July 15, 2012
July 15, 2012
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.
In “Distant View of a Minaret,” the late and much-neglected Egyptian writer Alifa Rifaat begins her short story with a woman so unmoved by sex with her husband that as he focuses solely on his pleasure, she notices a spider web she must sweep off the ceiling and has time to ruminate on her husband’s repeated refusal to prolong intercourse until she too climaxes, “as though purposely to deprive her.” Just as her husband denies her an orgasm, the call to prayer interrupts his, and the man leaves. After washing up, she loses herself in prayer — so much more satisfying that she can’t wait until the next prayer — and looks out onto the street from her balcony. She interrupts her reverie to make coffee dutifully for her husband to drink after his nap. Taking it to their bedroom to pour it in front of him as he prefers, she notices he is dead. She instructs their son to go and get a doctor. “She returned to the living room and poured out the coffee for herself. She was surprised at how calm she was,” Rifaat writes.
In a crisp three-and-a-half pages, Rifaat lays out a trifecta of sex, death, and religion, a bulldozer that crushes denial and defensiveness to get at the pulsating heart of misogyny in the Middle East. There is no sugarcoating it. They don’t hate us because of our freedoms, as the tired, post-9/11 American cliché had it. We have no freedoms because they hate us, as this Arab woman so powerfully says.
Yes: They hate us. It must be said.
Some may ask why I’m bringing this up now, at a time when the region has risen up, fueled not by the usual hatred of America and Israel but by a common demand for freedom. After all, shouldn’t everyone get basic rights first, before women demand special treatment? And what does gender, or for that matter, sex, have to do with the Arab Spring? But I’m not talking about sex hidden away in dark corners and closed bedrooms. An entire political and economic system — one that treats half of humanity like animals — must be destroyed along with the other more obvious tyrannies choking off the region from its future. Until the rage shifts from the oppressors in our presidential palaces to the oppressors on our streets and in our homes, our revolution has not even begun.
So: Yes, women all over the world have problems; yes, the United States has yet to elect a female president; and yes, women continue to be objectified in many “Western” countries (I live in one of them). That’s where the conversation usually ends when you try to discuss why Arab societies hate women.
But let’s put aside what the United States does or doesn’t do to women. Name me an Arab country, and I’ll recite a litany of abuses fueled by a toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing or able to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend. When more than 90 percent of ever-married women in Egypt — including my mother and all but one of her six sisters — have had their genitals cut in the name of modesty, then surely we must all blaspheme. When Egyptian women are subjected to humiliating “virginity tests” merely for speaking out, it’s no time for silence. When an article in the Egyptian criminal code says that if a woman has been beaten by her husband “with good intentions” no punitive damages can be obtained, then to hell with political correctness. And what, pray tell, are “good intentions”? They are legally deemed to include any beating that is “not severe” or “directed at the face.” What all this means is that when it comes to the status of women in the Middle East, it’s not better than you think. It’s much, much worse. Even after these “revolutions,” all is more or less considered well with the world as long as women are covered up, anchored to the home, denied the simple mobility of getting into their own cars, forced to get permission from men to travel, and unable to marry without a male guardian’s blessing — or divorce either.
Not a single Arab country ranks in the top 100 in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, putting the region as a whole solidly at the planet’s rock bottom. Poor or rich, we all hate our women. Neighbors Saudi Arabia and Yemen, for instance, might be eons apart when it comes to GDP, but only four places separate them on the index, with the kingdom at 131 and Yemen coming in at 135 out of 135 countries. Morocco, often touted for its “progressive” family law (a 2005 report by Western “experts” called it “an example for Muslim countries aiming to integrate into modern society”), ranks 129; according to Morocco’s Ministry of Justice, 41,098 girls under age 18 were married there in 2010.
It’s easy to see why the lowest-ranked country is Yemen, where 55 percent of women are illiterate, 79 percent do not participate in the labor force, and just one woman serves in the 301-person parliament. Horrific news reports about 12-year-old girls dying in childbirth do little to stem the tide of child marriage there. Instead, demonstrations in support of child marriage outstrip those against it, fueled by clerical declarations that opponents of state-sanctioned pedophilia are apostates because the Prophet Mohammed, according to them, married his second wife, Aisha, when she was a child.
But at least Yemeni women can drive. It surely hasn’t ended their litany of problems, but it symbolizes freedom — and nowhere does such symbolism resonate more than in Saudi Arabia, where child marriage is also practiced and women are perpetually minors regardless of their age or education. Saudi women far outnumber their male counterparts on university campuses but are reduced to watching men far less qualified control every aspect of their lives.
Yes, Saudi Arabia, the country where a gang-rape survivor was sentenced to jail for agreeing to get into a car with an unrelated male and needed a royal pardon; Saudi Arabia, where a woman who broke the ban on driving was sentenced to 10 lashes and again needed a royal pardon; Saudi Arabia, where women still can’t vote or run in elections, yet it’s considered “progress” that a royal decree promised to enfranchise them for almost completely symbolic local elections in — wait for it — 2015. So bad is it for women in Saudi Arabia that those tiny paternalistic pats on their backs are greeted with delight as the monarch behind them, King Abdullah, is hailed as a “reformer” — even by those who ought to know better, such as Newsweek, which in 2010 named the king one of the top 11 most respected world leaders. You want to know how bad it is? The “reformer’s” answer to the revolutions popping up across the region was to numb his people with still more government handouts — especially for the Salafi zealots from whom the Saudi royal family inhales legitimacy. King Abdullah is 87. Just wait until you see the next in line, Prince Nayef, a man straight out of the Middle Ages. His misogyny and zealotry make King Abdullah look like Susan B. Anthony…
China’s Identity Crisis: The “People’s Republic” may soon buckle under the weight of its own contradictions
July 15, 2012
Ever since Thucydides’ “manual for statecraft” portrayed the starkly divergent strategic cultures of Athens and Sparta, the need to comprehend one’s own and other nations’ identities has been indispensible. But in recent decades, discussions of national character have been scorned as politically incorrect and non-quantifiable. Yet a national identity crisis can be seen in one place after another, like in the Arab world, the European Union, and Russia. Of all the identity problems today, China’s is the most severe. The Bo Xilai scandal that has riled the leadership succession, the Chen Guangcheng human rights standoff, and tense situations from Xinjiang to Tibet to the South China Sea all contain manifestations of this underlying phenomenon.
China seems always to have been fully formed. The Chinese tell the world, and scholars in the West reinforce the idea, that the People’s Republic today is serene, self-assured, the product of thousands of years of Confucian calm and virtue, the practitioner of a patient, nuanced, subtle statecraft designed to succeed without confrontation or warfare.
Yet China’s history from remotest antiquity to modern times has been as turbulent, unpredictable, and violent as any other major civilization on earth. And through the most recent centuries, the question of “Chineseness” itself has come to the fore. The Beijing regime, led by the Communist Party, seems preoccupied with the matter of Chinese identity as it launches one campaign after another to try to explain to the Chinese people who they are and what China’s meaning to the world should be.
The incongruity between the eternal cultural image and its currently contested reality suggests that modern China’s long “search for a political form” has not yet ended, and the status of traditional Chinese thought and practice remains uncertain.
The Manchu military conquest of China in 1644, which would become the Qing dynasty, has been portrayed as an example of China’s supposedly unique power to coopt, absorb, and soon incorporate every foreign influence, making invading elements compatible with, or even contributors to, Confucianism.
But the Manchu court was regarded by the Chinese as “interlopers from beyond the pale of civilization.” The shock to the Chinese psyche was deep and lasting and dramatically displayed by the Manchu edict that all Chinese men must shave their foreheads and braid their remaining hair into a Manchu tribal-like queue, a humiliating act of degradation, for long, carefully-attended hair was part of the Confucian scholar-official’s dignified bearing. Throughout the Qing dynasty’s long rule, the image of “the pigtailed Chinaman” became the cartoonist’s badge of Chinese identity to the world.
Manchu supremacy marshaled China’s resources into ambitious military campaigns that brought all of Buddhist Mongolia and Muslim Xinjiang into their empire and would come to dominate Tibet, thus establishing Qing imperial borders far beyond traditional Chinese culture and history. Today’s People’s Republic of China, as a result, is an empire compelled to declare itself a state, and to seek ways to assimilate huge areas with non-Han Chinese populations.
China and the International System
Nineteenth century Qing China felt the heavy impact of two additional foreign-origin assaults. China’s mercantilist economic system was disrupted by Britain’s use of the opium trade to siphon silver out of Qing coffers and carry the un-Chinese thoughts of Adam Smith to Asia. China’s status as the center of a system of world order and recipient of “tribute” from lesser nations was challenged by the British and other outside powers’ military-diplomatic forays aimed at forcing the Qing court to accept resident foreign embassies under the Westphalian doctrine of “the equality of states”—which could not have been further from China’s sense of world order.
As the British-led “opening” had its way in Peking and the “treaty ports” on the coast, yet another form of alien power arose in China. Just at the time when “Chineseness” seemed to be absorbing and transcending Manchu Qing rule, the foreign faith of Christianity was adopted and distorted by an ambitious youth who failed to pass the Confucian examination, which would have placed him among China’s official elite. He transformed the message of missionary tracts into an uprising to drive foreign demons from China and establish a Taiping Tien Kuo—Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace. The foreign demons were not the British or other westerners, but China’s Manchu rulers. A foreign faith thus would be employed in a war to rid the land of foreign rule and regain China for the Chinese.
The Taiping Rebellion of 1851–1865 was the most violent upheaval, worldwide, of the nineteenth century, causing an estimated twenty to thirty million deaths as its armies ravaged south and east-central China, burning the Confucian classics as it went, all in the name of Christianity. A combination of Imperial Qing soldiery, Shanghai-based Western irregulars, and internal Taiping rivalries brought an end to the Heavenly Kingdom.
Of all the world’s imperial powers, the Qing court most bitterly struggled against efforts to integrate China into the international state system. But after British Lord Elgin invaded the capital, and burned the Summer Palace, an incipient foreign ministry was set up in Peking in grudging recognition that China had no choice but to accept and participate in the system of state-to-state diplomacy then being imposed or adopted around the world.
The Boxer Rebellion of 1900, starting as a violent protest against Christian missionaries, led to the storming of the new foreign Legation Quarter of Peking. Manchu imperial rule was ending. The Nationalist Revolution came in 1911, inaugurating the Republic of China, and the first president of the Republic, Sun Yat-sen, went to the Ming Tombs to declare that foreign Qing rulers had been overthrown; China at last was again under Chinese rule…
Why Do We Say That Someone Is “Hot”? Scientists are discovering the primal links between physical warmth and our emotions
July 15, 2012
What do a chilly reception, a cold-blooded murder, and an icy stare have in common? Each plumbs the bulb of what could be called your social thermometer, exposing our reflexive tendency to conflate social judgments—estimations of another’s trust and intent — with the perception of temperature. Decades of fascinating cross-disciplinary studies have illuminated the surprising speed, pervasiveness and neurobiology of this unconscious mingling of the personal and the thermal.
The blurring of ‘heat’ and ‘greet’ is highlighted in a recent experiment by Ohio University’s Matthew Vess, who asked whether this tendency is influenced by an individual’s sensitivity to relational distress. They found that people high in the psychological attribute called attachment anxiety (a tendency to worry about the proximity and availability of a romantic partner) responded to memories of a relationship breakup with an increased preference for warm-temperature foods over cooler ones: soup over crackers. Subjects low in attachment anxiety — those more temperamentally secure — did not show this “comfort food” effect.
In a related part of the same experiment, subjects were asked to reconstruct jumbled words into sentences that had either cold or warm evocations. (Sentence reconstruction tasks involving specific themes are known to unconsciously influence subsequent behavior.) After being temperature-primed, Vess’s subjects rated their perceptions of their current romantic relationship. As in the first condition, subjects higher in attachment anxiety rated their relationship satisfaction higher when prompted with balmier phrases than with frosty ones.
The fact that individual differences in a relationship-oriented trait (attachment anxiety) are related to a person’s sensitivity to unconscious temperature-related cues speaks to the “under the hood” unconscious mingling that occurs between our social perceptual system and our temperature perception system. Though people predisposed to worry about their relationships seem to be more sensitive to these cues, we are all predisposed to the blurring of different types of experience. Similar recent experiments have demonstrated, for example, that briefly holding a warm beverage buoys subsequent ratings of another’s personality, that social isolation sensitizes a person to all things chilly, that inappropriate social mimicry creates a sense of cold, and that differences in the setting of the experimental lab’s thermostat leads test subjects to construe social relationships differently.
Vess’s experiments follow a much longer line of psychological research exploring the reasons people avoid a cold shoulder, lament a frigid partner and have to “cool off” after a spat. In point of fact, the mercury in our social minds has been of interest since at least the 1940’s, when landmark work on impression-formation by the pioneering social psychologist Solomon Asch demonstrated the “striking and consistent differences of impression” created by substituting the words “warm” and “cold” into a hypothetical person’s personality profile. Since then, a panoply of studies of social perception in a host of cultures have validated the centrality of these temperate anchors in forming rapid unconscious impressions of a person.
It will come as no surprise that the ultimate confluence of the thermal and the personal happens between our ears. The neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, for example, has noted that the neural machinery for attachment and bonding is actually cobbled together out of more primitive brain areas used for temperature regulation. Adding to this theme, the psychiatrist Myron Hofer’s seminal research in the 1970’s demonstrated that certain parameters of rodent maternal attachment behavior (e.g. variations in touch or warmth) act as “hidden regulators” of various physiological responses (e.g.digestion) in their pups. Around the same time, another psychiatrist, John Bowlby, penned his now-canon observations about the central importance of attachment for the social and psychological development of young humans, reminding us that we are just another part of a chain of mammals that depend on the care of others for survival…