Archive for June, 2008

Garden Party

A number of years ago, a singer named Rick Nelson had a hit song entitled “Garden Party.” A portion of the lyrics follows:

When I got to the garden party, they all knew my name.

No one recognized me, I didn’t look the same…

Played them all the old songs, thought that’s why they came.

No one heard the music, we didn’t look the same…

If you gotta play at garden parties, I wish you a lotta luck

But if memories were all I sang, I’d rather drive a truck…

…it’s all right now, learned my lesson well

You see, ya can’t please everyone, you got to please yourself.

Nelson wrote the song after appearing in a “rock revival” concert at Madison Square Garden, where he was booed when he played and sang songs that weren’t his “golden oldies,” because, apparently, that was all they wanted to hear. Some days, I feel like I really understand what Nelson was driving at.

Now…while singers — or writers — clearly can’t please everyone, it is fairly clear from the bestseller trends and sales figures that the closer a writer, and a singer, I suppose, sticks to a single type of fiction, or song, the higher the sales numbers. Robert Jordan’s other books don’t sell a fraction of what those in the Wheel of Time series do, and I doubt that anything J.K. Rowling writes besides Harry Potter will approach the Potter books in popularity, either. The same is true of popular authors in other fields. Writers who produce series, or “type” books, outsell those who don’t. In my own work, the individual books in a fantasy series outsell the stand-alones by better than three to one. Doubtless, there are some exceptions to the success of literary “type-casting,” but given the overall trends and numbers, there aren’t many. That’s why it’s extremely hard for an author to produce and get published a body of work that’s diverse, let alone do so and be commercially successful.

At the same time, Nelson’s line about not pleasing everyone also rings true. Going through reader comments and critical reviews on my books last week, I came across such comments as “writes fantasy for Republicans”… “libertarian bias”… “left wing tripe”… “ecological leftist”… “solid Republican, as to be expected from a former Reagan appointee”… “always tells the same story, young man going out into the world”… “wish he’d stay away from the arthouse fiction”… Obviously, each one of those comments and many others I haven’t quoted reflect more about the reader than my work, because, after all, I couldn’t always tell the same story, for example, and have so many readers complain in so many different ways.

Although Nelson toured widely for another 12 years after “Garden Party” was released before he was killed in a plane crash, “Garden Party” was his last hit record. I wonder why.

"Rap" as a Symbol for the Present… and Future?

I dislike rap. That, if anything, is an understatement. It’s not because I’m biased against the culture from which it comes, and it’s not because I’m an old curmudgeon — which I may well be — or because it’s “modern,” and I’m not up with the times. It’s because I do indeed understand both rap’s source, its structure, and its implications… and none of them represent the best in human culture.

First, rap does indeed represent modern society — the worst of it. Words are jammed into an insistent forced beat against a set of background sounds so close to monotone that they can scarcely be termed music. Any beauty the words might have is destroyed by the framework in which they are embedded. What rap does best is, in fact, the shock value, the ugly, the “in-your-face” confrontation. In a sense, it’s the musical equivalent of the worst excesses of Fox News on the right and CNN on the left, with a soundtrack having the artistic sense of a jackhammer during rush hour.

One of the key elements of music is something called a melody line, and it’s essential — except to rap and the atonal so-called modernist composers, whose work I dislike possibly even more than that of the rappers, because the modernists had a real education in music and should know better.

Some have called rap merely modern poetry, or the modern urban equivalent to bardic minstrels. I’m sorry; it’s not. In poetry, in comparison to rap, the use and choice of words determines the rhythm… or the metre requires the poet to choose particular words, but, in either approach, they’re fitted together, not forced into a structure with the jack-hammer of an electric bass and the sonic wire mesh of a full drum ensemble.

The fact that the recent Tony awards gave the “best new musical award” to what amounted to a “rap music showcase” in which there was little music, and where much of what were intended as lyrics were unintelligible, suggests that the artistic world has come to point where no one dares to suggest that “the emperor has no clothes,” but then, I doubt that many who voted for the award would even understand that allusion, much less what lies behind it.

As Kipling suggested in “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” nearly a century ago, worshipping the “Gods of the Marketplace” and the current fad, whatever it may be, instead of striving for excellence based on experience, inevitably leads to disaster, as when “the lights had gone out in Rome.”

But who am I to stand against the thunderous applause for “music” that has no grace and no melody? Or to suggest that art should inspire men and women to strive for excellence, rather than graphically describe degradation in all its sordid forms?

Wealth, in Fiction and Reality

With each passing day of the on-going and seemingly endless presidential election campaign, I get more and more distressed by the way in which the candidates and the media deal with the issue of “wealth.” In thinking about this, I also realized that all too many writers have similar problems, but that the writers are more adept at avoiding the issue and concealing either their ignorance or their biases… if not both.

Those on the left tend to claim that any family that earns more than somewhere in the $200,000-$250,000 range is wealthy. Now, I’d be the first to admit that such families are not poor… but to claim that they’re wealthy?

Somehow, I don’t think most doctors, lawyers, engineers, dentists and other professionals in that income range, many of whom make that income only by dint of hard work by two parents, think of themselves as “wealthy,” particularly when compared to those who truly are, like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, George Soros, or like the millionaire athletic figures such as Tiger Woods, Shaquille O’Neal, or Peyton Manning.

Then, too, when you use a flat number for defining who is wealthy, that number doesn’t reflect the cost-of-living. A family income of $100,000 in New York City, which has a cost-of-living more than twice the national average of all U.S. cities, has the same purchasing power as $30,000 in Laredo or McAllen, Texas, or other small towns across the United States. So… an income of $100,000 is less than mid-middle-class in New York, but signifies being well-off in, say, small towns in the mid-west or mountain states [provided they're not resort towns inhabited by the truly wealthy]. Some 20 years ago, the Washingtonian magazine published an article entitled “How to Go Bankrupt on $100,000 A Year.” The article detailed how difficult it was for a family to make ends meet in our nation’s capital on that income, merely by attempting to hold to what one might have called a middle-class lifestyle. Given inflation and devaluation of the dollar, the income cited in that article would probably have to be well over $200,000 today. Families that earn $250,000 in New York, San Francisco, Honolulu, and the like aren’t poor by any means, but claiming that they’re “wealthy” is absurd.

Again… I am not claiming families who make such incomes are poor; I am claiming that anyone who thinks they’re rich is either deluded or a demagogue. Why are such claims being made? Because the politicians know that there aren’t enough “truly rich” to pay for the debts already incurred and the programs they think their constituents want, and by defining the upper end of the middle class as wealthy, they can claim that they’re not taxing the middle-class, but the “undeserving” wealthy, rather than hard-working professionals, with mortgages and children in college and the like

Just as the politicians and the media don’t seem to know what wealth is, or want to discuss it factually, so do more than a few SF writers have problems understanding and in dealing with wealth. Over the years, we’ve seen “millionaire” heroes with their own spacecraft, their own extensive private laboratories, and the like. Currently, a single high-tech atmospheric fighter seating just two pilots for a few hours of flight time costs over $200 million, and the industrial complex required to build it represents a number of entities representing more than $100 billion in assets. All that for a craft that flies at speeds a fraction of those required for interplanetary travel and without all the other additional systems necessary. Currently, according to Forbes, there are roughly 500 billionaires in the entire world, and most of them are worth less than $15 billion, with the wealthiest worth considerably less than $100 billion.

I’ve read very few books that even suggest the records and expertise necessary to handle vast wealth, or the limitations that such wealth imposes. Steven King, for heaven’s sake, hardly in the wealth class of Bill Gates, had to give up attending events such as World Fantasy Convention, and these days most companies spend millions of dollars in various ways to protect their CEOs.

So why do we have this strange dichotomy in our culture and our fiction where people who are merely affluent are considered rich, and where no one seems to understand how few really are truly rich and how isolated those comparative few are?

Technology and Writing the Future

Last week, I found myself suddenly without internet service. After contacting my “local” telephone carrier and internet provider and close to half an hour of wading through various voice mail screens which asked me to answer scripted questions having nothing to do with my problem and waiting for a “technical support” person who sounded suspiciously Indian and then waiting for her to check, I was told that I was suffering an “outage.” I knew that. She also noted that it might take 24 hours to restore service. It took 48 hours before I had full service back. I never did get a full answer from the provider, but from the local newspaper, three days later. Apparently, a backhoe operator severed the only fiber optic cable serving the 150,000 plus people of southwestern Utah. The backhoe operator claimed that the line was not marked; the telephone company claims that he had a responsibility to check before digging.

Either way, the simple fact is that one man and a machine interrupted all internet service and much, but not all, telephone service for a large geographic area. While this confirms my skepticism about such “conveniences” as internet bill paying and banking, stock trading, and the like, it also illustrates the underlying fragility of our high-tech/lowest-possible-cost society. Over the past few years, I’ve seen entire malls paralyzed because of power outages. There’s no provision for selling without power to the computerized sales terminals. So much of our society relies on the interface of electrical power and computer-stored information, and yet, access to that information can be so easily disrupted.

All this would seem inconceivable to a businessman or almost anyone less than a century ago. Along these lines, I was thinking about addressing a high school class on the subject of my experiences as a pilot during the Vietnam era, and I realized that, if a former pilot who was the same age as I am now had made an address to me and my high school, he would have been talking about primitive biplanes with fabric wings. Yet there is surprisingly little difference in propulsion, aerodynamics, or even aircraft structure and function today, as opposed to when I was a student. In short, we saw radical change in aircraft and mechanical technology in less than a fifty year period, and we haven’t seen the like since… and I doubt that we will. This slow-down in applied technological advancement isn’t restricted to aircraft; it’s taken place across all areas of society, although it’s largely unrecognized. Why? And what does this have to do with society, culture, and science fiction?

All this has to do with limits.

Human beings and Americans in particular hate limits. They sneak across or under or around borders, tear down fences, trample across private property, exceed speed limits, protest, often violently, the limitations on where snowmobiles and ATVs can travel. And the problem with predicting limits is that most of those who predicted them have turned out to be wrong. Malthus is one example, and so are all those who predicted people would die if they traveled faster than a hundred miles an hour. On the other hand, so far, at least, Einstein’s limitation of travel to less than the speed of light is holding up fairly well — except possibly for tiny distances at the subatomic level.

All that said, the real world does have limits. And so does technology. That doesn’t mean that many accomplishments once perceived as impossible could not be achieved. They just couldn’t exceed certain limitations with the technology of that time. Skyscrapers were impractical, if not impossible, without elevators and higher technology structural steel. Even higher buildings depend on more advanced materials, engineering, and technology, but the taller the building, the greater dependence on technology, and certainly at the moment, at least, a structure extending ten miles above the ground is not possible.

All this technology tends to conflict with the human desire to obtain goods and services at the lowest possible price — and that’s why there’s only one fiber optic cable in southwestern Utah, and doubtless many other places. Despite the fragility of our current system, incorporating redundancy and greater reliability is expensive and often energy intensive, and that’s another form of limitation. Those sorts of limitations are why our entire electric power generation network is literally cobbled together, as is much of our communications system.

Then add to that the fact that, for now, so many more recent scientific discoveries are in the area of discovering limitations and explanations for those limitations. All this makes realistically predicting the future and writing about that future in an intriguing fashion harder and harder with each passing year, because economic and technological limits do in fact exist, and readers want to see characters exceed those limits. Yet it becomes harder and harder for a writer to have his or her characters do so plausibly with each new discovery and each passing year.

Might all this explain the comparative decline in eye-opening science fiction, the resurgence of “space opera,” and the continuing growth and popularity of fantasy?

Understanding Readers?

As do at least some writers, I do have the very bad habit of reading reviews, even reader reviews. For years, other writers and editors have cautioned me against doing this very often, and yet… I still do. The good side of this is that I do understand what those readers want. That, unfortunately, is also the bad side.

I recently read a reader review of Adiamante, which has generally gotten overwhelmingly favorable reviews from both readers and critics, in which the reader, after saying that he had thoroughly enjoyed some 15 of my books, thoroughly lambasted me for writing what he suggested was a left-wing diatribe. He went on to write that, after reading this one book, he was sorry he’d bought the first fifteen.

While I wish I could say that I was surprised… I wasn’t. Saddened a bit, resigned, but scarcely surprised. Just as people vary in their tastes in food, music, in types of entertainment, readers also vary in what they enjoy. That shouldn’t surprise any writer.

What saddens me as a writer is not that a reader takes issue with what I write or how I write it. Since I do not write sexual scenes [with one exception more than twenty years ago] and I do not write graphic violence, most reader disagreements come from philosophical viewpoint differences. Even so, it’s still disturbing when I explore a different point of view or a fact or an issue that conflicts with that reader’s prejudices so violently that the reader must reject everything I have written or will write — even those books with which the reader would agree. This is the all-too-common human mindset of “If you are not 100% in agreement with me, then you are the devil’s spawn [or some other suitable epithet].”

To my way of thinking, reading provides an arena where readers can explore new or different ideas, where they can see how they might work out, or might not, and where they can look at what an author presents and either decide that the scenario, assumptions, and results are plausible — or that they’re not. It’s certainly a great deal less costly, both in terms of resources and in terms of human misery, to explore such possibilities on the printed page. Unfortunately, there are still those people whose minds are so closed that any exploration is regarded as an assault upon their dearly held prejudices… and I use the term prejudices here advisedly, because those who cannot even read or listen to another viewpoint [assuming it's well-written, of course] in order to evaluate its strengths and weaknesses before accepting or rejecting it, are not thinking beings, but merely creatures of thoughtless bias.

Yet… as the percentage of adults who read for pleasure has decreased, so has the polarization of political and social viewpoints increased, to the point where tens of millions of Americans are unwilling to listen to contrary views, unwilling to accept social and political compromise, and unwilling to hammer out solutions that work for all Americans… and not just for them.

Is this a coincidence? I don’t think so, but I also don’t think that decreased reading has caused increased social and political polarization. Rather, my own suspicion is that a society that demands instant everything effectively stifles debate and discussion, not to mention thoughtful consideration… because thought… and reading… do, in fact, take time and reflection. Add to that the fact that our media and our politics are structured along the same lines… and even some evangelical religions are to some degree, where instantly “accepting Jesus” seems to count more than a lifetime of measured goodness, and it’s not difficult to see the various contributing factors to “values absolutism.”

And that’s how we writers get readers who like 93.75% of our work, but who will never read another book of ours because of something we put down in one single volume.

Instant Change?

The term “instant change” is in fact, so far as societies are concerned, an oxymoron, because meaningful change in any society is anything but instant, and is almost always agonizingly painful for significant segments, if not for all, of that society. Yet here in the United States, we’ve just witnessed five months of political primary election contests where all the candidates have promised “change,” and where the apparent winner of the Democratic presidential primary is the one who promised the most radical, and yet, the most painless change.

Needless to say, I’m skeptical. Not about the need for change, but about all the rhetoric and implications that suggest radical changes will be comparatively easy and painless. Now… let’s consider that John Adams and others among the Founding Fathers insisted [and failed] on radical change in abolishing slavery in 1776. Some eighty-four years later, the United States was ripped apart by Civil War, at least in part, if not in large part, over the issue of slavery. Despite the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments that ensued, full legal civil rights were effectively denied to blacks until the Supreme Court outlawed the worst of discriminatory measures in Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. That proved insufficient, and in 1964 a more far-reaching Civil Rights Act was passed, followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And more riots followed. Admittedly, we have changed radically in respect to legal rights for blacks since the United States was founded — but such radical change was anything but swift or painless.

Some change in any society is good, but the lessons of history suggested to the founding fathers that most change, especially popularly-based change whipped up by demagogues and political opportunists, was not. They felt that order was more conducive to liberty than the ability to change societal structures quickly. So our government was designed with all fashion of checks and balances, primarily to ensure that no change could be instantly railroaded through. Some of those checks and balances have been changed, and while some people would claim “eroded” is a better term, the fact remains that radical change cannot be implemented legally and quickly.

Some would also claim, not without reason, that the current Administration has made radical changes in personal liberties, but the legality of many of those changes remains untested, and some have been curtailed. That said, would a new Administration really wish to employ similar methods to force change? If so, such an Administration would not be changing anything, but merely using the same structure for differing ends, and maintaining a loss of liberty to obtain its goals. If not, then radical change will be time-consuming and expensive, as it always has been.

In the meantime, what of all those voters who endorsed quick and painless change? Will they be so enthusiastic as time passes, as endless votes and amendments pile up, as the costs for implementing those changes further increase their taxes or decrease services in other areas?

Of course, the quick and simple [and wrong] answer to those questions is that all we have to do is decrease government waste. The problem is: One person’s “waste” is another person’s livelihood. For example, we pay what I believe are excessive farm subsidies, but cutting those subsidies will be painful to those who receive them, and they will protest and harass their representatives and present all manner of arguments to prove that the subsidies are good programs. Bridges and roads to small communities are expensive, and many are certainly not “cost-effective,” but those communities often cannot pay for such improvements, and a bridge described as “one to nowhere” in Washington is certainly one to somewhere out in the state that wants it built. Requiring national health care is a goal that’s been cited repeatedly, but exactly who will pay for the services to the 47 million uninsured Americans? Even a rock-bottom [and unrealistically low] premium of $200 a month and health care expenditures averaging a mere $1,000 a year for each of those uninsured Americans would require either taxpayers or employers or some combination of each to come up with an additional $160 billion annually. If we’re talking about a government program, that works out to over $1,000 more in income or payroll taxes per taxpaying family per year. That’s unless we cut some other government programs by the same amount. If the program is supposed to be funded by employers, how many more jobs will vanish, the way they have in the auto industry, over just that issue? And if the program is funded by increasing taxes on the “rich,” that won’t work unless the “rich” are defined as any couple that makes over $150,000 — and that number takes in millions of people who definitely believe they’re anything but rich.

As I indicated earlier, I’m not against change, but I am against rhetoric and hype that suggests change is automatically wonderful, painless, and free. Change is always more expensive than anyone realizes, especially to those who fail to understand that point. Just look at the changes in the USA today as a result of quick and easy promises to fight terror… and the fact that we’ve spent over a trillion dollars, lost civil liberties and thousands of lives, and still haven’t succeeded.

Change — do you really think it’s ever quick, easy, cheap, and painless? Or do you assume that someone else will end up paying for it?

The [Restricted/Slanted/Inaccurate/Incomplete/Mis-] Information Society

There’s been an overwhelming amount of material written about how people today, especially in the United States, live in the “Information Age.” And we do… but the vast majority of that information is anything but what it seems on its face, and, often, lacks significant facts that might change the entire meaning of what was initially presented. Now, some cynics will ask, “And what else is new?”

The answer to that question is: The volume, complexity, and increased power of information are what’s new, and those aspects of information make all the difference.

While it shouldn’t be any great surprise to anyone who follows political news, the recent book by a former press secretary of President Bush describes in detail how the current administration manipulated the news by the use of inaccurate, slanted, and misleading information. The official White House response seems to be that the President will try to forgive his former aide. Forgive the man? That suggests that Bush believes it was wrong to reveal the White House’s informational shenanigans, and that personal loyalty is far more important than truth. This viewpoint isn’t new to the Presidency, but the degree to which it’s being carried appears to be.

One of the aspects of the mortgage banking and housing sector melt-down that’s also been downplayed is the incredible amount of false, misleading, and inaccurate information at all levels. Large numbers of homeowners were lied to and misled, and many were simply unable to wade through the paperwork to discover what was buried there in the legalese. The mortgage securitization firms misled the securities underwriters. The information issued by the underwriters misled the securities traders, and in the end, with all the misinformation, it appears that almost no one understood the magnitude of the problem before the meltdown.

We’re seeing, or not seeing, the same problem with recent economic statistics, particularly those measuring inflation. Until 2000, the most common indicator of the rate of inflation was the amount of change in the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which measured price fluctuations in a market-basket of goods. In 2000, however, the Administration decided to remove food and energy from that market basket on the grounds that changes in food and energy were “too volatile,” and the “new” index was named the Personal Consumption Expenditures Price Index, or PCE, which was described as better able to measure “core inflation.” That means that, although the price of crude oil has more than tripled in the past seven years, and food prices are rising significantly, neither affects the PCE… and the government is telling us that inflation is only a bit over two percent, while, measured by the old CPI, it’s at least four percent, which works out to 40% higher than the “official” figures.

Misleading or restricted information certainly isn’t limited to the federal government, either. One of the Salt Lake City papers noted that a local public health teacher was suspended for discussing sex education material not in the approved curriculum. Her offense? She factually answered student questions about such topics as homosexuality and masturbation, which angered a group of parents. Interestingly enough, the students protested her suspension with a rally and signs with such statements as “We’re the Guilty Ones. We Asked the Questions.” In the good old USA, we still have school boards restricting what can be taught or read based not on what is factual or accurate, but based on religious beliefs.

The multibillion dollar advertising industry consistently manipulates images and facts to create misleading impressions about various products, as do the majority of politicians and political parties, not to mention the plethora of interest groups ranging from the far right to the far left, each of which tends to state that its facts are the correct ones. Needless to say, those with resources and money are the ones whose facts tend to get seen and used the most.

Years ago, the psycholinguist Deborah Tannen observed that there is a gender difference in the use of information. According to her work, in general, men tend to use information to amass and maintain power, while women use it to built networks and draw people to them. That’s one reason why many men refuse to ask for directions — it’s an admission of failure and powerlessness.

Could it be that one reason why the United States so abuses information is that information has become the principal tool for obtaining power in a still-patriarchal and masculine dominated society? I may be stretching matters a bit, but I’m not so certain that I’m all that far off when information is so critical to almost every aspect of American society.

The underlying problem is that, in a mass media culture, even one with theoretical First Amendment protections, the “truth” doesn’t always come out. It often only appears when someone either has enough money and influence to get it on the various airways or when some diligent individual spends hours digging for it.

And then, how can the average individual, even one who is highly educated, determine the accuracy of such “counter-information,” particularly when such a large proportion of the information available to Americans has come to be false, slanted, inaccurate, misleading, or incomplete?

The ancient Romans had a saying — Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? — that asked, “Who watches the watchmen?” Perhaps we should consider asking, “Who scrutinizes the information on which we act?”

Or are we already too late? Were H. G. Wells and Orwell all too accurate in their prophecies?

Sexism, Ageism, and Racism — Just Manifestations of Human Placeism?

The past half-year’s round of presidential political primary contests in the United States has raised cries of sexism, racism, and even ageism, hardly surprising when the three leading candidates are, respectively, a woman, a black man, and the oldest man ever to seek the presidency for a first term. My wife and I were discussing this when she made the observation that all three “isms” are really just different forms of “placeism.”

By that, she meant that sexism against women is really just a manifestation of the idea that a woman’s place is, variously, in the home, raising children, or even just plain barefoot and pregnant… and that a woman who aspires to be president, or a corporate CEO, or a noted surgeon is, heaven forbid, leaving her culture-required or God-decreed “place.”

Likewise, a black man who aspires to be president is also out of place, because, for many people, whether they will admit it or not, a black’s place is one of subservience to Caucasians. And, of course, an older man’s place is in a rocking chair, on a golf course, or doing some sort of volunteer good works.

Such “places,” while certainly tacitly accepted and reinforced to some degree in most cultures across the globe, don’t have a basis in fact, but in custom. For generations, if not centuries, bias against people “of color” [and this also refers to Asian prejudices against Caucasians, Bantu prejudices against Bushmen, Chinese biases against all outsiders, as well as Caucasian prejudices against blacks or American Indians] has been based on the assumption that whoever was defined as being “of color” was genetically “inferior.” Now that the human genome has been largely sequenced, it’s more than clear that, not only is there no overriding genetic difference in terms of “race,” but the variations between people of similar “races” are often greater than the differences between those of one skin color and another.

The same argument applies to age. Senator McCain is far younger than a great number of world leaders who accomplished significant deeds at ages far older than the senator presently is. But in our youth-oriented society, someone who is old is regarded as out-of-place, with values and views at variance with popular culture, as well they may be, for with age can come a perspective lacking in the young. And, yes, with age for some people comes infirmity, but that infirmity is based on individual factors and not on a physical absolute that, at a “pre-set” age, one is automatically old and unable to function. As with all the other “place-isms,” ageism is effectively an attempt to dismiss someone who is older as out of place with the unspoken implication that the oldster is somehow unsuitable because he or she refuses to accept the “customary” place.

All such placeisms are rooted in prejudicial customs and flower into full distastefulness and unfairness when people hide behind the unspoken prejudice of tradition, religion, or custom and remain either unwilling or unable to judge people as individuals.

The results of a study published in the May 31st issue of The Economist also shed a new light on “placeism” with regard to women. The study surveyed the tested abilities of older male and female students in mathematical and verbal skills across a range of countries and cultures. The researchers concluded that, in those cultures where women had the greatest level of social, economic, and political equality, women’s test scores in math were equal to those of men, and their verbal skills were far greater — even greater than the current gap in countries such as the United States, where women already outshine men. In short, if men and women are treated as true equals with regard to rights and opportunity, on average the women will outperform the men in all mental areas. Could it just be that men understand that, and that instinctive understanding is why in most cultures men want to keep women “in their place?”

Heavens no! It couldn’t be that, could it? It must be that women are just so much better suited to the home or, if in the public arena, supporting men, just as black are far better in athletic endeavors because their genes make them better in sports and less able in politics and business, and just as all old people have lost all judgment the moment they’re eligible to join AARP or collect Social Security checks.

That’s right, isn’t it? After all, there’s a place for everything, and everyone has his — or her — place, and we know just where that should be, don’t we?