Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Snapshots of Disillusionment

There's a book I have, From Poor Law to Welfare State, that's a history of welfare programs in the US, from the colonial period to the mid-'90s or thereabouts. It's a hugely informative book, and maybe one day I'll write a more substantial post about it.

But today I just want to point out something interesting --- if also very depressing --- about the particular edition I own.

It's the Sixth Edition, and after the author's preface it has all the prefaces from every earlier edition. So you can almost travel back in time, reading how the author's thinking and outlook evolved as he had to keep updating the book. (There's a span of, like, more than twenty years between the publication dates of the first and sixth editions, and they happen to be twenty very momentous years in the history of welfare policy.)

What's depressing, though, is that in every successive preface he has to point out that he had been overly optimistic in his concluding remarks to the previous book. 

Here's a snippet from the preface to the Second Edition (1978):
The initial version [of this book], completed early in 1973, brought the account of social welfare in America up to the start of this decade.To leave it at that critical juncture would be to shirk an obligation to readers who have witnessed the important, often complex occurrences since then and who seek to know how they are related to prior events. One of the most significant elements in the new edition, then, is the addition of a chapter on the 1970s, “Where Do We Go From Here?” 

I was especially pleased to have the opportunity to bring the text up to date because, writing some five or six years ago, I ended the manuscript on a rather optimistic note. For reasons discussed in the work, I suggested that “as 1970 approached, all was not bleak”; despite the lack of progress, “there were rays of hope.” Events over the past half-decade have proved me unduly sanguine, as the new concluding chapter indicates. Perhaps a future edition of this work will see the restoration of my confidence in the future; I hope so.
 And here's one from the Third Edition (1983):
Less than two decades ago, during the “booming” 1960s, a consensus existed in America regarding the welfare state. Few people on either side of the political aisle opposed strengthening the Social Security system or even declaring “war on poverty.” It was widely believed that the federal government was responsible for the well-being of all citizens, including their basic economic security and their physical and mental health. 

Now, in the midst of a long period of low productivity, deep recession, near-record levels of unemployment, high inflation, and widespread and growing suffering, the welfare state is under severe attack. In the forefront of that attack is the Reagan administration, with its neo-conservative philosophy. After his landslide victory in 1980, Ronald Reagan and his business-oriented advisors came into office intent on altering the direction of public affairs, particularly with regard to the scope and costs of federal activities and the relationship between the public and the private sector, especially in the area of social welfare. Since that time, they have consistently sought, with great success, to eliminate some federal and federally subsidized welfare programs and to cut back on others in a concerted attempt to reverse the steady drift toward Washington’s greater involvement in the nation’s social welfare system. 

The assault against the welfare state has come from the left as well as from the right, from radical scholars and activists as well as from conservative politicians, businessmen, and working class Americans. During the past fifteen years or so, the literature on social welfare, in fact, has been dominated by critics from the left, those who advocate the so-called social control thesis — the argument that the middle and upper classes have devised and used the nation’s welfare institutions and agencies not to help but to control the needy in order to safeguard the existing class system, perpetuate capitalism, and serve their own interests. In fact, so pervasive had such a view become that David Rothman, one of the authors of a widely cited statement on the “limits of benevolence,” rightly indicated that there even existed a widespread and acute suspicion of the very idea of doing good: “Whereas once historians and policy analysts were prone to label some movements reform, thereby assuming their humanitarian aspects,” Rothman wrote in 1978, “they are presently far more comfortable with a designation of social control, thereby assuming their coercive quality …” 

Activists of all kinds also see the needy as less beneficiaries of a benevolent society and more as victims of an all-controlling state; such activists include radicals who preach “participatory democracy” and “community control,” liberals fed up with big government and the federal bureaucracy, and even some social workers and members of the other helping professions who are convinced that the “experts” or “helpers” do not really help, that their professional knowledge, techniques, and institutions have been used to promote a sort of societal imperialism designed to keep the needy in a dependent position in order to perpetuate and enhance professionals’ own role in society. 
This, then, is an exciting and challenging (if not very encouraging) time to be thinking and writing about American social welfare history and the social work profession — and one of the justifications for a new edition of this work.This revised text is a product, at least in part, of the many things that have happened in the field, intellectually and practically, since the appearance of the last edition in 1979.
... the Fourth Edition (1988):
At the conclusion of the Preface to the third edition of this book, written in July, 1983, I stated, “Perhaps … a later edition of … [this] work, should one appear, will have a happier ending.” Unfortunately, that is not so. Despite the efforts of the outgoing administration to deny and conceal the fact, millions of American citizens remain mired in poverty. Indeed, the situation has worsened over the last eight years. In point of fact, there are now more Americans — especially women and children — who are poverty-stricken and in many cases homeless and hungry than there were when President Reagan took office. In addition, in cities all across the nation, there has developed a demoralized “underclass,” comprising school dropouts, gang members, hustlers, criminals, drug addicts, drifters, and other marginal and functionless people who often prey upon and terrorize innocent citizens and threaten the very fabric of American life.  
This new edition gave me the opportunity to take account of, and analyze, these developments and to put them into historical perspective. In so doing, I came to realize that “Reaganism” was not merely the continuation of policies initiated during the Nixon, Ford, and even Carter administrations, as I had believed (and written) earlier. In retrospect, it becomes clear that the period from 1969 to 1981 was a transitional era between the Kennedy-Johnson administrations, with their idealistic and grandiose social policies, and the Reagan administration, with its far more punitive and restrictive measures — measures that, for the first time, were designed to undermine and undo the welfare state that had emerged in America during the prior half-century. 
... Fifth Edition (1993):
Ordinarily, authors are quite pleased to have the opportunity to revise and update books they had written previously. Certainly that was the case with me, as for example my comments in the Preface to the Second Edition indicate. Unfortunately, however, that was not so this time. For the most part, revising and updating this work proved to be a difficult and depressing task.  
The last edition of this book, published in 1989, concluded with George Bush’s election to the presidency after eight years, under Ronald Reagan, of unremitting horror for the nation’s poor. Since that time, however, as I feared, conditions only have gotten worse. Under Bush, the war on the welfare state continued, poverty intensified, and homelessness and a variety of other related social problems reached new heights. All the while, the occupant of the White House and his supporters, who viewed the needy with indifference, if not scorn, did nothing — or worse: they cut even more holes in the social welfare safety net, such as it was. And while the violence that erupted in Los Angeles in the spring of 1992 thrust the state of America’s inner cities and urban poverty into the public consciousness once again, and even rekindled some public debate on these matters, certainly it did not propel them onto the public agenda, at least not yet.  
If there is any light at the end of the tunnel, it is the fact that the twelve dark and dismal years of the Reagan-Bush era have come to an end, and — as I indicate in the conclusion to this work — there is hope (although not quite as much now as there was immediately after the 1992 presidential election) for the onset of a new domestic order, one that will allow Americans to regain their “dignity as a just and compassionate people,” as the authors of The Greatest of Evils: Urban Poverty and the American Underclass (1993) put it. 
... and Sixth Edition (1999):
The first question most readers undoubtedly will ask is, why publish a new edition of From Poor Law to Welfare State this time? While there are a number of reasons for doing so, there are two compelling, although related, answers to that question. First, the previous edition of this work ended on a rather upbeat, or optimistic, note. President Bill Clinton had just introduced his sweeping proposal to overhaul the nation’s health care system, and while many questions about that undertaking remain unanswered, I wrote that “most Americans reacted favorably to the plan and looked forward to the upcoming debate over its specifics.” Furthermore, to again quote from the last edition, “there seemed to be bi-partisan support, in and out of Congress, for the notion that the time had come for some sort of universal national health insurance scheme.” Obviously, I was wrong, and I am glad to have the opportunity to correct myself — and to explain why I was mistaken.  
Second, and closely related, I also misunderstood, or placed too much faith in, President Clinton and his commitment to helping the needy by getting to the heart of their problems — and using the federal government to help resolve them. I really believed, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit, that Clinton, “unlike his immediate predecessors, who either did not recognize the nation’s social problems or refused to face up to them … certainly admits that the nation has many such problems, … that it cannot afford to ignore them, … and that the public sector can and should help to resolve them. Just as our colonial ancestors viewed their villages and towns as communities [I wrote] he cries out for the government again to become an instrument for the improvement of its citizens’ lives, especially by providing at least a minimal level of social welfare for all of its inhabitants.” 

Again, I proved to be in error. Indeed, as readers may already know, or will discover from reading the “new” last chapter of this book — the title of which I changed from “Toward a New Domestic Order?” to “Looking Forward — or Backward?” — just the opposite occurred. Thanks to what is referred to as the welfare reform act of 1996, signed into law by Clinton (just prior to the upcoming presidential election) over the protests of a number of concerned citizens, the entitlement to welfare, put into place in America some sixty years ago in the midst of the Great Depression (if not earlier, during the colonial period), has been removed and replaced by the “work or starve” mentality of an earlier time. 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Book Review: The Dark Side of the Enlightenment

(This review is also posted on
Cover of The Dark Side of the Enlightenment: Wizards, Alchemists and Spiritual Seekers in the Age of Reason, by John V. Fleming
I got this book because I have an abiding interest in science, in the history of science, and in the history of various wider cultural backlashes against science. (I am a STEM/humanities dual degree holder, and came of age in Kansas during the most recent "Evolution Wars," so that's why that sort of thing interests me. How could it not?)

That's kind of what I thought The Dark Side of the Enlightenment would be --- an exploration of counter-trends to the Enlightenment ideals of rationality and empiricism. And, to an extent, it is; the author is a medievalist, not an Enlightenment historian or a historian of science, and he makes the very interesting claim that the "occult" pursuits mentioned in the title were of a piece with the more widely known, and celebrated, empirical investigations of that era.

(This is not the first time I've encountered that idea, but John Fleming does a very good job of making the case for it. His training as a medievalist works to his advantage here, because he can trace the medieval roots of both Enlightenment science and Enlightenment "magic.")

But the thing that was most counter to my expectations was that this book wasn't really the kind of history I was expecting -- one that dealt with places, events, ideas, trends, and in which individual people appeared briefly, like rocks in a streambed, subtly changing the water's flow and then quickly passed by -- no, this was more like a series of long, detailed biographical sketches.

The people and groups he chooses to profile are: Valentine Greatrakes, an Irish country gentleman who became famous for miraculously curing people of scrofula by touching them; a small French Jansenist sect that venerated a churchyard where a Jansenist deacon who was thought to have been able to heal people during his lifetime was buried, and who were struck with shaking fits when they visited his grave; Alchemists; Kabbalists; Freemasons; Rosicrucians (who these people were wasn't entirely clear to me! They don't seem to have been an order or a club so much as any people, anywhere, who were interested in discovering things? So I'm not sure who wasn't a Rosicrucian?); Count Cagliostro, who was actually a Sicilian named Giuseppe Balsamo, who went all over Europe founding Masonic lodges of his own "Egyptian" rite, and who was imprisoned in the Bastille because Marie-Antoinette believed (unfairly) that he had participated in a scheme to defraud her that is remembered today as "The Affair of the Diamond Necklace"; and the very interesting Julie de Krüdener, a Latvian noblewoman who first became famous in pre-revolutionary Paris's literary scene, where she befriended lots of people who are still famous today, like Chateaubriand and Madame de Staël, and who later in life converted to Pietism and achieved further fame (or notoriety) as a sort of itinerant preacher. Most amazingly, she became convinced that Napoleon Bonaparte was the literal Antichrist, and that it was her special duty to stop him.

This is all very interesting, and also very well written; Fleming can be very funny. But what I thought was most admirable about his treatment of all these eccentric historical figures is how much he seems to respect them. No one is a fraud or a charlatan in this book, even when what they purport to be doing is physically impossible. Cagliostro in particular he seems to feel it his duty to rehabilitate, because Thomas Carlyle once called him the King of Liars. Fleming does his best to convince us that Cagliostro was not a liar, nor particularly mercenary; that he seems to have been a genuinely nice person, a loyal and honest person, and perhaps a bit too trusting. He is similarly gentle with Julie de Krüdener. Lots of people have written her off as a frivolous, selfish, self-aggrandizing adulteress and social climber. Fleming does not deny the things she did to give people this impression, but he also tries to give us the full context of her actions, and to tell us how she saw things. He sees her as a woman of intense emotion, whose marriage could not give her everything she needed, and who did really love the men she had affairs with. He also does an admirable job of connecting her earlier "worldly" behavior -- her seeking out the literary salons like a flower follows the sun, and also her affairs -- to her later religious conversion, saying that both phases of her life follow logically from her florid emotionality and her need for an outlet for all those emotions. We are sympathetic to men whose devotion to Art, or to Principle, lead them to abandon their duties to family and community; why, besides sexism, would we not extend a woman the same benefit of the doubt?

My only complaint with this book was that it ended too soon; it cuts off abruptly after explaining how Julie de Krüdener reached the conclusion that Napoleon was the Antichrist. We are not shown how it affects the rest of her life. What did she DO with this astonishing information? Did she preach against him on street corners? Did she abandon all other pursuits, to devote her life solely to denouncing him? This sounds like a life-changing revelation, but we don't get to see how, or if, it did change her life! We're just left hanging.

Saturday, February 8, 2014


Atalanta is my favorite mythological character, and I was always disappointed that there were so few stories about her, as opposed to the zillions of stories we have about, say, Hercules or Jason or Achilles or Odysseus.

Here is what I had known about her: when she was born, her father left her out in the woods to die. A bear finds her, and raises her as one of her own cubs. Atalanta grows to womanhood in the wilderness, and becomes a great hunter. She comes out of the woods at some point, to mix with other humans, and goes on adventures with the other heroes of her time --- she joins in the hunt for the Calydonian boar, which she is the first to wound, and she sails with Jason on the Argo, to help him find the Golden Fleece.

Men keep wanting to marry her, but she is a devotee of Artemis and sworn to chastity. (Or, alternately, she just isn't interested in married life.) So she issues a challenge to her prospective suitors: they must be able to win a footrace against her to marry her, and must stake their lives on the outcome of the contest. Win the race, and win her hand; or lose the race, and lose your life. This probably helped thin the herd of contestants somewhat!

One guy (who is called Hippomenes in the version of the story I know, but apparently he is sometimes called Melanion) planned ahead, and asked Aphrodite to help him win the race. She gave him three golden apples, and told him that Atalanta will be unable to resist them (either because they're magic or because ladies just can't resist the shiny), so if he throws them, she'll have to veer off course and stop to pick them up. These detours would give him time to overcome her lead, and even get ahead of her.

He does win the race, and he does get to marry Atalanta. But he forgets to thank Aphrodite for her help by making a burnt offering to her before the wedding, so she turns him and Atalanta both into lions. (Or, alternately, she makes them so consumed with lust that they consummate their marriage vows right there in Zeus's temple, which makes Zeus angry and then he turns them into lions.)*

It annoys me that the story about her that I know in the most detail isn't really about her --- it's about Hippomenes/Melanion, and his efforts to Get the Girl. Even apart from their main stories, we have all kinds of other stories of Hercules, Theseus and Jason wandering around performing random acts of heroism; why do we have so few about Atalanta? Such a badass character must surely have slain her share of brigands and marauding beasts, and the woman was raised from infancy by bears. Why aren't there any stories about her life in the forest, with the bears? (Also, who taught her to hunt like a human? Bears don't shoot arrows or throw spears, yet Atalanta is able to do both with great skill. Was there a kindly centaur who taught her in the warrior's arts, like Chiron taught Achilles?)

Because of this lingering disappointment with the meager trove of Atalanta-stories, I was elated to find this old Journal of Sport History article on "The Atalanta Legend in Art and Literature" (PDF). I was even more overjoyed to see it list a couple of incidents in Atalanta's mythic biography that I hadn't ever seen before: apparently she also wrestled against Peleus, the father of Achilles, who once beat a goddess at wrestling (that goddess being Thetis, Achilles's mother, the sea-goddess), and she was also once ambushed by two centaurs, whom she very quickly overpowered and killed.

(The article also explains who taught her to use weapons --- I guess some hunters found her while she was living in the woods, and took her in with them, and taught her to be a hunter, too.)

Going back to her contest with Peleus, here's a bit of trivia I thought was awesome:
That wrestling skills were possessed by Atalanta is obvious from the various artistic representations depicting the contest. Indeed [E. Norman**] Gardiner [in his 1910 book Greek Athletic Sports and Festivals] claimed that perhaps "the best illustration of a neck-hold occurred on a black-figured amphora in Munich, representing the wrestling match between Peleus and Atalanta."  For the match, Atalanta wore a tight fitting wrestling cap and short trunks, or shorts, while Peleus was naked as was the custom for male athletes in antiquity. There are several artistic representations of this match and the various scenes all show Peleus's hands in the same position, both on Atalanta's left arm. Atalanta, however, is shown in different positions, which varied from no hold at all, to her right arm over Peleus's shoulder, to her right hand seizing him by the back of the neck. 
Here are some pictures of those various depictions:
This might be the thing mentioned in the quoted bit? I don't know an amphora from a hole in the ground, but she's definitely got him in a neck-hold there!

Here's another one --- looks like this one's supposed to be the start of the match, from the way they're standing together in the middle of all those people.
Anyway, I just thought it was incredibly awesome that, not only is there another story I hadn't heard before about Atalanta being badass, but that a vase painting of that story should be singled out as possibly the best depiction of a certain wrestling technique in ancient Greek art!

*It is entirely possible that the first possible outcome I listed, with Aphrodite herself vengefully turning them into lions, is a bowdlerization of the ending I put in parentheses, where she makes them horny while they're on some other god's sacred ground, and then that god turns them into lions. I did first encounter this story as a child, in children's books.

**E. Norman! What an E. Normous opportunity for a pun!

Friday, February 7, 2014

On Long-Term Unemployment: Some Disjointed Thoughts

(A very rough draft of this post is on my Tumblr. I have decided I really like "tag rambling" as a form of writing!)

One of Mike the Mad Biologist's link-farm posts led me to this affecting post on The Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog, by one Kathleen Geier*:
Finally, on a personal note, I will, at long last, out myself here: I am one of those long-term unemployed you keep hearing about, and [sociologist Ofer] Sharone's research rings painfully true to my own experience. I've attended sessions at one of those self-help centers for unemployed workers of the type Sharone refers to. Those sessions helped me in important ways -- the videotaped mock interview, with feedback, was especially useful. But the philosophy there was that finding a job is largely under your control, and that did tend to exacerbate my already robust penchant for self-blame. It also left me with a gnawing sense of perpetual guilt that I'm never doing enough in my job search.

"I'm not spending enough time on my job search" is one category of unemployment self-blame. The other kind comes when you land an interview, but not the job. There have been times I've raked myself over the coals: why did I never think to learn skill X that they are looking for? Or, God, I really blew that question! Why oh why didn't I do more practice interviews?

I've interviewed for some great jobs, and I've made it to the final stage several times. A few weeks ago, for my dream job, I was one of the final two people considered -- but then of course, they decided to go with the other person.  
I always hear, "We really liked you!" "We were so impressed!" But someone else always turns out to be a "better fit". Always! It's beyond frustrating. That's why Sharone's findings about the emphasis on "the chemistry game" in the U.S. job market hit home for me. "Someone else was a better fit" -- story of my life.
The research she's referring to is in the book Flawed System/Flawed Self: Job Searching and Unemployment Experiences, by MIT professor and sociologist Ofer Sharone. (Here is MIT's press release about the book).

Anyway, the objective elements of Kathleen Geier's experience --- long term unemployment, getting interviews but not jobs, someone else always being a "better fit" even though the interviewer/HR person gushes about your qualifications --- are very similar to mine, but I don't have the self-blaming response that she says she has, and that this Ofer Sharone guy says characterizes long-term-unemployed Americans in general.

I guess I think of interviews in a much more fatalistic way than she does. I see them less as a challenge for me to overcome than a way for them, the prospective employers, to look at me in person. If they like what they see, I get the job; if they don't, I don't.

Not sure if this is a healthier way to look at it or not --- yeah, I don't beat myself up over "failing" an interview, because I don't think passing or failing one is up to me, but at the same time I feel hugely disempowered in every aspect of the job search. 

Obsessive self-loathing and total apathy are both aspects of depression, you know?

And, of course, my being autistic informs my ideas about why I might be rejected. For her, it sounds like she tends to blame herself for rejection because she thinks she said something wrong, or underprepared for the interview, and that if she had said a different thing or done more prep work she would have gotten the job.

It's not that simple for me, because I know there are an endless array of reasons a non-autistic person might be put off by me, an autistic person. I know that they see a whole bunch of things in my body language, and hear things in my tone of voice, that I don't know are there** and can't consciously control or correct for.

I guess an analogy might be, you're applying for work in a very New Age sort of environment, where the hiring manager says she can read auras***, and that in lieu of a conventional interview she would just evaluate you on the basis of your aura. You sit in front of her for a VERY awkward five minutes or so while she closes her eyes, goes hmm and ahhh and oh! and oh dear and you have no idea what she's reacting to, and then she opens her eyes, shakes your hand, tells you she'll get back to you with her decision, and then leaves. And you are left completely mystified as to what just happened or what she thought of you.

You would probably not think there was much you could have done to change the outcome of that interview if you failed to get the job, correct?

Well, they're all pretty much like that for me.

*I'm assuming no relation to the notorious Mark and David Geier!

**A less charitable way of putting this is that they project qualities onto me from their imaginations. And they have such active ones!

***Assume for the purpose of this analogy that you cannot perceive your own aura because auras don't exist.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Trouble with Long Shots ...

... is that they so rarely hit their targets.

The long shot to which I refer is John Elder Robison's three-year effort to nudge Autism Speaks's research funding priorities toward therapies that help make autistic people's lives easier, as opposed to determining causes and finding ways to prevent more autistic people from being born.

From a 2010 blog post explaining his reasons for accepting the position:
One of my principal areas of concern will be identifying and funding studies that have high likelihood of improving the lives of autistic people today. Research into causes of autism is important, but I want to see more research aimed at remediation of specific components of autistic disability. The TMS [i.e., transcranial magnetic stimulation] work I'm involved in at Harvard/Beth Israel is a good example of work that can lead to better lives for today's autistic population. 
In addition to my work on the science side, I hope to work more closely with the Wrights and Autism Speaks management to help the organization appreciate the needs of autistic people at all points on the spectrum. That's going to be a real challenge because the views of different people on the spectrum are so widely divergent. 
When the Wrights founded Autism Speaks their focus was on children with significant autistic disability. While that remains important, I hope to broaden the organization's focus to welcome and support less impaired people too. I also want to bring some attention to the plight of adults on the spectrum, many of whom grew up with no awareness of autism at all.  
... and another one going into greater detail about his role on the advisory board and how he hoped to make use of it:
... [T]he [research] proposals that made it through the initial screening reach the review board - the place I serve. Proposals are dealt out to members of the board for a first ranking. Much of the time, three reviewers read each proposal. They may be assigned randomly, or they may be dealt out by expertise. However they are allocated, if there are 30 of us on the board, and there are 100 proposals to deal with, we will each be assigned ten.

We will rate the proposals we are given in several areas, like the impact on the community, how likely the work is to succeed, and whether it's truly new research or a rehash of something already covered. Each area is scored from 1-5, or perhaps 1-7. So a proposal that I (or any of us) rated 4,4,5,5,3 in each of five areas would have a composite score of 4.2. 

The three initial reviewer scores are combined for a total score, and proposals are ranked based on this first pass. At that point, staffers take the funds available for allotment and they see how far down into the ranks the money goes. For example, if we have twenty million dollars to distribute, that might be enough to fund the top third of the applications.

Given that, the agency takes all the proposals in the top third, plus a cut of the next tier, for final review. That's where we all discuss them, and we all vote. And that's where any one voice can matter a lot. I'll give you an example. Let's say a piece of research involves social skills training, and most of the scientists give it a 3 for importance. But I feel that it's a really important proposal, based on my life experience, so I speak up. By doing so, I cause people around the room to rethink the proposal's importance, and a number of people move their score from 3 to 4 or even 5. The result: that proposal's average score rises, which moves it from "not good enough to fund" into the "recommended for funding" category.
Now, following the publication of this op-ed article from Autism Speaks founder Suzanne Wright on the organization's website, Robison has resigned from both of the boards he had been sitting on.

Here is his post explaining why he did that.

I care about this, and am saddened that Robison feels like he hasn't been heard, even though I pretty much consider Autism Speaks to be the enemy, because I did have a sliver of hope that he could shift their priorities a little, and through them get funding for projects that might help people, and that might not get any funding otherwise*. (It's not like the NIH or NSF are drowning in money these days ...)

Now that he's stepped down, that sliver of hope is gone. I have no reason to extend even the slightest, most infinitesimal modicum of goodwill to Autism Speaks. 

It had already been my practice to discourage people who wanted to Do Something for Autism from donating to them and recommending other charitable organizations that do more for actual autistic people, so I guess I will be doing more of that! I will also be contacting my Representative and Senators and telling them that Autism Speaks doesn't speak for most autistic people, and that they should not think that allocating money to them will make any difference to autistic people or their families.

Once again, here is a list** of autism-related charities*** I consider more worthwhile than Autism Speaks:

AAPD - American Association of People with Disabilities

AASPIRE - Academic Autistic Spectrum Partnership in Research and Education


ASAN - Autistic Self Advocacy Network

AWN - Autism Women's Network

DREDF - Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund

Easter Seals

National Disability Leadership Alliance

National Disability Rights Network

NOEWAIT - National Organization to End the WAITlists

Not Dead Yet

SABE - Self Advocates Becoming Empowered

TAAP - The Autism Acceptance Project


The National Council on Independent Living

*They still would have been the enemy, and I still would've encouraged people not to donate to them, and my ideal scenario would still have been that they should dissolve, and clear the field for less harmful organizations. But people can work on that objective while other people --- like Robison --- work on others, like getting more of their grant money to projects that might help improve quality of life for some autistic people! We can walk and chew gum at the same time. (Well, metaphorically if not literally. I cannot literally walk and eat something at the same time, but I can simultaneously favor more radical long-term strategies and short-term harm-reduction measures. My mind is nimbler than my body.)

**There are going to be more names on this list than there were the last time I did this, because I've found out about more organizations.

***Includes cross-disability organizations

Sunday, November 3, 2013


I carved a lot of jack-o'-lanterns this year:

I really like how the four around the big one turned out, but I'm not as sure of the big one itself. It was supposed to be two faces, split down the middle --- one grinning, one scary. I'm thinking now that that might've come across better if I'd made some sort of division between the faces: a positive/negative space thing or some kind of dividing line, like a jagged scar or something.

Here I am holding it, if you want a closer look:

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Jerk Tweets Sexist Remark, Prompts Me to Muse About the Meaning of "Freedom"

"Feminism is the radical notion that women are people" - Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler
It took a long time before this saying made any sense to me. Surely everyone knows that women are people, right? What else would they be? Space aliens? Robots? Very convincing holograms?

That was a joke --- I knew, even when I first heard the saying, that it was referring not to the tautology that female Homo sapiens are Homo sapiens, but to the philosophical concept of personhood. At the time, though, I couldn't imagine that anyone did not extend personhood fully to women, so the saying still struck me as bizarre.

Well, here is a wonderfully clear example of someone doing just that:
Tweet from Pax Dickinson saying "Women's suffrage and individual freedom are incompatible. How's that for an unpopular truth?" Image taken from the Public Shaming tumblr
This guy was, until recently, the Chief Technology Officer at Business Insider, a popular news website with an emphasis on business and technology (particularly information technology) news.

But I don't care so much about who the speaker is so much as I do about what he is saying: Women's suffrage and individual freedom are incompatible. What? People are freer when fewer of them can vote? How does that make any sense?

I would submit that it only makes sense when you assume that the "individuals" he's talking about are men. Women's freedom is compatible with women's suffrage --- see recent elections in which women's votes made the difference between a Republican rape philosopher and a more liberal (if not always pro-choice) Democrat.

Women's votes made the difference in 2012 in the Indiana U.S. Senate race between Richard Mourdock (the "pregnancy from rape is God's will" guy) and Joe Donnelly*, in the Connecticut Senate race between Linda McMahon and Chris Murphy**, in the Massachusetts Senate race between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren***, in the Ohio Senate race between Josh Mandel and Sherrod Brown****, in the Pennsylvania Senate race between Tom Smith and Bob Casey*****, and in the Virginia Senate race between George Allen and Tim Kaine. 

Women's votes failed to make the difference in the Wisconsin Senate race between Tommy Thompson and Tammy Baldwin, and in the governor's races in Montana and Washington --- if only women had voted, the Democratic candidates would've won those races, but the Republicans' advantage among men was strong enough to carry them to victory anyway.

(It should be pointed out that, for the most part, abortion and other "women's issues" do not drive the gender gap in voting behavior --- there are much bigger differences between the sexes on whether to strengthen or cut back the welfare state and whether to pursue a hawkish or dovish foreign policy, according to Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics. The hard-right candidates that women voters rejected in 2012 espoused both extreme anti-abortion, anti-contraception positions and a desire to greatly diminish the welfare state, so it's hard to tell whether their anti-choice zealotry was the deciding factor in alienating women voters. But the fact remains that, if only men had voted, a lot more of those anti-choice zealots would be sitting in Congress today.)

So, besides being more likely to vote against candidates looking to curtail their reproductive freedoms, women also vote for candidates they think will strengthen the social safety net. What does that have to do with personal freedom?

Well, I think having a robust social safety net is critical for maximizing individual freedom: there are a lot more choices available to you if you don't have to worry about losing your home and being unable to feed yourself and your family if you lose your job. You're more free to blow the whistle if you think your employer is doing something unethical, to fight against what you see as unfair or exploitative working conditions, and to engage in political activism or commentary outside of work without being afraid that these things will cost you your job. You are also more free to leave a job for whatever reason. There's a reason FDR named "freedom from want" as one of his Four Freedoms, and why he used that word --- freedom --- instead of, say, "rights" or "entitlements" or "needs."

There's also a subset of welfare-undermining measures that serve only to criminalize poverty, to subject people needing government assistance to intrusive, degrading treatment and erode their freedom. Things that fall into this category are mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients, requiring welfare recipients to document that they spent a certain number of hours each week either working or engaging in approved job-seeking or job-preparatory activity, tying the amount of money a family receives to how well their children are doing in school, or requiring people applying for welfare to be fingerprinted.

People who favor such mean-spirited measures usually think there are legions of idlers living on welfare just because they don't want to work, and spending their benefits on luxury items. 

(They are mistaken --- almost every form of public assistance that exists in the US is time-limited or situation-specific, like unemployment insurance (which expires after a certain number of weeks that varies by state), the program people are usually thinking of when they say "welfare" (which is officially called TANF: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which has, among many other limitation, a five-year lifetime cap on benefits), or WIC (which you can only get if you are pregnant, nursing, or have children younger than five years old). The one program that doesn't come with a predetermined expiration date is food stamps, which you can only get if you make 130% of the federal poverty rate or less, and which you can only use to buy food).

But whether or not the idlers exist, it's important to focus on the fact that these people --- the people who favor draconian measures to curb welfare fraud --- are more concerned with ferreting them out than with getting aid to those who need it, and subjecting those people to minimal state intrusion and hassle. That does not sound like a person who is concerned with human freedom; to me, that sounds a lot more like a person who cares little for people and a whole lot for pinching pennies.

There are some personal-freedom issues on which women tend to favor more restrictive policies than men do: according to this poll, women are less likely than men to support legalizing marijuana, to give just one example. But the conclusion one draws from that, taking into account everything I've said above, isn't that men are pro-freedom and women are anti-freedom; it's that most people favor at least some restrictions on individual freedoms, and that there are some differences between the sexes in terms of what should be allowed and what should be forbidden. The only way you arrive at "Women's suffrage is incompatible with individual freedom" is by defining "individual freedom" so selectively as to leave out any personal-freedom issue on which women are more liberal than men.

*Donnelly is pro-life, but unlike Mourdock he would allow an exception to a general ban on abortion for victims of forcible rape. He also voted for the Affordable Care Act and for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

**McMahon supported the Blunt amendment, which would've allowed employers to opt out of providing insurance coverage for contraception. She also wanted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which is slightly more popular among women than among men (i.e., for women it's almost a 50/50 split, while men are opposed by a slim majority). 

***The biggest issue at stake in this race was obviously regulation and reform of the financial sector, which is not a "women's issue" but is, according to Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics, a greater priority with women voters than with men, though this poll shows huge majorities of both sexes favoring reform.

****Mandel seems to have campaigned on his opposition to the Affordable Care Act, and the fact that his opponent, Sen. Sherrod Brown, voted for it. Mandel also opposes abortion, same-sex marriage and including sexual orientation and gender identity in anti-discrimination laws. 

*****Casey is pro-life, but unlike Smith he would allow an exception to a general ban on abortion for victims of rape or incest, or if the life of the mother is in danger. He voted for the Blunt amendment, but has also voted to protect Planned Parenthood's federal funding under Title X, and to rescind the Mexico City Policy (aka the "global gag rule" forbidding aid organizations from even referring people for abortion services). He also supported the Paycheck Fairness Act and introduced a bill to require colleges to do more to prevent (and track, and prosecute) sexual assault and domestic violence. Smith, as I mentioned, favors a total ban on abortion with no exceptions, and is one of the lesser-known Republican rape philosophers.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Shelter from the Storm

So my cat, Magic, is afraid of thunder. She has a special place where she always goes when there's a thunderstorm --- at the top of the stairs, off to the side where there's a sort of fenced-in ledge for her to sit on and overlook the people (and other cats) coming and going on the main floor.
She likes closed-in spaces.
There's an end table opposite the ledge, so it's a very snug fit indeed!
She's very cute when she sits there, and it usually calms her down --- it's not uncommon for her to go to sleep there, thunder or no thunder. So I tried to take a few pictures of her; she has a certain posture that she always adopts, with her front paws pressed together under her chest and folded over the ledge.
Magic sitting in her special spot. She's got greeneye* because I can't control the flash.
"Quit taking pictures of me, you weirdo!"
*Does anyone know why cats get greeneye instead of redeye? What's different about their eyes? Is it lens shape?

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Most Bizarre Autism Hypothesis Yet

Banner ad for a video and ebook promising to explain how "Global Elite Uses Vaccines to Create Autism", and also "How Autism Profits the Globalist Cronies"
A commenter on one of Orac's recent posts linked to this website, which lays out one of the most ludicrously counterfactual Autism Hypotheses I've ever seen: the global elites are deliberately making people autistic (using vaccines, obviously) because autistic people make better, more docile workers.
Graphic from anti-vaccine crank website showing the All-Seeing Eye as it appears on the Great Seal of the United States, as the capstone floating above a pyramid, with the Eye of Sauron photoshopped in as the pupil of the eye. The words "Neo Aristocrats" are superimposed over the eye, and over the pyramid below are the word "Servants" with a red line below it, and the words "Delta Technicians" (a reference to the caste of developmentally disabled menial laborers from Brave New World) below that. Below the picture is a quote from Lord David Freud, a Conservative member of the UK's House of Lords, in which he talks about the benefits to businesses of hiring autistic workers. He says, "... it makes good business sense to employ people who are reliable, punctual and loyal; people who have good attention to detail and concentration levels..." Indeed it does! But that doesn't mean people are running around zapping people with Autism Rays, or even hiring as many of us as there are who need jobs.
Now, if you're like me, you moved right past the first two absurd premises --- vaccines cause autism and big pharmaceutical companies want to make people sick --- because you've heard them so many times. No, what floored me was the immense, crushing irony of their believing that autistic people make such desirable employees.
There's that Brave New World reference again
Do they not know how many of us are unemployed, underemployed or mal-employed*?

They cite Goldman Sachs UK's recent decision to offer (paid!) internships and job placements to qualified autistic people in London as proof that autistic people make desirable workers, but they totally miss the fact that the company had to set aside these positions specifically for autistic applicants. Not only that, but this program (and others like it, at other firms like SAP and Freddie Mac) represents a long-overdue first step toward integrating autistic people who are willing and able to work into the mainstream economy. A first step. A departure from the way things are normally done. And a drop in the bucket compared to how many autistic people are still shut out of the conventional job market.

There is definitely a flaw in your plan for world domination if you've designed the perfect army of loyal minions, but most of them can't get a job working for you.

*Malemployment, if you didn't know, is Mark Romoser's term for the scenario in which a lot of autistic adults find ourselves: working at a job far below your skill level and at a task for which you are unsuited. Like, say, an autistic person with an advanced degree working food service, where they struggle to keep up with people's orders and to talk to customers and prepare food at the same time. Romoser wrote an article about it, but it is behind a paywall. You can buy the article from Amazon for a lot less than you would pay if you got it directly from the journal (i.e., six dollars as opposed to fifteen), but it's still not free.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

What Is Your Regional Dialect of American English?

Razib Khan at Gene Expression linked to a very interesting --- but lengthy --- quiz designed by a statistician at North Carolina State University. It's meant to show you which regions of the USA your speech most closely matches.

It asks you all sorts of things, about everything from vowel pronunciation to word usage to idiomatic expressions to which syllables in a given word you stress, and when you're done, you get a lovely map with big blobs of color showing the areas of greatest --- and least --- similarity to your own speech.

Here is mine:
My dialect map! I am clearly an Upper Midwesterner, but the rest of the Midwest and Mountain West aren't too far off. The South and New England, though? Might as well be another country. 
It also gives you two lists of five cities that it thinks are closest to and furthest away from you in their local dialects. 

My best match is Grand Rapids, Michigan, followed by a four-way tie between Lansing, Michigan; Rockford, Illinois; Flint, Michigan*; and Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (The lattermost city is actually one I've spent a lot of time in. I've been to Michigan --- went to science camp on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in high school --- but haven't lived there).

My worst matches are mostly in the Deep South: Huntsville, Alabama; New Orleans, Louisiana; Metairie, Lousiana**; and Birmingham, Alabama. The one exception is Plymouth, Massachusetts.

That map is particularly visually striking in its division of the country so neatly in half --- it looks like someone drew a line diagonally from the Michigan/Ohio border on the western shore of Lake Erie to the southwest corner of New Mexico, and dyed the top half red and the bottom half blue. There's a bit of an intermediate belt, especially toward the West Coast, but all across the central part of the map the red and the blue are right up next to each other. 

They give you a numerical value for each city on either list; that number refers to the probability of any random person in that city giving the same answer to any random question on the quiz that you gave. The map makes the differences seem starker than they are --- the spread between my highest- and lowest-scoring cities was only about eight points. This makes sense when you consider how young a country the US is, and how relatively uniform American English is compared with, say, British English*** or other European languages like Dutch, German, French, Italian, Spanish and probably zillions of others, which have dialects so different from one another (and from the standard language, which American English doesn't really have --- probably because we don't need one yet) that a speaker of, say, standard German would be unable to understand a German-speaking person who speaks Low German or any of the High Franconian or Upper German dialects.

At the end of the quiz, the ask you where you live now and where you spent most of your childhood; they also ask if you are a native English speaker, so maybe if you're not they will ask you about your native language. The data it draws on are restricted to continental American English (i.e., the US minus Alaska and Hawaii), so I don't know how enlightening it will be to someone who speaks any other form of English. I could see it being of interest to non-native English speakers who learned American English; maybe it could tell you something about where the person who taught you English was from!

*So, if people reading this blog ever try to imagine my voice, you could probably do worse than imagining my words read by Michael Moore. Except for the part where Michael Moore is a guy, but whatever.

**I didn't know there was a Metairie, Lousiana. It has a beautiful name, even if it is apparently one of the five places in the nation where I am most likely to have serious trouble making myself understood.

***I would expect Canadian and Australian English also to have regional dialects that are still pretty similar to each other overall, what with their having a similar history of being a British colony at around the same time. I don't know this, though, so it would be nice to have confirmation --- or contradiction, for that matter --- from any Canadian or Australian readers I might have.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

All Developmental Disability Is Autism?

Amanda Forest Vivian pointed out something interesting in this post (about a singer using the words "autistic" and "retarded" pejoratively, and then apologizing for it): People seem to be confusing autism, one particular developmental disability, with developmental disability in general.

Here is what she says:
There was a time when all developmental disability was assumed to be intellectual disability and people were confused by the word autism. Now the opposite seems to have happened--for example, when people find out I work with someone who is nonspeaking, they immediately assume she has autism, instead of realizing that there are many disabilities that could cause someone to be nonspeaking. In general, people will often describe anyone with a developmental disability as being "autistic"--even though intellectual disability is the most common developmental disability!
I thought of two reasons why this might be happening, one simple and one not so simple. The simple explanation is all the Autism Awareness campaigns --- people are hyper-aware of autism (aware that it exists, anyway; maybe not always of what it is), and have forgotten that other developmental disabilities exist. (Or maybe it's not so much that they've forgotten, but that the concept "autism" is always lurking near the forefront of their minds, ready to be applied to any person whom they might previously have categorized as retarded, crazy, spastic, etc.)

Also, with how much talk there is of an Autism Epidemic, people might be expecting to see autistic people a lot more frequently than they used to. In some ways, this is good --- people know that we exist, and that we live right alongside them and do many of the same things that they do --- and in some ways it hasn't gone far enough --- people don't seem anywhere near as aware of the existence of autistic adults as they are of autistic children --- but maybe it has also made it so that people expect to see more autistic people than there are, and maybe they're filling up the gap between how many autistic people they expect to see and how many autistic people they do see by lumping other developmentally disabled people into that category. 

It's annoying because autism is not the same as other developmental disabilities, and autism awareness at the expense of other disabilities might make it harder for people with other disabilities to get people to understand them, or make the accommodations they need as opposed to the accommodations autistic people are understood to need.

The second, harder-to-explain thing that occurred to me was that maybe the substitution of autism for developmental disability in general might reflect a value judgment*.

Non-disabled people are afraid of disability. They're afraid of disability because they know it could happen to them (or to their kid, if it's a developmental disability), and because this is an ableist culture that tells people that a life with disability is akin to death**. (Though, mercifully, I think there might be starting to be a little pushback on that point making it into mainstream consciousness --- disability activists have always said that our lives are worth living, but now a few scholars and journalists, here and there, seem to be listening.)

I think Western culture also fetishizes intelligence***, and sees it as one of the few things that can make up for the monstrous faux pas of having a disability in the first place.

You can see a marked difference in how allistic people talk about the autistic people they see as "low-functioning" --- i.e., having intellectual disability**** --- versus those they see as "high-functioning." The former they talk about as if they were not people at all, and in frankly eugenic terms about how much better off everyone would be if they didn't exist; they talk about how expensive such people are, and what a terrible burden they are on their families, the state, or both. If they mention quality of life at all, it's only to say something like, "Nobody could want a life like that..."

Attitudes toward the latter group are somewhat more complicated. Especially with the stereotypical "Aspie," whose impairments are minimal and only affect social interactions and are offset by exceptional intelligence and aptitude for math, science, or computers. They are also thought to be (at least, in their pop-culture incarnation) hyper-rational, like Vulcans, their thought processes uncluttered by emotion and petty interpersonal concerns. (This is an ambivalent form of idealization --- I usually write about it as a negative stereotype, since it also implies that we have no feelings and are amoral, and also that we are something not quite human. I have come to mistrust, intensely, any stereotype that carries that implication, even if it is ostensibly a flattering one, because "you're not human" too easily segues into "you don't have the same rights and protections a human would have." And yet I think there is an element of idealization in it, too.)

So there are competing ideas about these stereotypical autistic geniuses; on the one hand, people tend to mythologize them (or, sometimes, the people who come closest to fitting this stereotype tend to mythologize themselves) as the Prometheuses behind every great technological innovation in human history (c.f. Temple Grandin, "It was probably an Aspie who chipped away at rocks while the other people socialized around the campfire. Without autism traits we might still be living in caves.")

On the other hand, there is definitely a sizeable contingent that would like that category of autistic person to vanish from the Earth as well. I mentioned in an earlier post the growing stereotype of the Aspie psycho-killer (qu'est que c'est), a person whose complete lack of empathy enables them calmly to plan and carry out mass shootings. 

Anyway, my point was that intelligence mitigates the ableist impulse to dehumanize autistic people. Even in autistic people themselves --- how often do you hear, "I'm not disabled; I'm smart!" or some variant thereof? --- you see this come out as a self-defense tactic. I know I used it that way. For me, the problem was that my worldview was too individualistic to see that my individual merits didn't matter; that all people, no matter how smart or stupid, how virtuous or venal, deserve equal rights. I was trying to say, "I'm a person; I deserve to be treated like a person," but because of my internalized ableism it came out as, "But I'm not disabled! You should be treating me like a real person, not a disabled person!"

I think it's entirely possible that this set of biases --- disability is bad, intelligence is good, some autistic people possess intelligence --- might play a small role in explaining why a person who sees a developmentally disabled person jumps to the conclusion that the person is autistic. 

I've also noticed a strain of wishful thinking that says autism isn't really a lifelong condition --- it can be treated, or cured, by (in descending order of battiness) growing up, intensive behavioral training, changing one's diet, taking vitamins and supplements by the fistful, chelation, etc. That might enter into it, too. 

*Obviously I don't think any of this is happening at a conscious level, or with any ill intent. I think that if this is a real thing, and not just something I made up, it's operating at the level of an implicit bias, that you don't even know you have but that can subtly alter what you see to fit what you expect to see.

**Amanda Baggs has written some powerful, if horrifying, things about her own and her mother's experiences with doctors who believe this

***I know this is a very controversial statement, given that I am writing this in an American context, and anti-intellectualism is also a thing in American culture! I may write a post about that, too --- how those two contradictory attitudes coexist.

****I'm not sure that that's ALL "low-functioning" and "high-functioning" mean, but the presence or absence of intellectual disability, indicated by one's IQ score, is used often enough in the literature that I feel confident using it myself. And when I use these phrases, I use them to represent what allistic people think autistic people are like, not what I think accurately describes autistic people. Because I think that, while autistic people do vary in how impaired they are and how much support they need, I don't think degrees of impairment map neatly onto a binary of IQ less than 70 or IQ greater than 70. I also think that the same person can be "high functioning" --- need minimal support --- or "low functioning" --- need intensive supports --- in different contexts. Even Temple Grandin, the high-functioning autistic's high-functioning autistic, was what most people would call "low functioning" as a child.