for the humanities comes from a fundamental misunderstanding. They believe that art, literature and writing is basically undisciplined.

Last year, my oldest was in Cub Scouts. One of the activities was to build a race car from a small block of pine. Many of the dads were talking about the power tools they would use, how to reduce drag coefficients, and the best lubricants for the wheels (liquid or powdered graphite?). One dad, an aerospace engineer, announced that he would test his son's entry in a wind tunnel at work to ensure that air resistance had been minimized. Being more comfortable with ideas than power tools, my son and I had planned on using a pocketknife and a can of spray paint to build our model. Fearing that humiliation of father and son was eminent, I casually asked if there was a liberal arts division that we could enter. My question was met with laughter and a number of comments to the effect that a liberal arts education was worthless and was nothing more than a haven for mush-brained non-thinkers.

I wish that people with that opinion would write for publication every day for a week. Then, perhaps they would understand that writing demands discipline on a number of levels. The first level is the discipline to actually write. I started my blog, in part, because I thought that if I published my writing on the net, I could pretend that I had an audience. The pretence of an audience would help me maintain the discipline to writing every day. It is hard to write every day. While I do not post every day I do write every day. Many of the things that I wish to write about are difficult to compress into 25 words or less. It often takes several days for a post to ripen from an idea or a thought into something that I willing to let others read.

The second type of discipline required of a writer is to think carefully about the organization of what is sometimes a free floating idea. I have often realized when writing that my central idea is simply wrong. That realization results from the process of writing. The flaws in my logic become apparent only when I begin to explicitly set down the reasoning.

The third type of discipline is to express your ideas in a manner that is understandable to the reader. Steven Den Beste recently wrote a manifesto that many readers felt called for the military destruction of much of the middle east and the imposition of western culture on the populations of the middle east by force of arms. The next day, Den Beste clarified his position in another post in which he said that the primary weapon the west would use for the destruction of the Arab culture was not military might but rather was the Barbie Doll. I suggest that Mr. Den Beste failed to express his idea in a way that was reasonably understandable to his audience (another option is the that he simply backed down from his original post in the face of stiff opposition). Mr. Den Beste is an engineer.

I think that the effect on our culture of the dismissive attitude towards reading and writing anything but computer code and technical articles is quite distressing. The market simply does not reward the generalist as greatly as the specialist. I chose law as a profession in part because it allowed me to establish a practice in which a wide variety of skills (writing, speaking, logic, storytelling, compassion and others) were necessary.

I think it is a sad day when the leader of the free world cannot utter three coherent sentences without a speechwriter. Mr. Bush is not only an example of the failure of a liberal arts education but he openly derides those that exhibit one. For example, he upbraided a reporter who had the temerity to ask the prime Minster of France a question in French.

As long as the market rewards those with narrow skills that do not depend on interaction of ideas or people, we will slowly lose a large part of what made western culture great.

-- Dwight Meredith

P.L.A. -- A Journal of Politics, Law and Autism

QUICKIE REACTION: I think you've described the most important "virtue" derived from doing a lot of writing -- you learn to question yourself, to recognize many of the flaws in your own thinking. Writing keeps you modest. People who do a lot of writing usually don't think of themselves as brilliant, because every time you sit down to write -- if you write honestly and well -- you're confronted with your own ignorance. I think that willingness to deal with your own limitations serves most people well in life.

Thanks! My girlfriend and most of her friends are math people (actuaries, esp.) and while they're much more liberal arts-savvy than most of my engineering friends, we have this ongoing dialog in which I've trying for years to explain why a good humanities background matters. Frankly, I've been continually surprised by how much they don't get it, and even more surprised by their arrogance in thinking there is no reason they should. I'll never convince them a humanities major had to think as much as they did in college.

(I'm a public policy person, and they buy the idea that the economics part of my major might have been worthwhile [I think it was useless, except that it helps in arguing with armchair libertarians] but they don't see the same thing with the philosophy part of my major. And they don't understand why my unfinished second major, English, would be worthwhile at all.)

(They probably won't be impressed by your blog either, but I am, and I thank you. I'll send it to them just in case.)

Last thought: living in the Bay Area I've met quite a few computer science/engineering types that went out of their way to get a good humanities education, either formally or on their own time. They're some of the most creative and freaky (good way) people I know. But still, probably the exception.

-- BJ

Robbed By A Fountain Pen

QUICKIE REACTION: Yes, I know what you mean. I knew several counter-culture computer freaks in Berkeley in the early seventies. Never had the vaguest idea what they were doing, but they were extremely creative, and I could often see that creativity displayed in areas that had nothing to do with computers.

My 18-year-old son, actually, is kind of a current generation version of that type. He's a musician. He plays piano, french horn, trumpet and guitar (and occasionally drums), and he has been composing music ever since the first time he got his hands on a piano (at four). He also writes, does cartooning, makes films, and is wildly creative in just about anything he touches. He also loves computers, and has been doing most of his composing at the computer since he was twelve and I bought him a keyboard and software for that purpose (best present he ever got). He's good at math, has taught himself quite a bit of programming (or picked it up from friends) and wants to combine that with music. So obviously I know from experience that tech skills and creativity are not mutually exclusive categories.

I am intrigued by your lengthy discussion of the relation (or lack thereof) between the sciences and the humanities.

First, some introduction -- I'm an anthropology grad student, working on my dissertation at the moment. Anthropology is a discipline that has spent literally decades trying to decide (unsuccessfully, I might add) if we're a science or a humanity, which is more or less how I ended up in it.

What drew me to anthropology was the fact that one absolutely "has" to approach culture from both a scientific and humanistic perspective. "Scientific" because, after all, we are attempting to describe the world we live in, "humanistic" because the subjects of our work are, of course, humans. Actually, the idea of two perspectives doesn't even begin to work -- the matters of the heart and of the head, to use Armey's demeaning characterization, are almost always intertwined in such a way that it is impossible to separate them. It's like the old adage about taking apart a butterfly in order to understand it--you may attain some understanding, but it ceases to be a butterfly.

There is a site out there called "Third Culture" that addresses just the divide you talk about in relation to Snow's "Two Cultures." Although I don't agree with most of the writers involved (Stephen J. Gould being the notable exception) I admire the idea of the site, that our society needs to develop a field of intermediaries, men and women like Gould who can write across the gap between sciences and humanities, who can point out the many points of contact between the two fields, who can elucidate the contributions of both to our understanding of the human condition. (This sounds like an ad for the site, but I'm really just "riffing" on the idea.)

As you point out, though, too many people these days see no contribution to be made from the humanities -- in fact, see no point in understanding our humanity at all, not in the way I've just described. (Reduce it to selfish genes and free market competition, and you've got their attention.) In fact, the Armey's of this world are more than a little threatened by the whole thing. Art, music,literature, theater--they are all kind of fuzzy and always potentially subversive and, to be honest, they just don't get it.

A couple years ago I worked at the Jewish Museum in New York (not to be confused with the Holocaust Museum in New York, mind you). While I was there, the Brooklyn Museum of Art opened it's "Sensation" exhibit that raised such a fuss, with the mayor screaming about the madonna with the feces "smeared" across it, etc. The JM's director was one of 8 (I think) museum directors that signed a letter of support for the BMA. Now, my position was such that I read most of the important mail that came through the Museum, and one day I read a letter from Peter Vallone, Democratic Chair of the City Council, thanking our director for her support of the BMA. But he also said something like "Though I find the work in question reprehensible, I support the BMA's right to show it". Along the same lines as Hillary Clinton's "support" for the Brooklyn Museum, even as she said neither she nor Bill would attend the exhibition.

I had gone, and I thought the piece was not great, but certainly not the work of evil it had been made out to be. It was a beautiful piece and, most importantly, did not fit the descriptions that Giuliani, Clinton, or Vallone had ascribed to it -- none of whom, of course, had ever actually seen it! Of course there were political games being played, but what struck me was the absolute ignorance and distrust of art displayed by all three of them, and the insistence that the work had to mean something that could be easily fit into a sound-bitten policy statement. I mean, the work was very Catholic, something that, with a little thought, the mayor at least should have been very comfortable with--the Madonna both as the mother of faith and as the figure whose representations are the foundation of the Western art tradition.

Had the mayor the desire and the intellect to unravel the mystery around the work, he could have easily found out the significance of elephants in some African mythologies, and the use of dung (though more likely cattle dung) by some African peoples as a "purifier," something not entirely out of place when speaking of the mother of Christ, I believe. He might also have discovered that Catholicism is growing in Africa at the fastest rate it has "ever" grown, put all this together, and even if he still didn't "like" the picture, at least have met it halfway. But he didn't, and neither did the rest of our "leaders"--because it was already suspect just by being "art," just by "being."

-- Dustin Wax

QUICKIE REACTION: Uh-oh. You've entered another hot-button issue for me: politicians' deliberate distortions of artistic works for political purposes, and/or their complete lack of understanding of an artist's way of approaching the world. I was, like you, appalled by the political use Giuliani and others made of that Madonna, as well as a similar controversy over Alma Lopez's "Our Lady." I don't think Lopez's work is brilliant, but it is interesting, and represents an artist taking in and renewing the meaning of received images -- a valuable goal. I was also angry about the way the press played the issue as a conflict between "religious" people like Giuliani and "anti-religious" artists. As you point out, the artists are often more genuinely and deeply religious than the censors who want to keep them from exploring religious images and ideas.But that's a topic for another dayÉ

Thursday, September 26, 2002

If you happened to be here yesterday afternoon, at just the right time, you might have noticed that my post directing you to Dwight Meredith's comments on Dick Army's denigration of artists was a little longer than it currently is. I had included some remarks about my far from pleasant experience twenty years ago teaching humanities to college freshman with majors in engineering. As soon as I read it on the screen, I edited that part out, because I realized instantly that it was not what I wanted to say. I was hoping it disappeared so fast nobody saw it -- but no such luck. Kevin, over at Lean Left, spotted it (and noted the self-censorship -- drat! ) and wrote me a very polite e-mail (much politer than my post) with thought-provoking comments:

Kevin: I saw your post about Armey before you excised the bit about the engineers being dumber than turkeys. (Did I say that? Ouch, I'm sorry.) I should point out that before I got a career and a family, I was 5 non technical classes and one design project from getting my BS in Electrical Engineering. Seriously, I can explain why your students hated that class so much -- time. Engineers are expected to take more classes than any other bachelor program, and the classes they take are very, very time consuming and complex. Time is at a premium, and English classes and Art Appreciation feel like a waste. The arguments that you need those classes to be a well rounded student fall flat, especially considering how little science non technical majors are supposed to take. To an engineering student, Music 101 feels like a full employment for liberal arts majors program.

The fact that English majors can walk out of college with almost no exposure to real science or math is a serious flaw in our college system, I feel. I do not understand how one can be considered a well rounded person without having been exposed to the scientific process and method. Science is not a set of facts -- it is a way of looking at the world, of creating a system that forces you to look at the results of your suppositions and actions squarely in the face, and of dealing with new information and situations. I don't understand why an understanding of that process is less important for the average person than an understanding of Chaucer.


Me: Boy, Kevin, you're fast and observant. I wrote that in a fury, posted it, and as soon as I saw it on the screen I realized it didn't sound nice at all and wasn't what I meant. So I tried to take it down. Blogger is a real pain at the moment. I have to hit publish 5 or 6 times before the change actually shows up, so it took me ten or fifteen minutes to get rid of it. I hope you're one of the few people who saw it. It was embarrassing and awful.

Nevertheless, there was an idea buried in that mess that I still stand by.

There was a book written sometime in the fifties by C.P. Snow: The Two Cultures -- which I admit I haven't read, but have been told about many times. In it, Snow argued that one of the tragedies of modern life was the loss of the well-rounded person. In the 19th century, an educated person would be expected not only to understand science, but to make small "amateur" contributions to it, and at the same time read Virgil in the original Latin. Everything has become so specialized and complicated that few people understand anything outside their own narrow fields anymore, and that's a tragedy because solving the world's problems would be facilitated by scientists and humanists being able to talk to each other. Right now, they can't.

I may have this wrong, because, as I said, I haven't read the book, but as it was explained to me, Snow felt that it was more important for humanists to understand scientists than the other way around. He also thought scientists had a better understanding of humanities than humanists did of science. His book was primarily aimed at scientifically illiterate humanists and artists.

I don't know if that was true when the book was written. I know it isn't today, and hasn't been for many years. Scientific illiteracy is a major problem in this country. But ignorance of the arts and humanities is even deeper and more wide-spread, and the biggest problem is that most Americans don't even recognize that that ignorance exists or matters. No high school eliminates chemistry, no matter how tight the budget. Art is expendable. When my son was in his high school orchestra (all four years), the school repeatedly forgot to get their instruments where they belonged (or open doors so students could get them themselves) or even send buses to pick the kids up. As my son once noted, "They never forgot to send the bus for the football team."

My students, in the late seventies and early eighties, were, I think, the first wave of that trend in which the arts and humanities became "frills."

Time probably was a factor in why my engineering students didn't "get" Homer. But it wasn't the most important one. The reason I took my post down is that my annoyed little remarks about my students not wanting to do the work suggested that they were simply unwilling to put any time into it, and that wasn't what really bugged me. I had lazy and busy English majors too. (You'd be surprised how long it can take just to read through and comprehend a few pages of Middle English poetry, let alone have anything original to say about it.)

My problems with the engineering students had to do with their arrogance and shallowness. Those were universal traits in the students I got from the engineering department (and I'll throw business majors into that category, too), and I think when I read Armey's remarks, he reminded me so much of my old students that I had to lash out. I had quite a few pre-med students as well, and a lot of them shared that arrogance (the extreme shallowness was less of a problem with potential doctors), but there were exceptions.

Why didn't budding engineers and business majors take to Homer and Dante? First, because they shared Armey's belief that the arts are matters of the "heart" (for which they have no respect) and science, business, and technical fields are matters of the "head." I had students tell me flat out that they were "too smart" to waste their time on "easy" stuff like Dante. I probably took remarks like that personally. As someone who was inching her way through the Inferno (in Italian) and finding it glorious, but head-achingly difficult in its complexity (and this was on my fourth or fifth reading of the work), I was angry at someone telling me he could put it all away in a minute if he thought it was worth his time. It would not occur to me in a million years (nor to any humanists I know) to suggest that if we weren't busy struggling with the words of the greatest thinkers in the history of mankind and facing issues that have haunted us for millennia, we'd have time to fool around with that silly engineering tinker toy stuff. We expect the same respect from technocrats, and we don't get it.

Don't get me wrong. Humanists can be arrogant, too. As a writer whose background is in comparative literature, I have problems with English professors who see literature as something completed in the past, as well as their myopia about literature in languages other than English. (Most of them will allow a little French and German into the canon, and a few Russian novelists, but most English professors seem blithely unaware of the fact that literature exists and thrives outside of Europe). But we don't make the assumption that anyone working in areas other than our areas of expertise is "dumb." And we don't assume that we are so brilliant that we could take on those other areas easily if it weren't a waste of time to do so.

My other problem with engineer wannabes was their shallow thinking. To put it in the bluntest terms, not one of them had ever read a challenging novel, essay, poem or play. They had reached their late teens without ever having thought a serious thought, without ever having challenged their own immediate perceptions in any way. Their understanding of human behavior was straight out of sitcoms and the cheapest, most exploitational movies. Black and white. Them and us. Good and evil. Unless they have aged better than I expect, I don't think any of them would be capable today of understanding that there was anything odd about the notion of a "war" on "evil."

And that lack of experience with challenging books showed up in their writing as well. I never encountered a single engineering major who could construct a decent sentence, let alone deal with the complexity of a good paragraph. They just didn't read enough to have developed the innate sense of how language works that all readers have. I actually had some success at the sentence level by drawing on my Catholic elementary school memories of the almost lost art of diagramming sentences. Seeing a sentence splayed out on lines seemed to appeal to engineers, and make it possible for them to cope with sentences. But paragraphs? Forget it. Despite what many high school English teachers think, a decent paragraph can't be reduced to a neat formula. It requires an ability to step gracefully from thought to thought. In order to do that, you have to begin with real thoughts. If you don't have any, you're up the proverbial excremental creek.

And once again arrogance reared its head, because my engineering students repeatedly informed me that writing clearly was a useless skill. "You know what I'm trying to say," was a statement that I heard over and over again, "why should I waste my time trying to make it sound nice?" Sheer arrogance -- I know what I mean, you figure it out.

Notice any similarity to the discourse of a certain MBA-toting president?

You said that science is "a way of looking at the world," and you are absolutely right about that. In fact, I don't know any artist or humanist who doesn't recognize that fact and make at least some effort to close the gap in her education. We have a reverence bordering on idolatry for scientists who can also write, like Stephen Jay Gould.

But the humanities also represent a way of seeing the world. It's not a matter of "appreciation." It's about looking deeply, recognizing multiple points of view, and above all understanding that what we see and think is not "obvious," that if we want other people to understand what we say, the burden is on us to make ourselves clear, not on the listener to intuit what we're trying to say. There's been a lot written lately about the "plasticity of the brain" developed by children who study languages, art and music. They develop a bone-deep understanding that there are many ways of knowing, and many ways to solve problems, and that understanding carries over into everything they study. I certainly agree that English majors lose out when they don't develop scientific habits of mind. But I think that is a commonly noted and widely shared belief. I don't think it is equally well understood how much people in fields like business and engineering lose by never developing the habits of mind that artists and humanists take for granted.

I took down my original post in large measure because it was stereotyping people, and I don't like to do that. The fact that I never met an engineering student who was capable of nuanced thinking or decent writing doesn't mean there aren't any. The fact that you, Kevin, were once an engineering major, rips an enormous hole in my stereotype. In fact, I'd be very happy to learn that you used to be one of those arrogant "brains," but that maturity and experience have granted you an ability you display every day -- thinking in complex ways and expressing your thoughts in crisp, clear prose. Knowing that would give me a little hope that some of my old students may have grown in similar ways. But, to be honest, I suspect you always found time for a little reading in history and politics, at the very least, in between your studies.

I think all of this matters because more and more we are becoming a nation of people with enormous technical skills and little understanding of what to do with them. And I think it shows up in our politics. While I am certainly appalled by the Bush administration's willingness to set aside the rigor of scientific thought in favor of a "give me the results I want" mentality, I'm equally dismayed by their inability to hear artists, humanists and social scientists. I don't care if Bush has never read The Great Gatsby , or if Cheney wouldn't know a Guelph from a Ghibelline. I don't think there's any one work that every educated person "must" read (although the Constitution would be nice, if you plan to be president). But I care that none of them have the artist's habit of mind that not only recognizes but delights in the complexities of human beings. I care that no one in this administration seems to have read any history that isn't simplistic and jingoistic. It bothers me that none of them have ever given up pieces of their egos long enough to see themselves in a novel's characters. I honestly believe George Bush would understand more about dealing with tyrants and warlords if he told Donald Rumsfeld, "Leave me alone for awhile, I need to read a little Shakespeare." Shakespeare knew Hosni Mubarak better than Rumsfeld does.

And I think the impossibility of that happening began decades ago, when they were business and technical majors, and decided that nuances were for the weak and thinking was for people with too much time on their hands.


Wednesday, September 25, 2002

The nonsense about Al Gore's "lies" has gone on way too long. Hesiod is keeping track, keeping score, and not let the real liars get away with it anymore. Bravo!

Talk Left reports that ABC News will be broadcasting a report on false confessions, including a look at the Central Park Jogger case. I'm not a lawyer or a tv watcher, but I hope Jeralyn will keep us up on this. Her writing on the subject of false confessions is always thoughtful and interesting.

Let's see: Dick Armey is an anti-Semite and he thinks anyone who labors in the arts is dumber than anyone in "occupations of the brain" like engineering. Can I be equally offended by both of those things, or do I have to choose? (It's so generous of right-wingers to give you so much to choose from.)

Dwight Meredith has more.

Yvonne Ridley is a British journalist who was arrested by the Taliban and held for 11 days for entering Afghanistan illegally. When she was captured, she had no passport and was wearing a burqa. While in captivity, she made a promise to study Islam after she returned home -- certainly not a promise anyone would hold her to, given the circumstances under which it was made. But she kept it anyway, more as an intellectual exercise than in a search for faith. But then an odd thing happened. She felt herself drawn to the faith.

There were reports (premature) that she had converted, even that she had cracked up completely and was cavorting with terrorists, that she was suffering from "Stockholm Syndrome."

The truth -- as Yvonne Ridley tells her own story -- is both more complex and far more interesting. In fact, she hasn't converted, but has only developed a strong interest in Islam, which could at some point become a conversion. But her interest in the faith is intriguing and surprising. Why would an ambitious, strong, and intelligent woman even consider the possibility of becoming a Muslim?

It was a question many people asked Yvonne Ridley:

Others feared I was being brainwashed and that I would soon be back in my burqa, silenced forever like all Muslim women.

This, of course, is nonsense. I have never met so many well-educated, opinionated, outspoken, intelligent, politically aware women in the Muslim groups I have visited throughout the UK.

Feminism pales into insignificance when it comes to the sisterhood, which has a strong identity and a loud voice in this country. Yes, it is true that many Muslim women around the world are subjugated, but this has only come about through other cultures hi-jacking and misinterpreting the Qur'an.

I wish I had this knowledge (and I'm still very much a novice) when I was captured by the Taliban, because I would have asked them why they treated their own women so badly.

Of course, she's right. Both in this country and in other countries, there are many strong and ambitious Muslim women, and even many brave and eloquent feminists. We would know almost nothing about the conditions under which women lived in Afghanistan under the Taliban, for instance, if it were not for the breathtaking bravery of the women of RAWA, filming beatings and executions through holes in their burqas. Bravery like that doesn't spring up out of nowhere. You would think that if we oppose Islamic fundamentalism in part because of the way it treats women, we would be listening to the Muslim women who are among their strongest critics. And yet I would be stunned if George Bush could name a single Muslim feminist. If you champion women's rights, wouldn't you want to hear from the women who are already standing up for those rights? Wouldn't you ask them what you could do to help?

Also intriguing is an insight Ridley had while sharing a jail with "six Christians who faced charges of trying to convert Muslims to their faith." One day, hearing the hymns of fundamentalist Christians on one side of her and the call to prayers of Taliban fanatics on the other, she realized she was "caught in between two sets of religious fundamentalists." Opposing each other, but not nearly as different in their beliefs as they think they are.

I disagree with Yvonne Ridley a little bit. She seems to suggest that there is greater fundamental support for women in Islam than in other religions. I doubt that there is less, but I also doubt that there is more. I was educated by nuns -- who, I'd venture to say, were (and are) as " well-educated, opinionated, outspoken, intelligent, [and] politically aware" as any Muslim women Ridley has encountered, and I've seen first hand the support they find in their faith (and not to put too romantic a gloss on it, I've also seen the Church undercut them. Plenty of nuns have asked the question Yvonne Ridley wanted to ask the Taliban -- "Why do you treat your women so badly?"). There is support for women at the heart of every faith. The problem isn't finding the "right" religion, the problem is avoiding the people who leech the heart and soul out of faith. And I expect you can find them in any religion.



The storyteller's dilemma
An early in the morning, off-the-wall speculation: It's hard to lie to people about economics and domestic issues. They know when they, or their friends and relatives, have lost jobs. They can see the retirement fund and the college savings dry up. They're aware of medical benefits whittled away (or not there to begin with). It's not impossible to shade the truth, but there's not a lot of room for error when you're trying to sell a story and people can test that story out in their own lives.

It's the fiction writer's constant nuisance: if you live in California, and you set a story on a certain street in Queens, you better make damn sure that street exists, and that the grocery store is exactly where you say it is, and its colors are exactly what you say, because you can count on the fact that somebody who reads the story really does live on that street and will decide you're an idiot if you get it wrong. And will write to you, asking "How can I trust anything in your story if you can't get such a simple thing right?"

It is easy, on the other hand, to lie about foreign policy. It's over there. It's far away. What do we know? They must know more about it than we do. If you're trying to control a story that's getting away from you, if you're tired of having to worry about picky details, or sick of being reminded that you got things wrong, you'd be crazy to try to tell a story about real life. You'd want to tell a story about how far away, in a strange world, there were monstersÉ

Tuesday, September 24, 2002

Whenever I write about news and politics, it's usually from around the edges, or from odd angles. There are a lot of reasons for that, but the main one is that I'm a slow and eccentric thinker, a crazy artist, not a political junkie, and more often than not by the time I've thought about something enough to express a coherent opinion, lots of people have already said the same thing I would say, only better. Either that, or someone says something that makes me think, hmmm, I'll have to think some more about that one, but by the time I've thought it through, the issue has passed.

I was fascinated by Al Gore's speech yesterday, thought it was a great speech, both in what he said, and in the quality of his rhetoric. I don't have much more to say about it than that, but I wanted to take note of two writers who had much more intelligent readings than I did:

In the category of, "things I would have said if I were smarter and faster": Liberal Oasis argues that "Gore saved the Democratic Party" with his speech. A brief and imperfect summary: Democrats would like to duck the issue of Iraq, but they can't and they shouldn't. Most Americans care more about domestic politics at the moment (as they usually do), but to cede the entire argument over foreign policy to the Republicans is foolish, even suicidal. Gore's statement was courageous and non-poll driven, as several pundits have recognized (and I suspect it will strike most Americans that way as well -- whether or not they agree with him), and any positive response the speech gets (and it has gotten quite a bit of positive response) will help Democrats who want to vote their consciences on the congressional resolution.

And in the "This hurts my brain, but I'll try" category: I can't begin to deal adequately with Max's complex reading of the speech -- good speech because it is "a welcome handful of sand in the gears of Bush's drive for war;" bad speech because Gore is a "more ambitious imperialist, if also more sensible and cautious" than Bush. I'm having a little trouble with the concept that a commitment to nation-building is inherently imperialistic, although I certainly agree with the contention that "nothing brings more potential harm than good intentions." I can't do Max's argument justice, so just go read it.

Monday, September 23, 2002

I recently did an interview with Brian Linse at The Lefty Directory. If you've been reading Body and Soul and have been trying to make sense of my politics, religion and general attitudes toward stuff (I have that problem myself sometimes), you might want to check it out. Brian asked good questions, and I at least took a stab at answering them.

Thanks, also, to Brian, for providing a link to a nice article about my former teacher, Brian Moore. He was a wonderful writer and a very good man -- and that's the highest praise I give anyone.

Just in time for Banned Books Week, Kevin Raybould has posted a list of The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1999-2000 -- which includes some great reading, if you're looking for a good book. (Reading a banned book would seem to me the ideal way to celebrate the occasion.)

I just finished reading number 7 on the list -- one of the Harry Potter books -- to my daughter (who happens to be 7 -- she likes those kinds of coincidences) and found several other favorites on the list. I've always liked number 25 -- Maurice Sendak's In The Night Kitchen, which, if you're not familiar with the book, is on the list because it revealed the shocking fact that little boys have penises (or, as my daughter said, the first time I read her the book, "Look, mama, his vagina sticks out.")

To Kill A Mockingbird is at number 41, because it would be wrong to leave children with the bizarre notion that there is, or ever has been, racism in this country.

And Shel Silverstein hit number 51 because -- to be honest, I can't imagine. Somebody thinks it's a bad idea to make kids laugh and beg for poetry?

I was disappointed to learn, however, that two Natalie Babbitt books that used to be constant targets of the book banners when I was working as a volunteer in my son's elementary school library -- The Devil's Storybook and Tuck Everlasting -- are apparently no longer subject to attack. They're excellent, beautifully written, thought-provoking books with ideas to stretch and challenge growing young minds. They really deserve a place on that list.

Hail Atrios for discovering this revealing Freeper response to the shocking (well, to some people) notion that "Women's self-emancipation is a primary source of America's present power, wealth and social energy."

Women's rights would be such a cool excuse for war if only women would shut up and not act like we're supposed to mean it or anything.

Mother's Sentence Unsettles a Nigerian Village

Amina Lawal is a Nigerian Muslim woman who has been sentenced to death for adultery. When her baby is weaned in 2004, she will be buried up to her neck in sand. When only her head is visible, crowds will be invited to throw stones at her until she is dead.

The story hasn't been ignored by the American press, but it's not making the front pages either. As Ann Salisbury angrily and accurately noted, Amina Lawal's photograph and story appeared in the Living Section of Tuesday's LA Times. Below the fold. Sandwiched between an article on Japanese tea traditions and a jolly little trifle on the Art Deco Society's Gatsby Picnic, where, as one participant noted, "The ambience is so fabulous. It's so civilized in what is getting to be a more uncivilized world."

Well, yes, it's nice to find an escape from brutal reality.

One of the reasons I haven't written anything about this story before, even though I've been following it for quite a while, is that while moral indignation is immediate and easy, actually accomplishing anything feels out of reach. Not that people aren't trying. The Times article, in fact, is only indirectly about Amina Lawal. It focuses instead on the efforts of some Southern California women -- a book club and a philanthropic organization -- to call attention to the story and have their anger heard. That's the way American women think: if our anger gets heard, we can make a difference. Normally it's a feeling I share, but somehow I don't think it well make a difference in this case.

Something struck me about the article though. Two of the L.A. women mentioned that hearing Amina Lawal's story reminded them of gender-based injustices in their own lives. There's a temptation to laugh at that. Having your grandfather leave his property only to the male members of the family, however unfair, isn't exactly in the same league as being stoned to death for bearing a child. But I think I know what the woman who brought this up means. Often it is a simmering anger over the injustices -- however trivial -- in our own lives that allow us to feel righteous anger about larger injustices. As long as we don't get trapped in nursing our own puny wounds, understanding the small ways in which we've been mistreated, is often the first step in caring about real injustice.

Even easier to mock would be the beauty queens for women's rights. Several Miss World contestants are boycotting the pageant because it is scheduled to be held in Nigeria. (The current Miss World is from Nigeria, and the fact that Agbani Darego -- Miss World -- Amina Lawal, and the women of Escravos come from the same country says a lot about the complexity of women's rights issues in Nigeria.)

My inner radical feminist thinks we're in a whole bunch of trouble if we need to take lessons in ethics and human rights from Miss Belgium and Miss France, but the truth is, those women might be wielding the biggest weapons of all. Nigeria could use the money the pageant brings in.

Here's a sentence you may never hear me say again: Hooray for the beauty queens!

If enough pressure, and the right kind of pressure, is brought in this case, Olusegun Obasanjo, the president of Nigeria, has the power to commute the sentence. But he hasn't done so yet, and he says he won't. He says he does not believe the sentence will be carried out, and if it is, he will "weep for Amina" and he will "weep for Nigeria." He will not, however, take the politically difficult step of standing up to northern politicians. Nor apparently, is his government willing to extend much assistance to Amina Lawal. The Attorney General announced that the government would assist in her appeal, but her next court date is less than two weeks away, and her lawyers haven't heard a word from the AG's office.

I'm not going to pontificate. I certainly don't know enough about Nigerian politics to understand what's causing Obasanjo's reluctance to intervene. Nor do I understand much about Islamic law. (It is certainly worth noting, however, that not only have organizations like the Islamic Human Rights Commission and the Muslim Public Affairs Council argued that the sentence is contrary to Quranic laws, but even Shariah officials in Amina Lawal's own state have argued that the sentence is wrong. This isn't about religion, it's about power.)

But when you dig under the complexities, what it comes down to is this: a young woman's life is at the mercy of political machinations. Men are struggling with each other for their tidbits of control, and a woman's life is nothing but a little piece of that power struggle. Amina Lawal is not the first young woman guilty of adultery to be sentenced to death by stoning in Nigeria. In October 2001, a court convicted and sentenced Safiya Husseini Tunga-Tudu (fortunately, her conviction was later overturned). After her conviction, Tunga-Tudu told a reporter, "I never thought there would be such a penalty. It is because I am poor, my family is poor, and I am a woman."

It's a little more complicated than that, of course, but not much. Tunga-Tudu's understanding of the situation trumps anything I could say.

As much as I wish the women who are trying to publicize Amina Lawal's story well, and hope they succeed, and will sign any petition they give me, or write any letter they suggest, I think there is a bigger problem, and that is that in many parts of the world, to be a woman is to be a piece of somebody else's power struggle, and not much more. And as happy as I am to see the Miss World contestants use whatever small power they have to alter the game a little, to stick a good, sharp stiletto heel in the wheels of the machine, and -- please, God -- save Amina Lawal's life, I think in the long run the solution is not to play the power game, but to work around it.

Amina Lawal's vulnerability to the petty power struggles of Nigerian politicians makes me very open to this argument for aiding Africa by circumventing leaders and investing directly in women:

Gordon Brown, the British chancellor of the Exchequer, has proposed a $50 billion Marshall Plan for Africa. Unfortunately, were it to come about, it would fail. The nature of the Marshall Plan was that it returned Europe to the status quo ante.

In Europe, there was a base and a memory. But in Africa, there is no base and no memory, save for the hated colonialism. So Brown's plan cannot but repeat the mistakes of the past -- massive corruption, misallocation and theft.

A whole new scheme is needed for Africa: a scheme that circumvents the nominal leaders and their culture of Mercedes-Benzes, AK-47s and Swiss bank accounts, a scheme that delivers aid directly into the hands of the people who hold African society together as best they can: the women.

If ever there was a great cause for the feminists of the world, it is Africa -- and it is the delivery of noneconomic aid to the women of the villages. This aid needs to be simple education about hygiene, reproduction and the tools of survival -- hoes, water jars, household medicines and home economics.

You cannot till the soil without an implement, store water without a receptacle, or save the life of a child who has trod on a thorn without disinfectant. And you cannot save Africa without its women.


Education and economic power for women are not the only important things, by any means. The world must pressure governments to strengthen secular justice systems in order to protect women's legal status. Local women's and human rights organizations should be supported. We need to support things like the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, to give women more legal protection. But if Amina Lawal had education and tools for survival, she could help stand up for those things herself. And in the future women like Amina Lawal wouldn't need beauty contestants or L.A. book clubs or people like me writing letters desperately trying to save her. She'd have the power to do it herself.

Amnesty International Action on behalf of Amina Lawal

Sunday, September 22, 2002

Sisyphus Shrugged on how far you can go and still qualify as a moderate Republican.

If you haven't already read this post at A Level Gaze, you should. I disagree mildly with David's pessimism about the value of writing, although I understand the discouragement, and often share it. He is certainly right that truth seems to have no effect on this administration's ability to get its way, but I think it has almost always been the case that no single writer, no matter how eloquent, could take down the powerful. Powerful people rarely get knocked off their pedestals. Instead, the pedestal is slowly chipped away until they have nothing to stand on. I remember laughing out loud the first time someone told me Nixon would be impeached over Watergate. Yeah, right. I thought, Nixon's a cockroach, he'll be the last thing standing after a nuclear war. But little by little the pedestal disappeared beneath his feet.

But the broader argument of this piece is one I can not shake off quite as easily -- that many of the policies of this administration are not just bad in and of themselves, but bad in a larger sense, bad in that they strike at who we are and who we will be as a country. And, in fact, the last part of this post may be the best argument against the first part. Keep writing, keep thinking, because, when you come right down to it, right now we are determining what kind of a country we are going to be.

Keep them barefoot, too?
Frederica Mathewes-Green would like to see more teenage pregnancies.

Just a note of warning to any women who are reading this: If you go to Washington, it is not illegal for a man to aim a camera up your skirt, take pictures, and sell them on the internet. The State Supreme Court said so. The opinion was written by Justice Bobbe Bridge, one of four women on the Court.

More sites that I should have added to my weblog list long ago, and would have if I weren't so damn lazy and didn't hate HTML so much:

The Agora

Busy Busy Busy

Free Pie

Hindsight Aforethought

Let It Begin Here

A Level Gaze

Liberal Arts Mafia

Making Light

Pandagon

Ruminate This

Uggabugga

Vanity Site

Saturday, September 21, 2002

Please, God.

If I'd voted for George Bush, I'd be depressed, too.

(Go to: September 20 -- Draw your own conclusions, folks. -- Everybody's permalinks are giving me grief today.)

Sam Heldman's mail is worse than mine. He must be doing something right.

And speaking of Sam, his discussion with Nathan Newman of the judicial nomination fight over Michael McConnell is fascinating. I'm not going to make myself look like a fool by expressing an opinion (in truth, I don't have one yet; I can see all sides and am just intrigued by the arguments), so just go read it and start thinking (as Sam and Nathan already are) about what you can hope for and what you're willing to settle for. The essence of politics in a few well-written posts.

Quite a few people have linked to Dawn Olsen's lovely ode to her daughter and revelation of her insecurities as a parent. It's a good piece and beautifully written. But somehow a meditation on Dawn's post by Devra at Blue Streak struck closer to the bone for me (It's today's post, called "Fear of Failure." She doesn't seem to have permalinks.) Devra doesn't have children yet and she's torn between the longing and the fear that she won't be able to live up to the task. She's very open and honest in her writing, and her piece is well worth reading.

It struck a chord with me because I remember the constant fear I had during my first pregnancy. I did not grow up in anything vaguely resembling a functioning family. My only understanding of what I wanted for my children was that anything would be better than what I had. Not a lot to go on.

I remember, in fact, being certain, when I was about six months pregnant, that I had made an enormous mistake. It was because of the tomatoes. The combination of a Catholic education and reading too much literary criticism has always made me take symbolism a little too seriously. While I was pregnant, I was also trying to grow tomatoes in the back yard. A foolish undertaking -- I'd lived in apartments all my life. I don't know the first thing about growing things. But my husband's father had a glorious vegetable garden in the tiny side-yard of his house in New Jersey, and it filled me with envy. So I attempted a task I was unsuited for.

And failed. What were supposed to be Big Boy (or Big Girl or Fat Man or something) tomatoes looked like cherry tomatoes. I watered. I fertilized. The vine withered. The leaves were mottled yellow, like a person with a skin disease.

And I cried and cried because if I wasn't even smart enough to grow a few fucking tomatoes, how the hell was I going to take care of a baby. For a long time, my heart was just breaking for this poor, poor kid who got stuck with me for a mother.

The first time I held him I was astonished by how solid and heavy he was. Somehow I expected a baby to be almost weightless. I kept talking to him, telling him, "Don't cry. It's okay. Really. Everything's okay." I must have sounded a little hysterical, because the doctor said, "They all cry, you know."

I also remember holding on to him a little too tight, looking around the room at perfectly nice nurses, just doing their job, and thinking, if anyone lays a hand on this child, I will personally tear the heart right out of her chest. I meant it literally. I am the quietest, meekest person on earth. People are always asking me to repeat what I said because when I speak, you can barely hear me. I've never been capable of yelling back at another person, let alone hurting anyone. But I knew I could do anything if my son was threatened in any way. Complexity fell by the wayside. I took parenting lessons from John Wayne: You hurt him, you die. You got that, pilgrim?

As he grew up, I continued holding on too tight. When I went up and down stairs with him, I'd practically crush his little bones I was so scared of dropping him. I knew that people don't ordinarily go around dropping babies down stairs, but I figured if anyone could manage to do something that stupid, it would be me.

I figured I'd warp him for sure, make him as meek and hesitant as I am. But in kindergarten, he got mad because he saw kids tossing soda cans instead of recycling them, and marched, on his own, into the principal's office, and insisted they start a recycling program. The principal asked him to make a speech about it to the school, which he did. At five, he could do what I could not have done at thirty.

He's played piano since he was six, and he's always been more interested in composing than performing, but at eight, he did an adjudication in which he played a duet with his teacher. While they were playing, the sheet music blew down and landed on top of their hands. The teacher got flustered and stopped, but my son kept going, playing flawlessly, with the paper bouncing around on his hands. One of the adjudicators wrote that she'd never seen poise like that in a kid.

He's braver and stronger and more sure of himself than I will ever be.

I've always held on too tightly. He's away at college now. The second day he was there, I talked to him on the phone and he told me he had a stomach ache. Every day since then, I've asked him how he's feeling. Is his stomach okay?

"Mom," he told me yesterday. "The next time I'm sick, I'm not even going to tell you. I was sick for about an hour and then I was fine. And you've been worrying about it for a week."

Okay, I still worry too much and hold on too tight, but at least I can laugh when he makes fun of me for doing it. And I think he knows, I hope he knows, that it's better to be loved too much than too little.

Friday, September 20, 2002


Sometimes an unguarded, off-the-wall thought can be strangely revealing. When I turned on my computer this morning, and saw this devastating picture on the L.A. Times home page, before I realized what it was a picture of, I thought, oh God, what now? I read the caption and discovered that it was the result of an Israeli attack on Arafat's compound, and, in all honesty, the first thought that popped into my head was, "Thank God. It's only Arafat."

I am not the kind of person who dismisses a life, any life, easily. The fact that a thought like that would even enter my head is probably an indication of how obvious it is that Arafat is one of those rare human beings whose existence has contributed nothing to the world that it is possible for a human being to find any good in.

A recent article about Zeenat Karzai, wife of the president of Afghanistan, reveals a great deal about the precarious lives of women in that country. I didn't even realize Karzai was married, and apparently most Afghans don't know that either.

Karzai's wife is a 29-year-old gynecologist, and a lot of women would love to see her play a public role, serving as a model for women trying to stretch out into the world again.

That's a hell of a lot to ask, of course, in a country where women's rights are far from respected and the president himself recently survived an attempted assassination.

But even if it's not a reasonable thing to ask for, I think it's certainly something to watch for. If Zeenat Karzai emerges as a public figure, it will be a sign of a notable improvement in the position of women in Afghanistan, and will also help to speed up that improvement.

Jim Capazzola is always insightful and reasonable. Who would have guessed he could also channel Lesley Gore?

Look out, Mad Kane. You've got competition.

UPDATE: Capozzola. Sorry.

Thursday, September 19, 2002

I received a letter which I thought other people might find as interesting and thought-provoking as I did:

About the Central Park "wilding" convictions: A few years back, either the National Science Foundation or the AAAS (I forget which) did this study of scientific fraud wherein they found that to a one, zero exceptions, everyone who cooked their data cooked it in the direction that they thought the truth lay -- made up the results they figured they'd get if their experiments had gone as reported.

In a similar vein, I think cops and prosecutors often fiddle with evidence so's to convict people they honestly think are guilty (eg, planting the bloody glove on OJ Simpson). But -- as the Central Park case illustrates -- once you're willing to cross that line in a "good" cause, the line is apt to blur if, say, pressure to close a high-profile case or garden-variety racism affects your judgement. Just something to think about the next time you get jury duty.

Best,

Molly

I don't have the time today, and I don't feel ready in any case, to comment on this, but if you aren't already aware of Hesiod's response to a chill-inducing post proposing that we eliminate "Arab culture," you have to read it, along with the continuation of the topic (including the comments boards) on Demosthenes' and Atrios' sites.

UPDATE: Charles Dodgson has added some extremely insightful and well-reasoned comments to the discussion.