Men and touching

Really enjoyed this short Slate piece on the absurd taboo against almost any touching among straight men in America.  It’s spot on:

But as Mark Greene recently observed over at The Good Men Project, trying that kind of thing in the U.S. could get you a black eye:

In America in particular, if a young man attempts gentle platonic contact with another young man, he faces a very real risk of homophobic backlash either by that person or by those who witness the contact. This is, in part, because we frame all contact by men as being intentionally sexual until proven otherwise. Couple this with the homophobia that runs rampant in our culture, and you get a recipe for increased touch isolation that damages the lives of the vast majority of men.

Greene, a straight man, justifies his support of gay marriage and general gay acceptance in part for this reason—as long as any kind of male affection automatically reads as sexual (and, given widespread cultural homophobia, threatening), men of all orientations are suffering and becoming emotionally stunted by a lack of homosocial intimacy. As he eloquently puts it:

As much as gay men have faced the brunt of homophobic violence, straight men have been banished to a desert of physical isolation by these same homophobic fanatics who police lesbians and gays in our society. The result has been a generation of American men who do not hug each other, do not hold hands and can not sit close together without the homophobic litmus test kicking in.

If you’ve never considered this painful lack in men’s lives, take a few minutes to read Greene’s piece

I grew up in a fairly affectionate family.  My mom was quite a good hugger and toucher and my dad was (and is) a definitely far more physically affectionate man than your average born in 1936 father.  I did not always appreciate how lucky I am in this regard.  One thing I remember distinctly about heading off to college and being away from my family was the amazing absence of any human physical contact in those first months.  Fortunately, I had a good friend who resisted such taboos and insisted on regular hugs with friends (ironically, I suppose, he’s a gay man but was well in the closet– perhaps even to himself– at the time).   Anyway, lots of reasons it was great to start dating Kim my sophomore year, but regular human physical contact (even just the innocent stuff 🙂 ) was a really nice benefit.

Democrats go nuclear– and it’s good for Democracy

Hooray, Democrats grew a spine today.  The Republicans really left them no choice.  If elections mean anything, it means that a president should be able to fill judicial and executive branch vacancies with reasonable appointees.  The Republicans have essentially been seeking to nullify the results of the 2012 presidential election.  Sure, that sounds hyperbolic, but functionally speaking, that’s what filibustering pretty much every nominee means.  The Republicans have not suggested that the nominees are even unqualified.  They simply don’t like the idea of this president making appointments of people with whom he has ideological agreement.  Now, that’s nuts.  And nuts enough that even the ever-so-cautious Democrats in the Senate have finally had enough.  The Republicans are all saying how Democrats will regret this when there’s a Republican president and a Democratic Senate minority.  And maybe so.  But the upshot of allowing the executive branch and federal judiciary to properly function now is surely worth the cost of some more extreme Republican appointees in the future.  Many executive agencies need certain political appointees to actually be allowed to carry out their legal duties and when Republicans filibuster all appointees to these agencies, they are effectively preventing them from doing their job.

I like Chait’s explanation on why the “nuclear option” is the logical outcome now:

The main reason for this odd, partial clawback of the filibuster is that President Obama has no real legislative agenda that can pass Congress. At the beginning of the year, it seemed plausible that House Republicans might go along with immigration reform, but even that possibility now looks remote. Nothing can pass.

That reality means two things. The first is that President Obama’s second-term agenda runs not through Congress but through his own administrative agencies. His appointees are writing rules for financial reform, housing policy and — the potentially enormous one — climate emissions. Senate Republicans have tried to stymie this agenda by blocking executive-branch appointments, most recently filibustering the nomination of Mel Watt to run the Federal Housing Finance Agency. The executive-branch filibuster has become a primary Republican weapon against Obama’s agenda.

Their next line of defense is the D.C. Circuit, the federal court that handles regulatory cases. If and when the Environmental Protection Agency issues regulations on existing power plants, the D.C. Circuit will rule on their legality. Republicans had announced their intention to block any Obama appointment at all to the court’s three vacant positions in order to protect their party’s functional majority. (The court is currently split evenly, but it sends its overflow caseload to retired judges, who are mostly Republican.) The D.C. Circuit is where Republicans had hoped to block those parts of Obama’s executive agenda they couldn’t gum up by denying the agencies a functioning director…

The longtime counter-threat against the “nuclear option” has always been that the minority party will retaliate by wantonly blocking everything that passes through the Senate. But here is the second way in which the end of Obama’s legislative agenda has forced the nuclear confrontation. With immigration reform dead, or nearly dead, the Senate Republican retaliation amounts to threatening to burn down a building that is already in ashes.

Chait also points out one of my first thoughts on the fact that the rule change preserves the filibuster for Supreme Court appointments.  If a liberal justice retires and is replaced by Obama, the Republicans won’t bother with a filibuster.  However, if the unforeseen happens and Obama gets to replace one of the conservative justices, I guarantee you there will be a filibuster.  And I mostly guarantee you that Democrats would at that time end the SC judicial filibuster as well.

On a related note, I hated the WP article on this for focusing on just how “unprecedented” the Democrat’s actions are:

Many Senate majorities have thought about using this technical maneuver to get around centuries of parliamentary precedent, but none has done so in a unilateral move on a major change of rules or precedents. This simple-majority vote has been executed in the past to change relatively minor precedents involving how to handle amendments; for example, one such change short-circuited the number of filibusters that the minority party could deploy on nominations.

You know what else is unprecedented?  Using the filibuster to stop all judicial nominees to a vacancy regardless of the nominee (when the Democrats did this to Bush nominees, they did not object to Bush filling vacancies, simply Bush’s most extreme appointees– and they eventually gave in on that).

Photo of the day

Lots of amazing images in this In Focus gallery of a recent volcanic eruption in Indonesia.  Couldn’t resist this one:

A kitten sits on the roof of a house that is covered with volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Sinabung in Mardingding, North Sumatra, on November 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)

Be very scared of the post-antibiotic world

I keep hearing ever more and ever more scary stories about the growing antibiotic resistance of many harmful bacteria.  I still remain optimistic that we’ll figure something out before we see millions and millions of people again dying of routine bacterial infections (largely based on the fascinating research I read about in Good Germs, Bad Germs)but I might just be naively optimistic.  This Wired story is scary and really puts things in perspective:

This week, health authorities in New Zealand announced that the tightly quarantined island nation — the only place I’ve ever been where you get x-rayed on the way into the country as well as leaving it — has experienced its first case, and first death, from  a strain of totally drug-resistant bacteria. From theNew Zealand Herald:

In January, while he was teaching English in Vietnam, (Brian) Pool suffered a brain hemorrhage and was operated on in a Vietnamese hospital.

He was flown to Wellington Hospital where tests found he was carrying the strain of bacterium known as KPC-Oxa 48 – an organism that rejects every kind of antibiotic.

Wellington Hospital clinical microbiologist Mark Jones (said): “Nothing would touch it. Absolutely nothing. It’s the first one that we’ve ever seen that is resistant to every single antibiotic known.”

Pool’s death is an appalling tragedy. But it is also a lesson, twice over: It illustrates that antibiotic resistance can spread anywhere, no matter the defenses we put up — and it demonstrates that we are on the verge of entering a new era in history. Jones, the doctor who treated Pool, says in the story linked above: “This man was in the post-antibiotic era.”

And here’s the really scary part:

If we really lost antibiotics to advancing drug resistance — and trust me, we’re not far off — here’s what we would lose. Not just the ability to treat infectious disease; that’s obvious.

But also: The ability to treat cancer, and to transplant organs, because doing those successfully relies on suppressing the immune system and willingly making ourselves vulnerable to infection. Any treatment that relies on a permanent port into the bloodstream — for instance, kidney dialysis. Any major open-cavity surgery, on the heart, the lungs, the abdomen. Any surgery on a part of the body that already harbors a population of bacteria: the guts, the bladder, the genitals. Implantable devices: new hips, new knees, new heart valves. Cosmetic plastic surgery. Liposuction. Tattoos.

We’d lose the ability to treat people after traumatic accidents, as major as crashing your car and as minor as your kid falling out of a tree. We’d lose the safety of modern childbirth: Before the antibiotic era, 5 women died out of every 1,000 who gave birth. One out of every nine skin infections killed. Three out of every 10 people who got pneumonia died from it.

Yowza!  I hope somebody has written a good science fiction book about this.  I sure hope it doesn’t become science reality.

Women in STEM (and toys)

I found this recent post/chart over at Economix rather disconcerting.  While there’s been great progress in the percentage of women in the STEM fields, it is flattened out, and even regressed in many cases:


I think it is a good thing for women and for our society to get more women into engineering, computers, etc.  I’m pretty sure, though, that the solution is not femininized building toys for little girls.  This post at the Atlantic makes that point rather sharply:

A Stanford Engineer Figured Out A Real Reason Fewer Women Code,” one headline read.

Did she?!

This Awesome Ad, Set to the Beastie Boys, Is How to Get Girls to Become Engineers,” another promised.

Is it?!

I am so excited for the study that tracks the girls who: Use this toy exclusively, avoid all heteronormative outside influences, somehow survive high school as proud math-lovers, and then go on to pick a college major. [emphasis mine]  That will surely prove its effectiveness…

At the same time, educational construction toys aimed at girls have been around for decades. There are pink Tinker toyspink Lincoln Logs, and pink Legos. I had cases full of gender-neutral K’NEXas a kid, and here I am in the humanities like a stereotypical female. I am not sure why. Perhaps at some point I reasoned, rightly or wrongly, that making a roller-coaster out of plastic widgets on a Saturday afternoon was not the same as spending your life solving complex engineering problems…

At the same time, educational construction toys aimed at girls have been around for decades. There are pink Tinker toyspink Lincoln Logs, and pink Legos. I had cases full of gender-neutral K’NEXas a kid, and here I am in the humanities like a stereotypical female. I am not sure why. Perhaps at some point I reasoned, rightly or wrongly, that making a roller-coaster out of plastic widgets on a Saturday afternoon was not the same as spending your life solving complex engineering problems…

The STEM gender imbalance is a decades-long, thorny problem, and an important one to work on. But it doesn’t help us if we herald every new contraption as “inspiring girls to become builders.”

UPDATE: Katy Waldman thinks the ad for this toy “is how to get girls to become engineers.”  I think that 1) the ad is awesome and 2) Waldman is hopelessly naive.

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