bibliogramma: (Default)


Craig ​Timberg's Tinderbox: ​How ​the ​West ​Sparked ​the ​AIDS ​Epidemic was, as far as I can tell from reading a few reviews, somewhat controversial when it was first published. Certainly there's a lot in this book, which looks primarily at how the AIDS epidemic started, and the conditions that both encouraged and hindered its spread in Africa, that makes one stop and think.

Timberg begins with an anti-colonialist narrative of how AIDS finally, after centuries of being confined to the simian population of Central Africa with no significant or recorded crossing of species lines, erupted into the human population. He identifies Western engagement in Africa as the catalyst, from the vast social disruptions caused by European projects intended to steal the resource wealth of the continent by forcing its people to do the work of harvesting and transporting, to the effects of both Christianisation and forced separation of families on traditional patterns of marriage, initiation rituals and sexual activity.

In particular, he points to a history of circumcision as an initiation ritual, and the tendency to have polyamorous but closed circles of sexual relationships as two traditions that might have limited the spread of AIDS throughout Africa had they not been lost in the decades of colonialist exploitation and ' modernisation.'

Timberg presents considerable evidence that the greater resistance of circumcised men to HIV infection was noted on many occasions during early research into risk factors, but never considered as a potential part of prevention education and programming.

He also notes that in those instances where African nations focused on trying to change sexual behaviour, stressing the idea of faithfulness within relationships and partner reduction in general (such as the 'zero grazing' program in Uganda) rates of infection fell significantly.

The narrative he constructs around attempt to slow the rate of infections across Africa contrasts the mostly African-based programs focused on changing sexual behaviour with programs imposed from outside along with Western aid money, which stressed condom use. He also contrasts attempts to introduce multi-faceted prevention programs, such as ABC (abstinence, be faithful, condoms), with programs focusing only on using condoms. Summarising the findings of one epidemiologist who examined the effectiveness of condom-centred prevention programs, Timberg says:

"Hearst found that condoms rarely failed when used properly by individuals, but he couldn’t find any examples of condom promotion campaigns slowing HIV’s spread in African societies with widespread epidemics. He acknowledged their role in reducing infection in epidemics such as Thailand’s, where transmission was concentrated within the sex industry. But while African men often used condoms in casual hookups or with prostitutes, few did so with their wives or girlfriends, despite years of public health campaigns encouraging the practice. He also raised the unsettling possibility, stimulated by some disturbing findings his research team had made in Uganda, that aggressive condom promotion campaigns, often featuring racy images and double entendres, may make casual sex seem more acceptable, potentially helping to spread HIV."

Condoms seemed not the be the answer for Africa, a possibility that few Westerners were willing to accept. Instead, Timberg suggests that the program ultimately championed by his collaborator in this book, David Halperin, focused on circumcision, partner reduction and changes in sexual behaviour, would be more effective in African nations: "What existed in Africa’s AIDS Belt, and in only a couple of other places on earth, was a “lethal cocktail” of extensive heterosexual networks and low circumcision rates. Changing either factor, on a broad enough level, could cause the pace of new infections to slow dramatically."

While Timberg deplores the imposition of Western ideas of how to fight the spread of the disease on African cultures, he does not ignore the mistakes made by African governments - often prompted by a desire to refute Western perceptions of Africans as promiscuous, primitive, and sexually over-active, or by resistance to conditions attached to money intended to help prevent the rising number if new infections and treat those already infected.

It is an interesting book, and one that tries to look at the ways in which Western imperialism and ignorance have affected the path of the disease in Africa. I find myself wishing, though, for a book that covers similar ground written by an African.

bibliogramma: (Default)

The Geek Feminist Revolution is a collection of essays by author and social critic Kameron Hurley on being/becoming an sff writer and being a woman in that profession, on sff and geek culture and being a woman in that culture, and on the ways that sexism and geekdom play out in the broader 'mundane' world. In her Introduction to the collection, Hurley says:

"At its heart, this collection is a guidebook for surviving not only the online world and the big media enterprises that use it as story fodder, but sexism in the wider world. It should inspire every reader, every fan, and every creator to participate in building that better future together."

The essays in this collection range widely: from the important of persistence in becoming a writer to a discussion of Joanna Russ's How To Suppress Women's Writing. They are painful, inspiring, rage-honing, insightful, and even funny at times, and include the Hugo Award winning "We Have Always Fought." They are definitely worth reading.

bibliogramma: (Default)
An interest in eugenics is one of the dirty little secrets that many otherwise progressive figures of the past share with the kind of folks they would never join forces with under other circumstances. Progressive eugenicists talk about improving the species, conservative eugenicists talk about keeping the race (usually the white race) strong and pure, and free of the taint of lesser races, "weak genes" and deviance - notably sexual deviance. Both have used poor science and questionable rhetoric to advance their cause, and relied on such strategies as immigration barriers and forced sterilisation to carry it out. As Nancy Ordover notes in American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism,

"Early eugenics proponents, drawn from the ranks of scientists, politicians, doctors, sexologists, policymakers, reactionaries, and reformers, held that through selective breeding humans could and should direct their own evolution. ... The legislation they drafted, the interventions they backed, the medical regimens they prescribed stemmed from a belief that everything from intellect to sexuality to poverty to crime was attributable to heredity."

Ordover's book is an examination of the arguments and methods of American eugenicists. Writing about the appeal of eugenics in that country, she says,

"The long-lasting appeal of eugenics has rested on its protection of the status quo, on its emphasis on individual and group "failings" over analyses of systemic culprits and on its bedrock insistence on scientific/technological remedies over fundamental social and institutional change. It has thrived in times of mainstream anxiety over genuine or perceived gains of marginalized groups, making it an attractive tool for conservatives. And so decades after litigants and activists, doctors and attorneys proved that African-American, Latino, and Native American women and girls were being singled out for coerced, eugenically informed sterilisation procedures, Norplant began to be forced it on the same communities with the full force of the judiciary and the medical establishment and with the blessing of both conservative politicians and liberal organizations. After generations of queers resisting pathologisation, exactly 25 years after the Stonewall uprising, at the time of increased visibility in the political, social, and cultural realms, The Science of Desire [1] appeared on the scene to cast us as genetically distinct from the rest of humankind. Eugenics is, once again, making a very public ascent."

In the first section of the book, Ordover traces the history, rhetoric and supposed scientific research that was a significant element of race-based eugenics propaganda and legislation. Beginning with early projects intended to keep America free from 'contamination' and 'protected' from the economic pressures of new immigrants, eugenicists sought to prove that Latin American, Asian, eastern and southern European, and North African immigration was a threat to a stable, healthy - and white - population.

"It was Charles Davenport of the American Breeders Association (and later cofounder of the American Eugenics Society) who first suggested ....[using] the Binet test to document the hereditary shortcomings of immigrants to the United States. In 1912 immigrants disembarking at Ellis Island became the first group in the country to whom the IQ tests were administered. ...[this] had a built-in class bias: only those who came steerage were subject to examination. According to his results over 80 percent of all Jewish, Polish, Italian, Hungarian, and Russian immigrants were 'feebleminded defectives'."

The 'research' was undertaken to demonstrate the supposed scientific basis for identifying immigrants, and people of colour, as well as other potential dangers to the idea of a 'superior' primarily Anglo-Saxon nation. As Ordover demonstrates, such supposedly scientific evidence was based on "... stereotyping physical and mental characteristics of outsiders and insisting on recognizable, undeniable, immutable differences between "inferior" and "superior" people. American eugenicists armed with charts, photographs, and even human skulls were there to provide the visual and mathematical support that rendered racism scientifically valid and politically viable."

Eugenicists also used such research to support legislation intended to control 'internal threats' to their ideal nation, such as the poor, the physically and developmentally disabled, the sexual outcasts, African-Americans, prostitutes, alcoholics, addicts, and convicts. Instead of looking at socio-economic reasons for the various inequities they saw, eugenicists sought all their answers in biology, heredity and population statistics. As well, the force of eugenically framed discourses was increasingly aimed at radicals and anarchists, seen primarily as coming from immigrant and other marginalised communities: "These "interlopers," along with American Blacks, were viewed as both contaminated bodies and contaminators of the body politic."

Ordover demonstrates clearly that the current rhetoric aimed at immigrants to America - framing them as intellectually deficient, violent, likely to end up on welfare, a threat to the safety of the state and the jobs of 'real' (that is, white working and middle-class Americans) - is hardly new, nor is the racist construction of American Blacks as lazy, violent, prone to criminal behaviour and lacking in 'white' virtues such as diligence, intelligence, honesty, good decision-making and perseverance. Rather, these stereotypes are the continuation of over a century of eugenicist propaganda.

In the second section of the book, Ordover looks at the ways in which the concept of biological determinism, which has been the basis for eugenicist assaults on the human rights of immigrants and people of colour, has been used both for and against the queer communities in America. She begins by discussing and critiquing research into biological or genetic 'causes' of homosexuality, from hormonal influences on the fetus during pregnancy to differences in brain structures, and noting how this research has been welcomed by segments of the queer community and their allies, as well as those who see 'sexual deviance' as something to be cured.

"The warm reception that greeted these hereditarian hypotheses ... raises two issues: what is it about causation theories that is so appealing to mainstream institutions and heterosexual America?what is it about the research that has so many in the queer community looking to it for deliverance? Mainstream media and its predominantly straight consumers look for a good story; if it holds an unspoken promise of curatives, so much the better. More than that, a focus on what causes queerness eclipses the larger question: who wants to know and why? Significant segments of the gay community, on the other hand, hold that causation theories can be honed into a strategic tool and integrated into a larger legal and political struggle. For many, there may also be personal attachment to biological explanations, a comfort in being able to tell straight family and friends that "we were born that way." The stakes are clearly different but there is a commonality here. Genetic promises have been embraced without interrogation by a community and a larger society eager to accept any quick-fix explanations (and consequent solutions) that modern science had to offer. Whether the hope was for an antidote for homosexuality or homophobia, this embrace typifies the science-as-Savior prism that has created so many determinist enterprises."

As she did in the section of the book dealing with race-focused eugenics, Ordover examines the history of the medicalisation of homosexuality and 'sexual deviance' and the impact of physicians and medical opinions on legislation and mandated treatment of 'deviants.' As it had been with immigrants and American blacks, homosexuality was seen as associated with an inherited tendency to 'degeneracy' and the goal of eugenicists was to eliminate such tendencies from the American gene pool.

"Beginning in the last decades of the 19th century, a flood of state sodomy laws were passed or amended to encompass a greater array of sexual practices. Doctors ... provided a legitimizing presence among lobbyists. There was a certain reciprocity involved as castration and like procedures were transformed from court-mandated penalty to medically endorsed treatment. Physicians saw their diagnoses legally sanctioned and thus their esteem and power consolidated. At the same time, the judicial system was able to mete out corporeal punishment while still appearing to have the best interests of the defendant/patient, the public, and the national gene pool at heart.

One of the most sweeping manifestations of this dynamic was the rash of sterilization statutes enacted by thirty states between 1907 and 1932. In almost every state that legislated sterilization, eugenics boards were convened. Essentially these were medical panels established to grant or deny doctors the right to sterilize anyone with a real or imagined physical or developmental disability. Usually these were prisoners or patients at hospitals or asylums and sometimes they were members of the public at large."

As Ordover notes, at the same time that the idea of sexual deviance as a product of heritable degeneracy was being used to establish court-mandated sterilisation of homosexuals, biological determinism was being adopted by early apologists as a defense of homosexuality.

"Lesbian and gay history is replete with champions who relied on evolutionary or biological arguments to agitate for our civil and human rights. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, for example, pursued this line in the mid 19th century. If homosexuality was recognized as inborn, he reasoned, gays could not be criminally prosecuted. Perhaps choice implied guilt, but the undeniable force of nature should not."

Unfortunately, as Ordover demonstrates, the history of homophobia suggests that focus on physical 'causes' of queerness, whether it be the search for the 'gay gene' or the idea that homosexuality (and by extension, transgender or genderfluid identities) is due to misfiring hormones or congenital abnormalities of the sexual organs, leads to more strategies on how to 'cure' sexual minorities of their 'deviance. Physical and chemical castration, sterilisation, surgical procedures on the brain, hormone 'therapy,' even fetal screening and selected abortion have been recommended, if not always carried out widely.

After examining the history of eugenist discourses and the effect these have had on legislative and other means of 'controlling' the health, purity and safety of the body politic, Ordover turns in the third section of the book to a closer exploration of the allure of the 'technological fix' - the widespread advocation of 'solutions' such as birth control and sterilisation - for eugenicists on both the right and the left. The goals, actions and politics of Margaret Sanger and her associates serve as a casebook study of the ways in which classism and racism influence the policies of the left as well as the right.

"Over the years, Sanger's work and the work of her ideological cohort refashioned eugenics rhetoric into the more palatable language of population control. Early eugenics attestations that society has a vested interest in which children were born of which women solidified in post World War II decades: the continuing investment in the techno fix as remedial to poverty in the United States and abroad, the singling out of entire regions for sterilization campaigns, and the resulting wave of reactionary legislation and welfare policies. Class bias, so central to eugenic policy (and a principal motivator for Sanger) came to the fore. This is not to say that class, in particular reliance on welfare, was a greater determinant than race, but rather that the invocation of economic rationales and the unchallenged vilification of the poor enabled eugenics to go unchecked and unnamed. Class is underscored here in an attempt to counter claims that Sanger and others were not eugenicists because they never publicly uttered racial slurs, and to highlight the vulnerability of low income women who found themselves snagged in various institutional nets (i.e., relief, Medicaid, welfare). An attack on the poor may have seemed more genteel and more viable than an openly racist attack on people of color but ultimately the same women were targeted."

Ordover goes on to document the ways in which poor black, Hispanic and indigenous women, as well as women with disabilities, were targeted by birth control advocates and by both private doctors and state laws which saw sterilisation as a way of reducing the numbers of 'irresponsible' and 'feeble-minded' women bearing children while receiving government assistance. The litany of cases of coerced sterilisation, sterilisation without consent, sterilisation without the knowledge of the victim is chilling, as is the record of forced or uninformed use of potentially dangerous hormonal contraceptives such as Depo-Provera and Norplant and the social and medical pressure in some situations to abort fetuses known to have genetic or other congenital defects. Nor has this latest thrust of eugenicist practice been limited to the United States. As Ordover notes, many foreign aid initiatives and pharmaceutical testing programs have distributed these contraceptives, from Depo-Provera to Quinacrine, to women in developing nations, often without full information on risks, and sometimes without the knowledge or consent of the women.

Ordover has delved deeply into the history of eugenicist theory and its reliance on scientific (or pseudo-scientific) research and technological solutions. In this treatise, she demonstrates the ways in which this continuing assault on the rights and bodies of peoples constructed as not only 'other' but as threats to the social, political, economic and physical health of the nation is manifest in current political, social and legislative action. Racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia - these are the theories underlying much of the rhetoric from both conservative and liberal camps, and as Ordover definitively shows, eugenics is a significant part of the praxis.

An important book, with much to say about the state of America (and by implication, other nations) today.


[1] The Science of Desire: The search for the gay gene and the biology of behavior, Dean Hamer and Peter Copeland, 1994.

bibliogramma: (Default)

The subtitle of Margot Lee Shetterly's extensively researched book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, tells the reader exactly what she will find within its covers.

Shetterly is well positioned to tell this story, as the daughter of a black engineer who worked at NASA's Langley Research Center during the 60s and 70s. Her father knew some of the women who feature prominently in the book, her childhood was spent in Hampton, in the same neighbourhoods these women had brought their own families to a generation earlier. In her preface, Shetterly talks about her own memories if her father's work, and pinpoints the enormous importance of telling the stories of these women.

"Building 1236, my father’s daily destination, contained a byzantine complex of government-gray cubicles, perfumed with the grown-up smells of coffee and stale cigarette smoke. His engineering colleagues with their rumpled style and distracted manner seemed like exotic birds in a sanctuary. They gave us kids stacks of discarded 11×14 continuous-form computer paper, printed on one side with cryptic arrays of numbers, the blank side a canvas for crayon masterpieces. Women occupied many of the cubicles; they answered phones and sat in front of typewriters, but they also made hieroglyphic marks on transparent slides and conferred with my father and other men in the office on the stacks of documents that littered their desks. That so many of them were African American, many of them my grandmother’s age, struck me as simply a part of the natural order of things: growing up in Hampton, the face of science was brown like mine."

So often, the face of science has been presented as that of a white man. To read the stories of these brilliant black women who persevered through the dual sets of assumptions they faced as mathematicians and engineers in a world where people of colour were associated with low or unskilled work and women with limited opportunities when single and even fewer when married is to understand how important it is to challenge that image.

Shetterly anchors her research into the hundreds of women, black and white, who held mathematical and scientific jobs at Langley on a narrative focused on the lives and careers of a handful of women: Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and others, all of whom worked in the all-female, all-black West Computing Unit at Langley. These first of these women were originally hired to meet the research needs of what was then called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) during World War II, but their role was to continue well into the age of the Moon missions.

While recognising the rare opportunities - and unusual economic security - that the growing airspace industry offered women, Shetterly does not ignore the gender politics involved. While the 'computers' - the women mathematicians who performed all the calculations on which the male scientists and engineers depended on to be able to do their work - were often as well educated and as skilled as the men entering the field of aeronautics, they were still women working in a male field where men were individually valued and encouraged to advance, and women were seen in the perpetual role of anonymous support from which it was hard to emerge.

"Seasoned researchers took the male upstarts under their wings, initiating them into their guild over lunchtime conversations in the cafeteria and in after-hours men-only smokers. The most promising of the acolytes were tapped to assist their managers in the operations of the laboratory’s valuable tunnels and research facilities, apprenticeships that could open the door to high-profile research assignments and eventual promotion to the head of a section, branch, or division. ...

Women, on the other hand, had to wield their intellects like a scythe, hacking away against the stubborn underbrush of low expectations. A woman who worked in the central computing pools was one step removed from the research, and the engineers’ assignments sometimes lacked the context to give the computer much knowledge about the afterlife of the numbers that bedeviled her days. She might spend weeks calculating a pressure distribution without knowing what kind of plane was being tested or whether the analysis that depended on her math had resulted in significant conclusions. The work of most of the women, like that of the Friden, Marchant, or Monroe computing machines they used, was anonymous. Even a woman who had worked closely with an engineer on the content of a research report was rarely rewarded by seeing her name alongside his on the final publication. Why would the computers have the same desire for recognition that they did? many engineers figured. They were women, after all."

After the war, the anticipated downturn in employment at Langley did not take place. While in so many other industries, the return of men from the war pushed women (particularly white, middle-class women who had not worked before the war) out of the jobs they had taken on and back into the home, such was not the case in the aeronautical industry. Driven by the Cold War, research into aeronautics and space flight, the Langley 'computers' had become an integral part of the research process.

"Black or white, east or west, single or married, mothers or childless, women were now a fundamental part of the aeronautical research process. Not a year after the end of the war, the familiar announcements of vacancies at the laboratory, including openings for computers, began to appear in the newsletter again. As the United States downshifted from a flat-out sprint to victory to a more measured pace of economic activity, and as the laboratory began to forget that it had ever operated without the female computers, Dorothy had time to pause and give consideration to what a long-term career as a mathematician might look like. How could she entertain the idea of returning to Farmville and giving up a job she was good at, that she enjoyed, that paid two or three times more than teaching? Working as a research mathematician at Langley was a very, very good black job—and it was also a very, very good female job. The state of the aeronautics industry was strong, and the engineers were just as interested in retaining the services of the women who did the calculations as the aircraft manufacturers had been in keeping the laundry workers who supported their factory workers on the job."

Along with the potential of stability in a well-paid professional field that allowed them to use their education and abilities, however, the Cold War also brought the chill of the "Red Menace" which was increasingly associated with any progressive political movement, including those advocating civil rights and racial equality. The politics of race that turned the NAACP into a suspect organisation were also a part of life at Langley for the black women and men who had found careers there. While the book's narrative line is primarily focused on the women of the West Computing Unit and the part they played over three decades in the advancement of air and space travel, Shetterly relates events in the lives and career experience at Langley of both black women and the few black male engineers to contemporary developments in the civil rights movement, placing their story within the cultural, political and legal shifts of their times.

This approach makes clear the ways in which the story of how these brilliant women mathematicians became central to the successful development of the space program was deeply entwined with international politics, national pride, cultural change and the push to end segregation in the American workplace. In tracing the shift from NACA to NASA, Shetterly's account also follows the changes experienced by the black women mathematicians who had built careers at Langley.

As engineering projects diversified and became more specialised, the women of the West Computing Unit were moved out of the pool and into the various departments and working groups. Once there, the contributions made by some led to advancement from mathematician to the more respected, more influential and more highly paid rank of engineer. But though few of the 'girls from West Computing' reached such rarefied heights, their work was an essential part of the R&D that led to the first Americans in space.

And this is the real importance of Shetterly's book, that it makes prominent the contributions of black women, that it presents them boldly. As Shetterly says in her Epilogue:

"For me, and I believe for many others, the story of the West Computers is so electrifying because it provides evidence of something that we’ve believed to be true, that we want with our entire beings to be true, but that we don’t always know how to prove: that many numbers of black women have participated as protagonists in the epic of America."

bibliogramma: (Default)

Wonderfully left-wing publishing house PM Press has been putting out a series called Outspoken Authors which consists of collections of writings by visionary left-leaning writers, most of them writers of sff. I've read and talked a number of these before, including volumes that contained selected works (and an original interview) with people like Ursula Le Guin, Nalo Hopkinson, Kim Stanley Robinson, Terry Bisson and Eleanor Arnason.

My latest read from this series is a collection of essays, poems and other works from Marge Piercy called My Life, My Body. Woven through all the selections is a strong, politically and socially radical consciousness, conjoined with a commitment to feminist analysis, addressing topics ranging from the effects of gentrification on marginalised communities to the enforcement of a white male canon in literature.

Her focus ranges from social justice to literary criticism. Several of the selections here deal, in part or in whole, with the growing problem of homelessness, particularly among women. Others argue passionately against the trend in criticism that demands the separation of politics and art, and devalues literature written from a political consciousness (which, she notes, is often work created by women and marginalised peoples.

In addition to the essays and poems, the volume includes an interesting interview with Piercy conducted by fellow leftist and science fiction writer Terry Bisson.

If you're a fan of Piercy's work, you'll appreciate the pieces collected here immensely. And after that, I heartily recommend that you have a look at other volumes from the Outspoken Writers series.

bibliogramma: (Default)

For those who don't know (and until I read a passing comment on the Internet about her and the book she'd just written, I didn't), Lindy West is a feminist, fat acceptance movement activist. That was quite enough for me to be interested in her book Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman.

Shrill is, like Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist or Laurie Penny's Unspeakable Things, a heady combination of personal narrative, political analysis and call-to-arms.

She talks with humour and honesty about growing up as a shy, overweight child, about reaching menache in a culture that seeks to ignore the biological processes of female bodies, about living as a fat woman, about struggling to come to self acceptance and to raise the consciousness of colleagues in the media about the effects of public fat-shaming.

She writes matter-of-factly about her abortion, and I recognised some of my own reactions on having mine. It was no horrible tragedy, no wrenching drama, simply a thing that I chose to have because I was not interested in having a child. What she says about the right to abortion, to control one's body, is short and exactly on the mark.

"The truth is that I don’t give a damn why anyone has an abortion. I believe unconditionally in the right of people with uteruses to decide what grows inside of their body and feeds on their blood and endangers their life and reroutes their future. There are no “good” abortions and “bad” abortions, there are only pregnant people who want them and pregnant people who don’t, pregnant people who have access and support and pregnant people who face institutional roadblocks and lies."

West writes movingly about the psychological consequences of the violent and obscene harassment - often minimised as "trolling" - of women on the Internet. She pulls no punches - she calls it what it is, abuse directed at the marginalised inhabitants of the net:

"Why is invasive, relentless abuse—that disproportionately affects marginalized people who have already faced additional obstacles just to establish themselves in this field—something we should all have to live with just to do our jobs? Six years later, this is still a question I’ve yet to have answered."

One of many interrelated topics she addresses is the idea of socially responsible comedy - comedy that does not make marginalised people, be they women, people with a disability or a socially awkward disease such as herpes, or any other marked status, the punchline of the joke.

"When I looked at the pantheon of comedy gods (Bill Hicks, Eddie Murphy, George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Louis CK, Jon Stewart, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld), the alt-comedy demigods (Patton Oswalt, Zach Galifianakis, David Cross, Marc Maron, Dave Attell, Bill Burr), and even that little roster of 2005 Seattle comics I rattled off in the previous chapter, I couldn’t escape the question: If that’s who drafted our comedy constitution, why should I assume that my best interests are represented? That is a bunch of dudes. Of course there are exceptions—maybe Joan Rivers got to propose a bylaw or two—but you can’t tell me there’s no gender bias in an industry where “women aren’t funny” is widely accepted as conventional wisdom."

She pays particular attention to the phenomenon of the rape joke.

"Feminists don’t single out rape jokes because rape is “worse” than other crimes—we single them out because we live in a culture that actively strives to shrink the definition of sexual assault; that casts stalking behaviors as romance; blames victims for wearing the wrong clothes, walking through the wrong neighborhood, or flirting with the wrong person; bends over backwards to excuse boys-will-be-boys misogyny; makes the emotional and social costs of reporting a rape prohibitively high; pretends that false accusations are a more dire problem than actual assaults; elects officials who tell rape victims that their sexual violation was “god’s plan”; and convicts in less than 5 percent of rape cases that go to trial. Comedians regularly retort that no one complains when they joke about murder or other crimes in their acts, citing that as a double standard. Well, fortunately, there is no cultural narrative casting doubt on the existence and prevalence of murder and pressuring people not to report it."

I enjoyed reading West's lived experiences - some of which, in certain ways, seemed similar to some of mine - and her strong, bold voice. Not shrill, Lindy, though frightened misogynist men might label it so. Just strong, and true.

bibliogramma: (Default)

Fatima Mernissi's The Forgotten Queens of Islam is framed as a direct response to the outcry against the election of Benazir Bhutto as Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1988. In telling the story of the women who have previously held political power of the Islamic world, Mernissi is countering both the resistance to women being active in public life, and the tendency of male historians to overlook the contributions of women.

When Benazir Bhutto became Prime Minister of Pakistan after winning the elections of 16 November 1988, all who monopolized the right to speak in the name of Islam, and especially Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the then Opposition, the IDA (Islamic Democratic Alliance), raised the cry of blasphemy: 'Never - horrors! - has a Muslim state been governed by a woman!' Invoking Islamic tradition, they decried this event as 'against nature'. Political decision-making among our ancestors, they said, was always a men's affair. Throughout 15 centuries of Islam, from year 1 of the Hejira (AD 622) to today, the conduct of public affairs in Muslim countries has been a uniquely male privilege and monopoly. No woman ever acceded to a throne in Islam; no woman ever directed the affairs of state, we are told by those who claim to speak for Islam and who make its defence their battle cry against other Muslims. And, so they say, since no woman had ever governed a Muslim state between 622 and 1988, Benazir Bhutto could not aspire to do so either.


Because the concept of separation of church and state, of religious and secular authority, is not a uniformly accepted thing in the Islamic world, Mernissi takes care to differentiate between caliph and mulk, between the leader whose authority is divine, who can claim descent from the Prophet, and the leader whose authority is only of the world.

The caliphate is the opposite of mulk in that it represents an authority that obeys divine law, the shari'a, which is imposed on the leader himself and makes his own passions illegitimate. And therein, Ibn Khaldun explains to us, lies the greatness of Islam as a political system. The caliph is tied by divine law, his desires and passions checked, while the king recognizes no superior law. As a result, the caliphate has another advantage that mulk lacks. Mulk deals solely with the management of earthly interests, while the caliphate, given its spiritual nature, is also in charge of the Beyond.


Mernissi goes on to explain that in the Islamic workd, a woman can not be a caliph, but that she can - if she is able to negotiate her society's networks of secular power - become a mulk.

Not just anyone can claim to be a caliph; access to this privilege is subject to strict criteria. By contrast, titles like sultan, the linguistic origin of which is salata (dominate), and malik (king), which has the same connotation of raw power not tempered by religion, are available to anybody. And that is why women can carry them; they do not imply or signify any divine mission. But women could never lay claim to the title of caliph. The secret of the exclusion of women lies in the criteria of eligibility to be a caliph.


But even though there have been no female Caliphs, Mernissi finds examples of many women who have held other titles which speak to their exercise of secular power - sultanas, malikas, al-hurras, sitts, sharifas, amiras, khatuns. But in examining the rise to power, and subsequent fall of many of these women, Mernissi frames the history of female political power in Islam as a struggle between women seeking power and the line of male caliphs, whose claim to spiritual power places them, at least in theory, above any secular leader, male or female.

... this one constant endured throughout the empire and its states: as soon as a woman came close to the throne, a group whose interests she threatened appeared on the scene and challenged her in the name of the spiritual, the name of the shari'a.


In writing this history of female leadership in the Muslim world, Mernissi is not just telling histories of the queens and their deeds. Rather, she is using the history of these women to explore what female power means in the Islamic context, examining how it occurs, what forms it takes and limitations it encounters, how it is understood in the Muslim political tradition of male-led theocratic institutions. In her examination of the meanings of women's political power in the Muslim world, Mernissi's text discusses the instances of secular rule - whether failed or successful - of women across a range of states and eras, begining with the first woman to assume secular authority in a Muslim community - A'isha, the widow of Mohammed.

A'isha was the first woman to transgress the hudud (limits), to violate the boundary between the territory of women and that of men, to incite to kill, even though the act of war is the privilege of men and belongs to territory outside the harem. A woman does not have the right to kill. Deciding on war is the function and raison d'etre of men. 'A'isha, as the first woman who took a political decision by leading armed men, remains forever linked in Muslim memory with fitna (disorder and destruction).


Just as she draws a distinction between the highest position of power, the caliphate, which being both religious and political in nature can not be held by a woman, and the mulk, which is a secular leadership that some women can achieve, Mernissi also differentiates between sovereign secular power and other forms of leadership. In the Muslim state, the primary signifier of true sovereignty is the proclamation of the head of state in the khutba, the Friday sermon.

The Friday khutba is both the mirror and the reflection of what is going on in the political scene. In the case of war, one learns what is happening at the front by listening: the name of the sovereign that is mentioned is the one who currently controls the territory by military means. And the name changes with events in periods of political trouble.


Mernissi notes that very few women have held this level of sovereignty - rather, most who have, by
Western appraisals, indubitably ruled, have done so while invoking the sovereignty of another, a man. A second indicator of sovereignty - the minting of coins with the sovereign's name - has likewise been limited to a very few among the women who have held power. Mernissi refers to the work of another modern scholar, historian Badriye Ucok Un, who identified 16 women who have held sovereignty in Muslim history by both criteria - none of whom ruled in Arab states, but rather held power in Muslim states in Asia (largely in those under Mongol control) Turkey (including Egypt under Mamluk rule) Iran, and Indonesia and other south Asian island states. Mernissi adds to this list two women rulers in Yemen whose sovereignty was proclaimed by khutba, but whose existence appears to have been, not just forgotten, but actively suppressed - not just because they were women, but also because they were Shi'ite monarchs.

After her discussion of women rulers of the past, Mernissi returns to the implications of Benazir Bhutto's election. In the election of a woman to sovereign power, two key aspects of the traditions of leadership in the Muslim world were broken - the assertion of a woman's will, to rule in her own right, and the aristocratic tradition of rule by dynastic elites, gaining sovereignty by association or inheritance (including all of the sovereign queens) or conquest.

That is why, as the fundamentalists well understand, the election of Benazir Bhutto constituted a total break with caliphal Islam. It represented the dual emergence on the political scene of that which is veiled and that which is obscene: the will of women and that of the people.


What began as an exploration of female rule in the Muslim world ends as a question about the future of both universal suffrage and democracy in a tradition that has long vested power in a male-dominated aristocracy in which secular power depends on religious authority.

bibliogramma: (Default)

Sarah Erdreich's book, The Roe Generation, looks at the current state of reproductive choice access and politics from the perspective of those she calls "the Roe generation - those for whom abortion has always been legal, but has also always been a topic of public discussion and controversy.

Erdreich covers a great deal of territory in this book. She begins with an overview of the history of abortion in the US, including the role that credentialisation played in the elimination of lay-midwives experienced in abortion from the health care scene and the pro-nativist concern over falling birthrate of white women that lay behind much of the early anti-abortion rhetoric.

Adding context to her research through extensive interviews with interviews with abortion providers, pro-choice activists, non-medical personnel who work in abortion clinics, students considering becoming abortion providers, and others involved in the reproductive rights movement, Erdreich examines such important topics as:

- the current state of training around abortion care and contraception in medical schools and the efforts of anti-choice organisations to further erode access to training

- strategies used by anti-choice activists to restrict access to abortion through legislation and court challenges that have the long-range goal of overturning Roe v. Wade

- the strong focus on family in anti-choice rhetoric, and how its emphasis on the fetus and on the damage to women from "post abortion syndrome" infantilises women and perpetuates the idea that what everyone really wants is a tradition family focused on child-rearing

- media representations of women seeking abortions and the very few instances in popular media where women choose abortion as a valid and positive option.

Erdreich concludes her examination of abortion with a critique of established pro-choice organisations as bureaucratic, inflexible, and not prepared to make effective use of modern communications and social media in organising. She stresses the need for more aggressive planning and action by pro-choice organisations and supporters to turn the tide of increasing barriers and restrictions on abortions, and advocates greater grassroots involvement. Finally, she talks about something every pro-choice supporter can do - help to normalise the idea of abortion rights by discussing it in the same way as any other public policy issue. Ending the atmosphere of shame and secrecy about reproductive choices is, Erdreich argues, a major step toward being able to see contraception and abortion as normal life issues.

bibliogramma: (Default)

Jonathan Metzl's The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease is an examination of how institutionalised racism and social constructs of "abnormal behaviour" have influenced the changing psychiatric definitions of certain mental illnesses - specifically schizophrenia and the now out of fashion dementia praecox - and resulted in a situation in which "... African-American ​patients ​were ​'significantly ​more ​likely' ​than ​white ​patients ​to ​receive ​schizophrenia ​diagnoses, ​and ​'significantly ​less ​likely' ​than ​white ​patients ​to ​receive ​diagnoses ​for ​other ​mental ​illnesses ​such ​as ​depression ​or ​bipolar ​disorder."

In noting that black men entering treatment (voluntarily or otherwise) for mental illness are far more likely to receive a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia than any other racial group, Metzl argues that allthough "Everyday ​racism ​seems ​a ​reasonable ​explanation ​for ​these ​findings," the situation is actually more complex. In the preface to his book, Metzl states:
This ​book ​makes ​a ​broader ​claim: ​from ​a ​historical ​perspective, ​race ​impacts ​medical ​communication ​because ​racial ​tensions ​are ​structured ​into ​clinical ​interactions ​long ​before ​doctors ​and ​patients ​enter ​examination ​rooms. ​To ​a ​remarkable ​extent, ​anxieties ​about ​racial ​difference ​shape ​diagnostic ​criteria, ​healthcare ​policies, ​medical ​and ​popular ​attitudes ​about ​mentally ​ill ​persons, ​the ​structures ​of ​treatment ​facilities, ​and, ​ultimately, ​the ​conversations ​that ​take ​place ​there ​within.


Focusing on how the diagnosis of schizophrenia was used to classify people admitted to Ionia State Hospital in Michigan from the 1940s onwards until it closed as a mental institute in the late 1970s, Metzl examines the changing use of this diagnosis. Initially given primarily to nonviolent white criminals and distressed housewives - who were seen as ill but not dangerous - by the 1970s it was predominantly assigned to black men supposedly characterised by "masculinized belligerence."

In his book, Metzl looks at the origins and evolving definitions of schizophrenia in the context of social changes, and particularly racial politics and the civil rights movement in the USA, especially in Detroit which was part of the catchment area of Ionia Hospital. As Metzl notes:
American ​assumptions ​about ​the ​race, ​gender, ​and ​temperament ​of ​schizophrenia ​changed ​beginning ​in ​the ​1960s. ​Many ​leading ​medical ​and ​popular ​sources ​suddenly ​described ​schizophrenia ​as ​an ​illness ​manifested ​not ​by ​docility, ​but ​by ​rage. ​Growing ​numbers ​of ​research ​articles ​from ​leading ​psychiatric ​journals ​asserted ​that ​schizophrenia ​was ​a ​condition ​that ​also ​afflicted ​"Negro ​men," ​and ​that ​black ​forms ​of ​the ​illness ​were ​marked ​by ​volatility ​and ​aggression. ​In ​the ​worst ​cases, ​psychiatric ​authors ​conflated ​the ​schizophrenic ​symptoms ​of ​African-American ​patients ​with ​the ​perceived ​schizophrenia ​the ​civil ​rights ​protests, ​particularly ​those ​organized ​by ​Black ​Power, ​Black ​Panthers, ​Nation ​of ​Islam, ​or ​other ​activist ​groups.


As Metzl further comments in the preface:
As ​but ​one ​example, ​the ​title ​of ​this ​book ​comes ​from ​a ​1968 ​article that ​appeared ​in ​the ​prestigious ​Archives ​of ​General ​Psychiatry, ​in ​which ​psychiatrists ​Walter ​Bromberg ​and ​Frank ​Simon ​described ​schizophrenia ​as ​a ​"protest ​psychosis" ​whereby ​black ​men ​developed ​"hostile ​and ​aggressive ​feelings" ​and ​"delusional ​anti-whiteness" ​
after ​listening ​to ​the ​words ​of ​Malcolm ​X, ​joining ​the ​Black ​Muslims, ​or ​aligning ​with ​groups ​that ​preached ​militant ​resistance ​to ​white ​society. ​According ​to ​the ​authors, ​the ​men ​required ​psychiatric ​treatment ​because ​their ​symptoms ​threatened ​not ​only ​their ​own ​sanity, ​but ​the ​social ​order ​of ​white ​America. ​Bromberg ​and ​Simon ​
argued ​that ​black ​men ​who ​"espoused ​African ​or ​Islamic" ​ideologies, adopted ​"Islamic ​names" ​that ​were ​changed ​in ​such ​a ​way ​so ​as ​to ​deny ​"the ​previous ​Anglicization ​of ​their ​names" ​in ​fact ​demonstrated ​a ​"delusional ​anti-whiteness" ​that ​manifest ​as ​"paranoid ​projections ​of ​the ​Negroes ​to ​the ​Caucasian ​group."


Metzl further quotes Bromberg and Simon on the 'sypmtoms' of this protest psychosis: “antiwhite productions and attitudes. . . . It becomes apparent that the intellectual dissociation represents in part a refusal to accept the syntactical language of standard English. . . . Often the prisoners draw pictures or write material of an Islamic nature, elaborating their ideas in the direction of African ideology with a decided ‘primitive’ accent. . . . The language used may be borrowed from the ancient ‘Veve.’ . . . Bizarre religious ideas are Moslem in character, either directly from Mohammedan practice or improvised.”

Key to Metzel's argument is the fact that "... the ​rhetorics ​of ​health ​and ​illness ​become ​effective ​ways ​of ​policing ​the ​boundaries ​of ​civil ​society, ​and ​of ​keeping ​these ​people ​always ​outside." Marginalised groups have historically been characterised as more likely to be diseased or defective, either physically or mentally, and discontent with society or one's assigned status in it, no matter how merited, as a marker of mental health issues. Metzl lists some of the ways in which this has manifested or been observed with regard to both political dissidents and racialised groups, points particularly pertinent to an examination of the psychiatric labelling of black makes during the 1960s, a period of civil rights activism and black power movements that combined both political protest and a heightened presentation and awareness of racial discontents.
Scholars have long argued that medical and governmental institutions code threats to authority as mental illnesses during moments of political turmoil. Much of the best-known literature on the subject comes from outside the United States. International human rights activists such as Walter Reich have long chronicled the ways in which
Soviet psychiatrists in so-called Psikhushka hospitals diagnosed political dissidents with schizophrenia. Meanwhile, Michel Foucault often cited French hospitals as examples to support his belief that the discourses of the human sciences produce and discipline deviant subjects in the larger project of maintaining particular power hierarchies. Foucault also importantly developed a theory of "state racism," whereby governments use emancipatory discourses of what he called "race struggle" as excuses for the further oppression of
minority groups. Meanwhile, the Martinique-born psychiatrist Frantz Fanon called on his experiences in Algeria to describe a North African syndrome in which political and medical subjugation literally
created psychiatric symptoms in colonized subjects. Fanon's important schema, discussed at length below, focused on the ways in which racist social structures reproduce themselves not only in political or economic institutions, but also in the "damaged" psyches of people it needs to control.


As Metzl notes, however, the history of ascribing specific kinds of mental illness to black patients predates the civil rights movement by a considerable length of time. He notes the early history of the diagnosis of mental illness among blacks in America, which usually worked in support of
... existing beliefs [that] "Negroes" were biologically unfit for freedom. This troubling argument emerged from the work of American surgeon Samuel Cartwright, who wrote in 1851 in the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal that the tendency of slaves to run away from their captors was a treatable medical disorder. Cartwright described two types of insanity among slaves. Drapetomania resulted when "the white man attempts to oppose the Deity's will, by trying to make the Negro anything else than 'the submissive knee-bender' (which the Almighty declared he should be) by trying to raise him to a level with himself, or by putting himself on an equality with the Negro." According to Cartwright, such unnatural kindness led to a form of mania whose sole symptom was the propensity of slaves to run away. Similarly, dysaesthesia aethiopis, which is Cartwrights term for the "rascality" and "disrespect for the master's property" that resulted when African Americans did not have whites overseeing their every action. Cartwright theorized that both conditions resulted from biological lesions and he advised treating both with whipping, hard labor, and in extreme cases, amputation of the toes.


Metzl includes in his arguments a brief overview of the development of the understanding of schizophrenia as a mental illness. Originally known as dementia praecox, one school of researchers characterised the disease as "... a biological illness caused by underlying organic lesions or faulty metabolism ... [that] resulted from irreversible biological changes..." Others theorised that dementia praecox "...was not a biological disorder, but was instead a psychical splitting of the basic functions of the personality." This splitting "...was accompanied not by violence, but by symptoms such as indifference, creativity, passion, and even fanaticism." This theory led to the use if the term schizophrenia, from the Greek words for "split" (schizo) and "mind" (phrene).

Metzl notes that the differences in theorising about praecox as opposed to schizophrenia resulted in the condition being interpreted very differently based on the psychiatrist's beliefs concerning its etiology. Those who followed the idea of schizophrenia as an illness of personality instead of biology tended to describe patients in terms that "...remained largely, though by no means entirely, free of connections to violence, invasions, crime, impurity, and other eugenic staples." Patients with schizophrenia were in general not seen as dangers or as threats, but as persons needing nurturing in order to find the "sensitive and tender nature" hidden behind a patient's "cold and unresponsive exterior." Leading clinicians "... advocated teaching patients how to function as adults through activities that substituted 'objective The reality for phantasy' such as occupational therapy, physical exercise, and the encouragement of participation in 'dances, concerts, and other opportunities for social contact.' "

Those who understood schizophrenia to be essentially the same as the organically caused dementia praecox, however, were more likely to see it as a racialised disease:
... in 1913, Arrah Evarts, a psychiatrist from the Government Hospital for the Insane in Washington, D.C., wrote an article in the Psychoanalytic Review titled "Dementia Praecox in the Colored Race" in which she described dramatic increases in the illness in "colored" patients.

.... Evarts linked the appearance of praecox in these and other patients to the pressures of freedom - pressures for which "Negroes," she argued, were biologically unfit. Speaking of slavery,
Evarts wrote, 'This bondage in reality was a wonderful aid to the colored man. The necessity of mental initiative was never his, and his racial characteristic of imitation carried him far on the road. But after he became a free man, the conditions under which he must continue his progress became infinitely harder. He must now think for himself, and exercise forethought if he and his family are to live at all; two things which has [sic] so far not been demanded and for which there was no racial preparation. It has been said by many observers whose words can scarce be doubted that a crazy Negro was a rare sight before emancipation. However that may be, we know he is by no means rare today.'


However, as the clinical use of the diagnosis of dementia praecox declined and the conceptualisation of schizophrenia as a disease of personality became the prevailing one, this tendency toward a racialised diagnosis declined. As Metzl points out, "Prior ​to ​the ​civil ​rights ​movement, ​mainstream ​American ​medical ​and ​popular ​opinion ​often ​assumed ​that ​patients ​with ​schizophrenia ​were ​largely ​white, ​and ​generally ​harmless ​to ​society."

As the civil rights movement and other events highlighting the unrest among black people in this the U.S. entered the consciousness of the public and the psychiatric profession alike, a shift began to appear in the perceptions of mental illness. Metzl notes that the release of the revised Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-II) in 1968, on which many symptoms of mental illness were seen as maladaptions to the patient's environment, both reflected and in some ways codified an understanding of schizophrenia as a violent disorder commonly seen among black patients. By the 70s, anti-psychotic drugs marketed for treatment of schizophrenia were often advertised with imagery that suggested angry black men, inner city tensions, or "primitive" thought processes - the latter imagery often suggesting or openly using traditional African art or artefacts.

In examining the language used to discuss research into psychiatric conditions beginning in the 60s, Metzl observes that "... data analysis suggests that authors of research articles in leading psychiatric journals preferentially applied language connoting aggression and hostility to African Americans during the 1960s and 1970s. The spike in such associations raises the specter that the DSM-II codified ways of talking about blackness in addition to talking about mental illness. To be sure, the DSM claimed to seek neutrality. But, in the real world, doctors and researchers used the manual’s charged language to modify, describe, and ultimately diagnose the category of black under the rubric of the category of schizophrenia."

This developing construct of schizophrenia as a disease of blacks led into madness by hostility and delusions triggered by the "antiwhite" ideas of prominent black leaders was not limited to psychiatric circles. Increasingly during the 60s, the media began using the imagery of schizophrenia and psychosis to discuss racial unrest among blacks in America.
For instance, an electronic newspaper archive search for articles with the terms schizophrenia and schizophrenic in combination with terms such as Negro, racial, civil rights, and, by comparison, with Caucasian, feminism, and Equal Rights Amendment, reveals a series of significant numeric trends starting in the late 1950s. As but a few examples, the electronic archives of the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune show the terms Negro plus schizophrenia or schizophrenic returned 36 results dated 1930 to 1955 and a staggering 259 results dated 1956 to 1979. A search for Negro plus paranoid or paranoia similarly returned 12 results dated 1930 to 1955 versus 358 results dated 1956 to 1979. Caucasian or white plus schizophrenic or schizophrenia returned no results from 1930 to 1955 and only 1 from 1956 to 1979, and feminism or women’s rights plus schizophrenia or schizophrenic returned no results from 1930 to 1955 and 10 results dated 1956 to 1979.


Metzl goes on to note the way in which this imagery of schizophrenia was used to differentiate between "good" blacks, who did not raise anxiety in mainstream, white, society, and "bad" blacks, who were angry and appeared poised to destroy the social order: "Schizophrenia also provided a framework for dividing civilized blacks from unruly ones, the Martin Luther Kings and Jackie Robinsons who espoused nonviolence from the LeRoi Joneses, Stokely Carmichaels, and Rap Browns who did not."

During this period, the black press, and black leaders and theorists, also adopted the psychiatric imagery of schizophrenia, but for them it was seen in reverse. Rather than categorising the revolutionary black man as violently mentally ill, and his protest, his frustration and his anger as the symptoms of his disease, black writers saw the situation of a black man living in a white supremacist society as the cause of a kind of survival schizophrenia and revolution the healthy road to a cure. "In their pages, schizophrenia also became a rhetorically black disease. But, instead of a condition caused by civil rights, schizophrenia resulted from the conditions that made civil rights necessary. Civil rights did not make people crazy, racism did. Instead of a mark of stigma, schizophrenia functioned as a protest identity and an internalized, projected form of defiance."

It is when Metzl turns his attention to his historical research into the medical files of hundreds of patients at the Ionia State Hospital, originally known as the ​Michigan ​Asylum ​for ​Insane ​Criminals, which operated between 1885 ​and ​1976, that we see the real-life consequences for black, primarily male patients.

In looking at the charts of schizophrenic patients from earlier time periods, prior to the beginnings of the civil rights movement, he found that these patients were not seen as particularly violent. While a minority of patients were described as hostile, suspicious or paranoid, these patients were most frequently described as confused, withdrawn, and cooperative. Further, differences between the symptoms of white and black patients with schizophrenia were for the most part insignificant; black patients were more likely to be suspicious, white patients to be suicidal.

Further, it was the assumption that patients, even those remanded to the Hospital because they were classified as criminally insane, were to be treated with the eventual goal of recovery and release. "During the first half of the twentieth century, the idea that even criminally insane persons might improve with treatment and return to their lives functioned as a viable concept. The goal of institutions such as Ionia was not merely to warehouse people, but to recuperate them."

In examining the medical records of Black men admitted in the 50s and early 60s and diagnosed with various personality disorders, Metzl observed that these diagnoses were often changed to one of schizophrenia in the late 60s and early 70s, even though the other contents of the records made it very clear that there had been no change in their symptoms, no new manifestations of disease. Despite the move toward deinstitutionalisation of the period, which led to the downsizing and eventual closing of many hospitals for the mentally ill, these black men were considered dangerous and were among the few patients kept in custody. Indeed, when Ionia Hospital was finally closed, this same group of black men were transferred to another facility for the dangerously insane. At the same time, white women who had been admitted with diagnoses of schizophrenia were being re-diagnosed with depression and released to the care of their families.

Metzl makes it clear - and quotes extensively from representative case files in so doing - that the black men in treatment at Ionia Hospital were not healthy persons unjustly confined. Rather, he is exploring how the ways in which the assessment of the men's condition, and their prospects for release, were affected by changing ideas about blackness, illness and violence.
This is not to suggest that many of the men did not suffer from debilitating mental anguish—indeed, the men lost lives and dreams and loved ones, and were often deeply in need of treatment and care. But the associations implied by that anguish changed over time. In institutional terms, “Negro symptoms” such as hallucinations, delusions, and violent projections came to mean different things. ... Thus did African American men at Ionia develop schizophrenia, not because of changes in their clinical presentations, but because of changes in the connections between their clinical presentations and larger, national conversations about race, violence, and insanity.


Metzl concludes with a brief exploration of the way in which imprisonment has replaced commitment to care facilities for those who enter the justice system with a mental illness.
Many mental-health professionals feel that something is deeply wrong with a system that incarcerates so many mentally ill persons, or that posits prisons as primary treatment centers. The illnesses themselves too often become life sentences. Symptoms so frequently get worse, and the prison rhetoric of containment precludes improvement, recovery, or reintegration. We are not apologists for crime. Yet, most mental-health providers believe that even nightmare scenarios, in which mental illnesses contribute to criminal acts, demonstrate the importance of treating such illnesses proximally, in the community, rather than distally, after the deed is done.
...

The notion of recuperation fell by the wayside as hospitals became prisons. Sentences grew ever longer, moats deeper, and barbed wire sharper. Empathy gave way to fear, fear to anger, and anger ultimately to indifference. “Everything changed when mental health was taken over by Corrections” was a refrain I heard again and again during oral history interviews with staffers who worked at Ionia during the transition to Riverside. “Corrections told us to stop caring for people,” an elderly gentleman who worked as an attendant told me, “even though in some cases we had these people in the hospital for years. Corrections made clear that our job was just to keep them quiet. No one gave a damn about their needs."


This is a difficult but important book, especially in the current rising wave of racial unrest that may well presage a second wave of revolutionary human rights activism among people of colour. One of the most important take-aways from this book for me has been how psychiatry and white fear interacted to reinforce the caricatured social image of black people as violent savages - which is the exact racist imagery that both triggers and is used to excuse the violence against black bodies and black lives we are seeing all around us. This is one part of how these images gain credence and blot out the truth.

bibliogramma: (Default)

Jason Rosenhouse's Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionist Frontline is an interesting look at the culture of creationists from the perspective of an outsider - a mathematician and atheist - who has spent time observing and interacting with creationists.
This book has three main purposes. It is a memoir recounting some interesting experiences I’ve had socializing with people whose worldview differs greatly from my own. It is also an explication of the beliefs and attitudes that are common in the anti-evolution subculture. And it is a discussion of certain questions about the relationship between science and religion that arose naturally through my experiences.
Rosenhouse structures his account around his personal experiences in visiting specific sites - from "creation museums" to bookstores - and attending pro-Creationism conferences, both to see the way that "creation science" is presented within the Creationist community, and to engage with actual creation believers.

Rosenhouse's approach in this book is not to "prove" evolution, or "disprove" creationism through recounting the scientific evidence for evolution, though he does present a reasoned account of the evidence for the former and the errors made in asserting the latter. Rather, his primary goal is to describe and critique the nature of creationist arguments and the Biblical Christian worldview they are derived from, and explain why the concept of evolution is such a threat to that worldview. Another aspect of his argument focuses on the general lack of understanding of science and the scientific mindset that seems common to most advocates of creationism, a lack which results in most arguments either presenting a completely false summation of the scientific evidence, or setting up strawdogs based on misunderstanding of scientific data and conclusions.

In the process of reporting on his experiences with both "Young Earth" creationists and those who propose Intelligent Design, Rosenhouse discusses the history of Christian opposition to the concept of evolution and how that has manifested in American judicial and educational history - as well as examining the positions of those who have attempted to reconcile Biblical Christianity with evolutionary theory. In this undertaking, he covers a great deal of theological ground, often making his points and illuminating contradictions by the juxtaposition of quotations from both modern creationists and Christian thinkers from the pre-Darwin era on the one hand, and scientists, progressive theologians, philosophers and historians on the other.

What I found particularly interesting about Rosenhouse's work is that, where other science-minded critics of Creationism have turned first to the scientific evidence of evolution to discredit the claims of Creationists, Rosenhouse mounts a significant critique based on the interpretation of Biblical texts, demonstrating the problems in arguing Creationism from a literal reading of the Bible. He also examines arguments that have been made attempting to reconcile allegorical and other ahistorical readings of the Bible with the evolutionary record and its implications for the nature of humanity. Ultimately, he demonstrates that many of the basic tenets on which traditional Christianity is based, from the special relationship between God and man, and the idea of God as omniscient, omnipotent, and the source of all good, are seriously threatened by the scientific understanding of evolution.
bibliogramma: (Default)

Lawrence Hill's latest book, Blood: The Stuff of Life, is a meditation on the cultural and personal meanings of blood. An essential part of our anatomy, it is perhaps the only internal aspect of our physical beings that almost all of us, at some time or another, will see outside of its natural place. And it has come to mean so many things in addition to simply the red fluid that is so much a part of what keeps us alive.
It’s hard to imagine a single person in a school, restaurant, theatre, hockey arena, hospital room, or bookstore who does not have a set of personal stories about blood. Maybe it was the blood of a distant ancestor, persecuted because his or her blood was deemed to be impure. Maybe it was a grandfather who fell under the blade of a farm instrument and bled to death in the fields. Maybe it was an aunt who donated plasma weekly for decades, or a sister who won international attention for designing a more effective way to kill cancerous white blood cells before they multiplied madly and killed the patient. Maybe something happened to you in the blood lab, or in the operating room, and lodged so deeply in your mind that you have passed the story along to every single family member. Blood keeps you alive, for sure. Yet, the very blood in your veins and arteries can suddenly betray you. One day you feel healthy and have just hiked up a mountain with the person you most love in the world, and the next day what you thought was a routine blood test tells you that you have prostate cancer and had better decide, pronto, if you’re going to opt for surgery or radiation, or tempt the gods by doing nothing at all. Blood is the lubricant of our bodies and the endlessly circulating river supplying oxygen and nutrients to our cells. But it is far more than a sign of your physical health, or an omen of your mortality. It has the potential to reveal your most hidden secrets: How is your cholesterol level? How much alcohol have you consumed? Have you been snorting cocaine? Are there any other residual traces that might scare off an employer, or lead a life insurance company to deny your application? What has been the average amount of sugar in your blood over the past ninety days? Did you cheat in that Olympic marathon race? Are you the father of that child? Blood won’t tell all. But it can tell enough to get you in a whole lot of trouble.
Hill's book is exhaustive in its examination of matters of blood, from traditions of blood sacrifice to the gods to blood donation policies to blood as a marker of race. But while the range of topics mentioned is vast, one might wish for a fuller examination of them. In being encyclopedic, Hill has sacrificed depth of analysis. For example, in one section devoted to discussing blood as a symbol of honour and sacrifice, Hill covers Aztec religious sacrifices, Japanese seppuku, and honour killings of women in just a few pages, providing the literary equivalent of sound bytes on each, but little background or individual context.

It's an idiosyncratic book, organised as much by Hill's musings about blood and his life experiences, as it is by generally accepted themes associated with blood. I enjoyed much of it, though there were times that I wished Hill had spent more time on a topic, and other times when I thought he went into too much detail for something that seemed to me to be a relatively tangential aspect. But it's also a very personal book, and in many cases the amount of space given to an issue seems at least in part determined by the strength of its meaning in his own life.

bibliogramma: (Default)

Laurie Penny's book Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution, is (whether Penny or her readers know this or not) a call for the rebirth of the radical vision of feminism I remember from my youth, a vision I've never set aside, and one I hope will indeed come again, a true revolution that will change society, not just for women, but for all those oppressed by power inequities - and for those driven to oppress by fear and insecurity.

Working from within the system was never going to get us very far. And Sister Audre told us we couldn't use the master's tools to tear down his house. But many of us tried. For so many reasons. Because good girls don't ride the thunder and shake the house down to the foundations. Because the lies we swallowed with our mothers' milk kept us divided from all the other people who needed to tear down that house, the ones we could have worked together with, if we weren't white middle-class women who weren't ready to ally with queers, with workers, with the poor, with people of colour. Because the people who identified most with our oppressors (not seeing their own oppression) were our fathers, our brothers, our lovers, and even our sons.

Penny speaks to the women who came after us, and she is calling them to finish the revolution.
It must be mutiny. Nothing else will do. I used to be less hardline about this. I used to vote, and sign petitions, and argue for change within the system. I stayed up all night to watch Obama get elected; I cheered for the Liberals in London. I thought that maybe if we kept asking for small change – a shift in attitudes about body hair, a slight increase in the minimum wage, maybe shut down a few porn shops and let the gays marry – then eventually we’d get the little bit of freedom we wanted, if it wasn’t too much trouble.

No more of that. Being a good girl gets you nowhere. Asking nicely for change gets you nowhere. Mutiny is necessary. Class mutiny, gender mutiny, sex mutiny, love mutiny. It’s got to be mutiny in our time.
In her analysis of the current state of sexism, Penny looks at issues that will be familiar to most feminists - among them the policing of the female body, the consequences of enforcing socially-defined gender roles on people, male, female and non-binary, the relationship between reproductive freedom and personal freedom, the unpaid emotional work that women do, the backlash against women who dare to enter the public area, male entitlement and the nature of marriage - with clarity and with passion.

But more than this, Penny is drawing down the future with a vision of a renewed revolution:
A time is approaching when the humanity of women and girls and queer people and our allies will be understood in practice rather than acknowledged in passing. I believe that together we will find the courage to rewrite the old, tired scripts of work and power and sex and love, the old stories about what it means to be a beautiful woman, a strong man, a decent human being. I believe that the time is coming when those stories will be heard in numbers too big to silence. The great rewriting is already under way. Close your eyes. Turn the page. Begin.


bibliogramma: (Default)

When Kate Bornstein wrote Gender Outlaws: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us, back in 1994, trans* issues were still a thing not many people talked about, unless they were, or knew, people who were trans. Bornstein's writing and advocacy was part of the reason this has changed.

Now she has co-edited, with S. Bear Bergman, Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation, a collection of essays and personal narratives by people in and around the trans* community today. The editors have made selections representative of the diversity to be found in the global trans* community - those sharing their thoughts and experiences express a range of gender identities - and some decline gender identification all together. While many of the voices come from North America, there are contributors from all around the world - Spain, Singapore, Mexico, Argentina, Kenya among others - and from a multitude of ethnic backgrounds.

The contributions range from the deeply personal to the highly theoretical, from formal essay to autobiographical narrative to poetry to visual art.

Taken together, these works form a kaleidoscope of proudly oppositional images, of all the ways to genderfuck, to trans/scend the rigid boundaries of immutability and binary thinking about sex and gender. They remind us of where we have been, what we still face, and where we are going in the journey to deconstruct the old labels used to control sexual identity and expression, and to create a new world where people can truly become who they know themselves to be.

bibliogramma: (Default)


Franz Kafka once wrote: "I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us."

Ta-Nehisi Coates' new book, Between the World and Me, is such a book. It is framed as a message to his son about his own experiences, thoughts and perceptions of race and racism in America. A message written at a time when the experience of race and racism is front and centre in American culture, as it was for James Baldwin when he wrote, as part of The Fire Next Time, "My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation." An attempt to explain how the past became the present and what that may mean to the future.

But where there was hope mixed in with the history and the horror in Baldwin's message, Coates does not see through to or articulate a better future when he considers what it is his son is seeing today.
I write you in your fifteenth year. I am writing you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old child whom they were oath-bound to protect. And you have seen men in the same uniforms pummel Marlene Pinnock, someone’s grandmother, on the side of a road. And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible.
What Between the World and Me really is, at least in the eyes of a white woman who is not the audience Coates has foremost in his mind, is a hammer aimed at the cold stone heart of racism in North America, a howl of rage against the inequities of centuries of abuse, another tear in the flood of salt soul water that has poured from the black bodies beaten, raped, tortured, shot, hanged, denied, defamed, derided, devalued, disappeared.
Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dressmaking and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone. “Slavery” is this same woman born in a world that loudly proclaims its love of freedom and inscribes this love in its essential texts, a world in which these same professors hold this woman a slave, hold her mother a slave, her father a slave, her daughter a slave, and when this woman peers back into the generations all she sees is the enslaved. She can hope for more. She can imagine some future for her grandchildren. But when she dies, the world—which is really the only world she can ever know—ends. For this woman, enslavement is not a parable. It is damnation. It is the never-ending night. And the length of that night is most of our history. Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free. Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains—whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing but chains.


bibliogramma: (Default)

For some time now, I've been watching the full-tilt assault on reproductive rights in the US - and the less aggressive but equally troubling one here in Canada - with growing concern. It was a hard-fought battle, and one I remember well, to win those rights, and to see them being eroded in less than a generation is a sad thing indeed. Fortunately for Canadians, our struggle took us farther, to the full decriminalisation of abortion, which makes it harder to turn the clock back all the way here - though by no means impossible, and we must be vigilant, especially when conservative elements hold political power. But in the US, where abortion remained a matter of law, rather than a private medical decision between doctor and client, it has seemed to be much easier for the anti-choice forces to pass one new requirement or limitation after another, slowly curtailing reproductive freedom under many disguised. But as an outsider, dependent primarily on sporadic exploration of a foreign media, I remained unclear on just how serious the situation was in the US, and on what points the debate is currently focused. So when I heard of Katha Pollett's new book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, I was eager to read it. And almost from the first page, I found my fears confirmed:
Between 2011 and 2013, states enacted 205 new restrictions—more than in the previous ten years: waiting periods, inaccurate scripts that doctors must read to patients (abortion causes breast cancer, mental illness, suicide), bans on state Medicaid payments, restrictions on insurance coverage, and parental notification and consent laws. In Ohio, lawmakers have taken money from TANF, the welfare program that supports poor families, and given it to so-called crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) whose mission is to discourage pregnant women from having abortions. (That’s right: Embryos and fetuses deserve government support, not the actual, living children they may become.) Twenty-seven states have passed laws forcing clinics into expensive and unnecessary renovations and burdening them with medical regulations intended to make them impossible to staff. Largely as a result, between 2011 and 2013 at least 73 clinics closed or stopped performing abortions. When these laws have been challenged in court, judges have set aside some of them, but not all. The result: In 2000, according to the Guttmacher Institute, around one-third of American women of reproductive age lived in states hostile to abortion rights, one-third lived in states that supported abortion rights, and one-third lived in states with a middle position. As of 2011, more than half of women lived in hostile states. Middle-ground states, such as North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin, have moved in an anti-choice direction. Only twenty-three states could be said to have a strong commitment to abortion rights. In 2013, only one state, California, made abortion easier to obtain.
Pollitt's book, however, is not intended as reportage so much as it is a revitalisation of the understanding of full access to abortion as an undeniable element of reproductive healthcare, and hence a social good (note: where Pollitt refers to women as those immediately affected by pregnancy and issues of access to abortion, my remarks on the text are intended to include in this category those genderqueer, non-binary and trans* people who, while not identifying as women, may also experience pregnancy and require such access). Pollitt summarises her main points as follows:
In this book I make many arguments, but let me mention three. First, the concept of personhood, as applied to the zygote, blastocyst, embryo, and, at least until late in pregnancy, fetus, makes no sense: It’s an incoherent, covertly religious idea that falls apart if you look at it closely. Few people actually believe it, as is shown by the exceptions they are willing to make. Second, the absolutist argument that abortion is murder is a mask by which people opposed to the sexual revolution and women’s advancement obscure their real motives and agenda: turning back the clock to an idealized, oversimplified past when sex was confined within marriage, men were the breadwinners and heads of families, Christianity was America’s not-quite-official religion, and society was firmly ordered. Third, since critiquing what came before does not necessarily help us move forward, I want to help reframe the way we think about abortion. There are definitely short-term advantages to stressing the anguish some women feel when facing the need to end a pregnancy, but in the long run presenting that as a general truth will hurt the pro-choice cause: It comes close to demanding that women accept grief, shame, and stigma as the price of ending a pregnancy. I want us to start thinking of abortion as a positive social good and saying this out loud. The anti-abortion movement has been far too successful at painting abortion as bad for women. I want to argue, to the contrary, that it is an essential option for women—not just ones in dramatic, terrible, body-and-soul-destroying situations, but all women—and thus benefits society as a whole.
As Pollitt points out, the standard narrative requires that pro-choice activists buttress their advocacy with comments describing abortion as "the lesser of two evils" or presenting abortion as a harrowing choice for those who decide to terminate a pregnancy. A person seeking an abortion is expected to express ambivalence, sorrow, regret. Abortion is often characterised as the action of frivolous or irresponsible people, young, unmarried and/or engaging in transgressive sex. And so on. Pollitt would have us challenge that narrative.
Abortion is often seen as a bad thing for society, a sign of hedonism, materialism, and hyperindividualism. I argue that, on the contrary, access to legal abortion is a good thing for society and helping a woman obtain one is a good deed. Instead of shaming women for ending a pregnancy, we should acknowledge their realism and self-knowledge. We should accept that it’s good for everyone if women have only the children they want and can raise well.
Pollitt takes a thorough look at the key questions surrounding positions on abortion, and effectively demolishes not only the anti-choice arguments, but also the propensity of many on the pro-choice side to allow their opponents to frame the discourse.

She addresses the issue of the personhood of the embryo/fetus, and the logical, if not always elucidated, consequences of the belief that it is a person from, as some insist, the moment of fertilisation. She examines the ways in which anti-abortion (and anti-contraception) arguments and laws are in essence about policing female sexuality and socially-prescribed gender roles.
At the heart of opposition to legal abortion is an anti-feminist, anti-modern view of relations between the sexes: Women are (or should be) maternal and domestic, men are (or should be) energetic breadwinners, and sex is a powerful, dangerous force that must be narrowly channeled, with parents controlling girls to keep them virgins and women refusing men sex in order to corral them into early marriage with babies soon to follow.
Exploding myths used by abortion opponents to paint abortions as dangerous, and those who have them as either hedonistic and thoughtless or victims of manipulation by parents, Pollitt exposes the hypocrisy of anti-choice advocates who value the fetus but not the person who bears it or the child it will be after birth. She draws aim on the conservative agenda in which opposition to both contraception and abortion goes hand in hand with opposition to everything that might make the lives of actual living parents and children easier, from paid parental leave and flexible working hours to subsidized day care programs to minimum wage legislation and welfare, showing that the real goal of conservatives is to negate the advances made through feminism and other social justice movements and send women back to a limited role where they are dependent on men.

As an American-centric treatise on the current state of abortion rights, Pollitt's book is highly informative - both well-researched and highly accessible. As a call to reclaim abortion as an essential and positive part of reproductive health care, it is inspiring. As a reminder that the work of feminism is not yet finished, that we do not yet live in some glorious post-feminist society, it is invaluable.

bibliogramma: (Default)

The Girl in Saskatoon, Sharon Butala's examination of the life and death of murder victim Alexandra Wiwcharuk, was of interest to me not just because of my fascination with certain elements of crime, violence and the human psyche, but because I, like the author, remember the girl from Saskatoon. Unlike the author, I never met her, but I lived in Saskatoon, a girl of seven years or so, in the aftermath of her death, and even as a child, I knew there was something about this death, mostly talked about in whispers around me, that was important, and unsettling. I had only just moved to Saskatoon, so I have not even a child's reminiscences of what life had been like before Alexandra Wiwcharuk was found dead by the river, but to this day, when there's a reference to her in lists of famous unsolved Canadian murders, or whatever, my breath still catches a bit and I feel something tense up inside. And sometimes I do wonder if it is my vague memories of this death that set me on the path to wondering about other such deaths and the people who deal in them - both the killers and the crime-solvers.

Butala as well talks, in her introduction, about the effect of Alexandra Wiwcharuk's death on her and on the people of Saskatoon - and of the effect that researching that death had on her understanding of why this death is so memorable to those even lightly touched by it.
Forty-four years [after Wiwcharuk's death], at a social gathering in the same city, a well-known writer who had moved to Saskatoon only two years after Alex’s death said to me, “Do you know that Saskatoon people have never forgotten that murder. They all remember it, and they still talk about it.” I did know that, but the way he said it struck a chord deep inside me, plangent, heart-stopping, and catching me by surprise, as if this were news that I was hearing for the first time. His remark had been unprompted, and it was made with such conviction, expressing, at the same time, his surprise; his voice was even tinged with something that might have been awe. I knew that sound well, that mix of surprise, dismay, chagrin, bafflement, and wonder, but in the long years—a good ten by then—of my quest to understand Alex’s murder and the city’s continuing memory of it, and in my dogged gathering of myriad details, I had nearly forgotten. But he is right: it is extraordinary that her death is still remembered.

....When I began to wonder, as a writer, what her true story was, I meant by that only what exactly had happened the night she was killed, who the suspects were, and why no one was ever caught. I thought, if I thought at all, that if I knew those things, it would be enough. But as the years passed and I began to find answers to those questions, the more answers I found, the more inadequate they seemed; the more I discovered, the less I felt I knew. At last I began to see that, interesting as those answers might sometimes be, they failed to satisfy me because they were the answers to the wrong questions.

After some ten years of thinking, talking to people, asking questions, and reading old newspaper reports and whatever documents I could lay my hands on, I had finally come to see that the question that had to be the trenchant one, the real one, almost the only one, encompassing as it does all the other questions from Who did it? to What really happened that night? and Which of the many rumours about that night, about her killer or killers, are true? to How could such evil happen in our decent, small city? was this: Why this constancy of memory? And further: What purpose is served by it? In a world where horrific deaths on a vast scale — three thousand in a moment in New York City, thousands in Afghanistan and Iraq — in a world of suicide bombers, whose purpose, whose need, is it that we should never forget one pretty young woman’s death in Saskatoon? In the end, I began to see that the real question was less about the specifics of her murder and of the investigation, and more about why I needed so badly to know, why no factual answers satisfied me, why I, too, could not forget.
In looking for answers to those questions, Butala looks at the influences surrounding both Wiwcharuk's early life and her own - and those of many people living in and around Saskatoon at the time. The immigrant experience and Ukrainian heritage in Wiwcharuk's family. Growing up in a rural area, barely one step removed from pioneer conditions - if that. A childhood lived against the background of the Second World War. The experience of Otherness, of being at the bottom of the social ladder, shared by the Ukranian Wiwcharuk and the half-French, Roman Catholic Sharon LeBlanc. The veneration of the Virgin Mary common to both Orthodox and Catholic traditions. Butala also evokes the innocence of the times in which Wiwcharuk lived and died.
When we graduated in 1958 there had been no school killings—no Columbine, no École Polytechnique , no Dawson College—no mass murders other than the Holocaust, a full understanding of which we were still trying to absorb, and no serial killers we knew of beyond Jack the Ripper in late-nineteenth-century London, England. We still believed in a righteous war against evil killers such as Hitler, and unquestioningly in the heroism of our soldiers. There was no Vietnam, no Desert Storm, no Afghanistan, and no Iraq (never mind Chechnya, Rwanda, the killing fields of Cambodia). No disappeared. No terrorists, no World Trade Center. No soldiers murdering their prisoners or torturing them, especially not Canadian soldiers. The innocence of the average young Canadian—other than for the incomprehensible but terrifying atomic bomb and the truly incomprehensible hydrogen bomb, and the deliberate murder of six million Jews—was otherwise pretty much intact. Even corruption in governing bodies was considered to be unusual and very limited; corruption belonged to gangs, to the mafia, to the criminal element in general. Everybody else, we thought, could be relied upon to be honest.
Another important element of the times, and the responses to Wiwcharuk's death, was the emphasis on the purity and innocence of unmarried women and the silence on matters of sex and conception. It was a time when "Girls were kept children, their sexuality under the tightest of control, for as long as parents and the rest of society could possibly manage." To go beyond the strict limits placed on a young woman's sexuality was to risk loss of reputation, and the social death of becoming an unwed mother. And yet, because no such limits were enforced upon young men, staying "respectable" was an ongoing struggle.
In the fifties sexual choices were limited: don’t have intercourse or any kind of sexual relations; have intercourse but practise coitus interruptus; or settle for long, sweaty, frustrating, back-seat “petting” sessions. Most of us, in fifties Saskatoon, stuck to the latter. And that meant that some of us were raped. We call it “date rape” now, but in the fifties it didn’t have a name, and it was commonplace—not perhaps, actual rape, although it is likely that there were many more rapes than were ever reported—but certainly it was the rare one of us who had never been on a date where we had to fight physically to keep our virginity. Getting thrown out of a boy’s car, having to walk home, or going home bruised and crying, but with virginity intact—these things happened a lot.
In such an environment - one where murder was virtually unknown, where all the sexuality and crime and corruption was kept hidden, driven underneath social conventions and sequestered in the parts of town where no one decent would be seen, or admit to it, anyway - it was hardly a surprise that some would respond to Wiwcharuk's death by blaming the victim. Rumours circulated that she wasn't the innocent she appeared to be.
There hadn’t been a murder in Saskatoon through our entire childhoods, and it is no wonder that we felt safe, and no wonder that when pretty, smart, decent Alex met her brutal death, the city was stunned, shocked, and beyond horrified. Finding no handy culprit, it turned to Alex as the cause of her own death—she had to have been responsible, because otherwise there would be a lot more deaths in the city, and of pretty young women. And that turned into the rumours of promiscuity, of involvement in drug crime, of “pregnancy without benefit of husband,” of affairs with married men, and of whatever other disreputable behaviour might lead to somebody wanting to kill you. In the minds of many people, unable to believe that a murderer was loose in our city, it had to have been her fault. I suppose it could even be said that if she had brought her murder on herself by her bad behaviour, then it could not be our fault—“our” being the citizens of our city.
In Butala's narrative, Wiwcharuk becomes more than just a young Ukrainian girl, she becomes a symbol of all the constrictions and contradictions that young women of her time, place and background faced, that Butala herself faced, the fetish of innocence and the frustrations of youth and intelligence subordinated to the socially constructed role of femininity. In her last clear memory of Wiwcharuk from their years at the same high school - a technical school intended for the children of the working class, and not for those expected to go on to university - Butala projects all the emotions that would, a few years later, fuel the Women's Liberation Movement.
I sensed that she, too, felt the constriction of our lives: You must get an education, and Nice girls don’t do that, and Do as you’re told, when we had naturally such an abundance, a veritable torrent of life-desiring energy raging through us, at sixteen, at seventeen, at eighteen. We were kept children far too long in those days, girls especially. I think that was the source of our boredom, that and a simmering but buried rage at the absurdity of our position, which we did not recognize intellectually, so well-governed were we, but which dragged at us well below the surface calm of our lives. We yearned for what we thought was freedom, although instead of true freedom, we yearned for love, for a husband, for our very own family, because that was all most of us knew; it was what our culture taught us.
Wiwcharuk is always referred to, in media reports on the murder, as both nurse and "beauty queen." Wiwcharuk had attended nursing school in Yorkton after graduating from high school. In 1961, she moved to Saskatoon and began work at Saskatoon City Hospital. While living in Yorkton, she had won two local beauty contests; her beauty queen career culminated in being chosen the winner of a radio-sponsored contest promoting an appearance in Saskatoon by the singer Johnny Cash - a concert during which he gave Wiwcharuk roses and sang to her the song "The Girl in Saskatoon."

In her book, Butala explores both the realities and the social meanings of both images. In the 1950s, nurses were starched and virginal, handmaidens to the doctor-priests, an image of purity dealing with the corruption of the body, with disease and wounds and bodily fluids and death. Beauty queens of the tine, too, were images of purity, but also of desire, albeit the respectful, honourable desire a man should feel toward the blushing maiden on the threshold of marriage and motherhood.
It seems to me that the very omnipresence of beauty queens and beauty competitions was a response to the prevailing cultural notions about women and their place in society. At some level, I think that this was a genuine effort to show proper reverence for the best in womanhood, an honouring of the idea of female purity, and a natural outgrowth of an age that, the rest of the time, did not much cherish the humanity and individuality of women. But the subtext was always pointing to the perfect “Moms” of television with their hair so well coiffed it looked shellacked, the chaste perfection of their attire, their unflappable calm, their wise love for their husbands and children, and especially, their complete willingness to sacrifice their own lives for them. Implicit in the “Miss Perfect Womanhood” of beauty competitions was the expectation of the marriage and children that would follow...
For Wiwcharuk, there would be nothing to follow. The young nurse in her first job, the pretty girl who was presented to a music legend as "the girl from Saskatoon," was assaulted and killed on the banks of the Saskatchewan River sometime on the evening of Friday May 18, 1962. Her partially buried body was discovered on the night of May 31. Butala relates the known events of Wiwcharuk's last hours and the crime itself with journalistic dispassion.

However, her discussion of the investigation that followed when Wiwcharuk's death finally became known, and the way the police have handled the case throughout the years is raises questions about the long silence of the police who worked the case on many issues related to Wiwcharuk's death and on the lack of information made available to the public. Gaps and discrepancies resulted in rumours early on, which still circulate today, about police cover-ups.

In the end, the book seems to stop without really finishing, a conscious act because, as Butala finally acknowledges:
I had wanted only to tell Alex’s story, her whole story, accurately, once and for all. Now I saw, too, that that was, and had always been, a hopeless task. The story had grown, year after year, it had rippled out farther and farther from Saskatoon, engaging more and more people, even into the next generation of women... until the beginning and the end and the various middles were hopelessly confused, hopelessly complex, hopelessly compromised. If I felt desperate now, it was because, among other things, I saw at last that there truly is no straight line through this story, a neat beginning, a comprehensible middle, a tidy, satisfying end. I saw that the story was not even the one I had thought it was, not the one I had been trying so hard for so long to tell. The story was, instead, about story.

Somebody, a man, battered, raped, and murdered a beautiful young woman and buried her alive in a shallow grave on the riverbank in Saskatoon, in 1962. Catch the murderer or never catch him, this story of evil keeps on touching people, devastating them. I see now that this story, simply, has no end.


bibliogramma: (Default)

This is an odd group of nominees, several of which appear to have nothing to do with Science fiction or fantasy, and as such hardly seem to qualify for a "Best Related Work category. Which is sad, because there was quite a variety of interesting and unquestionaly relevant works published this year. But this is what we have to work with.


“Why Science is Never Settled”, Tedd Roberts

Published in two parts on the Baen.com website, this nominated related work is in part a fairly straightforward description of the scientific process as performed in the modern scientific community, from the basics of the scientific method through to publication in peer-reviewed journals. The author states clearly that he, as a research scientist himself, agrees with the process. But. There's the other part to this, which I find myself a bit uneasy about in terms of how it's expressed even though I agree with it in both principle and fact.

The author is very concerned with what he fears is a general belief that science is "settled" - and that this is a problem both of the general public who don't understand that science keeps moving, that theories are tested and sometimes re-evaluated, and sometimes replaced with a theory that better explains the facts, and of the scientific community, which he suggests clings to consensus even when new theories are shown to be more effective in explaining phenomena.

Yes, both these things can be shown to happen, but putting too much emphasis on them also opens the door to the kind of thinking that says intelligent design should be accepted as an alternative theory to evolution because it challenges the status quo, or that the near-universal consensus on the human role in climate change means it's an outmoded theory that is only being held to because people fear change. I may be reading too much into Roberts' essay, but there it is.

Above and beyond that, I'm not sure that this is all that strongly related to science fiction or fantasy. Certainly there were a good many works published last year that were more closely related - the second volume of Patterson's biography of Heinlein, Jill Lapore's Secret History of Wonder Woman, critical looks at the fiction of Greg Egan and Robert Heinlein, the second volume of Jonathan Eller's study of Ray Bradbury, and critical essay collections by various people looking at sff, to mention just a few.



The Hot Equations: Thermodynamics and Military SF”, Ken Burnside

The hardest of hard sf writers and fans insist that sf should always be based on science that works. No transwarp drives to get us quickly to the action, no ansibles to give us faster than light communications, no transporters to mysteriously beam us up. It's not an argument I agree with, although I'm one of those who is comfortable seeing science fiction and fantasy as a continuum, with a great deal of material that one might label science fantasy in the rich, yummy middle. Ken Burnside starts from the premise that hard sf should conform to physics, and proceeds from there:
Ignoring thermodynamics is one of the cardinal sins of science fiction authors writing military SF; the same authors who wouldn't dream of saying that a Colt 1911A fires a .40 caliber bullet will blithely walk into even more galling gaffes through simple ignorance and unquestioned assumptions.
In this essay, Burnside takes on many of the "errors" made by science fiction writers who fail to appreciate the way that the laws of physics would shape travel - and war - in space: "As combat moves from the bosom of the Earth, and into orbital and interplanetary space, it will be limited by increasingly complex logistics and by thermodynamics."

He addresses such topics as the impossibility of stealth in space, the need for plausibility in propulsion systems (you can take off, orbit and land, or you can travel from orbit onwards, but you can't do both in one ship), and the weapons and tactics that would work in real space combat.

There's some interesting technical material here, and it clearly has something that some of the other nominations lack: actual relevance to science fiction or sff fandom.

Discussion of a nominated work of John C. Wright behind the cut. I am including discussion of this work out of respect for the Hugo nomination and voting processes despite this person's history of public hate speech. Feel free to skip. )


Letters from Gardner, Lou Antonelli

The Hugo Voters Packet includes a "preview" of this book, which appears to contain roughly one-third of the material in the published version. My impressions are based on this truncated text.

Letters from Gardner is several things all at once - a folksy autobiography, a home for some early short stories that are, if they were ever published at all, not out of print, and some scattered advice on how to become a writer. Oh, and there's some correspondence with editor Gardner Dozois, hence the title.

Unfortunately, Antonelli is not really notable enough for anyone other than his fans, friends and family to find a memoir all that fascinating, the stories are, as early stories tend to be, somewhat lacking in many areas - not the least of which is female characters who are more than window dressing - the writing advice is pedestrian, and Dozois' notes to a promising novice writer are pretty much what you'd expect any editor to write under such circumstances. And - one of my personal pet peeves, having worked as a proofreader myself - the book is quite sloppily copyedited.


Wisdom from My Internet, Michael Z. Williamson

I am at a complete loss in trying to figure out what on earth this compendium of mostly unfunny one-liners has to do with science fiction or fantasy. Ok, he mentions Lord of the Rings and Star Wars and a few other sff texts that have become part of mainstream culture in North America, but I really don't think that's enough to justify the nomination.

And there's really not much more to say about it.

bibliogramma: (Default)

The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure, is a collection of essays about the making, enjoying and understanding of feminist porn edited by Tristan Taormino, Celine Parreñas Shimizu, Constance Penley, and Mireille Miller-Young.

Anyone familiar with the history of the "sex wars" knows that pornography is one of several divisive issues in the area of sexuality that has been, and continues to be, hotly debated among feminists. (Personal disclosure: my own positions during the wars were, and continue to be, primarily what has been labeled as "sex-positive.)

In their introduction, the editors state that
The Feminist Porn Book offers arguments, facts, and histories that cannot be summarily rejected, by providing on-the-ground and well-researched accounts of the politics of producing pleasure. Our agenda is twofold: to explore the emergence and significance of a thriving feminist porn movement, and to gather some of the best new feminist scholarship on pornography. By putting our voices into conversation, this book sparks new thinking about the richness and complexity of porn as a genre and an industry in a way that helps us to appreciate the work that feminists in the porn industry are doing, both in the mainstream and on its countercultural edges.
The introduction goes on to discuss the concept of feminist porn and the editors' framework for examining it.
Feminist porn is a genre and a political vision. And like other genres of film and media, feminist porn shares common themes, aesthetics, and goals even though its parameters are not clearly demarcated. Because it is born out of a feminism that is not one thing but a living, breathing, moving creation, it is necessarily contested—an argument, a polemic, and a debate. Because it is both genre and practice, we must engage it as both: by reading and analyzing its cultural texts and examining the ideals, intentions, and experiences of its producers. In doing so, we offer an alternative to unsubstantiated oversimplifications and patronizing rhetoric. We acknowledge the complexities of watching, creating, and analyzing pornographies. And we believe in the radical potential of feminist porn to transform sexual representation and the way we live our sexualities.
Contributors to the collection include such stalwart defenders of women's right to experience sexual pleasure as Betty Dodson and Suzie Bright, and pioneering creators of women-identified pornography such as Nina Hartley and Candida Royalle, as well as a range of other pornographers, academics and feminist thinkers. The politics of porn as it exists in the mainstream porn industry and the ways in which feminist porn aims at creating new power dynamics in the production and distribution of porn, and a new feminist aesthetic in the product itself, are examined from various standpoints. The authors of these essays and personal narratives look at such issues as gender expectations, race, means of production and distribution, body image politics, authenticity in representation of sexuality, queer, genderqueer and trangender images and representations, and more.

While problematic aspects of porn, even feminist porn, are acknowledged and discussed, the focus here is on porn as a medium and a message of positive sexual pleasure in which sexuality of all kinds, not just the male and heteronormative, is celebrated. As Nina Hartley points out in her essay, "Unlike Hollywood tropes, in which the “transgressive” woman must meet a horrible fate for crossing some invisible line, at the end of a porn movie the woman has had orgasms and lives to tell the tale. There are no Anna Kareninas or Emma Bovarys in porn."

bibliogramma: (Default)

In Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, journalist Ethan Watters investigates the cultural meanings of mental illness from an anthropological perspective and traces the ongoing superimposition of American theories of psychology on other systems of understanding the mind.
Over the past thirty years, we Americans have been industriously exporting our ideas about mental illness. Our definitions and treatments have become the international standards. Although this has often been done with the best of intentions, we’ve failed to foresee the full impact of these efforts. It turns out that how a people in a culture think about mental illnesses—how they categorize and prioritize the symptoms, attempt to heal them, and set expectations for their course and outcome—influences the diseases themselves. In teaching the rest of the world to think like us, we have been, for better and worse, homogenizing the way the world goes mad.
Watters explores this thesis by looking at specific mental disorders in four different areas of the world - Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, Zanzibar and Japan - and how the cultural meanings of these disorders have changed following the introduction of Western paradigms of mental illness

First, Watters looks at the work of Dr. Sing Lee, who was the first scholar to document anorexia in Chinese women. When Lee began his work, anorexia was a rare condition and many of its symptoms did not match those of anorexia in the West. The few anorexic women he encountered did not display two of the key diagnostic symptoms - a fear of being or becoming overweight, and a false perception of their own body shape. All they had in common with Western anorexics was excessive weight loss leading to dangerous emaciation. Seeking to understand why this was the case, Lee looked at the history of anorexia and found that reports of extreme weight loss from 19th century Europe and America, linked to what was then known as hysteria, were similar to what he was seeing in his own practice.

When Lee began his investigation of anorexia, the condition was not only rare, but virtually unknown to the general public. However, the condition became well-known after the public collapse and death from self-starvation of schoolgirl Charlene Hsu Chi-Ying in November 1994. Media reports described the disease as it was known in the West and defined in the DSM.
Over a short period of time the presentation of anorexia in Hong Kong changed. The symptom cluster that was unique to his Hong Kong patients began to disappear. What was once a rare disorder was replaced by an American version of the disease that became much more widespread.
Lee's research and practice led him to see the American definition of anorexia as limiting and in itself culturally influenced. Fat phobia and conflicts about body shape and beauty are Western issues; anorexia in other cultures might be the result of different cultural issues.
The DSM version of the disorder was obscuring the indigenous distresses and patterns of behavior that led young women to adopt self-starvation. If clinicians around the world could avoid the quick and easy adoption of Western assumptions about anorexia, they might be able to hear the complex truths individual women were trying to communicate. Anorexia and eating disorders could tell us much about the pressures on women in different cultures if only their voices weren’t being drowned out by Western narratives about the power of fashion, dieting, and pop culture.
Watters also examines culture-based differences in responses to trauma, using experiences in post-tsunami Sri Lanka, and in other situations such as post-war Rwanda. The Western assessment of medical needs in Sri Lanka, as had been the case in other situations, assumed that there would be an epidemic of PTSD following the tsunami, and many western-trained therapists with no idea of Sri Lankan cultural or religious supports and no facility in the language were dispatched - or volunteered - to "help" deal with the expected need. Sri Lankans were inundated with information about PTSD as understood in the West, and with therapists engaging them in techniques based on the responses of Westerners, primarily Americans, to traumatic experience
Often these campaigns seemed to imply that the psychological consequences of trauma were similar to a newly discovered disease, and that local populations were utterly unaware of what happens to the human mind after terrible events. That implicit assumption often left anthropologists shaking their heads in disbelief. It takes a willful blindness to believe that other cultures lack a meaningful framework for understanding the human response to trauma. “Most of the disasters in the world happen outside of the West,” says Arthur Kleinman, a medical anthropologist from Harvard University. “Yet we come in and we pathologize their reactions. We say: ‘You don’t know how to live with this situation.’ We take their cultural narratives away from them and impose ours. It’s a terrible example of dehumanizing people.”
What workers in the field found was that the experience of response to trauma among Sri Lanka was connected to the individual's social networks, and that contrary to Wesyern experience, talking about the trauma heightened dysfunctional responses rather than reducing them. Sri Lankans had developed ways of defusing and dispersing trauma response through social roles and functions, and talking about the trauma disrupted these mechanisms.

A further example of the cultural differences in presentation and meaning of mental illness looks at the cultural understanding and response to schizophrenia in Zanzibar.Cross-cultural studies of schizophrenia show that there is a better long-term prognosis in many less developed countries than in industrialised nations, and that the delusional content is heavily influenced by culture and can change over time within a culture. The prognosis is particularly affected by how the social network around the schizophrenic responds to them:
Three emotional reactions from family members showed a relationship with the patients with higher relapse rates. Collectively referred to as “high expressed emotion” they were criticism, hostility, and emotional overinvolvement. In particular, high-relapse patients tended to live in an environment where at least one relative routinely criticized and attempted to control the patient’s behavior.
European and North American cultures are strongly individualistic and place the locus of control within the self; family members are more likely to try to "fix" illness and criticise the patient for not taking control and getting better. Researchers in Zanzibar found that family members of schizophrenic individuals tended to be far more accepting of their behaviour - and that schizophrenic individuals tended to be higher-functioning with fewer serious relapses.

Finally, Watters examined recent changes in the meaning and treatment of depression in Japan. Interviews with specialists in the anthropological study of illness and with individuals in the pharmaceutical industry revealed that Japanese cultural understandings of depression as a rare and severe condition, sadness as a respected philosophical state and suicide as an act with multiple meanings, few of them related to depression, were altered by a deliberately crafted public relations campaign crafted by International pharmaceutical companies in order to create a market for SSRIs.

In summing up his research into the cultural component of mental illness, Watters notes that:
The ideas we export to other cultures often have at their heart a particularly American brand of hyperintrospection and hyperindividualism. These beliefs remain deeply influenced by the Cartesian split between the mind and the body, the Freudian duality between the conscious and unconscious, as well as teeming numbers of self-help philosophies and schools of therapy that have encouraged us to separate the health of the individual from the health of the group. Even the fascinating biomedical scientific research into the workings of the brain has, on a cultural level, further removed our understanding of the mind from the social and natural world it navigates. On its website advertising its antidepressant, one drug company illustrates how far this reductive thinking has gone: “Just as a cake recipe requires you to use flour, sugar, and baking powder in the right amounts, your brain needs a fine chemical balance in order to perform at its best.” The Western mind, endlessly parsed by generations of philosophers, theorists, and researchers, has now been reduced to a batter of chemicals we carry around in the mixing bowl of our skulls.
This conflation of the ideas of mind and consciousness with the physical organ of brain has many potential consequences, some of them problematic in the extreme. As Watters suggests,
We should worry about this loss of diversity in the world’s differing conceptions and treatments of mental illness in exactly the same way we worry about the loss of biological diversity in nature. Modes of healing and culturally specific beliefs about how to achieve mental health can be lost to humanity with the grim finality of an animal or plant lapsing into extinction. And like those plants and animals, the diversity in the human understanding of the mind can disappear before we’ve truly comprehended its value. Biologists suggest that within the dense and vital biodiversity of the rain forest are chemical compounds that may someday cure modern plagues. Similarly, within the diversity of different cultural understandings of mental health and illness may exist knowledge that we cannot afford to lose. We erase this diversity at our own peril.


bibliogramma: (Default)


Canada is a nation built on stolen land. Further, throughout its history, the people who decide things in my country have tried to keep the Aboriginal people it was stolen from in a state of poverty and powerlessness - disenfranchised, dispossessed, and as much as possible, disappeared.

However, people who are marginalised often fight back. In recent years, much of the resistance to oppression has come in the form of demands for self-determination. In his book Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto, Taiaiake Alfred - speaking largely to other Indigenous people - addresses issues related to Aboriginal self-determination in Canada, with the aim of clarifying the meaning of Aboriginal self-determination and identifying what Aboriginal people must do to in order to achieve it. In so doing, he names and expands on three key principles - peace, power and righteousness - that must shape and inform any action directed toward the creation of a true Aboriginal self-determination.

As reviewer Peter Jull comments in the Indigenous Law Bulletin,
Alfred calls for a clear re-centring of indigenous self-determination politics away from expedient policies devolving western-style governance and political structures from dominant governments to indigenous communities by returning to cultural values and outlooks. Angered and ashamed by fringe status and dependency among indigenous peoples, he shows how most current ‘reforms’ offer little more than a perpetuation of that situation. It is contended that the white man can no longer pretend that ‘the natives aren’t ready’, while ‘the natives’ can demand and expect better results than an often cynical or weary national politico-administrative apparatus usually offers. (http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/journals/ILB/2000/69.html)
For a more detailed review of Alfred's manifesto, check out Scott Neigh's blog, A Canadian Lefty in Occupied Land: http://scottneigh.blogspot.ca/2005/11/review-peace-power-righteousness.html

Profile

bibliogramma: (Default)
bibliogramma

August 2017

S M T W T F S
  12345
67891011 12
13 141516 17 1819
20212223242526
2728293031  

Syndicate

RSS Atom

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Aug. 22nd, 2017 11:10 am
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios