That is so Chuck

In my mailbox today, I found a copy of the University of Oregon Biology Newsletter — I’m sure the publications department at my alma mater will be pleased to know that at least one of their alumni actually read it, even if, admittedly, I just give it a quick skim before filing it away in the recycling bin. This time, though, I was surprised to find an article titled “On Being a New Postdoc in the Bill Cresko Lab”. The title wasn’t surprising, since that’s the kind of thing you expect to find in a newsletter, but the author was kind of unexpected. It’s by my grad school mentor, Chuck Kimmel!

Although I still want to keep a toe in the Institute of Neuroscience (ION), I’m delighted to announce that Biology Professor Bill Cresko in the Institute of Ecology and Evolution (IEE) here at UO has graciously accepted greenhorn (Bill’s term) me to join his lab as a postdoctoral fellow. Postdocs are typically young scientists just out of graduate school. However, I am an 81-year-old Emeritus Professor, working in the Department of Biology for over 50 years. Most of that time I’ve been a member of the ION, studying neurodevelopment in zebrafish, a species that my ION colleagues and I have promoted as a model organism for biomedical research, and that is now used in hundreds of science labs. Bill is a mere baby in comparison: He’s been in the Department of Biology for less than half the time I have. Still, he enjoys worldwide recognition for his work on evolutionary genomics and evolution of development. Now that I’m in Bill’s lab, the fish species of the moment is not the zebrafish, but the threespine stickleback, with which Bill has worked since his days as a graduate student.

Wait wait wait…you can do that? Anyone want to take on a 65 year old grad student? I wouldn’t mind rewinding the tape for a bit.

This is typical Chuck, though. When I was in his lab, I remember he’d occasionally flit off to some other lab for a while and then he’d come back with new questions and new techniques and all the grad students and post-docs would groan because now we’d have to learn new stuff and we were still trying to figure out the old stuff and we just wanted to graduate. I guess that’s how old professors stay young, though. Gotta keep on the move, gotta get exposed to fresh ideas all the time.

I notice he’s still working on fish, though. Maybe when he turns 90 he’ll be ready to take a look at spiders.

What happened to John McWhorter?

I’ve never paid much attention to McWhorter, and only gave him a bit of side-eye when I noticed that he’s one of the people who signed on to that University of Austin nonsense. But he’s a black professor at Columbia University! No way he could fall for that right-wing BS, right?

Wrong. He’s got a book out, titled Woke Racism, and it’s apparently as bad as it sounds. He’s a card-carrying member of the anti-woke brigade, and he’s written a whole book about his resentment that some people are actually conscious of the systemic racism in our country. Elie Mystal reviews it.

McWhorter’s central thesis is that being woke — by which he seems to mean acknowledging the ongoing fact of bigotry, systemic racism and the resulting forms of oppression — is a religion. Not “like” a religion — McWhorter refuses to hedge this contention with simile. No, McWhorter argues that people who advocate for anti-racism policies, racial sensitivity training and (of course) “critical race theory” are all part of a religious movement with its own clergy. (Ibram X. Kendi, Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates have all been ordained, apparently.) He argues that this religion’s “Elect” has taken over the country and “rule[s] by inflicting terror” on those who dare to speak against it. Along the way, he warns that it is “coming after your kids” with a breathlessness that makes him sound less like a thoughtful academic and more like a conspiracy theorist looking for hidden critical race messages in the menus at Chuck E. Cheese.

McWhorter never engages with any of the actual cultish movements that are threatening American democracy. He likewise never engages with actual religions, the ones who get tax breaks and Supreme Court justices, who hold the power to take away human rights from pregnant people and civil rights from the LGBTQ community. McWhorter managed in the course of about 200 pages to claim that the woke are perpetrating a “reign of terror” — a phrase he uses twice — but devoted only three paragraphs (I counted) to the actual insurrectionists who attacked the Capitol and tried to overthrow the government.

When he finally gets to those attacks, McWhorter brushes them away, writing, “As scary as those protesters were, which institutions are they taking over with their views?” He quickly answers his own question with “none.” It’s easy to respond with a list of institutions that have either been fully taken over by anti-Democratic Trumpist ideology, from local school boards to the electoral machinery of Wisconsin to the Republican Party itself, or institutions that are so riddled with white supremacists that they can no longer be trusted (like various local police departments). But note the word choice from the linguistics professor. The people who attacked the Capitol were “protesters” with “views.”

McWhorter downplays White domestic terror threats in favor of regular criticism of Coates (the imagined Salieri to his Mozart, it sometimes seems) and other anti-racist thinkers, but he believes that speaking against this so-called clergy will earn people like him the ad hominem label of “race traitor” by critics. He warns readers that some will say he’s “not black enough” to write his book.

It is peculiar that someone would be concerned about radicals taking over institutions to start a reign of terror, but neglects an actual recent instance of just that happening…except to make excuses for them.

I don’t think he’s a race traitor, and would never use that term. I just think he’s a dumbass.

Who deserves equality and protection?

not sentiment shared by the Declaration of Women’s Sex Based Rights

Apparently, it’s not trans women, and trans men don’t even exist. This Declaration of Women’s Sex Based Rights is making the rounds — Richard Dawkins proudly signed it, doesn’t that make you want to put your name on it? I like the idea of supporting equal rights for all men and women, and it’s true that women need special legal protection as the targets of current and historical discrimination, but this document seems to be mainly focused on legitimizing discrimination against trans women. It practically seethes with resentment against trans women, and singles them out as the big problem that must be eradicated from society. Cast them out! They don’t deserve to have any of the rights which they want to reserve for true human females, a category that they don’t even bother to define (probably because if they tried, they’d get hung up on the boundary conditions). So women are simply specified by vague “physical and biological characteristics”, which are completely different from “gender identity”, which means their manifesto is primarily a long whine about how the existence of trans women taints the concept of lesbianism.

However, the concept of ‘gender identity’ has enabled men who claim a female ‘gender identity’ to assert, in law, policies, and practice, that they are members of the category of women, which is a category based upon sex.

The CEDAW General Recommendation No. 35 notes that, “General recommendation No. 28 on the core obligations of States parties under article 2 of the Convention as well as general recommendation No. 33 on women’s access to justice confirms that discrimination against women is inextricably linked to other factors that affect their lives. The Committee’s jurisprudence highlights that these may include…being lesbian.” (II, 12).

The concept of ‘gender identity’ is used to challenge individuals’ rights to define their sexual orientation on the basis of sex rather than ‘gender identity’, enabling men who claim a female ‘gender identity’ to seek to be included in the category of lesbian, which is a category based upon sex. This undermines the sex-based rights of lesbians, and is a form of discrimination against women.

Some men who claim a female ‘gender identity’ seek to be included in the legal category of mother. The CEDAW emphasises maternal rights and the “social significance of maternity’’. Maternal rights and services are based on women’s unique capacity to gestate and give birth to children. The inclusion of men who claim a female ‘gender identity’ within the legal category of mother erodes the social significance of maternity, and undermines the maternal rights for which the CEDAW provides.

OK, so how does the existence of trans women compromise the identities of lesbians and mothers? If a person who identifies as a woman is a primary caregiver to a child, what else do you call her but “a mother”? If she happens to be trans, how does that harm a person who identifies as a cis woman and is the primary caregiver to a child, who should also be called “a mother”? If they’re doing everything that a mother does, and if they suffer the same social disempowerment, what is the problem here, and what do you propose that people and the law should call them? I know, they may not have a uterus, and they may not have actually carried an embryo/fetus for 9 months, but are we prepared to deny the “M” word to adoptive mothers, then?

The whole thing is one special effort to carve out an exclusion and to deny one group of people the rights that they ought to share with everyone else. That’s not a good reason to sign this thing. An equal rights declaration ought not to be focused on saying “except these people, we don’t like them and we want to make sure they don’t get these same rights.” Especially when that subgroup has been specifically targeted for hatred and discrimination.

I’m also really curious to know why trans men are not mentioned, and how they handle that concept. Are trans men really women in their minds? How do they cope with their weird sexual essentialism if they accept trans men?

Oh well, one useful feature of their web page is that they list 393 organizations that really hate trans people, which is a useful reference if you want to know who you should never support (although many seem to be just disgruntled people with a website that you’ll never hear of again).

What kind of person would attack a child?

I thought this was going to be a happy story about a small town in Minnesota.

Chris and Kelsey’s younger child was always the extrovert in the family.
Assigned male at birth, they were into more traditionally feminine things — if there was a truck being played with, it was likely being driven by a Disney princess — so the couple took it in stride when their child asked for a Kit Kittredge American Girl doll for a fourth birthday present. Kelsey wondered about the future but Chris just thought it was his child responding to living with a mother and sister while he was deployed overseas with the Navy Reserve.
“So we got this doll and Kit’s eyes just lit up. And Kit was so happy and so excited to get this doll,” Kelsey said.
“About a week later, when dad was in Japan, and I was standing right there in the kitchen, Kit walks up to me and goes, ’Mom, can you call me Kit?’ And my stomach dropped a little bit. Because all of a sudden, maybe things were making a little more sense. Click. And I said, ’Sure. Still my little … boy?” And Kit goes, ’No, your little girl.’ 
“I was like, ’Absolutely, sweetie, you got it.’ And then I ran into the other room with a panic attack and called Daddy in Japan and said, ’What the heck just happened?'” 
Chris Waits said his first thought was that Kit might be going through a phase. Like his wife, he had to learn about trans kids.
Neither parent said they knew much about trans kids, and decided to let Kit be Kit while they figured things out.

See? An accepting family who were concerned about doing what was right for their child. This is going to be a good story, right? I can tell you the parents continued to be supportive and accepting, but as you might predict, small town America is small minded America.

But after one parent posted a long complaint about a whole host of things involving Kelsey, another parent went uglier.  
“She should be locked up for child abuse,” the parent wrote. “Her younger ‘daughter’ is actually a boy.” 
Others jumped in, attacking the Waits as “woke parents” who had pushed their views onto their child.
Kelsey soon found out what was being written.
“This was my most precious secret. The thing I protected most and the thing I was most afraid of ever being used in a political way because for me, this isn’t political. This is my family, this is my child,” she said. “I dropped to the floor, and I cried.” 

Yeah, it just got worse and worse. The family eventually decided to leave the community altogether, because the asshole parents have decided to target a vulnerable child.

So the Waits are moving from the dream house they designed, the one where Kelsey spent hours hand painting murals. They are seeking more privacy, and they believe safety, in a new address that has not been publicized.
“That’s where we’re at right now. There are people that we know, that are not safe for our kids in our neighborhood,” Chris said. ”We can’t trust our kids alone at the bus stop waiting for the bus, not because of the kids necessarily, but because of the parents.” 

Goddamn TERFs. These are people who probably wouldn’t identify as any kind of feminist, though — they’re just hatemongers. And they’re everywhere.

Can we civilize OAN and AT&T?

If you thought Fox News was bad, don’t turn on OAN. I haven’t. I don’t even know if our cable company includes it in their basic service, although it wouldn’t surprise me if they did, given the local clientele. But meanwhile, they’re just spewing ignorance to an amazing degree

In October, OAN used Indigenous Peoples Day to praise Christopher Columbus and Europeans for “civilizing” the “savages.” And throughout the nine-month period, OAN figures regurgitated right-wing talking points about “social justice warriors” forcing sports teams to change their names from racist slurs and “erasing” Columbus from our calendars.

Meanwhile, a Reuters investigation revealed that telecom giant AT&T had played a key role in creating and funding the far-right network, with 90% of OAN’s revenue reportedly coming from its AT&T contract.

They’re giving voice to some astoundingly stupid Italian-Americans, too.

I have a suggestion for Mr Dimino of the Italian American One Voice Coalition: find better heroes to champion. It’s not as if there is a shortage. Ever hear of the Italian Renaissance? If you need a stronger connection to America, how about Fermi, or Marconi, or DiMaggio? You don’t need to attach your identity to a genocidal looter and all-around evil guy, just because he was Italian.

Led by Tipping Point host Kara McKinney, OAN treated the discovery of more than a thousand Indigenous children’s graves as a lie meant to target churches, drawing a tenuous connection between the discoveries and a string of church vandalism and arson across Canada.

  • On July 12, McKinney called the reporting on mass graves of Indigenous people at former residential schools an “odious lie” used to “excuse” the “desecration of holy grounds.”
  • On July 23, McKinney asserted that the media had “exaggerated” its coverage of residential schools, stating, “Just like the history of slavery in America gets overexaggerated in some cases in order to be weaponized to reorder society to this day — they make everything about race — the same thing is happening with these schools in Canada.”
  • Days later, OAN irresponsibly blamed Canadian church fires on “activists seeking revenge for Indigenous students,” comparing them to “American churches [that] were burned down or vandalized” by “George Floyd protesters” in 2020. (Though some suspects have since been arrested and charged for the Canadian fires, authorities there have yet to discuss their possible motivations.)
  • In a Tipping Point segment promoting her deceptive YouTube video “The Canadian Mass Grave Hoax,” alt-right troll Lauren Southern downplayed the discoveries at former residential schools, saying, “If you scratch past the surface, none of it is true.” She later claimed that “it is a far stretch to say a pit of murdered children with thousands of bodies across Canada and a gravesite that the markers have been lost — a massive stretch, and one that … led to mass hatred and hate crimes and terrorism, quite frankly, across Canada.”

Hmm. I wonder what OAN makes of this apology by Benedictine nuns?

We acknowledge the injustice done through our community’s participation in the federal government Assimilation Policy to educate Native American youth at Saint Benedicts’ Mission boarding school on the White Earth Reservation (1878-1945), St. Mary’s Mission on the Red Lake Reservation (1888-1940s) and the Industrial Boarding School (1884-1896) on our monastery campus.

Within the past two years the Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict have been working in collaboration with the White Earth community, its Tribal Historic Preservation Office and the College of Saint Benedict to strengthen the bonds that continue to move toward reconciliation and peace with our Native American sisters and brothers.

It’s far too little, far too late, but if the Catholic Church can acknowledge the great wrongs done, does that mean that OAN is even more evil than Catholic pillagers and desecrators of Native American culture?

Enlightenment is a relative thing

Minnesota had a rather active intellectual life with an international reputation early in the 20th century. It had the bad — Moody Bible College, for instance, which was one of the formative centers of fundamentalist and evangelical Christian thought — but it also had some progressive thinkers, like Charles Malchow, who I’d never heard of before. Malchow was a doctor at Hamline University who was inspired to write an open-minded textbook about human sexuality, and suffered the consequences.

The Sexual Life (dedicated to Malchow’s mother, Marie), appeared in 1904, the same year Maclhow married Lydia Gluek, a daughter of the Minneapolis Gluek Brewing enterprise. The Sexual Life, over 300 pages, described in straightforward language a wide range of sex practices and problems—contraception, youthful experimentation, same-sex attraction, the physiology and psychology of sexual excitement, sexual pleasure, and sexual frustration. The book took particular aim at encouraging equality of knowledge and enjoyment for women and men.

As we’ll see, that is a charitable summary. The book does talk a lot about equality of the sexes, though, and seems to have triggered some knee-jerk reactions in the establishment.

In 1873 Congress had enacted the Comstock Act, which made using the US mail to distribute obscenity (including specifically any information about abortion) a felony. Malchow and Burton knew about the law and inquired of Minneapolis post office officials whether their advertising pamphlet—which described the book in detail—could be sent through the mail. The unhelpful answer merely referred them to the Comstock Act. They took a chance, and mailed 25,000 copies of the pamphlet to doctors, ministers, and lawyers around the country. The book quickly sold 3,000 copies.

In August 1904, just two months after Malchow’s marriage, a Minneapolis federal grand jury indicted Malchow and Burton for violating the Comstock Act. Trial began in October before Judge William Lochren, an Irish immigrant, a Civil War hero (he survived the famous charge of the First Minnesota at Gettysburg), and Minnesota’s second federal district judge. Lochren disapproved of The Sexual Life and made his views known to the jury, who quickly convicted both men. The First Amendment played no part in Malchow’s defense—it had not occurred to anyone at the time that the Constitution might protect the publication of explicit sexuality. And under the law of the time, Malchow and Burton were guilty of the crime.

Lochren gave both Malchow and Burton eighteen months in prison, later reduced to twelve. While their appeal made its way to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, Malchow’s supporters appealed to President Theodore Roosevelt for a pardon. They failed: Roosevelt wrote that he found The Sexual Life “a hideous and loathsome book.” The Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction in April 1906; Roosevelt declined the pardon in April; Malchow and Burton reported to Stillwater State Prison in May. They were released in March 1907.

Teddy thought this was a loathsome book? Well then, I must read it. Fortunately, The Sexual Life is freely available on the internet archive. It disappoints. It’s tame stuff for the 21st century, no illustrations, and it hammers away on the importance of traditional sexual and gender roles. Women can be equal to men, as long as their sexual behavior is exactly as would be expected in the pages of a Victorian romance novel — and not the seedy novels you could find under the table at men’s clubs, but the kind a gentlelady could be seen reading in public.

The word “natural” sure does a lot of heavy lifting in the text. It was “encouraging equality of knowledge and enjoyment for women and men”, but only within the narrow bounds of acceptable social behavior. Women were supposed to act one way, men another, and Medicine and Science would discourage any deviation.

It also doesn’t say much at all about same-sex attraction, briefly mentioning only male homosexuality (unthinkable that passive, mild-mannered ladies would consider such a thing), and then only to call it a perversion and dismiss it from further consideration.

Uh, right. I’m certainly not going to praise Malchow as an open-minded, forward-thinking person — the book is a paean to customary gender roles, and is built on conservative assumptions throughout.

He did go to prison for it, though, which was not just. It’s weird to read it now and realize that, for its time, it was a wildly libertine, radical perspective on sexuality. Nowadays, though, I could imagine Ben Shapiro or any of those crimped, narrow minds on the Right praising it as a great prescription for how we all should live now.

Four day weekends are a lie

I’m still recovering from mine. These long weekends are a trap: you decide that hey, I can take a day or two off to play with a three year old or something similarly harmless, but the trick is that the work doesn’t stop flowing over the transom and through the keyhole and under the door, and suddenly you realize on the third day that you weren’t actually supposed to stop working when you find yourself buried up to the nostrils in obligations. The last couple of days have been ugly, frantic efforts to catch back up, and today I find myself back where I started, with the worst over with and just the usual accumulation of too-much-to-do.

I’m never going to fall for the myth of the long weekend ever again. It’s how they get you.

Two weeks until the semester ends. Or, that is, until I stop piling assignments on the students and the work comes home to roost on my desk (Christmas break: also a lie.)

My new holiday greeting

I’m gearing up for the Christmas season.

Other steps: smashing the radio so I don’t have to suffer with those damn Christmas carols. Digging up my Santa hat so I can wander the streets of Morris telling excited children that I’ll be bringing them spiders. It’s a good time of year to be a curmudgeon.