Sunday, September 30, 2012

We all know what the masculine mystique is, right?

In today's New York Times, historian Stephanie Coontz addresses The Myth of Male Decline. Not only does she debunk the resentful myth that women have become "the richer sex" and are taking over in the US, but she also proposes the hypothesis that many men are in the throes of a "masculine mystique" that is limiting the development of their individual potential:
ONE thing standing in the way of further progress for many men is the same obstacle that held women back for so long: overinvestment in their gender identity instead of their individual personhood. Men are now experiencing a set of limits — externally enforced as well as self-imposed — strikingly similar to the ones Betty Friedan set out to combat in 1963, when she identified a “feminine mystique” that constrained women’s self-image and options.
Although men don’t face the same discriminatory laws as women did 50 years ago, they do face an equally restrictive gender mystique.
Just as the feminine mystique discouraged women in the 1950s and 1960s from improving their education or job prospects, on the assumption that a man would always provide for them, the masculine mystique encourages men to neglect their own self-improvement on the assumption that sooner or later their “manliness” will be rewarded.
According to a 2011 poll by the Pew Research Center, 77 percent of Americans now believe that a college education is necessary for a woman to get ahead in life today, but only 68 percent think that is true for men. And just as the feminine mystique exposed girls to ridicule and harassment if they excelled at “unladylike” activities like math or sports, the masculine mystique leads to bullying and ostracism of boys who engage in “girlie” activities like studying hard and behaving well in school. One result is that men account for only 2 percent of kindergarten and preschool teachers, 3 percent of dental assistants and 9 percent of registered nurses.
Do check out the entire article. Besides being interesting, it's crunchy with statistics about the gender differences in employment, education, and income over the last 15 years you might find worth reviewing.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

SF tropes and the ever-shifting edge of reality

Once in a blue moon I wake up from a dream so soaked with a sense of reality that it feels less like a dream I've just had then a memory of something I've recently done. Oddly enough such dreams tend to be sfnal in character. While I'm in them, I have no perception of their being sfnal-- that only comes after I've woken up.

Such was the case this the morning. In my dream, I was writing an article on a trip I'd just to the moon for a magazine' the article would be comprised of an text, photos, and video clips. I'd decided that the article would focus on a researcher who'd been there for 23 years-- since the beginning of the settlement-- studying kinetics. In my dream, I kept reviewing the video clip of my conversation with her, in which she spoke of her distress at being dumped by her HMO-- which had been covering her for all the 23 years she'd been working on the moon-- because her health problems were different to those of women her age on earth. The image of this woman speaking is the most vivid image of my dream: she is wearing a white lab coat of course, over silk the color of autumn leaves, and small dangling earrings, and has enough ray in her hair and lines and wear in her face to be in her 50s or 60s were she to have been living all that time on earth, though I acknowledged that living in lunar gravity she might well be a good deal older. Thinking about her face, which seemed oddly familiar, after waking, it occurred to me that she might be modeled on Susan S, a dancer I'd know in the early 1970s, suitably aged. (With a personality considerably toned down.) She was someone I hadn't seen or even thought of for years and years. I'd already written the part of my article about how pedestrian travel to the moon actually was, and how surprisingly populous the place seemed, and how though the hotel accommodations were a bit cramped, weren't that much more expensive than hotels in major cities in the US. Etc. All very ordinary, even pedestrian. Which was why my article was focusing on this woman and her difficulties, partially a consequence of her never having budged from the moon for 23 years.

Mulling over the peculiar realization that my most real-seeming dreams tend to be sfnal, it struck me that coherence combined with strongly delineated detail is what makes such dreams feel real. And of course the realization that one is dreaming can occur in any kind of dream-- for me, most often in unpleasant dreams that up until that point feel very real but that I'd like not to be real. The realization is never reasoned (as in: oh, this doesn't make sense, so it can't be true-- not making sense is perfectly normal in dreams). It's when I wake up that I marvel at how coherent and real-seeming the sfnal dream had been-- after that moment of disjunction when I grasp that no, this was a dream, and not something in my actual memory. (Sometimes in fact I am imbued with a partial belief in it as memory for a long time after the dream-- as in dreams about a story I once wrote that I somehow lost and forgot about until I came upon it in a box of old papers-- a part of me somehow feels that that story must be around somewhere, and longs to see it, read it, remember it. I don't feel that way about sfnal dreams, of course, because my mind has identified them as sfnal and thus impossible as memory.)

The thinness of the membrane distinguishing the sfnal from reality has become something of a preoccupation with me lately. I know I've often said over the last ten years that I often have trouble distinguishing reports of real-life behavior and speech from satire, but it occurs to me that despite being accustomed to technological innovations that were once purely sfnal now being materially incarnate in our lives, I still find myself astonished at the thinness of the line between fiction and reality. Consider these three items appearing in the Seattle Times over the last few days:

--State's first case of 'zombie bees' reported in Kent. Honeybees, previously immune to parasitic flies called Apocephalus borealis or scuttle flies-- native to the US and apparently common-- have lately begun to be infected by them. Here's the article's description of the infection:
The fly's life cycle is gruesomely reminiscent of the movie "Alien" — though they don't pose a risk to people. Adult females, smaller than a fruit fly, land on the backs of foraging honeybees and use their needle-sharp ovipositors to inject eggs into the bee's abdomen. The eggs hatch into maggots. "They basically eat the insides out of the bee," [biologist John] Hafernik said.
Previously, these flies had only been known to infect wasps and bumblebees. They've now infected 80% of the hives in the Bay Area, and have made an appearance in South Dakota. This is particularly alarming, given the recent plummeting of honeybee populations all over the United States. The irony, of course, is that the scuttle flies are native to North American, while the honeybees are imported (or "invasive"), while the sharp point of relevance is that most pollination of fruit and vegetables is performed by honeybees. Why, you may wonder, are infected honeybees called "zombie bees"? "Unlike healthy bees, which spend the night tucked up in their hive, infected bees fly after dark and tend to congregate at lights. Hohn noticed bees buzzing around the light in his shop, flying in jerky patterns and finally flopping on the floor." (There's a video available with the Seattle Times article.) If you're interested in the knowing more about "zombie bees," check out Hafernik's website

 --And then there's the article on the California legislation, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed yesterday, allowing "autononmous" or driverless cars in California.
"Today we're looking at science fiction becoming tomorrow's reality - the self-driving car," Brown said. "Anyone who gets inside a car and finds out the car is driving will be a little skittish, but they'll get over it."
Google Inc. has been developing autonomous car technology and lobbying for the regulations. The company's fleet of a dozen computer-controlled vehicles has logged more than 300,000 miles of self-driving without an accident, according to Google. "I think the self-driving car can really dramatically improve the quality of life for everyone," Google co-founder Sergey Brin said.
Autonomous cars can make roads safer, free commuters from the drudgery of driving, reduce congestion and provide transport to people who can't drive themselves, such as the blind, disabled, elderly and intoxicated, Brin said. "I expect that self-driving cars will be far safer than human-driven cars," Brin said.
Brin predicted that autonomous vehicles will be commercially available within a decade. He said Google has no plans to produce its own cars, but instead plans to partner with the automobile industry to develop autonomous vehicles.
Why is it that this seems much more sfnal to me than smartphones do? I suppose it's because it strikes me as in some ways a more conscious technological development than the by contrast feckless, sometimes frivolous development of all the silly gadgets that distract rather than assist us. Autonomous cars seem hands-down more socially utilitarian and have the tremendous potential of saving many, many lives (and prevent many, many personal bankruptcies due to the catastrophic medical costs and chronic disability that attend most serious traffic accidents. Our (in this case visibly administered) culture tends to oppose sensible solutions for serious, large-scale problems (for instance, affordable health care). The politicians, venture capitalists, and financiers who determine which technologies are brought into existence prefer to support the development of weapons, tools of surveillance, and gadgets and toys big corporations can endlessly "upgrade" to technology that is unglamorously utilitarian. (Here in the US, from infancy most individuals imbibe their values primarily from the advertisements they consume.) Or else they're simply whacko gimmicks based on dubious notions of coolness, like Argentinean publisher Ererna Cadencia's use of ink that vanishes from books two months after the date of purchase. (The idea is that disappearing ink will force consumers to read the books they buy, in a timely fashion. It's supposed to be for the authors' benefit, though I have to say that I myself would hate to see my books vanish and be unavailable for future rereading: rendering books into utterly disposable entertainment.)

--The third item doesn't report on a piece of new technology, but rather on an almost seismic shift in attitude. (Like parasitic creatures wielding ovipostors, infected organisms, and driverless cars, certain attitudes, too, can be sf tropes.) In this case, the shift in attitude is striking for being found in a rather conservative source, the editors of the Seattle Times, who have a long history of endorsing Republicans, which in Washington State can mean way off the spectrum of the local norm. They certainly consider themselves a voice of the mainstream. Four days ago, they published an editorial urging the approval of Initiative 502-- to legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana. Many, many people have been urging this for a long time, including former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper. Many conservatives have even urged it. Nevertheless, US jails are crammed with offenders of the prohibition against marijuana use and sale. The editorial is reasoned and reasonable.
What would legal marijuana be like? Consider what has happened in Seattle. The city has become a sanctuary for medical marijuana, with aboveboard dispensaries. Recreational marijuana is readily available in Seattle on the illicit market, and users of small amounts are no longer prosecuted. For several years, recreational marijuana has effectively been decriminalized in Seattle, and there has been no upsurge in crime or road deaths from it.
Virtual decriminalization resulted from the force of broad public pressure on prosecutors here in King County. Several years back, while I was performing Superior Court jury service, the prosecuting attorney conducted a discussion among the jury pool of which I was a member about drugs as part of the voir dire for a drug prosecution. About three-quarters of my fellow potential jurors expressed the opinion that marijuana use ought to be decriminalized. (The prosecutor, by the way, was resigned rather than surprised by this opinion.) I read in the Seattle Times not long after that prosecution policies were going to be changed to be more in line with public opinion. I was struck by this. I'd always assumed that jury service was largely a waste of my time, since jurors have in recent years been forbidden the democratic exercise of nullification, a traditional alternative for jurors faced with rubber-stamping unjust outcomes. After that, I wasn't so sure.

The fact is, we are constantly adjusting what is real, what could be real, what probably won't ever be real. Sfnal tropes have a lot to do with the process. But I'm particularly interested these days-- because of my nearly finished novel in progress, "Deep Story"-- in what becomes real,as memory, in an individual's brain, and what the coherence of narrative has to do with the process.

 My absence over the last month from this space, by the way, has been due to a family emergency followed by illness. I'm on the mend now, though I'm still a bit shaky and weak, which forces me into making frequent retreats back to bed. I hope to resume regular posting soon.

ETA: I see that the Seattle Times has actually endorsed Obama-- and that they did so last time around, too. Pardon my misperception.