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Your Concerns Are Duly Noted

Grist's excellent series on environmental justice continues with an interesting discussion between Eric Mann of the LA Labor/Community Strategy Center and Frances Beinecke of the NRDC. I've always understood the NRDC to be one of the best of the mainstream/establishment environmental organizations on this issue. But Beinecke's contribution to the discussion I think highlights the frustrations of trying to get middle class white environmentalists to engage with and support the environmental justice movement.

Mann's contributions to the discussion are passionate and insightful about the challenges facing the broad environmental movement both substantively and organizationally. He's clearly reaching out to the NRDC, trying to call them on their failures in a way that inspires them to improve and join hands with EJ groups, rather than attacking them.

Yet Beinecke's responses have the tone of a bureaucrat at a public hearing, of "your concerns have been noted and will be taken into consideration." She hears him, and doubtless accepts much of what he's saying -- but in the same way you'd accept when your astronomy teacher tells you the sun is made of hydrogen and helium. She doesn't seem willing to make Mann's concerns a part of who she is and how she approaches the world. She certainly doesn't engage and join him in his passion for changing the way things are done.


Hate Crimes Are Not Thought Crimes

Professor Kim revisits one of the classic arguments in the debate over hate crimes laws. She quotes Sen. Sam Brownback making the claim that hate crimes improperly punish people for their thoughts. Using a common counterexample, she cites the legal distinction between murder and manslaughter to show that the law already, and properly, considers perpetrators' thoughts. I think the analogy to murder vs manslaughter is inapt -- but in considering why, we can see why hate crimes laws are important.

The criminal law system exists to prevent the commission of certain acts which are harmful to others. On the score of how harmful they are to others, muder and manslaughter come out about even -- the victim is equally dead. An argument could even be made that manslaughter is worse for the victim's loved ones, since it's harder to find solace in rage at the perpetrator.

The distinction between murder and manslaughter -- and between both of these and non-criminal accidental killings -- arises from the logistics of preventing the harm of killing. We spend all the time and resources in punishing criminals because by committing ourselves to punishing those who commit crimes, we cause other would-be criminals to reconsider the costs and benefits of their actions. This type of deterrent only works, however, insofar as the would-be criminal is cognizant of, and in control of, the consequences of his actions. Thus we graduate the punishments for the same harm according to the perpetrator's state of mind -- and hence the state of mind, and consequently amenability to deterrence, of future would-be criminals.

The distinction between hate crimes and non-hate crimes, on the other hand, lies in just the opposite place. Both types of crimes carry the same degree of culpability -- if I go kill one black person because I hate black people, and another black person because he cut me off in traffic, I'm equally responsible for both crimes.

However, the crimes themselves -- the degree and type of harm I have caused to others -- are distinct. Unlike murder and manslaughter, where the victims are equally dead and their loved ones equally bereaved, a hate crime has far worse impacts on others than a non-hate crime. A hate crime sends a threat to other members of the victim's group, causing great harm in the form of fear and trauma. (This, incidentally, is why it's very hard to commit a hate crime against a dominant group -- by definition, dominant groups lack the history of hate and persecution that amplifies a hate criminal's message. Someone shooting up residents of Livonia, Michigan while shouting "death to whitey!" will simply not have the same effect on other white people as it would if someone did the same thing on the Navajo reservation.)

We can thus distinguish premeditated "hate murder" from "hate manslaughter," in which the effects on the victim's wider community were not intended but the perpetrator should have known better. It is in this distinction, not in the hate crime vs non-hate crime distinction, that questions of the perpetrator's bias come into play.

Utah's recently passed hate crimes law, which Kim links to, seems to me to be on the right track:
The bill, which passed with nearly unanimous support, was highly lauded as a compromise that removed contentious protected categories of race, religion, sexual orientation and other categories but still provided a tool for law enforcement to use.

It creates an aggravating factor to be considered at sentencing and focuses on the impact of a crime on the community, not what motivated the crime.

In an ideal world, I'm in favor of not ennumerating the categories of group that could be targeted by hate crimes, since such ennumeration would inevitably leave some groups out -- though I can see the merits of including a "such as, but not limited to" ennumeration that would prevent the courts from construing the law too narrowly. I like that the Utah law specifically focuses on identifying hate crimes by their effects, not by the perpetrator's bigotry. That framing is both more consistent with the proper goals of hate crimes law and more politically effective.


Let Them Eat Malai Kofta!

Maia from Capitalism Bad, Tree Pretty has sparked an interesting discussion about how much of our health is under our control. Maia takes a position close to the "no control" end of the spectrum, attributing most of our health outcomes to chance or social structural factors, rather than individual behavior. Some commenters have responded with examples of things that one can do to improve one's health. Others have replied to that argument by pointing out how it is rooted in privilege. Our society gives some people the privilege of being able to control their health more than others. Those who can control their health too often then universalize their own experience, assuming that everyone has that privilege (and can thus be blamed for failing to stay healthy).

A common example of a (supposedly) controllable health-impacting behavior is diet. I think most people would agree that the average American would be better off if they ate more vegetables and less grease. My own diet (not to mention my gustatory satisfaction) has improved greatly over the last few years as I've learned to cook vegetarian Indian cuisine. But let's look at the privilege underlying my shift of eating habits.

The first privilege to be pointed out whenever this discussion arises is economic. The ingredients necessary for many of the dishes I like can be very hard to obtain within the geographic and budgetary constraints faced by many lower-class people. Time is related, too -- because I don't have to work long hours at two jobs just to make ends meet, I have the time to spend learning to cook new things, as well as carrying out that cooking on a day to day basis.

Also frequently mentioned is the privilege of access to information. All of my recipes came from the internet, which blocks the many Americans without internet access from following in my footsteps. Then there's the deeper question of even knowing what to look for -- how was it that I learned that Indian food was tasty and good for you?

I think that a third type of privilege is as important as these rigid constraints, but much less often cited (perhaps because, being "softer," it seems less likely to convince those who deny the existence of privilege): cultural privilege. Eating is not a purely functional act like putting gas in your car*. It's loaded with cultural significance. What you eat is an expression and a shaper of who you are and what group you belong to. (This is described well, albeit in more generality, in Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood's The World of Goods). This is why poor people frustrate diet advisors and welfare critics by spending their food stamps on TV dinners and brand-name breakfast cereal rather than stocking up on beans and rice. When you're at the bottom of the social totem pole, you cling tenaciously to that sense of belonging and dignity that comes from eating the same kinds of food as everyone else.

In the case of my own shift to Indian food, I benefit from the privilege of being part of a social circle -- the young, liberal, well-educated elite -- that finds such a diet acceptable. I can have some friends over for saag paneer and they'll find it exciting and compliment me on my cooking. Even when eating alone, I'm pleased with what having dahl says about the kind of person I am. This, however, is not true for many people. Even if the ingredients were affordable and the cooking skills were accessible, making healthier meals would be a major cultural sacrifice.

*Though of course gassing up can have strong cultural overtones as well -- like the liberal who drives the extra mile to patronize BP instead of Mobil.


Liberalism's Hidden Bias

Maia at Capitalism Bad, Tree Pretty has a post that I think hits at one of the key dilemmas facing the broadly-defined liberal tradition. She describes how ostensibly "free" and unbiased spaces like Wikipedia and Indymedia have ended up perpetuating sexism.

Pre-liberal social spaces were explicitly biased. They deliberately and openly favored certain ideas and people over others. The classic examples are Mideval laws against being a Catholic or a Protestant (depending on what country you were in) and the denial of suffrage to women, nonwhites, and the poor. Liberalism rejected such bias, arguing that the rules of society ought to be neutral between people and ideas. If we could thereby establish procedural fairness, substantive justice would follow.

Old explicit biases persist in some areas of our society, such as discriminatory marriage law. But liberalism has reshaped the social landscape, such that even those conservatives who prefer the substantive biases of the old order will justify their views -- often with complete sincerity -- in the liberal idiom of neutrality between people and ideas. The open posting rules at a place like Wikipedia or Indymedia are good examples of the liberal ideal.

But leftists like Maia have been quick to point out that liberalism hasn't lived up to its promise. Explicitly unbiased institutions are not enough when there is a great deal of unexplicit bias remaining in society. The sexism of our society -- the set of ideas that individuals have, the ways they've been taught to express/act on those ideas, and the unequal distribution of various types of informal power -- spill over into formally neutral spaces and exploit them for the reproduction of bias. Indeed, I suspect that one of the explanations for liberalism's historical success is that the powerful strata recognized -- even if unconsciously -- that placing formally fair institutions in an environment of entrenched bias would allow that bias to reproduce itself. We don't, for example, need to explicitly ban Judaism or feminism in order to keep society Christian and sexist.

There are at least four possible responses to the leftist critique from the perspective of someone who finds the biases explicitly enshrined by the old order, and continuing under the formal fairness of liberalism, to be substantively unjust. (From her brief reference to a need for "structures" to fix the problem, it's unclear whether Maia favors 2, 3, or 4 on my list -- or something else I haven't thought of.)

1. Settle. Probably the most common response is to say that for all its problems, the procedural fairness of liberalism is better than the explicit bias of the alternative. This is usually coupled with an expectation that in the long run, those unexplicit biases that undercut the liberal promise of substantive justice will be worked out. After all, liberalism has created enough space for a variety of social movements, which have had some success already in changing the biased environment.

2. Retreat to better biases. We might simply give up on liberalism, and decide to return to the explicit enshrining of bias -- albeit this time a bias in favor of the correct conclusions and justice rather than error and injustice. Though some leftists (like the Bolsheviks) have taken this route, I think it's far less common than critics of the left make it out to be.

3. Compensatory bias. Compensatory bias consists in establishing temporary countervailing explicit biases to balance out the unexplicit biases in society. Eventually, it is hoped that the unexplicit biases will fade, and with them the need for the countervailing bias. And once the social environment is no longer biased, the formally fair institutions of classical liberalism will be sufficient to ensure justice.

4. Refexive liberalism. This is the most appealing, but hardest to pin down, option. The goal of reflexive liberalism is to make the committment to procedural fairness go deeper, so that existing unexplicit biases are unable to spill over and unfairly reproduce themselves. Various thinkers (eg Anthony Giddens, Chantal Mouffe, and Jurgen Habermas) have expounded on the parameters for such a project, but as of yet I haven't seen any good solutions at the level of overarching philosophy. Amanda Marcotte's response to the great feminist comments debate provides, I think, an example of an attempt at a reflexive liberal solution to one liberal problem, specifically the way sexism infests the ostensibly fair space of comment threads. Marcotte advocates banning thread drift. This rule, while ostensibly neutral, cuts away one of the key mechanisms by which the bias in the social environment is able to exploit liberal institutions to perpetuate itself. We could debate the merits of Marcotte's particular proposal -- note, for example, her own calls for progressives to reframe, i.e. shift the topic of, the larger media discourse -- but the direction that she's looking for answers illustrates the idea of reflexive liberalism.


Does Childhood Play Make Environmentalists, Or The Other Way Around?

Here's a study whose finding seems so obvious that the authors jump right past a plausible alternative hypothesis.

If you want your children to grow up to actively care about the environment, give them plenty of time to play in the "wild" before they're 11 years old, suggests a new Cornell University study.

"Although domesticated nature activities -- caring for plants and gardens -- also have a positive relationship to adult environment attitudes, their effects aren't as strong as participating in such wild nature activities as camping, playing in the woods, hiking, walking, fishing and hunting," said environmental psychologist Nancy Wells, assistant professor of design and environmental analysis in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell.

I don't doubt that the obvious mechanism -- that playing in nature at a formative age causes you to learn to love nature, and hence become an environmentalist -- is at work. But in addition to that causal link, I think that there's an existential one as well.

The idea of learning to love nature as a child is a powerful one -- just look at the biography of any notable environmentalist. So I think there's a strong tendency for people who end up environmentalists to emphasize the role of nature in their upbringing. It's a constant feature of the human condition that we weave our memories, combined with various cultural assumptions, into a story about our own past. Nature play will end up featuring prominently in an environmentalist's internal autobiography. And so such a person will respond more strongly to survey questions asking them to recall aspects of their childhood. The value placed on "wildness" by modern mainstream environmentalism may also explain some of the lessened influence of "domesticated" and "structured" types of engagement with nature, like gardening and Scouting.


Two Types of Egalitarianism

I've been horribly remiss, going days without posting about Cultural Theory. But never fear, for I've come across a great example of Egalitarianism in action. A recurring theme in the feminist blogging community is the boundary question -- who's a real feminist, who should be allowed into feminist discussion spaces, etc. (if you start here you can find your way into the latest round). It strikes me as a very nice illustration of people trying to deal with the characteristic pathologies of the Egalitarian way of life.

In this discussion there seem to be two sub-types of Egalitarianism operating, arising from a tension between the conflicting goals of universalizing the way of life, and maintaining the agreement among members that allows Egalitarianism to function:

1. Exclusivists. These are the folks (mostly from the more politically radical end of the conventional spectrum of feminisms) who want very strong boundaries around feminism. They attack people whose credentials are suspect, and are alert for traitors and infiltrators. They have a very long list of beliefs/practices that one must adhere to before productive discussion is possible, and hence they discount the possibility of useful engagement with outsiders or the need to show respect for those who are clearly enemies of the cause. Exclusivist Egalitarianism seems very close to the classic examples of Egalitarianism used in the literature -- Douglas and Wildavsky's Amish, Rayner's Marxist-Leninist collective, etc.

2. Inclusivists. These are the folks who want a "big tent," allowing anyone who wants to join -- even, in some cases, the hated "Men's Rights Activists" -- into the group. They have a great faith in the possibility of dialogue between people of very different perspectives on the basis of a very small (Habermasian?) set of ground rules. It's tempting to label Inclusivist Egalitarianism a hybrid of Egalitarianism and Individualism, but I think the commitment to collective action and identity, and the desire for dialogue leading to agreement, and the desire to exclude competition, seem to place it firmly in the Egalitarian camp. Looking beyond the feminist bloggers, Inclusivist Egalitarianism seems to be a very popular ideal in the modern West. Its presence seems to me to explain why we have such strong agreement with Egalitarian items in surveys, but so few real cults -- note too that the items used in all the CT surveys I've seen focus on the question of internal equality and largely ignore the issue of strong boundedness.

The Exclusivist/Inclusivist distinction may also explain why it's usually a very different set of people who take an Egalitarian perspective on risks coming from "the system" or nature (e.g. climate change or nuclear power) versus risks coming from Outsider individuals (e.g. terrorism or illegal immigration).

My own viewpoint is conflicted. I find the Inclusivist position very appealing, but my cynicism about human nature makes me suspect that Exclusivism is the more viable way of organizing an Egalitarian community.

Basic Immigration Facts

You'd think a famous law scholar writing about immigration would have a basic knowledge of the American immigration system, but yet Gary Becker manages to write this naive response to the idea of giving illegal immigrants jail sentences:

2) Most Americans do not wish to give significant jail sentences to illegal aliens whose only crime is that they want to come to this country, usually seeking higher wages and better working conditions than they have had. Yet in the absence of such punishment, immigrants will continue to flow across the border, pulled by earnings that are 5-10 times higher than what they could earn in Mexico and most other Latin American nations. So the only effective way to deter illegal immigration is not politically feasible, and is not attractive on moral grounds.

The fact is that illegal immigrants are given jail sentences when they're caught by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Technically they're in non-punitive civil detention -- but they're in the same jails, recieving the same treatment, as the thieves and murderers. And because ICE's deportation proceedings move at a glacial pace, the effective sentence can last years. What's more, HR4437 -- which sailed through the House and looks poised to pass the Senate with nary a peep from the Other Republicans* -- would add actual criminal sentences for some forms of illegal immigration. So Becker's notion that Americans wouldn't be able to stomach harsh penalties for illegal immigrants is in total opposition to this country's xenophobic tradition and practice.

I must also disagree with Becker about the likelihood that harsh penalties would be an effective deterrent:
1) The factors that motivate immigration are so strong that adding a few more years of jail time for anyone who gets caught is unlikely to change many minds.
2) Most people in other countries know next to nothing about American immigration law. Just ask yourself if you know what the consequences would be if, say, you were caught illegally in Ireland, or New Zealand, or South Africa. You have no idea, right? There's just a general understanding that if you get caught without proper documentation you'll be punished and/or sent home. So unless the US plans a massive public education outreach throughout the third world, putting more jailtime in the lawbooks won't affect anyone's decision to overstay their visa or swim the Rio Grande.
3) At present, enforcement is not nearly sure enough, particularly those who entered legally but stayed illegally. This may come as a shock to the "law and economics" folks, but the human brain is not a rational Expected Utility calculator. If the chance of punishment is small enough, it doesn't matter how harsh it is. You can't take care of the people you don't catch by cracking down harder on the few that you do catch.
4) About half of illegal immigrants are not swimming the Rio Grande. They enter the US legally, but then fail to leave when their visas expire**. Increasing the penalties for illegal immigration would if anything encourage these people to stay -- it becomes too much of a risk to draw ICE's attention by trying to rectify your status or leave the country.

(Huge thanks to crankyliberal -- this post is almost entirely distilled from things she's told me.)

*The party formerly known as Democrats
**We need to tattoo those sentences to the foreheads of everyone pontifficating about immigration -- there's no way we can address this issue if we don't even understand the population we're dealing with.


A Pandagonian Moment seems determined to take every offensive liberal stereotype about conservatives and prove it right. Via Pandagon, I encountered this bit of overwrought machismo, straight from the bizarro world where feminists have siezed control of all of our country's institutions and are bent on turning all men gay. Doug Giles wants parents to teach their boys to be Real Men, one key component of which is that Real Men -- unlike women and girly men -- are conquerors. But let's take a look the Bible verse Giles offers as proof that you should raise your son to be a Junior Saddam:


Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.

Note the parts I italicized. Apparently being a mighty conqueror is so uniquely manly, so important to unfeminized testosterone-charged holders of the Y chromosome, that God had to order both Adam and Eve to dominate nature.

Apparently Giles is so intent on promoting a Mideval notion of gender roles that he's also decided to abide by the Mideval prohibition on the laity reading the Bible. Those of us who live in the 20th century may note that the quoted passage, in addition to being gender-neutral, talks only about dominating nature -- so even the least earth-friendly reading of it gives no justification for competing against and conquering other humans.


Sid Meier's Automatic Faucet

This is a fairly trivial issue, but it does raise an interesting point about technology. David Schraub sarcastically cries "structural racism!" upon reading the following anecdote about the racial implications of early automatic faucet technology:

Hands-free toilets and faucets are certainly smarter now than when they first came on the market. Pete DeMarco told me that when automatic fixtures first got popular in the early 1990s, they had difficulty detecting dark colors, which tended to absorb the laser light instead of reflecting it back to the sensor. DeMarco remembers washing his hands in O'Hare Airport next to an African-American gentleman. DeMarco's faucet worked; the black man's didn't. The black guy then went to DeMarco's faucet, which he had just seen working seconds before; it didn't work. This time DeMarco spoke up, telling him to turn his hands palm side up. The faucet worked.

I commented:

I actually don't think it's *too* far-fetched to make an argument about structural racism here. No choice of technology (e.g. laser-operated automatic faucets -- instead of, say, pedal-operated ones*) is inevitable. Presumably the people who designed the faucets were white, and so when they were thinking of ways they could make an automatic faucet, they thought of things that would work for white hands. Then they went and tested them with a bunch of white people, and came to the conclusion that they worked just fine, and then went ahead and installed them all over the place. Structural racism led to a mostly-white R&D establishment, which in turn led to black people's needs being overlooked in the design of technology.

Obviously the particular problem of racially discriminatory faucets is a relatively insignificant one, especially since technology quickly improved and can now detect the blackest hands just fine. The larger point, though, is to be careful to avoid the Sid Meier view of technology. Meier is famous for his anthropologically questionable but hugely entertaining "Civilization" series of games. In Civilization, there's a pre-defined technology tree. All civilizations in the game advance up the same tree, making the same advances at the same junctures. One can move faster or slower, but the same developments lead to the same further developments.

It's tempting to think of the real world as working like Civilization -- assuming that anyone who put their mind to, for example, inventing an automatic faucet would have come up with the same basic plan. Anthropology teaches us otherwise. There's been some great work done by one anthropologist -- sadly I read the article long ago and don't remember the name -- about the contrast between Inca and European technology. It's often assumed that the Inca simply lagged behind Europe in the technological race. But in fact the Inca were, among other things, master metallurgists. But instead of focusing on using metal to make things harder and sharper (as did the Europeans, and everyone in Civilization), they pursued metal's properties of malleability and ductility. Beyond metals, the Inca made great strides in fiber-based technology -- from quipus to rope bridges to padded armor and slingshots for their armies. Responding to different social arrangements, the Inca made different choices about what kind of technology to develop (technology which, of course, then impacted those social arrangements). One could as easily take the Inca accomplishments as normative and see Europe as lagging woefully behind.

Taking the Sid Meier view, therefore, diffuses blame. The power and responsibility of the inventors and R&D institutions, as well as the larger society that makes demands on them and gives them resources, are hidden behind the supposed inevitability of technological choices. No, a faucet can't be racist -- but that shouldn't stop us from asking why a facuet that happens to work better for white people was invented.

* Which would be racially neutral but make things difficult for, say, people in wheelchairs and with other mobility problems.

Rape Of The Earth

Since I managed to not tie my Blog Against Sexism Day post to environmentalism, I'll refer you to Chris Clarke's critique of the "rape of the earth" metaphor.


LANDSAT Goes Broke

This is a frightening story about the fragile state of our weather and environmental monitoring satellites. Years of under-funding have put our continued access to remote sensing in deep trouble. NASA's priorities are a bit skewed as well:

NASA officials say that tight budgets tie their hands, forcing them to cut all but the most vital programs. The agency's proposed 2007 budget request contains $2.2 billion for satellites that observe the Earth and sun, compared to $6.2 billion for operating the space shuttle and International Space Station and $4 billion for developing future missions to the moon and Mars.

I realize that space travel is more "cool" than having a constant stream of LANDSAT images. And I realize that we have to colonize other planets because in a few million years the sun will expand and destroy the earth. However, hurricanes and deforestation are happening now, so you'll have to excuse me if I can't muster up much enthusiasm for keeping the dollars flowing to Mars exploration.


Blog Against Sexism

I figure that if I'm going to stretch the rules to count yesterday's post as my contribution to Blog Against Sexism Day, the least I can do is make a note promoting the event to my three readers.

A New Idea? And Unfairly Blaming Enviros

This story is interesting not so much for what it says, but for the fact that it needs to say it.

... Clem's Dairy was doing a "prescribed burn."

That's the new buzzword from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs. And instead of Smokey Bear pointing a finger of shame at anyone causing fires, the official position now is "Fire can be beneficial."

The era of the extreme Smokey the Bear ideology has been over for decades, and controlled/prescribed burning has been part of official policy since the 1970s. And even during the heyday of fire suppression, the south (where this article originates) was Smokey's Kashmir, paying lip service to the Bear while regularly engaging in controlled burning. Yet this article presents controlled burning as a new and revolutionary idea. It cites a 1993 article as its only scientific pronouncement -- but the anti-suppression consensus was well-established by then.

This is not, however, to lay the blame solely on the author of the article. The fact is that while the Forest Service and other agencies may have converted to controlled burning long ago, the public in general tends to still side with Smokey. And those who do recognize the importance of burning make their case in the idiom of a minority fighting a rigid establishment. This is a great example of the disjunction between the guiding ideas of the administrative system and the opinions of the general public.

While I'm discussing this article, I must object to the way that it lays the blame for suppression at the feet of environmentalists. Wildfire has become a popular hazard with which to beat the environmental movement -- albeit more often for the current sin of blocking mechanical fuel removal than for the historical sin of supporting Smokey.

On the one hand, it is true that conservation has been used as an excuse to stop folk burning, particularly during the colonial period in what is now the Third World. The conservation rationale was advanced with varying degrees of sincerity, but the ultimate aim and effect was to discipline native people and undercut traditional ways of life. This practice continues today in some areas (for whatever reason my Google News likes to pick up on some newspapers in Ghana, from which I gather that their current policy comes straight out of the colonial-era playbook).

Nevertheless, in the United States, fire suppression is better seen as a military project wearing a green mask than as a conservationist policy. The fire suppression infrasturcture was put into place in the early decades of the 20th century as a means of gaining control over our vast western territory and disciplining its inhabitants (it's notable that controlled burning was described dismissively as "Paiute forestry"). During World War II, fire suppression became a national security issue*, as there were fears that the Japanese would let incendiary balloons drift with the prevailing westerlies to fall on the American west. After the war, fire suppression became tied up in the military-industrial complex, adopting technology, surplus equipment, and organizational techniques from the armed forces.

The key factor to note, though, is the timing. The modern environmental movement arose in the late 1960s and 70s -- exactly the time that the total suppression policy was questioned and finally scrapped. Indeed, fire historian Steven Pyne goes so far as to credit the environmental movement with a key role in breaking Smokey's hold.

*I'm surprised this hasn't reemerged -- I can imagine President Bush warning us that if we don't chop down our forests, the terrorists will light them on fire and kill us all.


Making The Oppressed Do The Work

I had one of those interesting intersections of two wildly different parts of life today. I've been reading St. Augustine's City of God, which is at times entertaining in its willingness to make arguments that hardly anyone in America today would put into words*. Today I read a section where he discusses his wish to eliminate sexual desire. He describes lust as an uncontrollable force, demolishing the will of any man caught in its grip.

Then I read Frankie's post drawing together an incident in her childhood in which she was molested during a touch football game, and some recent comments by male friends who thought her new photos were too sexy:

I know this post is all over the place and makes very little sense, but the reactions to my pictures got me thinking about stuff, even that fateful football game in my youth. I was a strong, smart, young girl who rivaled these boys intellectually and athletically on a daily basis. I dished out the shit as much as the next guy on the team. So, why was I attacked? Was I a threat? Was it merely curiousity? Did I cross some invisible line that girls with big breasts are not supposed to cross?

Really, the reactions to my pictures were not even in the same ballpark as what happened to me back then. But, talking to a few of my guy friends, they appeared to be uneasy with me being sexy. It just got me wondering about things. Is it hard to view someone you consider your intellectual counterpart as sexy? If you love and respect a woman platonically, and one day she suddenly inspires some wood, do you freak? Is it weird? Threatening?

I think St. Augustine's unusually vocal struggle with his sexuality sheds some light on what was happening in the incidents Frankie describes.

At root, an oppressive system like sexism is about control. But it's not Big Brother type control enacted by the oppressor. Rather, social oppression operates by shifting the burden of maintaining control onto the oppressed. The oppressor is relieved of the burden of control, so much so that this freedom comes to feel natural and universal -- hence the protests of unfairness when members of oppressor groups are asked to recognize their position and shoulder some of that burden. (The ideal of the autonomous, rational, self-made man can serve as an ideological cloak, falsely asserting that the oppressor's advantage is deserved because he has done the work of maintaining control of himself.)

The uncontrollability of lust is a favorite mechanism for this responsibility-shifting in the case of sexism. Taught to believe in their own autonomy, men experience their sexuality as an alien force yanking them this way and that. The proper response to this would be to face up to one's sexuality and take responsibility, if not for the urges, at least for the actions that spring from them. But sexism holds out the seduction of irresponsibility, telling men they don't have to deal with their own feelings and actions. It's someone else's fault. It's the woman's fault (or the fault of the gay man, who not coincidentally is seen as a pseudo-woman) for arousing the lust. And therefore it's the woman's responsibility to manage her effects on men.

Frankie's breasts became an excuse for that group of boys both to indulge their lust by groping her, and to blame her for the incident by labeling her a slut. A woman becomes a "slut" whenever a man feels like he isn't in complete control.

Having never learned to control their own sexuality, men are constantly vulnerable to sexy women -- leading to a pervasive anxiety that manifests itself, for example, in fears of women seducing men for their money. Few men in America today would advocate going the St. Augustine route of resolving the problem by eliminating lust -- lust is simply too much fun, and to give up on indulging in it when and how one wants would be to give up one of the key benefits of being in the oppressor class. So a different strategy is needed: sexiness can be handled as long as the woman takes responsibility for controlling it and managing it in the interests of men.

Thus we get the bimbo ideal. The only kind of woman who can be trusted to be sexy, whose sexiness is not compromised by male anxiety, is the one considered too stupid to have desires beyond pleasing men. (It's a notable feature of the self-centeredness of a system of oppression that men assume that any woman they encounter is using her sexuality either for or against him.) So a woman who is confident, funny, and smart (and I assure you, Frankie is all three) cannot be trusted with sexiness. She can't be relied on to protect men from their own desires. Hence the effort to discipline such women, to force them to put one of those things -- their personality or their sexiness -- in a box and hide it. Frankie gives a powerful account of how she has long made the latter choice, but is tempted by the former.

I should be clear that the social processes I'm describing go on in many cases under the radar of our conscious thought. This is one reason why reading things written long ago, such as St. Augustine's works, can be revealing -- such authors may articulate things that have become unrecognized common sense in our time. This does not mean that the men who act in ways that perpetuate the sexist system are innocent -- rather, it places the burden on us to think hard about what we do, why we do it, and what its consequences are. It's all too easy -- indeed, it's a maintenance mechanism of sexism -- to let "common sense" stop our thoughts and on that basis protest our innocence and lack of responsibility.

* My favorite is when he says that rape is a punishment for sin -- albeit sometimes for a sin you haven't committed yet.


Cultural Theory of Eugenics

I wonder sometimes whether Amanda Marcotte is a closet adherent of grid-group cultural theory, because it's often so easy to read some of her posts through the GGCT lens. Take this snippet from a recent post drawing distinctions between the Nazi, progressive, and feminist views of eugenics in the early 20th century:

So while the Nazis swiped a few ideas from liberal eugenics thinkers, the similiarities stopped there. Nazis didn’t frame Jews as some unfortunate underclass that needed to be gently controlled for their own good–they accused them of being an internal menace, plotting to take down the “Aryan” race. The right wing belief that “inferior” people exist for the use of “superior” people was the crutch used to justify the camps, since the able-bodied were used as slave labor and sadistic tortures were justified as medical experiments.

But it seems to me that American progressives were heading in the other direction–disgusting as Holmes’ decision to allow forced sterilization was, it’s noteable that he didn’t question the idea that “inferior” people should have their day in court, putting to the left of modern conservatives who argue that we workaday folks should have legal limits on our right to sue our wealthy betters. (Generally this is called “tort reform”.) Sanger’s argument that “inferior” women would make the decision not to reproduce all on their own was, in a certain light, a wildly radical notion, because she was actually arguing that supposedly inferior people should be trusted to make their own decisions, which is far to the left of liberals now who argue for abortion restrictions.

Here we have the Nazis taking the classically Egalitarian position that, while everyone within the group may be equal, outsiders are subhuman and deviously plotting to undermine the group. The progressives are Hierarchists -- believing that certain people are intrinsically inferior, but that they're still part of society and deserve procedural fairness ("their day in court"). Margaret Sanger, here representing the feminists who used eugenics as a rationale for promoting birth control, takes a clearly Individualist position -- individuals should control their own reproduction, and because of the invisible hand, this kind of decentralized decisionmaking will result in the most eugenically sound overall outcome.


Who Is Talking About Postmodernism?

Joe Carter has a post up arguing that there aren't very many real postmodernists around. I think he's basically right that our impressions of the prevalence of postmodernism are highly inflated. He then goes on to consider why we have this inflated impression. Carter's view is that it's the appeal of the term "postmodern," which causes many people who are really "modernists turned up to 11" to call themselves postmodernists.

But I think a more important reason is inflation by postmodernism's enemies. While "postmodernism" may have cutting-edge cachet in some circles, the term is quite negatively loaded for the public as a whole. Thus it's useful for proponents of more traditional strains of modernism to be able to stick the "postmodern" label on their opponents. Outside of a few academic articles*, the only place I hear the term these days is from conservative pundits decrying the moral decline of society.

*And even here, you rarely hear anyone define their own approach as "postmodern" (or "modern"). Both terms are too broad to be useful in describing one's own views. On the other hand, the terms are frequently used to facilitate straw-manning one's opponents.


Nature And Humans Can Coexist

This isn't particularly surprising to me, but unfortunately there are too many people in the environmental movement who would be surprised:

Indigenous Lands Help Protect Amazon Forests, Study Finds

Reserve areas established for Indian peoples in Brazil (map) are as effective as uninhabited nature parks in preventing burning and clear-cutting, the study finds.

... The scientists used satellite data taken from 1997 to 2000 to compare rates of fire and deforestation inside and outside the boundaries of different reserve types. Only protected areas larger than 25,000 acres (10,100 hectares) were included in the analysis.

... "Many indigenous groups are very well organized, and they are also willing to use force to defend their lands," said Daniel Nepstad of the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts, who led the study.