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Purslane and Potatoes

At the risk of proving that vegan food is all weird stuff, here's my lunch from today:

This is one of my new favorite things. Our CSA has been giving us verdolago, also known as purslane, the past few weeks. It was kind of sad, though, because when I went over to the trading area, everyone had traded in their verdolago for whatever else they could get. But I was also happy, because that made it easy for me to trade for another helping.

Ingredients (for enough to serve one person, as seen in the picture):
- Oil for frying
- One potato
- About 1/4 of a normal store sized onion
- A few shakes of garlic salt
- A loose pile of purslane/verdolago (leaves and small stems) a little bigger than the potato

Heat a little oil in a frying pan. Chop the potato into small cubes, and dice the onion. Put the potato and onion in the pan and cover, stirring occasionally. When the potato has cooked enough to get soft, add the garlic salt and verdolago. Cover again, and cook for a few minutes (be careful -- verdolago is a succulent, so some of the leaves will pop like popcorn).

In the picture I made some edamame to eat with it, but I've had this as a meal all by itself.



Here is an interesting example of the way that society makes assumptions about people fitting into a certain way of life, then penalizes those who don't fit. In this case, nominating petitions for some candidates in Arizona are being challenged because the petition signers gave their PO Boxes instead of their street addresses. But the reason they did that is because they live in rural areas of an unnamed Indian reservation where there are no street addresses.


Border Befuddlement

Today the Supreme Court said it won't hear a challenge to the fence the U.S. is building on the Mexican border. The challenge was based on the fact that the law providing for the building of the fence said the Department of Homeland Security could ignore environmental laws, which means the fence threatens various desert species and ecosystems.

I think the "ignore environmental laws" thing is unequivocally bad policy. And I'm sure the environmental side's lawyers had all kinds of interesting arcane legal arguments. But I find it hard to be very upset with the Supreme Court over this decision, because when it comes down to it, Congress has the power to re-write its own laws. Our Constitution was written in the 18th Century, so there's no "right to a clean environment" in it, much less rights for nature in and of itself. All of our environmental protections are established by Congress, and what Congress giveth, Congress can taketh away. The property-rights-based challenges that are working their way up may have more ground to stand on (since while the Founders may have been too early for John Muir, they knew all about John Locke), and may be better politics to boot -- a property-based challenge takes the progressive concerns about militarized border enforcement and environmental protection and marries them to a core conservative concern with protecting private property, through the less politically marked medium of preserving border-area communities and economies.

I find it a little strange, then, to hear Democratic members of Congress complaining about the outcome of this case. They can blame Republicans for passing the bad law in 2005. But the Democrats have controlled Congress since the beginning of 2007 -- so they have the power to introduce a bill that would change the bad law. They could tack it onto something like an Iraq funding bill or wiretapping authorization that they were going to pass anyway and that Bush wouldn't dare veto.

I also find this statement by DHS secretary Michael Chertoff depressing:

"We have had multiple meetings with some of the most bitter critics, people that we have talked to again and again," he told the Houston Chronicle's Editorial Board on June 6. "Now consultation means we try to see if we can work out an accommodation. It doesn't mean we consult for two years, it doesn't mean that a local official has a veto."

I've spent a lot of time reading research on collaboration and consultation in policymaking. And the lesson that gets hammered home again and again is that if the agency treats it as a one-way flow of information -- an opportunity to convince the public that the agency's decisions (which they'll carry out regardless of the results of the consultation) are right -- then the whole thing is a charade. And this lesson is more important the more politically charged the issue is.


What UUism Means To Me

The church I went to as an undergrad had a segment of the service called "What my faith means to me" or "What University Church means to me." Every week, one member of the congregation would give a mini-talk about their religious background and outlook. It was an especially useful device for that congregation, since we were coming from such wildly diverse backgrounds (from Pentecostals to agnostics, and including at one point both the president of the College Republicans and the head of the campus feminist group) and thrown together for just a few short years. In 7 semesters, I never quite had the right combination of self-assurance and extroversion to do "What my faith means to me."

I think a similar sort of confessional may be in order right now, though. I don't recall exactly how it happened, but at some point years ago I got adopted into the UU blogosphere. I've been linked (with a gold medal, no less) on Philocrites' UU blog list through numerous purges and trimmings, and my posts have been fed into pretty much every UU blog aggregator there is. And because of all this, I get commenters from time to time who begin their comments with "As a UU, you ..." or something similar.

I've decided it would be useful to set out exactly in what sense I'm a UU. I don't mean this post as a criticism of those who make a UU-centric reading of and response to what I write. But I do think there is a potential for misunderstandings if all someone knows is that, since I'm on a UU blog aggregator, I must identify as a UU. So here's "what UUism means to me":

The easiest way to begin is with biography. I was raised in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America -- the largest and most liberal of the Lutheran bodies in the US (to be even more specific, we always ended up, for geographical reasons, in German Lutheran churches, though my mom grew up in Swedish Lutheran churches and my dad had been a Methodist). When I went off to college, I joined University Church, Colgate's ecumenical protestant church. I attended UC faithfully for all four years (minus the semester I spent in Australia), even becoming a deacon my senior year.

During my last two years at Colgate, I began drifting away from orthodox Christian belief, starting with the doctrine of Hell (I was aided in this by, of all things, a Jehovah's Witness friend). Over the summer before my senior year, I heard several people speak favorably of the Unitarians. I looked them up online, and was excited to discover the combination of a church-type social organization with a deeply open-ended and liberal theological non-doctrine. At that point I took up using the term "Unitarian" to describe my religious orientation.

Nevertheless, I didn't actually set foot in a UU church until the following summer, during an internship in DC. I attended Universalist Memorial every Sunday that summer. Then I headed to grad school. In theory, going to grad school in the heart of New England should have been the perfect way to get more involved in a UU church -- but in fact it was a 40-minute hike through downtown Worcester to get to First Unitarian. So my attendance quickly became spotty at best, and I may at some point have gone a whole year without going to one service there. (Interspersed with this was attending my hometown's Lutheran church while visiting family, occasional visits to a much more conveniently located Methodist church, and a few trips -- at the invitation of my housemate -- to a Mennonite church.) Halfway through my second summer (which I spent at another internship, this one in Dayton, OH) I discovered the Miami Valley UU church, and went there for the rest of my time in Dayton. After that I returned to Worcester for several years.

Leaving Worcester, I went to Australia again to do my dissertation fieldwork. I was a faithful attendee at St. Anthony's Uniting Church. I loved the community there, though its orthodox protestant theology (the Uniting Church was formed by a merger of Australia's Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists) didn't quite match my beliefs. Returning to the US, I moved here to Casa Grande, where there is no UU church. Going to the nearest one (40 miles away) would be both too expensive (in gas and time) and ineffective at one of the key benefits of church attendance in my book -- forming relationships with people in your local community (which is also why the Church of the Larger Fellowship wouldn't work for me). So at the moment I have no church home. I did, however, get married back at First Unitarian in Worcester -- I wanted a wedding in a church setting, and the UUs' beliefs about marriage are closer to mine and Christina's than any other church.

What all this means is that I have never been a member of a UU church, or even attended one on a regular basis for more than a few months. The culture of UUism is largely alien to me. When I occasionally look at other UU blogs that focus much more explicitly on the church, I can't really connect with what they're saying -- either about church politics, or about UUs' heritage, or about how UU practice should or should not change. This isn't a criticism of those bloggers -- those discussions are obviously important for people deeply involved in the church, and there's no reason it ought to be relevant to me given my position. But it is something that differentiates me from the typical "UU blogger."

Why, then, keep calling myself a UU? Why not "secular" or "lapsed Lutheran"? Besides the hits I get from being in various UU blog aggregators, that is. Several things.

First, it's a useful way of giving Jane Q. Public a very quick pointer in the general direction of what I believe. It signals a respect for (the potential of) religion as an institution (which is both true as well as reassuring to people who might be freaked out by outright atheism), while also indicating the extreme liberalism and non-doctrinalness of my theological views.

Second, there's the thing that drew me to the UU label (and to those churches I've managed to attend), which is what I understand the UU approach to doing religion to be (at least potentially). First and foremost, of course, is its non-doctrinalism. I like the idea that no text or authority has a metaphysically privileged status or is beyond critique, and that it's reasonable to expect some wisdom to be found nearly everywhere in the human experience (and here I would take things like the 7 Principles to be descriptive summaries of what UUs have come to believe, rather than prescriptive axioms which they must work to bring themselves into accordance with and to ground their beliefs on). Related to this is UUism's tentativeness, fallibility, and openness (between persons and over time) with respect to any question. (There's also the fact that, insofar as I'm willing to frame my beliefs in a language approximating orthodox Christianity, I would endorse the heresies of unitarianism -- one god, not a trinity -- and universalism -- nobody goes to hell.) Finally, I like that UU churches put "doing community," both among members and between the church and the wider world, prior to having all of the answers, so that practice dyamically informs the interactive (neither solitary nor collectivist) search for truth and meaning. (In other words, I see UUism as having an inductive style, whereas orthodox churches usually strive to be deductive.)

In the end, though, my beliefs and history are prior to, and the sole basis for, my affiliation with the UU church. If I ever come into conflict with what, "as a UU" I should be, then it's my ties to the UUs that must give.


The Paradox Of Change

Barack Obama is running on a platform of "Change we can believe in." Most of his backers seem to assume that change is going to happen in a progressive direction. Let's look at why that won't happen.

To even get started, we have to assume that Obama wants to change the country in a progressive direction. This, of course, is a patent falsehood. But we'll assume it for the time being.

There are two aspects of progressive change: substantive and procedural. Substantive change means things like withdrawing troops from Iraq and limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Procedural change involves change in how our government is run, most notably the excessive power claimed by the presidency over the last eight years.

Obama will have to work with a center-right Congress, not too different from the one we have now. That Congress will seek to stymie any substantively progressive measures that come through -- for example, a climate change bill would be so watered down by the time that it reaches Obama's desk that the ecological footprint of the ink he uses to sign it could well outweigh the bill's actual impacts. That means the only way he can create any real substantive change is to do an end-run around the legislative process, claiming authority as The Decider to do whatever he wants.

In other words, achieving substantive substantive change would require abandoning (or even working contrary to) procedural progressive change. And achieving procedural progressive change would destroy his ability to achieve substantive progressive change.


The Tenacity Of Rationalization

The human brain is a marvelous organ, and perhaps the thing it excels at the most is rationalization. Here's an illustration.

I read this post, about a professor so aloof he couldn't engage in small talk with his (suspiciously stereotypical) plumber. The consensus is that this refusal is a form of classisim or elitism, as the professor is effectively saying to the plumber that the plumber is so beneath the professor, his interests so gauche that the professor has gone out of his way to avoid having any common cultural reference points, that the professor can't even show him recognition as a human being rather than a pipe-fixing automoton.

My thought process went something like this:

Well, I probably wouldn't engage in much small talk with a plumber either. But it's not because I'm elitist and I think I'm better than him.

Oh really? Try me.

I don't really make small talk with anyone. It's nothing against the plumber -- I wouldn't make small talk with other academics, either.

The plumber doesn't know, or care, what you do around other academics. The issue is that you've committed an actual slight against him, a slight which, given its context, will function to reinforce class-based elitism. What you do to anyone else is beside the point.

But I'm just not good at that kind of socialization. I'm an introvert -- so where's the sympathy for how these kind of social interaction expectations disadvantage me?

Don't think about pulling that "reverse discrimination" crap. Social interaction is a learned skill -- a skill you can choose to learn, or choose to not learn because you've got something else oh-so-important to spend your time doing. If anything, being able to be introverted (not to be confused with withdrawing as a self-defense mechanism) is a privilege, not a source of disadvantage.

OK, so I won't make this all about me and my needs. But when I try to put myself in his shoes, I think that if I was a plumber, I'd want to be left alone to do my job in peace. After all, back when I was stocking shelves in the grocery store, I hated it when people tried to make small talk with me.

You say it's not going to be all about you, and yet it still is. For starters, what you would want in his position has exactly nothing to do with anything. What matters is what he wants in his position. Then there's your wank-tastic example of being a shelf stocker back in college, as if that means you're down with the hoi polloi. Take a second to think about why you hated people talking to you so much. It's not just some innocent aspect of human diversity. It's probably because you were (consciously or unconsciously) embarassed about working such a menial job.

And if I'm honest with myself, at the end of all this, if I had to have a plumber over tomorrow, I'd still end up going in the other room while he worked. And I can't be entirely sure that my italicized anti-rationalization voice isn't just rationalizing my elitism in a different, sneakier way.


Odds And Ends

1. There are some good posts about the fact that veganism is not cruelty free by Brownfemipower, Noemi M, and Elle.

2. I'm really tired of the "You fools! Don't you see that McCain is anti-woman?" posts. For the sake of argument, let's grant the three main premises of such posts -- that there are a substantial number of Clinton supporters who are liable to vote for McCain in November, that a substantial number of them are primarily Clinton supporters due to feminism (rather than because they're moderates or racists or whatever), and that a vote for McCain is a net detriment to feminism. Even given that, do you think any such Clinton-McCain supporter is going to say "huh, that argument wasn't convincing the first 33 times I heard it (or thought of it myself), but this person wrote it with just the right blend of vitriol, desperation, and subconscious sexism that I'm convinced"?


Nothing Has A Purpose

Via Joe Carter, J. Buziszewski says the purpose of a thing should determine what we do with it:

The first objection is that it is rubbish to talk about natural purposes, because we merely imagine them; the purposes of things aren’t natural; they are merely in the eye of the beholder. But is this true? Take the lungs, for example. When we say that their purpose is to oxygenate the blood, are we just making that up? Of course not. The purpose of oxygenation isn’t in the eye of the beholder; it’s in the design of the lungs themselves. There is no reason for us to have lungs apart from it.

Suppose a young man is more interested in using his lungs to get high by sniffing glue. What would you think of me if I said, “That’s interesting—I guess the purpose of my lungs is to oxygenate my blood, but the purpose of his lungs is to get high”? You’d think me a fool, and rightly so. The purpose of the lungs is built into the design of the lungs. He doesn’t change that purpose by sniffing glue; he only violates it. ...

Consider the young glue-sniffer again. How should we advise him? Is the purpose of his lungs irrelevant? Should we say to him, “Sniff all you want, because an is does not imply an ought”? Of course not; we should advise him to kick the habit. We ought to respect our design. Nothing in us should be used in a way that flouts its inbuilt purposes.

This does nothing at all to support the contention that there are real purposes to things. I maintain that the idea of inherent purpose is, in fact, rubbish -- all there are are different uses that someone may make of a thing. Some of these uses may be ineffective -- your lungs will probably not make a very good paperweight. Others may be effective at producing bad results. The glue sniffer, for example, will pretty effectively produce a variety of health problems and ultimately an early death, which are bad because we can safely assume he doesn't want them.

How a thing came to be can be useful input into judging whether a use will be effective and what results it will produce. But it's not morally determinative. What's morally determinative is our evaluation of the results. Re-purposing a thing to new uses is a valuable expression of human creativity, not a form of poor discipline to be met with raps on the knuckles.

Ultimately, "purpopse" arguments depend crucially on the implicit assumption of design -- that a thing's existence is due to the intent of an obedience-worthy being. (Thus calling this type of philosophy "natural law" is false -- it's actually "divine law," since it's divine intent rather than the resulting structure of nature that matters.) Why God's intentions should matter to us (matter inherently, that is, since divine law arguments aspire to more than "do it or you'll get sent to hell") is unclear, except that it's a useful cop-out.

I mentioned above that there's a clear way to judge uses -- by their consequences (I tend toward "satisfaction of the desires of all affected" as my metric of consequences, but the exact metric is not relevant here). Buziszewski seems unable to comprehend such a thing, imagining that if "(the designer's) purpose" is removed from the equation, there's no way to tell if what you're doing is good or bad. This is the morality of the fatalist, the paper-pusher at the bottom of the hierarchy who is either too sycophantic or too soul-deadened to exercise any judgment, who takes refuge in "just following orders," who wants nothing more than to be a cog in someone else's machine.

The other day, I got an email back from tech support in response to reporting a minor glitch in a program. The tech support guy's message was petulant -- he essentially told me that I wasn't supposed to be using his program the way I was, because I was exploiting an unintended loophole, and therefore he had no sympathy for me in encountering that glitch. Buziszewski would probably have been chastened and dutifully begun using the program only in the way its authors intended, since that's its purpose as revealed by the designer. I, on the other hand, weighed the consequences -- the annoyance of having to work around the glitch to use the program my way versus the annoyance of the extra steps involved in using it in its intended fashion -- and decided that continuing to use it my way had the best overall consequences in terms of my time and the value of the files I was producing.


All The Cool Kids Are Doing YouTube Posts

This post is in honor of the fact that I just discovered that my favorite band has posted a video of my favorite song of theirs:

Värttinä: Synti

Then there's my favorite-of-the-last-few-weeks band:

Rodrigo y Gabriela: Diablo Rojo

I don't usually pay much attention to lyrics, as evidenced by all the non-English and instrumental songs I listen to (though Synti does gain points for being about lizard foetuses). But here's one I actually can understand the words to:

Stuart Davis: Jonah

And what the heck, while I'm posting music, here's my interpretation of what Rickrolling was like in 1908.


Kiosk Update

Now in the Kiosk (my sidebar place for pet peeves): maps that have lower elevations colored green and higher ones colored yellow or brown. This color scheme is especially absurd for maps of Arizona, where the higher elevations have far more actual greenery than the lower ones (Mogollon Rim and Sky Islands vs Sonoran Desert).


The Social Construction Of Disabilities

Here's two posts I've encountered recently that touch on the idea of social construction of disabilities. First, Michele smacks down the move by some philosophers to argue that if a disability would hurt Robinson Crusoe, then it can't be regarded as socially constructed:

The example wrongly suggests that we can use a "Robinson Crusoe" test as the litmus test for distinguishing authentic disabilities from cases of purely socially constructed disadvantage. Take the example of deafness. According to the "Robinson Crusoe-test" deafness is an authentic disability: "Robinson Crusoe, alone on his island and unable to hear properly after a stroke, would still be disabled." Sound enough, but so what? The reason why a deaf Robinson Crusoe is disabled is that he lives in a very special social environment, an environment in which he cannot cooperate with other human beings. It would just be wrong to infer that, since deafness is an impairment to human flourishing in the Robinson Crusoe environment, then the disadvantages to which it leads in other environments are purely socially constructed.

I find the term "socially constructed" to be a problematic one, since it's so often mis-understood (and here I lay the blame on both over-enthusiastic proponents and lazy critics) to mean that something isn't really real. Perhaps a better way of thinking would be to think of advantages and disadvantages (in general, not just those typically treated under the heading of "disability") as being matches or mismatches between a person's capacities and qualities on the one hand, and the requirements imposed by their social and natural environment on the other. As Michele points out, everyone is always in a specific social and natural environment -- it's a fallacy to think there's some neutral environment or non-environment state in which we can judge a person's capacities and qualities.

Second, there's Shiva's post (via Ryan) about when suicide (assisted or otherwise) is justifiable:

If most depression is (and I do think most depression is) caused primarily by social conditions, then the obvious, non-medical solution to the problem is to change those social conditions (which, obviously, is easier said than done). However, if someone has truly endogenous depression (that is, in social model terms, their depression is not a result of disability, but is in fact their impairment), to the extent of unrelentingly feeling suicidal, and no drug treatment is successful in having a positive effect on it (as does happen in many cases), then is forcible suicide prevention - that is, denying death to someone who truly cannot find anything positive in life - really justifiable?

I basically agree with Shiva's position -- people have a right to choose to die, in implementing that right we need clear safeguards against pressuring people into exercising that right, when in doubt we should err on the side of life, and many of the things that lead people to feel suicidal are largely caused by their social environment. Where I would differ is in whether the question of endogenous versus social origins of a given person's suicidal desire is relevant to the justifiability of that person choosing suicide.

Things that are socially constructed are still real. A person who is suicidal for social reasons is still actually suicidal, and keeping them alive against their will is just as much a violation of their desires and a source of suffering as it would be if their suicidal wishes were caused by genetics. It may be possible to help such a person by changing the social conditions that cause their suicidal-ness -- but the fact is that such major social change is going to take a lot of time. Since the socially-suicidal person is suffering now, in our imperfect world, they have a right to give up and decide they don't want to wait around hoping for the revolution (I would say this is a general rule -- people have the right to cope with their problems in the here and now rather than martyring themselves waiting for major social changes to eliminate the source of their problems). Further, just because a person's suicidal desires have a social origin doesn't mean they can be fixed by social changes -- the effects of events in a person's life can have permanent impacts on their psyche (and body) that continue long after the cause is gone.

We should work to fix the social conditions that lead some people to become suicidal. But until we've completed that task, there will be socially-suicidal people popping up, who deserve the same choices as the endogenously-suicidal people who may always be with us.


Deporting Valedictorians And Hurricane Evacuees

I suppose part of the reason this blog has hardly any readers is that I don't comment on stories or issues until a few weeks after everyone else has. Nevertheless, here's a couple immigration-related stories that got a lot of attention a little while ago.

First is the case of Arthur Mkoyan, a high school valedictorian who may soon be deported because his parents brought him to the US from Armenia when he was 2 years old. I was a bit annoyed at the tone of the article and of most of the people blogging about it. Specifically, I was bothered by the implication that Mkoyan should get to stay in the US because he's a valedictorian. While this reasoning would help him personally (and it's likely to be what gets him status if he manages it), it doesn't address the larger issue, and indeed tends to reinforce the idea that immigrants have to prove themselves to be exceptionally deserving. (And in connection with this, I can sympathize with his Representative, who is made out to be a bad guy because he has a blanket policy against introducing "private bills" that pick and choose individuals to get legal status.) As far as I'm concerned, the reason Mkoyan should get to stay in the US is that the US is the only country he's ever known, because he was brought to it at a very young age through no choice of his own. And that rationale applies regardless of his GPA.

Second is Border Patrol's declaration and half-hearted not-quite-retraction of a policy of checking immigration status during natural disaster evacuations. The result is to make many Latin@s -- including those with legal status up to natural-born citizen -- reluctant to evacuate, either because they fear consequences for themselves (if I flee my house without my passport, I still have my skin and my accent, but others don't have those advantages), or because of the consequences for their family and community members. So not only are people being unnecessarily exposed to natural disasters, they're also being set up so they can be blamed for "choosing" to stay behind a la the poor black non-evacuees during Katrina. This links in to the sanctuary cities and Sheriff Joe issue in terms of making every occasion an occasion for checking people's status, regardless of whether such singleminded focus on immigration enforcement undermines the government's other duties. It also reveals an important aspect of disaster management -- disasters intensify people's interactions with the State. Complying with disaster management plans puts you in direct contact with police, the national guard, and other direct agents of state coercion, whereas failure to comply puts you wholly outside their protection (or even in direct opposition to them, as a possible looter). This would be fine, even beneficial, if you are on good terms with the state -- if you trust it to be acting in your best interests. For people who have a longstanding antagonistic relationships with the state, however -- such as people of color and immigrants -- natural disasters are a prime occasion for the state to increase its pernicious interference. And all of this applies not just to the immediate disaster management (evacuation, etc.) but also to the longer-term recovery process.


A Different Way To Lose My Job Because Of Immigrants

Here's a creatively, hilariously bizarre anti-immigration argument, made by superdestroyer in the comments to a Matt Yglesias post: Newspapers in the U.S. are in a death spiral and laying off staff left and right because the print media supports open borders, and so now our country is full of people who can't read English and don't care about their communities, and thus don't read the newspaper.

There was an article on Editor and Publisher a little while ago that mentioned that the newspaper business is actually doing better in Latin America, so perhaps I should be burnishing my Spanish just in case the worst happens at my current place of employment (I should note that I actually have no clue about the financial outlook of my employer). My wife went to Mexico recently and brought back some gifts wrapped in a Mexican newspaper that had some very different ideas about page design than I'm used to.


Barack Obama, Marxist?

Obviously Tom Delay's remark is meant to be a smear, not a substantive point. But since there are so many people around who throw around the term "Marxist" without the first clue what the main principles of Karl Marx's philosophy were,* I'll take this as a teaching moment.

Let's look at some of the key elements of Marxism, and how Barack Obama stacks up:

The starting point of Marxism is the idea of historical materialism. Historical materialism means that the driving force of history is changes in the material conditions of existence, i.e. the economy. Historical materialism is opposed to the philosophy of Marx's mentor, Georg Hegel, who promoted idealism -- the idea that the development of ideas is the driving force of history. Marx also slammed a variety of other early socialists for being idealists, because they assumed they would create a socialist system simply by convincing people that it was a good idea. Looking at Obama, he appears to fall clearly on the idealist side -- what else is "the audacity of hope" than a statement of idealism? His campaign is built on changing the way people think and feel about politics. (Though ironically an Obama win may be due as much to the underlying economic conditions -- the looming recession -- as to Obama's idealism.)

The next key concept in Marxism is class struggle -- the idea that the way that societies obtain the material conditions of their existence (their economic organization, called the "relations of production") divides people into two or more groups with antagonistic interests. The struggle between them eventually results in changes in the relations of production, reshaping society. Under capitalism, Marxism holds that the two main classes are the bourgeoisie (business owners) and proletariat (workers). Obama is hardly a proponent of class struggle. He, like practically every politician in the US, worships at the altar of the "middle class" -- a nebulous concept that allows practically all Americans to feel like they're doing OK but aren't part of some snooty elite. Where Marxists would insist that the idea of the "middle class" is a false ideology that functions to disguise the basic class antagonism (John Edwards had shades of Marxism on this point), Obama deliberately promotes a rhetoric of unity.

Since economics are the real basis of society, Marxism regards cultures and belief systems as a superstructure shaped by them (though some later Marxists, like Gramsci, held that the superstructure played an important role in stabilizing the economic base). Marx famously declared religion to be "the opiate of the masses." A partial case could be made for Obama holding some Marxist views on this point -- his remark that Pennsylvanians are bitter and turn to religion can be interpreted as an endorsement of Thomas Frank's thesis in What's the Matter With Kansas, which was a basically Marxist argument. On the other hand, Obama is by all accounts a sincerely religious person -- indeed, much more so than John McCain. Whatever you think of his religious beliefs, it's hard to reconcile someone who proudly declared that "we worship a great God in the blue states" with standard Marxism.

Marx did not think that the present condition of society was a good one. At the root of Marx's beef with capitalism is the idea of exploitation of wage labor. The basic argument is this: Each hour he (in Marx's writing, it was always assumed to be "he") works, a laborer produces stuff worth a certain amount -- say $20. But the owner of the factory pays him a wage of, say, $5 -- enough to live on (to "reproduce his labor power"), but less than the amount of value his labor produced. The owner keeps the rest for himself. Thus wage labor is inherently exploitative. Obama certainly has concerns about workers getting a raw deal -- he supports things like the increase in the minimum wage, expanded health insurance coverage, and easier unionization, all of which would offset the tendency of owners to pay workers as little as possible (hence exploiting them more). But in no way does Obama see exploitation as inherent to the wage labor system.

Marxists believe that the contradictions in capitalism will lead it to an inevitable crisis. According to Marxism, the capitalist quest for profit through increasing exploitation of the workers will ultimately undermine its own basis (the less you pay your workers, the less stuff they can afford to buy), especially once the system runs out of new geographical and social areas to expand into. Obama would beg to differ. Rather than seeing economic crises (such as the current recession) as inherent to the system and likely to bring it down, he sees them as instances of mismanagement that can be overcome. He tells everyone that with a few adjustments around the margins, the capitalist system will bounce back and produce prosperity for everyone. A less Marxist view can hardly be imagined.

Connected to the inevitable crisis of capitalism is the idea of the proletariat as the agent of revolution. According to Marxism, the workers -- driven to desperation by the increasing oppressiveness of wage-labor exploitation -- will come together as a united class. They will sieze the advantage of capitalism's crisis to rise up and take over, smashing the bourgeoisie and doing away with the capitalist system. This is a key difference between Marx and other early socialists -- according to Marx, the revolution has to be carried out by people whose place in the system of material subsistence gives them the means and motivation to rise up, not by a social movement of well-meaning activists. With that in mind, let's look at Obama's electoral coalition. In the primaries, his base of support was not built on the oppressed workers -- indeed, just the opposite. As the "wine track" candidate, he built from the top down, starting with the rich and highly educated voters that, from a Marxist point of view, are inexplicably voting against their material class interests for idealist reasons. While he had support from blacks of all classes, he gained comparatively little support from working-class whites, Latin@s, and Asian-Americans. This is hardly the recipe for a proletarian revolution.

Finally, we come to Marx's proposed solution to the problems of capitalism and class struggle: collective ownership of the means of production. In other words, the workers -- on a business-by-business basis, or as a whole nation -- should own the factories and investment capital, etc., eliminating the separate parasitic, exploitative owner class. Can anyone imagine that this is in any way part of Obama's platform? Take health care, for example. Obama's health care plan was explicitly crafted in such a way as to not threaten the role of private insurance companies. If Obama's plan -- or even the Clinton/Edwards plan -- is passed, the US will still have a health care system that is further from the ideal of collective ownershup of the means of production than the health care system in practically every other First World (i.e. capitalist) country on Earth. Or consider environmentalism, often pointed to as a stalking horse for communism. Obama's key proposal here is a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. Businesses may not like the added cost and regulation it would entail, but it does exactly nothing to transfer ownership of the means of production to the workers.

In sum, Obama is an idealist, class-struggle-obfuscating, religious, pro-wage-labor, pro-survival-of-capitalism, wine-track, pro-private-ownership candidate. Not a Marxist.

* Same goes for "postmodernist." And on the other side of the aisle, there's lots of misuse of the term "neoconservative" (hint: it doesn't just mean "conservative, but scarier-sounding").


If You Disagree So Much, Why Are You Here?

The title of this post is an argument I see frequently in the comment sections of blogs. A frustrated fellow-traveler of the blog author will demand to know why a commenter who clearly has foundational philosophical differences with the author (e.g. an anti-feminist on a feminist blog) insists on reading and commenting. I find this argument a bit troubling.

The first thing to note is that it's an argument about the opponent's substantive views, and hence different from accusations of trolling or disrespectful presentation (though the same commenter may face both sorts of accusations from different people). It says that a certain level of disagreement on the issues is enough that you have neither justification nor concievable motivation to continue reading and commenting.

With special interest blogs, that kind of argument makes sense. There really is no good reason for a person to go on, say, a knitting blog and post repeatedly (even if completely sincerely) that knitting is boring and the blogger ought to go buy their sweaters at Wal-Mart like a normal person. With political blogs -- those that advocate for or against changes in public policy and culture -- it's different. Knitting can be practiced privately by knitters, and it doesn't affect anyone else. But political issues affect everyone in a given society. Liberals and conservatives can't just go off to their own clubs and leave each other alone (like, say, Trekkies and Star Wars fans can), because the two groups have to share the same tax rates, the same prevailing attitudes toward sexual harassment, the same air quality, etc.

The fact that political discussion is about issues that affect everyone, not just those who agree with the policy in place, means that there's a basis for cross-ideological discussion. A person can justifiably seek out engagement with opponents -- even those with very fundamental disagreements -- for a variety of reasons: to evangelize, most obviously, but also just to understand the other side, and even perhaps to learn something from them and discover that they're correct in some way.

There are, at the same time, good reasons to avoid cross-ideological engagement: to strategize with fellow-travelers, to work out intra-factional disagreements without the distraction of having to justify everything from first principles, or to have a respite from cross-ideological engagement elsewhere. It's entirely reasonable for a blog author to declare that the purposes of their blog are best achieved by limiting certain cross-ideological engagement -- e.g. "this is a blog for environmentalists to talk about how to address climate change, so we're not interested in arguing about whether climate change is real or not." (Or even "this is a blog for us to have fun mocking climate change deniers, so we're not interested in substantive arguments about whether climate change is real.")

The argument in this post's title assumes that the obvious default -- or even the only reasonable course of action -- is to limit cross-ideological engagement. I think this is wrong, and in fact I would argue that for a publicly-posted blog, the default is to be open to cross-ideological engagement. The blog author can limit that engagement to any degree they want, but it requires an affirmative declaration. Once such a declaration is made, the proper response to ideological opponents is "this isn't the place to discuss foundational disagreements like that," not "why are you here if you disagree?"

It should be said that the titular argument often arises out of a reasonable frustration on the part of the blog author and their fellow travelers. I know I've thought it about several commenters who seem to pop up in every post by Hugo Schwyzer to accuse him of being misandrist and having double standards. Their arguments seem to be making no progress, so I begin to wonder why they are there. But I have to remind myself that they have every right to try to engage in cross-ideological debate unless and until Schwyzer declares that his blog is not the place for debating the foundations of feminism (and I should note too that as fruitless as his commenters' quests seem, Schwyzer doesn't seem to be making any more progress in winning them over to his side).