Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Atheism and neoconservatism

I don't want to directly address the main point of Luke Savage's article, New Atheism, Old Empire:a few prominent New Atheists — Savage names Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens — have views on Islam that explicitly or implicitly support American Imperialism and neoconservatism. First, I think this part of his critique is mostly correct. I know of Hitchens' and Harris's views, and I definitely disagree with them. I'm not as familiar with Dawkins' present views; I liked Dawkins' book, The God Delusion, but his project as a popularizer of atheism is very different from my own, so I don't follow him closely. Dawkins is also a sexist pig, which reduces my interest in following his thoughts to zero. Regardless, I don't find it extremely counterintuitive that he might not just find the Islamic religion terrible (it is), but that he might be bigoted against Islamic people. More importantly, it's just not particularly important whether or not this or that New Atheist is or is not aiding and abetting the neoconservative cause. To the extent that some are, they deserve criticism and correction, but New Atheism (and atheism) is not a left-wing project, and that some New Atheists are not on the left is not by itself problematic. What is more problematic is Savage's implication that the atheist critique of religion itself is nothing but neoconservative propaganda.

I want to first object to the idea of using New Atheist or New Atheism as any kind of meaningful collective noun, even a noun that refers (as does the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy's article, The New Atheists). People who write books (other than textbooks) are not representative, contra Savage's assertion, of anyone or anything. Writing a book is an intensely personal, not a collective, effort. The God Delusion represents Dawkins' views; God Is Not Great represents Hitchens' views, etc. And reading a book is just as personal; each reader brings their own unique point of view to every book they read and takes from that book their own individual value. Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens — and Stenger, Eller, Myers, Coyne, Carrier, and every other author who has written on atheism — are all sui generis. We can judge them, but We must judge them individually, by name.

If "New Atheist" is not appropriate to label actually published authors, it is even less apt to label — except in the broadest, most general terms — any actual group of people who are not published authors. The term "New Atheist" is originally a pejorative label established by critics of atheists. The use of the term goes back (at least) as far as David Haxton Carswell Read's 1966 book, Whose God is Dead: The Challenge of the New Atheism. The term is still used pejoratively to collect a disparate group of people whom some critic disagrees with, as if they constituted some cohesive collective. While there are, of course, many cohesive atheist groups, such as American Atheists, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, etc., there is no overall cohesive atheist group at all, let alone any cohesive group of New Atheists. It would be an exercise in vacuity for Savage to define (or adopt the implicit definition) New Atheists as "neoconservative atheist writers" and then "prove" that New Atheists are neoconservatives.

Savage seems to want to talk about what is at least a real intellectual thread, a particular kind of critique of religion, and connect that critique to neoconservatism. According to Savage, "New Atheism’s intellectual foundations are also exceptionally weak." Savage claims that there is an intellectual thread that seeks to expose the "inherent 'irrationality' of all religions [emphasis added]" by "scrutiniz[ing] religious myths without attention to, or even awareness of, the multiplicity of social and theological debates they have provoked, the manifold ideological guises their interpreters have assumed, or the secular belief systems they have helped to influence." But this criticism is misguided. Most atheist writers are not anthropologists, and simply assume that the the dominant religious (especially the most problematic religious ideas) in their own culture is what religion is in all cultures. This view is obviously incorrect. If atheist critiques of religion were intended to address the full diversity of religious expression, including the culture of the Walpuri, Yanomamo, Jain, etc., then this ethnocentrism would be extremely problematic. But atheists tend to focus not on deep sociological, anthropological, or philosophical issues, but on political and cultural issues in their own polities and culture. When an atheist criticizes, for example, the religious causes of evolution or climate change denial in American culture, it is irrelevant that the Walpuri have a completely different conception of religion than do American Christians. In no other field does the charge make sense that thought and opinion in that field must necessarily be absolutely universal to be meaningful. Political scientists, for example can criticize Republicans (and Democrats) even though the American two-party democratic republic is hardly universal; economists can criticize or support the PPACA even though the American health care system is not even prevalent in most capitalist countries. The idea that some criticism of some particular idea invalid because it is not universal to all ideas in the same (very general) category is simply nonsensical.

Savage segues almost imperceptibly from the true but trivial claim that atheist critique of certain brands of American Christianity (and perhaps Islam) do not apply to all religions to the idea that our critique does not apply to any religious expression. For example, Savage reproduces Terry Eagleton's objection to God Is Not Great:
Hitchens argues earnestly that the Book of Genesis doesn’t mention marsupials; that the Old Testament Jews couldn't have wandered for forty years in the desert; that the capture of the huge bedstead of the giant Og, King of Bashan, might never have happened at all, and so on. This is rather like someone vehemently trying to convince you, with fastidious attention to architectural and zoological detail, that King Kong could not possibly have scaled the Empire State Building because it would have collapsed under his weight.
Not even Hitchens, much less atheists in general, use this "factual" approach exclusively; God Is Not Great engages religion on a number of fronts. But Savage uses Eagleton here to imply that no religious person ever (or only an insignificant, marginal, minority) ever holds factual beliefs about their religious texts, in the same sense that no one believes that King Kong is a documentary. Savage's position might be correct, but it would require an empirical argument, and engagement with the empirical arguments of atheist thinkers. Simply quoting the opinion of a literary critic is insufficient, especially without presenting any opposing argument.

Savage goes on to quote Richard Seymour's book, Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens to "define" religion:
Religion is a labour of interpretation, of symbolic and ideological production from which agents derive meanings adequate to their life circumstances. Apart from anything else, the sheer indeterminacy of religious texts would make it impossible for there to be a literal, consistent meaning present in the texts: interpretation is indispensible [sic].
But this definition is obviously nonsense. What does Seymour mean by the "sheer indeterminacy of religious texts"? If there is no "literal, consistent meaning present," what precisely is it that religious people are interpreting? In what sense is a passage such as Leviticus 20:13 —"If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them." — at all indeterminate? We might or might not like what it says, but it seems crystal clear that it says something very specific and definite*; the need for "interpretation" does not come from a lack of literal meaning, but from us not liking the literal meaning. Would Savage claim that no Christians today justify their opposition to homosexuality just because the Bible literally says so? If so, let him prove that thesis.

*Context and translation are of little help to indeterminists here.

Savage then asserts that the atheist critique of Islam is flawed because it "assumes that fundamentalism is the product of bad ideas rather than particular social and material conditions . . . [and] attribute [violence] to some monolithic orthodoxy." First, atheists do not really hold that "fundamentalism" (whatever that means) is the product of bad ideas; we argue that fundamentalism is a bad idea, regardless of its genesis. Second, to be fair, most atheists are not Marxists, and do not give as much importance as Marxists to social and material conditions. But Savage is being at best inconsistent and at worst hypocritical: if Islam is "the product of particular social and material conditions", and not "the product of bad ideas," so too is atheism. Indeed, on the narrowest interpretation of Marx, consciousness is purely epiphenomenal; criticizing ideas of any sort — religion, atheism, capitalism, communism, science, law, etc. — is sterile and useless. Savage wants to have his critical cake and eat it too: religion is exempt from criticism because religious ideas are just the result of social and material conditions; atheist ideas are fair game and create the social and material conditions of imperialism and neoconservatism.

Finally, "monolithic orthodoxy" is unacceptably vague. If Savage means to imply that atheists believe that every religious person (or every Muslim, Christian, Hindu, etc.) ever, past and present, believes exactly the same thing about everything, and, more importantly, that the atheist critique of religion fails if this absolute agreement is even trivially compromised, he would clearly be demolishing a ridiculous straw man. More importantly, his critique depends just as much on attributing an equally ridiculous monolithic orthodoxy to the atheist critique of religion. Atheism is hardly monolithic; not even capitalism is a monolithic orthodoxy. But if Savage does not mean to imply an absolute agreement, what does he mean? Does he mean to imply the idea that most members of religious groups do not agree within their own group about a substantial collection of ideas, and their agreement rests on authoritative interpretations of authoritative texts? That every religious person's beliefs are sui generis, and that almost every religious group encourages unrestricted individual ideas about god and the divine? Such an interpretation could perhaps be argued, but to present this interpretation as obviously, unquestionably true seems as ridiculous as the straw man of perfect agreement.

Even if Savage's specific criticism of Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris were completely correct, Savage clearly has made no effort to engage with the larger atheist critique of religion as it actually exists. So why go farther? I suspect there is an underlying reason: it is tempting, and false, to believe that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and my friend's enemies are my own. Clearly, the Islamic world is engaged in a struggle against western imperialism, in its sharpest, most directly military form. As opponents of western imperialism, it is tempting to see the victim of imperialism as our friends, and shield them from criticism. But just that the Islamic world is the target of western imperialism does not make them friends of the western Left, the working class, of the struggle for freedom and justice. I don't think that the Islamic world really is on "our" side; they are, at the very least, on their own side. Savage appears to argue that any criticism of any victim of oppression justifies that oppression. We must be careful, of course; blaming victims for their own oppression is never correct. But criticism need not be blame. We should not claim that we should never criticize, for example, Islamic misogyny because that justifies imperialism to "correct" that misogyny, we should realize that even if the Islamic world were a thousand times more misogynist that it actually is, such misogyny cannot justify imperialism; indeed, no "faults" can ever justify conquest, subordination, and oppression. Criticism can be used as a partisan tool, but it is not intrinsically a partisan tool. We should, like Marx, seek to be ruthless critics of everything existing, and Marx himself offered some of his most ruthless criticism for opponents of capitalism.

In truth, while errors in atheist thought should never be shielded from criticism, atheists and the modern atheist critique of religion should be seen not as enemies of the left, but as potential allies. Throughout history, religious thinking, however broadly and diversely defined, has served most often not to undermine but to reproduce relations of domination and subordination. More importantly, all relations of domination and subordination require the kind of thinking that religion must necessarily employ: asserting some privilege, whether textual, interpretive, or traditional that is immune to ration criticism by its very nature — as Eller defines religion, where "the nonhuman and ‘supernatural' are seen as profoundly human and social," i.e. as fetishized non-human expressions of human relations. Domination and subordination must employ some sort of epistemic and moral privilege. Without such privilege, the "right" of one group to subordinate another cannot stand. Epistemic and moral privilege need not be strictly "religious"; it is arguable, however, that any assertion that cannot be established by common natural reason and observation, whether it be a monotheistic deity, an unseen spirit, or a universal moral principle, is ipso facto supernatural and therefore, in the broadest sense (that Savage seems to advocate), "religious."

The problem is not that religion, and religious thinking, can be used only for evil, for reproducing relations of dominance; the problem is that religious thinking can be used for anything; I have no way of independently evaluating the claims that "God loves homosexuals" and "God hates homosexuals (or homosexuality)." It doesn't matter whether these statements stem from a reading, literal or "interpretive," of some text, or from personal revelation, or from theological debate; I have no way of knowing what God wants, good or bad. I know what I want, and I can get a good idea, using reason and observation, of what other human beings want, but I have no idea of what God wants. And I'm not just going to project my own desires on a mythical God and pretend I'm talking about more than what I want. To claim that "God loves homosexuals" is not just to endorse equal rights for homosexuals (yay), but to endorse the idea that equal rights is about what God wants, not what we want. And, since I don't actually know what God wants, for all I know, God really does hate homosexuals. Our social norms become a conversation only among those who claim privilege, with the rest of us as passive spectators.

We on the left must, I think, share the true core narrative of atheism: there is no privilege. There is no religious privilege. There is no capitalist privilege. And there is no socialist privilege. We should be socialists and communists because we have good reasons to believe that, at some level, people want socialism and communism. To oppose the fundamental project of atheist criticism of religion (and not legitimately criticize its errors and inconsistencies) is to endorse privilege. And I would no more endorse so-called socialist or communist privilege than I would capitalist or fascist privilege.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Wave a white flag: On “left” support for the Democratic Party

Wave a white flag: On “left” support for the Democratic Party:
Activists are told by liberals, so-called progressives and other pundits to stop what we are doing in terms of developing independent politics and building our organizations, and to “get out the vote” for the candidates of the Democratic Party. “Leftists” who argue that we need to support the Democrats say, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, that electing the lesser evil will give us more space to organize and advance our agenda. Yet this “left” cover for the Democrats, under whatever rationale, is not about building an independent revolutionary movement, but it is about switching our flag and hoisting up those of the Democrats. What it really means is surrender.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Marx on Alienation

In his early writing, Karl Marx analyzes the concept of alienation. Marx adopts a Hegelian methodology in his analysis. To both Hegel and Marx, history is a dynamic dialectical process. A dialectical stage begins with a negation, a contradiction, and then proceeds to a resolution of the contradiction, i.e. the sublation, transcendence, or, from Feuerbach, “the negation of the negation” (Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts” 108). The original negation is not erased, but instead transformed (Tucker, Notes xli). Marx theorizes that alienation, especially the alienation of the worker (and capitalist) from the social activity of production, constitutes a negation, one which Marx believes will be sublated or transcended by the advent of communism. In his analysis, Marx claims, contra Hegel and others, the material basis of alienation, explores the specific material character of alienation, and locates the potential sublation of alienation in the sphere of practice.

Marx argues that Hegel’s account of the dialectical process must be transformed from an idealistic basis to a materialistic basis. Marx holds that Hegel has the dialectic “standing on its head [and] must be turned right side up again” (Marx, Afterword 302). Marx reads Hegel as saying that an actual idea creates the material reality of, e.g., family and civil society. Instead, Marx argues that Hegel inverts subject and object: actual material human beings create the ideas of family and civil society (“Contribution” 17-18). Marx holds that our social relations are not fundamentally in the human mind but in the material world. Dialectical contradictions arise when the material economic conditions conflict with the social institutions apropos to earlier economic conditions (“Marx on the History” 2). Although Marx follows Feuerbach’s lead in inverting this reading of Hegel, Marx extends Feuerbach’s materialism. In “Theses on Feuerbach,” of Marx claims that Feuerbach does not conceive of human activity itself as material (143). Marx argues instead that human activities, including thought and social relations, are also material (145). Richard J. Bernstein argues that Hegel unifies the material and the ideal in Geist (29-30), so too does Marx unify the physical and the ideal in the material.

After locating the dialectic in the material, Marx characterizes the specific nature of alienation in the material social relations of production under capitalism. In “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts,” Marx argues that capitalism inverts the relationship of humanity to labor, from the existence of worker for his or her fulfillment in labor, to the use of labor for the existence of the worker. Because of this inversion, labor under capitalism becomes institutionally alienated in four distinct ways. First, the product of labor becomes not merely objectified – Marx argues that it is humanity’s intrinsic nature, our species being, to produce objects, to exert our will on the natural world (75-76) – and not only expropriated, but taken to become actively hostile to the worker, not fulfilling but diminishing her- or himself, sometimes to the point of loss of reality, literal starvation, and death (71-72, 74). Second, capitalism alienates the worker from the labor process itself. Not just the product but the activity of producing no longer belongs to the worker; the worker becomes essentially a machine programmed by those who have purchased his or her labor power (75). Third, because, as mentioned above, it is our species being to be active, engaged, producers, Marx argues that by alienating workers from their product and process of production, capitalism thus alienates workers from their species being (76-77). Finally, capitalism alienates individual people from each other (77). When producing for a wage, the workers and the consumers of the workers’ products no longer interact with each other – they no longer create a social relationship. Marx argues that if labor were not alienated, one who produces for another would have “the direct and conscious satisfaction that [his or her] work satisfied a human need” (qtd. in Bernstein 48). By alienating labor, capitalism transforms production, the most intimate and personal relationship between human beings and nature, other human beings, and humanity itself, into an impersonal, bestial activity.

Marx argues that alienation must be resolved in the material, practical world, not merely the world of ideas. Marx asserts that “Social life is essentially practical,” not ideal, and that labor’s alienation, the contradiction between humanity’s actual practice of production under capitalism and production’s essential human purpose, must be resolved in practice (“Theses” 145). Marx opposes his views specifically to those of Proudhon: in “Society and Economy in History,” Marx condemns Proudhon for invoking mystical, nonsensical phrases to explain history and its development (136). Instead, Marx asserts that our ideas follow, not precede, our actual social relations: the “whole inner organization of nations [and] their international relations” are just “the expression of a particular division of labor” (139-140). Marx argues that our ideas are not eternal; they are always tied to material reality: “economic categories are only abstract expressions of . . . actual relations” (140). Marx concludes that Proudhon believes that only the categories, the “isolated thoughts,” need be changed to revolutionize society (140-141). In his condemnation of Proudhon, Marx implies that the opposite must be true: to change our ideas, we must change the physical reality. As Marx describes in “The German Ideology,” we must proceed from the “first premise of human history,” which is not the existence of eternal categories or ideas in the mind of God, but “the existence of living human individuals” and their physical, material nature. According to Tucker, Marx does not condemn ideas per se, but believes that ideas, theory, can “assist” changes in practice (Introduction xxxii). But, for Marx, physical existence and physical practice, what we actually do, remains primary. It is therefore practice – guided by theory – that must change to sublate the alienation of labor, to negate the negation constituted by alienation.

The focus on the alienation of labor makes clear that the conflict between capitalism and communism is not one of pragmatic efficiency but of the essential nature of humanity. Marx is not arguing here that communism or socialism is a way to produce more stuff than capitalism. Instead, Marx proceeds from a radically different view of the essence of humanity than does capitalism. Capitalism proceeds from the view of humanity as isolated individuals, whose relations are necessarily hostile, e.g. Hobbes’ “war of all against all,” or Rand’s fundamental “precondition of civilized society” as the “right to self-defense” (qtd. in “Civilization”) which can only blunt natural human hostility. Marx instead proceeds from the view of humanity as still individuals, but as social individuals, whose relations are ideally communal and mutually beneficial. The isolated individual is the negation of social humanity; the negation of negation will happen only when the negation of isolation is sublated into social production.

Works Cited

“Civilization.” The Ayn Rand Lexicon. The Ayn Rand Institute. 2014. Web. 17 Sep. 2014.
Bernstein, Richard J. “Praxis: Marx and the Hegelian Background.” Praxis and Action: Contemporary Philosophies of Human Activity. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1971. 11-83. Print.
Marx, Karl. Afterword to the Second German Edition. Capital. Vol. 1. By Marx. Tucker 299-302.
---. “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.” Tucker 16-25.
---. “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1877.” Tucker 66-125.
---. “Marx on the History of His Opinions.” Tucker 3-5.
---. “Society and Economy in History.” Tucker 136-142.
---. “Theses on Feuerbach.” Tucker 143-145.
Tucker, Robert C. Ed. The Marx-Engels Reader. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978. Print.
---. Note on Text and Terminology. Tucker xxxix-xlii.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Affirmative consent

In Sex Is Serious, Christian (presumably liberal) philosopher and theologian Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig parallels the politics of affirmative consent and conservative Christian, especially Catholic, sanctification of sex. Bruenig highlights a perspicacious, crucial element of conservative sexual ideology: fertility is, in their view, the essential, ineluctable component of sex; to withhold fertility is to render whatever physical acts ensue as not sex. Indeed, by withholding fertility, people corrupt the physical act, rendering the act something not just irrelevant but deeply and perhaps permanently harmful. Critically examining the ethics of affirmative consent, with the recent passage of California's SB 967 as a paradigmatic example, Bruenig notes that advocates of affirmative consent hold that consent, in the strongest form, is the essential, ineluctable component of sex; without consent, whatever physical acts ensue are not not sex, and deeply harmful. Bruenig juxtaposes affirmative consent with the general feminist complaint against pornography to draw the conclusion that like conservative Christianity, "consent feminism" seeks to use state power to impose normative sexuality, a vision of what sex ought to be: "The law makes a statement about the nature of the right kind of sex in general, and also claims that the right kind of sex is serious enough to merit legal intervention." While Bruenig accurately notes a similarity, the similarity is trivial and misses the truly important question: who decides what kind of sexuality is right or wrong?

The juxtaposition of consent and pornography is specious. The feminist critique of pornography has never been that viewing sexual activity for the purpose of arousal is by itself inherently bad. The critique is, and always has been, that in a patriarchal society, pornography is predominately a tool used to culturally normalize the inferior and subordinate status of women. As Gloria Steinem says in the interview Bruenig links to, "We have to say pornography is not erotica, porn means female slavery. It means the depiction of female slavery." There are exceptions, but pornography as normalization of subordination is so pervasive that it deserves general condemnation; the exceptions truly are exceptional. A good analogy, perhaps, is with the police: in theory, the police serve an important, perhaps necessary social role; in practice, however, in a misogynist, racist, capitalist society, the police so predominantly serve as an instrument of oppression of women, people of color, and the poor and working class that they deserve general condemnation. The practical critique does not necessarily negate the theoretically positive value. Pornography is not about sex at all; it is about subordination. But pornography is a side issue.

Because sex happens between (at least) two people, sex is an inherently social act. The frequent use of erotica (and perhaps pornography in the feminist sense) in masturbation makes even this apparently individual act deeply social. Thus, the question is not whether we construct social norms and customs about sex; the question is what kind of social norms and customs we construct. Even the idea that people should have nothing at all to say about others' sexuality would be a social norm, in need of construction. And even then, we would still have to socially negotiate what are appropriate and inappropriate ways, places, and times that people get into sexual relationships. Advocates can unreservedly admit to the charge that we are trying to use the law not to codify existing standards but to change the culture. [ETA] Bruenig herself is trying to advocate her own vision of what sex should be - fluid, spontaneous, without a lot of niggling worries about consent. [/ETA] If Bruenig were just trying to draw and deep parallels between conservative Christians and consent feminists just on the basis of participating in the social construction of sexual norms, she would be making a completely trivial point: social people are social.

To my knowledge, no one believes that sex is unimportant or trivial. Affirmative consent ethics are not at all hypocritical or contradictory. Sex-positive feminism is not dedicated, as Bruenig claims, to "everyone having fun"; sex is not "little more than a silly pastime." The "SlutWalk moment" was not about affirming the value of "frivolous no-strings-attached" sex. It was about establishing women unapologetically as sexual beings, who want sex, and, more importantly who get to choose and consent themselves to expression of their own sexuality on their own terms. If that happens to be casual sex, well, that's their own choice, not mine. Consent is not necessary to protect casual sex; the fundamental point of SlutWalk is that sex is not something that must be pushed onto categorically sex-averse or -ashamed women; women can and do consent to sex, for their own enjoyment and fulfillment. Again, were Bruenig simply saying that affirmative consent ethics upholds the importance of sex, she would be making another trivial point.

But Bruenig has a deeper point: affirmative consent takes something important away from sex. Bruenig argues first that the law has always required consent; new laws change only the "expression of consent, which is an intervention into the way sex is [emphasis original]." According to Bruenig, affirmative consent ethics promote
a particular kind of sex, specifically that which is marked by mutual concern, unreserved enthusiasm, and ongoing mutual engagement—a shared focus on body language and verbal cues, refreshed step-by-step, underscored by an honest concern for the other person’s mental and emotional state with regard to the sex act
but ignore "bored sex, disinterested sex, or sex with reservations [emphasis original]." Affirmative consent ethics make women fundamentally mysterious: "women are essentially unknowable, that the usual ways of reading us can’t be trusted, and that our minds must be constantly probed for affirmative signals." Affirmative consent ethics, according to Bruenig, change how we have sex, but do not address sex as it actually is.

Bruenig, however, massively overstates her case. Even in a perfect world, without a hegemonic patriarchy, and even if affirmative consent laws were applicable generally instead of just to higher education institutions in California, affirmative consent does not change how sex is except to exclude rape. First, Bruenig unaccountably asserts that according to SB-967 excludes body language as a form of consent. Antioch College's 1993 sexual assault policy does require verbal consent (which in context is not a terrible idea; see below), but SB-967 says nothing of the sort; it mandates that agreement must be "affirmative, conscious, and voluntary" as well as ongoing. I've been sexually active for around thirty years, from one night stands to marriage, and I have never had a problem interpreting body language as unequivocally granting or withholding consent. Consequently, I have never had a problem with a woman later asserting that I had unconsciously or inadvertently violated her consent. Establishment and maintenance of consent has never caused a lack of passion, spontaneity, fluidity or any other positive aspect of sex.

The only thing that affirmative consent ethics establish is that "I didn't know he or she did not consent" is no longer a defense against sexual assault. SB-967 says that the only legitimate defense to sexual assault is "I had good reason to know he or she did consent." Indeed, SB-967 does not change the legal theory of sexual assault that much. In edge cases, such as statutory rape above a particular age, consent been an affirmative defense against charges of sexual assault: the defendant has the burden of proof, not the prosecution. Fundamentally, I would never defend myself against a charge of sexual assault by saying only that I didn't know a woman did not consent; if I do not know — and have good reason to know — a woman really does consent, I don't have sex. I have been at every stage of sexual activity when a woman has subtly or obviously indicated that she wants to stop. I stop. Period. I do not proceed unless and until I am absolutely clear that she wants to stop. Period. This is not rocket science. Affirmative consent places zero additional boundaries on my own sexuality.

I am personally a relatively sophisticated, perceptive middle-aged man. Not every college student, however, has the benefit of my upbringing and experience. It is critically important to understand that SB-967, as well as the Antioch College policy are aimed not at sophisticated, independent, self-confident adults, but at college students. These are typically young men and women, both sexually and socially inexperienced. Yes, we want to let them experiment, we need to allow them, as the 1993 New York Times article, 'Ask First' at Antioch,, that Bruenig cites, to make mistakes. But only some mistakes. Although no longer acting in loco parentis, college administrators need to help young people avoid catastrophic mistakes. We do not, for example, want to blithely allow young women to mistakenly become pregnant. We do not want to allow young people to mistakenly get sexually transmitted infections. And we do not want young people (indeed anyone) to "mistakenly" violate the personal autonomy and integrity of another person. Hence colleges prohibit bullying and fraternity hazing. And they should also take steps not ordinarily necessary for adults to prevent non-consensual sex. Even the Antioch College policy is reasonable. There are, of course, sexually and socially sophisticated eighteen year olds, who will largely take care of themselves, but if you're become sexually active with an inexperienced eighteen year old, especially if you yourself are more experienced and sophisticated, you could do a hell of a lot worse than establishing explicit verbal consent at every stage. That's how a person becomes sophisticated and experienced, and can move on to more subtle forms of communication.

Fundamentally, consent is first of all complex, and it is not about only sex: consent is the fundamental virtue of liberalism. (The Marxist critique of liberalism and capitalism does not deny the value consent; we claim that consent is necessary but not sufficient, especially in cases of indirect economic pressure.) Even a world without patriarchy, establishment of affirmative consent just brings this fundamental liberal value to the realm of sexuality.

But of course we do not live in a perfect world: we live in a world where patriarchy, although compromised, still retains considerable power. Men do get raped, and violation of consent for men, especially young homosexual men, is an important issue. But rape and sexual assault is a special problem for women. As Susan Brownmiller argues extensively in Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, for centuries, perhaps millennia, the patriarchy has used rape (among other means) to exert its power and domination over women. Rape is not an isolated criminal act; rape has been, and still is, a tool to maintain the subordination of women. Even overt, forcible rape is still inadequately prosecuted, especially on college campuses when committed by high status male students such as athletes and fraternity members. (e.g. here, here, here, here, and an attempt at a depressingly long comprehensive list of just college rapes football players). A frequent defense in these overt rapes is that the perpetrators believed the victim had consented, placing the burden of proof on the victim to show she unequivocally did not consent. Shifting the burden of proof to the perpetrators can help shut down this legal strategy.

[ETA (forgot to pay off my thesis statement!] It's unclear why Bruenig tries to compare conservative Christians. If she were writing a college "common ground" essay, she would argue that the common ground between conservative Christians and consent feminists was a good thing (if it were to exist; I'm unconvinced that conservative Christians really have the temporal fulfillment of human beings at the forefront). Instead, she seems to take more of a "pox on both your houses" view, an Eric Hoffer communists-and-fascists-are-the-same view that people who are genuinely concerned about sex and its place in society are both trying to ruin it, or at least subordinate sex to a political agenda. But the question is not about what sex should be, it's about who decides how sex should be.

There are really only three possibilities about who should decide. First, morally privileged authorities such as the church. If you think you're enjoying sex, but it's not procreative, then they know, because they have privileged information about what God thinks about sex, that you're just fooling yourself, and you need to be protected from your own stupidity and moral ignorance. Second, the powerful (with, obviously, some overlap with authority). Men are typically stronger and more powerful than women; the mob is more powerful than the individual. Whatever men can get by force, overtly or subtly, is by definition good. Third and finally, the individual. It is the great paradox of liberalism* that the rights and privileges of the individual can be guaranteed only by the state; otherwise, the individual is always subject to the mob. Fundamentally, that's what feminist affirmative consent ethics do: make sex whatever each individual wants it to be, irrespective of what anyone else might think, necessarily using state power to protect the weaker from the stronger, and the individual from the mob. Intentionally or not (probably unintentionally), Bruenig regrettably comes down on the side of the stronger against the weaker.

*Socialism expands and does not resolve this paradox; communism (hopefully) resolves the paradox by securing to each individual sufficient economic power to truly make the state wither away.

The message that affirmative consent gives to women, especially young women, is that their sexuality is their own, no one else's, and they are free to consent, and free to withhold consent, at their pleasure, not anyone else's. This is the basis not only of modern liberal virtue but of the empowerment and freedom of every woman. These standards deserve our unequivocal, uncompromising assent.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Principles of democratic communism - Outline

This is essentially the outline of a constitution for a democratic communist "state" (in the Weberian sense). I'm not going to write the individual elements in legalese; I will leave that task (should it become necessary) to those with legal training and experience that exceed my paltry two semesters of undergraduate constitutional law. I will more-or-less assume existing the existing United States Supreme Court's interpretation of the present Constitution as a background for the interpretation of basic terms; please comment if you think existing SCOTUS interpretations might conflict with the fundamental principles of democratic communism.

  1. Preamble
  2. Individualism and collectivism
    1. Individual rights
    2. Collective rights
    3. Collective duties
  3. Political organization
    1. Fundamental Principles
      1. Democracy
        1. Residential and Industrial/Commercial
        2. Hierarchical
        3. At large
      2. Transparency
      3. Corruption
      4. Federalism
      5. Separation of powers
        1. Policy (democratic)
        2. Implementation (bureaucratic)
        3. Compliance (judicial)
  4. Economic organization
    1. Absentee ownership
      1. No private absentee ownership
      2. Complex ownership
    2. Taxation and fiscal policy
    3. Money, banking, insurance, and real estate
    4. Job guarantee and universal basic income
  5. Amendments

(This post will change without warning as I add to and refine the outline and link to specific chapters)


6 Insane Details of Corrupt Politics That Movies Get Wrong (Original title (which I think is better): "6 Ways Government Corruption Is Way Weirder Than You Think")

    #6. Politics Turns Politicians Into Helpless Children
    #5. It's All About Fashion and Sucking Up
    #4. Legal Bribery Happens All the Time
    #3. Lobbyists Are Everywhere, Operating Without Rules
    #2. Even Nations Need Lobbyists
    #1. Lobbyists Can Destroy Politicians Who Oppose Them

Friday, October 03, 2014

The purpose of beauty

[P]art of the purpose of beauty is always to make both the poor and any revolution they attempt appear to be crude and in bad taste, to be a breach of manners. There is simply no way, when power has acquired the trappings of beauty, to avoid the spiritual wonder and humility such beauty provides. Any opposition somehow acquires a stridency, leaves itself open to charges that the world it seeks to destroy will always be more uplifting, more miraculous, than whatever replaces it, whatever you propose. The better choice, the wiser choice is to remain allied with the beauty, support what it upholds, since they cannot be separated.

— David Mura, Turning Japanese, p. 300