More on the Moron

Shame on me. For all my complaints about Maureen Dowd, I somehow failed to notice that she was the only regular female columnist at The New York Times. For that, shame on the Times. In her column today Dowd points out that the Washington Post also has only one female regular.

The situation is actually worse than Dowd thinks, for the number of good female columnists at the inappropriately nicknamed “Grey Lady” is actually zero. Double shame on The Times. Her call for more female columnists is worthy of heeding. And I won’t deny there’s some truth to her complaint that

[w]hile a man writing a column taking on the powerful may be seen as authoritative, a woman doing the same thing may be seen as castrating. If a man writes a scathing piece about men in power, it’s seen as his job; a woman can be cast as an emasculating man-hater. I’m often asked how I can be so “mean” – a question that Tom Friedman, who writes plenty of tough columns, doesn’t get.

My personal observation is that this gender bias has been reduced since the advent of the blogosphere. Maybe the popularity of forums where men and women can post and comment on an equal footing, without having to worry about making a boss or editor happy, has encouraged more opinionated women to speak out (anonymity can be a benefit too), and maybe men are seeing that they can have heated discussions with female antagonists just as easily as they can with fellow men.

Whatever the cause, I believe Dowd is wrong about bloggers. Female bloggers may not equal their male counterparts in numbers (yet), but the female contributors to the blogs I follow (such as the multiblog Blogcritics and the wide-ranging Making Light) are at least as vociferously opinionated as the men.

As for her audience, Dowd notes that although she gets a lot of mail from male readers wanting her comments on their opinion pieces but that “women hardly ever send their own rants.” I suspect that’s because the women are too smart to waste their time corresponding with an intellectual pipsqueak like Dowd. Maybe it’s only men who’ll waste their time reading and reacting to the poor writing and unclear thought processes of such a pundit-wannabee. Only men – like, um, me. Hey – did I just prove my point, or refute it? Hmm…

Reality Bats

The use of performance-enhancing substances by baseball players and other athletes raises ethical, legal and medical questions aplenty. Angry sports columnists like this one are having their say, as are athletes past and present. But commissioner Bud Selig’s announcement that baseball won’t be modifying its record books based on revelations about steroid use reminds us that this is an existential matter as well.

If someone cheats and sets a home run record, it isn’t quite like cheating at poker. The artificially enhanced slugger really did hit that many home runs, unfair advantage or no. Should we simply consider steroid and hormone use as an evolutionary change in the game, like harder balls or smaller ballparks, as Mike Schmidt seems to be suggesting? A pitcher who pitches in a hitter-friendly ballpark, for example, is going to give up more homers. That’s an accepted reality of a game that doesn’t have standardized ballparks, and it’s just too bad for that pitcher that his circumstances will be reflected in his record; analysts and fans will note it informally, but the record books won’t.

Using steroids is unfair in a fundamentally different way, however. If you take steroids, having bigger muscles than the other guy isn’t a matter of luck any more than it’s a matter of hard work. It’s clearly cheating. What a Pandora’s box would be opened, if authorities like Selig decided that record books should be rewritten! But what an open sore of unfairness remains if they’re not! We will always have seen the games we’ve seen, but what was their meaning? What reality will the record books, not to mention our memories, reflect?

The Gates

I went to see Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s huge Central Park installation today. Tomorrow they take it down and I didn’t want to miss it. I had the following three reactions in quick succession while walking through the orange canvas arches:
1) Big effing deal.
2) In sheer quantity and scope, impressive.
3) Bored now.
The best thing about “The Gates” was seeing the hordes of humans who turned out on this beautifully sunny, cold day. It’s nice to see the city drawing so many tourists, and to see so many thousands enjoying the Park.

Book Review: Hello To All That: A Memoir of War, Zoloft, and Peace

Hello To All That: A Memoir of War, Zoloft, and Peace recounts in time-shifting chapters the author’s depression, pharmaceutical cure, and subsequent formative experience as a freelance war correspondent reporting from the siege of Sarajevo in 1993-4. The parallel stories are interesting and vividly told. But readers expecting something heavy, along the lines of William Styron’s depression memoir Darkness Visible, will be in for a surprise. Falk’s fast pace, breezy style and sense of humor make this relatively short book a quick and worthwhile read.

John Falk had at least two advantages over many depression sufferers. First, he had a large and supportive family. Second, his mother, having dealt with the illness previously in her family, appreciated his sufferings and tried unceasingly to help. The author’s relatively good luck is the reader’s as well, for it causes his story to shine an unusually clear light on depression’s most insidious aspect: the way it directs the victim to blame himself, to feel his pain and detachment as a personal failing rather than an illness, and to cut himself off from potential sources of help.

I knew I had a big problem… but never once did I think even the word depression. To me, it was the life I was leading, a life in serious need of an overhaul. I wasn’t sick. I wasn’t different… It was my fault… I was the one who had built this prison for myself.

And when Prozac helps his sister, he reacts not with hope or even sympathy but with defensive anger:

“Sara, listen to me: I’m not taking any fucking drug… I’m not gonna cheat.” Then in the most obnoxious way I could, I whispered, “Prozac’s for losers.”

Falk’s good at giving the reader a feel for what cannot be expressed in words:

“It’s hard to describe accurately what complete hopelessness feels like because ultimately it’s a perfect void, a state of nothing. There’s nothing at stake. Reason doesn’t apply, logic is useless, and faith is something for fools.

But he’s also adept at reporting on the real world. Not coincidentally, immediately after his rescue by the antidepressant Zoloft he made a beeline for one of the worst places one could be at that time: Sarajevo, a ruined city with a terrified population surrounded by snipers. (Not a bad correlate for a depressive’s brain, actually.) Falk’s depiction of the way Sarajevo’s families tried to continue normal life under hellish conditions – constant danger, no electricity, food shortages – is both heartbreaking and inspiring. In spite of their own hardships, several families took him in, and lasting friendships resulted; Falk eventually helped three young Bosnians escape to attend school in America.

Falk writes with humor:

The highlight of the trip was getting stopped by four Serb soldiers… A little on the pudgy side, they were dressed in purple-and-blue tiger-pattern fatigues that could only have been useful if they were fighting their way across Liberace’s living room.

and with evocative color:

The two [Bosnians] … were scheming together to sneak through the siege lines and make it to London.

“God,” the short one said to me. “Will you look at that. It’s almost pretty in a way, isn’t it?” He was pointing out the window with his Gauloises at the tracer fire I had noticed earlier, only now there were green tracers as well as red arcing across the sky.

“I believe the green are ours,” the tall one said.

But occasionally the language jars, as when Falk refers to a group of young women as “chicks,” or sacrifices grammar for colloquial familiarity: “my inner thighs burned so bad it felt as if I’d just dismounted a Brillo pad.” This inconsistency of tone is a small flaw, however, and doesn’t persist after the first few chapters. A bigger problem is that both stories – Falk’s battle with clinical depression, and his wartime adventures – seem a little sketchy. The Bosnian tales are so interesting (the most dramatic of them became the HBO film “Shot Through the Heart”) that one wishes they’d been told at greater length. And the memoir of illness and recovery, while intense and dramatic, leaves one wishing the author had gone deeper.

Of course, depression is an illness that can leave long stretches of one’s life essentially blank. It may be that we should be grateful for people like Falk who have good enough memories, and write well enough, to even partially convey what the depths of the illness are like. There are so many sufferers who can’t speak for themselves, locked in their own thoughts as they are – or dead of it.

More on Summers and Women

Harvard President Lawrence Summers has released the full transcript of his controversial remarks about the paucity of women in tenured positions in science and engineering. A quick reading shows that Summers posited three primary causes of the disparity, as follows in decreasing order of importance: the “high-powered job” hypothesis – that the disproportion comes from choices women make; “availability of aptitude at the high end,” which is the controversial point; and “different socialization and patterns of discrimination.”

The question of aptitude ought to be scientifically testable. What I find more interesting, and surprising, is Summers’s low ranking of socialization. Many of the women I know, from many walks of life, strongly believe that as children they were “socialized” out of – in effect, discouraged from – taking an interest in science and math. And not just older women who one could say were raised in a different era; their discouragement may have taken more active forms than occur today, but passive forms seem to have persisted.

Can these women be wrong? Is this anecdotal evidence leading us astray? I’m finding that very, very difficult to believe.

Another point:

Larry Summers: women may not have the same aptitude as men in certain mental areas. Buffy Summers: The Vampire Slayer. Coincidence?

Max Schmeling, German Boxer, Is Dead at 99

Max Schmeling’s death at the age of 99 conjures up a rainbow of feelings. Joe Louis’s famous knockout of Schmeling occurred in 1938, right around when my parents were born and exactly a generation before I popped into the world. Schmeling was born in 1905, the same year as my grandfather Martin Panzer (whom I seem to resemble in more ways than I could ever have thought).

As a child and teenager in the 1970s I was fascinated by the great heavyweight boxers of the day, the mythic figures Frazier, Foreman, Ali, even Ken Norton and Leon Spinks. The end of my adolescence coincided with the ascendancy of Larry Holmes, a great but boring fighter about whom there was nothing – except for his longevity – remotely mythic. Holmes seemed almost a corporate entity, blandly efficient, compared to the rascals and characters who preceded him. Not until Mike Tyson did character return to the heavyweight arena in a big way, and unfortunately that character was nearly 100% despicable.

I don’t know if heavyweight boxing will ever again be as exciting as it was in the 70s, or during the time of Louis and Schmeling, when the boxers sometimes represented far more than their sport. Maybe these things come in waves. Schmeling’s death doesn’t mark the end of an era – his era ended many decades ago, and how many of us even knew he was still alive? (I didn’t) – but it certainly does make you reflect on how important boxing was to the culture of the whole 20th century – and before – and probably after.

NOW Calls for Resignation of Harvard University’s President

The National Organization For Women (NOW) has called for Harvard University’s President, Lawrence Summers, to resign because of his suggestion that women may be innately inferior to men in their ability to excel at math and science.

That disturbs me.

Summers’s statement was a suggestion, not a claim, and there’s evidence to refute it, but isn’t science supposed to ask all questions and consider all possibilities? We’re talking about the brain, one of the most complex and, as yet, least understood subjects of scientific study. As The New York Times reports:

Researchers who have explored the subject of sex differences from every conceivable angle and organ say that yes, there are a host of discrepancies between men and women – in their average scores on tests of quantitative skills, in their attitudes toward math and science, in the architecture of their brains, in the way they metabolize medications, including those that affect the brain.

Summers may have spoken in a provocative manner to a sensitive audience, but he was doing what institutions of higher learning are supposed to do: seeking the truth by asking questions. NOW’s knee-jerk reaction serves neither science nor feminism.

Athletes and Steroids

When it comes to sports fandom, we’re all kids. And kids love superheroes.

We don’t just want our sports heroes to win. We cheer them on because their abilities go beyond our own. In an idealistic sense they may represent, as Olympic officials and other sports boosters profess, the best that humanity can achieve. But in their physical feats they are superior to us, and thus, to us, superhuman – just like Spiderman, Buffy, or Harry Potter. We enjoy seeing a slugger break a home run record or a runner achieve a record time in a race in the same way we enjoy seeing Spidey vanquish a super-powered foe.

If just a few athletes are found guilty of taking performance-enhancing drugs, fans’ sense of fairness will render harsh judgments upon them. This week’s New York City newspaper headlines excoriating Jason Giambi express this. But if many, most, or all the athletes in a sport are taking such drugs, now or in the future, there will be little if any outrage.

Today’s steroid drugs cause health problems, but in the future there will be better ones that don’t have adverse side effects. At that point there will be no medical disincentive to take them.

Get ready for a new world. This genie can’t be put back in the bottle.

Tax the Churches

A recent discussion on Blogcritics along with this New York Times article about the separation of church and state in Italy have prompted the following thoughts.

I live in Brooklyn, the Borough of Churches. There’s practically a church on every block, and where there isn’t a church, there’s a synagogue or temple. There are also mosques in the neighborhood.

My block has a Seventh Day Adventist church. Its busiest day is Saturday, not Sunday. Crowds of kids play on the sidewalk out front. I don’t know too much about what goes on there, since it’s a Spanish-speaking church. I do know they sponsor food drives and clothing drives, and generally have decent relations with their residential neighbors.

Like all the churches, they don’t pay taxes. Why? Is it because they’re a non-profit organization? I wouldn’t know anything about their finances, but I do know how rich some churches are. The Catholic church, for example, and some of the evangelical churches. It’s a stretch to think of these churches as not-for-profit.

I believe that the tax-exempt status of a religious institution should be proportional to its nondenominational charitable activities.

For example, a church that spends money on fancy cars for its preacher should be taxed on those expenses. A church that runs a soup kitchen but requires its beneficiaries to pray for their supper should have to pay tax on the portion of its income used to run that soup kitchen. A church that owns its building and uses the facility for both worship services and charitable deeds should be taxed according to a formula, the same way a person can deduct home office expenses from his income taxes. Better financial minds than mine could come up with the formula.

If you agree with me that such a proposal is unlikely to be taken seriously in America, you will also probably recognize that we are a religious country, in the sense that religious institutions are given special privileges withheld from individuals, private landowners, and businesses. I don’t agree with these special privileges. But my view is in the minority. It would probably even be fair to describe it as marginal.

Still, think about it next time you walk (or drive) by the churches in your area. What if they all had to pay property taxes the same way you or your landlord does, the same way the commercial building owners on Main St. do? Then your municipality would have more income and could lower property taxes. Your tax burden (or rent) could be less. Meanwhile the churches, if they had to account for every untaxed dollar they spent, would be better practicioners of what they preach.