Saturday, October 15, 2011

Kate Bolick's piece in the Atlantic

1. About that piece-- first, read Phoebe Malz, Amanda Marcotte, and this interview with Edith Zimmerman.

2. I really do think that this is a story that makes perfect sense to what is in context a tiny sliver of people, and would seem totally inscrutable to a lot of other people. That's just my intuition. I think if you are among a certain social strata and you live in a particular kind of urban enclave with particular dating dynamics and particular assumptions about gender roles and a particular type of educated, socially liberal, and ambitious participants, this all sounds like the world around you. I think for most Americans, let alone most of the world, this kind of article causes people to say "...what?" The most glaring problem with American media is that it is written by people who genuinely believe that their neighborhood is the world. And most of them live in the same half-dozen neighborhoods.

3. Marcotte's point needs to be repeated and extended. Writers of all stripes enjoy engaging in the most cynical readings of human behavior because they think it makes them appear hyper-rational. But in fact here is a perfect example of how trying to achieve that makes you irrational. Human emotion is real. It is an observable phenomenon. It observably influences behavior. Therefore to fail to account for it when discussing coupling and relationships is the opposite of cold rationality; it is in fact a failure of empiricism. Speaking as a social scientist (in training), for someone to write about human romantic and sexual relationships without reference to the reality of human emotions-- that is, that people feel love, affection, desire, lust, and other imprecise but physiologically observable phenomena-- is a profound mistake when trying to fully interpret the world of relationships. You don't get credit for a showy cynicism when that cynicism results in poor ethnography.

4. My least favorite aspect of contemporary long-form journalism: "as I am, so must be the world." I don't understand why an intelligent and educated woman like Bolick is so resistant of saying "this is the choice that I've made; others will and should make different choices themselves." Reference to evolutionary psychology is the last refuge of a lazy writer. I celebrate the fact that Bolick feels that she doesn't need to get married. I wish she had the confidence necessary to express that idea without having to make it seem as though it is the only valid choice, and one that is insisted on by evolution. Real confidence stems from the recognition that others make different choices than you do and remaining secure in your own choice; fake confidence insists that others cannot make choices different than the ones you've made, or that they are fooling themselves, or living a lie, or whatever else.

That's the persistent and sad subtext of Bolick's piece. She insists that she is comfortable with her choice, and yet she feels the need to justify her choice in ways that undermine that insistence. Saying "evolution makes me do it" is exactly the opposite of expressing confidence in a choice. It instead is denying that a choice was made at all. I celebrate that more and more women are choosing to stay single if that's what they want, and I hope that the cultural assumption that an unmarried woman is an unhappy woman continues to erode. But the fact that it requires a 4,000 word essay in the Atlantic tells us that this is still not a fully accepted phenomenon yet. I'll recognize victory when a woman as accomplished as Bolick doesn't need to spend so much time justifying her choice.

5. Here's why I think she's on the cover of the issue of the Atlantic in which her recent story appears: I think she is on the cover, and in pictures inside the story, because she is writing about her superior desirability to the men whom she might potentially partner with. And I think that in order to make that possible, she and the Atlantic need to show that she's attractive. And she is. If there were no pictures of her, that would be the question on most people's minds: what does she look like?

That, in and of itself, tells you a lot. Bolick can convey socially-relevant information about the relative desirability of the men she's talking about in the article, with words. She can write about education and ambition and drive and money and whatever else, and that says enough to make the point. But Bolick's desirability can't be meaningfully conveyed without showing what she looks like. For all the talk of the declining fortunes of men relative to women, and how women are gaining the upper hand in the romantic and sexual marketplace, women's desirability continues to be largely determined by their physical appearance. I wish Bolick's accomplishments were enough to convey her desirability, but the cold calculus her editors performed in putting her on the cover says otherwise.

As with Hannah Rosin's "The End of Men," this strikes me as an article that superficially details victory for women while the context in which it emerges reminds us of how far we still have to go.

18 comments:

Phoebe said...

I interpreted all the references to Science (well, survey data and expert opinion) in the story not as meant to show that her experience was universal, but more that she'd written a personal essay and some editor said something like, "That's nice, but if this is going to be a Serious Magazine cover story, the Serious Readers (male readers?) don't care about personal experiences. They want to hear 'percent' and 'in a 2002 study.'" Or, if not an editor, her own self-editing, coming from the knowledge that for the piece to run, it will need that quantitative angle, however tacked-on it feels.

redscott said...

If Samuel Johnson were alive today, he might say that evolutionary psychology is the last refuge of a scoundrel (or an idiot). Please, let's not apply a pseudoscience that can charitably be described as in its infancy to complex sociological changes. Phoebe's account rings true to me -someone writes a perfectly legitimate take on her own experience, but it has to be justified by reference to Something Objective (even if it isn't). So her editor made her sound like an idiot.

Anonymous said...

Re: #2
Yes, emotion is observable. In fact, human emotion is so observable it's quantifiable. Human infatuation can, in fact, be measured. Multiple studies have demonstrated this. To discuss the behavior of humans in aggregate is to discuss it in statistical or economic terms. Recognizing this is does not deny the reality of the human experience, any more than the scientific understanding of a rainbow invalidates poetry.

Anonymous said...

Nothing is going to make men attracted to women based on their accomplishments instead of their youth, just like nothing is going to make women attracted to men based on their youth instead of their accomplishments. That's one area where evolutionary psychology seems undeniable (certainly more predictable than much we call science). The problem of women going immediately from "too young to marry" to "too old to marry" is a simple one. The "too young to marry" folks are mostly engaging in a pleasant fantasy involving a complex mix of ideology, nostalgia, and sentimentality. The "too old to marry" people have cruel reality on their side. It would make far more sense for women to marry in their early 20s and develop a career in their 30s than vice versa. Their value in the marriage market drops far more precipitously than their ability to attend graduate school, start a business, etc. When you treat a 20 percent improvement to your career prospects as a goal ahead of a 80 percent increase in your marriage prospects the outcome is, yes, predictable.

TGGP said...

Emotions work, that's why evolution created them. People may execute adaptations rather than maximize fitness/happiness, but modeling people as agents pursuing a goal (goals that sometimes conflict) works pretty well. A failure of empiricism should mean bad predictions, and no evolutionary psychologist says things like "people don't flush when embarrassed".

Anonymous said...

Divorce and remarriage are centralized in a minority of men in the West. For many, this means they leave behind a stream of women and possibly offspring. In extreme cases, they don’t even bother to marry and divorce—they merely cuckold other men. Both of these are less desirable for beta males than the situation in, say, Africa, where women do most of the agricultural labor because the environment lets them bear it.

In the West, although women are “farming” the managerial state because the environment lets them bear it, the alphas don’t even show the betas the respect due to men who care for the alphas children. When polygyny is formalized, there are at least roles like eunuchs which are formally respected by the alphas—rather than having the alphas and their harems continually trying to convince the betas they are actually homosexual, or “hateful,” or that there's something "wrong" with them, or whatever.

It's simply a more humane system than de facto polygyny because it is more honest.

Monogamy, or more accurately, the suppression of of polygyny, is an artifact of technology which allowed us to expand into other climates (i.e. harsh climates with low carrying capacity) where female dependence on male technology for reproduction was a fact of life.

So if the individual male is no longer the primary provider, then it's Africanization time.

The pressure toward de jure polygyny is actually from the females although they would never admit it. Many women simply cannot maintain a fertile relationship with a man who they perceive as genetically a dead end—which, in the current vicious environment, is any so-called “nice guy”. But neither can they admit to themselves what, exactly, is bugging them. So many end up with no children at all. Moreover, many women who end up being kicked out of their positions as concubines to the managerial state—usually right around the age they are starting to run a risk of "difficult" pregancies—would be far better off if they were in a real harem with relationships with fellow concubines and their children that are not going to be terminated just because they are no longer fertile.

Anonymous said...

Civilization is built on the pretense that husbands are alpha males so that they don't revolt against those in positions of authority. The 60s exploded that pretense leaving the glass ceiling protecting those positions of authority as the real alpha males surrounding themselves by de facto harems. It has taken decades, but the consequences are now coming home to roost in the form of high fertility rates among patriarchal immigrant cultures. Islam is the the likely beneficiary since it dispenses with the hypocrisy surrounding de facto harems and formally sanctions harem sizes limited to a maximum of 4 females.

No one wants to even consider what the counterpart to female liberation might be. But consider: A female's godhood is exercised when she chooses which genes will pass through her to the next generation. A male's godhood is exercised when he chooses which other male he will meet in a natural duel to prevent his genes from passing into the next generation -- or die trying.

If males are liberated, the glass ceiling would be shattered along with all positions of authority.

Anonymous said...

The much-lauded liberation of female "choice" -- choice in sexual partners, reproductive choice, career choice, "lifestyle" choice, choice of social support services from the government -- over the last generation is now a fixture of Western civilization.

The moral force behind this female empowerment is the extent to which it represents returning to individual females their sovereignty.

What about male individual sovereignty?

Under natural law the ultimate power -- the power that shapes the future -- of female individual sovereignty is the choice of which genes make it into the next generation and that power is exercised through birth.

Under natural law the ultimate power of male individual sovereignty is the choice of that which is to be killed in single combat.

Civilization is founded on a meta-stable "deal" in which females give up their individual sovereignty to their mates and their mates give up their individual sovereignty to the State. If, in this scenario, you liberate only one sex, not only does civilization collapse, but until it does, the circumstances are unbearable to the sex not liberated.

In Western civilization there is no going back to the age of females giving up their individual sovereignty to their mates, so Western civilization is ending and we are left with two choices:

Figure out how to legitimize formal individual combat to the death between males, or adopt Islam.

That's a true dilemma

MattW said...

So the article was really just a fancy personals ad. I see it now.

Anonymous said...

Being an old fogey, I receive the print edition of the Atlantic, and was immediately struck by the cover, and the slug at the lower right, which identified the exact date the photo was taken (9/9/2011). So it's not an old photo; it is important that she still looks hot right now and that you know it.

individualfrog said...

So, I know you don't like moderating comments. I understand that impulse, but in some cases, like this one, I just think it would be a better choice.

Freddie said...

I kind of think this type of batshit commenter is useful for deomnstrating the kind of attitudes out there, and also is self-undermining.

Anonymous said...

Feminism is a civilizing influence as is anything that neutralizes sex. Two males of just about any species in nature will engage in natural duel. This common theme of natural duel is simply not compatible with maintaining a social organism like civilization in which the appeal of last resort in dispute processing is words.

Once you remove this essential expression of masculinity, as civilizations always tend to do, you have removed the essence of masculinity. Most civilizations think they can get away with compensating for this by similarly "castrating" females through institutions like state or religion sponsored prostitution called "marriage". That "works" for a while -- maybe thousands of years, but eventually females will come to question this arrangement for very natural reasons.

But by the time that has happened, everyone has forgotten that civilization also suppressed the natural duel! So things go _really_ haywire and uncontrollably so as natural forces disrupt the culture starting in the limbic systems of virtually every citizen. You can only commodify this discontent and sell it back to on DVD in the form of mano-a-mano fights at the climax of the movie so much. Something must give. That something is sex itself. And here we have, just in time, genetic engineering and cloning.

Anonymous said...

See Freddie engage in exactly the kind of social conditioning he decries elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

In nature, males and females have two respective powers: To destroy and to preserve. People think that civilization is founded on control of destruction and seem to forget that civilization also depends on controlling female power to preserve. With the return to females of choice, hence their power, something equivalent must be done for males, such as enforcing natural duels to the death (natural meaning just putting the two disputants out in the wilderness with one to return). Of course, no one can face that this is the logical consequence of female liberation, so civilization slowly transforms into something unrecognizable except, perhaps, to the eusocial insects and their negation of sex.

jgd said...

In the article, Bolick uses Stephanie Coontz's reading of the history of marriage to show that up until very recently, marriage was a practical structure, built for personal and economic stability. Love, as the title of Coontz's book says, has "conquered marriage."

Am I wrong to consider this the most radical, modern, and free idea - that love could become the reason people get married? What more reason does one need to live in a free society?

But then Bolick seems to be saying that she's regressing to the old ideas of marriage, those of practicality and economy. If we believe Coontz, then isn't this whole concern over the status of a mate really what we've worked for a long time to do away with?

The Anti-Gnostic said...

Am I wrong to consider this the most radical, modern, and free idea - that love could become the reason people get married? What more reason does one need to live in a free society?

The neural pathways for "love" get burned out pretty quick. After that all the more prosaic stuff kicks in, like raising a family, participating in extended family, maintaining living standards, socialization, etc.

It's great to marry for love and actually people have been marrying for love for a long time. Arranged marriages were more an upper class concern. But love is only part of the marriage. If you despise your spouse's family, don't share your spouse's religious belief or financial goals, then the marriage stands a good chance of ending, or ending up as de facto roommates.

Anyhoo, the bottom line is Ms. Bolick made vocational training a priority when she was at the peak of her marital market value. Time marches on. I hope she is enjoying her career.

The Anti-Gnostic said...

Also:

For all the talk of the declining fortunes of men relative to women, and how women are gaining the upper hand in the romantic and sexual marketplace, women's desirability continues to be largely determined by their physical appearance. I wish Bolick's accomplishments were enough to convey her desirability

Desirability for what--business partner, consultant, technical writer?

Desirability for coitus and other forms of physical intimacy--yes, physical appearance is kind of important. Would you have sexual relations with a smart, successful person you found physically repulsive?