Backtalk

A WOMAN'S PLACE?

There are three problems with Katherine Dunn's article ["Just As Fierce," Nov./Dec.]. One is that it is entirely out of touch with our current understanding of how evolution has shaped the male and female minds. Yes, obviously, some women are more aggressive than some men, just as some women are taller than some men. Still, there are marked and well-understood differences in the male and female propensities for violence, just as there are marked differences in average male and female height. (Interestingly, the two kinds of difference--in aggression and physique--are rooted in the same evolutionary dynamic: "sexual selection" among males competing with one another for sexual access to females.)

A second problem with Dunn's article is its implicit celebration of violence. She writes as if women should take pride in the fact that they are occasionally as reprehensible as men often are. Wouldn't our energy be better spent condemning and trying to discourage reprehensible behavior? There is reason to believe that professional and amateur boxing permanently damage the brains of hundreds of men each year. (Had a conversation with Muhammad Ali lately?) Now Dunn wants to applaud women who are making pioneering efforts to damage the brains of other women.

The third problem with this article is particularly egregious: It distracts us from the important problem of wife abuse by pretending that the problem of husband abuse is also grave. Dunn digs up some (dubious) statistics about how often wives assault husbands. But who cares? What is terrible about wife abuse isn't just the number, or even the ferocity, of assaults; what is most terrible is that the battered wife lives in a chronic state of fear and intimidation, haunted by a husband who treats her as his personal property. How many husbands live in a state of physical intimidation? The modern study of human nature--"evolutionary psychology"--provides deep insight into the problem of spouse abuse, and into the general problem of violence (overwhelmingly a male enterprise in every culture). Liberals can either confront these unpleasant insights honestly and try to improve society, or we can spend our time in denial, pretending (as if it were reassuring!) that women are as dangerous as men.

Robert Wright
Author of "The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life"
Washington, D.C.

Katherine Dunn's article on women and aggression threatens to perpetuate the myth that women commit as much serious violence against their husbands as husbands do against their wives. The National Family Violence Surveys (NFVS) that are the source of these "scientific facts" have been thoroughly debunked with regard to the battering of wives--on two grounds.

First, the data come from questions such as "Have you ever slapped your spouse in the last year?" The failure of such a question to distinguish between a situation in which a temporarily angered woman slaps a man who laughs derisively at her futile gesture from the controlling slap that loosens a "disobedient" wife's teeth, ignores matters of motivation and consequences that are central to the understanding of family violence.

Second, 40 percent of the people contacted for the NFVS refuse to participate. Whom do you suppose refuses?

Michael P. Johnson
Associate Professor Sociology & Women's Studies,
Penn State

Katherine Dunn's provocative essay should open a long-overdue dialogue among feminists on the gender dynamics of violence and end the taboo on acknowledging that if women are as good as men, they can also be as bad. Many of the same people who will welcome Dunn's argument for equality in combat will no doubt be outraged by her claim of equality in domestic violence.

Far from being "discredited" as some assert, the research showing equal rates of spousal violence by men and women has been confirmed by dozens of studies in the U.S. and Canada. Contrary to another common charge, these studies do distinguish between aggression and self-defense--and still fail to find any evidence that women use violence mainly in response to male abuse.

True, due to physical differences women are at considerably higher risk of serious injury from a violent partner. But that doesn't mean female violence in the home deserves no attention. In a recent study of police response to domestic violence, men were victims in 15 percent of reported incidents but accounted for nearly one-third of seriously injured victims. And while most of the female victims were satisfied with the police response, not one male victim was.

Remember when Darryl Strawberry was arrested for slapping his fiancee? The charges were dropped after she admitted that she had attacked him first with a baseball bat--yet Anna Quindlen and other columnists still call Strawberry a woman-beater. Meanwhile, the media have treated Shannen Doherty's reported attacks on her men as amusing high jinks. This double standard is not only unfair to men: As Dunn points out, it is paternalistic and demeaning to women.

Cathy Young
Columnist, Detroit News

As an amateur boxer as well as a feminist writer, I thought Katherine Dunn's piece raised a fascinating question: Is all violence bad? Feminists and conservatives alike tell women that it is, from contact sports to military training to criminal assault.

This wholesale condemnation may be morally comforting, but it ignores the many functions that violence plays in our culture. It can be consensual, as in sports; or necessary, as in police work.

Women today don't need shaming admonishments about our supposed fragility and passivity. We need tools to be aggressive in the workplace, to defend ourselves, to experience the joy of competition--the same tools men are granted--for a world in which violence, both good and bad, will always exist.

Rene Denfeld
Author of "The New Victorians: A Challenge to the Old Feminist Order"
Portland, OR

For the most part, I applaud Dunn's article. However, she made what I felt to be some oversights that could have actually helped her point.

One, the Israeli army. Women serve in virtually all aspects of the army, because they are needed and there is no reason why they cannot shoot guns like men.

Two, domestic violence, as it is currently thought of in the general population, is 99 percent male perpetrator- female victim, even in cases of "mutual abuse." However, a problem only now beginning to be acknowledged is lesbian battering. The dynamics are the same, one woman (or both) is still a victim, but it provides more support for what should be obvious--humans, regardless of biological sex, have the capacity for horrendous violence.

Eve Lyons
elyons@reed.edu

Dunn's reasoning strikes me as flawed, even by journalistic standards. It was a first-rate undergrad paper with the undergrad's "gee whiz, look what I figured out all by myself" tone about it.

Doesn't she realize that women have long wanted to engage in contact sports, but have been prevented from doing so? It's not that women suddenly wanted the opportunity, but that barriers are breaking down, making it a realistic option. I'm also surprised that, as a sports writer, she fails to mention lacrosse and field hockey, which have long been legitimate female contact sports.

If her article had been written in 1970, it still would have been simplistic, but at least it would have been a bit more timely.

Jim Thomas
jthomas@well.com

I'm all the time meeting people who believe that women aren't violent, that women are gentle and peaceloving, that if women were heads of state there would be no war because women wouldn't send big-eyed young people into battle. I've met both men and women who think this, some who identify themselves as feminists and some who don't, some who say it's women's nature and some who seem to argue for nurture, i.e. women have been sheltered and that's why they're such whiny wimps.

First I knock them down and then I ridicule them.

Susan McCarthy
sumac@well.com

BREAKING DOWN WALLS

Dale Maharidge exposes the immense hypocrisy exhibited by many Californians when it comes to immigrants ["Walled Off," Nov./Dec.].

But it's not their hypocrisy that most amazes me. It's their ignorance. Many are under the impression that people who hang their clothes on a line, fix their own cars, and are door-to-door vendors are exhibiting cultural (specifically Latino) traits. However, these are not cultural traits, but traits poor people, regardless of ethnic background, exhibit.

The scenes described at Lantern Village remind me of the photographs in my high school textbooks of New York during the height of European immigration. The books didn't indicate if those were Irish, Italian, or Greek neighborhoods. The authors were merely pointing out the harsh economic conditions endured by the new immigrants who were exploited and forced to work in sweatshops for low pay. Does that sound familiar?

Instead of being upset about poor people who can't afford clothes dryers or pay mechanics to fix their cars, they should be upset that a resort that charges $2,750 for a room and $6.47 for a scotch won't pay their employees more than minimum wage.

Dana Point is a classic example of how a society allows the impoverishment of people for its own benefit, then blames their culture for that impoverishment.

J. Felix De La Torre
State Policy Analyst
Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund
Sacramento, CA

Maharidge lays blame at the gated walls of the "white" communities of Dana Point, as if tension and misunderstanding were caused by their physical exclusivity. However, in Venice, South Central, Watts, and dozens of Southern California communities, longtime residents, including African-Americans, have come up against immigrants from Mexico who came to this country with profound cultural, linguistic, educational, and attitudinal walls.

It is no longer about manifestations of the "Other" in our midst, such as graffiti and street vendors selling unregulated goods. It is about peripheral consequences: unemployment, idleness (evidenced by the hundreds of undocumented workers waiting for work on street corners, when only a few will be hired), frustration, and the increased likelihood of turning to crime.

In Los Angeles, many of us have concluded that some cultural differences are worth celebrating, many are unworthy of us, and some are simply unacceptable. The walls in Dana Point represent a resistance to the demands that we lower our sights and diminish our standards, to accommodate "cultural differences." Our public schools already reflect a worst-case scenario, with classroom size exceeding 35 students, and only one-third of class time spent on actual instruction.

If immigration continues unabated, the 21st century will shame us all, immigrant and citizen alike.

Tara Murphy
Scotts Valley, CA

In El Paso we get these guys too: tourists dressed up to look like postmodern anthropologists, sociologists, and assorted citizens from the media. They call up folks here, friends of friends of friends, and ask where they can meet a real illegal maid or witness the "migra" chasing down wetbacks.

After a few days of sight-seeing, they have one last plate of enchilada, then fly home to their own enclaves. Once back inside, they can write their meditations on what life is like in those other places.

It'd be nice if publications like MoJo would flip the coin and hire writers from communities like the Lantern Village barrio, Watts, El Paso, or maybe even Monarch Bay. Their assignment: Tell us what life is really like in the Stanfords, Princetons, et cetera, of the American psyche.

Bobby Byrd
El Paso, TX

HOME ON THE RANGE

The saga of Brian Hockett ["Hellraiser," Nov./Dec.] and the Bureau of Land Management is indicative of the politics of the past being practiced in the West. Brian is given a letter from Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt encouraging his good work, and then he is reined in for upsetting the "way of life" of entrenched public land users. My good friend Charles Wilkinson, in his must-read book "Crossing the Next Meridian," referred to these folks as the "Lords of Yesterday." Actually, they are still lords today.

My message to Brian Hockett and other dedicated public-land employees is to keep skirmishing for every bit of necessary stewardship on the land. You won't be appreciated by some of your bosses and many politicians. You won't be rewarded in your careers. But you will do future generations of Americans a great service.

Jim Baca
former director
Bureau of Land Management
Albuquerque, NM

COMIC JUSTICE

Sean Henry's description of the obscenity prosecution of comic book artist Michael Diana ("Comic Threat," Nov./Dec.) should chill the bones of anyone who loves art, popular entertainment, or freedom of speech and thought. The case illustrates the danger of obscenity laws, which loom as ready weapons for any pressure group eager to censor artistic expression.

Diana's case fully displays the Orwellian implications of obscenity law. He has been ordered by a court not to produce any further "obscene" drawings. It is literally impossible for Diana to know what this means, for nothing is legally obscene until a judge or jury says it is. The likely (and presumably intended) effect of the court order will be to force Diana to refrain from doing any artwork with sexual content.

Charges of obscenity, whether legal or rhetorical, are a convenient and pervasive element of America's ongoing "culture wars." The object of those who level the charges is, often, nothing less than thought control. Michael Diana, with his lurid fantasies, is an unfortunate victim of the censorship mentality that increasingly seems to be replacing both common sense and respect for individual freedom. Perhaps Diana's sobering fate will galvanize a new wave of opposition to our archaic and oppressive obscenity laws.

Marjorie Heins
Director and Staff Counsel
American Civil Liberties Union
Arts Censorship Project, New York

Sean Henry's article is very much appreciated by those of us concerned with protecting creative freedom in the comic book field. I'm sorry to say that mainstream outrage has been minimal to nonexistent. In the world of Big-Buck Pop Music and High Art (2 Live Crew, Ozzy Osborne, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano), similar free speech challenges have attracted massive media attention, as opposed to the near-silence that has greeted the Michael Diana conviction and other comic-related cases.

Apart from our own concern in the comic book field for the welfare of our civil liberties, there is a sense that a precedent-setting prosecution of a photocopied minicomic represents the dangerous thin end of a very large wedge.

Susan Alston, Executive Director
Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
Northampton, MA

Having read "Boiled Angel," the subject of your article, I was reminded of the trial of Oscar Wilde. When asked in cross-examination if "The Priest and the Acolyte" (a short story in a college magazine to which he contributed) was immoral, Wilde replied, "It was worse; it was badly written."

I think Michael Diana would have passed from the notice of everyone concerned (society in general, the state of Florida, Pinellas County and his handful of correspondents) in a matter of months, if not days, if he had just not been made into an issue.

But he has been made into an issue, and as a self-publishing comic book artist/writer since 1977, the issue strikes very close to home. The comic book community must appeal this decision to higher and higher jurisdictions until some venue is found where the First Amendment is recognized and the conviction overturned.

Dave Sim
Kitchener, Ontario

SAVING SALMON

Brad Matsen's prose and Natalie Fobes' stunning photographs ("The Salmon are Calling," Nov./Dec.) bring alive the Pacific salmon and give a snapshot of both its complicated life history and the perils it faces.

Salmon needs are pretty basic--clean, cold, free-flowing rivers, healthy habitat, safe migration to and from the sea, and harvest limits that allow enough adults to return to spawn.

We can leave riparian buffers along rivers, we can minimize and control pollution, we can operate dams to mimic natural conditions. We can reduce, reuse, and recycle many products. The question is: Will we?

Tim Stearns, Coordinator
Save Our Wild Salmon
Seattle, WA

Thanks for the wonderful piece on Pacific salmon. Mr. Matsen really captured the essence of this wild, living symbol of the Northwest and the threats to its existence.

Although the eight mainstem dams on the lower Columbia and Snake rivers were designed with somewhat useful fish ladders for returning adults, there was virtually no thought given to outmigrating juveniles. Smolts, which used to be flushed to the sea with the high spring runoff, now face a long, stressful journey through a series of warm, slackwater reservoirs teeming with predators. And getting past the dams themselves is tricky as well, with power-generating turbines injuring, stunning, and killing young fish.

For 15 years, "transportation" has been the method of choice for getting smolts to the sea. Young fish are collected at the upper dams and taken by barge or truck to points below Bonneville Dam. There's only one problem: It doesn't work. Salmon runs are continuing to decline, and a recent scientific study concluded that barging cannot restore the fish.

Reservoir drawdowns, flow augmentation, and water released over spillways during peak migration season are needed to move young salmon safely to the ocean. In addition, some dams may eventually have to be removed. Action is needed now, since 1995 could be the last chance for large numbers of juveniles to reach the sea.

We need to inform our elected officials that extinction is not an option and that fish belong in the river.

Diane Valantine
Oregon Natural Resources Council
Portland, OR

LABOR PAINS

Your November/December issue claimed to report "differing points of view" from "luminaries in a variety of fields" on the subject of President Clinton's agenda for the next two years ["Let's Talk Clinton"].

The talking heads you selected--a playwright, novelists, journalists, professors, politicians, therapists, and lawyers--reflect an upscale bias not really appropriate for a magazine named after a working-class organizer.

Next time, how about seeking at least one labor viewpoint? In the meantime, here's an unsolicited response from a trade unionist:

In his first two years in office, he's made the work of modern-day Mary Harris Joneses a little bit easier with several union-friendly appointments to the National Labor Relations Board. This, however, is no substitute for seeking long-overdue changes in the National Labor Relations Act that would enable more workers to organize unions and negotiate contracts without employer interference.

Clinton, Labor Secretary Robert Reich, and their Commission on the Future of Worker-Management Relations have all displayed little sense of urgency about growing deunionization in the private sector. As their colleague Ron Brown explained recently: "Unions are OK where they are"--but "where they are not, it is not clear yet what sort of organization should represent workers."

This neo-liberal ambivalence towards organized labor--and the problems of workers trying to get organized--isn't going to win Clinton & Co. enough brownie points with the business class to get them re-elected as champions of employer rights. But a continuing failure by the administration to display real partisanship on behalf of its beleaguered union supporters could leave them with nothing more than a lesser evilism as a reason for voting Democratic next time around.

Steve Early
Arlington, MA

HERBS FOR THE BURBS

We were delighted to see the "Legalize It!" story [Nov./Dec.] on legalizing herbal medicine in the United States. We can't think of a single country in the modern world that has so ostracized nature from medicine. Your article will go a long way in helping to overcome the public's woeful lack of knowledge about herbs for health care.

There are thousands of scientific studies proving the effectiveness and safety of medicine from plants--over 100,000 studies in the Herb Research Foundation's library alone. Educating the public, professionals, and legislators with accurate, responsible information has been a major part of our work for the past 11 years. We welcome your article's contribution to this important mission.

Robert S. McCaleb
President
Herb Research Foundation
Boulder, CO

HAITI'S TICKING BOMB

Gretchen Daily's timely interview on the subject of optimal population ["Visions," Nov./Dec.] recalls my first visit to Haiti some 15 years ago. Once the richest prize in the Caribbean, Haiti had already been almost completely denuded of its centuries-old tropical hardwoods, and the daily wash-off of topsoil had just about killed offshore fishing.

A knowledgeable local journalist told me that the tiny island nation could only support 2 million people; at the time the population was 4.5 million, but has since increased to 6.5 million--not counting the half million who have emigrated.

The current media debate over practical solutions for Haiti lays far too much emphasis on political options ("restoring democracy" and other daydreams) and largely ignores the crux of the problem: population control. Even with a negative birthrate a la China, coupled with a massive infusion of capital and an ambitious reforestation program, it will take many generations to make Haiti a viable national entity.

Gard E. Norberg
Managing Editor
Scandinavian Press Liaison
Dania, FL