Female or Male, You People Trying to 'Have It All' Are Seriously Creeping Out The Rest of Us

Female or Male, You People Trying to 'Have It All' Are Seriously Creeping Out The Rest of Us

Anne-Marie Slaughter's new piece in The Atlantic about how women cannot "have it all" has provoked a wave of commentary, but none that I have seen has mentioned the article's clearest, if unstated, point. It is right there, in the opening: Slaughter, a former high State Department official, begins with herself on the job, at the United Nations, meeting foreign dignitaries and sipping champagne at a reception hosted by President Obama. But her mind is not on her diplomatic work, because she's thinking about her royal pain of a 14-year-old son, who's messing up in school, failing math, and not speaking to her. Oh, my, I thought: Mother certainly has had her revenge. And then it occurred to me that matters may actually be uglier: Maybe Slaughter genuinely believes she isn't engaged in payback. Maybe, like a good technocrat, she just decided to write the best possible article, and too bad for the cost.

I don't know Slaughter's son's name, but I'm sure finding it would be a 10-second Google chore. (Yep. Just did it.) His mother being who she is, and The Atlantic being what it is, he is now marked for life. Did she spring that surprise on him? Or did she tell him, in that tough-but-fair State Department style used to criticize dictators we used to support, that the downside of writing up his troubles was outweighed by the good it would do? I don't know, but I bet he wishes his parents had just taken away his iPhone. And I think his embarrassment is relevant to any evaluation of Slaughter's argument.

Here is why: Slaughter is fed up with the mythology that women can and should "have it all," by which she means the maddeningly glib chatter to the effect that it is and should have been possible for her to have gone on "juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teen-age boys." Meticulously, she dissects the myth. But her proposals for change are all about the process of "high-level" work. The content of work at the top of our meritocracy doesn't trouble her.

So, she writes, people should be able to work from home more. And long hours for the sake of long hours? An unnecessary trap.

All true enough. But Slaughter also makes it clear that she is a total professional, committed to the standards of high-quality American work as practiced by those who have reached the top of our corporations, businesses, media, law firms and so on. She wants to make professionalism easier for women (and for men who respect their family commitments) but she gives no thought to the possibility that professionalism itself—not the way it is managed and scheduled—is part of the problem.

Instead, she reassures current and future patrons that she's no rocker of boats. Don't worry, her piece tells them. I still teach a full course load and give a lot of speeches. Yes, I permit myself to doubt the ethos that says it was OK for Richard Holbrooke to miss much of his son's childhood because he was out saving the world. And I'll give a shout out to politicians who take seriously the impact of their work on their families. But I'll still stay until dawn when it must be done: "Being willing to put the time in when the job simply has to get done is rightfully a hallmark of a successful professional." Where is the moment where she wonders if the job really does have to get done? Whether it is, in fact, really essential?

There is nothing in the article to suggest that there is anything wrong with the nation's high achievers, those "successful professionals" in diplomacy, law, academia, media, business and other perches of power and/or money. And, that, to me, is its fatal weakness. Because the inhumanity and brutishness of so many professional lives doesn't derive from scheduling complications and a culture of long hours. The miseries derive from professionalism itself.

This is why I think Slaughter's choice to use her son is relevant. The story made for a terrific lead to her piece—specific, engaging, and memorable. It may well be true that her article would have been less effective without it. From the point of view of the profession (American journalism, thinky-magazine division) she made the right choice.

But, seriously, throwing her son's adolescence out there for the world to chew over? Icky. Suppose she had said to herself, this is the best anecdote to start my piece—but I can't do it. If she had made that choice, she would have been unprofessional, in that she would have made her work less effective, for an emotional reason that had nothing to do with its strictures. I can only read her article, not her mind, but I certainly left with a strong impression that she didn't weigh that possibility. Slaughter may want to work at home some days, but she's still a professional.

Please don't think this example is contrived or far-fetched. In my journalistic career, I have stumbled onto moments of unexpected intimacy and vulnerability, when people opened up to me and made revelations they never intended. I didn't use them in the articles in which they could have appeared. In each instance, I refrained because I felt that the heartache and pain I'd unveiled would be redoubled by publication. And what would be the benefit? Readers would be impressed for a few seconds before they flipped to the department-store ads. "It's just a magazine article," I thought. "It's not worth adding to the sum total of human misery."

I've had similar thoughts when I worked as a magazine editor. When, for example, the big boss would insist on changing a writer's meaning—because his guiding principle was that the publication should reflect his vision. And the second-in-command would say our job was to do what the boss wanted. I would think, "this writer wants it different, plus she needs the money, and it's just a paragraph. How about we give way here, and let the magazine be less polished but more honest?"

These, I think, were not professional thoughts. They were based on an inchoate hunch that any vision of perfection has no inherent moral value. The worth of the work isn't measured by its perfection relative to other efforts but rather by its consequences in the world. And by that standard a lot of what consummate professionals do in the 21st century is practically worthless. Maybe that's not true of Slaughter's champagne-sipping and hobnobbing at the diplomatic reception—or more generally of work in the State Department. But the question—is this trip necessary?—ought at least to be asked.

In American meritocratic circles, that is an acceptable sentiment if you mean, as Slaughter does, that it's hard to do your best and also make the kids' soccer games. It's not acceptable to mean that maybe, just maybe, today your very best isn't really needed, and may not be worth the pain it causes others.

My guess is that this thought is heresy to the hard-driving people who occupy the pinnacles of American achievement. And I further suspect that, in contrast, it is considered as obvious as sunlight be the rest of their fellow citizens. Which perhaps helps fuel the rage and distrust expressed by Tea Partiers and Occupiers about institutions of business and government.

Slaughter wants to change the circumstances of work so that more women reach the summits of achievement and power. But as long as everyone up there is a consummate professional, their gender isn't going to make a lot of difference. Male or female, they'll still look monsters to the rest of us.

Live on Monday: Does the US need one billion people?

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A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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