Sunday, March 03, 2024

A different kind of woman

Caster Semenya knows who she is. She's had it with authorities, especially white and European ones, telling her they know her better than she does herself. She tells it like it is for her in The Race to Be Myself: A Memoir.

I love this book. I recommend it unreservedly, especially in the audio version, some of which Semenya performs herself.

She sets up her story like this:

I am Mokgadi Caster Semenya. I am one of the greatest track and field athletes to ever run the 800-m distance. I've won two Olympic gold medals and three world championships ...

... I have what is called a difference in sex development (DSD), an umbrella term that refers to the generic conditions where an embryo in a different way to the hormones that spark the development of internal and external sexual organs. To put it simply, on the outside I am female, I have a vagina, but I do not have a uterus. ... I can't biologically contribute to making new life.
I did not know any of this about my body until soon after August 2009, when I won the gold medal in the 800-m race at the World Championships in Berlin, Germany. I was only eighteen years old and had been subjected to invasive and humiliating gender confirmation tests without my consent just prior to the race. What followed was a media firestorm that continues to this day. ...
... I am a tall, dark-skinned, African woman with well-defined muscles, a deep voice, and not a lot up on top. I know I look like a man. I know I sound like a man and maybe even walk like a man and dress like one, too. But I'm not a man. ... I'm a different kind of woman, I know. But I'm still a woman. ...
I accept and love myself just the way I am. I always have and I always will. God made me. I am fortunate to have had a family who never tried to change me, and a country that wrapped its arms around me and fought for my right to run. ...
... I am a proud South African woman born in a tiny village to people who loved me.They have survived more humiliations than I could possibly know. It is from them that I know about maintaining dignity in the face of oppression. It is my hope that by telling my truth, I inspire others to be unafraid, to love and accept themselves. May this story contribute to a more tolerant world for us all.
Semenya's birth village is in Limpopo, the northernmost province of South Africa. Though the nation boasts gleaming modern cities like Cape Town and Pretoria, agricultural villages in the countryside -- African villages in the racial frame of that nation -- don't even show up on Google maps. It was a long time before Semenya was pulled into the multi-racial, multi-class modernity of South Africa upon leaving the hinterland to take up an athletic scholarship to the University of Pretoria.

It wasn't until she started winning international races that the International Amateur Athletic Federation (now World Athletics) began to get hot and bothered about her gender. And it seems fair to say, then the shit hit the fan. She was tested and barred from competition unless she took testosterone blocking drugs that made her ill. The basis in science for requiring the drug regimen was poorly documented and eventually tossed out by courts. Meanwhile, she strove to stay sane and train hard amidst the dissonance of strangers questioning who she knew herself to be.
... Gender is a simple thing in my part of the world. Mostly people are born boys, or they are born girls. There is also what in our Pedi language we call lahara matana -- a person born with two genders, meaning they are born with both a penis and a vagina. In my culture, these people are not assigned a gender. They are allowed to live their lives and decide which gender is dominant in their soul. They go about their business and everyone is supposed to mind theirs. I have heard that in rich countries doctors can "fix" a child born like this. But how can you "fix" something if you don't know what a child will want to be? We don't believe in surgical intervention on infants for such a thing.
No one ever told me specifically about lahara matanas. I just knew there were people like this when I was growing up. And I wasn't one of them. I was born a girl, and I have never felt confused by that because there is nothing confusing about having a vagina, even if my mannerisms and interests were considered boyish. ...
I knew growing up there were other girls like me, meaning girls who didn't sprout breasts, who had deep voices, or girls who were not into girl things. I grew up with some of them, played soccer with them. They were around, just like I was around. ...
... My family accepted me the way I was, but it didn't mean they didn't deal with comments about my looks and behavior. But my actual gender has never been a thing to be questioned, much less tested. That's the thing people didn't seem to understand -- it was one thing to talk about how I behaved, how I looked on the outside -- my clothes, my voice, my musculature -- but questioning someone's gender, discussing it in public ... that was unheard of in my culture. ...
The gender issue became a difficult one for the politicians in my country. Everyone seemed to support me and my right to run. They saw me as an innocent Black child caught in a terrible situation. For us, it became more than about gender, it became about race. It became about White people coming and telling us Africans what we were and what we were not based on our looks -- the same categorizations and violations of human rights that were happening during apartheid. I became a symbol of how Black people had been violated and exploited throughout history. Would this be happening to a White European teenage girl? When did "rumors" become an official accusation that had to be investigated? My blood and urine had been tested dozens of times by ASA [Athletics South Africa] and the IAAF [International Amateur Athletic Federation] ...
Mostly Semenya's attitude in this book is simple amazement at the stupidity of people questioning her gender -- and proud fury as she asserts herself. She has no time for other women competitors who she thinks don't have it in them to work as hard as she does.
I remember reading how women were barred from running in the early days of organized sports because men thought their body parts would fall out and that it was "unseemly" for women to sweat in public. Well, look closely at professional women's races. Most of us run, cross the line, congratulate each other, and go on with the rest of our business. ... If you are an elite athlete and you really can't breathe and you fall down when you're done with a race, train harder.
I read this book from a stance of awareness that all world class athletes are freaks of nature.  It's just that sometimes we can't see quite how. Human diversity is enormous and a very few people can turn their biological divergence from the mean into athletic success -- such success only comes if they train to their limits and beyond. The best are disciplined freaks. The Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has some of the largest hands you'll ever see. Brock Purdy apparently has a preternatural ability to see around him and remain decisive when facing being beat to a pulp. They are different, but they wouldn't achieve the athletic successes they have without brutal hard work.

I love the dedication of Caster Semenya's memoir. It seems about right to me:
For those who are born different
and feel they don't belong in this world,
it is because you were brought here
to help create a new one.

Thanks, Mokgadi Caster Semenya!

Saturday, March 02, 2024

Republicans kiss up to Trump; a righteous Froomkin rant

Republican U.S. Senator John Thune of South Dakota leaped out to endorse Donald Trump the other day. There was no reason for the timing of this endorsement -- except that he wants to lead Senate Republicans when Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell steps back. 

Meanwhile, McConnell is fully expected to endorse Trump immanently -- endorse a man who called the Senate leader a "loser" and threw racist insults at McConnell's Chinese American wife. 

For many years, journalist Dan Froomkin wrote the White House Watch column at the Washington Post; he took no prisoners, exposing politicians' stupidity and malfeasance. When his employers found him too hot to handle, he was fired and went on to the Intercept and then his own website, PressWatch

Froomkin has nothing good to say about Republican pols who've seen Trump try once to overthrow our democracy and are flocking to him now. He's disgusted with the Trump endorsements by formerly serious figures. And he's disgusted by political media which treat the coming presidential election as just one more normal contest.

... the powerful people who knew better — who are bending the knee to Trump only now — are hypocritical, craven opportunists going through a very public and newsworthy moral collapse.

That is how the media should be covering them. These people are forsaking the principles they had previously proclaimed — and why? Because they want something (mostly power and money) more than they care about those principles.

Every time that happens ought to be a major news story. Another person has sacrificed their self-respect to become an enabler of tyranny and chaos.

But I’m not seeing that.

I’m seeing reporters writing without any sense of shock or alarm about members of Congress, titans of industry, and others bending the knee as if it’s just a normal part of a normal presidential race.

It is, however, not remotely normal that a major-party nominee for president is an irrational impulsive lying rapist racist crime lord and would-be dictator.

Bending the knee to Trump is a break with core human values like empathy and decency – and democracy. It’s an expression of approval for lying, cheating, stealing, and attempted insurrection.

... Every single new public figure who endorses Trump should be asked by reporters to explain how that squares with their moral beliefs. 

Do they consider Trump trustworthy? Reliable? Do they agree that the government should root out certain people like vermin? Do they condone his contempt for pluralism? Do they share his willingness to turn over parts of Europe to Vladimir Putin? Do they support setting up camps for the mass deportation of long-time U.S. residents who lack documentation? 

And if not, why are they so willing to abandon their principles? What exactly do they think makes that worth it?

 These are not just normal times.

Friday, March 01, 2024

Friday cat blogging

There was a sunbeam. Mio and Janeway shared it amicably. It's their sunbeam, not our kitchen table. This is life around here. There's the cat team and the human team.

Thursday, February 29, 2024

For love or money, people get around

You might think that a deadly war in somebody else's country would repel most people who had any option to stay well away. And, in general, that's true. But there are exceptions.

In Ukraine, from the earliest days of Russia's attempt at conquest, there have been quite a few voluntary international participants. According to the Associated Press:

In early 2022, authorities said 20,000 people from 52 countries were in Ukraine. Now, in keeping with the secrecy surrounding any military numbers, authorities will not say how many are on the battlefield but they do say fighters’ profile has changed.
The first waves of volunteers came mostly from post-Soviet or English-speaking countries. Speaking Russian or English made it easier for them to integrate into Ukraine’s military, [Oleksandr Shahuri, an officer of the Department of Coordination of Foreigners in the Armed Forces of Ukraine] said.
Last year the military developed an infrastructure of Spanish-speaking recruiters, instructors and junior operational officers, he added.

And recruitment is succeeding in Bogota, Columbia where 10,000 highly trained soldiers retire every year. Service in Ukraine is a good deal for these vets.
Corporals in Colombia get a basic salary of around $400 a month, while experienced drill sergeants can earn up to $900. Colombia’s monthly minimum wage is currently $330.
In Ukraine any member of the armed forces, regardless of citizenship, is entitled to a monthly salary of up to $3,300, depending on their rank and type of service. They are also entitled to up to $28,660 if they are injured, depending on the severity of the wounds. If they are killed in action, their families are due $400,000 compensation.
Let's hope these recruits are not bringing a Columbian record of human rights abuses with them.

Meanwhile on the other side of that war, in Russia, hungry Cubans are providing recruits to be ground up in mass human wave operations, according to Reuters:

Cuban seamstress Yamidely Cervantes has bought a new sewing machine for the first time in years, plus a refrigerator and a cellphone - all on Russia's dime.
She said her 49-year-old husband Enrique Gonzalez, a struggling bricklayer, left their home in the small town of La Federal on July 19 to fight for the Russian army in Ukraine. Days later, he wired her part of his signing-on bonus of about 200,000 roubles ($2,040) which she received in Cuban pesos, Cervantes told Reuters.
... On the 100-meter dirt road where Cervantes lives, at least three men have left for Russia since June, and another had sold his home in anticipation of going, she said.
"You can count on one hand those who are left," the 42-year-old said as she surveyed the street from a small terrace where she'd repurposed two broken toilet bowls as flower pots.
"Necessity is what is driving this."
From its onset, the Israeli war on Gaza has presented challenges to Israel's human economy. The war pushes Israel toward becoming ever more an unsustainable, malignant Sparta. Many men who make its modern economy hum were called up to serve in the Israeli Defense Force, while Palestinian laborers were locked out of the agricultural sector to be replaced by whatever migrant workers Israel could import.
According to a report in the Guardian, Israeli recruitment of foreign construction workers is focusing on India.
The industry relied on approximately 80,000 Palestinian workers, who are now barred from entering Israeli territory. As a result, half-finished residential blocks are everywhere, yellow tower cranes waiting motionlessly overhead. In the West Bank, poverty rates have soared.
The economic impact for Israel could also be severe. The finance ministry has estimated the expulsion of Palestinian construction workers is costing 3bn shekels (£656m) a month, and could eventually lead to a loss of 3% of GDP because the building and housing industries owe 400bn shekels in loans.
... “Right now I earn around 15,000 rupees (£150) a month,” said Rajat Kumar, 27, from the north Indian state of Haryana. Though he has a bachelor’s degree, for six years he had been unable to get any other job except construction, earning a salary he described as “peanuts”. The prospect of travelling abroad to a country engulfed in conflict was a small price to pay for regular, well-paid work, said Kumar, who got his first passport in order to apply for a job as a plasterer in Israel.
The job he has applied for in Israel would pay 138,000 rupees a month, with accommodation provided, which he saw as a small fortune. “When I compare it with what I earn here, I can’t think of anything but the better life I and my family will have,” he said.
A bilateral labour agreement was signed between Israel and New Delhi last May, before the war in Gaza broke out, but has since become a priority for both countries. Israeli transportation minister, Miri Regev, said during a visit to India earlier this month that Israel would be “lessening its dependence on Palestinian workers” by replacing them with skilled foreign workers.
As always in contemplating migrant flows, let's hope this is worth it to the human individuals caught up in the flow of people. But people always get around, something US immigration restrictionists fail to understand.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024


I've been writing this blog, in this antiquated medium, for 19 years, ever since 2005.

No post today. I'm doing what makes me happiest, walking out of doors. See you soon enough.

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Old friends

We went to a lovely birthday party last weekend; the happy recipient of this excellent t-shirt had just turned 70, a mere youth from my perch. But there we are.

It seems appropriate to mark this occasion with some reflections from the great Kareem Abdul Jabbar -- the GOAT basketball wizard and reflective elder:

My body is an assassin. And his main target is me. He wants to kill me, but not all at once. He’s a sadistic sniper, hitting me here, allowing me to recover, then hitting me again in a different spot. He shot me with leukemia, prostate cancer, and Afib. He’s not done. He’s waiting out there somewhere, crouching in the bushes, controlling his breathing, line up his crosshairs on a fresh part of my body.

Oh, the betrayal. My body and I used to be best buds. We chummed around everywhere together, eating great food, playing basketball, enjoying romantic relationships. Sometimes we got hurt, but we healed fast and laughed it off. Together we felt like we could do anything, achieve greatness. And we did.

Now I sometimes feel about my body like I’m caring for a gruff hobbling parent, hauling him to appointment after appointment, while he shows no gratitude. Yet, he leans all his considerable weight on me as I schlep him around all day. It’s exhausting.

Still, I love the old curmudgeon. He may trip me when I’m not looking. May make me forget a book title or where I left my glasses. May be adding a laser scope to his rifle. But sometimes he forgets his sinister mission and comes out from the bushes to hang with old friends, play with grandchildren, and comfort others. He’s not all bad.

Our evolving relationship has actually done me more good than harm. I learned how to lean on others when I was ill. That is not a small accomplishment. Each clumsy potshot he’s taken has brought me closer to my friends and family. Plus, seeing dedicated doctors and nurses doing all they could to help me nurtured my faith in humanity. Faith in humanity is an endangered emotion these days, so I’m happy whenever I experience it anew.

Maybe my body isn’t an assassin. Maybe it’s still my best buddy. It’s just that now we have a different, more mature relationship, based on shared joys and shared struggles. In his song “Old Friends,” Paul Simon wrote about two old men sitting on a park bench: “Old friends, memory brushes the same years/Silently sharing the same fears.” Me and my body are those old friends. Maybe we do share the same fears about deterioration and death, but they’re a lot less scary facing them together.

And neither of us intends, as Dylan Thomas said, to “go gentle into that good night.”

Further wisdom from Kareem:

I realize that my purpose isn’t to solve problems. That’s way too grandiose. Problems of some sort will always plague humanity. I just want to lend a hand in pushing the giant rock up the hill while also giving comfort to others who are struggling with the weight. The more we work together, the lighter the load for everyone. That’s my real purpose: to lighten the load. 

Though his body betrays him, he's aging deeply and sharing meaningfully.

Monday, February 26, 2024

Polls - national and local

Ever wondered why national polls are so inadequate for understanding the opinions and leanings of people who aren't white/don't consider themselves "white"? 

Here's the answer in one simple chart:

Even though there are plenty of Asian-origin, Black, and Latino (and other!) Americans, unless pollsters really work on enlarging their samples ("over sampling"), they just aren't talking to enough people to avoid distortions caused by small sample size. This is hard and expensive and often doesn't happen.

Thinking about this made me wonder about the intricacies of accurate polling in San Francisco, especially about the upcoming mayoral race. Here's a picture:
Wikipedia - click to enlarge

The sheer complexity of the project is very costly to do well -- and the cost will contribute to why we are in danger of only having well-heeled choices come November. That's too bad for the city. Most of us don't live in the tech-bro bubble and have different needs and hopes for this place.

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Two meditations on the murder of Alexei Navalny

On this second Sunday of the Christian season of reflection called Lent, I find two of my favorite preachers writing of the murdered Russian activist Alexei Navalny.

Before his death, I had not been aware that Navalny was a Christian. He had placed himself at the dictator Putin's mercy by returning to the Russia he hoped to free after that state had poisoned him. That choice always seemed incomprehensible. Perhaps it is less so in the context of belief that the power of the good is released by a love so strong that killing it only multiplies the amount of love in the world. 

Diana Butler Bass distinguishes between whines of victimization (see Trump and his MAGA acolytes) and taking up the terrible power that is (relatively) selfless love.

Ultimately, a martyr complex is about you, what you’ve lost, what you have sacrificed, your troubles: Look at what I’ve done for others! See what I carry on your behalf. But look how I’m suffering and despised! No one appreciates me! No one says ‘thank you’! You may, indeed, have taken up a cross. However, such adversities can become laden with bitterness — and often become a weapon wielded first at one’s self (self pity) and then at others (manipulation or revenge).

That’s not a cross. That’s a millstone.

But those who find themselves bearing the cross — whether they wind up as martyrs or not — understand that following Jesus isn’t about nurturing and carrying grievances. It is about letting go of what weighs one down to make room for something bigger, a giving of one’s self to love and service to create a different kind of world. You understand that taking this path might involve hardship and trial. You still go — you still take up the cross — not for yourself, but for others.

Taking up a cross isn’t just an inconvenient ordeal, a persistent sin, or annoying demand. Taking up the cross doesn’t mean whining or seeking attention when confronted with trouble. When you take up Jesus’ cross, you choose to surrender the burdens of self-pretension in favor of cumbering yourself with compassion and love of neighbor. This cross puts one in tension with injustice, the powerful, violence, bigotry, and delusions of grandeur. That’s the cross Jesus instructs his followers to pick up. The “yoke” of this cross is ultimately not heavy but light.

For my friend John Kirkley, Alexei Navalny's trajectory provides a "glimpse of truth" -- a fact of the universe in which we live -- as Gandhi once explained in his autobiography. Kirkley says of Navalny:

"It’s fine, because I did the right thing."  One doesn’t have to be a Christian in order to do the right thing.  Christians do not have a monopoly on moral courage.  But Navalny clearly grounded his commitment to nonviolent resistance against evil in Christian faith.  More specifically, [he] trusted in the power of redemptive suffering, in the willingness to suffer for doing what is good no matter the consequences. 

... the point is that suffering is intrinsic to the energetic dynamics of affirming and denying forces in creation, as well as the conscious attention that seeks to intervene in their reconciliation.  Such suffering is not “stupid suffering,” it is simply a given condition for the emergence of life and the manifestation of agape love – a love that acts as a conscious force of attention to catalyze reconciliation.  The suffering of birth pangs is not stupid suffering.  The suffering of the decay of the body over time is not stupid suffering.  The suffering of an exploding star is not stupid suffering.  The suffering of the great flaring forth in the creative fire of the emergence of something out of nothing is not stupid suffering.

Navalny's self-sacrificial choice has released a power we should contemplate. (And, as so often in the history of humankind, it leaves one wondering about what this self-sacrificial heroism means to the women left behind ...)

Friday, February 23, 2024

We like IVF and many medical fertility interventions

It turns out that availability of In Vitro Fertility offerings is so popular that even Donald Trump is running away as fast as he can scamper from the decision by Alabama judicial theocrats that frozen 7-cell embryos are people.

Alabama U.S. Senator Tommy Tuberville is merely confused. I suspect he's backtracked, but this was his first reaction.

“Yeah, I was all for it. We need to have more kids, we need to have an opportunity to do that, and I thought this was the right thing to do.”

All forms of medical assistance with fertility are very popular. In 2020, Republicans knew this:

The polling on IVF is such that even former Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway advised Republicans to support the procedure. As Alice Ollstein wrote in Politico, polling from Conway’s firm found:
86 percent of all respondents supported access to IVF, with 78 percent support among self-identified “pro-life advocates” and 83 percent among Evangelical Christians.

According to Pew, a very substantial number of us have direct experience of or proximity to various fertility treatments. This is not rare. Or cheap as the data suggest.

Click to enlarge.

Research describes a general, global decline in fertility. 

Over the past half-century, the world has witnessed a steep decline in fertility rates in virtually every country on Earth. This universal decline in fertility is being driven by increasing prosperity largely through the mediation of social factors, the most powerful of which are the education of women and an accompanying shift in life’s purpose away from procreation.
In addition, it is clear that environmental and lifestyle factors are also having a profound impact on our reproductive competence particularly in the male where increasing prosperity is associated with a significant rise in the incidence of testicular cancer and a secular decline in semen quality and testosterone levels.
On a different timescale, we should also recognize that the increased prosperity associated with the demographic transition greatly reduces the selection pressure on high fertility genes by lowering the rates of infant and childhood mortality.

Whether this seems a good or bad thing often depends on whether you are or care about women in poor countries. 

In all this discussion of mediated fertility, something that gets lost is the role of medical interventions which enable LGBTQ+ folks to have children. It's substantial, as I know from living in my queer community. The judicial theocrats wouldn't like that either.

Friday cat blogging

Let's give the local felines a rest. I like this.

I think Janeway might concur.

Thursday, February 22, 2024

No time for cowards and cowardice

On this second anniversary of Russia's full scale invasion of Ukraine, Professor Timothy Snyder, a preeminent historian of central Europe, calls on Americans to buck up. This is no time for weakness; weakness is Donald Trump, his captive GOP enablers, and their swindles.

American newspapers instruct us that Biden is old.  If he’s old (goes the thinking), he must be weak; and if he is weak, then we are permitted to give up.  But Biden is not weak.  He is not running away from prison, or from anything else.  He does not act from fear.  He gets work done.  His record is one of the strongest in the history of the American presidency.  And he went to Ukraine with zero military protection.  That was courageous.  No other president has ever done that.

... It is absurd, in such a world, where so much is at stake, where so much is to be won, to speak of our “fatigue” either with the struggle in Ukraine or the struggle for our own democracy.  Doing so is the prologue to a story of weakness, which ends with the victory of the weak man.  When we fall in line behind the fearful, when we forget the “spirit of freedom,” we help the weak men create a politics of fear.  When we obey in advance, we invite the weak man to take power over our souls, which then means power over our politics.

In 2024, a year of war and a year of elections, a year that will test decency and democracy, the weak man wants to see his fear in our eyes.  We will need the courage to admire the courageous, and to say something that might feel risky.  For example: we believe in our values, and we believe in our strength.  Ukraine can win this war, Biden can win this election, and democracy can thrive.

The situation in Ukraine is not all that Ukrainians or their friends might hope it would be. Some of Ukraine's friends are stepping up; Denmark just sent all its artillery ammunition to the embattled country to begin to make up for the shortfall caused by Republican refusal to fund U.S. commitments. But Republican stalling in Congress threatens what that brave people have suffered for and won.

Michael O’Hanlon from the DC thinktank the Brookings Institution evaluated Ukraine's situation. 

Ukraine remains stronger than you might think
... Much has been made of Ukraine’s disappointing 2023 counteroffensive. But given the strength of defenses on both sides, its failure was no huge surprise. Defense is simply stronger than offense at this stage of the war and, because of this, Ukraine might be able to hang on to most or all of the 82 percent of the pre-2014 territory it now holds, even with constrained military supplies. Yet, as the recent loss of Avdiivka demonstrates, Ukraine might struggle in the event of a complete cutoff of U.S. assistance. The pace of setbacks could accelerate with little warning; like Ernest Hemingway’s quip about bankruptcy, defeat could occur gradually, then suddenly.

... there is no reason for fatalistic thinking about Ukraine. It might very well hold on to at least 82 percent of its territory and eventually gain a strong security link with the West, especially if the United States again leads in addressing the Russian threat to Ukraine. At the moment, however, the U.S. Congress is playing with fire in threatening to end U.S. assistance to Kyiv. Ukraine is resolute in this struggle, but so, alas, is Russia, and if Putin winds up winning this war, NATO’s own security might soon be at risk, too.

 • • •

Oddly, the Ukraine struggle against Russian invasion makes me think about my mother. During the 1930s, she looked on at what was happening in Europe -- at the Nazi takeover of Germany, at the attacks on Jewish Germans, at Hitler's absorption of Austria and Czechoslovakia -- and became a vehement American interventionist. She might be called a "premature anti-fascist." Yet she was a Republican. From her point of view, the worst of isolationists were her fellow Republicans and Hitler apologists like Charles Lindbergh. The threat of fascism made for strange alliances.

That threat does the same today.