Friday, January 27, 2012

Violating Western civilisation

Picking on a vulnerable minority group has a great advantage and a great disadvantage. The great advantage is that one can sell effortless virtue to a large majority: lots of people can feel superior without any effort. The great disadvantage is that one clearly picking on a highly vulnerable group: without some cover, it is just members of a large majority bullying a small and vulnerable minority.

There is a standard response to this problem: claim that the minority group is some great and corrupting threat to "civilisation as we know it". Preachers of Jew-hatred turned this into a fine art. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, aptly labelled a 'Warrant for Genocide', is merely the most famous manifestation of what was, and continues to be, a continuing theme of Jew-hatred.

Jew-hatred is no longer an acceptable technique of mainstream Western politics (or religion). Queer-hatred still is (though less so as time passes). And queer-hatred has exactly the same advantage (effortless virtue to large majority) and disadvantage (bullying a small and vulnerable minority) as Jew-hatred. Hence the standard accusations against Jews are recycled against queers (that they are enemies of God, of Christianity, of Western civilisation; that they prey on children; that they spread disease; that they corrupt everything thing they touch or institution they are let into; and so on).

So, in a recent conference call with evangelical leaders, in the midst of some apocalyptic language from participants about the impending fall of the United States, Christianity and Western civilisation, Presidential hopeful Newt Gringrich offered the following:
It's pretty simple: marriage is between a man and a woman. This is a historic doctrine driven deep into the Bible, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, and it's a perfect example of what I mean by the rise of paganism. The effort to create alternatives to marriage between a man and a woman are perfectly natural pagan behaviors, but they are a fundamental violation of our civilization.
(Via) A claim that could be (and was) previously cited against Jewish emancipation and female emancipation. (It was also used against other emancipations, but usually against less venerable restrictions.)

It is perfectly true, oppression of queer folk has been an enduring feature of monotheism. But one reason we no longer talk of "Christendom", but instead of "Western Civilisation", is that it has become a civilisation which no longer defines itself religiously. Its most defining feature is precisely its dynamism, its capacity for evolution and change. Including in moral perspectives: those of the C4th and C5th (when Jews, women and queers were stripped of rights they had enjoyed under Roman law) are no longer determinative.

Which gives conservative Christians no end of frustration. The reality of human sexual diversity is endlessly useful for certain conceptions of religious authority; as an endless war against human sexual diversity creates both endless selling of effortless virtue and endless training in moral exclusion. But this notion of a "frozen" moral perspective attacks one of the most fundamental features of Western civilisation--its capacity for growth: in knowledge, in moral understanding, in encompassing human aspirations. The notion that Western civilisation is so fragile that giving a small minority equal protection of the law will bring it down is nonsense.

But a necessary type of nonsense is one is going to pass queer-hatred off as anything other than a large majority monstrously bullying a small and vulnerable minority.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Genes do not motivate

Natural selection is one of the great breakthrough ideas in human understanding of ourselves and of our world. Particularly when added to the discovery of genes. Unfortunately, human minds are pre-programmed to see intentions: particularly when thinking about living things. So, there is this constant tendency, by folk who should know better, to talk as if genes motivate behaviour.

Take this passage from Steven Pinker:
The child sees things differently. Though an offspring has an interest in its siblings' welfare, since it shares half its genes with each full sib, it shares all of its genes with itself, so it has a disproportionate interest in its own welfare (The Better Angels of Our Nature p.431).
A child typically having greater interest in its own welfare than that of its siblings has nothing to do with its genes. It has to do with being a motivated being which experiences its own existence rather more intensely than it does other people's.

It is likely that a child will have greater empathy with its siblings than with other folk, but that is to do with long and intimate association. Nor does that always work out: siblings can end up disliking or even hating each other. Moreover, the capacity to see others as "sibs" is a moveable feast, that can be adopted by other social mechanisms. The whole notion of "brothers in arms" works on that. Similarly, it is a much-attested feature of life on a kibbutz that those raised together because quasi-siblings, if even if there are no common genes.

Yes, natural selection works to select for certain behavioural traits. Such as the capacity to develop strong, non-sexual (or even de-sexualised) attachments to others. But the genes themselves do not provide any sort of motivation: they do not drive behaviour in that sense. Hence a capacity that evolved for one reason can end up being attached to other behaviour.

The real power of natural selection is to see how order can evolve without intention. Putting intention "back in" misses the explanatory power of natural selection, not to mention committing one to false characterisations of human behaviour. Writing in such intentional terms does not display your understanding of natural selection, it displays a serious lack in such understanding.

(BTW This is not a shot at Pinker or his book: which is a great and enlightening read. He just provided an example of an all-too-common mode of thinking about natural selection.)

ADDENDA Further on, Pinker adds the caveat:
As always, teleological terms in the explanation--"wants," "interests," "for"--don't refer to literal desires in the minds of people but are shorthand for the evolutionary pressures that shaped those minds (p.431).
But the notion that framing language in intentional terms has no implications is naive at best. Shaping capacities is very different from motivating actions, as we can see from considering how the capacity for non-sexualised/de-sexualised attachment can operate for non-relatives. The language of intention is certainly easy and familiar: it is also highly misleading.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The globalisation of empathy (military version)

This is based on a comment I made here.

With the ongoing public protests, Syria is in the situation where "honest (public) emotion" has become far more possible and hereditary President Assad is not killing enough to deter that. Kiwi political scientist Xavier Marquez (globalisation strikes again) has some great posts on cults of personality. Such as how poor an indicator public emotions when totalitarianism is operating are for what people will do when it collapses.

Whatever else they did, Western military interventions in Bosnia, Kossovo, Iraq, Libya have established outside military intervention is a live strategic possibility, regardless of its specific probability in a particular circumstances. What Steven Pinker calls "the Humanitarian Revolution" periodically has military back-up due to Western military dominance and the globalisation of empathy. And has so under centrist Democratic (Clinton), conservative Republic (Bush II) and liberal Democrat (Obama) Administrations. We can see the constraint that imposes on dictators operating in front of us in the streets of Syria.

Alas, the other side of that is seeking the "nuclear veto" to foreign intervention. The other open question at the moment being whether seeking the nuclear veto can end up provoking foreign intervention. [Go here for a discussion of likely success of such a military strike.]

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Public Debt

This is based on comments I made here.

Bob Murphy has a terrific (and funny) post on public debt and in what (if any) sense it is collective burden using producing, spending and receiving apples as the base economic activity. It establishes that if the public debt is being paid, it is not a burden on future generations (though the distributional effects between cohorts may be significant).

I do have two major caveats, however. The first is that we are not paid in apples, we are paid in money to buy apples (in econ-speak, debt is a nominal not a real variable) and the central bank can drive down money incomes so it becomes much harder to service the debt. The second is that the real issue with public debt is the "room to manoeuvre" issue:

(a) how much of current taxes are consumed to service it?;

(b) how much extra-debt raising ability remains available for emergencies?;

(c) implications of what the debt is spent on for future income (and so future [a] and [b]).

These are the reasons why Australia is in a good position because the Howaard-Costello Government paid off so much public debt while Greece is screwed. (In particular, why Greece’s pathetic revenue-raising record is a crucial problem, aggravated by the European Central Bank’s “tight money/lowered incomes” policies.)

In other words, the key issue government as intermediary. Yes, debt is both a liability and an asset: an asset to bondholders and a liability to taxpayers (these being overlapping groups). Using public debt-to-GDP ratios as the most common measuring metric for public debt is a bit odd; but not completely so, since the thing being borrowed against is the taxing capacity of the government.

Debt is basically a structure of promises. The larger the (public debt promises) structure compared to GDP, the greater the difficulty in keeping the promises (to pay); the more risk that promises will not be kept; and the more difficulty in making further promises (to pay). Hence interest rates on government bonds vary between polities and over time.

If the welfare state systematically generates more debt (i.e. promises to pay) while also putting pressure on revenue (ability to pay), there is a potential problem. There is a difference between public debt at 15% of GDP and public debt at 150% of GDP. There is also a difference between debt when (money) income is rising and debt when income is falling (and the more so the more it falls).

Any story about debt that does not include risk rather misses the point. After all, risk is the most single important variable in valuing debt. Because debt is a structure of promises (to pay) and, in valuing promises, what is going to be more important than their expected reliability?

To put it another way, the larger the structure of promises to pay, the more difficult it is to keep all the promises, the more likely there will be some unravelling and the more the likely damage when it occurs. The issue is not debt as such, it is the state-as-intermediary, as manager of the structure of promises.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

What homosexual provocation defences say about the status of women

There has been (and in a few places such as Queensland, still is) a legal defence in cases of murder that provides mitigation in cases of violent reaction to homosexual advances. It is known under various titles (such as the “guardsman defence” in the UK, the “gay panic defence” in the UK or New Zealand, the “homosexual advance defence” in Australia) and is a form of provocation defence. The claim is that the defendant (or defendants) was so panicked by homosexual advances that their judgement was (violently) impaired.

There are many things one could say about this legal manoeuvre, but an Op.Ed. piece puts a key aspect of this legal defense in stark perspective:
Would it be acceptable for women who are "gently touched" in a bar to stab the heterosexual culprit repeatedly to death? The short answer is no.
Women are expected to deal with unwanted sexual advances from men in a restrained and civilized fashion.

Men, on the other hand—in the logic of this defense—do not have the same expectation put upon them. On the contrary, being the object of male sexual advances is such a dire threat that it can mitigate murder: even when—as is generally so in such cases—the “provoked” person is physically stronger or more capable than the person allegedly making the sexual advance.

It is a fairly stark case of male privilege. Despite generally being larger and physically stronger than women, under this legal defence, men dealing with male sexual advances do not have the same expectation of restraint as women do. This lowered expectation flows from a privileged perspective: being subject to male sexual advances is somehow much more potentially frightening for men than for women.

While I dislike the term ‘heteronormative', in this case, male sexual desire directed to other men is treated as so out of the ordinary, to be so threateningly different from everyday expectations, that responding with murderous violence is given (some) legal credence.

Again and again, the issue for same-sex attracted people is being defined out of the “properly” human. Homosexual provocation defences do this quite explicitly. Homoerotic desire being so utterly defined out of the permissible, its absolute repression has been taken to frame expectations; to be something so extraordinary that normal social restraints are seriously weakened when it does appear.

Men are much more likely to think homosexuality is immoral than women: one Australian survey (pdf) found that only 27% of women thought homosexuality is immoral, compared to 43% of men. Male sexual desire being felt to be much more threatening to other men than it is to women may have something to do with this.

The legal defence of provocation inherently operates differently for men and women: both because men and women tend to respond differently to anger (men tend to have a much quicker adrenalin rush than women) and (a not unrelated factor in framing likely responses) men tend to be physically stronger than women. It is simply generally easier for men to kill in immediate anger. Neither provides justification, however.

If the simple human politics of homosexual provocation defences to not bear examination, the gender politics are hardly less contemptible. Men are somehow “permitted” to be far more “threatened” in a situation where they are much less physically disadvantaged than women typically are in analogous situations. If courts are going to give credence to such vicious nonsense, then legislatures need to step in and assert much more civilised expectations which do not so privilege male fears, nor define citizens out of the “properly” human.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The function of marriage: a response to Grigis, George and Anderson

The fundamental normative conception of natural law theory is that, in the words of (pdf) natural law theorist David Oderberg:
natural law theory sees normativity as built into the very fabric of reality in the first place.
So there is no Humeanis-ought gap’.

Olderberg takes a traditional “strong metaphysics” view of such normativity. “Agent-centred” natural law theorist Robert George holds that the:
first principle of moral judgment is that one ought to choose those options, and only those options, that are compatible with the human good considered integrally—that is to say, with an open-hearted love of the good of human persons considered in all of its variegated dimensions.
There is a clear, knowable, human flourishing that generate moral principles. That concept of human flourishing turns out to be very ready to discount various human claims by invoking definitive metaphysical claims. “Agent-centred” natural law theorist John Finis provides an example of such discounting in his Law, Morality, and "Sexual Orientation".

The basic notion of natural law theory is that things have definitive natures that create definitive functions (telos in the original Greek). In their much-discussed What is Marriage? Grigis, George and Anderson define marriage as follows:
Marriage is the union of a man and a woman who make a permanent and exclusive commitment to each other of the type that is naturally (inherently) fulfilled by bearing and rearing children together. The spouses seal (consummate) and renew their union by conjugal acts—acts that constitute the behavioral part of the process of reproduction, thus uniting them as a reproductive unit. Marriage is valuable in itself, but its inherent orientation to the bearing and rearing of children contributes to its distinctive structure, including norms of monogamy and fidelity. This link to the welfare of children also helps explain why marriage is important to the common good and why the state should recognize and regulate it.
How do we know this? This is a central question, for all sorts of arrangements that anthropologists have labeled ‘marriage’ are excluded by this definition. A lot of people seem to have been “ metaphysically mistaken”. Including the Old Testament, for it claims that Solomon had many wives, yet the authors argue that only monogamous marriage is marriage.

So, this is a definition that excludes a very large number of actual historical marriages. Hence it is not a definition that is arrived at by examining marriage in history. It is not a definition that works on the basis that something reveals its nature in its history. The notion being propounded by the authors is that marriage has intrinsic nature regardless of contradicting instances of its history, so that what appear to be cases of marriage are not so.

This is the typical natural law move of “the conclusion gets to declare the ambit of its premises”. It is the move whereby some cases are declared authoritative while cases that fail to conform are declared perverse or in some other way as not counting. Thus is ‘nature’ and ‘natural’ allegedly defined by how-things-are but are actually defined by preselected criteria that cut out contradicting cases. It is the application of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy.

If any lawyer argued like that, their reasoning would be dismissed. But lawyers have to contend directly with opposing arguments and concern for evidence. In natural law theory, since to argue in the above way is an essential element in the whole approach used by natural law thinkers from Aristotle and Aquinas on down, it is happily proceeded with: for, without that move, the entire mode of moral reasoning collapses.

The problem is that reality incorporates the moral and the immoral or, in this case, the proper (“real marriages”) and improper (“purported marriages”). If reality is where the standard is to be found to separate the moral and the immoral, the proper and the improper, in a normative (rather than merely descriptive) way, then reality is judging itself. Or, more precisely, the conclusion gets to choose the ambit of its premises, since cases that contradict the conclusion do not count. They do not get their norms from the nature of things: their norms drive how they define things.

I propose a different definition of marriage: marriage is an arrangement whereby two or more people build a life together. Notice that this definition of marriage actually incorporates all the historical cases of marriage. It incorporates the historical reality of both polygamous marriage (a person being a member of more than one marriage) or group marriage (two or more people married to each other). It does not say that there are “real” and “purported” marriages, that some people have it “metaphysically correct” and some folk (indeed, entire cultures) are “metaphysically mistaken”.

Note also that my definition does set boundaries on what counts as a marriage. It does not include animals (‘two or more people’) for example. It involves at least a presumption of living together, some (or complete) sharing of income and property and some presumption of sexual bonding (‘build a life together’). It also happily includes all philosopher John Corvino’s test cases of marriage.

What it does not do is expect a definition to resolve any issues about how marriage should be legally treated. After all, a definition of marriage as-a-thing-in-the-world will include a very wide range of marital arrangements. It does not involve endorsement, merely identification.

But, in natural law theory, morality comes from following the proper nature of something. So, to define correctly is to endorse (and, of course, dis-endorse).

The definition I proposed does not include raising children. But it does incorporate why marriage is the normal (and normative) vehicle for raising children: that people who are bonded together, who are building a life together, provide a presumptively suitable home for children. This extends beyond being biological mother and fathers: it incorporates adoption and re-marriage. It is perfectly compatible with having and raising children being a great blessing of a marriage. It is even compatible with getting married in the expectation, hope or purpose of raising children. But it does not make having children definitive of marriage, because it is not. A marriage remains a marriage before having children, after children have left and if there are never any children. Infertility does not make a marriage, not a marriage.

If having children was defining of marriage, we would expect to find infertility to be reason to nullify a marriage, proof of fertility as a natural condition for marriage (or at least confirming it) and that children of any member of the marriage to be automatically included in it. While versions of these features did occur in some cultures (humans really are quite varied in their marital arrangements), they have never been part of Western marriage. Illegitimate children were most definitely not included within the ambit of a marriage unless their parents married: marriage as a bond between two people trumping mere procreation.

On the contrary, it was what is actually defining of marriage – two or more people building a life together – which makes marriage a suitable vehicle for raising children.

So, our authors have simply got it wrong. They have defined marriage incorrectly. Their “direct apprehension of reality” has proved to be not all that direct. Their failure, discussed below, to distinguish between group and polygamous marriage is indicative of a bigger failure.

How natural law theory goes wrong, again and again
But this is not an isolated failure. Natural law theory again and again gets sex wrong. It defines sex as having a single legitimating function: reproduction. So, the mechanics of sex really matter, for only unimpeded penile-vaginal sex (coitus) fulfils the legitimating function of sex. But, once again, the ‘how do we know?’ problem pops up. For natural law theorists have disagreed on how restrictive this function is. Clement of Alexander said all sex acts had to be intended to be procreative; Aquinas that that they had to be possibly procreative; Pope Paul VI that they had to procreative in form, even if procreation was not actually possible. It turns out ‘procreative’ is not nearly as determinative as is purported.

On the first appearance of this argument, by the Athenian in Plato’s The Laws, we know sex is naturally procreative because animals only ever engage in procreative sex. This at least gave a realm to provide a benchmark – nature. But it fails on two grounds. First, because it turns out we are highly selective on which bits of the realm of the natural we choose to take as normative (nature being ‘red in tooth and claw’ remember). Our authority is not nature at all, but the criteria by which we pick and choose.

Second, because it is flatly not true that animals do not engage in homosexual activity and bonding. Indeed, in one of our closest primate relatives (bonobos or pygmy chimpanzees) same-sex bonding is central to their social arrangements, to the extent that there seems to have been selection in favour of more prominent clitori to promote female-female erotic bonding.

It is also flatly not true that procreation is the defining function of sex. Sex is also used for pleasure, express intimacy, catharsis, bonding, favours, etc. That something starts off with a particular function does not mean that remains its defining function. Look at your hand: it was once a fin and used to move our distant ancestors through water. We now use our hands for many things: hands have a defining form but not a defining function (a hand, for example, hits, carries and signals). Natural law theory ultimately rests on a “everything was created for a specific purpose” notion of reality which is simply false.

To claim that procreation is the defining function of sex is not to find one’s norms in the nature of things, it is, in the normal natural law style, to use one’s norms to define the nature of something. It is choosing which function to focus on.

And it is to do so by presuming far too much knowledge, to put far too much confidence in our direct apprehension of reality. Consider masturbation: natural law theory holds that it is a non-procreative use of sexual organs, so immoral. But suppose masturbation before sex clears out dead sperm and makes a male more likely to be fertile while masturbation after sex promotes ovulation and makes a female more likely to conceive. Does masturbation then serve a procreative role or not? The problem is, even on a procreation-only view of sex, without scientific study, we cannot tell. Our direct apprehension of reality is nowhere near good enough to bear the weight natural law theory insists it does.

The essential irrelevance of the mechanics of sex
If having children is not a defining function of marriage, then we do not need to enquire into the mechanics of the sexual arrangements between married persons. We can presume there is likely to be sexual bonding and intimacy within the marriage. But we do not have to enquire into the mechanics.

Now, historically, it is true that consummation (as in penile-vaginal coitus) was required for a legal marriage. (Well, it was required if either partner made a fuss about it.) But this was because the law explicitly incorporated the Christian natural law conception of marriage: it incorporated it for religious reasons. If one enquires into the history of the Christianisation of marriage, however, we find that it was a matter of genuine debate within the Church whether a marriage needed consummation to be a valid marriage. It was decided, ultimately, that it was but it was not taken to be “self-evident” that this was true. Now, on the authors’ take on marriage, this is completely mysterious. On my definition of marriage, it is not.

Which goes back to my original question. How do we know? If we cannot find our “proper” marriage by enquiring into marital arrangements across human societies, how to we know what are “proper” marriage and what a purported-but-not marriages? The authors propose a definition, but anyone can do that. My definition has a test – examining the range of marital arrangements across human societies. Their definition has no such test. Referring to historical practice within Christianised marriage law, or the pronouncements of philosophers within the natural law tradition, merely tests the theory with itself.

A small polygamy problem
The problems with the authors’ approach becomes clear when they get to the “what about polygamy?” move:
Revisionists often capture this point with a question: “How would gay marriage affect you or your marriage?” It is worth noting, question could be turned back on revisionists who oppose legally recognizing, for example, polyamorous unions: How would doing so affect anyone else’s marriage? If this kind of question is decisive against the conjugal view’s constraints on which unions to recognize, it cuts equally against the revisionist’s.
Actually, that is almost ludicrously easy to answer. Allowing marriage to be between more than two people immediately, in a monogamous legal marriage culture, changes the terms of every existing marriage since it opens up the possibility of one or more people being added to it. This is obviously not true from legally recognising same-sex relationships or legalising same-sex marriage. Moreover, allowing polygamous marriage allows richer or otherwise advantaged folk to grab more of the available spouses. (An effect almost guaranteed to work unevenly between the sexes.) Again, legalizing same-sex marriage does not have this effect: on the contrary, it extends, rather than restricts, the benefits of marriage.

But then, I am arguing from a facts-first perspective rather than a “normative” “only convenient facts count” perspective. So I don’t need to worry about whether definitions do my work for me. For the ones with the problem barring polygamy are the authors themselves. Marriage has to be monogamous because:
Such a union can be achieved by two and only two because no single act can organically unite three or more people at the bodily level or, therefore, seal a comprehensive union of three or more lives at other levels.
But, on their own argument, penile-vaginal coitus only has to happen once for the union to be comprehensive in the essential way to satisfy their definition. So, clearly, a husband can be comprehensively united with several wives. (Or, for that matter, a wife with several husbands depending on whether we are talking of polygyny or polyandry.) Their notion that the Bible is lying, or is metaphysically mistaken, when it refers to ‘Solomon’s wives’ is patent nonsense: particularly as Solomon’s wives did not marry each other, they married Solomon. The authors’ argument against polygamy, that it is not “real marriage”, simply fails.

Clearly, the authors’ do not want to permit polygamy: but to claim that polygamy is not marriage demonstrates that they are trying to get mere definition to do far too much. For if polygamous marriages are, indeed, marriages according to the essential features identified by the authors’ definitive definition, then their definition of marriage does not provide a definitive legal guide. For there become marriages which have the declared essential features but, nevertheless, are not to be legally recognized. You see their little problem?

The authors’ solution that permitting polygamy is a metaphysical, and thus moral, mistake does not work—after all, did we ever think Solomon’s wives married each other? Of course not: hence the issue of bodily unions between them never came up and is not relevant to their marital status. The authors’ rather desperate move comes from trying to get far too little to do far too much. That the authors’ fail to distinguish between group marriage (where three or more people marry each other) and polygamous marriage (where one person marries two or more others) is very unimpressive. It is, however, a revealing obtuseness: revealing of their ludicrous over-confidence in what definitions can do.

Using one’s conclusion to determine the range of one’s premises is a great way to rationalise desired conclusions: it has nothing to do with the truth, moral or otherwise. Same-sex marriage is not a “definitional mistake”. And the nature of marriage makes it a suitable vehicle for raising children, not the other way around. Defining marriage is not the end of the moral debate, it is the beginning of it and thinking that the correct definition resolves such debate is a sign of what is wrong with your thinking, not what is right with it.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Rhetoric matters

US Presidents generally fulfill, or seek to fulfill, their campaign promises (via):
Michael Krukones in Promises and Performance: Presidential Campaigns as Policy Predictors (1984) established that about 75 percent of the promises made by presidents from Woodrow Wilson through Jimmy Carter were kept. In Presidents and Promises: From Campaign Pledge to Presidential Performance (1985), Jeff Fishel looked at campaigns from John F. Kennedy through Ronald Reagan. What he found was that presidents invariably attempt to carry out their promises; the main reason some pledges are not redeemed is congressional opposition, not presidential flip-flopping. Similarly, Gerald Pomper studied party platforms, and discovered that the promises parties made were consistent with their postelection agendas. More recent and smaller-scale papers have confirmed the main point: presidents’ agendas are clearly telegraphed in their campaigns.
Or, to put it another way, what Presidential candidates say as candidates is generally what you get as Presidents.

Sure, we remember broken political promises (generally, more than kept ones) but a President is generally going to do (or seek to do) as they promise. So, paying attention to what Presidential candidates say on the campaign trail is a very good idea.

Which is good news for democracy-as-voter-power. What candidates tell the voters is what they will (mostly) do if elected. The implicit contract with the voters (if you elect me I will do X) has genuine power. Indeed, a study of how members of Congress behave indicate just how much power:
What he has found is that representatives and senators see every election as a cycle that begins in the campaign, when they make promises to their constituents. Then, if they win, they interpret how those promises will constrain them once they’re in office. Once in Washington, Fenno’s politicians act with two things in mind: how their actions match the promises they’ve made in the previous campaign; and how they will be able to explain those actions when they return to their district. Representation “works,” then, because politicians are constantly aware that what they do in Washington will have to be explained to their constituents, and that it will have to be explained in terms of their original promises.
No wonder Americans generally like their local representative even as they dislike Congress. Their local representative is far more likely to try to do what they want than Congress as a whole.

The deeper question is why? Why are politicians from the President down so fixated on their political promises?

To which the simplest answer is: that there is an implicit contract, an exchange, a transaction, going on between candidate and voters. The exchange is votes-for-promises. In offering this exchange a politician faces various dangers: insufficient promise-credibility (insufficient, that is, to offer voters something worth their votes); misdirected promises (not what the voters want to be offered); misguided promises (not the consequences voters wanted when enacted). Acting as if promises matter signals credibility and so keeps the politician in the exchange-for-votes game.

And, since they are all in that game, it becomes a crucial currency with each other as well as the voters. They do promises trade-offs because that gives them win-wins--they give each other credibility. A clever politician offers specific promises so they can "horse-trade": they can help other politicians keep their promises without breaking their own. Which means politicians with congruent promises will tend to work together and those with contradictory promises will tend not to.

But they are not only signalling to voters, they are also signalling to their activists, staff and subordinates. This applies particularly strongly to Presidents, who have to signal to an entire Administration. The notion of "secret" channels of communication successfully hermetically sealed from public communication is deeply implausible (especially in such an open society as the US) and hardly any more functional, given the need to interact with other office-holders.

So, what you see is (mostly) what you get because the key communications are public. True, there is some talking in "code" (in phrases which resonate in particular ways with particular groups) but it is a "code" embedded in public speech. Rhetoric matters because it is crucial to the signalling that is so much the stuff of politics.

[Cross-posted at Critical Thinking Applied]

Saturday, January 7, 2012

A dramatic contrast in civility

Glen Greenwald (who is not remotely a supporter of Ron Paul), puts his Presidential candidacy in a striking context (via). I often disagree with Greenwald, but this is a wholly admirable essay. One quote provides the flavour (though I urge you to read the entire essay):
The thing I loathe most about election season is reflected in the central fallacy that drives progressive discussion the minute “Ron Paul” is mentioned. As soon as his candidacy is discussed, progressives will reflexively point to a slew of positions he holds that are anathema to liberalism and odious in their own right and then say: how can you support someone who holds this awful, destructive position? The premise here — the game that’s being played — is that if you can identify some heinous views that a certain candidate holds, then it means they are beyond the pale, that no Decent Person should even consider praising any part of their candidacy.
In dramatic contrast is Seumus Milne in the Guardian, who rails against any notion that Margaret Thatcher was a great leader, worthy of a state funeral (the lady is not dead yet: the psychology of his chosen subject matter says something methinks). He finds nothing admirable in her career or Premiership.

Now, Milne has made a career of being self-righteously wrong and his judgement about Thatcher is of a piece with this. He is a walking stereotype (of the narrow-minded, morally purblind Graudinadinista) who preaches to the converted. Greenwald is far more intellectually serious, in part because he is far more morally serious. He considers where Milne merely manifests.

(On the matter of those Ron Paul newsletters, Steve Horowitz says what needs to be said [via]. Matt Stoller's essay on Ron Paul's challenge to US liberalism is, as Glen Greenwald says, also worth reading.)

Perhaps one way to make political civility more attractive is to point out that it is smarter. Milne has never convinced me of anything and I never bother to read him except as a manifestation of everything that is wrong with the "anti-imperialist" Western left. Even when he annoys me, Greenwald is at least worth engaging with and his essay on Ron Paul is a splendid example of why.

[Crossp-posted at Critical Thinking Applied.]

Friday, January 6, 2012

The practical choice

This is based on a comment I made here.

What people fail to notice about the "traditional" view of marriage as being people of the opposite sex is that it was an imposed tradition.

First, lots of cultures and societies have recognised versions of same-sex marriage: the social form is a great deal older than people realise. This extends to Roman law.

Second, if you ban such marriages (as the early Christian emperors did) and then kill (i.e. judicially murder) people who engage in same-sex activity then same-sex marriage is precluded. Given the reality of human sexual diversity, such brutality is needed to maintain the "tradition" in any society with some form of moral universalism. Take away the (necessary) enforcing brutality and, given the reality of human sexual diversity, the want to settle down together with legal support will re-assert itself. In a morally universalist society, there is no stable rest point in the middle. You either buy into the (thoroughly utopian) endless repression of sexual diversity or accept equal protection of the law: that is the practical choice.

Agitation for same-sex marriage is not a manifestation of modern "decadence", it is a manifestation of modern decency.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Born in misogyny

Arab Spring or Islamist Winter? is the title of a new piece (behind subscription wall) by Michael Totten.

The Islamist surge is not good for the region's women. Monotheism has a long history of misogyny. The Islamist revival manifests particularly intense versions of this.

The Arab Spring was sparked by the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi. While there is no doubt about the desperation of the act, nor the grievances (including much petty, and-not-so-petty corruption) which made it resonate, there is another aspect which is notable. In the words of Wikipedia(tm):
Regardless, Bouazizi's family claims he was publicly humiliated when a 45-year-old female municipal official, Faida Hamdi, slapped him in the face, spat at him, confiscated his electronic weighing scales, and tossed aside his produce cart. It was also stated that she made a slur against his deceased father. Bouazizi's family says her gender made his humiliation worse. His mother also claimed Hamdi's aides beat and swore at her son. Countering these claims, in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, a brother of Hamdi claimed neither his sister nor her aides slapped or otherwise mistreated Bouazizi. He said they only confiscated Bouazizi's wares. However, an eyewitness told Asharq Al-Awsat that he did not see Hamdi slap Bouazizi, but that her aides did beat him.
Being humiliated by female authority made it that much worse, apparently.

There is a powerful historical resonance here. So much of the Islamist revival is a revolt against modernity, with female empowerment being at the heart of what is being rebelled against, what is found to be so repellent about modernity. In a region where power is concentrated in the barracks and the mosque--both bastions of male power--women, even more than its other residents, are stuck between mosque and military and the pervasive misogyny that links and surrounds both.

UPDATE But many Tunisian women are willing to stand up against using dress to publicly control and restrict women.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Patterns of monotheism

Monotheism typically both universalises morality—on the grounds that we are all children of God, all part of the same moral order—and subverts it—by exempting various categories of people, in whole or in part, from moral protections. This subversion itself has persistent tendencies: for example, in matters of sex and gender so that women are typically denied authority, and otherwise constrained (especially by stripping them of control over fertility), while anyone who falls outside of the binary equating of sex-and-gender is subject to varying degrees of denigration, brutality and repression.

Another persistent tendency within monotheism has been a suspicion of pleasure, as diverting attention from God. (This clearly overlaps with its sex-and-gender patterns.) A third has been a strong tendency to the policing of thought and belief.

A common feature in all this is that monotheism has a strong tendency to generate an enormous sense of entitlement in its adherents: a sense of entitlement very much reflected in the various subversions of morality noted above.

An event which brought together many of these tendencies—self-righteous brutality, misogyny, policing thought and belief—was the notorious murder of Hypatia in Alexandria in 415 (whose life and death has recently been the subject of a biopic.)

Almost 1600 years later, and Egypt is going through a monotheist revival where many of these patterns are once again on display. Philosopher Stephen Hicks has drawn attention to the Hypatia comparison. The recent destruction-by-arson of the L’Institut d’Egypte represents an act of destruction—of profound vandalism against truth and scholarship—that both illustrates V. S. Naipaul point that Islamic imperialism is the most alienating and pervasive of all imperialisms, since it alienates those conquered or absorbed by Islam from their own past, and fits in with a wider pattern with monotheism. (For example, the Portuguese destruction of the records of the Thomasine Christians.)

The destruction by arson of the L’Institut d’Egypte and its hundreds of thousands of documents is an attack on scholarship and truth that has gone largely unremarked in the Western media (though the blogosphere has paid more attention): possibly in part because it contradicts various consoling narratives about Islam and about popular revolutions.

The problem with integrating Islam into Western societies (and global societies more generally) is not that it displays patterns not seen elsewhere. It is that commitment within Islam to enduring patterns of monotheism is still so robust (as, for example, Gaza Christians are discovering under the rule of Hamas). As Mark Durie points out this Islamic robustness, and that the robustness is increasing rather than decreasing, is no accident but rests on decades of painstaking grass-roots Islamic activism.

But it easier for such subversion of morality to be so robust in Islam as mainstream Islam has historically been so limited in its universalising of moral protections and so systematic and entrenched in its subversion of morality. But this does not put it outside the patterns of monotheism: far from it.