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More Than Marriage

This post by jasperboi is well worth reading. It puts the marriage fight in the context of the many other problems facing LGBTQ people and points out the downside of the normalization process I described in my most recent commentary.

Habermas On Birth Control

Matthew Yglesias has a post up in praise of sex and describing birth control as a rational risk-reduction plan for people who want to have some. The conservative response is often that risk reduction is all fine and dandy, but the available birth control is still too risky. But I wonder whether conservatives might want sex to remain risky. It got me thinking about how Habermas (oh no! groans the audience, more Habermas!) might think about conservative opposition to birth control.

It seems potentially fruitful to think of opposition to birth control as a response to modernity. Habermas says that there are basically two types of action: communicative and strategic. Strategic action is action oriented toward achieving a goal. Communicative action is action oriented toward reaching a shared understanding. For example, if I write a post arguing for gay marriage, using logical arguments and linking my case into our American ideals, I'm engaging in communicative action, proposing and defending a proposition that I think is worth of being accepted as our shared understanding of the issue. If, however, I engage in name-calling and emotional blackmail in order to get you to acquiesce to my stance on gay marriage, I would be engaging in strategic action. Rather than respecting my readers as subjects capable of making rational agreements, I treat them as things in the objectiv world to be manipulated for my ends (much as I might use Pavlovian conditioning to train my dog). This is not to cast aspersions on all strategic action -- as we'll see, there are contexts designed for it, and if nothing else it may be necessary in our imperfect world -- its merely to illustrate the relation of the actor to others in each type of action.

Communicative action is rooted in a shared set of beliefs -- what Habermas calls the lifeworld. Much of the lifeworld is accepted out of habit, due to socialization or not thinking to question certain things. Communicative action works backward from a proposed idea to the shared lifeworld of the people involved, justifying it by showing how it arises out of claims they agree are valid by inferential processes they agree are valid. If agreement is achieved, this new idea becomes part of their shared lifeworld, a part accepted due to reason rather than habit.

Modernity, according to Habermas, is a breakdown in this naively shared part of the lifeworld. People question tradition. Lifeworlds have to be consciously built up through communicative action.

Communicative action can be hard work, especially when people's shared lifeworlds are small. So modern society has developed "media-steered subsystems" which allow people to act strategically in contexts defined so that a "steering medium" channels that strategic action in socially useful ways. The two important subsystems in existence today are the market economy, steered by money, and bureaucracy, steered by authority.*

There is no subsystem for sex. Sexual morality requires communicative agreement. Given the breakdown of the naively given lifeworld, the right answers can no longer simply be drawn from tradition. Some conservatives, I think, have lost hope that a communicative agreement about the morality of non-procreative and extramarital sex can be reached due to the fragmenting of lifeworlds (or at least, they've lost hope that the agreement that would be reached in the absense of a shared Judeo-Christian lifeworld would condemn the "right" behaviors). In part this discouragement may arise from a recognition that their justfications don't reach deeper than "that's the way it's always been" or "because the Bible says so," and thus they are unable to persuade those who don't share those assumptions. It may also arise from a pessimistic view of the spread of relativism. Extreme relativism can come off as a refusal to engage in communicative action, a rejection of the idea that an agreement on moral issues (or on factual ones) is either possible or desirable.

This loss of communicative action leaves only strategic action. To get people to behave, they have to appeal to the strategic utility of chastity, rather than to an agreement about its rightness. This is where the riskiness of sex comes into play. If kids won't accept that sex is wrong, perhaps they'll keep it in their pants out of fear of contracting STDs or of starting an unwanted pregnancy. Effective and available birth control reduces the usefulness of this strategic motive, allowing people to have sex while remaining healthy.

This strategic motive for chastity is promoted in two ways. Well, three, but I won't go into the straightforward option of passing a law against non-procreative sex and throwing violators in jail. One is through abstinence-focused sex education. Conservative educators remove the possibility of risk reduction through birth control by shaping kids' perceptions of the context in which they engage in sex, promoting -- through skewed emphasis or sometimes outright falsehoods -- an interpretation of the action context in which chastity is obviously prudent. This tactic does, of course, rely on communicative action -- you have to get the kids to agree that condoms don't work. But it's communicative action as a means to a strategic end. (Habermas argues that nearly all strategic action between people is parasitic on communicative action.**)

The other way to create a strategic motive for chastity is to reduce access to birth control. This can be done in a mild fashion, for example by opposing programs that hand out condoms. Some would like to take the extreme step of banning the manufacture, sale, or distribution of birth control (Edward Winkleman points to the (probably hyperbolic) view of one lawyer that the Federal Marriage Amendment may be designed to subtly undermine the Supreme Court decision that struck down bans on birth control).

*Adam Smith captured this idea in the case of the market with his comment that "Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages."

**This brings up a point that's somewhat tangential, but potentially relevant to my dissertation. The relation of the actual world to the agreement achieved through communicative action is weakly theorized by Habermas. It's true that believing in something can be greatly efficacious -- just because it's socially constructed doesn't mean it's not real. But there are things that are real beyond the agreement, and they can come back to hurt you, or at least confuse you, if they're too far out of whack with the agreement. Habermas admits a form of world-connection in describing how one justifies subjective claims -- i.e., claims to sincerely describe your inner world. He says that unlike objective claims (about facts) and intersubjective claims (about norms), which can be justified through giving reasons, subjective claims can only be justified by demonstrating consistency in your actions. This claim is too strong with regard to subjective claims -- you can offer reasons for believing in your sincerity -- but it is an option, and validtion by demonstration extends to objective claims as well. Perhaps Habermas's view of facts is influenced by his focus on and interest in norms, which have an inverse relationship to reality -- if the facts that you believe turn out not to agree with how the world is, you have to change what facts you believe. But if the norms you believe in disagree with how the world is, you change the world to conform to your norms (e.g., if you believe murder is wrong, then see someone being murdered, you would want to stop the act of murder, not reconsider your belief that murder is wrong in light of the fact that some people go ahead and murder anyway).


After The Fire

No comment, I just found this interesting:

Bushfire Cleanups Under Scrutiny

PAULA KRUGER: When it comes to taking care of forests devastated by flood or fire, Australia's land policies are decades ahead of the rest of the world.

But according to a major international study on the effects of natural disasters on the world's forests, there is still room for improvement.

Professor David Lindenmayer from the Centre of Resource and Environmental Studies at the ANU is one of the co-authors of the report.

DAVID LINDENMAYER: Humans tend to treat these massive natural disturbance events as something that needs to be cleaned up, whereas in fact what often happens is that the ecosystem is designed to be able to recover naturally from these sorts of things and what people don't realise is that in many cases these natural disturbance recovery processes are really badly impaired by our attempts to clean them up. We can actually put the system back up to 200 years by doing these things.

Cultural Ecology And Decision Making

Can You Have Too Many Choices?

... Research in the wake of Kahneman and Tversky has unearthed a number of conundrums around choice. For one thing, choice can be ?de-motivating.? In a study conducted several years ago, shoppers who were offered free samples of six different jams were more likely to buy one than shoppers who were offered free samples of twenty-four.

... A central problem of choice is what Wilson and Gilbert call ?miswanting.? Wanting, in their definition, is ?a prediction of liking.? Predictions are often biased, and predictions of one?s feelings are more biased than most. Current preferences ?contaminate? future plans?so that, on weekly trips to the supermarket, customers who have just eaten tend to buy too little food, and hungry ones too much. You might try to draw on experience to help you choose, but your memories aren?t to be trusted. As Kahneman has shown, our minds focus on the peak and the final moments of a past experience while crowding out memories of its duration.

... What about the other approach?trying to choose less? In some measure, we all do this, using a strategy that the Columbia social theorist Jon Elster calls "self-binding." Like Ulysses lashing himself to the mast of his ship in order to prevent himself from succumbing to the Sirens? song, people make the choice of limiting their choices.

via Diotima

One important strain of human-environment geography in the middle of the last century was what my advisor calls "cultural ecology 2." Focusing on traditional third-world subsistence systems, CE2 researchers took a behavioralistic or decision-making approach. Their goal was to show how decisions by farmers, such as to practice slash-and-burn agriculture instead of building irrigation canals, were not due to a backward culture (as popularly believed), or due to a lack of knowledge of modern options (as argued by earlier social scientists), or dictated by the functional requirements of the human ecosystem (as suggested by cultural ecology 1). Instead, they were rational responses to conditions such as population pressure and the drudgery of labor. While the utility-maximizing assumptions of neoclassical economics don't hold for peasant societies, the general theme that rationality is paramount did.

Most CE2 research focused more on showing that the final decisions made by farmers conformed to the outcomes that would be dictated by a fully rational decision process than on explicating the actual reasoning used by the farmers. Undoubtedly the farmers would present their decision in a rational way. But does that mean that they actually carried out a proper decision procedure, fairly weighing all the options? The article quoted above suggests a modified viewpoint.

The role of tradition may be to preserve rational outcomes without requiring an unfeasibly rational decision process. Unlike self-binding, which is rationally chosen by an individual worried about her own ability to keep up her rationality, tradition is not deliberately chosen and operates at a social level. Traditional culture codifies certain outcomes as appropriate to certain circumstances, and provides a rationale for the decision maker to affirm. It tells you where to go and how to justify it, leaving you satisfied with your decision.

The problem is that tradition need not be fully rational to work. It can codify a suboptimal strategy so long as that strategy is not suicidal. In such a case, the acceptance of the traditional justification acts as a barrier to rationality, cutting off decision anxiety that would actually be useful in motivating a reconsideration of the chosen alternative.

On The Other Hand ...

Kerry seems to be finally taking the right approach to the national security issue. It's not about who's a patriot. It's not about who did what during Vietnam. It's not about trying to "me too" the president's policies. It's about forcefully making the case that Bush is soft on defense, that his policies are not making Americans safer. Hopefully his focus groups stand firm.

John F. Bush

More and more, I'm feeling like John Kerry is the Democrats' George W. Bush. For all the crying about this administration being run by right-wing ideologues, Bush is not particularly conservative. Neither has he capitulated to liberalism, as his conservative critics charge. Both arguments suffer from the assumption (perhaps inevitable in a two-party system) that if a policy runs counter to my ideology, it must conform to the other side's ideology. In reality, Bush's main ideology is to get and hold power.

In John Kerry there are echoes of the same philosophy. He's yet to meet a principle he wouldn't jettison if his focus groups told him the public wanted to hear something different. The parallel was really brought home to me by Terry M. Neal's summary of Bush's relations with the Log Cabin Republicans in 2000:

During the 2000 primary battle, Bush refused to meet with leaders of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay political group, in Austin.

After effectively wrapping up the nomination, however, Bush's refusal to meet with gay leaders threatened to undermine his campaign theme of being a "uniter not a divider" and a "compassionate conservative."

By April 2000, the Bush campaign was shifting gears and knew there was more to gain than lose by meeting with gay leaders. After all, what were the social conservatives going to do, vote for Al Gore?

... Pragmatism -- the desire to take back the White House at all cost -- muted the discontent among the party faithful. The Bush campaign touted the meeting as a sign that he was a "new kind of Republican," even though he never wavered from positions such as opposition to same-sex marriage.

The meeting was summed up succinctly by Human Rights Campaign spokesman David Smith, whom I quoted afterward saying: "Politically, obviously, it's a win-win for him. He gets to look tolerant and moderate, and, at the same time, he can say to his ultraconservative followers that he has not changed any of his policy positions."

Compare this to Kerry's decision to attack Bush on his support for the Federal Marriage Amendment (which Bush, contrary to the explicit text of the FMA, claims wouldn't bar states from creating civil unions), then turn around and support an amendment to the Massachusetts constitution provided it allows for civil unions. Before we go on, you may want to check out Skeptical Notion for the background story and some out rage.

Let's plug Kerry in 2004 into Neal's storyline: Initial stance taking a firm position against the other side's views, in order to rev up the base? Check. Later position designed to reassure centrists that he's not an ideologue, trusting that the base has nowhere else to go? Check. "Win the White House at all costs" as a motivating philosophy? Check. Technically not ever changing his policy position (for Kerry, no to marriage and yes to civil unions)? Check.


Guard Dogs And Fat Cats

My comic from this week's Scarlet:

I also offer you the commentary mentioned a few posts down: "These Pictures Are Worth 1000 Vows," and its comic.

Shameless Specter

My latest post on Open Source Politics, discussing the Pennsylvania Senate race, is ready for your enjoyment.

Having talked mostly about the Republican candidates in the post, I thought I'd look around and see where the Democratic candidate, Joe Hoeffel, stands. On his website, he describes himself as a "deficit hawk on the budget" who wants to "eliminate corporate welfare" and says:

Joe works hard to promote fiscal restraint, balance the federal budget, pay down our national debt, reform education, improve international relations, protect the environment and expand health care.

So far, so good. He seems to be taking a Toomey-esque perspective on wise and responsible use of our nation's finances, without Toomey's commitment to shrinking government. Then I read a little further:

And Joe works hard to bring millions of federal dollars back to Pennsylvania. He’s secured new economic development projects; established a new public health center in his district; brought home millions of dollars in public transportation and public school teacher funding; established a new center for land use planning and sustainable growth at Temple University; and restored critical education funding to schools in his district.

For all his nice words, he's not above promising a big slab of pork. At least he'd have a tougher time getting it, being a rookie Senator and probably in the minority party.

On another topic, the League of Conservation Voters gives Hoeffel a 95% rating for 2003 (consistent with his past performance), with Specter clocking in at 32% (a little better than average for PA's congressional Republicans, and down substantially from past years when he hovered around 50% -- perhaps due to a desire to stand with President Bush last year in preparation for the election). Toomey gets an impressive 0%, though in past years he broke into the double digits.


Upstate PA

I always thought of Pennsylvania as being more geographically balanced than the other states I've lived in. Wereas New York and Massachusetts are dominated by their major city with the rest of the state acting as a sort of hinterland, it seemed like Pennsylvania had important cities arranged around the perimeter -- Philly, Pittsburgh, Erie, Scranton-Wilkes-Barre, and the Lehigh Valley. But it appears that from a Philadelphian perspective the rest of PA is in fact "upstate."

A Google search shows about a third as many results for "upstate Pennsylvania" as for "upstate New York" -- quite a bit more than I would have expected after living in both places.

Hopefully No Clarkies Read TAPPED

It seems that Nick Confessore has swiped the argument that I will made in the commentary to be published in tomorrow's Scarlet (and written it better than I did).

Maybe I can rationalize it like this: adhering too strongly to the demand for originality can send a genre (whether it be political commentary or a branch of academic research) off into the pursuit of edification rather than of knowledge -- finding interesting and brain-stretching ways of looking at things rather than building solid information. In some cases, such as the creative side of the humanities, that's entirely appropriate. But in other cases, there's something to be said for independent invention of a similar idea as being a test of its validity if something's true, it's more likely to occur to multiple people than any particular falsehood (consider for example the parallel achievements of Chayanov and Boserup). It's also more efficacious. If I came up with a totally original and insightful argument, perhaps a few dozen people would ever read it. Confessore is in a better position, writing for one of the top blogs and political magazines, but even so the readership of TAP and TAPPED are small potatoes in the grand scheme of things. But Confressore and I together reach more people. And so on for anyone else who comes to a similar conclusion.


Yet Another Howard Dean Post-Mortem

A while back I wrote an article contrasting "Dean" -- the candidate -- with "Deanism" -- the movement -- suggesting that the candidate failed because he got too wrapped up in the movement. I made a mistake in drawing too sharp a distinction between the two, making the movement out to be something new and exogenous that caught the candidate.

One of the things I listed as attracting me (and others) to Dean was his stance on civil unions. In my article I described that as part of "Dean." But I think the history of Dean's involvement with the civil union battle in some ways foreshadowed his involvement with the movement over the past couple years. It was a proto-Deanism, if you will.

Dean didn't start out as a crusader for gay rights. The issue was largely off his radar screen until it was thrust upon him by the Vermont Supreme Court's ruling. At the time, Dean's own opinions about same-sex marriage were ambivalent. But after talking with people and thinking about the ramifications, he decided to take a chance and jump headfirst into the pro-union struggle. It was a risk -- to his career and even his life -- since many Vermonters were strongly against gay rights (and started a campaign to "take back" the state). As time went on, he identified more and more with the issue, to the point that today he never misses an opportunity to point to the civil unions bill as evidence that he believes in "equal rights for all."

Now think about his presidential campaign. Dean didn't start out as a populist. The possibility of leading a grassroots movement was largely off his radar screen, as well as Joe Trippi's, until it was thrust upon them by the interest of independent bloggers. After talking with people and thinking about the ramifications, he decided to take a chance and bank it all on the movement. It was a risk, since the netroots strategy had never been tried before and he lacked the usual party organization. As time went on, he identified more and more with the issue, until his campaign became a campaign about itself.

In both instances, something unexpected came along, and Dean took the risk of hitching his wagon to it. The civil unions gamble paid off, as he won reelection after signing the bill. The movement gamble didn't, as he tanked and screamed in Iowa and never recovered. I suspect my original analysis -- too much Deanism, not enough Dean -- remains accurate for the presidential campaign. He won the gubernatorial race by being about more than just civil unions, just as he might have had a shot at the presidency if he hadn't made the netroots the whole of his message.


Engineered DNA Found In Crop Seeds

Much of the U.S. supply of ordinary crop seeds has become contaminated with strands of engineered DNA, suggesting that current methods for segregating gene-altered seed plants from traditional varieties are failing, according to a pilot study released yesterday.

More than two-thirds of 36 conventional corn, soy and canola seed batches contained traces of DNA from genetically engineered crop varieties in lab tests commissioned by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Washington-based advocacy group.

... "We were not surprised by this report . . . knowing that pollen travels and commodity grains might commingle at various places and you may have some mixing in transport or storage," said Lisa Dry, communications director for the Biotechnology Industry Association.

Rather than pursue the unrealistic goal of trying to keep seeds completely free of genetic contaminants, she and other industry representatives said, the United States should work harder to get European and other nations -- many of which have balked at engineered crops and foods -- to be more accepting of the technology.

The industry response fails to address the issue. Whether or not Europeans accept GM food has nothing to do with how well we can keep track of where elements of our food supply come from. Heck, whether Americans accept GM food has nothing to do with it -- I personally have no qualms about eating GM food (particularly at the low level of "contamination" found in this study), but I'd like to know what it is I'm eating and that its origin can be traced.

I think Europeans, as well as skeptical Americans, would be more accepting of GM food if the GM industry seemed to be making active efforts to support a traceable food supply and access to food information, rather than obfuscating and blaming skeptics for caring. We could compare the situation to Iraq's WMD. We now know that Saddam had no WMDs, but the fact that he wasn't actively helpful in the search to verify that fact understandably raised suspicions among even doves like myself. Similarly, I think there would be more confidence in the claimed harmlessness of GM food if the GM companies were willing to let consumers make a clear and informed choice rather than telling us to stop worrying and eat whatever we're given.


Bad Arguments For A Good Cause

I'm a staunch proponent of same-sex marriage, and I've made numerous posts arguing for it or demolishing arguments against it. However, there are some arguments made by my fellow proponents of same-sex marriage that I think are invalid. Perhaps they're efficacious in changing actual people's minds, but on a logical level I don't think they work, and I'd prefer if we stuck to our better arguments.

1. "The sanctity of marriage is already tarnished," or, "the Britney Spears argument." Since one of the main (and invalid) claims made by opponents of same-sex marriage is that it will damage the institution of marriage (both its structural strength and its sanctity), it's appealing to point out that marriage is not so strong and sacred even without homosexual couples. It's true that marriage today has deep problems. But that doesn't mean that if same-sex marriage is detrimental to marriage as a whole, there's no point in stopping it. Marriage is not a lost cause -- if it was, homosexuals wouldn't be so keen on getting in on it. It's theoretically possible that allowing same-sex marriage will make the situation worse, and if so there's nothing illogial about wanting to oppose that further deterioration. There are many intellectually consistent social conservatives who also oppose all the factors -- divorce, teen pregnancy, abusive relationships, and so forth -- that have weakened heterosexual marriage (and even if they didn't, the very existence of that possible stance is a rebuttal to the Britney Spears argument). They may not be so vocal about those other evils only because they're engaging in some triage and focusing for now on the battle they have a good shot at winning. Indeed, the very weakness of heterosexual marriage may be a reason to oppose homosexual marriage -- the latter could be shrugged off by a strong institution, but it could be the straw that breaks the camel's back today. The proper response to the sanctity of marriage argument is to take either my position that same-sex marriage will not damage marriage regardless of the state of that institution, or possibly the Volokh position that same-sex marriage will damage marriage but that it's a price we should be willing to pay.

2. "We'll regret this later," or, "the verdict of history argument." People claim that same-sex marriage will go the way of slavery or the divine right of kings -- an issue that, while heatedly debated in its day, is now a foregone conclusion. Opponents are asked whether they'd like to be remembered as the southern aristocrats trying to excuse an obvious injustice, or as the valiant abolitionists. This argument is appealing because it feeds the progressive notion that society is on a bumpy but long-term road to the left. I agree that chances are in 100 years society will accept homosexuality as a matter of course. However, I don't think that necessarily says anything about the rightness or wrongness of the practice. Why should we assume that society is becoming more morally astute as the years go by? I have no doubt that slavery is wrong, but for most of us our acceptance of that fact is out of cultural habit, just like acceptance of the reverse was cultural habit in the antebellum south. Also, on the empirical question, think about what happened when slavery was first instituted. The earliest societies had no slaves. At some point, the practice started up -- say 500 years ago for race-based slavery. At that time, proponents of slavery could made a verdict-of-history argument if they thought a few centuries into the future. Opponents could, if they were psychic, look to the turn of the millennium and make a verdict-of-history argument for their side. Perhaps proponents could see some time in our future when slavery becomes acceptable yet again. It's dangerous to assume that history will close any question for good.

What Personal Responsibility?

Apparently sex ed causes rape. Who knew?


Cultural Change And Indigenous Rights

Indians Fearing Development On Oldest Preserve In Brazil

"We're worried for our children and grandchildren," said Rea, a Kayabi Indian woman. "Our Xingu is an island, and if the white man enters with his machines, he'll break it all down in no time."

Xingu is Brazil's oldest and probably its most successful Indian reservation, a 10,800-square-mile sprawl of pristine rainforest where 14 Indian tribes live.

Kuiussi, the Suya Indians' chief, wearing a skimpy swimsuit, warned visitors not to take pictures of Indians wearing Western clothes.

"If people see the pictures, they'll say we're not Indians -- that we're mixed [race] -- and that's not true," he said. "We are all Indians here."

Kuiussi's concern illustrates an interesting point about the rhetoric that's used to bolster the claims of indigenous people. An element of the argument for indigenous rights often rests on a claim of the superiority of indigenous culture -- that it's more attuned to the environment and people's welfare, unlike the cold and greedy modern western culture. Furthermore, indigenous culture is framed as primal, unchanging (like their claim to the land) since time immemorial and rooted in tradition. This is a powerful claim in the ears of many non-indigenous people. But it creates a vulnerability when it manifestly conflicts with reality. It gives a political tinge to factual disputes over scientific findings such as migration histories and megafaunal extinction. And it also arises when traditional ways change -- Kuiussi wearing a swimsuit, US tribes jumping into the capitalist system through casinos and tax-free shops. If they're going to act like us, the thinking goes, why should they get special privileges? I'll admit to thinking this way some years ago (though not any longer) -- that the purpose of Indian reservations was to allow Indians to continue their traditional way of life, and that if they didn't do that, then they could enter mainstream society as regular Americans, without any claim to land or sovereignty. The issue is reinforced by traditionalists within the indigenous community, who talk of youth as in some way selling out their heritage and identity by adopting Western ways.

There are a host of endogenous concerns about cultural change for a less powerful culture -- about the value of difference and heritage and about the intrinsic value of the particular cultures and political-economic systems in question. Kuiussi's comment illustrates an exogenous concern, about the way that cultural change could alter a group's ability to claim its rights against more powerful groups.

The Legalize Ralph Nader Party

I was always suspicious of the sincerity of Ralph Nader's argument in 2000 that we should vote for him in order to boost the standing of the Green Party. After all, he wasn't even a member of the party (though that didn't change the actual efficacy of a Nader-for-the-sake-of-the-Greens vote). But apparently he didn't get the memo that this year he's running as an independent, i.e., without the backing of any party:

"Let me say, this is going to be difficult," said Nader, who planned a round of interviews after his announcement. "This isn’t just our fight. This is a fight for all third parties ... They want to have a chance to compete. This is not a democracy that can be controlled by two parties in the grip of corporate interests."

Third party candidacies have been a greater part of presidential politics in recent years; businessman Ross Perot twice ran for president, winning 19 percent of the vote in his first try in 1988 against George Herbert Walker Bush and Michael Dukakis.

The reporter makes the same mistake. The facts about Perot could easily be related under the rubric of "non-major party candidates."


The Marsh Arabs Are Back

Via OxBlog, it looks like some environmental restoration is going on in a Middle East water system:

Marshes A Vengeful Hussein Drained Stir Again

That is just a sampling of the fates met by the displaced dwellers of these marshes in southern Iraq, once among the largest wetland ecosystems in the world. In the early 1990's, in a move that transformed the very face of nature in this country, Saddam Hussein ordered the 7,700-square-mile area drained and its residents attacked to force out Shiite Arabs he suspected of resisting his rule.

Last spring, local engineers began breaking dams and levees upriver to reflood the area, and Mr. Abdullah says he now uses his twisted hand [broken by Saddam's police] again for what it was meant to do — poling his boat, cutting reeds and casting fishing nets.

... Noble savages they are not. Many clamor for electricity and paved roads, and some say they prefer concrete or brick homes to the primitive arched reed houses scattered throughout the marshes. Some of the families who stayed in the area through the 1990's say they would like to hold on to the dry-land farming they have developed rather than return to an existence dependent on fishing and water buffalo.

I don't have anything insightful to add at the moment, but it's a really interesting bit of journalistic political ecology.

The Perils Of Co-Ed College

Jon Mandle at Crooked Timber points to an article (pdf, scroll to the end) in which a Harvard alum-turned-professor compares relations between the sexes in his day and today:

Men are less spirited than they were in my day, when we lived in relative isolation from women. Men today are always in the presence of women, hence always in fear of making fools of themselves before women. College men have become premature husbands.

Granted I've never attended an all-male college, and perhaps Harvard is different from Colgate, but I find this analysis counter to my experience. The underlying assumption here is that the main reason young men would not "be themselves" is a desire to impress women. I find that wrong on two counts (well, three, but since my experience is as a heterosexual, I'll grant for the sake of argument the author's presumption that all Harvard undergrads are straight).

First is the idea that men want to impress, in a romantic/sexual sense, any and all women. I wouldn't say I was "not myself" around women whose affections I wanted, but I was more self-conscious about showing my best side. However, such women were only a very small fraction of all the women I interacted with. The fact that Missi and Bethanie were female didn't make my behavior around them any different from my behavior around Mikey or Dan.

Second is the idea that the only reason men would not "be themselves" is in order to score romantically/sexually. Young men have many things to prove to many people, "I'm a suitable romantic/sexual partner" being just one of them. For example, in an all-male situation there's pressure to prove to the other men that you're manly enough. Indeed, in my experience this need to alter your self-presentation to gain the acceptance of other men is if anything stronger in an all-male environment. When gender is the criterion for whether you're allowed to be there, it becomes more important to prove that you belong. Co-ed groups shift the balance toward gender-neutral criteria of coolness.

I can sort of see how this idea may have arisen. When your environment is all male almost all the time, your behavior around other men may come to seem "normal" or "yourself," obscuring the ways you alter your self-presentation. And when you only see women when they're deliberately imported as dates, your interactions with them are dominated by the romance/sex issue and the different self-presentation that a formal dating ritual requires.

There may also be a question of individual differences in ability to fit in. Due to either nature or nurture, I get along easily with women, but I'm not particularly macho, so a co-ed environment suits me just fine while the problems of a gender-segregated one stick out. The author of this article, on the other hand, may be for whatever reason very comfortable in all-male environments, while acutely aware of the self-presentation demands of courtship.


San Fransisco, NM

There has been so much same-sex marriage recently that Google News has gotten confused:

The story is about San Fransisco, but the graphic is clearly the flag of New Mexico.

Begging The Question

Donald Sensing attempts to defend the idea that the existence of childless heterosexual couples is accidental, and therefore doesn't affect the validity of the "homosexual couples can't get married because they can't have kids" argument:

As a social institution, marriage is defined in aggregate, not in particular. This fact argues against a Nominalist position that if two same-sex persons obtain a marriage license, that they are in fact married. It also shows why the pro side's snark that many male-female married couples never have children is irrelevant: out of any random 100 heterosexual marriages, the overwhelming majority will conceive children of their own, within the marriage bond, but out of any 100 same-sex unions, exactly zero will do so. Hence, the lack of children in a small minority of male-female marriages is accidental to what marriage does and what it is for, but the inability of same-sex unions to have children within the bond is inescapably central to their relationship.

The statistics he uses to show that childless heterosexual couples should be grouped with homosexual couples depend on grouping all heterosexual couples together. What if I pointed out that, while out of any random 100 fertile couples the majority will have children, exactly zero out of 100 couples in which at least one partner is infertile will have children. Doesn't that prove that childlessness among fertile heterosexuals is accidental and unimportant to whether their unions are really marriages, but that infertile couples are a whole other story -- you can call them married, but they can't be.

A Fence In The Wasteland

Sebastian Holsclaw points to this story about a defensive wall being built by Saudi Arabia along its border with Yemen. Some commenters argued that this wall is not the same as the wall Israel is building to keep the Palestinians out, because the Israeli wall cuts through Palestinians' land, disrupting communities and cutting people off from ameneties like farmland and places of employment. This was my initial reaction as well. After all, much of the Saudi-Yemeni border runs through the Rub' al Khali, the "Empty Quarter." There aren't even any significant oil fields under that stretch of desert (the big ones are up north along the Persian Gulf).

Then I looked back at the story and saw that it described the frontier as running through "mountainous tribal territory." The land in question, it seems, is inhabited. The people affected are presumably bystanders, caught up in a dispute between two states.

I should have known better than to jump to the conclusion that any place is objectively a wasteland. It's a mistake that has underpinned countless abuses of indigenous people. For example, Native Americans in the southwest have been kicked off their land and subjected to secondhand radiation due to nuclear weapons testing because the people making the plans saw the southwest as desert, and therefore land that was otherwise useless (granted, the injustice would have been worse had they decided to, say, test the Manhattan Project in Manhattan, since there would have been more people affected). Most of the land along the Saudi-Yemeni border is useless to people in more "modern" cultures, such as myself of the Saudi elites. But the tribes who live there have developed a way of life that makes use of the land.

Desert areas complicate the assumption of wasteland problem because they are generally migratory. The modern eye measures the use of land by its degree of obvious modification by people. This assumes an intensive use, in which any area that's part of the production system is being used at all times. But intensive use of land requires large inputs of labor and capital, and it requires land that will sustain intensive use. The Arabian desert, like most, will not accept intensive permanent use (except for a few industries, like oil drilling). And population densities are so low -- and hence land so plentiful -- that there's little reason to go to all the trouble of intensification.

Nomadism is an extensive land use system. It involves a pattern of use shifting across a landscape. The less intensive the subsistence strategy, the more land is needed and the longer any particular parcel will be in its "rest" mode -- hence not obviously "in use," but necessary in the long run for the continued functioning of the nomads' livelihood. Colonial powers in Africa forced the native people into overintensification because they didn't understand shifting cultivation. They interpreted land not currently producing crops as wild (though degraded) land and turned it into parks and game preserves. In reality, the land was part of the agricultural system, but lying fallow at the moment. It would be needed later.

In the Saudi wall case, the interpretation of the land as wasteland may allow the connection among the various parts of a tribe's territory to be severed, disrupting the long-term functioning of their livelihood. Of course, I'm assuming there is such a tribe with a cross-border territory. It wouldn't surprise me, since the border in question is less than a century old and its exact location was disputed until recently. I don't know how much patrolling of the border would have already disrupted any nomadism there is in the area, and given that Native American tribes whose territories span the longer-standing borders of the US haven't given up, the fence may exacerbate the problem. Perhaps the Saudis know exactly what they're doing and just don't care -- I wouldn't put that past them.

UPDATE: Looks like Saudi Arabia and Yemen have agreed to call off the fence. Incidentally, you'd think that al-Jazeerah could 1) afford some better web design, and 2) figure out that the Saudi Arabia-Yemen wall is different from the Israeli-Palestinian wall and change their accompanying graphics accordingly.

Also, the World Tribune is not the most reputable source, but they're quoting the Yemeni media (also probably not the most reputable source) as saying that there are in fact tribes whose territory is being cut, and that they're hopping mad about the fence. Luckily for them the fence has been canceled, although they may not be too keen on the joint military patrols that will take its place.


Buck Of Mass Destruction

My comic from this week's Scarlet:

My commentary is "Will Deaniacs Become Naderites?" with its comic. Had you asked me a week ago, I would have put "Ralph Nader in track shorts" very low on my list of "things I think I'll eventually draw."

Dean's Accomplishments

I understand that the disappointed followers of Howard Dean need to be able to convince themselves that they didn't waste their time, money, and enthusiasm over the past year. And I think that a good case can be made for Dean's importance. But I don't see how Aziz Poonawalla on the Dean Nation blog can say that one of Dean's accomplishments was to "transcend the divisive politics of Left-Right/Us-Them." In fact, I'd say one of Dean's accomplishments was to reinvigorate the politics of Left-Right/Us-Them, to challenge the politicians who had "transcended" those divides by giving up on Left and Us, to attack Right and Them without fear of the consequences, and to draw the hardcore partisans of the Left and Us back into the system. I can't find the article at the moment, but there was a good quote from the Governor in a Q&A forum a week or so back when he explicitly refused to give any platitudes about restoring bipartisanship and ending partisan enmity in Washington.

This Is Why Debitage Is Not A Top-Tier Blog

I decided to read some more Habermas since, as interesting as Theory of Communicative Action was, it didn't address the ideas of his that are most relevant to my research. And it turns out that my previous post was both totally correct and totally unoriginal. The translator's introduction to Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action begins: "In his approach to moral theory Habermas is closest to the Kantian tradition," with an endnote citing a large body of literature in both English and German supporting the point.


A Kantian View Of Habermas

Longtime readers may recall that I take a generally utilitarian perspective on ethical issues. A recent Crooked Timber post by Jon Mandle has me wondering how compatible utilitarianism is with my social-theoretic interest in Jürgen Habermas's sociology and the feminist critique of objectivity. More precisely, it seems that Habermas and the critique of objectivity fit nicely with a Kantian view of ethics. The nugget of Mandle's explanation of Kant's ethics -- the most comprehensible I've encountered, though I haven't been looking very hard -- is this:

... Agents give themselves ends. That means they take one state of affairs to be better than another and commit themselves to bringing it about, i.e., they will an end. When they do this rationally and reasonably, those states of affairs become valuable.

... So, when is a maxim (and therefore its action) rational? Suppose we thought that a maxim needed to have features A, B, and C in order to be rational. This would imply that the end specified by a maxim that has those features ? the goal of the rational action ? would be objectively valuable. If so, this would also imply that the end that a rational maxim specifies, and the reason for that end, must be such that everyone could act on them as well. If it were impossible for everyone to act on that maxim, it couldn?t specify an objectively valuable end. That means, in addition to properties A, B, and C, a rational maxim also has property U ? universalizability. The maxim must be such that everyone could act on it without undermining the attainment of the end it specifies.

Now what are A, B, and C? How do we distinguish the rational maxims from the unreasonable and irrational ones? The obvious answer would be that the rational maxims are the ones that aim at the states of affairs that are objectively good and valuable. Utilitarianism, as we have seen, specifies that we aim at the state of affairs that maximizes utility since that is what is objectively valuable. But ? and here is the key ? Kant denies that there is any common end that all rational actions aim at. More precisely: the only way to specify what is in common among all rational ends is to invoke moral vocabulary. In other words, there is no pre-moral good at which all moral actions aim. So, there is no A, B, or C. All that we have left to distinguish the rational maxims is that they have property U ? we can adopt them and act on them, while at the same time willing that everyone adopt and act on them, as well, without those two acts of willing interfering with one another.

The description of the conditions of a rational maxim resemble Habermas's description of the conditions of rational discourse. Rationality is not based on adherence to some objective calculus of logic. Rather, it's rooted in the giving of reasons. In Habermas's framework, a statement is rational if the person saying it is willing to back it up (or at least try) with regard to any of three lines of challenge -- the objective ("you're misrepresenting the world"), the intersubjective ("you have no right to say that"), or the subjective ("that's not what you really think"). The point of this willingness-to-back-up is that rational claims are made not in isolation, but to a hearer, with the expectation that the hearer can be convinced to accept them. Similarly, Mandle explains the criterion of an ethical maxim according to Kant as being based in the agent's willingness to recommend it as a course of action to anyone else. Habermas's conception is richer, as he delves into the question of how such agreement can be brought about through digging back to prior agreements and the construction of shared interpretations of the world, whereas for Kant it's merely the willingness and ability to universalize (Mandle refutes the view that Kantian ethics require you to actually try to universalize your maxims).

This form of rationality is apparent as well in the feminist critique of objectivity (I'm here thinking mostly of Donna Harraway's essay on "The science question in feminism") -- except that here it's called responsibility. The first element of the feminist critique is to argue that objectivity as classically understood is impossible because of how our perceptual apparatus is socially constructed. The second is to point to the consequences of the objective "god trick" -- by declaring objectivity, the scientist absolves himself of responsibility for his theory because "that's just the way things are." Rather, Harraway and others argue, we should take responsibility for our claims by situating them in our own positionality and experience. We stand behind it and offer our own experience as a reason for accepting it.

It may be possible to construct a responsibility-based utilitarianism. John Stuart Mill himself claimed that the principle of utility was not an analytic logical truth, but an unproveable axiom of the type that any ethical system must be built on. His famously failed attempt to show that utility was the only desirable thing was, seen through a responsibility-rationality lens, his shot at offering reasons why he, and anyone, would stand behind his claim.


There are serious issues surrounding the use of sewage sludge as fertilizer. But I still find it hard to fault anyone for taking the "Heh heh. It's poop!" angle.

Inuitionism As Solipsism

There are two general ways to construct ethical systems -- deductive or intuitionistic. A deductive ethics reasons out a logically consistent set of principles and demands that we follow them no matter what their consequences. Intuitionism in its simplest form is a case of "do what your conscience tells you." But it's possible to build a systematic ethics on an intuitionist basis. Systematic intuitionism* is a case of constructing a logically consistent set of principles that must also validate our intuitions. That is, if we know in our hearts that murder is wrong, and our ethical system leads us to justify murder, then the system must go. This type of reasoning is the basis for most of the challenges to deductive systems, generally in the context of contrived situations -- the utilitarian is condemned for being willing to kill 100 people to save 101 people, while the deontologist is condemned for being unwilling to tell a lie to save 1000 people.

This sort of systematic intuitionism is, in a sense, an attempt to do ethics the same way we do science**, to answer "ought" questions the same way we answer "is" questions. Scientific theories have two constraints -- they must be logically consistent, and they must account for our empirical observations. If the observations don't match the theory, the theory must give way. Intuitionism treats our ethical intuitions as observations or data points in this sense.

The usual stumbling block to intuitionism is that different people have different intuitions. It seems self-evident to many of us that there's nothing wrong with homosexuality, for example, but there are hosts of people whose intuition is exactly the opposite. How do we account for this? Well, how does science account for disagreeing observations? Generally, the explanation lies in the perceptual apparatus -- "you're colorblind," or "you're holding the telescope the wrong way." We don't use instruments to make ethical observations, but we can still explain inconsistencies in similar terms -- "you've been indoctrinated by your culture," or "you aren't taking into account all the relevant circumstances." Note, however, a crucial difference: anomalous observations of scientific phenomena are resolved through scientific explanations. Anomalous observations of ethical phenomena are resolved through scientific explanations. Ethics has to turn to science to account for its observations.

Within science, this same kind of realm-shifting can occur. The source of the anomaly may lie in the world being observed, or it may lie in the observer. To the extent that we prefer observer-side explanations for anomalous observed-side observations, we slide into solipsism. To the extent that ethical intuitions are explained away as scientific phenomena and no other basis for ethics is forthcoming, we slide into a sort of ethical solipsism.

*I was originally going to say that Rawls' idea of "reflective equilibrium" is an example of a systematic inductive procedure, but Rawls argues that in case of a conflict either the rule or the intuition must give way. It's thus an appealing concept on the surface, but he gives no indication of how the choice is to be made.

**I'm using the term broadly to mean explanations of the objective world.

France And Turkey

While this post on A Fistful of Euros is militantly anti-headscarf-ban, the comments section is almost entirely pro-ban. One point brought up by some of the commenters is the fact that Turkey also has a headscarf ban, and it's phrased in such a way as to assume that the hearer supports the Turkish policy and therefore ought, for consistency's sake, to support the French. This was a bit jarring to me, as in my mind the Turkish headscarf ban had always been classified alongside Turkey's bans on Kurdish language and culture under the heading of "repressive policies instituted in a misguided attempt to foster nationalism and modernization."



There comes a time at irregular intervals when I update the Kiosk. This time, the honor goes to links that become bold when you mouse over them. Color changes and underlining are fine. Links that are always bold are weird looking, but not offensive. But it bothers my typographical sensibilities when a link alters its width when you hover over it.


The Protestant Ethic And The Spirit Of Homosexuality

It concerns me that, according to Yahoo, I'm the web's foremost authority on "theorist weber gay marriage," yet I have no idea what Max Weber would have thought about gay marriage. Perhaps one could make an argument that gay marriage is an example of the increasing spread of instrumental rationality (in the sense that gay marriage advocates usually object to the supposed mystical sanctity of traditional marriage and point to the legal benefits achieved by getting married). Then we could point out to the Jerry Falwells that, according to Weber, this instrumental rationality thing originally came from the Protestant ethic.

Postmodernism =/= Marxism

One of my pet peeves is people throwing around the word "postmodernism" without regard to the fact that it refers, not to liberal or leftist ideas in general, but to a very specific body of theory. In reporting the decline of social theory in English departments, the Christian Science Monitor falls into this trap:

Theory In Chaos

An old joke used to ask, Where are the last bastions of Marxism? Answer: the Kremlin and the Duke University English department. But now that the Soviet Union has dissolved, the last defenders of Karl Marx's ideas may indeed reside on a pretty, Gothic-style campus in the pinewoods of North Carolina.

For literary traditionalists, the riddle is apropos. They have long bemoaned the effete nature of postmodern literary theory, calling it as hopelessly out of touch with both reality and literature as was Lenin with real-life economics.

Anyone who can conflate postmodernism with Marxism knows precious little about either. Marx was a quintessential modernist thinker. Postmodernism (as well as poststructuralism) rose as a reaction against Marxism, and the two exchange heated polemics (which often boiled down to "more revolutionary than thou" arguments).

Marxism does propose that most of our knowledge about the world is socially constructed -- an ideology, in Marxist terms, generated by and used to justify the dominant relations of production. However, Marxism also posits that there is a truth about how the world is, and that through various devices -- such as dialectical reasoning and standpoint epistemology -- we can see through the ideologically impregnated world of appearances and understand the true exploitative nature of capitalism.

This "objective" side of Marxism eventually merged with structuralism, producing theories that linked the world's processes together into a huge, and sometimes quite deterministic, system. Postmodernism and poststructuralism were the far wing of the reaction reestablishing the role of human agency against the all-pervading structure of later Marxists like Louis Althusser. Poststructuralism has developed this line of critique on the ontological level, exchanging the rigid systems of structuralism for shifting and contingent articulations of fragments of social structure and knowledge. Postmodernism has taken it in a more epistemological direction, challenging the tyrrany of logic by seeking to disrupt categories and systems of thought as soon as they're stated. Postmodernism has a second important feature of postulating (in appropriately vague terms) the emergence of a new, postmodern, historical era in which the certainties and progress of the Enlightenment are found to be hollow.

Land Reform In South Africa

Red Tape Stalls S. Africa Land Transfers

Soon, many hope, the wrongs of this history [of whites stealing land from blacks in South Africa] will come to an end. But in sharp contrast to neighboring Zimbabwe, where the government more than three years ago unleashed paramilitary forces to seize white-owned farms, many white farmers here are driving the process. They want to sell.

... Few blacks have the money to buy the land, or start a farming operation, leaving them dependent on the government to make the deals as well as offer them grants to pay for seed and fertilizer. And in many cases, desirable parcels of land are caught up in complex legal cases under the postapartheid land redistribution procedure.

... Elias Ramalatso, 39, said a group of residents in town filed a claim nearly seven years ago for three large farms in the area. Ramalatso, who has never farmed and who last worked as a cashier, acknowledged that one of the main reasons for the delay in getting the land is that a second black group also has laid claim to it. "The whole situation is very confusing," he said. "Still, we're unhappy that the government is taking so long to settle this. We are ready to farm, to try to earn a better living."

One big question the article leaves hanging for me is why the white farmers are so eager to sell. The article seems to suggest that the main motivation is a desire for racial justice, which supports the contrast set up with the violent conflict in Zimbabwe (though as I understand it, many of Zimbabwe's whites had been prepared to sell their land under a plan backed by the British, but that option was foreclosed by Robert Mugabe, who preferred violent seizure). Yet given the contentious racial politics of South Africa, that seems like a weak explanation -- though it may provide a convenient and not entirely untrue rhetorical cover for whites who wish to sell for other reasons.

I would speculate that a major factor is a resignation to the process of land redistribution, combined with a fear that things could turn violent. Lacking the backing of an apartheid government, white farmers may see their days as aristocrats numbered and want to get out while the getting's good. Another factor may be the general economic precariousness of much farming (it would be interesting to see whether the desire to sell was stronger among whites with less land). This has been a major impetus to the Oneida Nation's success in buying back large portions of the land it claims in its pending court case. The Oneidas, of course, have two advantages that the South African blacks lack -- lots of money and undisputed title to be the original inhabitants of the land in question (thus eliminating intra-Indian conflict). The situation differs somewhat, however, as the Oneidas are interested mostly in holding legal title and generally allow the farmers to continue to farm their land. In contrast, the South African whites would be getting out of farming since the point of the land transfer, in addition to the justice question, is to give poor blacks the resources to make a living.

Separated At Birth

Is it just me, or does the picture on Ralph Nader's site look a lot like the one on Al Sharpton's site? (Scroll down a bit on the sites for the pictures in question.)


Girl Scouts For Boys

I often tease my mom and sister about the Girl Scouts' use of cabins for camping trips and "Try It" badges. But if this mocking coverage of several social conservative screeds is to be trusted in its facts about the Girl Scouts' attitudes toward atheists and homosexuals, I'm tempted to inquire about whether they'd be interested in starting up a branch for boys. It might be easier than trying to get the Boy Scouts to live up to that "morally straight" thing.


Healthy Rangelands Initiative

Colorado Luis has been following the use and abuse of our western rangelands. While I haven't had time yet to digest the whole issue, I thought I'd point out the latest story he links to:

Ranchers Applaud Grazing Proposal

The Bush administration plans to make it easier to graze livestock on 160 million acres of Western lands, cheering ranchers who want less interference from the government and environmentalists.

... "We regard ranchers as stewards of public lands," said Tom Gorey, a spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management. "The proposed rules are going to give us a better ability to work cooperatively" with livestock owners.

... The new rules would make BLM staffers monitor range damage before changing lease terms, reduce public participation in many decisions, and eliminate the public's ability to challenge agency findings on endangered-species issues. Ranchers would be given partial ownership of improvements, such as fences and water tanks, that they make to rangeland.

The philosophy behind this rule change reminds me a lot of the Healthy Forests Initiative. In both cases, extractive industry is propped up by subsidies drawn from federally-controlled lands*. But rather than espousing outright privatization, the change is made under the rubric of supporting communities (dependent on ranching or logging), streamlining a process bogged down with red tape (due to environmentalist meddling), and serving conservation ends (preventing environmentally destructive fires or slowing urban sprawl). In both cases public input is limited and business is enlisted as the agent of land preservation. Luis is right that this move helps to shore up Bush's support among ranchers, who were angry over what we might call the Healthy Mining and Fossil Fuel Drilling Initiative. But it also clearly follows from a definite philosophy about how government and business should support each other -- i.e., that government should claim to be seeking the help of business while giving business a big boost.

*Note to self: Check to see whether these changes apply to Native American trust lands.

Who Does The Hijab Hurt?

As you can see from the comic a couple posts down, I'm pretty set against France's decision to ban the wearing of the hijab in schools. The comments to a recent Crooked Timber post provoked me into taking a more in-depth look to see how well justified my conclusion was. The overriding question is: who does wearing the hijab hurt, and does the ban alleviate this problem?

Muslim Girls: I've addressed this question briefly before. I understand, and share, the concerns that the hijab custom is often (but hardly always) used as an instrument of oppression against Muslim women as well as being an expression of the idea that women are inferior. I can see that for some girls the law may provide an excuse to avoid the custom, as in the example of dueling laws referenced on Crooked Timber. However, it will do little for the situations in which the hijab is most firmly entrenched (the very ones that most need to be reached). Conservative families may decide that if their daughter can't cover her head, she can't go to school. The girls themselves, making the reasonable assumption that right or wrong they have internalized the hijab requirement, would feel emotional distress at being forced to go without it (hardly something adolescents need more of). The outcome would be to reinforce the idea that strict observance of Islam is incompatible with French culture. If the core worry is about the persistence of oppressive customs and Muslims' failure to assimilate, that's not a choice you want to force French Muslims to make. Since religious identity is incredibly strong while they often haven't yet picked up a firm attachment to France, they will choose Islam. This will exacerbate the cultural split and make it harder for West-friendly Muslims to cross the divide. The only way to make the decision consistently fall in favor of assimilation would be a Stolen Generations-style scheme that I trust is completely out of the question.

French Non-Muslims: This is the weakest argument for the ban. French officials claim that wearing the hijab is a form of proselytizing. Their commitment to secularism or Christianity or whatever must be remarkably weak if the acknowledgement by others of their Islamic faith is tantamount to proselytizing. The argument reminds me in a way of the "keep it in the closet" school of thought about homosexuality, in which people say they aren't opposed to homosexuality, but they don't want it "forced" on them by such behaviors as publicly acknowledging the existence of a same-sex relationship. Stefan in the Crooked Timber comments says the French "are very tolerant of other religions as long as they don’t flaunt it."

Perhaps in some schools with an overwhelmingly conservative Muslim student body there might be strong peer pressure on non- or liberal-Muslim girls to conform by wearing a hijab. But dealing with that by banning the hijab falls into the same trap as all attempts to correct peer pressure by banning the activity that kids are pressured into -- it fails to get at the underlying disease of insider/outsider distinctions in children's socializing patterns, which will then simply manifest itself in a different way.

The French State: Ginger in the Crooked Timber comments lays out the argument that France has a right to enforce public observance of French cultural values, and that contrary values -- particularly those that promote an identity other than the individual and French citizenship -- can be considered a threat that the state can defend against (emphasis in the original):

[France] is making it absolutely clear that those views of women as something to be covered up, and of religion as something that sets people apart in contradiction to basic principles of gender equality and laicite is no longer going to be tolerated in a state school setting.

... What matters first of all to the state is that collectively, whatever individual reason behind embracing/submitting to them, the physical and behavioural display of those views disrupt the basic foundations and workings of state education as the French have envisioned it.

I'm troubled by this idea that the state may not only take sides on cultural questions (that much is often inevitable), but also actively work to force compliance with the national culture. Freedom of expression deserves a broad range and generous benefit of the doubt, compromised only by an imminent threat of lawlessness.


A New National Park In Maine?

New U.S. Park? Maine Bid Draws High-Profile Debate

Should a national park that's bigger than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined be established in the eastern United States? The idea has some high-profile supporters?but is it the best option for the future of Maine's storied North Woods? Many don't think so, particularly local residents who have enjoyed hunting and other traditional uses of the forest for generations.

... "It's the more traditional forest land owners that have been putting land up for sale," [Nature Conservancy Maine Chapter spokesman Tom] Abello said. "The new owners are generally timber investors, mutual funds, endowments?the types of investors who have a shorter horizon for management and ownership. Land will be coming on the market more frequently than in the past."

The "land churn" caused by such short term investment ownership could promote fragmentation and development, conservationists fear.

My political ecology instincts are making me suspicious of this proposal. While they bring in a new industry -- tourism -- parks tend to be disruptive of local livelihoods. In Africa, the creation of nature reserves has been a major engine of disposession of the native people, barring them from traditional uses of the land and setting it aside for the entertainment of foreigners. Elephants trample crops with impunity because regulations prohibit dealing with them, since they're what tourists come to see (and shoot).

How much this is applicable to the Maine situation is open to question. While we frequently underestimate the importance of access to wildlands for the rural poor (one of my fellow grad students is doing her dissertation on non-timber forest products), it's also true that New Englanders by and large aren't practicing local-environment-based subsistence strategies. The value of the forest is from its use in logging (which, like most extractive industry, is a notoriously poor basis for a local economy) and recreation such as snowmobiling and hunting.

This feeds my general wariness about the tendency -- too common among political ecologists -- to say "the local people are always right." This article gives an excellent representation of the feeling that the park promoters are interlopers with no real attachment to or knowledge of the land they want to "save."

There's also a property question. In the article I linked to in the last paragraph, park promoter Roxanne Quimby defends her purchase of land for conservation on the basis of the "free market." She's responding to the locals' feeling that, regardless of who owns the deed, the woods around them are in some sense their woods. Private property is not absolute. Even if you can't walk on it or take stuff from it, the land around you can be appreciated aesthetically and used to shape your sense of place. Quimby, on the other hand, feels that the north woods should be partly the property of all Americans, that we would all lose out if certain decisions were made by the legal owners of the land, that our cultural connection to it -- for example, through the writings of Thoreau -- extend the woods' value beyond the people who happen to live near it. She explicitly states that she wants to "donate this land to the people of America." North woods residents see what has happened with Acadia National Park, which has been overrun with tourists because it's formally the property of the whole country, and don't want to give up their quasi-ownership.

I'm more sympathetic to the alternate proposal being pushed by the Maine government. I've expressed skepticism before about the efficacy of the land trust and conservation easement model of conservation, but it does have the advantage of not creating a sharp boundary between used and preserved land, allowing the two to integrate.


Scarlet Goodness

Here we go with my latest material from The Scarlet. First, my stand-alone comic:

Then, my commentary: "BSE .. It's What's For Dinner," and its comic.

And finally, my commentary from last week: "Getting Out As Fast As We Got In."


Indigenous Crops

Environment Experts Tout Indigenous Crops

Developing countries should promote the cultivation of more indigenous crops to help combat hunger and malnutrition facing hundreds of millions of people in Asia and Africa, a U.N. conference on biodiversity was told Tuesday.

... Many private organizations are working with mostly rural communities to develop better crop management techniques that officials hope will help reduce poverty and teach farmers more environmentally friendly techniques, the report said.

Nutrition-packed crops that farmers have been encouraged to grow include millet in India, the indigenous Bayarni rice in Nepal, pulses and legumes in Kenya, and sorghum — a type of cereal grass — in Ethiopia.

Unfortunately, this story is very short and I couldn't find a longer discussion of this point on the Convention's website. The story leaves it sounding like the advantage of the indigenous crops is mainly that they're more nutritious. In reality, there are a number of advantages local crop packages have over one-size-fits-all universal staples. They tend to have greater biodiversity than common crops that have been hybridized or genetically modified, which provides a buffer against pests and weather variability. They tend to be better adjusted to local conditions. And they're often part of intercropping strategies which allow multiple crops to be grown together, supporting each other (via casting shade, foiling pests, changing the nutrient mix in the soil, etc.). Such strategies give a competitive advantage to smallholder farmers, because they are more responsive to human labor than to mechanization and chemical inputs.

However, it's important to keep in mind that third world farmers (not to mention the nearly disappeared first world smallholders) did not switch to standardized alien crops because they were stupid. A constellation of structural forces, such as colonial land tenure arrangements, changing consumer tastes, and subsidies to industrialized agriculture, have altered the prospects of the world's poor. Attempting a technological reform without a social reform is bound to fail.

My Interest Is AWOL

Much like politicians' pro forma denunciations of "special interests," there's an unspoken rule that political commentators are required to denounce the media's obsession with scandals and "gotcha" politics, yet dive into the latest scandal with gusto, particularly if it helps their side. I guess that makes me a bad commentator, because despite my desire to see Bush slinking back to Crawford in January, I don't think the "Bush AWOL" scandal is terribly important. Despite the embarrassing awfulness of my first ever political commentary, I stand by its central premise -- that we should judge politicians by what they will accomplish on the job. Perhaps for someone without much of a political record it might be relevant how they spent their days during the Vietnam War. We have to construct a hypothesis about their probable execution of their office. But in the case of a sitting president, we don't need that kind of hypothesis. We have three years' worth of actual direct data about how George W. Bush does his presidenting. Would it change the security situation in Baghdad if we proved that the now-president blew off his National Guard duty thirty years ago? Would the Iraqi and American deaths suddenly become more justified if Bush vindicated himself and showed that he had been on the base the whole time? The AWOL scandal, and the whole "chickenhawk" meme, is a sort of ad hominem, suggesting that the validity of the case for war depends on the character of the person making it.


Ed O'Donnell Is Out Of The Race

I'm disappointed by the lack of oddball minor candidates (aside from Lyndon LaRouche) on the ballot in post-New Hampshire primaries. I guess I'll have to get my entertainment from following the fortunes of candidates who are not technically running anymore. For example, the Joe-mentum is strong in Tenesse, as with 98% of precincts reporting Lieberman has racked up 3,176 votes (beating actual candidate Dennis Kucinich) from people who are apparently so devoted to him that they haven't watched the news in two weeks.


Bush Endorses Civil Unions (A Quasi-Popperian Interpretation)

Congressman Says Bush Is Open to States' Bolstering Gay Rights

Paraphrasing the president's remarks, [Representative Jim] DeMint said: "He said he was not going to condemn anyone, that the need to have various types of agreement does not mean we need to redefine marriage. `If people want to have contracts on hospital visitation and benefits, that's O.K.' "

Responding to questions on Sunday about the Time article, Claire Buchan, a White House spokeswoman, said:

"States, through their contract law, have the ability to address some of the issues that advocates of gay marriage are raising, such as hospital visitation rights and insurance benefits and the ability to pass on one's estates to another. What the president has said is that he strongly believes in the sanctity of marriage, so that's what he is saying."

-- via Sadly, No!

So Bush thinks it's fine if same sex couples get any and all of the benefits of marriage, but he wants to preserve the "sanctity of marriage" for heterosexuals. What would be left to make marriage sacred? The word "marriage"? Is the president engaging in a bit of name magic?

Yes. The word "marriage" confers a legitimacy on a relationship that a mere legal contract doesn't. Contracts allow the government (and citizens) to dodge the criticism of official discrimination against same-sex couples without having to admit that those unions are legitimate.

The other thing that contracts don't offer is standardization. Marriage is a strong institution because it comes as a standard package deal of legal rights, which links into a cultural role. Married couples have an understood and supported place within our social framework. Couples who create individual contracts don't -- they're carving out special spots for themselves around the edges. At least this tells us that Bush doesn't strongly share the cultural conservative worry that marriage is too individualized, since he endorses the epitome of individualism -- the contract -- and even suggests that this option is open to opposite-sex couples.

This is where Bush's frequent assertion that he believes that marriage is between a man and a woman comes into play. That statement is not just a dogmatic expression of how he thinks things ought to be. It's a reflection of a definitional issue within his worldview. What he's saying is that he's confused by the idea of two men or two women being married. Imagine you move to a new town, and your neighbors show you a baby and say "this is the mayor." You'd be confused -- how can a baby be a mayor? How should I act toward someone who supposedly is a mayor, yet can't do the things a mayor would do? Similarly, working from a gendered definition of marriage, Bush doesn't know what it means for two people of the same sex to be married. And if he can't deal with that anomalous data point by excluding it -- by concluding that a same-sex couple is not, after all, married -- it seems like the whole idea of marriage becomes incoherent. That's why the slippery slope to man-on-dog argument comes so easily. Same-sex marriage breaks the traditional definition of marriage, so once one is forced to allow for that exception, it seems like marriage might as well mean anything or nothing. This particular order, or chaos.

So perhaps it's the most traditional places that would suffer the most from the introduction of same-sex marriage. For people with liberal definitions of marriage like myself, it changes nothing to add same-sex couples to my set of observations -- indeed, the data fit my definition of marriage better if there isn't this gaping hole where same-sex couples should be. But for people like Bush, there may be a transition phase from when the old definition of marriage is falsified and when a new idea of marriage forms that can take account of the new observations.

No Cigar

I forgot to grab an electronic copy of the final version of my commentary from last week before I left the Scarlet office, so I haven't been able to post that yet. And for some reason my computer won't let me download pictures as .gifs, so it's taken until now to get my comics. But we now have the latest:

You can also see the comic that went along with my as-yet-not-online commentary.

The Real Sodomites

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is one of the best known supposedly anti-gay passages in the Bible. It has given us the word sodomy, which while technically just meaning "weird sex," almost invariably conjures the image of homosexuality (specifically that between two men). There have been countless articles debunking the idea that the Sodomites' real crime was homosexuality -- indeed, no less an authority than the Bible itself says that their sin was that "She and her daughters [i.e. the people of Sodom and Gomorrah] were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me."

But I think we can go further. Not only do homosexuals not commit the sin of Sodomy, but homophobes do. The Reverends Phelps and Falwell are the real Sodomites. The core of what the Sodomites did is often described as "inhospitality." They weren't keen on having outsiders in their city, and so they came to rape -- and possibly kill -- the angels who were staying with Lot. They did this not because they were horny, but because they were "arrogant" and "haughty." They thought that they were better than those dirty foreigners, and they wanted to put them in their place. To be raped is the ultimate disgrace for a man in a patriarchal culture. Similarly, homophobia is a practice that affirms to the homophobe that he is better than homosexuals, that they are outsiders to "normal" society. Homophobic words and acts are designed to put them in their place.

When the angels first arrive in Sodom, their initial plan is to spend the night in the square. Lot meets them at the city gate and begs them to come stay at his house. In part, this is just an example of his hospitality, since it's better to sleep in a house than outside. But it must also reflect Lot's knowledge of what would happen to the angels if they found themselves outside when the Sodomite mob got wind of their arrival. The city square is a sort of common area, open to anyone to use. Had nobody in Sodom been feeling particularly hospitable, the angels should have been able to take advantage of the square for the night. But of course, they wouldn't have gotten away with it. The Sodomites were unwilling to share their institutions, like the commons, with "outsiders" or people who were different. Similarly, homophobia is based on an unwillingness to share the institutions of public life -- ranging from marriage to the ability to talk about one's love life in public to being a member of the church -- with people who don't fit one's idea of what the core membership of society is like.



It's probably a foregone conclusion, but I'd like to urge John Kerry not to choose John Edwards as his running mate. Sure, Edwards has charisma, an attractive message, boyish good looks, and enough twang for both of them (since apparently people from south of the Mason-Dixon line are physically incapable of casting a vote for someone from the northeast). But think about what else Edwards has: the same first name as Kerry. I'm not prepared to sit through months (maybe even years) of columnists and bloggers making cutesy disparaging references about "the two Johns" or "John-John."

Alternately, one of them could change his name. "Philip Kerry" has a nice ring to it, don't you think?

Culture Change On Rapa Nui

Easter Island Culture Seeks To Survive

... Often called the loneliest place on earth, Easter Island [Rapa Nui] is now caught up in the swirling changes of globalization and is on the front line of a broader effort to preserve the world's endangered languages.

Every year, more languages pass into extinction. In the Chilean archipelago north of the Strait of Magellan, the last dozen or so speakers of the Kawesqar Indian language are aged. Inevitably, Kawesqar will join Kunza and Selknam on the list of Chile's dead languages.

... Chileans are currently as free to come to Easter Island as Americans are to move to Hawaii.

"The constitution of Chile is killing my culture and my identity," said Petero Edmunds, the mayor of Hanga Roa and the island's only popularly elected official. "We are a millenarian culture that existed long before Chile did. And the only way to protect that culture is by regulating migration."

It's sad to see a culture on the brink of extinction (particularly Kawesqar, although that's because I personally know more about that culture). But I'm uneasy with the idea that restricting immigration is a good solution. Part of it is the way the logic resembles the arguments against letting Latin American immigrants into the US, for fear they'll dilute our Anglo-Saxon culture (as well as similar arguments against Asian immigration to Australia and Middle Eastern immigration to Europe). One could make a case for drawing a distinction based on the issue of power. Immigrants to the US are relatively powerless. There's an objective sense in which fears of white America being swamped by Latinos are simply incorrect given any reasonable threshold of cultural survival (i.e., unless you demand complete purity). We're in a position to be enriched by immigrants without being swept away. That's not the case for Rapa Nui.

I'm not convinced that immigration restrictions would solve the problem. The idea is to reduce the cost of maintaining a culture. People are lazy in their use of mental and social resources, and tend to value culture not for its inherent worth (if it even has that), but for its utility -- its usefulness in helping them interact with others and make sense of their own situation. There's a baseline level of cultural competence that's universally cost-effective. When contact with non-Rapa Nui culture was not an option, Rapa Nui culture could be maintained on the basis of that baseline utility that any culture would have. In this sense it didn't matter that the culture was specifically Rapa Nui, just that it was a culture that was compatible with the culture of the other people and the environment that one needed to interact with.

Contact with Chileans broadened the compass of people it was possible to interact with. It raised the question of whether there was anything especially worthwhile about Rapa Nui. Either Spanish or Rapa Nui can satisfy the baseline utility of having a culture. Trade, TV, and immigration lower the costs of acquiring a new culture, while offering the benefits that come from an extended compass of social interaction. The more people pick up Spanish so as to be able to take advantage of the interaction with Chile and its products, the more the baseline utility of Rapa Nui is eroded -- if you and your neighbor both learned Spanish so you can speak to Chileans, what do you need Rapa Nui for? It's less taxing on your mental resources to just remember one language, and to speak to everyone in Spanish. And because cultures must be maintained through social interaction, there's a snowball effect from the accumulation of individual choices -- my decision to learn Spanish alters the cost-benefit structure of my friends decision contexts because Spanish now offers them slightly more. Easter Island doesn't have a large enough population vis-a-vis Chile (and certainly not vis-a-vis Latin America) to keep the balance from tilting decisively toward homogenization (in the way that the major European languages kept in balance). Economic modernization also affects the function of culture in connecting people to their environment. The specialized environmental knowledge embodied in a culture becomes less immediately useful as people partake of mass production.

One solution is for people to judge that there's something inherently worthwhile in Rapa Nui, something that Spanish can't provide. This may be a functional utility, as in the argument for maintaining a connection with one's roots -- you can't go back in time and get the ancient Easter Islanders to speak Spanish. (Of course, this assumes that it's worthwhile to be connected to one's roots, and that one's real roots are genetic and/or geographic, rather than cultural -- else why not adopt Spanish roots along with the Spanish language?) Indeed, the functional utility may lie in the very fact that it is a minority culture, and thus confers specialness on its practitioners and distances them from a majority culture that has been the source of injustices. It may also be an inherent utility, as in the argument that there's a unique worldview captured in Rapa Nui that can only be palely reflected through translation into Spanish.

The "multicultural" solution is to try to emphasize those additional values, arguing that they are great enough to make it worth maintaining a second culture. But the anti-immigration proposal represents an "isolationist" solution, a deliberate narrowing of a group's compass of social interaction so that the culture in question can be used to fulfil the baseline utility. If you shut the Chileans out (not necessarily completely, but to a degree that would go beyond immigration controls to reducing communications like TV as well as trade), then you no longer have "Spanish lets me speak to outsiders" as a reason that tips the balance in deciding whether to speak to your neighbor in Spanish or Rapa Nui. At the extreme end of this is the Amish solution, in which the socioeconomic structure and socialization of the group essentially "rig" a person to encounter prohibitively high costs if they attempt to extend their compass of interaction to outsiders and forces a choice between outsiders and insiders, rather than allowing people to straddle the border. It puts up a barrier on the slippery slope to culture change, at the cost of restricting people's opportunities for choice.


Bush's Weapon Of Kerry Destruction

There's been some speculation about whether President Bush will come out strongly in favor of the Federal Marriage Amendment, now that the Massaschusetts SJC has ruled that full-fledged gay marriage is the only acceptable choice. I think that, strategically speaking, Bush would be a fool not to campaign hard on the FMA.

In one fell swoop, he would shore up his wavering base of support among social conservatives. The people who were feeling unenthused about a second Bush term because of his big government boondoggles like the Medicare bill, the deficit, and the Mars mission will fall into line once he offers them a big government regulation they like. Indeed, it will not only make them favor Bush, but it will make them get excited about promoting his candidacy. On the other side, I doubt he'll lose many swing voters over it. While swing voters may be uneasy about the drastic measure of amending the Constitution, gay rights isn't a major issue for them. It won't be the last straw that pushes them over into the Democrat's camp. They may even admire Bush for at least being unequivocal about where he stands and not trying to waffle and have it both ways.

The FMA will also reinforce the main slams against John Kerry. Kerry is said to be an elitist New Englander, out of touch with the values of the real Americans in the south and west. This is consonant with the charge that same-sex marriage is being foisted upon us by elitist judges. Being from Massachusetts -- where the offending court is -- won't help him, either. If Kerry takes the morally right stance and comes out in favor of same-sex marriage, he'll dig his own political grave. If he comes out in favor of the FMA, he'll still get attacked as if he opposed it because of his vote against the Defense of Marriage Act, and have to face the additional charges of flip-flopping and pandering. The most likely course is that he'll say "I'm against same-sex marriage, but I'm also against bigotry and against the FMA." This position doesn't distill into a simple sound bite, and will lead to the same sort of accusations that he got hit with for his "nuanced" position on the Iraq war.