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Election Annoyances

Campaign propaganda has been annoying me lately.

I'm annoyed at Barack Obama's latest long-form ad. Given Arizona's solid-red-state status, which means my vote has exactly zero effect on the outcome of the election (though I may reconsider if this poll gets some corroboration, since I'd dearly love for McCain to suffer John Howard's fate), I'm still up in the air about voting for him versus Cynthia McKinney. I was starting to lean a bit toward the Obama side after reading this interview, in which he made as clear a statement as I've seen from a mainstream politician about the connection between solving the climate-energy crisis and fixing our economy. After all the talk from Very Serious People about how we'll have to give up on creating a green economy in order to patch up the gray economy, it was refreshing. Then I saw the ad, in which he retreats back to the standard-issue economic talking points. His only reference to environmental issues is to give a nod to the "dependence on foreign oil" nonsense. We need to reduce our dependence on all fossil fuels, period. The "foreign oil" thing appeals to the DC cocktail circuit because it makes you feel clever to use a right-wing, jingoistic framing to sell progressive ideas. But in fact if you make "foreign oil" your target, then expanding domestic coal, oil, and gas sounds like a great solution. But those "solutions" are environmentally backwards. He then goes on to name-check the standard litany of Washington bogeymen like "partisanship," "special interests," and "divisiveness." I realize that these kind of things may appeal to low-information voters who don't appreicate the existence of actual ideological differences. But I can't decide whether it's worse if Obama actually believes "partisanship" is the biggest problem in DC, or if he's smart enough not to buy that but shameless enough to try to use it to win votes.

I'm annoyed at Ann Kirkpatrick, the Democrat running for Arizona's 1st congressional district. I have to give her a little credit -- in the latest of the long string of mailers she's sent us (we've been getting them since the primary because my wife is a Democrat), she actually has new photographs of herself talking to happy, wholesome Arizonans (and nearly all, as far as I remember, white, even though this district has one of the highest Native American populations in the country). But then there's the text accompanying the pictures. First, she hits the "foreign oil" thing -- and she's not shy about putting "drilling" in giant letters. In the second panel, she says we need to "get tough" on illegal immigration and ramp up enforcement -- and maybe then start thinking about the possibility of comprehensive reform. She has it exactly backwards. First you fix the system, then you make sure that the new, better laws are well-enforced. In any event, Kirkpatrick has more money than she knows what to do with and both parties have withdrawn their spending from the district because they think it's a foregone conclusion. We do have an independent in the race who talks a lot on his website about sustainability, but not a lot about other issues, which makes it hard to judge if he's a true progressive.

I'm also annoyed at mailers from any candidate, party, or initiative-backer that are addressed to "the Danielson family." I could understand that if there were several Danielsons registered to vote at this address and they figured they could save money by sending us one joint mailer on the not-infallible-but-close-enough assumption that we were a family. But since the only registered voters at my address are myself and my wife, who has a different last name, the senders of these mailers must be either: 1) assuming that my wife can be subsumed into my name -- not a cool assumption if you're looking to win our vote -- or 2) thinking I have some unregistered same-last-name relatives living here and hope to persuade them to commit voter fraud.

Finally, I'm annoyed at the mailer from the Yes on 102 (marriage discrimination) people, but that's less from the content of the mailer specifically and more because I find their whole ideology and purpose for existence as an organization offensive.


Preemptive Compromise

As long as there's a Republican anywhere in this country, the Democrats will find a way to compromise with him. We're less than two weeks out from an election in which the Dems are expected to pick up the presidency, add 15-30 seats to their majority in the house, and have a small but realistic shot at 60 in the Senate. So why would you preemptively compromise your goals for immigration reform (via Man Eegee)?

Any solution would have to be bipartisan, she said, so it may require sacrificing some of Democrats' past priorities, such as giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.

"Maybe there never is a path to citizenship if you came here illegally," Pelosi said. "I would hope that there could be, but maybe there isn't."

What really gets me is how wistful and passive she seems about the bill's chances. I'd understand that kind of attitude coming from a disappointed voter. But perhaps someone needs to remind Ms. Pelosi that, as Speaker of the House, she (along with Barack Obama and Harry Reid (or possibly Chris Dodd or Hillary Clinton if there's a leadership struggle)) is one of the three people in this country with the most power to determine whether an immigration bill contains a path to citizenship.

The 2007 immigration bill was already deeply compromised, loaded down with harsh enforcement crackdowns and with a path to citizenship that had so many unrealistic conditions as to make it largely theoretical. And that bill nearly passed a more GOP-heavy Congress than what we'll have in 2009. So you'd think that if the "Democrats are more progressive than Republicans" hypothesis is true, the Dem leadership's first offer for a new bill would be more progressive than the 2007 bill. I opposed the 2007 bill because I thought it would, on balance, make our immigration system worse off, but I know lots of progressives disagreed with me. I realize a lot of my preferred reforms -- greatly expanded legal immigration, elimination of most crime-based reasons for deportability, trade reform with sender countries, elimination of pre-trial detention -- are politically unrealistic even with big Democratic majorities in Congress. But if you give up the path to citizenship, what's left for progressives in an immigration bill?

The Moral Personhood of Twins

Going over the possibilities for when morally-relevant life begins, Lynn Gazis-Sax says the following:

The other thing is that, though I'm not sure when during pregnancy ensoulment would happen, there is a point where I can't imagine it would have happened yet - post-fertilization and pre-implantation. At that point, not only don't you have the least trace of a nervous system, you also still have the possibility of twinning. That you could have a unique person, already possessed of an individual nature and human rights, who could turn into two people tomorrow, seems to me improbable.

I've heard similar concerns about twinning before. As I said in my earlier post, I would put the "personhood" line much farther along. But I don't see twinning as a useful argument for rebutting this earlier line -- largely, I think, because of what I conceive "personhood" to consist in.

In his book Reasons and Persons, philosopher Derek Parfit discusses several thought experiments in which a matter transporter a la "The Fly" is invented, and then rigged to beam a person to two places at once. He then asks what happens to the original person's identity -- is one of the beam-ees the "real" person and the other a copy? Are they both copies and the original has been destroyed? His conclusion (such as it is -- Parfit is much more inclined to raise interesting issues than to offer clear solutions), which I agree with, is that each of the beam-ees shares the pre-beaming identity, while being two separate persons now. Our language just has trouble wrapping around the situation because we haven't ever had to deal with this kind of identity-branching in the case of humans.

Presumably nobody would say that the beaming should lead us to conclude that the pre-beamed person was not, morally speaking, a "person" after all. They were a person, with all the rights etc. that entails, that branched into two people, each with all rights etc. But if we can say that, then the possibility of twinning in the womb would be equivalent, and therefore couldn't disprove the pre-twinning personhood of the fetus.

I think the idea that twinning presents a problem for moral personhood is rooted in the idea of the soul as a separate, unique object fastened onto a human body -- a sort of metaphysical RFID chip. This is a common assumption. It's what allows us to talk of souls switching bodies or leaving the body altogether. Some people go so far as to imagine that there's a fixed quantity of such souls in existence, warehoused in heaven somewhere, and we have a duty to crank out more babies so that God gets to use them all*. This sort of conception does pose a problem in cases of twinning or Parfit's matter transporter. But if instead we see the soul (or just moral personhood, if you think retaining the traditional religious terminology will make it harder to change the conception) as an emergent property of the body and mind's functioning, then person-branching (and even perhaps person-merging) does not present an especially difficult metaphysical problem.

* I was once planning to write a SF story about an epidemic of soulless babies (biologically alive, but inert and vegetable-like) that occurred because overpopulation had led the universe to run out of souls. If nobody has written something like this, feel free to steal the idea.

The Mistaken Assumption of Tax Resistance

Mary Martin relates the story of an ex who was a tax resister. Instead of paying his taxes to the government, which would spend them on bad things, he spent that money on good causes like supporting soup kitchens. In response to this type of leftist consequentialist tax protest (as opposed to the deontological "taxation is inherently wrong" type of tax protest sometimes found on the right), I left the following comment (bracketed bits added for this post):

I think the argument for tax resistance has to go "I spend my money on such-and-such project, which is good, and not paying taxes is what enables me to have the money to spend on that project, and the good I'm doing through that project outweighs the various harms that would ensue if I were caught and punished." But I think the idea of depriving the government of funds, or of not having "your dollars" paying for some bad government action, is based on a mistaken idea that the government (at least the US federal government) runs on a balanced budget. In reality, the feds have largely detached decisions about what to spend from any consideration of how much revenue is coming in (despite the efforts of Norquistian tax-cutters, who have deprived the government of more money than any tax resisters). So if I don't pay my taxes, the same amount of money will be spent on, say, bombing Iraqi children. [And I don't see any moral difference that it makes whether "my dollars" are involved in the bombing if withdrawing those dollars doesn't change the amount of bombing done.] And even if there were enough tax resisters to put enough of a dent in revenues to make a few members of Congress rethink their votes on spending bills, there's no guarantee they'd cut the "bad" programs -- I'd guess, cynically, that they'd be more likely to cut food stamps in order to fully fund the war than vice-versa. All the good of my hypothetical tax protest would have to come from whatever else I spend the savings on. [I can see a widespread, coordinated tax protest being a potentially effective *tactic* for pushing some sort of change. But it's the kind of thing that's worthless on a single-individual basis (somewhat like the contrast between veganism, in which each animal-free meal does an increment of additional good, versus boycotting an otherwise good product to pressure the company into withdrawing an offensive ad, which is useless unless the boycott reaches a critical mass). In case it's not clear, I don't see the consequentialist calculations as working out in favor of tax protest.]


Many Routes To Pro-Choice

This David Schraub post and my reaction to it in his comments make an interesting study in how differing reasoning can lead to the same place (for an earlier installment, see me vs. Hugo Schwyzer on vegetarianism). Schraub and I both went through an evolution from being conflictedly pro-life due to concerns about fetal personhood, to being committed to the pro-choice position. (Incidentally, this is why I get annoyed when some bloggers write with the assumption that nobody could possibly believe the fetal personhood argument against abortion and treat it as purely a disingenuous, bad-faith rationalization of misogyny.)

Schraub's evolution occurred through becoming more pragmatist, in the sense of adjusting his moral commitments to each other without holding any firm foundational principle. In the process of this, the fetal personhood concern lost the power to sway his position -- because of uncertainty about when personhood occurs, the strong clash with the value of the mother's autonomy, and a J.J. Thomson-inspired questioning of whether saving a life always trumps other concerns.

My own position, on the other hand, started out more pragmatist. Fetal personhood swayed me only because I had made a conscious decision to avoid, as much as possible, having an opinion on abortion because I found the abortion debate to be hugely unproductive and thus a waste of my energy when I could be actually changing someone's mind on another issue. Given my lack of attention to resolving the existence and weight of fetal personhood, I felt like I might as well err on the side of caution and lean pro-life. Later, however, I realized that I had committed to a strong moral principle -- a form of preference utilitarianism -- that gives a definite standard for personhood*, and I had acquired enough factual information about fetal development that I couldn't honestly claim not to be able to draw the conclusion that abortion is, at least in most cases, morally justifiable.

* I've been meaning to write a longer post about the fact that I actually find the whole Kantian/Christian framing of moral questions in terms of beings who do or do not have "personhood" or some other form of inherent moral value -- and thus the whole "considerability" debate in environmental ethics -- to be a distraction. My reasoning doesn't say "fetuses don't have preferences, therefore fetuses are not moral persons, therefore fetuses don't have inherent value, therefore it's not wrong to kill them." Rather, I cut out the middle-man and say "fetuses don't have preferences, therefore it's not wrong to kill them."

Same-Sex Marriage As Cultural Appropriation

Joel Monka makes an interesting point based on a paraphrase of an argument from a conservative brother -- the way cultural conservatives feel when they see same-sex couples getting married bears a resemblance to the way members of one culture feel when they see members of another culture appropriating elements of their culture. I don't have a complete analysis of the marriage example, in no small part because I don't have a complete analysis of cultural appropriation in general or in its more typical examples. But I do have a few reactions.

One reaction is that this puts a new light on the common claim that "marriage" should be privatized and left to the churches, with the state handing out civil unions to everyone. In light of Monka's post this strategy can be seen, in part, as a type of "acknowledge inauthenticity" (as defined in my earlier post). This is not an entirely satisfactory solution -- the cultural practice can't be easily separated from the legal status, many couples want the legal system to actively endorse their form of couple-bonding (e.g. the infamous Californians who won't get married because the marriage licenses no longer say "bride" and "groom"), and backing down from demanding legal endorsement of the term marriage doesn't prevent same-sex couples from privately getting "married" in a way that still appropriates straight marriage practices.

A second reaction is that the marriage example leads me to believe that our constellation of options ought to include not just "(harmful) misappropriation" and "(benign or respectful) appropriation," but also "good misappropriation." Like bad misappropriation, good misappropriation alters the practice for its originators. But that alteration is to be applauded. The key element of traditional marriage threatened by same-sex marriage is the way it reinforces distinct (and often unequal) male and female gender roles. Such elements are already under attack from within -- my own straight marriage did not include such customs as the groom buying an engagement ring or the bride's father giving her away. But there will be another severe blow dealt if marriage becomes a practice that can be engaged in by couples who can't be assigned to bride and groom roles. And for progressives, that's a good thing. Conservatives' claims to non-interference with their practice are undercut by the bad values their practice is used to promote.

Another aspect that complicates the comparison is the exclusionary nature of the practice being appropriated. This isn't a case in which, say, white people have polka music and black people have soul music, but then along comes white Amy Winehouse saying she's entitled to play soul music too. This is a case in which straight people have marriage, whereas gay people not only have no practice that fulfils the same role of publicly and legally formalizing their relationship, but were actively prevented from developing such a practice. The traditional marriage that same-sex couples are appropriating is a key element in a cultural system that oppressed those couples.