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Get In Line

I've seen various versions of this cartoon going around, making the point that just telling immigrants to "get in line" to come to the U.S. legally is a joke -- there are actually dozens of "lines," some of which can take a decade or more before you get your green card or citizenship, and huge numbers of immigrants (particularly "unskilled" people with no family in the U.S., which is most of the undocumented population) aren't eligible to wait in any line.

The problem with the cartoon is that it's actually a gross oversimplification -- the immigration process is far more byzantine than the nice straight arrows in the diagram. For example, the cartoon doesn't get into the consequences of criminal convictions, which can bar you from getting status depending on the nature of the crime, the severity of the punishment, and the mood of the judge.

The law on criminal bars to immigration does, however, give some (depressing) insight into the U.S.'s priorities. It's actually easier to get around a domestic violence conviction than a drug paraphernalia conviction. The U.S. would rather have a citizen who beat his wife than one that had a bong.


Culture Is Not (Western-type) Property

I think one of the big barriers to getting to the bottom of the cultural (mis)appropriation question is the (conscious or unconscious) tendency for many people on both sides of the debate to frame it in terms of questions of property (specifically post-Enlightenment Western ideas of property). (See here for a good, albeit inconclusive, discussion that mostly avoids getting trapped in the property metaphor.)

For example, cultural elements often framed as public goods as justification for saying appropriation is no problem -- there's not some finite amount of a culture's music (or whatever) to go around such that an outsider using it prevents an insider from doing so as well. This line of thinking depends on treating cultural elements as fixed quasi-objects. But that's not how cultural elements work. Instead, they are embedded social practices. Because they are practices, they are subject to structurational shifts -- the element is reproduced every time it is used, and may be reproduced in slightly different ways (think of how the sounds and meanings of words change over time). Because they are embedded, the significance of a cultural element is as much a matter of its relationship to other elements as it is the inherent properties of a discrete "thing" -- so placing it in another context, using it in a different way than the originators*, alters it. And because they are social, each person has to live with the consequences of how the cultural elements they practice are practiced by others. Thus the significance of the appropriated version of the element can drown out the original.

All of this applies intra-culturally as well as inter-culturally -- a person's use of "their own" culture is not innocent (assuming such boundaries can even be clearly drawn -- another drawback of the property metaphor is that it assumes that cultures can be treated as discrete and internally unified units like property-owning persons and corporations are). But the power differentials between people of different cultures create special responsibilities in adopting cultural elements which are already part of someone else's way of life. This is a responsibility not to practice that element in a way that harms the originators -- either directly (by becoming a part of a social system that disadvantages them, as when another culture's art is used to signify exoticness) or indirectly (by encroaching on and redefining the practice of it by the originators).

Thinking this way I think explains the two most common ways to protect against misappropriation -- "become authentic" and "acknowledge inauthenticity." A call to become authentic -- to fully understand the originator culture and practice the element in question only within the same context that the originators practice it. Doing so cuts down on the potentially harmful distortions of reproducing the element in a new context. The strategy of "acknowledge inauthenticity" goes the other way, seeking to essentially build a wall or even make the element as practiced by the appropriator a "different" element than the one practiced by the originators (which is treated as an "inspiration"). Done right, this can cut off the effects of the appropriator's practice from the originators', though it also cuts off any attempt by the appropriator to benefit from a perceived connection to the originators (e.g. by presenting oneself as an authentic purveyor of ancient wisdom). I don't think these are the only two options (nor are they failsafe). Perhaps thinking outside the property metaphor can help give guidance to attempts to walk a third route.

As a final note, I think another advantage of getting away from the property metaphor is that it allows us to look beyond the question of the blame or responsibility of the direct appropriator. For example, several commentators in the above-linked post point out that the harm in Amy Winehouse's appropriation of black soul music is as much the fault of the music industry, critics, and fans (who treat her as more acceptable than black soul musicians) as it is of Winehouse herself.

*The term "originators" is relative -- it refers to the people the maybe-appropriator got the element from, regardless of whether they made it up out of whole cloth or (more likely) adapted or appropriated it from an earlier group. The claims of the originators are not, in my view, primarily based on invention or legitimate acquisition (a la a Lockean or Nozickian conception of property), but rather on their numbers and the degree to which their way of life is invested in it, which therefore determines the amount of harm that would be done by misappropriation.

Biased Reception Of Corrections

There has been some discussion recently of studies showing the human resistance to contradictory information. Generally, people confronted with information that contradicts their beliefs search for ways to discount the new information, since we have so much invested in our prior beliefs but little invested in the new information -- a procedure that may end up *confirming* our preexisting beliefs. This is not necessarily as irrational as it sounds -- as readers of reports on the experiments, we know that the contradictory information is true and reliable, but in real life we don't (nor do we as subjects in a psychology experiment, given what we know about how psychology experiments work!). We'd be in trouble if every time a piece of new information came along we discarded our previous beliefs (especially since it's hard to keep an accurate catalog of the bits of information that went into creating those beliefs, rather than just remembering the conclusions we were brought to). Nevertheless, this tendency can certainly be pathological much of the time. At the very least, it's problematic that people systematically underestimate how biased they are, even when making vocal declarations of humility.

What aroused especial interest in one recent study (pdf) was the claim that conservatives are more susceptible to this bias than liberals. But I think there's room to be cautious about this result based on the design of the instrument. If we're testing contradictions of people's political beliefs, liberals and conservatives have to be exposed to different contradictions. These contradictions have to be chosen by someone -- the researcher. But researchers, being people, are presumably subject to the same biases as the subjects. There's no objective way to rate the contradictoriness of statements, nor is there a comprehensive database of mendacity that can be randomly sampled. That means that it's difficult to trust that the researcher would be able to select equally clear, and equally deep-cutting, pieces of contradictory information for both liberals and conservatives. The problem is greater when fewer contradictions are used -- e.g. the study linked above examined only three, rebuttals to "Iraq had WMDs," "tax cust increase revenues," and "Bush banned stem cell research." A liberal researcher might, thus, tend to select minor hypocrises by liberal politicians and major ones by conservatives as a way of protecting their own beliefs. Or they might overcompensate for their own bias by picking worse liberal examples. Or they may simply misunderstand what will come off as a serious versus minor contradiction within the conservative worldview, since they don't share its premises. And all of this applies mutatis mutandis for conservative researchers. Meanwhile, readers would have difficulty verifying the comparability of the contradictions, being human beings with biases too. (Note that the study is far more cautious about the liberals-vs-conservatives claim than the news report linked in the first paragraph.)

All of these concerns apply just to the question of whether conservatives or liberals are more subject to confirmation bias. That the studies demonstrate the existence of this bias in both parties, and can elucidate its mechanisms, and can relate it to other variables (gender, age, etc.) or psychological processes is not in question. But to have confidence in a finding of liberal-conservative difference, we would need a large difference shown in multiple high-quality studies of a variety of different contradictions by researchers of different political persuasions.

Then again, maybe I'm just biased against declarations of conservatives' inherent stupidity.


It Is Time For History

I've made a post in the history_time LiveJournal community, which is made up of fans of Kate Beaton's history comics. My post concerns Gifford Pinchot and fire in New Jersey.


The religious is political

Joel Monka says this well:

Politics - if pursued in a moral and ethical manner- IS a spiritual act. The ultimate intent of a political race is - or should be - to elect the person who will do the most good for the most people. It is where believe meets the pavement, where spirituality is put to practical use. To stand aloof, pretending one is above such worldly things, is to be less spiritual, not more - you are not doing your best for your fellow man.

Contrast this to a post by Zuzu at Shakesville a while back:

If I believed in God, I'd be pretty annoyed at how small and petty people make him out to be, caring about who wins a football game or where your pee-pee goes. Or getting involved in US electoral politics. Doesn't it bother anyone else that all the awe and majesty and grandeur has been sucked out of the concept of a Supreme Being until he's turned into some kind of bookie?

(I'll be talking in terms of "religion" and "God" in this post, but in the spirit of one UU jumping off from comments by another UU, I think what I say can apply to any socio-moral philosophy, even if it's non-theistic or doesn't fit some definition of religion or spirituality.)

There's a good case for avoiding religious hubris in politics -- of being too confident that your candidate or your case is clearly God's choice, much less that your candidate is some sort of perfect heaven-sent messiah (a la Lincoln's famous quote, or what Sarah Palin was actually saying about the war in Iraq). There's a good case for not focusing on a candidate's personal religious beliefs and practices, because it's their decisions about public policy that matter (as said here in a Zuzu post I agree with). There's a very good case against pursuing many religious ends through public policy. And there's a case (albeit not so simple or slam dunk a case as many people think*) against pursuing candidates or policies who can only be justified by appeal to religious reasons.

Nevertheless, to place religion above politics in the way that Zuzu wants to trivializes both God and politics. It trivializes politics by suggesting that gay rights is on the same level of unimportance as who wins a football game. And it trivializes God by suggesting that they don't care about the well-being of their worshippers (which can be impacted in significant ways by "politics" in a broad sense, even if you take a Nader-esque view of the significance of elections). Why does it give God "awe and majesty and grandeur" and make them more worship-worthy to not only not care where I stick my pee-pee but also not care if someone else forces their ideas of proper pee-pee sticking on me?**

Pettiness (an over-focus on the small things) is certainly a bad trait, but so is aloofness (an under-focus on small things). Religion should strive to exhibit neither of them in its engagement with politics.

*I've been intending to write a whole post on this, but basically the idea is that people too often conflate the religious vs secular distinction with the Rawlsian public vs private reasons distinction, which works only insofar as you can attribute fideism to all religious believers.

**This also perhaps deserves a full post, but I think there's a common tendency in socially liberal arguments to conflate caring vs not caring with supporting a broad range of acceptable options vs demanding conformity to a narrow ideal of conduct. If you don't care about an issue, you're not going to support enforcing a narrow ideal -- but you're also not going to invest anything in fighting against others who want to enforce a narrow ideal.

There are no "real men" in pragmatism

The Rotund has a short rant against the practice of labeling people "real women" or "not real women." She objects to its use both by oppressive forces in society (e.g. fat women aren't "real women") as well as by anti-oppression forces fighting back (e.g. skinny women aren't "real women"). She specifically addresses instances when the anti-oppression side simply reverses the accusations of unreality, where it's easy to see how the anti-oppression side is really just using the same oppressive tactics (albeit with less social power behind them) against those privileged by the prevailing definitions. But I would extend it to attempts to use the "real" label to encourage positive behavior -- for example, as much as I agree that men ought to speak up about sexism, I don't find saying "real men speak up about sexism" to be a helpful way of promoting that idea.

I think that -- in addition to the factors of exclusion and forced conformity to a too-narrow ideal identified in the post and comments -- the kind of "real Xs" talk she objects to has a basic element of dishonesty. All the categories and concepts we use to make sense of the world are socially constructed. That doesn't mean they're false, or that they can be constructed in whatever way we like. But it does mean that they're tools whose creation and use we have to take responsibility for.

Talk about "real Xs" is at the same time a powerful means of constructing categories and a powerful means of hiding the fact that your categories are constructed. It implicitly posits a Platonic ideal to which mere reality must conform or be judged inferior.

Thus, to return to the example of "real men speak up about sexism," the problem with this is not that condoning sexism is a legitimate alternative form of masculinity that should be accepted into the broad tent of maleness. It's that it takes a normative claim (that condoning sexism is morally wrong) and dresses it up in ontological clothes (that you'll somehow cease to deserve the label of "man" -- and the social status and sense of identity that comes with being easily fitted into our taken-for-granted structure of categories -- if you do so).


Working Hours

Reading blogs keeps making me realize how ignorant I am (this is a good thing, although it does make me hope that nobody is relying on my writing for actual information or insights). Take for example this post by La Lubu at Feministe discussing the history of the 8-hour workday in the U.S. One of the ways she mentions that labor's victory in achieving the 8 hour day has been undermined in recent years is the institution of "4-10s", schedules in which you work four 10-hour days rather than 5 8-hour ones. At first I was confused as to why that would be a big issue as long as the workweek was still just 40 hours -- after all, I voluntarily worked 4-10s back when I had an internship whose workflow allowed it* (and I was upset when the boss decreed an end to it). Then she mentioned the issue of the "second shift" -- the fact that most working women still shoulder the majority of housekeeping work in addition to their paid employment -- and it clicked for me. Much of that second-shift work, such as child care and food preparation and cleanup, comes on a day-by-day basis and can't be shifted around within the week. So a person working second-shift loses more from the pinch caused by the extra two hours at their first-shift job on work days than they can gain from the extra day off. Relatedly, if your job is physically strenuous -- which the jobs of women and poor people disproportionately are -- a 4-10 is going to be worse than a 5-8, because physical endurance is parceled out in daily rather than weekly chunks.

Complicating all of this is the issue of commuting. One of the major benefits claimed for the 4-10 system is that a worker has to do only 4/5 of the commuting as on a 5-8, and the time and money thus saved may make the shorter week advantageous for some people who would otherwise not prefer it. Nevertheless, commuting may exacerbate the pinch on the second shift during work days, since the worker is away from home for the 10 work hours plus perhaps two more hours of commuting. And working longer or weirder hours can be a major burden on people with limited access to transportation -- people who are disproportionately disadvantaged in other ways, e.g. poor and/or female. I can drive my car just as easily at 6 pm or 8, but someone reliant on a crappy public transportation system or shared vehicles may have a rougher time of it. The direction this points us in is that labor issues can't be solved entirely within the shop, through things like working hours. They also require looking at questions traditionally classified under environment or energy (or perhaps more accurately, what I'd call "landscape policy" -- questions of the physical and social layout of the spaces we live in). We live in a world that has -- in many cases through conscious policy, not just the unplanned output of the free market -- been physically laid out for the convenience of a certain type of relatively privileged person.

All of this is, of course, meant in the spirit of raising issues rather than proclaiming generalizations. Jobs and outside lives are far more diverse than usually assumed in thinking about how to arrange a just work system, so it would be wrong to state categorically something like "4-10s are bad for women." The point is to remind myself not to make assumptions that other people's lives are arranged like mine.

*Technically I worked a 5-9 then a 4-9, so I had an extra day off every other week.