Beneath a Steel Sky

About a year and a half ago, I went to San Francisco for a conference, and while I was there I met up with an old high school friend who lived in the East Bay. We went walking around the city, talking, and in a totally unexpected twist in the narrative the topic of discussion veered toward political matters. One of the things we talked about was the difference in political attitudes between the former USSR and the present-day USA, and on that topic, I suggested that one of the biggest difference was the relative intangibility of crisis in America.

That needs explained, as they say here in the 412. What I mean by that is not that large sectors, or even the majority of the population, have been able to escape the consequences of the Great Recession and the corresponding catastrophe of governance that Republicans have managed to create at every level. What I mean is that despite all these things, the country still looks like it’s running. A great deal of that is obviously administrative inertia, but as we all learned in high school physics, momentum is mass times velocity. The bureaucratic machinery may not have a great deal of the latter, but it has enough of the former that it can grind on for quite some time (apparently Belgium did not cease to exist despite failing to have an official elected government for more than a year): you get up in the morning and you still go to your job (if you’re lucky enough to have one) via mostly-functioning highways; by and large, the electricity is still on in the vast majority of places (if you can afford to pay for it); the world physically looks more or less all right, since the rot underneath hasn’t quite surfaced as physical manifestation. In the USSR, on the other hand, that manifestation was ubiquitous; you can joke about bread lines all you want, but the truth is that bread lines absolutely existed. You couldn’t really go outside and not be confronted with your governments failures.

In short, it’s easy to be oblivious in America, as long as you’re still reasonably well off. It’s even easier and better if you’re unreasonably well off. And since it’s the unreasonably well off who control the tempo and content of our political conversation, a great number of people continue to walk around with a vague sense of unease that something has gone terribly wrong, but with no adequate framework for explaining just what it is that has gone wrong and no overt physical manifestation of the wrongness[1]. Because the machine grinds on.

Except when it doesn’t. Which brings us to the debt ceiling debate.

I feel like I should somehow be angrier about this than I really am, but owing to my own relatively privileged position within the great chain of being, I find myself every bit as much under the sway of the cognitive biases outlined above. The infrastructure may be crumbling all around me, but it’s doing it pretty slowly, so every day physically appears a lot like the previous day. The same (sometimes boarded-up) buildings are still there; the buses (fare increases and all) are still running; the streets (Moon-worthy craters notwithstanding) have not yet deteriorated to the point of being undriveable (though many are unbikeable). Everything looks like it’s more or less the same.

But it’s obviously not, because on December 31st, the federal government has officially run into the debt ceiling. Which means that the money required to keep the machine grinding is going to run out, and it’s going to run out very soon, because the Republican House refuses to do what the House has done year in and year out for about a century and raise it. Put simply, obligations already committed to by the government will go unpaid; the country might, quite literally, default.

This should be an unthinkable set of circumstances for the largest and wealthiest economy in the world, and yet here we are. Since Republicans have decided that economic terrorism was the way forward, they’ve quite sensibly taken a hostage that they’re willing to shoot; it just so happens that the hostage is the American economy. What “negotiation” is possible when a minority (and make no mistake about it, Republicans are nationally less popular than Democrats) literally threatens to destroy the economy if it doesn’t get its way? The term “nuclear option” is frequently overused, but that would seem appropriate here. The Republicans have strapped an economic nuclear weapon to themselves and are threatening to take down everyone, including their own constituents.

The whole thing seems absolutely surreal; it’s as though, while intellectually convinced that we’re on a plane headed towards a mountain, most of us (and most of our so-called elites) are sitting calmly in our seats knitting[2]. Maybe it’s the overwhelming sense of despair at being able to actually achieve anything, or the vapidity of the ongoing conversation. Sensible people keep saying things like “JESUS CHRIST PULL UP ON THE STICK SO WE CAN CLEAR THIS FUCKING MOUNTAIN BEFORE YOU KILL US ALL,” but one of the ornery co-pilots has wedged the control stick so far up his asshole that the only way to get to it would be to cut the bastard open stern-to-stern. Too bad all we’ve got on this flight are plastic knives.

At times like these it feels tempting to ascribe the whole thing to some sort of collective insanity. But that’s not fair to actually insane people, nor is it accurate as an assessment of what’s actually going on. You could do some game-theoretical reasoning about the lack of incentives that Republican have to cooperate due to gerrymandering and primary threats, and you would be right, but it takes a special kind of sociopath to look reality in the face and decide that we’re better off plunging into the mountain because it would avoid having to compromise one’s highly-principled stand that no airplane should fly above 10,000 feet. Which is all to say that all of this is deliberate and planned and explainable by simply reading what the principal participants have to say about it.

In the next few weeks, I suppose we’re going to find out whether we clear the mountain after all, or whether the price of America’s continued existence is going to be throwing a good third of the passengers off the plane mid-flight because otherwise we’re all going to die. Recent trends do not justify optimistic projections.

[1] Obviously, for many people the wrongness does manifest itself: in lost jobs, in rising health care premiums, in decreased funding for education, and in many other ways. The point isn’t that people aren’t suffering, it’s that the conversation is controlled by an upper stratum of the elite, who are decidedly not suffering at all; this prevents any kind of serious structural analysis from emerging to help people make sense of what’s going on.

[2] I don’t know why knitting except that it’s the kind of thing I imagine one might do if one wanted to calm themselves. Substitute your favorite calming activity here.

Movie Recommendation: Chasing Ice

Last night I went to see Chasing Ice at the local art-house theater, and I recommend the film to everyone without reservation.

Chasing Ice is a documentary film that focuses on the work that photographer James Balog did in setting up the Extreme Ice Survey. The EIS’s purpose is to chronicle the no-longer-gradual disappearance of the Arctic glaciers, and the result is perhaps the most visually stunning depiction of the consequences of global warming that I have ever seen. Despite some added schmaltz about Balog’s personal life, Chasing Ice is a fairly straightforward story about what is happening to Arctic ice year in and year out; if you have a friend or relative that likes to blather on about how “the science isn’t in yet,” I suggest taking them to see this film. Actually, you should go see it even if you’re up on the science, because it features some absolutely phenomenal photography by Balog. I won’t spoil it for you, but the final ten minutes contain some literally jaw-dropping footage (I kid you not, I watched with my mouth literally hanging open) that is damn worth seeing in theaters and justifies the price of admission by itself. I don’t hesitate to say completely sincerely that Chasing Ice, for all its somewhat dry tone, is as much a work of art as anything you could see in the theater; if it goes any appreciable distance towards convincing people of the immediacy of the climate change problem, it’ll be far more influential.

Cargo Cult Politics

In the days since the election, recriminations have been flying fast and hard inside the Republican hivemind. Mallet du Pan observed more than 200 years ago that the revolution devours its own children, and a modified form of that adage has applied quite well to the recent “analysis” of just what it is that went wrong on November 6th. Of course, not all of the analysis is scare-quotes worthy; over at The Monkey Cage, John Sides explains with voodoo things like “numbers” and “logic” why this election may not be a realignment, and elsewhere occasionally-sane conservative David Frum has been trying to bring some semblance of reality into the conservative bubble.

Part of the soul-searching, if it can be called that, that is taking place among the more fact-aware members of the Republican community, has involved reflections on the changing demographics of America. Oh, has it ever involved them! It is possible now to finally get Republicans to realize that the demographics are changing, which I suppose is progress of a sort, but there are things that you believe with your head, and things that you believe with your heart; while it seems the head-belief is making inroads, the heart-belief that Republicans can win by changing nothing remains.

This, I hope, makes the title clear. When Richard Feynman first spoke about “cargo-cult science,” he had in mind something that has all the appearance of science but none of its actual content. It’s clear that so far, the Republican strategy has had all the appearance of a strategy, but none of the actual content. Well, that’s not entirely fair. Or maybe it’s too fair; the appearance is the content.

If you read almost any breakdown of future GOP strategy, you find a lot of discussion about how to best communicate the Republican message to Latinos, women, and, well, anyone who isn’t a straight white dude. But as James Joyner astutely observes, the problem is not communication. The problem is that all those people really fucking hate the Republican platform. To understand this, one need look no further than a man who is righter than he knows: Bill O’Reilly. For anyone not familiar will O’Reilly’s post-election pontifications, his surprisingly non-psychotic take on the whole thing was pretty straightforward: the people who voted for Obama want “stuff.”

Let’s set aside the obvious racism (which is even more racist in context) of O’Reilly’s remark. Taking Republicans to task for racist bullshit is the lowest of the low-hanging fruit, and plenty of people have done it. What is more interesting to me is looking at the sense in which O’Reilly is entirely correct in his evaluation.

O’Reilly seems to have discovered the remarkable phenomenon, previously unknown to anyone in American politics, that people are motivated by political messages that promise them some desirable outcome. Just like many rich people are motivated to vote for Republicans by promises of tax cuts, and lots of white people are motivated to vote for Republicans by barely-disguised racist pandering, so are people on the other side of the fence motivated by considerations of what benefits they might reap from electoral outcomes. Of course, far from being some sort of pathology, this is actually an entirely normal thing for people to do, and the only objection that O’Reilly can possibly have to this is that the “wrong” sorts of people want the “wrong” sorts of things. Women with their abortions and gays with their marriage and liberals in general with their welfare state, UGH!

And that’s the basic problem for Republicans going forward: people like what the other party’s offering. They legitimately think that a welfare state funded by progressive taxation and a legal regime in which a woman isn’t forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term are good things. If you offer to dismantle all of that stuff that people like, you can hardly be surprised if your platform ends up being somewhat unpopular. It’s not wildly unpopular, yet, but the trend is headed in that direction; the only age group that voted for Romney was old people, and the younger the demographic gets, the more liberal it is. For all their talk of “communication” and “appeals to minorities” it’s pretty clear that a lot of Republicans think that they can just put a Latino face out there, or possibly a woman (say, how did that work last time?) and run the same regressive policies expecting to win. It’s a strategy of sorts, I suppose, but it’s not a strategy that, despite the ardent please of David Frum, includes any sort of modification of actual policies.

Of course, it’s easy to understand the problems that the GOP faces. They’re caught, especially at the Congressional level, between the Scylla of national unelectability and he Charybdis of primary challenges from their socially conservative base. A Republican party that decided to wave a white flag in the culture wars would face a powerful backlash in precisely the places where it’s currently strongest, but a party that continues to prosecute the same culture wars is facing an electorate that’s been progressively souring on that particular message. In a textbook illustration of irony, the truth of that, the truth of the proposition that voters will vote for the “stuff” they want, has been brought home by none other than O’Reilly. And when Bill O’Reilly is the one in your party who most closely resembles someone who understands how politics works, you’re probably deeply fucked.

Everyone Is Doing It So Why Not Me?

Assuming all five of you are the kind of sophisticated readers that frequent this blog, I’m not going to tell you anything you didn’t already know about SOPA. Now that pretty much every useful site on the Internet has gone to blackout mode in protest, there’s no shortage of opportunity to learn as much as you’d care to about this legislation. I could go on about how SOPA essentially establishes a presumption of guilt, how it puts what ought to be government power in the hands of private actors, and how its technical requirements would render useless much of what we value about the Internet, but you can get this anywhere; I’ll dedicate my time to saying something else.

And that something else is this: the more I live on this earth, in this American society, and the more I read and learn, the more I become convinced that capitalism (that is to say, the actual existing capitalism of today, not the fantasy capitalism of libertopia) has pretty much nothing to do with markets. I think this is true generally, and there are ample other opportunities to observe this fact, but the SOPA fight really brings the contrast between these two ideas into sharp relief. It’s pretty obvious that what’s going on here is the sort of expansion of rent-seeking that’s been the hallmark of copyright legislation for decades now; indeed, it would be surprising if something like SOPA (or it’s proposed almost-as-shitty replacement PIPA) were not the next step in the entertainment industry’s tireless fight to avoid the fate of the dinosaurs. The contrast of note here is industry’s reliance on market-based language for justification while doing the utmost to squelch any responsibility they might have toward satisfying their actual target market. This goes beyond the basic, easily-understood idea that many ordinary pirates are really just dissatisfied customers who are tired of paying exorbitant amounts of money to be treated like criminals; it’s at the point where Monster Cable (yes, those fuckers) includes Costco among its list of “rogue” sites that would likely fall under the purview of SOPA (see link above). It’s pretty obvious here that what Monster is doing (what all those who are pushing for SOPA are doing) is attempting to buy legislation that would effectively make it illegal to compete with it.

This, and numerous other instances, put the lie to the idea that the backers of SOPA have any interest in responding to market pressures. What they’re really trying to do is to legislate their competitors out of existence, i.e. to leverage the power of the state for the purposes of delivering private industry profits. If that sounds like a retread of something you might have heard before, it should; it’s the m.o. of the financial industry following the crash. Not exclusively, of course; there are thousands, maybe tens of thousands of small-time examples of this sort of thing. An extra clause in a bill here, an additional regulation there, and oh look, you can’t park on the street overnight in front of your own home because that’s basically like cheating landlords out of extra money they can squeeze from you for parking spaces (thanks, city of Providence!). In short, everyone likes to talk about capitalism, but no one, not even the big boys, actually want to live it.

SOPA by itself is tragedy enough, but what’s even sadder is that it’s just a symptom of something that’s been going on a long time: if you’ve got the money, you can buy yourself the legislation you need to screw your competitors, all the while paying lip service to some notion of markets that doesn’t exist anywhere outside of an Econ 101 textbook. Market-speak is just a useful tool to keep the proles outraged about paying taxes that might possibly benefit a poor and/or brown-skinned person someday, but when it comes right down to it, there ain’t nothing a big corporation hates as much as it hates competition. We want to keep the government out of our business, sure, but there’s nothing more we like than to get the government into someone else’s business, or better yet, someone else’s bedroom if we can. So remember that the next time you hear some immaculately-coifed suit expound on the virtues of free markets and competition: they don’t mean it, or to the extent that they mean it, it’s for thee (you) and not for me (them). These people are paid liars and if our press had half the integrity they like to think of themselves as having, they’d laugh these shills right out of the studio.

In conclusion, I’d like to announce that upon the formation of Glorious Socialist Utopia, all RIAA and MPAA execs will be sent down to the salt mines. You have been duly warned.

Why Is Your Racist Uncle So Popular?

Following the GOP primary process is an exhausting feat best left to professional masochists. If I ever feel the need to submerge myself in a sea of collective idiocy, I think I’ll head down to one of the clubs on Pittsburgh’s South Side; at least the stupidity there is physically contained instead of being broadcast nationwide. There is exactly one interesting thing about this whole circus, and that’s the attention being garnered (again and still) by Ron Paul. I’m not terribly interested in debating his merits as such; if you’re the kind of person who reads this blog, you already know my feelings concerning the good doctor, and in any case, you can pretty much peruse any number of sources, from Mr. Destructo’s three-part Vice series to Paul’s own voting record, to figure out why he’s not really an acceptable candidate. What’s interesting to me is why the guy who is basically your racist, homophobic, anti-choice uncle is incredibly popular (especially with people who should know better) and what that says about the generally fucked-up state of our political discourse.

I think there are two major reasons for Paul’s popularity; these reasons are somewhat intertwined, but they involve two separate aspects of Paul’s personality. The first of these is his general on-screen demeanor (as opposed to, say, the shit printed in his newsletters): it can’t be emphasized enough that Paul is essentially the only candidate who doesn’t look like a raving lunatic on stage. He’s always composed, always calm, and always on-message. He doesn’t forget his lines like Perry, he doesn’t have flecks of foam around his mouth like Newt, and he doesn’t look like he’s just adopted whatever stupidity is most recently popular with the Republican base like Romney. It wouldn’t shock me in the slightest if the three aforementioneds engaged in a Muslim baby-eating contest on stage, but Paul comes across as genuinely concerned about the effects of the American war machine on both our diplomatic standing in the world and its effects on actual, living human beings. In a sea of candidates trying to outdo each other in callousness, it’s quite a bizarre sight. I think Paul’s telegenic image and ability to sound like a relatively reasonable human being half the time goes a long way towards explaining his appeal to people who, most likely, would never otherwise consider voting for a Republican, including a fair number of young-uns from my generation.

But there’s another aspect to Paul’s appeal which I think is equally important: it’s his deft use of classic conspiracist thinking. In this way, he’s different in degree if not in kind from the rest of the Republican pack, but the difference is key. Whereas the other candidates tend to focus on fairly traditional conservative bugbears (e.g. liberals, feminists, gays, socialists, elites, Muslims, atheists, and all plausible and implausible permutations of the above), Paul tends to direct his ire towards the Federal Reserve, a seemingly anodyne policy point that nevertheless has gained great traction among a certain libertarian fringe. This would seem to be a weird hill to choose to die on, but it makes sense in the following way: since the Fed is an institution that exists mostly orthogonally to the culture war issues, you don’t end up alienating anyone over a contentious social issue. Feminists aren’t likely to vote for Paul due to his anti-choice views, but there’s nothing in feminism to dispose a person one way or the other on questions of monetary policy, and people whose commitment to reproductive rights isn’t nearly as strong (e.g. a whole lot of dudes) are probably going to be more readily swayed by abstract arguments over the merits of fractional reserve banking. In any case, by keeping the focus on these technical issues and keeping his retrograde views on homosexuality, race, and women behind the scenes, Paul maintains a loose coalition of moonbats obsessed with one particular aspect of American governance that might otherwise be torn apart over social issues.

The reason why the focus on the Fed is such a great example of conspiracism is because it addresses a key psychological need of the people who participate in this kind of magical thinking: the need to feel that you know something special that no one else does. It would typically not occur to any reasonable person to attribute all the ills of the world to a single banking mechanism coupled with a fiat currency. There are certainly legitimate criticisms to be made of the Federal Reserve, but these criticisms are grounded in accusations that its actions are often seen to be more to the benefit of the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. Still, this is no more a condemnation of fiat currency than the existence of identity theft is a condemnation of having bank accounts. It is precisely because these views are counterintuitive that they are so attractive to conspiracists. After all, if the answer were obvious, then others would have probably figured it out by now, but this way, the conspiracists feel as though they possess a sort special knowledge that others do not (witness how often Paul’s defenders drop “sheeple” or any of its variants in [online] discussion). I think this is a huge part of what attracts people to Paul, despite the fact that it doesn’t happen to be accurate in the slightest.

Doubtless many will protest that I have failed to mention Paul’s anti-war views or his views on the drug war as reasons to support him. I certainly support the positions he takes on those subjects, but I don’t think these things alone can quite account for the depth of his support. After all, there are presumably plenty of people who could be found to run on those positions on, say, the Libertarian ticket, who have neither Paul’s history of noxious racism nor his gold-bug tendencies. I’m sure Reason could come up with more than a few such candidates, some of whom might even try their hand at the Republican primaries (as, indeed, Gary Johnson has done). I don’t believe it’s coincidental that the strongest support is going to the candidate of the conspiracist fringe. When confronted with the disastrous methodology for accomplishing his stated goals (End the drug war… BY DISMANTLING THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT. End the war on terror… BY DISMANTLING THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT), Paul’s supporters are apt to engage in dismal mental contortions that involve a careful explanation of why Paul will be able to, as president, accomplish exactly those things that you like about him and none of those things that you don’t like. The cult of personal infallibility, the invention of just-so stories and ad hoc explanations for any and all criticisms, and the all-encompassing nature of the theory of Ron Paul governance are all classic signatures of magical thinking that brooks no counterexamples, a technique which puts at its users disposal an explanation for virtually all aspects of politics in digestible form.

Nevertheless, Paul’s candidacy is terribly important in one way, and that simply has to do with what it says about the liberal/progressive wing of the electorate. It should be both stunning and embarassing to liberals that the one guy who actually seems genuinely opposed to American militarism is vying for the presidential nomination from the party that practically has “bombing brown people” as one of its platform planks. Over at Naked Capitalism, Matt Stoller has written up an interesting piece about the challenge that Paul presents to liberals, but while I think his main thesis is correct (well, the challenge part is), his details are wrong. Stoller alleges that Paul attacks liberal thought by focusing on the nexus between central banking and war financing, but this really isn’t a problem for any liberal at all, unless one mistakently believes that wars didn’t happen on the gold standard. The truth, I think, is much, much simpler: Paul presents a challenge because it’s embarassing that liberals have not been able to field a genuinely anti-(terror/drug)-war candidate who doesn’t come with a horrible social platform and thinks that the solution to all ills is to shatter the country into small pieces. There were people (myself included) who thought that Barack Obama could be that candidate, but… well, you can see how that worked out.

That is the real challenge that Paul presents to liberals: the existence of his candidacy exposes the complete failure of Democratic Party politics to produce anything like the stated goals of the liberals who routinely cast votes for that party. Paul is riding a wave of disaffection with the standard political narratives by offering a conspiracist alternative that aims to explain every aspect of politcs via a simple (and obviously incorrect) theory. The fact that he is able to do this by advocating anti-war positions should be taken by all liberals as a direct condemnation of our failed politics and of our failed expectations of our own (alleged) ideological allies. If anything, Paul is a hell of a lot braver than any Democratic presidential candidate of the last 12 years: he’s willing to take his viewpoint to an obviously hostile constituency, while virtually every Democratic aspirant to the Oval Office has been competing with their party-mates to see how many hippies they could throw under the bus.

I’m not voting for Ron Paul; he sucks, even if he’s right about some things, even some very important things. But a lot of liberals should think about how it came about that the only person willing to say something even remotely sensible about our foreign adventures is doing so in ideological opposition to virtually his entire party. And how it came to be that our own (supposed) political allies can’t muster a tenth of that kind of spine, and may not even want to do so.

I am shocked, shocked to find that libertarians are misogynistic assholes!

I was going to write something a little more serious today but fuck it, it’s Friday and I’ve been engaged in a really stupid Facebook argument for the last day or so that’s made me pretty pissed off. So here we go.

If you are a breathing human being who has any interest in politics, you probably know who Elizabeth Warren is; I don’t need to sing her accolades because she’s awesome and she’s running against Scott Brown for a seat in the Senate from Massachussetts in the 2012 election. So here’s Warren, campaigning, and in the course of doing so gives what in saner times would have been a completely uncontroversial defense of the democratic social contract:

I hear all this, oh this is class warfare, no! There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory… Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea — God Bless! Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

Keep in mind that this is a campaign stump speech given to supporters and not an academic treatise explaining why the social contract is justified (although I have no doubt that Warren could produce one of those too, given the time and inclination). It’s a statement of a sort of basic reciprocity that was once a fundamental pillar of civic life in this country, namely, that when you benefit (disproportionately, one might add) from the existence of public goods, it is incumbent on you to share in the upkeep of those goods. That’s how things work in countries that haven’t lost their fucking minds.

Now of course libertarians and Republicans (two groups which for political purposes are nearly identical in American political life; if you want to talk to me about No True Libertarians, kindly fuck right off) have worked themselves up into a lather over this because being forced to pay taxes is a whisker’s breadth short of being castrated and thrown in a Soviet gulag (i.e. because they are idiots). And while one could make (incorrect but at least) consistent arguments against Warren’s assertion, that simply won’t do for some people because that’s hard and requires thinking and it’s just easier all around to call Warren an uppity bitch and feel very smug about yourself.

And of course that’s pretty much what happens. There’s a picture floating around the web in which a photograph of Warren speaking (it’s a close-up photo that basically has nothing but her face and hands in it) has been image-macro’d (is that a word? is now!) to contain the following text:

There is no woman in this country who got hot on her own. You have a really nice ass and a great boob job? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You got to the gym on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired a plastic surgeon the rest of us paid to educate. You’re safe from hotter, foreign women because of INS agents and boarder [sic] security the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that Colombian or Polish women would come and steal your boyfriend. Now look. You work out and wear nice makeup and look fantastic – good for you. A big chunk of the sex you have should be with people you choose. But part of the underlying social contract is that you take a chunk of the sex you have had and have that sex with people the government chooses.

Contemplate for a second, if you will, the sheer level of assholitude and general hatred of women that is required to write something like this.

It doesn’t take a Socrates to see why this doesn’t hold up analogically, and we’ll get to that, later. For now, I just want to point out how horribly misogynistic this is for anyone who is too dumb to read and understand the meanings of words. The first major red flag here is at word #4; it’s quite telling that in this example, it’s the hot woman who somehow owes sex to others (presumably men, though that’s a tacit assumption). This is of course entirely in line with the male libertarian ethos of entitlement, whether it be to money or to sex (but especially sex). Of course it would never occur to a self-declared Randian paragon of rationality that the reason women don’t want to fuck him is because he tends to treat them like objects and not like people (as one might surmise from seeing someone share this image on Facebook, say). The reference to boob jobs and a great ass further reinforces this point: women are eye candy and must conform to pornified male standards of beauty to be desirable (the implicit reading being: shut up bitch, we’ll judge your social worth by whether you’re hot or not). Also interesting is the implication that somehow the INS is responsible for keeping hot foreign women out of the country because otherwise all you oh-so-smart American women would be replaced by the submissive foreigners of our masturbatory fantasies who would never do such un-womanly things as engage you in political debate or run for public office or refuse to have sex with you because you’re a jerk; this of course is a common trope one finds among so-called men’s rights advocates, a group that tends to intersect fairly heavily with libertarians and Republicans. And of course the most egregious part of the whole thing being that if you’re hot, you owe people sex, because paying taxes, which people do all over the civilized world, is the same as being raped (because that’s what it means when you’re forced to have sex with people you don’t want to have sex with, you guys).

Now of course, upon being called out on their misogynistic behavior, people who share this image start moving goalposts. It’s all just a joke! It’s an analogy to what Warren is saying about taxes! It’s an argument about “legitimate interests” that “should not be arbitrarily taken away” (that one is something that was actually written!). These are all abusrd and easily dismissable, the last two first: Warren has never argued to the best of my knowledge that arbitrary confiscation of property was an unalloyed good. Taxes are not, in fact, arbitrary confiscation; one can reasonably debate what level of taxes we should be paying (or even whether we should be paying them at all) but that’s a debate that’s had by laying your philosophical assumptions on the table and making the actual argument, not by twisting the original into a stupid non-analogy about government allocating sex. Yes, of course you have legitimate interests in property, and in your bodily autonomy. Thankfully, most reasonable people realize that your interest in not being raped is a lot stronger than your interest in not paying taxes (or really, pretty much any other material property interest). On these grounds, the analogic argument fails entirely.

As for the joke, well: if you find this funny, then you find degrading women funny, and that makes you a misogynistic asshole. Yeah, chances are you don’t go around actively beating or raping women, but you’re still an asshole because you’re perpetuating the attitude that bitches ain’t shit, that women’s social worth is to be judged by the size of their tits, and that equating taxes and rape constitutes a valid political argument. When pointed to these facts, the response is always “waaaaah you called me a mean name!” Oh, you don’t want to be called mean names? Then don’t do mean things, you ass! There’s nothing about this image that in any way refutes any point that Warren makes and its distribution is nothing more than an attempt to put a woman in her place by means of sexist remarks and implications.

ADDENDUM: Secondary to the above is the fact that the analogy fails even if you accept its basic premises. Consider this: Ryan Gosling is hot (I would have used Diego Forlan as my example but not enough people will know who that is; Diego, if you ever read this, you know how to find me). First, it doesn’t follow from this fact that Gosling has in any way acquired his hotness by means of any contribution from me or from anyone else. It’s much more probable that Gosling has simply won the genetic lottery and that his favorable genes combined with a bit of exercise (or possibly even without it) make his career possible (I guess he also knows how to act, but whatever, that’s not the point). But ok, let’s accept the fact that we as a society have made some contribution to Gosling’s hotness; we have certainly made a contribution to his overall success because not only did he drive to the gym on public roads, but he also went to work on public roads and there was a whole infrastructure in place that made his career possible. The logical end-point of this argument is not that Ryan Gosling owes you or me sex, any more than my being educated in public schools obligates me to become a school teacher; the logical end-point is that we as a society, having made Gosling’s success possible, have a legitimate interest in reclaiming the fruits of that success in the form of taxes. So even given the basic assumptions of the “argument” we still wind up with the conclusion that what we’re really after is not fucking Ryan Gosling (well, not as a society anyway) but rather the resources (i.e. taxes) that make it possible to maintain the public infrastructure.

Lust for Life

I don’t know very much about the Troy Davis case. Even given that I’m someone with a tentacle in almost every corner of the internet, it somehow passed me by; these things happen. I have read a number of things both from official news sources and from people whose judgment I trust which allege that the convictions against Davis were based on the flimsiest of evidences, now discredited; I see no reason not to believe these allegations, given my general skepticism towards pretty much any criminal allegations made by agents of the state. The standard is supposed to be “beyond a reasonable doubt,” and from what I can tell that standard wasn’t met. Of course, on the morning of this writing, it doesn’t matter anymore for Davis, who was executed in Georgia last night. But maybe it might matter to others in the future.

There are two tragedies when a death penalty is enacted, and the most obvious and direct one is the possibility (or, indeed, sometimes certainty) that an innocent individual has been irrevocably deleted from society. I take it for granted that executing an innocent person is never acceptable, and have no interest in deploying arguments designed to convince anyone of this. Anything else turns the concept of justice into an absurdity. But the second tragedy of the death penalty, which operates even when it’s exercised on the obviously guilty, is the tragedy of what we become as a society when we condone (or worse, demand) the imposition of the ultimate sanction by the state.

There is a good dialogue on the death penalty between Justin Smith and Gerald Dworkin here. One of the notable features of this dialogue is the distinction between Dworkin’s relatively abstract philosophizing and Smith’s repeated appeals to the idea that the death penalty is incompatible with our stated societal goal of not being cruel. I’m not knocking Dworkin here, but I think it should be obvious where my sympathies lie. We have a certain notion of ourselves as a society capable of mercy, and not only that, but incapable of (or at least strongly averse to) cruelty (this tendency is so strong that even in circumstances where the treatment is obviously cruel, c.f. waterboarding, Bradley Manning’s confinement conditions, etc., the overwhelming initial reaction by defenders of that treatment is not to accept the cruelty as necessary but to deny that it’s cruel at all). And I side with Smith when he says that we can’t reasonably sustain those notions when we allow ourselves to employ the mechanism of the state to take the life of another human being, guilty or not.

Because in the end, I believe that a necessary condition of being a moral society is that we be a society that rejects cruelty and bloodlust, even for the worst among us. And when we allow ourselves to be ruled by that bloodlust, we take one step down the road that leads to a descent into barbarism.


Civility: a mug’s game

If you haven’t acquainted yourself with the Synthese brouhaha, you can do so here. There’s a lot of material flying around, including open letters from the special issue editors, various unsatisfactory replies from the actual Synthese editors, and an elaborate “Who? Me?” act from Francis Beckwith. The details are sufficiently covered at Evolving Thoughts and Leiter Reports, so I’m not going to bother to repeat them here. What I’m interested in is the rhetorical maneuvers underlying this so-called scandal. Keep in mind that the whole thing got off the ground with a prefatory note by the Synthese editors saying that they thought the essays in the special issue, particularly that of Barbara Forrest, were… how to put it… less than generous to the ID position? Perhaps even… uncivil?!

Naturally this represents and undermining of the very purpose of the special issue. I haven’t actually read the original papers by Forrest and others, but what I would argue is that even if the editors’ preface was entirely accurate and the essays were in fact “uncivil,” (having read other things by Forrest, I know that she pull no punches against bad philosophy; I assume that this was in fact the point of contention), well, they should have been. Because ID proponents and creationists do not deserve civility. They are liars and frauds who graft disparate pieces of math, physics, and philosophy (all misapplied, natch) in the service of a religious agenda. The ID crowd wants to have it both ways, claiming to be a scienfitic undertaking while blatantly identifying with Christian theology. The entire structure of ID advocacy is a ploy to put a “scientific” face on religious promotion; and of course, ID advocates acting “outside” of their official ID affiliations have absolutely no problem calling atheists and secular humanists immoral or worse. But dare to breathe an unkind word in their direction, and the double standard kicks in. How dare you accuse them of the things they openly advocate! How dare you suggest their so-called science is a fraud and a sham! Why, that kind of evidence-based judgment is terribly uncivil, dontcha know!

These are not people who deserve the benefit of the doubt. They are, at the very best, cranks; at the very worst, they are active participants in the subversion of secular ideals to religious orthodoxy. They cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged, and they must be called out at every possible opportunity. And most importantly, their false civility cannot be allowed to silence debate. The tactic of accusing your opponents of being uncivil has a long history of being used to marginalize voices in sensitive debates and it cannot be allowed to advance any farther, especially not in cases of scientific questions.

You know what’s uncivil? It’s when you demand all the emails from a professor’s university account because you don’t like his evisceration of your historical ignorance. It’s when you tell your followers to go protest outside of a kid’s house because his family was a poster case for what happens when you lose your health insurance. It’s when you launch frivolous lawsuits against actual scientists who show demonstrate that your “alternative medicines” are full of shit. It’s when you aim your gun at the only doctor in the entire state who can provide late-term abortions and pull the trigger. That’s uncivil. Being called out for your shitty reasoning and repeatedly exposed as the lying religionist you are? That’s reality, motherfuckers.

The future under Republicans

Many States in Mexico Crack Down on Abortion

Thanks Mexico, for giving us a preview of what reproductive rights will look like if Republicans get their way. It’s considered generally impolitic in today’s world to say that you’re going to arrest women for having abortions, which is why anti-choicers will always dodge that question. But make no mistake: this is exactly the goal they have in mind. This is pretty much what will happen to poor women in conservative states if Roe is overruled.

To be against choice is to be in favor of forced birth, apparently even to the extent of placing any woman showing up to a hospital with gynecological issues under automatic suspicion.

Who needs facts?

Not John McWhorter. In his review of Amy Wax’s book, Race, Wrongs, and Remedies, McWhorter waxes (ho ho) poetic about the persuasiveness of the argument, but completely fails to relate just what it is that makes it persuasive. The review begins, as such things so often do, with a complete strawman:

There is a school of thought in America which argues that the government must be the main force that provides help to the black community.

Notice the unspoken assumptions smuggled into this sentence. First, it is simply assumed that such a “school of thought” exists, although none of its representatives are even identified, much less given a voice. The second assumption is that this school (whatever it is, if it even exists) believes that government must be the “main force,” in helping the black community; is there even a metric that allows one to compare who or what is a “main” force and what is an auxillary? I would suppose that if one actually spoke to people who study issues of this sort, one would discover a much more nuanced view on the role of government in bringing about racial equality.

The review, and, I must assume from the text, Wax’s book itself, contains one of those horrible appeals to analogy which is neither illuminating nor valid. McWhorter paraphrases it thus:

Wax appeals to a parable in which a pedestrian is run over by a truck and must learn to walk again. The truck driver pays the pedestrian’s medical bills, but the only way the pedestrian will walk again is through his own efforts. The pedestrian may insist that the driver do more, that justice has not occurred until the driver has himself made the pedestrian learn to walk again. But the sad fact is that justice, under this analysis, is impossible.

How this is supposed to teach us anything about the history of African-Americans is unclear. Justice is “impossible,” under this analysis because the framework of the “parable” is structured to prevent it from being possible. Even internally the example isn’t particularly coherent; we might well ask what happens if the truck driver has paralyzed the pedestrian, which would seem to be a reasonable question given the analogy. Now, the pedestrian can’t learn to walk, no matter how hard he tries! What kind of justice does the pedestrian, now crippled for life, deserve in this case?

Of course, to even begin to make this counter-argument is already a problem because it implies the acceptance of the analogy, which is in no way legitimate. Collisions between truck drivers and pedestrians are individual processes; the condition of blacks in America is not an individual process but a historic one. Truck drivers didn’t create structural conditions that continuously result in pedestrians being run over, whereas white America unquestionably did create (and continues to perpetuate) structural conditions that leave blacks at a disadvantage.

McWhorter goes on:

The legal theory about remedies, Wax points out, grapples with this inconvenience—and the history of the descendants of African slaves, no matter how horrific, cannot upend its implacable logic. As she puts it, “That blacks did not, in an important sense, cause their current predicament does not preclude charging them with alleviating it if nothing else will work.

The italics in the quotation are mine. Let me first object to the use of the word “implacable” here as a mean rhetorical trick designed to move the faulty analogy out of the realm of debate. In fact, as is clear after minimal reflection, nothing about this logic is implacable at all; it’s actually quite faulty and not at all applicable to the situation in question, which in any case ought to be treated on its own merits. But even granting this false analogy, I still have to wonder by what mechanism of elimination Wax has concluded that “nothing else will work.” Does Wax’s book contain a thorough examination of various social programs together with an analysis of their performance? I don’t have the book, but I suspect that it’s not something you can do in 190 pages (and anyway, Wax is a lawyer, not a sociologist, so likely such an analysis would be beyond her expertise anyway). In fact, one might suppose that there are lots of things we haven’t tried that could certainly alleviate the difficulties that blacks face in America; for example, we could end the ludicrous and patently racist “war on drugs,” which locks up young black men at unprecedented rates. I doubt that this would solve every problem ever, but it sure would help. In the next paragraph, McWhorter’s argument (really, Wax’s argument, but McWhorter seems to agree with it) gets downright weird:

Wax is well aware that past discrimination created black-white disparities in education, wealth, and employment. Still, she argues that discrimination today is no longer the “brick wall” obstacle it once was, and that the main problems for poor and working-class blacks today are cultural ones that they alone can fix. Not that they alone should fix—Wax is making no moral argument—but that they alone can fix.

Let’s grant for a moment Wax’s argument that discrimination today isn’t a “brick wall.” I don’t believe it’s true, but for the sake of argument I’ll allow it. It still remains true that the people alive today are the victims of actual discrimination from decades past. Since I assume that no one would make the argument that racism just disappeared abruptly, even if one believes it doesn’t really exist today, then certainly one must grant that blacks were, in fact, discriminated against in the past. What that means, for those of you who are adept at following causation, is that blacks today are living with the end product of that discrimination. Wax clearly acknowledges this, but wants to pretend that in this brave new world, that doesn’t really matter. I can’t see how this is a coherent position. Those structural deficiencies created by explicitly and implicitly discriminatory policies still exist. I’ve already mentioned  the war on drugs, but you can just as easily look at the difference in funding between urban and suburban school districts. When I was a high school student in California, I was lucky enough to attend a very rich school whose tax base was La Jolla, one of the wealthiest communities in the state. But I also had the chance to see numerous other campuses, which were decrepit by comparison. So long as such stark and undisputed inequalities persist, it’s hard to see how Wax’s apparent belief that we have done all we can could possibly stand up under scrutiny.

McWhorter acknowledges these difficulties at the end of the article, though in a rather oblique manner. Before he gets there, he throws out a couple of studies without a lot of context: that completing high school and delaying having kids is conducive to success, that the IAT is not the best indicator of discriminatory behavior (this is asserted and nothing is cited in support, but let’s roll with it), and that poor women don’t marry the fathers of their children not because the fathers are unemployed but because they are not dependable. The obvious question that arises here is how those factors are disentangled; wouldn’t someone who is undependable be likely to be unemployed? Potshots are thrown at random “black radicals” (who, I’m guessing, are probably of little relevance to the overall struggles of day-to-day life in black communities anyway) for failing to address out-of-wedlock births and Jeremiah Wright is trotted out to complete the parade of horribles.

What’s disappointing about all of this is that at the end, it’s not like McWhorter doesn’t understand that government has a role to play. Having thrown out some pretty categorical statements early on, he effectively backtracks to admit that government can in fact do things like improve educational equality, ease the transition of felons back into society, and enforce civil rights violations. And that it should be doing those things. Still, he can’t help but sign on to this paragraph from Wax:

The government cannot make people watch less television, talk to their children, or read more books. It cannot ordain domestic order, harmony, tranquility, stability, or other conditions conducive to academic success and the development of sound character. Nor can it determine how families structure their interactions and routines or how family resources—including time and money—are expended. Large-scale programs are especially ineffective in changing attitudes and values toward learning, work, and marriage.

Government can certainly not do any of those things by fiat (although the last sentence seems of dubious validity). But it can, and should, try to create conditions in which those kinds of attitudes will flourish. Poverty, as I suspect McWhorter would acknowledge, has a logic of its own that has little to do intrinsically with whether one is black or white. For historical reasons, we have a black underclass in this country, but being black doesn’t somehow cause you to adopt the “wrong culture.” On the other hand, there is a clear causal connection between being black and finding yourself the persistent victim of structural inequalities predicated, in the not-too-distant past, on racial discrimination. Once you find yourself a member of that underclass, with the corresponding limited horizons and substantially greater day-to-day travails, you can’t just will yourself out of it. Well, maybe if you’re really good, you can, but the average person, black or white or anything in between, is going to struggle, and understandably so. To think otherwise is just fantasy. It’s especially bizarre for Wax to ask,

Is it possible to pursue an arduous program of self-improvement while simultaneously thinking of oneself as a victim of grievous mistreatment and of one’s shortcomings as a product of external forces?

Well, is it? It would seem that Wax believes the answer to this question is negative, though this isn’t stated anywhere. But more importantly, what if one really is a victim of grievous mistreatment and one’s shortcomings (a loaded term in and of itself) are actually a product of external forces?

McWhorter concludes his review with the suggestion that saying that government and personal choices both have a role to play is like having your cake and eating it too. But I would counter that such a statement is simply a truism, and that Wax is playing a dishonest shell game. On the one hand, it’s impossible to not acknowledge the great injustices perpetrated against blacks over the course of this country’s history; on the other hand, such an acknowledgment leads naturally to the conclusion that this isn’t just a private problem but a social problem that can and should be addressed in policy. And that’s not acceptable to Wax for whatever reason, so she quickly has to swap in the idea that we’ve already done all we can and the rest is the responsibility of the black community. Nevermind that this isn’t supported by any real evidence and that so much more can actually be done. And this is why discussions of culture never really get you anywhere; they simply serve to redirect the discourse from the actual, useful things we as a society can do to blaming black people for not being committed enough to not being poor. McWhorter is right when he says that “the bulk of today’s discussion of black America is performance art,” but not in the way he thinks.