Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


People often raise their children with ideals that they don’t really hold themselves, either because they on some level think they would be better people if they shared these ideals and hope their children will be better (tolerance, patience), or because they think these ideals are particularly appropriate to this stage of life (sharing, studiousness, Santa Claus). But I’ve been realising that some of what I learned as I child — at home, at school, and from the general culture

I genuinely found it weird that Barack Obama was attacked for harboring a secret “anti-colonialist” agenda (inherited from his father’s experience fighting the British for Kenyan independence. If I’d had to say what the core historical experience was that Americans harked back to, that defined our national identity, that we could agree upon, it was the history as colonials fighting for independence. The people opposing Obama dressed up in colonial-era costumes, harked back to the Boston Tea Party, striking a blow against the imperial power.

And fighting against monarchy. When did Americans fall in love with British princelings? A Hollywood actress is marrying one of the last scions of the rotten Hanoverian dynasty — pretty much the antithesis of either the American socialist ideal of equality, and the American capitalist ideal of self-made wealth. Or did they never fall out of love with monarchy, and was the anti-monarchical anti-colonialist American history I learned — which I thought entirely conventional — actually a brief post-Vietnam backlash in my sleepy suburban middle school?

And then there was the gender politics. It was considered self-evident that gender neutrality was a goal we were moving toward. Our clothes were unisex. Hair was uniformly middle-length, slightly longer for girls on average. Women taking on their husbands’ names was a relic of the past. I was genuinely surprised, then, when my daughter was born, and I discovered that pretty much everyone was obsessed with pink and blue. (The pink-blue gender distinction was one that I was only hazily aware of before then. But it seemed drastically important to people, so much so that clothing in any other colour was hard to find. And child models posed in huge advertisements in the stores, boys with fierce expressions, girls passive and decorative.) I only realised about ten years ago that women were still adopting their husbands’ names at marriage (more than 70% for recent first marriages in the US). I’d extrapolated from the ideology of the 1970s and the experience of a few of my friends, and supposed that nominative couverture had mostly died out except in deep conservative America.

Of course, gender equality has made some huge advances. And in certain respects the modern notion of gender fluidity is potentially more liberating — hence also more threatening to some, and more controversial — than unisex clothing. But still, it was surprising to notice that certain trends that seemed inexorable were, in fact, just transient fashions.

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