Saturday, April 19, 2014

Apples and oranges

There’s a brouhaha about the Census Bureau changing the questions, asked annually, about whether a respondent has health insurance. Since the change is occurring just as ObamaCare is implemented and since preliminary tests of the new questions show that fewer people end up counted as uninsured, many on the Right are making two claims:

1) The fact that the new questions show fewer people are without health insurance will be an advantage for ObamaCare supporters.

2) The change and the timing of the change are deliberate; that is, the Administration set out to design questions that would show fewer uninsured and timed the implementation of the new questions to coincide with the implementation of ObamaCare.

I disagree with the first claim and think the second claim is over-simplified. I also think that the quality and comparability of data really don’t matter much.

First, I do agree that when the new questions show that fewer people are without health insurance, ObamaCare supporters will claim ObamaCare has succeeded in reducing the number of uninsured. However, ObamaCare opponents will be able to claim that the drop is solely a result of the new questions. I think ObamaCare supporters will get the worst of these dueling claims. The New York Times quotes officials and official documents as saying:

... it will be difficult to say how much of any change is attributable to the Affordable Care Act and how much to the use of a new survey instrument. [snip]

... “it is likely that the Census Bureau will decide that there is a break in series for the health insurance estimates,” ... This “break in trend” will complicate efforts to trace the impact of the Affordable Care Act, it said. [snip]

... the data for 2013 and 2014 would not be directly comparable with the long series of data for prior years.

Given these “official” disclaimers, it will be difficult for ObamaCare supporters to rebut opponents’ claims that any reduction in the number of uninsured is an artifact of the new questions. In fact, one could argue that the change in questions is at least as much of an advantage for ObamaCare opponents as it is for ObamaCare supporters.

Second, I don’t think the revision of the questions was a totally political move. The Times claims that the Census Bureau has been “trying to make [the insurance questions] more accurate” “for more than a decade”. Therefore, this is not something the current Administration cooked up five years ago when it took office. However, the Times also states:

The Department of Health and Human Services and the White House Council of Economic Advisers requested several of the new questions, and the White House Office of Management and Budget approved the new questionnaire.

I don’t think HHS and the CEA set out to write questions that would show more people with health insurance. But I do believe that if the preliminary tests had shown the questions showed fewer people with health insurance, the White House would not have approved the new questionnaire or at least would have insisted that the Census Bureau wait a few years to implement the new questions.

That said, there is one thing that makes me more likely to accept the argument that the changes to the questions and the timing were designed solely to serve the Administration’s purposes: the Census Bureau seems unwilling to make any effort to provide data that would “be directly comparable with the long series of data for prior years.” Even if the Census Bureau is bound and determined to start using the new questions, honestly believing the results will more accurately reflect reality, it would be pretty simple to, for example, do what Greg Mankiw suggests:

Why not, for a few years, give half the sample the old questionnaire and half the new one?  This procedure would provide a basis for eventually splicing together the old and new time series.

That the Census Bureau is apparently not even considering this - or any approach like this - does give weight to the “White House conspiracy” storyline.

Finally, while policy analysts are (rightfully) horrified at losing comparable data, I don’t think the lack of continuity matters a bit so far as political arguments about policy are concerned. Let’s imagine that the questions didn’t change and we are now comparing the uninsured picture of 2014 with the strictly comparable uninsured picture of 2013. We would find one of three scenarios:

1) There are fewer people without health insurance. ObamaCare supporters will claim this is proof the law is succeeding. ObamaCare opponents will claim that this is a result of an improving economy so more people have employer insurance or could afford to buy their own anyhow; that this is a result of people going on Medicaid who could have gone on Medicaid even without ObamaCare; that even if ObamaCare is reducing the number of uninsured the effect is so small that neither the monetary cost nor the coercion cost is worth it; and/or that any number of other approaches could have resulted in a greater decrease at less cost.

2) There are more people without health insurance. ObamaCare opponents will claim this is proof the law is, at best, ineffective and, at worst, is actually detrimental. ObamaCare supporters will claim that the problem is a weakening economy; Republican scare tactics; technical problems with the website; people not being aware of the individual mandate; the insurance companies charging too much; that the law didn’t go far enough; and/or that the full effect will only be felt as people learn more about the law and come to rely on it. They will probably talk about a slow embrace of Medicare.

3) There are the same number of people without health insurance. The arguments over this scenario will look a lot like those for Scenario Two although ObamaCare opponents will probably drag out the the arguments about costs not being worth it and about any number of other approaches being better.

And you know what? Reasonable people will be able to reasonably accept any of these arguments. The truth is that this type of economic and social engineering is so incredibly complex that there is no simple causal connection between what the government does over here and what the result is over there; we cannot hold all other variables constant. Therefore, we can always come up with apparently valid reasons why a law this complex seems not to have worked but really did, and with equally apparently valid reasons why a law this complex seems to have worked but really didn’t.

Perhaps this is part of the reason our current politics are fiercely ideological and bitterly partisan. We are so far past the point at which the effects of policies can be accurately measured and intelligently evaluated that all we have to go on is what we believe about how the world works and, perhaps more important, what we believe about how it should work.

*****

Reading:

Judd Gregg was right (Via Neoneocon) - Wall Street Journal piece about Gregg withdrawing his name from consideration as Secretary of Commerce “due in part to his concern with the Obama administration's decision to have the next Census director report to senior White House staffers as well as the commerce secretary.” I had forgotten all about this dust-up and, yes, it does give more weight to the “White House conspiracy” storyline. (I have to say, though, that I find it hard to believe that the same Administration that couldn’t get HealthCare.gov up and running even minimally had enough intelligence, foresight, and competence to grab the Census Bureau five years ago in order to try to make ObamaCare look good now.)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The view from the other side

When I wrote about Brandeis and Ayaan Hirsi Ali recently, I ran across some bits and pieces I think are worth noting although they didn’t fit neatly into my post.

A little data dropout

It’s instructive to note the difference between how the New York Times reports Ms. Hirsi Ali’s background and how the Brandies student newspaper does so. The New York Times:

Even some of Ms. Hirsi Ali’s critics say they understand her hostility to Islam, given her experiences, though they think she goes too far. A native of Somalia, she has written and spoken extensively of her experience as a Muslim girl in East Africa, including undergoing genital cutting, a practice she has vigorously opposed, and her family’s attempts to force her to marry a man against her wishes.

She moved to the Netherlands as a young woman, and she was later elected to the Dutch Parliament. She wrote the screenplay for “Submission,” a 2004 film critical of the treatment of Muslim women. Shortly after its release, the director, Theo van Gogh, was murdered on an Amsterdam street by a radical Islamist, who pinned to the victim’s body a threat to kill Ms. Hirsi Ali as well.

Brandeis student newspaper*:

Hirsi Ali is a Somali-born women’s rights activist who has campaigned against female genital mutilation [snip] She formerly lived in the Netherlands and was a member of Dutch Parliament until it was discovered that she had provided false information on an asylum application to gain entry into the country. In response to this, Hirsi Ali claimed that she lied on her asylum application because she was fleeing a forced marriage. She had also previously disclosed inaccurate information through several sources before the controversy, including through her book The Son Factory.

After resigning from her position due to the ensuing scandal, she moved to the United States to join the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute—an organization dedicated to expanding liberty, increasing individual opportunity and strengthening free enterprise according to its website—where she is now a visiting fellow.

So the New York Times omits the fact that Ms. Hirsi Ali lied on her Dutch asylum application. The Brandeis student newspaper finds the room to devote two and a half sentences to the asylum application issue** and a paragraph/sentence to her ties to AEI; but omits the facts that Ms. Hirsi Ali underwent genital cutting; that she wrote the screenplay for a movie opposing the subjugation of women; that the director of that movie was murdered by “a radical Islamist”; and that the murderer threatened to kill Ms. Hirsi Ali.

I think the Times made the better decision here although I would probably have included a brief reference to the asylum application dustup. On the other hand, the information omitted by the university newspaper is the entire context for her support for women’s rights and for her opposition to Islam. Omitting it seems a little, I don’t know, non-contextualized.

Turf wars and gatekeepers

In a faculty petition urging that Ms. Hirsi Ali be dis-invited to receive an honorary degree, we find the following sentence:

We further urge you to reinstitute the past practice of a faculty committee that vets potential honorary degree recipients.

In an interview with the Brandeis University newspaper:

Prof. Mary Baine Campbell (ENG) said [snip] that she was concerned about the awarding of the degree because of a lack of consultation with the faculty during the selection process. In an email to the Justice, she wrote that she was “astonished to find out that this choice, to honor Ms. Hirsi Ali for her contributions to ‘women’s rights,’ had been made without consulting the WGS Core Faculty.” s=She noted that the core faculty in the Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies program had not been contacted either.

This sounds to me like the faculty (at least some of the faculty) have their noses out of joint and are happy to use the Hirsi Ali bandwagon as a way to leverage more power. Tiresome and discouraging but remarkably human.

I find the idea of a gatekeeper more disturbing. The use of quotations marks around “women’s rights” and the apparent belief that only the Women and Gender Studies “Core Faculty” can determine whether someone is really contributing to “women’s rights” is anathema to someone like me, whose ideas of feminism go back to the 1970s. Part of feminism then was the refusal to allow gatekeepers to tell women what was and was not valid about their own experience and about their perceptions of that experience.

It’s interesting to contrast this attitude with that of David Silverman, a Brandeis graduate and president of the American Atheists. In an open letter to the president of Brandeis University, Mr. Silverman recalls his pride in Brandeis’ activism during his student days and goes on to decry:

Brandeis [caving] to religious intolerance masquerading as political correctness and [uninviting] a valuable voice in the discussion of religion in public life, Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

In detailing what Brandeis has done by disinviting Ms. Hirsi Ali, Mr. Silverman says:

Ms. Hirsi Ali’s experiences, however, are different.

Her background allows her to speak with clarity about one of the most challenging questions of our time: whether a robust commitment to equality, diversity, dialogue, and social justice is possible when we look the other way when confronted with the realities of Islamic extremism.

What you have done to Ms. Hirsi Ali is rob her of such an opportunity. You have robbed her of the opportunity to speak to Brandeis students about her lived experiences as a child in Somalia and Kenya. You have ended the “dialogue about these important issues” before it has even begun.

Apparently, Mr. Silverman is stuck in the same time warp I am, remembering fondly the idea that a woman’s “lived experience” is worth listening to, regardless of what the self-appointed gatekeepers say. Perhaps we are both pre-post-modern.

A little comic relief

In the same faculty petition I mentioned above, I read this:

Please know that, like Ms. Hirsi Ali, we fully recognize the harm of forced marriages; of female genital cutting, which can cause, among other public health problems, increased maternal and infant mortality; and of honor killings. These phenomena are not, however, exclusive to Islam.

The selection of Ms. Hirsi Ali further suggests to the public that violence toward girls and women is particular to Islam or the Two-Thirds World, thereby obscuring such violence in our midst among non-Muslims, including on our own campus.

Who knew that Brandeis was a hot-bed of forced marriages, female genital cutting, and honor killings? That the campus was plagued with the kidnapping of schoolgirls and the murder of film directors? And I had no idea that women were not allowed to drive, vote, or own property on the Brandeis campus. Perhaps someone should look into that.

Oh, and “Two-Thirds World”? A real phrase, not invented by the faculty specifically for this petition. It’s apparently not even an invention of the Left. I wonder if the faculty at Brandeis is aware they’re using a term reportedly used “mostly by evangelical Christians”.

*****

Notes:

* I snipped the description of Ms. Hirsi Ali’s “critical view of Islam. The Times covered that separately and I consider it part of the controversy rather than part of Ms. Hirsi Ali’s background. I believe including the controversy itself as part of Ms. Hirsi Ali’s resume is an example of either poisoning the well or assuming the conclusion. Or something like that.

** Just to clarify the following sentence (a Herculean task):

She had also previously disclosed inaccurate information through several sources before the controversy, including through her book The Son Factory.

I read this to mean that Ms. Hirsi Ali had made false statements not only on her asylum application but also “through several sources”. However, if Wikipedia is to be believed, Ms. Hirsi Ali in those “several sources” gave the true versions of the information she had lied about on her asylum application. I tend to believe Wikipedia since it lists the “several sources” (which can therefore be checked) and since it mentions these sources to explain why the accurate information was “considered by many to be public knowledge”.

The most charitable explanation for the misleading wording in the sentence is that Brandeis is not teaching its students to write. The less charitable explanations are left as an exercise for the reader.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Just another obscure non-contextualized allegation

Here is an excerpt from the Brandeis University student newspaper’s April 8 article about the outcry over the decision to grant Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree:

Prof. Mary Baine Campbell (ENG) [snip] wrote that she was “astonished to find out that this choice, to honor Ms. Hirsi Ali for her contributions to ‘women’s rights,’ had been made without consulting the [Women and Gender Studies] Core Faculty.”
Here is the final paragraph in that article:

[Prof. Mitra Shavarini (Women and Gender Studies)] further stated that Hirsi Ali’s approach to discourse “collapses thought in obscure, non-contextualized allegations that have no intellectual merit”—something Shavarini believes is radically opposed to the University’s values of “intellectual exchange and the challenging of one’s ideas.” 

Here is a line from the New York Times’ April 9 coverage of Brandeis’ decision to cancel its plans to give Ms. Hirsi Ali an honorary degree:

Even some of Ms. Hirsi Ali’s critics say they understand her hostility to Islam, given her experiences, though they think she goes too far.

Here is the motto for the AHA Foundation, founded by Ayaan Hirsi Ali in 2007:

Women everywhere, of all cultures, merit access to education and basic human rights.

Here are the opening paragraphs from a BBC report that went up this afternoon:

Around 100 girls are thought to have been abducted in an attack on a school in north-east Nigeria, officials say.

Gunmen reportedly arrived at the school in Chibok, Borno state, late last night, and ordered the hostel's teenage residents on to lorries.

The attackers are believed to be from the Islamist group, Boko Haram, whose militants frequently target schools.

The AP helpfully informs us that:

Islamic extremists have been abducting girls to use as cooks and sex slaves.

Sahara Reporters adds:

The mass abduction lasted between 9PM -3 AM as sect members made several trips picking and choosing their victims out of the 250 students enrolled in the school.


(Via The Feed at National Review Online)

Fewer please

Having discovered shortly before Opening Day that MLB.com would allow us to watch one free baseball game per day via Roku, my husband and I have watched far too much baseball over the last couple of weeks. As we’ve done so, I’ve noticed that most baseball announcers seem unfamiliar with the word “fewer”. Thus we hear that “Team A has less hits than any other in the majors” and that “Pitcher B has less saves than he did at this time last year”.

Every time the word “less” was used in such contexts, I would say, very quietly, “fewer”. Finally my husband informed me that he was afraid I was fighting a losing battle. I conceded that I was but vowed to fight on even against such overwhelming odds. This resulted in (a) my husband nicknaming me “Donna Quixote” and (b) my looking up the rules for using “fewer” and “less”.

I found the Wikipedia article on this subject most distressing. It begins reasonably enough by saying:

According to prescriptive grammar, "fewer" should be used (instead of "less") with nouns for countable objects and concepts (discretely quantifiable nouns or count nouns). According to this rule, "less" should only be used with a grammatically singular noun (including mass nouns).

However, the article immediately goes on to discount this view by referring to “descriptive grammarians”, “common usage of today and the past”, and “a personal preference expressed by a grammarian in 1770.” The real dagger to my heart though is this:

An extreme application of the prescriptivist rule can be seen in the examples "there is less flour in this canister" and "there are fewer cups (grains, pounds, bags, etc.) of flour in this canister", which are based on the reasoning that flour is uncountable whereas the unit used to measure the flour (cup etc.) is countable. Nevertheless, even most prescriptivists accept the most common usage "there are less cups of flour in this canister" and prescribe the rule addition that "less" should be used with units of measurement (other examples: "less than 10 pounds/dollars"). Prescriptivists would however consider only "fewer cups of coffee" to be correct in a sentence such as "there are fewer cups of coffee on the table now", where the cups are countable separate objects, although most people now and in the past use "less" even in such cases.

Really? If so, then apparently I am an “extreme” prescriptivist rather than merely one of “most prescriptivists” because I consider “less cups” just plain wrong whether I’m talking about cups of flour or cups of coffee.

The article did catch me out on another example in the above paragraph - “less than 10 pounds/dollars” - as well as on this:

In addition, "less" is recommended in front of counting nouns that denote distance, amount, or time. For example, "we go on holiday in fewer than four weeks" and "he can run the 100m in fewer than ten seconds" are not advised.

I would say “I have less than ten dollars”, “I go on vacation in less than four weeks”, and “I can run the 100 meter in less than 2 hours”. I can argue that in these instances the apparent count nouns (dollars, weeks, hours) are stand-ins for (I think) mass nouns (money and time) and thus I could rewrite these sentences as:

I have less money than ten dollars.
I go on vacation is less time than four weeks.
I can run the 100 meter dash in less time than two hours.

I would never say them quite that way, of course, but I would say:

How much money do I have? Less than ten dollars.
How long [a time] before I go on vacation? Less than four weeks.
What is my time for the 100 meter dash? Less than two hours.

As I say, I can argue this and I think there’s some validity to that argument but I may just be reverse engineering what sounds right to me so it fits with my extreme prescriptivism. After all, if someone asked, “How many weeks until you go on vacation?” I’m not entirely sure I’d say “Fewer than four” rather than “Less than four” - at least not every time.

All that said, however, saves and run are very definitely countable, as are most other measurements in baseball; it’s hard to derive statistics from non-countable actions, events, and occurences. Baseball can have fewer of lots of things: hits, runs, errors, saves, innings pitched, stolen bases, singles, doubles, triples, home runs, runs scored, runs scored against, at bats, bases on balls, grand slams, strike outs (looking and swinging), foul balls, runners in scoring position, caught stealing (or perhaps “caughts stealing” or “caught stealings”), balks, blown saves, earned runs, double plays, double plays induced, double plays hit into, day games, night games, away games, home games, free agents, intentional bases on balls, inherited runners, losses, wins, games ahead, games behind, tickets sold, and fans in attendance. Less, not so much.

*****

Standard disclaimer for a post dealing with grammar: Somewhere in this post there is almost certainly at least one egregious grammar error. Also, I know I use commas oddly especially in relation to quotation marks. Consider it part of my ineffable charm.

Monday, April 14, 2014

A list of one's own

Dear Miss Manners:
Those of us working for women’s rights have been advised to take a “ladylike” approach. We tried emulating the behavior of our opposition, but this hardly seemed ladylike. Could you provide a precise definition of “ladylike”?
Gentle Reader:
A lady is, above all, someone who is passionately concerned that others be treated with dignity, fairness, and justice. It has always been considered ladylike, for instance, to fight for these things on behalf of children, animals, and one’s husband. The difficulty you are encountering on the subject is that many people do no consider it ladylike to fight that battle on one’s own behalf. Therefore, if a woman truly wishes to be ladylike, she will fight for dignity, fairness, and justice, not for herself, but for all other women.

From Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior by Judith Martin, copyright 1982


At The Federalist, David Marcus is writing about the aftermath of concerns in the world of American theater over “the lack of work by women playwrights at major American theaters”:

Asked to explain the reason for this well established low representation of plays by women, one artist director explained that there just aren’t enough talented women playwrights in the pipeline, and that it will take at least a decade to fix the problem. 

According to Marcus, this was generally viewed as “an inane explanation and one that is insulting to thousands of women playwrights who face real, institutional barriers to having their work produced.” As a result of this exchange, “several theater artists” started “compiling lists of accomplished women playwrights.” So far, so good.

However, the resulting lists (now collapsed into a document called “We Exist”) are not, after all, lists of women playwrights. Instead they have become a list of “Female and/or Trans* Playwrights”. Marcus is taken aback by the asterisk after “Trans” but assumes that the term “Trans*” refers to people who were born anatomically male, identify as transgender or transsexual, and have either undergone hormone treatment and surgery to become female or are living as women. This, he says, is problematic for two reasons:

The inclusion of trans* writers suggests that a theater company can fulfill its commitment to gender parity without actually producing any plays written by people born as women.  And in a more fundamental way it reduces the meaning of the word woman to whatever a man thinks it means since at any point a man can decide he is a woman and expect to be considered one.

Why is this a problem for the theaters?

The stories we tell help to frame and create the society we live in.  Hearing women’s stories is valuable for the entire culture, especially at a time when the role of women is changing at an unprecedented pace.  When the stories of a group of people numbering more than half our population are excluded, our understanding of gender, and of each other suffers.  This is true (though on a much, much smaller scale) of the stories of trans* artists as well. But the experiences and identities of the trans* community cannot be conflated with the experiences and identity of women in general.  Pretending these experiences are one and the same may be inclusive and progressive, but it is also dishonest and disempowering.

Apparently, however, Marcus has misunderstood the meaning of the term “trans*”. It does not refer simply to those born anatomically male who have become, or are living as, women. Rather the asterisk at the end is far more sweeping than that. According to It’s Pronounced Metrosexual:

A few people have asked why I write “trans*” (with the asterisk) instead of just “trans” when referring to trans* folks on my site.  [snip]

Trans* is an umbrella term that refers to all of the identities within the gender identity spectrum.  There’s a ton of diversity there, but we often group them all together (e.g., when we say “trans* issues).  Trans (without the asterisk) is best applied to trans men and trans women, while the asterisk makes special note in an effort to include all non-cisgender gender identities, including transgender, transsexual, transvestite, genderqueer, genderfluid, non-binary, genderfuck, genderless, agender, non-gendered, third gender, two-spirit, bigender, and trans man and trans woman.

In other words, it appears that the term “trans*” refers to everyone except cis-men (those who were born anatomically male, have remained anatomically male, present as male/masculine, and identify as male); and cis-women (those who were born anatomically female, have remained anatomically female, present as female/feminine, and identify as female).

Given this, the “We Exist” list is open to everyone except cis-men. Both Marcus’ points are still valid and his second point - that “the experiences and identity of the ‘trans*’ community cannot be conflated with the experiences and identity of women in general - is perhaps even more valid. However, this is not, as Marcus’ piece frets, about a “new definition of women”. That would be problematic for the reasons Marcus describes but it would at least be about women fighting for women, albeit not just women as traditionally defined. Rather this is the same old story: A group of women start out fighting for themselves and end up fighting for everyone else.

This is the pre-Civil War suffragettes diverting their attention to abolition - and waiting 55 years for the right to vote. This is Ms. magazine “switch[ing] its focus from supporting women’s rights to supporting Third World peoples who had been oppressed by the Western European patriarchy.” This is another iteration of what I noticed in the 1990’s:

Much of feminist discussion now seemed to revolve around including gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered concerns as an intrinsic part of feminism.

This is feminism becoming a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party, required to support the Party’s agenda first and women second, third, or last. Or, no, not required - that’s the puzzle and the heartbreak. No one forced feminism to subjugate its mission to that of the Democratic Party; no one forced feminists to become obsessed with LGBT issues or forced Ms. magazine to turn its focus from women to Third World peoples; no one forced the early suffragettes to spend time, energy, and resources on abolition. And, so far as I know, no one forced the people who set out to put together lists of women playwrights to expand - and dilute - that list to include everyone who isn’t a man with a capital “M”.

Women do this to themselves. Apparently whatever other aspects of “ladylike” behavior have been lost along the way, far too many modern women are convinced it is wrong for them to fight to be treated with “dignity, fairness, and justice”. Even worse, they believe it is wrong for women to fight for other women to be so treated. Oh, they can perhaps mention themselves in the fight but really so many other people are suffering that it would be mean and selfish of women to think of themselves. The only proper course is to, once again, subjugate women’s concerns to those of every other person and group who has suffered, appears to suffer, and/or claims to suffer from some type of discrimination, disrespect, or insufficient attention. The goddess forbid women should stand up for themselves first and trust all those other people and groups to stand up for themselves.

I can only conclude that far too many women consider themselves somehow unworthy of being fought for. This is sexism of a very peculiar but oddly familiar kind: it is internalized sexism. Sounds like feminism desperately needs another round of consciousness raising.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

House of Congressmen

[Spoiler Alert: I don’t tell you anything that actually happened in the first season of the US version of House of Cards but I do give you a general sense of how things went.]

I watched the first season of House of Cards but almost certainly won’t watch the second season. I love revenge movies, TV shows, books, and I enjoyed House of Cards through most of the season. By the last few episodes, however, it had violated my rules for revenge dramas:

Rule 1: The action taken in revenge must be proportionate to the original harm. So if someone steals your car, you don’t burn down their house. Unless, of course, having your car stolen means you couldn’t get your dying child to the hospital on time and the child’s death leads to your spouse’s suicide and your spouse’s suicide leads to your other child becoming a drug addict. In that case, load up on kerosene and matches and go to it.

Rule 2: There must not be a lot of collateral damage; furthermore, any collateral damage that does occur must be as mild as possible and must be unavoidable, that is, there cannot be another way to accomplish the revenge. In other words, you can burn down the someone’s house in the above example but you can’t do it while his or her family is inside. Or while the children’s beloved pet is inside.

House of Cards breaks both these rules plus the “these are just icky people” factor hadn’t gotten pretty bad by the end. (Which I suppose is a Rule 3: The person seeking revenge must be likable enough so I don’t think he deserved whatever horrible thing happened to him originally.) What drove me crazy while I was watching it, though, was the use of “Congressman” as a title for the main character.

Francis Underwood is a member of the United States House of Representatives. In the show, however, he is not addressed as “Representative Underwood” but as “Congressman Underwood”. I know this is a general trend: members of the Senate are usually referred to as “Senator” and members of the House of Representatives are increasingly often referred to as “Congressman”. I read something a year or two ago - perhaps longer - that decried this as evidence that Senators didn’t want to think of themselves as on the same level as their House colleagues and that Representatives didn’t want to think of themselves as mere “representers” but as powerful, independent agents. True or not, I don’t know.

What I do know is that John McCain is a “Congressman” just like Paul Ryan is a “Congressman”. So are Jeff Sessions, Mike Rogers, Adam Schiff, and, well, hmm... Nancy Pelosi is not a Congressman; neither is Kelly Ayotte. They are Congresswomen. And this is what I find particularly annoying about the use of “Congressman” instead of “Representative”.

We’ve spent the last forty or fifty years arguing over whether and how to rid the English language of words that assume the norm is male (or male is the norm, depending on how you look at it). We’ve created such hideousness as “chairperson”; we’ve tried to convince ourselves that using “they”, “them”, and “their” when referring to one single person is not a marker for ignorance and lack of education; we flirted with (although never embraced) “s/he”. And now we are tossing a nice, gender neutral word like “Representative” overboard in order to use a gender-laden (and less accurate) word like “Congressman”.

I don’t like pretentious but what I really hate is dumb.

*****

Reading:

Gender-Neutral Language Tips - A how-to guide with a light and grammatical touch. I particularly enjoyed this comment in the author’s section on the use of “s/he”:

(In recent years, I have noticed this tendency being mocked by people who use “s/h/it”instead of “she/he/it”.)

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

While I'm away

I changed the sub-title; the old one seems far too smug. The new one is a piece of a quote from a four-year old post of mine called "The best things".