Government Works

I read David Brook’s column yesterday and it’s sticking in my craw. So I’m going to write about it until I figure out why.

Brooks claims this is a column that will try to figure out “what government is and isn’t good at.”  To this end, he goes to observe the goings on at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and, more specifically, the workings of the program HUDStat, a program dedicated to collecting data on homelessness among veterans and how the programs for them are doing.

His conclusion is that the government is good at seeing the world “numerically and organizationally” but not good at seeing “the gritty and unpredictable way the world sometimes looks” to homeless veterans.

Let me repeat this.  David Brooks observes a government program within HUD dedicated exclusively to the gathering and interpreting of data, and then claims that the only thing the government knows how to do is gather and interpret data.

Oh, there it is!  I knew by writing about it I’d figure out what was sticking in my craw!  See, when I sat down, I was thinking to myself, gosh, David Brooks has written an interesting column, and, since I don’t really know that much, I like reading about how government does what it does, but there were one or two sentences that bothered me.  But now I see that the whole damn column bothered me, because it was so much conservative hypocrisy and blowharding!

And let’s go a little further here.  By not accounting for how “gritty and unpredictable” the world looks to a homeless vet, where is the government failing them?  I agree that the very fact of homelessness for veterans means that the government is failing them, but I don’t see how seeing the world in all its grittiness and unpredictability would help.

I would think the first thing to do in figuring out, on a national scale, how to help homeless vets have a less gritty and less predictable world, would be to gather data on what programs are there to help them and how good a job they’re doing of it.  For instance, according to the column, Indiana and Ohio are doing a pretty good job, and California not so much.  So now that you’ve gathered the data, you can look at it and say, “Oh, that’s because the case workers in CA are not being trained to recognize effects of PTSD,” or “That’s because there’s not really enough low-income housing in CA to get to all the homeless vets,” or “That’s because the case workers doing work with homeless vets aren’t specializing in it and they have too many other kinds of cases to really do a thorough job on homeless-vet cases.”  Or whatever.  I have no idea what California is doing that’s not as good, but I bet that HUDStat, in its gathering of data, is figuring it out.

So what does David Brooks think they should be doing instead?  Does he think it would be a better use of their time to hold hands with a bunch of homeless vets across the country?  Meet their mothers?  Pour them tea?  Furthermore, why does he think they don’t understand, on a personal level, the “gritty and unpredictable way the world sometimes looks” to homeless vets, and have chosen to work on this project as one method of helping them? They’re government service workers, and more specifically, they’re statisticians working on a statistics project for one program within one department.  They’re not novelists, and they’re not crime journalists (another group who sees the world in a gritty and unpredictable way according to Brooks) and this is their job.  I really can’t imagine what David Brooks thinks will help them more.

He concludes by saying “it was important to see the talent and commitment of real-life government works running a successful program – and to see the limitations inherent in government planning.”  But we don’t see the limitations.  At no point does David Brooks present an interview with a homeless vet, or a case worker, or anything that we could point to and go, “Yes, the gathering of data is not helping THIS person any, and it can’t possibly.”  And the way Brooks phrases that is so condescending, so “Oh, yes, you people are terrific, really, doing great work – it’s not your fault you work for an organization that can only fail.”  It’s all in the hyphen, that condescension, that “But let’s be serious – government sucks.”  And that condescension is not just directed at the people who work for HUDStat, it’s directed at his readers, too.  He promised he was going to take a serious look at what works and what doesn’t work in government, but what he meant was, “I already think government doesn’t work, so I’m going to write a column about that no matter what’s going on at HUDStat.  But let’s allow the readers to think I seriously considered it first.”

He also manages to get in a dig I don’t really understand about Democrats feeling more comfortable using housing vouchers to address housing problems but not education or health care problems.  I have to wonder if a) Democrats do have a problem using vouchers for this but it’s the system that’s in place and it’s more important to get people who need a place to live into housing than it is to carry out this political fight on their backs, and/or b) there’s something about housing vouchers that works better than education vouchers or medical care vouchers.  I don’t know the answer to this, but from the flip way David Brooks tosses this line in, which has little to do with anything in the column, I suspect that David Brooks doesn’t care about the answer to this.

Of course, what gets me is that I think David Brooks is funny, and a terrific writer.  Obviously I think the gritty and unpredictable thing is a good line; I repeated it several times.  I also liked in the first line him calling himself and others in his position the “commentariat.”  But that just messes up my Manichean vision of the world, damn it.

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Top Ten Things I Say Throughout the Day

This is in order of frequency.

1. Ouch!  That hurts Mommy!

2. Do you have to go potty?

3. Don’t touch that.

4. Don’t climb on that.

5. Don’t put that in your mouth.

6. Let’s wash our hands.

7. You can have iced tea/chocolate after you finish your milk/chicken.

8. Let’s go; we’re running late!

9. When Daddy gets home, you can have the lollipop/ice pop/other thing Mommy doesn’t want in her hair.

10. Mommy’s breasts are private.

The Curse of the Good Girl

I just finished reading The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence by Rachel Simmons.  (And I have a totally different cover than that; why?)  I have not read her first book, Odd Girl Out (which I’m sure also has a colon and a subtitle) but I probably will.

I found the both illuminating and resonant; I myself have suffered (and continue to suffer) from The Curse of trying to be a Good Girl.  In fact, I found Simmons at her most insightful when she was showing how the same impulses that dictated that teenage girls do things like decide that a friend is mad at them because she didn’t wave in the hallway are very much present in adult women who run around trying to please co-workers and families without revealing their own needs.  And I found the most daunting advice in the book the directive to shed one’s own Good Girl (Mother/Wife) in order to teach one’s daughter to be Real rather than Good. I don’t want to make this blog my personal psychotherapy space, so I’ll leave it there.  I just want to make clear that, despite my criticisms, this book hit home.

As frequently happens to me, I was expecting a sociological perspective on Good Girl culture and what creates it, and instead I got a parenting guide about how to deal with one’s own daughter’s relationship to being a Good Girl.  I experienced the same thing with Queen Bees and Wannabes  by Rosalind Wiseman.  On the one hand, that’s not really a criticism of the books themselves.  Just because I prefer sociological perspectives to more how-to parenting books doesn’t mean the authors are responsible for my misconceptions.

On the other hand, my main issue with this book was its rather shallow (I felt) treatment of the sociological implications of this.  It asks parents (and, let’s be serious, by ‘parents’ I mostly mean mothers, even in a book filled with feminist ideals like this one) to train their particular daughters not to be Good but to be Real instead, without seriously addressing that parents are not the only – and by the teen years, not even the loudest – influences on a child.  It personalizes a social problem, and that, to me, is the opposite of how any problem with regards to child-rearing (or anything at all) should be addressed.  For one thing, it places even more stress on parents-I-mean-mothers.  We need more messages that say, “Parents/Mothers cannot do everything on their own, they are not exclusively responsible for everything that ever happens to their child,” not more books telling mothers the 453rd way they’re fucking up their child and how to not do so.  For another, it lets the social influences on these girls off the hook.  What about talking to us about literature and pop culture that shows girls being Real and being rewarded?  What about talking to us about effective ways to talk back to media?  What about reforms in the workplace such that Good Girls don’t continue to lose out on opportunities and Real Girls don’t get labeled “bitch” and also lose out on opportunities?

Simmons does acknowledge that the girls will be able to see that Good Girls are frequently rewarded and Real Girls are frequently punished, but I think she doesn’t go far enough.  There have been studies (and, if Google could read my mind better, I’d go find them) that show that women who, for instance, negotiate for a raise in the way that men feel comfortable doing are NOT perceived the same way as their male counterparts and are, in fact, less likely to get that raise.  On a more immediate level, many teenage girls will pay social penalties for being “Real,” and the parent that doesn’t acknowledge that is being naive and possibly making him/herself an object of mistrust.  It works the same way as if you try to insist to your child that one whiff of marijuana will certainly and irrevocably destroy their lives, because they can see for themselves that that’s not necessarily true.

Simmons encourages mothers to discuss the difference between “normal” and “right” – like, it was once “normal” to segregate schools, but it wasn’t “right,” or it is currently “normal” not to allow two people of the same sex to marry but it’s not “right.”  And that’s great – but it would be ludicrous to counsel a same-sex couple to, say, live like married people in defiance of what’s “normal” without also addressing the need for people – gay, straight, etc. – to campaign actively for the laws on the federal and state levels to change.  I’m not saying this is exactly the same – Good Girl rules are (mostly) not written into law, after all.  But it seems to put more weight on the victims of such culture, which, Simmons acknowledges, include mothers as well as daughters.  I wish she had put a little less influence on “Here’s how to help your daughter resist this,” and more on “Here’s what needs to change in the broader culture to ameliorate the pressure of this.”

I know it is not necessarily in the scope of this book, but I do wish that there could be a counterpart to this on what boys are taught to be in terms of Good.  I think they experience some similar pressures, and it would also be interesting to discuss where the differences are and how they work.  I mean, for boys, I know that they aren’t taught to be nice all the time, and that helps them out at work – but it doesn’t help them in personal relationships, which are had with girls who have absorbed some part of Good Girl culture, after all.  And they are taught a specific kind of Nice Guy behavior that, if they believe themselves to be Nice Guys, they can be extremely sensitive about.  And I know plenty of guys for whom being told that anything they’ve ever done is not golden-boy perfect puts them in the same kind of hurt and angry shut-down state that Simmons describes for girls.  So a discussion of that might have been interesting.

I would have also liked a more nuanced discussion of how Good Girl culture applies to nearly all girls, but very unevenly.  I feel like she could have gone deeper to show how some teenage girls feel the pressure in this arena but not that, and so you might miss symptoms of Good Girlness if you only look in a specific area.  And here I will get a teensy bit personal.  I was not (as has been discussed) very popular in middle or high school, so I never had one of those cliques of girls where Julie might be best friends with Margie today but Lilah tomorrow and so Margie is going to go after Lilah and then Gwen will step in with something to say to Julie, blah blah blah.  And to the extent I was, I largely tried to stay out of nonsense like that.  I never behaved, in that way, like a typical teenage girl.  Furthermore, I never worried about whether what I had to say in class was right or interesting or apt to piss someone off, mainly because I was (am) incapable of self-censorship in an academic setting.  Maybe I did piss people off, maybe people did laugh at me, but even if I was aware of it, I wouldn’t have been able to stop myself.  So it might have looked to some like I wasn’t subject to the Good Girl pressure.

But with my friends and family, I was (and am, especially with family) very much a Good Girl.  I put others’ needs before mine and assumed I would be disliked if I didn’t; I still have trouble asserting my own needs because I think that what people like about me is my tendency to take care of others.  And in a lot of ways, it was destructive to me.  I missed out on opportunities I wanted, especially when I couldn’t bring myself to resist even the perception of a parent demand; I gave my friends permission to treat me in a way I didn’t like; and – as Simmons points out – I sometimes denied my friends the opportunity to be closer to me because I wouldn’t make them responsible for what I perceived to be my vulnerabilities.  And these habits stick, although I’m learning to lose some of them some of the time.

So it is important, when thinking about Good Girl culture, to do so in a way that recognizes many different manifestations of it, so that you don’t ignore the girls who need you to notice when they’re getting too Good, especially since they are precisely the girls who won’t want to tell you.  I think Simmons could have been more nuanced about it.  Though she makes gestures towards this understanding, in the end, the teenage girls she depicts sort of blend together in a morass of “Rachel said this about Linda and then Carla said that,” ad nauseum.

It is sometimes shocking to me the degree to which Good Girl culture pervades pop culture; I would think that Real Girls make more interesting characters.  And – while I am aware that we all idealize the pop culture of our own coming-of-age years, I feel like it wasn’t like this then.  We had Buffy and Daria.  Even the girls on Dawson’s Creek at least seemed to struggle with, rather than embody, Good Girl culture.  Whereas, on this week’s episode of Glee (which was execrable, honestly), Mercedes is told that in order to get what she wants, she has to be more demanding and bitchy, so she cartoonishly asks for live puppies with which to dry her hands and other such nonsense, but in the end learns her lesson and demands nothing more than that her friends do what they were going to do anyway.  There was no way for her to be Real; there was only Good and Raging Bitch.  The show in general is severely problematic for girls who want to be Real.  Rachel is certainly Real much of the time, and she went from being a sympathetic if slightly irritating and idiosyncratic character in the first episode, to being a figure deserving of severe bullying even by people she’s supported and defended in the rest of the series.

This will lead me to my next post – look forward to my comparative study of girl culture in Clueless and Mean Girls!  And/or a comparative study of female relationships in Glee, Buffy, and Dawson’s Creek, if I can bring myself to watch Dawson’s Creek ever again.  Or the non-song portions of Glee.

Conservative Pundits Secretly Agree With Me

I love when this happens – when the more conservative (or even mainstream) pundits and newsbabblers reveal that, in their deepest heart of hearts, in the furthest reaches of their subconscious minds, they agree with me.  The kerfuffle over the pink nail polish on the five-year-old boy in J. Crew is a case in point.

See, they’re (and by “they,” I mean the people Jon Stewart showed on his segment on this subject) saying that painting this kid’s nails pink will mess up his gender identity, will create chaos and psychological damage, blah blah blah.

But that’s only true if gendered behavior is NOT biologically essential!  It’s only true if gender is socially constructed!  And they apparently believe that not only is gender socially constructed, they believe the social construction of gender is so fragile that the mere act of putting pink nail polish on your five-year-old son can fuck up the whole thing!

And that’s what I’ve been saying the whole time!  (Well, I think social construction is a little stronger than they do, because I think this kid will probably still identify as male later in life, or, if he doesn’t, it won’t be because of this, but still.)  I DON’T think women are naturally inclined to like pink or shopping or nurturing, and I DON’T think men are naturally inclined to grunt or be violent or be in charge; I think we’re taught that via, say, pink nail polish!  And so do they! Hah!  I win.

Serious Players

I don’t know anything about the federal budget.  I mean, I don’t know anything about the specific budget being debated now, nor do I know, in general, anything about the federal budget at any point in time.  I barely have a handle on my household budget.

I also don’t hate David Brooks.  I disagree with David Brooks 95% of the time, but I think he’s an intelligent guy and a good writer.

But.  In his column about Paul Ryan’s budget, he says, “Until [the Democrats] find a way to pay for the programs they support, they will not be serious players in this game.”  And I have to ask, aren’t the Democrats one of two major parties in this country?  Isn’t the current president a Democrat?  Isn’t he a fairly serious player in this game?  Aren’t nearly all Congresspeople either Democrats or Republicans?  Isn’t that serious?

And which is less serious, not having the money you need for the programs you want, or declaring that you should not need any money to run a federal government at all?  According to Paul Krugman’s column, Ryan’s budget calls for us to eventually be spending less on nearly all federal programs, including defense, than we currently spend on just defense.  I thought the Republicans loved spending money on the military.

Again, I know nothing about budgets.  But I do know how to read a sentence, and that sentence is absurd.

Where Disney Annoys Me

I feel guilty about this, of course, but for the most part, I like Disney movies, even the “princess” movies.  I liked them as a kid and I like rewatching them (or allowing them to play in the background of my life) now.

What gets me – and what I think, at base, gets most parents who don’t like Disney – is the marketing.  Not the fact that there is marketing.  I’m nearly 30 years old and I’ve lived in contemporary America my whole life; I don’t have it in me to get mad that corporations try to make money.  (Well, sometimes I do.  But that’s not the point here.)  But the way that the princesses in particular are marketed – as opposed, frequently, to how they come across in their movies – is where I think Disney fails.

A case in point – today we were looking at the Disney website because Zoe wanted a Tangled-themed nightshirt, and I saw this.  Now, I maybe need to go take another look, but in my memory, Flynn never has a sword in the movie.  The time he engages in a sword fight, he uses a frying pan – which is Rapunzel’s weapon of choice.  See, that’s one of the things I like about the movie.  Rapunzel is resourceful and capable of defending herself; she arms herself when she leaves her tower.  Furthermore, she is respected for this resourcefulness.  The only time Flynn gets into a sword fight, he uses the frying pan and very openly admires the frying pan’s – and by extension, Rapunzel’s -capabilities and Max the horse makes them the standard weapon for all of the kingdom’s soldiers.

But Disney is not selling a frying pan in connection with Tangled. They’re selling a sword.  For Flynn.  They made a movie about a girl who is intelligent enough to arm herself with a nontraditional weapon and use it effectively enough that other people, men, who have experience fighting, are happy to take it up.  But they make toys celebrating the idea that boys like weapons and girls like . . . hairbrushes.

The other day at the bookstore, Zoe wanted to buy some ridiculous Tangled book with a “musical hairbrush.”  Every page had exhortations to use the brush the way Rapunzel does on this page, to twist her hair that way or loop her hair to support Mother Goethel.  But we don’t see Rapunzel with a brush once she leaves her tower in the movie.  They make a movie in which excessive hair care is necessary only under conditions of oppression (if that’s not reading too much into it) with song lyrics like, “I brush and brush and brush and brush my hair, and wonder when will my life begin?” but they make toys that promote hairbrushes as a girl’s favorite toy.

They don’t even much paintbrush-oriented paraphernalia for Rapunzel.  Yes, her paintbrush is of the oppressive tower, too, but we see her also use her art once she’s in the kingdom, which is a celebratory montage that I think is meant to show us who Rapunzel is meant to be – an artist, a reader, a person who can bring joy to the kingdom.  Also, it’s through her art that she figures out who she is – she realizes she’s been painting that sun shape, in one form or another, all over her tower the whole time.  And while plenty of parents might not want their child to embrace the violence in Tangled via toy frying pans (although apparently it’s fine to embrace the non-existent sword for boys), what’s wrong with a paintbrush?

Look, I know that as far as Disney is concerned, girly stuff sells to girls and boy-y stuff sells to boys and that’s that.  And again, it’s hard for me to make a coherent and reasonable argument against a company trying to maximize profits, even when I kind of want to.  But the psychology behind that is more complicated.  Girls and boys of a certain age (say, 3 or 4 to 8 or 9) are very, very invested in sex differences.  They are just coming to realize that boys and girls are different, but they are not yet convinced, especially on the younger end of that spectrum, that those differences are really just in the body and as such require enormous effort to change.  They think that playing with the wrong toy or wearing the wrong color is enough to make them no longer the gender they feel they are and they feel a lot of anxiety about that possibility.  This stage of development is natural and normal.  But what marketers like Disney fail to realize – or fail to acknowledge – is that we, the adults, are the ones who decide what the markers of girl-ness and boy-ness are.  They say, “Look, girls like pink, it’s in their DNA, so let’s sell them lots of pink.”  And we, as parents, sometimes look at our pink-hording daughters and go, “You know, I tried to buy her the gender-neutral European-made wooden toys and all she wants is pink plastic Disney princess crap; it must be in the DNA.”  It’s not.  What’s in the DNA is, “Mark myself like a girl.”  We’re the ones who said, “Pink is girly.  Hairbrushes are girly.  Sparkles are girly.  Swords are boy-y.”  And when we set up certain things to be girly, girls will pick up on it, even (especially) young ones, and they will make those objects the ones they covet, and, what’s worse, it will color what they think they need to be in order to be acceptable “girls” forever.

Disney is doing something that is in fact interventionist when it decides that hairbrushes are a marker for “girl” and swords are a marker for “boy.”  They don’t have to.  If they marked frying pans and paintbrushes as “girl” markers, girls would buy them.  And then girls would have more than one model of femininity to play with – forever.  Boys can have more than one model of masculinity, too.

The crazy thing to me about Disney is that it makes movies like it knows that.  In the movies, girls are not just pink and sparkly, they do stuff (even if a lot of it ends up with marriage).  They scheme and fight and waitress and read and paint and escape.  The guys are not just hulking he-men, either – they are schemers and lovers and clever-line-deliverers.  The characters in Disney movies who do adhere to extreme forms of masculinity and femininity are either villains like Gaston in Beauty and the Beast or jokes like Charlotte in The Princess and The Frog.  But they market all their toys in a way that promotes the Charlotte-ness in girls and (to a lesser degree) the Gaston-ness in boys.  And they really don’t have to.  I’m sure if they were selling a frying pan with a picture of Rapunzel on it (or better, for gender-neutrality, the kingdom’s sun emblem), my daughter would clamor for that.  Disney is crack.

My Kid is Just So Cute

Tonight we were having a Glee Dance Party, and during one of the slower songs I elected to do this ab exercise.  Zoe saw me doing it and said, “I can do that with you!” She laid down next to me on the ground and imitated my motions for a few minutes.  (She also saw me stretching last week and decided to stretch with me.)  Then she said, “We can hug archother [each other]!”  So she hugged me and then observed, “Your face is hot.”  It was hot because I had been working out.  Then she said, “I love your hot face!” and pressed her cheek against mine some more.

This pretty much made up for the 420 tantrums she threw today.

She is also (I forgot to mention this in the last post) fairly obsessed with who is married to archother.  She is always making her dolls hug and kiss and then telling us that they love archother and they are married to archother.  And!  She is not heterocentric about it!  I mean, she identifies heterosexual couples she already knows, like her parents, or the various characters in Disney movies.  But sometimes she claims the Disney princesses are married to archother!  And she recognizes her aunts as a couple (and did so without me telling her that they were)!  And today she was taking these (non-Disney) princess dolls at the bookstore, having them hug and kiss and be in dancing position with each other (holding one hand, other hand on the shoulder) and told us they love archother and are married to archother.  Then she took up four or five princesses and claimed they were a family.  I don’t know if she understands boys as couples yet but she did see Blaine and Kurt kiss on Glee (and she saw me squeal like a pre-teen fangirl about it, because, come on, obviously that was the best kiss between two males that’s ever been in a television show, but it was also one of the best kisses I’ve ever seen on a television show ever).

Adult males other than the ones she already knows well – her father, her grandfathers, my brother – are mostly terrifying to her.  She has a mild interest in males her own age – as in, she plays with them and everything but doesn’t become obsessed with getting their attention.  But the ten- and eleven-year-old boys where I teach are of GREAT interest to her.  She interacts a lot with the one 4th grade boy in my Wednesday class, but when I combine with the 5th and 6th grade class there is this boy she just adores and she goes right over to him and gets up in his face and tilts her head to the side and speaks to him softly and in a higher-than-normal voice and gives him little pats on the arm and head.  I’ve got Trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with Z and that stands for Zoe.

As an update, she is still sleeping mostly in her bed, although sometimes when her father really needs a snuggle – or is too tired to put her in her bed while I’m doing something else – she stays in ours.  Right now she’s in her bed.  Still awake.  Watching Tangled on her iPad.

A Deep, Penetrating Insight

Taking books out of the library makes me feel about reading the way Tivo’ing video programs makes me feel about watching TV. In both instances, the activity is imbued with a sense of purpose and responsibility. The books must be read – they have to be returned to the library! The TV must be watched so that the shows might be cleared off the queue, which begins to feel like a to-do list. But really, both are self-indulgent leisure activities, aren’t they.