Monday, April 30, 2007

"The Return of Patriarchy"

An article by that provocative title ran in Foreign Policy magazine. (That link goes to an incomplete version however -- to read the whole thing you'll need to read this post through Google groups.)

What the author seems to be saying is "The system where women and children are effectively the property of men really sucks for everyone, including men. But it is effective from the point of view of producing lots of children, and so, historically, this kind of society tends to win out over happier but less fertile societies, by sheer numbers." He says that religious people in the U.S. are outbreeding the secular, and that in the next few years most people will therefore be descended from religious families. And that religious, patriarchal cultures world-wide are outbreeding western cultures, so that in a few generations, the relative percentage of, e.g. Muslims is going to be much higher. (He summarizes the numbers in a shorter piece for USA Today)

Now some people in this discussion thread interpret this as just a sort of prejudiced fear-mongering. "Oh, no! The brown people are going to replace us! Quick, start having babies!" Others seem to think he is sounding an alarm about the dangers of falling populations overall, in global terms. "But the population can't rise forever," they point out. Isn't it better that total global population should level off through cultural changes than through disease, war, and famine due to over-population?

So some people will probably think that he sounds nationalist and anti-population-control, very right wing.

Others, however, will notice that he seems to think that the return of patriarchy is a bad thing, and that the major religions are all patriarchal. What's more, his argument is essentially an evolutionary one. He's predicting that society is going to get more religiously-conservative/patriarchal based on the fact that religious conservatives produce more children. If you assume that parents pass on their ideas as well as their chromosomes (their memes as well as their genes) to their children, this is straight-forward Darwinian logic. So -- an anti-religious "social Darwinist." Must be an evil left-winger.

Not to mention all of the feminists who are going to be pissed off because he's implying that patriarchy is a winning survival strategy.

I, on the other hand, loved it.

Basically, I'm thrilled to have a logical, compelling explanation as to why women have played the role that they have, in so many cultures, for so many years. Why have they stayed home while men discovered continents and then telescopes and planets? While men wrote epic poems and immortal plays? While men built ships and cities? If it was because men bullied them into staying at home, why did they let themselves be bullied? Women may be physically weaker than men, as individuals, but we are not a minority. We make up half of any given society, and if "society" works a certain way, then women are complicit in making it that way. But why? Didn't women want to participate in the world? Or are they, as Larry Summers would have us believe, just not genetically capable of contributing?

(And I know, there have always been women who did participate. Hypatia and Maria Mitchell and all that. But why so few?)

From the article:

Patriarchy does not simply mean that men rule. Indeed, it is a particular value system that not only requires men to marry but to marry a woman of proper station. It competes with many other male visions of the good life, and for that reason alone is prone to come in cycles. Yet before it degenerates, it is a cultural regime that serves to keep birthrates high among the affluent, while also maximizing parents' investments in their children. No advanced civilization has yet learned how to endure without it.
Patriarchal societies come in many varieties and evolve through different stages. What they have in common are customs and attitudes that collectively serve to maximize fertility and parental investment in the next generation. Of these, among the most important is the stigmatization of "illegitimate" children.
Under patriarchy, "bastards" and single mothers cannot be tolerated because they undermine male investment in the next generation. Illegitimate children do not take their fathers' name, and so their fathers, even if known, tend not to take any responsibility for them. By contrast, "legitimate" children become a source of either honor or shame to their fathers and the family line. The notion that legitimate children belong to their fathers' family, and not to their mothers', which has no basis in biology, gives many men powerful emotional reasons to want children, and to want their children to succeed in passing on their legacy. Patriarchy also leads men to keep having children until they produce at least one son.

Another key to patriarchy's evolutionary advantage is the way it penalizes women who do not marry and have children. Just decades ago in the English-speaking world, such women were referred to, even by their own mothers, as spinsters or old maids, to be pitied for their barrenness or condemned for their selfishness. Patriarchy made the incentive of taking a husband and becoming a full-time mother very high because it offered women few desirable alternatives.
Under patriarchy, maternal investment in children also increases. As feminist economist Nancy Folbre has observed, "Patriarchal control over women tends to increase their specialization in reproductive labor, with important consequences for both the quantity and the quality of their investments in the next generation." Those consequences arguably include: more children receiving more attention from their mothers, who, having few other ways of finding meaning in their lives, become more skilled at keeping their children safe and healthy. Without implying any endorsement for the strategy, one must observe that a society that presents women with essentially three options -- be a nun, be a prostitute, or marry a man and bear children -- has stumbled upon a highly effective way to reduce the risk of demographic decline.

One more advantage, which he doesn't mention but which has occured to me before, is that keeping women at home keeps them safe from physical threats. Lets say you have a war and half your men die. At least in principle, this does not necessarily make the next generation any smaller. If the remaining half are willing to be less than monogamous then the next generation can be the same size as the previous. But if half your women died, the next generation is going to be half the size of the last. Women are the bottleneck in the system. So obviously, keeping women out of harm's way has advantages.

Of course, there's nothing so physically dangerous about learning to read, or studying the stars (although medical and chemical research are dangerous -- consider what happened to Marie Curie.) So this wasn't a complete explanation, to me, as to why women should have done so little. But in combination with the other advantages the article mentions? I think it's sufficient.

It's not that women are incapable of making discoveries, nor that men have evilly oppressed them to decrease the amount of competition. It's just the societies in which women are socially expected to be "reproductive specialists" are those which produce the most kids. So most of us happen to be descended from those societies.

But nowhere does he say that people are happiest in these societies. It's obvious why many women might not be. But the article also points out that men don't necessarily want to have to support a large family. In a society where women don't work and each marriage produces many children, and men are expected to marry... Well, that's a heavy burden. Is that really the ideal life for the majority of men? A marriage of equals, with equal responsibility, is less confining, with much less pressure.

So, it seems that even if patriarchal societies do tend to produce more children, those children tend to set up more equal societies among themselves, if they can.

As the industrial revolution continues to spread (it hasn't reached some parts of the world yet) I think more and more of these societies will be able to afford to change, to become more equal. Lower infant mortality and better prospects for old age mean that you don't need so many children. So even if the author is right that patriarchy is going to expand again in the short term, I think the long term prospects for equality are good. I think we have already taken some steps that will not be reversed.

So all in all, I like the article.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Blog Meme

For when you're too lazy and uncreative to think of anything to blog about...

Last Alcoholic Drink:

Hofbrau Maibock, last night. That's a beer, and a good one. I'm into fancy beers these days. Although my palette's not as refined as Ken's.

Last Car Ride:

My five minute commute home from work. But before that, it was the much longer ride back from the DMV, where I finally, after four years got a driver's licence in the state I live in. I had to take the written test. Stress-ful.

Last Kiss:

On the elevator this morning.

Last Good Cry:

*Good* cry? None. Ask me about embarrassing, painful, frustrated cries... Actually, don't.

Last Library Book:

"The Hidden Family," by Charles Stross. I lost it, and haven't paid the replacement fee yet, which is why it was my last library book...

Last book bought:

"Old Man's War," by John Scalzi. But before that it was "Wild Swans" by Jung Chang, which was absolutely amazing. I bought it because I liked the way it was written, from browsing a few pages in the bookstore. But the actual story blew me away. I have to admit I had no idea what China has been through in the past century. The author's grandmother was one of the last generation of Chinese women to have bound feet, and was in her youth the concubine of a warlord. Their child (the author's mother) was a a spy at the age of 17, caught up in the invasion by the Japanese and then the civil war which led to communist rule. Both the author's parents were idealistic party members, who were disillusioned by the famines, purges, and political persecution that came later. They eventually became victims of the Cultural Revolution, tortured and exiled. And the author herself, a teenager at the time, was a Red Guard, a participant in that same Cultural Revolution, but less and less a willing one. I can't imagine anything more exciting, or heart breaking. And, as I noticed in the bookstore, the writing is excellent, honest and unpretentious.

Last Book Read:

"Old Man's War." Very quick read, and pretty entertaining.

Last Movie Seen in Theatres:

"300." 'Cause you gotta see that one in theaters, otherwise, what's the point?

Last Movie Rented:

X-Men 3. Huge disappointment.

Last Cuss Word Uttered:

Probably "Damn it."

Last Beverage Drank:

Diet Coke. Because I am an addict.

Last Food Consumed:

Yoplait light yogurt. Because I am an addict.

Last Crush:

Not counting my husband? I did just watch X-Men (all three of them, in fact), so I'm gonna go with Hugh Jackman.

Last Phone Call:

My mother in law.

Last TV Show Watched:

Gilmore Girls. Which no one is allowed to make fun of. I've been watching since the first episode.

Last Time Showered:

Last night. I shower in the evenings, after I run.

Last Shoes Worn:

Dankso walking boots. They have these hard soles, like wearing wooden clogs. But they're supposed to make sure your gait is ergonomically correct. My mom bought them for me. I'm sure I couldn't afford them.

Last CD Played:

K.T. Tunstall, "Eye to the Telescope."

Last Item Bought:

Flosser sticks. I've got a dentist's appointment coming up.

Last Download:

Maybe "Advanced Batch Converter."

Last Annoyance:

Not hearing back from (or being able to find) a member of my thesis committee. I've got to set a proposal date.

Last Disappointment:

The Cubs, this season.

I could give a more serious answer, but I think I'd depress myself. Who needs that?

Last Soda Drank:

Diet Coke. Because I'm an addict.

Last Thing Written:

Not counting e-mails and blog posts, part of a story I'm working on for my Monday night writer's group. It involves a worker's rebellion on Mars.

Last Key Used:

Huh? "." I guess.

Last Words Spoken:

"Yeah, I'm almost done."

Last Sleep:

Last night.

Last Ice Cream Eaten:

I'm gonna count the chocolate dipped frozen banana I had last week, 'cause otherwise I can't remember. I bought a whole box of them, actually.

(Hey, I remember now. The last actual icecream was from an ice cream truck that drove by us... Probably last September or so.)

Last Chair Sat In:

The one I'm in. A wooden one with a vinyl cushion.

Last Webpage Visited:

Saturday, April 14, 2007


Okay, I am not your average video game reviewer. Mostly because I suck at video games. It's my total lack of hand-eye coordination and my low frustration-threshold that does it. So what I am, is a video game spectator.

But there's only one game that I've ever asked someone to play just so I can watch. It's called "Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion." And I want people who don't play video games to know what game designers are capable of, these days.

It was this game that actually made us buy an Xbox. My husband had played "Elder Scrolls III" and described it to me as amazing. In particular, he was impressed with the amount of freedom you had. You could walk anywhere you wanted, talk to anyone you wanted, do whatever you wanted, accept a quest, or not, betray your allies, or not. He spent uncountable hours on it, and was willing to lay out $400 for a new video game system in part to be able play the new game, which is even better than the last.

But how can a video game be so entertaining -- so entrancing -- even for a spectator?

It can tell a thousand different stories, each with unique characters and moral dilemmas and particular settings, within its world. It can be visually breathtaking, down to the smallest architectural and botanical details (in this game, you can pick the flowers, or even the weeds.) It can be broad in scope and yet subtle -- six or seven different races sharing dozens of very different cities and villages, all threatened by one supernatural danger, but all facing more immediate problems.

One's character's daughter has been kidnapped by cultists. Another's pets have been killed by an angry neighbor. One character, adopted, wants to know who his real father is. Another is the son of an important official, and wants nothing more than to escape her well-meant protection. One man is going to lose his farm. A woman can't pay off her dead husband's debts. Members of a guild find themselves out of work, and are stirring up trouble. Another group is running a protection racket. There are corrupt imperial guards to catch, and sticky-fingered servants.

There are hundreds if not thousands of stories like this, people who will tell you their problems. You can help all of these people, or not. You can play through the game as a thief, an assassin, a wizard-scholar, or a fighter-for-hire, or none of the above, or more than one. You may end up a vampire, if you fail to take the proper precautions, but being addicted to blood doesn't automatically make you evil -- one of your main allies turns out to be a vampire. This game is rich in shades of gray.

It was last summer that I watched Ken play through most of this, but I still remember characters' names, and stories. Once you've helped them, they don't go away. You will still see them, especially if they live in the town where you end up buying a house. Helping them makes them like you better, and they may give you better deals, if they're merchants or skilled laborers. They'll remember, and thank you. But if you let them down, you feel so bad... To have to tell someone his sons are both dead? It won't interfere with your ability to "beat the game," but you have to reload, and try harder, just to avoid the guilt. Even so, you can't save everyone. The game won't let you.

The main quest has religious themes. It's a made-up religion, to be sure, but the only man who can save the world (it's not you) from the supernatural threat is a priest. He is fallible, full of self-doubt, a little cynical, a little afraid -- one of the best of the many well-drawn characters. And you, helping him, are made to feel the same doubts. The "evil" characters ask you provocative questions. Are you sure you know what "evil" is? Are you sure you're any better than them? Are you sure there's any point in all of this? They reveal information about the world of the game and the gods of its religion that makes you wonder. But you fight on anyway.

After about 130 hours of play over a few months (the game tracks this, along with the number of murders, of items and horses stolen, of days and nights passed within the game world, of hours slept and hours waited) my husband finally finished the main quest, and put the game aside.

But recently they released an addendum, supposedly 30% as big as the original game, with all new characters (each with their own problems) and a new main quest.

It begins with a strange door, which you are asked to investigate. It leads to another dimension, and everyone who comes out of it is insane.

This new place looks very different than anywhere in the original game. That landscape had mountains, plains, and costal cities (each with their own types of architecture) connifer forests and cramped stone streets, but this new landscape looks like Louisiana or eastern Texas. Mossy trees dangling vines, marshy ground, lots of mushrooms. The sunsets are more colorful, and the weather rainier. (Yes, this game has sunsets, and weather.)

This is the kingdom of madness, the "Shivering Isles" and if the main game was full of hard moral questions, the dilemmas in this new game are impossible. You cannot get through it without doing things that shake your self-image as video-game "hero."

And this is something only a video game can do. A book, a movie, a play, can make you identify with people who may be making mistakes, who may be doing the wrong thing, but they can't set up these difficult situations and then force you to make the decisions, and then to live with yourself.

I want to give examples from the game so far, but they're spoilers, so I'll put them in white text -- highlight the text below only if you don't plan on playing "Shivering Isles."

The people here here will ask you to hurt others. The very first thing you have to do is kill a monster using its "mother's" tears, in order to enter. You will then meet characters who say things like "My neighbor is annoying. Will you kill him for me?" And once you begin the main quest, your first task is to re-open a sort of prison facility, where uninvited explorers in this realm are either driven mad by torture or killed outright. The decision is unexpectedly put in our hands. And these prisoners are real characters. You eavesdrop on their conversations. They are not "bad guys" who deserve to die. Their only crime is entering the door uninvited -- the same crime you committed. But you can't get out of this one with your hands clean. You're locked in, and can't leave until they're dead or mad. At the end, you're rewarded with a very powerful sword.

Next, the "Madgod" who created this place (he tells you that you are helping him save it from another kind of supernatural threat -- an invasion by the god of order) sends you to his Duchess, who is paranoid, and believes that there is a conspiracy to kill her. You are supposed to torture her subjects, apparently at random, until one of them confesses to being involved. After seeing a few characters fall to their knees and beg you to stop, insisting that they know nothing, the experience becomes disturbing enough that you may want to cheat (as we did), looking up the answer on the internet. Otherwise you will become paranoid yourself. Some of these characters are lying -- you just don't know who.

Next, you are sent to help a Duke, who wants you to enter a certain cave full of monsters and retrieve an item for him. But to get through the enchanted door, you must take a drug... And the drug is addictive. Your character will initially become stronger, but as the effects wear off, you become weaker, less able to defend yourself from the monsters, and eventually, start losing health points as withdrawal pain kicks in. Wait long enough and it's game over, so you have to spend a lot of your time in the cave frantically searching for more of the drug. Eventually, you don't care about anything else, the prizes you'd normally collect, the mission, the monsters. You have to find more of the drug, or none of the rest will matter.

According to Ken, it felt like a real need. And that's something that no book or movie or play could have done. They can't make you frantic, can't make you search, can't make you hurry. They are passive forms of story telling. Video games can take you further outside of your comfort zone, potentially, force you to make decisions. Force you to do things you don't want to. Make you empathize with people who are in similar positions.

That is what video game designers can do these days. They can create works of art both massive and intricate, visually beautiful and emotionally moving and full of surprises, which unfold over hundreds of hours and involve the audience in an unpredented, deeply personal way. "Oblivion" is a masterpiece.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

April Poem

After the Winter

Claude McKay

Some day, when trees have shed their leaves
And against the morning's white
The shivering birds beneath the eaves
Have sheltered for the night,
We'll turn our faces southward, love,
Toward the summer isle
Where bamboos spire to shafted grove
And wide-mouthed orchids smile.

And we will seek the quiet hill
Where towers the cotton tree,
And leaps the laughing crystal rill,
And works the droning bee.
And we will build a cottage there
Beside an open glade,
With black-ribbed blue-bells blowing near,
And ferns that never fade.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

More 3-D Geekery

Stereo pair images of Chicago, taken from the Sears tower.

I know it's not very nice to post things like this, because I know more people who can't do "Magic Eye" than who can. It's like posting music that only people who can wiggle their ears can actually enjoy. But if you are good at diverging or crossing your eyes to see 3D, these are a lot of fun. Personally, I have to save them and then resize them in order to do it... And I'm better at the cross-eyed ones. But I love it.

I really want to try this myself, so you might see some clumsy attempts one of these days...

In the meantime, it's inspired me to look up some more links. So here're some beautiful portraits (cross-eyed variety).

And, because we're planning a vacation in the area, canyons in Arizona and Utah (you choose your viewing format with a widget below the image.)