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Who's Out There?

Posts like this one (and its comment thread) make me wonder why anyone actually reads this blog. There are only 24 hours in the day, and the blogosphere is full of people who have accomplished actual things and made real contributions to the world (including many for whom blogging itself constitutes an actual accomplishment and real contribution to the world), and who consequently have the ability to post worthwhile things.

Granted, not very many people read this blog -- Sitemeter tells me I get 20-30 hits per day, from which I have to subtract the unsuccessful search engine hits and the people who know me from non-blogging contexts (and hence have an excuse to read me). And I doubt any of the bloggers referenced in my first paragraph are in that group. But someone is rounding out that 20-30 hits. And it's not clear why there's even that residual readership here.


Henry Waxman's Little Brother Must Work For The Arizona Republic

Proportion of the Phoenix area's population that is undocumented: about 10%.
Proportion of the Phoenix area's criminal charges that are made against undocumented people: about 10%.

This is according to the Maricopa County sheriff's department's own records, and in the face of a huge effort by Maricopa law enforcement to target criminal immigrants. Sheriff Joe naturally had no comment.

It also turns out that undocumented immigration doesn't drive down wages or the economy (with the possible exception of a small downward pressure on the very poorest citizens, which could be easily offset by taking advantage of the net economic growth associated with immigration).

So I guess we're down to "they make us have to press 1 for English" in terms of empirical claims about negative effects of immigration on non-immigrants (although I'd wager even here that there are enough citizens who prefer to do business in Spanish that your 1-pressing finger would still get a workout).



Less Litter, More Deaths

This is pretty ridiculous:

An immigrant-aid volunteer is facing a $175 fine for leaving water jugs in the desert for illegal entrants.

... Millis and three other volunteers with the Tucson-based No More Deaths organization had been placing 1-gallon plastic water jugs on a trail in the refuge, which is known to be heavily traveled by migrants who are illegally crossing into the U.S. from Mexico on foot.

Ironically, Millis said, he was also picking up trash while he worked.

So No Más Muertes is creating a net decrease in the amount of litter in the refuge. In particular, they're helping make sure the refuge isn't littered with human bodies -- which can't be good for the ecology, even if you're morally bankrupt enough not to care about the humanitarian aspect of it. The refuge management should be bankrolling NMM's activities, not fining them for it. By working with NMM, they could get volunteers to help address a significant problem that the rangers doubtless don't have a lot of time to deal with, and could even work out a way to minimize the ecological impact of the water stations. Instead, they conflate the NMM volunteers with the effects of the very broken immigration system that NMM is opposing.

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Cutting Fire Funding

Since this blog is supposed to be about the stuff I actually know something about, I should at least point out a couple articles on Bush's new Forest Service budget. The budget increases funding for fighting wildfires, but cuts funding for everything else -- including wildfire preparedness and presuppression activities that reduce the incidence of big destructive fires and reduce people's vulnerability to those fires. These programs have been repeatedly cannibalized over the past in order to find fire fighting funds, so projects are already scaled back or put off. This budget may work to run out the clock on Bush's term, but it does so at the expense of the long-term health of our forests and forest-dwelling communities. Nevertheless, this seems like the kind of reactive focus on the symptoms approach that you get when someone suddenly discovers the virtues of fiscal discipline (as Bush has post-2008-SOTU) and wants to make a show of how tightfisted they are.



Cosas que les gustan a blancos*

Speaking of stuff white people like, I don't read enough Latin@ blogs to know how effective it's been in reaching out to its ostensible target demographic, but pretty much every white blogger in the universe seems to love the mariachi Barack Obama song.

In somewhat related news, the Associated Press article on last night's Democratic debate described "Sí se puede" as "Spanish for Obama's trademark phrase, 'Yes we can.'" Needless to say I edited that bit before I put it in the newspaper for tomorrow (something like "the Spanish phrase that's the basis for Obama's English slogan 'Yes we can'").

*Grammar corrections are welcome.

New Comic: Modern Medicine

Astute observers will note that Patient #3 has an additional unusual medical condition.

(Comic text, for search engines and those who can't see the image:
Frame 1:
Patient #1: I've been having trouble sleeping lately
Doctor: Try losing some weight

Frame 2:
Patient #2: This fever is killing me
Doctor: Have you considered going on a diet?

Frame 3:
Patient #3: I have this tumor
Doctor: I'll book you for surgery ... and a gym membership

Frame 4:
Patient #4, with an arrow through his head: Doc, I ...
Doctor, with back turned: You'll need to drop a few pounds)


Vegetarianism and Privilege

Elaine Vigneault points to a recent survey showing that, within the 2.3% of Americans who don't eat meat, whites, blacks, and Latin@s are pretty evenly represented -- in fact, whites are less likely to not eat meat than people of color*, albeit by a statistically insignificant margin. Vigneault says that this disproves the idea that "vegetarianism is white privilege." I think a bit of nuance is in order.

First, we have to be clear on what the poll showed. The racial breakdown is only given for whether people don't eat meat -- but the poll also asked separately about eating poultry and seafood. So it may be that people of color are more likely than whites to eat poultry and/or seafood but not red meat, and that makes up for their lower likelihood of being true vegetarians. This is especially plausible given that there is probably a disproportionate percentage of people of color who give up meat out of economic necessity rather than ethical commitment.

Second, the claim that "vegetarianism is white privilege" (I've much more often heard it charged with being class privilege**, but a similar set of considerations would apply) is about more than what percentage of what kind of people do it. The dominant presentations of vegetarianism in our society are framed in a white middle-class way. Here I'd draw a parallel with feminism -- it's still fair to say that the dominant presentations of feminism in our society are laden with white and middle/upper-class privilege, even though women of color are no less committed to gender equality and justice. The question of who has the most power to define what vegetarianism is all about remains even if all groups are interested in the underlying principles.

*The poll didn't mention races other than the three largest ones.

**The poll doesn't give a breakdown by income, but it does suggest that higher levels of formal education are associated with (statistically insignificant) higher levels of non-meat-eating.

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I'll call it "Female Genital Thing"

David Schraub is not entirely convinced that he should give up the term "Female Genital Mutilation" in favor of a more neutral one like "Female Genital Excision." He notes Plain(s)feminist's point that the women who undergo what I call (as a gesture of frustration at the naming debate) "Female Genital Thing" often don't see it as mutilation. Nevertheless, he thinks the views of the alleged victims are not dispositive:

(despite what conservative politicians would have you believe) nobody likes to cast themselves in the role of the victim, so people are always going to be resistant to language that fully expresses the degree of violation foisted upon them. So this "name your own oppression" thing, while tempting, may not ultimately be the way to go.

Schraub is right about the fact that oppressed people often deny their oppression, either as a psychological defense mechanism or because of enculturation into the dominant discourse. That does not, however, mean that pushing a loaded term for the oppression is an appropriate response. This is particularly so in a case like Western people pushing "FGM" in which the term-pushers are in a position of power relative to the term-dislikers. To be clear, I agree with Schraub that FGT (both the actual Thing as well as the cultural complex of expectations, pressures, and stereotypes that surround and support it) is a bad thing and it would be beneficial for the women involved if it were to be ended. So the debate is really one of strategy -- how do we, being Westerners, address FGT in a way that produces a net gain with respect to the values of autonomy and equality on the basis of which we find FGT condemnable.

By not just condemning FGT, but putting the condemnation in the name of the practice, Schraub is making a very strong claim. Use of the term "FGM" when many of the women involved don't agree that it's "M" is more severe than calling it by a neutral name then explaining why you think it's bad. It implies that the practice is objectively bad, and makes it so you can't discuss it without constantly pushing the condemnation. This is a damaging thing to do if the people you are confronting with your condemnation inlcude not just the perpetrators (who may need to be strongarmed and shamed into changing their ways) but also the alleged victims that you're trying to win over. The situation is made worse because insisting that non-Western women don't have the right name for the practice they undergo evokes a long history of Westerners claiming objective knowledge of non-Westerners and arrogating to themselves the right to speak for and about non-Westerners. If the problem with FGT is that it limits the equality and autonomy of women who undergo it (or are punished for refusing), then it seems odd to use that same tactic to save them from it.

The further layer of complication here is that FGT has an important role in Western cultures. While Western women may not have Thing done to their genitals, the ritual condemnation of FGT is an important cultural practice through which Westerners affirm their commitment to universal values such as gender equality (and in many cases, affirm a simplistic and ethnocentric form of universalism against a more contextualist variety that is seen as too similar to relativism). This is not necessarily bad -- every culture needs rituals to affirm its values, and I endorse universal values of equality (albeit of a more contextualist strain). Nevertheless, putting condemnation in the name satisfies Westerners' needs with respect to the practice, while potentially shortchanging the needs of women who actually undergo it -- and that may violate our value of universal equality.

The trick, though, is that there are some women who have undergone or escaped the procedure that do think of it as "mutilation." Just like the outside observers with strong moral feelings, they may want their condemnation of it enshrined in the name. It would be easy to say "call it what the particular women you're talking to call it," but it's difficult to limit your audience in that way. So you have to weigh the demands against each other. In general, I think an honest desire to have condemnation taken out of the name trumps an honest desire to have condemnation put into the name, because the former opens up debate while the latter closes it down. And in the case of FGT, the loaded term closes down debate in a way that reinforces another longstanding form of oppression against some of those whose position is being closed out and who the debate-closers are trying to help. (Though I would also say that that same value of autonomy and its implied right to self-expression in turn entails that women who do want to claim the term "mutilation" for what has happened to their own bodies have a right to use that term.)

(The ideas in this post can, I think, be applied mutatis mutandis to Eugene Volokh's resistance to disability activists' preference for the term "disabled" over "handicapped.")



This post by Hugo Schwyzer, riffing on a comment by Amy, made me wonder whether we'll soon see meta-Nice-Guys*. Schwyzer portrays Nice Guys as men who feel entitled to women's affection because unlike other men, they're in touch with their emotional side. Meta-Nice-Guys would be men who feel entitled to women's affection because they (supposedly) don't feel entitled to women's affection like all the other Nice Guys.

*I was expecting some in the comments, but Hugo has gotten a lot fewer comments ever since his long hiati.



Constructed Preferences For Creationism

Lately I've been doing a lot of reading about the idea of constructed preferences, and a recent poll of Floridians' views of evolution give me a good opportunity to say something about it in this blog.

My starting point is a debate between P.Z. Myers and Wesley Elsberry about the phrasing of the questions. Elsberry points out that the depressingly low support for evolution (specifically, for the teaching of evolution as opposed to creationism or intelligent design in schools) shown in the poll contrasts with other polls, and he attributes the discrepancy to the polls' wording -- the question in the recent poll was framed in such a way as to make evolution less appealing as an answer. Myers agrees, but disputes that this shows that "framing works." If by "framing works" they mean "re-framing our message would be an effective political strategy," I don't think this poll discrepancy shows a whole lot. But if they mean "framing is a valid scientific theory," then the poll discrepancy is a good illustration of a phenomenon that, on the basis of a great deal of other research, is indisputably true.

Framing effects fall under the larger umbrella of the idea of constructed preferences. There is a temptation, in looking at such poll discrepancies, to try to figure out what question wording would be unbiased and thus reveal the true views of the people of Florida. This assumes that there is such a thing as "the true views of the people of Florida" prior to asking the question.

Rationalist theories, of the type that underlie traditional utilitarianism, neoclassical economics, traditional political science, and common sense, hold that people have preexisting preferences that are called up and expressed in response to a relevant question or choice situation. Such settled preferences would not be vulnerable to any framing effects short of outright trickery. Myers, for example, notes that he would have no problem picking the pro-evolution answer to even the slanted-against-evolution poll. This should come as no surprise, since if anyone should have a settled preference for teaching evolution in schools, it's an evolutionary biology professor who runs a popular blog largely dedicated to defending the theory of evolution.

But psychologists have found repeatedly that question framing makes a difference. People choose a low-risk, low-payoff gamble over a high-risk, high-payoff one, but rate the latter as more attractive. People are more willing to go a medical procedure that 9 in 10 people survive than a procedure that kills 1 in 10 people. People are willing to pay the same amount to clean up one polluted lake in Ontario as they are to clean up all of the polluted lakes in Ontario. People's preferred price for a bottle of wine can be doubled or halved by asking them whether they'd pay more or less than the last two digits of their Social Security Number, prior to asking them to name their price.

What has become clear is that this is not a case of "rhetorical tricks" fooling people into misstating their true preferences. Rather, on non-core questions -- questions to which your answer isn't central to how you see yourself and live your life -- people don't have preexisting preferences. Their preferences are constructed on the fly. Once presented with a question, they try to figure out what preference to have. In such a situation, they take cues from how the question is presented. Since different questions give different cues, they come up with different, yet still genuine, preferences in different situations.

It's quite likely that a large number of Floridians simply don't have settled preferences about which theory of human origins should be taught in schools. Instead, they wait until it becomes necessary to take a stand (e.g. when a pollster calls, or a referendum appears on their ballot), then figure out which position seems best in the context of the moment.

Myers is on the right track when he says that he prefers the slanted-against-evolution poll because it pushes people's "religion button" in the same way that the actual public debate over Florida's science education policy does. Insofar as the poll's framing matches the framing to be found in a particular real-world situation, the poll will lead people to construct their preferences for curriculum content in the same way and thus provide an accurate prediction. Pointing to the different results obtained by a differently-framed poll is not, however, a "blindfold" or "framing the problem away." The two polls in conjunction reveal important information about the prevalence of constructed versus settled preferences among the anti-evolution respondents to Myers' preferred poll. And it gives us a prediction of what the outcome would be if the influences on preference construction in the real world were somehow -- neither poll tells us how -- altered to match it.



Does Vegetarianism Make A Difference?

In addition to the substantive arguments against vegetarianism (i.e., arguments that conclude "therefore animals don't have (enough) rights or interests to outweigh my desire to kill them for food"), I sometimes encounter a strategic argument from the left. The strategic argument, which is also made against other forms of "ethical consumerism" like buying free-trade coffee or boycotting Wal-Mart, goes something like this: ethical consumerism is about changing your personal choices, but what is needed to truly address injustice is activism directed toward collective action to change social structures.

With respect to this strategic argument, we can set out a continuum, on which both of the extreme ends are obviously false. One extreme -- often endorsed, for the sake of hyperbolic impact, by critics of ethical consumerism -- says that personal choices in the market make no difference at all. If that were true, we'd all be drinking New Coke. On the other hand, only someone in the grip of extreme free market mythology would believe that personal choices in the market are entirely sufficient to bring about any desired social change. Given that the world is not made up of fully-informed rational egoists experiencing no transaction costs, collective action aimed at structural change is a critical part of any social movement.

The question, then, is: how much of a difference does (a particular instance of) ethical consumerism make? Does it make enough difference that it should be pursued at some cost (in, at the very least, foregone convenience and time spent thinking about it)? I think the left strategic criticism of ethical consumerism tends to undercount the amount of difference it can make by being misled by the term "ethical consumerism" into imagining that whatever impact it has is going to fall within the parameters suggested by the free market mythology. Within those parameters, the impact of ethical consumerism qua reduction in demand/profit is often quite small (though as mentioned above, not non-zero). But it also has other forms of impact. And vegetarianism in particular, I think, carries the potental for these other forms of impact farther than most ethical consumerism.

What would be the end result of the collective action proposed as a replacement for, or at least supplement to, ethical consumerism in the case of vegetarianism? It would be the elimination of the practice of raising and slaughtering animals for food. Were this to be achieved, we would all then have to be vegetarians. This would be a significant shift in how we organize our way of life. Food is such an intimate part of life that major changes in it necessitate major changes -- at the most basic level, acquiring new understandings of how to plan and cook healthy and tasty meals. Present-day ethical consumerist vegetarianism serves an important role in working through those issues of how to have a meatless life, and inducts people into what has been learned.

The change that vegetarianism requires also creates an inevitable sort of witnessing for the cause. Because food is central not just to how we live our individual lives, but to how we socially engage with others, it's hard to be unobtrusively a vegetarian (and even more so a vegan). Having people around modeling the end-product of a social change draws attention to the issue and accustoms others to see the animal rights position as at least reasonable and worth treating respectfully -- widening the Overton window -- aside from any explicit debates or conversions.

Contrast what I've said about vegetarianism with another example of ethical consumerism -- boycotting Wal-Mart. The end product of that struggle is to either drive Wal-Mart out of town or get it to reform its business practices. These things surely make a big difference to the intended beneficiaries, e.g. workers farther back in the production chain. But it doesn't make a huge qualitative difference in one's life whether you got your laundry detergent and jeans from Wal-Mart or you had to go all the way to K-Mart or Spag's* for them. Thus, the impact of this type of ethical consumerism is mostly limited to the market principles suggested by the word "consumerism."

So even if vegetarianism's direct impact on the size of the meat industry is negligible (which I don't think it is, but for the sake of argument), it is valuable in laying the groundwork both for starting the necessary collective action, and realizing the gains that that collective action would ultimately win. The left strategic argument is a useful corrective to people who -- seduced by the free market mythology -- imagine that their personal food choices constitute the be-all of activism. But by it does not rebut the idea of vegetarianism as one significant part of an animal rights agenda.

*I went to Wikipedia to get a link explaining Spag's, only to find that it apparently closed shortly after I left Worcester. This makes me sad, not because I thought the store itself was so great, but because it was symbolic of the spirit of being a real, loyal native of Worcester.



The Ridiculousness of the Coalition

My mind boggles at the ridiculousness of the Coalition in Australia. The new Labor government has now apologized to the Aborigines, in particular the Stolen Generations. While I can't see into Kevin Rudd's heart, the apology's text certainly has the form of a genuine apology that recognizes and repudiates the real wrong that's being apologized for. We'll have to see how things work out -- it's disturbing that Labor has been so fixed against any sort of material compensation, but the symbolism of the apology's words appears to have been well-recieved by the apologize-ees.

The Coalition, on the other hand ... their leader, Brendan Nelson, offered his own speech that for some reason was also labeled an "apology." Nelson used his time, not to recognize the wrongness of the policies behind the Stolen Generations, but to defend them. He referred repeatedly to the good intentions of the generation stealers, and blamed the harms on unintended consequences (i.e., he's sorry that the generation-stealing was not successful). Where Rudd's words were a small step toward healing the wounds, Nelson's were a small step toward finishing the job.

Then on top of that, Tony Abbott claimed that John Howard -- whose administration ended with a disgraceful set of coercive, victim-blaming, and overtly colonialist interventions in Aboriginal communities, and who pointedly refused to even show up to the apology ceremony -- was the the best Prime Minister for Aborigines Australia's ever had. I understand that it's the shadow cabinet's job to promote their party as better than the current government. But there are some times you need to keep your mouth shut, because the arguments you could make for your party's superiority on some count are so transparently laughable that the blow to your dignity of making them isn't worth it.

Given the kind of self-parody that Nelson, Abbott, and Howard have engaged in on this issue, it was rather surreal to hear Rudd proclaim that progress on improving race relations in Australia would just require Parliament to "move beyond our infantile bickering, our point-scoring and our mindlessly partisan politics." That might work if the Coalition leader was Barack Obama, but in reality he's going to have to deal with a group of lawmakers who have a sincerely insane viewpoint about Australia's indigenous people.

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Tom Tancredo II

Just when we thought the U.S. House of Representatives had lost its craziest immigrant-hater with the impending retirement of Tom Tancredo, it seems someone else wants to step up to fill the position. Lou Barletta, the mayor of Hazleton, Pa. who was one of the first and most extreme to try to crack down on immigrants* at the local level, is planning a run for Congress. I feel personally insulted by this because he's running in Pennsylvania's 11th District, where I lived from age 9 to 18 (and where my parents still live). So while the incumbent is a pretty center-of-the-party Democrat (and therefore unimpressive by my progressive sensibilities) who has held the seat as long as I've been alive, given his opposition I'm prepared to go out on a limb and endorse Paul Kanjorski in the race for PA-11.

*Yes, immigrants-period, not just "illegal immigrants."

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Are there any serious intellectual counterarguments to animal rights?

I would be very interested in finding one, because my academic reading on the subject (which is admittedly at the equivalent of "one-semester seminar" level, not "comprehensive exams" level) has failed to turn up any. (I'm defining "animal rights" broadly here as any position that grants animals enough consideration to make it impermissible for humans to raise and slaughter them for food under normal circumstances, even if they don't get full equality or "rights" sensu strictu.)

The point has been brought home as I read Cass Sunstein and Martha Nussbaum's recent edited volume Animal Rights. One would think that two scholars of their intellectual capacity and international renown would be able to solicit the strongest available pieces to include in their book. And since the book came out in 2006, they can draw on the very latest thinking on an issue that has commanded great public attention (unlike, say, someone trying to find rebuttals a year after Animal Liberation was published). And they've certainly found some scholarly heavyweights, with no less than Richard Posner writing one of the anti-animal-rights chapters. Nevertheless, at the halfway point of my reading, the results from the antis are almost laughable.

The aforementioned article by Posner, for example, is largely an appeal to intuition. Posner says that his instincts tell him that eating meat is fine, and therefore he refuses to grant any normative weight to philosophical arguments that might run counter to his inclinations. Peter Singer has a response chapter that pretty effectively demolishes the absurdity of Posner's attempt to create an argument against arguments. Singer doesn't mention that Posner fails in the opposite direction as well. He as much as admits that by his own reasoning, slavery and women-as-property were truly moral as long as (some ill-defined group of) people instinctively thought they were OK. If Posner is right that animal rights arguments are likely to be impotent in the face of our carnivorous intuitions, then surely his brand of slavery-excusing crude moral relativism is likely to be even more impotent in the face of our instinct that moral rules mean something*.

A later article by Richard Epstein (maybe it's something about the name "Richard" ...) is even worse. I can barely make out what, if anything, he's arguing. The strategy of the article seems to be to throw out any half-baked seeming problem or not-immediately-obviously-answered question prompted by the animal rights idea, hoping that one of them sticks. The best developed of them is the absurd assertion (disguised a bit by focusing on domestic cats -- which, contrary to an apparently popular view among animal rights opponents, not all animal rights proponents are opposed to -- rather than, say, factory farmed cows) that animals are happier being exploited by humans than running wild. I have an uncharitable mental image of Epstein red-faced and stammering at having an unthinking assumption challenged, flailing about for some rebuttal that will allow him to restore his previous mental balance**.

As it happens, I have actually encountered some intellectually serious counterarguments to animal rights. But they're not going to be of much help to most people who would like to see the animal rights position rebutted, because they come from radical ecocentrists. Their argument is not that animals don't count, but that so many other things -- trees, ecosystems, geological formations, the process of evolution itself -- do count that the model of interests and rights that we accord to humans and that animal rights proponents want to extend to animals becomes unworkable. (Most of these ecocentrists, out of fear of being labeled "ecofascists" who might countenance massive human die-offs if it were necessary to protect nature, pull their punches by retaining such a traditional rights-scheme for intra-human matters -- but they thereby expose themselves to the animal rights argument at that point within their larger system.)

There are certainly silly arguments made by ecocentrists (for example, Holmes Rolston III, one of the leading ecocentrists, has tried to argue that eating meat is morally good because it gives us another route through which we can interact with nature). But they at least seem to be making an attempt to engage with animal rights as a serious position, unlike the "but eating meat feels so right!" whining of committed anthropocentrists like Posner.

*Posner's chapter does give me further evidence for my long-standing suspicion that conservative hyperventilating about leftist moral relativism is of the "doth protest too much" variety, since when pressed conservatives seem so willing to resort to patently relativist invocations of intuition and tradition.

**Epstein does have one good early point, which is that animal rights authors' frequent claims that animals, slaves, and inanimate property have been treated precisely the same are false. But showing that the law did not in fact see horses as precisely identical to cars is only a tiny step toward making a case that the further protections animal rights proponents are asking for are unjustified.



The Last Acceptable Form Of Discrimination Is All Of Them

In response to the rightly-ridiculed news that some Mississippi legislator wants to ban restaurants from serving fat people, Rachel at The F-Word
, "for all of you who doubt fat is one of the last acceptable forms of discrimination, what say you now?"

I say, "the existence of an anti-fat law proposal doesn't disprove the fact that there's still loads of discrimination against women, gays/lesbians/bisexuals, people of color, immigrants, disabled people, trans people, the poor, non-Christians, the elderly, non-human animals, and probably a bunch more I'm forgetting. The fact that one kind of discrimination is common doesn't mean it's a unique exception to our otherwise egalitarian society." I realize her comment is aimed at people who deny that anti-fat discrimination exists at all, and she (and the commenters who echo the framing) would probably admit that all those other discriminations exist too. But I still get annoyed at "last acceptable discrimination" rhetoric, because it comes off as a narrowness of focus on one issue and an exaggerated sense of one's own place in the oppression olympics.

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Obama Is A Pot Head!

Ampersand points out that in the past, Barack Obama expressed support for decriminalizing marijuana. He and his commenters lament that while decriminalization is both eminently reasonable and widely supported by the public, it's also a political non-starter.

I think one reason for is what most voters do with information about candidates' stands. Contrary to the assumptions of all the makers of the "who should you vote for" quizes, people don't have a set of policy preferences and then pick a candidate they think will support those policies. Instead, people look at politicians' issue positions as indicators of their character. They ask what kind of person would have taken that stand?

This kind of character analysis is not unreasonable. Candidates' explicit policy plans never survive first contact with Congress, and there are always unexpected events that the candidate can't have offered a plan for. So we should be paying attention to the kind of judgment candidates exercise, and the core values and dispositions that drive them. To stick with the Obama example, I find his early stumbling on the question of "clean coal" plants much more informative than the promises of X% renewable energy by 20-whatever in the policy paper ghostwritten by his environment advisor.

The problem lies in the mental templates people use to transform a policy stand into an inference about character. The primary template that most Americans have for "the kind of person who would advocate legalizing marijuana" is "irresponsible hippie" -- especially if the person is, as in the case of Obama, already seen as young and liberal. So a voter could easily think (subconsciously or not) "I happen to agree on the merits with legalizing marijuana, and I trust that in my case it's for good, responsible reasons. But the most likely reason that Obama's advocating it is that he's a dirty hippie, and despite our fortuitous coalition on the marijuana issue, I don't want a hippie to be the leader of the free world."

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