“Now I just walk away. That’s all I can do.” addition: Judith Butler

The words are from Caster Semenya, who is the topic of an article by Ariel Levy, in the New Yorker, Nov. 30, 2009.  The article places the questioning of  Caster Semenya’s sex in a complex context.  The article opens with the poverty of the region CS grew up in:

The land is webbed with brambles, and the thorns are a serious problem for the athletes, who train barefoot. “They run on loose stones, scraping them, making a wound, making a scar,” Sako, a tall, bald man with rheumy eyes and a big gap between his two front teeth, said. “We can’t stop and say we don’t have running shoes, because we don’t have money. The parents don’t have money. So what must we do? We just go on.”

Another factor in the picture is the enforced categorizations from the colonizers:

South Africans have been appalled by the idea of a person who thinks she is one thing suddenly being told that she is something else. The classification and reclassification of human beings has a haunted history in this country … Taxonomy is an acutely sensitive subject, and its history is probably one of the reasons that South Africans—particularly black South Africans—have rallied behind their runner with such fervor. The government has decreed that Semenya can continue running with women in her own country, regardless of what the I.A.A.F. decides.

Does she look like "a drag queen," as some have said?
Does she look like "a drag queen," as some have said?

Another comes from the dehumanizing curiosity of the European look:

South Africans have compared the worldwide fascination with Semenya’s gender to the dubious fame of another South African woman whose body captivated Europeans: Saartjie Baartman, the Hottentot Venus. Baartman, an orphan born on the rural Eastern Cape, was the servant of Dutch farmers near Cape Town. In 1810, they sent her to Europe to be exhibited in front of painters, naturalists, and oglers, who were fascinated by her unusually large buttocks and had heard rumors of her long labia … Many South Africans feel that white foreigners are yet again scrutinizing a black female body as though it did not contain a human being.


In addition, the article picks up on the  immense complexity of the biology of sex and secondary sexual characteristics.  The facts make it clear that it is hardly likely for there to be some simple texts for sex; Ann Fausto-Sterling’s words on natural kinds are made especially relevant.  That is in contrast to the  role of gender duality:

There is much more at stake in organizing sports by gender than just making things fair. If we were to admit that at some level we don’t know the difference between men and women, we might start to wonder about the way we’ve organized our entire world. Who gets to use what bathroom? Who is allowed to get married? (Currently, the United States government recognizes the marriage of a woman to a female-to-male transsexual who has had a double mastectomy and takes testosterone tablets but still has a vagina, but not to a woman who hasn’t done those things.) We depend on gender to make sense of sexuality, society, and ourselves. We do not wish to see it dissolve.

And there are still other issues:  the politics of sports organizations, the way CS,  a child, was poked and prodded without  any parental consent, and more.  And, finally, the  impact of it all on the child, who has decided she can only walk away.

Addition: Here’s a link to a piece on Caster Semenya by Judith Butler.  Do note that Butler’s piece is more an opinion piece; she  is not trying to get the details of the biology right, and that’s one of several respects in which the much longer NYorker article has more information.  In particular, levels of testosterone do not necessarily tell us whether the hormone can be used; some intersexed people may have higher than average (for females) levels of  the hormone without being able to use them.  (Thanks to Rob.)

CFP: Reasons and Rationality

The first St. Louis Annual Conference on Reasons and Rationality (SLACRR, pronounced (slăk΄ r)) will take place May 23-25, 2010 at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.  The conference is designed to provide a forum for new work on practical and theoretical reason, broadly construed.  Please submit an abstract of 500-1000 words by December 31, 2009 to SLACRR@gmail.com. (In writing your abstract, please bear in mind that full papers should be suitable for a 30 minute presentation.) We are also interested in finding commentators for papers, so please let us know if you would have an interest in commenting.   
The Conference will include papers in ethics, epistemology, and other areas of philosophy that deal with reasons, reasoning, or rationality.  For instance, we would be interested in papers exploring such questions as:

• What is the relation between reasons for actions and reasons for beliefs?
• What are the sources of our reasons for belief?
• How are features of one’s psychology (desires, intentions, etc.) relevant to reasons?  
• What is the relation between reasons and what we ought to do (or believe)?
• What is the relation between reasons and value?
• Are the requirements of practical and theoretical rationality normative?  
• What is the relation between individual rationality and collective rationality?

Of course, this is just a small sample of questions; we hope to include a wide variety of papers on the Conference Program that deal in some way with reasons, reasoning or rationality.   Further questions can also be directed to either John Brunero (bruneroj@umsl.edu) or Eric Wiland (wiland@umsl.edu).

Insurance coverage for abortion

The Stupak Amendment to the US Health Care bill would dictate that no insurance policy which covers abortion (except in cases of rape, incest or danger to mother’s life) could be part of the pool of insurance plans for which people are entitled to government subsidies. As a long-time UK resident I confess that I was a little unsure at first how much of an impact this would have. My suspicion was that almost no US insurance policies covered abortion anyway. (The NHS, of course, does. And birth control pills are free.) It turns out this was wrong. And, given the way that insurance tends to work, ruling out abortion coverage for the policies in the pool would be very likely to end up denying it to all women. This would be a horrendous result, as these stories from doctors make very clear to anyone in doubt.

This led to a now-familiar US political situation in which feminists were being asked to sacrifice a vital interest of women to the greater good (in this case, of health care reform). And in which those who objected to this were accused of selfishly holding the interests of everyone else hostage to the supposedly niche issue of the health and rights of half the population.

Now, however, the senate has offered a compromise, which– in the way of all compromises– has serious drawbacks. But it is nonetheless a vast improvement.

The key details of the Senate bill are as follows: Both public and private plans are allowed to offer abortion coverage. It empowers consumers to use government subsidies to purchase insurance that covers abortion, but requires that their premiums (and not federal funds) pay for the actual procedures. The Health and Human Services Secretary is charged with evaluating plans to ensure that taxpayers do not pay for abortions. And, while the bill requires at least one plan in each state to cover abortion, it also includes a conscience clause stating that healthcare providers cannot “be discriminated against because of a willingness or an unwillingness … to provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions.”

For more on the compromise bill, see here. (Thanks, Vishal, for repeatedly but kindly nudging me to write something more on this.)

Good news from the APA…

…regarding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Leiter reports:

Alastair Norcross (Colorado) reports that the National Board of the American Philosophical Association has now taken action on an initiative that began with a letter from Charles Hermes (UT Arlington) (posted here last February) and then a petition he crafted (signed by over 1400 philosophers) followed by a motion put before the APA by Professor Norcross and with support from many others.

For more, go here.

RIP Jeanne-Claude, brilliant artist

As many will remember, The Gates in NYC’s Central Park was done by Christo and Jeanne-Claude.  For some time their collaborative projects were labeled as if by him alone.  For some information about the change, see below.   

We  note that it is a familiar idea that women’s brilliance can be hidden  behind a man’s name.  And that in the past it may have made great sense to her.

Jeanne-Claude, who collaborated with her husband, Christo, on dozens of environmental arts projects, notably the wrapping of the Pont Neuf in Paris and the Reichstag in Berlin and the installation of 7,503 vinyl gates with saffron-colored nylon panels in Central Park, died Thursday in Manhattan, where she lived. She was 74

Jeanne-Claude met her husband, Christo Javacheff, in Paris in 1958. …  To avoid confusing dealers and the public, and to establish an artistic brand, they used only Christo’s name. In 1994 they retroactively applied the joint name “Christo and Jeanne-Claude” to all outdoor works and large-scale temporary indoor installations. Other indoor work was credited to Christo alone.

Texas law bans anything “identical to” marriage. (Oops.)

I’m in lefty pedantic philosopher heaven:

Barbara Ann Radnofsky, a Houston lawyer and Democratic candidate for attorney general, says that a 22-word clause in a 2005 constitutional amendment designed to ban gay marriages erroneously endangers the legal status of all marriages in the state.

The amendment, approved by the Legislature and overwhelmingly ratified by voters, declares that “marriage in this state shall consist only of the union of one man and one woman.” But the troublemaking phrase, as Radnofsky sees it, is Subsection B, which declares:

“This state or a political subdivision of this state may not create or recognize any legal status identical or similar to marriage.”

For more, see here. (Thank you, Jender-Mom!!)