Saturday, April 23, 2011

On Women's Desire

Amanda has written a fascinating post on women's desire. That she wrote it in the context of one of those link-bait* stories at Femail, The UK Daily Mail's we-hate-women section, is irritating because part of me wants so badly to rip that original article apart.

It is so alluringly easy to do, so attractively placed, just lying there exposed and helpless, yet so obviously link-bait. So watch me restrain myself against one fervent desire! (Though you might be able to talk me into that rampage later...)

What I wish to write about now is women's sexual desire. My focus will be on heterosexual desire because I am a heterosexual goddess, but I hope that others can tell me more about lesbian women's desires. We are going to build a map of female sexual desire here! Yes we are. And that can include no desire, too. I suspect that the map will be complicated and if you want to add "here be dragons" do so.

But for the purposes of this post the term "desire" will be limited to its narrowest definition: To desire another person sexually. Do women desire? And what does that desire consist of?

As Amanda points out, women are not quite allowed to actively desire, not men, in any case:
Anyway, I think this whole situation shines more light on Figleaf's famous two rules of desire in a patriarchal system:
1.It is simultaneously inconceivable and intolerable for a woman to have sexual desire.
2.It is simultaneously inconceivable and intolerable for a man to be sexually desired.
His theory is---and I agree---that the reason this has cropped up is because being desired is cast as "feminine" in our culture, and men are taught to run from anything feminine.  But being desired is such a fundamental human feeling that I've often wondered how you really trick men into it.  (And you really don't with many men, who are going to keep grooming and wearing clothes that look good no matter how often you fling homophobic slurs at them for doing so.)  And I think it may be this.  If women are free from desire, straight men are free to see women as consumable goods for purchase.  What name you call them---wife, prostitute---depends mainly on the price.  Such a system means you're never really rejected.  That peanut butter at the store doesn't look at you and say, "Nah."  You either can afford it or you can't.  Reducing women to that is comforting, I suppose.

These are the reasons why women's desire may be stealthy, unnoticed, not labeled as desire, why we might look for other terms to cover it, to shroud it and to push it back into the subconsciousness. Yet what was the teenage girls' response to the Beatles in the 1960s if not desire, and mostly sexual? That many observers failed to see it as desire, registered astonishment at the "inexplicable" behavior of these young girls and women, tells us much about the way the society looks elsewhere when it comes to women's sexuality.

To look at our own sexual desires can be difficult. It is so easy to adjust the task I give here, to replace it with thoughts about what one might want to have done to oneself in sex or with other thoughts which turn us away from active desire, the "female gaze" if you will. It is hard to focus on woman-the-active-participant, rather than on woman-the-passive-object, because it is the latter role we learn to play so well.

Or perhaps not. I cannot speak for all women, not even for all heterosexual women, and that is why we need to make the map. I'm going to begin by quoting snippets from my writing, things which may or may have ended as parts of whole stories. The first snippet:
I first saw him silhouetted against the setting sun, walking down a path from the forest, dressed in faded jeans and a ripped T-shirt. He was lanky, with narrow hips, inscrutable hooded eyes and lips made for kissing. His feet were bare. They touched the earth on each step like a lover. Then he stopped and saw me.

A royal deer suddenly freezing because of a sudden sound in the forest, turning its antlered head towards the sound, beauty and power ready to flee. A golden god come down from Olympus. He made the air around him radiate with desire.

He accepted the wine bottle I offered him and drank from its mouth. I watched him drink, the wine beading on his lips, and I wanted him so that my body hurt.
This snippet was part of a longer piece which I cannot find, but all of it was my attempt to write about desire, to acknowledge it.

Here is a different approach to the question of desire:

Eloise has trouble with joy.
"Come", Alan says, "comecomecomeCOME!", and thrusts deep into her. But she can't, she wont. She has to remember, someone has to remember: who will pay the bills, iron the shirts, see that he orgasms, buy the funeral plots, learn foreign languages. Eloise is full of lists, her body blocked by all the shoulds and should-nots, her lust a feeble throb deep inside her bones.

Alan rolls off her, their skins separating with a wet smack. But mostly it is his sweat. She pulls the sheet over her nakedness, listening to his breathing slowing down, turning into snores, and she closes her own eyes. Her body is aching, her shoulders frozen and her hips like creaky gates. Her lust has compacted, nested back, grown another layer of skin that wont be pierced.

Eloise thinks of her chores for tomorrow: the joyless business of making a living, the endless repetitions of housework, the conversations without meaning. Her hands worry the sheet; she wants joy, joy to come back.

This is the beginning of a short story about depression. Elaine hears Voices, and finally she runs away to New York City to escape them and begins to live again, bit by bit:
The sun is bright outside, spring is in the air. Eloise finds an outdoor cafe, sits down and orders a double cappuccino with whipped cream. The painkillers are beginning to work and she feels anesthetized, weightless. Locals walk by, grumpy and stressed, and tourists wander around aimlessly. Street hawkers are setting up their wares and the first discarded food wrappers blow down the street in the breeze.

Eloise tries to think of the street as the tip of the nose belonging to an old man sitting somewhere in Europe. Is all the traffic tickling him? Do the people look like ants to him, ants hurrying to and fro for some infathomable reason? Her cappuccino arrives and she licks off the whipped cream first. The third challenge: to open oneself to the risks of feeling joy or not.

Eloise doesn't think that she feels anything much. But she is keeping the usual voices quiet, barring them with her magical sword from the spaces of her mind. She orders a croissant to go with the cappuccino and settles down to watching men.

The voices don't like that. Watching men is sinful, women don't do that, good women don't do that. Eloise raises her sword high above the voices and slashes down. Temporary silence ensues.

Men's hips are fascinating, the way they move. Eloise studies the bottoms of young men strolling by, she studies the skins on their arms in all the different shades of earth, she studies their eyes, dreaming, worried, alert, hooded. She wonders what the men would be like in bed, what it would feel like to kiss those lips or those. The voices rise again with warnings of violence, of disease, but the voices are faint for Eloise is just watching, just listening to the gentle stirrings of lust in her body.

It is your turn now. The discussion is not limited to just women, by the way, but I would like to see it kept on the topic of women's desire.
*Meaning a poorly argued and poorly researched story with the sole intention of getting people outraged enough to disperse it widely. Lots of clicks means lots of advertising income and, sadly, more link-bait stories for the future.

Latest in the Republican "I Can Be Crueler To Orphans and Widows" Contest [Anthony McCarthy]

Thanks to QL and Atrios for the heads up.

Michigan State Senator, Bruce Caswell has introduced a bill that would mandate foster children could only buy used clothes.

Under a new budget proposal from State Sen. Bruce Casswell, children in the state’s foster care system would be allowed to purchase clothing only in used clothing stores...

... Under his plan, foster children would receive gift cards that could only be used at places like the Salvation Army, Goodwill and other second hand clothing stores.

,,,, Casswell says the plan will save the state money, though it isn’t clear how much the state spends on clothing for foster children or how much could be saved this way.

Caswell's previous career was as a public school teacher, superintendent and sports coach. I would love to know how much he was paid for being superintendent and coaching. I'd also like to know how he treated poor kids at the schools he worked in.

Republicans around the country are in a contest to see how cruel they can be to the weakest, most defenseless. There seems to be no bottom when they get into that. It wouldn't be a surprise if they required poor children to wear drab, grey shifts of scratchy, skimpy material so they can be identified by "decent children" who would shame them, if not throw rocks and sticks at them. Or maybe they should be sent to modern day work houses so they can earn their keep. That's the way they think, they are the personification of evil.

Lies And Free Speech [Anthony McCarthy]

Would there be any harm to our freedom, our liberties, our lives from this terrible regime of the truth?

Note: I've decided to repost this piece I wrote last year. I don't see anything that isn't born out in subsequent events and experience, especially the ongoing nuclear disaster in Japan.

Reality is real, a wise Rabbi once said. That which really happens is what our lives are made of. What really happens is the source of whatever benefit we can get from life as well as the source of all harm.

It is the professed faith, at least, of most of us that the real is good, or at least unavoidable. And it is the real that has to be contended with in our actions and thoughts. What is asserted to be unreal is denigrated and the charge of believing in what is deemed to not be real constitutes one of the more serious contemporary sins among the relatively educated class of most western societies. At least that is the profession of faith which most of us would make if pressed. Which I won’t investigate further just now.

The esteem that the real is given is based in hard won experience about the consequences of wishful thinking unconditioned by consideration of the predictable results that flow from our actions. Often the lessons are unwelcome. But experience keeps a hard school as compared to desire, until the final exam results are in.

When bad results can’t be avoided, the least foolish thing to do is to forgo that part of desire which leads to them. Oligarchies and other elite systems have rigged things, to insure that it’s others who pay the cost of actions and conditions not of their making. The history of non-democratic governments could be written in the measures which elites have taken to make other people pay for their privilege and the eventual collapse due to the accretions of those awful results.

Democracy is dependent on The People making decisions about governing society and making the laws with which a society regulates itself and its members. The quality of those laws, the quality of the results, inescapably depend on the extent to which those laws are in accord with reality. The farther they are from reality, the worse results can be expected. Experience seems to confirm this idea, the seductions of self-interest being very powerful, only hard experience consciously considered could overcome that motive to be deluded. I’ll also note that democracy is also dependent on equality before those laws. Very crudely put, laws that result in inequality will inevitably lead to a similar situation to the one described in the last paragraph.

We have an especially dramatic example of what happens when laws and actions are dangerously out of sync with what is real in the Gulf Oil disaster. A disaster which could destroy one of the most important eco-systems which life really and inescapably does depend on. Clearly the laws and regulations that allowed that well to be drilled were based on false information, much of it provided by people with degrees in science and engineering, some of whom certainly knew the possibility of something like this happening. It seems when large profits are in the mix, that these catastrophes repeatedly override experience, the lessons of past ones and the resultant destruction of the very basis of life. Yet those who repeatedly create them, are always able to profit from them. There is a reason for this situation.

My question, stemming from this past week’s discussion and the spectacle of the Gulf oil disaster, is there a right to lie?

I mean is there a real, and not just theoretical right to lie, which should be allowed to remain embedded in our laws and which has a real effect in real life. Most importantly, given the reality of how our country is ruled in 2010, what are the consequences of a legal system, a free press and a society which allows profitable and convenient lying to enjoy the functional status of a civil right*? Under the regime of free speech, free press, the champions of free speech apparently believe there is and the danger it imposes on all of us, isn't something they really care about.

Is there a right to knowingly lie in a way that can result in a catastrophe like the one we are all fixed on in the Gulf of Mexico**? Is there a right to lie in a way that will put liars in control of our government and regulatory agencies, and our courts? Don’t forget the courts, which, often don’t seem to feel it is their job to punish the most massively consequential lies, so long as those aren’t told in court, under oath or in a context that can be construed as the equivalent of a contract. And quite often, even when those are. It is exactly that part of the government which is supposed to consider what is real and what isn’t that has allowed the corporations and the congress and administrations to ignore reality as hard experience shows will obviously lead to disaster.


I’m sure that, as in the discussion of violent porn, this question will elicit an immediate response with the most extreme of hypothetical scenarios presented. It’s often the classic questions. What about lying to the Nazis about where the Jewish children are hidden? That kind of thing. And, of course, when those situations are real, they are all important. Of course, any moral person with a functioning brain would lie to the Nazis. But pretending that moral imperative to lie as an exculpatory factor in the official lies that gush like oil from the insanely drilled hole in the Gulf, is willfully and stunningly dishonest. The two situations are made definitively different by the illegitimacy of the Nazis’ genocide and their demented despotism. Naziism can, in no way, be equated with the aspirations and the goals of egalitarian democracy. To deny that difference is to lie, to assert those two situations are equivalent is a colossal lie. The imperative to lie is founded in the choices of Nazis. The requirement to tell the truth an essential prerequisite for democracy to be possible.

In my experience, the very people who would bring up this hypothetical in defense of lying are the same who will absolutely hold that any suppression of Nazi propaganda is a crime against civil liberties. Those European countries whose children were rounded up and murdered by the Nazis are often criticized for their outlawing of Naziism and Holocaust denial. This pseudo-ethical stand is an example of denying the hardest of reality in favor of the soft comfort of an abstract principle.

The history of that genocide is as real a fact as exists. It is as real as anything in science or mathematics. It is more real than anything asserted in the entire history of philosophy. It is a definitive justification for the suppression of Naziism. Denial of a that lesson, consisting of the murders of millions of innocent people, discredits those who refuse to learn it. There comes a time when you have to acknowledge a lesson like that delegitimizes an abstract principle that airily accepts the possibility of its repetition. You just do. Eventually people have to stop pretending that is a serious point of view held by credible people. And the same thing can be said for other genocides, the extermination of the population of Tasmania by the British, the genocides on every continent that continue to today. Genocide didn’t end. It is a constant danger around the world today.

The clear morality of lying to save innocent people doesn’t set aside the fatal effect of serious lying in a democratic society. In fact, one of the likely cumulative results of that kind of lie, is the supplanting of democracy with despotism, and despotisms always try to keep themselves in power by the kind of violence that comprises the extreme hypothetical of the “free speech” absolutist.


The only legitimate reason for a government to exist is for the protection of The People and the promotion of their common good and other such benefits. Foremost, that requires protection of the biosphere that all rights depend on. To do that, we have found, a democratic government is indispensable.

As an extension of our personal rights and the necessity of their protection, we also find it necessary to protect democratic government. Our laws have protections of our constitution built into them, laws that protect the government against attack. Even the Bill of Rights and the rest of the protections of individual liberties are held to allow anti-treason and similar laws. Clearly supporting the enemies of the United States is not expression that is without legal jeopardy for those who express it in an actionable manner, especially during times of war.

But there is a far greater danger to a democratic society than the ones we are all told to fear, one that is allowed the freest of free reign today, and no where more freely than those in the mass media and government who are deflecting attention with fear of terrorism, often based on nothing in reality.

Why should a democratic society allow lying about serious public issues? It shouldn’t. It certainly shouldn’t allow it in the mass media or by politicians or judges.

The lies that fill the airwaves used to be mostly heard during political campaigns but are now a perpetual feast of toxic garbage on the airwaves and, even more so, on cable and the internet. I think that today those lies are a far greater danger to democracy and the Constitution of the United States than any foreign or domestic enemy. As an example, it is estimated that 40,000 Americans die every year as a result of our for-profit insurance system which denies them timely care, in many cases, it denies them any care. The well financed lies of the insurance and associated industries have perpetuated a protection racket that kills far more Americans that have been killed by any foreign or domestic enemy of the government and our society. And that’s only those who die from our terrible health insurance system. Corporations kill many more of us than that.

Democracy that allows lying a free reign in its politics can't survive as a democracy. The evidence is that our system that is fueled on lies, freely told, freely broadcast, told by professional liars paid by the most filthy rich and larcenous crooks, is destroying our society and, indeed, the very basis of life. I don’t think there is any moral or political reason to allow that. Citing free speech in defense of liars isn’t just an irrational, one law fits all occasions, refusal to consult reality, it is dangerous to our democracy and our lives.

Using the language of rights and freedom to hand over our minds to lies is criminal insanity. Using the excuse that sifting the lies from the truth is hard and takes an effort is inexcusable. If it’s too hard to do that, then it’s too hard for us to make informed political decisions. It is to pretend that responsible voting and participation in democracy is impossible. It is to assert that democracy isn’t possible. There is no royal road in reality. If it’s even very very hard to do what is essential, that’s just too bad.


Indulging in a bit of non-reality, just call it an extreme hypothetical, imagine a society where no one told lies, where no corporation interested in maximizing profit over the welfare of The People or the environment could misrepresent the reality of their intentions and proposed activities. Imagine if they had to be honest about what really happens.

Imagine if they couldn’t hire scientists, engineers, lawyers, and other, assorted professions --- and in today’s reality, quite a sordid bunch they are — to lie to us and our government.

Would we The People let them drill where they couldn’t fix an oil well blow out before it caused the death of a major ecosystem? Would we allow them to ration health care on the basis of what is most profitable to them, including the deaths of tens of thousands every year?

And imagine if politicians and lawyers and judges didn’t lie. Let’s go wild and imagine if the broadcast and cabloid media couldn’t lie? Would there be any harm to our freedom, our liberties, our lives from this terrible regime of the truth? Would getting even half way there from the cesspool of lies we are in today hurt or enhance those benefits of democracy?

* Of course, there are other lies that are not permitted, some have been noted in the discussions last week and I won’t go over those again here. Libel and slander among them. A good part of the Clinton administration was a lesson in what happens when media corporations and pseudo-religious corporations are given a free reign in slandering and libeling elected officials. It was the Supreme Court, in decisions some foolishly hail as a great bulwark of free speech that led to that crippling of democracy.

** In another recent discussion there was something of a scandalized reaction when it was proposed that scientists, engineers and others who, from positions gained through their academic credentials, lied or irresponsibly and catastrophically misjudged the situation that led to the oil gusher into the gulf, should lose their credentials. Including revoking their degrees.

Universities are supposed to be institutions that place the highest value on truth in accord with reality. “Veritas,” the often ironic slogan is. “Lux et Veritas, ”... This is supposed to be especially true in academic departments in the sciences, engineering and schools of law.

What are we supposed to think of the universities which trained corporate scientists and engineers who bend their work product in ways that are no different from lying about what is real? What are we supposed to think about those who have also proven, in the most horrible way, that their professional judgement is criminally negligent at worst, disastrously incompetent at best? Should people who have done those kinds of things retain their credentials? Shouldn’t universities which produce these people take their measure of blame in that?

What is the real value of a university education if the people they tout in the alumnae propaganda are proven liars and incompetents? And that doesn’t even begin to ask about law school graduates. It also doesn’t go into the fact that the faculties of many of our most prestigious universities are well salted with corrupt corporate hacks, crooks and liars.

Eventually, reality being real, the corruption behind the ivy and ersatz parchment becomes undeniable. I think we are rapidly reaching the crisis stage when our universities are adjuncts of a corrupt corporate oligarchy. The signs of rot are undeniably visible now.

Note: This was the last of the posts I’d planned on writing on this topic for now. It became considerably longer in response to some of the points from the discussion which I though had to be considered. My thinking on this has changed considerably due to the spectacle of the dying democracy in the United States, the corporate oligarch that is replacing it and the willful acquiescence of what functions as our intelligentsia to the means which that is happening. The free speech industry, certainly in the vanguard of that acquiescence and even enablement.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Today's Krugman. How Health Care Is Not a Loaf of Bread.

Well, Krugman doesn't say that. I do. But what Krugman says does relate to that loaf of bread:
Earlier this week, The Times reported on Congressional backlash against the Independent Payment Advisory Board, a key part of efforts to rein in health care costs. This backlash was predictable; it is also profoundly irresponsible, as I’ll explain in a minute.
But something else struck me as I looked at Republican arguments against the board, which hinge on the notion that what we really need to do, as the House budget proposal put it, is to “make government health care programs more responsive to consumer choice.”


Medical care, after all, is an area in which crucial decisions — life and death decisions — must be made. Yet making such decisions intelligently requires a vast amount of specialized knowledge. Furthermore, those decisions often must be made under conditions in which the patient is incapacitated, under severe stress, or needs action immediately, with no time for discussion, let alone comparison shopping.
Imagine this: You walk into a bakery, wondering if you are hungry and if some kind of bread might take care of that. Instead of feeling hunger, you need to have an expert examine you to verify what that gnawing in your belly means.

That same expert then recommends the kind of bread that best fits your symptoms and in most cases it is bread sold at that same bakery. Which means that the expert's sales and profits will depend on what she or he recommends to you.

You buy the bread and eat it. It may or may not turn out to be the right kind of bread for your particular type of hunger, in which case you need to go back to that bakery or perhaps to another one to get a second opinion.

All that sounds crazy. But it's the way we consume health care when ill. The differences between the consumption of bread and the consumption of say, blood pressure medications, are enormous: We usually cannot self-diagnose blood pressure problems and we cannot buy the necessary medications without a middleman/woman.

The need for bread is predictable and the quality of the product is fairly easy to judge. The need for many health care products is unpredictable and their quality very difficult to evaluate even after testing them for a while. And the sellers of the bread don't have the same double incentives as the sellers of health care would do in the absence of professional and ethical constraints, because bakers don't tell us if we need bread but sellers of health care do tell us if we need their services.

The examples I give may sound silly but they should be taken very seriously. Health care is not the same as a loaf of bread and it cannot be traded in exactly the same manner to gain imagined market benefits. Concepts such as "consumer choice" are not totally without benefit in the medical markets but their impact is tiny. The reason for that is simple: Consumers lack the necessary information not only about the complicated treatments in the medical marketplace but even about what they ultimately might need.

Providers play a double-role as both sellers of products and services and as the consumers' agents. That double-role means that the people who have the best information in the markets are also the people whose incentives are not necessarily towards less consumption or lower costs. Higher health care costs usually mean that someone gets paid more, after all.

Combine that with the low price-elasticity of medical care (i.e., the fact that seriously ill people are willing to pay almost any price for relief and survival) and the still wide availability of insurance coverage, and you might see why markets are unlikely to offer price competition and efficiency. In any case, competition in price may be meaningless if consumers cannot evaluate the quality of the package they buy.

Krugman might scold at me for using the term "consumers" here but I agree with his basic point. It's one thing to argue that consumer choice by healthy people among competing insurance policies is doable. It's quite another thing to send the sick or high-risk elderly out to the private health insurance markets with a voucher with shrinking real value. Yet this is what the conservatives recommend.

But Think of the Zygote-Americans

The Guttmacher Institute tells us that forced-birthers have been very busy on the state level:
To date, legislators have introduced 916 measures related to reproductive health and rights in the 49 legislatures that have convened their regular sessions. (Louisiana’s legislature will not convene until late April.) By the end of March, seven states had enacted 15 new laws on these issues, including provisions that:
expand the pre-abortion waiting period requirement in South Dakota to make it more onerous than that in any other state, by extending the time from 24 hours to 72 hours and requiring women to obtain counseling from a crisis pregnancy center in the interim;
expand the abortion counseling requirement in South Dakota to mandate that counseling be provided in-person by the physician who will perform the abortion and that counseling include information published after 1972 on all the risk factors related to abortion complications, even if the data are scientifically flawed;
require the health departments in Utah and Virginia to develop new regulations governing abortion clinics;
revise the Utah abortion refusal clause to allow any hospital employee to refuse to “participate in any way” in an abortion;
limit abortion coverage in all private health plans in Utah, including plans that will be offered in the state’s health exchange; and
revise the Mississippi sex education law to require all school districts to provide abstinence-only sex education while permitting discussion of contraception only with prior approval from the state.
In addition to these laws, more than 120 other bills have been approved by at least one chamber of the legislature, and some interesting trends are emerging. As a whole, the proposals introduced this year are more hostile to abortion rights than in the past...
The forced-birthers love zygotes. Children? Not so much. Children are the responsibility of womenfolk and a suitable punishment for any woman who didn't keep her legs crossed. (I read that argument again quite recently and it made me wonder what the pollen in the air is which impregnates women who are not holding their legs crossed).

The effect of all these new laws is not the same on affluent women, by the way, and as most law-makers are affluent, they themselves or their wives, sisters and daughters will not be much inconvenienced. Even in the past abortion was available for those who could travel abroad, say. It is the women without much money whose lives will be affected.

Still, we are getting closer and closer to the Russian doll view of women as doll containers always potentially filled with smaller dolls just happening to reside inside the same body, and if those smaller dolls (or even potential smaller dolls) are to be given full human rights the outermost container will lose hers.

Down the Memory Hole!

The New York Times quote in my previous post is, alas, no more:
Second, the much-talked about birther passage from the Times’ polling piece soon disappeared; it was removed from the original article, without explaination. Readers now clicking on the Times link, which continues to whip around the Internet, aren’t informed that a plurality of Republicans believe Obama was born in a foreign country. In fact, readers aren’t told anything about those results.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Today's Jokes: Sean Hannity is Oppressed and Obama Was Born on Pluto

One of them is most certainly this: Sean Hannity of Fox News will host a special report tomorrow night on --- taram-pam-pam --- media bias! Liberal media bias, to be exact:

This world keeps providing me with free laughs of the up-is-down type.

I couldn't choose between the above one and this clip, found by Mother Jones, from the (oh-so-expensive) New York Times story concerning a new poll which asked people about the likely Republican contenders for the next presidential election:
Over all, it showed that Republicans who are considering making presidential bids will have to woo a party that largely identifies with the Tea Party movement — more than half of Republican voters said they considered themselves Tea Party supporters — and has questions about President Obama’s origin of birth.
A plurality of Republican voters, 47 percent, said they believed Mr. Obama, who was born in Hawaii, was born in another country; 22 percent said they did not know where he was born, and 32 percent said they believed he was born in the United States.

Dying on the Job: Sex Work

I strongly recommend Nancy Goldstein's article "Getting Away with Murder on Long Island." She sets the stage:

"I also picked prostitutes as victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed," Mr. Ridgway said in his statement. "I knew they would not be reported missing right away and might never be reported missing. I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught."

-- Gary Ridgway, the "Green River Killer," who admitted in 2003 to killing 48 women (quoted in Silja J.A. Talvi's Nov. 13, 2003 AlterNet story)

A terrible story has been unraveling on Long Island since last December. That's when the remains of four bodies, disposed of in separate burlap bags 500 feet apart on a scant quarter-mile of beach, were identified as belonging to young women in their 20s who advertised themselves as escorts on Craigslist. Just weeks ago, six more victims were found nearby.

It's not yet clear whether one killer or multiple killers are responsible. No suspects have surfaced. But that's not what makes this story really tragic. Some of those 10 people might be alive today if it hadn't been for the lackluster response of law enforcement and the press coverage of the case -- much of it sensationalist and dehumanizing -- all because of the first victims' sex-worker status.
Well worth reading and thinking about, including asking ourselves why the public's response to hearing about a murdered prostitute is often different from the general reactions to murder.

Prostitutes count for less, especially if prostitution itself is illegal, and the illegal nature of prostitution increases its risks, as Goldstein describes.

At the same time, a murderer focusing on prostitutes doesn't cause the same fear among people who are not prostitutes (unless and until the murderer widens his focus to, say, all women). That latter possibility also raises some very uncomfortable questions about what the social functions of (illegal and unprotected) sex work are supposed to be.
For some data on the murder rates of sex workers, see my earlier post on dangerous jobs.

Women's Reproductive Rights: Pawns in the Eleven-Dimensional Political Chess Game

Ever wonder what effect all the new state-level forced-birth laws will have? The ones that conservative state governments are busily creating, what with states not having any more pressing problems to address? Laws like these:
Oklahoma is likely to be the next state to ban abortions after 20 weeks, on the basis that the fetus can then feel pain, with Gov. Mary Fallin expected to sign a law imminently. Idaho and Kansas passed similar “fetal pain” laws last week. Nebraska’s law has been on the books for a year, and legislators in 14 states have introduced similar measures, according to the Guttmacher Institute, with bills in Alabama, Iowa and Indiana moving forward at a rapid clip.

For abortion foes, these are great strides in a battle much more consequential than the congressional drama that just played out over Planned Parenthood. It could lay the groundwork for the next challenge to Roe v. Wade — a battle they believe they can win.

“This is all an explosion, which we think if presented to the court, they would recognize the rights of the fetus,” says Mary Spaulding Balch, the state legislation director of the National Right to Life Committee. “I was surprised it wasn’t challenged, and I would like to see that.”

But so far, abortion rights groups have not taken the bait.
Oklahoma did become the next state to ban abortion after twenty weeks, based on the belief that a fetus can feel pain at that point. This belief is not supported by medical evidence:
It’s unclear, however, whether scientific literature will support the 20-week abortion bans, given that a major review study last year, published by the UK’s Royal College Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, found no evidence for fetal pain prior to 24 weeks.
The forced-birthers love to chip-chip-chip away at Roe v. Wade. Somehow this reminds me of the seven dwarves singing merrily while going off to work in the mines while Snow-White stays demurely behind to do their laundry.

And the anti-abortion people do have lots to sing about. For instance, though many of these new state-level laws are unconstitutional they will not be challenged. Why? Because the Supreme Court is likely to vote with the forced-birthers:
Experts who study the Supreme Court and abortion politics concur that, at the high court, abortion rights supporters are not necessarily in a safe place. Like many other cases, it would come down to Kennedy’s swing vote, which has become unpredictable on abortion issues.

I have often written that the Republican Party doesn't want Roe v. Wade overturned. It's the meat they throw to their fundamentalist base, and they need the votes of that base even though they get their money from elsewhere. Ideally, they want to keep the forced-birth constituency in a pre-orgasmic state of tension: Almost there but not quite! Just one more push!

But the death of Roe v. Wade would be a total disaster for the Republicans. A total disaster, both because their party would lose many of its voters and because that would also be the point at which a strong pro-choice movement would be created. At least I think so.

In the meantime, real women will suffer from all this gamesmanship, including that demonstrated by Obama in the budget debacle. Women's reproductive rights are something to be traded for other goodies, like pawns in an eleven-dimensional chess game.

Do you know what I think? I think the game is too complicated and will slip into overturning Roe v. Wade.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Incorporate Me!

Because it is the month Americans had to do their taxes (the cruelest month of all), let us find how some giant corporations fare as tax payers:
In its most recent filing, Exxon Mobil Corp., the global energy giant, reported income of $34.8 billion before taxes on total revenue of $310.6 billion for 2009. Its U.S. income tax bill: Zero. Actually, it was a little better than that. Exxon Mobil claimed a tax benefit of $838 million, while it paid $15.8 billion in income taxes to other countries. General Electric Co. did equally well. Its report to the SEC showed income before taxes of $10 billion on total revenue of $155.3 billion. Like Exxon Mobil, GE reported no U.S. income tax paid. And like Exxon Mobil, GE also reported a tax benefit, albeit a little larger at $1.1 billion.
This, my friends, is because the US corporate tax rates are too high! It's actually the deductions that corporations are allowed which are too high. Combine that with the flexibility multinational corporations have in deciding where to be taxed and you get the result that a minor goddess pays more taxes than the General Electric. I'm pretty certain that the GE benefits more from the American government than I do. So.

Here's the way conservatives present their demands that corporate taxes should be lowered: The United States has one of the highest corporate tax rates among otherwise similarly situated countries. That makes the US a bad place for business and weakens its international competitiveness.

But corporations in the United States actually don't pay those high taxes because of all the loopholes:
Like others in Congress and the media, Cantor, Bachmann, and Pawlenty insist that American businesses are paying too much in corporate income tax. They claim the onerous tax burden is killing jobs and forcing companies to move abroad. To reverse the nation's fortunes, they say, all Washington need do is slash the corporate tax rate, thereby reducing the amount of taxes these businesses are forced to pay. What's scary is a growing number of citizens believe them.


One of the more egregious falsehoods being peddled by the corporate tax cutters is that companies doing business in the United States are taxed at an exorbitant rate. Not so. Though the United States has one of the highest statutory rates on the books at 35 percent, the only fair way to measure what companies actually pay is their effective rate - what they ultimately pay after deductions, credits, and assorted write-offs. By that yardstick, companies in the United States consistently pay taxes at rates lower than corporations in Japan and many nations in Europe.


Perhaps a more telling yardstick, corporate tax revenue in 2009 came to just 1 percent of gross domestic product - the lowest collection level since 1936, or three-quarters of a century ago. In 2010, it edged up to a puny 1.3 percent - the second-lowest since 1940. Even worse, the shriveled tax collections came at a time when corporations were registering an all-time high in profits. At the end of 2010, corporations posted an annualized profit of $1.65 trillion in the fourth quarter. In other words, the more they made, the less they paid.
Mmm. So what is to be done to fix this horrible problem? The proposals I have seen want the corporate tax rate to be lowered to, say, 25%, and the loopholes closed, and at least some of them argue that this change, or some similar combination of the two, could be created so as to keep the corporate total tax burden constant.

But why would corporations so desperately push for such a change if they don't benefit from it? At first glance those proposals would have to hurt the giant corporations, the ones which currently manage to avoid taxes, if the total corporate tax revenue were to be held constant. They are the ones with most current loopholes, after all.

I have not read anything very precise about closing those loopholes. Some mention of that is added like sugar on a bowl of unappetizing oatmeal but the specifics are simply not there. Which makes me fear that any actual lowering of the corporate tax rate would forget all about the loopholes.

Why does any of this matter? Listen to the message in the political background: It is all about belt tightening, all about states cutting back on the care of the frail elderly and on the help for the poor. Schools are being stripped of money, teachers are allowed to let go, all Americans are being told that they should not expect a calm old age because the country simply cannot afford it. Even the president tells us that we must now cut, cut and cut.

Except that for some of us the cuts are different than for others. The corporations should get a tax cut, the rich should get a tax cut, but the rest of us? Cuts in benefits will serve.

Grete Waitz, RIP

Grete Waitz has died at the age of 57, far too young. Her importance for women's long-distance running would be hard to exaggerate:
As Amby Burfoot of Runner's World wrote in 2004:

"The women's running revolution, the biggest sea change in our sport in 30 years, began in Norway, where a young track star, Grete Waitz, broke boundaries as well as records. In 1972, at the Munich Olympics, she ran the 1500 meters, the first time women were allowed to participate in the event. She went on to win the New York City Marathon an almost-inconceivable nine times, a feat achieved by no other runner (male or female), and set three world records."
You can learn more about women and the marathon and watch Waitz run here.

So Much To Say, So Little Time. On Wendy Kaminer, the Civil Libertarian Feminist

I read Kaminer's article on the Yale sexual harassment case some time ago and itched to write a long, long, loooong post on it. She makes interesting arguments, such as this one:
Civil libertarian feminists have always been a political minority, but these days we seem on the verge of extinction. Reviewing the charges of sexual harassment underlying the Title IX complaint by a group of Yale students and alumnae, I can't find feminism -- at least not if feminism includes independence, liberty, and power for women. Instead I find femininity -- the assumption that women are incapable of fending for themselves in the marketplace of epithets or ideas, the belief that women are rendered helpless by misogynist speech and the sexist tantrums of their male peers.
Can you see how that could breed books and books? To respond to her properly, I mean. But it might be better to simply think what Kaminer's favored alternative would be for what the women at Yale actually did, which was to go to the authorities.

If you don't remember the most recent bit of macho posturing at Yale, it consisted of fraternity pledges chanting "No Means Yes, Yes Means Anal" outside the Yale Women's Center (the place where the feminazis nest). What response would Kaminer favor? Silence?

Probably not, as silence is not a sign of women's capability "of fending for themselves in the marketplace of epithets or ideas." But then those pledges chanting pro-rape messages were not exactly in some well-lit intellectual marketplace with chairs and tables and microphones and glasses of water for the speakers and a wise moderator channeling the competition.

No. They were outside a building, in the dark, as a group. Sorta menacing, don't you think? At least not an enlightened informational exchange.

But let's return to the idea that there is a marketplace for epithets. Should those women at Yale who were angered or frightened by the misogynistic comments take a walk in the dark, in a group, to the fraternity building, and chant there something suitably misandrist? What would that be? "Come out my dears! We have gelding shears!"?

My point is naturally that some intellectual concepts have a poor fit with real world events, that some types of speech are controlled by the institutions within which the speech takes place and that there is a fine line between just "speech" and threats against someone. Reality is often more complicated than theories, and the way things actually are is sometimes not the way things should be.

I have some sympathy with Kaminer's position. If the number of sexual assaults by women against men equalled the reverse, I would completely support her point.
Did I already mention that I wanted to write a long post on this topic? One thing that this shorter post omits is data on how universities in fact handle cases of alleged sexual assaults. It is not the case, as Kaminer argues, that universities always bend over backwards to treat the alleged victim with kid gloves.

English Is A Fuzzy Language

This headline was Usa Today's way of telling us about problems with a plane carrying Michelle Obama:

Jet carrying first lady aborts landing

I read it as "jet-carrying first lady aborts landing." Powerful!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Armpit Wars, Again!

This is priceless and such fun:
Dove recently unveiled its latest campaign, and it hinges on the idea that your armpits are ugly. Dove Ultimate Go Sleeveless is supposed to give women "softer, smoother underarms in just five days"—in ads for the product, which Stephen Colbert calls a "breakthrough shame-o-vation," women cut the sleeves off their tops with joyful expressions, as if they've been liberated from a terrible scourge. If it's news to you that this part of your body is not so hot, Dove says you're in the minority, citing a survey in which 93 percent of women said they "think their underarms are unattractive." And if you doubt statistics culled from 534 women in an anonymous online poll, rest assured that Dove's best advertising efforts will be directed at making those numbers true.
Don't you just love it? The obvious solution is to let that sleek, silky fur grow to cover the pitted ugliness.

But that doesn't contribute to the profit margins. My prediction for the next product is something to bring back the blush to your shaved pubic area. Because it's ugly when covered and ugly when bare and so on.

Thoughts on Blogging

It is hard work, especially if one has worked through the weekend. That "one" is Echidne who is very tired and whose special creative energy channel is blocked by bits of unfinished tasks (clean the yard already! the scillas are suffocating). And there indeed is a form of creative energy, as in pure energy which lends itself better to folding and twisting in a particular way. The other energies don't work as well. It's like harnessing a chicken to pull your wagon.

Which takes me to a month-old post asking why so few women in the economics profession have blogs:
REPEC provides an objective measure of who is "Royalty" in the economics profession. The current list of the top 5% is here. I am ranked #681 out of 27,365 economists so that's not bad (and my 3 books aren't counted here). But, here is the interesting part. There are 39 women who rank in the top 1000 and 0 of them blog. Contrast that with the men. Consider the top 100 men. In this elite subset; at least 8 of them blog. Consider the men ranked between 101 and 200. At least, six of them blog. So, this isn't very scientific but we see a 7% participation rate for excellent male economists and a 0% participation rate for excellent women. This differential looks statistically significant to me. I have searched for Nancy Folbre among the top 1369 economists (the 5% cutoff) and she is not counted in the elite subset.
How do you resolve this puzzle? A Household Production Theory of leisure would posit that men have more leisure time than working women and that nerdy guys spend more time reading and writing blog posts (such as this one). If women who work are also providing more time in "home production" in cooking and rearing children then the time budget constraint will bind.
Or would you argue that men are less mature than women and require immediate gratification and blog posts offer such ephemeral pleasure?
What the blogger, Matthew Kahn, says here is that women let an important tool in their self-promotion package go unused and that the reason might be how women do the work at home (child care!!!) as well as at work, or perhaps men are just more immature. Also, I don't think there is any "objective" list of the royalties in any profession, because those lists always depend on what is picked to create them. But that's not so important as the question Kahn poses.

What I'd like to get from him are the following bits of information: Are all those one thousand top-ranked economists full professors with tenure? What are their ages? Do they have private secretaries? Have they essentially completed the work on which their reputations will rest?

We would need this information on the whole top one thousand and more, to add to the ideas Kahn mentions. Women are less likely to be full professors than men, for example, and women are probably, on average, younger on the top level than men, what with entering the field in large numbers somewhat later. This means that they may still be very active in doing academic research. The access to various kinds of resources is also something which would affect the time available for blogs.

Today's Hymowitz. How Anti-Feminism Frames Women's Successes

Via Yglesias, I won't read the original because I still have to write and feel cheerful for a while longer. Yglesias quotes her on that age-old topic: Educated women can't find a man and therefore women should not get educated:
Still, the biggest reason we probably won’t see a lot more college-educated women walking down the aisle with their plumber is one we don’t like to say out loud: they want to have smart kids. Educated men and women are drawn to spouses they think will help them produce the children likely to thrive in the contemporary knowledge-based economy. That means high IQ, ambitious, and organized kids who will do their homework and take a lot of AP courses. The preference for alpha kids is the reason there is a luxury market for Ivy League egg and sperm donors. It also explains why, though we don’t have solid research distinguishing between elite and State U mating choices, Ms. Harvard will probably not accept a proposal from Mr. Florida State. The economist Greg Mankiw has quipped that “Harvard is probably the world’s most elite dating agency.” A glance at the New York Times nuptial pages suggests he’s right.
All this is based on the idea that women marry up. If there are few men above these educated spinsters, they will remain bitter and sad and barren all their lives. And anti-feminists care about these women, they do! The implicit advice is for women not to get so educated.

But take off your cultural shades and actually LOOK at the way the problem is posed. Given the roughly equal numbers of men and women in younger age groups, what would a large number of over-educated spinsters also mean in the society?

Yup. A large number of men who couldn't get married. The anti-feminists don't want to speak about these (hypothetical) men, for some reason. Probably because they are anti-feminists and only want women to go back to their proper places. But if one believes the "women-marry-up" idea, then there must, by definition, be men who cannot find anyone to marry, too. And what about men? Are they willing to marry up? Writers like Hymowitz seem to assume that only women have a voice when picking a partner.

That marrying-up business is so intertwined in history with the fact that the only realistic way for most women to survive was through marriage and that men controlled wealth. For women to "better themselves" they had to marry up, because there were few alternative avenues.

Evolutionary psychology explanations for this don't really work because the accumulation of wealth could not happen during a nomadic tribal existence, and mating partners could not be picked on that basis. If anything, the same basic rule about health which ep people apply to men's choices would seem to be the correct one for women's choices, too. Thus, I believe that the phenomenon of marrying up is based on the way the society was constructed (and still is, in most places), not on some unchanging genetic programming.

Speaking about genes, Hymowitz also appears to argue that only educated men will sire intelligent children! However did those smart kids appear in the days when nobody went to college? And where did they learn good work ethics and such? Wow.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Women and Wires. Or more on exclusion of women from traditionally male blue-collar jobs.

My post on mining is all about clarifying the concept that women just wanna be comfy and safe and secure and that is why they don't pick those well-paying (in the past, anyway) but dangerous traditionally male blue-collar jobs, the kinds Real Men do, and supposedly the reason why women on less, on average (not so). This post gives another example, that of electricians.

The numbers of female electricians are miniscule (about one percent of all US electricians), smaller than women in physics, say. Among the largest reasons for that are co-worker resistance and the voluntary nature of any attempt to include more women in the field:
But now, 24 years after completing her apprenticeship in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3 in New York City, she knows she was wrong.
It's not that she doesn't like her work. In fact she has enjoyed the diversity of jobs, ranging from traffic signals, making fiber optic expressway cameras record and bridges. But the atmosphere has made her question her career choice.
"Some male electricians have told me I shouldn't be there or have gone behind my back and say they weren't going to take orders from a woman," said Fox, who also cites nude pictures of women on jobsites as efforts to "put women in their place."

Susan Eisenberg, an electrician and current resident artist and scholar at the Brandeis University Women's Studies Research Center in Waltham, Mass., calls most unions' approach to dealing with such problems a "model to nowhere."
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers has a diversity-and-inclusion education initiative and recommends a sexual harassment policy to its 11 geographical districts, but it's not required.
"Civil rights issues are basic. They shouldn't be voluntary," Eisenberg said.

All this is good to remember when you read certain types of MRAs tell us that if only women got off their asses and did some Real Work they'd make more money. Of course the gender gap in wages has little to do with dangerous types of job, but it is still salutary to remind ourselves of the reasons why certain occupations have hardly any women.

On Women and Dangerous Jobs: Mining

I'm sure you have heard the argument "explaining" the gender gap in wages as simply a consequence of women refusing to work in the dangerous jobs which pay the really big money (like, err, bankstering?). This is a common argument among a certain kind of Men's Rights Activists.

I have mentioned earlier why women don't, in fact, "refuse" those types of jobs, in order to just stay at home eating bon-bons. But mentioning it is not sufficient. Hence this post on one of those dangerous jobs: Mining.

The impetus for it came from this article on Mexican women in mining:
Cony Solis, 26, an industrial engineer, is the only female administrator at the Penasquito mine in Zacatecas, a state in north-central Mexico with a long mining tradition. Many other women work down in the mines.
"Our presence has been growing in this industry," she says.
Solis says that 10 percent of the 3,000 employees in this deposit, where an enormous desert guards some 13 million ounces of gold, silver and zinc, are women. She calls her work a "labor conquest" because it took so long for women to be accepted into this traditionally male industry. She is a second-generation "mining woman," as her mother operates a giant truck at the mine.
The major reason the industry opened up to women is the male labor shortage in Mexico that has resulted from many men continuing to migrate to the United States in search of better wages and employment opportunities.


Women's traditional exclusion from the industry in Mexico was supported by a widespread superstition that said the land refused to deliver its treasures to women, and if any woman dared to enter the mine, it would become jealous and close, causing cave-ins and hiding its wealth.


The mining women say they receive equal pay with their male counterparts. Moreno makes $760 a month and Solis' mother earns $840 a month as operators of the trucks. An administrator and a professional, Solis makes $1,175 a month.
But Solis says that some supervisors are still confronting negative reactions from some men. Various industry insiders say that hundreds of years of sexist tradition will not be forgotten in a few years.
I recommend reading the whole article. Its message is positive and it has lodes (heh) of information. I picked the bits for my quote which address the women-don't-want-to-work-in-dangerous-jobs argument, because I want to point out that women, in fact, have both worked in those jobs and now work in those jobs, and, most importantly, they have been explicitly excluded from working in them.

On that exclusion: It was not only traditional in terms of culture but it also consisted of legal exclusion of women. For example, in Great Britain The Coalminers Regulation Act of 1842 made it illegal for women to work underground in mines where they had pulled wagons along tunnels. They could still work as surface workers, as pit-workers and to load and unload the wagons. In France, women and children were prohibited from working underground in 1874.

These examples suggest that women did work underground, for why else explicitly rule that out? The laws were not meant to hurt women, by the way. Their role was seen as a "protective" one, but it had the consequence of keeping women out of most mining. Nobody thought that one day Those Sites would use this to explain how women's lower earnings are their own fault!

This picture of Wigan pit-brow girls in trousers was taken in the 1860s, during a period when there was much concern about the bad moral effect mine-work had on women (they wore trousers!). From Fabric of Society, by Jane Tozer and Sarah Levitt.

The Third Puzzle

Another fun one! I came upon it in the context of computer games where the role of women is to be the victims, to be kidnapped and slapped on the bottom if they scream, to make them shut up, in the mildest of the versions.

One response to those who don't like these games was this: If it's OK when something happens to a man it must be OK when the same thing happens to a woman. Men are very often killed in computer games. This means that complaining about women being slapped on the butt is not only stupid but sexist.

I right away heard something more, echoes of other comments I have read on Those Sites:

If you want to act like a guy, take the consequences! Guys get punched in the balls all the time on television and nobody cares, but just try to punch a woman in the breasts and see what happens!

Fascinating stuff! As you know if you have read here, I often use reversals to point out sexism. When one reverses the genders in some story one's reaction can change, too! A learning experience, if nothing more. And what this particular MRA person said seems to be the same thing.

But is it? I agree that the reversals can teach us something and that there are clear cases where men suffer from sexism directed at them. But the examples of computer games or television violence are not terribly good ones, and here is why:

Overall frequency matters. Suppose that men indeed are the majority of victims or objects of violence in computer games (I don't know the actual statistics). But what about those who are allowed to kill and to commit violence in these games? My guess is that they are far, far more overwhelmingly male, and that the active players' roles are also far more overwhelmingly male.

The only good parables for this I can think of are pretty extreme, so my apologies for that. But suppose that in ancient Greece the owners of slaves were allowed to beat them whenever they felt like it. Does the fact that some free men in Athens, say, also got beaten up by their fathers change the wrongness of the slave beating? The slaves were not allowed to beat their owners, after all, and they got beaten much more often and perhaps for no reason.

So frequency matters, and so do the rules under which we play games. If the computer games mostly offer women as passive objects to manipulate, the fact that some men are also passive objects doesn't make the two situations equivalent.

The reversal doesn't tell us the whole story. This also applies to violence on television. If we had a show where several women kept punching a helpless man in the groin and if that man finally pulled himself up from the floor and punched one of those women in the breasts we would see the situation as justified.

We don't react like that when a show only offers us that breast punch because a) women are much more frequently the victims than the perpetrators in these shows and b) because the violence aimed at men is usually perpetrated by other men, not packs of women.

All this also links to the way men are seen as individuals and not as men, whereas women are often seen as spoonfuls from some quivering mass of generic womanhood. If a female character in a game or on television acquires individuality to a point where we see that before her gender our reactions will differ. They start approximating those we would have with male characters who have individuality.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Evo-Psy in Crisis [Anthony McCarthy]

There is a major crisis in the field of Evolutionary Psychology promulgated by one of the founders of it -- or as he'd probably have it, Sociobiology. One of its major founders has lost faith in one of its central beliefs. E. O. Wilson was one of the authors of a major attack on the belief in the evo-psy explaination of "altruism". That belief is that individuals acted unselfishly to benefit other, closely related individuals, even at a possible cost to their survival and so reproductive advantage in order that the shared genes that the individuals shared would be propagated. Wilson's part in the promotion of that view couldn't be larger, he was the one who first promoted W. D. Hamilton's mathematical equation on which just about all subsequent assertions of Sociobiology and evo-psy rests.

There have always been critics of the idea that unselfish behavior was, actually, selfishness by proxy, though not generally from within those who had accepted the belief. I remember the first time that I read it wondering if it was really all about the genes then an act of evo-psy "altruism" that produced the death of the altruistic individual and very possibly didn't save that of the one helped would result in an actual disadvantage to genetic propagation. And that's only the first thing that came to me as being a problem with it. In her lecture "The Strange History of Altruism" , Marilynne Robinson did a pretty good job of tearing the idea to shreds. I can't possibly hope to improve on what she said so I'll recommend that you either listen to her or, better, read the published versions of her 2009 Terry Lectures.

The problem, as the article linked to in the Boston Globe, arose due to the belief that Darwin's concept of Natural Selection was the sole explanation of evolution and, in its most extreme adherents, literally every phenomenon of life. Charles Darwin, himself, saw the problem with the phenomenon of people and animals seeming to act unselfishly, putting themselves at a reproductive disadvantage. There was, literally, no way to account for unselfishness with natural selection, yet it couldn't be made to disappear. In fact, it was a problem, not only for biology but for every subsequent area of intellectual engagement which adopted natural selection as a major feature of its ideology.

The major way in which those intellectual efforts dealt with it was to try to explain it away. As in the case of Hamiltonian theory, to make personal selfishness a mere appearance for an underlying act of selfishness. It's the old hedonistic argument with variables, dressed in a lab coat. But the reasons given for doing that always come back to "it has to be that way because you can't account for it with natural selection any other way". That's only a problem for natural selection IF you believe that it is the necessary explaination for everything, including behavior. It has always looked, to me, like the creation of "evidence" to fit the theory instead of using the theory to explain evidence. I think the habit of doing that pervades the social sciences and evo-psy. The phenomena are trimmed from what they are in order to fit them into a theory that there is no reason to believe could explain them. As Robinson pointed out, there is absolutely no way to put the idea to any kind of scientific test in the case of humans.

Using the word "altruism" is something I've been trying to give up since reading Robninson's essay. The history of the word is so fraught with distortions and contradictions that I don't think it has any useful meaning today. I, also, don't think there's anything good that will come out of trying to analyze the behavior of other species as "altruistic", since it's far easier to mischaracterize, opportunistically, the behavior of animals who can't articulate an understanding of their own actions. I don't trust an invested behavioral scientist to come up with an honest observation of that then I would a fundamentalist to come up with a criticism of biblical texts.

I am interested in the obvious acts of unselfishness that people do, which benefit other individual animals which are suffering. Animals they haven't kept themselves, sometimes of animals dangerous enough to present a danger to their own survival. And not only animals of other species, but of other people who are potentially dangerous to themselves. There is no way that giving help to other species, distantly related, genetically, to people, could constitute a survival advantage for our genes that could be mathematically significant. Yet it's quite frequently seen that people are more moved to help such animals than they are other people who are closely related to them. And within the human species, it's not unknown for people to put their own survival at risk, their own possibility of leaving descendents to help individuals and even groups of people more distantly related to them.

I think the simplest conclusion to reach is that the entire enterprise to explain unselfish behavior in terms of natural selection can't be achieved without resorting to dishonesty. We know there are other mechanisms of evolution today, some of those are likely to be more powerfully explanatory than natural selection, genetic drift, the prime contemporary example. It's entirely possible that as more is learned about evolution that newer explanations based in other evidence will cause basic modifications to natural selection, if not supplant it. The effort to dispel unselfish behavior using natural selection has been going on for almost a century and a half, I doubt it's going to get any better.

The idea that behavior is, necessarily, a phenomenon that is governed by physical law is a foundation of academic psychology. The earliest attempts to establish it as an academic study took that as a foregone conclusion, based on absolutely no evidence that it was the same kind of thing as the legitimate subjects of physical science, it was explicitly stated that would be the basis of university based psychology. I think that was due to the political necessity for making a case for the establishment of departments of psychology, it wasn't a factual finding. After a history almost as long as that of natural selection and with a largely failed history, I'm more than a bit skeptical about that universally held assumption and only become more skeptical, the more reading I do into its literature.

Sunday Critter Blogging

Two korats sharing one nest.

And one bird wondering why you don't have a nice beak.