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Good news?

It's a little disorienting, in the midst of things like the Sean Bell verdict and Russell Pearce's latest turd, but a story came across the wire yesterday that actually seemed like it could be good news -- the judge in the Indian trust fund case has said it's not a matter of whether, but of how much, money to pay out to the Indians who have been ripped off by the U.S. government's mismanagement of royalties from oil and gas development on lands held in trust. I put a question mark after my title because it's not yet clear whether any of the underlying problems -- the government's cavalier, irresponsible attitude toward Indians, and its pre-1494 accounting system -- will be corrected, or if the government's attitude will be along the lines of "fine, pay them so they'll get off our case for a while."

Addendum: I forgot about two other pieces of good news:

1. Janet Napolitano vetoed the anti-sanctuary law, after activists made a stink about it and the state legislators who voted for it -- including erstwhile progressives like Krysten Sinema -- admitted they hadn't even read it. (OK, so this is actually just canceling out some old bad news, plus new bad news about the level of professionalism in our state legislature, but still.)

2. The U.S. government admitted it was wrong to deny a detained man treatment for penis cancer. Francisco Casataneda is still dead, and it's not clear whether this will lead to any systemic change in the quality of health care in jail, but it's at least a step.



It has come to my attention, over the course of the last few weeks, that I'm becoming ... mean. Particularly in the comment sections of others' blogs, I've developed a tendency to take what is, on sober reflection, a particularly nasty approach to engaging others, both those who are dimly aware of my existence and total strangers. I don't rescind much if anything of the substance behind my various comments and posts, but I do greatly regret my way of approaching the disagreement and attempting to make my point (in some cases, to the point that I should have just kept my mouth shut in that instance).

My meanness can, I think, be traced in part to my attempting to inch closer to being an ally to various oppressed groups. (I stress in part -- I also blame a generalized mood of personal-life grumpiness, with respect to which I've failed to suck it up and get over it.) I've read a variety of "how to be an ally" type articles over the years, mostly written by members of the allied-with groups. They tend to highlight two major failings characteristic of newly-minted allies* -- attempting to take over the allied-with group's spaces or movement (using your privilege within, rather than against, that group), and walking on eggshells due to a sort of impotent paranoia about making a mistake. It makes sense that these two failings would be salient to allied-with-group people, since they're the ones that directly affect that group, i.e. the things that drive a wedge between allies and allied-with people.

I would add meanness to the list of pitfalls for those approaching ally-ship. Meanness is directed outward, a sort of scattershot viciousness directed at any example of oppression (however serious or mild) that crosses your path (including, occasionally, things that you mistakenly assume are examples of oppression). The mean proto-ally, overconfident in his or her newfound enlightenment, finds seemingly less-enlightened others and unloads their fury on them.

The opposite of meanness is not necessarily kumbaya-type understanding others' position and respecting it and compromising with it (of the sort many progressives have accused Barack Obama of exhibiting). The problem with meanness is not the hard line it takes toward those you're criticizing. The problem with meanness is that it's narcissistic. Meanness is characterized by a focus on venting your negative feelings toward your target, rather than carefully choosing your approach and words for maximum effect in engaging your target. Like the other forms of ally failings, it stems in part from an illicit attempt to conflate your own position with that of the allied-with group, to try to practice the same kind of righteous anger they're entitled to without the prerequisite wounding that makes righteous anger rhetorically powerful and morally legitimate. And meanness is narcissistic in another way -- it often involves a (conscious or unconscious) desire to show off your enlightenment to the allied-with group, to wave in front of them the heads of dragons you've slain. But members of the allied-with groups are typically fairly consequentialist about allies -- they want to be less oppressed, not just to have cheerleaders agreeing with them about how oppressed they are. And meanness is in a third sense narcissistic, in that it can involve a projection of one's own self-loathing. New allies have to deal with a lot of self-loathing -- justifiedly so, as they have just come to understand how loathsome many of their attitudes and actions are. But productive, transformative processing of self-loathing is difficult. It's much easier to attack those who are a few steps farther back on the path, to loathe them or what they're doing in the hopes that it will purge your own flaws.

So I've been mean. I will strive to be less mean, as it's unhelpful to anyone. A heads-up to Alon Levy: If I don't succeed in chilling a bit, you may have to take back that thing you said long ago about me being the only civil blogger.

*I deliberately vacillate here between describing people as new allies or would-be allies -- because I don't know what qualifies one for the title of "ally," or even if an (alleged) ally has the right to bestow it on him/herself or anyone else.


Try My Great New Weight-Loss Program -- Jail!

Apparently it takes "finely tuned faculties" to look at a fat person and think "wow, that gross fattie should be happy to take the pounds off any way he can" -- in this case, through being in prison with a diet that leaves you fainting and wracked with hunger pangs. Funny, because I thought that kind of simplistic bigotry was actually commonplace in our society.

The issue here is not any particular empirical claim about the relationship among allegedly fatness-causing factors, fatness itself, and health (though the blogger linked above seems to take glee in using this case as a rebuttal to unnamed fat activists who question how easy it is to just starve yourself thin). The issue is the attitude that fatness is such an awful condition that it undermines people's right to autonomy, giving everyone else the green light to "helpfully" judge them and tell them how to correct their condition.


How To Say Sorry

I've forgotten most of what I learned in confirmation class back in the mid-90s. After all, becoming philosophically aligned with Unitarianism meant I didn't have much need for the details of Lutheran theology. One thing that has stuck with me, though, was how Pastor Paul described what it meant to say "sorry." He emphasized that you should only use that word to express genuine regret -- a feeling that you made a genuinely wrong choice (not just that you regret doing something that made other people mad at you). This feeling of genuine regret entails a desire to have a "do-over" on the thing you're apologizing for, and a commitment to not doing it again. If you think that what you did was still on balance justified, you're not actually sorry. And that may be fine -- there are many times in our lives when any course of action will have some costs and where someone else might weight those costs differently. Additionally, if you have no control over the thing being apologized for, there's no need for or point to apologizing. Demanding, offering, and accepting apologies are primarily about correcting problems in people's behavior, not establishing or undoing pecking orders. (In the confirmation class context, this was all in the context of why salvation by grace and Jesus' forgiveness doesn't mean you can just go do bad stuff as long as you remember to say "sorry" on your deathbed. The point of those doctrines is that Jesus is willing to work with you to fix your problems, not that he's given you a get out of hell free card. My evolution from Lutheran to Unitarian consisted largely of transposing statements about "God" over to statements about the spirit of love in and between sentient mortal beings, and this "sorry" stuff was one of the things that translated relatively unscathed.)

This perspective on apologies has made me have little patience for insincere use of the word sorry -- not just the famous "I'm sorry if you felt offended" public figure non-apology, but also casual use of the word "sorry" to placate others, or groveling "sorry"s that are more about the apologizer's feelings of worthlessness and rejection than about concern for correcting behavior, and especially the construction "I'm sorry, but ..."

I've been meaning to write this for a while (since long before the blog war you may think I'm obliquely commenting on), but I was motivated this morning by running across a post by PortlyDyke, who seems to have a quite similar view of how apologies should work.


Arizona: The Anti-Sanctuary State

There are a number of cities around the country that are "sanctuary cities." These cities decided that their local law enforcement would focus on enforcing local laws, since 1) they lack the time, resources, and training to do the Feds' job for them, and 2) trying to enforce immigration law interferes with enforcing local laws, since it makes whole communities of people fearful of interacting with the police in any way.

The state of Arizona wants every city and county in the state to be an anti-sanctuary city. The Senate just passed a bill that would require local law enforcement to enforce immigration law.

The sanctuary city rationale laid out above is solid enough, and it works even if you assume that police forces, systemically and at the level of individual officers, are basically dedicated to the common good. The problem only gets worse when you factor in that these folks the state is now demanding enforce immigration law are not only under-trained and over-worked, but also quite often racist bastards. The latest evidence of this comes from a review (pdf) of Arizona traffic stops, which showed that the cops are 2 to 3 times more likely to search a person of color's car than a white person's. And to add insult to injury, Latinos and American Indians were substantially less likely than whites to have any illegal stuff in their car (blacks were just slightly more likely).


Transparency In Institutions

Elaine Vigneault endorses a proposed bill that all slaughterhouses should be required to install publicly-reviewable video cameras, as a way of promoting transparency and hence accountability for how animals are treated. This way activists wouldn't need to conduct covert operations, like the one by the Humane Society that recently prompted the country's largest beef recall by exposing the Westland/Hallmark slaughterhouse's torture of "downer" cattle.

I endorse this idea as well. And I think it could also be expanded -- not just to other animal operations like factory farms, but also to "total institutions" housing humans. The general principle is this: Whenever an instution is given total control over the fate of other sentient beings (that is, beings that can care about their fate), its operations must be open to review by independent parties (outsiders, as well as by its own inmates where feasible). History has shown repeatedly that control combined with a lack of transparency and hence accountability is a recipe for abuse.

The specific solution of video cameras may not work everywhere. It's a good idea for animal institutions, and perhaps for prisons (which are already under potential constant surveilance by guards). Hospitals and nursing homes (and rehabilitation-oriented programs that would ideally replace prisons), on the other hand, would certainly require an alternate means of creating transparency without violating residents' privacy. I recall hearing a few years back that Joe Lieberman had introduced an (unsuccessful) bill to make all prisons, including private ones, subject to strong FOIA rules*, which would have been a small step in the right direction.

*This is the reason I can't quite sign on to the idea that Lieberman is an evil DINO who should just join the Republican Party already. While he's made a fetish of taking a neoconservative position on foreign policy, he gets more liberal the less an issue is in the public spotlight. IIRC he's also a big supporter of DC representation.


The Privilege Of Passing

Belledamme has a post up about whether the ability to "pass" -- to pretend to be a member of a dominant group -- is a form of privilege. She, and Alas commenter Sylvia, who she quotes at length, say no. I would say yes. But I think that's more about what we mean in labeling something a "privilege" than a disagreement about the analysis of the social dynamics surrounding passing.

I would say that passing is a privilege because it enables those who can do it to avoid some of the impacts of their oppression. The fact that many people choose to pass means that having that option makes their lives better than they would be if they didn't have it -- which seems to be the definition of a privilege. (An interesting counterargument would be the claim that the ability to pass is an additional form of oppression, because those who can pass are then expected to pass.)

The sense in which passing is not a privilege is the sense in which we set up an opposition between a privileged group and an oppressed group. This is what I think Sylvia was getting at in describing passing as a "survival skill." White privilege, for example, accrues to the non-racially-oppressed parties. Passing, on the other hand, only exists insofar as the alleged privilege-holder is him/herself oppressed. And the ability to pass, while it may mitigate the worst effects of that oppression, doesn't negate the oppression. Passing is still costly, putting the passer in a worse situation than someone who actually is a member of the dominant group. Pointing to someone's ability to pass can show their relative advantage vis-a-vis someone similarly situated but unable to pass (e.g. a light-skinned versus a dark-skinned black person). But passing doesn't tell us anything about whether one form of oppression is worse or more deserving of remedy than another (e.g. more-easily-passed homophobia versus less-easily-passed sexism).


Overthinking Bittergate

So Barack Obama said that rural Pennsylvania voters are bitter because the government has failed to deliver on its promises to them, and so they take refuge in clinging to guns or religion. His defenders have generally interpreted this as a version of the "cultural distraction" argument made famous by (but not original to) Thomas Frank in What's The Matter With Kansas? This argument goes that while rural whites' economic interests are best served by the Democrats, but they have been tricked into worrying more about cultural issues like guns and sex and therefore voting for the GOP.

As it happens, I know a bunch of rural white Pennsylvania Republican voters -- pretty much my whole family. And while they're usually reluctant to talk politics with their crazy pinko son/nephew/grandson, I can say that the cultural distraction thesis doesn't really match their outlook. While they're hardly progressives on cultural issues, they're clearly not the anxious culture warriors portrayed by the cultural distraction argument.

Obama's version of the distraction argument (unlike Bill Clinton's 1992 version that many of Obama's defenders have been gleefully pointing to) adds an important element that can take us beyond the standard cultural distraction argument. Obama said that rural whites are "bitter" because the government never seems to be able to help them. By Obama's reasoning, they weren't pulled to cultural issues by devious GOP rhetoric, they were pushed by the failures of both Republican and Democratic regimes to deliver on their promises.

Where I go beyond Obama is to say that once bitterness at governmental failure is on the table, we don't need to invoke guns and religion to explain why those voters are not so keen on the Democratic party. If you're bitter that government has failed, then you're going to be attracted to the party whose message is "government doesn't work, so we want to shrink it -- get it out of your pocketbook and your life. The only legitimate way to get ahead is old-fashioned hard work."

The cultural distraction argument is undoubtedly true for some people. But it's unfortunately tempting to overgeneralize it. It exploits a lot of Democratic weaknesses -- e.g. the desire to see the GOP as evil geniuses, and the feeling that the party is entitled to the votes of certain demographics (see also the cases of Ralph Nader and black people). But I think that for a lot of people, the small-government frame comes first. Indeed, commitment to conservative cultural positions may quite well follow from bitterness-driven commitment to conservative economic positions. If you see the real solution to the country's problems as lying in traditional virtues of personal responsibility, then you'll frame cultural policies differently. Bans on abortion and gay sex, for example, will come across not as government intrusion into people's personal lives that's inconsistent with the small-government mantra. They will come across instead as the government upholding the traditional personal-responsibility ethic (and its associated lifestyle) against irresponsible hedonism.

I think Obama recognizes that if the anti-government sentiment is often primary, rather than cultural conservatism, that gives him a good opening. He's already demonstrated an ability to inspire people to feel like they can have real hope for what a politician may accomplish. He seems more likely than anyone who sought the nomination this cycle to break through that bitterness. The downside is that he may thereby set himself up for a crushing loss in 2012 if he can't deliver (and I doubt he can).


An Elite2 President Will Have Trouble Being An Elite1 President

I feel like I should have something substantive to say about "bittergate," seeing as I grew up in rural Pennsylvania*. I still need to find time to go read the full context before I can comment on either Obama's allegations about Pennsylvanians or the various criticisms of them. I've noticed one line of Obama-defense that I think is tendentious.

The criticism of Obama is that his comments show that he's "elitist." I've seen numerous commentators say "after eight years of that bumbling moron Bush, don't we *want* an elite president?"

This comeback works by conflating two senses of the word "elite." The first -- call it "elite1" -- means "better than average at doing what they're trying to do." In that sense, yes, we want an elite1 president, a president who is better than the average American (or the average politician) at presidenting. And Obama probably would be an elite1 president.

But nobody's criticizing Obama for being elite1. They're criticizing him for being elite2 -- "a member of a privileged social group." There's good reason to not want an elite2 president, because their group membership, and the viewpoint and experiences that come from it, will make them less understanding of the problems facing the non-elite2 majority of the country. Not to mention that we already have a surplus of elite2 people in our government. Whether or not his "bitter" comments are evidence for or against it (a topic for another post), Obama is rather elite2. Then again, so are Hillary Clinton and John McCain.

The problem here is not just misunderstanding or twisting the criticism of Obama. The conflation of the two senses of elite reinforces the ideology that supports social inequality. It encourages us to think that the elite2 classes are elite1, that they deserve their privilege and they're better than the rest of us at presidenting, running businesses, etc.

This conflation is not new -- it's an element of the standard liberal case against Bush. His facade of no-elite2-ness -- his accent and malapropisms, his ranch and cowboy hat -- is treated, implicitly or explicitly, as evidence or a hook for his non-elite1-ness. And that's wrong.

*I am ready to say, though, that whining about the "-gate" suffix is almost as annoying as whining about the word "blog" being aesthetically unappealing.

Countering The YouTubeification Of The Blogosphere

Lauredhel has done something far too few bloggers these days do. She posted a video that she wanted to comment on, and then she posted a transcript of it.

I can't count the number of blog posts I've read that go basically "Can you believe this? [YouTube video] This is outrageous! I think this is the best response, though: [another YouTibe video] Indeed." It took me days to figure out that Mitt Romney had tried to show he was cool by singing "Who Let the Dogs Out" -- I just kept seeing the video posted and people commenting on it on the assumption that readers knew what was going on. (George Allen's "macaca moment," on the other hand, I understood right away -- because back in 2006 YouTubeification hadn't progressed as far, so when people posted the video they'd also say "Hey, watch this video of George Allen calling someone 'macaca.'")

YouTube is a great site. And sometimes, you have to watch the video for it to be worthwhile -- e.g. if you're posting a song you want people to check out. But most of the time, the content you're commenting on can be quoted or summarized in text. That way, your post can be followed by:
1. People like me who do most or all of their blog reading at work or in a public place, where they can't have the sound on.
2. People with slow connections who can't easily watch high-bandwidth content.
3. People who can't hear.
I'm lucky enough that if a video looks especially promising, I can make a note of it and watch it when I get home. Other people can't.


... Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Rational

I've written before that the focus among non-Boy Scouts, the Scout leadership, and a few newsmaking troops on anti-gay and anti-atheist bigotry doesn't match my experience of how my (not especially unusual or liberal) troop actually ran in practice. As a data point, it occurred to me the other day that the first atheists I ever met were a pair of brothers who were in Boy Scouts with me. They didn't keep their faithlessness in the closet, nor did they appear to experience any outright discrimination (though it was hardly a secular paradise, and they did have to sit through the occasional non-proselytizing religious observance). So it seems to me that Scouting could so easily be made fully accepting of gays and atheists without significantly altering its program that the defenders of the current policy have completely lost sight of what's worthwhile in the organization.


The Enemy Of My Enemy

I've been reading the New Times' "Feathered Bastard" blog to keep up with the latest idiocy from Sheriff Joe. But it looks like they've decided to make sure that I know that just because they're on the side of the angels with respect to Arizona's #1 nativist, they're running with the devils on everything else.

In a recent post, Stephen Lemons slams ASU for banning a conservative talk radio station on university buses. But he decides to prove (despite lip service against it) that he's not just defending them on abstract free speech grounds, he's defending them because he agrees with the substance of their opinions about everything except Sheriff Joe. So he pulls out the worst sort of bottom-dwelling feminist-bashing:

Still, I do often part ways with my fellow pinkos. I think 9/11 conspiracy theories are bunk. And I detest this persistent, whiney need of some lefties to enforce their point of view with speech codes and political correctness. I've always hated it. When I was in college a few moons back, feminist radicals would periodically try to get Playboy banned from the college bookstore. Not that I cared much for Playboy. Hustler and Penthouse were more my style, but who needs some hairy, left-wing extremist deciding for the rest of us what we will read or look at? My response to them as well as to right-wing bluenoses who want to rid the word of nekkid pictures for different reasons is the same: Fuck you. And I don't mean that literally unless you lose the hair on your upper lip.

Hey Lemons, if you think the most important thing about a woman is whether you're interested in sticking your penis in her, you're not "one of us." You're one of them -- a right-winger.

(And he gets in a little homophobic swipe at the execrable Andy Thomas,
referring to him as a "pansy.")


Speaking of appropriation and plagiarism ...

Take a look at this. It's the website I designed for SERI, the organization I worked for while in grad school (I'm linking to because I have since changed the page a bit).

Now look at this, which is the website from some organization I've never heard of.

Basically, ESR took all the HTML from the SERI site, as well as some images (but not the stylesheet), stuck in their own name and contact info, and put it on their site.

I sent them an email saying "dude, this is weird. Either take it down or pay me to make you a site that doesn't look like crap."

Right now my main emotion is not anger or hurt (I'm certainly not trying to compare myself to Brownfemipower!). My main emotion is confusion. I could understand stealing someone's page layout (and if that had been all it was, I would have just shrugged my shoulders -- my layout for SERI was hardly a page design breakthrough). It's that they also took almost all the text and images. They knew enough to change some things -- they replaced SERI's name with theirs everywhere, changed the contact info on the contact page, and completely removed the page with bios of all the Board of Directors. But they left the mission statement otherwise intact, and their list of projects is identical to SERI's (they even left in the names of the SERI personnel on each project -- I stumbled across ESR through their version of the description for the very project I was an RA for with SERI. And SERI's contact info at the top of each page is intact except that "Main Street" has been changed to "Home Street."

I'm trying to figure out what the motive is here. If they're a real organization, they did a pretty slipshod job of making themselves a website. But they don't seem to be some sort of "search engine optimization" site -- I don't see any visible ads or links to porn sites, nor does there appear to be anything hidden in the HTML.

I called the contact number they list, which was a trip. It goes to a very long message consisting of background noise, as if someone accidentally picked up the phone and let it sit -- apparently designed to make you think you weren't going to be able to get through. But if you listen long enough, it does beep and let you record a message.

If anyone has any clue what's going on here, I'm all ears.


Tenure Reform

I'm a potentially-aspiring academic -- that is, depending on what happens with my personal life, I'm quite likely to find myself seeking a tenure-track academic job. Nevertheless, I quite agree with Neil Sinhababu's thoughts on tenure reform. In brief, he suggests that tenure should not be an all-or-nothing permanent decision. Rather, professors should get long-term contracts (say 15 years), at the end of which they must show that they're still producing the high-quality scholarship and teaching to deserve another 15 years. After a couple such renewals, highly distinguished faculty could get permanent tenure. This system seems like a good compromise between preventing complacency and giving academics space to work out ideas and take up long-term projects without worrying that some supervisory body is breathing down their neck.

I always have to roll my eyes when I see most defenders of the tenure status quo whipping themselves into a righteous frenzy about how necessary it is to protect their freedom. I've come to the conclusion that tenure is valuable to most academics not so much because it allows them to take controversial stands without being fired, but rather because it allows them to imagine that their stands are so controversial -- so radial and upsetting to the powers that be -- that they need such protection.

I think such a long-term-but-not-permanent tenure system might also be beneficial to the truly radical scholars. (The obvious example here would be Andrea Smith, but I don't know the details of her case enough to directly apply my thoughts to her.) Certainly they would benefit more from permanent tenure -- but for that very reason they may be less likely to get it. If the tenure is only a 15-year contract, the university may be more willing to take a chance on a more status-quo-challenging scholar. Permanent tenure is such a momentous thing that it might be triggering (conscious or unconscious) prejudices that lead to second-guessing and eventual denial of tenure.


Taking Inspiration And Ideas From Others -- Ur Doin It Wrong

I've mentioned before that I have trouble wrapping my brain properly around the concept of appropriation. There's a good thread on the topic at Alas. I was going to work my comment there up into a full post, but it's getting late, so I'll just repost it here for posterity:

I think a good idea that seems to be percolating up here (especially in Acheman's comment, BFP's explanation quoted by belledame, and Mandolin in comments #5 and #22) is that to understand what's wrong with appropriation, you should focus on its impact on the appropriatee (as opposed to thinking in terms of procedural rules and a property metaphor). If what you're doing is contributing to the marginalization of certain voices, or undercutting someone's ability to earn money or prestige from their creation, or altering the significance of certain symbols in the public eye, or drowning out someone else's version, or perpetuating stereotypes (including the stereotype that a certain group is a source of "cool" or "exotic" stuff) — you're doing it wrong. And if you can identify in just what way your proposed appropriation would hurt the appropriatee, you can think about whether there's something you could do that would lessen the impact enough to make your actions OK. So you might say, for example, "repeating these ideas I got from a less-privileged person without attribution would contribute to the marginalization of their voices. But if I did give attribution, I might help to de-marginalize them a bit, or at least mitigate it enough that it wouldn't outweigh the good of getting them out to a wider audience."

And that's why power differentials and history are so important here — two acts that may be similar from a procedural/property analysis may, because of history and power, have very different impacts on the appropriatee.

Lesser Of Two Evils

I take back what I said earlier about Paul Kanjorski. While I'd still vote for him over the execrable Lou Barletta, it turns out he's not exactly a friend to immigrants. I just saw that he's signed on to the SAVE act (via Xicanopwr, who also explains what's wrong with SAVE).

Consequences and Punishment

Jill fisks an editorial in the Agusta Chronicle that attempts to rebut Barack Obama's suggestion that abortion opponents treat pregnancy as a punishment. The editorial loudly insists that they do not see things that way. Then they in effect make a 180 and push the "pregnancy is punishment" line again:

But part of loving and caring for your children is to teach them that there are consequences for their actions. To whisk a child off to an abortionist to help her avoid the consequences of her actions is in no way compassionate or caring.

This is a common refain in the context of abortion -- actions have consequences, and it's wrong to evade them. But this isn't a princple we follow most other places in life. If I stand up too fast and bump my head on a cabinet, nobody would deny me a dose of Tylenol because I need to learn that not watching where I'm going has consequences. If I make a wrong turn and stop to ask for directions, nobody would refuse to help me because that would just help me avoid the consequences of not being able to read a map. And people would certainly not deny me the Tylenol or directions if my problem was not of my own making -- if someone else hit me in the head, or I was given bad directions by someone else. Throughout our lives, we are engaged in trying to mitigate or evade the bad consequences of things we do, inlcuding both things we shouldn't have done in the first place and things that were the best option at the time.

The only context in which we think it's important for bad consequences to follow from a certain action is if we hope that those consequences will create a deterrent to doing that action again (or at least subject the person to regret and shame over the action), because we think there's something wrong with that action independent of its tendency to lead to the consequences in question*. That is, cases in which we're using those consequences as a punishment.

*Here I would include, perhaps awkwardly, "tendency to lead to the consequences in question in other situations where mitigation/avoidance of them is not possible" as a thing independently wrong with the action.



Upon further reflection, my last post was pretty dishonest. Because the fact is that in her situation, I almost certainly would have done exactly the same thing that Amanda Marcotte did. So it's rather ridiculous of me to take the criticism of her by women of color to position myself as somehow one of the good guys. I need to do a better job of making sure my own house is in order before I go pontifficating on the internet.


The Politics Of Citation

I've recently run across two wildly different posts that I think make the same implicit assumption about citing sources. The first was by Henry Farrell, asking what the proper protocol should be for citing an idea from a blog in an academic paper -- does it get a full proper citation like an idea from another academic paper, or just a footnote like a hallway conversation? The second was a blowup in the feminist blogosphere about the protocol for white feminists (the particular case at issue being Amanda Marcotte) citing the work of women of color (in this case specifically brownfemipower) when they finally do start talking about issues those women have raised (such as why immigration is a feminist issue) -- see Sylvia/M for a graphic presentation of the charge, and Hugo Schwyzer for a rebuttal and additional links to the discussion*.

Discussions on both topics frame citation as a duty owed to the idea-originator. Inserting links or references may be burdensome, the thinking goes, but you have an obligation to direct attention and credit toward those whose ideas you've used. This is a good way of thinking, and it helps us set a baseline minimum level of citation. And it explains the anger of those making the failure-to-cite charge.

But I think it's incomplete if we don't also recognize that citation makes what you write better. Your work becomes not just a thing on its own, but a portal to a larger discussion. Right now I have a 19-page, single-spaced 10-point document listing articles and books I want to read. The vast majority of this document was compiled from reading other articles and books, and making a note of the source whenever the author referenced an interesting point. I get annoyed sometimes reading things written for less formal publications that are looser about citation -- "you just said something interesting, I want to know where to read more about it!"

So when I read Farrell's question, I approached it not from the perspective of a writer wondering if he had to go look up the links and format the citation right, but of a reader who might find a full citation useful in tracking down the source of the idea and reading it in full and in context. And when I thought about the Marcotte controversy, among my thoughts was how a layout a bit more like Sylvia/M's version would have been a better article -- Marcotte obviously couldn't cram every idea brownfemipower and other bloggers of color have had on the topic into a single article, so citations would allow readers to see the fuller discussion (about the substantive issue and about the pedigree of the particular way of understanding it). I suppose it's symptomatic of a larger attitudinal issue -- is coalition-building something you do because it's necessary to allow you to get on with pursuing your own goals, or is it something you're excited to do because it enhances what you're doing? (To allow my tired brain to roam perhaps too far afield, I'm now reminded of the distinction made by some Christians -- exactly who I can't remember because it's been so long since I thought in these terms -- between framing the message as "Jesus died for you, so you owe him big" and "Jesus loves you, how does that inspire you to live?")

*As an aside, why is it that Hugo seems to be unable to link to women of color except to defend white feminists against funhouse mirror versions of their criticisms?


Geography And Anthropology: They're Good!

In a similarly titled post, Neil Sinhababu makes the case for majoring in philosophy. Philosophy is a great major, and if I were to go back for a second dose of undergrad for some reason it would probably be what I majored in. But I'd like to take this opportunity to put in a brief for geography and anthropology, the things I actually did major in.

Philosophy is great for teaching you how to read, process, and make arguments. What it's not so good at is helping you know what to have arguments about. I mean this in two ways: 1) the question of inputs -- being able to locate and evaluate empirical information when your argument calls for it -- and 2) framing what kinds of questions are out there and need a philosopher's eye. I encounter far too many people who are really good at structuring arguments, but fall prey to GIGO because they start from "intuitions" (oftentimes not even acknowledged as such) that are culturally specific or even outright false. (At the risk of sidetracking, I think there are certain common types of libertarianism and college-student liberalism that are largely the result of this imbalance.) Geography and anthropology give you a view of what things are really going on in the world and the true scope of diversity of human ways of life beyond the assumptions you're already carrying around.

Academic philosophers are hardly immune to it either, at least within environmental ethics (the branch of philosophy I'm most familiar with). I wish I could sit the leading environmental ethicists down for a semester of political ecology. Debates about whether a "restoration" of the environment is really metaphysically possible sound not just abstract but pointed in the wrong direction in the context of things like the gender dynamics of neo-colonial agricultural policy. Political ecologists, on the other hand, could do with a bit of philosophy to help them be clear about where in all this stuff they're exposing the core problem and its solution lie (because for all their eagerness to slam "value-free" science, they often do a poor job of making clear their own value commitments and what they entail beyond emotive renderings of situations*).

*Emotive renderings are great. They're called art and literature. And you need to be clear where you lie on the spectrum from art to argument.


The Pitfalls Of Trusting The System

Jessica Hoffman writes a stinging rebuke of the privilege exercised by the mainstream feminist movement and hence its failure to address -- or even perpetuation of -- injustices against women who are less privileged*. What makes her article especially interesting is that it points out one important mechanism by which this privilege operates: mainstream feminism assumes that on some level, the system works. Thus, for example, the great feminist triumph of VAWA is only a triumph insofar as the law enforcement agencies carrying out arrests and prosecutions under it can be trusted to do so responsibly -- and people in positions of less privilege in our society would certainly not extend that trust.

In the comments at Feministe, Brooklynite tries to argue that mainstream feminism has taken the interests of the less-privileged into account more than Hoffman allows:

In recognition of this dynamic, VAWA created a path to legal status for immigrant women who are abused by their husbands or partners [U visas -- ed.] — if they can demonstrate that they have co-operated with the prosecution of their abusers, undocumented women can gain legal residency. My wife is the (white feminist) general counsel of a domestic violence organization, and in the last few months her agency has processed the residency applications of dozens of such survivors of domestic violence.

My response was that this very example illustrated Hoffman's point that even when mainstream feminists think they're thinking outside their privileged box, their efforts can be undermined by their unquestioned faith in the system:

Let's go for the battle of dueling wife anecdotes -- my wife is a (white) immigration lawyer, and what she says has led me to form a much less optimistic picture. U visas are great in theory, as the above quote explains. The problem is that they quite often don’t work in practice. The key is the requirement to cooperate with law enforcement. This means that 1) the woman has to be willing to work with a system that’s brutally racist and unaccommodating toward her and toward people in her community, and 2) law enforcement has to want to work with her — to prosecute her abuser in the first place, and then to use her aid in the prosecution, and to certify that to the immigration authorities (which may be difficult due to resource constraints and organizational priorities, plus the various forms of systemic and individual bigotry enacted by law enforcement). So while the U visa system started to try to think intersectionally in the way the article wants, it was hobbled by the persistent white assumption that law enforcement is basically a force for good that people can rely on.

I mentioned this exchange to the wife in question, and she pointed out an additional factor that demonstrates how hollow the offer of U visas is: almost nobody has actually gotten one. Getting a U visa is not automatic -- you have to affirmatively apply to CIS (Citizenship and Immigration Services) and bear the burden of proving to their satisfaction that you deserve one. Then you have to wait for CIS to make a ruling. What has happened in practice is that CIS has taken the U visa applications and sat on them. They're not even getting denied, they're just hanging in limbo for extended periods of time. There's actually a class-action lawsuit being prepared on behalf of the U visa applicants because of the delays.

In this case, there's an answer that allows us to do an end run around reliance on the system: open borders. If there was no fear of deportation in the first place, the problem would be solved -- with a lot less paperwork. Obviously that's not "politically feasible." And I wouldn't condone making unwilling martyrs of those who seek small relief now, so I'm glad the U visa law is on the books and wish the class action suit the best of luck. But we need ideals like this as guides for which way to push against and within the realm of political feasibility, and as reminders of what we really are compromising.

*I recognize here that I'm in the position simultaneously of being both more privileged, and hence more privilege-ignorant, than Hoffman's intended audience, yet also not a member of the feminist movement and hence both more ignorant of what it's done and less emotionally invested in its current incarnation.