A Freeway in Hell

My thoughts on the nature of our late capitalist society. The title should give some clue what I think of that! US 101 or I-80 as metaphor for our imperatives. Besides worrying about what sort of black hole we are speeding into, I like airships. One reason being the almost inescapble desire to have one to get out of a traffic jam!

Location: Sonoma County, California

Grew up a military brat, Californian-in-exile, reactionary libertarian-essentially spent the 70s on Mars, for I am hearing impaired and I did not know what the music was saying. Generally still don't unless I listen to it over and over or find the words captioned on a movie or somewhere on line. Came "back" to California to begin my adult life, have not lived elsewhere since. No regrets there despite our problems here. Have studied physics, more math than most human beings will ever need, worked on spaceship projects (well, one) at JPL. Lived with a wonderful disabled person who lives no more--L Natasha Littletree RIP October 2004. I have a life plan, just kind of vague on some of the short-term stuff.

Monday, March 17, 2008

From microcosms to the Cosmos

Yet another of Amanda's thought-provoking posts that are basically against religion as we know it prompted me to this reply (ignoring most of the replies earlier, as I have had much less practical Net access than I used to).

Then MA Jeff said
"Mysteries are to be solved, not worshipped."

Which stimulated me to this:

MA Jeff,

Here's an example of a mystery that might be solvable in a rigorously Western scientific paradigm, and might instead be a Mystery in the sense of "a useful human understanding that does not go into words:"

Traditional Chinese medicine, for example acupuncture, is a set of procedures that make no sense whatsoever in the context of our current scientific understanding of what the human body is and what sorts of physical entities exist in it. The whole approach is based on a theory of "winds" in the human body and indeed a general cosmic metaphysic that makes no sense whatsoever in our general understanding of anatomy, biology, chemistry, or even basic physics. Even if we suppose that the ancient Chinese stumbled empirically on subtle electrical or chemical gradients that their metaphors of "wind" suggest useful interventions in, it would be very strange if, given this hint, we haven't observed and identified these phenomena in our labs.

So well and good, the mainstream response of our medical establishment has been that all this is just stuff and nonsense, pure superstition. But I have spoken to at least one MD in person who thinks that there is after all some real utility in these traditional practices, and I have the impression that for decades quite a few Western medical practioners agree.

We can off the bat imagine a few hypotheses that might explain why the Chinese built up this approach over millenia and arrived at results that impress us; one I've already alluded to, that they have found objective physical phenomena--if so, we would do well to investigate and understand them in our terms and could presumably employ them much more efficiently by integrating these phenomena, hitherto unknown to us, with the aspects of medicine we have made so much progress in. But as I say, that easy possibility doesn't appear to be borne out by evidence--either any physical phenonmena corresponding to the Chinese "wind flow" concepts are very subtle, or the Western medical establishment (not just that of the USA but all the practitioners of Western-style medicine, everywhere in the world) have been blocked from looking. Or, of course, there are no such physical entities whatsoever.

So, maybe it is some kind of sophisticated placebo effect. Well, that's the usual explanation given for any possible demonstrated effectivness of any alternative approach to medicine whatsoever, whether derived from some authentic tradition or recently made-up New Agey stuff (such as Mesmerism was back in its day, for instance). Power of suggestion, nothing to see here, move along.

But if mere psychological game-playing can have objective health benefits, isn't that a potentially valuable set of phenomena to investigate? If we can will our way to better health if only we believe in a lot of mummery, how much better could we do if we could understand the presumptive interaction of interior mental states with physiology that, in our paradigm, would account for it, and develop our own integrated mind/body approach to health based on general understanding of medical science including this power of self-suggestion?

I suspect that there are many barriers to the possibilityof realizing such a goal, which go deep into the limits of what we call rational thought, because we haven't, as we flatter ourselves, hammered out our modern paradigm by having recourse to a simply superior, more correct, approach to thinking. We've improved on our methods under constraint, under the condition that we develop ways of thinking and procedures that are justified under a dominator paradigm. We have to guarantee in advance that the social hierarchy will not be fundamentally challenged, and that mandates that we maintain an attitude of contempt for outsiders, and thus limits the possible range of general advance. For every step forward on this path we have to give something up.

It's part of my general agnosticism that I don't know whether in fact there is some deep, inherent conservation of ignorance going on, or whether, as I hope, we can sidestep many of these constraints by getting away from the dominator paradigm that demands we see things in terms of superior and inferior people.

Personally, I have never witnessed anything that challenges my basic belief in the Western scientific understanding of reality; all the challenges to it I know of from outside are matters of rumor as far as I am concerned. But as a science student back in the 1980s and since then, I was keenly aware of the internal challenges to a simplistic positivism--decisive blows struck against the smug 19th century paradigm of science as straightforward progress of superior knowledge, including particularly the very disturbing findings that led to quantum mechanics, and the deepest blow of all, Kurt Goedel's Incompleteness Theorem, which struck right at the root of the very idea that a thorough, unshakable correspondece of theory with fact could be built up on a logical basis.

This is one major reason that any denunciation of people and their beliefs based on the idea that they are just stupid and ignorant of simple facts that we, the more enlightened, know better than they do, always rankles me. Human beings produce stupidity in abundance, but I always suspect that underlying any obstinate adherence to something that seems clearly wrongheaded to me is a social reason, a choice of allegience to a different system than mine. And I ought to know even if they don't acknowledge, that my allegiences, and I presume theirs, are in the end arbitrary and neither I nor they can prove, in some objective way, one is superior to the other.

The actual process of "proof" is nothing of the sort; it is the total outcome of the interaction of all people and things. The thing to do is be fair-minded and reasonable by one's own lights and struggle, in an ethical way, for outcomes in concrete cases, and let each person resolve their philosophical and metaphysical issues as they see fit outside those contexts.

For me, it has been important to make a leap of faith and suppose that in fact, there is an objective reality going on, that different beliefs are in fact more or less correct about specific matters, and that there is in principle a superior way of understanding everything relevant going on in particular cases--a way superior to anyone's understanding in any case. But also that no one is guaranteed in advance to bring that superior understanding to the case, in fact what we do positively know is that we are all immeasurably ignorant and in the end wrong about everything.

None of this is provable.

Suppose it turns out that there is always going to be a tradeoff, in the matter of things like Chinese traditional medicine versus approaches that make sense to Western medicine--that we never catch in our theoretical net what makes their approach work, and yet acknowledge that it does work, for reasons we can't explain? That would be an example of a Mystery, something that has an answer in the sense that if you drop one set of beliefs and adopt another way of thinking, you get some benefit, but there is no reconciling the two in words or mathematics.

My sense of how things work suggests that we will always be able to make progress by "solving mysteries," as you say, by refining our understanding of things to account for ever-widening sets of phenomena. But at the same time, there will always be things beyond the understanding of any particular system, or meta-system formed by reconciling older systems, and some of these things will always be matters of immediate consequence at least to some people at any given time.

And so I think it is foolish to simply adopt a superior attitude to people whose beliefs just don't make sense.

And it is a trap to assume we fully understand their errors, just because we have a pretty good explanation for them in our terms.

Earlier you said
for instance that it was clearly nonsense to say that "God is the Universe seeking to understand itself," because you, MA Jeff, already know that the Universe is just a conglomeration of mindless stuff that clearly therefore is not capable of understanding itself, nor even seeking to.

But even on the basis of assuming as fact the presumption that right now, the Universe is indeed just a mindless set of random stuff, well, here we are, pieces of the whole universe, with ambitions to understand not only ourselves but everything around us we can discover. I have already said that as a matter of personal faith, I don't think we will ever achieve that goal, but I also think we will never give up on the pursuit as long as we exist. Why would it be unreasonable to suppose that even if we go extinct in the near future, as seems all too likely right now, that elsewhere in this universe, in the future or possibly already in the past, other people might not exist who have similar ambitions and avoid destroying themselves, thus launching and carrying on an indefinite project to bring more and more self-knowledge to this originally mindless and meaningless stuff? Indeed, why dismiss the possibility that in fact there is meaning and even self-knowledge that we have hitherto overlooked? As a matter of personal faith I disbelieve we will ever own that knowledge in totality, and perhaps the ultimate existence of it that I also believe in is just a vanishing point, a non-existent projection of efforts by various intelligent beings in this cosmos to understand as much as they can in the time they make for themselves.

Perhaps in fact all such attempted systems of knowledge will prove incompatible, mutally meaningless, perhaps even mutually indetectable. That is in fact what seems to be a reasonable prediction based on your hard-headed assertion that the Universe is currently meaningless and it is nonsense to talk about it knowing itself--if so, then our own attempts to find or "make" meaning are ultimately futile and useless.

I've admitted before on these threads--if my recoiling from that prospect, which I find very bleak and daunting, and embrace instead of the notion that there does exist some ultimate meaning that we can never own in full but is there anyway, that provides some ultimate common ground between all of us--if this makes me a coward and intellectually weak, so be it.

But that is how I do hear the tone of many of you, who seem so sensible and humane otherwise--that here is where the hard steel of the brutality of the dominator paradigm shows in your own spirits; that you too are clinging to a mode of thinking and reacting that demands conflict and the subjugation of others to your own superiority.

Whereas I believe that in the end, our very lives and all our hopes for the joy we all perceive is in some sense within our grasp, is in fact the great Mystery. We will never own it by any kind of formula--we must, for our own sakes, loosen our grip and make risky leaps based on no certainty whatsoever. Because everything that seems certain assures us that in the end we are all doomed.

I believe that the reason we live at all is thus the greatest Mystery.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Teh Veblen quote! "Self-contained globule of desire"

I've been looking for this quote for years now.

The hedonistic conception of man is that of a lightning calculator of pleasures and pains who oscillates like a homogeneous globule of desire of happiness under the impulse of stimuli that shift him about the area, but leave him intact. He has neither antecedent nor consequent. He is an isolated definitive human datum, in stable equilibrium except for the buffets of the impinging forces that displace him in one direction or another. Self-imposed in elemental space, he spins symmetrically about his own spiritual axis until the parallelogram of forces bears down upon him, whereupon he follows the line of the resultant. When the force of the impact is spent, he comes to rest, a self-contained globule of desire as before. Spiritually, the hedonistic man is not a prime mover. He is not the seat of a process of living, except in the sense that he is subject to a series of permutations enforced upon him by circumstances external and alien to him.

Thorstein Veblen
"Why is Economics Not an Evolutionary Science"
The Quarterly Journal of Economics
Volume 12, 1898.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

"Do You Want to Play a Game..."

Written on rest room wall, Left Blogtopia (YSCTW!)
"For a good time, call BlogWarBot."

For explanations and history, go here.

Transcript, DOJ archives (TOP SECRET):

BlogWarBot: My name is BlogWarBot. Who sent you here?
Guest: John Dziadecki's Airship site.
BlogWarBot: Let me guess. You're a Libertarian, right?
Guest: No, I'm a Menshevik. Registered Democratic, of course.
BlogWarBot: Do you expect a cookie just because you're a Menshevik. Registered Democratic, of course?
Guest: No, I expect to be beaten with a knout, sent to Siberia, then exiled to Manhattan.
BlogWarBot: That's the problem with people like you. You're never constructive about anything.
Guest: I'll probably be pressed into canal construction or the like during my stint in Siberia, then get into factionalistic journalism, perhaps become Minister of Fabrics briefly before being executed by the Bolsheviks.
BlogWarBot: So if I might get us back on track here, what in your opinion is the crucial issue facing us today?
Guest: The lack of populist power in our political system.
BlogWarBot: So what does all of this have to do with the current mass extinction?
Guest: Well, I'd say the casual links are pretty clear running both ways, wouldn't you?
BlogWarBot: You're projecting. And in denial. And ugly.
Guest: But I'm told by at least one woman that I do have a nice penis, so let's keep things in perspective, shall we?
BlogWarBot: Do you recognize the privilege involved in your calling yourself told by at least one woman that you do have a nice penis, so let's keep things in perspective, shall we?
Guest: Yeah, it's the privilege called freedom of speech, plus the privilege of having a nice penis and at least one girlfriend willing to say so. I do feel very fortunate.
BlogWarBot: And I suppose your pet issue is so much more important than ending the war.
Guest: Well no, but I can do a lot more about my "pet issue" than ending the war. I do speak out against the warpretty regularly.
BlogWarBot: That's the problem with people like you. You're never constructive about anything.
Guest: May I ask you what your idea of "constructive" is?
BlogWarBot: What, Malkin didn't cover this on Hot Air?
Guest: Ah, I'm beginning to get a picture then.
BlogWarBot: Why should feminists drop everything just because you're beginning to get a picture then?
Guest: Sometimes that is the very best moment to end a particular encounter. Ah, parting is such sweet sorrow. Bye!
BlogWarBot: About your family. Did your parents have any children that lived?

Sunday, July 01, 2007

My BSG ramblings

This is all in reference to Amanda's second Battlestar Galactica post at Pandagon.

I'm handicapped dealing with BSG as known to those who have seen all the eps, since I'm trying to catch up renting DVDs at Video Droid, and someone is ahead of me renting them and holding them a whole week. Right now I've finished through disk 1 of "Season 2.5"--second half of season 2--which means I just saw the Cain eps and the one where Roslin is dying and orders Sharon's baby destroyed (it's a "baby" because Sharon intends for it to be born--see how that works, anti-choicers?) And not to give out spoilers to those even more impeded than me, we know how that worked out...

So to deal with the theme on a very broad, non-BSG level,
"It ain't ignorance so much as what people know that just ain't so."--Will RodgersAnd I'll go the crackerbarrel sage of liberalism one step further--what is really toxic about fundamentalist intolerance is that people generally know, on some level, that what they believe that is false is in fact false. Ideology, as opposed to a framework of belief based on frank assessement of known experience, is about denying aspects of life for the sake of a system that would lose its compelling power if it tried to account for these facts that don't fit.

In real life, I think fundamentalisms never rise without an underlying social tension that people are afraid (often for very good pragmatic reasons, from an individual point of view) to articulate. I suspect these always boil down to, SOBs in power get to set limits on what can be said and who can be challenged for what bad behavior on what grounds, and people can either martyr themselves challenging these limits directly, knowing they will probably pay a huge price and accomplish little to their immediate purpose, or they can try to worm their way around via doublethink. Down the latter path lies most of human culture, in all its perverse glory.I think in a way this reflects our fundamental situation as more or less thinking beings in a universe we will never fully grasp. (Therein lies the key, IMHO, to how the Cylons, evolving from rationally designed machines for pragmatic purposes, have so quickly managed to put themselves on a loony fundamentalist path. Cylons are people too!)

I can't resist putting out some impressions I have of BSG despite knowing that many of them will be corrected or flatly contradicted by later eps others have the good fortune to have seen.I totally buy the show on its own terms, as being about real people in a recognizably real world. I can come up with dozens of nitpicks, as I can with any SF show good bad or indifferent. But these don't bother me at all while watching.

It does seem bizarre, when I am not immersed in it, that there can be a society so deeply similar to our conventional narrative of how our society is, that has such different historical background.I started watching just last month because so many folks here raved that it was the show for feminists to be watching. It is very gratifying to see a society portrayed in which bigotry about gender and race is so absent. That said, I don't see how it could be so similar to ours in so many ways if that were true, because I think if we look below the surface ideology of our society (and so many of us have been forced to look there whether we wanted to or not) the pieties of civics we were taught to believe in don't hold at all. The 12 Colonies appear to be in sober, matter-of-fact reality what the uncritical are supposed to believe our nation and world are supposed to be. It seems doubtful that such a society would come into real existence by any concrete historical process nor would it be stable if somehow it did converge that way for some brief moment.In fact the show's auteurs have shown a starker side of things, represented in various ways--by the popularity of Zarek's revolutionary views, by the reality of a prison ship in the first place, by the revelations of how severely Kara/Starbuck was abused as a child, and of course by the basic premise that humanity had released such a Frankenstein's Monster as the Cylons into their world in the first place. The basic existence of the Colonial military in the first place is to me a sign that the 12 Colonies could not have been such a peppy, happy place as it looked. And who exactly, besides a couple of warships and a prison ship, would have been in transit in the various civil ships gathered up as flotsam by Adama (and ruthlessly salvaged by Cain?) A lot of working stiffs to be sure--miners, freighter crews, flight attendents, pilots, ship mechanics. And there are always some poor folks traveling on even the most prestigious and expensive conveyances (not in first class of course) for purposes like relocating, big family events and emergencies, and even the occasional vacation. But I'd expect that the survivors in the Fleet are disproportionately of the better-off classes, as a sample of people on typical airline flights would indicate among us today.

Re the Colonial traditional paganism--I actually think that modern American/cosmopolitan capitalist society would not be what it is without the rise of monotheistic, absolutist religions (Christianity and Islam). I like the Colonial paganism to be sure. It has the virtues of pragmatism. Instead of claiming some absolute oneness with the Ultimate, people are acknowledging that reality is bigger than they are, has some more or less knowable features they can more or less rely on, and letting go claims to know all the answers at the back of the book. (This is something I like about neopaganism among us too.) It also gives wiggle room to rationalize all the ways that if Colonial society is not quite patriarchial (there really does seem to be a fundamental and unquestioned balance of gender there) nor otherwise polarized on bigoted lines, it nevertheless has those kinds of tensions.

The difference between a pagan/neopaganistic morality and world view, and that of the monotheistic absolutism we actually inherit here on Earth, is that the former involves an uncentered, distributed view of the nature of things that can, in principle, honor every particular thing that exists and also accept that struggle between them might be inevitable. Morality is about how you go about asserting yourself, whether you act rightly in dealing with what actually comes to you. Monotheism tends to emphasize a notion of absolute right and wrong, centered not in particular people and things but in God and some kind of Satan or demiurge or the like--the Universe as a puppet war between beings beyond us to which we ultimately must belong.Actual polytheism here on Earth of course has hardly been free of patriarchy and dominator ideology in general, of course. I think that the actual spiritual consensus of human beings before the rise of agriculture and the eventual emergence of dominator militaristic competitiveness, with its pretty much inevitable creation of patriarchy, was even more diffuse and undogmatic than the classical pagan systems we can study from the Greco-Roman, Nordic, or Hindu traditions. But then, we typically frame these latter from the point of view of later, more absolutist religions and philosophies, which have tried to square the fundamental logic of dominator absolutism, in which the ultimate value is submission to one ideal Will, with the subversive reality of diverse human experience.

So for me, it seems odd, if fortunate, that that whole process seems to have been arrested at the level of some kind of benign, enlightened, considerate pagan agnosticism in Colonial spiritual history, and odder squared that that kind of modus viviendi could be maintained in the face of a social reality involving ongoing militarism and injustice, without curdling and polarizing along the lines of warring factions we are so familiar with here on Earth.

I think by the way that in BSG, the Lords of Kobol were in fact real beings of some kind, who may or may not still exist or interfere behind the scenes in the modern setting. I always am resistant to the idea, so common in SF, that perhaps humanity did not evolve on Earth, for a lot of reasons I shouldn't elaborate here (though when the storytellers, like Ursula LeGuin in her Hainish stories, do their jobs well I don't fight it in the stories.) So until definitively established otherwise, I assume that these Colonial humans did in fact evolve originally here on Earth, and that the Lords of Kobol were some kind of powerful beings (Star-Trek like evolved "energy beings," or some kind of angels, or gods, or what have you) who decided for some reason, thousands of years ago, to remove a sample of us to Kobol, which they terraformed very nicely for them. And so the lost "colony" of Earth was actually an expedition trying to find their real homeworld millenia later, which is why the Colonial settlement is so far away and on the other side of Kobol.

Anyway, if the LoK were real beings, that might explain why Colonial paganism is so persistent. That they are clearly not the Creators of the Universe also is consistent and sensible.

I don't know what later eps reveal already about the original human/cylon conflict. I suspect it was as simple as this--human beings constructed actual artifical intelligences, capable of as much free thought and self-reflection as we are, which is to say they had "souls" and human (personal) rights as far as I'm concerned, but (as established from the beginning) the humans did not recognize or respect their rights, and so the Cylons were forced to rebel. Why the struggle could not be resolved in a more companionable manner is not clear to me, but it wasn't. I can imagine that with the surviving Cylons having objective reason to fear ultimate destruction from humanity, a strand of defensive fanaticism was favored (as it has been in every major successful political/social revolution in our history) and the Cylons being rationally designed machines, they were chillingly amenible to "reeducation" in the direct form of total reprogramming. I welcome the spoiler hints that suggest that there is dissension behind the facade that the conquering Cylons present along their battlefront--this seems entirely likely to me. But at any rate I think we can easily account for the monotheistic, fundamentallist fanaticism of the particular bunch of Cylons who attacked the Colonies, and why if there are others they are well hidden from humanity.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

On "Conservative" Misperceptions of Their Own Nature

At Pandagon, Amanda Marcotte once again questions the wisdom of compromising reproductive rights in the misguided effort to "legitimize" progressives. Frequent reactionary commentator Dana expressed his puzzlement at why we regard choice as a basic right anyway, on "philosophical" grounds. My response was so massive I decided to put it here, as a courtesy to Pandagon.

Dana Jun 23rd, 2007 at 8:55 pm On more of a philosophical note, I have always found it a bit strange that liberals, in general, are pro-abortion, while conservatives are, in general, pro-life.

Well, then, has it occurred to you that perhaps this might be because you've badly understood the broad, fundamental bases of the "liberal" and "conservative" positions? If you have a theory that's a bad fit to reality, perhaps you should revise it or reject it in favor of one that works better. (Like, maybe, one that has an excellent track record of accurately predicting the nature of the real-world evolution of capitalism for instance.)

When I look at the positions of liberals, it seems to me that they can be broadly summarized as believing that society and government have more of a role in people’s lives, to promote the things they see as being of social value, which leads to the left being in favor of more government intervention to equalize wages, provide universal health care coverage, Affirmative Action and more government regulation of business.

That's the moderate version of the Republican/reactionary view of what "liberalism" is all about. "Moderate" in the sense that here you refrain from condemning out of hand "the things they see as being of social value" in themselves, as being obviously evil in themselves, which is what the rightist mantra generally assumes or asserts.

Just on those terms, without spelling out that these "things they see as being of social value" are supposed to be some kind of totalitarian dystopia--Communism, Islamofascism, the end of masculinity, whatever the boogeyman of the day is--these items you mention really don't seem that bad. I mean, would you really say that equalized wages, universal health care, an end to racial discrimination, or even "government regulation of business" are bad things in and of themselves? If so, why? If not, why wouldn't being for these things be to our credit?

Nope, the anti-liberal rant has to go on to explain why these apparently benign things are actually bad, either in themselves (which is a tough sell, unless one is dealing with for instance racists or other kinds of bigots who explicitly think that some people should be worse off than others) or because they are stealthy steps on a path to a hidden hell on Earth that we either seek to lure others on out of wicked disingenuity, or blindly and foolishly follow because we lack the wisdom and insight you have to forsee where this is headed.

But now to open your eyes a bit to a reality-based world--how aware are you of the actual historical processes whereby these "liberal," or more properly progressive, goals were approached? Was it a matter of a cabal of society-minded liberals attaining power out of a blue sky, or did these concrete manifestations of a supposed collectivist agenda not actually emerge out of concrete historical crises, in which there came to be a broad consensus as much on practical as ideological grounds for adopting them?
Did not a sentiment for regulating businesses, for instance, emerge out of very specific incidents in which unregulated business discredited themselves by their obviously dysfunctional behavior? Didn't a broad array of businessmen themselves endorse their own regulation, as a means both of redeeming themselves socially as a class and also to enable them to function more effectively as businessmen?
Was not the drive for higher wages for working people in general a movement that had and still has wide popular resonance?
Have you examined the history of affirmative action enough to realize that it was actually a very conservative and limited response to the obvious injustices and general social risks posed by systematic racism in America, and that as a conservative, non-radical response to this challenge, its results have been limited, mixed, and pose minimal challenge to the basic social order?

Already there is clearly something very unsatisfactory about your theory of what "liberals" are all about. Onward.

Conservatives, on the other hand, are more generally in favor of the right of individuals to be free of government regulation, and for people to be more responsible for their own fortunes — for good or ill — in life. We generally oppose government intervention to equalize wages, provide universal health care coverage, Affirmative Action and more government regulation of business, being of a more libertarian bent.

Now here is where your notions obviously take complete leave of real history and for that matter everyday reality in modern America. Throughout our history, and generally all over the world and through all time, "conservatives" have never distinguished themselves by demonstrating any kind of consistent, general passion for any particular universal human rights, certainly not the specific theory of government and society--less and weaker government--that you claim for yourselves here. I think you have enough broad knowledge to realize that you are at best flattering yourselves by claiming that.

What best characterizes "conservatives," who certainly in the modern context of an ever-changing global and national society can't claim much credit for "conserving" many things, is a paramount concern for themselves--for whatever degree of power and privilege they and a limited set of allies have--and for social hierarchy in general. Far from being meaningfully libertarian, conservatives throughout history, certainly throughout American history, align themselves with the most powerful, and repress the less powerful without compunction. They are always on the lookout for some out group, be they foreign devils or pariahs within their own society, that they can scapegoat for all the routine evils of the society they uphold, and seek to maintain the social tensions that enable their own social hierarchy to functions at a state just short of general breakdown, so that there are large reserves of resentment and repressed violence they can unleash on designated enemies, foreign and domestic.

In fact, far from being rugged champions of individual freedom and responsibility, conservatives, in everyday and historical experience, are typically sycophantic suck-ups when they are not vainglorious, overprivileged, unrestrained misleaders of society into general disaster.

If you try to understand the behavior of Republicans, for instance, in or out of power, in terms of a passionate committment to human freedom, you will be puzzled all across the board, not just on the issue of abortion--or reproductive rights and sexuality in general, where, consistent with their stand on abortion if not your theory of conservatives as libertarians, they are generally reactionary too. But take any issue. Take fiscal conservatism. Take immigration policy. Take foreign policy. Take torture, the abolition of habeus corpus, surveillance--it is ridiculous to maintain that Republicans have stood for human liberty. But quite obvious that they have stood, consistently, sometimes even forthrightly, for social inequality and enhancing the wealth, power, and privilege of the already wealthy, powerful, and privileged, at any cost whatsoever to anyone they think they can get away with plowing under.

The idea of greater income redistribution is repugnant to us.

I'm right with you there. You are being forthright and clear on this matter. The name of the "conservative" game is to uphold wealth and power, period. The social hierarchy is the one thing, the only thing, that conservatives seek to conserve--and extend.

If the above was all you knew, you’d guess that it would be the liberals who are pro-life, seeing the right to life of the child as something society should protect, even though it involves sacrifice on the part of the pregnant woman; I’d have thought that it would be conservatives who would be more supportive of abortion, not liking government intervention in people’s lives.

Yet that’s completely backwards: liberals, who have views which are more societally-oriented, are absolute libertarians when it comes to abortion, while conservatives, who are far more individualistic in their outlooks on most things, are far more likely to be pro-life.

That would be an interesting subject for our gracious hostess Amanda to address (if she hasn’t in an older article that I’ve missed.)

I believe she and we have done so time and again. Since it's your paradox, not paradoxical in our terms at all, how do you explain it?

BTW, Dana--that whole "gracious hostess" thing is the kind of thing I mean about reactionaries being sycophantic suck-ups. Naturally I interpret this little tic of yours as being sarcastic and patronizing. But even if I believed you were doing it out of some bizarre compulsion of chivalry, it's inherently patronizing anyway. Amanda is indeed far more gracious than she needs to be, as she shows by actions and not just words. In general, progressives judge by actions and not words. I think Jesus had something or other to say on the subject too.

Anyway, our "societal orientation" emerges from real-world experience. We seek and find realistic explanations of the world we live in, and those guide our priorities. In the dominant, conservative-controlled, social rhetoric we have pounded into our heads at church, at home, in schools, and throughout the mainstream media, we are supposed to be fuzzy-headed, half-baked idealists and conservatives are supposed to be hard-boiled, tried and true realists (and at the same time the true guardians of morality and decency). But the dogmas ring false even to little children, who often see right through the Potemkin village facade of conservative ideology.

In fact human beings don't exist without some sort of cooperation or other. The question is, should the necessary machinery of society serve everyone and enable a maximum of real individual development, or should the majority go on being coerced into a "division of labor" that seeks to concentrate all the benefits and glory of individual development into one narrow segment of society.

In fact it is generally necessary to have some compromise on these matters. A society of absolute equality is not attainable or much desired by anyone. There will always be those who are more or less central to the social machinery, particularly in a society with an elaborate enough economic system of cooperation, in any form, to sustain the basic biological needs, let alone opportunities for general development, of 6 billion and rising people on this planet. It is rational for ordinary people to accept disparities in opportunity to the extent that the privileged use their position to improve opportunities in general for ordinary people. The thing is, concentrated power inherently has the potential for positive feedback. History is best understood in terms of the quest for a sustainable, liveable balance of social interests in that context.

Your premises are at best a sophomoric first attempt, obsequious to the already powerful, of trying to grasp the issues at hand. And persisting in holding that frame in the face of all the evidence of its inadequacy and mendacity casts doubt on either the intelligence or honesty of its proponents.

The matter at hand here is whether progressives ought, for any reason, to compromise on abortion in particular--or for that matter on reproductive rights in general, because generally the opponents of choice there are also against birth control and sexual freedom. *

If abortion were a wrong, evil thing in and of itself, then the question of compromise would be a side issue. For reasons we have gone over time and again at Pandagon and I have also mentioned here, I for one think it can't be, certainly not in the early stages, and that the very best way to manage the whole question of reproduction is to leave each case up to the decision of the woman who might actually be pregnant, and everyone else should support whatever decisions these women make. Insisting on this standard is inherently the right thing to do, and (this follows as quite reasonable, given that I have framed history as a struggle between the interests of ordinary people versus the privileged few) also tends to subvert the mechanisms of social repression and favor democracy. Democracy, I should point out, is not about putting the "best" people in power, but about asserting and effectively enabling the inherent power of all people, demanding that everyone's interests be considered in any decision that affects them.

By pretending to be overwhelmingly concerned with the interests of persons who do not actually exist yet as people, "conservatives" seek to absolve themselves of guilt for all the offenses they routinely commit against real people. "Thou shalt not abort the innocent babe in the womb; after it's born, open season" quite encapsulates the right wing's revised concept of the commandments.

I don't see much value in seeking compromise with such mentalities. Subverting them (that is, opening the eyes of the vast majority to the disadvantages for them of continuing their allegience to a system inherently prejudicial to their interests, and the positive potentials of helping, even at the cost of risk and likely sacrifice, develop alternatives with their interests in mind) seems far more appropriate.
*In reality, of course, "conservatives" often have recourse to abortions, and use BC, and have extramarital sex, and are even GBLT--but in my frame, their problem is not consistentcy between what they say versus what they do, but how likely they are to get "caught" breaking the taboos they think (for good reasons in their terms) must be sacred in principle, because they are fundamentally about enforcing a social hierarchy. They practically solve this problem by using their social privilege and power for the purpose that they think these exist, to exempt themselves from the ostensible rules, which exist for no real reason other than as tools and structure for repression in general, and are therefore used selectively.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

The painful and complex Odyssey of the right to choose in America

Once again, I'm struck by how astute it was of Amanda Marcotte to recommend Leslie Reagan's When Abortion Was a Crime to her readers at Pandagon. Judging by this article by Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic Monthly, she could also benefit from reading it, though it does seem she is making progress toward the light indeed. But she has a ways to go.

One thing I picked up from Leslie Reagan's book was the complex nuances of the evolution of abortion practice and its opposition.

For those who have not had the chance to read it yet, I can summarize by saying that essentially there were about 4 phases between the movement to initially criminalize abortion in the mid-19th century and Roe v Wade:

1) Professional MDs (or rather, the precursors of the faction of medical practitioners that we recognize today as "real doctors," in part because of their political success in this period) led, indeed founded and mostly constituted, the movement to make abortion a crime, primarily as a way of attacking their rivals, the folk-medical practioners who included midwives, and establishing themselves as a closed, self-governing guild of arbiters of medicine. I think it is clear that the particular movement to ban abortions (except for "therapeutic" ones done by MDs like themselves) also had a specific element of desire to bring women under tighter control. But in the first period, once the legislative battles were won to criminalize abortion, such objectives were only partially accomplished, for women continued as they had always done to go to midwives, or increasingly, as their family income permitted and ethnic ties guided them, to MDs acting as family practitioners, to get "therapeutic" abortions. Because the doctors never disputed that certain abortions were necessary; the question was, who decided. Under the old rules, pre-criminalization, the law ignored the whole matter and women decided among themselves. This was not the same as recognizing women's individual right to choose; if the law did pay attention it frowned deeply on deliberate abortion, and it would often not be the pregnant woman but rather other women, such as her mother, who arbitrated. Women did not talk about it, to men or generally among themselves, because sexuality in general was under a veil of silence and shame. Under the new rules, this would only have been worse, since abortion itself was now a crime explicitly, and this emphasized Victorian denial of female sexuality in general. Now, if a woman chose the traditional folk medicine track she and her midwife were under the shadow of explicit law, and if she chose a family practioner MD she was subject to his judgement and scrutiny. On the other hand, MDs were generally private practioners who served families, and women (the same matriarchs who traditionally governed decisions about pregnancy and abortion) generally held the purse strings in these matters. The lady of the house was their client in other words, and smart doctors did not want to alienate them. (In this period the few women MDs tended to be more outspoken in their conservatism and opposition to practices like abortion, because they were already under very skeptical scrutiny and probably had internalized Victorian values in self-defense and as essential steppingstones to success.) So in practice, abortion went on much as before, except increasingly in the hands of MDs, particularly among white Protestant middle-and-upper class families. Most of Reagan's data from this period came from situations where something went wrong and a woman died or was seriously ill, or from the investigations of crusading journalists who regarded abortion as part of the general sexual "dangerousness" of big cities and the rising industrial society. The tendency of critics was to blame midwives, but doctors ran some risk of being held accountable. But there was no movement to arrest and imprison women who had or sought abortions; for them, the basic punishment was to expose them to public shame.

2) In the next period, roughly corresponding to the Progressive Era shading into the 1920s, things went on much as before except that now the drive to criminalize midwives and folk medicine in general went into higher gear. Police were more aggressive in trying to root out midwives and social progressives generally sought to bring them under medical supervision as a step toward eliminating them outright. Meanwhile more women went to MDs and sought "therapeutic" abortions, which MDs were still inclined to give for purely social reasons. However medicine was getting more specialized; just as the MDs had sought to marginalize midwives, so now the new specialists in gynecology and obstestrics sought to discredit GPs in matters relating to pregnancy, and patients were increasingly diverted to hospitals, where there was no longer the client/professional relationship that covered the joint discretion of families and private doctor in reaching decisions on abortion.

3) In the Great Depression especially, a sort of equilibrium existed whereby the medical profession argued quietly among themselves about what was and was not "therapeutic" abortion but in the general desperation of the times, a place was quietly made for abortion clinics which were illegal but had fairly high standards. Flanagan's mother and her peers would have come of age in a time when official doctrine stressed more and more that abortion was wrong, but in fact networks of women and their doctors still could quietly find a woman who needed one a fairly safe place for a reasonable price. But as medicine grew more specialized and centralized, the practices came under more and more scrutiny, while the doctors and nurses involved in abortion became more and more specialized in that practice, which exposed them to more effective prosecution. All along in these latter two periods especially, there was a rising threat that exposure as an abortionist would result in expulsion from the medical community; this went hand in hand with the threat of legal action but also worked largely by shame and ostracism, just as women were generally "punished" and terrorized.

4) But various political forces were on the rise that explicitly sought to eliminate, or at least more effectively criminalize abortion, notably various agencies of the Catholic Church and their political supporters--a strong and rising constituency in the mid-20th century. In the medical community, it was hard to speak for abortion, even "therapeutic," and increasingly respectable to speak very harshly against it. In any case the doctors worried about liability and losing their collective reputations on which their professional independence of external regulation rested, so the profession began tightening and clarifying standards of what did and did not qualify as properly medical justifications for abortions, and gave at least verbal support to the crusaders. In the late 1930s (about when Flanagan's mother had her shocking experience) and notably in the early '40s, police began raiding medical abortion clinics that had been operating discreetly for decades in major cities. At first they sought the identites of the female patients, whom they then apprehended, threatened with prosecution, and thus compelled to testitfy against the clinic workers themselves--thus also "punishing" them by again exposing them as sexual offenders to public shame and compelling them to speak about sexual details women normally were ashamed to talk about; they were not actually jailed. Soon the DAs began to focus on the mainstream doctors, nurses, and hospitals that referred women to these clinics, as ways of shutting them down.

Thus Flanagan's mother was living in a transitional time. Even in earlier days, of course, there were far too many women who did not in fact find the discreet networks that steered pregnant woment toward relatively safe abortions, and thus went to quacks or tried to do it themselves; this is a basic ugly fact of criminalization. (In fact, even where abortion is perfectly legal, we still have some women who are ashamed, or afraid, to risk exposure, or feel self-destructive shame, or just plain can't afford reputable care; perhaps we shall always have such tragedies, though one can hope otherwise in a society that finally gets away from shaming women for having sex.) But the bitter experience of Flanagan's mother's friend was not the universal reality for most women who sought abortions before WWII--though she may have chosen the way she did it because it was indeed headed that way.

Because the 4th period of criminal abortion, the period between WWII and Roe, is I think the most bitter and tragic of all. Indeed scientific medical practice had always held out the promise of technically safer and more effective abortions (though in the mid-19th century I think on the whole a good midwife might have been a safer bet) and by WWII the cumulative progress of antisepsis and medicines including the new antibiotics would indeed have made it far safer--if not for the much more effective enforcement of the law that went along with it. The crackdown on abortion was part of the general reactionaryism of the post-war and McCarthyite era; indeed Reagan stresses how effectively the era's conformism straightjacketed medical professionals of all kinds into following a reactionary script for fear of being singled out and expelled. This was the period in which women were forced to seek anonymous and dubious practitioners for extortionate prices in the dead of night, and suffered most severely from running these medical as well as social risks. The medical profession, soon underscored by law, required proposals for therapeutic abortions to undergo reviews by committees before being authorized; no longer could a GP or even Ob/gyn specialist make that decision on his professional say-so, as the original laws had provided. These committees in turn were having their decisions scrutinized by anti-abortion watchdogs of various kinds; the number of women who got abortions at hospitals was also being critically and skeptically watched, so that even liberally inclined hospitals (especially those that had a reputation for being laxer in these matters) had to tighten their standards to match the most reactionary, lest they stand out for legal attention.

It was these conditions that led women to organize to reclaim their right to choose, by clandestine action, by court challenge, and eventually to speaking out at last on why they had to regard this choice as essential and their basic right as women and human beings. It was this testimony that underlay both movments of legal reform (which were often disappointing, as they left the basic notion of abortion as a questionable option at best in place and retained mechanisms of scrutiny and judgement that intimidated women and denied even the bravest abortions except for strictly interpreted reasons) and the eventually successful path of court challenge on basic human rights grounds.

I hope that women like Flanagan learn, if they don't already know, this basic historical trajectory that shows how essential the right of choice as a basic, unchallengeable, unashamed human right is, and that they acknowledge how every other alternative has in fact been tried and exhausted.

To my perhaps overly spiritual way of thinking, I think that both medical facts and the trying ordeal American women have gone through in our history demonstrate that early-term feti simply cannot be human beings, as I do believe in an underlying justice in the Universe and I don't see how such a benign cosmic order could put these women into conflict with real human beings. Maybe I'm too soft-headed; I've spoken to women whom I respect who say they believe in choice and yet that "it's still a baby." I just can't process that, and medical fact seems to relieve me of the need to. In any case, the absolute value that a pregnant woman alone should decide if she is to become a mother or not is established in my mind. This is a big improvement I think on the status quo before the MDs decided to attempt to criminalize abortion, since the matter was kept in discreet limbo back then and the default position of law and society was that women were subordinate to others--perhaps to other women, but not seen as free and autonomous in the sense that men were. And vice versa, I think free women, who never bear children unless they have freely decided to do so, are more likely to birth and raise healthy, loved, valued children, and pass on the values and virtues that underly effective, real, human freedom. We are thus better off than we were, and perhaps the sufferings of past generations can be redeemed--if we hang on to what we have gained.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Because It Apparently Has To Be Said Again

One side effect of the brouhaha about John Edward's brief employment of world-class feminist blogger Amanda Marcotte on his campaign staff and the subsequent right-wing Swiftboating of her and the candidate is that nowadays Pandagon has apparently quadrupled or quintupled its traffic, and among new commentors there are a lot of hostile right-wingers. In this new ecosystem, I have become more motivated to expound my Marxist views, particularly on the core subject of Marx's labor theory of value political economy. I don't know how far I'll get or how fast I can post, but clearly I need to write down my reasons for believing that Marx did in fact develop the rational approach to economics whereas mainstream "economics," called variously NeoClassical, Marginalist, or the "Austrian" or "Chicago" school, is a bunch of ideological hooey, of no scientific value and having no practical uses except for making apologies for the outrages of capitalism.

For now, just a long blockquote from the late Ernest Mandel, Trotskyite economist extrordinaire, from his Introduction to the Vintage Edition of Capital, Volume I, 1976.

[Capital] was never intended as a handbook to help governments to solve such problems as balance-of-payment deficits, nor yet as a learned, if somewhat trite, explanation of all the exciting happenings in the market place when Mr. Smith finds no buyer for his last 1000 tons of iron. It was intended as an explanation of what would happen to labour, machinery, technology, the size of enterprises, the social structure of the population, the discontinuity of economic growth, and the relations between workers and work, as the capitalist mode of production unfolded in all its terrifying potential. From that point of view the achievement is truly impressive. It is precisely because of Marx's capacity to discover the long-term laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production in its essence, irrespective of thousands of "impurities" and of secondary aspects, that his long-term predictions--the laws of accumulation of capital, stepped-up technological progress, accelerated increase in the productivity and intensity of labour, growing concentration and centralization of capital, transformation of the great majority of economically active people into sellers of labour-power, declining rate of profit, increased rate of surplus-value, periodically recurrent recessions, inevitable class struggle between Capital and Labour, increasing revolutionary attempts to overthrow capitalism--have been so strikingly confirmed by history.

This judgement has generally been challenged on two grounds. The easiest way out for critics of Marx is simply to deny that the laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production which he discovered have been verified at all. This is generally done by reducing them to a couple of misstated and oversimplifed formulae (see below): "progressive immiseration of the working class" and "ever-worsening economic crisis." A more sophisticated objection was advanced by Karl Popper, who denied the very possibility, or rather the scientific nature, of such "laws," calling them "unconditional historical prophecies" to be clearly distinguished from "scientific predictions." "Ordinary predictions in science," says Popper, "are conditional. They assert that certain changes (say, of the temperature of water in a kettle) will be accompanied by other changes (say, the boiling of the water)." Popper denies the scientific nature of Capital by asserting that, unlike scientific theories, its hypotheses cannot be scientifically tested.

This is obviously based upon a misunderstanding of the very nature of the materialist dialectic, which, as Lenin pointed out, requires constant verification through praxis to increase its cognition content. In fact, it would be very easy to "prove" Marx's analysis to have been wrong, if experience had shown, for example, that the more capitalist industry develops the smaller and smaller the average factory becomes, the less it depends upon new technology, the more its capital is supplied by the workers themselves, the more workers become owners of their factories, the less the part of wages taken by consumer goods becomes (and the greater the becomes the part of wages used for buying the workers' own means of production). If, in addition, there had been decades without economic fluctuations and a full-scale disappearance of trade unions and employers' associations (all flowing from the disappearance of contradictions between Capital and Labour, inasmuch as workers increasingly become the controllers of their own means and conditions of production) then one could indeed say that Capital was so much rubbish and had dismally failed to predict what would happen in the real capitalist world a century after its publication. It is sufficient to compare the real history of the period since 1867 on the one hand with what Marx predicted it would be, and on the other with any such alternative "laws of motion," to understand how remarkable indeed was Marx's theoretical achievement and how strongly it stands up against the test of history.

Pages 23-25

Friday, February 16, 2007

Jammin' with Pam Spaulding on Matters of the Spirit

As she does on matters of race and homobigotry, Pam Spaulding has once again bared her sweet heart to invite discussion on that "third rail" of socio-politics in the USA, religion/spirituality, organized and otherwise. Note it is cross-posted on her own blog here.

OK, so now's as good a time as any for me to muse on my own faith journey.

Like Pam I was raised under some Catholic influence--unlike her, I was raised pretty much exclusively as a Catholic. For most of my life, whenever I even considered that I might recover, or perhaps more accurately discover for the first time, a true Christian faith, I assumed that of course then I'd become a Catholic again--because to be honest, I think I have to say a certain smug bigotry against Protestantism was successfuly conveyed to me, if not an actual living faith in my nominal religion.

Unlike a lot of Pandagonians, commenting on Chris Clarke's earlier entry, while I spent every year from 1st grade through 10th in a Catholic school, I had none of their seminal experiences with wonderful teachers, in or out of holy orders, who inspired me. But then neither did I have any truly horrendous experiences either. The bleak fact is that when I look at my childhood the only living inspirations and guides I had in matters of faith (or any other matter of spirit or intellect) were my own family. Otherwise, as I look back on it I pretty much lived in a world of books and other media.

I can trace the roots of my smug arrogance in part back to the fact that as a hearing-impaired child, one who was born with normal hearing but lost it gradually and behind the backs of everyone including myself, that I adapted by learning to talk rather than listen, and to read rather than hear. This is a fine thing for getting a leg up on the academic rat race of K-12 education and impressing one's elders with bookish accomplishments, but pretty poor for learning to relate to living people. But another would be my Dad's own rather austere and doctrinaire leanings in this same direction. My Dad actually went to a Catholic seminary instead of junior high school. Quite obviously he changed his mind, but from very early years I considered myself, emulating and following his pronouncements on faith and doctrine, fit to judge the orthodoxy and right-thinking of priests, nuns, and certainly my peers. Elsewhere I've written about my gradual revelation, as a young adult, that contrary to my impressions, I'd been educated to be a typical American racist. It was much easier to recognize, years before, how I'd been trained to be a sexist as well, because my Dad was quite explicit in his doctrines of the divisions between the sexes--so dogmatically so, and so in contradiction with my experience even as a child, that I questioned and rejected much of that nonsense.

Even as a child, I had my doubts about the reasonableness of what I understood I was supposed to believe, without question. Catholicism, and Christianity in general, has sound and reasonable answers for its critics, but one must accept the premises from which they are made. In my life experience, the message of Christianity seemed to divide up into, on one hand, a beautiful if dismayingly difficult challenge to confront the world with courageous and generous love, and on the other a corpus of dry and arbitrary doctrines fundamentally based on sheer authoritarian fiat. As an intellectually trained acolyte I knew that the latter was supposed to follow from the former, but I never really accepted that I saw it do so.

On the contrary, hewing strictly to the line that was clearly pronounced in Papal statements and dogmatic teaching seemed diametrically opposed to living the life exemplified by Christ and in the Acts. Believing as I was taught that the fate of my immortal soul depended mainly on the former, I spent my childhood as a sophist, seeking validation and approval for my proper understanding of dogma, while secretly chafing, and resenting the freedom and happiness of those who seemed to accept a more forgiving and gentle form of faith. In fact in the post-Vatican II 1970s, I was surrounded by folk masses and rather rockin' hymns and the threat of Charismatics and other bizarre shenanigans, not to mention my parents' rather dark pronouncements on the questionable orthodoxy of "liberal" clerics they found in every dioscese we moved to, even in places like Virginia or the Florida Panhandle.

So it was that within weeks of moving away from home, I dropped the facade of Catholic faith, stayed on campus on Sundays (skipping Mass being of course a mortal sin quite as much as if I'd murdered someone) and soon considered myself an atheist.

But that never sat comfortably with me either. Just as I was at heart a non-practicing Catholic, I've always suspected that somehow, we are indeed children of a Being that cares about us, and that somehow there will be judgement, reconciliation, and redemption. I've dabbled with various forms of neopaganism but have never quite crossed over to believing in any definite way that the powers of the natural elements are the same as this Great Spirit.

There came a day when I had a definite moment of revelation, when a reflection touched me deeply and I decided that at any rate, I am a person of faith. As it happened, this came from contemplating the record left on the Voyager space probes, that photographic and audio testament to human life on planet Earth, launched as an act of faith and a gift, for what it may be worth, to unknown peoples of other stars.

In the past year, I felt moved by various life events to seek out a congregation of more or less like-minded people to share some kind of affirmation of the spirt, vague as suited me but geared to some kind of positive action accountable to reason as well as the demands of the living spirit. For a time, I communed with a United Church of Christ congregation in Sebastopol, California. And a fine bunch of progressive, loving yet clear-minded Christians they are too. But the fact is, from my point of view the spirit of Christianity itself is clouded with the authoritarian, patriarchial dogmas associated with the rule of power over people. These good progressive Christians did not seem like agents of this to me, but I simply do not feel right trying to frame my perceptions from a specially Christian standpoint. I therefore sought out the Unitarian Univeralsalist congregation in Santa Rosa, and there I am happy to be for now, and for the foreseeable future.

For the moment I have run out of time, but blessings be upon everyone of good will.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Theoretical background stuff for Pam's guests and posterity

The estimable Pam Spaulding, co-blogging at Pandagon, has once again asked us to seriously discuss race in the USA. Here is my theoretical abstract background to my response to her questions.

First of all, intellectually I frame the whole issue of race and racial categories and assignments and so on in the context of an oppressive system that is maintaining the myth of race for reasons of its own normal functions. Specifically, people in the USA have the impressions we have because of our social system and its history, and since there isn't any objective basis in inherent human abilities or characteristics for it, of course there is no other framework but this arbitrary history and present practice, and therefore of course it is full of absurdities especially around the edges.

The US racial system was founded in enslaving Africans, and this was done simply because African slaves who fled captivity could be readily identified and re-captured. This was true no matter how culturally comfortable or even identified a particular African or descendent of Africans became, and no matter whether there was any feeling of rejection any group of "white" people night have felt, nor even vice versa protective solidarity with a fellow exploited worker--other fugitive workers like indentured servants from Britain for instance, or the shipmates of an African sailor (of whom there were quite a few in the 18th and 19th century). It was objectively easy to catch escaped Africans, easy to separate them from possible allies, easy to enforce differential treatment. That's the crux of the matter, and that aspect continues relevant to this day.

To be sure the whole task of getting economic benefit out of the investment in slavery was made even easier by the cultivation and encouragement of bigoted attitudes among potential allies of recalcitrant black workers as well as other levels of society, so we have a tremendous cultural investment in bigotry. But we could analyze the whole thing without acknowledging this, though the analysis is much more straightforward if we do.

Many people might wonder why I think that the economic and sociopolitical basis of anti-African bigotry that seems so clear when we look at the era of legal slavery matters today, when slavery has been long abolished. We can and should consider the many ways that we have continued a number of quasi-slavery institutions and practices to this day, but for the moment leave that aside. Even if we didn't selectively and differentially convict people perceived to be African, or had no prejudices about hiring them on a case-by-case basis, or have any concerns about intermarriage, or whatnot, we still live under capitalism.

And capitalism by its nature produces a stratified range of options for people at different economic levels. Not only is there a wide range of income distrubution for wage workers, and a limited opportunity for people to enter the capitalist classes by amassing investment capital sufficient to live off the profits, which is the definition of a capitalist, there is also a tremendous range of working and associated living conditions. In particular, capitalism is characteristically volatile, unstable, and cyclic. Most of the jobs and related opportunities at the bottom of the ladder are particularly vulnerable to these inherent and necessary fluctuations.

But at the same time, capitalist societies, for good and deep reasons, tend to be associated with nominally liberal institutions. In particular, the notion that government, and society in general, derives from the consent and enlightened self-interest of the people, is very important (though not indispensible) in maintaining the moral pre-eminence of a capitalist society. Thus, we see a serious problem--individuals near the bottom of the ladder may well consent, or even be enthusiastic supporters of, a system they think offers them fair opportunities to enjoy greater wealth, and that at any rate offers them a lifestyle they are accustomed to. But when a boom goes bust, when a particular line of work that showed promise half a generation ago is supplanted by the evolution of the market, or indeed anything at all goes wrong, it is these people at the bottom, the last hired, who are first fired; it is they who bear the full brunt of the violent swings characteristic of the system, and these swings last years stretching into decades.
Therefore it is not necessary, but it is very handy, for a capitalist republic, to have a class of people whom the majority do not accept as full members and full equals of themselves. If a big portion of the worst work is offered mainly to them, and these people have impaired opportunities to seek more rewarding and secure positions, then it becomes much easier to cultivate stable sustained support for the cyclic system among the better-off majority. Of course the flip side of this purging of the risks and downsides onto a disfavored minority is that those people will presumably be even more disaffected than they would be as merely poor people, and might develop a group consciousness that all the more systematically works to change or overthrow the domininant system. But if this risk can be managed by a series of social double standards that permit the dominant portion of society to systematically attack and undercut such organization perhaps in ways that would never be accepted by the majority applied to themselves, then actually the threat of the revolt of the stigmatize underclass becomes a reinforcement of the system, as its plausibility justifies the harsh measures taken to a larger majority than might be prepared to stomach them without the clear and present danger.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The idiocy of private health "insurance"

Dear Kaitlyn,

I just found your blog via a comment you made in Pandagon. And I read this.

I doubt very much you are an idiot. I'd say you are way ahead of the curve.

I'm very different than you in lots of ways, but we've got a lot in common too. I'm a military brat to start with, and a feminist, and I owe some of my own mental liberation to having read MAD back in the day.

Anyway, you are not the problem here. The problem is, private insurace sucks the big one. It is the essence of the evils of capitalism, distilled.

I didn't realize this until 1989, when I was already 24. I'd just moved in with Natasha (you can probably find plenty to go on about who Natasha was if you go way down to the earliest entries in this blog) and she wanted to write a play about AIDS. So, she said, let's you and I go get tested for HIV, to research that experience. So we did.

In those days, it took days or weeks for the blood sample to get processed; you had to make an appointment to come get the results back. They set it up so that no one could find out which way it went until you were in a meeting with a trained counselor--a bit nerve-wracking but good policy I think.

Since Natasha was researching the play she asked what they'd have done if either of us had tested positive. While we were discussing the options HIV-positive folks had back then one thing the counselor said was, if you've got health insurance, keep it no matter what, 'cause once you get dropped from whatever plan you had, you are screwed. No one will insure you at any bearable price. You become a human hot potato.

Now I suppose to some people this seems only reasonable, but it got me thinking about the very nature of private, for-profit, health insurance. The idea is, you pay money now, and they are betting you will never get sick and they can pocket the money, because if you do get sick it is gonna cost them way more than any one client typically can pony up over a lifetime to cover good care. So--either the fine print lets them off the hook, letting them get away with promising way more than they plan to give sick clients, or the chances of your getting sick are quite low.
Since there are dozens of rival plans competing with each other, every one has an incentive to try to persuade young, healthy fools to part with their money, and get rid of the older, sicker, more savvy folks who might want some value for what they've paid.

It might seem OK if people were in fact able to select and keep a plan when they are young and healthy, and guarantee either that that plan continues all their lives, so the company that was happy to take their money when they were young has to take care of them when old. But in real life, only very rich people have that option.

Look at me for instance. I was able to stretch CHAMPUS eligibility until I was 22, because my Dad was still on active duty and I had not actually graduated from college yet, but once I got too old for that, I had zero coverage. Could I afford to run out and sign up for some plan that would cost me hundreds of dollars a month to keep up? HAH! Once I moved in with Natasha as her full-time, live-in care provider (Natasha was disabled, if you haven't glanced at my blog yet) I worked over 60 hours a week--but at minimum wage, and with zero benefits. I was barely able to pay minimal payments on my student loans.

In 2003, I became theoretically able to sign up for union-supported health plans, but that brings me to the worst part of the story of private health "insurance in the USA. The only way that the vast majority of Americans can possibly afford to buy in is via their workplace--and as we have all learned these past 25 years or so, there ain't no guarantee anyone can keep a particular job in this country, no matter how hard they work or how loyal they are. And if your insurance is tied to your current job, it disappears the day you are downsized, laid off, or just plain fired. And all the money you paid into it vanishes into thin air as far as you are concerned. Lord help you if you have acquired "pre-existing conditions" since you last "shopped" for insurance by shopping for a job--they may have been covered at bearable rates under your old plan, but you can't keep that plan, even out of pocket if you have savings--it was a specific contract involving both you and your boss, who just got rid of you.

Or sometimes, the job just vanishes. A long time ago Molly Ivins observed that Unemployment applications in Texas didn't have any checkmark for "employer went belly-up;" her newspaper had folded, gone bankrupt, but the forms pretend that bosses are infallible and immortal--if you are out of work it has to be your fault!

But Natasha Littletree, my personal boss, actually did die, in early October 2004. I can verify--California, like Texas, has overlooked the possibility that some jobs just disappear completely. So if I had ever jumped through all the hoops necessary to sign on with Kaiser that the Sonoma County IHSS Public Authority and SEIU 250 had set up, all the money I might have paid in would have been gone.

In my current job, I have a similar theoretical right to sign on to Kaiser benefits at a price I'm told is fantastically low. Except, I don't have the money. (And one can only join up in certain time windows in the year, when the contracts are renegotiated and the phase of the moon is just so...)

And I still think that giving my money to a bunch of professional crooks is a bad investment. It may be better than getting stuck with a hospital bill, since I have no savings to pay a medical bill out of pocket, but I'm on the Republican health plan--don't get sick. And if I'm getting sick I don't want to know.

The only sensible plan is to do what every other civilized and half-civilized nation in the world does--have the ultimate insurance plan, the whole nation is the clients, everyone pays, and everyone gets served alike. No bureacracy of competing insurance bean-counters for doctors to apply to in the hope of getting paid; no contracts renegotiated every year that raise rates while adding loopholes for avoiding service. It is a simple fact that universal plans like Medicare, when not screwed up by politicians trying to privatize them, spend just cents on the dollar in administration, whereas private insurace takes a good sixth or more of their income to feed the company itself.

If I ever get into a place where I can pay my insurace premium, at this late stage in my life I'm beaten down enough to buy in, but only because I have no prospect of saving much before I'm quite old, and because I have some hope that at long last, our country might wise up and introduce universal health care once and for all. If I had been able to afford private health insurance all these years, but instead had saved the money, I daresay I might have saved up enough to cover big medical bills out of pocket.

But working class people can't do that by definition--why is another rant. The only sane thing is to hit the rich up for the bills. After all, they have no chance to get rich if there aren't healthy working people who are not in a rebellious mood, have they.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Undervaluing the work that is never done...

Over at the Pandagon place, Amanda has once again attracted a fine crop of concern trolls. Gee, and all she did was point out that making marriage into a sacred norm is a bit of a crock.

Way up here "Robert" quoted Amanda saying:

particularly since the patriarchal model has men doing so very little of the actual work that in some families Dad is mostly regarded as decoration. Seriously, I know people who had more rearing from their aunts and grandmothers.

And then he said:

This is simply a reversal of the patriarchal notion that childrearing isn’t real work. You’re assigning the work of economic support for a family a very low value.

No, no, Robert you bozo, Amanda is clearly not "assigning" that work a low value. She's pointing out that our society does that misassement. It's not subjective, it's a clearly observable fact.

The people who actually do the labor you (correctly for once) point out should be so highly valued actually don't get credited with it. Wifehood is typically a euphemism for "house slave." Of course it doesn't have to be, of course fewer and fewer women are simply accepting that, of course quite a few men are gradually and grudgingly--as always, some willingly and eagerly--taking on their share and perhaps more (for a change) of that drudgery and effort.

Not all of motherwork is a pain, of course. But even the rewarding parts are still work in that it takes serious application, however willingly applied, and that doing it means you can't simultaneously be doing something else that is valued in our screwed-up socioeconomic system.

Quite aside from the specifics of childrearing, the types of work that women do, throughout history, throughout the world, have been systematically undervalued in the patriarchial societies that have been the near-universal norm these past several millenia. Today, in the capitalist world, it is quite possible to contract to have the types of ongoing maintenance of civilization women have "traditionally" been required to do to be done on a fee-for-service basis. When we do this, we typically hire people at the lowest wages, often illegally low (and by the way, arrange for specifically childcare duties to be handled the same way). We expect people working as employees in these sectors to work long hours with minimal or nonexistent benefits. And yet, despite the cut-rate and exploitive standards set, the price tag for getting the jobs done comes out pretty high. If we paid these workers (overwhelmingly women) at rates competitive with "men's work," the price would be even higher.

For 16 years I worked as the care provider for a disabled person. I can testify how minimally I was paid. For all but 2 of those years, it was at the minimum wage. And I learned fast the pragmatic basis of the maxim "Man works from sun to sun but women's work is never done." The most draining thing about it is that you are constantly on the battlefront against entropy itself--everything is coming unraveled as fast as you can ravel it. That's the nature of keeping life going.

And I learned how absolutely essential this inglorious, scorned work is. If the housewives and servants and janitors and cooks of the world could be organized to go on universal strike, I reckon that the entire world would grind to a grimy, sticky, malnourished, sick, miserable halt in about half a week, about when the frozen snacks in the freezers run out.

And yet this work is done, continuously, for the least consideration of any category of labor, often for "free," and has been for thousands of years.

I know you've got some "economic" answer for this, dear Robert. One major reason I have zero respect for mainstream so-called "economics" is that it is precisely an ideological machine for justifying the social order we've got, as the natural and inevitable order of things, nothing more and nothing less. That's its entire content and function.

I've studied a rational, scientific approach to economics, thank you very much, and it is quite straightforward in pointing out that real economic systems are generally based on exploitation enabled by implicit, sometimes demonstrated, systematic violence. Scientific political economy is also far better at accounting for the real structure and observed details of actually existing economies than marginalist twaddle has ever been--that's my main reason, that I think that as a model, political economy based on historical materialism and the labor theory of value is reasonably true, whereas mainstream "economics" is ideological bunk.

"Women's work," especially motherwork, is not underpaid because it is cheap. It's underpaid because women are exploited systematically as an ancient and crucial part of a global system based on general exploitation. In pointing out that in fact, in the real world, men in our patriarchial society very often get full credit for being great patriarchs while actually riding free on the unpaid labor of people drastically underprivileged and arbitrarily subordinated to these very "patriarchs," Amanda is taking note of situations we've all seen examples of ourselves, and they are by no means treated as bizarre extremes. The point of this thread, to reflect on why it is that our society maintains the mystique of "marriage" as a sacred norm, comes clear if we consider that marriage as it actually evolved in our society has always involved some degree of enslavement.

Thanks for blundering directly onto the very crux of the argument that punctures your whole sanctified balloon, Robert.

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Cum Granum Salum

Well I hope I got the Latin right.

And I checked off perfectly true claims to like all the old traditional carols too.

What Christmas Carol are you?

You are 'Christmas Time is Here, by Golly!', by Tom Lehrer. Hmm, you really don't like Christmas, do you? From the moment they start playing carols in the shops in October to the appearance of the first Easter Eggs in the shops on New Years Eve, the rampant hypocrisy of the Christmas spirit sets your teeth on edge. You know just how many family fights start over Christmas dinner, how many people are injured in the Boxing Day sales, and how few people actually find Christmas even remotely merry. You liked Scrooge far better before those ghosts got to him, and you are only doing this quiz because you are bored at work and anything is better than listening to everyone else discuss their Christmas shopping. Still, it is two days off work, which does count for something... Enjoy the break.
Take this quiz!


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Saturday, December 23, 2006

I've been looking for years for this quote...

...and a mere aside about one of Bill O'Reilly's many asinine remarks in a BadTux post finally motivated me to track it down.

The shrewd analysis of "Mr Dooley" of the nature of whiteness in America.
You just can't state it more clearly than that.

God rest you, Finley Peter Dunne.

And thanks, BadTux the Pragmatically Ethical Penguin!

"The Postwar Dream"

Kactus has a vision

Which I share, though like her I'm kind of cynical about ever seeing it.

And before I got into actually reading Marx or any of that I owe it to Pink Floyd; they put in in words in "The Gunner's Dream":

A place to stay"Oi! A real one ...?"
Enough to eat
Somewhere old heroes shuffle safely down the street
Where you can speak out loud
About your doubts and fears
And what's more no-one ever disappears
You never hear their standard issue
Kicking in your door.
You can relax
On both sides of the tracks
And maniacs
Don't blow holes
In bandsmen by remote control
And everyone has recourse to the law
And no-one
Kills the children anymore.
And no one kills
The children

Is it our dream that is insane?

Well, some of us feel guilty enough

("And so this is Christmas...and what have you done?"

"Was it you, was it me, did I watch too much TV--is that a hint of accusation in your eyes?")

About not working hard enough toward it.

But I'm still here.

That's something. A joyous Yuletide, wassail to all, and don't forget to Keep the "X" in Xmas!

Saturday, December 09, 2006

My Best Case Scenario for Iraq as it is Today

The USA must get out now. We must prevent the Saudis from making good on their promise to intervene in the absence of the USA on behalf of the Sunni minority. I doubt the Saudi regime really wants to do this anyway, and I suppose it would result in a quick debacle and collapse should they be so foolish to attempt it.

And then await the quick and inevitable ascendency of Iranian hegemony over Iraq--either the outright incorporation of Iraq into the Iranian Islamic Republic, or the alignment of a Shia-dominated Iraq into a satellite relationship with Iran.

Honest to God, that's the best outcome I could foresee at this point. It has the following possible virtues--

1) The Iranians have shown themselves to be rather savvy and restrained as Islamic fundamentalists go, and might very well restrain their Iraqi co-religionists from vindicative acts against the Sunni minority, once it is established that the Shia/Iranian coalition is going to call the shots in Iraq.

2) It would reduce rather than multiply the number of power players in the region.

3) Iranian ambition is checked by the fact that they are Shi'ites, and that with the incorporation of Iraq into their system, they would have taken about all the territory they could reasonably expect to hold, unless they prove to be Solomonic indeed in their wisdom and restraint in governing Sunnis, which I doubt. Enough to hold a minority in sullen alligence perhaps, but enough to persuade Sunni-majority nations to submit to their "heretical" hegemony? I don't think so. Elsewhere in the Muslim world, Shi'ites are a small minority, except in Syria where they are a fairly large one, and in Lebanon and perhaps Israeli-ruled territory--where they are one small faction among many. But there is little likelihood that a Shi'ite-based hegemony could grow much beyond an Iran-Iraq coalition.

4) It does correspond to the will of the majority in Iraq, and is the only one-state solution I see short of some kind of dictatorship, which would only breed ongoing violence. It also corresponds to the regional balance of power.

5) As for Balkanizing Iraq, that hardly seems like a brilliant solution to me. The Sunni territories would have essentially no economic basis save funds extorted from the oil-bearing Shia and Kurdish territories. A loose confederation of mutually hostile regions is a recipie for ongoing regional war, by proxy or by direct confrontation once the charade breaks down. The Shia territory would almost certainly affiliate directly to Iran unless forcibly restrained, and it would contain most of the current population of Iraq and a lot of the oil.

I don't know what is to become of the Kurds no matter what. On their own they could probably maintain a state, but unfortunately for them, both Turkey and Iran have large Kurdish minorities in their territories. Turkey has certainly said repeatedly they will not tolerate an independent Kurdistan or even Kurdish autonomy within an Iraqi confederation; right now only US patronage is restraining them from attempting invasion. If we go and the Turks try it I suppose they might be sorry, many tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths and yet another ongoing bloodbath later. I wouldn't be surprised if the Iranians, gaining unrestrained influence over Iraq, would gratuitiously let Kurdistan go, perhaps even throwing in their own chunk of Kurdish territory (if Iranian Kurds are Sunni as I suspect they are) just to throw a monkey wrench into the works, to either give the Turks a loose cannon on their borders to worry about or draw them into a Vietnam/Afghanistan situation of their own, and consolidate their own hold on a reconfigured Greater Shiastan Islamic Republic. But there is oil in Kurdistan. And it is a potential willing ally and base for future US adventures, so I suppose that would not be too smart. Perhaps they would concentrate on trying to win the Kurds over to accepting Iranian rule, on the same basis they've kept their own Kurds quiet hitherto.

And that's a monkey wrench in the neat scheme I've outlined for peace by consolidation of sectarian lines--the temptation to add the Turkish-ruled Kurds to the set. Along with the grievances of any Sunni Arabs the Iranians or their Iraqi co-religionists seek to dominate, it seems that no matter where one draws the lines, the Middle East is a powder keg.

And of course nothing I've outlined is good news for the USA as a great imperial power. Nor is it likely to be anything but ugly from a human rights point of view, though I do think it would be less awful than the realistic alternatives--Western-backed puppet dictators, perhaps even Saddam himself, versus Islamic dictatorships to the liking of the simultaneously corrupt and whacko-zealous Wahabi Saudis. Either of these would make (and have made) the ayatollahs look like Oliver Wendell Holmes in comparison. But only in comparison. Iraq is not likely to be worse off under the kind of Shi'ite regime that has developed in Iran than it was under Saddam's nominally secular but corrupt rule, and they have been worse off still under ours. But make no mistake, it will be ugly, just, I hope, somewhat less so. And were it not for the ambitions of Iranian extremists to make political hay of the situation in Israel and Palestine, I'd be confident it would be more peaceful for them. But Israel is another mess entirely, and despite bluster Iran is some distance away.

Face it, we have blown it in the Middle East. We have abused the rights and legitimate interests of its natives for generations, and we can hardly expect a pleasant outcome at this point. In Iraq in particular, our policy has consistently sown misery and death.

I have outlined before my reasons for opposing the invasion in 2003, boiling down to my correct prediction that the Bush crew could not possibly be expected to do anything but make things worse. And we had no principled grounds for invasion by any consideration. But let's take it as given that we were going to invade in 2003--could we have done better?

Perhaps, if we had followed the recommendations of the numerous security and military experts the Bush regime chose to silence or fire instead, we could, with far more troops, have secured the place immediately, and then, if and only if we had in good faith set out to rebuild the devastated country with American money freely given, and Iraqi labor hired without prejudice and organized in a collective effort of the US military--no contractors!--and all factions of the Iraqi people working together, we just might have capitalized on the universal hatred of Saddam and goodwill earned by good work to form the secular, democratic, tolerant, liberal Iraq Bush told us fairy tales about.

And perhaps not, even with the best will in the world. Because morality has a certain integrity to it, and no amount of good deeds could paper over the fact that we had no moral call to high-handedly invade there in the first place. The strongest claim we had to invade was that we had created Iraq's mess and we had to therefore clean it up. But any attempt to profit from that obligation negates all credit for such intentions. And the fact that the operation was at every stage corrupt and malicious shows that whatever illusions we may have willfully clung to, in the matter of deeds we had no good intentions.

So this nightmare was perfectly predictable and predicted by many, and the best we can do is get out now, and let the chips fall where they may.

And if God is merciful, it will be nothing worse than the foundation of Iranian hegemony in the region. It would be bad, but we can do far worse.

And the Bush Administration stands ready as always to show us how.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Thirteen years of childhood in Dixie but I'm still a Damyankee...

What American accent do you have?
Your Result: The Inland North

You may think you speak "Standard English straight out of the dictionary" but when you step away from the Great Lakes you get asked annoying questions like "Are you from Wisconsin?" or "Are you from Chicago?" Chances are you call carbonated drinks "pop."

The Midland
The Northeast
The South
The West
North Central
What American accent do you have?
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