Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Separate is never equal

The shelter of each other

Shortly after I started working full time again, Liko and I developed a tradition: On certain Sundays we take the F train downtown and we spend the afternoon watching hockey or figure skating, playing on the playground, going to museums, eating.

This past Sunday I took him ice skating. We had tried it about a year ago and I had concluded that it was too early. But on Sunday he took right to the ice, and we skated around and around the rink, holding hands, and neither of us could stop smiling.

Later we went to the playground and Liko hooked up with two little girls, twins, about six years old.

"Did you guys go ice skating?" he asked.

They nodded.

"Did you see me? I was really good!"

They laughed, as they should have, and ran to the slide. Liko chased them.

Later we rode the merry go round and I watched his face and I thought, I'm happy.

That night I put him to bed. "I love you, Dada," he said as he nodded off.

Then on Monday I read that the House voted to reject the $700 billion bailout package. Today I read that the war in Iraq continues to go badly; we're now losing the war in Afghanistan. An internal Justice Department investigation has concluded that White House fired federal prosecutors for political reasons, while a former CIA official pleads guilty to fraud--just two examples, plucked at random from today's headlines, of the ideological corruption that now seems to permeate American institutions.

The word I keep hearing in all these articles, the common thread that connects all these scandals, is "trust"--it seems that we no longer have enough it. People don't trust banks, banks don't trust each other, and neither trusts our political leaders or judicial system.

I'm not a sky-is-falling kind of guy; I tend to see history as the story of progress, and I have a great deal of faith in the creativity, decency, and resilience of human beings.

But the signs and portents are not good; it is now very likely that America is about to enter a full-blown crisis, one that will unfold on every level: spiritual, psychological, philosophical, financial, political, and military. Every institution will be affected, and so will every person.

Am I being melodramatic? I really don't think so. America could plausibly pull out of its nosedive, but at a certain point you have to admit, if only to yourself, that we are going to crash.

Journalists keep raising the specter of the Great Depression, but we're not going to see history repeat itself; America is a different place than it was in the 1930s or, for that matter, the 1960s, two previous crisis points. The next decade will be as different from those two decades as they were from each other.

In retrospect, both the 30s and the 60s were bridges; the Depression and New Deal completed the modernization of America, readying us for the role we occupied in the second half of that century; the 60s laid the foundation for the values we have needed in the twenty first century: diversity, tolerance, cosmopolitanism.

It's conceivable that the next decade will also be a bridge, though where it's going, I have no idea. At the moment, it seems that we are on the now-proverbial "bridge to nowhere," built by nihilists, but I don't want to believe that.

I can't; I'm a dad. For me, for all of us responsible for nurturing life, nihilism is not an option. "When I travel alone far from home, I think of my children's faces to calm myself down," writes Mary Pipher in her 1996 book The Shelter of Each Other. "Those faces are my mandalas. They comfort and secure me. The faces of those we love are the first, the primal, mandalas for us all."

Now I'm thinking of Liko's face, and of my wife's, faces I trust. They comfort me, but they also remind me to try to do the right thing, to be my best self, to try to be a hero, not a villain. We're walking on the bridge together. We all are, I think.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The wages of sexism

This is interesting:

Organizational psychologists Timothy Judge and Beth Livingston found that men who reported holding traditional views (that is, that women belong in the home, while men earn the money) earned on average $11,930 more annually for doing the same kind of work as men who held more egalitarian views. The reverse was true for women, to a much smaller degree. Female workers with more egalitarian views (that men and women should evenly divide the tasks at home and contribute equally to their shared finances) earned $1,052 more than women who did similar jobs but held more traditional views.

The effect was starkest, however, when researchers compared women's salaries to those of men, while also taking into account their gender-role biases. Men with traditional attitudes not only earned more than other men with egalitarian attitudes, but their annual salary was $14,404 greater than women with traditional attitudes, and $13,352 greater than women with egalitarian attitudes. Put differently, men with traditional attitudes made 71% more than women with traditional attitudes, while egalitarian-minded men made just 7% more than their female counterparts.

And here, to me, is the really interesting passage:

"What really surprised us was the magnitude of the difference," says Judge. "We suspected that 'traditional' gender-role attitudes would work against women. What surprised us was the degree to which that effect held, even when you start controlling for a variable that you think would make the effect go away, like how many kids you have, or how many hours you work outside the home, what type of occupation." When the researchers controlled for education, intelligence (based on the participants' IQ test scores), occupation, hours worked and even what region they lived in the United States, Judge found that "none of those really made the effect go away."

In other words, it's not that men make more than women because they work longer hours, are more highly educated or simply take higher paying jobs. Rather, the new findings suggest the wage gap may be largely attributable to gender-role attitudes. And the big winners, it seems, is men with traditional views. Why the gap persists, Judge and Livingston aren't sure, but Judge thinks it might be have something to do with the different ways men and women sign onto new jobs. Women on the whole are less effective at negotiating salaries than men, and they tend to be less aggressive about asking for bigger salaries, or they accept employers' offers without negotiating at all. And Judge suspects that tradition-bound women may be even worse at it than their more egalitarian counterparts: "I would posit that egalitarian women are not as susceptible to settling for less in the negotiating process," he says.

As for those money-making traditionally minded men, Judge theorizes that if they believe they are the family's primary breadwinner, they may show greater dedication to career and are perhaps more aggressive than other men in terms of salary negotiation. Compared with men with egalitarian attitudes, the primary breadwinner simply has more at stake. "Maybe the egalitarian guy thinks, 'Well, I don't have to go the extra mile because my wife and I share earning responsibilities equally,'" Judge says.

Another factor could be bias on the part of the employer. "We're learning that more and more aspects of organizational psychology are operating somewhat subconsciously," says Judge. "It may be that employers are more likely to take advantage of traditional gender-role women."

"I have two moms"

If you live in California, Arizona, or Florida, please, please, please, vote no on the hateful, idiotic anti-gay propositions on each state's ballot.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Democratic Party on Fatherhood

Did you know that the Democratic Party platform, for the first time ever, has a plank that addresses fatherhood? Here it is, in its entirety:

Too many fathers are missing–missing from too many lives and too many homes. Children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and are more likely to commit crime, drop out of school, abuse drugs and end up in prison. We need more fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception. We need them to understand that what makes a man is not the ability to have a child–it's the courage to raise one. We will support fathers by providing transitional training to get jobs, removing tax penalties on married families, and expanding maternity and paternity leave. We will reward those who are responsibly supporting their children by giving them a tax credit, crack down on men who avoid child support payments, and we will ensure that payments go directly to families instead of bureaucracies.

On a policy level, I have no problem with any of this--quite a few of these items are critical, especially for poor families. There are some items missing, such as legal protections for caregiving parents of both genders, but I don't hear the "pro-family" Republican Party pushing expanded paternity leave. (For exegesis on the policy details, see The American Prospect and Ta-Nehisi Coates at his Atlantic Monthly blog.)

But note where the plank begins, with deadbeat dads. Thus fatherhood is framed, first and foremost, as a problem to be solved. Note as well that throughout the paragraph, fatherhood is primarily defined as breadwinning; nearly all these policies are focused on funneling money from the father to the mother and children.

I would argue that, with fatherhood, an once of prevention is worth a pound of cure: If we want fathers to stay involved, emotionally and financially, we must make sure that they are involved from the beginning, by providing, for example, paternity leave and eliminating the factors, such as informal on-the-job penalties for prioritizing caregiving, that drive wedges between fathers from families. If we do that, I think we'll ultimately need to spend slightly less time collecting child support.

What if the plank had instead read this way, with a hopeful, inspiring vision of fatherhood, explicitly connected to a public policy that could support that vision:

Fathers play essential roles in their families as both breadwinners and caregivers. But too often, government has failed to support fathers in fulfilling those twin roles. We will support fathers by expanding maternity and paternity leave, requiring that employers pro-rate benefits for part-time employees, removing tax penalties on both married and non-married families, and providing anti-discrimination protection for parents who are primarily responsible for child or elder care. As we enact these public policy reforms, however, we need more fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception. Too many fathers are missing–missing from too many lives and too many homes. Children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and are more likely to commit crime, drop out of school, abuse drugs and end up in prison. We need them to understand that what makes a man is not the ability to have a child–it's the courage to raise one. We will reward those who are responsibly supporting their children by giving them a tax credit, crack down on men who avoid child support payments, and we will ensure that payments go directly to families instead of bureaucracies. Above all, however, we recognize that fathers must be more than just cash machines; they must also be involved in their families. We call upon fathers to fulfill that roll, and we call upon employers to support them.

What do you think?

[Originally posted to my Mothering magazine blog.]

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Engage Her

Last night I went to a screening of a new documentary, Engage Her, about the need for women of color to vote and get involved in the political process.

But, as I discovered, the film (and the organization that sponsored it) isn't really for me: It's aimed at women of color themselves. If you, dear reader, have some way of getting this film in front of an audience that needs to see it, please do contact Engage Her and tell them you want to help.

At the screening I had a chance to meet some folks from the redoubtable activist group MomsRising as well as Elisa from the wonderful blog Mothertalkers, who has been very supportive of Daddy Dialectic.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Links, I got links

The No-Fear Option: Just wait 'til your father gets home! "What I wanted to be different about my children’s upbringing was their attitude toward their father: I did not want them to be afraid of me. Looking back, I see that there was something I had overlooked. If I raised children who were not afraid of me, I would have children who were…well, not afraid of me."

Obama's Mixed Heritage: A Mother's Perspective. "It's an interesting historical moment to be a white mother of a Black child, as another white mother's Black child is running for president of the United States. Who'd have thought?"

Sacrifice and the Black Family. "When black families do what white families do instinctively and routinely—somehow, it pisses people right off."

The Push to ‘Otherize’ Obama. "The political campaign to transform Mr. Obama into a Muslim is succeeding. The real loser as that happens isn’t just Mr. Obama, but our entire political process." More wisdom on race and the election: "Barack Obama, John McCain and the Language of Race" and "Poll: Racial views steer some white Dems away from Obama." (My quick take: Argh!)

Contraception Foes With Friends in High Places. "Claims of equivalency between contraception and abortion have been a long time in the making among contemporary religious right activists. The recent eruption of their claims onto the public stage, helped along by an aggressively anti-choice administration, is the culmination of grassroots work begun in the early 1980s among fundamentalist and evangelical Christian activists, particularly in the homeschooling movement, who developed a pronatalist theological movement that came to be known as the Quiverfull conviction."

More Kathryn Joyce: "This twisting of feminist history and rhetoric to protect a champion of anti-feminist causes, traditionalism and sex-kitten objectification, is particularly unnerving for exactly the reasons that Palin's biggest supporters claim it is: for its elevation of antifeminist 'real women' as icons of rebellion against a supposedly powerful and elite feminist status quo (however depressing it is to begin untangling that premise)."

Another fine selection from our collection of Nixon-era children's books. "Congratulations, Mom, you've now got a pint-sized Doppelgänger of the jerk you married!"

Art of Darkness. "No wonder we crave an entertainment like 'The Dark Knight,' where every topic we’re unable to quit not-thinking about is whirled into a cognitively dissonant milkshake of rage, fear and, finally, absolving confusion... If everything is broken, perhaps it is because for the moment we like it better that way. Unlike some others, I have no theory who Batman is — but the Joker is us."

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Listen to the Man

And, for a short, sweet, and sane analysis of what's gone wrong with the economy, see Robert Reich.

Perhaps you noticed? I'm blogging about the election and politics quite a bit. Why? Because, really, I'm worried. Really worried, and more than a little furious. And you should be, too.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Florida Gay Adoption Ban Declared Unconstitutional!

And if you want to help defeat the anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 in California, consider making a donation to the "No on 8" campaign.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Kafka For Fathers

The other day I picked up a copy of a letter Franz Kafka wrote to his father in the winter of 1919. He was attempting to repair and understand their estrangement. It was 45 pages long, typewritten, and never delivered.

Franz, then in his late 30s, was making his third attempt at marriage, after two failed engagements. He informed his father, who immediately rejected the match. Believing that a successful marriage bid was his only chance to win happiness as a young man, and a high place in his father's esteem, Franz attempted in his letter to overcome a generation gap that contributed to the period's greatest upheavals.

Two thirds of the way through this confession written to a father who never read it, I was startled to come across the following lines:

Marrying, founding a family, accepting all the children that come, supporting them in this insecure world, and perhaps even guiding them a little, is, I am convinced, the utmost a human being can succeed in doing at all.
By his own measure, Kafka was a failure. He succeeded at something quite other than what he claims to have valued most, and then only by accident. His deathbed instructions were that his papers be burnt; the instructions were ignored, and by virtue of this betrayal and a few subsequent accidents, now we now read Kafka in college and coffee shops.

The literature of the 20th century, it seemed for a long time, was praised for its fortifying properties, bolstering us against the harsh truths of the modern age: there is no God, human beings are isolated and alienated from each other, and all the certainties we cling to are illusions.

And yet here we have a literary modernist who, at heart, yearns for family values. Not the heroic modernist who mocks all that came before and challenges the void, leaving masterpieces in his wake.

I get the feeling Kafka would have welcomed the chance to start a family, which he never got. I also get the feeling that he might not have minded being a little bit more Jewish, which he might have tried had he lived longer. And I certainly get the feeling that he would, above all, have traded it all in for a rapprochement with his father.

It's hard not to suspect that the planetary influence of a father upon a son straining to break from his orbit had something to do with the themes, style, and very impulse of Kafka's writing. But had they been close, would we still have the art?

[D]uring my last illness, you came tiptoeing to Ottla's room to see me, stopping in the doorway, craning your neck ... and out of consideration only waved to me with your hand. At such times one would lie back and weep for happiness, and one weeps again, writing it down.

It's been said that revolutions, in politics or in art, are about the overthrow of the father. Everything else flows from that. But what if Kafka's father had come in the room and stayed? Would Franz have written his letter, attributing most of his life's misery to misunderstandings with the man?

It makes me wonder in general what happens if we let the father live, or if the mother delivers the letter. If the father comes home, if the sons and daughters succeed at "the utmost a human being can succeed in doing at all," maybe they won't have made a revolution, or written great books (or maybe they still can?) but they will have accomplished something else that leaves much different monuments.

I like the idea.

Take the Morality Quiz!

First, read this: What Makes People Vote Republican? By Jonathan Haidt

Then take the morality quiz.

I did. In the graph below, I'm green, self-identified liberals who took the quiz are blue, and self-identified conservatives are red.

And here's the explanation of the graph:

The scale you completed was the "Moral Foundations Questionnaire," developed by Jesse Graham and Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia.

The scale is a measure of your reliance on and endorsement of five psychological foundations of morality that seem to be found across cultures. Each of the two parts of the scale contained four questions related to each foundation: 1) harm/care, 2) fairness/reciprocity (including issues of rights), 3) ingroup/loyalty, 4) authority/respect, and 5) purity/sanctity.

The idea behind the scale is that human morality is the result of biological and cultural evolutionary processes that made human beings very sensitive to many different (and often competing) issues. Some of these issues are about treating other individuals well (the first two foundations - harm and fairness). Other issues are about how to be a good member of a group or supporter of social order and tradition (the last three foundations).

Haidt and Graham have found that political liberals generally place a higher value on the first two foundations; they are very concerned about issues of harm and fairness (including issues of inequality and exploitation). Political conservatives care about harm and fairness too, but they generally score slightly lower on those scale items. The big difference between liberals and conservatives seems to be that conservatives score slightly higher on the ingroup/loyalty foundation, and much higher on the authority/respect and purity/sanctity foundations.

This difference seems to explain many of the most contentious issues in the culture war. For example, liberals support legalizing gay marriage (to be fair and compassionate), whereas many conservatives are reluctant to change the nature of marriage and the family, basic building blocks of society. Conservatives are more likely to favor practices that increase order and respect (e.g., spanking, mandatory pledge of allegiance), whereas liberals often oppose these practices as being violent or coercive.

The bottom line: Yours truly is liberal, liberal, liberal. I'm more liberal than most liberals! I'm so liberal, I think endangered baby seals are entitled to food stamps and free condoms!

And on that note, here's something else from today's New York Times: "Hold your heads up," by Bob Herbert.

We are culture

From today's New York Times:

A series of research teams have repeatedly analyzed personality tests taken by men and women in more than 60 countries around the world. For evolutionary psychologists, the bad news is that the size of the gender gap in personality varies among cultures. For social-role psychologists, the bad news is that the variation is going in the wrong direction. It looks as if personality differences between men and women are smaller in traditional cultures like India’s or Zimbabwe’s than in the Netherlands or the United States. A husband and a stay-at-home wife in a patriarchal Botswanan clan seem to be more alike than a working couple in Denmark or France. The more Venus and Mars have equal rights and similar jobs, the more their personalities seem to diverge.

These findings are so counterintuitive that some researchers have argued they must be because of cross-cultural problems with the personality tests. But after crunching new data from 40,000 men and women on six continents, David P. Schmitt and his colleagues conclude that the trends are real. Dr. Schmitt, a psychologist at Bradley University in Illinois and the director of the International Sexuality Description Project, suggests that as wealthy modern societies level external barriers between women and men, some ancient internal differences are being revived.

The biggest changes recorded by the researchers involve the personalities of men, not women. Men in traditional agricultural societies and poorer countries seem more cautious and anxious, less assertive and less competitive than men in the most progressive and rich countries of Europe and North America.

To explain these differences, Dr. Schmitt and his collaborators from Austria and Estonia point to the hardships of life in poorer countries. They note that in some other species, environmental stress tends to disproportionately affect the larger sex and mute costly secondary sexual characteristics (like male birds’ displays of plumage). And, they say, there are examples of stress muting biological sex differences in humans. For instance, the average disparity in height between men and women isn’t as pronounced in poor countries as it is in rich countries, because boys’ growth is disproportionately stunted by stresses like malnutrition and disease.

Personality is more complicated than height, of course, and Dr. Schmitt suggests it’s affected by not just the physical but also the social stresses in traditional agricultural societies. These villagers have had to adapt their personalities to rules, hierarchies and gender roles more constraining than those in modern Western countries — or in clans of hunter-gatherers.

I'll be reading the study. Some preliminary points: These results are seemingly contradicted by plenty of long-term studies showing that the two genders are actually converging in both behaviors and attitudes in the Western world.

I'd suggest that the reason for this seeming contradiction is pretty straightforward: For centuries, gender differences were dramatically exaggerated in the West and constantly reinforced, through custom, ritual, law, power structures, social structures, and, more recently, the media. This created profound inequalities of power between men and women. Over the course of the past three to four decades, women have gained more power and we've regained a measure of sanity, though I would describe our culture are still being fairly sick when it comes to issues of sex and gender.

In other words, while gender differences still seem exaggerated in the Western world, and unsurprising disparities persist between that world and others, they are less so than they were fifty or a hundred years ago. And I would argue that this is the more natural state of affairs.

Still, virtually every study I've ever seen does suggest some differences. As the article points out, men are persistently more competitive, and also more violent--a trait 21st-century, Western men have in common with our counterparts in less technological cultures. The evidence for this is pretty conclusive, and it meets the sniff test of most people's experience.

It still remains the case, however, the gender roles are exquisitely sensitive to social context--as this new study reveals, yet again. Capacities for competitiveness and violence can be shaped, developed, discouraged, encouraged. “Culture and tradition are part of our flexibility, and we can, therefore, change the dictates of culture because we are culture,” writes the anthropologist Meredith Small. “This is why cultures not only evolve, they can also be forced to change, can be revolutionized.”

Friday, September 05, 2008

The Sarah Palin Chronicles, Continued

It seems that I more things to say about Sarah Palin. Weird.

There are lots and lots of mommy bloggers and mommy columnists out there saying that, as "Suburban Turmoil" puts it, it's hard "to believe that this country needs Sarah Palin more than her own children." They look at the baby with Down Syndrome and the pregnant teenager, and they think, mom is the one who needs to be there.

Whenever I read things like this, I think of the Hoffman family (not their real names). They are a family I profile in my book.

The mother, Misun, has a super-high-powered career (she was in the private sector when I interviewed them, making gobs of cash advising Fortune 500 companies; now they live in Washington, D.C. and she works in a high-level position for the Securities and Exchange Commission.) The father, Kent, is a stay-at-home dad.

Their son Clinton was born with multiple, life-threatening disabilities, at just the moment when Misun's career was taking off. In the year after Clinton was born, Misun was working 70 hour weeks and traveling 2-3 times a month. "It was very hard," Misun told me. "I remember for several weeks I would cry when I got on the plane."

But she still got on the plane. She knew her husband Kent was at home taking care of Clinton, doing what had to be done. And she was doing what she had to do, providing for the family.

She never doubted her choice, and neither did Kent. The burdens he carried were terrible--Clinton demanded 24-hour care--but he took them on willingly. To Misun, making money was a part of mothering; to Kent, caring for his child was a part of fathering.

“Her career got a major boost as a result of me staying at home,” said Kent. “When she goes away, she doesn’t have to worry about the kids or juggling anything. She’s been able to do what it takes and focus on her job.”

It's a waste of time to judge Misun as a bad mother for not being the one to take care of Clinton or judge Kent as a bad father for not serving as the breadwinner, because they don't care what you think. Here's the only thing that matters: When I interviewed them, Clinton was starting Kindergarten, and he was a happy, healthy little dude.

I have no idea what kind of person Palin's husband is. I don't know who does what in their family, but I suspect that there's a lot of responsibility falling on his shoulders right now.

And you know what? As a father, he can do it; there's nothing in his biological sex or even his socially constructed gender that will prevent him from serving as a caregiver. He can be the one to take care of the baby. He can be the parent who is there for his daughter. The mother doesn't have to be the one to do it. And it's not for us to judge a mother like her.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Sarah Palin Chronicles

Sarah Palin is turning out to be a Rorschach test. The inkblot in question is not her, but rather her entire family as a symbol of a century of family change. She’s a working mother; her husband is a former stay-at-home dad; her teenage daughter is pregnant; another daughter her sister is going through a messy divorce; and so on–all phenomena that were relatively unusual or, in the case of stay-at-home fatherhood, nonexistent fifty years ago. And I betcha there's a gay or lesbian relative in there somewhere.

It goes to show at least two things: 1) All the conservative “Family values” in the world can’t reverse the social and economic changes that have brought nontraditional families like Palin’s into existence; and 2) Identity is a fluid, flexible thing.

Obama has fought hard to avoid becoming the “African-American” candidate, in part by stressing his multicultural heritage; in contrast, when Hillary Clinton started positioning herself as the “women’s candidate,” her campaign nosedived--I'm not sure if the appeal to identity politics was a symptom or a cause of her campaign's demise, but there's definitely a relationship between the two facts.

Both campaigns represent a step forward for African-Americans and women, but one of the measures of their respective successes is the degree to which they appeal to multiple constituencies. Not only that, but the degree to which their respective constituencies feel free to disagree with the candidates and support other candidates. It's diversity, not unity, that represents progress.

In nominating Palin, Republicans are playing a slippery game of identity politics, not one that they are good at. For that very reason, I’m glad they picked her. Her candidacy isn’t just another step forward for women; it’s also a way of highlighting the dominance of nontraditional families in America today. If the Republican Party can survive the ideological contradictions represented by Palin's family, I think America will be a better place.

A clarification: It occurs to me that that last line could be misread. Ideological contradictions--namely, in this case, the conflict between the Republican Party's rhetoric on the family and the reality of actual Republican families--could destroy the Republican Party, and that would be fine with me. What I mean is this (quoting myself, from the comments below): we can best measure our progress as a society by what's happening in its most reactionary corners. There will always be people resisting social change--voting Republican is just one way to do that--but it's instructive to see what changes they are resisting. From that perspective, Palin's pick shows how far we've come. The thresholds are moving in a good direction.

Monday, September 01, 2008

The Onion on Race in the Election

When I want insightful commentary and fair, accurate coverage of the election, I turn to The Onion, Stephen Colbert, and other trusted news sources. (But I'm not a snob; like everyone, I enjoy a good laugh. And so for light entertainment, I occasionally turn to CNN and Fox News.)

This week, I thought The Onion did a particularly fine job of covering race in the 2008 election, always a tricky subject.

I recommend, first of all, this op-ed: "America Needs To Have A Superficial Conversation About Race," by Ed Breyerly.

After you've spent some time pondering the implications of Breyerly's insights, you might click on this segment:

Portrayal Of Obama As Elitist Hailed As Step Forward For African Americans