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Rambling About Orgasms

Elizabeth Lloyd has an interesting post up responding to feminists who criticize her theory that the female orgasm is a byproduct (or "bonus," as she would like to rephrase it) of evolution, rather than having been directly selected for. Her point is that it's wrong to say that if something is not an adaptation, it's of less worth.

I think too many Americans believe in the common-descent model of biologic history that comes out of evolutionary theory, but interpret it as a sort of "nature creationism." They concur with evolutionists on the basic facts of where organisms come from, but their metaphysical infrastructure is still modeled on creationism. They still hold to the basic idea (noted in my discussion in the previous post about the deontological argument against masturbation) that there is an origin process that confers moral legitimacy on its products, and that the reason something exists tells us what we ought to do with it. They just substitute "nature" for "God" as the designer. (Many also adopt the converse philosophy of adaptationism, usually by saying orgasms are so much fun that they must have evolved. Nature creationism says "if something was directly selected for in evolution, it is valuable." Adaptationism says "if something is valuable, it must have been directly selected for in evolution.")

One might take a more favorable reading of the feminist case against Lloyd. Here the feminist critics are not themselves nature creationists, but they fear the consequences if all the other nature creationists in society believed Lloyd's theory, since they would use it to deny women's sexual pleasure. There are three different ways one could criticize this formulation. One, raised by Amanda Marcotte, is that the rest of society is going to belittle the female orgasm anyway, so giving them one more post hoc rationalization for it isn't going to make a difference in the actual acceptance of the orgasm. Another is the basic (perhaps a bit simplistic, but useful as a rule of thumb) liberal reaction against political restrictions on science. Third, I think criticizing research because of how it will be used by a sexist society is an unsustainable solution. Denying a theory that sexists will exploit may improve things in the short run. But the real problems -- sexism and nature creationism -- remain. You can only suppress the little forest fires for so long.

All of this is not to say that Lloyd's theory is necessarily correct, just that nature creationist rebuttals miss the mark. Much of Lloyd's argument rests on the great variability in women's ability to orgasm -- such that 14% of women never orgasm no matter what they do, and for many of the rest it's not reliable. Viking Grrl points out that a plausible case could be made that much of that variability has a social cause, coming from men who don't care about their partner's pleasure, messages that tell women that enjoying sex is bad, and/or a lack of good information on what kind of techniques work (since "standard" intercourse doesn't do it for many women). Lloyd, in comments to Marcotte's post, points out that women who don't orgasm still have the same amount of sex as women who do, thus showing that (at least in the culture where those statistics were gathered), the obvious sort of selective pressure on female orgasms -- the "they make women have more sex" hypothesis -- is not occurring. One explanation for Lloyd's observation, congenial to the "intercourse and orgasm aren't everything" school of thought, is that non-orgasmic pleasure is enough to get people to have sex. An alternative is that the patriarchy (the very force Viking Grrl blames for many women's lack of orgasms) also deprives women of some of the choice about whether to have sex. The latter explanation raises an interesting possibility. If orgasms really do have a major influence on women's desire for sex, then increasing sexual equality will allow women to exercise that preference, and hence women who orgasm more easily will have more sex -- thus creating the selective pressure on female orgasms that Lloyd says is absent today. Of course, this is complicated by the fact that increasing sexual equality will also lead to increased availability of birth control, and it seems much less plausible that women who have more orgasms would be any more likely to want to bear and raise children.


The Deontology And Consequentialism Of Masturbation

Hugo Schwyzer recently came out in favor of masturbation. He responds to a post by Bonnie, who argues against masturbation from a conservative Christian standpoint. Bonnie takes a basically deontological position. She says that God creates things for a specific purpose, and that any use of a thing that does not conform to God's purpose is immoral. In this case, the thing in question is our sexuality, and God's purpose for it is to create a bond between a husband and wife. Masturbation obviously does not (except very indirectly) bind a husband and wife together, so it is therefore immoral.

In a follow-up post, Schwyzer offers an interesting rephrasing of the anti-masturbation argument (though he disagrees with this formulation as well). He retains the view that masturbation's wrongness has to do with the fact that it's not two-person sex. But rather than being intrinsically wrong as a misuse of sexuality, he presents it as wrong due to its consequences for two-person sex. Masturbation conditions us to think about sex as being basically about our own pleasure, which makes it more difficult to focus on pleasing a partner when we have two-person sex. Presumably anyone using this argument further believes that the pleasure lost in the resulting inferior two-person sex is greater than the pleasure gained by masturbating. (One might also take a revised utilitarian perspective in which the pleasure of two-person sex is the only pleasure that counts (perhaps because of God's purpose), and so anything that reduces that pleasure is immoral -- similar to the way some people want to exclude sadistic pleasures or other-regarding preferences from the utilitarian calculus.)

What makes this interesting is that the two arguments would require much different responses from a pro-masturbation secularist. In the deontological case, we would have to dig down to some basic assumptions about whether God exists and how we know what (if anything) his purpose in creating sexuality was. Most problematic, from my viewpoint, is the question of whether the purposes or causes of something's creation are morally binding -- if a thing was made for X, does that mean there's anything wrong with using it for something other than X? Couldn't masturbation be as innocent as using a shoe (designed to protect your feet) to squash a cockroach or prop a door open?

On the other hand, the consequentialist argument is best approached in terms of its empirical content. One can imagine ways to examine the factual question of whether masturbating will result in worse sex. The usual objections to consequentialism in general don't seem very compelling in this case, although even if one were to raise them, they are quite different from what would be said against the deontological argument.

The deontological version raises much deeper disagreements between anti-masturbation Christians and pro-masturbation secularists. The consequentialist argument is both more plausible to a secularist, as well as being amenable to empirical demonstration of its central claim. In that sense, the consequentialist argument is more appealing. But things get tricky if someone whose real commitment is to the deontological argument tries to use the consequentialist one in order to win support. Much frustration results when a consequentialist argument is disproven (and their high empirical content typically makes consequentialist arguments very vulnerable to disproof) but nobody changes their mind because they're really deontologists fighting a consequentialist proxy war.


Two Links

A couple of interesting links. First, something I'd wondered about:

How Wildfires Get Their Names

In general, naming rights go to the group that makes the "initial attack" on a fire, whether it's a squadron of local firefighters or a team from the U.S. Forest Service. (In contrast, every tropical storm in the Atlantic gets its name from a single organization.) The commander on the scene often uses a nearby geographical feature to describe the fire, but he's not bound by any official rules. He first suggests a name to the interagency fire dispatcher, who passes it along in fire reports, dispatches, and so on.

And some more evidence that the "leave it alone and don't disturb it" philosophy is not always the best way to preserve nature:

Military Exercises 'Good For Endangered Species'

Military exercises are boosting biodiversity, according to a study of land used for US training manoeuvres in Germany. Such land has more endangered species than nearby national parks.

The land is uncultivated, but also churned up by tank tracks and explosions. This creates habitat both for species that prefer pristine lands and those that require disturbed ground, explains ecologist Steven Warren of Colorado State University in Fort Collins.


Freedom From Mascots

The second paragraph of my previous post brought to mind some ideas that are well-known in the literature on environmental decision-making. Communities are typically not too keen on having toxic facilities, such as nuclear plants or landfills, nearby. When a government or company wants to site such a facility, they are faced with the problem of overcoming local opposition. The first strategy is usually exhortation -- telling the local people that they're ignorant and that the science shows that the facility is harmless. This does not usually go over well, even when done in the nicest way. The next approach is to "sweeten the deal." The facility proponents reason that the local people think (incorrectly, but incorrigably) that the risks from the facility outweigh the benefits. So they offer to increase the benefits, through cash payments to people or the town, or infrastructure projects. However, this strategy likewise often meets with limited success.

Yet there are some approaches that seem to work well in gaining community acceptance of initially unwanted facilities. One is to give the community veto power over the facility's operations, for example by forming a citizens' council that can order operations stopped if, in their judgment, the facility is presenting a high risk. Another is to involve several communities (such as all those whose trash will be going in the proposed landfill) in the planning process to debate whose town is best suited to host the facility. Both of these may result in the community accepting a plan not much different from the original proposal. Involving the affected community, not sweetening the deal, is the key.

The difference can be understood as an instance of the distinction between two conceptions of freedom -- freedom as opportunity and freedom as non-domination. Freedom as opportunity is a substantive criterion. The more desirable things you're able to do, the freer you are. Freedom as non-domination is a procedural criterion. The less you're subject to the decisions and discretion of another person (in Fiskean terms, the less you engage in Authority Ranking relationships), the freer you are. In my view, both types of freedom are necessary.

Elites and other privileged groups tend to focus on freedom as opportunity, whereas oppressed and disempowered groups are also concerned about freedom as non-domination. When a policy controversy arises, the elites look to increasing freedom as opportunity as the method to resolve it. They think "if we can just make our dictatorship benevolent enough, things will be OK." But to the disempowered groups, the very fact of the dictatorship is a problem, because it infringes on their freedom as non-domination. But the elites set the terms of the debate, and they're only interested in hearing questions about the substance of the decision. The disempowered groups are forced to talk about what the decision is when their real concern is how it was made.

We see this pattern also in the case of Native American mascots. To tell Natives that the mascots are meant to honor them is (even if true) beside the point, because the problem is that a bunch of non-Native people are continuing to make the decisions about whether and how Natives should be represented and honored. Likewise, to tell Natives how much they will benefit from archaeological and physical anthropology discoveries is beside the point, because the problem is that a bunch of non-Natives are producing authoritative knowledge about Natives. But when Native Americans are involved in the decisionmaking -- as has been the case with a number of schools who negotiated with a local tribe over the design of their mascot, and with many archaeologists who have worked with their site's descendants -- the substantive decision may remain more or less the same.

Native American Mascots

The NCAA's recent decision to ban Native American mascots has prompted some discussion on a message board I frequent. Inevitably, someone asked why it's offensive to be the "Indians," but not, say, the "Vikings." I replied:

The difference between Native mascots and other human mascots is the social prejudice they intersect with. Imagine I came up to you and poked you gently in the shoulder -- that would be no big deal, right? But when you poke me gently in the shoulder, I'll fall over screaming in pain, because I have a really horrible sunburn. Native Americans have been, and continue to be, discriminated against, stereotyped, stolen from, and prevented from defining their own identity. That's the metaphorical sunburn that even the more innocuous Native mascots are poking. On the other hand, most other groups used as mascots have healthy shoulders. As a person of Swedish descent, I'm not bothered by blond-braided, horned-helmeted caricatures of Vikings, because I've never been stereotyped or discriminated against for being Scandinavian. They don't remind me of being called a "frickin' blondie" or being asked when I last raped and pillaged, because those things never happened.

For many Natives it's not so much the inherent offensiveness of the mascots that's the problem. It's who gets to make the decisions. Native Americans have a long history of having their identity defined by non-Native people. So having a bunch of white guys decide their team will be the Indians, and coming up with a logo, will be problematic no matter how PC the resulting mascot is. You get a similar phenomenon in archaeology. If a white archaeologist goes to a tribe and says "I'm digging up your ancestral site now," the tribe is likely to say "like hell you are," and fight to stop the excavation. But if the archaeologist says "hey, I was thinking maybe we could work together to dig up this site," then the tribe will be very likely to cooperate with the excavation.


Deep Ecology Vs. Ecology

Deep ecology seems to have a somewhat contradictory relationship with ecological science. It draws for support on an older form of ecology based on ideas of climax, equilibrium, and linear systems theory. One of the key elements of this view is that nature is "tightly coupled" -- that is, everything is connected to everything else, every organism and process has a vital role to play in upholding the stability and flourishing of the entire system. The concept of tightly coupled nature is used as a rationale for extending moral consideration beyond humans, and beyond even thinking animals that can be conceptualized as moral persons in the conventional sense, to all parts of the ecosystem. Ecology, we're told, shows that all things on the Earth form a sort of great community, which in turn implies that they have inherent moral worth. But it's an odd sort of community, since the inherent telos which natural objects and processes are said to be entitled to follow is defined as what they would do in the absence of humans. In other words, because nature and humans are tightly coupled, nature has rights. And the primary right that nature has is to be de-coupled from humans (or at least as de-coupled as is feasible). This is consistent with the classical liberal tradition of sovereign individualism, but not with our ordinary concepts of what constitutes a (human) community.

Deep ecology offers a second, intuitionist rationale for granting inherent moral worth to nature. We start with the premise that nature needs to be protected. Many people would argue that enlightened self- or human-interest would lead us to protect nature, since degradation of nature utimately hurts humans. Deep ecologists respond that such an anthropocentric rationale will not be sufficient to justify full protection of nature. They maintain that we could get away with a significant degree of degradation of nature before it created a net harm to humanity, and thus the only way to morally rule out that degradation is to give nature itself rights. Yet this justification for deep ecology presumes a more loosely coupled system. The more tightly coupled the system, the less able we would be to escape the consequences of our degradation, and thus the more environmental protection would be mandated by an anthropocentric view.


How To Create A Law

Joe Carter has a post up outlining the Axiological Argument for God's existence. He summarizes it as the following syllogism:

1. If God did not exist, objective moral values and duties would not exist.
2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
3. Therefore, God exists.

(Note that while Carter, as a fan of Pascal's Wager, is not averse to pragmatic/consequentialist arguments for beliefs, he specifically disavows the common pragmatic version of the axiological argument, which states that atheists do not act morally. He also disavows the epistemological version, which states that the content of the objective moral code can't be known without a direct revelation from God.)

Carter has little patience for those who reject the second premise. I think he's a little too quick to dismiss the possibility that one could be a true moral relativist. It's possible that, on the model of sports fandom, one could hold a strong attachment one's own subjective moral code and desire to get others to adhere to it -- even to the point of dishonestly using claims of moral objectivity -- without believing in objective morality. Nevertheless, Carter is right that there is hardly anyone who actually is a moral relativist, and hardly anyone would actually be willing to bite the bullet of becoming relativist in order to avoid accepting the existence of God.

The question, then, is whether the first premise is valid. In comments, Carter clarifies that the first premise is -- consistent with his overall humility with respect to philosophical arguments for God -- a sort of default option. Nobody has produced another plausible explanation for where objective morals come from. I am intrigued by Juergen Habermas's argument that morality is based on 1) the principles that are presupposed by the attempt to debate and persuade someone else, and 2) the principles that would be consented to by all parties affected if they were able to debate them in an "ideal speech situation." But I won't claim to be entirely convinced of that, or any other, explanation. So thus far Carter and I mostly agree.

Where we differ is whether God is an adequate default position. It does seem facially intuitive that law can come from a lawgiver. But I'm skeptical of whether a lawgiver can be responsible for objective law. The law-lawgiver model comes from human society. But in that case, it's clear that the law in question is necessarily subjective -- and indeed, we often point out the existence of the lawgiver in order to relativize the law. A law given by a human lawgiver is merely an expression of his or her will, albeit a will often rooted in a sincere belief that the law is consistent with the objective law. Insofar as pointing out the lawgiver is grounds for accepting the law, it amounts to two possible positions:
1) The lawgiver is powerful, and will punish you if you do not accept the law.
2) The lawgiver is someone we've already decided is smarter than us or has access to more information than us, so it makes sense to trust her or him to have discerned the correct morality.

Under option 1, the real bindingness of the law is beside the point. Force can be used to compel disobedience to anything. The Taliban's soccer-stadium massacres didn't somehow make it objectively morally required that women wear burkhas, though they did make it pragmatically self-interested to do so. Similarly, the fact that God will send you to hell for acting in a certain way does not make it morally binding to not act that way.

Option 2 seems more plausible. After all, God is usually said to be omniscient, so if anyone can discern the objective law, God can. But notice what this does -- it places the existence of the objective law prior to the lawgiving. In this case the lawgiver is not a creator of the law, but rather a trustworthy guide to an existing law. The origin of the law remains unexplained.

A final option might be to reject the human lawgiver model. God, we could say, creates the objective moral law in the same way that he created the objective physical world. This line of argument, however, turns the axiological argument into a special case of the cosmological argument ("if something exists, it must ultimately have been created by a supernatural being"). Thus the axiological argument is just as convincing as the cosmological argument -- which is to say, very convincing for Carter and not terribly convincing for me.

It's important to note here that "where do morals come from?" is a question for which ignorance is an acceptable answer. Compare it to the question of "what conduct is moral?" In that case, we have to make a choice. No matter how uncertain we are about what is right and wrong, we have to provisionally adopt one set of principles or another (even if only implicitly). Life is constantly demanding that we make choices, and without a moral viewpoint, we can't. On the other hand, insofar as Carter is right (and I think he is) to disavow the epistemological version of the axiological argument, the origin of objective morality is not a question that we're forced to take a position on. If it's true that atheists and people who believe in the wrong god can still ascertain what's moral, then there's no reason we can't say "I don't know yet" to the question of where morals come from.

The Undefinable Difference

Hugo Schwyzer's most recent post illustrates one of the things that bothered me about Iron John: an insistence that men are different, combined with an unwillingness to name or otherwise clearly identify what characteristics make men different. Schwyzer is responding to a question asking what he likes about men. He begins his answer in roughly the direction I would go: I like people who exhibit qualities X, Y, and Z, and I've found men as well as women who have those qualities. But he goes on to imply that there's some undefinable difference, some je ne sais quoi about his male friends in particular:

Are there female friends in my life with whom I have shared similar experiences? Of course. But there are some days when it just feels so damned good to be out with the guys, sharing our suffering and our stories and our just-ran-for-four-hours-and haven't-showered-since yesterday morning smell!

For those of us who don't see much inherent difference between the sexes*, this kind of explanation isn't terribly helpful in understanding the other side's perspective. Any attempt to grapple with the claimed difference slips away through the "of course there are plenty of women like that" escape hatch.

Then again, that very slipperiness may be part of the point. As I mentioned in my post on Iron John, the "mytho-poetic" view of gender comes from a poetic, not a (social) scientific, standpoint. In this age of science, poetry (like the other humanities) defends its turf by claiming that its truths are not accessible in any other way, that -- like Gnostic enlightenment -- they can only be felt and experienced, never explained and reasoned about.

*My own list of things I like about men in particular would be limited to superficial things like "some beards look cool" and "I love the guys who sing the really really deep bass part in a capella."


In Defense of Evolutionary Psychology

Jerry Fodor's review of a recent book criticizing Evolutionary Psychology contains some good points, but also claims that Evolutionary Psychology is invalidated by its use of an argument that ought to be completely unnecessary. Fodor has one important major point: that we can't assume that the details of any trait were directly selected for and optimized by evolution. Selection pressure is simply not that strong, so we have a lot of traits that are by-products of other adaptations. An evolutionary explanation requires more than a just-so story. This is more or less the root of my own objection to Evolutionary Psychology as it's currently practiced -- it assumes that the details of modern behavior were directly selected for.

But Fodor confuses the issue by bringing in the strange notion that to say that a mental characteristic is an adaptation, there has to be something somewhere -- whether it's our own unconscious, or "mother nature," or whatever -- that "wants" us to maximize our reproductive success. He points out, correctly, that any behavior could have a plurality of motivations, and that to explain a behavior one must first identify the motivation, then explain why that motivation exists. According to Fodor, Evolutionary Psychology explains our ordinary motivations by appealing to a deeper motivation for reproductive success.

Obviously postulating the necessary existence of a desire for reproductive success lying behind every mental adaptation is silly. But it's also unnecessary. There's a tendency to slip into teleological language when talking about evolution, and Fodor cites some examples from Richard Dawkins and others. But a mental propensity can evolve on the basis of its contribution to reproductive success without anyone anywhere wanting to be reproductively successful. All it requires is that the propensity in question in inheritable and has, among its effects, that it leads to greater reproductive success than the available alternatives.

For this reason, evolution is entirely consistent with a plurality of motivations. Ceteris paribus, having lots of sex will lead to geater reproductive success than having less sex. Now, imagine a population in which some people have a gene that leads them to find sex distasteful, other people have a gene that makes sex lots of fun, and a third group has a gene that makes them believe that having sex will keep the moon from falling. And let's assume that genes 2 and 3 create motivations whose strength is such that they lead their holders to have the same amount of sex, whereas the people with gene 1 are motivated to have much less sex. In this situation, the people with gene 1 will fail to pass it on to their descendants, whereas genes 2 and 3 will each be passed on to an equal number of descendants. Within a few generations, there will be hardly anybody left with gene 1. But because genes 2 and 3 produce behaviors that are equivalent in terms of promoting reproductive success, they will continue to be passed on in equal amounts. Our population will have evolved two different motivations for sex, neither of which entails anyone or anything "wanting" anyone to have reproductive success. There are further questions to be asked about why it was genes 2 and 3 that were present in this population, as opposed to, say, gene 4 which would have also motivated people to have lots of sex. But to explain why genes 2 and 3 persisted while gene 1 did not needs to refer only to their behavioral effects, not to their content or to some unattached motivation for reproductive success.

Birth Control And Cloning

Elizabeth Anderson has been writing a series of posts arguing that freedom as non-domination (being free of the arbitrary will of others -- in Fiskean terms, the lack of Authority Ranking relationships) is as, if not more, important than the more common conception of freedom as access to a large set of options. In her latest post, she illustrates the contrast with an analogy to a bridge:

It's worse, from the perspective of freedom, to be deprived of a critical opportunity by the arbitrary exercise of another's will, than to lack it due to natural causes or lack of technological development. It's worse to be unable to cross an unnavigable river because others arbitrarily forbid one from using the bridge, than because the technology for building a bridge at that point is lacking. In the first case, one lives in a state of subjection to others; in the second, one is merely technologically poor.

She then goes on to derive from this concept the princple of common carriers, which says that people offering a public service (e.g. bus companies) may not discriminate between customers. She then applies this principle to the question of religious pharmacists refusing to dispense birth control. By refusing to dispense birth control, a pharmacist is exercising arbitrary domination over a woman -- and access to a more helpful pharmacist at another store isn't a solution, as the possibility of domination, not merely its actual use, is sufficient to infringe on freedom.

While the common carrier principle seems to capture something important, there are a variety of criticisms that could be made of it as it stands -- for example, why does it not apply on the buyer's side as well, thus prohibiting boycotts? Isn't the possibility of going out of business altogether dominating as well? Nevertheless, I'm going to focus here on the validity of her distinction between restrictions based on another's will, and restrictions based on natural or technological limits. I think the boundary between those two types of restrictions is far fuzzier than it appears at first glance.

To maintain the distinction, one must adopt a relatively naive view of how technological progress is made, in order to make technological restrictions politically and morally innocent. One could assume that science is advancing as rapidly as possible, and focusing on the most important questions. Or one could assume that advances are wholely dependent on unpredictable flashes of genius.

In reality, though, scientific advance is in a large part due to social choices. Governments, research institutions, and individual scientists make countless decisions, based on various social criteria, about what research to fund and carry out. It seems that these decisions can be just as much a source of domination as direct denials of existing technology. Imagine sitting by Anderson's river, with a bunch of engineers who -- because of some irrational prejudice against you -- refuse to do the necessary calculations to come up with a bridge design that would allow you to cross.

In the birth control example, while I don't know the history, I would be very surprised if there weren't a number of people who could have researched birth control, but declined to because they thought contraception is immoral. The fact that one research team eventually did come up with a formula is no more consolation, in Anderson's schema, than the fact that a woman turned down at CVS could get her prescription filled at Walgreen's.

As it happens, today we face a similar dilemma: cloning. There are numerous people who would like to take advantage of cloning technology. However, there are numerous bans and proposed bans that would stifle the research necessary to make human cloning possible. These bans are justified on the same sort of basis that allowing pharmacists to refuse to give out birth control is -- a moral objection to how the technology could, or would, be used. By the common carrier principle, it's impermissible for research labs to refrain from researching cloning.

DC Statehood Again

In the discussion of voting rights for Washington DC that I linked to in the previous post, Brett Bellmore responds to the point that not everyone in DC works for the government by saying that the rest of them are on welfare, and thus have the same vested interests. As it happens, I can live with disenfranchising anyone who's on welfare. Since the 1996 "reform," there's hardly anyone left on anything that fits the classical image of give-money-to-poor-people welfare. Today's welfare queens are: 1) Midwestern agribusiness, 2) defense contractors (mostly located in the South), and 3) CEOs and other corporate higher-ups in general. Hmmm, I wonder which party most of those folks vote for ...


Policy Proxies

One of my pet peeves is policy measures that use one variable as a crude proxy for another. The classic examples are in the realm of gender. For example, some people argue that women should be excluded from the military, or at least from certain positions in it, because they are on average weaker than men. But if strength is what we're interested in, we should test it directly, so that we can hire those few unusually strong women and don't have to hire weak men to make up the difference. Similarly, if the purpose of marriage is to support child-rearing, then using the sexuality of the couple as a proxy measure misses out on infertile or childfree opposite-sex couples and same-sex couples raising children. Likewise, if your concern is really for child molestation, you should be charging people for child molestation, not using the broad brush of a ban on polygamy. And any boy who seeks out a male mentor because he needs someone who understands his natural aggression is going to be disappointed if he asks for advice from a mild-mannered guy like myself.

I bring this up now because I ran across two examples of the crude proxy phenomenon in quite different contexts this morning. The first is in Hugo Schwyzer's post about the fat acceptance movement. The standard retort to those who point out the unacceptability of size discrimination is that fatness is, if not intrinsically unhealthy, at least associated with unhealthy conditions. Thus, say the critics, fat acceptance entails acceptance of poor health. But as fat activists (including, ultimately, Schwyzer) argue, there's no need to use weight as a crude proxy for health. We can encourage people to ride their bikes and eat their spinach based on their actual exercise and eating habits, thus avoiding criticism of healthy fat people or ignoring unhealthy skinny people.

The second came in the comments to a Matt Yglesias post pointing out the injustice of Washington DC (as well as other US territories) not having any votes in Congress. In comments, Brett Bellmore argues that depriving DC of representation is necessary to keep DC's residents of having the double power of both working for the federal government and getting a vote in it. As I point out in reply, however, even if you accept (which I don't) the premise that federal employees shouldn't get a vote, depriving DC of representation is a relatively ham-handed way to accomplish that. On the one hand, many federal employees live across the border in Virginia and Maryland, where they do get votes. On the other hand, there are lots of DC residents who are not part of the federal bureaucracy -- college students, journalists, think-tankers, mechanics, grocery store clerks, homeless people, etc. If you're worried about federal employees voting, the way to do it is to make a federal paycheck contingent upon forfeiture of suffrage, much like Post Office employees have to give up their right to run for office.


The Strange World Of Iron John

I've started reading one of Hugo Schwyzer's favorite books, Iron John. My reaction to the first hundred or so pages is: this is frankly bizarre. Robert Bly lives in some strange parallel universe.

Our disagreement starts off at the level of methodology -- Bly is a poet, whereas I'm a social scientist. He draws his conclusions by weaving together mythology, taking themes from old fairy tales as important symbolic statements of the human condition, and connecting them to contemporary manhood through evocative tales from individuals he's met as well as actual poems (including his own). I was frustrated by his insistence on speaking in suggestive metaphor rather than operationalizable terms. And I wondered how much his perspective was skewed by interacting mostly with men who came to his workshops -- what we in the business like to call a "biased sample."

Bly's starting point is that men today lack good models for how to express their masculinity -- true, byt that's as far as our agreement goes. He says most are "soft" New Agey weiner men, while others may fall into destructive forms of masculinity like machismo or the detatched "1950s man." Bly longs for the days when men were closely involved in the upbringing of their sons, and elaborate initiation rituals drew boys into the special realm of men. There is a distinct Freudian theme, as boys are said to require a sharp break away from their mother-dominated feminine childhood world, but mothers are greedy for their sons' affections and want to instill in them the feminine worldview (which includes a negative assessment of the father). On the other hand, in the world where I live, the main problem on the gender front is the persistence of these dominating, macho forms of masculinity. Even those who are surficially weiner men often conceal an undercurrent of dominating entitlement.

The culprit here, in Bly's view, is not feminism precisely, but rather the lack of a corresponding men's movement to balance feminism and keep it on the female side of things. For all his idealization of traditional myth and ritual, Bly insists that past models of masculinity -- notably the "1950s man" -- were often damaging. We might render his historical outlook in Cultural Theory terms something like this. In the past, men adopted a Hierarchist role, using their power to dominate women, who wound up as Fatalists. With the advent of feminism, women revolted against this high-grid society and found their natural place as Egalitarians. They also swept men into the Egalitarian camp. The sensitive, consensus-oriented guys created by the triumph of feminism are a woman's dream boyfriend. But there's a deep lack at the center of their souls, because men are really cut out to be assertive and courageous Individualists.

Bly complicates this picture, and ultimately leads himself into some seeming contradictions, in his attempt to make it compatible with feminism. He continues to insist that men and women are fundamentally different, and that a man can only truly learn how to live from another man (where this leaves intersex and transgender people is unclear). And he points to a nebulously defined quality of assertiveness as the key element lacking from the lives of men raised by women. Yet he then turns around and claims that women, too, can and should be assertive (and all the other positive qualities that go with it). Indeed, he praises feminism for helping women to get in touch with their masculine side. So Bly leaves us with the structure of irreconcilable gender differences that can only be understood by people of one's own gender, but he is unwilling to provide much content for the difference by specifying what qualities it is that are uniquely masculine.

Since Bly is so fond of personal testimonies, I'll end with one of my own. Surficially, I should be a prime example of his gentle, consensus-minded, New Agey weiner man. I'll even admit to having some use for increased assertiveness -- though I read it as a case of inborn shyness, not existential angst about my unfulfilled manhood, and is certainly not related to some Oedipal conflict with my father. As it happens, I have become somewhat more assertive in the past year. The change was not, however, achieved through the acceptance and mentoring of older men. Rather, it was a woman -- my current girlfriend -- who catalyzed my increased assertiveness.