Archive for the ‘Music and Cultural Criticism’ Category

A Modest Proposal: The Burkino, for Men

Saturday, September 3rd, 2016

originally published in the New York Daily News, September 3 2016 (http://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/judith-miller-ann-marlowe-introducing-burkino-article-1.2776329)

Introducing the burkino: A modest proposal in the spirit of equality

Why not men too? (NEIL HALL/REUTERS)
BY Judith Miller Ann Marlowe
NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Saturday, September 3, 2016, 5:00 AM

Fashion Week is coming. So in the spirit of audacious runway creativity, here’s a new sartorial concept for the Muslim Middle East — and a way to at least partially solve the French “burkini” challenge: the “burkino,” full-body-covering beachwear for men.

Brimming with cultural outrage, French officials from 30 municipalities recently decided to protect precious laïcité , or secularism, by banning women from wearing full-body bathing suits, calling the mere choice of modest swimwear a “provocation.”

Free-speech advocates have strongly objected. How can France, which shattered social convention back in 1946 by inventing the bikini and whose national motto starts with the endorsement of of liberté , tell women what they can and can’t wear at the beach or pool? Indeed, France’s highest administrative court recently struck down one town’s burkini ban on grounds that it violates civil liberties and that the garb poses no threat to public safety.

Yet the bathing suit battle seems likely to continue, as towns continue insisting that the burkini is actually a veiled (so to speak) attempt by Islamist fundamentalists to impose religious dress, and hence Islamist values, in what France considers religion-free public space.

Now, with tongue in cheek, a long-time fashion insider, Kym Canter, proposes a bold compromise: appropriately demure beachwear for men.

Rather than making it illegal for women to cover one’s hair and body, why not offer Muslim men an opportunity to express solidarité — another French value — with their shrouded wives and sisters? In fact, in the name of gender neutrality, why should France not insist upon it?

Many Islamic scholars argue that the modesty imperative applies to both men and women (though over time, patriarchies being what they are, women have borne the brunt of the prophet’s insistence that women should cover their “adornments” and that men and women dress and act to avoid temptation).

“Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and be modest,” instructs the Koran. So let us level the sartorial score.

Canter, a fashion trend-hunter and entrepreneur, thinks the potential market could be huge. She would like to offer the burkino in four basic colors — black, navy, gray and safety orange — and in all sizes: small, medium, large, extra and super extra large. She would also like to offer a paunch-concealing model, in all sizes.

Consider the side benefits. Until now, devout Muslim men have looked enviously at their heavily covered wives and daughters, shielded from public view, wondering how they, too, could enjoy beachwear consistent with the modesty that some interpretations of their faith impose on women in public spaces.

The burkino would also end the fat-shaming that affects so many male beach-goers. No more need Muslim men fear that their imperfect bodies will be the object of scorn or search in vain for an alternative to standard male beach attire — bare chests and baggy shorts, or, worse, form-fitting Lycra briefs.

And European beach-goers will no longer be able to accuse Muslim men of hypocrisy for dressing like secular Europeans while insisting that their wives cover up.

But wait, there’s more. Devout Muslim men, like their mothers, sisters, and wives, would no longer have to worry about getting sunburned.

Yes, it’s a bit tricky to do the breast stroke, or the butterfly, in the burkino. But isn’t that a small price to pay for the psychological, physical — and spiritual — security burkinos would provide?

Some men might resent being asked to give up water skiing, for instance, in the name of Islamic modesty. But others will take the plunge. For the brave, the burkino’s moment has come.

Miller is an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Marlowe is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute.

TOEFL, a Desperately Dull & Profoundly Unfair Exam

Monday, March 14th, 2016

(originally published on March 14 2016 in Tabletmag.com; http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/198339/toefl-abuses-english-language)

TOEFL, a Desperately Dull and Profoundly Unfair Exam, Abuses the English Language

I tried to prep a pair of Afghan teens for American boarding school, but instead of teaching them the language they need, I spent all my time explaining cultural references and unfamiliar contexts

By Ann Marlowe

Tablet
United States
TOEFL, a Desperately Dull and Profoundly Unfair Exam, Abuses the English Language

I tried to prep a pair of Afghan teens for American boarding school, but instead of teaching them the language they need, I spent all my time explaining cultural references and unfamiliar contexts

By Ann Marlowe
March 13, 2016 • 10:00 PM

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“Who is Alicia Keys?” Amina’s voice over the Viber connection to Afghanistan was faint but her puzzlement was clear. I didn’t think I was going to have to give lessons on American pop culture when I set out to tutor Amina, 16, and her brother Ahmad, 17, for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). Truth was, I didn’t know much about Alicia Keys either, and that hadn’t interfered with my life so far.

I’d met Amina and Ahmad in their home town of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan in 2002, when they were 3 and 4 years old. We took to each other from the start. And I kept visiting their family—and staying in their big family compound—at least once a year up until 2011. For most of that time, Afghanistan in general and Mazar in particular seemed to be on an upward path.

Amina and Ahmad both go to the local Afghan-Turk High School—run by the Turkish Gulenist movement and rather peculiar but the best option among the not very impressive selection of local private schools. Everything was going well for Amina and Ahmad until this year, when the Afghan government began what looks like a meltdown. This summer, the girls’ Afghan-Turk school received Taliban death threats, and the Taliban’s success in capturing Kunduz briefly this fall didn’t bode well for Mazar, just 100 miles away. So, this fall Amina and Ahmad’s parents asked me to help them apply to boarding school in the United States.

To apply to American boarding school or college, foreign students must take an English language test, usually instead of the PSAT or SAT. For all the boarding schools we were interested in (and for the vast majority of colleges) the TOEFL is required. While there are TOEFL junior and primary tests for ages 11+ and 8+ respectively, the TOEFL iBT, or Internet-based test, which Amina and Ahmad will take, is suggested for “16+”. They will be competing with students five or 10 years older—they are lucky enough to attend a local TOEFL prep course, and the other students are at the local university. The TOEFL IBT takes four and a half hours and incorporates reading, listening, speaking, and writing sections.

I’d assumed Amina and Ahmad would have a tough time with the TOEFL, as they have little experience with English. Uzbek, a Turkic language, is their home language. Dari—a dialect of Farsi and, along with Pashtu, one of the two official languages of Afghanistan—is what they speak outside the house. Turkish is the second language of their high school. They also study Pashtu in school, as it’s obligatory for Afghan students to study both Dari and Pashtu. But not English. So, I was prepared for an uphill battle to improve Amina and Ahmad’s English. And I adjusted to the fact that the Internet is slow in Mazar, and it takes a long time to download files or refresh a screen.

What I didn’t expect was the esoteric cultural content embedded in the test. In three months of working an hour a day with Ahmad and Amina, seven days a week, I’ve come to see the TOEFL as almost always dull and often profoundly unfair to students from the more remote parts of the developing world.

***

Alicia Keys came up in a practice reading selection on the Empire State Building’s switch to LED lights—an event which wasn’t exactly of earth-shattering importance for me or anyone else I know in New York. “What does Alicia Keys suggest the Empire State building is a symbol of?” the question asked. The explanation involved my explaining to the Afghan siblings why New York is called “The Empire State.” Another question about the lighting of the Empire State Building referred to the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. This also puzzled the young Afghans, as this isn’t a car available in Afghanistan.

It also took a lot of work—and I mean, a lot—to explain the worldview embodied in the test. Two of the 10 questions in the Empire State Building selection focused on the environmental effects of the building’s shift to LED lights, using the phrases “to become more green” and “environmentally conscious,” which make no intuitive sense to non-English speakers from the developing world. For those who live in a largely pre-industrial society like Amina and Ahmad, getting electricity is a much more familiar concern than saving it. (Viber makes our sessions possible even when the city power is down.)

The TOEFL, I came to see, is less a test of proficiency in the English language than it is a test of students’ familiarity with fashionable American media and pop culture references and with current topics like global warming and the greenhouse effect. For instance, the Empire State Building passage includes this:

The LED system has “16.7 million color possibilities, in digital combinations of ripples, sparkles, sweeps and strobes,” says Phil O’Donnell, of Burlington, Mass.-based Philips Color Kinetics that’s responsible for the system and worked with a resident lighting designer. It’s the sum of all possibilities – a huge palette.

While it is possible to imagine the person for whom this kind of breathless virtue-signaling might be a source of near-physical pleasure, it is hard to argue that properly parsing word-combinations like “ripples, sparkles, sweeps and strobes” is crucial for academic success in America. While I was trying to teach Ahmad and Amina grammar, vocabulary, and test smarts—read the first paragraph and the last, then look at the questions to see how many you can answer and what you need to attend to as you read the rest—what I couldn’t teach were dozens of references to things, places, and experiences that Afghans have no acquaintance with.

An internationally famous ballerina, Maria Tallchief, demonstrated that the quality of ballet in North America could equal those of the ballet in Europe.

If you don’t know whether a ballerina is a scientist or a dancer, or that the words “ballerina” and “ballet” are related, how are you supposed to answer the question?

The Educational Testing Service (ETS), the behemoth that runs the TOEFL, insists that cultural context has little to do with the accuracy of the test. ETS’ Manager of Public Relations, Allyson Norton, emailed answers to my questions about cultural context. She responded,

One of the key principles of passage selection is that the passage needs to stand alone, meaning no prior knowledge is needed to understand the passage. … Further, background knowledge of content within test passages does not significantly impact scores.

But is it realistic to think that students who have no background knowledge on any question, like Ahmad and Amina, generally do as well as, say, test takers from a European country?

Norton sent me an internal study that showed that:

reading passages were neither advantageous nor disadvantageous to those who had physical science backgrounds or were familiar with a certain culture, and this holds for both the lower and higher proficiency groups.

The paper that Norton sent me referred to two types of mental processing used in reading comprehension, top down and bottom up. Both are used in most reading. Those who rely too heavily on top down, context-based understanding may make errors. But Norton also sent me a document that proves my main point: a country-by-country breakdown of average scores on the TOEFL’s four parts. There is a clear correlation between countries that are poor, isolated, and less linked to the world economy and countries with low average TOEFL scores. No surprise, Afghanistan ranks near the bottom with an average score of 69 out of a possible 120.

The rankings are fascinating. It’s no surprise that Equatorial Guinea stands dead last at 59, but Saudi Arabia is also at 59. Meanwhile Israel is 93, just two points below English-speaking New Zealand, and the highest scores belong to Austria and English-speaking Northern Ireland tied at 100. So, what are these tests actually measuring?

As the variation in country scores suggests, the common-sense hypothesis that success on the TOEFL is correlated with coming from a richer, more developed, more globalized country is true. The TOEFL tests cultural knowing-ness as much as it tests English skills. Of course, there’s a correlation there, too: If your English is really good, chances are you spend time on English language websites, listen to English language songs, watch English language movies, and so on.

The research also shows that test takers who are applying to high school have the highest average scores, higher than applicants to graduate or professional schools. My hypothesis is that apart from anomalies like Ahmad and Amina, most foreign teens who apply to boarding school in the United States are from rich, sophisticated families who have sent their children to excellent schools where they are immersed in American culture.

There’s also another issue, which has nothing to do with cultural literacy. Many of the TOEFL reading selections are simply deadly dull. Some are poorly written, vague, and confusing; others are clear but concern subject matter like geology that would get very few page views if posted on an online news site. I can understand that graduate-student test takers ought to be ready to tackle tedious material—adults often have to read boring articles for work. But why is this necessary for teenagers applying to high school? Why not pick excerpts from famous speeches by Churchill or Lincoln? How about some easy English poetry? When I asked Amina and Ahmad to read some poems by Robert Frost, they were much more interested than in anything the TOEFL practice tests have put before them.

Ironically, though there is not much to say in favor of the Afghan school system, public or private—they don’t teach evolution, for instance; and brutal physical punishment, though officially prohibited, is not uncommon—Afghan students know well the glories of Persian literature. They study the great Persian (and Pashtu) poets. Ahmad and Amina have memorized poetry in Farsi and Turkish (the most celebrated Afghan poet, Rumi, also wrote in Turkish). It’s sad that nothing they have encountered in prepping for the TOEFL has given them a hint that English is a powerful, economical, and supple language that has produced libraries full of magnificent novels, essays, and poetry.

Winner Take All (review of Barash’s Out of Eden)

Wednesday, March 9th, 2016

(originally published in The Weekly Standard on March 14 2016: http://www.weeklystandard.com/winner-take-all/article/2001398)

Winner Take All
Polygamy is more common, and more consequential, than you think.

Mar 14, 2016 | By Ann Marlowe

If you’ve ever wanted to know why Albuquerque topless pole dancers get significantly higher tips on days when they are more fertile—and who doesn’t?—this book is for you. Like many other aspects of human behavior, it has to do with the fact that men and women both try to maximize the success of their genes, but they necessarily follow different strategies. In a state of nature, men try to impregnate as many women as possible, while women try to secure the best providers possible for their children. It’s not necessary that a woman have all her children with one man, but it’s generally best for their survival if children grow up with the man who fathered them. Thus, men try to become harem masters, while women try for serial monogamy.

Of course, it’s been a long time since we lived in a state of nature, and it’s another matter whether we want to validate all of our biological impulses. But David Barash has one big theme, repeated again and again: Polygamy is the “default setting for human intimacy.” Barash, an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington, outlines humanity’s past and our similarities with other mammals to show that human culture incorporates both polygyny and (almost always covertly) polyandry. Along the way, he argues that serial monogamy is better than polygamy for most people. The reasons differ for each gender.

Polygamy is close to winner-take-all for males of all species: “Under polygyny, the ‘variance’ in male reproductive success is high, whereas the variance in female reproductive success is low.” Some unsuccessful males don’t get to reproduce at all, though a few will get to father many, many children. On the other hand, nearly all fertile females will be impregnated by some male.

The question, in terms of reproductive success, is whether a woman was better off being the fifth wife of a high-status man or the sole wife of an average-status man. It has to do with how many of her children survive. And infant mortality can be very alarming in polygynous households: For example, almost half of Dogon children in Mali die before the age of 5, and kids from polygamous Dogon households die at a rate 7 to 11 times that found in monogamous households. Closer to home, anecdotal evidence from the police blotter is confirmed by studies showing that the biggest risk factor for children is living with a nonbiological parent. And in a harem, all children live with nonbiological parents.

There are a lot of illuminating facts here. “When any species shows a consistent pattern of males larger and stronger than females,” Barash writes, “it’s a good bet that polygyny is involved.” This is because bigger males tend to win out in male-male competition for mates. Males and females are around the same size in species lacking this competition. Barash has previously written on the biological basis for violence, and it’s fascinating to learn that a 2014 United Nations report found that between 2000 and 2014, homicide and “acts of personal violence” killed more people around the world than wars did—about six million. This is testimony to the place of competition among males in human evolution, for almost all these murders were committed by men—and most were committed on men, too.

There are also some duds. Barash includes too many extended quotes from H. L. Mencken, and his literary scholarship can be unreliable (John Calvin did not live in 18th-century Geneva!). At least one argument is alarmingly careless: In most animal species, females keep breeding until death. What’s the evolutionary payoff to stopping? Barash discusses the “grandmother hypothesis,” which argues that senior women help perpetuate their genes by caring for grandchildren. This may be true—but it isn’t true that, in the conditions under which we evolved, “women undergo menopause at the age when their own children are beginning to reproduce.” It’s more likely that women began reproducing in their mid-teens in prehistoric times, becoming grandmothers in their early-to-mid-30s. The age of menopause, at 50 or so, was near death.

Barash is predictably deferential to the bien pensant: “The more we know about the crucial role of cooperative breeding, the more we see that ‘biparental’ care can be provided by a range of parent-like figures, definitely including same-sex adult partners with commitment to each other.” This insistence on not giving offense might be what leads Barash to avoid one obvious topic: the effect of 1,400 years of Islam, with its official sanction of polygyny, on the cultures where it has held sway. Barash points out that only a few percent of Muslim men seem to have more than one wife. But up until fairly recent times, these would have been the richest and most influential among them.

If Barash is right to argue that children in polygynous households have a higher mortality rate, because of the stepmother effect, one could say that the richest, most successful Muslim households have not been producing children at the rate of the richest, most successful Christian households. And the wives in polygynous households, who would be expected to be the highest-status women from the richest families—who are likely to be the daughters of men who are more clever and resourceful—are not reproductively as successful as they would be if they were monogamously married. So, over the course of centuries, it’s possible that the most talented portion of the population in the Muslim world has been under-reproducing.

But although Barash doesn’t ask, or answer, all the questions one might want him to address, he does provide a lucid, well-organized review of the current state of knowledge about polygamy. Anyone who thinks or writes about related issues will find this a valuable guide.