Osip Mandelstam’s poem on Stalin

NKVD profile photo of Mandelstam (public domain)

It’s 70 years since the death of Stalin. I wrote about the anniversary, and its current echoes, for The Bulwark. But here’s a postscript: a haunting poem about Stalin written in 1933 by the great Russian-Jewish poet Osip Mandelstam, which played a role in his eventual arrest and imprisonment in the gulag (where he died in 1938). Even apart from its tragic significance, it is a superb and remarkable document of the Stalin years. In twelve lines, it captures the essence that takes volumes to explain: the overriding climate of fear and trembling in Stalin’s USSR; Stalin’s absolute dominance of public space; the larger-than-life inhumanity of his presence, both animalistic and diabolical; the grotesque cravenness of the Stalin-era Soviet elites; and, finally, the centrality of brute force and carnage.

Here’s the Russian text:

Мы живем, под собою не чуя cтраны,
Наши речи за десять шагов не слышны,
А где хватит на полразговорца,
Там припомнят кремлёвского горца.
Его толстые пальцы, как черви, жирны,
А слова, как пудовые гири, верны,
Тараканьи смеются усища,
И сияют его голенища.
А вокруг него сброд тонкошеих воҗдей,
Он играет услугами полулюдей.
Кто свистит, кто мяучит, кто хнычет,
Он один лишь бабачит и тычет.
Как подкову, кует за указом указ:
Кому в пах, кому в лоб, кому в бровь, кому в глаз.
Что ни казнь у него—то малина
И широкая грудь осетина.

There are several English translations, none of which I found satisfying for various reasons. Free verse translations of rhymed/scanned poetry rarely “work” in my view, since they fail by their very nature to capture the dynamic and quality of the original. (Free verse can be brilliant but it is a fundamentally different animal from traditional verse.) The ones that do rhyme and scan tend to be clunky.

I’ve been trying my hand at verse translation in the past couple of years. Here’s my version of the Mandelstam “Stalin epigram.” (Many thanks to my friend Tanya Golubchik for her suggestions on how to make it better.)

With no land felt beneath us, we live day to day;
Our speech barely carries ten paces away,
Each half-snatched conversation remembering
The highlander up in the Kremlin.
His fingers are greasy as overfed worms,
And final as cast-iron weights are his words;
Cockroach whiskers are laughing and winking,
And his boot tops are gleaming and twinkling.
There’s a rabble around him of chiefs with thin necks;
He plays with half-humans he’s got at his beck:
Some mewling, some whimpering, some hissing;
He goes poke! he goes boom! and they listen.
Like horseshoes he drops one by one his decrees:
To the groin, to the head, to the eye, to the knees;
Every killing’s a sweet celebration,
And stands tall the broad-chested Ossetian. 

Verse translation is always hard. Translating Mandelstam is perhaps especially hard, because his language is often deliberately abstruse, coded and full of allusions. The last two lines of the Stalin epigram pose an especially tough challenge. The next to last line, which literally translate as every execution is raspberries, has an uncapturable dual allusion: the phrase ne zhizn’, a malina (literally “it’s not life, it’s raspberries”), which means, essentially, “this is the sweet life”; and malina (“raspberries”) as slang word for the criminal underworld, or a criminal gang. “Every killing’s a sweet bowl of cherries” would convey the first meaning quite well, but still lose the second.

The last line, I shirokaya grud’ osetina (“And the broad chest of the Ossetian”) is even more mysterious. In Russian, it’s grammatically weird, suggesting that each execution is “a bowl of raspberries” and an Ossetian’s broad chest. What does this mean? That Stalin enjoys executions as much as he enjoys a broad Ossetian chest? Or (more likely) that the broad Ossetian chest is Stalin’s own, an embodiment of his towering machismo? I’m well aware that my version is inadequate. I tried, though.

As a bonus: a great 2010 essay by the Spanish poet José Manuel Pirieto in the New York Review of Books about the Mandelstam poem, its history, and Pirieto’s own translation of it.

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How I (apparently) tried to kill Pamela Geller, the Mad Queen of “counter-jihad”

On Tuesday, I devoted my weekly Newsday column to the ridiculous Southern Poverty Law Center report naming human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali and liberal Muslim activist and author Maajid Nawaz among “anti-Muslim extremists.” In passing, I mentioned Geller, also on SPLC’s list, as an example of an actual anti-Muslim extremist who traffics in nasty generalizations and smears against individual Muslims (or people she thinks are secret Muslims). I have written about Geller before and then replied to a “rebuttal” by her and her ally, self-styled “scholar of Islam” Robert Spencer.

On Wednesday, I got on Twitter to find this bizarre accusation:

Since the column I sent in mentioned only that Geller was from Long Island (a well-known fact), I was rather taken aback. When I checked the published version, it turned out that the text had been changed to “anti-‘Islamization’ activist Pamela Geller of Hewlett Harbor.” I figured that the paper’s standard policy when referring to Long Islanders (since Newsday is a Long Island paper) is to mention the town to give it a local angle.

I will say that after searching the Newsday site, I found a number of older references to Geller (including in a previous column of mine) that did not mention either the town or her Long Island background. It may be a policy change. The reason I even thought of mentioning Long Island is that last May, when I wrote about the 10th anniversary of the Duke University rape hoax, my editor told me that one of the accused men was from Long Island and that this fact should be noted, since it’s always good to highlight a  local angle if there is one.

I also saw other tweets stating that the location I (supposedly) gave for Geller is incorrect, and a quick Google search confirmed that Hewlett Harbor is Geller’s (widely reported) native town and former residence. (I don’t think that affects Newsday‘s wording; the added text in my Duke column referred to “Colin Finnerty of Garden City,” even though, to my knowledge, he no longer lives there.) In other words: Newsday did not actually give out Geller’s current location and send jihadists after her.

When I pointed it all out to Spencer, his responses grew increasingly unhinged; witness, for instance, this exchange:

He also asserted that if I know Geller does not currently live in the town, it contradicts my claim that Newsday mentions the township for local people. (Incorrect: It applies to anyone from Long Island.) At the same time, he bizarrely continued to insist that not removing the information was “endangering” Geller. Meanwhile, certain people whipped up by his faux outrage were suggesting that I should be reported to the FBI or the police for wanton endangerment or that my home address be posted online. (To his credit, somewhere in this long thread Spencer asked people not to do that, but it’s entirely possible that many people won’t see his admonishment and others will ignore it.) Incidentally, many people clearly thought that I had actually disclosed Geller’s current or former full address (as if a mainstream publication would ever run such a thing). Spencer’s vague reference to “location” actively fosters such a misunderstanding.

Oh, and Geller weighed in with a lengthy and even more unhinged post of her own, the main gist of which is that I’m ugly.

I’m not posting this to complain about Twitter abuse. Generally, it’s nothing that changing your settings to “only people you follow” can’t deal with, and I’m pretty jaded about Twitter threats. Mainly, I wanted to explain the situation, for those who have seen something about this on Twitter and are wondering what’s going on. But this is also, in miniature, an example of the kind of knee-jerk, fact-free, thought-free vitriol that dominates much of the social media today.

By the way, had Geller or Spencer asked me to have the name of the town removed from the article without making absurd accusations or whipping up a hysterical mob, I would have asked the editors at Newsday to remove it. Even with the hysteria, I absolutely would have asked them to remove it if Geller still lived in Hewlett Harbor. Even awful people who are potential targets of terrorism deserve protection and safety.

As it is, the reference to the town simply restates a fact mentioned in numerous other sources including Wikipedia. No one is being endangered, and I don’t believe in giving in to bullying. So the article stays as it is.


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Some questions, and answers, on James Deen and believing rape allegations

Last week, I wrote a column for the New York Observer on the rape accusations against porn star James Deen, arguing that while the legal presumption of innocence may not apply in the court of public opinion — and the media — even a conviction in the latter should require more than “Believe the [alleged] victims.” While multiple accusations against the same person are often extremely strong proof of guilt, they could also be the result of a “bandwagon effect” when the first accusation is widely publicized and there are strong social incentives to back it. I also pointed out that in this case specifically, there are facts that should be possible to check, since some of Deen’s alleged offenses took place in public, during film shoots.

My friend-with-whom-I-disagree-about-everything (well, not quite everything…) Barry Deutsch has raised some questions on Twitter which I am answering here.

Proving that an accusation is definitely false is extremely difficult. Last year, for instance, Oxford Debating Union president Ben Sullivan was arrested on charges of raping one woman and attempting to rape another, but was ultimately cleared in both cases (he claimed everything that happened was consensual).  But do we know for a fact that these accusations were false? No, of course not.

Nonetheless, I know of at least one case, in Los Angeles in the late 1990s, in which it’s fairly certain that one false accusation was the result of another. I would also say that in the Paul Nungesser saga at Columbia University (the man accused of sexual assault by “mattress girl” Emma Sulkowicz and by two other women and one man), there is all but incontrovertible evidence that at least the last accusation, from the male student identified only as “Adam,” was a confabulation motivated by the desire to support Sulkowicz (the internal Columbia report on the case doesn’t come out and say so but strongly hints at such a conclusion).

And not quite the same, but in a tragic case 15 years ago, six girls and a boy conspired to accuse a teacher of sexual abuse, leading to his suicide.

Also, I could turn Barry’s question on its head: Are there any known cases in which multiple accusations made entirely in the social media and the news media, with no criminal or legal action, were shown to be true?

Barry further asks:

Actually, I thought it was interesting that the one story for which there was corroborating evidence was also one where Deen’s alleged behavior falls short of rape or sexual assault (as Buzzfeed concedes, for instance), but was more along the lines of boundary-pushing and deliberately provoking. I was alluding to that when I wrote:

Is he a predator, or a man who likes pushing women’s boundaries in ways that may be upsetting but not criminal?

Also from Barry:

On the first point: I’m not sure if Barry and others are aware that Amber Rayne appears not to regard her experience with Deen as sexual assault.

See also this exchange with a CNN.com writer in which Rayne reiterates that she does not consider herself one of Deen’s victims and sees the incident as one in which things got “unnecessarily rough” due to his lack of control and maturity.

As for the second point, no one should be forced to hire Deen or anyone else. If he routinely engages in behavior that is not criminal but upsets his fellow performers, he should not be hired. If I ran a company (in whatever line of business) and one of my employees was accused of raping another, or raping anyone for that matter, I would most definitely suspend that employee pending an investigation. The entire point of my piece was that there needs to be an investigation — if not by legal authorities, then by the media.

Which leads me to Barry’s final tweet on the subject:

And this is where I remember why Barry and I disagree on almost everything except the awesomeness of Firefly and Farscape. 😉

Well, not everything. I think it’s good that the Tumblr post in question makes the point that “I believe women” is a profoundly sexist statement that excludes male victims (and, in some cases, sides with female perpetrators!). But I’m afraid the author’s suggestion to replace it with “I believe survivors” (i.e. any self-proclaimed survivor) is only a slight improvement.

And this is what really left me speechless:

I don’t believe Stoya because she’s a woman, I believe her because as a general principle it’s awful to play detective on rape claims and it’s good to listen and offer support.

Ex…cuse me?

It’s awful to play detective on rape claims?

Well, yes, if someone close to you (spouse/partner, family member, good friend) says she or he has been raped, of course you should listen and often support and not ask for proof. The same applies if you’re a therapist and the person reporting a rape is your client, or if you’re a counselor at a rape crisis center or a member of a support group for rape victims. (I don’t think you’re obligated to shut down all doubts if the person’s story sounds dubious — you’re not doing them any favors if you support them in a fabrication or delusion — but “playing detective”really would be rather awful.)

But rape is a crime. Crimes are investigated by actual detectives. If a crime has been reported only to the media, not to the authorities, then it absolutely is the media’s duty to “play detective” before reporting any conclusions. As for the general public, it should be able to rely on the media to “play detective” when reporting such a story.

So far, that hasn’t happened with the James Deen story.

I still have no idea what really happened between James Deen and Stoya, or between James Deen and his other accusers. But in the days since my Observer article came out, I have seen some fascinating new information that, while publicly available, seems to have flown completely under the media’s radar.

Stay tuned.



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“Social justice” culture: the actual Stalinist version

The other day, I was re-reading Pretender to the Throne, the second book in the Ivan Chonkin trilogy by Vladimir Voinovich (the brilliant Russian writer I interviewed recently for The Daily Beast) and was particularly struck by one scene that I thought bore an uncanny resemblance to the online gang-ups on accused transgressors against political correctness that have become a common feature of the “social justice” community. The tragicomic scene, which takes place in a provincial Soviet town in the fall of 1941, shows a meeting of the district Communist Party committee which holds hearings on several cases of alleged violations of the Party code of conduct. It’s all here: the casual, innocuous remark interpreted as offensive; the demand for confession and repentance; the notion that maintaining one’s innocence or trying to minimize the “offense” compounds guilt; the escalating, absurdly ballooning accusations in which everything the accused says or does is taken as further proof of guilt; the pressure on members of the community to join the mob to demonstrate their own allegiance to the One True Ideology; the lack of human sympathy elevated to a virtue; the notion that proper “humanism” is not manifested in compassion but in “relentless war on all manifestations of hostile ideas.”

I decided to translate and post this passage (for various reasons, I wasn’t too happy with the version in the published English translation of the book) because I think it’s a remarkable demonstration of the ideological continuity between the Soviet/Stalinist version of the far left and today’s “progressive” Western version. Thankfully, minus the power to send people to the gulag.

A few explanatory notes. The action takes place several months after the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. A secondary character in the novel, collective farm chairman Ivan Golubev, attends a local Communist Party meeting for a hearing on charge of violating Party discipline. Before his own case comes up, he gets to witness the “trial” of another accused man, Shevchuk, a schoolteacher in his fifties. Presiding over the meeting is district Party chief Andrei Revkin.

Other explanatory notes are included in the text in brackets where necessary.

Continue reading


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Salon keeps up the Hunt witch-hunt

As I wrote in my last Newsday column, while Sir Tim Hunt’s “girls in the lab” jokes at a women in science luncheon at a conference in Seoul were tacky and dumb, the savaging to which the British Nobel laureate has been subjected — which includes being forced to resign from the University College of London and from several prestigious science committees, including one he co-founded — is not only absurd but utterly disgraceful. Even The Guardian, which faithfully toes the feminist party line these days and which initially ran a gloating response to Hunt’s resignation, followed up with two sympathetic articles by the paper’s science editor Robin McKie.

But now, along comes Salon, where Scott Eric Kaufman slams evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins for defending Hunt in a letter to the Times in which Dawkins criticizes Hunt’s joke but quite rihtly deplores “the baying witch-hunt that it unleashed among our academic thought police: nothing less than a feeding frenzy of mob-rule self-righteousness.” The headline on Kaufman’s piece refers to Hunt as “misogynistic.” While Kaufman doesn’t use that word in the text, he implies that Hunt actually is in favor of gender-segregated labs and insists on treating Hunt’s clumsy initial attempt to explain his remarks in a comment to BBC Radio 4 as an admission that they reflected his actual views (i.e. that “girls in the lab” are trouble because you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and they cry when you criticize them). Yes, Hunt “admitted” that love in the lab had happened to him and had been disruptive; it sounds like he was more self-deprecating than anything else. (He later told The Guardian that his comment to the BBC was a recorded message after midnight, when he had just found out that his remarks had caused outrage.)

What Kaufman does not to mention is that Dawkins is far from the only scientist to speak up on Hunt’s behalf. His other defenders include prominent female scientists such as Cambridge physicist Dame Athene Donald, who has described him as “immensely supportive” of initiatives to promote gender equality in science; biologist Ottoline Leyser, also of Cambridge, who has said she was quite certain that Hunt was “not a sexist in any way”; and physiologist Dame Nancy Rothwell, who has pointed out that he had “trained and mentored some outstanding female scientists.” Nor does Kaufman see fit to acknowledge that Hunt’s wife and colleague Mary Collins, an immunologist who describes herself as a feminist, has said she is “extremely angry” about the backlash, which has “badly tarnished” her own relationship with University College.

What a dishonest hit piece.

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Do Fathers Have the Edge in Divorce?

This is an article of mine from 1996, from The Detroit News, which I am reposting because it is no longer online at the DN site. It has some interesting information with regard to claims I still see made in various discussions, so I thought it would be useful to have it here.

Do fathers have the edge in divorce?

By Cathy Young

The Detroit News, December 10, 1996

It is a common perception that while women may face bias in some areas, men are on the receiving end of discrimination when it comes to child custody – which goes to fathers, recent data show, only 16 percent of the time. Some feminists like former National Organization for Women President Karen DeCrow embrace equal rights for divorced dads. Yet many others have been loath to acknowledge that there is bias favoring women in anything.

Mostly, these feminists argue, fathers don’t want custody – and when they do, they have the edge: Judges frown on working women who spend less time with the kids than did traditional moms, while working men who spend more time with the kids than did traditional fathers are hailed as great dads; non-working women may be denied custody because they can’t support the children.

In the 1986 book Mothers on Trial, radical feminist psychologist Phyllis Chesler claimed that 70 percent of mothers in custody battles lost. This was based on a very non-random sample of 60 women, mostly referred by feminist lawyers or women’s centers. While even sympathetic reviewers commented on the sloppiness of Chesler’s research, her “finding” that fathers are likely to win contested custody cases was often presented as fact.

Similar numbers have cropped up again, most recently in Karen Winner’s Divorced From Justice: “Contrary to public belief, 70 percent of all litigated custody trials rule in favor of the fathers,” shouts the jacket (italics in the original). A national alert on father’s rights groups issued by the National Organization for Women – urging members to combat proposed laws encouraging joint custody and mediation – also states that “many judges and attorneys are still biased against women. …”

Where do these figures come from? One respectable source is the 1989 Gender Bias Study of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which reported that when fathers seek custody, they win primary or joint physical custody 70 percent of the time. In The Divorce Revolution, Lenore Weitzman reported two-thirds of fathers asking for custody in California succeeded.

Maybe, some fathers’ advocates say, men only seek custody when they have a chance because there’s something wrong with mom. Explaining why few non-custodial mothers pay child support, the Gender Bias Study notes “women who lose custody often [have] mental, physical, or emotional handicaps” that impair their earning ability.

That aside, the high success rate of men in custody battles is yet another contender for the Phony Statistics Hall of Fame. The figures do not refer to contested cases. Weitzman acknowledged that when fathers got sole custody, it was typically by mutual agreement; of cases that went to trial, two-thirds were won by women. The work from which the Gender Bias Study gathered its numbers did not separate contested and uncontested custody bids, but showed that mothers filing for sole custody received it 75 percent of the time (the rest usually received joint legal/primary physical custody), while the “success rate” for fathers was 44 percent.

A Stanford study of more than 1,000 California couples divorced in the 1980s suggests conventional wisdom is right. If both parents requested sole custody when filing for divorce, it was awarded to mom in 45 percent and to dad in 11 percent of the cases, with joint physical custody for the rest. (When she asked for sole custody and he for joint custody, the odds were 2-1 in her favor.)

Most of the disputes were negotiated. Just five couples went to trial vying for sole custody – and one of these cases resulted in a victory for the father.

The answer is not to help fathers win more custody fights but to have fewer fights. In Michigan, the Legislature is considering a “shared parenting” or joint custody bill – the Senate substitution bill for House Bill 5636 – opposed by the state’s NOW chapter. There’s ample room for discussions of the best way to ensure children of divorce still have two parents. But disinformation shouldn’t be part of the debate.

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Anita Sarkeesian, book (& film) critic

So, I can’t really properly judge newly famous media critic Anita Sarkeesian’s videogame criticism because I’m not a gamer.

I can, however, judge her reviews of books and movies, and if her 2012 video about The Hunger Games is any indication, her commentary runs the gamut from the banal to the laughably wrong.

Oh, and before you go on, there be spoilers here for The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay. Proceed at your own risk.

Here, I should add that I think The Hunger Games is not only an excellent series, but one of the best works of fiction in recent years in its approach to gender. (Yeah, Suzanne Collins’s writing style is a bit flat, but I actually think it works well for this kind of novel.) In Katniss Everdeen, it gives us a three-dimensional, active female protagonist whose struggles don’t have anything to do with gender. I love that Katniss is trying to protect Peeta as much (or more, actually!) as he is trying to protect her. (I could have done without the love triangle and frankly I think Gale is one of the books’ least interesting characters, but hey, nothing is perfect.) I love that while Katniss is a fighter, she’s not somehow magically stronger than all the guys. I love that it’s never at any point suggested that there is something uniquely horrible about forcing girls as well as boys to fight to the death; the Hunger Games are horrible, but female victims are never treated as more worthy of sympathy or horror than male ones.  I love that there’s no bullshit about the Panem power structure being oppressive because it’s “male.” I love that the rebels are led by a woman, Anna Coin, and that she turns out to be just as bad as the people she’s fighting. (Which, gender aside, is also a commentary on many revolutions.)

And now, here’s Anita Sarkeesian.

Okay, first of all, unrelated to gender: at about 55 seconds in, Sarkeesian makes a passing comment about how the premise of the book is unrealistic because there’s no way people would give up randomly selected kids to participate in a fight-to-the-death spectacle without a fight.

Has she actually read the damn books? Because I think it makes perfect sense in the context of the Hunger Games universe. The people from the districts are too cowed to rebel. Plus, the Hunger Games system is actually a combination of carrot and stick — well, lots of stick and a little carrot. If you win, you become a celebrity and a hero, and not only your family but your town reaps major economic benefits.

Then, there’s a discussion of Katniss that consists of a lot of statements of the obvious. She’s not reduced to her gender, she’s not sexualized or objectified, she shows sympathy and compassion for her family and friends. One of Sarkeesian’s pet ideas is that a truly feminist heroine has to challenge the “patriarchal value system” not only with regard to gender roles but also by prioritizing compassion, cooperation, and non-violent conflict resolution over competition, dominance, vengeance, and so on. So, for instance, she refuses to consider Mattie Ross in True Grit a feminist heroine, because among other things she doesn’t show enough emotion and doesn’t question the idea that death is appropriate retribution for her dad’s murderer.  I have to say that I find this idea deeply offensive. If a conservative wrote that a female character was a bad model of womanhood because she’s insufficiently emotional and too vengeful, he (or she) would rightly be excoriated as a sexist. So why is it okay for Sarkeesian to declare a female character to be a bad model of feminism because she’s too much “like a man”? I have no words for how obnoxious that is. Well, I do, but they’re the kind of words that would violate my own rules about civility in public discourse.

Katniss mostly meets Sarkeesian’s True Feminist test (whew!). Except that Sarkeesian manages to give her a passing grade by seriously misrepresenting the books. For instance, she asserts (at 3:56) that Katniss remains “troubled and disturbed at the idea of personally murdering another human being, even within the context of the death match.” Reeeally? Re-read the start of Chapter 18 of The Hunger Games, where Katniss kills the boy who has just mortally wounded her friend and ally, Rue.

The boy from District 1 dies before he can pull out the spear. My arrow drives deeply into the center of his neck. He falls to his knees and halves the brief remainder of his life by yanking out the arrow and drowning in his own blood. I’m reloaded, shifting my aim from side to side, while I shout at Rue, “Are there more? Are there more?”

Earlier, at the end of Chapter 11, Katniss is rather cold-bloodedly contemplating the murder of the girl who is camping out near her hiding place at night and is stupid enough to light a fire, which is likely to be spotted by the “career” tributes:

I lie smoldering in my bag for the next couple of hours, really thinking that if I can get out of this tree, I won’t have the least problem taking out my new neighbor. My instinct has been to flee, not fight. But obviously this person’s a hazard. Stupid people are dangerous.

(The careers get there first and kill the girl without spotting Katniss.)

In fact, at 5:55, Sarkeesian contradicts herself by noting (when discussing the ways in which Katniss is shown as traumatized by violence) that near the end, she aims an arrow at Peeta’s heart when she thinks he’s about to kill her.

And then there’s this:

Sarkeesian-Hunger Games Sarkeesian-Hunger Games-2Sarkeesian-Hunger Games 3


This is the same Katniss who counts the dead tributes at the end of each day, with no thought other than “The more of them die the more chance I have of staying alive”?  The only death (other than Rue’s) at which she feels sorrow is that of Thresh, because he cared about Rue and because he saved her (Kat’s) own life earlier, and then spared her:

Thresh dead. I should be happy, right? One less tribute to face. And a powerful one, too. But I’m not happy. All I can think about is Thresh letting me go, letting me run because of Rue, who died with that spear in her stomach…

And that’s just in the first book. By the third, Katniss actually demands, as a condition of cooperating with the rebels, the right to personally kill President Snow. And I know Sarkeesian had read all three books by the time she made her video, because one of her criticisms was that the love triangle took up too much room in the later books. (One of the few points on which I agree with her, but that’s hardly an insight of stunning originality; almost everyone I know thinks the love triangle was pointless and boring.)

Sarkeesian-Hunger Games 4

The inconsistency is, apparently, that Katniss is very distraught by Rue’s death, but “doesn’t even bat an eye” at that of “Foxface,” the girl who dies after stealing berries from Katniss and Peeta’s food supply that turn out to be poisonous:

Sarkeesian-Hunger Games 5 Sarkeesian-Hunger Games 6

Sarkeesian-Hunger Games-7Sarkeesian-Hunger Games-8


Are you kidding me?

First of all, while Foxface has cleverly stayed out of the action, she was hurting or trying to hurt Katniss and Peeta by stealing their food supplies.

Secondly, Katniss also remains unfazed by the deaths of several other tributes who haven’t hurt anyone. At first, I was going to say that Sarkeesian’s objection to Katniss’s lack of grief at Foxface’s death betrays her sexism, since Katniss also shows no grief at the murder of several harmless males (like the boy in Chapter 11 with whom she struggles for a backpack at the Cornucopia and who is killed right in front of her — she’s only repulsed by being splattered with his blood), but after re-reading the scene where the girl who lights the fire is killed, I had to conclude that Sarkeesian is not being sexist; she’s just being stupid.

The rest of the seven-and-a-half-minute video is taken up by a discussion of how male heroes are typically portrayed as suffering no emotional repercussions from violence and how refreshing it is that Katniss struggles with such repercussions. But ironically, in trying to squeeze Katniss into her politically correct little box of Compassionate Feminist Hero, Sarkeesian totally dilutes one of the strongest themes of the trilogy: that being forced into a world of brutal violence does have a dehumanizing effect.

Is there a place for intelligent media criticism that focuses on gender issues? Sure thing. But the fact that Sarkeesian has emerged as the leading voice in such criticism right now ensures that it’s going to be propaganda, not analysis.

(P.S. I’m leaving the comments open, but any comments containing personal abuse of any kind will not be approved.)


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Hold on, folks.

Maybe it’s time for me to take back everything I’ve ever said about “the rape culture.”

Like, how it’s slightly deranged to suggest that any modern liberal society has one.

Because, really, what else do you call it when a man can post reams of pornographic fantasies online about a female celebrity, and not only get away with it but get a six-figure book deal to turn those fantasies into a novel?

Oh, wait. My bad.

Correction: When a woman can post reams of pornographic fantasies about a male celebrity and get a six-figure book deal.

Can you imagine the howling in the feminist blogosphere and on Twitter if the genders were reversed?

Anyway. Still no rape culture, sorry. But considering that this is One Direction fanfic we’re talking about, it does make me weep for the future of culture, period.


Filed under books, culture, gender issues


Two days ago, Ezra Klein, the editor of Vox.com, penned what may be the most repulsive article yet on the subject of affirmative consent laws. Klein’s argument in a nutshell: yes, these laws are overbroad and will probably result in innocent men being expelled from college over ambiguous charges. Which is good, because the college rape crisis is so terrible and the need to change the norms of sexual behavior is so urgent that this requires a brutal and ugly response. Or, as Joe Stalin was fond of saying, “When you chop wood, chips must fly.” That’s the Russian equivalent of “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.”

Toward the end, Klein writes:

Then there’s the true nightmare scenario: completely false accusations of rape by someone who did offer consent, but now wants to take it back. I don’t want to say these kinds of false accusations never happen, because they do happen, and they’re awful. But they happen very, very rarely.

I only just found out, from this column by James Taranto, that the link in this passage goes to my recent piece on Slate XX.

The whole point of which was to rebut the idea that false accusations of rape are so infinitesimally rare that they needn’t be a serious factor in deciding whether laws dealing with sexual assault are unfair to the accused.

I repeat.

I wrote a piece (extensively fact-checked, I might add) arguing that wrongful accusations of rape (either deliberately false or based on alcohol-impaired memory and mixed signals) are not quite as rare as anti-rape activists claim, and that we need to stop using their alleged rarity to justify undermining the presumption of innocence in sexual assault cases.

And Ezra Klein cites this very piece in an article that justifies, pretty much, throwing the presumption of innocence out the window.

Is there a word for having one’s writing hijacked to support (in an egregiously misleading way) the very point you are arguing against?

I suggest “voxjacking.”


Filed under feminism, gender issues

Emma Watson and the B-word


What did you think I meant? 😉

Anyway, if you’re here, you’ve probably seen my column on Emma Watson, #HeForShe, and my proposed alternative — #SheAndHeForUs (or #HeAndSheForUs).

A quick side note:

I appreciate that in her U.N. speech, Watson emphasized that she has never been “oppressed” or treated as a lesser person because of her gender. She did, however, make this claim:

I started questioning gender-based assumptions when at eight I was confused at being called “bossy,” because I wanted to direct the plays we would put on for our parents—but the boys were not.
Is it very uncharitable for me to doubt this story? It just seems too conveniently tied to Sheryl Sandberg’s recent “Ban Bossy” campaign. And honestly, given how commonly girls are found in leadership roles at school in recent years, I find it hard to believe that a girl would get negative pushback just for wanting to direct school plays. One possibility is that it was something about Watson’s personality. Another is that whatever happened back then is now perceived by her through the prism of the recent campaign to reframe “bossy” as an antifemale slur.
Tangential evidence supporting my doubts:
In the past, Watson has repeatedly used the b-word to refer to her Harry Potter character, Hermione Granger. At the age of 11, when she first started playing Hermione, she told Entertainment Weekly, “I reckon she’s very, very bossy.” Sometime later (I haven’t been able to find the original source of the quote, but it’s posted on this fan page which was made in 2004 when Watson was 14), she said in one of her interviews, “Now that I’ve played the snotty, bossy, posh Hermione Granger, I’d like to play some American high school girl. I want to play something totally different.”
Somehow I think that if Watson had actually found it hurtful to be called “bossy” at eight, she wouldn’t be using the word to describe her film character a few years later. Again, I don’t think she’s making it up — I just think she’s processing it through her perspective as a 24-year-old feminist.
(Comments are open but filtered. Any comments bashing either gender collectively, or containing personal abuse toward any individual including Emma Watson, will remain forever in limbo.)


Filed under Uncategorized