More on McCarthy – from a parent of a child with autism.

The Toronto Star has a good essay that, like my own writing, explores the issue of what happens to a parent when they receive the diagnosis.

When my son Max, now 5, was diagnosed with the complex brain disorder
just after his third birthday, it was like a sucker punch to the gut.

In one bracing instant, the dreams I’d nursed since his conception went up in smoke, landing my wife and I somewhere in


Twilight Zone


Forget about little league, rock superstardom and flinging pithy bon
mots at the dinner table (note: this last one was never going to happen

What became immediately clear was that, at least in the short term,
the majority of our time would be spent chauffeuring our son to
specialists and therapy groups, advocating on his behalf to school
officials and attending parental support groups to figure out which end
is up.

Overwhelming? That’s not the half of it.

Had someone approached me at that precise moment and offered a magic
pill to take away Max’s autism-related issues — the volcanic meltdowns,
the testy inflexibility — would I have considered it?

My wife and I have this discussion, however hypothetical, all the time.

She says no, because Max — a sweet kid with a probing, curious
intelligence — is the sum of his quirks, and to alter his fundamental
DNA would change the essence of who he is.

There’s nothing “wrong” with him: his brain is just wired differently.

I agree, but I would still go for the pill, because as far as I’m
concerned, Max is Max, autistic or not, and anything that’s going to
make his life less challenging and easier to navigate is fine with me.

The one thing we do agree on — and this supersedes any New Age
flakiness on my part — is that McCarthy is a quack, the Honey Boo Boo of
autism awareness, a vainglorious hustler with no medical background who
relies on what she refers to as her “mommy instinct,” even when it
flies in the face of scientific facts.

It’s Snooki pontificating on the origins of the universe, Kim Kardashian lecturing NASA about nuclear fission.

“The University of Google is where I got my degree,” the former
Playboy pin-up boasted to Oprah Winfrey, flaunting her ignorance as a
sign of authenticity.

So three points:

1. The diagnosis is hard. I write about it as a death experience, where the imaginary child one lives with, the child who you imagine grown, dies. It’s harsh language, but I think accurate.

2. “Cure” and “Identity” are complex. I have a lot more to say about this vis-a-vis the new Down syndrome research.

3. The anti-intellectual = authenticity thing really irritates me. But if you, in fact, spend a lot of time talking to anti-vaxxers (which I have lately), they immediately revert to M.D. and SCIENCE. I have an email in my “junk-mail” folder right now titled 72 Studies showing a link between vaccines and autism. I just don’t have the time or energy to go through and deconstruct how the very modest correlative findings are, in fact, not relevant. But the point here is that the anti-vax crowd, like most humans, seek bias confirmation, and are delighted to use science/medicine when it supports them, then demean it when not.

Pope Francis – “Chi sono io per giudicare un gay?

Just a note, as I seem to be posting this a lot.

1. The person I read, in English, about the Pope, is John Allen at the New Catholic Reporter. In general, the NCR is my first stop when trying to figure out what modern Catholics with whom I generally agree are thinking. Well, my first stop, other than the Theology department across the campus.

2. I started writing a blog post about Francis’ comments on homosexuality, then realized it had legs, so pitched it to the global editor at The Atlantic. You can read the essay here.

3. When the whole transcript comes out, I’ll be interested to read it in Italian, focusing especially on his comments on women. Is it possible that he is no radical, but rather a kinder face of conservative Catholicism? Possible, but I think not.

Public Engagement – Untapped Resources

Last week the Chronicle of Higher Education published my essay on public engagement. There’s some irony here, in that I just received positive reader reports on my book and entered a grant-writing period (now that I can apply for grants for the next project). So just as I’ve spoken as strongly and clearly as I can about the need for public engagement, I’ll be slowing down on the formal public front for awhile.

Bruce Holsinger, one of my favorite academic bloggers, commented on my essay and picked out the key features. He wrote:

What most struck me about his essay is what he sees as the urgent need
for more public and public-minded modes of writing from scholars at
non-elite universities. As I read him, he’s proposing a kind of
democratization of the whole notion of the public intellectual, with all
the political implications this would entail.

I want to think about some of those implications.

I don’t believe that academia is a meritocracy. I also don’t believe it’s totally random, but that the variables shaping status in academia are many and often hidden. We all know brilliant people who ended up, by choice or chance, out of the academy. We all know people whose work we seriously question who have ended up at elite schools. But the public, I think, largely sees academia as a rational hierarchical system, in which the smartest people end up at Harvard and the like, and the rest of us get stratified on down. I guess community colleges might be the lowest. This is, of course, nonsense. But think about the implications of this perception.

For one, universities react by trying to structure themselves to rise by whatever metrics might push them up the literal and imaginary ranks. It’s long been my contention, and those of pretty much everyone I know, that such metrics don’t measure the things that are really valuable. These metrics are shadows on the cave wall, we all know that, but they aren’t shadows of quality, they are shadows of imaginary prestige. They push R1 faculty out of the classroom, because only big research matters, eroding the beautiful ideal of the teacher-scholar. They create hierarchy rather than community (across and within institutions). They force faculty at teaching schools into defensive postures, rather than pride. They can limit the desire for public engagement, since it doesn’t “count.” I think they also enable administrative bloat. But these are really topics for another essay.

The key issue in terms of public engagement is that I believe, truly believe, that academics across the spectrum of schools have so much to contribute to our national discourse on basically every topic. The elites get out into the media, into congressional testimony, into political administrations, into the public consciousness. Many such public intellectuals provide brilliant and necessary comment and context on a whole host of issues. But what about the rest of us?

One example – when the “crisis of the Humanities” talk hit  its recent peak, two of the voices that responded first were Anthony Grafton and Michael Bérubé. These men are giants. They are leaders in their fields. I especially look up to Bérubé because he, like me, is the father of a boy with Down syndrome. But I was wondering – where are the voices about the Humanities in the suburban community colleges? Where are the voices from the barely-surviving branch campuses? Where are the voices from the lower tier private schools? It’s not that these giants from Princeton and Penn State have nothing to say – on the contrary, we need them to speak publicly and often. I just know that there are cogent and important statements on the necessity and challenges for the Humanities coming from the entire academic world – and I know this because I hear these conversations. 

Those without name recognition at regional or local schools are a great untapped resource. There’s an inefficiency in the way that our prestige economy and broader perceptions of status both limit public engagement. How do we fix this?

Social media has clearly had an impact, especially at the ability of academics to connect with each other across the lines of discipline, subject, and hierarchy. Blogs matter. Twitter matters.

I do think there’s a role for administration to play, in which explicit sustained public engagement comes to count in some way. I don’t have a good model for this. It’s not self-interested, because at my school I’m hitting my other metrics as I go. But still, I think it’s both possible and necessary.

These are just opening, forming, thoughts. Help me clarify them please!

James Farrell, St. Olaf College

In May 2005, I drove from Minneapolis to Northfield, to interview for my first academic position outside the graduate school bubble. The position involved teaching three classes, one in J-term and two in the spring, for the pre-modernist who was joining the “Great Conversation” program. It was a spectacularly beautiful spring day in Minnesota. I wore a dark suit, found my way to the History Department, and met the chair, Jim Farrell. He was preposterously tall, had a deep voice, wore jeans, and shirt with rolled up sleeves, and immediately began pushing me to talk about teaching.

I still remember a lot about that interview (and I’m leaving out the bits about the intelligent and kind woman whose classes I was taking over) – the way Jim pushed me to articulate how I was using the web in the classroom, my philosophy of teaching, the ways I worked with students to engage challenging texts and topics, and much more. I remember the chicken I ate for lunch. I remember sitting on in the middle of the shockingly beautiful campus, thinking, “This. This is what I want.”

I got the job.

Over the next year and a half, I wrote my dissertation and began the slow process of making the transition from graduate student to faculty member.  Along the way, Jim was there, always ready to talk about teaching. It quickly became apparent that when Jim spoke about teaching, you should listen. He believed, and made you believe, that the classroom was a shared community in which everyone could function as teacher and learner. He was both relaxed and restless, thinking about ways to make the class work better, but also trusting in himself and his students.

Jim built communities in his classroom, but also in the department. Even as a lowly grad-student adjunct, Jim always made sure that I felt like a member of the department. He knew I was raw and pushed me to develop a better world history curriculum and to keep thinking about my classes from the student point of view. He also wanted me to see the unity between the scholar-teacher I was trying to become, in which my classes would serve my dissertation writing, and vice versa. I remember one day I was trying to figure out how to improve a class, and I said, in my jaded 8th-year grad student way, “I just keep working on it.” He laughed and replied, “So do I.”

When I went on the job market, Jim wrote for me. I was always confident that whatever else was in my file, I had Jim speaking eloquently about my teaching, and that could only help me.

I’ve hit some milestones lately in my career, and have been introspective, thinking about my stops along the way, thinking about St. Olaf, the mistakes I made and the opportunities I was given.

Today, I found out that Jim died after a struggle with Leukemia.

The bro-choice movement

No, that’s not a typo. Read this. Then read this explanation from Jezebel.

Ok, so it’s a way for Choice U.S.A. to try and guys to explicitly endorse pro-choice policies and position themselves as allies to women. I was going to be on Huffington Post Live today to talk about it, as one of their producers read my essay on male Feminism at the Good Men Project, but plans fell through. Still, I spent some of the morning thinking about the movement and talking to one of my brilliant friends, K., and came up with these thoughts to share.

1. The correct word for a man who is pro-choice is … pro-choice.

2. Anything that can help men normalize being pro-reproductive rights and equal rights is a good thing. I do think men worry that embracing feminist agendas (let alone the word) threatens their masculinity. So if somehow they need to keep “bro” culture alive, while defending women’s reproductive freedom, that seems fine to me.

3. The right-wing attack against the bro-choicers (read the Jezebel article), as K. points out, follows exactly the same line of attack as against pro-choice women: that it’s all about sex. Pro-choice women, argue people like Rush Limbaugh and his ilk, are sluts (you remember Sandra Fluke). Bro-choice men are likewise only interested in consequence-free (child-free) sex. This is fascinating. What it shows, though it’s not surprising, is the complete inability of anti-abortion voices to articulate a moral position for their foes. Abortion MUST always be about sex for the anti-abortion crowd, rather than privacy, or poverty, or reproductive freedom, or even small government. If you want an abortion or birth control or even competent sex-ed, you must be sex-obsessed.

In the meantime, California’s teen birthrate has dropped 60%. Sex-ed is legally required to be comprehensive and medically accurate there.Correlation or causation?

Everyday Sexism – I need a new mechanic

I missed an oil change, the weather got hot, the light flashed red on my 1997 minivan, I bought and poured in some extra oil, and the next day I took it into the shop.

Don’t worry, the van’s fine.

While I was waiting, a pretty big guy came in and started talking loudly to the woman who was waiting as well. They seemed to know each other and the guy clearly liked talking. He talked about trips for pleasure and for work. He talked about doing photoshoots of models, and how he had to turn down a chance to shoot for Maxim or Sports Illustrated, because of work and family back home. He started talking about friends of his and maybe friends of the woman who was waiting as well.

While I was waiting, I was reading comments from Men’s Rights Advocates on the Good Men Project, and, frankly, getting angry. Here I had worked on articulating reasons to be feminist by focusing on specific, pervasive, ways that patriarchal systems work to keep women from obtaining power and independence. These MRA folks, some of who are quite prominent on GMP it seems, only wanted to talk about how men were the real victims of those mean feminists who are running the world. I can’t tell you I handled it well, though I tried. Eventually, I asked to have comments shut down, because they were being delivered to my email box, and I just wasn’t up to the challenge. How can you look at this world and see men as victims of feminism? I intellectually understand it, but not in any visceral way. (See previous posts – I see men as often oppressed by patriarchy).

So the friends of the big guy were married, but nearly split up recently, until the big guy had saved the day. He had gone to the woman and told her (she’s in her mid-50s) to really take a look in the mirror and to see that she had put on a lot of weight, and to think about how she dresses. No wonder, he got her to see, her husband (who had stayed fit) was cheating on her. His girlfriend probably puts on sexy clothes and is thinner. The wife apparently agreed, started getting herself to the gym, and had saved her marriage.

I guess, I guess this is a good story. But the powerful sexism exuding from this man repulsed me. Why was he shouting this across the waiting room? Why did he think that just blaming the woman was the only answer here? Why had this nameless wife believed him?

Then a mom with four daughters entered, and he kept talking and talking, the kids staying silent on the couch watching cartoons with the sound off so as not to interrupt him. He didn’t notice, because he needed to tell his friend about all the models who hung out with him, and how his teenage son was jealous. Finally, I quietly interjected that maybe the kids who were being so good could turn the TV volume on for their cartoons, and the pair went outside the waiting room to finish their conversation.

As I paid, I realized that the loud man was the owner of my mechanic shop. No wonder he was acting like he owned the place.

I emailed him. He denied being sexist. His reaction, of course, was to go to the two other customers and demand to know, “Was I being sexist!” They, for their own reasons, told him he was just fine. He wrote back to me, “I
have no doubt that the two ladies present in the waiting room with you
would certainly be able to accurately and immediately determine if any
behavior or discussion was remotely offensive and sexist.”

I guess I have some doubts, and I guess this wasn’t a teachable moment, or just like in the comment threads I went about it wrong, or didn’t argue persuasively, or something. 

And now I need a new mechanic.

Vitamins, Snake Oil, and Jenny McCarthy

Since The Atlantic – Health published my piece on Jenny McCarthy, I’ve gotten a lot of email. A lot of it has been from parents saying: I don’t like Jenny McCarthy, and I’m not sure about vaccines, but let me tell you about my child and the dramatic improvements I’ve seen as a result of dietary changes.

I believe that in many cases with special needs, changing diets can result in changes in behavior and response to other kinds of interventions. I believe that without doing blind studies, the correlation and causation is nearly impossible to tease out, and of course we can’t (ethically) really do this kind of blind study with a sufficient sample of children with disabilities. All we can do is try to collect post-intervention data and sort it.

So this morning I read Paul Offit’s piece on vitamins. The anti-vax crowd HATES Offit, calling him (I’m not linking to Age of Autism) – “millionaire vaccine industrialist.” Now let’s not get into the issue that the people selling snake oil to kids with autism are also millionaires, and yes, there are profit margins on all sides. Offit wrote, “Autism’s false prophets.” He’s deep in this fight, much more so than I.

The essay is extremely long and works through the long history of Linus Pauling, vitamin advocate (he claimed that vitamin C cured cancer at one point), and finishes with a terser discussion of lots of recent studies on vitamins. Here’s the final point:

Two days later, on October 12, researchers from the Cleveland Clinic
published the results of a study of 36,000 men who took vitamin E,
selenium, both, or
neither. They found that those receiving vitamin E had a 17 percent
greater risk of prostate cancer. In response to the study, Steven
Nissen, chairman of
cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic, said, “The concept of
multivitamins was sold to Americans by an eager nutraceutical industry
to generate profits. There
was never any scientific data supporting their usage.” On October
25, a headline in the Wall Street Journal asked, “Is This the End of Popping
Vitamins?” Studies haven’t hurt sales. In 2010, the vitamin industry grossed $28 billion, up 4.4 percent from the year before. “The thing to do with [these reports] is just ride them out,” said Joseph Fortunato, chief executive of General Nutrition Centers. “We see no
impact on our business.”

How could this be? Given that free radicals clearly damage
cells–and given that people who eat diets rich in substances that
neutralize free radicals are
healthier–why did studies of supplemental antioxidants show they
were harmful? The most likely explanation is that free radicals aren’t
as evil as
advertised. Although it’s clear that free radicals can damage DNA
and disrupt cell membranes, that’s not always a bad thing. People need
free radicals to
kill bacteria and eliminate new cancer cells. But when people take
large doses of antioxidants, the balance between free radical production
and destruction
might tip too much in one direction, causing an unnatural state in
which the immune system is less able to kill harmful invaders.
Researchers have called
this “the antioxidant paradox.”

Whatever the reason, the data are
clear: high doses of vitamins and supplements increase the risk of heart
disease and
cancer; for this reason, not a single national or international
organization responsible for the public’s health recommends them.

So, according to Offit, vitamins are snake oil. There’s a shared sense in the battle over knowing, over epistemology, between this issue (so much less heated) and the autism-diet-vaccine world.

The solution to your problem is more feminism

I wrote an essay on being a straight white male feminist for the Good Men Project. If you’re reading this blog, you probably already knew that.

I’m proud of this short essay and would like it spread far and wide. If you are willing to share it, please do so. I’m also willing to engage in debate and discussion about.

If you wade into to comment thread, you’ll see a few, “right on!” comments. Then there are a few thoughtful commentaries or questions. My favorite was asking me whether I found my “male” self ever at odds with my “feminist” self. I talked about the ways that I instinctively buy into purity culture in terms of parenting my daughter, a subject I may return to more fully later. Then there were the men’s right’s folks.

I’ve never argued with them, and in my experience, arguing requires practice. I know how to argue about history, about disability, about Catholicism, about voting rights, about the needs for regulations, about all kinds of subjects. This was a new one and I’m not sure I did as well as I should. The laments are well known – it’s so hard to be man; so much is expected of a man; men always lose in divorce courts; boys are having more trouble in school; men are doomed; men can be abused too; gender discrimination runs in all directions so feminism isn’t relevant; patriarchy doesn’t exist. The MRA folks have a litany and they quickly showed up.

On advice from a friend, I started reading Amanda Marcotte. This 2011 essay in particular worked well for me: The Solution to MRA Problems? More Feminism.

Here’s the key piece:

They’re so wrong about everything, they’re wrong even when they’re
right. Some of their observations of the world correspond with reality,
but when they attempt to analyze it through the “blame feminism” lens,
they get all turned around. Usually what annoys them stems not from
feminism, but from sexism, especially when it comes to inflexible gender
roles. Ironically, then, the solution to the problems they manage to
correctly identify is … more feminism. I pulled together a sampling of
examples to show how this works.

This is the challenge, some of the gripes from MRA are, in fact, true. But they fail to assess causality or the pathways out of the morass. In almost every case, the solution according to Marcotte is … more feminism.

In my comment thread, one particular poster (and Good Men Project essayist on the topic) talked about divorce court. It’s probably true that men have a tougher time getting custody than women, although I’ve been reading some counter evidence. It’s probably true that the “tender years” doctrine that once automatically assigned custody to women (with men having to pay support, which is what irks the MRA), filtered through the second-wave feminist movement. The alternative was seeing women either isolated from their children or abandoned by their children’s fathers. But if you want to solve this problem, the solution is not to rant about how those feminist courts are oppressing men, but to advocate for more feminism.

Courts see mothers as the natural primary parent because of rigid gender norms that associate child-rearing as women’s work. Take the feminist position that child-rearing is gender neutral, make it stick, and this changes. Advocate for universal gender-neutral parental leave at birth or adoption. Make sure men who want flex time are not seen as un-manly and discriminated against in the workplace. All of these are feminist positions.

So I’m grateful to Marcotte and ready to wade back into the fray. And if you have a problem with that, well, the solution to your problem is … more feminism.

Straight White Male Feminism

I have a new essay at “The Good Men Project” on why I call myself a feminist and what it means to me. Please go read it there and share it across your networks. This is my first publication there and I’d like it to do well.

In many ways, it’s really an essay about patriarchy.

Jenny McCarthy and Fad/Fear-Based Parenting

New essay online, with a slightly shifted take from my earlier one. I move beyond the vaccine issue, as important as it is. Here, I focus on McCarthy’s epistemology and the ways that parents, buffeted by fear-based marketing, also encounter information and the consequences of giving McCarthy this big new platform.

The essay is here.

Some sections I like:

Parents are more likely to jump at “fads” rather than sticking to “evidence-based” parenting. It’s hard to blame them for this characteristic — they are primed to be afraid.
Parents are told that
unless they buy a given product, their child will get sick, learn too
slowly, fail to flourish, or even die. Being a parent requires so many
leaps of faith on a day-to-day basis. We just hope and pray that we’re
getting it mostly right.
When someone claims to
have answers, especially someone with the intelligence and charisma of a
Jenny McCarthy, parents are easy targets.


Enter Jenny McCarthy, a
woman who evangelizes. She jumps at fads, hunches, intuitions and really
bad ideas. She believes them. She makes them hers. Then she builds
institutions to promote them with the full-throated roar of a new
McCarthy has profited
handsomely from her outrageous views. She is intelligent, funny and
persuasive. She writes books that sell very well. Her organizations
throw successful events. She is a tireless promoter of her ideas. And
now she’s a host on “The View.”
What idea will she seize
on next? What dangerous fad will she claim needs more study? How many
parents, at home in the morning, will be persuaded? I’m deeply
disappointed that Barbara Walters and ABC have decided to let us find
out the answers to these troubling questions.

Let me know what you think. Thanks.

P.S. I’m still really angry at ABC and The View.