Thursday, 30 December 2010

The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, David Kertzer

For another book by David Kertzer on Catholic-Jewish relations, see my review of Unholy War here.

"Signor Mortara, I am sorry to inform you that you are the victim of a betrayal."  The officer felt uneasy, but he had his orders.  "Your son Edgardo has been baptised, and I have been ordered to take him with me."

The date was Thursday 24 June 1858, and the place was Bologna.  The Pope's military police had come to take 6-year-old Edgardo Mortara from his Jewish parents, Momolo and Marianna, and deliver him to the Church authorities in Rome.

A terrible scene resulted.  The police insisted that they were only following the orders of the local Inquisitor, Fr. Feletti.  The Inquisitor himself insisted that he was acting under orders from the Vatican.  In the face of the pleas of Edgardo's family, Fr. Feletti agreed to a 24 hour stay of execution, albeit with reluctance.  It turned out that he was worried that the Jewish family would murder their child to prevent him from becoming a Christian.

When the 24 hours were up, Edgardo was taken by carriage to Rome and consigned to the House of Catechumens, an institution for the conversion of Jews and Muslims to Catholicism.  During the journey, it was said that Edgardo showed a definite interest in the doctrines of the Catholic faith and an eagerness to go to church, though his police guard later suggested that this was the result of childish curiosity and the attention bestowed on him by Catholic fellow passengers.

This cruel situation had come about because the Mortaras were a Jewish family and Edgardo had been secretly baptised.  Shorn of its ritual accoutrements, baptism is not a very difficult sacrament to administer: it consists simply of sprinkling the subject with water and saying "I baptise you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit".  The only intention that the baptiser needs to have is a general willingness to do what the Church intends to do in conferring baptism.  Then as now, Church law provided that a baby could be baptised only with its parents' permission and by a clergyman using the approved rites of the Church, but these requirements could be relaxed if the child was in imminent danger of death.  In any event, whether it was conferred lawfully or unlawfully, a baptism that fulfilled the minimal sacramental requirements was valid and irreversible.  A Jewish child who had been baptised was regarded by the Church as a Christian, and she could not be raised by infidel parents who would try to turn her away from her new faith.

Edgardo's case was not unique.  Kertzer refers to several other cases of Jewish children being abducted to be raised as Christians, in most cases because a Catholic servant had performed an illicit baptism.  In another case, a family had fled abroad in order to escape the same fate.  Some Jewish families had adopted the practice of requiring servants to make a notarised statement on leaving service declaring that they had not baptised any of the family's children.

These inhuman incidents were able to happen because they took place within the Papal States, the lands in central Italy which lay under the direct control of the Pope and the Catholic Church.  The Pontifical State had existed for centuries, but by the mid-1800s it had become a state of denial.  Since the time of the French Revolution, the Italian peninsula had been swept by waves of revolts and invasions inspired by the new ideas of liberalism, nationalism and constitutional government.  The tide of history was running against the notion that the Pope had the right to rule over an earthly kingdom through the medium of canon law enforced by civil police.  The pontifical government was living on borrowed time, propped up by French and Austrian troops and funded by loans from (oh, the irony) the Rothschild banking dynasty.  Yet the Catholic hierarchy continued to behave as if it was still the Counter-Reformation.

There was nothing inevitable about this ultra-conservative stance: it was a policy choice made by successive pontiffs with varying degrees of gusto.  There were reformers in the Church.  Cardinal Ercole Consalvi had held office as the papal Secretary of State a few decades earlier, and the reigning pope himself, Blessed Pius IX, had initially been regarded as something of a liberal.  But Pius had had his fingers badly burned by the revolutions of 1848, and the day of the modernisers was not yet at hand.  Not until Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) would the Church have a leader who was even half willing to make his peace with the nineteenth century.

Embedded in the reactionary Catholicism of the times was an unpleasant vein of antisemitism.  Jews had lived in Italy since before the time of Christ, but in the Papal States they had long been subject both to popular hostility and to legal restrictions imposed by the Church authorities.  In earlier times, the popes had shown a degree of benevolence towards the Jewish community, but since the Reformation their stance had hardened.  Jews were locked in ghettoes, forced to wear badges identifying their status and required to listen to compulsory sermons aimed at converting them.  It was still seriously believed that Jews kidnapped Christian children and consumed their blood (the notorious "blood libel").  In more recent times, the harshness of the anti-Jewish laws had been relaxed somewhat (Pius IX prided himself on his benignity in this regard), but Jews were still second-class citizens at best.

Nonetheless, the Mortaras and their supporters in the Jewish community did not take Edgardo's abduction lying down.  They fired off letters - respectfully worded, of course - to Fr. Feletti, the pontifical Secretary of State and Pope Pius IX himself, culimating in a full-scale submission in September 1858 claiming that Catholic theology and canon law were on their side (the Pope did not appreciate being lectured by Jews on his own doctrines).  The international press became interested, with editors using the plight of the boy from Bologna to fortify their readers' pro- or anti-Catholic political sentiments.  The French ambassador got involved, as did the Rothschilds and the Anglo-Jewish legend Sir Moses Montefiore.  The Jewish community of Rome, whose officials were at the forefront of the Mortaras' efforts, viewed these interventions with some concern, believing from their own long experience that the Jews of the Papal States could only lose from any attempt to strongarm the Pope.

Accounts of how Edgardo behaved in the House of Catechumens and how he conducted himself during meetings with his parents differed dramatically, and along predictable lines.  The official version, in which he gloried in his new Christian life, has the clear appearance of propaganda.  The natural assumption is that a 6-year-old boy forcibly separated from his parents must have been devastated by the experience, and that his parents' testimony to this effect must have been true and correct.  On the other hand, Edgardo does seem to have adapted himself to his new situation, and doubts developed among some of the Mortaras' allies, including a Jewish official who saw the boy himself, about where his loyalties lay.  After leaving the Catechumens, Edgardo seems to have settled quite well into his new life with the other boys at a church school in Rome, and in due course he was ordained as a Catholic priest.

Who had baptised Edgardo?  Suspicion soon fell on Anna Morisi, a former servant of the Mortaras, and it duly turned out that she was the guilty party.  Her story was that she had administered the baptism during a life-threatening illness that Edgardo had suffered in infancy.  A local grocer called Lepori had suggested that she baptise Edgardo to ensure that he went to heaven when he died, and she had decided to take his advice.  Several years later, she had told another servant in the neighbourhood, an enigmatic character called Regina Bussolari, what she had done.  It was allegedly after Morisi spoke with Bussolari that the Inquisitor got involved.  A woman called Elena Pignatti, who knew Morisi and had employed her after she left the Mortaras, recalled independently that Morisi had spoken to her about baptising Jewish babies several years before, at a time when one of the Mortara children was seriously ill.

This version of events did not go uncontested.  Both Lepori and Bussolari denied speaking to Morisi.  Most witnesses reported that Edgardo's illness had not been life-threatening, so a secret baptism should not have been necessary - and, in any case, Morisi herself had been sick in bed at the relevant time.  More intriguingly, it appears that Morisi may have had a financial interest in suddenly coming out with her story several years after the event.  In 1857, according to Elena Pignatti, just months before Edgardo's abduction, Morisi had been mysteriously summoned several times by the local priests, and she had explained to Pignatti that the Inquisitor had promised her a dowry.  Morisi herself acknowledged that she had been after a dowry, but she insisted that she had brought the subject up with the Inquisitor only after he had questioned her about the baptism.

The Mortaras went to some lengths to prove that Morisi was no simple, God-fearing peasant girl.  Marianna said that she had been a liar, and other witnesses claimed that she had been involved in several instances of theft.  Predictably, given the climate of the times, her sex life was held up as evidence of bad character.  Bologna was garrisoned by Austrian troops, and Morisi appears to have had a liking for handsome young men in uniform - not an unusual preference for a heterosexual female, but one which was politically incorrect in the 1850s.

The Church never provided a full account of its investigations, but its own version of events seems to suggest that the initial report came from a woman called Marianna Bajesi, who claimed to have heard rumours about the baptism originating from Regina Bussolari.  On balance, it is probable that Morisi did baptise Edgardo, no doubt oblivious to the trouble that her act would cause in the future.

The Mortara affair was one of the rude shocks that awoke the upper echelons of the Catholic Church to the realities of the modern world.  They may have been able to get away with this sort of thing in the middle ages, but the game had changed.  The affair may even have changed the course of European history, since it may have influenced Napoleon III of France to allow Prime Minister Cavour of Piedmont to annexe most of the Papal States in 1859-60, an important step in the creation of the modern Italian state.  When Bologna was freed from papal control as a result of this truncation of the Pope's realms, Fr. Feletti was arrested and tried by the new government.  Even within the framework of the old laws, it was argued, he was guilty and deserving of punishment: he provided no proof that he had followed proper procedures in ordering the boy's seizure, and he appeared not to have ascertained properly that the baptism had been validly performed.  The court, however, disagreed and acquitted him.

Fr. Feletti was small fry, though.  At the centre of the controversy were Pope Pius IX and his de facto prime minister, Cardinal Giacomo Antonelli.  There is a longstanding tendency to see Pius as a kindly old buffoon who was manipulated by Antonelli.  Antonelli was a devious politician who become a cardinal without ever being ordained a priest, and he was said to be more interested in money and women than in religion.  There may be an element of truth in these caricatures, but Pius was no innocent dupe.  He took a close personal interest in Edgardo's upbringing, and he strenuously resisted attempts to induce him to release the boy.  He may have been an affable and pious man, but he was also wilful and intransigent.  He cared not what governments, ambassadors or journalists ("the truly powerful people of our times") had to say on the matter.  He had not the slightest qualm of conscience in keeping Edgardo separated from his parents, because he knew with unshakeable certainty that God was on his side.  As his namesake Pius X would later prove, the worst popes are sometimes the holy ones.

Not that Pius was lacking in defenders.  Catholic writers and newspapers praised his stoutheartedness and commended his actions.  The Pope, they said, had acted in accordance with his religious duties, and besides, the boy was clearly loving it.  His parents might be upset to have lost him, but they had lots of other children, and in any case they should have thought of that before they broke the law by employing a Catholic maidservant.  What was more, they could immediately be reunited with Edgardo by becoming Catholics themselves, in which case they would also be granted eternal salvation.  These lines of argument are oddly echoed by no less a person than the professional atheist Richard Dawkins.  In The God Delusion, Dawkins uses the Mortara case as part of his foolish argument that ascribing parents' religion to their children amounts to child abuse.  He seems to think that the Mortaras themselves were culpable because they had employed a Catholic servant due to silly Jewish scruples about the Sabbath and because they refused to make a fake conversion to Catholicism to get their son back.

In the meantime, events were moving on.  Edgardo wrote to his parents on a number of occasions but couldn't resist trying to convert them to Catholicism, leading to a breakdown in communications.  In 1864, a similar case to Edgardo's, involving a Roman Jewish boy named Giuseppe Coen, was reportedly instrumental in inducing Napoleon III to withdraw his troops temporarily from what remained of the Pope's territories.  In 1870, the French troops left for the last time to fight the Franco-Prussian War, and the Italian army entered the Eternal City.  The Pope's temporal power was extinguished, and the papacy enjoyed an extended toys-out-of-pram moment until finally the small area of western Rome known as Vatican City was handed back to Pope Pius XI in 1929.  When Rome fell to the Italians, Edgardo was visited by his brother Riccardo, an officer in the invading army.  Edgardo, now a young man of 19, insisted that Riccardo remove his "murderer's uniform" before he would speak to him.  He then slipped out of Rome and fled to Austria before his parents could catch up with him.  Coen's parents were similarly disappointed when they were reunited with a petulant teenager who wanted nothing more to do with them.

It seems that Momolo never recovered from his son's abduction.  In 1871, his maidservant died under mysterious circumstances, and he was initially convicted of her murder amid allegations that he was an angry and violent man.  The verdict was subsequently reversed by a higher court, and he died shortly afterwards.  Marianna, who was suspected of playing a role in covering up the alleged killing, made her peace with Edgardo and died in 1890.  As noted earlier, Edgardo himself became a priest.  A clever man, he learnt several languages and became a missionary preacher.  He eventually wound up in Belgium, where he died on 11 March 1940, just before the Nazi invasion.  It was a mercifully timed demise.  The baptism that took him from his parents and made him an international celebrity would, one imagines, have cut no ice with the SS.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Vindication of the English Constitution, Benjamin Disraeli

This is a little book written by the 31-year-old Benjamin Disraeli in 1835 in defence of the nineteenth-century British constitution.  His principal target was the liberal utilitarians of his day, who supported dangerous ideas like popular sovereignty and universal suffrage.

Disraeli sets out the familiar doctrines of classical British Conservatism: the importance of precedent, tradition, legality and the "wisdom of our ancestors".  He is for Magna Carta, the Glorious Revolution and historical British freedoms.  He is against a priori systems, "the barren assertion of abstract rights" and the Catholic Church.  He castigates his opponents for seeking "to form political institutions on abstract principles of theoretic science, instead of permitting them to spring from the course of events, and to be naturally created by the necessities of nations".

This is instantly recognisable as the creed of Burke, Salisbury and Oakeshott.  It is curious, however, to see it expounded by such an apparently marginal figure.  Dizzy was Jewish by birth, and an outsider to the world of the traditional ruling class.  He had been forced to embark on a career as a romantic novelist after losing all his money, and he may have been bisexual.  But then, of course, outsiders sometimes make the best conservatives.

The modern ideas that the constitution is, or should be, democratic, and that the House of Commons should enjoy primary legitimacy and dominance by virtue of being popularly elected, were already current in Disraeli's time.  He had no truck with them, describing such notions as "dangerous nonsense".  The Commons was no "House of the People", but merely the representative of one estate of the realm, and it would be deplorable if "the divine right of kings is to be succeeded by the divine right of the House of Commons".  When the Commons had got out of control under Charles I and "the People" had taken charge, the result had been regicide, chaos and tyranny, culminating in the military dictatorship of Cromwell.

By contrast, Disraeli liked the House of Lords (and one day he himself would sit on the red benches as the first Earl of Beaconsfield).  He did not blush to assert that the Bench of Bishops had a democratic character or that the landed aristocracy served as the representative of the peasants.  He dismissed the idea that an hereditary legislator is as absurd as an hereditary doctor, arguing that the propertied and leisured classes, with their education and their code of honour, were ideal candidates for lawmakers.

Dizzy does make a good point when he suggests that the credibility of a legislature is enhanced if its members are individuals who are already eminent and respected in the country.  While one may dispute the conclusions that he draws from this, it is not a bad principle to bear in mind when considering how to reform today's Upper House.  A second chamber of professional politicians is not an inspiring prospect, and one wonders whether it would be possible to devise a system whereby the House of Lords (or whatever it comes to be called) could be opened up to election under criteria that ensured that the stature and calibre of its members were not diluted.  (De Valera tried something like this with the Irish Senate, though it has never really worked in practice.)

By the "English Constitution", Disraeli meant not only the King and Parliament but also the rest of the institutions that made up contemporary civil life, such as "Trial by Jury, Habeas Corpus, the Court of King's Bench, the Court of Quarter Sessions, the compulsory provision for the poor [and] the franchises of municipal corporations".  At another point, he writes: "Without our Crown, our Church, our Universities, our great municipal and commercial Corporations, our Magistracy, and its dependent scheme of provincial polity, the inhabitants of England, instead of being a nation, would present only a mass of individuals....".  The repeated references to "England" are rather irritating, though Disraeli shows that he has not forgotten the Scots or the Irish when he condemns their MPs for propping up contemporary Liberal governments.

In one passage, Disraeli sets out a creed which sums up as well as anything the spirit of the conservatism which he espoused:

"[A]n Englishman, however humble may be his birth... is born to the noblest of all inheritances, the equality of civil rights; he is born to freedom, he is born to justice, and he is born to property.  There is no station to which he may not aspire; there is no master whom he is obliged to serve; there is no magistrate who dares imprison him against the law...."

Quite how this promise of freedom, justice and property worked out in practice for my own ancestors is another question, and one is reminded here of the rather different take on contemporary British life found in the works of Disraeli's fellow novelist Charles Dickens.  It is a noble ideal, though.

Disraeli loved his country, even if he got its name wrong, and he contrasted it with its unhappy neighbour, France, which had suffered first under the utopian revolutionaries, then under Louis XVIII's attempt to rule under a half-baked imitation of the British constitution, and most recently under the insipid and repressive rule of Louis Philippe.  Dizzy's words of scorn for foreign nations - France, Sicily, Spain and Portugal - which had hurriedly sought to adopt British constitutional forms as a shortcut to political modernisation were later quoted by opponents of the Iraq War against the modern neoconservative project of westernising the Middle East.  While travelling through southern Europe, writes Disraeli,

"I found a feodal [sic] nobility and a peasantry untinctured, even in the slightest degree, by letters, and steeped in the grossest superstition: I found agriculture generally neglected, or unchanged in its pursuit since the days of Theocritus; a teeming soil, no human energy; no manufactures, no police; mountainous districts swarming with bandits, plains whose vast stillness prepared me for the Syrian deserts; occasionally I reposed in cities where a comparative civilisation had been obtained under the influence of a despotic priesthood.  And these are the regions to which it is thought fit suddenly to apply the institutions which regulate the civil life of Yorkshire and of Kent!"

This is patronising stuff, but the man had a point.

The pragmatic, anti-utopian element in classical British conservatism is the element that I find it easiest to admire.  Unfortunately, conservatism these days seems to mean mainly economic neoliberalism - and the capitalism of Hayek and Friedman is nothing if not an abstract system.  It is also curious that the favourite foreign country of today's Conservatives tends to be the United States, a nation whose Constitution and Bill of Rights are saturated with the philosophical ideas of the same liberal reform movement that Disraeli decries (Disraeli attempts to avoid this criticism with the tendentious claim that the American constitution in fact represented an organic development from earlier American and British history).

Yet if Disraeli was a pragmatist, he was a romantic too.  The book has a misleading air of timelessness, and it seems to describe an organic society, a quintessential England that never existed either in 1835 or at any other time.  One would not guess from his elegant prose that Disraeli was writing in the midst of one of most important events to take place in the history of the human race, the Industrial Revolution.  The tide of political reform, swollen by the economic and social changes of industrialisation, proved to be unstoppable.  Three years before the book appeared, the first step to political modernisation had been taken in the form of the Great Reform Act of 1832, which Disraeli is forced to argue didn't really represent a break with the past (well, it did and it didn't).  Disraeli himself knew perfectly well that history is not static, that the England of the Plantagenets was not the England of the Tudors, and that the England of Charles II and James II was not the England of William IV.  Yet his emphasis on continuity and his presentation of changes as restorations of an older order may be regarded as tendentious.

The rhetoric of timelessness and essential Englishness (or Britishness) disallows a recognition that political change, whether of an evolutionary or a revolutionary nature, is often salutary, or even necessary - and it cannot be relied upon to happen by itself.  Indeed, it tends to be opposed at every step by conservatives armed with arguments like those deployed in this book.  What happens when national institutions, left to themselves, fail to keep pace with social change or are discredited by experience?  What happens when you discover that one house of your legislature is still filled with hereditary peers at the end of the twentieth century, or has reserved seats for bishops in the twenty-first?  What happens when we are confronted by a novel project like the European Union?  In the final analysis, these are questions to which the Disraelian doctrine does not provide reliable or satisfying answers.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine

This is an interesting book in the mould of The Myth of Mars and Venus, which I reviewed on this blog a couple of months ago.  It seeks to challenge the fashionable belief that there are deep and clear-cut differences between male and female psychology which are rooted in biology and can be detected by scientific research.

I have a depressing feeling that this is a fool's errand.  Any well-argued attack on the Mars-and-Venus worldview is welcome, but in the final analysis that worldview derives its power not from its objective validity but from its psychological appeal.  Gender is an immensely important part of personal and social identity.  For most of us - though not all - affirming our identity as male or female feels good.  It gives us a sense of grounding and certainty, which are scarce commodities in human life.  It allows us to feel part of a wider social group, and if done in the presence of someone of the opposite sex it can set up a pleasantly flirty dynamic.  (I'd say that the foregoing is self-evident, but it has empirical support too: Fine refers to a study in which men who were told that gender differences are biologically predetermined reported feeling happier about things than men who were told, more accurately, that the evidence is unclear.)

From this standpoint, it is no surprise that people are receptive to the idea that the sexes are essentially separate and distinct tribes.  What's more, at a time of enormous social change, when traditional gender roles are constantly being challenged and deconstructed, a lot of people find it comforting to be un-PC and reassure themselves that men are still men and women are still women.  It must be appealing to be told that one's prejudices are confirmed by the latest scientific research, but the sources of those prejudices may be too deep for them to be shaken by a book like this.  As with the scientific and philosophical arguments for and against the existence of God, most people have made their minds up before they start.


Underlying the Mars-and-Venus myth is the idea that the human mind is a kind of machine, with the male mind having very different parts and processes from the female version.  Sometimes this is made explicit, with writers referring to certain things - a man's sexual aggressiveness, a woman's hankering for children - as being "hardwired", a technical term taken from the vocabulary of electronics.  Fine, who is an expert in cognitive neuroscience, explains that this model of human psychology is inadequate and misleading.  The mind is not an identifiable, self-contained piece of hardware.  The way in which we think is variable, flexible, inconsistent, and flooded with influences from both our immediate circumstances and our wider culture. Mechanical and electrical analogies are inapt.

A large part of the problem is that the thought processes in our brains are not simply preprogrammed by our genetic makeup: they are shaped to a large extent by external influences too.  Far from being an engine or even a computer, the brain is a living organism.  Our genes put certain constraints on how we think and behave, but there is a lot more flexibility than most of us realise.  As Fine notes, "[w]hat we experience and do creates neural activity that can alter the brain, either directly or through changes in gene expression".  When you think about it, the fact that our neural pathways are not biologically fixed should be no more than common sense.  If this was not the case, people's personalities would be effectively frozen.  People would not experience bouts of depression, or periods of confusion about their sexuality.  Distinct subcultures and attitudes would not grow up in different professions, churches and workplaces, in rural and urban areas, or in different countries, and newcomers to such "corporate cultures" would not go native as often as they do (or indeed ever).

The idea that we unconsciously take on the prejudices around us is too obvious to require much elaboration.  To take a fairly banal example, American students who attend female-only colleges show an increased propensity to associate women with leadership roles.  Perhaps more surprisingly, girls who attend co-ed colleges end up being less ready to make that association than they had been previously. Moreover, we unconsciously align ourselves with gender roles.  French high school students were asked to rate their abilities at particular subjects.  Those who were reminded of the stereotypical view that girls are better at arts subjects and boys are better at maths were influenced by that view in the answers they gave as compared against a control group and their actual exam results.  Even asking subjects to tick a male/female box at the start of a test may affect the way that they answer the questions on it.

The other side of this coin is that most of us tend to avoid identifying with the opposite sex.  Men generally do better than women at exercises in which they are asked to visualise rotating objects.  But this advantage melts away when male test subjects are told that this skill is associated with fashion design and flower arranging.  Something similar happens in tests for emotional intelligence when male subjects are aware what they are being assessed for.  We don't want to come out looking like faggots, right?  Having said this, sometimes a hostile gender environment forces us to go native.  In one study, female science students at Stanford appeared to be less inclined towards wearing makeup and other traditionally feminine forms of behaviour (and this de-feminisation was observed kicking in, so it can't simply have been a matter of naturally unfeminine women choosing to study the sciences).

It hardly seems necessary to add that some well-worn gender stereotypes are quite culturally specific.  The notion that men are naturally inclined to their careers rather than towards childcare presupposes a modern dichotomy between career and kids that only arose during the nineteenth century as a result of social and economic changes.  In the early days of computer science, programming (a task which requires much patience and attention to detail) was seen as being a female domain: the image of the male computer nerd was only manufactured in the 1980s, with the help of Bill Gates et al.


Our best hope of circumventing the effects of social conditioning is perhaps to look at the behaviour of very young children (though we should not underestimate how socially aware and responsive human beings are even as babies).  Several studies have looked at toddlers' play preferences, and they tend to suggest that gender differences at that age are quite blurred and fluid.  In one study, one-year-old boys showed a preference for "boys'" toys over "girls'" toys - but only by an distinctly underwhelming margin of 46% to 37%.  In another study of one-year-olds, boys again showed a preference for "boys'" toys - but both sexes seemed equally interested in "girls'" toys, and were equally happy to be presented with a ball, a doll or a car by the assessor.

We may even be able to identify the point at which gender differentiation kicks in.  One study looked at the development of a group of children between ages 17 months and 21 months.  At 17 months, the boys and girls played undiscriminatingly with a doll, a tea set, a brush and comb set and blocks (though the girls were less interested in the final toy, a truck).  At 21 months, by which time the children had started to become aware of sex distinctions, the boys had grown less fond of the doll and the girls more fond of it.  Interestingly, the peak period in childhood for gender chauvinism seems to be 5 to 7 years, after which it tends to sink in that such distinctions are not absolute - though, as Fine acidly notes, some people seem to remain stuck in the earlier stage well into adult life.

One early childhood study has gained some currency among Mars-and-Venus theorists.  Newborn babies with an average age of a day and a half were invited to look in turn at the face of the postgrad conducting the experiment and at a mobile (interest in people versus interest in machines, see).  Fine points out that this study had serious methodological flaws, and it is far from certain how much it would prove in any event.  Nonetheless, it is worth mentioning the results, because they are taken to support the Mars-and-Venus line.  It seems that male and female babies spent on average equal amounts of time looking at the face.  Boys looked longer at the mobile than girls, but the difference in looking time is unimpressive (51% to 41%).  Likewise, girls looked at the face for longer, but only by a small margin (49% to 41%).  This, remember, is a study triumphantly held up by biological determinists as providing scientific proof of their case.

You can take it back further if you want.  Some researchers have looked for a correlation between gender behaviour and levels of testosterone in the womb.  To be fair, there is evidence that girls exposed to unusually high levels of testosterone have more tomboyish qualities, but even this is not clear-cut.  More generally, the evidence to link prenatal hormones to masculinity and femininity is lacking.  Less testosterone, for example, should mean higher levels of empathy and social intelligence, according to the stereotype.  "So, does amniotic testosterone negatively correlate, in boys and girls separately, with frequency of eye contact at twelve months old with a parent during play, quality of social relationships at four years old... propensity to use mental-state terms, scores on the child version of the Empathy Quotient... and performance on a child's version of the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test?  The answers are, respectively: no; not really; not really; no; and yes."  Even that final "yes" turns out to be significantly qualified.  If you want to make a case for biological determinism, it turns out that the womb and the nursery are not the places to look.

The animal kingdom might provide an alternative source of data, but again it fails to provide much support for determinists.  Gender roles are clearly in evidence among other primates, but they vary between different species, and even (perhaps surprisingly) within the same species.  It appears that male macaques in Takasakiyama, Japan have an enlightened, New Chimp attitude towards childcare, whereas their brethren in Katuyama are more traditionally minded, presumably preferring to focus on their careers.  In another species of macaque, there are similar differences in infant rearing between males in Gibraltar and their friends across the Med in Morocco.


I am living proof that at least one popular gender stereotype is false: despite being a man, I regard the realm of science with an uninterest bordering on contempt.  This is not because I have a female brain, if such a thing exists.  Rather, it is a culturally specific attitude which has evolved for historical reasons in British culture among privately educated humanities graduates.  Nonetheless, when I am told that scientists have discovered that women like shopping more than men because their corpus callosum has more neurons than their cerebral cortex (or whatever), I am inclined to take it more or less at face value.  It sounds hard and objective, and I am very unlikely to question it.  For this reason, I found what Fine had to say about Mars-and-Venus neuroscience to be very enlightening.

Neuroscience is a discipline that needs to be handled with care.  It is a young science, and the technology needed to answer the questions that we want to ask is simply not there yet.  Neuroimaging is a somewhat unreliable technique, and its results need to be treated with caution.  This is partially down to the inherent complexity of thinking and feeling.   We can't just take brain scans of (say) a man watching a football match or a woman ironing a shirt and decide that this area or that area of the brain is linked with gendered behaviour.  "It's simply not the case", says Fine, "that people use one particular lobe, or a circumscribed area of the brain, to read a novel, or write an essay, or solve an equation or calculate the angle of a triangle".

Even more importantly, as already intimated, differences in brain structure and functioning are not necessarily inborn, but may be acquired.  As Fine rightly asks, "where else but in the brain would we see the effects of socialisation or experience?".  The best known example of environmental influences affecting brain structure is the larger than average hippocampus size of London cabbies, who are renowned for their encyclopaedic memory of the city's street and byways.  (A diehard biological determinist might argue that people with large hippocampuses gravitate towards taxi driving - aside from being inherently implausible, this would not explain why hippocampus size increases the longer the cabbie has been on the job.)

Some claims of Mars-and-Venus theorists are so silly that even I can spot the overinterpretation: the notion, for example, that the use of smaller brain areas and shorter neural circuits mean a narrower focus of the mind.  In some cases, the fallacies require expert analysis and familiarity with notions such as brain lateralisation.  Fine is helpful here.  For example, on the subject of male and female language use, a particular hobby horse of biological determinists, she explains the facts with this trenchant conclusion: "Nonexistent sex differences in language lateralisation, mediated by nonexistent sex differences in corpus callosum structure, are widely believed to explain nonexistent sex differences in language skills".  (For more about the nonexistence of innate differences in language use, see Cameron's The Myth of Mars and Venus, which I referred to at the start of this review.)

Not many people go to the trouble of following the scientific footnotes of Mars-and-Venus theorists.  Fine does, and the results are not edifying.  One prolific writer and speaker, Dr Leonard Sax, argues that men have difficulty talking about their feelings (I suspect that my girlfriend would laugh hollowly at this) because emotions are processed in the amygdala, which has few direct connections with the cerebral cortex, whereas girls' emotions are processed in the cerebral cortex itself.  Fine points out that (1) the amygdala is in fact richly connected with the cerebral cortex and (2) Sax's theory is based on a small neuroimaging study in which children were passively shown pictures of fearful faces - brain activity was not even measured in most of the areas associated with language and emotion.  Elsewhere, Sax expounds a theory about why girls need to be taught maths differently based on one neuroimaging study relating to maze navigation.

Dr Sax is not alone here.  Among the most popular Mars-and-Venus writers are Allan and Barbara Pease.  In their book Why Men Don't Listen And Women Can't Read Maps, they have a diagram showing the locations of emotion in men and women's brains.  The male picture shows neatly segregated blobs, while the blobs are scattered indiscriminately through the woman's brain.  This is laughable on the face of it - the sort of thing that a couple of blokes in a pub might draw as a joke - but the Peases assure their readers that it is backed up by neuroscientific research.  Fine tracks down the relevant paper, and it turns out that they are seriously misrepresenting its findings.  Put simply, it seems that the women had two left blobs and one right blob, while the men had either two left blobs or two right blobs (an important intra-male difference).  Lest it be thought that this still reveals some profound truth about the sexes, Fine goes on to point out that the lack of a blob does not indicate a lack of brain activity, that the sample size was very small (16 people), and that the criteria for registering a blob are probably faulty, since one test registered apparently meaningful blobs in brain scans of a dead fish.  This, of course, is on top of the inherent problem with relating specific parts of the brain to particular, complex thoughts and feelings.

One could go on, but this is the sort of "evidence" from which the myth of Mars and Venus is constructed.  A further point suggested by the book is that, even if brain structure did correlate with psychology and social behaviour, the true distinction may not be between men and women, but between larger and smaller sized brains, which in turn indirectly correlates with the male/female division.

It comes as little surprise to learn that we have been here before.  Pseudoscience never goes out of fashion.  In the nineteenth century, it was thought that intellect was associated with the frontal lobes, which were observed to be better developed in men, rather than the parietal lobes, which were better developed in women.  When scientists were led to reassign the location of intellect to the parietal lobes, they also arrived at the conclusion that, on fuller examination, the parietal lobes actually appeared to be better developed in men.  It's easy to laugh at this sort of thing and to assume that the scientists of today would never subconsciously move the goalposts in this way, but this requires quite a leap of faith.  Remember, Mars-and-Venus theories were once used to justify denying women the vote and a role in public life (and let's not even get into biological determinist views about race).  Scientists are only human too, and they do not lay down their prejudices when they put on their white coats.


The fundamental problem with it's-all-in-the-genes views of gender is that physical sex is binary but psychological attributes aren't.  A human being can be either physically male or physically female.  Leaving aside the uncommon phenomenon of intersexuality, there is no compromise, overlap or third option.  You either have one thing or you have the other.  The fallacy that underlies Mars-and-Venus thinking is the assumption that this blunt physical dichotomy is replicated in the human mind, so that you either have a male brain and emotions or you have their quite different female equivalents.

Put this starkly, the limitations of the Mars-and-Venus worldview are fairly clear.  The idea that psychological differences between men and women are as clear and binary as the difference between a penis and a vagina is untenable.  Even the high priest of biological determinism, Simon Baron-Cohen, reports that less than 50% of women (along with 17% of men) have what he defines as a "female brain".

This isn't to say that there are no innate psychological differences between men and women - but then there aren't many people who would make such a claim (and Fine doesn't appear to be one of them).  The notion that the mind is a blank slate is to a large extent a straw man, a kind of caricature of 1970s feminism.  One might mention here the tragic case of David Reimer, a Canadian boy born in 1965 who was raised as a girl without his knowledge or consent after suffering genital injuries as a young child.  He ended up readopting his male gender as an adolescent, and committed suicide in 2004.  Few people in the mainstream, including those who identify as feminists, would claim that either nature or nurture allows us to make free with gender in such a cavalier way.  The point is rather that on top of any genetic sex differences there is layer upon layer of strong environmental and cultural influences - and, in any event, any innate average differences between the sexes are dwarfed by the enormous innate variations within them, between different men and different women.

The result is that saying that women are inherently A or men are inherently B is likely to be a fatuous over-generalisation of the black-people-are-good-at-sports variety.  You start with a well-worn social prejudice, simplify it, exaggerate and generalise, add a footnote to a scientific study that doesn't prove what you think it does, and you end up with something like Baron-Cohen's infamous statement in The Essential Difference that men are good at being scientists, bankers and programmers, but don't worry, girls, you're going to make great nurses and primary teachers.  Homo sapiens has limited mental powers, and stereotypes can be helpful shortcuts.  But when they lead to misunderstanding, prejudice and injustice, their cost is surely too high.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Decision Points, George W. Bush - Part 3


In most other areas of policy, Bush was a failure.  He is proud of his education reforms - the No Child Left Behind Act, which was guided through the Senate by Ted Kennedy - and his faith-based initiative.  But he is unable to spin his much more ambitious projects of immigration and Social Security reform as anything other than gross, abject flops.  His chapter on Hurricane Katrina makes some fair points, but it is difficult to take his efforts at self-exculpation at face value (the villain of the piece turns out to be Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, who happens, by odd coincidence, to be a Democrat).

Worst of all was his inertia on climate change, the greatest challenge of our generation and the one least forgiving of bluffing and incompetence.  Bush wasted precious time doubting the science, then ended up offering too little too late.  He hardly even discusses the subject in the book.  At the other end of the scale, the closest he came to an unqualified success was in his aid programmes for Africa, which sought to tackle problems like HIV/AIDS and malaria.  By the end, sub-sarahan Africa was, together with the Bible Belt and Tel Aviv, one of the few places in the world where people still quite liked him.

Bush has something of a liking for presenting himself as a middle-of-the-road guy beset by extremists on the right as well as the left.  There is something in this.  Conservative Republicans resisted him on Medicare reform, immigration and the bailouts of Wall Street and the auto industry.  But, while he might have been to the left of Glenn Beck, no-one would mistake him for a progressive reformer.  It bears remembering that this was a man who (amongst other things) slashed taxes to a level that continues to threaten Obama's attempts at deficit reduction, attacked the totemic Social Security system that millions of Americans depend on in retirement, and sought to cement the right-wing majority in the Supreme Court for another generation.  His political philosophy, as I have intimated, is boilerplate American conservative capitalism, with limited pragmatic concessions.

American capitalism was very nearly brought down on Bush's watch.  Say what you like about the man, he deserves the gratitude of the whole world for pushing the TARP programme and the bail-out of Wall Street in autumn 2008 rather than siding with the nihilist Republican headbangers in Congress who opposed any government-led attempt to stop the economy from collapsing because that would be socialism and that's bad.  But it was on Bush's watch - and Clinton's watch before him - that Wall Street was deregulated to the extent that it could imperil the financial system of the entire world.  Bush seeks to dodge this criticism, but it is valid enough.  Even Alan Greenspan, a man whom Bush continues to regard as something of a genius, admits that his guiding ideology contained a "flaw" (which makes him "very distressed", poor chap).  Anyone who is ill advised enough to turn to the memoirs of George W. Bush in search of challenging reflections on contemporary deregulated financial capitalism will be disappointed.


After a while, I stopped counting how many times Bush mentions God.  He talks repeatedly in religious language and recounts with apparent sincerity his own conversion to evangelical Christianity.  He tells a bizarre story about encountering a turkey on his ranch while in the company of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia: for reasons that are not made entirely clear, both men appear to have taken the bird as a sign from God.  Bush also gives an interesting and markedly defensive account of the infamous moment in the 2000 Republican primary debates when he told his audience that Jesus was his favourite political philosopher:

"I thought about citing someone like Mill or Locke, whose natural law theory had influenced the Founders.  Then there was Lincoln, hard to go wrong with Abe in a Republican debate.  I was still thinking when Bachman turned to me: 'Governor Bush?'  No more time to weigh my options.  The words tumbled out of my mouth: 'Christ', I said, 'because He changed my heart.'"

The name-dropping of Mill and Locke highlights a telling aspect of the book.  Bush appears to be quite chippy about his intelligence and education.  At the start, he describes meeting a series of academic historians and reading the autobiography of Ulysses S. Grant.  He later reminds us that he was a history major, and he lists the various courses that he took at Yale.  He insists that he settled his policy on stem cell research only after studying the relevant literature on medicine, law and moral philosophy.  He boasts about getting through 95 books in a reading competition with Karl Rove.

Defensive and exaggerated as all this may be, there must be some element of truth in it.  You do not go to Yale and Harvard Business School, make it in the commercial world, and go on to become Governor of Texas and President of the United States if you are a slobbering moron.  Nepotism alone cannot explain it.  Coming from a political dynasty was a necessary condition for Bush's success, but not a sufficient one.  Bush is no intellectual - and no Obama, for that matter - but the guy isn't dumb.

At the end of the day, Bush comes across as an affable, gregarious sort of chap.  Of course, this says precisely nothing about his political convictions or actions as president: Joe Stalin was apparently up for a laugh at dinner parties, and Kim Jong Il is said to be a witty raconteur, though that may just be because people tend to laugh at his jokes.  Bush very clearly has a sense of humour, though it generally amounts to wisecrackery rather than wit.  Obama probably had the measure of the man when he described the then president as a shrewd guy who would probably be fairly good company as long as the conversation was confined to the kids and sports.  Quite how he became the leader of the free world, nuclear codes and everything, is a mystery which this book doesn't adequately explain.