Monday, February 1

If You Don't Stop That You'll Go Leading The Blind

Ross Douthat, "Sex Ed in Washington". February 1

LET'S pretend you are some Midwestern schmuck recently awakened to the sad light of another February, the month when Manic Depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder shake hands on some metaphorical summit. And every year some obsession or other volunteers to hike up and try pushing them off. And fails.

And just to grab an example out of the rarefied air up there, let's say this year it's rope. You like rope. As a yout you did some climbing and rappelling in manilla diaper and single-brake-bar-and-carabiner rig (if you go now to a site tracing the history of such contraptions you find that's where it starts, which is like flipping through your family's cherished album of memories and finding the Montgolfier Brothers attended your fifth birthday party). Though in those days your half-psychotic, half-Eagle Scout pal Laughing Boy took charge of all the ropes, so you could relax and concentrate on not shitting yourself.

Anyway, this fascination with the romance of rope is all out of proportion to your actual use of the stuff. You hike, and backpack; you use it around the yard; you lash the occasional piano or unruly neighbor child to the bed of your truck. You know, at most, a half-dozen knots, but you keep a couple pieces of paracord on your desk for practice. But for some reason indicative of continual mental deterioration--not that anyone's bothering with indicators at this point--you've decided that your rope collection needs whipping.

Whipping a rope means securing the ends with twine to some other agent to prevent unravelling. This can also be accomplished, in the case of man-made fibers, with the application of heat, which is how every piece of rope I own is now secured, but that was pre-obsession. I know how to whip with twine, or thread, but it turns out the method I know, and can manage, barely, isn't optimal. In other words, it won't feed the winter wolf. So I goes to my local internet to learn how to do a proper whipping, which would be French whipping, if tied, or needle-and-palm whipping if sewn. And this, at long last, is our point. Go ahead and try this yourself [Caution: googling "French whipping," particularly without the quotes, might not be completely workplace compliant, though if you're worried about that whaddya doing here?]. It'll return pages of instruction, with stop-motion animation or video in the bargain. Go ahead and try to follow one. Any of 'em. Try two, or three, or six. If you manage anything roughly approximating a finished-looking French whip you beat me by several virtual furlongs.

And maybe you did, but the lesson is--and it would be better made to the Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction--that knowing how to do something is distinct from being able to tell someone else how to do it in something approximating words.

Then there's Ross Douthat talking about sex education.

I think I said this last time, but I've been trying to swear off Douthat. I suppose it's possible some sadist at the Times--but I repeat myself!--got wind of that and assigned Douthat to do something with Ess Eee Exx in the title, or maybe this was a more generalized marketing ploy.

And here's our first question: is this not the ninth year of the 21st century (don't quibble)? What is the fucking "conservative" obsession with Sex Ed still doing here? It's like railing against the necking opportunities presented by drive-in theaters. One thing--maybe the only thing--to be said for the Freudian hegemony of the last century: people who spouted off like this were generally diagnosed, not given Op-Ed columns.
Liberals hated almost everything about George W. Bush’s presidency, but they harbored a particular animus toward a minor domestic policy priority: abstinence-based sex education.

I assume someone somewhere is keeping track of the number of times Douthat uses this "Liberals hated every jot of the Bush administration, and especially X" ploy. I recall at least five, even though I use a brain emetic immediately after reading him.
The abstinence effort accounted for about a hundred million dollars in a trillion-dollar budget, but in the eyes of many critics it was Bushism at its worst — contemptuous of experts, careless about public health and captive to religious conservatism.

Somehow it never occurs to these guys that hacking up lines like "only a hundred million dollars or so" whenever it's convenient is what virtual Liberals really hate about "conservatives". But while we're at it: contemptuous of experts, check. Careless about public health, check. Captive to "religious" "conservatism"? That's like the drum major being hostage to the band.
So last week’s news that teenage birthrates inched upward late in the Bush era, after 15 years of steady decline, was greeted with a grim sort of satisfaction. Bloggers pounced;

And here Linkmaster R waves at Jill at Feministe. Which leads us to ask, "Well, why shouldn't she pounce?" as well as opining that the country would be a lot better off if everything that was said at Feministe had the sort of psychic reverberation Douthat attributes to it here.

But our larger point--and we're not stopping just because we've made it about fifty times in the year he's been at the Times, is, th' fuck is some thirty-year-old with a bad teenage beard who is, at the core, a fucking blogger, i.e., who cannot write, confuses "linkage" with "evidence", and who is incapable of producing a column which is not an unwitting sketch of the interior of his own skull, in the way Thurber struggled mightily with the microscope for a semester of biology before producing a drawing of his own eyeball, doing spitting out blogger like it's a disease? Bloggers pounced! Didn't the Times hire this bozo so there'd be someone at Op-Ed meetings who knew what HTML stands for? Bloggers pounced! Jesus Christ, find an article in today's Times somebody didn't pounce on. Isn't Douthat supposed to be the guy who understands this?
On CBS News, Katie Couric used the occasion to lecture viewers about the perils of telling kids only about abstinence, and ignoring contraception. The new numbers, declared the president of Planned Parenthood, make it “crystal clear that abstinence-only sex education for teenagers does not work.”

Did the Times just re-up this clown? Is it too late for a contract stipulation that prevents this sort of thing--the declaration of rhetorical victory based on who disagreed with you--or even just reduces it? Here's Katie "Rainbow Parties" Couric at the link Douthat apparently thinks you won't click on, or pay attention to:

"Is it a blip or the start of a disturbing trend?"

"The reasons aren't clear, but it came amid an increase in funding for programs that taught kids only about abstinence and nothing about contraception."

"We should teach our kids to say no to sex. Some will listen ... but others won't. So, they also need to know how to protect themselves."

That's a lecture? Or is it the culmination of forty years of "conservative" insistence that anything said on the evening news they didn't agree with was crytpo-Commie proselytizing? Is it really too much to ask of a Times Op-Ed perp of whatever stripe that he be able to recognize what is common, reasonable, and sane, and which is motoring straight and true down the uncontested middle of the highway of public opinion, and at least describe it as such? Say it again: how th' hell do you get out of Hahvahd without recognizing the distinction between this sort of thing and Thought?
In reality, the numbers show no such thing. Abstinence financing increased under Bush, but the federal government has been funneling money to pro-chastity initiatives since early in Bill Clinton’s presidency.

Or the difference between this and calculus, or history, or English? "The numbers" show precisely that; what th' hell else could they show? They don't prove the contention; if the Moose didn't tell you that, the Katie did. If the distinction between "funding pro-abstinence programs" and "funding strict abstinence-only programs while requiring total silence on anything approaching contraception" is lost on you, then I think the blame goes beyond Hahvahd to the entire Ivy League, the East Coast, and Western Civilization. And it does not exactly bode well for any sort of education.
If you blame abstinence programs for a year’s worth of bad news, you’d also have to give them credit for more than a decade’s worth of progress.

To what do we attribute logic-free education?
More likely, neither blame nor credit is appropriate.

what a magnanimous attitude to take, considering the question before us is the utter failure of your own position.
The evidence suggests that many abstinence-only programs have little impact on teenage sexual behavior, just as their critics long insisted.

By pouncing.
But most sex education programs of any kind have an ambiguous effect, at best, on whether and how teens have sex.

Which, oddly enough, is almost exactly the effect Math classes have on whether and how teens add, and the effect English classes have on how they speak.
Predictably, the rare initiatives that show impressive results tend to be defined more by their emphasis on building social capital than by their insistence on either chastity or contraception.

Or their insistence in labeling them, respectively, "God's work" and "Evil Liberal child pandering".
A 2001 survey published by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, for instance, found that “most studies of school-based and school-linked health centers revealed no effect on student sexual behavior or contraceptive use.” The exceptions included an abstinence-oriented program with a strong community-service requirement, and a comprehensive program that essentially provided life coaching as well as sex ed: participants were offered “academic support (e.g., tutoring); employment; self-expression through the arts; sports; and health care.”

'Course that isn't quite what the linked study, a sort of survey of the field, actually said (is anyone supposed to click these links and read 'em, Ross?). In the former (it reports that students were given "classroom health lessons", not abstinence education) students who were also enrolled in a community service program self-reported less sexual risk-taking; the latter, which is an intensive, multi-year after-school program targeting minority students which has showed promise, involves, and we quote, "staff…almost bec[oming] surrogate parents". You are cordially invited, Mr. Douthat, to come to Indiana and address our Governor on the benefits of spending money on this, or any other form of public education. And best of luck.
None of this renders the abstinence-versus-contraception debate pointless.

Right. It's the utter uselessness of your attempted moral indoctrination that handles that.
But we should understand it more as a battle over community values than as an argument about public policy.

Y'know, my memory ain't what it once was, so correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't it your fucking side that Federalized the argument in the first place? Wasn't it yours that insisted Abstinence Only was apodictically certain to prevent all the Evils of Teen Sex? So you pick a fight, and you get beaten to a pulp because, after all, when God's on your side you don't have to train, right? And you lift your head off the canvas at the count of 8 and say, though bloody chicklets, "Hey, why not call it a draw?"

[Note: I was three-quarters of the way through this when I learned that Scott had done it earlier, and needless to say, better.]


Kordo said...

I don't know about "better". I read 'em both, and I'd be hard pressed to chooses between them. Douthat is such a rich vein of funny, some overlap is to be expected.
Someday, there will be a whole chapter in some abnormal psychology textbook about him. It will be at one and the same time the most boring, and the most illustrative, part of the book.
These Times columns are a cry for help. Won't some patriotic gay man give this fella some crystal meth and a blowjob?

Kathy said...

"abstinence-based sex education" Where is the education in urging abstinence? Does their anti-alcohol, smoking & drug education consist of "Don't do it", or do they ignore Teen drug dangers entirely?

They might as well tell Teens "Don't watch TV, don't hang out at the Mall, and most of all Don't ask for driving lessons- Wait till you're 21 to drive. Oh, and always floss!

Republicans are anti-anything education, pro-ignorance, pro-stupid. Read Doutat and then try to convince me othewise.

Dr. Harl Delos said...

If someone wanted to write a top-selling book, "Decline and Fall of the Republican Party" should sell both to gloating Democrats and to those Republicans trying to figure out how to pull the party out of a tailspin.

Ike Eisenhower and Barry Goldwater weren't pro-ignorance. Towards the end of his career, Goldwater was perhaps the sharpest critic the GOP had.

Because the GOP doesn't have a leader to coalesce around, there's no real vision of what Republicans stand for, and consequently, all they can figure out is that they're not Democrats, so if the other side is for something, they're automatically against it.

I never understood the real value of the "loyal opposition", but it's painfully obvious now. If Republicans weren't so afraid of those insane Purity Tests, they could intelligently represent their constituents in a Republican way, instead of ignoring their needs entirely.

Word verification: pantsxl My gosh, what else does Blogger know about me?

desertscope said...

Probably the oddest part of man-boy Ross Douthat is that he is able to write for one of the world's most well-known newspapers (I would have said respected, but the NYT employs both Maureen Dowd and Ross himself) while maintaining the naïveté of a cloistered teenager.

I haven't bothered to check, but was he a

TM said...

Actually, as soon as I read Scott's take, I immediately came here to see on what sort of platter you served Ross his head this time.

Nobody can serve a stuffed and roasted Ross quite as well as you.

Verification: dingi (hmmm)

Grace Nearing said...

Bushism at its worst — contemptuous of experts, careless about public health and captive to religious conservatism.

Interesting. The same criteria also apply to the Iraq war and yet in Douthat's mind, liberals believe abstinence education is the worst Bushism.

desertscope said...


was he a legacy hire? (Affirmative action for untalented children of privilege).

I don't know how I managed to half write that last sentence...

Sator Arepo said...

I blame the post-hippie liberals in the 70s who invented casual sex and homosexuality. (Before that, teenagers never, ever, ever had sex.)

Fucking ruined it for the rest of us. Thanks a lot, jerks!

[word verification: drmytold]

R. Porrofatto said...

Odd that Ross didn't apply the usual conservative 10-years-or-more rule for describing all liberal budget expenditures (viz. TRILLION-DOLLAR Obamacare). That "hundred million dollars" is closer to 150, which over the last ten years amounts to about $1.5 billion, which is also about what the Bush Administration donated on our behalf to their other slush fund, marriage-promotion, but neither comes close to their total faith-based profligacy. I also seem to recall studies of actual abstinence-only programs that showed higher rates of teen pregnancy for their actual participants, but it ain't worth the Googlin' to get the exact failure-rate of chastity cock-rings. Have to hand it them: whether it's abstinence- or marriage-promotin', a billion dollars buys a whole lot of Chick tracts.

R. Porrofatto said...

Forgot to add: boy do you have this poseur pegged.

loretta said...

I can't imagine any literate parent reading Doutha bothering to finish the article. He has no idea about sex, sex education or teens aside from his memory of his own repressed experiences. He's the Junior Achievement version of conservative ideology.

Suffice it to say, parents have the most impact on teaching their children about sex, STDs, pregnancy, birth control, etc. If parents leave it up to the school system to teach something that vital, they get what they deserve.

Douthat's premise would have been much better, and perhaps even within his ideology, if he had argued that sex ed should be the responsibility of parents and to some extent communities and that despite the best efforts of both abstinence-only and progressive methods, it's ultimately the parents' responsibility.

guitarist manqué said...

Chunky Reese Witherspoon.

Need I say more?

(Yes I must and it's: pyingl)