Monthly Archives: December 2011

Paper and Presentation on Birth Simulators

My work, “High-fidelity Birth Simulators in American Culture: An Ecofeminist Analysis,” has been accepted and will appear in the March 2012 issue of The Journal of American Culture.

I’m also slated to present the work on Thursday April 12 at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association conference, in Boston.

Here’s a summary of the paper:

“High-fidelity,” mannequin birth simulators are being promoted in the United States as valuable teaching tools for educating healthcare workers such as nurses about the birth process. These mannequins simulate an oppressive, disempowering medical conceptualization of women’s biology which perpetuates the long standing patriarchal understanding of the womb as a source of pathology. Such simulations have the effect of educating practitioners not in birth in of itself, but in a disempowering vision of women and birth. In both cases, birth simulation joins medicalized childbirth in implementing what feminist philosopher Val Plumwood calls the “logic of dualism,” which has the effect of portraying birthing women’s consciousness and agency as impediments to successful birth.


OWS, Public Intellectuals, and the Demands of Justice

Astute, compelling article by Henry Giroux explaining how the participants of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement can be understood as taking up the role of public intellectuals: Occupy Colleges Now:  Students as the New Public Intellectuals

….As people move or are pushed by authorities out of their makeshift tent cities in Zuccotti Park and other public spaces in cities across the United States, the harsh registers and interests of the punishing state become more visible. The corporate state cannot fight any longer with ideas because their visions, ideologies and survival of the fittest ethic are bankrupt,  fast losing any semblance of legitimacy. Students all over the country are changing the language of politics while reclaiming pedagogy as central to any viable notion of agency, resistance and collective struggle.

In short, they have become the new public intellectuals, using their bodies, social media, new digital technologies, and any other viable educational tool to raise new questions, point to new possibilities, and register their criticisms of the various antidemocratic elements of casino capitalism and the emerging punishing state…..

Giroux’s work and the courage of the OWS movement gives us reason to reflect on what precisely is meant by the of “public intellectual”

Twentieth-century Russian author Yevengy Zamyatin, author of We, arguably the world’s first dystopian novel, wrote: “The world is kept alive only by heretics: the heretic Christ, the heretic Copernicus, the heretic Tolstoy. Our symbol of faith is heresy.” Zamyatin was principally concerned with what he saw as the forces of entropy, those wishing to reach the conclusion, to uncover social, even scientific finality. He actually witnessed this desire and tendency in revolutionaryRussia where the newly empowered set out to constrain the imagination of the very intellectuals who had initially supported them. The problem with those seeking finality is, according to Zamyatin, that “[t]here are no final revolutions; no final numbers.” The ideas he expresses date back to at least ancientGreece when Heraclitus noted that fire was the most basic element of the universe. On a philosophical level, Heraclitus’ view of fire as the universe’s most fundamental building block referred to the fact that the flame of perennial change is the only constant the universe has to offer. Even when cultures resist change, the world around them, indeed the very universe in which they live continues on in a state of flux. For Zamyatin, the heretic is one who understands that both the beauty of existence and the reality of existence require the acceptance of constant change.

In reading Edward W. Said’s Representations of the Intellectual, there is no mistake that he, too, grips the mantra of the heretics: “Real intellectuals, according to Benda’s definition, are supposed to risk being burned at the stake, ostracized, or crucified. They are symbolic personages marked by their unyielding distance from practical concerns.”[1] For Said, the ideal intellectual is an iconoclast unconstrained by convention; the intellectual is a heretic in exile from institutions, not only ready for change but also ready to spur it on.

The task of the intellectual, as conceived by Said, is to be out at the front of the curve of change, to oppose the forces of inertia which exalt the status-quo and thus misguide the charging train that is life. The moment an idea becomes canonized as dogma that idea poses a threat to the reality of constant change. Must intellectuals be persistently confrontational? The answer is a resounding yes. Said writes that intellectuals, “have to be in a stage of almost permanent opposition to the status quo….”[2] Whereas institutions are predisposed to fortification and the establishment of sedentary ideals that soon turn to stone, Said asserts that intellectuals, at this point almost interchangeable with Zamyatin’s idea of a heretic, should be least interested in making “his/her audience feel good: the whole point is to be embarrassing, contrary, even unpleasant.”[3]

Envisioning intellectuals as the “fathers and mothers of movements,” [4] Said argues that the intellectual must be an iconoclast who refuses the constraints of institutionalization. She must declare allegiances to no one but her own rationally formulated opinion. The intellectual must embrace revolt; must be on the cusp of cultural revolt, so that she may help steer the future toward the most humane path. He warns that the consequence of claiming heresy as one’s faith is exile; however, exile, according to Said, is not only good but, in some ways, necessary. It makes one marginal[5] and frees one from proceeding with caution.[6]  Being an exile keeps the imagination and the critical incisiveness of the intellectual sharp. He directly says that the role of the intellectual “has an edge to it”; that the task of the intellectual is to “confront orthodoxy and dogma” rather than produce them.[7] The perspective of the exile enables one to recognize that what is today is not the result, the finale; it is not something “unchangeable, permanent, irreversible.”[8] The importance of exile is also made manifest when contrasted with the dangers of professionalism as Said envisions them. He contends that professionalism, as an attitude, poses the greatest threat to the intellectual today precisely because it limits one’s mobility, one’s ability to drift into intellectual exile.[9] Professionalism constrains heretical thinking.

The problem of accepting admission into institutions of any kind is that history shows very few individuals are willing to rise to the task of a heretic. That is few are able to break free of the institutions into which they admit themselves, even when such an institution is upholding abhorrent policies. While some may have the strength to withstand the imposition of power that comes from becoming a member of an organization, historically most have proven ill-equipped to withstand such a tidal wave of pressures, limitations and dogmatism. As Noam Chomsky asserts in his work, Hegemony or Survival, the reasoning of those in institutions are often limited by the fact that what is reasonable to the institution may not be reasonable or in the best interest of the broader society.

The trouble with renouncing dogma is that it requires the realization that nothing is everlasting. This idea is not only disturbing to many, it can literally be accused of collapsing the institution of hope, that which urges one to push onward and give life and blood for the cause of a lifetime. The problem with human beings’ conscious desire for this kind of inorganic conclusion, be it to personal relationships, political ideals, professional objectives, or any number of other issues is that the universe refuses stasis. In order to “arrive,” be it intellectually, politically or otherwise requires human beings to ignore new truths and the sanguinary consequences of their calcification: lives turned to corpses against the hard rock of their obstinate prejudices and principles. The purpose of the public intellectual, as articulated by Edward W. Said, is to constantly march minds into the intellectual and moral revolution required by the universe and, more often than not, the principles of human justice.

[1] Edward W. Said, Representations of the Intellectual (New York: Vintage books, 1996), 7.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 11.

[5] Ibid., 62.

[6] Ibid., 63.

[7] Ibid., 12.

[8] Ibid., 60-61

[9] Ibid., 74.


Why Poor Students Shouldn’t Fear Student Loans

It’s particularly important that the least advantaged in our society are not closed off to the opportunity of acquiring a college education. This is not merely because such an education improves one’s chance of employment, but most of all because a liberal arts education gives one the opportunity to flourish, to discover their interests, aptitudes, and to forge a unique path in life. At least that’s what it did for me. Yet the poorest among us must consider the issue of cost.

As someone who was born to a poor family—a family that remained poor the entirety of my youth—I want to tell you there’s no reason you can’t get a college education…if you want one. After deciding that I wanted to pursue enlightenment in a college environment I used not only the Pell Grant but also college loans to afford my intellectual endeavor. I lived cheaply and focused on my studies. By the time I became a graduate student I used student loans to not only fund my education but also finance my low-paying careers as a freelance journalist and a full-time stay-at-home father to my newly born daughter.

The $100,000 dollar question is but what about all that money you now owe? Won’t you and your family be ruined? The three-part answer is no.

First, a truly enlightening education is priceless. We each need the opportunity to explore great books and ideas, to discover the other ways of thinking about life. College provides many with precisely such an opportunity. It certainly did for me.

Two, people like me choose “Income-Based” repayment. This is a form of repayment which bases repayment on a person’s earnings. That means if you are living on the poverty line as an adjunct instructor with a family of five, then you pay roughly nothing. And when that glorious full-time position comes a knocking and you start making 40K+, then you’re obligated to make appropriate payments–payments you can afford to make.

Three, so long as the Income-Based repayment option exists, you have to ask yourself, how much better off will you be without an education and zero debt? Those who fail to succeed as entrepreneurs may find themselves working in low-wage jobs without much opportunity for economic advancement. Arguably, you’re better off with a mound of student debt and a head full of inspiring and perhaps life-improving ideas then a debt-free existence of low-end slave-labor wages. In fact, I strongly encourage the poor to consider abandoning low-wage labor in favor of using student loans to live and afford for a contemplative period of personal exploration and discovery.

What follows is some basic information on loan repayment. I include three different repayment plans, but my experience is that Income-based Repayment is by far the best option for those with low-income.

Here are the definitions of the repayment plans are from the Federal Student Aid website (https://www.nslds.ed.gov/nslds_SA/SaEcLogin.do):

  • Income-Based Repayment (IBR): Under IBR, the required monthly payment is capped at an amount that is intended to be affordable based on your income and family size. You are eligible for IBR if the monthly repayment amount under IBR will be less than the monthly amount calculated under a 10-year standard repayment plan. If you repay under the IBR plan for 25 years and meet other requirements, you may have any remaining balance of your loan(s) cancelled. Additionally, if you work in public service and have reduced loan payments through IBR, the remaining balance after ten years in a public service job could be cancelled. You may contact your loan holder or loan servicer, or visit http://www.studentaid.ed.gov for more detailed information about the Income-Based Repayment Plan.
  • Income-Sensitive Repayment Plan (for FFEL Program loans only): With an income-sensitive plan, your monthly loan payment is based on your annual income. As your income increases or decreases, so do your payments. The maximum repayment period is 10 years. Contact your loan holder or loan servicer for more information about this repayment plan.
  • Income-Contingent Repayment Plan (for Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans and Direct PLUS Loans for Graduate and Professional Students): Your monthly payments will be based on your annual income (and that of your spouse, if married), your family size, and the total amount of your Direct Loans. Borrowers have 25 years to repay under this plan, the unpaid portion will be forgiven. However, you may have to pay income tax on the amount that is forgiven.

Here are three useful explanations of the repayment plans.


Beyond the Art of Objectification, a Plea for Imaginative Reverence

In the past I enjoyed “distasteful” humor. But lately I find myself having a weak stomach. I’m watching Reno911 and there’s this elaborate prison rape joke, where the cop is explaining in detail, to a group of school kids, how a gang of 12 will rape another young man.

I tried watching South Park last week and yet again, another joke about a grown man accidentally having sex with a child.

Then there’s good ol’ Family Guy, an episode where Stewey and Brian try to essentially gain control of Hannah Montana so they can have sex with her. When they figure out she’s a robot, and she’s blown into pieces, the last line from Brian to Stewey is, “now here’s your chance”…to have sex with her fragmented body. Around the same time a student noted that she heard a man in a court room cry out, “she’ll get over it!” when another man was sentenced for the crime of rape.

Not long after that my wife April was driving home yesterday and the Buzz–a local rock station–urged its listeners to send in pictures of “chics on trucks.” The DJ says,

“It’s a great way to show off your chic and your truck.”

Finally, April was at a pro-choice rally in Orlando earlier this year and there a 13 year-old girl says to her:

“Why are you standing up for women’s rights? I don’t have rights. I’m worthless.”

At what point to do we begin to say stop passively accepting this culture of sexual objectification? At what point do we, furthermore, begin to recognize the limitation of idolizing “transgression” as a virtue, and consider the importance of working to cultivate proper “reverence” for others?

I’m not pro-censorship. It seems to me that censorship works like laws against drug use.  But I’m in favor of encouraging people to realize that the people, ideas, media, and culture we surround ourselves with impacts the people we become. We are what we eat, who we meet, what we think, and who we allow ourselves to become.

Precisely when we sometimes think we are “purging” or “venting” various “distasteful” desires or “bad” habits we are very likely cultivating/feeding those desires and habits. We cultivate character through habituation; through routine practice. And today we seem to cultivate uncaringness, insensitivity, aggression, callousness, and routine transgression of respect for other beings (the opposite of “reverence”) via sexualization and objectification.

I think we need to turn our creative talents to a new ideal, not that of simply transgressing old boundaries of rightness, but also imagining new realms of reverence: what borders ought we not seek to transgress? Perhaps we can begin with revering women and children’s sexual sovereignty.


Balancing Life Under Patriarchy with Proper Resistance

A friend just shared this article, Blueprint for a Woman’s Life and I wanted to share my perspective. In the article, the author suggests that women begin to follow the following her 12 point “blueprint” at age 18, ending at 45. Among her suggested steps to success:

2. Get plastic surgery. This is the must-have career tool for the workforce of the new millennium. You will earn more money and you will have more opportunities for mentoring. Also, you will have a wider choice of men, which, of course, is another way to earn more money…. 3. Go to business school right out of the gate. …you are more likely to marry well. Men like women who are smart but not making more than they are. (I do not have a link for this. I have instinct.)…4. Start early looking for a husband seriously.6. Guard your marriage obsessively.11. Spend money on household help and Botox to keep more doors open longer.

On the one hand I understand that this is a piece written by a woman of the current age, doing her best to deal with a patriarchal society: one in which a man gets 1K more money for each kid he has, but women get 1K less for each kid; and one in which women are expected to fit the (ever-evolving) prototype of beauty.

Yet, as a father of two girls, I also think the author needs to balance living in the existing system with a proper amount of resistance to oppressive norms. If a woman wishes to alter her body, she should have that right. But a healthy sense of self and a proper partner in life shouldn’t be based on such things. The path of resistance is a tough one, but if social movements (civil rights, women’s rights) hadn’t take that route, women and people of color would have but a fraction of the freedom they have today.

To this, my wife, April, adds: It’s waving a white flag as far as I’m concerned. She definitely gives great advice for coping with the shitty hand we’re dealt as women. However, if we are to change the future for our children, we have to openly resist our oppression and throw the cards back in the face of the dealer and demand a fair game!


Contemporary Patriarchy: Male Violence Against Children

Today patriarchy persists in promoting men’s sexual and physical domination of women and children. bell hooks writes:

Women and children all over the world want men to die so that they can live. This is the most painful truth of male domination, that men wield patriarchal power in daily life in ways that are awesomely life-threatening, that women and children cower in fear and various states of powerlessness, believing that the only way out of their suffering, their only hope is for men to die, for the patriarchal father not to come home (hooks 2004: xv).

Sadly, proof of this situation is all around us.

Violence Against Children

On March 28, 2010 my wife, April, and our then one-year-old daughter, Lucy made a pit-stop just outside of Atlanta as we were driving home from the American Men’s Studies Association’s annual Men and Masculinities conference. In the restroom I witnessed a 30-something year-old white-man pound his child who was about 4 or 5-years old. The father entered the bathroom with I think three children. He placed one of his young sons before the bathroom urinal and commanded him to pee. The boy dropped to his knees throwing a temper tantrum—non-violent resistance! Perhaps embarrassed by a dozen or so onlookers the father immediately lifted the shirt from his son’s back, cocked his arm back and slammed his large spread hand down onto the boy’s skin. Stunned by the abuse I stopped and stared in disbelief. Suddenly another black man said, “Now that’s what I like to see.” “You like that,” I asked loudly in a critical, disgusted tone? “You like to watch a grown man beat a small, defenseless child?”

A few months later I encountered yet another abusive father, this time a black father. I was shopping for an air conditioner at Brandsmart inWest Palm Beach. As I was shopping I noticed a father chastising his young daughter, perhaps 3, for refusing to comply with his instructions. Like most children this age, the girl was restless and wanted to get out of her stroller and play. Now I understand the frustration of having to work with bored children. Our kids were with us and kind of driving us crazy, too! Unfortunately, this father made it clear that threats of violence are the way he communicates with his child. The man stopped the stroller, began taking his belt off, and menacingly told the girl that she had better stop whining. In fact he began to do just that. The child’s response was frightened silence, indicating, perhaps, that this was more than an idle threat. Indeed, this is how men (and sometimes women) across the world uphold order, both with women and children. They use violence.

I was so disturbed by the child’s fear that I addressed her father. I told him that it was shameful that a grown man would threaten such a small child with the vicious violence of a belt. In response the man literally asked me what I was going to do about it, further indication of the dominant model of masculinity’s understanding of conflict resolution. I responded that I didn’t handle such problems through violence, and that he should treat his child with greater love and respect. Again, he wanted to escalate the interaction to physical violence, so I had to leave well enough alone. This is unsurprising. As author and psychiatrist James Gilligan explains in his book, Preventing Violence, patriarchal culture identifies “authentic” masculinity as requiring the capacity to enact violence:

Masculinity, in the traditional, conventional stereotypical sex-role of patriarchy, is literally defined as involving the expectation, even the requirement, of violence, under many well specified conditions: in time of war; in response to personal insult; in response to extramarital sex on the part of a female in the family; while engaging in all-male combat sports; etc. (2001: 56)

This reflexive recourse to violence, of course, is precisely what we as a society and men in particular must denounce and find ways to nonviolently combat.


Secular Philosophy’s Contribution to Patriarchy

Today it is not uncommon for critics of religion to emphasize these deeply seeded misogynistic traditions. But an overemphasis on the patriarchal character of monotheistic religious traditions can lead to a distorting understanding of the pervasiveness of patriarchy. As I have shown in previous work,[1] many of the Enlightenment philosophers who questioned conventional religion, religious intolerance, slavery, and monarchy failed to equally question assumptions about the inferiority of women to men. In fact, many readily promoted patriarchy.

In his renowned defense of republicanism, The Spirit of Laws, published in 1748, Montesquieu explicitly states that too much equality would likely reduce respect for government leaders, old age, parents;

and “deference to husbands will be likewise thrown off, and submission to masters.”[2]

Speaking directly to the patriarchal thought model which continues to inform the prevailing form of masculinity today, Montesquieu warns that equality threatens male domination:

“Wives, children, slaves will shake off all subjection. No longer will there be any such thing as manners, order, or virtue” (Ibid).

In 1762, the French philosopher Rousseau argued in his work Emile that women are by nature mentally and physically inferior to men, as well as predisposed to love beauty and other trifles. He says women’s normal and true business is giving birth[3] and that because a husband must be made confident that the children she bares him are his own, a wife’s infidelity is treasonable and far worse than a husband’s.[4] As an adult woman is destined to live a life of subordination both to “propriety”[5] and her husband, girls must be taught “to bear the yoke from the first, so that they may not feel it, to master their own caprices and to submit themselves to the will of others.”[6] And should be instilled with the “docility which woman requires all her life long, for she will always be in the subjection to a man, or to man’s judgment, and she will never be free to set her own opinion above his.”[7] In fact, women must

“learn to submit to injustice and to suffer the wrongs inflicted on her husband by her husband without complaints,”[8] that through her “gentleness” she will eventually be victorious over him, “unless he is a perfect monster.”[9] He further claimed that the “assertions as to the equality of the sexes” are “vague” and inconsequential[10] and proclaims that women are far more in need of men than men are in need of women because women are dependent on men for both fulfillment of her desires and her needs. She needs him to fulfill her purpose in life:

“Nature herself has decreed that woman, both for herself and her children, should be at the mercy of man’s judgment.”[11]

To sum it up, identifying organized religion as the sole proponent of patriarchal thought is both dishonest and, I would add, obscures how deeply entrenched the ideology of male supremacy is in Western thought.

[1] Jeff Nall, “Exhuming the History of Feminist Masculinity: Condorcet, 18th Century Radical Male Feminist,” pp.42-61. Culture, Society & Masculinities (vol.2, Issue 1, Spring 2010)

[2] Charles de Secondat Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws (New York: Prometheus Books, 2002), 109. (Bk viii, ch. ii.)

[3] Rousseau, J. (1995). Duties of women. In I. Kramnick (Ed.), The portable enlightenment reader (pp. 568‐579).New York. Penguin, p.572 [4] Rousseau 572 [5] Rousseau 578 [6] Rousseau 578 [7] Rousseau 578-579 [8] Rousseau 578 [9] Rousseau 579 [10] Rousseau 572 [11] Rousseau 575


Religious Patriarchy: St. Augustine’s take on proper marital roles and domestic violence

In book IX of The Confessions (trans. Boulding 1998, p. 185), written between 397 and 401 AD, Christian theologian Saint Augustine discusses the way in which his mother, Monica, who influenced his conversion to Christianity, exemplified God mandated feminine servitude to her husband. He relays that Monica endured her husband’s “marital infidelities” without quarrelling, continually showing him “mercy.”

Despite her husband’s hot temper Monica “learned to offer him no resistance, by deed or even by word, when he was angry.” Monica develops and implements nurturance, mercy, and passive compliance to accomplish basic objectives such as physical and emotional security. When her husband was angry, for instance, we are told that Monica “would wait for a favorable moment, when she saw that his mood had changed and he was calm again, and then explain her action, in case he had given way to wrath without due consideration.” Augustine explicitly promotes what he sees as Monica’s virtuous, godly exemplification of ideal womanhood.

Yet Augustine’s discussion not only explains and lauds the patriarchal ideal of emphasized femininity but also the patriarchal ideal of masculinity. The assumption is that it is natural for men to act out of unthinking anger. Augustine does not, throughout his work, critique such behavior. In fact, Augustine cites his mother as having criticized other women who complained of the way in which their husbands had violently assaulted them. Augustine is candid:

“There were plenty of women married to husbands of gentler temper whose faces were badly disfigured by traces of blows, who while gossiping together would complain about their husbands’ behavior.”

Yet Monica  assails them for failing to recognize that their marriage contracts were “legal documents which made slaves of them.” Thus those women who wished to be spared the natural and lawful savagery of their husbands “ought to keep their subservient status in mind and not defy their masters.” Indeed, Augustine tells us that these women, knowing Monica’s husband to be more hot-tempered than their own, sought out her advice on how best to supplicate their spouses and thus escape brutalization.

It’s difficult to realize from a contemporary standpoint, but Augustine and Monica makes explicit what has long been understood throughout patriarchal society: marriage is an institution of slavery. As slaves—God mandated inferiors purposed to serve men—the only recourse women have for abuse is to alter their behavior, to cultivate quiet, inoffensive passivity. It is also important to consider that while Monica’s advice certainly perpetuates masculine domination and feminine passivity, her own behavior must also be understood as a strategy for survival. Monica’s development and promotion of the passive feminine ideal was probably a reaction to everyday violence and domination. In this way we see how patriarchy reproduces itself even in women who then propagate its ideals.

Religion, I should add, is not solely responsible for upholding the dominant institution of patriarchy and its attending gender roles. As I’ll show in a post next week, key “rational” philosophers have done their part in bolstering patriarchal domination of women.


What is Patriarchy and how does it define men’s lives?

The Patriarchal Worldview

From antiquity through the Enlightenment and beyond, philosophers (Aristotle), physicians, and theologians have defined women as beings necessarily inferior to men. Women’s capacity to birth new life and the connection to the earth it implies have been systematically and exhaustively interpreted as proof of women’s inferiority to men. The human ideal, as explained by central Western thinkers, from Plato to Descartes to Bertrand Russell , has been one that values transcending the body, emotion, interrelationality, and the natural world. Thus the sphere to which women had for so long been relegated, that of the private—the home—was fundamentally devalued.

But this view of humanity is anything but value free. It is, in short, a patriarchal worldview. Gender theorist Judith Lorber writes that patriarchy began as a form of social organization in which father’s ruled legal dependents such as wives and children within the family or clan. The contemporary manifestation of patriarchy, however, expresses itself as both a political and social system

that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence — bell hooks, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love (2004), p. 18.

As future posts will begin to make clear, this model of manhood is hurts women, children, less powerful or less privileged men; it also very often destroys the happiness of the men who dedicate themselves to such a model of existence.