The Heterodox Liberal

Monday, February 06, 2006


Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Bush does not read this blog...

He still doesn't get it. From the SOTU:

The same is true of Iran, a nation now held hostage by a small clerical elite that is isolating and repressing its people. The regime in that country sponsors terrorists in the Palestinian territories and in Lebanon -- and that must come to an end. The Iranian government is defying the world with its nuclear ambitions -- and the nations of the world must not permit the Iranian regime to gain nuclear weapons. America will continue to rally the world to confront these threats. And tonight, let me speak directly to the citizens of Iran: America respects you, and we respect your country. We respect your right to choose your own future and win your own freedom. And our nation hopes one day to be the closest of friends with a free and democratic Iran.

No! George! Read my previous post. The chances are, the terrorists are supported by the people. We can't just claim that it's the regime, and that the people, absent the regime, would be sending flowers instead of bombs.

That being said, we may legitimately need to use some military force against Iran in the near future. If they're developing nuclear capabilities -- and their own actions suggest they are -- their research sites, at a minimum, ought to be bombed to smithereens. Here, the WMDs are potentially real.

But if we do that, lets not pretend we're doing it to liberate the peaceful and happy Iranian people. Lets be honest and say that we don't want a bunch of people who hate us playing with fissile material.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Judge Richard Posner: Blithering Idiot, Evil Menace, or Both?

Your correspondent read this article in the New Republic with mounting horror. The mere fact that someone let the infamous Richard Posner write about NSA surveillance is worrisome enough (this, the man whose previous op-ed, an attack on the media in the pages of the Times, prompted what must be a historical first: an angry letter-to-the-editor, ripping Posner's "review," from the paper's own executive editor!). The actually content is beyond the pale.

I think I'll just quote the juicy parts with a sentence or two of commentary and let the reader come to his or her own conclusions.

Lawyers who are busily debating legality without first trying to assess the consequences of the program have put the cart before the horse.

"Roper: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! More Oh? And when the last
law was down, and the Devil turned round on you - where would you hide[?]"

So suppose the NSA learns the phone number of a suspected terrorist in a foreign country. If the NSA just wants to listen to his calls to others abroad, fisa doesn't require a warrant. But it does if either (a) one party to the call is in the United States and the interception takes place here or (b) the party on the U.S. side of the conversation is a "U.S person"--primarily either a citizen or a permanent resident. If both parties are in the United States, no warrant can be issued; interception is prohibited. The problem with fisa is that, in order to get a warrant, the government must have grounds to believe the "U.S. person" it wishes to monitor is a foreign spy or a terrorist. Even if a person is here on a student or tourist visa, or on no visa, the government can't get a warrant to find out whether he is a terrorist; it must already have a reason to believe he is one.
Once a phone number in the United States was discovered to have been called by a terrorist suspect abroad, the NSA would probably want to conduct a computer search of all international calls to and from that local number for suspicious patterns or content. A computer search does not invade privacy or violate fisa, because a computer program is not a sentient being. But, if the program picked out a conversation that seemed likely to have intelligence value and an intelligence officer wanted to scrutinize it, he would come up against fisa's limitations. One can imagine an even broader surveillance program, in which all electronic communications were scanned by computers for suspicious messages that would then be scrutinized by an intelligence officer, but, again, he would be operating outside the framework created by fisa.

Oh no! That evil FISA! Preventing the government from suspicionless wiretapping of anyone who happens to have had a single phone call with a suspected terrorist -- or everyone in the whole country! Real patriots will tape record theirown conversations and hand them over to the FBI immediately!

But, since the principal fear most people have of eavesdropping is what the government might do with the information, maybe we can have our cake and eat it, too: Permit surveillance intended to detect and prevent terrorist activity but flatly forbid the use of information gleaned by such surveillance for any purpose other than to protect national security.

Yes! And while we're at it, why don't we prohibit the President from lying to start wars! In fact, why don't we prohibit all politicians from lying! And make sure that intelligence agencies only do secret things that we want, not secret things we don't want! We can rely on our magic pink flying unicorns to enforce all of these laws. In fact... why don't we send the magic pink flying unicorns after Osama!

Once you grant the legitimacy of surveillance aimed at detection rather than at gathering evidence of guilt, requiring a warrant to conduct it would be like requiring a warrant to ask people questions or to install surveillance cameras on city streets. Warrants are for situations where the police should not be allowed to do something (like search one's home) without particularized grounds for believing that there is illegal activity going on. That is too high a standard for surveillance designed to learn rather than to prove.

Gosh, I can't wait until Posner is Chief of Police. Posner to you: "I'm going to quarter these soldiers in your house. Not because I want toprove you're a drug dealer, but just because I want to learn whether or not you are a drug dealer. So it's constitutional!

Monday, January 30, 2006

Lessons from the Hamas victory

Part of the job of being the loyal opposition is to occasionally offer advice to the ruling party when they've screwed up royally, in the hopes that they won't do it again and bring the whole country down with them. In this vein, I offer a few thoughts to our Republican friends on what the recent election in Palestine means for the U.S. and for the world.

1. One man's terrorist really is another man's freedom fighter. Duh.

So you know how George W. Bush says that the normal people in the Middle East feel the same way that we in the west do about the terrorists? Just last year, in fact, he proudly declared that "[t]he people of the Palestinian Territories cast their ballots against violence and corruption of the past."


There is no question that Hamas is a violent group of terrorists, from the perspective of the west -- a perspective we all certainly share. However, we've seen now that they also have a staggering base of support in the ordinary, non-terrorist populace. What does this mean? Does it mean that the people of Palestine (and by extension all Arabs) are unabashedly pro-terrorist and need to be exterminated in some kind of post-industrial Crusades? Or does it mean that we need to take a deeper look at the situation?

I'm not sure what the short-term answer is. It's clear that the general public in the region does not have the same view of terrorist groups as do we. It is, however, more clear what the long-term answer is:

2. Stop oppressing them. I'm serious this time. Stop oppressing them, damnit! Just stop! NOW!

If groups like Hamas have such widespread support that they can actually win elections in a country that was previously staggering fairly steadily toward peace and some semblance of freedom, we can not kill all the terrorists. Ain't happening.

There's always been two basic approaches to the whole "war on terror." For simplicity, we can call them the "kill the bastards" option and the "rainbows and ponies" option.

The "kill the bastards" option is premised on the notions (which you can find in just about any Bush speech) that the terrorists are in league with or protected by various oppressors (Saddam, the Taliban, the mullahs running Iran, etc.), and basically amount to a parasite on the body politic of the nations that they come from. On this theory, military action can be used to topple the oppressive governments that shelter them (cf. the Taliban), kill the few people who are active terrorists, and then leave the people to be free. Read generously, that was the Plan in Afghanistan, and Bush claimed that plan for Iraq too (albeit falsely).

The "rainbows and ponies" option takes as its first premise the notion that terrorism is a popular movement in the countries that produce terrorists -- that, because of the sufferings that the people of those countries have experienced (plus a good dose of religious fanaticism), there is a widespread desire to strike back against more fortunate or oppressive countries, and support for those who do so. Under the "rainbows and ponies" theory, there is nothing worse than using military force to attack nations that shelter or sponsor terrorism, because that will just increase the perception of oppression by the people, and that in turn will widen the spigot of angry, disaffected fanatics to the terror movement.

On all dimensions but one, the "kill the bastards" policy seems greatly superior to "rainbows and ponies." "Kill the bastards" has the collatteral advantage of toppling dictators, it can be used as an instrument of economic policy, and it permits fairly unrestrained exercise of the national self-interest. By contrast, "rainbows and ponies" has none of these advantages, and has the serious detriment that, well, it's a bit vague on actual policy suggestions. What on earth are we to actually do to make the people stop feeling oppressed? Send them flowers, what?

Here's the problem. The premises of the "kill the bastards" approach are false. As if the situation in Iraq didn't prove that already, the Hamas election makes it conclusive. The terrorists have popular support. We can't hope to shoot them all, and the more we shoot, the more we make. "Rainbows and ponies" is the only option.

So now what?

3. Crisis = Risk + Opportunity.

And here's what we need to do right now: don't cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority. Support them. Show that we respect the judgment of the people of Palestine. Show that we still understand democracy. Show that we can work with the people of Palestine to make a world where they need not see terror as necessary. Use this election as an opportunity to demonstrate to the people of Palestine, and by extension the whole Arab world, that we can meet them on their terms, cast aside revenge, and work to help them build the kind of free society that they want, not the kind that we want. (Consistent with protecting Israel, of course.)

Can we rise to the challenge?

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Tom Tomorrow: Genius.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Now whirling around the blogosphere

"Look, this is going to come out. Nobody is going to keep it a secret. Jack Abramoff is so radioactive—I've got Jack Abramoff fatigue already. I mean, good grief, he didn't kill anybody. Maybe that one guy in Florida."

-GOP stooge Ed Rogers (source)

Note to Jill:

Harvard Law Record takedown of those hopeless xoxohth losers.

If these scum are your only enemies, you're doing alright.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Myth of Liberal "Elitism"

I keep hearing, again and again, crap from the right about liberal "elitism." It seems that the right is increasingly desperate to protray themselves as the allies of the "common man," even as they slash taxes on the rich, screw over the economy, gut public education, abandon public health, send the "common man" to die in foreign wars, etc. etc. A fool named John Rosenberg, for example, goes so far as to use the Washington Post Style Section's obsession with clothes as an example of "liberal elitism." Gee, perhaps that's why they call it the "style" section? Because it's dedicated to frivolous crap, that advertisers will perhaps support? You know, this "free market" for which you have such a deep, if not yet actually carnal, love?

The latest phrase du jour, if Rosenberg is any indication, is "cultural elitists." This is, one can imagine, as opposed to general, ordinary, garden-variety elitists. See, general, ordinary, garden-variety elitists do things like favor the rich and powerful over the poor and weak. "Cultural" elitists apparently means writing a vaccuous article about the clothing of the wife of a Supreme Court nominee. (Cattiness is, apparently, a privilege reserved only for the oh-so-common-touched Republicans like Barbara Bush.)

In fact, one look at the Bush family will make it screamingly clear that all the complaints about "liberal elitism" are nothing more than a culture-wars scare tactic to convince the victims of right-wing policies that all the scary liberals will make your children study Andres Serrano instead of Norman Rockwell in art class. It's a more subtle version of the "war on Christmas," although it blatantly appeals to the same fears.

Even liberals are now buying into the Big Myth. This article, for example, goes so far as to defend creationism on grounds of anti-elitism, and implies that evolutionary science is nothing more than a "cultural norm," dissenters to which are entitled to a governmentally supported "expand[ed] the range of personal choice" about. He even puts evolution in a paragraph about "legitimate cultural gripes." Legitimate gripes? It's legitimate to gripe about science? Gee, that's news to me. I never knew that I was right to gripe about the unfortunate facts of physics and biology that prevent me from shooting laser beams out my eyes at will. But apparently I have the legitimate right to gripe at the liberal elitists, with their "science," shattering my cultural worldview of laser-beam-shooting.

Even those rightists who try to make arguments in support of their bald accusations of "elitism" fail horribly. For example, people who think of themselves as economists (and some actual economists) are fond of pushing ideologies like consumer sovereignty and dubious psychological/philosophical notions like the idea that people necessarily know how best to spend their money to make themselves happy. Then, they can a priori define any government program whatsoever as "liberal elitism," because under their ideology, any government spending could be accomplished better by giving it to the beneficiaries and letting them spend on the good at issue or some other, supposedly more utility-maximizing, option. (Hint to the rightist economoids: learn about economies of scale. And collective action problems. And cognitive biases. And, you know, some kind of ethics other than brute utilitarianism. Or get out of the bedroom, pick up the cleanest underwear from the pile, go outside, and meet actual human beings.)

Rich in their hyprocisy, even the Yalies (no center of elitism themselves, noooo) accuse liberals of being elitist. Opposition to hunting? Elitist. Oh, I've gotta quote this last one. It reveals the fundamental equation of the "liberal elitist" argument.
When they think the arch-liberal French are correct and the majority of West Virginians are wrong, the Gazette has a problem. It is called “Liberal Elitism.” In plain English (not French), the Gazette is essentially saying, “I know what is good for you because my liberal thinking transcends the common man’s thought and you do not know what is good for you because you are the uneducated masses.” Do the words “government of the people, by the people, for the people” sound familiar? One fact is for certain, you will not find those words on any French documents.
What this person is saying here is that a newspaper, because it disagrees with a vote, is elitist. Dissent = Elitism! That's the equation! Not only are we required to govern ourselves by majority vote, but, apparently, we're required to conform our opinions to the opinion of our neighbors, as expressed by that same majority vote! And any newspaper that disagrees should be CENSORED! Yes! That kind of thought control is just ooooh so democratic, it makes me squee with emancipated glee. (And of course, the French are necessarily elitist, because they had the blithering condescension to, you know, give us soldiers and arms to fight the Revolution. And obviously, "libertie, egalitie, fraternatie" is such an elitist statement, nowhere near as democratic as "government of the people, by the people, for the people.")

What else is elitist? Well, according to one idiot blogger, disagreeing with the proposition that the New York Times is left-wing immediately (a) makes you an elitist, and (b) makes you a left-winger yourself. Hence, the opinion that the New York Times is left-wing is inherently immune from critique. There's some more lovely anti-elitist thought control for you. According to the same idiot, believing in the existence of propaganda is in and of itself enough to make you an elitist, because a real egalitarian would have absolute faith in the ability of the public to see through any and all lies. (I'll have to remember that one, the next time some right-winger goes after liberal propaganda. The elitist scum!)

The absolute prize, however, goes to a WSJ editorial (approvingly quoted by not-elitist-at-all Steven Bainbridge, the conservative law professor with a terribly non-elitist wine blog -- can you smell the hypocrisy?), which rhetorically asks the following: "And what does a party that is dominated by a loose coalition of the coastal intelligentsia, billionaires with too much spare time, the trial lawyers' association, the Hollywood Actors' Guild, rock stars and unionized labor have in common with what's quaintly known as Middle America?"

Yes, you read that right, labor unions are now lumped in the "cultural elite" with billionares with too much spare time and rock stars. Shit. I must've missed where those bastard liberal intellectual elitist longshoremen were condescending to me because of my failure to read Ovid in Latin. And those damn atheist bus drivers! Why can't they just let us normal Christians live in peace? And lets not forget the Auto Workers, sending their children to private school while demanding that the rest of us prop up a failing public education system.

Can we please cut the crap on liberal elitism? If for no other reason than the simple fact that the people who are levying the accusations of elitism are the ones in power. It's like the Tsar accusing pre-revolution Lenin of being an elitist because he favors the abolition of the popular church. It's absurd for the people in power, who are heaping money on their rich friends, to accuse the minority party of elitism for having the chutzpah to be the minority party!

New Years resolution for liberals: the next time some right-winger calls you a liberal elitist, just beat them down, to the ground. Get on the internet, research their background, find their stock portfolio, find their Skull and Bones membership, and expose them for the plutocrat pigs that they invariably are.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

"Rule of law?" the Sixth Circuit said, laughing and snorting milk out of its nose

This just in: do you want to match your conservative friends in their certain outrage at the Supreme Court's (good) recent decision re: Oregon's assisted suicide law? Do you, too, want to sputter with rage at the barbarism and incivility of the courts in this country? Well, go read this.

Backstory: last year, the Supreme Court ruled that two Ten Commandments displays on courthouses in Kentucky's McCreary and Pulaski counties were unconstitutional establishments of religion.

So the courthouse in Mercer County, also in Kentucky, put up an identical display -- which they put up in the middle of the McCreary County case -- and the Sixth Circuit upheld this thinly disguised show of Christofascist solidarity on the basis of its laughable "secular intent!"

Apparently they've forgotten what it means to be a "lower" court. Hint to Judge Suhrheinrich: it means you do what the Supreme Court tells you. Not just ignore their opinions.

Impeachment, anyone?

In other news, both on the rule of law, and, appropros of the previous post, Harvard: David Luban defames Machiavelli by blaming him for Harvey Mansfield. Machiavelli was actually a decent guy. It is believed in many quarters that The Prince was half sop to the Medicis to get him out of custody (he was put there when they took over Republican Florence) and back into public life, and half encoded critique of despotism. If you'll read Discourses on Livy, you'll see that old Niccolo was in fact in favor of institutions of government to check absolutist executive power. The same can not, alas, be said for Harvey Mansfield.

I quote Machiavelli:

On the other hand, those men are infamous and destroyers of Religion, dissipators of Kingdoms and Republics, enemies of virtu, of letters, and of every other art which brings usefulness and honor to human generations (mankind), such as are the impious and violent, the ignorant, the idle, the vile and degraded. And no one will ever be so mad or so wise, so wicked or so good, that selecting between these two kinds of men, does not laud what is laudable, and censure what is censurable. None the less, however, nearly all men deceived by a false good or a false glory allow themselves to drift either voluntarily or ignorantly into the ranks of those who merit more censure that praise. And being able to establish either a Kingdom or a Republic with eternal honor to themselves, they turn to Tyranny, nor do they see because of this action how much fame, how much glory, how much honor, security, and tranquil satisfaction of the mind, they lose; and how much infamy, disgrace, censure, danger, and disquiet, they incur. And it is impossible that those who live as private individuals in a Republic, or who by fortune or virtu become Princes, if they read the history and the records of ancient events, would do well living as private citizens in their country to live rather as a Scipio than a Caesar; and those who are Princes, rather as Agesilaus, Timoleon, and Dion, than as Nabis, Phalaris, and Dionysius, because they will see these (latter) to be thoroughly disgraced and those (former) most highly praised. They will also see that Timoleon and the others had no less authority in their country than had Dionysius and Phalaris, but they will see that they had had greater security for a longer time. Nor is there anyone who deceives himself by the glory of Caesar, he being especially celebrated by writers, for those who praised him were corrupted by his fortune and frightened by the long duration of the Empire which, ruling under his name did not permit that writers should talk of him freely. But whoever wants to know what the writers would have said of him freely, let him observe what they say of Cataline. And so much more is Caesar to be detested, as how much more is he to be censured for that which he did, than he who (just) intends to do evil. He will also see how Brutus was extolled with so many praises; so that not being able to censure him (Caesar) because of his power they extolled his enemy. Let he who has become a Prince in a Republic also consider how much more praise those Emperors merited who, after Rome became an Empire, lived under the laws (and) as good Princes, than those who lived an in a contrary manner; and he will also see that it was not necessary for the praetorian soldiers or the multitudes of the legions to defend Titus, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrai Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus, and Marcus (Aurelius), because their customs, the good will of the people, and the love of the Senate would defend them. He will also see that the Eastern and Western armies were not sufficient to save Caligula, Nero, Vitellius, and so many other wicked emperors, from those enemies which their bad customs and evil lives had raised up against them.

Preach on!

Friday, January 13, 2006

Money is not the same as Humanity

The pathologies of the right are truly astounding, and apparently they start young. In the most recent Harvard Magazine,* there's an article by a non-rich undergraduate recounting his experiences on the "Dorm Crew." It's worth reading all on its own, but there's one real stunner of a quote which is both horrifying, and, yet, not at all surprising.

The gap between what I know and what they take for granted catches me by surprise, and their frame of mind entirely astonishes me. In my section for Moral Reasoning 22, “Justice,” we were talking one day about city workers who do dangerous construction below ground. Someone suggested that such dangerous jobs should get higher pay, but—because people need those jobs to get by—the wage stays unfairly low. “I dunno,” said a guy across from me. “There are other jobs that are really risky. Like hedge-fund managers.”

My god. And yet... and yet... the same august institution recently "lost" (hopefully with no regrets) a professor who has spent years arguing that the idiot student who thinks that hedge fund managers incur just as much risk as coal miners is actually correct. W. Kip Viscusi, best known for his work as paid expert witness (read: intellectual whore) for the tobacco industry in their attempts to claim that smokers know what they're getting into and don't really mind a horrible early death after all.

[interlude: apt pull-quote from the above:]
"Why would any scientist in his right mind choose to base his entire theory on a survey cooked up by a tobacco-industry law firm?" asks Stanton A. Glantz, a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. "In my mind, I put Viscusi in this sort of cabal of academics who make a good living off of tobacco money."
Kip "Bennett LeBow" Viscusi also is known for his "research" on something called the "hedonic value of life." The previously linked article sums it up:
His dissertation argued that workers implicitly demand a wage premium for jobs with a high risk of death or injury. That phenomenon was noted by Adam Smith as early as 1776, but Mr. Viscusi tried to advance the theory by measuring the precise size of the premium. He concluded that for each one-in-10,000 annual chance of dying on the job, workers tend to demand an extra $400 a year.

Mr. Viscusi concluded his dissertation with what turned out to be a hugely influential suggestion. If workers make such a wage demand, he argued, then they're acting as if their lives were each worth $4-million -- a calculation similar to those made by insurers in pricing their coverage. Therefore the government should consider $4-million to be the statistical value of a life -- that is, for example, when the Environmental Protection Agency debates whether a given regulation is cost-effective, the answer is yes if the regulation will save at least one life per $4-million of cost.
You can see the evil implications of this approach already. It becomes "efficient" to impose X risk on someone, if you pay them Y miniscule amount of money for it. Tort damages get capped. And the bizarre claims of the undergraduate who says that being a hedge fund manager is as risky as being in a job where you put life and limb on the line are academically validated. Because, hey, life is only worth 4 million bucks, so if a hedge fund manager gambles with more than that...

Anyone with an IQ over 30 (which does not, apparently, include Mr. Viscusi) can see the ferocious and atavistic class bias in this analysis, of course. Bill Gates will not take a life-threatening risk for 4 million bucks, and someone in the upper-middle class is much less likely to take a .0001 risk for 400 bucks than someone who lives in public housing in South-Central L.A. (This, of course, assumes that either risk-taker knows the risks and have any hope of quantifying them -- an assumption which is patently false.) Also, Viscusi is apparently too stupid to see that some classes have a broader range of non-dangerous jobs available to them than others. It gets worse. He goes so far as to argue that people in other countries, because they make less, have lives that "statistically" are less valuable. (Glory quote: "Cigarette smokers and people who don't use seat belts in their automobiles work on risky jobs for less per expected injury than do people who don't smoke and use seat belts in their automobiles." Gee, Kip, obviously these people are making a rational choice to avoid the zero cost of using a seat belt and accept the risk that goes with it. It can't be that you're just tracking stupid people, eh?)

It's this kind of warped thinking that deranges the minds of the young to the point that they can be gotten to believe that, yes, hedge fund managers have risky jobs. People like Viscusi should be laughed out of the public sphere.

* Coincidentally, in the same issue, there's a wonderful, wonderful article from Elizabeth Warren about the economic risks of the average family. Warren, of course, is the Harvard Law School professor who has emerged as the strongest voice against the savage abuses of, e.g., the credit card companies and their corrupt bankruptcy bill.**

** Huh. I've moved from sex to Harvard. This blog is starting to look like some Tom Wolfe novel.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Question to Hugo, Revised.

Hugo's latest, extremely thoughtful post on this issue is here. I also urge everyone to read the first comment, from zuzu, which captures my basic position on the issue and is concise to boot. (Incidentally, speaking of pro-feminist perspectives on copious sex, I encourage everyone to read Suzie Bright's blog, religiously.)

If you want non-concise, read on.

There are two interlocking points in Hugo's post. I'll address them in turn.

1. The inconsistency of Nookie and Freedom.

The crux of Hugo's post is the following:

From my perspective -- and this is only my own, not some edict from the pro-feminist high command -- a man who wishes to be an authentic pro-feminist while getting laid regularly by different women outside of the context of a committed relationship is living out a contradiction where his language and his life don't match.

I recognize within me a temptation to make pro-feminist principles easier for young men to embrace. I'd like to say something shallow and simple like "Hey, dude, as long as you are honest and sincere about your intentions, you can fuck around all you like -- just make sure to say nice things about respecting the humanity of your sexual partner, take equal responsibility for contraception, and be good in bed." It's tempting to give young men a free pass, the sort that allows them to indulge their sexuality with a clean pro-feminist conscience. But as far as I'm concerned, that amounts to giving men a license to objectify and use women as long they cloak their selfishness in pro-feminist rhetoric!

I can't agree with this, even though it is a position that deserves quite a lot of respect. At the basic root level, it buys straight into the claim (so often used by the right as a strawman against the left) that all sex is oppression. No matter how equal the individual sexual relationship (as measured by "[being] honest and sincere about your intentions" and by "tak[ing] equal responsibilty for contraception" and by "be[ing] good in bed," and even by actually (as opposed to just paying lip service to) "respecting the humanity of your sexual partner," the relationship apparently is inherently about "objectify[ing] and us[ing] [the] wom[a]n," unless it falls within some kind of strict category of "the context of a committed relationship."

In all honesty, that claim has a certain intellectual appeal. It is true, for example, that the horrible prevalance of rape taints all male-female sexual relationships. If I get into a relationship with a woman, or talk to one at a bar, she experiences the fear of rape. I do not. This is manifestly oppressive, and it manifestly affects every single heterosexual sexual relationship.

However, the conclusion that "committed relationship" is the only option does not follow. That just replaces one oppression with another. It amounts to something analagous to "letting the terrorists [rapists] win.*" Because, again, it not only denies women's sexual agency, it denies women and men sex, period. This isn't about focusing patronizing advice on young women, or witnessing to brothers and calling them to account. It's about not injuring both women and men in the guise of helping.

Hugo also says:
At its best, pro-feminism is about more than paying lip service to the idea of gender equality. It's about seeing all human beings -- including those human beings whom we find incredibly desirable -- as extraordinarily precious.
Yes, of course that's true. However, I don't see what's inconsistent about a nice roll in the hay between two extraordinarily precious people.

I regret, now, my choice of dramatic phrasing for the end question. I had not intended to focus the whole discussion on men who want sex but can't get it. (Although, see previous post, I think there is a discussion to be had on that issue.) I was trying for the broader question: "why on earth should we constrain the options of either gender, for sex or committed relationships?"

I revise my question at the end of this post. But first:

2. Making feminism more palatable to men.

Hugo rightly notes that a feminist man should first address his criticism to male behavior, and also notes that compromise on feminist principles for men would be a violation of integrity. True, in both cases. While there's certaintly a principles/victory tradeoff (does one compromise to serve the interests of one's allies, and thus recruit them for the cause?), I can't criticize his position on that question.

However, there's an important counterpoint, and it goes back to the controversial Good Older Guy/Bad Older Guy scenario from three posts ago. Briefly: is it fair to make the people with good intentions suffer to prevent a harm, when the people with bad intentions will cause the harm anyway?

For example, suppose you believe that pornography is inherently oppressive. (As my pitching of Suzie Bright's blog suggests, I disagree with that -- but that's beside the point.) You are in the minority (assuming arguendo) in this belief. However, you get pleasure from pornography. Do you buy the porn or not buy the porn?

The "principled" position would be to not buy the porn. However, there's something about that position that seems, well, irrational. There's a whole lot of people who don't care, who will buy the porn. So the porn company will still be happy and profitable. The harms from the production of the porn will continue. Your non-buying of the porn will do absolutely nothing except deprive you of the porn that gives you pleasure. I say buy the porn.

A similar calculus goes into play with something like giving physical compliments. If the small minority of conscious, aware men stops paying physical compliments, it will do absolutely nothing to end the practice, or to reduce the pervasive objectification of women. All it will do is ensure that that group of men (who by definition are the good guys, who care enough to modify their behavior in aid of equality) will have objectively less-good lives, because they can't make the normal move "pay a physical compliment" in the mating game. This is the sense in which I referred to "punishment" earlier. The good guys get worse lives with not contribution to overall justice. ("If compliments are outlawed, only outlaws will pay compliments.")

And now, for the Question, revised, and in two parts.

1. How do we institute the ideals Hugo discusses about committed relationships without injuring both men and women by depriving them of the opportunities for mutually pleasurable sex?


2. How do feminist men compete with non-feminist men in the marketplace for either sex or committed relationships, when non-feminist men do things like hand out physical compliments and date younger women?

* Frankly, I think the solution to rape culture is to harshly enforce the rape laws. If there were a reasonable certainty that rape = 25 years behind bars, a lot of things would be improved.

Sex, Economics, and Equality

[Note to all future political bloggers: do not start on sex. You'll never leave.]

Lets talk about interlocking oppressions for a moment. I can think of three groups of people off the top of my head who might be interested in the notion of sex as a "resource," as well as a critical look at who gets sex and who does not.

1. The disabled.

[Edit: and Interlude: Peggy Munson, a disabled writer, in an interview with Suzie Bright (who is one of my heroes), has the following to say on this subject:
Disability theorists talk about the limited portrayals of disabled folks in the media, and how they often tend to fall into a finite set of stereotypes, such as the "supercrip" and "heartstring-yanker."

Every disabled person I know is super-horny and talks constantly about sex. Yet disabled writers bitch about how nobody will publish their stories about disabled people fucking, as if there is no "market" for this work— or, as one publisher told me, it's too "serious" and "issue-oriented." Do I still have to point out why this is offensive?

Our culture believes that disabled members of society should accept subhuman conditions: poverty-level government disability benefits, horrible institutional conditions, etc.

Some disabled folks need adaptive equipment to have sex, but can't afford new shoes.

Some disabled folks need personal care attendants to help them have sex.

These are such taboo ideas: that a disabled person should not only be allowed to survive, but should be provided the means to pleasure.

She is wise. End.]]

2. The "fat."
3. Certain race-gender combinations widely perceived to be at a sexual "market" disadvantage. (Black women, Asian men.) (Although it is difficult to judge this category: I can't say whether or not this is true, because of e.g. eurocentric notions of masculinity and femininity excluding these groups, or untrue and simply a racist cultural myth.)

Why is this? Because each of those groups, regardless of gender, is deprived of sex in a significant way relative to the rest of the population. If they were (well, "are," in some cases) deprived of food or housing or some other resource to a similar extent, we'd have fits. People would get sued.

Compare the following statements.

1. "I don't want to sleep with some fat-ass/skanky black ghetto woman/guy without an arm. That's disgusting."

2. "I don't want to hire/rent to some fat-ass/skanky black ghetto woman/guy without an arm. That's disgusting."

The tenor of each of those statements (bigoted scumbag) is the same, yet the first is somewhat socially acceptable,* while the second will, in two of the three cases, result in immediate and ruinous litigation (and ought to in the third).

I was struck by several comments in the ongoing Hugo-discussion. This excerpted (anon) comment in particular caught me:

Using the language of "resources" incorporates the notion that sex is a product or service; essentially a commodity. That's just wrong. You can't buy pussy futures on the NYMEX. Sex is not a commodity, and talking about it like it is a commodity is just short of saying that women ore objects useful primarily because the commodity can be extracted from them. (Hint: that's what the rape culture tells us. That's not the feminist position. That's no any feminist's position.)

Sex is not a resource or commodity, or even a service. It's an interaction, like dancing or music. One dances with a dance _partner_.

If you're really wedded to the language of business, then sex is a joint venture, not a transaction. All the participants ought to get their needs met out of the deal, and if one partner ends up feeling used then the whole thing threatens the other partner's prospects for other partnerships.

The way you said, "how would we distribute the resource?" was perhaps an attempt to be funny, but it went over for me like a lead zeppelin (yes, that expression is where the band's name comes from). Literally, what you wrote implies that it would be fine to distribute access to sex as a commodity if it were practicable, and we merely have a practical problem that prevents us from doing that. Bad approach.

Now, I agree that everyone has the right to sex, and to be a sexual being. Most of us are able-bodies and we can have non-partnered sex any time we want. We can fantasize and masturbate, and we can talk with others about our sexuality. But nobody has a right to a sex partner.

Well, perhaps. But might using the language of "resources" also underscore the fact that just as imposition of sexuality (rape, harassment, objectification) is an oppression, so is deprivation of sexuality?

This no longer ties into the original series of posts, incidentally. I am explicitly not arguing that Older Man is oppressed if he doesn't get to boink Younger Woman. That argument would be absurd. I am arguing more abstractly that we ought to think of sex as a resource, so that we can understand things like:
- How people behave, sometimes instrumentally rationally, in order to acquire sex. (Compliments, flowers, fancy restaurants, spandex, laughing at jokes, artificial scents, sports cars, cooking, going to the gym, etc. etc. etc.)
- How people who, because of race/class/disability discrimination, are oppressed by the denial of sex (the subject of this post).
- How certain attempts to regulate (either internally or externally) the sex marketplace are doomed to fail because of the incentives placed on the players toward sex-acquisitive behavior. (This was the widely missed point behind the example two posts ago of Good Older Man and Bad Older Man competing for Younger Woman.)

We can't understand any of these things unless we understand sex in one sense as a commodity that people (a) try and get more of, all else being equal, up to an optimum level, and (b) can be unjustly denied in the aggregate.**

I say "in one sense," and I mean it. Of course sex is an emotional, mutual/collaborative, and even in some senses a mystical activity. It is also constrained by a whole host of factors, including (ideally) the ethical***, socialization, and biology. But does that mean we should pass up the understanding that we get from bracketing that and looking at sex as a resource?

To put this whole post in a slightly more concise and less precise/clear way:

P1: The personal is the political. (Feminism.)
P2: The political is the economic. (Marxism.)
.: C: The personal is the economic. Q.E.D.

One final note: "Sex is not a commodity, and talking about it like it is a commodity is just short of saying that women ore objects useful primarily because the commodity can be extracted from them." Again, this denies women's sexual agency, because it assumes that only men are doing the extracting and women are being extracted-from. There are women who get less sex than they want. Sometimes because of one of the various oppressions I discuss above. Those women, assuming they are heterosexually inclined, would do well to extract more sex from men, and would do well with a critical analysis of sex-as-commodity.

* Even purported liberals regularly declare things of that sort. Look at a few online personals ads, for example. The number of self-described "democrats" who put explicit racial criteria on their dating profiles is astonishing, as is the number (often self-described "hippies" who hate Bush) who explicitly say "don't bother e-mailing if you're overweight." Disability is less explicit, but ask anyone who is disabled if it's there. It makes me cringe, it really does. Pretty much the only group that's immune from this is the bi/poly/kinky/pagan/geek/gamer/etc. crowd.

** Please note that I said "in the aggregate." It would be highly oppressive for person A to demand sex from person B on the theory of any entitlement, for all values of A and B. However, if class A is deprived in the aggregate of sex, we simply must understand that as an oppression if we want class A to have a quality of life approaching that of all the other classes, if, in short, we give a damn about equality of overall life-happiness.

*** I never argued (or never intended to argue) that "no social rules [should] ever impinge on the likelihood of somebody getting laid." Merely that getting laid is a good thing, and social rules that do impinge on it require some additional justification to counterbalance that social harm.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

An Entitlement to Sex?

There's more discussion on Hugo's blog in a follow-up to my previous post. I'd like to highlight one particularly interesting comment, from evil fizz, which reads in its entirety (in response to the closing "getting laid" question of the last post) as follows:

Well, you can start with the presumption that just because you want to have sex doesn't mean you're entitled to it...

Well, I'm not so sure.

Wait! Before you click the comment button with howls of rage, let me bracket that. People who think they are entitled to sex from a particular person are known as rapists, and they should be punished with all the vigor that the criminal justice system can invoke.

However, it seems to me that emotional and intimacy is a basic human need (see Maslow, above), and that sexual activity of all kinds is a basic evolutionary desire for all species of animal, including the human animal. While it is certainly possible to live, and to live a full life, without those things (consider Catholic clergy... oh, wait...), such a life is unquestionably less satisfying.

While there's no even minimally sane way to recognize sex as a legal right (how on earth could we redistribute that resource?), we ought to recognize that people are entitled to be sexual beings, and to want sex, and to engage in non-oppressive behaviors to try and get it. That recognition drives my objection to many of Hugo's arguments: absent a real reason to believe that, e.g. Younger Woman/Older Man = Oppressive, it's unfair to both parties for anyone (be it the parties or society) to artifically/dishonestly repress whatever mutual attraction they feel out of a baseless objection to the fact of the age difference.

There's also a pragmatic component to the question I asked at the end of my last post. I seriously want to open a discussion on how to avoid objectification, sexual misuse of power, etc. without making a serious dent in the net incidence of consensual, mutually pleasurable, sex. If we artifically limit the pool of sex partners or limit sex-seeking behavior (e.g. compliments), it follows from simple economic principles that the cost of getting sex (time, probability of success) for both men and women will rise. And that's bad.

(Also, in response to sophonisaba, I addressed the reward/punishment thing in the comments to my previous post. As for Bad Old Man and Young Woman's missing his Badness -- I didn't say he was generally bad, just that his behavior -- dating a younger woman -- was hypothetically classified as bad for purposes of the argument. Note to Mr. Bad: "manipulation" ain't the issue. People punish/reward each other all the time. I "manipulate" my boss into giving me bonuses by doing good work, and "manipulate" a woman into being attracted to me by buying flowers. See previous post re: people doing things that other people want. It is not wrong for a woman to provide you with sexual attention, which you want, in order to get something from you that she wants. Unless society has convinced her that sexual attention is her only currency, that "manipulation" is eminently fair.)

The Dilemma of the Feminist Male

Lets start off this blog with something really provocative, shall we?

One of the best blogs out there in cyberspace is Hugo Schwyzer's. Hugo, a college professor, regularly takes up the banner of feminist men (a category in which I include myself) and rightly scolds his fellow y-chromosome holders for a whole host of objectifying, oppressive, or otherwise inappropriate behavior and unawareness of male privilege. So far, so good.

I have, however, one note of concern. It is the basic concern that many men raise -- sometimes disingenuously as a way of attacking feminist attempts to equalize the power in many relationships (e.g. workplace sexual harassment), but sometimes sincerely.

The concern is simple: how do single men (and, for that matter, het single women who want men) actually "court" each other under the restrictions he proposes? Hugo appears to be engaged, I'm not sure for how long, or how recently he is familiar with the difficulties of modern dating. And I certainly don't want to excuse noxious behavior (like the aforementioned workplace sexual harassment) on grounds that it's "just showing interest."

However, it seems like some of his comments are a little unbalanced. For example, in this post about older-man, younger-woman relationships, he flatly declares the following: "When we are talking about men over, say, 27 and women under 21, they are almost invariably a very poor idea." He defends this position mainly on the ground that you "need the presence of loving older men who are not parents or relatives, but who are still fundamentally safe."

This seems wrong-headed to me. There are several points of concern.

- What is this "safe?" And why is it inconsistent with romantic interest? I think Hugo is conflating several different kinds of interest here. There's the unsafe kind (leering, street harassment, etc.), and the safe kind (geniune attraction between, one hopes, equals). While a lot of purported sexual interest is predation, it doesn't follow that all sexual interest is predation. While I'm sure it is true that "[t]he first catcall, the first leer, the first whistle, the first inappropriate remark -- these are seldom forgotten, and they leave deep and enduring wounds," I am also sure it is true that many men do not do business with leers, whistles, catcalls, and inappropriate remarks. ("Inappropriate remarks" begs the question anyway.)

- Hugo also seems to conflate institutional power (i.e. dating students) with mere age. Regardless of your position on whether professors should date students or not, the fact that a professor feels it inappropriate to date (or flirt back with) a student has no bearing on whether or not it is inappropriate for older men generally to date or flirt back with younger women.

- Hugo argues that "[y]oung women need older men in their lives who will respect and care about them, who aren't their fathers or brothers but who aren't prospective lovers, either. They need to know that they bring more to the table than their sexuality. They need to be seen as complete human beings. " The last two sentences of that quote are unquestionably true. However, I fail to see how the first follows, or how specific behavioral demands follow from the first. Isn't it possible to be sexually interested in someone and interested in them because "they bring more to the table than their sexuality?" (Indeed, aren't many healthy relationships based on things like intellectual "chemistry" as well as physical "chemistry?") Isn't it incumbent upon us to incorporate "complete human being" into the set of qualities that make up "prospective lover?" And vice versa -- isn't it the case that "objects of desire" is part of "full human being?" Don't many people -- men and women -- who are not objects of desire (i.e. the unattractive) feel less than full human beings, having an avenue of normal life (sexuality) denied to them?

Moreover, not every man will be attracted to every woman. Even if there were a specific need, in the lives of women, for a specific class of men ("non-attracted older man") there's ample supply. There's married older men (many/most), gay older men, and older men who genuinely aren't interested. By suggesting that men who are interested in a particular woman deprive women of this (alleged) need, and thus implying an underspupply of non-interested men, Hugo implies, basically, that all men are horny freaks who necessarily want to boink every attractive woman that comes around the corner.

Also, even if an older man in question believes Hugo's claims about the need of younger women for uninterested older men, there's an honesty question. Basically, he's advocating pretending to be uninterested when one is not.

And then there's the collective action problem. Suppose I'm an Older Man, sexually interested in a Younger Woman, who might also be interested in me. Suppose also that Younger Woman is not interested in men her own age for the simple reason that they mostly seem to spend their time drinking beer in the frat house. I, having read and agreed with Hugo's post, decline to express any interest in Younger Woman. Then Older Man 2, who has not read Hugo's blog or who is self-interested, "moves in for the kill." Result? Good Older Man is punished (absence of relationship/sex), Bad Older Man is rewarded, and Younger Woman is just as wounded. How is this good?

- That last sub-point leads into the broader claim. For many, relationships -- oh hell, I'll just come right out with it -- sex is scarce. This is where I think Hugo perhaps suffers from some "engaged person privilege." Or perhaps it's "religous person privilege." Either way, I'm not sure that Hugo fully understands the scarcity of sex relative to demand.

Men in particular seem (speaking phenomenologically) to experience a deficit between quantity of desired sex and quantity of achieved sex. Those who lack just one of the many socially-imposed prerequisites to sexual success (appearance, intelligence, [sometimes] class status, various particular personality qualities like "confidence," etc.) can see their sex deficit enter the stratosphere. For women, perhaps the sex deficit in general is lower, but the desireable sex partner deficit is probably just as high (i.e. Younger Woman can get it from the drunk frat boy any time she wants, but she doesn't want it from the drunk frat boy). In light of this fact, is it a good thing to constrain the options of both parties still more? If Younger Woman wants a decent, pro-feminist Older Man, shouldn't she be entitled to date one who is attracted to her? Why should Older Man be forced to artifically constrain his dating pool to exclude Younger Woman? Don't both suffer in the most straightforward economic sense?

Re: the last point, Hugo acknowledges this later and moderates his position -- also correctly recognizing the distinction between "authority figure" and "general older man." It's just plain refusal to maximize utility.

This is a problem I have with several of Hugo's positions. For example, in discussing the nastiness re: Jill versus a webboard full of anonymous losers, he says the following about why feminist men shouldn't pay physical compliments:

But this "be very careful with physical comments and compliments rule" is applicable in the rest of the world, as well. Pro-feminist men must recognize that men constantly use compliments to gain access to women, and that that is a fundamentally destructive dynamic. How many bad pick-up lines start with overzealous praise of a woman's appearance? Men use these lines because as hackneyed as they are, they know sometimes they work. By the time they reach college, most men recognize that a great many women are deeply and profoundly hungry for praise, and by offering that praise, guys will be able to gain an opening. When men praise the beauty of women they barely know, they are employing an old patriarchal strategy that preys upon a serious vulnerability.

To which I say "hold on!" What is this "gain access to women?" The whole notion of "gaining access to women" is actually an anti-feminist idea. Hugo tacitly assumes that the women in question don't want to have access gained to them, that male mating rituals in the human species are fundamentally about manipulating uninterested women into bed. Perhaps in some social categories, that's true. However, modern feminists recognize women as sexual agents too.

With that in mind, we can reframe "paying compliments to gain access to women" as "verbally expressing sexual interest to see if it is reciprocated." Is there something wrong with that? Or are people required to communicate their sexual interest with bizarre codes and ambiguous physical movements and all sorts of other useless crap?

Even if there's an element of vulnerability there, are women so vulnerable to physical compliments that it undermines their free will? Assuming arguendo that a physical compliment triggers some kind of socially conditioned reward sensation in, perhaps, the ventral anterior cingulate cortex, leading the recipient to feel more positively disposed to (attracted to) the giver, how is that different from any other sexual behavior? Isn't that why I take a shower before going out, pay for dinner, and ease off on the garlic? Isn't that why she wears perfume, crosses her legs that way, and laughs at my dumb joke? Isn't sexual behavior about finding the things that one's prospective partner is "vulnerable" (attracted) to, and doing them?

There's also the fairly dramatic anti-sex posts. I really do like Hugo's blog, but sometimes I think he needs to get hit with a Third Wave Cluestick. The post at the last link just buys into the whole "men want sex, women want don't" myth that has been responsible for so much inequality. Read this insightful comment. As Hugo himself rightly said, "real liberation comes in the bold assertion of one's right to pleasure."

And then there's this post, which is also frankly retrograde. Of course serious relationships are an impediment to one's personal growth. If I'm married, and my partner has a good job, I'm less free to take a good job of my own in a different town, or go to graduate school, or whatever. Double that if there's kids. And really, enough with the paternalism already.

(In the interest of fairness, a few posts from Hugo that I unequivocally agree with.)

Here's the bottom-line. I agree with Hugo that our culture encodes a uni-dimensional sexuality on women's bodies. I agree that this is bad, and that we ought to do something about it. However, I am not willing to impose celibacy on myself or others to do it. And so, I address this question to Hugo: How can a Feminist Man Get Laid?

(Inadmissible answer: "God says you shouldn't.")

Introducing: The Liberal Heterodoxy


A blog. Specifically, political commentary from a left-wing but not knee-jerk perspective. The left suffers, I think, from the combination of being both fundamentally right (the Iraq war IS wrong, the poor ARE getting screwed, Bush IS an evil idiot chimp), but also a little ... shall we say, closed-minded? I expect to spend most of my time scolding the right, but also a good bit of time asking hard questions to my fellow leftists, in hopes they'll have an answer.


Anonymous. [Over-]educated professional, male, 20's, multiracial. Left-winger and hardboiled activist-type.


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