Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Dan Brown, Meet Leonard Stern

In yet another case of writers blathering on without actually bothering to do real research into what they are saying, we have Leonard Stern from the Ottawa Citizen (a CanWest publication, so the stupidity really isn't a major surprise).

Mr. Stern is off on a tirade about Caster Semenya (as if the poor girl's privacy hasn't been violated enough lately) ... and he gets the facts and reality of things wrong in so many ways.

He starts off with the following attempt at a partisan swipe by trying to dismiss the questions around the complexities of gender testing by complaining about "postmodernism" in social sciences:

A scientist, Sokal was fed up with the nonsense that passed for "cultural studies." He wanted to test the leftist intellectuals who edited Social Text by seeing if they could recognize an extreme parody of the sort of thing they regularly published. So he penned a ridiculous article, making it deliberately indecipherable, save for the passages where he pandered to the postmodern view that there is no objective truth and everything is culture-bound.

Social Text published the piece -- whereupon Sokal revealed his hoax, the editors were humiliated, and the relativist Left began its retreat into irrelevance.


Having done that, he then attempts to go on to dismiss an article critical of the whole hulabaloo over Semenya by writing:

But the postmodern monster likes to emerge from its crypt every so often, as it did this week in an article in the Nation, the foremost magazine of the American left.

The article is about Caster Semenya, the 18-year-old South African runner who won the women's 800-metre race at the world track and field championships in August. For a variety of reasons -- her muscled physique, masculine jawline and the ease with which she beat the competition -- there was speculation that Semenya might not be a woman.


(Here's the article from "The Nation": Caster Semenya: The Idiocy of Sex Testing)

Up to this point, besides being a little snide, Stern hasn't done too badly - then his argument proceeds off the rails.

The Nation article denounced the medical effort to classify Semenya. Authors Dave Zirin and Sherry Wolf say sex testing is not just "puritanical" but "idiotic," because gender is "socially constructed." Semenya's physiology is her "private business." As for the concern Semenya, who is black, has masculine features -- well, that's just the "racism of Western standards of appearance."


Ummm...that's not really what the writers in The Nation were getting at Leonard. The article is really recounting the amazing degree of sexism that women in sports have been subjected to - not just in recent history, but throughout the 20th century. They are also setting the stage to explain to you just why our handling of Intersex conditions in society is so badly broken:

When Martina Navratilova dominated women's tennis and proudly exposed her chiseled biceps years before Hollywood gave its imprimatur to gals with "guns," players complained that she "must have a chromosome loose somewhere."

This minefield of sexism and homophobia has long pushed female athletes into magazines like Maxim to prove their "hotness"--and implicitly their heterosexuality. Track and field in particular has always had this preoccupation with gender, particularly when it crosses paths with racism. Fifty years ago, Olympic official Norman Cox proposed that in the case of black women, "the International Olympic Committee should create a special category of competition for them--the unfairly advantaged 'hermaphrodites.'"

For years, women athletes had to parade naked in front of Olympic officials. This has now given way to more "sophisticated" "gender testing" to determine if athletes like Semenya have what officials still perceive as the ultimate advantage--being a man. Let's leave aside that being male is not the be-all, end-all of athletic success. A country's wealth, coaching facilities, nutrition and opportunity determine the creation of a world-class athlete far more than a Y chromosome or a penis ever could.


That's quite different from what Mr. Stern seems to think was being claimed. But we're not done with him just yet, because he goes on to sink to new depths of ignorance and misrepresentation:

A political agenda lurks behind the argument that there are no such things as "male" and "female." The same agenda is behind assertions -- contrary to science -- that there is no such thing as "intelligence" or "race." By promoting a relativist view of the world, postmodernists seek to erase difference.


No, actually that's not true either. What we have learned over the last hundred or so years is that human beings exist on a continuum in many dimensions. The mythical concept of race becomes pretty meaningless when one considers the population in North American society - there are people with so many diverse mixtures of ancestral background that you couldn't call them "black", "white", "hispanic" or anything else without being substantially incorrect. Physical sex is just as ambiguous, with a myriad of different variations resulting from chromosomes, hormones, genetic variation and whatever other factors. While the vast majority of humanity falls into the male/female dichotomy, there are enough individuals who fall into the Intersex space that we can't simply - and objectively - ignore their existence.

But surely, Zirin and Wolf would not allow a man to lurk about in the women's locker room at the local gym on the grounds that he says he "perceives" his gender identity as female. If Usain Bolt were suddenly to announce that he is really a woman inside, I'd wish him all the best but I'd be against allowing him to compete in the women's 100-metre dash.


Now Mr. Stein has fallen into the trap of the ridiculous. First of all, he dredges up the infamous "bathrooms" argument used by right wingnuttia as a bludgeon against transsexuals. Then he makes an equally stupid statement about Usain Bolt - a statement which ignores entirely the reality that there are already clear rules of engagement for situations like that which would exclude Mr. Bolt from competing until he had undergone GRS, and been on hormones long enough to eliminate whatever gains might have been had from testosterone. Sorry, Mr. Stein, your reality cheque just bounced.

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