Thursday, December 16, 2010

Take it like a man

Warning for readers: This post discusses both acts of sexual violence and some extremely ugly attitudes concerning them. For an archive of my previous posts on this and related issues, please click here.

For reasons of length, I have split this post into sections, linked below

Part One: Introduction

I held off on posting this after my two previous posts on the subject because I didn't want to turn this blog into the Feminist Rape and Child Molestation Apologia Gazette, but this post by Meghan Murphy at The F Word: Feminist Media Collective is too fine a specimen to go to waste even if it is a few months old now. “Can women rape men? I’m not sure I care” is a true tour de force. (Originally found via Toy Soldier.)

On the one hand, there is nothing in it's basic assumptions that I haven't seen time after time from left-wing feminists, especially those of a "radical" persuasion. It merely takes some premises common in modern feminism and explicitly carries them to their pitilessly logical conclusions. And yet the ideas and attitudes about men, women, and sexual violence expressed in this post are, in all of their essentials, something that a rock-ribbed conservative circa 2010, or 1950, or 1850 could heartily agree with. It's a more literate version of some stereotypically macho meathead ranting about how Real Men don't suffer or get hurt or dominated by anything, least of all a girl.

If Meghan Murphy had referred to men and boys who had the temerity to actually complain after being raped or sexually abused by women as “pussies” or “queers” or “faggots,” it would not have seemed terribly out of place.  Luckily, with a sprinkling of lefty jargon you can do your part to encourage victims of sexual crimes to keep their mouths shut without sounding so distastefully blue-collar.

Murphy's post was written in response to this post by Cara Kulwicki at The Curvature, and this post by RMJ at TeleVism. To summarize the parts Murphy found objectionable: RMJ objects to the fact that popular media is more likely to treat sexual violence against men committed by women as cause for amusement than dismay and so further marginalizes victims of it. Similarly, Kulwicki comments critically about an incident on a late night talk show in which a male guest's sexually traumatic past was made light of, and more generally on the trivialization of sexual abuse and statutory rape committed  by women. I liked both posts (though some of Kulwicki's subsequent remarks were rather less edifying) and was happy to see two feminists in fairly well-known venues talking about the subject.

Others were less enthusiastic. Murphy, ever vigilant, is not about to let misogynistic backlash like "Marginalizing and ridiculing rape victims is bad, even if the victim has a penis" go unchallenged.

Part Two: They Don't Feel Pain Like We Do

Murphy starts off by helpfully informing us that:
In speaking to the men I know who consider themselves to have ‘lost their virginity’ at a very young age (for example Lil’ Wayne’s first sexual experience, discussed in Cara Kulwicki’s article, was at 11. That counts as very young), they have all made it clear that they consider these experiences to be consensual. They don’t call these experiences rape and they don’t remember their experiences as being rape. Instead they tend to feel proud of this early introduction to intercourse. Women, on the other hand, do not tend to share this perception of their early sexual experiences.
Murphy presumes that, if these unspecified men did have any negative feelings about their experiences, they would speak openly to her about it. The possibility that these men might be reticent when talking to someone who explodes with outraged anger and disgust at the very idea of actually giving a damn about male rape victims strikes me as a plausible alternative explanation, but considering that hypothesis would entail wasting precious empathy on Unworthy Victims I can understand her disinterest in pursuing it. Still, I'm happy for her- I wish every human being could enjoy the sort of place in society that would allow them to blithely assume that everyone they know feels free to talk about painful emotions and experiences.

But this speaks to a larger phenomenon than one woman's rampantly unexamined privilege or blackly humorous, Master Shake-esque lack of self-awareness. Victims of violence and abuse, be it sexual, physical, or emotional, routinely reframe, bend, distort, or selectively deny their own perceptions, experiences, and reasoning processes when faced with a reality that is too painful, too disturbing, or too sharply at odds with their beliefs about themselves, their friends and family, or how the world in general works, and so convince themselves that the way they were treated wasn't abusive, or wasn't harmful, or was actually beneficial, or must have been something they actually wanted, or was something they deserved or brought upon themselves

One thing feminists frequently talk about is how women who are raped or sexually abused often blame themselves for the crime or frame it as not "really" rape, and how our culture's attitudes about women and sexuality can encourage and facilitate this denial, as well as discouraging women who do identify what was done to them as criminal from speaking about it for fear of being disbelieved, despised, or humiliated. It shouldn't be necessary to point out that these psychological mechanisms and these fears are a part of human psychology in general not the result of some uniquely feminine frailty of spirit, but not infrequently it is.

Likewise, it shouldn't be necessary to point out that the social and psychological mechanisms that shape reactions to victimization are given ample material to work with in a culture where men perceived as weak are objects of contempt, ridicule, and disgust, females are thought of as too nurturing and innocent to ever want to commit sexually violent, abusive, or exploitative acts and too weak and passive to carry out such a thing out in any case, the very idea of a male not consenting to sex with a woman is dismissed because it is presumed that any and every male old enough to have two digits in his age is an indiscriminately hypersexual animal that will screw anything and everything with a vagina and a pulse, and the concept of rape itself is routinely defined and talked about in ways that implicitly or explicitly excludes the very possibility of a female perpetrator. But not infrequently, it is.

When feminists talk about men, some of them have an unfortunate habit of abruptly forgetting everything they previously knew about the way psychological coping mechanisms, social stigmas, and deeply ingrained cultural assumptions can shape the way people react to violence and exploitation. Consequently, it sometimes doesn't seem to occur to them that male victims of rape and abuse might actually act like victims of rape and abuse. This can take the overt form displayed here, or be shown in more subtle ways- for instance, uncritical acceptance of data about sex crimes against males produced by methods that they would quickly recognize as seriously flawed if used to argue that sexual violence against women was a trivial problem.

(The NIJ/CDC Violence Against Women Survey is a perennial favorite, and no wonder- unsatisfied with merely using questions worded in ways that cause male underreporting, it goes the extra mile by defining female perpetrators almost completely out of existence with a laundry list of male-female sex acts that are classified  as "rape" when the woman is unwilling but magically cease to be so if it's the man or boy who's been forced or threatened or terrorized or beaten into submission. I guess the vagina is just too inherently beneficent an organ to be used for evil.)

Of course, considering how a person's behavior might be affected by trauma and feelings like shame, shock, fear, or confusion requires at least some degree of empathy and sympathy for that person- the ability and the willingness to think of that person as vulnerable, as a being that can be weak, that can be hurt, that can suffer, and to think of that fact as something that actually matters.

Part Three: Carpet Bombing

Murphy's remarks are pretty standard so standard so far: Nothing you wouldn't find reiterated dozens of times in the comments section of any well-trafficked online news article about a female middle school teacher caught fucking a 7th grader, albeit with less excuse. Murphy continues:
I feel very strongly that, to speak as though men raping women is the same as women raping men, is both deceptive and dangerous. Men and women aren’t the same. It is because we don’t live in an equitable society that, to talk about rape happening equally or in an equally significant way between men and women, is just not ok. I get the feeling that both authors want these men’s experiences to be viewed as equal to women’s experiences. As though they are equally at risk, equally victimized, as though men, just like women, are in constant danger of being raped. Bullshit.

...why are we, feminists, talking about men and women experiencing sexual assault in the same manner. Why is it that both these writers do not (seemingly) understand why this might be something that is joked about around men whereas it is in no way, ever, acceptable to joke about women and rape?
Note the conflation: Murphy jumps from rape as it is experienced by individual rape victims to rape as it affects aggregates as if they were the same thing. The average member of women as a group is more likely to be raped than the average member of men as a group, therefore the experience of any individual women who is raped is worse than the experience of any individual man who is raped- Sort like the well-documented ability of women to rise from the dead after being torn to pieces in industrial accidents, protected from the more severe "permanently dead" male experience by the fact that women comprise only a small minority of occupational fatalities. And, therefore, expressing serious concern for male victims of rape is bad because you're giving undue attention to people who haven't been hurt badly enough to warrant it.

I will accede to this if, in the spirit of reciprocity, feminists likewise cease making any references to female victims of homicide, suicide, war-related injuries and fatalities, occupational injuries and fatalities, homelessness, and any other problems disproportionately affecting males. Or, if they absolutely must mention them, to not do so in a manner that implies that anyone should care. I confess I find the prospect of declaring millions upon millions of dead, maimed, or brutalized women to be unworthy of public mention somewhat distasteful, but apparently thinking that a woman being torn limb from limb by factory machinery or cut in half by shrapnel is just as bad as a man being torn limb from limb or cut in half is “bullshit.”

Summarizing her thoughts on the idea of taking male rape victims seriously:
Fuck off. Rape is gendered. Domestic abuse is gendered. This is not to say that men aren’t raped. It is to say that or to imply that women are capable of raping a man in the same way that men are capable of raping women is damaging and unclear. A man can penetrate a woman. A man can penetrate a man. He has that power. A woman does not.
Like many feminists, much of what Murphy says parallels traditionalist attitudes, but here mere parallel gives way to outright convergence. The only tip-off that this was written by someone who fancies herself an enemy of "Patriarchy" and not its champion is the use of the word "gendered;" that aside, it's nothing one of the right-wing hyenas at Pajamas Media who swarmed over James Landrith couldn't have written. Perhaps she and Bill Donohue have been cribbing from each other- their shared passion for discouraging people from noticing or caring about predatory sexual acts committed against boys gives them plenty of common ground.

Despite her apparent zeal to stand up for victimized women, Murphy completely throws women and girls raped or abused by other women under the bus. The conception of rape presented here, in which the badness or importance of a rape and the concern-worthiness of its victim is dependent on the sex of the perpetrator, has no more space for them than it does for males, and so they become collateral damage. Nothing sexual a female can do can matter in the way a man's actions can matter. Rape is gendered.

(Taken as written, Murphy's explanation of why her sex is entitled to the privilege of having the people they rape and abuse excluded from public awareness, concern, or sympathy also excludes female victims of men from the front of the bus in the case of rape by instrumentation. Though if one wishes to take a less literal and more charitable interpretation, perhaps a broom handle/dildo/bottle/whatever gets promoted to honorary phallus when a man holds it but loses its mana when a mere woman is forcibly shoving it into somebody's rectum or vagina.)

Murphy does not say that female victims of other females don't exist, or don't matter, or don't warrant as much sympathy or concern as other victims, or are less victimized or wronged than other victims. Instead, she defines and describes the issue in a way that logically entails these things. This sort of marginalization or outright erasure of females victimized by other females is common in both traditional and feminist discussions of sexual violence. Whether or not this further marginalization of a group of women and girls already almost totally ignored by a culture that can barely even imagine their existence is problematic depends on whether raped women and girls are of interest primarily because they are people who have suffered an injustice, or because they're a convenient blunt object to swing at the enemy. And, if the latter, how much collateral damage is acceptable.

This is the principal means by which male victims are marginalized or attacked, as well; The sort of openly expressed balls-to-the-wall loathing and abuse in something like Murphy's post, or in the Pajamas Media thread about male rape victims linked above, kicks in primarily when the primary line of defense has been breached. Defining people out of existence is effective precisely because it doesn't require that sort of unpleasant spectacle- if it's doing its job, most  people don't notice that there was ever a job for it to do. It's seldom the result of malice or ill will towards its victims; it works because it reflects, and in turn strengthens and sustains, an environment where it rarely occurs to either speaker or listener that there is a victim. It's not just who you don't talk about, it's who you talk about all the time without realizing or acknowledging it.

Part Four: It's Not "Rape-rape"

The most striking paragraph, however, is this one:
BUT when a person experiences something from a position of power and control it is different than when a person experiences something from a place where they do not have power, where they have been coerced, where their lack of power has been taken advantage of, ie. when they have been victimized. I do believe very strongly that people should be able to define their own experiences and therefore, if a man feels he has been raped by a woman, then it is rape. What I take issue with, is feminists, in particular, taking the rape conversation and applying it to men in an equal way as it as been applied to women. Are we not losing something very important when we do this? That something being GENDER?!...
So, now we know: Men and boys who are raped by females do not experience a situation where they have been coerced, or been taken advantage of, or lacked power. They do not experience being victimized. Both the forcible rape of adults and preteen boys deflowered by grown women in a position to exert a degree of quasi-parental authority are explicitly included in this.

So, the answer to the question “Can women rape men?” turns out to be: Kinda, technically, in a way that satisfies the strictly literal definition of the word “rape” but is largely devoid of the things that make rape a bad thing that people shouldn't do.

If a woman forces a man or boy to penetrate her vagina with his penis while he is being held at gunpoint, or at knife point, or while he is being held down or restrained, or is too badly injured to defend himself, or has been terrorized into submission by threats, he experiences this from a place of power. He does not experience being coerced, or being powerless, or being victimized. James Landrith, about whom I've written before, was not coerced or victimized when a woman began attacking him in his sleep and, when he woke up, extorted his submission by threatening to accuse him of rape if he resisted his rapist. When- to cite an example that was in the news a few months ago- a woman in her thirties begins sexually abusing an emotionally troubled 12-year old boy who "looked at her like a second mother” and continues to do so for a half-decade, exploits her relationship with the boy's family to have that boy move in with her as a "boarder" after her divorce, and uses threats and blackmail to squelch his attempts to escape from his role as her ambulatory sex toy, the boy is in a position of power. Rape is gendered, so man up and stop whining.

Murphy doesn't elaborate on whether she thinks the same applies to nine-year-old boys or five-year-old boys or toddlers, but it's logically entailed by all the all-consuming prominence she gives to the gender of victims and victimizers. A third-grader being sodomized with a broom handle or forced to perform cunnilingus on his mother may look like he's being horribly abused, but the very fact that you would think such a thing- or worse, think that it matters-  just goes to show that you don't understand the patriarchal context in which he's being sodomized with a broom handle or forced to perform cunnilingus on his mother.

Part Five: Mighty White of You

To give credit where it's due, Murphy magnaminously says that:
Let me be clear. I don’t think it is appropriate for anybody to have sex with anybody else without consent. But taking gender out of the equation and comparing the two situations as though they are equal to the experience of hundreds of thousands of women who are raped BY MEN every year is fucked.
A word of advice for anyone interested in writing about the issue of sexual violence: If your explanation of your thoughts and feelings on the issue requires a disclaimer clarifying that you do not consider rape and child molestation to be good things, you are doing it wrong. Show, don't tell.

Note that she conspicuously did not say that she thought it a significant moral wrong- or wrong at all, for that matter. A woman having sex with a man or boy without his consent- raping him, to use the more succinct and precise term that Murphy conspicuously avoids here- is doing something that is not "appropriate."

To not be appropriate is to be unfitting, or unsuited, or incongruous. It is not appropriate to wear flip-flops and speedos at the office, or a suit and tie at the beach, or a propeller beanie while testifying at a trial. It would not be appropriate for me to address my grandfather as "Cueball". A chemical engineering textbook is not an appropriate bedtime story for a three-year old. Fucking an unwilling man by threatening him into submission is not appropriate. It's gauche, albeit apparently less so than the man is being if he gets upset and calls attention to himself. Getting a job as a school teacher and sexually exploiting a boy in your charge is not appropriate, like running in the halls or using your outdoor voice in the library.

This is not mere semantic nitpicking. Language matters. Nevertheless, Meghan Murphy's willingness to refrain from outright endorsing the activities of rapists and child molesters is much appreciated, even if she found it necessary to immediately follow up her clarification that she does not actively support or advocate rape with another insistence that a male victim's connection to the Patriarchy Hive Mind somehow protects him from being sufficiently harmed by the experience to warrant the sort of concern Murphy considers people like herself entitled to, combined with a none-too-subtle attempt to divert attention to the vileness of the victims' sex and thereby reframe the issue in a way that discourages sympathy for those rape victims.

In the same caring spirit, let me just affirm that George Sodini's shooting spree was not polite or gentlemanly, and that he should have found a way to deal with his feelings towards women more constructive than riddling several of them with bullets. Bad form, that, even though having a bunch of holes punched through your vital organs by high-velocity metal projectiles is no doubt less unpleasant when you're a member of the sex comprising less than 1/4th of American homicide victims.

Part Six: Father's Daughter

I was taken aback when I first read this post, but I shouldn't have been- I had read its like many times before. What I said in my posts about feminist apologists for female child molesters such as Hugo Schwyzer applies here as well. Like many feminists, Murphy is saying nothing that- rebellious paintjob aside- differs significantly from the traditional conception she ostensibly opposes. (Though some heterodox feminists are also among the more conspicuous dissenters from this assumption, Wendy McElroy being probably the most prominent example.) Males are nigh-invulnerable and omnipotent, females are weak and helpless. Males sexuality is aggressive, predatory, and polluting; females are damaged by it in a way that they can never damage males. It follows that violence by the latter against the former is not a matter of serious concern, and that this is especially true of sexual violence. It further follows, naturally enough, that getting worked up about such violence and treating it as a big deal is at best ridiculous and foolish, and perhaps shameful or contemptible.

Taking the rape conversation and applying it to men in an equal way as it has been applied to women is the last thing your average traditional "Real Man," or female partisans thereof, would support. We'd be losing something very important when we do this, that something being gender. Though he'd probably replace “gender” with “sex,” and perhaps say something disparaging about what pussies modern men have become for someone to actually suggest the idea.

Does a Real Man think that men like those under discussion do not have power, or have been coerced, or been harmed because their lack of power has been taken advantage of? Certainly not. Men can't be overpowered by women that way; everyone knows that. Female aggression isn't a serious threat to a Real Man; it's irrelevant, or amusing, or at worst annoying. If our Real Man were to acknowledge that the victim really did somehow lack control in a particular situation, it's still his fault for allowing himself to be so weak as to be dominated by a woman in the first place, and thus still under his own control. And in any case, the idea that a man or boy could somehow have been victimized by sexual contact with a woman is absurd.

Does a Real Man think of these men as victimized, or believe that women are capable of raping a man in the same way that men are capable of raping women, or that men raping women is the same as women raping men? Of course not. Men and women aren’t the same. Women are damaged or diminished by sex, not men. Rape is gendered, as any of the Real Men who pop up to heap ridicule and abuse on men who come forward about being raped or abused by women will vehemently tell you.

Murphy takes it further than most, but her position differs from some much more common and typical ideas in degree, rather than in kind. It's the logical conclusion of the collectivism, myopic focus on the upper levels of male status hierarchies, and thinly disguised reiterations of traditional gender stereotypes and assumptions that pervade much of feminist thought. More next time.

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Thursday, December 02, 2010

New and upcoming changes at The Superfluous Man

I've been working on reorganizing various aspects of this blog, primarily by taking advantage of the fact that Blogger can now do stand-alone pages. One of the things I've been doing is collecting sets of posts by theme, and so I've created a page that links and briefly summarizes all posts I've done concerning rape, abuse, and related subjects that you can check out here. I originally thought of creating it mostly because I get some visitors via sites about abuse issues and wanted to make my posts on the subject easily found without needing to wade through years worth of vitriol on unrelated subjects, but hopefully it will be useful to others as well.

Other additions and changes to come soon. I'm not terribly skilled with this sort of thing, so if you swing by here over the next few days and the layout is confusing or the fonts are screwed up or spacetime has fractured and John Markley's The Superfluous Man has been replaced by an evil parallel universe blog where a suave, sharply-attired centrist named Yelkram Nhoj calmly extols the virtues of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., or whatever, please bear with me.

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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Letting the mask slip

Sheldon Richman's article The Anti-anti-authoritarians is the best summary and analysis of Tea Party-related events and commentary that I've read. I first read it some time ago, but the combination of the recent elections and the subject of my last post brought it back to mind. As Richman puts it:

It’s easy to point out flaws in the Tea Party. What is getting old quickly is the political elite’s criticism, which exhibits an intolerance and bad faith that it often attributes to the Tea Partiers. You don’t have to read too much of this criticism to see that the powers that be and their fawning admirers in the media and intelligentsia dislike one thing in particular: the movement’s apparent anti-authoritarianism. To be sure, at best it’s an imperfect anti-authoritarianism...
But let that go for now. What’s noteworthy is that the movement’s anti-authoritarian tone has establishment statists so upset. They seem really worried that this thing could get out of control. Any legitimate criticism they may make of the Tea Party movement is undermined by their abhorrence with anti- authoritarianism per se. They are anti-anti-authoritarian.

Richman then goes on to cite some choice examples that nicely demonstrate the traits that have characterized establishment response to the Tea Party phenomenon: the authoritarianism, the sneering elitism, and the baffled, almost panicky inability to comprehend the idea of actually wanting to reduce state power. Towards the end, he sums it up perfectly:
Here, apparently, is the Tea Party’s greatest offense: it resents the elites who presume to run their lives. How dare these know-nothings resist our good intentions and earnest efforts?

As I’ve said, the folks who identify with the Tea Party are far from consistent about this. Some of the contradictions are stunning. Still, it’s revealing that their critics are so concerned that through the Tea Party, anti-authoritarianism, anti-elitism, and anti-corporatism appear to be on the rise.

I would describe my own attitude towards the Tea Party movement as positive but not strongly so, due to the mixture of good and bad traits Richman describes in the article, and due to my memories of the Clinton years. I've seen these bursts of anti-statism on the Right rise and then fizzle out before, so I remain skeptical.

Still, they are vastly more attractive then their typical opponent in politics or the media. If nothing else, they've provided a valuable lesson by getting the mainline Left to drop the "Dissent is patriotic" pretense of the Bush era and show its fascistic true colors again. The snarling contempt and berserk, hysterical rage and hatred with which so much of the political and media establishment has responded to virtually any serious opposition or defiance, the relentless smearing, vilification, dehumanization, and demonization of dissenters, and the open calls for censorship and prosecution of Obama critics have been most instructive.
The Right in America did not cover itself in glory with the way it approached political disagreement in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, to put it mildly. However, I'll say this in their defense: when conservatives started responding to anyone who disagreed with them by shrieking like the Daleks on Dr. Who, it was in the aftermath of a terrorist attack that utterly destroyed two of the most prominent buildings in America's largest city, blasted a gaping hole in the side of the Pentagon, and killed nearly 3,000 people. Liberals are doing it with equal or greater intensity because citizens are holding peaceful rallies against deficit spending, health care nationalization, and corporate welfare, there's a cable news channel where people say unpleasant things about Dear Leader, and an ultimately unsuccessful minority in Congress caused sweeping legislation desired by the Democrats to take slightly longer to get through Congress by having the outrageous temerity to actually not vote in favor of it.

On a related note, there have been good recent posts at The Agitator (Progressives for State-Sanctioned Corporate Monopoly) and Coyote Blog (Fiat Garbage), both talking about the relationship between progressives and wealthy, privileged business interests. Warren Meyer at Coyote Blog sums it up pretty well:
If you can understand why progressives attack any corporation that they voluntarily do business with for having too much power, but defend any corporation backed by government authority, you will start to figure out exactly what progressives are really after.

What they say in their posts about the present day is also true historically: progressivism/left-liberalism/moderate statist leftism has never been nearly as hostile to Big Business, socioeconomic privilege, concentrations of wealth, or powerful megacorporations as the popular image suggests. All of those things are fully compatible with an ideology based on elite management of society- what isn't is an economy overrun with independent, competing enterprises that arise, change, grow, shrink, and die according to voluntary consumer choices that the ruling elite can't control or predict.
Speaking of which, at the Center for a Stateless Society's site Kevin Carson has a relatively recent paper, "The Thermidor of the Progressives" (PDF file), that is very interesting reading on this and related subjects. Probably my favorite quote:
Concurrent with the conventional liberal model of industrial organization there is, in every aspect of life, a managerial-professional priesthood controlling the range of services available and reducing the average person to client status. Mainstream liberalism extends beyond a Schumpeterian affinity for large organizations to an affinity for the professionalization of every aspect of life even in the realm of individual exchange and social relations. As with large-scale organization, the affinity seems to a considerable extent to be aesthetic: regulation and licensing—any regulation, any form of licensing, as such—is “progressive,” and any opposition to it is “right-wing.”

I've said it before, and I'm sure I will again- statism and control is not progressivism's means to some other end. It
is progressivism's end. If it conflicts with the supposed goal of aiding and defending the poor and underprivileged, it's the latter who are expendable. Few of the rank-and-file would be on board with this if they really understood it, I'm sure- but no successful statist ideology is short of people good at making sure it isn't understood.

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Sunday, November 21, 2010

David Nolan, 1943-2010

I learned only a few minutes ago that David F. Nolan has passed away. Nolan was one of the founders of the Libertarian Party of the United States and creator of the popular Nolan chart.

When I was growing up, discovering the Libertarian Party helped put me in touch with a world of ideas beyond mainstream politics. Beyond that, it was a great benefit, as I realized that neither end of the standard political spectrum reflected what I thought was right, to know that I wasn't all alone. It's not easy to express how valuable that can be. Rest in peace, and thank you.

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Saturday, October 30, 2010

The taint of trade

The consistently execrable Jacob Weisberg recently had an article at Slate excoriating Peter Thiel for his recently announced plan, the Thiel Fellowship, that will give promising young people money to pursue their technological and entrepreneurial ideas instead of going to college. Weisberg, appalled by what he considers to be a display of "an ugly side of Silicon Valley's politics," responds with an article, "Turn on, Start Up, Drop Out Hyper-libertarian Facebook billionaire Peter Thiel's appalling plan to pay students to quit college," that seems almost intentionally designed to push as many of my buttons as possible. After some generic anti-libertarian boilerplate (Gordon Gekko! Unapologetic selfishness! Economic Darwinism! GLENN BECK!), a bit of pearl-clutching horror at Thiel's impious remarks about American democracy, and some middle school-level sneering about "computer nerds" and Thiel's interest in technology, Weisberg gets to the meat of his criticism:

Where to start with this nasty idea? A basic feature of the venture capitalist's worldview is its narcissism, and with that comes the desire to clone oneself—perhaps literally in Thiel's case. Thus Thiel fellows will have the opportunity to emulate their sponsor by halting their intellectual development around the onset of adulthood, maintaining a narrow-minded focus on getting rich as young as possible, and thereby avoid the siren lure of helping others or contributing to the advances in basic science that have made the great tech fortunes possible. Thiel's program is premised on the idea that America suffers from a deficiency of entrepreneurship. In fact, we may be on the verge of the opposite, a world in which too many weak ideas find funding and every kid dreams of being the next Mark Zuckerberg. This threatens to turn the risk-taking startup model into a white boy's version of the NBA, diverting a generation of young people from the love of knowledge for its own sake and respect for middle-class values.
Where to start, indeed? Various things that this article brought to mind:

The "basic feature of the venture capitalist's worldview" remark would be an asinine statement in any context, but the subject at hand lifts it from being just another example of the mainstream's Left's aristocratic contempt for commerce to something more interesting. Weisberg, a college-educated employee of a large media conglomerate, has dedicated a whole article to condemning Thiel for narcissistically trying trying to "clone" himself by encouraging young people to become entrepreneurs, because this will stop them from doing what Weisberg thinks a right-thinking young person ought to do- go to college and then get a job working for somebody else.

The fact that Weisberg equates young people not going to college with “halting their intellectual development around the onset of adulthood” says so much about Weisberg's view of the world. Intellectual development is something that only occurs through public gatherings with strangers presided over by officially sanctioned authority figures at large government-controlled or government-supported institutions. He simply takes this as given. If he saw me back when I was a kid, putting enough effort into school to make people leave me alone and then reading about history or science or politics on my own in my free time because I thought they were interesting, he'd probably be terribly confused.

Weisberg offers no reason to accept his assumption that Thiel's program somehow entails "maintaining a narrow-minded focus on getting rich as young as possible" or avoiding "the siren call of helping others" that allegedly exists in college, aside from Weisberg's smug sense of superiority and sneering aristocratic prejudice against people interested in business. It also says something that when Weisberg talks about the negative results he thinks Thiel's program might cause, his Chilling Vision of Things to Come is a world where “every kid dreams of being the next Mark Zuckerberg”- that is, a man who became wealthy by creating something millions of people enjoy.

It's remarkable how much contempt oozes from Weisberg's article. Contempt for entrepreneurs and businessmen, of course, but also for anyone without formal educational credentials like Weisberg's. This doesn't surprise me- I've long thought that most of liberalism/progressivism as we know it today is basically aristocratic conservatism in Enlightenment drag, with the landed gentleman's disgust and disdain for the bourgeoisie and the vulgar world of commerce, contemptuous paternalism towards the peasantry, and unthinking presumption of his own superiority. The idea that businessmen are soulless money machines was a reactionary prejudice before it was a "progressive" one.

Without college, your "intellectual development" inescapably stops forever at 18. College is also apparently a prerequisite for having an interest in "helping others," since avoiding college is apparently a sufficient condition to avoid exposure to the idea. If you went directly into the workforce or started learning a skilled trade after high school, you're a profoundly stunted human being.

(I doubt that was the thought running through Weisberg's brain when he wrote this, but that doesn't mean he didn't say it. One of the common symptoms of an ingrained belief in one's own superior value is a tendency to insult people without realizing it.)

This doesn't surprise me, either- if my knowledge of the world came entirely from what media figures and intellectuals on the American moderate Left said and wrote, I'd probably be under the impression that most poor and working class Americans, and a good chunk of the middle class too, were part of some sort of bestial race of subhuman ape-men that H. sapiens had domesticated out of pity.
It's not usually this explicit, though.

I don't know how Weisberg has divined that we are on the brink of having too many entrepreneurs and not enough salarymen, or why he thinks wanting to go into business for yourself instead is a "white boy" thing. (Or how this article managed to get past however many pairs of eyes saw it before it was published without the "Maybe implying that only white boys would be interested in working for a chance to gain greater autonomy, be productive, and achieve their dreams isn't such a great idea" issue being brought up at some point.)

The chief problem with staking one's future on the slim hope of being a professional athlete, which Weisberg compares Thiel's idea to, is that the skills don't transfer to other things. If you're not a professional athlete, being really good at basketball has few money-making applications. The sort of skills a kid who wanted to grow up to be an entrepreneur would cultivate do, though that's probably hard to understand if you think that people who run start their own businesses spend all their time fondling big sacks of money, carefully avoiding any stimuli that might spur intellectual development or a desire to help others, and cackling like the Wicked Witch of the West. Besides, unless the Fellowship involves some sort of blood oath promising to never go to college, it's not as if this permanently closes off that option.

What does Weisberg mean here by "middle-class values?" The idea that going to college is going to teach things like industry, thrift, prudence, or restraint more effectively than trying to start and operate a new enterprise would- or do much to inculcate them at all, in most cases- is ridiculous. On the other hand, there's another sort of "middle-class value" that Thiel's plan does threaten. I'm from a middle-class, white-collar background. When I was growing up, there was perhaps no greater taboo among my people than not going to college. (Or "the unspeakable vice of the technical schools," as it is more politely called when ladies and children are present.) And that was back in the 90s, before the current "absolutely every child must go to college" mania had established itself, and among mundane white-collar professionals rather than people in the media or other "intellectual" fields, so I can only imagine what it's like in the sort of circles Weisberg moves in in the present day. For someone of Weisberg's socioeconomic class in modern America, foregoing college is Just Not Done. It's one of the things separating him from Those People.

Weisberg’s horror makes sense, given the elitism, credentialism, and often-venomous snobbery so common among liberal/progressive intellectuals and partisans. And if you fancy yourself part of an intellectual and moral elite, the sort of person lesser breeds need for their own salvation, someone who publicly challenges the value of one of the traits required to be part of that elite is a social menace and, for lack of a better word, impious.

For someone of Weisberg's expressed attitudes, the fact that this is coming from a lowly businessman championing things as base, dirty, and ungentlemanly as commerce and entrepreneurship would make it especially appalling. And if you place as much emphasis on social, cultural, and class markers as Weisberg’s ideological ilk frequently seem to, and despise people with the wrong such markers as much as Weisberg clearly and vehemently does, I suppose Thiel must seem like a secular Devil leading souls to damnation.

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Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Nothing new under the sun

Contemporary American politics makes a great deal more sense in light of the realization that Barack Obama's most devoted fans and fiercest critics are united by a shared delusion: the belief that Obama is really, really interesting.

How this manifests among his supporters is apparent enough in the starry-eyed adulation he been able to inspire in so many people. How this manifests among his opponents was especially driven home recently by the now somewhat notorious Dinesh D'Souza article in Forbes, in which D'Souza argued that Obama's politics are the result of the anti-colonialist ideology of Obama's Kenyan father. As D'Souza summarizes:

It may seem incredible to suggest that the anticolonial ideology of Barack Obama Sr. is espoused by his son, the President of the United States. That is what I am saying. From a very young age and through his formative years, Obama learned to see America as a force for global domination and destruction. He came to view America's military as an instrument of neocolonial occupation. He adopted his father's position that capitalism and free markets are code words for economic plunder...

For Obama, the solutions are simple. He must work to wring the neocolonialism out of America and the West. And here is where our anticolonial understanding of Obama really takes off, because it provides a vital key to explaining not only his major policy actions but also the little details that no other theory can adequately account for.

Incredibly, the U.S. is being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s...
Equipped with this window into the president's soul, D'Souza purports to explain a variety of Obama's political positions, from economics to his interest in using NASA for outreach to the Muslim world.

There are two problems with this thesis. (Three if one counts D'Souza's questionable attempts at psychoanalysis, which takes a somewhat troubled young man's youthful romanticizing of his absent biological father and turns it into The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.)

The first relates to Obama's military and foreign policy. In the real world, where the sitting president of the United States of America is the actual Barack Obama and not a cunningly disguised George McGovern wearing a Barack Obama mask, Obama has maintained tens of thousands of troops in Iraq, significantly escalated military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan with considerable cost in human lives, and is loudly rattling his saber at Iran. If he's grieved by the fact that the United States has military bases spanning the globe, well over one million men under arms, and an annual military budget that accounts for two-fifths of the planet's military spending, he 's been remarkably restrained in his complaints about it.

If Obama really views America's military as "an instrument of neocolonial occupation," as D'Souza claims, that's actually a rather decisive refutation of the idea that he's driven by anticolonialism.

In his discussion of domestic matters, D'Souza is at least reasonably accurate about describing Obama's actual policies. (Though it should be noted that, contrary to both D'Souza and some of Obama's own apologists, the rich aren't Obama's only tax targets: Obama signed a bill that more than doubled federal cigarette taxes. Like most lifestyle choices that progressives cluck their tongues at, cigarette smoking is disproportionately common among people at lower income levels.) However, he is no more effective in making his case for Obama the anticolonialist.

D'Souza's claims about Obama's desire to use NASA as a way to forge closer ties with Muslim countries is nicely representative of how he goes wrong:
No explanation other than anticolonialism makes sense of Obama's curious mandate to convert a space agency into a Muslim and international outreach.
Please. This is generic off-the-shelf liberalism- government programs will bring people together in a United Colors of Benetton-esque fraternity of cooperation and mutual understanding. Give me half an hour at any university in this country and I could round up dozens of lily-white progressives who would think that using NASA as a way to reach out to the Muslim world is a splendid idea.

The problem is that D'Souza asks the wrong questions: Why would Obama blow hundreds of billions of dollars on a dubious "stimulus" program during an economic crisis? Why would he try to make banks that had declined bailout money due to the strings attached take it anyway? Why would he try to tighten the government's grip on health care? Why would he want to raise taxes on higher income brackets?

Why on earth wouldn't he? He's blowing hundreds of billions on the stimulus so that he and his political allies can fund pet projects, justify the exercise of greater influence and power over society and pass out government swag to friends, allies, and supporters. He's doing the standard, normal thing for someone with political power to do - he's just able to do more because of the circumstances he finds himself in.

He wants to raise taxes on higher income brackets? So does every other center-left politician cultivating his "friend of the people" persona. He wants to increase federal involvement in this or that sector of the economy? He'd be a bizarre anomaly if he was a major American politician who didn't.

The same can be said of questions raised by faltering or disenchanted Obama supporters: Why hasn't he shown interest in liberalizing drug laws? Why isn't he renouncing the Bush era's offenses against civil liberties and separation of powers? Why is he handing out wagonloads of boodle to big corporations?

Why would it be otherwise?

The problem D'Souza has- and that many conservative critics of Obama have, and that many liberal admirers of Obama have- is this: He thinks there must be some interesting, unusual, or complex explanation for what is actually entirely mundane, typical behavior with a mundane, typical explanation.

The conservative reaction to Obama's programs are remarkably similar to the liberal reaction to George W. Bush, which also tended to ridiculously exaggerate the novelty of what Bush was doing by acting as if incremental changes building on established precedent were new and shocking.

Torture? President Bill Clinton signed an executive order authorizing "extraordinary rendition" in 1995- Bush's innovation was the idea of having it done in-house instead of subcontracting it out to the Third World. Bush killed hundreds of thousands of people by invading Iraq... not at all like his immediate predecessor, who had the good taste and discretion to kill hundreds of thousands of people through low-key methods like starvation and water-borne disease. Bush's encroachments on civil liberties weren't just built on the foundation of past encroachments by past administrations of both parties- they were, in many cases, the same law enforcement powers that Clinton had tried and failed to enact after the Oklahoma City terrorist bombing.

That's easy to forget, amidst all the hysterical squealing about Bush's supposed radical right-wingerness. In domestic policy, much of said squealing is the result of outright falsehoods- specifically, the ludicrous but impressively durable myth that Bush was a proponent of laissez-faire or presided over a reduction in the government's domestic size or regulatory power. This belief is actually very much like D'Souza's belief that Obama is anti-military- it's not only false, it's very obviously false, but the truth is incompatible with each side's mental image of the other side and so cannot penetrate their skulls.

Liberal treatment of Bush's foreign policy is generally much like D'Souza's interpretation of Obama's domestic policy- based on a reasonably accurate account of what Bush actually did but distorted into nonsense by the assumption that the Bush administration's polices and ideas, a Wilsonian crusade to spread the blessings of democracy through military force that would probably have met with the approval of many of the original Progressives, represented some sort of radical and novel right-wing extremism. (You don't get a vote in favor of your war from the number two contender for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination and President Obama's current Secretary of State without bipartisan appeal.)

Bush was able to push the limits further than Clinton because Bush had a bigger, scarier terrorist attack. Likewise, Obama has a bigger, scarier economic problem than his predecessors, and that provides opportunity. Each man chose to avail himself of the opportunity not because there is anything unusual or special about either of these politicians, but precisely because there isn't. No need for any unique wickedness from either of them. No need for any sort of exotic political agenda, be it Marxism, anticolonialism, neoconservatism as it exists in the liberal imagination*, secret adherence to Islam, or the machinations of the vengeful shade of Saul Alinsky.

*(Not to be confused with neoconservatism as it exists in the real world, where it's a movement founded by New Deal-style liberals, Trotskyites, anti-Soviet social democrats, and technocratic center-leftists who started identifying with the conservative movement because they were were appalled by the New Left's antimilitarism, cultural radicalism, and hostility to Cold War consensus liberalism.)

Acknowledging the incremental rather than revolutionary nature of what you condemn is potentially awkward for people in the political mainstream, because doing so will entail condemning your own side in the process. Everything that both the mainstream Right and mainstream Left profess to oppose, they both helped to create and preserve. If you don't want to face that, or don't want other people to, or are so deeply immersed in mainstream political assumptions that ideas like "Republicans aren't consistent or principled supporters of the free market or opponents of big government and government regulation" or "Democrats aren't consistent or principled supporters of peace and civil liberties or opponents of the rich, powerful, and privileged" makes your brain start giving Bad command or file name error messages, you'll need to replace the most plausible, obvious, and parsimonious explanation with something more baroque.

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Monday, September 06, 2010

Apparently, starvation blockades are bad for the economy. Who knew?

David Brooks has a column in The New York Times entitled "Nation Building Works," in which he attempts to vindicate the US government's past seven years in Iraq. From the article (via Cheryl Cline at der Blaustrumpf):

“Iraq has made substantial progress since 2003,” the International Monetary Fund reports. Inflation is reasonably stable. A budget surplus is expected by 2012. Unemployment, though still 15 percent, is down from stratospheric levels...

Living standards are also improving. According to the Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index, the authoritative compendium of data on this subject, 833,000 Iraqis had phones before the invasion. Now more than 1.3 million have landlines and some 20 million have cellphones. Before the invasion, 4,500 Iraqis had Internet service. Now, more than 1.7 million do.

In the most recent Gallup poll, 69 percent of Iraqis rated their personal finances positively, up from 36 percent in March 2007. Baghdad residents say the markets are vibrant again, with new electronics, clothing and even liquor stores...

In short, there has been substantial progress on the things development efforts can touch most directly: economic growth, basic security, and political and legal institutions. After the disaster of the first few years, nation building, much derided, has been a success. When President Obama speaks to the country on Iraq, he’ll be able to point to a large national project that has contributed to measurable, positive results.

Brooks attributes this to American nation-building efforts in Iraq, and says that President Obama should follow the advice of "serious Iraq hands" and keep American forces in the country.

I'm not surprised to hear that the Iraqi economy has improved since the invasion. I question how much of that has to do with American nation-building, however. I have a simpler explanation: It's easier to breathe when you're not being strangled.

From 1990 until Saddam Hussein's overthrow in 2003, the economy of Iraq was effectively cut off from the rest of the world due to U.N. sanctions that prevented the importation of anything except medicine and food "in humanitarian circumstances." This was supposed to serve the dual purpose of preventing Hussein from developing weapons of mass destruction and tormenting the Iraqi people until they obligingly got rid of Hussein for us.

Iraq's economy had been built around the export of oil and so was more dependent than most countries on international trade, and it's civilian infrastructure was devastated in the Gulf War. The result of this was economic and societal collapse, the neglect and breakdown of facilities and equipment using modern technology, a fall in per-capita income to a small fraction of its former level, declining literacy rates, and hundreds of thousands of deaths from malnutrition, disease, and lack of clean water.

The Iraq the United States and its allies invaded in 2003 was already a shattered wreck before the first shot was fired. This isn't mentioned as much as it ought to be, I suspect because there's so much blame to go around. Democrats can't point out that the two Bushes enforced a policy that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people unless they're willing to call Bill Clinton a mass murderer right alongside them, and Republicans are in a similar bind. Likewise, partisans of the United Nations can't condemn the United States for the effects of the embargo without simultaneously damning the U.N., and vice versa.

Giving credit for economic progress in Iraq to foreign aid seems plausible if you imagine that the ouster of Saddam Hussein and the arrival of foreign troops and aid is the only important factor that has changed between 2003 and 2010. Things get a little more complicated once you recall that, prior to the invasion, the same governments to which Brooks gives credit for Iraq's recovery were enforcing a policy that amounted to the systematic destruction of Iraq's economy and technological infrastructure. Of course, considering the implications of that requires contemplating the idea that whatever prosperity Iraqis enjoy now exists in spite of the interventions of the technocratic government elite that Brooks' career is dedicated to defending, rather than because of them.

So, yes, it's heartening to know that Iraq is not as wretchedly poor as it used to be now that the world's greatest military power is no longer actively working to drive it into the Stone Age. I'm sure David Brooks and all the other "serious" political thinkers who cheered on the murderous slow-motion strangulation of the Iraqi people must be very proud of their benevolence.

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Saturday, August 07, 2010

When soothing lies go wrong

Radley Balko has been writing quite a bit lately about incidents of people being harassed, arrested, or having their property confiscated by law enforcement for recording video or audio of their encounters with police in public places, frequently involving police who cite completely imaginary state laws against the practice. From Ohio- where videotaping police is quite legal- Balko brings this story. Melissa Greenfield and her boyfriend Colton Dorich had pulled into a truck stop after running out of gas. Dorich made a sign asking passing drivers for gas money, which apparently caused someone to call the police, resulting in the arrival of Sgt. Jonathon Burke of the Delaware County Sheriff's Department, who questioned the couple.

What I find especially worth noting about the story is that it provides a very vivid example of one of the dismaying aspects of modern law enforcement: The supposed justifications given for objectionable behavior by police are, if actually true, frequently just as damning as the criticism they're supposed to ward off.

From the article:
"I'm a 115-pound, 20-year-old girl wearing a cervical collar with nothing but a cell phone. I was not going to harm any officer," Greenfield said today. However, a sheriff's sergeant saw the situation differently after Greenfield announced she was recording video "for legal purposes and our own safety."

Sgt. Jonathan Burke wrote that he repeatedly ordered Greenfield to place the "unknown" object in her pocket and keep her hands free. When Greenfield refused, she was arrested and charged with obstructing official business and resisting arrest.

Burke wrote in his report that he feared that Greenfield could have been holding a dangerous object such as a "cell-phone gun." However, neither the sheriff's office nor the Columbus office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has ever come across one of the black-market devices that apparently are made in Eastern Europe...

The woman from Poway, Calif., pleaded no contest to obstructing official business. She was fined $20 and released with time served - three days in jail. The resisting-arrest charge was dropped. Greenfield said her plea was one of convenience to allow her to return home to receive treatment for her neck, which had been injured in a car wreck a few days earlier.

Greenfield said that, while driving her to the jail, Burke said that it was "unacceptable for me to be filming his activities."

Delaware County Sheriff Walter L. Davis III backed up Burke's actions. And, needless to say:
After Greenfield got her phone back, she said the video she took of the deputies at the Flying J truck stop at I-71 and Rt. 37 on July 9 had been deleted, along with a couple of vacation videos. Deputies did not delete any video, Davis said. A warrant would have been required to search the phone, and one was not obtained, he said.

Well, yes, but the fact that doing something would be corrupt and illegal is only a reason to think someone didn't do it if one is already assuming that their trustworthiness and integrity is unimpeachable, and going out of your way to prevent the creation of records of what you're doing on-duty while on the public payroll sort of works against that. The sad thing is that law enforcement enjoys enough reflexive deference among enough people for this to actually be a viable defense. (Think of how useful that would be in day-to-day life. "No, dear, of course I didn't lie about having a flat tire so that I could weasel out of my promise to see Cats with you for our anniversary and play Street Fighter IV on my friend's new HDTV instead. That would have been dishonest!")

People have been picking on Burke's bizarre "cell phone gun" claim, but that's not what makes his claims about his motives transparently ridiculous. It's his response to this supposed threat. If police officers genuinely believe that a person they are confronting may be pointing a gun at them, their response is not to repeatedly ask the possible gunman to put the suspected firearm back into their pocket. Neither "repeatedly ask" nor "back into their pocket" have any real-world referent in such a scenario. Even if police in this country were a lot more forbearing and restrained than I've come to expect, Burke's account would not be plausible, and in the "officer safety at any price" atmosphere that pervades so much of modern law enforcement it's utterly ludicrous.

(Also, cell phone guns do not function as electronic devices, since the original insides are removed to conceal the gun. If Burke knows how cell phone guns work and was willing to take enough time to repeatedly ask the woman to put her phone away, he could have easily confirmed that it was a real phone.)

But let's entertain his justification for a moment, and see what it implies. Suppose Burke is telling the truth, and he really did act the way he did because he was worried about a "cell phone gun."

There actually have been cases of people concealing firearms in cell phones. That, however, is merely a single example of the fact that weapons can be, and at some point or another probably have been, concealed in almost anything. Firearms have been hidden in flashlights, lipstick holders, beepers, pens, canes, and belt buckles. Virtually any bag, box, or container could contain explosives or incendiaries. The Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was murdered by a KGB assassin who stabbed him with a poison-injecting umbrella. A seemingly blind man with a white walking stick might actually be wielding a sword cane or a concealed single-shot gun. (And wearing darkened glasses that contain some sort of Predator-esque infrared targeting system, perhaps.) Any bulging pocket or billowing sleeve can contain a weapon. Any seemingly innocuous word or gesture could be a covert signal to a hidden accomplice or sniper or hit squad.

The point is this. Whenever you are among other humans, there are an innumerable number of possible means by which one of the people around you might injure or kill you, and there is always a chance, however small, that one of them possesses such a means and is about to attack you with it. Many of these are more likely than the the threat Burke was supposedly reacting to, often much more, and still not nearly likely enough to justify commanding or forcing people to preemptively "disarm" in the absence of any concrete reason to suspect a threat.

And here we see a phenomenon that is remarkably common when police are trying to explain or justify questionable behavior: The justification is as damning as the criticism it was meant to dispel. Greenfield accuses a police officer of abusing his authority, and the excuse given by the police is that what seemed like a police officer abusing his power to forcibly prevent a citizen from exercising her rights was actually just a police officer forcibly preventing a citizen from exercising her rights because he was lashing out at phantom threats while in the grip of some paranoid madness.

If I went around demanding that my fellow patrons at my local bar drink only from glasses if sitting in my vicinity (people are impuslve when they drink, and I could be shanked with a broken bottle), that anyone walking behind me on the sidewalk stay at least 15 feet back (might get thumped from behind), or that everyone turn out their pockets when I enter the room to show they contain no weapons, nobody would consider that reasonable behavior. My friends and family would fear that I had developed some terrible psychological or psychiatric problem. If I went beyond verbal demands and resorted to force, I'd be considered a menace to society.

And yet, the risks I'd be heading off are still more likely than the theoretically possible but wildly improbable risk Burke claims he feared. If Sergeant Burke really arrested Greenfield because he was worried about the possibility that a woman in a neck brace he had met while responding to a call about panhandling loiterers at a truck stop who said she was recording her encounter with him on a cell phone camera for legal reasons- which she had every right to do- was actually just pretending to record him so that she could murder him with a rare black market Eastern European gangland assassination weapon, then he is out of his mind.

If that's really true then Burke is a pitiable figure rather than a blameworthy one, but if anything the sheriff's department actually comes off looking worse. Even reasonable men can make tragic mistakes when watching for potential threats in stressful situations. Giving a gun and the task of enforcing the law to anyone as paranoid, fearful, and on-edge as Burke would need to be to truly think that his behavior was a reasonable response to danger is a disaster waiting to happen, and his superiors would be obscenely irresponsible to create such a risk. In turn, if Burke's superiors are being sincere when they back him up and say that his actions were a reasonable and proper response to a reasonable fear, that's even more ominous still, because that implies that the whole department is run by raving paranoiacs.

As I said above, I don't believe for a moment that Burke was actually motivated by fear of secret weapons, or that his own superiors really think he was. What troubles me more than the dishonesty is the fact that many people, I'm sure, will accept the excuses given by Burke and by Sheriff Davis. In other words, they will accept the idea that it's actually appropriate for the police to view all the rest of us with the sort of hysterical paranoia that Burke's "justification" implies, and treat us accordingly.

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Friday, July 30, 2010

News that would have been considered interesting two years ago

Last month I had a post mentioning that June 2010 had been the bloodiest month for NATO forces in Afghanistan since the war began nine years ago. Well, time marches on. I don't have the numbers for NATO as a whole in front of me, but July 2010 is now the bloodiest month of the war for American forces since the conflict began. Like last month, the rise is being attributed to the expansion of NATO's offensive operations, so it again seems probable that Afghan fatalities have been very high as well, given that expanding an offensive entails expanding the potential scope for things like this.

And at the time I'm writing this it's about 11:30 PM, Kabul time, so July still has a day left to go.

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Sunday, July 04, 2010

Thank God we have a Nobel Peace Prize winner in the White House now

June 2010 was the bloodiest month for NATO troops in Afghanistan since the beginning of the war nine years ago. There were either 101 or 81 fatalities, depending on whether you use the figures from iCasualties or official military statements, but each figure is the highest reported by its respective source since operations began in 2001. I don't have any figures in front of me for Afghan casualties, military or civilian, but given that the jump in NATO deaths is being attributed to the intensification of offensive operations in Taliban-controlled areas I'd imagine they're up as well.

I've found depressingly little comment on this news online. My memories of antiwar sentiment during the Bush era are starting to seem almost like a dream from which I've just awakened: I can vividly remember it, so vividly I could swear it was real, but there's nothing concrete I can grasp to prove it ever actually happened.

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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

To serve, protect, and/or scare the hell out of

Birchibald T. Barlow: But suppose for a second that your house was ransacked by thugs, your family tied up in the basement with socks in their mouths, you try to open the door but there's too much blood on the knob-

Mayor Quimby: Ah, er, what is your question?

Barlow: My question is about the budget, sir.

The Simpsons, "Sideshow Bob Roberts"

The government of Sacramento County, California (Hat tip to Hit and Run), like many government bodies in that state, needs to cut spending somewhere. When it was suggested, in light of the fact that Sacramento's murder rate is the lowest it's been in decades, that part of the cuts needed to make up the county's $180 million might come out of law enforcement spending, the sheriff's deputies union decided to skip any attempt at anything even vaguely resembling rational discourse and responded with an ad campaign that included, well, this:

The ad, put out by the Sacramento County Deputy Sheriff's Association, shows a terrified-looking young girl with a large, burly arm and hand wrapping around her and clamping over her mouth. Below the image in large text are the words "Your child's safety is at risk!", followed by a few sentences in smaller print about an ominous upcoming budget meeting.

While the image as a whole is about as subtle as a shotgun blast in the face, when looked at in parts it's also a model of the use of subtly reinforcing details that create an aura of fear, helplessness, despair, and corruption. The girl's panicked eyes are tilted so far back in her head that's she seems to be looking almost straight up, suggesting the towering size of her attacker. Her own hands are partially visible, pitifully small , pushing against the hand and arm of her attacker in a clearly futile attempt at resistance. His index finger is just below her nostrils, and his thumb is poised pincer-like just above them, moments away from stopping her breath.

The assailant's hand and arm is the only part of him visible on camera, and the dark material of his shirt sleeve against the dark background makes the hand look almost disembodied. His evil is intangible, sourceless, omnipresent, and literally faceless, seemingly striking from nowhere. At the same time, the hair on the back of his hand is dark and fairly dense, his veins and knuckles bulge, his skin is rough, and his fingernails are dirty-looking; he is crude, animalistic, and brutishly masculine, especially when juxtaposed with the girl's pristine fragility.

Even the letters of the ad's dire warning, white text on a black background, look gritty, damaged, stained, and besieged. The white is irregularly speckled with little black dots that get more common the closer you get to the letter's edge, and at the outer borders of some of the letters are larger black marks and splotches that seem to be in the opening stages of invading or consuming the words.

I'm quite accustomed to public employee unions treating their budget as some sort of inalienable patrimony that ought to exist independently of the community's actual needs, and of responding to the prospect of budget cuts with hysterical threats about the catastrophe that will ensue if they are no longer kept in the manner to which they are accustomed. Similarly, images of children in peril or vulnerable-looking females being sexually menaced is hardly unknown in political propaganda. Nevertheless, this is the first time I've seen an argument over personnel cuts reach the point of "Here's a photo of what it will look like when your daughter is kidnapped, raped, and probably murdered because you reduced our budget." The centrality of hysterical fear in politics is something I've become pretty inured to over the years, so it comes as a surprise to discover that I can still be surprised by this sort of thing.

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

With enemies like these, who needs friends?

Paul Craig Roberts has a nice article at Counterpunch on the Left and gun control. This is something that has had me shaking my head for years. I find myself baffled by the mentality of someone who believes that:

1. The government is controlled by a malevolent cabal of greedy corporate plutocrats who seek to exploit and oppress us, and

2. Only police and the military should have guns. Police and military personnel who work for the government. The one that's controlled by a malevolent cabal of greedy corporate plutocrats who seek to exploit and oppress us.

Then again, these are largely the same people who think that the only thing that can save us us from the malevolent cabal of etc. etc. is giving greater power over society in general to the government. It truly is bizarre, when you think about it- there's generally a strong positive correlation in America between the belief that the government is controlled by some despicable cabal that has pulled the wool over most of the country's eyes and the belief that that same government should have more power than it currently does, because that will somehow solve the problem.

My guess is that this is what happens when the standard-issue public school civics textbook view of politics- we are the government, modern managerial liberalism is the best of all possible worlds, powerful government is inherently antithetical to powerful moneyed interests who would otherwise eat us all alive, and so on- collides with reality hard enough to be bent, but not hard enough to be broken. The evidence that the government is not what good-government liberalism advertises it to be becomes too much to deny. Too much happens that, according to this worldview, doesn't or can't happen, and it's too pervasive to write off as minor glitches and imperfections in a good system.

And yet at the same time, the belief that interventionism and the institutions of the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and so on protect people from rapacious businessmen is too deeply rooted to challenge; it is the core of almost all mainstream politic. "Hostile to big business" is implicitly treated as part of the definition of economic interventionism. Thus, the idea that the government institutions beloved of progressives actually help rather than hinder the wealthy and powerful, or that owners and managers of big corporations could actually want more regulation rather than less, seems to strike many people as not merely untrue or unbelievable but nonsensical, if they're exposed to it at all.

Put the two together, and the result is an incoherent worldview in which the existing government can change from good to evil and back again in an instant. My favorite example is probably campaign finance "reform": Things are bad because the government is controlled by evil, greedy special interests, so we should solve the problem by passing laws giving the government greater power to control who can contribute money to political efforts and what can be said during elections, thereby driving out the special interests... and this will work because the government that enacts, enforces, and interprets those laws is controlled by We the People and exists to promote the common good. It only makes sense if America has two effectively indistinguishable federal governments that somehow exist side by side simultaneously, one good and one evil.

(Or if reform is so powerful that its effects can actually travel back in time, and thereby prevent the special interests pulling the government's strings from using campaign reform's powers for evil by destroying them in the past, before the reform's own creation. Our current understanding of physics does not rule out the theoretical possibility of time travel, so this arguably has a better chance of success than most liberal projects.)

It's quite a testament to how powerful the myth of the democratic interventionist state as defender of the common man has become. How many kings, oligarchs, and despots of past ages could boast that even most of the people who hated them were passionately dedicated to pushing more power into their hands?

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Sunday, June 13, 2010

Not actual opposition to plutocracy, but an incredible simulation

America's political culture and national self-image romanticizes the underdog, the rebel, the Common Man, the Little Guy, the bold voice speaking against the powerful. Thus, in any endeavor to use the force of government in the pursuit of wealth, privilege, and power, it helps to have some sympathetic people who fit or at least resemble that description in the vicinity. It always makes me chuckle when some earnest statist claims that libertarians are the dupes or tools of greedy businessmen, and part of the reason for that is nicely illustrated by this story from my home state of Illinois.

MUNDELEIN, Ill.—Robert Brownson long believed that his proposed development here, with its 200,000-square-foot Wal-Mart Supercenter, was being held hostage by nearby homeowners.

He had seen them protesting at city hall, and they had filed a lawsuit to stop the project. What he didn't know was that the locals were getting a lot of help. A grocery chain with nine stores in the area had hired Saint Consulting Group to secretly run the antidevelopment campaign...

P. Michael Saint... is founder of Saint Consulting Group, which specializes in using political-campaign tactics to build support for or against developments. Many of its efforts to block projects are clandestine.

As Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has grown into the largest grocery seller in the U.S., similar battles have played out in hundreds of towns like Mundelein. Local activists and union groups have been the public face of much of the resistance. But in scores of cases, large supermarket chains including Supervalu Inc., Safeway Inc. and Ahold NV have retained Saint Consulting to block Wal-Mart...

Supermarkets that have funded campaigns to stop Wal-Mart are concerned about having to match the retailing giant's low prices lest they lose market share...
In Mundelein, a town of 35,000 about 20 miles northwest of Chicago, it was Supervalu, a national grocer based in Eden Prairie, Minn., that hired Saint to work behind the scenes, according to Saint documents. Supervalu's objective was to block Wal-Mart from competing with its nine Jewel-Osco supermarkets located within three to ten miles of the proposed shopping center...

Mr. Saint... founded his firm 26 years ago. It specializes in using political-campaign tactics—petition drives, phone banks, websites—to build support for or against controversial projects...

For the typical anti-Wal-Mart assignment, a Saint manager will drop into town using an assumed name to create or take control of local opposition, according to former Saint employees...

Safeway, a national chain based in Pleasanton, Calif., retained Saint to thwart Wal-Mart Supercenters in more than 30 towns in California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii in recent years...
The article goes on to discuss the methods used by Saint's company to delay or block the construction of stores that would compete with the company's clients, frequently revolving around the creation, funding, and control of ostensibly grassroots organizations whose rank-and-file members are ignorant of where their leadership and funding is actually coming from. It also describes some specific examples, including a darkly humorous, Peter Sellers-esque account of Saint's company creating a front group of local citizens in Pennsylvania to block a proposed Wal-Mart on behalf of competitor Giant Food Stores, and then having to suddenly destroy it's own creation when Giant's parent company decided to build its own enormous store on a site directly opposite the lot where the Wal-Mart would have gone.

Arguing ad hominem is a logical fallacy, and the fact that a political cause is supported by and serves the financial interests of a national retail giant with over $40 billion in yearly revenue that wants to use government power to block competition doesn't prove that the cause is wrong. This stiory does, however, nicely illustrate the nature of the lie on which so much of modern politics is built.

One of our great cultural myths in America is that of heroic, public-spirited struggle waged by plucky grassroots bands of We the People against the depredations and greed of some Heartless Corporation. The reality is much less romantic: The heroic struggles between Concerned Citizens and Greedy Plutocrats lionized in our civic mythology and in mainstream accounts of history are in fact usually, at best, battles between Greedy Plutocrat A and Greedy Plutocrat B, in which one side or the other is just better at finding frontmen and dupes. Frequently it doesn't even rise to that level, where the Concerned Citizens are at least actually hurting the target of their ire, and instead serves the purpose of aiding the very companies or industry being righteously railed against at the expense of the general public. (Kevin Carson's work is a valuable resource on this sort of thing.)

My favorite recent example of this principle at work is the controversy over net neutrality, and the way that controversy is usually framed. Opposed to net neutrality, we are told, are the big, greedy telecommunications companies like Comcast, who will choke off the free flow of information unless the government saves us from them. They are opposed by a plucky band of grassroots freedom fighters... Well, a plucky band of grassroots freedom fighters and various multibillion dollar corporations that stand to benefit financially from net neutrality, like Google (revenue of $23.6 billion in 2009), ($24.5 billion in 2009), eBay ($8.7 billion) and Sony ($78 billion). Again, the fact that various business interests are on your side for their own self-interested reasons doesn't mean that you're wrong, but it does mean that the story is more complicated than what many people like to believe.

There are good criticisms to be made of internet service providers, which are frequently the beneficiaries of government-granted monopolies or other governmental barriers to competition. If ISPs really are in a position to harm consumers by controlling what their customers can access online and are likely to take advantage of that, as neutrality advocates claim, freeing the market for internet services would break these monopolies and deal with the problem.

But the fact that current ISPs are the creatures of state intervention is seldom discussed, and it's not hard to see why. Government-enforced uniformity of bandwidth pricing would benefit big players like Google and, who would be natural targets if ISPs started to engage in price discrimination and don't want to see telecommunications companies taking a slice of their pie. Deregulation of ISPs, on the other hand, would benefit (aside from consumers) small internet firms currently being blocked from trying to compete with the big monopolies in many markets, and companies that do not currently exist but would if regulations were not hostile to entrepreneurs entering the market- in other words, it would benefit people who don't have deep pockets or political muscle or executives who get invited to Presidential galas in return for big donations.

Combine that with many people's kneejerk "The government must fix it" response to any potential problems and the prejudices and self-interest pervasive among politicians, intellectuals, and the media, and it's not surprising that few if any of the people and organizations oh-so-concerned about the possible depredations of companies like Comcast show interest in actually going after the source of their power, and that only "solutions" that increase government power are proposed and agitated for.

Similarly, there are certainly good criticisms to be made of Wal-Mart, such as the company's use of eminent domain and the fact that it's market share has probably been inflated by the way many government regulations disproportionately hurt smaller firms, but the vast majority of the store's critics never use arguments like that. They can't, since their ideology is based around the belief that the interventionist state is a good thing and simply can't process the idea that it might be the problem and not the solution, or that it could be the ally of powerful business interests and not their enemy. Instead we get a relentless torrent of economic ignorance, elitism, xenophobia, and class snobbery.

The story of "progressive" and populist politics in the United States is, at its core, a story of fake rebellion, dressing up the strengthening and enrichment of privileged interests as a battle to protect the weak and vulnerable from the strong. The central delusion of modern statism- that the concentrated coercive power of the state can be trusted to protect the weak and restrain the strong- ensures that it will remain so.

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