Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Summing up Obama: that Niebuhr question

Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne asks: In today’s troubling times, where are our faith leaders? The essay mourns the absence of public religious thought deeper than the cartoon facsimile of religion and morals on offer from the likes of Franklin Graham or Rafael Cruz. Dionne quotes Alan Jacobs: writing at Harpers:

The usual mourning over the “lack of prominent, intellectually serious Christian political commentators,” Jacobs notes, is “familiarly known as the ‘Where Is Our Reinhold Niebuhr?’ problem,” after the great 20th-century theologian — and one of my own heroes. He graced the cover of Time magazine in 1948, a real marker then of more than modest fame.

I found Dionne's lament shocking. We do have a Niebuhr-like figure in our midst -- he just happens to be Black and President of these United States. In the fashion of Niebuhr, Barack Obama seems to believe both in the inescapable presence of evil in the world and in the hope that something better is possible.

Coming out of the moral horror that was World War II, Niebuhr is credited with authorship the Serenity Prayer.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change," he began, "the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference."

A 2010 article from CNN recalled Niebuhr for contemporary citizens through Obama's affinities with his thought.

Niebuhr is getting attention again because he has a fan in the Oval Office.

In a widely cited New York Times column, President Obama called Niebuhr his "favorite philosopher." But how precisely has Niebuhr's philosophy influenced Obama and his handling of everything from health care reform to fighting terrorists?

... People are capable of doing good, but groups are driven by "predatory self-interest," Niebuhr wrote.

"As individuals, men believe that they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other," Niebuhr wrote. "As racial, economic and national groups, they take for themselves, whatever their power can command."

Obama is both praised and criticized for attempting from the pinnacle of human power to strike a balance between justice and greed, persuasion and naked overwhelming force. He has failed much and succeeded a little. He satisfies few. We've had a president for the last for eight years -- compromised as he is -- whose moral universe is broad and deep. This is not something we expect, or perhaps even value much, in a politician, but we've seen what such a one can and cannot do with power.

Other occasional "Summing up Obama" musings: Revisiting Rev. Wright and Ta-Nehisi Coastes on the Prez.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Could women's leadership make a difference?

I'm not much for viewing movies, but two films from Just Vision, chronicling Palestinian struggles, Budrus and The Wanted 18, have grabbed my interest -- and made me laugh.

As a result, I was willing take a look at a Just Vision-sponsored TED Talk, in which the filmmaker Julia Bacha discusses the role of nonviolent resistance in struggles where women are active leaders. Bacha has been making films that fill in gaps for people in the U.S. for several decades. She wrote and edited the wonderful Control Room, which, during the early phase of the Iraq war, introduced U.S. audiences to journalism from an Arabic-speaking point of view.

Bacha begins with this arresting slide:
Not all struggles for justice succeed, but the nonviolent ones have a better track record. And then, with great precision and economy, she develops her themes.

... nonviolent campaigns were almost 100 percent more likely to lead to success than violent campaigns. Nonviolent campaigns are also less likely to cause physical harm to those waging the campaign, as well as their opponents. And, critically, they typically lead to more peaceful and democratic societies. In other words, nonviolent resistance is a more effective and constructive way of waging conflict.

But if that's such an easy choice, why don't more groups use it? Political scientist Victor Asal and colleagues have looked at several factors that shape a political group's choice of tactics. And it turns out that the greatest predictor of a movement's decision to adopt nonviolence or violence is not whether that group is more left-wing or right-wing, not whether the group is more or less influenced by religious beliefs, not whether it's up against a democracy or a dictatorship, and not even the levels of repression that that group is facing. The greatest predictor of a movement's decision to adopt nonviolence is its ideology regarding the role of women in public life.

... I do want to tackle two very serious misunderstandings that could happen at this point. The first one is that I don't believe women are inherently or essentially more peaceful than men. But I do believe that in today's world, women experience power differently. Having had to navigate being in the less powerful position in multiple aspects of their lives, women are often more adept at how to surreptitiously pressure for change against large, powerful actors. The term "manipulative," often charged against women in a derogatory way, reflects a reality in which women have often had to find ways other than direct confrontation to achieve their goals. And finding alternatives to direct confrontation is at the core of nonviolent resistance.

Now to the second potential misunderstanding. I've been talking a lot about my experiences in the Middle East, and some of you might be thinking now that the solution then is for us to educate Muslim and Arab societies to be more inclusive of their women. If we were to do that, they would be more successful.

They do not need this kind of help. Women have been part of the most influential movements coming out of the Middle East, but they tend to be invisible to the international community. Our cameras are largely focused on the men who often end up involved in the more confrontational scenes that we find so irresistible in our news cycle. And we end up with a narrative that not only erases women from the struggles in the region but often misrepresents the struggles themselves. ...

She goes on to introduce her hearers to an array Palestinian women leaders who we probably have never heard of.

It's hard to believe that women's energies unleashed within that most intractable struggle for justice might just point to better outcomes, but Bacha goes way beyond naive happy talk.

Here's the whole TED talk, well worth the 12 minutes:

Monday, August 29, 2016

Educational braindrain

Charts and analysis from New York Times
Not so long ago, these arrows often went in different directions. They represent the flow of students leaving their home state to attend colleges elsewhere.

Two trends combine: states have cut their funding to public universities and those schools have raised tuition for their accustomed population of local students. This forces local students to look for other options. Meanwhile, other universities try to make up some of their loss of state support by importing out of state students who pay at higher rates.

Since college graduates often don't return home, net receiving states likely get a leg up. Certainly that's what the moderate out-of-state tuition at state universities did for California in my generation. UC Berkeley was far cheaper than an east coast school of equal prominence; ergo, with some false starts, I ended up a Californian. And I'm not alone.

These days, I watch young people go wherever is economically feasible to complete their education. The sending states, including mine, are loosing out.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Football courage


I always knew I liked Colin Kaepernick, even if his 49er football career hasn't developed as fans might have hoped.

NFL.com has more:

... "If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right."

The 49ers were probably going to dump him at some point anyway, so good for him for using his remaining shred of celebrity to call out the system that chews up people who look like him.

Tim Kawakami at the Mercury News actually managed to combine football judgment with respectful, measured wisdom about Kaepernick's bold gesture.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

As usual, the already disadvantaged are most harmed

This cartoon, from the Working Group on Central and South America's contribution to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of 2014, can stand as a summary of Dr. Richard H. Gammon's dire presentation on the future of Nicaragua offered yesterday to the assembled board of El Porvenir. El Porvenir is a North American-based nonprofit that has worked for 25 years to help rural Nicaraguans gain access to clean and plentiful drinking water.

Warming global temperatures will only make this work more difficult. Drought will become more frequent and enduring, punctuated by deluges that lead to sudden run-offs, bringing floods and increasing loss of fertile soil through erosion. Clear cutting for cattle raising and farming along with burning of trees for stove fuel will decimate forests. And disease bearing insects will multiply. Even if our carbon emissions stop rising in the next decade, most of these impacts are already inevitable.

Long suffering Central Americans, especially in Nicaragua and Honduras, will live with some of the most severe consequences of our addiction to burning fossil fuels for energy. And they still need our help as they struggle to achieve a better quality of life for themselves.

Friday, August 26, 2016

A politician's lot is not a happy one

Aside from being an out of control sex addict, Anthony Weiner comes across in this film as the perfect candidate. He wanted the job of Mayor of New York City and he was willing to do whatever it took to try to win it. If you work in campaigns, that is what you want in a candidate -- a person who really believes that they are God's gift to the office being contested and who will to carry on day and night, despite exhaustion and personal indignities, to prevail. After all, if you are going to work as hard as staff works on a campaign, you might as well go all in.

If you are at all interested in campaigns, Weiner is a delight. Put aside for the moment that you are watching a man who destroyed his wife's dignity for a cheap ego high, and look at it as what running for office is really like. The guy had to make himself appear the answer to the discontents of a great, complex city and he was doing a decent job at it. At the same time, he rather successfully made his run for office seems the best party around in a town where parties are readily available. Footage of Weiner in the LGBT parade and in some kind of Caribbean festival is a joy.

But by lying to the press about his readily uncovered enthusiasm for texting pictures of his dick to admiring women, Weiner sabotaged his grand effort. His crumbling image probably made it possible for a much more creditable progressive, Bill de Blassio ,to win the job of mayor and take a run at some genuine progressive reforms.

Getting serious, the film highlights the disconnect that our electoral system almost ensures between the traits needed to win an election -- egotism and obsessive tenacity -- and the traits need to practice democratic governance -- self-restraint, wisdom, and humility.

When I think about the gulf between the necessary skill sets for running for office and exercising office, I am amazed that we ever select leaders who are more than needy egotists. Yet not infrequently, those who serve in public office do serve. Let's appreciate any who remember they are there for the common good. It's not an easy role.
***
There seems to be a current controversy over whether Huma Abedin, Weiner's put upon wife, really agreed to the making of this amazing film, but the documentary leaves no doubt that she must have been a willing subject.

Friday cat blogging


This is Anthony Weiner's cat from the film, Weiner. The animal is a bit player in the subject of my next post, which reacts to the documentary.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

On being a certain sort of woman


Maybe it is something about having a woman on the verge of winning the presidency, but I find myself encountering bold discussions of the realities of women's lives with a frequency not prominent for awhile. Or maybe I'm just paying more attention ...

Kristi Coulter offers up a message that is the antithesis of the battered bumpersticker above. Recently having got sober, she calls it as she has lived it as an accomplished young professional.

... And there’s no easy way to be a woman, because, as you may have noticed, there’s no acceptable way to be a woman. And if there’s no acceptable way to be the thing you are, then maybe you drink a little. Or a lot.

... A woman with a single-malt scotch is bold and discerning and might fire you from her life if you fuck with her. A woman with a PBR is a Cool Girl who will not be shamed for belching. A woman drinking MommyJuice wine is saying she’s more than the unpaid labor she gave birth to. The things women drink are signifiers for free time and self-care and conversation — you know, luxuries we can’t afford.

... Is it really that hard, being a First World woman? Is it really so tough to have the career and the spouse and the pets and the herb garden and the core strengthening and the oh-I-just-woke-up-like-this makeup and the face injections and the Uber driver who might possibly be a rapist? Is it so hard to work 10 hours for your rightful 77 percent of a salary, walk home past a drunk who invites you to suck his cock, and turn on the TV to hear the men who run this country talk about protecting you from abortion regret by forcing you to grow children inside your body?

... Maybe women are so busy faking it — to be more like a man at work, more like a porn star in bed, more like 30 at 50 — that we don’t trust our natural responses anymore. Maybe all that wine is an Instagram filter for our own lives, so we don’t see how sallow and cracked they’ve become.

This is absolutely go-read-the-whole-thing writing.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Boston politics

Passed through Logan Airport yesterday. Nice to see that Bostonians have their attention focused on the unifying parochial injustice.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Campaign mechanics


This long, painful and yet still significant political season has begun to throw off accounts of developing campaign tactics that should be of great interest to anyone who cares about political mechanics.

First up, Sasha Issenberg, author of The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns, writing at Bloomberg Politics. He points out that the Clinton campaign is using a different organizational structure than past presidential field campaigns, grouping target states not by geography, but by similar demographics and similar campaign challenges. In particular, they seem to be throwing resources at one of the hardest problems in contemporary electoral tactics: how to "get out the vote" when increasing numbers of ballots are cast before Election Day.

The reorganization reflects the fact that the calendar, rather than the map, has been growing ever more important. More than one-quarter of Americans who voted in 2012 did so in ways other than visiting a polling place on Election Day, according to data compiled by University of Florida political scientist Michael P. McDonald.

The share of early voters was significantly higher in several key battlegrounds. In Nevada, for example, nearly twice as many 2012 voters cast ballots at in-person early-vote locations than on election day itself. (Another 8 percent of the total electorate voted by mail-in absentee ballot.) In Florida and North Carolina, the early-voting and Election Day electorates were split about evenly.

“You have to run a significantly different campaign—in terms of timing, number of appearances, your paid spend,” said David Plouffe, manager of Obama’s 2008 campaign and an informal adviser to Clinton’s. “For many people in the campaign that are in early-vote states you don’t care about Election Day.”

Making sure you are targeting your turnout resources on people who you want to vote who have not yet voted is a data heavy enterprise. It does no good to be door knocking and calling people who have already voted; you have to reach out to the right targets. This sort of painstaking work can add a point or two to the candidate's total, but organizing to make it happen involves the choice to invest people power and expense in getting it done over a period of several months. Apparently the Clinton campaign is doing just that.

Issenberg further discussed the campaign tactics he observes this year with Jim Tankersley at the Washington Post. He's very complimentary about the Clinton effort:

I've spent a lot of time reporting on how data-driven innovations play out in the field — how campaigns figure out which doors to knock on, which phones to call, etc. What we're seeing in Hillary's Brooklyn headquarters is, in essence, the trickle-up effect of all those innovations: the midlevel corporate structure rearranging itself to better reflect what's going on at ground level in the field.

To me that reflects an institution that is doing a good job of thinking holistically about these innovations: not just as a series of discrete tools, but rethinking the broader structure of this billion-dollar corporation so that its tools are being deployed more efficiently.

For a guy whose expertise is in modern data intensive campaigning, he's quite interesting about what Trump's campaign is up to. Senior Republicans complain that the real estate mogul is hurting the party by not developing a field operation that would enhance their voter data through its contacts. Party voter files are cumulative edifices, each campaign incrementally increasing the quality of what the file shows about supporters. Trump is doing none of this.

Trump is very much a throwback to that old mass-media world — this is a guy who seems to prize being on the cover of Time or featured in "60 Minutes" above anything else — but has also decided to run for president on the cheap. ...

... I'll say that I think Trump has a more coherent worldview about campaigns than many politicians, and his tactics actually do a pretty good job of reflecting his strategic assumptions. He considers campaigns to be purely a candidate-driven, mass-media exercise. One could also say, perhaps less charitably, that he sees his candidacy as an extension of the mechanism of becoming a celebrity: It's about using television to get in front of as large an audience as possible to get as many people as you can to like you. Even as his campaign has grown and changed, he has been remarkably disciplined at not spending much time or money on anything that doesn't reflect that approach.

Now I think that dramatically fails to appreciate the extent to which campaigns are not just about changing people's opinions to get them to like you. Now more than ever, thanks to partisan polarization, campaigns are about modifying the behavior of people who already like you — getting the unregistered to register, mobilizing infrequent voters to turn out. That is best done through targeted communications that don't involve the candidate.

Issenberg doesn't think Trump's vision of a campaign can succeed, but it is interesting to see the yellow-headed blowhard credited with coherence.

Meanwhile, Brian Beutler at the New Republic has published excerpts from an interview with Becky Bond who was part of the team managing Bernie Sander's field campaign in the primary. She describes what you can do with contemporary technology in the seldom experienced situation in which legions of volunteers take the project into their own hands.

We had a lot of people across the country willing to volunteer, but we didn’t have a lot of money in the early days. So we said, “What if we use all these consumer technologies—like Slack and Google apps—to turn volunteers into the staff of the campaign?” We built a virtual call center that allowed volunteers to organize their own phone banks and call Bernie supporters in key states.

Was this a system you devised on the fly?

It started with what we were using to organize ourselves in the office. We learned that even if people didn’t understand how to use Slack, they wanted Bernie to win so much that they were willing to go outside their comfort zone, learn a new technology, and teach it to others.

Did it work?

We gained so many volunteers, we needed to give them other things to do—an amazing challenge to have. In Iowa, the campaign was using text messaging to communicate with volunteers, and we said, “Hey, we can use that at a huge scale.” That’s how we grew the Text for Bernie program to organize millions of supporters. At its height, we had over a thousand volunteers each texting 100 to 200 Bernie voters on election days.

It takes a lot of very committed, inspired people to make this work -- and the Bernie campaign's results suggest it works best in smaller settings in caucus states where a devoted core can have a maximum impact. Time will tell what can be transferred to more humdrum, but essential, campaigns to elect merely "good enough" candidates to local, state and Congressional office. That's what it is going to take if the Bernie eruption is to leave the mark it aims for.

The Beutler interview with Bond is derived from a fascinating attached podcast which is a much deeper dive into Bernie's field organizing.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Martha's Vineyard tick politics

Ticks and tick-borne illnesses are big concerns around this island and in this town that I'm visiting.

Along with other tick-borne diseases, Lyme is endemic to the region, with Massachusetts having among the highest rates in the country — 3,830 confirmed cases in 2014, down from 4,028 in 2009. Island towns have among the highest rates in the state, with Chilmark topping the list. And the actual numbers could be much higher, in part because the only official diagnosis — a red bull’s-eye rash at the point of infection — often doesn’t appear, and lab tests may come back negative either way.

Because New England boasts a culture of popular political participation, ticks and their ill effects have become political issues as well.

Legislators from across the state overcame Republican Governor Charlie Baker's veto in July, enacting a measure almost unanimously which requires insurers to cover long term treatments for Lyme disease. Baker, a former health insurance executive, belongs to a medical camp that questions the science behind long term treatment with antibiotics. But constituents demanded action and won this.

Perhaps more generally usefully, the Martha's Vineyard Boards of Health have been studying the tick situation. The Island’s unofficial tick czar, biologist Richard Johnson, has been making the rounds this summer, encouraging practical steps to avoid bites; permethrin-soaked clothing, tucking pants into socks, and careful self inspection rank high.

But he is also gently trying to prepare the way for an intervention guaranteed to set off a political kerfuffle. The life cycle of ticks (Martha's Vineyard hosts three disease bearing varieties) requires eggs to hatch as nymphs, then feeding on the blood of rodents and passing deer, before maturing in the leaf cover of forests over a winter, and then feasting on any large passing mammal, such as an occasional human but more often, again, on deer. Deer don't get tick-borne illnesses, but people do. The study Johnson works with suggests the way to reduce the tick danger is clear cut: Martha's Vineyard needs to cull the deer population.

Johnson describes the island as a perfect human-created deer breeding habitat; thickly forested areas are gone, while every new home creates open clearings where deer like to feed. Where once the island supported less than a thousand deer, a new survey suggests today there are 5000.

So how to reduce the deer numbers? All Johnson's suggestions are potentially politically fraught.
  • Extend legal deer hunting and bring in experienced hunters.
  • Allow hunting on more private land.
  • And legalize and facilitate distribution of venison to Island food pantries.
Can Island towns agree to such measures which require adjustments to their current culture? It will probably take a lot of discussion, but most everyone understands the risks of the endemic tick-borne illnesses. Fortunately, that New England institution, the town meeting, thrives here, so the talking will be intense.
***
I don't think anyone here is suggesting what Moises Velasquez-Manoff proposed in the NY Times: bring back cougars! The Island has had an occasional coyote sighting, but has as yet no established, deer-reducing, population of these wild carnivores. If they arrived, farmers with livestock would be up in arms.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Analytical potential not fulfilled

Robert P. Jone is the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). PRRI is a a polling shop which interrogates large samples about religion. In consequence, Jones has all sorts of interesting data about U.S. religiosity. But the book he's made of this -- The End of White Christian America -- is an analytical mess.

The book's title is misleading. As a student of religion, he should have known better than to replicate the facile U.S. journalistic convention that "Christian" means "Protestant." His subject is white-mainline Protestant-affiliated and white Evangelical-affiliated Christians. The U.S. does have a lot of white Protestants. But there are something like 48 million white Catholics in the U.S. as well as a goodly number of Mormons, Eastern Orthodox, and other believers with Christian ancestry like the Friends who rank nowhere in his discussion.

Moreover, for much of the book, the significant descriptive adjective is "white," not "Christian." The Black Church (as Protestant as can be) and Latino Catholic and Latino Protestant churches are not fading away. What's fading away is a white monopoly on national religious hegemony; this trajectory among our religious communities mirrors rather than leads the national demographic transition.

Jones does bring out the old chestnut that Sunday morning is the most segregated moment of the week -- that remains true. But his argument fails to support the idea that white U.S. Protestant Christianity's decline is a consequence of failing to integrate with believers of other colors. It may be true that contemporary "nones" -- the growing category of those without a religious affiliation -- don't feel at ease making a mono-color institution their homeplace, but that's not the data he brings out here. White Protestantism is fading because 1) white people are no longer the only people and 2) many young whites don't see much inspiration in it, looking to other traditions or becoming comfortable identifying as "spiritual but not religious."

And about those "nones" -- it's not clear to me that the U.S. has always been a hyper-religious country, however much notions formed by a particular mid-20th century landscape might claim it was. All those 19th century westward pushing frontier settlers were hardly a faith-filled bunch. The brawling, licentious frontier looked like sordid missionary territory to Eastern churchmen. And those "religious leaders" never quite implanted their "civilizing" influence. It is no accident that the Left Coast is the least religious terrain in the nation.

What Jones never tackles is how class status meshes with the religious landscape he describes.

This might be a better book if Jones had been willing to go there. The mid-20th century Protestant picture is fairly simple, although anyone can bring up isolated counter-examples. Rich and upper middle class white people, if of solid social standing, were mostly mainline Protestants. In fact, if their fortunes rose, they jumped from merely Protestant to "higher" denominations. Lower middle class and working class white people who were Protestants were evangelicals, trending off into Pentecostalism and unaffiliated assemblages. If they were segregationist, and many were, many jumped out of broad denominations like the Southern Baptists into idiosyncratic local evangelical congregations.

The class status of all these groups has been radically unsettled by racial, demographic and economic changes since the 1950s and '60s. No wonder the religious denominations so securely anchored in that landscape are unmoored and waning. For that matter, and here I agree with Jones, no wonder there's such a market for Trumpian nostalgia among some whites.

Someone with a deeper historical and sociological perspective could make a far better book from the data Jones swims among. I look forward to it.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Saturday scenery: Fungi season

This week the Martha's Vineyard 'shrooms have been thrusting up along the paths.

They are hardy critters. Something with legs may have nibbled at that one.

This one seems to make its own feathery form.

Running rooty trails, I'm always looking down for obstacles, so I'm particularly aware of the emergence of the fungi.

They don't last long.

In less than a week, this one had become a landing spot for lichen off the overhanging trees.


Friday, August 19, 2016

Update on Caster Semenya's quest for 800 meter gold


Last Wednesday the South African runner qualified comfortably for the final in the Olympic 800 meter race, her specialty. I continue to marvel at the difference in tone from major media since she first broke through in international track in 2009, dominating as an 18-year-old. Back then, too many commentators made her a tabloid freak. This year, Jere Longman in the New York Times attempts an understanding perspective on the issues raised by her suspected hyperandrogenic body. So what if she simply has naturally higher level of the hormone testosterone than most other women? The Court of Arbitration for Sport realized it could not say.

Did elevated testosterone provide women with a 1 percent competitive advantage? Three percent? More? Available science could not say, the court ruled. It gave the I.A.A.F. two years to try to discern that advantage. The ruling was based on the case of Dutee Chand, a sprinter from India.

The court ruling was the correct one.

As the arbitration panel noted, science has not conclusively shown that elevated testosterone provides women with more of a significant competitive edge than factors like nutrition, access to coaching and training facilities, and other genetic and biological variations.

All Olympians have some exceptional traits. That is why they are elite athletes. A level playing field for everyone remains elusive, perhaps unattainable.

... In a sport once dominated by white Europeans, said Madeleine Pape of Australia, who competed against Semenya in the 2009 world championships, women who have fought so hard for the right to compete and for sustainable financial support can feel threatened by the rising success of a faster competitor. Especially, Pape said, if that athlete is non-gender-conforming and is married to another woman, as Semenya is.

In truth, [women's marathon world record holder Paula] Radcliffe is more of an outlier than Semenya. Radcliffe’s marathon record of 2 hours 15 minutes 25 seconds is about 10 percent slower than the fastest men’s time of 2:02:57. Meanwhile, Semenya’s best performance at 800 meters of 1 minute 55.33 seconds, which is not the world record, is about 12 percent slower than the men’s record of 1:40.91. ...

I remember when women had to fight to be allowed to compete in races longer than sprint distances in the Olympics; the years when women running hard and far was a novelty weren't so long ago. The 800 meter distance was not added to the meet until 1960; longer races had to wait another couple of decades. As distances were added to major track meets, records fell. While men will almost always have a muscle advantage, there is no reason to think that women's records can't fall further, though that may take an athlete with a rare mix of genetics, training, and physical and emotional grit.

I'll be rooting for Semenya to make history in Rio on Saturday night, 8:15 EDT. I'll also be rooting for a world that can appreciate her unique abilities and, whether she wins or loses, marvel at her with respect and grace.

Friday cat blogging

Having one of his humans with him after an absence -- not this human -- is not enough to reduce Morty's resentment at being left behind. Presumably he'll warm up when he is good and ready ...

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Lest we think voter suppression only happens in the South ...


Memorial to Hmong service in Fresno, CA. Source.
From a new report by Leah Aden of the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Educational Fund on tactics used to prevent voting by citizens of color:

CALIFORNIA
Local Level:
In June 2016, in Siskiyou County, the Sheriff visited Hmong property owners and allegedly questioned them about their voter registration status and told those owners that they were believed to have registered illegally and could be arrested if they tried to cast a ballot.

Because Hmong people live in a rural area of the County, their property is given a parcel number rather than a street address, which was why the voter registrations were allegedly called into question. In California, parcel numbers can be used when registering to vote. Purportedly, while registrations of new Hmong voters were allegedly scrutinized, those of white property owners in the same area who also used parcel numbers were not.

Hmong people first came to the U.S. after working with our military in Vietnam against the Communist victors. Early immigrants often worked in agriculture as they had in southeast Asia, though today there are significant Hmong populations in U.S. cities.

Blog pause for reflection

Could the unthinkable have arrived? Could Donald Trump have become simply boring?

Sure, this evil clown is still far too close to power to let down our guard. He's still an inciter of racial hatred. He nourishes bigotry and feeds ignorance daily. He must not become President.

But it sure looks as if he won't. A presidential season which might have been expected to be a cliff-hanger is being made a snoozer by a theatrical bozo. You can say this for Trump: he delivers the unexpected.

Other facets of the political to-and-fro should take center stage for me henceforth. Let's see if I can hold to that.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

For the record: SFPOA really wants some executions

It should be no surprise that Dolores Huerta is on the opposite side from the guys who nearly killed her.

This is almost a "dog bites man" tale, but as California lurches toward an election in which we'll be asked to vote to either expedite (Prop. 65) or end (Prop. 62) the death penalty, it seems worth highlighting this SF Weekly story from June 2016.

The San Francisco police union tossed $60,000 into the pot to kill more quickly way back on September 11, 2015.

Perhaps oddly, the POA cut the check before the POA membership officially voted to support the bill, which it did this spring, according to the POA Journal, the organization's newspaper.

For that matter, the POA donated to the campaign even before there was a campaign — the language of the bill wasn't submitted to the state until October, according to Ballotpedia. 

It's been a great frustration to the cop union that no one has been sentenced to death (as opposed to shot by the police) in the city since the early 1990s. Former D.A. and present state Attorney General and Senate candidate Kamala Harris refused to ask death for a cop killer in 2004. In her state job, Harris is trying to move several mentally ill inmates off death row.

In November, Californians once again will have the chance to replace death sentences with life without parole. It will be a crazy long ballot with 17 state initiatives. But it will be worth working all the way through it to YES on 62 (end executions) and NO on 65 (kill 'em quicker.)

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

More on the hawkishness of Hillary Clinton

We may see less of this than we fear.
Harvard Professor Stephen Walt is a scholar of international relations who finds reason to hope that U.S. imperial pretensions have exhausted their run:
... assuming Trump loses, are we stuck with the same strategy of liberal hegemony that has performed so poorly for the past 25 years? Hillary Clinton and her vast team of advisors are strongly committed to the familiar nostrums about America’s “indispensable” role, and her administration may keep trying to roll the stone uphill and remake the world in America’s image. Indeed, some insiders think she’ll be quick to abandon Obama’s somewhat more cautious attitude and take a more interventionist approach to trouble spots like Syria.

Maybe, but I’m not so sure. The days when the United States could manage most of the globe simultaneously are behind us; the federal budget will be tight no matter who wins; China is getting stronger and more ambitious; and the next president will have to make some hard choices and set priorities among Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and other global issues. You might also recall that former president and potential first gentleman Bill Clinton was exceedingly cautious about using military force — and especially U.S. ground troops — and he once told aide George Stephanopoulos that “Americans are basically isolationist.” That insight is even truer today: Because the United States presently faces no existential threats, public support for a costly foreign policy remains paper-thin. Clinton may try to run the world as her predecessors have, but she’ll have to try to do it on the cheap.

So even if Trump goes down in a resounding defeat and a President Hillary Clinton enters the Oval Office accompanied by a phalanx of liberal interventionists and unrepentant neoconservatives, I wouldn’t be all that surprised if she behaves with more restraint than her hawkish past might suggest.
That strange book, The Clinton Tapes, does bear out the image of Bill Clinton as a cautious commander in chief.

And reality is stubborn; U.S. rulers can no longer even pretend to make their own.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Stupid stuff and other accidents of empire

Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the twilight struggle over American Power by New York Times journalist Mark Landler attempts a provocative inquiry into the foreign policies and occasional conflicts between our current president and his likely successor. I just wish it was more insightful.

Instead, there's lots of the sort of narrative of events that filled Landler's days as the State Department beat reporter following Secretary of State Clinton about, but not much meaning drawn from this episodic material.

An excursion into the different upbringings of the two protagonists is both a rehash of well-plowed terrain -- and unconvincing as explanatory of their quite minor policy differences.

Landler, while flying along on one of Obama's foreign trips, seems to have been on the receiving end of an Obama complaint about foreign policy journalism which probably led to his most trenchant statement of his policy premises:
The impromptu visit [to the rear of the plane] was meant to set the press straight about our coverage ... Obama viewed it as shallow, mistaking prudence for fecklessness, pragmatism for lack of ambition.

... "I can sum up my foreign policy in one phrase," Obama said, pausing a beat for his punch line. "Don't do stupid shit."

American's problems, he said stemmed not from doing too little but too much, from overreach rather than inaction. ...in a world of unending strife and unreliable despotic leaders, hope for more than that was simply not realistic. In such a world, Obama was content to hit singles and doubles, hewing to his foreign policy version of the Hippocratic oath.
For the sake of Landler's premise, Clinton must have thought differently, and so he reports her later retort:
"Great nations need organizing principles," she said when she was asked in the summer of 2014 if Obama's phrase held any lessons for her. "'Don't do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle."
Yet if the book consistently suggests anything, it is that both Obama and Clinton were more driven by accidents and events they did not control, rather than being masters of world affairs. Most of Obama's voters had elected him to be a manager of strategic retreat -- to extricate them from confusions and conflicts in which they saw only costs, not necessity. So it is not surprising that during most of his early tenure, coinciding with Clinton's stint at State, Obama looks in retrospect like articulate flotsam in the world ocean. Friends and enemies, domestic and foreign, drove his actions. Fearful of domestic reaction to any successful terrorist incident, he adopted much of the Bush program of "covert wars," drones, Navy SEALS and all that. Clinton bobbed along with him.
Clinton and Obama, it must be said, agreed more than they disagreed. Both shunned the unilateralism of the Bush years. ... [Perennial foreign policy honcho] Dennis Ross ... said "It's not that she's quick to use force, but her basic instincts are governed more by the uses of hard power."
They shared the fiasco, and fall out, from their incursion into Libya. Landler makes the suggestion that Clinton's enthusiasm for bombing and invading may be a product of watching Bill Clinton's relatively successful adventures in Serbia and Kosovo -- imperial exploits which barely penetrated the U.S. national consciousness. Vietnam and Iraq remained the enduring, searing, reference points.

After reelection and Clinton's departure in 2013, Obama has carried through some bold initiatives, re-setting relations with Cuba and Iran while ignoring Israeli tantrums, but still being careful and cautious as much as domestic politics would allow. She may have set the stage for these Obama policies, but they were not her show.

Landler's book is downright offensive in omitting any discussion of Hillary Clinton's airy approval of the coup in Honduras which deposed President Manuel Zelaya in favor of pro-U.S. oligarchs and generals. These paragons have returned that country to its status as a murderous narco-state. In Landler's telling, the deposed Zelaya is a figure of fun, whose overthrow is dismissed as sending him packing "wearing only his pajamas." If Landler is echoing the attitudes of Clinton's State Department, and he probably is, a President Clinton will find she has trouble ahead from Latin American states that have come to demand more respect than they got in Bill's day. She needs to devote some of her legendarily diligent study time to getting up to speed about our southern neighbors.

Commentary on this book has focused on Landler's chapter on Clinton's enthusiasm for generals. She apparently likes a man in uniform, especially if they can share a stiff drink after work. The U.S. military is currently both gun-shy after being handing their asses by Afghan peasants and Iraqi insurgents, yet also driven to expand and enlarge its mission to justify its existence. If Hillary chooses to go with their flow, and they take U.S. casualties, look for her to have a one term presidency. On the other hand, the experience of both Obama and Clinton suggests that we exaggerate when we think of U.S. presidents as completely free actors.

The struggle of people in this country who care about the lives of people all over the world will be to stimulate Clinton's caution. Since the limits of U.S. power are real, she too will experience limits. Stupid stuff has a way of remaining stupid.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

A rising of the single women

Rebecca Traister, writing at New York Magazine, has been offering commentary from a feminist perspective on Hillary Clinton's campaign odyssey. Even when I cannot be as enthusiastic as she is, I find her writing unequaled in its sensitive, insightful grasp of what it means to be "first woman." For example:

The apparent lack of trust in Clinton reflects that there is perhaps no politician who has suffered more for having been a wife. Yes, by many measures, Clinton’s role as First Lady launched her political career. But could there be any grimmer emblem of the tolls of the traditional marriage than the fact that Hillary is now picking up the tab for a decade of her party’s policies during which she was not an elected official but a spouse?

The 1990s, after all, was the decade in which women began altering marriage patterns dramatically, threateningly. (Remember Dan Quayle berating Murphy Brown?) So much of the compromised legislation enacted in that period was overdetermined by anxieties about changing gender roles, including the odious reform of welfare, which on the one hand treated all women as workers yet failed to provide them with support and sent many of them deeper into poverty. ...

Traister routinely sets her understanding of the strengths and limitations of Clinton's run in the context of her understanding of the history of women in this country.

Her new book, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, is a history of a large subset of women, plus a snapshot of the lives of 70 (straight) interviewees on what the solo condition means to them.

This book could not have been written until a critical mass of women living outside of marriage could, more and less well, support themselves (and sometimes children). She points out that, in 2009, for the first time, "the proportion of U.S. women who were married dropped below 50 percent." The history chapters largely struck me as a contemporary rehash of what feminist historians have been unearthing for the several decades.

But the snapshots of single women today are thoughtful and discerning. Traitor strove for some race, some class, and considerable geographical diversity, though she is certain to get dinged for seeming to apprehend best professional class singles between 20-35 in cities -- her own peeps. Still she has done the work to contextualize her own kind and there are many such women. I can recommend this journalist effort, most especially to Traister's age peers.

In the context of the election, single women -- of all races and all classes -- are more than 25 percent of electorate and they largely vote Democratic. They will be key to electing Hillary Clinton. Here's how Traister describes the moment:

This election is a referendum on the existence and civic participation of Americans who are not white men — as voters, as citizens, as workers, as members of the military, as presidents.

... Clinton, like Obama before her, isn’t carrying just her own baggage, but will stand in as the symbolic target for those whose fury at increased female autonomy has been building. In a nation where women who were not permitted to cast votes still live and breathe, her campaign, as Ms. Clinton has herself declared in other contexts, is living history. If she wins, she — and we — will be forced to do battle with this rising, chilling, ever more open threat from those who feel enraged that their country is no longer their own.


Saturday, August 13, 2016

Saturday scenes and scenery: Vineyard politicking

Walter Shapiro reports that Martha's Vineyard Island residents have become blasé about Presidential vacations in an interesting look at the culture of the place. From my observations, that's true, though there are occasional signs, like this one. This may be in part because the Prez, his entourage, and the Secret Service have learned how to be more low key. A few years ago they closed roads, stuck unhappy local cops in cruisers in the woods, and buzzed the forests with helicopters. None of that this year, that I've seen.

Obama fans are enjoying one last chance to display their mementos.

Naturally, many island residents are looking forward, not backward. Although, in the Massachusetts primary on March 3, Donald Trump swept the Republican vote here, taking 48.4 percent, his hundreds of votes were a tiny fraction of the thousands of votes cast on the Democratic side. Bernie Sanders prevailed in this county with 54 percent.

The Clintons too are experienced and familiar visitors to the island. If Hillary wins, the Secret Service would probably love to continue the tradition of Presidential vacations in this relatively secure venue.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Peak Trump: what matters?

Earlier this week I suggested to a friend that we'd passed "Peak Trump." The rest of the week has confirmed this sense. The polling aggregate maps look overwhelming; Hillary Clinton is ahead everywhere she should be and even where she shouldn't be, as in Arizona and Georgia. The results of the November election aren't likely to be quite that overwhelming for the Democrat, but they could be.

Via 538.
So how did Trump go in three weeks from mortal threat to the Republic to a noisy, but emasculated, clown?
  • Plenty of the credit goes to the phony-baloney mogul himself. He simply stayed in character and evidently flunked the test of basic legitimacy that voters pose to a potential President. From a convention pitch that he alone could save us, to trashing the NATO alliance while asking Russia's Putin to hack his opponent, through picking a fight with the parents of an deceased Muslim Army captain, to suggesting that Clinton should encounter "Second Amendment remedies" and that Obama created ISIS -- the guy has shown himself unfit to a majority.
  • Meanwhile, elites piled on to drive the narrative of Trump's unfitness. They included the usual Democratic pols, of course. A president whose approval rating is sitting at +6.5 %, the highest point since his own re-election. But also the intellectual, academic, policy and security honchos. And, unlike during the Republican primaries, mainstream media drove home the message about the monster they helped create.

    Those of us who want a better country that is less in thrall to those elites should take note: when they put their minds and what passes for hearts into it, they can stomp insurgencies quickly and brutally. Better make sure we got our ducks lined up when we go up against them.
  • But although after November 8 we won't have Donald Trump to worry about (his after-performance will probably only serve to keep us on our toes about authoritarianism), the conditions that paved the way for Trump will still fester. Glenn Greenwald called this out:
    The reason why Brexit resonated and Trump resonated isn’t that people are too stupid to understand the arguments. The reason they resonated is that people have been so fucked by the prevailing order in such deep and fundamental and enduring ways that they can’t imagine that anything is worse than preservation of the status quo. You have this huge portion of the populace in both the U.K. and the US that is so angry and so helpless that they view exploding things without any idea of what the resulting debris is going to be to be preferable to having things continue, and the people they view as having done this to them to continue in power. That is a really serious and dangerous and not completely invalid perception that a lot of people who spend their days scorning Trump and his supporters or Brexit played a great deal in creating.
  • Greenwald is right that this condition is global. The economist Dani Rodrik argues persuasively that, in the absence of a left force and left program that might make our economies livable for the majority, nationalism and racism will thrive.
    Absent such a response again, the field will be left wide open for populists and far-right groups, who will lead the world – as they always have – to deeper division and more frequent conflict.
  • Meanwhile, even if the Trump monster is collapsing, the election remains an arena for tactical struggle. As the wise Black Lives Matter activist Alicia Garza has explained:
    ... if and when we choose to use the power of the vote, it's very much about choosing the terrain on which we want to fight in order to win [our] vision. ... there is diversity in the movement about what tactics we use. My personal push would be we need to use all of them. ...
    A president is not a messiah, but a president who knows she owes her ascendancy to people of color and young people is a potential asset to a movement seeking to force deep changes. She'll take reminding.
  • And beyond the presidential contest, who is elected as Senators, Congresscritters and state officials matters. Hillary Clinton will be a much better president if she is accompanied by a strong Democratic majority in the Senate (possible), has a Democratic majority in the House of Representative (less likely but not impossible thanks to the repulsive Donald), and Dem majorities in as many state offices as possible. This last could make the difference between 4 or 5 million people having access or not to health insurance; wherever there are Democratic governors, Medicaid has been extended to poor people to whom Republicans deny it. That sort of thing should matter a lot to those of us who don't worry about access to health insurance.
Matters seems to be the word for the year.

Friday cat blogging

Morty is keeping an eye out for any interlopers.  He has had visitors.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Perenial Olympic rehash

At the Guardian, Lindy West offers a solid explainer: How to talk about female Olympians without being a regressive creep.

As ever, this year’s Olympics – an international bacchanal of physical perfection and triumphant will swaddled in human rights abuses and environmental catastrophe – are providing fuel for public delight and scorn in abundance. Making a strong showing in the “scorn” category already is the press, which, less than a week in, has managed to insult, demean and erase female athletes in a cornucopia of bungles.

... The Olympics offer up women’s bodies for public scrutiny on a massive scale, but to surprisingly constructive effect, relatively speaking: It’s one of the only hit TV shows that celebrates female strength, skill and excellence without sexualising female existence. ...

... I’ve put together a quick and easy template for your basic reporting needs (cribbed and adapted from a piece I wrote about coverage of female politicians in 2014, because you could basically have this conversation about any industry, and I do):

NEWS REPORT: [Female Athlete] did [sports] today. [Describe sports.] THE END. Sportswriting accomplished!

Solid advice that.

Meanwhile, via Grist, there's this cheery item. Enjoy.

For all the controversy over the Games’ hefty price tag, past Olympics have brought some marked improvement to cities’ transit and livability — and some downsides, too.

I recall seeing the result on the waterfront in Barcelona. Let's hope Rio benefits as well, though you probably need at least a center-left government, if not urban communists, to avoid the worst.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Is it really this bad? Perhaps.

When a book completely reinforces all my preconceptions, I have to wonder whether, just perhaps, the author has missed something. Is there some other way to look at this material?

That's how I felt when I read Peggy Orenstein's Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape. As her daughter came into adolescence, this feminist writer decided to find out what sex meant to her generation. She interviewed some 70 young women between the ages of 15 and 20 and reports what they said.

What they told her reads for me as if very little has changed since the mid-60s when it comes to young women feeling empowered and happy about their sexual desires. Oh, there are obvious differences: porn in many guises is everywhere and the poor things think they have to shave their pubic hair to be attractive. But the underlying dynamic seem to work just as it did when I was young: girls believe they must put out in order to get or keep the attention of young males -- and young males think they have a natural right to have girls provide them with sexual pleasure. Neither partner much gives a damn about, or even expects, girls' pleasure.

Some snippets from this book:

So what, I asked [a young woman named] Sam, was today's version of 'the bases'?

..."Well, first base would be kissing, ... second base would be a hand job for a guy and fingering the girl... And third base would be oral."

"Both ways?" I asked.

Sam laughed ... "For the guy ... Girls don't get oral sex ... For us, oral sex is not a big deal. Everyone does it."

Orenstein points out that giving blow jobs can and does pass around STDs among teens, leading to rising rates of gonorrhea and herpes.

Boys, incidentally, far and away, said the number one reason they engaged in oral sex was for physical pleasure.

... particularly for girls, giving oral sex was also seen as a path to popularity. Intercourse could bring stigma, turn you into a "slut"; fellatio, at least under certain circumstances, conferred the right sort of reputation. "Oral sex is like money or some kind of currency," Sam explained. "it's how you make friends with popular guys ..."

[A college freshman named Anna elucidated:] "Sometimes a girl will give a guy a blow job at the end of a night because she doesn't want to have sex with him and he expects to be satisfied. So if I want him to leave and I don't want anything to happen ..."

Orenstein does report that under some circumstances, giving oral sex offers young women a feeling of power.

"I guess I like that feeling of 'Ha! You can't get this from anyone else. I am in control here!' You knew they really, really wanted it and you could be like, 'No! No!' and they'd be like, 'Please! Please!' Because they were so desperate. That part's kind of fun. But it's definitely not the physical side of it, because that's so gross and it really hurts my throat. I mean, it's sort of fun getting in the rhythm of it. But it is never fun fun."

Well at least she gets one sort of sexual pleasure. I would wish she were able to enjoy sex a little more whole-heartedly.

These are young women who have grown up expecting equality with boys. They often excel as much or more than their male peers in school and intend to undertake difficult career paths. So Orenstein challenged them:

What if, rather that blow jobs, guys were expecting girls to, say, fetch them lattes from Starbucks? Would the girls be so compliant?

Sam laughed when I asked her that. "Well, a latte costs money..."

"Okay," I said. "Pretend it was free. Let's say guys expected you to keep getting them cups of water from the kitchen whenever you were alone. Would you be so willing? And would you mind that they never offered to bring you one in return?"

Sam laughed again. "Well, if you put it that way ..."

Obviously these young women aren't "putting it that way."

Orenstein theorizes that, like generations past, these girls have internalized a sense that their genitals are "icky". Most don't masturbate, so they know little more about their bodies than the boys do. For some, "absence of pain" is about all they expect from a boyfriend.

The book ends with an indictment of most sex education. Orenstein asks: can't we just teach both sexes that sex is for their pleasure and to enable intimacy between equal partners? The Dutch apparently do, according to her research.

But in the land of the religious right, "abstinence-only," and prurient sexist adults, that's apparently not yet possible.

Or is there more to this story? This childless old lesbian can't claim to know.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Gentrification, Martha's Vineyard style


One Big Home -- Trailer on Vimeo.

Thomas Bena's One Big Home was shown at the town of Chilmark Community Center last night. It is a nuanced story of how a plurality of Chilmark residents came to vote to limit the allowable size of future homes in this Martha's Vineyard community.

For context, yes -- Chilmark is where the Prez is taking his summer vacation.

The Vineyard's militant environmentalism can seem affected. After all, though it is bad form here to flaunt wealth, an awful lot of these oh-so-casual people at the farmers' markets and art galleries are gazillionaires.

But, as a leader of the Wampanoag tribe remarks in the film, there is something magical about the land here -- all the rich white interlopers may not know what it is, but he is confident they feel it.

In Chilmark, gentrification takes the form of affluent newcomers building McMansion trophy homes with over 10,000 square feet of living space, home movie theaters, tennis courts and pools, all of which they occupy only a month or so a year. The building boom makes steady employment for construction workers, contractors, and builders; supports a small professional stratum of architects, bureaucrats and middle-class service providers; and shocks and horrifies longtime residents who choose life on the island because they seek a less ostentatious life in a bucolic setting. Some people are born in this lovely place, but they are a dwindling minority.

Bena chronicles the long civic discussion/struggle that led to a democratic decision to prevent the building of monster houses. Though pretty much everyone in the film qualifies as a privileged winner in this society, the elements of the process are analogous to gentrification conflicts everywhere: when big money obliviously tramples communities, it can take years of hard conversations before people will risk acrimonious conflict in order to say "no."

At least Chilmark's voters may be able to make their decision to curb development stick. This is not often the case when people fight to preserve their homes. The film smartly warns in its conclusion that the struggle never really ends. That's a sad truth that needs re-emphasis after any organizing victory.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Gender games

What a difference a little over half a decade can make! When I last wrote about South African 800 meter runner Caster Semenya, she was an 18 year old who had burst into athletic prominence by unexpectedly running the best women's time of the year. Her detractors charged she was a disguised man, cheating for glory and gold -- or at best an unnatural freak. Her father defended "his little girl." Many South Africans suspected, not unreasonably, that suspicions about her were the product of European racism.

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) subjected her to some kind of "gender testing" and confidential physical findings were leaked. The young girl's individual humanity was quickly overshadowed by athletic politics. In a South African magazine, Semenya insisted:

"God made me the way I am and I accept myself."

After some kind of settlement with the IAAF and other athletic bodies, she resumed competing, winning silver medals at the 2011 World Championships and the 2012 Summer Olympics, both in the 800 meters.

Meanwhile, sports scientists and the athletic authorities began to develop a more sophisticated understanding biological gender variations and of the rare, but utterly real, existence of intersex athletes. My understanding is superficial, but it seems men develop with Y chromosomes and high production of testosterone (T); women have X chromosomes and lower T levels. The amount of T is thought to account for the 10-12 percent gap between elite male and female athletic performances. At the elite level, all great athletes are freaks of nature as well as extremely disciplined practitioners of their sport, but the gap between male and female performance remains. The reason to have women-only sports is so that women get a chance to compete at all. Without such gendered competition, women's results would NEVER show up or be appreciated. Sports scientist Ross Tucker explains:

We have a separate category for women because without it, no women would even make the Olympic Games (with the exception of equestrian). Most of the women’s world records, even doped, lie outside the top 5000 times run by men. [Paula] Radcliffe’s marathon [world record], for instance, is beaten by between 250 and 300 men per year. Without a women’s category, elite sport would be exclusively male.

Okay, but neither the IAAF nor sports science completely understands how and why testosterone aids performance. There seem to be a range of possibilities. None of this is simple. The IAAF set a standard for allowable levels of T in women athletes and required competitors who produced higher levels to suppress their T with medications or possibly surgically. (Semenya's good by not stellar results from 2010 to 2015 were achieved under this regime.) The sports journal Flotrack explained what happened then:

...in 2015 ... Indian sprinter Dutee Chand went to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) -- the highest court in world sports -- and challenged the IAAF rules that regulated testosterone in hyperandrogenic women.

The case forced the IAAF to publicly defend its rules that for hyperandrogenic women to be eligible to compete as women, their testosterone levels must be below a certain mark.

The IAAF failed to convince the CAS that it had evidence supporting the T level it was demanding, so this year at the Rio Olympics, women athletes who may be intersex or otherwise not biologically gender-standard, will be competing without having to meet the lower testosterone standard.

In this "no rules" environment, many commentators expect Caster Semenya to have the fastest races of her life -- and thereby to re-ignite a terrible barrage of controversy, not grounded in either science or sports. What's changed since 2009 is that at least some sports media understand a little better that women come in many sorts. So some reports read like this:

... Semenya is a woman because she says she's a woman, was legally recognized at birth as female, treated as female, and identified as female. Nobody can dictate to Semenya what gender she is.

.. Former Olympic runner Bruce Kidd, a professor of physical education and an adviser to Chand, opposes the testosterone-limiting rule. He argues that the testosterone is natural in these women, and although men produce more of it, "there is nothing to say that testosterone is a male hormone."

"Dutee and Caster are (competing) with their own chemicals," Kidd said. "They are fully in keeping with the Olympic spirit of being true to yourself and playing without doping. So why are they being castigated for that? I think it is so unfair."

And this:

She is NOT a man. And it is enormously disrespectful to call her “it”, or “he”. Nor should any of your wrath or frustration be directed towards her. She’s running per the rules that were changed by CAS, and it is they who should shoulder the responsibility for the mess that is the women’s 800m.

Meanwhile, transgender and other non-gender-standard athletes have joined the conversation. Joanna Harper is a medical physicist at Providence Portland Medical Center in Oregon and a competitive runner.

The transgender community is split over the question of whether or to use T or to use gender identity for eligibility for women’s sport. But if you think of me as only a trans person, then you would miss much of what is important about me. I define myself as a scientist first, an athlete second and as a transgender person thirdly, and the vast majority of scientists support the [IAAF's testosterone limiting] rules.

I would also like to relate a two-part epiphany that I had after my transition. In 2005, nine months after starting HRT, I was running 12% slower than I had run with male T levels; women run 10-12% slower than men over a wide range of distances. In 2006 I met another trans woman runner and the she had the same experience. I later discovered that, if aging is factored in, this 10-12% loss of speed is standard among trans women endurance athletes. The realization that one can take a male distance runner, make that runner hormonally female, and wind up with a female distance runner of the same relative capability was life changing for me.

... It is also unfortunate that many people will blame the medal-winning intersex athletes whose only crime is to compete with the gifts that nature gave them. The real problem is that sports need some policy governing intersex athletes and currently there is none.

... While Caster Semenya has gotten most of the media attention, she is far from the only presumably intersex athlete to have competed at a very high level in athletics. In fact two of the three medalists in the 800 meter race at the recent indoor world championships are probably intersex. It is very possible that we could see an all intersex podium in the 800 in Rio, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see as many as five intersex women in the eight-person final. There are potential intersex medalists in other running events too. The mutations that we are talking about are very rare, and these women are hugely over-represented.

... I believe that social gender should be entirely determined by self-identification. I was proud to be part of the [International Olympic Committee] panel that recommended support for gender self-identification.

I do, however, support the right of athletic federations such as the IOC or IAAF to create a de facto athletic gender by preventing those athletes who carry a large testosterone-based advantage from competing against the vast majority of women.

I would further suggest that, while it might not be a right, success in sports is one of the greatest advancements in women’s lives. If we value women’s equality, it is imperative that we protect the ability of all women to succeed in sports.

USA Today reached out to an athlete who suffered through one of the first highly publicized episodes of "sex testing" that have forced athletic governing bodies to try to understand the mutability of gender.

Maria José Martínez-Patiño refers to it as a “free-for-all.” She was the world’s most famous intersex athlete in the mid-1980s when, as an elite hurdler for Spain, so-called gender testing found that she had XY chromosomes. She soon learned that her outwardly female form hid internal testes. She lost her place on the national team, her scholarship, her fiancé, her privacy, her sense of self.

... “I had everything taken from me, but now I have regained everything and more,” she says. “I see this through the passage of time, as someone who can see both sides — both as a scientist and someone who was affected by (gender testing). … I think this is why I’m on the medical commission, because I have such a wide perspective, perhaps way more than people who have (only a) medical point of view. I believe my opinion has a heavier weight.”

She feels a bond with Semenya and Chand. “We are three different women, at different times in history, with three different perspectives,” she says. “All three of us have been stigmatized.”

Martínez-Patiño expects an “astonishing” performance from Semenya in Rio — and controversy to match it. She sees a silver lining in all this. Instead of trial by error — which is how Harper characterizes the IAAF’s and IOC’s efforts over the past three decades — Martínez-Patiño sees Rio as “trial by fire.”

She expects these Games to provide a roadmap on how to determine rules and regulations on hyperandrongenism — by showing the world how it works without regulation.

“I have a double perspective,” Martínez-Patiño says. “The rules have basically been removed. This also provides a marvelous test. It gives us a chance to leave theory aside and focus on the practical, based on what happens in Rio. There are women from more than 200 countries and it’s very difficult to establish rules that satisfy everybody. We get to see what happens when the rules are suspended. Human beings learn from good and bad mistakes. ...

As the Rio Games play out, I hope these women are listened to. This won't be easy. But these women are people and great athletes as well as test cases for evolving standards.

The heats in the women's 800 meter race begin on Wednesday, August 17.
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