Wednesday, January 30, 2013

"None but ourselves can free our minds"

I got a chuckle from this witty photo of a woman's leg, with marks depicting how a skirt's length appears on a spectrum from "matronly" to "whorish". Unfortunately, the commentary that it inspired just provoked a groan.

Lisa Wade's brief (but popular) essay is just pathetic wallowing in victimhood and self pity. She sums up the situation like this:
Women’s closets are often mocked as a form of self-indulgence, shop-a-holicism, or narcissism.  But this isn’t fair.  Instead, if a woman is class-privileged enough, they reflect an (often unarticulated) understanding of just how complicated the rules are.  If they’re not class-privileged enough, they can’t follow the rules and are punished for being, for example, “trashy” or “unprofessional.”  It’s a difficult job that we impose on women and we’re all too often damned-if-we-do and damned-if-we-don’t.
Before I respond to the content of Wade's essay, I need to explain myself. It would be easy to dismiss my criticisms as being born of the arrogance of privilege. Yes, I am a straight, white male in the top quartile of SES. However, I am capable of empathizing with the challenges that women face in our society. For one, I have tried to bring attention to the injustice of laws that treat the exposure of men's and women's bodies differently and done what little I can to normalize the image of topless women. If Wade's essay were just a friend's rant on Facebook, I would let her vent and probably try to make some innocuous but witty comment indicating that I heard her. However, Wade is writing on high profile websites (including HuffPo), and presenting herself as an expert on this topic. Therefore, her expressed opinion is fair game for blunt, critical evaluation. She makes major errors of perception and interpretation, which I will discuss below. The errors of interpretation are more interesting, but the errors of perception provide the context for the errors in interpretation, so I'll address them in detail first.

Even after I noticed all the glaring omissions from her essay, I was still willing to entertain the idea that it was a conversation starter, and the supposedly intelligent and well-informed readers of the Society Pages would flesh out the issues in a respectful and well reasoned discussion. Boy was I wrong. The comments for this article just reiterate the basic victim mentality of Wade's essay (with some exceptions), with a little bit of man-bashing thrown in when anyone who disagrees with Wade is essentially accused of enabling rape.


The first thing to dispense with is the twisted perceptions of social norms that are presented by Wade and the commenters. I have no idea of what society they are talking about; it definitely isn't mine. Wade asserts that a woman risks social marginalization if she's not willing to show her legs, while commenters assert that pants are considered anti-feminine.

In my community, women commonly wear pants and jeans, particularly at work. As far as I can tell, this issue is completely absent for most women over 30 who basically show their legs to the same extent and under the same conditions that men do (e.g. by wearing shorts at casual gatherings).

Even for younger women who may be interested in developing a romance, showing leg is not necessary to be attractive. I personally have taken notice of many women who were wearing long skirts, jeans, and pants (even cargo pants and overalls). I kinda like long skirts. Finally, if this is the realm of activity that we are talking about, then it is absurd to say that failure to show legs results in social marginalization. Having fewer dates with boys is not marginalization. Furthermore, if girls (as a group) stopped showing their legs, would boys stop going on dates with them? Obviously not, which reveals the real dynamic here -- the pressure to show skin is not forced upon women by men (or "society"), it is the consequence of competition among women for men's attention. It may be frustrating that men's interest is driven by such superficial concerns, but the frivolity of our society is not a women's issue by any means; men too compete to catch the attention of women, often in frivolous manners.

Maybe for some people, the issue is broader than dating. If a group of your peers is ostracizing you because of your failure to show some leg, that is a problem, but it's primarily their problem. If you are in a big city, you should find some friends who won't demand such petty conformity; if you are in a small town, the problem is with that town, not general American society. I hope you can get out.

The final problem with Wade's depiction of clothing expectations is that many of these same restrictions apply to men; so they are broader issues of how our bodies are treated, not anything specifically about women. For instance, the length of men's shorts typically falls in the "flirty" to "proper" range of the image, which is likewise a pretty neutral length for women. Men's shorts that are shorter than "flirty" become "dorky", and when you get up to "asking for it", the same can be said for men. Any shorter and you're "clearly a fag", with all the risks that entails. The main difference is that women frequently do push the line with their skirt lengths, wearing skirts that reveal much more than is normal.


So this brings us to Wade's first problem with interpretation: the choice of skirt length can be a form of self expression (pointed out by a commenter). Since I reject Wade's assertion that there is no neutral skirt length, women do exercise the option of wearing super-short, sexy outfits if that's what they want to do, and they can reasonably expect to be treated differently than if they had worn longer, looser clothes. That's not saying that it is acceptable for someone to grope them, yell obscenities at them, propose sex acts, or badger them for a date, but they can expect to be looked at lustfully and perhaps even receive cat whistles or passing comments such as "nice legs" or "nice ass". Maybe unfamiliar men will be more likely to strike up a real conversation with them, though I expect the most likely (and desired) response will be posturing by male acquaintances. On a side note, Wade suggests that an "asking for it" skirt increases the chances of being attacked, but I've heard that claim disputed, and it may not be relevant anyway because it applies to men also (as gay-bashing) and represents the behavior of social deviants, not the enforcers of social norms that we are talking about.

As long as we're considering what is an acceptable response to short skirts, we might as well take it to an extreme and consider the acceptable response to someone in the same situation wearing a bikini-bottom or no pants at all. The issue is how we establish and encourage social norms for body covering (of both men and women) and exactly what those norms should be. I doubt that Wade is suggesting that we should do away with such norms altogether and accept nudity as appropriate for everyday activities.

Wade's second interpretive error is in her identification of the social source of the problem. By presenting this as unfairness to women, she implies that it originates from men. She  does seem to acknowledge (by blaming society as a whole) that women play a role in maintaining this situation, but she fails to specify how women participate while specifically pointing out a way that men participate: presumably the risk of being attacked refers to sexual assault by men.

She also makes a point of defending the "class-privileged" women who epitomize conformity to these social norms, whom I would consider the prime suspects behind this phenomenon. It seems that she is hoping to generate a sense of female solidarity (against patriarchy?), even at the expense of ignoring how fashion, even for men, is tied to the maintenance of class hierarchy.

Now, this is the meat of what I want to say. Let's leave aside issues of power structures for a moment, and just consider the behavior of equal individuals in society.  Social norms are a system of behavioral expectations and actual behaviors, where each reinforces the other. We behave a particular way because we are expected to (or we perceive that we are expected to), and we expect others to behave a certain way, in part because that is how people have behaved in our experience.

The above analysis suggests that a powerful strategy to change social norms is simply to violate the norm. Once people become used to violations of the norm, it is no longer a norm. This is why I think it is important to normalize images of topless women, and also why I have great respect for women who breast-feed in public. Violating norms brings the risk of repercussions, but the good thing about this strategy is that it is always available to the person who is being victimized by an unfair norm. By making excuses for the class-privileged women who conform to these fashion norm, Wade is dismissing this strategy and telling women that they are helpless victims.

Wade's excuses for these women are even more aggravating when we recognize that their class-privilege gives these women the freedom to violate norms with fewer repercussions. Yet these are the same women who conform to the norms most exactly. To make this clear, these women have the choice to either challenge an unfair norm or to reinforce it, and they chose to reinforce it. This clarifies the nature of these fashion rules as a tool of class dominance, not male oppression. The class-privileged women use their clothes to gain higher social status, at the expense of both their fashion-blind peers and the impoverished classes who cannot afford an amazing wardrobe. The words "self-indulgence" (or self-obsession), "shop-a-holicism" (or conspicuous consumption), and "narcissism" are not too far off.

Not only do these women reinforce a status structure by conforming to these norms that others cannot conform to, but they are often the prime propagandists for these norms. If they aren't directly telling others that they are dressed inappropriately, then they are at least funding the magazines and advertisements that saturate our public spaces with the message that women should look a particular way.

If that weren't enough, Ward also undermines our attempts to discourage these socially destructive and domineering behaviors by applying pejorative terms to those behaviors. This reinforces Ward's message that we have to conform. This message is topped off by Ward's exaggerated description of the consequences of non-conformity and the precision to which conformity is demanded, again suggesting that resistance is futile and hyper-conformity is the only way to survive.

Overall, the discussion around these issues suggests a certain dysfunctional obsessiveness on the part of the participants. They seem to fret that "someone might get the wrong message from what I wear". So what? That happens. They seem to demand that everything in their life proceed perfectly according to plan, that they always wear the perfect outfit and everyone responds to it appropriately. It seems that the absence of "neutral" dress arises from their own insistence on exploiting every opportunity that arises, and refusal to accept that some outcomes are "good enough". This abhorrence of risk makes them slaves to anyone who can threaten them in the slightest manner. I don't want to speculate too much on how these people developed their warped perspective, and I definitely don't mean to imply that they are privileged overachievers -- for all I know this is some form of PTSD -- but there is definitely something wrong in their thinking.

This attitude prevents any challenge to unfair social norms outside of professionally sanctioned channels (e.g. academic writing). Even if it could change the norms, it would still demand extreme conformity to the new norms.

The discussion around Wade's article doesn't even provide a meaningful suggestion about how social norms should change. Here's what I can make out:
  • Women should not be assaulted due to their clothing choice.
  • Men should not assume that women want to have sex with them.
  • Women should not be turned away from parties just because they are wearing long skirts or pants.
  • Women should not be considered under-dressed if they are showing as much skin as men typically do.
  • Women should not be expected to show off their bodies on the job or wear impractical "female" clothes.
On all these issues, mainstream society has already taken the side of feminists, so I'm not sure what there is to do. This whole discussion feeds a sense of helpless victimhood.

Rather than obsessing over the vagaries of skirt lengths (I believe that's called a "first-world problem"), it might be better to think about how we interact with social norms in general and our own rejection of conformism.
If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

FD: New York decriminalizes the female body: This is what it looks like

Published at Freedom Democrats 16 June 2006 (I am the author).
Update: the links are busted, try here.

I just stumbled upon a collection of photos by Jordan Matter of all types of women going topless in NYC.
It took me a few minutes to get used to the images of topless women on the street, but eventually it started to look natural. Two pictures really emphasized how natural it is: one of a woman breast-feeding in the park, and another showing an older couple running up the steps from Penn Station with their shirts off.
There's also a video on the front page of Jordan Matter's website, which includes the photographer reading (bare-chested) from a court decision striking down laws that prohibit women from going bare chested just like men.
The USA has eliminated a lot of sexism from its laws, but we're not quite finished yet.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

FD: The Hunt for Confederate Gold

From FreedomDemocrats, 29 Oct 2005:

Several months ago I placed an order for a new book I saw mentioned on LewRockwell, Thomas Moore's "The Hunt for Confederate Gold." Rarely do I read fiction, but I was going away on vacation and I looked forward to some light reading. Due to some problems, including Hurricane Katrina, the book didn't arrive until a few weeks ago. Nevertheless, I'd say that the book is well worth the wait.

There's no surprise that the book has a political agenda. Thomas Moore is a true conservative disillusioned by the Republican Party and his characters often give voice to his beliefs. His criticisms of the left are equally common, although I often found them rather childish and absurd. The general plot revolves around a quest to discover some long lost Confederate gold and a parallel story involving the federal government framing an innocent history professor as some type of terrorist.

I was pondering why it seems that right-libertarian novels seem so much more common than left-libertarian. But then I realized that this is partially due to how we name things. If anyone here is familiar with Daniel Quinn and Ishmael, I'd argue that his ideas are in many ways anti-state and left-libertarian. In the discussions below it was noted that sometimes people just don't think to connect a person's ideas with the title left-libertarian or non-authoritarian left. What's a book you'd suggest?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

I might repost Freedom Democrats posts

I think that all the regular readers of my blog are people whom I met through the (now defunct) Freedom Democrats blog. We had a lot of good writing there, which in now inaccessible to the interwebs. I have copies of most of the posts from my RSS feed from the site. However, I don't have information about who the original author was. Would anyone mind if I post a bunch of the articles here, attributed to Freedom Democrats?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Fascism on the rise?

The Golden Dawn party in Greece is replaying the rise of fascist movements from a century ago. It sounds a bit like Germany in the early Nazi era:
The Golden Dawn has also begun engaging left-wing anarchy groups in street battles ....
But perhaps more worrisome, critics say, are signs that the Golden Dawn is establishing itself as an alternative authority in a country crippled by the harsh austerity imposed by its international lenders....As the party attempts to place a swelling number of unemployed in jobs, its officials say they have persuaded a major restaurant chain to begin replacing immigrants with Greek workers....Landlords can seek the party’s help with the eviction of immigrant tenants....
The big difference between Golden Dawn and the Nazis is that Greece does not have the economic and military capacity that Germany had. However, fascism didn't start in Germany, it started it Italy. So if Greece goes fascist, what other countries might follow?

More immediately, if the fascists bully themselves into office, how will the liberal West respond? Sure, they'll get kicked out of the EU (if they hadn't already) and they'll probably loose any economic aid. But what if a left-wing/anarchist rebellion breaks out? Will the threat of anarchy make a fascist state seem more legitimate, or will left-wing movements not seem as threatening as they were following WWI, even as history has demonstrated the threat of fascism? My bets are that the establishment will guess that it is easier to do business with (and influence) fascists than anarchists.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

The most important contribution of left-libertarianism

Matt Zwolisnki's "Thoughts on Left-Libertarianism" (@BHL) evaluates the strength and weaknesses of left-libertarianism (LL). His criticism of LL utopianism strikes me as largely irrelevant, as is all discussion of utopian ideas. Seeing such wankery inspired me to specify what is actually the most important contribution of left-libertarianism: the perspective of the state as a fundamentally elitist (not democratic) institution.

This perspective is largely absent from contemporary American political ideology, despite the overwhelming evidence in its favor*. This misperception of the state leads to all types of idiocy on the part of Americans, and an effective liberty movement is probably impossible as long as this misperception persists. Next to this issue, everything else in the libertarian movement is wankery-- the utopionism, the (speculative) macroeconomic theory, and even the wonky policy discussions. The only thing that exceeds the importance of correcting this misperception is the creation of alternative institutions.

Most political activists are willing to accept that the state can be captured by self-serving elites, but they still cling to the fantasy that the natural function of the state is to serve the general welfare. Even in the face of constant abuses by the elite, they console themselves with the notion that these abuses arise from a problem no greater than having the wrong guy in office, and they respond by donating their meager leisure time and disposable income to the faction of the elite that promises to restore the natural relationship between government and citizen. They seem unfazed by the reality that "the bad guys" regularly acquire power and "the good guys" never live up to expectations.

We have to look back many decades to find political movements that recognized the elitist nature of the state. Even explicitly elitist ideologies (e.g. monarchism and racist slavery) asserted that the elite governed in the interests of their subjects. While the Marxists recognized the exploitative character of bourgeois democracy, they still seemed to think that a state-like institution could lead humanity into the communist era. Only anarchists recognized that the state was fundamentally incompatible with freedom and equality.

Within the libertarian movement, establishment libertarians (like many writers at Bleeding Heart Libertarians) accept the narrative that the state can be reformed by simply convincing voters to choose justice, while often ignoring how the elite systematically plays our legitimate interests against each other in order to confuse and divide us, and also has an effective system for obfuscating government action and the consequences of electoral participation. The right-wing (vulgar) libertarians are even worse, attributing statist policies to the sloth and greed of the unwashed masses (Mitt Romney's 47%), as if the poor had any power.

To sum this up, while utopianism and macroeconomic theory may be useful rhetorical tools for illustrating the elitist nature of the state, they are not of much value in their own right and should not be the focus of committed debate. Policy debates are only useful for the 1% of Americans who have any substantial influence over state policy -- for the rest of us, even the upper-middle classes, they are just a distraction and a temptation to waste scarce resources on electoral activism. While alternative institutions are important, it's hard for us to find many opportunities to develop these institutions in the current ideological context; too many of our peers will turn to the state for solutions unless they recognize the futility and danger of doing so. For the time being, the most important issue for those of us seeking libertarian equality is to illustrate the elitist nature of statist violence.

* See Kevin Carson for evidence of the historically constant dominance of self-serving elites, and the Ruling Class blog for institutional analysis of elite control of the state. There are probably better resources out there, but those authors would be a good place to start.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Is the state inherently elitist?

The other day I tried to explain to a liberal how libertarians can value public goods but still oppose taxation. In doing so, I described the state (and ruling class) as an "elitist syndicate". I felt clever, but I'm wondering if this is accurate. Leaving aside the use of "syndicate", I've been wondering if the state is inherently elitist.

I can definitely think of elitist policies of the state -- for instance, I consider pretty much any lifestyle regulation as elitist (i.e. based on the assumption that the ruling class possesses a superior understanding of the basic issues of life). However, there's no need for state policies to be elitist, and they can even be anti-elitist.

But the issue isn't the policies of the state; instead, it is the structure of the state. Is the basic structure of the state elitist? If Congress and the President assert authority over us, is it because they think they are better than us? Could they really just be administrators of the public will, as their populist rhetoric would have us believe? Do they naturally isolate themselves from regular people, such that they only pay attention to the thoughts and concerns of other influential people, and thereby create an elitist ruling class? Will they necessarily lavish resources upon favorite protegees in the younger generations, while ignoring the development of the bulk of that generation?

My suspicion is that the state is inherently elitist. We do not live under a simple government of the elite -- where we have selected the most capable administrators/representatives to do a specific job. Instead, we have government by an elitist class that self-consciously selects its membership by providing advantages to specific individuals and then claims broad powers over the population as a whole. While elections and anti-nepotism laws provide opportunities for social mobility and prevent the elite from becoming excessively insular, they do not change the fundamental elitist nature of the state.

Friday, January 04, 2013

From whence gay marriage?

There's a somewhat interesting article at Public Discourse questioning where the demand for gay marriage comes from. The thesis is basically that gay marriage wasn't an issue a few decades ago -- even advocates of gay rights didn't bring it up (for the sake of argument, I'll take his word on this). So the author wonders why this demand gained popularity so suddenly (and whether that speed is healthy). While I'm not an expert, I will propose an explanation for the suddenness of the transformation. Basically, I believe that the historic prosecution of homosexuality kept the idea of marriage off the radar. For heterosexuals, they never thought about it because they didn't know any open homosexuals and were unaware that anyone would care about homosexual marriage. For people with homosexual tendencies, they could not establish stable long term homosexual relationships (due to persecution), so it never really occurred to them what benefits could come from formal recognition. During this period, gays were by definition embracing an alternative lifestyle, which in turn influenced their views on traditional institutions such as marriage. Now that homosexual relationships are mainstream, the consequences of marriage discrimination are apparent and homosexual marriage has been embraced as a natural component of mainstream acceptance of homosexual relationships.

Aside from offering that theory, I want to quickly dismiss the authors assertion of the conjugal theory of marriage. He writes:
but they marry in order to make something new that honors and ennobles that attraction and love: the nucleus of a family, in a comprehensive relation of husband and wife that points toward the future, with an openness toward making that future through procreation.
From what I've seen and read, this is not the current mainstream attitude towards marriage. Instead, marriage is an expression of romantic love and commitment. What I learned in history class is that this romantic theory of marriage gained prominence in the 1950s and was largely the norm by the late 1970s (at least among the college-educated middle-class). Within this context, childbearing is an exciting opportunity offered by marriage, but definitely not the point of marriage.

To say that there is no reason for formal recognition of the household in the absence of childbearing is silly (and I won't give any attention to semantic quibbles over the word "marriage"). We have standard legal recognition of many arrangements, including business partnerships and corporations. Why not a household? Why not give a special place to a union of two adults. And no, the recognition of gay marriage does not imply that we should also recognize threesomes -- there is a major, consequence of the union of two people which is not comparable to the effect of adding a third*.

Anyway, it's not all that surprising that gay marriage has suddenly become an issue, and it's not all that radical given the preceding changes to our conception of marriage and the mainstreaming of homosexual relationships. In many ways, it is just the cherry on top.

*Okay, upon more thought, maybe my logic would allow for the recognition of threesomes (but not larger groups). The problem with recognition of pairs only is that if a threesome were to form, then one member would not have any recognition of his relationship.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Are "stand-your-ground" laws (un)libertarian?

Following the Sandy Hook shooting, I've been gloomily anticipating an authoritarian knee-jerk reaction to ban some types of guns. I've read libertarians calling for a renewed commitment to the pro-gun message. Despite this, I won't fall for the old trope that the pro-gun movement is somehow libertarian. Libertarians should evaluate each pro-gun initiative on its own merits to decide whether it advances liberty.

For instance, the NRA is clearly not a libertarian organization. Not only are they willing to attack free speech (by blaming violent media for real violence), but they are perfectly comfortable establishing a permanent police presence within schools. That's not to mention their refusal to address any other infringement on liberty, even those that so clearly exacerbate gun violence (such as the drug war).

The NRA has even managed to institute pro-gun policies that directly infringe on liberty. For instance, private institutions are often forbidden from regulating whether guns can be brought onto their real estate, all in the name of "gun rights". One issue of contention right now are the "stand-your-ground" laws, so I am wondering if these laws are libertarian.

On the "plus" side, the obligation to retreat is a regulation on individual behavior that is enforced by criminal penalties, so eliminating it seems to be libertarian. However, since it is only regulating an involuntary interpersonal interaction, I think that it can't really be libertarian or anti-libertarian.

On the "negative" side, many of the "stand your ground" laws over-ride the civil tort system (see Table 1, here), which seems anti-libertarian to me.

This issue is a bit difficult for me. Much of my libertarian preference is based on the idea that we should use the minimal necessary force when dealing with others, therefore I am opposed to the tough-guy spirit behind "stand-your-ground". On the flip side, I a person who stands his ground is not so far out of line that it is necessary to use force against him.

But this is coming from someone who is still pondering whether force is justified to deter theft.

P.S. more information on self-defense laws.