Saturday, April 06, 2013

Good Looking Attorney General

Having now read Barack Obama's complete comment on Kamala Harris, I acquit him of sexism - it was always an unreasonable accusation, he's never shown any sign of sexism.  Just to remind everyone, here's his exact quote, from a CNN opinion piece by Roxanne Jones (the first full quote I could find):
"You have to be careful to, first of all, say she is brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough, and she is exactly what you'd want in anybody who is administering the law, and making sure that everybody is getting a fair shake. She also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country — Kamala Harris is here. (Applause.) It's true. Come on. (Laughter.) And she is a great friend and has just been a great supporter for many, many years."
This is clearly innocuous, clearly a friendly remark.  And yet he apologized.  Why?

I haven't read all the articles about this - but I've seen the "it was just a compliment, why can't we compliment people?" complaints, and I found Eric Golub of the Washington Times saying this:
Until every woman is reduced to an asexual character resembling Bebe Neuwirth’s “Cheers” character Lilith Crane, feminists will keep complaining.
Both those positions are extremes; of course we can compliment people, and no, we don't want to reduce women to asexuality.  But I have to admit, when I first heard the out-of-context phrase, "the best-looking attorney general in the country," my hackles went up - and I like Obama. 

I think reaction to this remark depends not only on your gender but your age.  I predate the feminist revolution; Barack Obama doesn't.   When I was a teenager, women weren't lawyers - ask Sandra Day O'Connor.  In fact when I was in college, considering careers, I had a very small number of options:  teacher, nurse, secretary, librarian.  Lawyer wasn't on the list; neither was attorney general, or any elected position.  The degree a lot of women expected to get when I was in college was the "Mrs."

I also remember when women began to get into those jobs, and other jobs that society in the Fifties regarded as "men's work."  At that time a compliment on her looks to a professional woman, especially from a powerful man, carried a sting - if you're that attractive, you can't be any good.  You must have slept your way there.  The women who got those jobs early were tough pioneers, and these were among the arrows in their backs.

When you say this flatly in the 21st century it's absurd, but in the middle of the 20th century society seriously believed that only a homely woman could be competent or intelligent, and a beautiful woman in a position of power must have used sex to get there.  And the mere implication was the best option.  In the worst cases the compliment was followed by a more-or-less active attempt to force attentions on the woman.  I have worked with an attractive woman, a secretary, who told me she had turned down a job because the boss made it clear that he expected sexual favors.

For background on this, read a good biography of Hedy Lamarr - the woman who helped invent frequency-hopping spread-spectrum communication techniques, the basis of Bluetooth and WiFi.  Her intelligence is supported by the patent in her name, US Patent 2,292,387.  But most people thought of her as a "pin-up girl."  And I don't watch TV, so I don't watch Mad Men, but I'll bet you see this attitude there, if you look.

As I said, Barack Obama didn't experience the pre-feminist world.  But he's bright enough to know it existed; that's why he gave the compliment that elaborate wind-up.  (Which is all quite true.)  And that's also why, when the out-of-context remark hit the media, he apologized.  Because the sting has largely been drawn; but the memory of it lingers, like a bad smell in the corner of the room.  You're too good looking to be that smart.  It's only been 50 years or so; we've come a long way, but not yet quite far enough.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Fallacious Reasoning

I just read one too many arguments by the pro-gun maniacs in this country that gun control laws "will not solve gun violence" because criminals don't obey gun control laws, therefore we should never pass any gun control laws.  I call this the "only outlaws will have guns" argument, you've heard it.  The current version goes, more or less, we shouldn't ban assault rifles and high-capacity magazines because criminals will still be able to get them from illegal sources, and banning them would inconvenience law-abiding gun owners who need to defend themselves.

This is ridiculous.  It is a logical fallacy known as a straw man.  If we assume this generally, then we should eliminate, for instance, all rules governing the owning, insuring and driving of automobiles, because people will drive illegally and without insurance anyway (they sure do here), and the laws will just inconvenience honest people who need to get around.  Cars are dangerous and can cause expensive damage, therefore we pass laws requiring people to be trained how to use them, and to carry insurance to cover any damage they might accidentally do; and we penalize people who drive cars without these.  I have never understood why the same argument shouldn't apply to guns:  they are dangerous, they can cause expensive damage, and all you really need to buy one in some states is a credit card and a pulse.  In, say, Nevada I'm not even sure about the pulse.

I actually just read a letter to the editor arguing that guns are different from automobiles because the Constitution doesn't guarantee the right to drive a car, therefore the analogy about guns and cars (which I am not the only one to make) is invalid, because the Constitution does guarantee the right to own guns.  Right.  The guns the Constitution was talking about were muzzle loaders which took about 10-15 seconds for even an expert to load and for which you had to make your own bullets and carry the gunpowder in a flask on your belt. 

We should ban assault rifles and high-capacity magazines because they have no harmless function.  They are killing machines.  They are not sporting rifles; they are not target guns; they are not defensive weapons (look at the size of them!) - they are weapons of war.  They exist only to kill people (and anything else that gets in the way).  The arguments I hear against banning them have, to my mind, a strong flavor of "they're going to take away my toys."  There's a certain (mainly male) attitude that feels status in the possession of the biggest, meanest, baddest gadgets, and by banning these big bad gadgets we will take away their nicest toys and reduce their status.

I'm not convinced by this argument.  Rather, I am convinced by it:  convinced that we should ban the damn things.  Banning them won't eliminate shootings, but it will make the situation better.  If there are fewer of them around, there will be fewer opportunities for a deranged young man to get his hands on them, and if he can't get his hands on them he may try to kill people in a way that will be easier to stop.  I don't want to eliminate guns; but I want to make it hard enough to get a gun that the buyer may stop and think about what he's doing (or she, but usually he) - and maybe even decide that bullets are not the right solution.

And before you accuse me of hating on men, take a look at the mass shootings over the last few years.  How many done by women?  Right.

True, banning automatic guns may endanger some jobs in the gun manufacturing trade.  (May - they can always sell this stuff to Syria, since it's a dead cert that the Senate will not ratify the U.N. Arms Treaty we just signed.)  Not banning them endangers lives.  I live in California, with some of the strongest gun control laws in the country.  The streets of Oakland, where I live, are a guerrilla war zone, because of illegal assault and other weapons that come in from Arizona and Nevada, which have no controls at all and are less than a day away by road. That's why we need national controls.

I continually read arguments from (mainly) the NRA, which boil down to this:  we can't allow any regulation of gun possession and use at any level of government, because any regulation at all will ultimately and inevitably lead to the confiscation of all guns.  This is the "Obama's going to take away your guns" argument.  This is another logical fallacy known as begging the question:  we're terrified that someone will confiscate our guns, therefore we assume that any regulation is the first step toward confiscation. 

Nobody, starting with President Obama, wants to take away all the guns.  I doubt it's even possible, there are too many of them; it's like saying you're going to deport 12 million illegal aliens all at once, it's just not gonna happen.  The conviction that "they're going to take away our guns" is crazy.  Tinfoil hat crazy, up there with all the other conspiracy theories.  I want to reduce the availability of the most destructive weapons of war and try to ensure, through background checks, that people who are known to be violent, who have a history of violence or mental illness, should not be allowed to buy any weapons.  If you are not one of those people and you want to keep an arsenal of non-automatic weapons in your den, go for it.