Blog #111 – Men Quit, Women Don’t ???


Blog #111 – Men Quit, Women Don’t ???

Abstract

A narrow blog, specifically for those  interested in the treatment of gender in the media who have seen a recent piece in the New York Times  headlined “Why Men Quit and Women  Don’t,” which purports to explain why a statistical finding that  the drop-out rate for women in the Boston Marathon this year is lower than for men has nothing  to do with gender but simply shows that women “thrive on adversity,” in this case “the need to juggle training in non-ideal circumstances [the worst weather in decades].” The statistics are pretty shaky, and it’s not clear why such an explanation is not strongly gender related. It is worth examining because, intentionally or not, it plays into the concern with the social stereotyping that  goes into the gendered attitude towards women, and tends to minimize that  problem by minimizing the role of gender.

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Why Men Quit and Women Don’t –

reads the headline by Lindsay Crouse in the Opinion section of the New York Times on April 20, 1018).[1]

The story is based on the fact that men dropped out of the Boston Marathon this year and previous years at a faster rate than women did: “Men quit and women don’t,” the story announces, and tries to explain the difference by examining the correlation between various physical or psychological or social characteristics of men and women. It finds that won’t do, and ends up claiming that “the simplest explanation [for women dropping out less than men] is not based on gender at all.”

But, in fact, it is directly related to gender, the social and cultural definition of male and female rather than the biological definition of female. You might think that a writer, if concerned about gender equality, might happily display the headline above to show that the gender stereotype of women as weaker than men is false, and argue that, the headlined facts prove that the idea that men do better than women in contests of strength and endurance, as in marathons, is a false and gendered idea. In fact, the article perversely argues that gender has nothing to do with the disparate results for men and women.

Yet gender does matter. Because Marathon drop-out rates are not simply a reflection of the physical difference between men and women.

To begin with, the article is based on a flawed statistical analysis. It does not in fact show that “men quit and women don’t.” It is elementary statistical nonsense, both in its sample selection and its lack of control for other variables. I   The men and women being compared are not randomly selected, 16,587 men chose to enter the Boston race, only 13,391 women entered it. The reasons for that difference need to be factored into any explanation for the different results which gender-related differences, .e.g. in income, time availability and responsibilities, status, expectations,  all are llikely to play some role.  The aticle itself lists some of them.

The artcle  finds that finishing rates for this year’s Boston Marathon “varied significantly by gender,” and then spends the rest of its time trying to show that, contrary to that finding, women don’t in fact quit less than men.  It is like arguing that women have shorter stays in hospitals than men because women are stronger than men, and it has nothing to do with the gendered treatment of women. It is, on its face, absurd, if done without controlling for why women go to hospitals in the first place, whether they can afford hospitalization as well as men, are insured as well as men, whether the hospitals are military hospitals or specialized or general care hospitals, charity hospitals or research hospitals or psychiatric hospitals whether they are admitted on an emergency basis or are long-term than men, etc.

Both proportionally and in total numbers, more men run in marathons than women do.  Maybe men who run in marathons are richer than women who do, women being paid less and poorer, can less afford the time to run or train to run, so the women who do actually get to run in the Boston Marathon are exceptionally well fit compared to the men who run, more of whom are able to afford to run and do so even without special training.  If men and women were exactly alike, proportionately more men would drop out than women, because the men who started were a less selective group among all men, than women were among all women?  The fewer women who entered marathons had been more highly selected, i.e. healthier, more ambitious, hardier, than the average woman, but therefore proportionately also once entered in the race, proportionately dropped out less?

But then, the question is, why do not more women enter marathons?

The history of gender discrimination in marathons should not be ignored.

The population that enters marathons is in any event hardly representative of a cross section of all people, and to draw conclusions about all people from a sample that is not representative of all people, or compare two samples, e.g. men and women that are not similarly selected, are violations of the most elementary rules of statistical analysis. And to conclude that the difference between men and women in drop-out rates is not gender related after just writing that men start marathons more aggressively than women because that is in the nature of men, and that and women are often discouraged from being athletic and competitive as unwomanly, is to abandon any pretense of understanding either gender or statistics.

And not gender-related? Gender differences are of a different order than differences of sex, and require quite different approaches if equality with justice is a concern. The history of gender discrimination in running competitions and women’s active struggle to overcome it needs to be told, and helps explain the additional motivation of women holding up without quitting in marathons. Women indeed had to be more aggressive than average men if they wanted to run in a male dominated and often legally exclusively male field. The first Olympic marathon was held in 1896. It was open to men only. Women were allowed to begin competing in marathons starting in 1972.[2]Women were excluded from participation in the Boston Olympics Marathon until 1984.[3] The history is not well known; it is not mentioned in the article.

The article concludes:

…the simplest explanation is not based on gender at all. This Boston Marathon was ideal for people who thrive in adversity. Top spots for men and women went to amateur runners who juggle training in non-ideal circumstances around work and family… the female runners who made it in Boston had already overcome more social obstacles than men. They may simply be tougher. hardly a random selection.

And that’s not a characterization of the normal gendered role of women?!

Maybe if men had to successfully “juggle training in non-ideal circumstances around work and family,” as women disproportionately now do, which  Lindsay argues makes women’s experience less likely to let them drop out than men, then men should just get more training in circumstances like  those facing women, and thereby toughen up to stay the course better than they do now. And women might be provided with greater and fairer social support, economic support, status and recognition, opportunities to train and to run.Those  might not be a bad ideas in  any case…

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Footnotes

“Woman who blazed a trail for equality in marathons hits London’s starting line. Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to officially compete in the Boston marathon, will fire the gun on the elite race,” The Guardian. reads a headlilne in the Guardian. Available at https://www.theGuardian.com/sport/2018/apr/21/kathrine-switzer-boston.

“The thousands of spectators who line marathon routes are famous for screaming encouragement, but it has not always been that way.”‘One guy shouted at me, ‘you should be back in the kitchen making dinner for your husband’.”It is one of many moments that Kathrine Switzer recounts as she talks about her memories of becoming the first woman to officially run a marathon. It was 1967 and women were not allowed to run more than 1,500 metres in sanctioned races. Marathons were for men.“https://www.telegraph.co.uk/athletics/2018/04/21/marathon-trailblazerkathrine-switzer-just-20-year-old-kid-wanted/

In 1972, women were officially allowed to run the Boston Marathon for the first time.

Opinion | Why Men Quit and Women Don’t – The New York Times

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/20/opinion/boston-marathon-women-nurse.htm [1]

[2]An excellent detailed history of the struggles needed before wwomen were evenly  allowed to run in major marathons, ncluding the Olympics, is in Olympic Marathon, by Charlie Lovett, excerpted and available at “The Fight to Establish the Women’s Race” http://www.marathonguide.com/history/olympicmarathons/chapter25.cfm

 

[1] Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/20/opinion/boston-marathon-women-nurse.html.

[2] “Women and exclusion from long distance running.” Lisa Wade, PhD on April 21, 2017. Sociological Images. https://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2017/04/21/women-and-exclusion-from-long-distance-running/

[3] Before 1972, women had been barred from the most famous marathon outside the Olympics-Boston. That rule did not keep women from running, though. In 1966, Roberta Gibb hid behind a bush at the start of the Boston Marathon, sneaking into the field and finishing the race in an unofficial time of 3:21:25. She was the first woman known to complete the arduous Boston course. Gibb had been inspired to run by the return of her race entry with a note saying that women were not physically capable of running a marathon. Charlie Lovett Olympic Marathon, “The Fight to Establish the Women’s Race”, available at http://www.marathonguide.com/history/olympicmarathons/chapter25.cfm

 

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Blog #110a – Cultural Wars and a new Tribalism?


Blog 110a – Cultural Wars and a New Tribalism?

The Times Op-Ed page (on 3/2/18­­) was marvelously symbolic. On the left side, David Brooks reduces all the frightening disagreements about where our country is going, the battles over gun control , trade and tariffs, armaments, nuclear weapons, into manifestations of a “cultural war”,: in which the conservatives “have zero cultural power , but immense political power.” The big prize is not gun control. It’s “winning the cultural war, with the gun fight as the final battle.” Several days earlier (Feb 20,), he had written, “We don’t have policy debates anymore. We have one big tribal conflict…,” and the answer is, “just as the tribal mentality has been turned on, it can be turned off.” How? “Respect First, Then Gun Control.” If the Blues and the Reds simply respected each other, they’d settle their problems easily. His recommendation: Blues should stop shaming Reds.  Politics is not about who get what from whom and how they get it, but about how the left stupidly engages in “elite cultural intimidation , claiming “moral superiority.”

On the other side of the Op-Ed page, counter-symbolically the right side, Paul Krugman’s column is headed: “Taxpayers, You’ve Been Scammed.” It’s a straightforward contribution to a policy debate about the new tax law. It gives some facts about whom it will help, whom it will hurt, and how political and economic power are being wielded to achieve what those that possess it want, for their own benefit, at a cost to the middle class. Not a word about a “cultural wars.” It’s about who get what from whom and how they get it

And symbolically between these two column’s is Mat Glassman’s column, which explains the “larger problem” behind the White House Chaos,” blaming it on the weakness of Donald Trump as President to his inability to attract a competent staff to advise him.  It’s a management problem.

What the “culture wars” argument does, as does “lamenting the ‘roots of the problem’ in ‘management skills,’ ” is to completely side step the very real factual economic and social and political differences that divide the country. For cultural theorists, there’s no moral difference between advocating for teachers carrying guns in school and asking for a ban on assault rifles; no more weight to be given to logically grounded analysis of tax policies than to the hurt sensitivities of those that support them. Tranquility is what’s needed, above all; never mind who’s goring whose ox, whether some go homeless while others thrive in mansions using their labor. Such evenhandedness violates any effort to shape public policies that promote the values of social justice and human rights.

Indeed there are troublesome cultural differences that exacerbate the problems in our society, but the real issues aren’t differences of opinion or how they are expressed, but how the wealth that  society produces is shared. We don’t have “big tribal conflicts” because all of a sudden some “tribal instincts ” have emerged from some repressed deep identities, or because  we’ve suddenly decided to turn these instincts on, having turned them off all these years.  Focusing on the symptoms of conflicts shouldn’t obliterate recognition of their causes.

And it obliterates very specific causes: any reference to inequalities of wealth or power, or to their use in exploitation or domination, to create very hierarchical divisions not simply differences at the level of what the divisions are about, not “souls committed to the basic democratic norms–respect for truth, personal integrity, the capacity for deliberation and compromise, loyalty to nation above party or tribe,” up against other souls who believe “what matters is the survival of your nation and culture.” [David Brooks, “Worthy is The {Conor} Lamb,” New York Times, 3/17/p. A27] That something as mundane as class or race might be playing a role in the divisions that divide “us” never appears.

Blog #108 – Retirement Communities such as Vista del Monte: Planning Models for Utopias,?


Blog #108 – Retirement Communities such as Vista del Monte: Models for Utopias, or?

We have just moved to Vista del Monte, a retirement continuing care community in Santa Barbara, California. Our thus far brief but stimulating time here has raised some puzzling questions for us, starting with the question of whether it is an ideal community for its present residents, and then in its efforts to be so is it a model useful for planners and generally anyone concerned with influencing the communities in a more humane, more democratic, more equitable direction? So two questions:

  1. Is it a model of what an ideal community in a less than ideal world would be like? How so, or why not? And for whom?
  2. What is the role of such a community, outside its own bounds, for social policy and community development in general? How so, or why not? And for whom?

{This Blog #1O8 should perhaps be skimmed, and then read in conjunction with Blog #109, still in the works, which goes further into the discussion of retirement communities as possible  ideal communities with lessons for urban planning in the future.}

On a personal note, the decision to research and write up our experience at Vista had two motivations. One was, simply to understand the new situation in which we found ourselves, the better to adapt to it to understand both its potentials and limitations. to guide our own lives in our new circumstance. The other motivation was a growing professional and personal curiosity about the role of the community we were entering in the context of urban planning principles embedded in our long-time interest in social and political and economic activities contributing to the common good. And there was simple intellectual curiosity about what made the new community in which we were tick, what motivated its players, what impacted their lives, what effect it had, if any, on the world around it.

And a personal reflection about the presumptions we brought to this effort about the very concept of a retirement community. These became clearer as we proceeded. in our consideration of whether or not to move to from our sixty-year occupancy of a three-bedroom single family house in a declining industrial community of some 130,000 residents on the east coast in which we had lived as a couple for over 67 years, to move to a higher-income region on the West Coast of about the same size of which we had learned from a son living near that community.

What is a retirement community, essentially? Is it simply a realistic response to the acknowledgement that our lives have finite endings, that the effort to make a living, raise a family, achieve some level of recognition, is over, the beginning of the end of life, hoping to phase out in comfort and grace? And was the community to which we were moving, that we had freely chosen simply the result of a search by individuals of retirement age or older about  how to spend their declining years, not relevant for anyone still in their prime or  younger? Did it have lessons anyone concerns for bettering their community, perhaps with implications for our society as a whole? Was it a search for a possible model utopia, worth examining for lessons to be learned by others in the future, or was it simply, to be blunt, a selfish concern to die as painlessly and perhaps as slowly as possible? Was it, in other words, a model utopia for the living, or a smoother path out as life was fading?

The likely answer surprised us – by it apparent absence, looked at through the treatment of death among residents formally selected from the outset based on their age,. Calendars abounded on bulletin boards, and many personal life events were recorded there, but not all were celebrated. The community was considered in its literature and recognized officially as a “continuum of care community”, going from facilities for independent living to ones for assisted living, to ones for those with memory disabilities, to ones for those needing skilled care. It did not end, as might have been logical, with hospice facilities, although hospice care is available  in other units. When residents were encouraged to prepare emergency kits in case of fire or earthquake, suggestions to take include, not wills such as those concerned with a premature death might wish to take, but rather passports, looking forward to continuing life beyond  the emergency.

We quickly concluded that our interest, and the focus for this essay, was not in the treatment of death by the elderly, but rather in the lessons for living that might be drawn from their experience before and in retirement.  We believe there are lessons to be learned from the organization of communities such as Vista del Monte valuable for the living of all ages, and well deserving of further study.

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[The rest of this blog #108 provides an initial dense description the structure and functioning of Vista del Monte, a medium-sized well-regarded Continuum of Care retirement community in California, looking at its Vision statement and its actual organization and functioning. Blog #109 then starts an initial attempt at hypotheses about what the evidence shows about the answers to the questions stated at the beginning.]

Vista del Monte, based on our limited experience, is a very attractive Continuum of Care retirement community in Santa Barbara, Calif, to which we have just moved. We have a two-bedroom unit there.,. It is listed as for Independent Living, and our medical conditions needed to be approved as adequate for what it offers that we want. in beautiful surroundings. It is the largest of seven  types of buildings, going from Independent Living to Assisted Living  to Memory Care to Skilled Nursing, The Skilled Nursing unit was formerly included in the project’s campus but is now provided by links to a separate development near-by, also non-profit, but the result of financial decisions by the non-profit board of Vista that caused significant controversy among residents when  it was announced.

Vista del Monte, between the mountains and the sea, is a community of some 150 units, with a wide range of facilities and activities Ours is a unit with two bedrooms, most have one bed room, and a few are studio-style units of one room. All, whatever their size, have a basic kitchen, an option for two or three meals a day at three separate smaller and one larger central dining room. We think it will be ideal for visitors. We really don’t know quite what to expect in what will be essentially a completely new life for us, but we hope that close continuing contact even if at a distance with family and friends here will make it at least endurable, and even a pleasant way to keep going as far as our abilities will let us. Even with limitations: less travel, no doubt, but forms of communication and contact are multifarious today, and we hope to make full use of them.

Apartments in the development rent around $7,000, depending on size and configuration and level of services requested. They include Independent Living, Assisted Living, Memory Dependent, and Skilled Nursing units (for now). with various financing arrangements. Our unit is a two bedroom, living room, tiny kitchen. We received a moderate discount because they had just converted it to two bedrooms by adding one room to a one-bedroom-living room unit; they haven’t put in a washer-dryer unit or replaced the bathtub with a shower stall yet. It’s on the second floor of the largest building, with a small balcony, an elevator and stairs down the hall. We’re in an “independent living” unit. There are grab bars all over, window blinds, wall-to-wall rugs, no furniture at all; we had to buy a bed, and shipped key furniture from home. Services included in the rent include 2 meals a day in the dining room in an attached building, linens, towels, housekeeping every two weeks, pets only with a surcharge, a garage and a shuttle service to downtown Santa Barbara, weekly linen service and bi-weekly housekeeping, meals delivered to apartments on request with minor fee, a basic health clinic, wifi and cable connections, maybe a mile from the beach. Very few people have cars. Personal trips, including to doctors, are available at a charge.

The development was originally built by a teachers’ retirement fund, since bought by Front Porch, inc., a non-profit development of retirement homes.[1] It receives significant gifts from patrons, but to my knowledge no public subsidies although the Community College, for instance, holds some classes on request at the development . The grounds are beautifully landscaped by a garden maintenance staff, flowers on every dining room table. There is a health clinic with limited services and hours. Some residents have cars.

Staff – estimated at150 persons, for a total resident population of about twice that. The dining room staff is largely but not exclusively Spanish speaking and bilingual, some recruited from among students at the  local community college. They seem to be well trained and are knowledgeable and friendly, addressing us by our first names after the first two weeks, and likewise known to residents by their first names, Employees arebeneficiaries of a scholarship fund, have holiday celebrations. And share in the befits from several Vist available resources. Perhaps ten or more Hispanic and African-Americans are on the administrative staff.[2] Both staff and residents include foreign -born  individuals.

Social—inter-personal—relations seem uniformly warm and friendly. The dining room has tales of 4 and 6 persons, and people are shown to empty seats where ever they may be, so mixing is general. Everybody introduces themselves if someone not known to them sits with them, and backgrounds are exchanged. Women outnumber men perhaps 2 to1 Couples are in a minority, but not rare. We have sat and conversed with engineers, teachers, just now a psychiatrist, our neighbor is a sculptress in wood, at least half a dozen are or speak German. There are Catholic communion services and Hanukkah programs around the respective holidays, some off-campus available by shuttle bus. .

Social programming is extensive. We have met, in our 5 weeks here, the Maintenance/Housekeeping Planner, the Director of Sales and Marketing. and the Marketing Manager, the Spiritual Life Program Leader, (who was interested in our Frankfurt School connection), the Director of Life Enrichment, the Director of Human Resources, the Director of Resident Services, the Director of Sales and Marketing, the Payroll Coordinator , the Executive Director, the Director of Maintenance, and the Dining Specialist. Perhaps ten of the staff with named positions are Spanish-speaking.

Both a monthly and a Weekly calendar are regularly posted and distributed, Monthly is for major scheduled events, and there is a weekly list of menus and a description of social events or cultural programs provided each day that week, ranging from current events class/discussion group run by the S.B. Community College, to singing groups, excursions by bus to the pier at the beach, to Trader Joe’s, and to any destination within a 50 mile radius on request of residents.

Programs are provided for virtually every hour of every day, from 9:00 a.m to 8:OO p.m, ranging from Chair Exercises to Music Appreciation to Mindfulness Meditation to Art with Wendy to Ping Pong Holiday Sing-fest  to Home Technology Support Insights through Literature, Yoga Our Way to Brain Fitness Games.

Organizations. Groups self-organize. One to which we were introduced meets weekly at dinner to discuss a particular newspaper or journal article chosen by a member. There is a apparently one group that meets, perhaps at dinner, to speak to each other in French, and one is talked about for German. There is apparently an agreements, implicit but observed, that neither politics nor the financial operations of the development should be discussed at casuaal meals, and we have encountered very little desire to do so. It seems quite clear to us that the majority of residents are anti-Trump and civil rights oriented, but most not in a day-to-day activist fashion.

There is a Vista Residents Association, in which all residents are automatically members. Officers are elected by the membership, committee chairs appointed by the President, It has an elaborate committee structure, with some 23 committees to which residents are encouraged to volunteer,  The President appoints committee chair persons.  Those in turn form a small sort of Leadership Committee. The Association meets bi-weekly, the Leadership weekly; all members are welcome to attend all meeting, which are publicized, and minutes distributed to all.

In practice, it all seems designed to maximize participation, but is purely advisory, with decision-making firmly in the hands of Front Porch, the non-profit company whose headquarters are in Glendale, CA..  The arrangement is, from what I have seen, widely recognized and accepted. On small matters, the committee’s’ recommendations are generally effective: decisions as to garden design, plantings, choice of programs among those made available, e.g. movies or excursions or celebrations, are democratically made, with open discussion.

That does not, however, apply to basic business decisions of the enterprise, which remain in the hands of Front Porch, itself a non-profit company owning a number of retirement communities on the West Coast and providing services to other retirement companies elsewhere..

It is not clear to me what the legal structure of  Vista del Monte, the name by which the development is generally known, is. Typically, conventional business decisions, e.g. the level of rents, what services are provided free and which have fees over and above the rent, expansion or contraction of the physical campus, growth models. evictions, etc. Front Porch is a 501.c3 corporation that owns Vista del Monte, as well a 13 other retirement communities with a total of 1588 beds, of which 1243 are Independent Living, 87 are Memory Care, and 258 Care Center units. In Vista itself, 169 are Independent Living,  19 are Memory Care, and 258 Care Center units. and provides them with services and management. [3]

Labor relations: employee wages or terms of employment, are not part of the agendas for the Vista Residents’ Association. There is an e\Employees Association. which is apparently entirely employee run, and is active in programming that affects employees, e.g. adjusting hours of meal service  for holidays or celebrations . No tipping is allowed, but there is a Vista Employees Fund, a 5O1c3 – based on the Vista Teachers Retirement Fund, that being the predecessor and original builder of the present development. Its income is entirely from voluntary contributions, which just now is collecting funds   from residents to be distributed to employees for the holidays and used to fund school scholarships and emergency help for employees under stress. The employees that operate the kitchen, wait on tables and do the maintenance, are friendly, often know the residents by their first names and vice versa. Everyone, to an outsider, seems very satisfied with the arrangements.

The one limited exception to the non-discussion of development business issues we are aware of is the decision of Front Porch, the large non-profit which owns Vista del Monte, to close its skilled nursing building, convert it to Memory Care housing, and outsource the skilled care to a nearby well-regarded non-profit facility. The issue came up at a Residents’ Committee report meeting, some questions were raised, answers weren’t available, it was pointed out that the committee’s opinions didn’t really make much difference since it was only advisory, and the meeting moved on.

 

So, looking at this very preliminary and sketchy case study of one retirement community, what conclusions might one explore as to possible broader implications forurban planning, my own field of work?

Blog #109 is intended to continue the discussion. Comments in advance very welcome.

[1] Front Porch describes itself as “the parent of Vista del Monte… and the largest southern California based provider of not-for-Profit retirement housing and services. It operates in California , Louisiana, and Florida.

[2] Vista is an equal opportunity housing provider under California law, with CA License #425800464  COA #196

 [3] From the auditors report for March 2016.

 

Blog 106 – “winning” tax reform


TAX REFORM – WHERE WINNING IS FOR LOSERS

(Re: “The biggest winner in the tax code rewrite…” New York Times, December 6, 2017, p. 1 and A34)

Winning is for losers, in the case of tax reform, if principles or rationally defensible policy is the measure. Winning on tax reform is what you boast about when you’ve failed abysmally to produce anything of merit, and all you can claim is that you’ve defeated any alternative in a fight for something – whatever it is. You already have the support of the wealthy, who support you because your proposals are to their very material benefit; but you want to get the votes of a wider constituency.

With the outrageous process of drafting a bill that could at least be called “tax reform,” the Republicans have come up with a monster whose only virtue is that it cobbles together legislation that would garner one more vote over the bare minimum needed to pass something – anything whatsoever, anything, whatever its content, that could let the Party claim “victory,” and proclaim that they are “winners,” when in fact they have lost any claim to have accomplished anything worth doing.

Having failed to do anything that meets the meaning of the words “tax reform” in ordinary English, rather than admit failure, the Republicans are left with the hollow title of “winners” when in fact they have surrendered any objective that deserves use of the words. if you look at the content, not the form, of what they have actually accomplished, and judge by the standard of service to the common good, the Republicans are the real losers in the battle for true tax reform.

“Winning,” in fact, is a mischievous word. As Donald Trump or the Republicans or often some meila use it, it in fact means conquering, and “losers” are meant to surrender. But it can also mean being successful in a competition to solve a problem to achieve a noteworthy result, as in most sports competitions, where some do better than others, but one’s success does not negate what others have scored. Fair competition can leave the losers intact, to continue to strive; unfair competition, winner take all,  is aimed at eliminating “losers” entirely from the competition.

Blog #105 – Vietnam – The Film, Contributions and Open Questions


Blog #105 – Vietnam – The Film, Contributions and Open Questions

The Vietnam War, the film Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, is by any standard a major achievement, a detailed and evocative history of that war and as powerful an anti-war film as there is, but precisely because of its honesty, historical ambition, and attempt at balance, it leaves a number of critical questions open, the depoliticization of its conclusion, its lack of broader historical context, its forced avoidance of moral issues. No film could hope to answer all such questions, but it would be doing an injustice to the film if it were not a basis for some serious discussion about the meaning of the events it recounts. The questions they raise are still critical today, and their meaning for understanding and acting on the painfully similar issues confronting us almost 50 years after its end.

What follows is a very preliminary attempt to raise, but not to answer, four of those questions: I. The assumption of good faith, II. The desire for reconciliation, III. The implicit depoliticization of the history, IV. The ethics of participation.

                    I.          The assumption of Good Faith

The film opens with an uncharacteristic statement: The war was begun “in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings.” The film strives for nothing so much as balance and nuance, but that statement is hardly the complete story. To warrant such a statement as if it were the result of detailed examination both of the war’s historical setting in the history of western colonialism in east Asia and of the motives and of those that begat and pressed it onwards, is unwarranted. Indeed, throughout the film the narration questions motives and intent, and tries to explain actions that were both constrained by a long history as well undertaken by sentient human beings with mixed and conflicting emotions and interests, and limited but hardly unbiased or un-self-interested understanding of what they were doing. The issue of where “good faith” lies when leaders as well as followers complain that they are only doing what they had to, even when they regret the results of their actions, is an issue that has perplexed philosophers, theologians, psychologists, judges and authors for millennia. Buti in the film it is put aside in the interests of fundamental desire not to condemn, with or without hindsight.  Indeed, the “good faith” both Ken Burns and Lynn Novick need not be questioned in order to suggest that this statement does not come up to their standard of nuance and balance.

The film’s ending has the same flaw, but is even less warranted.

                   II.         The Desire for Reconciliation

 

The film ends with a background song with the refrain, “let it be,” “let it be,” “let it be,“ repeated over  and over. The filmmaker’s motives are themselves in fact well-intentioned but mixed and not consistently pursued. The intent is clear: having forcefully presented decades of unmitigated horror flooded with deep animosities, and having shown in conclusion that whatever good intentions any of the parties had in acting as they did, they did not produce anything of their best hopes – that war was an unmitigated horror, whose wisdom needed to be challenged whenever it reared its head as a possibility, to say “let it be” is hardly the first conclusion that comes to mind. Certainly, one can understand the desire of the participants to put behind them the pain of reliving and being tormented by such horrible events, even a desire to achieve reconciliation, with the hope of having a film such as this come to what is almost a happy ending.

“Never again,” indeed, would seem to be a more fitting final message than “let it be.”

Similarly, Bob Collins argued, on PBS that the film “concludes with a whimper, not a bang,” and called the ending “a cop-out.” [1] And in fact there is an ambiguity in the ending that justifies the concern. In the last episode of the film. John Musgrave, a very impressive, thoughtful, soft-spoken veteran of the war quoted frequently                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 throughout the film, is asked how he now feels about all he has seen and survived. After giving it some thought, Musgrave says that now finally he has arrived at “a kind of peace.” In an interview, Burns says

“ it’s possible to just say “let it be.” And that’s not about forgetting. It’s about an ultimate reconciliation, which I hope is what we can do….  “Let It Be” is one of the most beautiful pieces of music. That is offering, not the sense of forgetting it, but the ability to reconcile all the conflicting tugs of the information that have just been dumped on you over the last 18 hours.”

Reconciliation is a theme that recurs in the film’s ending, and it can be interpreted in three ways:

  • Reconciliation of the conflicting strands of information, of declarations of intentions and actual motivations, of emotions and repression of emotions, of bravery and cowardice, of self-serving and of altruism. That is, in context, I think what Musgrave meant when he spoke of peace: let the attempt to understand, to rationalize, to lay out in order exactly what happened when and where and to whom and why, stop torturing yourself about what you could or should have done or not done. Achieve an inner peace, Each to him or herself. A human and a healthy goal for those traumatized by the war.

 

  • Reconciliation among all the conflicting actors in the events: the troops on the battlefields,, the planners, the governmental leaders, the ideologies, reconciliation of the countries themselves. “I think that reconciliation is possible within our two countries, where we’re both divided, as well as between the two countries, where we seem to have, at least superficially, solved the distance between us,” Burns says in an interview.[2] But that is a form of reconciliation that would wipe out real conflicts of interests and motives, equating the actions of all the various participants and implicitly justifying all actions, depoliticizing and accepting as all equally simply as facts on the ground, just the way things are. It is a form of reconciliation that calls for a broad social amnesia among all participants for it to be successful.

 

  • Reconciliation among some participants but passage of judgement as to others. Perpetrators are different from those benefiting from their actions, those inflicting harm from those harmed, the powerful from those subject to their power. In some ultimate sense, indeed, all men and women are children of God and the imposition of punishment and pain on any human being is to be avoided, but there is certainly a difference between calling for reconciliation of the Nixons and the Westmorelands with the Bao Dies and the Diems, or of the Lyndon Johnsons and the Daniel Ellsbergs.

The film does not make these distinctions, and the failure has significant political and moral consequences.

When Henry Kissinger is quoted, in the opening of the film, as saying:

 

“What we need now in this country is to heal the wounds and to put Vietnam behind us.”

one can easily understand his vested political – and indeed personal — interest in pushing that result.

                 III.         The Political Role of Induced amnesia.

Depoliticization is one of those consequences of the unwillingness to distinguish victims from perpetrators, or of seeking a balance that would avoid not only popular tropes but go further and not even attempt any grounded thoughtful evaluation of what was done by whom, to whom, and why. Burns and Novick clearly reject any desire to present a comparison between the events of the Vietnam war period with events of present-day U.S. foreign or military policy, probably wisely, for showing what the film shows so vividly speaks movingly for itself, and might lose some of its effect if encapsulated in “partisan” rhetoric. But nevertheless, an insidious message results from this approach. Human weaknesses, all around, basically explain what happened: sadly unavoidable, consequences are unforeseen, plans misfire. That the results, terrible as they seem, may have been the results of some deliberate actins undertaken by specific actors and interests with particular objectives knowingly heedless of their costs to others is thus not explored, even though the raw material from which to draw conclusions is dramatically presented. The film deliberately steers efforts away from confronting its own lessons for today’s realities, and undermines capturing the very lessons of those pregnant years for those watching the film today. It produces perhaps overwhelming sadness, but not targeted anger or resolve for deep-going change,

                IV.         The Insidious Depoliticization of History

Depoliticization further also results from the again well-intentioned effort to avoid examining the larger context in which the events described in the film took place: colonialism, anti-communism , great power rivalry, vested interests vs. democratic change.[3] Answering the ultimate “why” questions about why things  happened as they did is perhaps asking too much of any single effort of scholarship or analysis and far more than can be asked of as meticulous film as the Burns and Novick, but at least naming the forces and making their roles more transparent would be an attempt that might have been  pursued somewhat further.

The very language Ken Burns and Lynn Novick use in describing their approach to the film feeds, insidiously, the depoliticization. They are quoted in an interview as saying:

…perhaps we can stop fighting over how the war should be remembered and instead…focus on what it can teach us about courage, it can teach us about  courage, patriotism, resilience, forgiveness, and, ultimately, reconciliation.[4]

We”? Teach “us?”       The film is full of ample evidence of how divided are “our” not only remembrances but roles and interests in the events it portrays. “We” have quite different reasons for remembering what we remember, remembrances continue to plague, not all of “us,” but some of us and not others

Putting perps and victims in the jumble of “us” references at best that the lambs may lie down next to the lions – but in the reconciliation of whose zoo?

                  V.         The Ethics of Participation

The question of motivation for participation is one that produces a frequent and troubling unease in anyone watching the film and attempting to understand what motivated the killings, the torture , the inhuman conduct of so many people, is a harrowing question. The individual interviews provide some insight into what moved some of the individual participants. But the interviews describe rather than explain.

Take a glaring example. Over and over, fighters on both sides are presented as willing to undertake obviously inescapable risks to their own lives, yet proceed to kill and be killed regardless. In some cases, their actions may have been simply self-defense, or carried out where disobedience was not possible. But  strong socially-constructed convictions, faiths, beliefs, values, were deeply involved. To grossly over-simplify, the striving for national independence, ethnically and historically based, was a driving force for many. It was played on by leaders on both sides. Communism, with all its shades of meaning, was at least articulated as a key concern pro and con, a concern willing to die for and against. Was freedom from colonial exploitation or dominance the same goal as establishing an independent state, independent ethnically or economically or politically constituted, were among proclaimed goals. Goals important enough to produce an apparent human obliviousness to the tragedies to which the use of these concepts were leading? It would be asking too much to want a film, even of the length and quality of this one, to answer these questions, but they might have been illuminated more from the striking provocative material at hand.

Where would the answer to the question of social motivation/conviction leave us? That a Nazi is honestly and firmly convinced of the merits of fascism and the treachery of all Jews is not an excuse for patrolling concentration camps or gassing Jews. Strength of conviction is one, but only one, aspect of the answer, but only one. And it has even been suggested that the strength of a conviction on a particular question under debate may be inversely related to likelihood of its corresponding to the truth.

The question of morality involved in the assessment of actors’ role in the war has to be seen from two different aspect, if a fair judgment is to be passed, moral criteria to be applied. Buns and Novick are quoted as saying:

“it was super important, I think for us, to leave — at least in a war that has no outward redeeming feature like the Civil War or World War II — to leave you with the realization that sometimes it is the sum total of the heroic contributions of individual people in many different spheres that make it.

If national independence or ethnic self-determination or retribution for anti-social actions or for treason are “outward redeeming features,” do they then justify morally any and all “heroic contributions of individual people”? A distinction could certainly be made between weighing the justice of actions against social goals, against “outward redemption,” against the standard for individual behavior in personal relations. One might find extremism in defense of liberty – read “heroic contributions” to be desirable, and yet have questions about murder and torture as socially desirable actions. Solidarity is both a social and an individual virtue, socially desirable and individually desirable. When John Musgrave warmly embraces a soldier on the other side in the and takes public leadership of an organization of Vietnam Veterans who have fought “heroically” in an unjust cause and spilled blood for no redeeming cause, is he doing something that is socially harmful – embracing others in human solidarity although they have acted in opposition to outwardly redeeming social values? The film leads to confrontation with the question, but does not ask it. Perhaps it need not; the material may simply be let to speak or itself. Yet…?

  1. Conclusion

What, then, is one to make of the contribution of the film as a whole? I would venture only three firm answers:

First, it is an amazing film, a documentary par excellence, a hyug accomplishment, technically in its accessing a wide range of scattered materials and making a coherent and indeed enthralling whole out of them. It is a humane accomplishment in its breadth of concerns, efforts at balance, ability to show and present differing viewpoints and experiences, contributing much to understanding sharply conflicting actions with warmth and concern.

Second, It offers a powerful lessons in what is wrong with war, where false extremism can lead, in the lesson of the over-riding importance that avoiding violence, and certainly government-sanctioned violence, should not play in the making of public decisions and implementation of public policy . It is a profoundly anti-war move.

Third, it raises profound questions about social justice and individual morality, concretely and sympathetically presented, questions that have plagued philosophers and thinking men and women throughout the centuries, questions of social and individual responsibility, the meaning of courage and heroism and brotherly and sisterly love, questions that are way above what can be resolved in one  movie, but that could be the basis  for broad and open and constructive discussion in many venues in years to come.

Ken Burns’ and Kim Novick’s  The War in Vietnam should be widely read, debated,  and treasured for all three reasons.

 

 

[1] https://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/2017/09/final-episode-of-the-vietnamwar-fails-to-deliver/

[2] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/transcript-ken-burns-and-lynn-novick-on-face-the-nation-sept-17-2017/

 [3] An excellent summary (among others) is in “The Insidious Ideology of Ken Burn’s The Vietnam War” By Alex Shephard, The New Republic, September 19, 2017.

 

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/29/opinion/ken-burns-lynn-novick-vietnam-war.html?_r=0

Personal – moving, contact, invite


Friends,                                                                                 November 3, 2017

Big family news, and a double invite:

We are moving from Waterbury to a Continuum of Care retirement community in Santa Barbara, Calif, .

It was a big decision, with a lot of ambivalence. We’ve lived in Waterbury over 60 years, raised our three children here, Peter has practiced law here, held public office, taught; Frances has taught many grades in public school and done volunteer work here since retiring. We have dear friends here, and like our community. But we’re pushing 90, have multiple stairs in our house on Greenwood Avenue, and although we have help and assistance from many friends, even the chores of everyday life are becoming a burden.

Our son Harold, who lives in Santa Barbara and teaches at UCSB, has found a very attractive retirement community called Vista del Monte in Santa Barbara, and we have applied for a two-bedroom unit there, move-in hopefully mid-November. It will be for an Independent Living unit, and our medical conditions need to be approved as adequate for what it offers that we want. We are looking forward to it with both pleasure and pain, pleasure in the expectation that it will make life a lot easier for us day-to-day in beautiful surroundings, pain at leaving behind friends and comrades to whom we’ve become very close and whose friendships we treasure highly. But all life involves change, and aging is a part of life; better to acknowledge and adapt to it than to fight it in an inevitably losing battle. .

Harold has been wonderful in helping with the pending arrangement in California, and we hope to see his two children more often. Irene is with us right now helping with this end of the moving, quite a task after so many years in a relatively large house and multiple interests. Tabitha has been a solid support. Andrew in Pennsylvania and some of his four children have been visiting with us to help out, as has Fran’s sister Barbara, and all have happily promised to come visit us there regularly.

Vista del Monte, between the mountains and the sea, is a community of some 150 units, with a wide range of facilities and activities We will have a living room, two bedrooms, a basic kitchen, two meals a day at a central dining room. We think it will be ideal for visitors. We really don’t know quite what to expect in what will be essentially a completely new life for us, but we hope that close continuing contact even if at a distance with family and friends here will make it at least endurable, and even a pleasant way to keep going as far as our abilities will let us. Even with limitations: less travel, no doubt, but forms of communication and contact are multifarious today, and we hope to make full use of them with you all.

And we hope you will reciprocate as well!

***

We’ll be here another two weeks. We are planning an Adopt-a-Plant Open House Sunday Nov 12 -noon -, with refreshments and the hope that most of our house plants will find a new home with some  of you in congenial surroundings. And we hope you may find some of the various items and tchotchkies we have accumulated over the years good souvenirs to remember us by. Or you maybe could use some other items we will be leaving behind as too awkward to move or as further unneeded. So come and see, visit, and say au revoir.

And after we arrive at our new digs: Vista del Monte contacts below, we’ll send you details on how we find our new life and what  we can offer our old friends if they have a chance to come and see for themselves what the other coast is like.

With regrets but anticipation,

New address: Vista del Monte, 3775 Modoc Road, #235,  Santa Barbara, California, 93105

pm35@columbia.edu, francesmarcuse@yahoo.com. Till then, Waterbury 203 753 1140

Blog #107 Immigration Local Policies Column in Waterbury Ct Newspaper


To the Editor

(Re: “Awaiting Puerto Ricans, September 38, 2017, p. 1)

Immigration in our Future.

Immigration is desirable; it should not be either opposed or tolerated; it should be appreciated. The large majority of us are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, many from countries far beyond our national borders. And it is lucky for us that it is so.; without immigration, cities like Waterbury would be more rapidly shrinking than they already are. The names of our city’s leaders, from the mayor to the aldermen to our state and national representatives; reflect a wide range of national and ethnic names. The recent Gathering in Library offered a chance for representatives from dozens of countries to celebrate and share their cultures, to enjoy in peace enjoy our diversity More than 1,000 people attended the downtown event. It showcased dancers, exhibits, and goods from 115 countries from Albania, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico, St. Lucia, West Africa and many more. We do not consider African-Americans as immigrants, although their history reflects centuries of forced arrival in this county, and their experience still reflects that history in painful ways.

This Gathering in downtown Waterbury has been described as “the most diverse and inclusive cultural festival in New England.”

We can be justifiably proud of such a description, and it should lead it for consider what we already have and what further we can do to benefit from its implications. Waterbury is already a major cross-roads in New England, both for highways and shortly as well as by rail with the pending new rail station. It already has two major hospitals, a branch of the state university, a thriving community college, all with strong multi-cultural programs. It has strong social organization, from community and ethnic -based clubs, churches, mosques, and synagogues, and rich cultural offerings, in music, the theater, the arts. Its restaurants reflect its diversity.

It could do more. Bi-lingual programs can be fostered, both to and from English. An Office for Assistance to New Arrivals could be established, dealing with access to housing, jobs, community involvement, links to other resources.  Legal aid can be provided with expertise in the relevant fields. Immigrants could be officially welcomed, together with new arrivals, there might be a newcomer of the month high-lighted publicly, there could be volunteer mentoring programs established perhaps enlisting senior groups, , Unions and workers’ organization, inherently multi-racial and ethnic , could be encouraged, economic development efforts could further focus on small incubator-type efforts targeted to help newcomers,. Research, lectures, public discussions, such as being undertaken at Silas Bronson Library in its “Who Was Here” and “Here and Now” programs in the next two months, could be expanded and widely publicized.

If assistance to Puerto Rican families displaced by the devastation in that island Is organized and funded, it may provide good experience for the effective and human handling of problems of immigrants and displacees from other causes as well.

Waterbury should stake out a claim, perhaps even a national claim, as a city welcoming of immigrants, and known nationally as such: Waterbury is a city built on the contributions of immigrants, appreciative of immigrants, affirmatively welcoming of immigrants. It should make the most of the strength Immigrants provide for its future. “WATERBURY THE WELCOMING CITY” as a city slogan?