Thursday, June 29, 2006

'Up Is Down', And Other Inflammatory Statements

Not so long ago I wrote a post considering whether a particular statement was "White supremacist" in nature. A side question which was raised during this discussion was whether a particular belief/act/statement can be labeled as "racist" if, though it is not intrinsically racist, it has the effect of perpetuating existing racist attitudes. Rumination on the question leads me to believe that the answer is "yes, but that definition is not terribly useful". Proof, by counter-example:
  1. Assume that the assertion "that which perpetuates racist attitudes is racist" is true.
  2. As a result, the following statements are also necessarily true:
    1. Tiger Woods is a racist: Though he describes himself as "Cablinasian" he does not correct popular media portrayals of himself as "Black", nor does he disavow efforts by the Black community to "claim" him as one of their own. This behavior perpetuates the idea of hypodescent, and thus is racist.
    2. Morgan Freeman is a racist: He has repeatedly allowed himself to be typecast as the "wise old Black man" advising a White protagonist in a number of movies. This perpetuates the stereotype of White agency vs. Black non-agency, and thus is racist.
    3. Holocaust remembrance is racist: Such remembrances typically treat the Holocaust as a unique event centered around the experience of the Jewish people, minimizing the suffering of other Holocaust victims and ignoring other instances of modern genocide. This perpetuates the notion of Jewish exceptionalism, and thus is racist.
Now, the above is deliberately inflammatory, and most people would probably disagree with these conclusions. And yet, accepting the stipulated assertion, these statements are also true. So what does this mean? My working hypothesis right now is that there is an unrecognized divergence in the definition of racism; when an academic says "racism" and a non-academic says "racism" they mean very different things. Critical racial theory, in its drive to expose previously unexamined assumptions about race, may have established an impossibly high standard of ideological purity. As I noted in my previous post it would seem that, using this expanded definition of "racism", it is possible to label a particular belief as "White supremacist" on little more than casual association". Which leads me to question its utility, since there seems to be no systematic separation of what is "incidentally racist" from what is "intrinsically racist". This is a broad generalization, I know, but bear with me since I'm going somewhere with it? academia would be more useful if it could focus on truly detrimental instances of racism. The general public, on the other hand, could probably benefit from an expanded definition. This suggests a convergence of the academic/non-academic definitions, but around what criteria? My suggestion is that acts/ideas/etc. be evaluated in terms of their effective impact to society, which leads to some interesting conclusions. For instance, it suggests that it might be OK to pick on Tiger Woods after all. The attitudes which he promotes reach a tremendous number of individuals, making their effective impact high. Contrast this with some no-exposure fruitcake spouting vaguely questionable ideas to his groupies, an act which has comparatively little impact. If your rubric is "making society less racist" then doesn't it make sense to attack the former, rather than the latter, behavior. Think about it... a public service announcement featuring Tiger Woods saying "I'm not Black"... that would make some waves and possibly change the way that the public thinks about race. Excoriating Monsieur Fruitcake pales by comparison. So what's the takeaway message? Many behaviors may be labeled as "racist", but in many cases the classification is, literally as well as figuratively, academic. Similarly, behaviors which aren't typically regarded as racist should be confronted as such, especially when such confrontation has the potential for substantively improving discourse on race.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Look, Ma, I'm A Trendsetter

I write one little innocent post about drunkenness and personal responsibility and now the entire blogosphere is aflame with discussion. But seriously, though, I think that Amanda is dismissing an important point. As I noted in my previous post, its questionable whether American society's treatment of responsibility/culpability and intoxication is internally consistent. Consider the following from Amanda's post:
Many states laws say that its rape if the woman has had n drinks. The guy could have 3 times that much and still be held liable for his actions. Why is he held to a higher standard?
He didn't get the memo that states raping is a crime, but being raped is not.
I think that Amanda is engaging in circular reasoning at this point. Its a crime because we've defined it as a crime, and we've defined it as a crime based, in part, on a particular understanding of how alcohol affects the judgement of the victim. The commenter is questioning, however inarticulately, this understanding, and so deserves a fuller reply than what Amanda provides. Again we return to the question of how alcohol affects judgement. But before we proceed I'll stop and say that, after consideration, I'm more than a little iffy about the changes to Wisconsin law. I suspect that the law was originally intended to go after people who are slipping a little GHB into someone's drink when they are not looking. That's clearly a no-no, so I've no problem with that. But very often the alcohol is consumed voluntarily and knowingly by the victim, and quite possibly the rapist had no hand in said administration. While alcohol may facilitate rape, the above would seem to indicate that the nature of the facilitation and the degree of culpability assigned to both parties is different. Bluntly put, its one thing if someone slips a roofie in your drink, and quite another if you get drunk off your ass on your own. So alcohol should not automatically be lumped together with other drugs. So now, back to alcohol and judgement. Again, as I wrote about previously, the operating theory regarding alcohol and rape victims seems to be that intoxication eliminates their ability to give consent to sex. Even express consent (a "yes" or similar) which would be accepted in other circumstances cannot be accepted in the case of an intoxicated person. The implication would seem to be that an intoxicated person cannot make decisions on their own, nor can they be held accountable for the decisions that they make. But, as Amanda's commenter pointed out, there's an asymmetry here. If the rapist is intoxicated they are still held responsible for their actions. Which would seem to present a problem: being intoxicated, isn't their judgement impaired as well? Consider the following case: Two parties engage in intercourse, but both parties are intoxicated. Further assume that there was no coercive activity on the part of either of the parties. If you've been to college you know that this kind of thing happens all the fucking time. Questions:
  • Was someone raped, and if so, who?
  • Was mutual rape taking place, since both parties were intoxicated?
Interesting, yes? I'm guessing that the "common sense" answer to the above are "no" and "no". But as a legal technicality (again, IANAL) isn't there some sort of mutual rape going on, because someone is engaging in intercourse with an intoxicated person? Because of the absolute standard that an intoxicated person cannot give consent it would seem that the lack of coercive activity or intent on the part of either party doesn't matter. Now consider the following scenario: Two intoxicated persons engage in intercourse, but there is coercive activity on the part of one person. However, because this person's judgement is impaired, they don't recognize that they are being coercive, and thus do not intend to commit rape. But the common sense answer here is probably that they did commit rape, even though they were intoxicated. My question to you, the gentle reader, is "Why?". If the victim cannot be held morally responsible for their behavior in this instance then how can you hold the rapist responsible for their activity?

Monday, June 26, 2006

Good Question

Zuzu wants to know, if one has to choose between the two, should one take up boxing or yoga? I've done yoga and continue to do kung-fu (close enough to boxing in this case), so I'm going to add my $0.02. It looks like most of the comments are coming down on the side boxing, but I think that's premature. The question remains of what Zuzu wants to get out of it? General health-wise I'd actually go with yoga on the grounds that its more likely to benefit you in everyday life. Yoga works all of you out, even the tiny little muscle that you didn't know you had. And then there's the general aerobic benefit as well; you don't need to be doing hot yoga to end up sweating and shaking at the end of a session. You don't get that gestalt effect with kung-fu (or boxing, I assume). But, if you're interested in beating the crap out of people, for self-defense or otherwise, go with the boxing. I do kung-fu mostly for its own sake, but if I had my druthers I'd do both, as I believe that yoga provides an excellent physical base upon which to build the ass-kicking.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Effective, But Not Good

Atrios writes, in response to an appearance by Biden on Blitzer:
That's a good response from Biden, and it's the same response Democrats should be making not just for anything that comes out of Dick Cheney's mouth but anything which comes out of George Bush's mouth. Dems seem to generally lack the understanding of how effective general dismissive disdain and contempt can be.
No, no, no nonononoo... can I more emphatically say "no"? We don't want to go down that road. The exchange in question was as follows:
BLITZER: All right. You want to respond to the vice president, Senator Biden? BIDEN: No, I don't want to respond to him. He's at 20 percent in the polls. No one listens to him. He has no credibility. It's ridiculous.
Biden is poisoning the well; the popular perception of a person's credibility has absolutely nothing to do with the truth of their argument. Why stoop to engaging in logical fallacies when you can just point out that Cheney is mouthing the same empty platitudes that he always has? Atrios' embrace and approval of such methods highlights a trend which I've touched on here and here, progressive culture's increasing willingness to embrace pragmatism over principle. Is it not the rankest hypocrisy to excoriate the Right for engaging in such behavior and then engage in it yourself? This is not to be taken as a personal attack on Atrios. I don't know the guy and probably never will. But judging a tactic based on its effectiveness is exactly the strategy that keeps the monkeys in power today. Smear John Murtha? Sure, why not? How about Al Gore? I heard that he claims to have invented the Intarwebs... Progressives could engage in the same behavior, and it would probably be effective. I assume that Atrios would not approve of such behavior. But, at least to my eyes, there's no clear line between Biden's behavior and the Right's treatment of its critics... you just gradually ooze your way over to one extreme. Permit me a Star Wars reference: the Dark Side is powerful, and seductive. This is more than a theoretical concern; progressive culture is full of people whose only failing is that they are human. Unfortunately, being human often means succumbing to the temptation to bend the rules a little bit in the present in the hopes of securing long term benefit in the future. Power corrupts, etc. I can certainly be accused of mouthing platitudes at this point, so I'll sign off with this question: What mechanism allows us to embrace effectiveness while staying "not evil"?

I Would Like To Thank Progressive Culture...

... for ruining my fun. I'm sitting around watching old episodes of Stargate SG1 (what else are you going to do on a Sunday morning when all the good people of the world are at church?) and I can't keep myself from noticing how its riddled with examples of cultural imperialism. Are you happy now, all you progressives out there? I'm a more enlightened individual, and now I can't enjoy a perfectly reasonable piece of escapist entertainment.

What, Exactly, Do You Mean By 'Maturity'?

(Via Slashdot) Discovery News (which appears to be the news site associated with the Discovery Channel) has a horrendous article about 'psychological neoteny'. The tremendous badness of the article is essentially summarized by its closing sentence:
[David] Brooks believes such individuals have lost the wisdom and maturity of their bourgeois predecessors due to more emphasis placed on expertise, flexibility and vitality.
First off, why the frickity frick is anyone quoting David Brooks in an (ostensible) science article? Secondly, and here's the crux of my complaint, what does Mr. Brooks (and the article's author, by extension) mean by 'wisdom and maturity'? The entire article revolves around the notion that adults today are failing to reach 'psychological maturity' as a side effect of extended secondary education, but then fails to define what that phrase means. Which doesn't surprise me; the piece has a normative, rather than descriptive, air about it, which would make such a definition problematic. It has the feel of someone trying to lay a thin veneer of scientific respectability over the complaints about "perpetual adolescence" that seem to crop up from time to time. So yeah, the article is crap, just look at some of the claims:
"People such as academics, teachers, scientists and many other professionals are often strikingly immature outside of their strictly specialist competence in the sense of being unpredictable, unbalanced in priorities, and tending to overreact.”
The faults of youth are retained along with the virtues, he believes. These include short attention span, sensation and novelty-seeking, short cycles of arbitrary fashion and a sense of cultural shallowness.
Hello, anyone care for a sweeping generalization? How about an unsupported anecdote? The first quote at least talks about things you can measure (you know, stuff within the domain of science). But 'short cycles of arbitrary fashion' and 'a sense of cultural shallowness'? Bleh...

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Drunkenness and Personal Responsibility

This evening my wife posed an excellent puzzle regarding American society's treatment of drunkenness and personal responsibility. In her capacity as an ER physician she regularly treats people who are absolutely tanked. Common medical practice, backed up by legal precedent, is to treat legally intoxicated individuals as incapable of making decisions regarding their medical care. And yet, she pointed out, we apply a different standard to drunk drivers, holding them personally responsible for their actions while under the influence. On casual observation she would seem to have a point, but I want to follow this idea out in detail to make sure there's not a subtle difference. First, is this really a conflict, or is it just confusion brought on by imprecise language? In the case of the medical patient the standard seems pretty clear: drunk people will have their care dictated by a physician; their personal wishes as to their treatment carry little or no weight. Contrast this with a sober person who has, at least in theory, the right to refuse treatment etc. The reason seemingly implicated by this state of affairs is that intoxication renders you incapable of making decisions, necessitating a health-care proxy in the form of a medical professional. Now, how about a drunk driver? My first thought when I was trying to sort this out was that they weren't actually being punished for drinking and driving per se, but for some decision made while still sober. But that's line of reasoning appears to be a blind alley. Drunkenness, by itself, is generally not a crime. Crimes associated with drunkenness usually have a second component i.e. drunk and disorderly, or being intoxicated in public. Drunk driving would appear to follow this pattern; its not a crime to be drunk... the crime is only committed when you actually operate a motor vehicle. Here's where it gets interesting: On what grounds can we hold the driver culpable for the ensuing carnage? There's two prongs to the definition of "culpability" here, a legal one and a moral one. Legally (IANAL, so my apologies if I mess this analysis up), intent is important. Did the person intend to commit the crime? If intoxication makes it impossible for a person to make decisions then can they be said to be capable of forming intent? Morally, a person must know that what they are doing is wrong and have the ability to choose another course of action. Drunkenness would seem to interfere with both halves of the moral predicate. It impairs judgment so, arguably, the person may not realize that what they are doing is wrong. Also, because drunkenness removes the ability to make decisions, its not clear that the person is capable of choosing another course of action. So, on fairly close examination, it would appear that the two standards are in conflict. However, I can come up with two counterarguments to the above:
  1. The medical standard is a legal fiction applicable only to the practice of medicine. It has a different problem domain, so the conflict is illusory.
  2. In the case of drunken driving the person is being held responsible for the drinking itself under the theory that drunken driving is a foreseeable consequence of said drinking. The individual is thus being punished for a decision made while sober, in which case the conflict is illusory.
In order to disprove the above two contentions it is sufficient to show that:
  1. The idea of the limited capacity of a drunken individual is not limited solely to medical practice.
  2. The "foreseeable consequence" standard is arbitrary/arbitrarily applied.
This is what makes this topic so interesting, because there's a very salient, very "real world" counter example which demonstrates both points. Exhibit A: A 30-something bar-hopper who gets drunk and subsequently gets raped. We, as a modern society, do not:
  1. Accept the rapist's assertion that the sex was consensual. It seems to be long-settled dogma that an intoxicated individual cannot consent to sex.
  2. Chastise the victim for not "knowing better", even though such an encounter is a foreseeable consequence of getting drunk.
Point 1 demonstrates that the concept of the limited capacity of an intoxicated individual is not limited simply to medical practice. Point 2 demonstrates that the "foreseeable consequence" standard is arbitrarily applied. So there you have it, there definitely seems to be a conflict. It would seem that we either have to rethink our approach to drunken driving, or we have to change our treatment of rape victims. Neither seems to be particularity desirable, but I don't see any way around the issue that is logically consistent. If anyone has any ideas I'd love to hear them.


I picked up a bottle while I was in Copenhagen. Its not half bad... tastes a lot like Pernod. The bottle says that it contains thujone, but it remains to be seen whether I will feel the urge to cut off my ear.

Friday, June 23, 2006

More on Edwards' Speech

An anonymous poster was kind enough to provide me with a link to the text of Edwards' speech. Having had a chance to peruse it I think I'm now firmly in the "not visionary" camp, at least as far as his views on eliminating poverty and education reform. Edwards says

I do not believe in a Party obsessed with incrementalism, half-measures, and positions based on yesterday’s polls.
But, frankly, a lot of what he's proposing looks like incrementalism. He spend a lot of time talking about incentives and vouchers and reforming HUD, all of which have the feel of today's permutation of yesterday's ideas. I get the feeling that he's tinkering with the existing system rather than proposing a new system. I'll get into specifics in a second, but first I want to give him props for the following:
I want to live in an America that is once again looked up to and respected around the world; an America that is an inspiration to common people everywhere who want to make their lives better. That means working to restore our legitimacy by strengthening international institutions or creating new ones; it means leading on the great challenges before us: whether it’s preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, ending the genocide in Darfur, or fighting extreme poverty and diseases that ravage societies. It also means a plan to substantially reduce our presence in Iraq, by at least 40,000 troops immediately, and to continue that reduction so that the Iraqis can take control over their own lives. As we do so, we should call upon the other countries in the region who have expressed an interest in securing the stability of Iraq to step forward. Restoring our credibility and legitimacy is absolutely essential if we are to defeat global jihadists.

Yes, and yes, and yes. I'm ambivalent about the immediate troop draw-down, but other than that, yes. Now, on to some specifics.

Early in the speech he makes the following statement:

We all pay a price when our people turn to crime because they have no other hope. Harvard’s Richard Freeman estimates that growing incarceration costs and unemployment of ex-offenders costs 4 percent of our economy, each and every year.
Ok, Mr. Edwards, you want to be visionary? Try these words on for size: "The war on drugs has been a failure". How many people, directly and indirectly, are incarcerated because of the US government's ridiculously blindered drug policy?

Drug policy cuts across so many of the topics that Edwards would like to fix: crime, poverty, bad schools, incarceration, etc.. How can he talk about these deeply intertwined issues and not even mention drug policy? I suspect that "yesterday's polls" are to blame, at least in part. Coming out against the war on drugs, now that would be visionary, but I'm almost certain it would scuttle any chance of him even making it to the primaries.

His ideas about employment also seem to be missing the big picture. With regards to his plan for "stepping stone" jobs:

These jobs could change the face of our hardest hit communities. Workers could serve with non-profit organizations working wonders, building parks and keeping our neighborhoods clean. They will bring opportunity to neighborhoods where jobs are scarce and hope is sometimes even scarcer.

First criticism: "building parks and keeping our neighborhoods clean" sounds an awful lot like code for a bunch of menial, low skill maintenance jobs. Sure, these might provide employment, but I'm skeptical as to his claims that these jobs will help make people more employable and let them work their way out of poverty.

Additionally, the bit about "hardest hit communities" makes it sound like he's acknowleging that one of the problems with blighted neighborhoods is that there's little local employment to be had. But later on in the speech he says, in relation to the problems of segregated housing, that

These policies cut willing workers off from entry-level jobs, which are often created in the suburbs, far from public transportation.
He suggests providing low income families with housing vouchers so that they can move to better neighborhoods. This whole approach strikes me as particularly incoherent. You have downtrodden neighborhoods with little local employment, and people living in those neighborhoods who need jobs. The solution to this problem isn't to move some of those people to the suburbs; once those people are left you still have the bad neighborhoods with an employment problem. Again, if you want to be visionary, why not kill two birds with one stone?

Ask the question "Why are there no jobs to be had locally?", and then tailor policies to fix the problems that asking such a question reveals. If you can create jobs locally then not only do you solve the problem of local employment (perhaps even creating some meaningful "stepping stone" jobs in the process) but the increase in economic activity could improve the general quality of the neighborhood as well.

He goes on to talk about, among other things, the minimum wage, wanting to raise it to at least $7.50 an hour. As I've previously noted this approach to the minimum wage seems to be more of a bandaid than anything else. Why not just pick a reasonable wage and then index it for inflation?

Again, all of this seems to support my contention that he's ignoring potential long-term fixes, perhaps because they'd be too revolutionary. I feel like his approach to education reform is a particularly egregious example of this tendenncy. He suggests creating "second-chance schools" for students who have dropped out, a policy that implicitly accepts a high dropout rate as normal and unavoidable. Wouldn't it be better to fix the problems which lead to a high dropout rate in the first place?

Again, if he wanted to be revolutionary he could fix problems with inequities in school funding... wait... no... that's a state issue. How about teacher pay, he could ensure that teachers are paid a decent wage... nope... state issue there as well. I've got it, revolutionary! Nationalize the @^%$# education system! One of the reasons that the US is so messed up education wise is that we have 50 different educational beauracracies, some of which have demonstrated continuing incompetence, plus the federal government. Again, such a suggestion would be visionary, but would probably ensure his non-electability.

And then there's this item, way towards the end of the speech, which kind of gives me the heebie jeebies:

It is wrong when corporate America - through movies, music and advertising - promotes a culture of reckless behavior to our youth.
What, exactly, does he mean by that? Anytime someone starts sounding like Phyllis Schlafly I started to get a little worried about their intentions.

So, in summary, not visionary. Its possibly slight bolder than yesterday's shit, but that's about all you can say about it.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Jumping The Gun

This is possibly visionary, but I think its important to withhold judgment until Edwards and company provide some details. I can be visionary too: I promise two cars in every garage and a chicken in every pot... oh yeah, and universal healthcare too. Bully for me. Promises mean jack shit until you get down to the mechanics of how you're going to accomplish such a wonderful social revolution. Its not that long to 2008; John Edwards would do well to get specific real quick.

Falsifiability Etc.

CJR has a nice summary of the ostensible pay-for-play scandal surrounding The Daily Kos. In a way this reminds me of the hubbub surrounding the design of the 9/11 memorial. Again, when evaluating cases such as these that are built around coincidence and circumstantial evidence you have to examine whether the claim is falsifiable or not. As James Joyner is quoted as saying, there's really not much to the story that can't be plausibly explained as coincidence. In which case it would probably be wise for someone to explain the whole Mark Warner anomaly, as a non-financial explanation would serve to discredit the overall conspiracy theory.

Transhumanism != Puppy Executions

Brad R. at Sadly, No! seems to be rejecting the concept of transhumanism out of hand. Frankly, life as a human being can get to be pretty boring. What's that old cliché, something about how there are only 7 basic plots? Any semi-observant individual should quickly realize that people have been playing out the same storylines since the dawn of time, the only substantive difference being the names of the players. It doesn't make sense, in such a situation, to reject mechanisms which might have the potential for expanding the range of individual experience. Sure, the idea is probably tainted by association with general fanboy-dom, but there's non-fanboy's who take the idea seriously as well. Francis Fukayama comes to mind; I go back and forth over whether he's got something to say or whether he's just a wanker, but I don't think he can be accused of being pasty, basement dwelling D&D player. And I don't see any reason to think that transhumanism necessarily leads to a joyless life. Its just technology... the joy or lack thereof would come from how people choose to use it.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Just a Note...

Holding your mother up as a paragon of virtue for "doing the 'guy stuff'" perpetuates the notion that 'guy stuff' is a valid category. Just sayin'...

Am I Missing Something?

(Via Daily Kos) Is there some reason why the minimum wage can't just be indexed for inflation? The latest proposal, from Rep. Steny Hoyner, proposes raising the wage gradually from $5.15 to $7.25. Which really just leads to another minimum wage fight down sometime down the road, right? This should be simple, just pick a number and index it for inflation. That way you only need to revisit the issue when you actually want to change the minimum wage, not just make up for purchasing power that has been eroded due to inflation. I'm metaphysically certain I'm not the first person to suggest this... is there any good reason why it hasn't been done?

Sunday, June 18, 2006

More Thoughts From Sweden

Some other random thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head since the visit. First off, Sweden makes an interesting defense against the charge that gay marriage is somehow a threat to the institution of heterosexual marriage. If Sweden is any example it would seem to indicate just the opposite. Marriage has been declining in Sweden for quite some time. Its perfectly acceptable, especially among the younger segment of society, to cohabitate, often indefinitely. They've even got a word for it, "sambo", which is what you call the person whom you are living with but not married to. For example, my wife referred to me as her sambo while we were living together but before we were married. Contemporaneously with, and probably as a result of, this trend Sweden has failed to jump on the gay marriage bandwagon. But not because they've a problem with gay people, far from it. It seems that, in a society where marriage isn't highly valued, there's not much of a push for gay marriage either. So it seems reasonable to extrapolate and say that the push for the legalization of gay marriage in the US is actually a sign that the institution of marriage is still quite healthy. Traveling abroad also raises the question of just how much you should try to be a Roman if you happen to find yourself in Rome. If you would reject a particular custom in the United States, are you free to reject that same custom abroad? A minor, but illustrative, example are eating habits. For example, in Sweden they follow the widespread European practice of "humping" food on the back of their forks before conveying the food to their mouths. Margaret Visser has a real nice analysis of this practice in The Rituals of Dinner; she comes to the conclusion that this is a non-utilitarian custom with elitist origins. So, when eating in Sweden, should I eat like a European or am I free to say that Europeans are silly and eat in some other decorous fashion? We can start to answer by asking "What interests are we trying to balance?". On one hand there is personal conscience, the belief that a person should not have to engage in acts which violate their moral code. On the other is... what exactly? Why do we seek to emulate customs when we travel abroad? Some reasons which come to mind: + To blend in + To avoid giving offence + To avoid embarrassment It would seem to me that, barring those circumstances where blending in is a matter of personal safety, the desire to not "stick out" is an insufficient reason to adopt a particular custom if that custom is personally odious for some reason. How about not offending native sensibilities? Well, for starters, how often will native sensibilities actually be "offended"? A reasonable society will make allowances for the behavior of foreigners and will not necessarily see the failure to take up a particular custom as a rejection of the local culture. But what about those cases where true offence is actually taken? Those cases are hard to discuss in the abstract as there would seem to be a great deal of nuance involved. What is the custom, why is it being rejected, and why does its rejection give offense? Such instances would have to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis, balancing the perceived ill of the custom against the degree of offence that its rejection will cause. What about embarrassment, either on the part of the traveler or the part of a native? This is a separate question from "offence", since embarrassment and offence are emotional states which may occur separately from each other. Again, one would not wish to inflict undue embarrassment on oneself or another without a good reason. Again, a balancing of principle and emotional distress would seem to be indicated. The general rule which emerges, then, is that one is rarely obliged to ape the customs of the country in which you are traveling. It is only in those instances which such rejection will cause general offence and/or embarrassment that such a thing is necessary. Returning to my original hypothetical about eating, I would doubt that my refusal to adopt European table manners would cause either embarrassment or offence, so there's no impetus to do otherwise.

What 'White Supremacism' Is Not

I think one of the reasons that I read Alas so much is that it gives me something to get riled up about. Rachel S. has a recent post entitled "You might be a white supremacist if...", which seems to be unreasonably expanding the definition of "white supremacism":
If you believe any of the following statements about interracial marriage, You might be a White Supremacist.
The Old Testament law commanded the Israelites not to engage in interracial marriage (Deuteronomy 7:3-4). The reason for this is that the Israelites would be led astray from God if they intermarried with idol worshippers, pagans, or heathens. [....]1 Again, though, the only Biblical restriction placed on whom a Christian in regards to marriage is whether the other person is a member of the Body of Christ.
(Rachel'’s Note - –This actually ticked off several of the people in the WS forum off because they wanted a stronger pronouncement against interracial marriage - –other than, it's not practical. What I found interesting about the quote is that it is really representative of mainstream views on interracial marriage. Most of the people I interviewed in my research on interracial marriage had relatives who felt as this white supremacist does.)
I've several complaints with this example. First off, the quoted statement makes no reference to any particular race. You can make an argument about implicit "whiteness" i.e. discourses about race mixing are always framed in the context of a white mixee, otherwise they wouldn't merit discussion. However, the quote which Rachel presents builds its case using the Bible which, interestingly enough, is not a white supremacist document. The category of "white" as we understand it didn't even exist when the Bible was written. So the soumaterialeral used to build the argument cannot be said to have an implicit "whiteness" about it. The person doing the arguing may also introduce an implicit "whiteness" into the discourse. The phrase "A Christian man or woman" does sound like a code phrase of sorts, but I can easily envision this sort of verbiage coming out of the mouth of a non-White person as well. Since Rachel S. doesn't provide a reference for the quoted material (hard to judge an argument if you don't cite your sources, Rachel) such an argument cannot be supported at this time. So much for the "white" portion, now how about the "supremacism"? The quoted item states several times that one should not be racist:
A person should be judged by his or her character, not by skin color. All of us should be careful not to show favoritism to some, nor be prejudiced or racial to others (James 2:1-10, see especially verses 1 and 9).
Again, though, the only Biblical restriction placed on whom a Christian in regards to marriage is whether the other person is a member of the Body of Christ.
It light of these two quotes its hard to argue that the speaker takes the position that one race should be favored over another. Rachel S.'s main problem seem to lie with the following:
The only reason interracial marriage should be considered carefully is because of the difficulties a mixed-race couple may experience because others will have a hard time accepting them.
How, I ask, is this a racist/supremacist statement? Acknowleging a social reality is not the same thing as advocating that same reality. The statement is race-neutral and, as Rachel S. points out herself, viewed as true by both Blacks and Whites, so its hard to claim that it is racist or inherently privileges one race over another. The fact that such a problem exists reveals persistent racism, but acknowleging its existence is not racist. A final argument can be made that, by suggesting that people take these difficulties into account when selecting a partner, the speaker is perpetuating the problem rather than confronting it, which makes the speech racist. That's an interesting question: "Is the perpetuation of racism implicitly racist?". But its also too big to discuss here, so I'll answer it briefly with "maybe, but its a moot point". If we label all such behavior "white supremacist" then the label looses all meaning, because we all subtly perpetuate racism on a daily basis by our very participation in modern society. So we have a statement that is neither white nor supremacist being labeled as such. Rather, it appears that Rachel S. is labeling it as such because it acknowleges the difficulties faced by mixed race couples and suggests that one might take those difficulties into account when selecting a partner, a pragmatic rather than racist viewpoint. I'm not trying toincendiaryiary, but such accusations on the part of people like Rachel S. are why itsincrediblyibly difficult to discuss race in this country. The line between non-racist speech and racist speech has been blurred by improper application of terminology as in the example above, so people are rightfully afraid of discussing the issue at all for fear of being tarred with the same brush.
1 My edit, for space.

8-hour Workday My Ass

I was reading this post by Nick Kiddle at Alas, and generally agreeing with what was being said, right up until this statement:
I love my daughter, but I also know that there are very few high-stress jobs that can compare to the task of looking after her. In a job, you clock off at the end of the day and your time is your own.
I'm calling bullshit. You're daughter isn't a balky firewall that's prone to going down at 2 in the morning and cutting off about a million paying customers from their email. You're daughter, precious though she may be, represents an extrinsic responsibility to a single person. Admittedly that's an extreme case, but the notion that professionals clock out at the end of the day is just wrong. Business just doesn't stop anymore. I've a better job now... I still spend lots of my ostensible free time on work, but I very rarely get woken up in the middle of the night. My boss, now that's another story. He gets woken up in the middle of the night all the fucking time I'm sure. You know the last time I had a job where I was actually "done" at the end of the day? When I was working as a line cook for a catering company. So please, tone down the rhetoric about busy professionals and their freetime. Lots of professionals have jobs that come home with them whether they like it or not and include obligations to much more than a single individual. And, as long as I'm ranting, how much attention does a child need?
Looking after a baby is exhausting. Normal tasks like showering and preparing breakfast require careful planning so that the baby doesn'’t get frustrated with boredom and start crying.
You know, its OK for the kid to be bored. And, if you can't take the crying, its OK to park the kid in front of the Teletubbies for 5 minutes while you wash the funk off. Have you considered that this behavior might be counterproductive in the long run?
Trying to cram everything you didn'’t get done during the day into the evenings when the baby's asleep means you don'’t get enough sleep, which makes it even harder to cope with what can often feel like never-ending demands.
Damn right... you spend so much time with your kid that you end up resenting its imposition on you. Oh yeah, and you're sleep-dep'd, so if the shit does hit the fan you're unlikely to be thinking clearly.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

We're All Happy Here, Really

One of the shortest words in the Swedish language is "tack" which, roughly translated, means "look at how polite we all are". Its fortuitous that the word is so short, as the average Swede must say it about a hundred times a day. No, really, I'm serious... you go to a social gathering and its "tacktacktacktacktacktack" like some kind of courteous machine gun. This is only one of the many lessons I learned during my recent, whirlwind trip to Sweden. Sweden really is a lovely country, full of rolling hills and green and these brilliant yellow fields of Canola flowers, populated by a windswept, gently Nordic people. Sort of like Minnesota. My wife and I went over to see one of her friends get married to the son of a Baron (yes, a real, bona-fide Baron), to which all of the Swedes replied "What, you're only here for a week? You poor Americans having to actually work for a living". Seriously, though, Sweden is a truly interesting place to visit. Not so much for the scenery, which is lovely but a lot like certain portions of the US, but more for the culture, which is recognizably Western but unique in many respects. I, being in general a supporter of laissez faire capitalism, found the Swedish economy to be particularly fascinating. The standard of living for your average Swede is very high, in part because a higher portion of their take home pay is disposable in comparison to here in the US. As my wife pointed out, that woman who works behind the counter at the gas station has health care and a pension and won't have to pay for her children to go to school. I'd always assumed that the Swedish government was paying for this sort of thing by taxing the crap out of Swedish citizens, but apparently that is only part of the story. While we were in Sweden we stayed with a middle-class couple at their home on the lake (did I mention the high standard of living?). Whatever else their hangups might be, the Swedes are very open about the whole money thing... in a casual, conversational sort of way they asked about how much we made, what we paid in taxes, how much our house cost, all that sort of thing. It turns out that, at least in terms of personal taxes, we're paying the same, if not more, as our Swedish hosts. They said that they've an average tax rate of ~30%, which is really quite comparable to what a lot of people are paying here in the US. When you consider the outrageous property tax that we have to pay in NY state its really quite likely that my wife and I have a higher tax burden1. So where, I ask you, is all the money coming from? Is the Swedish government that efficient (or our government that inefficient) that they can provide all these public benefits, or are they pulling gold out of the ground somewhere to pay for things? In chatting with people I started to find out what else what going on. In addition to personal income and property taxes there's a bunch of other ways that the government is funding its operations. Lots of VATs and usage fees and luxury taxes. Gas was ~12 SEK/liter (~$6.25/gal); according to one person I spoke to the vast majority of that was taxes of various sorts. And then there's corporate income taxes, which also seem to be substantial. Another person I spoke to related the tale of starting a cafe; they ended up giving up because their taxes were so high as to not make the venture worthwhile. Despite all of this its hard, at first glance, to find fault with the system. Sure, you can quibble about undue appropriation of private property etc. etc. etc., but even I find that these theoretical musings pale in significance when compared with the quality of life that the average Swede experiences. So should the US go socialist? Its hard to tell. While I was at the wedding I had a chance to talk to a bunch of young-ish Swedes, and many of them expressed doubts about the sustainability of the Swedish lifestyle. Its apparently very hard for young Swedes to get a job in the country; many of them spend their early careers hopping from temporary job to temporary job. Others end up going abroad to find work. That's crazy. Thanks to government subsidized education Sweden has one of the most highly educated workforces in all of Europe; their economy should be humming and young Swedes coming out of university shouldn't have a problem finding work. So what's the problem? The people I spoke with pointed to twin causes: globalization and excessive corporate burdens. It seems that Swedish industry is having a hard time keeping their competitive edge. It used to be that they were tops in quality, which let them keep their margins up. But now they've got all sorts of problems from developing economies like India and China who have quickly been closing the "quality gap". So it gets harder for them to make a profit, which is where the second cause comes into play. With reduced profit margins the burdens imposed on corporations by the state become much more significant. From what people were saying it sounds like Sweden is suffering from the same malaise as the French. The costs of hiring people on a permanent basis make corporations unwilling to do so. And there's other problems as well... the graying of their workforce will cause similar problems to what we are seeing in America w/ Social Security, only the effects will be more profound because the benefits to which retirees are entitled are much greater. So it really is a question of sustainability. I would imagine that at some point they're going to be force to cut back on entitlements along with the rest of Europe. But enough nattering about economics. There's all sorts of other goodness to talk about as well. Like lagom, the Swedish national pastime. This expresses itself in a myriad of small (and not so small) ways. Like their houses are always clean (bordering on immaculate), everyone is always proper, no one raises their voice. There's a gentle sort of conformity... I got the feeling that people would not mock you openly if you violated some social social more... rather, you worry that they'll be silently pitying you if you screw up. This cultural trait is apparently a source of amusement for the rest of Europe. The French boyfriend of one of our hosts' daughters was fond of mocking this tendency. Even the Swedes seem to recognize that they're just a little bit anal-retentive. You have to wonder though how a race that, a thousand years ago, specialized in raping and pillaging is dealing with their newfound civility. There don't seem to be many socially sanctioned outlets for aggression in Sweden. I suspect that, lurking under the surface of every Swede there's a Viking just waiting to come out. For instance, I was at the wedding dinner when all of a sudden the tent full of Swedes started barking in unison, which immediately conjured in my mind a pack of fanged Swedes with bloody maws falling on some helpless victim. I later found out that the barking was actually the way that Swedes execute "three cheers for so-and-so". If you aren't prepared for it (like me, since I don't speak any Swedish) its a truly startling experience. The marriage itself was nice in a baronial, moneyed sort of way. It consisted of a short ceremony followed by several days of speeches interspersed with attempts to eat food before the next person started talking. As I don't speak Swedish I spent a lot of time either not making eye contact or hovering behind my wife (who does speak Swedish). In a certain sense this trip was a lot more taxing that my recent trip to Ecuador. There I don't look like a local but do speak (to a first approximation) the local language, but in Sweden its the other way around. I had a number of vaguely awkward incidents where someone would address me in Swedish and I'd have to say "I'm sorry, I don't speak Swedish". From a functional standpoint that's not really an issue, since most of Sweden speaks very good English, but its still kind of embarrassing to not speak the local language. Though that leads me on to the more general topic of speaking English vs. speaking something else. There's a perennial joke: "What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who only speaks one language? American". There's a certain guilt among the educated set in America revolving around the dominance of English and/or the general inability of Americans to speak multiple languages. They point to other civilized countries where children learn second languages (often English) at an early age and bemoan our own lack in that department. And yet, at the same time, that guilt is in some sense unwarranted. When the Frenchman met our hosts' daughter neither of them spoke the other's language with any facility, so they communicated in English. The brother of the bride went to work in France specifically to learn French, but found that the only way he could get the French to pay attention was to speak English. English has become the lingua franca, at least in Europe, so why feel bad if its the only language that you speak? Its not as if the dominance of English is (wholly) the result of imperialism on the part of the US; English as a language has intrinsic merit as well. Anyway, in addition to see a nice chunk of Sweden we also spent a day in Copenhagen. I think if I were given a choice of where to live that I'd choose Denmark on the grounds that they seem to be having just a little bit more fun. Admittedly, I didn't get a chance to see Stockholm, so its not a completely fair comparison. But really, can any place where the standard measure for beer is a half-liter be all that bad? That is all, we now return you to your regularly scheduled ranting.
1 Though it apparently gets worse as your income progresses... they've marginal tax rates of 70%+ at the highest brackets, and my wife maintains that if you make enough money you can actually end up paying more that 100%.

Religion, Intellectual Bankruptcy, etc., Part Deux

Not too long after listening to the story on NPR about the migration of people from church to church I came across another stunning example of the shallow treatment of religion among some of its most fervent practitioners. My wife and I were watching a BBC story on Christian video games when she pointed out that they looked a whole lot like any other video game. She's totally correct about that. For example, take N'Lightning Software, makers of Catechumen. Tell me, does this not look a whole lot like Doom? And then you've got Left Behind Games, who bring to you such innovative fare as LEFT BEHIND: Eternal Forces. The BBC story had some video of this one as well... looks a whole lot like one of a number of RTS games. My favorite part of the story was when they were interviewing Troy Lyndon from Left Behind Games, a developer I believe. He was explaining how why Eternal Forces was a Christian game:
There is warfare, the bible is full of warfare, so are all the other great games that are on the market. So naturally speaking we've got new elements like spirit points, which are fantastic in that as you do good your spirit points go up; as you pray your soldiers are more prepared for battle.
Don't you see? Your "praying" to make your soldiers stronger. That way when they'll be more effective when they go out and blow shit up. Again, shallowness... they're not making a Christian game, they're marketing a game to Christians. Take out the blood (but not necessarily the violence), take out the cursing, throw in some token references to Christian subjects ("No, that's not a BFG9000, its The Light of God"). But for the most part you're still going around beating the crap out of things. There's really very little to differentiate the nascent Christian video game genre from everything else that's out there. There's certainly room for innovation. For example, you could do a Sim City type of game based on Christian principles. Rather than just putting a Christian skin on the game you could actually allow Christian philosophy to permeate the game mechanics. But there's the rub... it would be great for pedagogy, but would it sell?

The Intellectual Bankruptcy of American Religious Practice

I was listening to NPR not so long ago when the conversation turned, for one reason or another, to religious demographics. A guest on whatever program I was listening to noted that Hispanics in America were migrating in large numbers from Catholicism to various Protestant denominations because the Catholic church wasn't meeting their needs. She specifically singled out the need for "familia", which I found incredibly irritating on several levels. That people feel no qualm about migrating from church to church for non-doctrinal reasons points to a certain shallowness in American religious practice. The masses don't seem to be that concerned at all about religion itself; they're just looking for a social club. What really makes me want to smack people is that religion, at least nominally, is playing such a big part in politics these days. I've no doubt that these itinerant sheep are the same people that the powers of darkness are pandering to when they talk about "Judeo-Christian values". But this is not (solely) a tirade against Hispanics or Protestants. No, this craptacular mistreatment of religion seems to have permeated the thinking classes as well. Neither the host nor the guest on the NPR show noted even in passing the logical inconsistency of the whole concept. Indeed, the guest seemed to think that the Catholic church was somehow failing in its duty by not providing the sense of familia which these people were seeking. Even better, allow me to relate to you an incident from my own recent past. My wife and I were living in St. Louis at the time, which is home to a major chapter of The Ethical Society. Cool, we think, a secular institution for the promotion of ethical behavior. We decided to try it out when the day's lecture topic seemed to be particularly interesting. So we get there, and its in this building which kind of looks like a church. We walk up the church-like steps into the church-like foyer where we can pick up our church-like bulletin, and then proceed through some big, church-like double-doors into the main room. Which was remarkably churchlike, lots of wooden pews in a semi-circle around a raised dais. The program commenced, we shook hands with our neighbors, and then there was a sermon... sorry... lecture. After the lecture we sang something (I think it was "Amazing Grace" with all the references to God removed) and then adjourned to the community hall for coffee and doughnuts. Now, admittedly this is coming from the other end of the spectrum, but the principle is the same. They think they're all cool and ethical, but all they really want is to get together with neighbors for coffee and donuts. By all means, enjoy yourself, have another cruller. But you can do that at a coffee shop. There's no need to recreate a Protestant service, take all the God out, and then claim you're furthering the ethical development of your members. In the end this is fundamentally a problem about people not being honest with themselves. They need to belong and religious institutions (or an ethical society) fill this need, never mind that the ostensible purpose for joining one of these institutions is something entirely different. Knock it the fuck off already.
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