26 March 2006

OpenOffice’s Open World

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

About three years ago, I switched from Microsoft Office to OpenOffice version 1.0, a free, open-source software system that has many of the same functions as Microsoft’s program; since then, I have done all my word processing, spreadsheets, and even presentations using OpenOffice. Why the switch? Well, in some ways, Microsoft is like General Motors was in the 1960s: the ubiquitous, dominant force in its field. Many, many people use Microsoft products, from the Windows operating system to Microsoft Office to Internet Explorer – and much like GM in the 1960s, Americans use these systems despite their problems, because it was easier to buy the known, home-made Chevy, than the foreign Honda or Toyota.

That was then, and this is now. Just as GM has spent three decades in decline, faced by better, more competitive products, so too should Microsoft now be challenged (again). While Apple has honed its wares as the boutique computer company, and used the iPod to expand the size of the clientele despite those high boutique prices, the open-source software moved has attacked from the other direction: open innovation and cost. Alas, while Linux has been successful at changing the game in terms of server systems, it has not had much impact in the personal computing market, as a counterweight to Microsoft Windows; it is still too much the toy of computer geeks. Other open-source programs, such as Mozilla’s Firefox web browser, have made greater inroads: deservingly, because it is far better than Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, and users have access to a wide range of add-on features that allow them to customize their web experience.

Still, Microsoft survives on the combined ubiquity of Windows and Office. I switched because I was tired of the problems of Microsoft software: the crashing programs, the growing file sizes, the susceptibility to viruses, and the unneeded features like “Smart Tags.” OpenOffice would not change everything, but it was a step in the direction of liberating my computing from the Microsoft monolith. After three years, I remain convinced it was the right move – and in Fall 2005, OpenOffice released its version 2.0 software, which has only validated that conviction. The new program is better, stronger, more stable, and has more useful features. Not bad for something that comes to you for free, collaboratively built by users around the world.

One early problem with OpenOffice was exchanging files with Microsoft’s products, but in the new version of the program, compatibility with Microsoft’s Word, Excel, and PowerPoint is just about flawless. My company still uses Microsoft Word, but the documents I create there, including those with customized formatting to accommodate the firm’s letterhead and other details, work perfectly saving in and out of OpenOffice on my computer at home. The same with Excel-based spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations: OpenOffice handles them all. Likewise, creating Microsoft documents in OpenOffice works perfectly.

OpenOffice has built-in, one-click features – like the ability to make Adobe Acrobat (PDF) files, or Flash programs for the web – not available in Microsoft Office. (My favorite one-click feature is the “E-mail as PDF” function: in one shot, a document is converted to a PDF file, and attached to a blank e-mail, ready to be sent out.) OpenOffice is also stable: in three years of heavy use, it has crashed only twice, and each time I recovered my files easily. And the OpenDocument file format saves each document as a smaller file than do Microsoft’s programs. Moreover, OpenOffice also functions as one program for all these “office” needs: whether you’re working on a spreadsheet, a text document, a database, or a presentation, each file opens from the same interface; no more using four separate programs for each document. In my (extremely unscientific) tests, this system also showed itself to be more efficient with computing resources: less RAM memory required and less computing power used when one file of each type is opened.

Try the program – it costs nothing. That said, OpenOffice is worthy of your support; try it, and if you like it, consider making a donation, as I have. And think about that: a donation. How much better does it feel to support something because you appreciate it, than to pay for something because you have no choice? Much better! Microsoft may be ubiquitous, but that does mean it is eternal; it is time to end that ubiquity. Using – and supporting – OpenOffice is a step in the right direction.


For some reason, the links to two recent posts do not appear to be working. I have re-posted those articles, and the new links are as follows:

- Sha-la-la-la-la-la, Conserve For Today

- A Return to Sophomore Year of College

19 March 2006

Little Cities, Big Towns

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I live in New York City, but I rarely go to Albany. I was born in Baltimore, Maryland, but cannot remember ever visiting Annapolis. I have been to Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Louisville, Newark, New Orleans, Portland, and Seattle – but never to Springfield, Carson City, Sacramento, Frankfort, Trenton, Baton Rouge, Salem, or Olympia.

This is not a lesson in geography-by-free-association, but rather a perspective on the nature of growth and government in the United States: in 33 of the 50 states, the capital city and the largest city are not the same, including in the six most populous states, California, Florida, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Moreover, those six states are among the biggest economies within the country (California actually comprising one of the world’s largest economies in its own right), and yet each state’s policy-makers sit several hundred miles from the the cities and people that are their economic engines.

One type of idealist might say that the more these two aspects of life are conjoined – politics and economics – the more the citizens benefit from the combined expertise and the increased awareness of social issues within both communities. After all, it is when the politicians become too isolated, too trapped in their own social spheres, that they lose touch with the people they have been (t)asked to govern. Similarly, if businesses were in closer proximity to those addressing governance issues, maybe they would be quicker to share the concerns of the communities in which they operate. (Maybe WalMart would have been more ready to address the challenge of providing health care coverage for its employees if it were stationed in a city as large and diverse as Los Angeles or New York, rather than in Bentonville, Arkansas.) Of course, in a democracy – with elected representatives chosen from within our communities – this kind of psychological distance should not be present: our representatives should know us, and our desires, because they come from us and are chosen by us. Likewise, businesses should operate in the interests of their communities because the health of the citizens can affect the health of their companies and the value returned to their owners and shareholders.

That said, locating government elsewhere may just provide a beneficial separation, an insulation of politics from business and a degree of protection for both. Most cities have their own obsessions and forms of intrigue, whether it’s the Hollywood-style showbiz drama of LA or celebrity stocks and famous brokers in market-driven NYC – and these are distinctly different from the sturm-und-drang of budget bills, lobbyist lunches, and the sausage-making that is politics. It is tempting to see this division of cities as being very American, fed by our mythological distaste with government, which encourages us to focus our economic energies more effectively when the politicians are off by themselves, elsewhere.

That’s the myth, anyway. Looked at in a global context, this distinction between geography, demography, and economy is rare: London, Paris, Madrid, Rome, Berlin, Moscow, Beijing, Tokyo, Cairo, Baghdad, Tehran, Mexico City, Buenos Aires... All are capitals, all are the largest population centers of their respective countries, and most are the primary business centers, too.

The oddities of the growth of our cities may just be an accident of American history. After all, Houston, Los Angeles, and Phoenix were backwater towns for much of the 20th century, even though they now sit comfortably amongst the top 10 largest cities in the U.S. (Other aspects of these cities – such as proximity to water, or temperate climates, or merely being newer communities in which people could easily establish themselves – certainly played a role in their rapid, post-World War II development.)

Meanwhile, Baltimore, New York City, and Philadelphia each had brief turns as capitals in the colonial era, but government eventually moved on. Those cities prospered anyway. Go figure!

Click here for a PDF of U.S. State Capitals & Largest Cities.

12 March 2006

Conserve For Today

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I tend to think about the things I throw away. Partly, that’s a manifestation of my inner pack-rat – “Do I really want to get rid of that?” is a question I ask myself all too often – but increasingly, it reflects a concern with the impact of my garbage on the rest of the world. And once I started thinking about it, three details began to make their way slowly into my consciousness: how much we (humans) could do to recycle, but don’t; how little guidance or substantive discussion there is on what to do, or what the options are; and how little we are talking about the ethical implications of creating and using different products (except where it concerns automotive gasoline consumption or home heating oil, which are core American pocketbook issues).

That we live in a “disposable culture” is a cliché, if not a truism, but what we tend to mean by that phrase is something rather different than the real impact of those words; we think of this as referring to a society in which we just replace what has broken – say, a stereo or a cell phone – instead of fixing and reusing the old one. Without minimizing the problem of discarded electronics or other contraptions, there is a huge range of other items – such as the plastic containers from take-out food, the plastic bags used to store food we buy at the grocery store, or plastic or glass bottles – about which there is very little public discussion. Some of us probably make a concerted effort to reuse these things, thus extending their lifespan, however briefly; my suspicion is that most people do not bother, because it is just that: a bother, an effort. It takes a particular mindset to look at that yogurt container and envision a planter, or to skip using the thin plastic bags grocery stores provide when buying vegetables. Meanwhile, although many communities encourage recycling, not all household products are recyclable, and only 11 states currently have “bottle bills,” laws that (theoretically) provide a financial incentive for consumers to recycle their glass, plastic, and aluminum. Still, if questions about re-use and recycling are one area of concern, there is at least some awareness of the challenge, and most containers now carry little graphics reminding consumers to recycle or noting that they are made from recycled materials already.

But recycling household items is just one small part of the broader picture of the materials and energy we use on a daily basis. Every time I wash out some piece of plastic to reuse it, I wonder about the water I’m using: how much energy it takes to deliver it (heated) to my sink and the impact of using this water for this purpose. I assume that it is better for the world that I wash the container out and re-use it – that whatever the various costs of the water, they’re still lower than the ecological impact of plastic in the landfill. But just try finding any analysis that confirms that assumption! It is virtually impossible; it just is not part of our public dialog.

Then there’s the lost opportunity represented by the slightly-soapy water swirling down the drain: “gray water.” “Gray water” is the term for once-used waste water from sinks or showers or laundry machines, water that contains enough pollutants and bacteria that one wouldn’t want to drink it – but not so much that the water can’t be reused, like for watering one’s garden. Every now and again, an article will run in a newspaper about how some clever person hooked-up a tank in their garden to collect rainwater, or installed a siphon system in their household plumbing to capture and reuse gray water, but it is not as though these articles are common, and neither do the plumbing solutions seem to be readily available.

I think of the negative environmental impact of golf courses (e.g., lots of water, and fertilizer, used to maintain grass that provides little environmental benefit) and imagine those vast lawns being watered with the gray water “waste” from their surrounding communities. Recycling in action! Where I live in Manhattan, gardens may be rare, but one common sight from spring to fall is that of building superintendents using (fresh) water to hose off the sidewalk. What a perfect use for gray water! The only thing I can think of that makes more sense is to recycle it as toilet water. None of these idea have gained much ground, even though this kind of recycling could reduce our water consumption by more than one third.


You Are Making A DifferenceTM

If every household in the U.S. replaced just one bottle if 28 oz. petroleum based dishwashing liquid with our 28 oz. vegetable based product, we could save 118,700 barrels of oil, enough to heat and cool 6,800 U.S. homes for a year.

-- From the label of Seventh Generation® Natural Dish Liquid


Some more math: light sweet crude oil was trading at about $61 per barrel on Friday, 10 March 2006; 118,700 barrels, at $61 per barrel, is $7,240,700. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, one barrel of crude oil produces 20 gallons of gasoline and seven gallons of diesel fuel; therefore 118,700 barrels of oil produces 2,374,000 gallons of gasoline and 830,900 gallons of diesel fuel. If the average car driven in the U.S. gets about 24.5 miles per gallon of gasoline, then 2,374,000 gallons of gas will carry you about 96,898 miles. Traveling 96,898 miles is roughly equal to circumnavigating Earth 4 times (The circumference of Earth at the equator is approximately 24,830 miles.)


Public discussions about consumption, recycling, and environmental impact issues are not taking place in this country, and there are undoubtedly many reasons for that. Here are my top three: our wealth (which sustains our consumption, and makes conservation seem less critical); our nature (American individualism, a core commitment to “freedom” in some highly abstracted sense); and our culture (typically not very self-reflective, rather more focused on future achievements). That it took until January 2006 – six years in office, amidst booming oil prices and a nation of SUVs – for President George W. Bush to admit that the U.S. is addicted to oil speaks even more loudly than whatever namby-pamby solutions he proposed to address the problem.

There is also great irony here: despite our wealth, inherent nature, and success-driven culture, we are also a nation of moralizers: of god-fearing, church-going, values-talking Red-staters on the one hand, and Prius-driving, fur-hating, tree-hugging Blue-staters on the other. Conservation – saving the Earth – seems like it should fit well within a conservative religious framework; after all, if the planet was a divine gift, shouldn’t it be our obligation to protect and nurture it? Instead, the Conservative agenda within America seems to be to help President Bush address America’s oil addiction by pushing for oil drilling (and thereby sustaining consumption) in one of the planet’s last untouched wildernesses: the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I guess if you’re a Republican, it’s easy to ignore the shared root between the words “conservative” and “conservation.”

But fear not: the Democrats, the party of Al Gore’s environmental beliefs, are not much better. Indeed, looking at the web site for leading Democrat Senator Hillary Clinton, one finds only the most benign kind of environmental pablum, such as support for a bill that would “require 20 percent of the nation’s electricity to be produced from renewable sources by 2020.” By golly, Hillary, that’s showing ‘em how to do it! (No mention here of a position on the underwater turbine farm planned for the East River – which could be a significant power source if it manages to move ahead.) And then there’s the entertaining debacle over a “wind farm” on Cape Cod, which has some people’s knickers in a twist because, despite its environmental value (perhaps generating as much as 2/3rds of the electricity needed on the Cape), well ... it just might not be so pretty. Leading the charge against it? Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. You show ‘em, son; I’m sure your father would be proud.

All this environmental talk is cheap, but in many ways, we are not even talking, let alone acting. The Guardian, one of the leading, left-leaning newspapers in England, has a regular column on “ethical living.” Written by Leo Hicks, recent columns have addressed the impact of owning a second home, playing golf, and drinking orange juice. Nor are the answers all downers; just as often, they are a practical mixture of ethics, environmental concerns, and the desire to enjoy life – so, for instance, OJ fans are encouraged to drink up, but also to buy “fair trade” juice, or make their own juice from “fair trade” oranges, rather than support the larger and more ethically-challenged OJ producers.

Now imagine a column like that in the New York Times – or USA Today. Frankly, I can’t. Ever since President Jimmy Carter was laughed at for encouraging Americans to conserve energy by turning down their thermostats, it seems like we work harder and harder to put distance between ourselves and any obligations to the world in which we live. (Except for gasoline, of course, where we pretend to care, but are mostly just concerned with per-gallon costs.) If even the nation’s best and brightest aren’t willing to focus on the issue, and if our local and national politicians won’t deal with it, what hope do the rest of us have?


UPDATE - 13 March - Today's New York Times features an article about windmills in upstate New York...

05 March 2006

Return to Sophomore Year

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Feminism & Me, Part IV. A review of A Return to Modesty: Discovering The Lost Virtue, by Wendy Shalit, published 1999 by Free Press, New York.

Bear with me, please, as I begin with a few personal statements that will help in an assessment of Wendy Shalit’s book.

  1. In high school, a male friend and I together swore off dating, after we each suffered from unrequited crushes. Most of my close friends – then, as now – were women; I didn’t date these women (contrary to parental perceptions). My wife, for whom I have very strong romantic feelings – I love and respect her deeply – is also, unquestionably, my best friend.

  1. I went to Hampshire College, home of the “Clothing Optional” dormitory hall, the co-ed bathroom, and the co-ed naked sauna. Despite the general lack of nudity in the co-ed bathrooms, I always wore a bathrobe. I spend three or four semesters living in an on-campus apartment with my girlfriend and her best friend. I never went to the sauna.

  2. In one course, my first or second year at Hampshire, a classmate gave a presentation on the influence of Socrates on Dostoevsky, and kept pronouncing Socrates’ name as if it were “Sō-Krayts,” as in the movie Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. She was not aiming for irony.

  3. In another college course, on World War II history, taken as the first Gulf War began, many of my classmates had a tough time not talking about the current war and not trying to draw parallels between WWII and the then-current war – even though it was not terribly pertinent to learning about WWII.

  4. My grandmother, born in 1906, was a beautiful, strong woman. She used to tell me about her childhood and young-adulthood in Germany, and the many suitors she had as a young woman; she never told me whether she had sex with any of them or not. When she met my grandfather, he was a young man, already divorced and with a daughter. Grandma told me that before they were married, they went away to Vienna for a weekend; she never told me whether they had sex that weekend. My grandmother used to say, apropos male-female relationships: “Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?” Among the many family photo albums is one of my grandfather’s, from before my grandparents were married; it shows him at a spa, hanging out with a bunch of women; his “girlfriends” my grandmother called them, matter-of-factly. My grandparents were married for more than 50 years.

  5. My grandmother visited me once at Hampshire, and found a bra in my room, but covered it back up; she knew whose it was. She didn’t tell me this story until five or six years after it happened, and she laughed as she told me, teasing me about it.

  6. My wife and I did not live together before we got married. In fact, we didn’t live together until about 5 months after we got married.

  7. I have friends from college with whom I would happily hop in a hot tub, naked; I have friends from college with whom I would never consider such an activity; and there are a few post-college friends in each category. I don’t think you could pay my wife enough to get in a hot tub, naked, with any group of people.

  8. I used to subscribe to Esquire magazine, Rolling Stone magazine, and The New York Review of Books. I never considered the information in Esquire or Rolling Stone to be equivalent in value to the information in The New York Review of Books.


Wendy Shalit makes a compelling case for the failures of feminism for contemporary generations of women and girls, both in terms of the loss of childhood innocence, and the bizarre way in which the drive for “equality” ended up denying obvious differences between men and women. Several years before Ariel Levy came along to put the term “Female Chauvinist Pig” to it, Shalit describes similar behaviors, and offers this quote (among many others) from a New York magazine article: “To be a cool girl you kind of have to stab girlkind in the back.” (P. 226) So much for solidarity! Similarly, as Shalit points out, there is an absurdity in Glamour magazine “celebrating the woman who is ‘sweating’ and ‘swaggering’” – acts which may be perfectly human, but aren’t necessarily qualities one thinks of as glamorous. (P. 107) Yes, she writes, women “have been trained to accept that to be equal to men, they must be the same in every respect; and they, and the men, are worse off for it.” (P. 11) I am inclined to agree.

Shalit also goes to some lengths to address the fallacies inherent in both the liberal and conservative approaches to women’s issues. Early on, she asks “conservatives to take the claims of the feminists seriously. That is, all of their claims, from the date-rape figures to anorexia to the shyness of teenage girls,” and “to stop saying boys will be boys.” She then turns to the feminists and wants “them to consider whether the cause of all this unhappiness might be something other than the patriarchy.” (P. 9) A Return to Modesty has some valuable, clear-eyed, first-person analysis of the state of (some) women and girls, and a review of the way their issues and claims are (mis)treated for political ends on both sides of the political spectrum. Shalit’s strongest passages are when she confronts both sides simultaneously, to hew out a new path through the overgrown hedgerow dividing feminist from anti-feminist. Similarly, I agree with her that we live in an often brutal society, one that engages children and young adults in the language, ideas, and acts of adult sexuality earlier and more forcefully than they might otherwise discover it for themselves. This helps sustain a confusion of identity and goals among girls and young women (as Levy articulates quite effectively), and for Shalit seems directly connected to the various psychiatric problems witnessed, such as depression, anorexia, or self-mutilation.


But is Wendy Shalit’s solution – “modesty” in its various forms – really the answer to these social ills? The problems with A Return to Modesty are much larger, deeper, and more disturbing than any of the benefits of Shalit’s analysis – and so too her conclusion, that a reintroduction of the ideal of modesty would solve the problems of women-in-contemporary-society. I began with nine statements about myself, because they are representative of the problems throughout Shalit’s book; it is not, per se, the references to the personal, as a means of attacking the philosophical, that I find so troubling. Indeed, Shalit addresses this point in her acknowledgments, and I tend to agree with her that philosophizing entirely in the abstract – as if there is no connection between the ideas espoused and one’s own life – is a flawed approach. (P. 280) Rather, it is the substance of her references that are so meaningless and, therefore, so troubling, and which leave her argument in tatters, compounded by a failure to grasp the complexity of human nature (sexually and otherwise). Herewith, an enumeration of the nine not-so-modest problems of A Return to Modesty:

1. Shalit published this book two years after she graduated from Williams College, and the precociousness of that act would be less obvious if Shalit’s frames of reference were not all so sophomoric. That is, indeed, precisely the right word – because her most consistent frames of reference are her experiences at Williams, beginning with an ostracizing moment in a Sophomore year philosophy class. (P. 87) Over and over and over this terrain she goes: exploring the contradictions of female students protesting against date rape in “The Clothesline Project” (P. 9) on the one hand and passing out “Shameless Hussy” stickers for “Women’s Pride Week” (P. 107) on the other; looking at the various ways in which her professors responded to her push for modesty, or the response from other students to her article about Williams’ co-ed bathrooms. (PP. 233-34)

The whole idea of taking college students seriously as fully-fledged adults – as though they have completely thought-through, well-reasoned opinions on every subject – is absurd. College is about growth, development, engagement with a diverse range of ideas and people – that’s why upper-middle-class parents like the Shalits (or the Freudenheims) send their children to schools like Williams (or Hampshire, or Harvard). Wendy Shalit is herself an example of this: as she notes, her own philosophy began to take shape during college, as she confronted new ideas. I am not suggesting that Shalit should be dismissive of their thoughts or feelings, such as when female students respond positively to her critique of the school’s co-ed bathrooms; but these positions must be taken with a grain of salt, with an understanding of how little real experience an 18-year-old or 21-year-old has with the world of ideas, other than the ones on which they were raised. All this is particularly ironic for someone who writes, as Shalit does, about a too-early loss of innocence, and how young people may not be as equipped to make adult-type decisions (e.g., about sex) as they think they are.

2. Shalit quotes many examples of etiquette books through time, from Richard Allestree and Richard Braithwait in the 17th century (PP 96-99) to Emily Post in the 1920s (P. 154), about the importance of modest behavior for women and its corresponding role in ensuring respectful behavior from men. Funny, though, that other than Emily Post in the 20th century, all of these references to the importance of female modesty come from books written ... by men! This could be because women were not allowed to write such books – or, generally, any other books, as the hidden (female) identities of George Sand and George Eliot both attest.

I have no problem with trying to argue the personal benefits of modest behavior; attempting to attach it to some historical sense of How Things Are Supposed To Be, however, is a much more challenging prospect. By way of analogy, there are a great many historical references to the value, importance, and moral rectitude of slavery, and probably just as many attesting to the same for polygamy. So, can it really be true that on the basis of such male-driven drivel from centuries ago, women today should modify their behavior? Shalit expends much energy on trying to show the power of contemporary society and the relative powerlessness of today’s girls and women to resist its demands. Surely this was no less true when men were writing etiquette books four centuries ago. And it may not have been a modest act in keeping with the times, but the world would be a poorer place indeed without Eliot’s magnificent Middlemarch.

3. In a similar vein, Shalit writes about the present versus historic treatment of women as though leering men, rapists, and other violators are all 20th century innovations – created, of course, by the lack of modesty (and, therefore, respect) for women. (E.G., page 140, first full paragraph.) But this raises more questions than she is prepared to answer: Where are the sources showing that rape is only a contemporary problem? Isn’t one of the achievements of feminism that women are now more able to speak out about the abuse they have suffered, and not be ostracized for it? Isn’t there evidence suggesting that rape, incest, and other horrors were historically inflicted on women in environments in which they had no protection should they choose to speak out, and therefore incidences were – and likely still are – underreported. The punishment for rape may have been severe several centuries ago, but did that really stop it from happening? Shalit implies that it would be desirable to return to an environment in which such things are less frequently discussed, which might reduce our awareness of rape – but probably not the degree to which it happens.

4. Lest we give history a rest just yet: Shalit pushes hard on the whole idea that children today are overly sexualized at an early age and, as I have written, I tend to agree. What goes unmentioned, though, is the historic treatment of young girls as sex objects – young brides and concubines, all from societies rippling with modesty and volumes of etiquette manuals. Perhaps all of this was justified by their shorter lifespans, which made marrying a girl off at 13 or 16 a social and economic necessity – never mind that most of these marriages were arranged by people other than the women involved. Shalit never addresses this, however, even to dismiss it as part of the context of a particular historic period. It undermines further her premise of the contemporary mistreatment of women, versus an earlier age of effervescent respect and appreciation stemming from modesty.

5. Moreover, modesty is not always protection from males. If one wants a contemporary example, from a society that is (theoretically) respectful and demanding of female modesty, look no further than Mukhtaran Bibi, the Pakistani woman who was gang-raped on the orders of her tribal council (all men, one presumes).

6. A Return to Modesty includes a seven page bibliography at the end, with many, many scholarly books listed. However, the dominant thematic sources are the never-ending quotes from contemporary magazines: Cosmo, Marie Claire, Glamour, Mademoiselle, and so on. From these, Shalit has culled references to articles about how to get and keep a man, how to make love to a man, how to make love to a man in order to keep him, how to stay thin, how to be strong, how to make your man respect your strengths, how to ... well, you get the point. As a man, though, these magazines exist in a netherworld I consider entertainment – just like the Esquire and Rolling Stone magazines I used to read. Sure, there were “serious” articles in them, but never anything that managed to make me feel that I had to change my hairstyle or treat my girlfriend better, or that I was less of a man because I wasn’t on the cover wearing a tube sock over my penis like some rock star. Maybe I just missed the scholarly men’s magazines, the male equivalent of that intellectual blunderbuss Glamour.

7. Late in the book, Shalit mentions that bathing suits styles are changing: more women are covering up their backsides more completely, thongs are out, etc. (P. 236) But – hello! – is a contemporary one-piece bathing suit so much more modest than a contemporary bikini? The dominant theme of both is skin and curves; a one-piece may show less skin, and reveal fewer curves, but that hardly seems the basis for a medal for modesty.

8. Inconsistency is consistently one of Shalit’s biggest problems; it is not entirely clear what she really wants. On the one hand, she puts down the choices many contemporary women make, claims that they are harmful or false, and that in a society with more modesty, women would not have to make these decisions in the first place. At the same time, Shalit never quite defines how far she wants her modesty project to go, which makes the discussion about bathing suits all the more absurd and untethered. She is not for free choice because, frankly, under the regime she proposes some options women might want would essentially be taken away; at the same time, she does not quite seem ready to give up all that feminism has conferred upon women – not least the opportunity to write and publish a book about modesty, however immodest the idea.

9. Finally, I found Shalit’s book strangely lacking in nuance, in an understanding of how complicated people can be – men and women. That is why I began this review as I did: to highlight what I think are some of contradictions in my own life and family, where modesty is concerned. I don’t know whether Shalit would have considered my grandmother modest or not – but I know my grandmother probably wouldn’t have cared, would likely have called Shalit a “shit-ass,” and suggested in no uncertain terms that, modesty or not, past experiences or not, she had a long marriage to a loving and devoted man that was, as life usually is, not without its complications and challenges. Similarly, while I never went to the co-ed, naked sauna at Hampshire, I have no issue with skinny-dipping – with the right people; that’s modesty for me.


Throughout the book, I wanted to find Wendy Shalit, ask her out for coffee, and tell her it will all be OK – so scared of the world she seems to be, despite her assertions of personal strength! Is that horribly paternalistic of me? I’m sorry; Shalit said some very nice things about paternalism and the patriarchy, so perhaps she won’t mind.

I cannot escape the sense that Shalit has constructed this whole modesty defense system to help her justify how she engages with other people (male or female), how much or how little of herself she’s willing to give to the world, and to rationalize what truly should not need rationalizing: that she wants an emotional commitment from a partner before a sexual one. You have to admire someone who would go so far as to write an entire treatise in order to justify her feelings on that last point; it just seems so obvious that if that’s how she feels, then that’s what she should seek. But why is it that every time someone like Shalit decides they’re uncomfortable with how they personally relate to some societal construct, the answer is always to wish that there was an increased degree of moral rectitude in that very society? Isn’t the author’s desire for emotionally-safe sex more about her and her husband or partner than anyone else? “Every old sock finds an old shoe,” and all that?

If nothing else, let’s agree on this: women have been treated badly, and this is both a contemporary and an historic problem. There has not been a Golden Age for women’s rights, safety, and health; there have been many trade-offs, “modesty” among them. But we certainly won’t achieve a Golden Age if we adopt an approach that is more about closing our eyes than opening them, more about repressing individual choice than finding better, more honest ways of accommodating such choices. We live in a tough society, but we always have. At least with so much flexibility to make of it what one wants, a woman like Shalit can be modest if she chooses – and someone else can flaunt it if she’s got it, the same way women (and men) have done since time immemorial.