Notes from the Perimeter

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Don't Be Mean to the Girl: Gender, Power and the Politics of Pretty

When Christine O'Donnell upset the Republican applecart in Delaware on Tuesday, Karl Rove called her, among other things, "nutty." Oh Karl. That's just not nice. One thing that seems to be true in these through-the-looking-glass days of American politics is that you can't be mean to the (Republican) girl.

It's difficult to evaluate the candidacy of O'Donnell without the calculus of gender. In a day-is-night kind of way, O'Donnell would seem to benefit from the fact of being a woman in the way that her flaws and missteps are apparently tolerated. For example, last year O'Donnell's financial disclosure statement for last year indicated an income of $5,800 (although later she said she made "more" but refused to say how much). Would a man in those circumstances be considered anything other than fiscally questionable? Probably not. Perhaps unfairly, we equate masculine power with material substance. But how do most people define feminine power? This is an overstatement, but in O'Donnell's case it seems to less about having things than getting away with them.

The Weekly Standard recently unearthed new details about a nearly $7M gender-discrimination lawsuit O'Donnell filed in 2005 against the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a conservative not-for-profit think-tank. The claims she makes in the lawsuit are revelatory, of her character and modus operandi. In it, she asserts that she was fired due to the organization's policy that women were not allowed to be in leadership positions (a charge the company denies). She insists that she suffered such pain and mental anguish that she lost her ability to make a living and enjoy life (poor baby). Her career was thwarted, she proclaims, since the organization reneged on its promise to pay the tuition for her master's degree at Princeton, tuition, by the way, that would likely cost the organization about as much as O'Donnell's yearly salary (a statement from Princeton noted that she was never enrolled in a master's program there). Ultimately O'Donnell dropped the lawsuit; however, to read the text is to see emerge the portrait of an unstable, histrionic, incompetent and whiny woman on the warpath for someone to blame.

When I was coming of age, in those heady days of "women's liberation," what mattered was strength: of character, of action, of ideas and ideals -- the willingness to fight not just the traditional forces of oppression and reaction arrayed against us but also the secret traitor within.

As Simone de Beauvoir aruges in her seminal work of feminism and existentialism, The Second Sex, women are too often party to our own enslavement. In accepting traditional roles with their trade-off -- the chilly landscape of autonomy for the promise of refuge -- we are choosing security over risk, status over disenfranchisement, the known (however limiting) for the unknown (however exhilarating). To be self-governing is to accept responsibility: for our choices and decisions, for our successes as well as the many mistakes we will make. It can be a tough and perilous road -- far less daunting to let others make the rules.

Christine O'Donnell and her fellow Grizzly-ettes turn all of that on their well-coiffed heads. The female power they wield is less a matter of integrity than wiley-ness, but it certainly comes in a pretty package. Good looks with its currency of sexuality apparently are a requirement of this particular sorority. As one commenter said in response to an article about Rove's dismissal of O'Connell's chances, a lot of Delawarians might vote for her anyway because she's "attractive and gorgeous." Subvert female sexuality and you have female compliance -- and a kind of collaboration that ultimately is nothing more than betrayal.

The image of woman that O'Donnell embodies is one that most of us fought fiercely to repudiate: manipulative, amoral and fragile. We are not to mind the inconsistencies, the emotional lash-outs, the prevarications, the glib oversimplifications of issues. When she plays the woman card, O'Donnell is asking for indulgence, not respect. Don't be hard on me, she says -- don't be mean to the girl. And even an old misanthrope like Rove ultimately caves.

(First published in in September 2010)

Natural Rejection: Texas Judge Dismisses Creationism Degree Lawsuit

In a decision that’s bound to further rile the advocates of creationism-as-science, Austin federal judge Sam Sparks has dismissed a suit filed by the Dallas-based Institute for Creation Research. Its graduate school (ICRGS) had petitioned the court for the right to offer a master’s degree in science education from a biblical perspective. To use a distinctly non-evolutionary metaphor, in his rejection of the suit the judge tore the ICRGS a new one.

First, a little background: in 2008, the ICRGS applied to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board for the right to offer master’s degrees in science education grounded in a literal interpretation of the biblical version of creation and the vigorous repudiation of evolutionary theory. The application was rejected due to the strong bias toward creationism; the ICRGS then sued, claiming that the board violated the institute’s first amendment rights of the free exercise of religion and freedom of speech.

Part of Sparks’s opinion states, “Having addressed this primary issue, the Court will proceed to address each of ICRGS’s causes of action in turn, to the extent it is able to understand them. It appears that although the Court has twice required Plaintiff to re-plead and set forth a short and plain statement of the relief requested, Plaintiff is entirely unable to file a complaint which is not overly verbose, disjointed, incoherent, maundering, and full of irrelevant information.” (Thanks to Care2’s Scott Pasch for pointing out this out.)

One irony here (of so many) is that California, where the ICR graduate school is based, has allowed the degree to be conferred since 1981. In California, the graduate school is accredited by something called the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS – their acronym, not mine), a body not recognized by Texas. According to their website, TRACS “was established in 1971 to promote the welfare, interests, and development of postsecondary institutions, whose mission is characterized by a distinctly Christian purpose….” (Oddly enough, I visited both the ICR and TRACS websites but found no mention, not in the “Updates” or “Daily News” sections of either, any mention of the suit dismissal. Could this inexplicable absence be an example of unnatural selection? Holy moley!)

Why did California, with its reputation for being open to all manner of unorthodox ideologies, permit the ICRGS to teach creationism as a scientific methodology, with the prize of recognized masters degrees in the offing? If California views creationism as just another iteration of “you say tomatoes and I say tomahtoes,” well, I beg to disagree. Creationism is much more of the “my way or the highway” school of thought. And what’s up with Texas, whose school boards rewrite US history with apparent impunity? One can only marvel. Apparently, the thinking of both Judge Sparks and the Texas Board of Education was that while theology might infuse and inform many disciplines, science isn’t one of them.

For many people, especially those who rely on fundamentalist doctrines as the foundation for belief, science and religion coexist uneasily if at all. In this Weltanschauung, the primary religious text is literally the only vessel of truth, and ‘literal’ is the operative word: any view that allows for interpretation or (gasp!) an evolving understanding of the tenets is unacceptable. Thus, the role of science is to confirm, not to challenge.

I take no issue with religion as a way of acknowledging and making peace with the great mysteries of life. I heartily support the moral and ethical guidelines that underlie most of the world’s great belief systems. However, I believe that science and religion lay out two different paths to truth. As Texas Commissioner of Higher Education Raymund Paredes said, “Religious belief is not science. Science and religious belief are surely reconcilable, but they are not the same thing.”

I balk at the imposition of a narrative of uncertain authorship and provenance (a narrative I consider to be part historical record, part literature, part mythology and part spiritual longing) – one whose fundamental principle is that faith needs no proof – upon our inspired (divinely or otherwise) human ability to comprehend the miraculous workings of our miraculous universe.

Creationism, for me, is a pale, feeble construction compared with the majesty of evolution and all that evolution implies: deep time, a vastly rich and complex system, purpose in seeming randomness, and the moral imperatives of emergence and extinction. That might not be the underlying cause of the Texas decision, but, as with evolution, I'll take what I can get.

(first published on in July 2010)