Posts tagged ‘privilege’


Also, I’m a progressive

We covered religion the other year, and I’ve been thinking about (and even writing a little about) politics, so now I will try to define myself politically here. To some extent I’m making this up as I go along, so I reserve the right to say next week “I just realized that what I said in paragraph 12 was completely wrong”, but until I say that you can assume it’s accurate. :)

I’m a progressive (I might write “Progressive” if that wasn’t a heavily-advertised insurance company or whatever). Which, for me, means that I believe most basically:

  1. The current distribution of wealth and power in society is currently significantly, and undesirably, unfair,
  2. That unfairness favors (and disfavors) pretty much the same people it always has; in most of the West, that’s people who are more (or less) similar to a tall healthy straight white protestant man from a rich family, with conventionally handsome features and a deep (but not too deep) voice, and so on,
  3. That there is a significant role for the government in reducing the level of that unfairness.

Point (1) differentiates me from people who think that the current distribution actually is fair, or that whether or not it’s fair doesn’t matter (or even that unfair is good). Certain capitalists perhaps most obviously.

Point (2) differentiates me from people who think that the distribution is unfair, but that it’s unfair in favor of women, minorities, etc. Certain Tea Party types, “Men’s Rights Advocates”, and so on.

And Point (3) differentiates me from people who think that, even if there is an unfair distribution, it’s the government’s fault, and if only we had less government, or no government, or government stayed out of the redistribution business, things would get better. Some libertarians (and Libertarians), minarchists, anarchists, voluntaryists, and so on.

I was once a member of that latter group to some extent, as I’ve at least hinted at before, but have yet to see a convincing argument that we can actually get to a better place without significant government involvement, lovely as it might be if we could, and as problematic as government involvement pretty much invariably is.

And here are some ideas, in no particular order but just as they occur to me, that the three basic things imply for me, not in the sense of logical implication, but in the sense of “also this too”.

privilegePrivilege is a thing. If you haven’t run into the term before, here’s a good introduction (not that I necessarily agree with everything it says, but it’s a good statement of the concept). In each sense in which a characteristic of mine is one that society tends to favor, I’m privileged. I have white privilege, male privilege, upper-middle-class privilege. I don’t have right-handed privilege, or mental-health privilege (although I do have “generally functional mental health” privilege; it’s a subtle thing I might talk about someday too).

For me a big thing about privilege is that if a person has it in a characteristic, then the way that society favors that characteristic (and disfavors the opposite) is likely to be relatively invisible to them. When a white person says “well, I don’t see much racism in society these days”, that’s white privilege, and a response of “check your privilege” is entirely appropriate (at least in content; in tone it may or may not be the best way to get them to think about it better).

People who dislike the concept of privilege tend to dislike it because they see it, or claim that they see it, as a claim that white people have no problems, or that every man has more power in society than any woman, or various other false claims.

(I remember once unfollowing someone somewhere who generally posted wise things, but then one day went on a long rant about how they would instantly block anyone who used the term “privilege”, because we all have our own problems. Which was such a misunderstanding, and had so much anger behind it, that I didn’t really want to be there anymore, or to put the energy into trying to help, since presumably he would have instantly blocked me if I had).

Feminism is good. I’m either a feminist or a feminist ally, depending on whether you think males can be feminists. (I’m perfectly happy with either label, and demanding that women include me in the category without having actually lived as a women would be male privilege talking; see above.)

Being a feminist follows almost immediately from (1) and (2) above; if there’s an undesirably unfair distribution of power that favors men, it would be good to make it fairer, by directing more to women. Because of (3) I’m not, say, an anarcha-feminist, at least not in the practical sense: while it might be greatly helpful to women if we had a society entirely based on voluntary associations, no one has shown me how a society like that would actually be sustainable if actual humans were allowed in.

So I’m a feminist who believes in, say, non-discrimination laws.

Radicalism. I call myself a progressive, rather than a radical. This is for basically Beatles reasons (interpreting the lyrics non-ironically); revolutions are dangerous and nasty and often end up with some new-but-still-awful regime in place, and we’re getting better all the time, little by little, slow but sure, and so on.

I also realize that this may be for instance my upper-middle-class privilege talking, and that had I lived a harder life, I might well have different feelings about radicals and the desirability of revolution, and where I myself should be putting my energy.

The size of government. As I noted somewhere at some time, but can’t be bothered to find, questions of the size of government, which are so important to small-government folks like most libertarians, are relatively uninteresting to me. Within relatively wide margins, the question isn’t “does this proposal involve increasing or decreasing the size of the government?”; it’s “does this proposal make the distribution of power in society more, or less, fair?” and/or “does this tend to empower the powerless, or the already-powerful?”.

The American Political Parties. Eew. I am not a registered member of either one. As everyone in the UK and Europe knows, the US has no major left-wing party; we just have a center-right party, the Democrats, and a hard-right (and this year total loony) party, the Republicans. The hard right is pretty much the opposite of progressive; they believe that the current distribution of power and wealth is good, that if anything it’s women and minorities and the poor and so on who get unfair advantages, that it’s really the interests of the powerful that matter, and that government should stay out of the economy as much as possible.

The center-right is a bit more reasonable, and think that while the interests of business always come first, it is in fact often in the true interests of business that individual people have some rights, are not completely impoverished, are generally happy, and so on.

So I do tend to vote for Democratic candidates; but I’m not a member of their party. The last party I actually belonged to was the Libertarians; see above.

(I think Bernie Sanders is in fact a progressive, and that’s a good thing. That the Democratic Party would let him campaign for their nomination for President is good, too; I don’t think they’ll let him win it, though.)

Occupy. Heck, yeah! I think the Occupy movement was, and is, a good thing. I resist the suggestion that they failed; as far as I can see they did a great service in turning the narrative away from the Tea Party’s “The government should spend less money!” which implicitly urged just giving the government to the most powerful, and toward the issue of Income Inequality, which is a much more progressive thing to talk about (and which Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and finally even Hillary Clinton are continuing to talk about, and which is resonating with lots of people in a cheering way).

And that’s it for now, I think. It’s good to get this written down, as it was with the religion stuff.

Happy Socially Just Solstice to all!  :)




Dumplings, Dastards, and Drivel

(Before I decided that the dumplings really belonged in here, I was considering titles like “Douchebags and Bullshit”, which is somewhat coarse, or “Rotters and Rubbish”, which wasn’t bad.)

So this year we made 203 New Year’s Dumplings. The little daughter having come home special for the ceremonies, and the little boy being home from school between terms, we were four healthy adults, and the leftovers of that 203 didn’t even last through the end of January Second.

(See prior New Year’s post for prior history of dumplings.)

Here is my New Year card over on the Secret Second Life weblog. The sentiments apply to all Real Life friends too also. :)

On dastards (cads, bounders, douchenozzles, arseholes), see quite a few of the comments to this Asher Wolf posting on why she left the CryptoParty movement that she founded or co-founded, and how the hacker community contains too much, and too much tolerance of, sexism and misogyny and general nastiness.

Many of the comments are supportive, but many are also just facepalmingly awful. (I posted what I thought was a satire of that kind of comment, and despite my having tried to make it obviously absurd, it was enough like the run of actual negative comments that I had to put in a followup saying that it was intended as satire, because people were responding to it as though it, well, wasn’t.) And the evil-density in the twitter comments was even higher (if harder to link to).

I understand why people come in and carefully and condescendingly explain how she is all wrong, and bad things happen to everyone, and it’s not misogyny, and rape hardly every happens, and things like that; they are just blind to their various degrees of privilege, and are shoring up the bulwarks of the protective walls they have up around their egos.

Pretty standard human stuff.

I less understand why people come in and say that someone “needs to shave her pits”, or says that some particular person attacking her is “way hotter” than someone else is. I mean, wut? How is that even remotely relevant to anything?

Either (1) this is actually the way that they think, (2) they are just rather nastily trolling, or (3) talking about the way they “think” is a bit of an overstatement, and they are basically being Eliza machines in this instance.

Also pretty standard human stuff, I suppose, as are the strings of obscenities and the attacks on her website; I just don’t understand it as much, and it makes me (even) sadder.

And on drivel (or rubbish, or bullshit), I am reading Belief or Nonbelief, and while I’m not done with it (despite how short it is), I cannot keep myself from fulminating, or at least weblogging, about it. It’s a series of public letters between Umberto Eco and Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, who is a Cardinal (a Hat Cardinal, not a Wings Cardinal, obviously).

Eco is sort of The Semiotics Guy, so he is all into signs and how and what they signify (if at all), and so on, so it’s not too surprising that he can wander up big ethereal staircases of language until he gets so far above the concrete that his words not only fail to signify anything material, but fail to signify even any identifiable concepts. And of course Martini is an intelligent person in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and spending most of his thought-time in environments as far from real life as possible is probably one of the few ways it’s possible to be one of those for very long and stay sane.

Hilarity ensues.

The first bit is about hope and life and ideas of the end of the world and stuff; it was written somewhere in the late 90’s. Eco, referring to the last book of the New Testament, writes

Revelation can be read as a promise, but also an announcement of an end, and thus gets rewritten at every step, even by those who never read it, as we await 2000.

Say what? People who have never read the book are constantly rewriting it? Squinting at the whole paragraph really hard, what he means is something like “people are always thinking about how the world might end, and Revelation talks about trumpets and hailstorms and stuff, but nowadays we think more in terms of acid rain, nuclear waste, global warming, and stuff”.

It does sound cooler and less obvious if you talk about the constant rewriting of a book by people who have never read it, but that way of talking has the disadvantage of being incoherent and/or wrong.

Here’s another great passage:

In this way, each one of us flirts with the specter of the apocalypse, exorcising it; the more one unconsciously fears it the more one exorcises, projecting it onto the screen in the form of bloody spectacle, hoping in this way to render it unreal. But the power of specter lies precisely in its unreality.

Yowza! We unconsciously fear the end of the world, so we flirt with it by projecting it (“hey baby, ever been… projected?”) onto the screen (does that mean “we imagine”? or “we make movies about” or…?) in the form of bloody spectacle (we imagine global warming as bloody spectacle? could well be true of the movie version, I spose) in order to (unconsciously, still?) render it unreal (because things on the screen are unreal I guess), but in vain because (as our unconscious is apparently not clever enough to recognize) making it unreal just makes it more powerful.

And the sentence just before it is about “irresponsible consumerism”, which is somehow linked to all that other stuff.

There’s probably some unpacking of this that is actually making a coherent truth-claim that might perhaps be falsifiable, but in essence I think it’s more like poetry; a bunch of words piled on each other not to make some coherent truth-claim, but for some more diaphanous aesthetic reason.

The very next paragraph deserves copying down here also (perhaps only because I’m getting more into the spirit of the thing):

I’d be willing to bet that the notion of the end of time is more common today in the secular world than in the Christian. The Christian world makes it the object of meditation, but acts as if it may be projected into a dimension not measured by calendars. The secular world pretends to ignore the end of time, but is fundamentally obsessed by it. This is not a paradox, but a repetition of what transpired in the first thousand years of history.

Leaving aside the absurdity of referring (as I think he is doing here, but really who can tell) to the years 1-1000 CE as “the first thousand years of history”, it’s hard to say what most of these words might plausibly mean.

Just how common is “the notion of the end of time” in “the secular world”? He has presumably said “the end of time” rather than “the end of the world” for some reason, but I don’t know what it could be. “The end of time” is a notion that barely makes any sense at all in “the secular world” (since time is not something that can end, absent something really weird and non-secular happening), much less being extremely common. The dimension that is “measured by calendars” is time; I’m not sure what it means to say that the Christian world acts as if the end of time occurs in (or “may be projected into”) something besides time. Is he saying that most Christians think of the Apocalypse is a metaphor for something moral or aesthetic, rather than something that will actually take place at some point? That is most likely true, but as far as I know the Official Story of the “Christian world” is that it’s going to happen (for some value of “it”) at some actual time, perhaps any day now.

Maybe he’s just saying “your typical actual Christian person doesn’t actually believe that the world is going to end, or at least doesn’t act that way, whereas your typical secular person worries alot about global warming”. But he sure says it funny if so.

Here’s another character-string, that I don’t think I’ll even try to tease a meaning out of (although the first few words seem like a real screamer, in the “obviously false unless it means something different than it seems to” sense):

Christianity invented History, and it is in fact a modern incarnation of the Antichrist that denounces History as a disease. It’s possible that secular historicism has understood history as infinitely perfectible — so that tomorrow we improve upon today, always and without reservation, and so that in the course of the same history God reconstitutes himself and in a manner of speaking educates and enriches himself. But the entire secular world is not of the ideological view that through history we understand how to look at the regression and folly of history itself. There is, nonetheless, an originally Christian vision of history wherever the signpost of Hope on this road is followed.

On rereading, I’m suspecting more and more that Eco, that wag, is using some prose generator here. (Secular historicism has understood that God reconstitutes himself? Orly?)

Cardinal Martini’s response to this first burst of words isn’t quite up to this standard, but he does use a huge number of words to basically say “oh, well, Christians don’t really have to worry about the end of the world because God is going to take care of them, after all, so naturally the secular types are the ones who obsess about it”.

He does, though, note that

History has always been seen most clearly as a journey toward something beyond itself and not immanent… this vision does not extenuate but solidifies the meaning of contingent events into an ethical locus in which the metahistorical future of the human adventure is determined.

which is getting there.

(And which, once one spends a few minutes picking it apart, turns out to box up considerable volumes of likely-false assumptions inside words and passive-voice constructs like “always” and “most clearly”, “been seen” and “is determined”, which are just the post-graduate version of sprinkling one’s Internet postings with “clearly”, “obviously”, and “certainly”.)

(And for that matter uses a quaintly archaic sense of “extenuate”. Hm, is this a translation, or is the English the original?)

In the next exchange (and the only other one I’ve finished reading), Eco turns the discussion toward the meaning and beginning of life, and the question of abortion, not so much as to get closer to real concrete questions as to show that even on a subject like this he can mostly avoid them.

Here is Eco:

When the banner of Life is waved, it can’t but move the spirit — especially of nonbelievers, however “pietistic” their atheism, because for those who do not believe in anything supernatural the idea of Life, the feeling of Life, provides the only value, the only source of a possible ethical system.

which is bullshit in both common senses: it’s false, and it’s not clear that it’s actually concerned at all with true and false, but just wants to sound good.

(The quotes around “pietistic” in reference to atheism are rather bizarre, as it suggests that “pietistic atheism” is a term that someone else has used, and that Eco himself is using referentially, although he has shame-quote-level reservations about it. But in fact the term “pietistic atheism” is actually pretty rare, so… I dunno.)

And of course just “waving the banner of Life” doesn’t necessarily move the spirit; some people’s spirits are (quite healthily) resistant to being moved by the waving of any banners, and there are all sorts of sources of possible ethical systems besides “the idea of Life, the feeling of Life”.

And so on and so on.

Eco then makes the very good point that a key question is exactly when a human life begins, that we don’t have a really good answer to it, and that it seems like a question that we may never have a really good answer to, even though it’s so important. (I like him saying this, because in my own analysis of the whole abortion issue, these facts are at the core of why it’s so hard.)

The Cardinal responds by subtly taking issue with Eco’s emphasis on “Life”, saying of course that it’s really all about God, and “the life of a person called upon to participate in the life of God himself.”

“Participate” is a great word there, like when the news says that a person is “linked to” some terrorist group. The postmodern “informed by” is another one. They all let you sort of draw a narrative line between two things without actually making any truth-claim that might turn out to be wrong. I have no idea what it actually means to “participate in the life of God himself” for Cardinal Martini, and I’m not convinced that he really does, either. At the high cloudy levels that he’s talking, “participate” is all that’s needed.

Moving on to just when there starts to be “a concrete life that I can label human”, Martini uses some more “obviously” words:

But we all know that we have … a clearer sense of genetic determination starting from a point that, at least in theory, can be identified. From conception, in fact, a new being is born.

There ya go! “We all know” that “in fact” a new being is born at conception.

Here “new” means as distinct from the two elements that united to form it.

This may be a nice definition of “new”, but the more important term is “being”. When someone ingests a couple pieces of food and they start to dissolve in the stomach, there may be some point at which they squish together and there is a “new” food-glob which is distinct from either the hotdog or the bun, but there’s no “new being” here to worry about, unless and until the relevant molecules make their way into a developing fetus which is (say) eventually born.

So he’s doing an end-run to try to slip “identity begins at the moment of conception” (something that the Church has believed for only a small fraction of its history, as Eco mentions and Martini ignores) into the discussion as though it was something we now know as a fact.

Okay, that’s par for the course. :)

Here is some more novel and amorphous stuff, on the topic of why the product of conception matters, and why we should protect it:

Beyond these scientific and philosophical matters lies the fact that whatsoever is open to so great a destiny — being called by name by God himself — is worthy of enormous respect from the beginning.

Why is that? Is there anything that God himself can’t call by name? Does God have names for people in a way that he doesn’t have names for animals, or fruit, or dust-motes? This is a piece of Catholic doctrine, or something, that I wasn’t aware of. Why would being called by name by God, as opposed to any other aspect of a putative relationship to God, be the thing in particular that makes a person “worthy of enormous respect from the beginning”?

If it turned out that God also had names for individual rocks, would we be morally obliged to make sure that any rock that begins to split off the side of a mountain does in fact split off, and to have “enormous respect” for it from that point on? Why or why not?

And yes, the question seems absurd. But it’s directly implied by the Cardinal’s words, so I will refer him to you on that issue.

We are talking about real responsibility toward that which is produced by a great and personal love, responsibility toward “someone”. Being called upon and loved, this someone already has a face, and is the object of affection and attention.

I think we are still talking about a just-fertilized egg here. The great and personal love must be God’s (since, sadly, not every instance of conception involves great or personal human love), as must be the affection and attention (since, this early in the game, no human is aware that anything exists to lavish affection and attention on).

But the someone already has a face? What could that mean? A fertilized egg most definitely does not have a face; it is too small. Is this a metaphor for something? If so, it’s not clear for what. Does he mean that he thinks the look of the face of the eventual person (if any) resulting from the fertilization is already determined, by the genetics of the sperm and egg? That’s probably not true, certainly not before the gametes are all done fusing (when exactly is “the moment of conception” at this level of detail, anyway?). And why “face” rather than “form” or for that matter foot-size? Are those less important, or is it all just some metaphor and “face” sounds better?

The next sentence is:

Every violation of this need of affection and attention can only result in conflict, profound suffering, and painful rending.

How did we get from the fertilized egg’s being the object of affection and attention (from God), to a need for affection and attention? In fact the fertilized egg, at this point, doesn’t have any need for affection and attention, unless there’s some religious claim here that it needs it from God. But presumably nothing could violate God’s affection and attention. (I’m not sure what if anything it means to “violate” a “need”.)

The claim being made here seems to be that from the moment of conception there is a new being that as a need for affection and attention, and any failure to provide for that need will result in conflict, profound suffering, and painful rending.

But that’s false. Something like half of fertilized eggs fail to implant or are otherwise spontaneously aborted very early (and so presumably their needs aren’t being provided for?), and no one who isn’t God ever knows they existed. No conflict, no profound suffering, no painful rending.

The obvious counter here is that the good Cardinal didn’t mean that. And that’s likely true, but then we’re just left wondering exactly what he did mean.

The end of this letter doesn’t help much, except to suggest that it’s all about faces again.

There is a splendid metaphor that reveals in lay terms something common to both Catholics and laymen, that of the “face”. Levinas spoke of it movingly as an irrefutable instance. I would rather cite the words, almost a testament, of Italo Mancini in one of his last books, Tornino i volti [Back to the Faces]: “Living in, loving, and sanctifying our world wasn’t granted us by some impersonal theory of being, or by the facts of history, or by natural phenomena, but by the existence of those uncanny centers of otherness — the faces, faces to look at, to honor, to cherish.”

Which, I think, is nice, even profound, as poetry, but as any sort of discussion of a subject falls rather flatly short of, well, of meaning anything.

Living in our world was granted us by the existence of faces? You don’t say!