Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Playing the Game

Laura Kipnis is an interesting writer.  I've read a couple of her books, so when I found her latest, Men (Metropolitan, 2014), at the library, I looked through it.  I was most interested in the chapter called "The Manly Man," a partial transcript of her debate with Harvey Mansfield, the author of a book on Manliness that excited a lot of comment when it was published in 2006.  Martha Nussbaum patiently detailed Mansfield's faults as a serious thinker in the review I just linked to, so I never bothered to read the book myself.  Mansfield's performance in "The Manly Man" just confirms Nussbaum's critique.

I was particularly struck by this part:
[Mansfield]: ... isn’t it true that women, when they abandon the double standard in sexual morality – and that, by the way, is the only standard – are simply unhappier?  Because once you abandon that, you abandon any standard at all.

[Kipnis]  Well, mutual pleasure is one standard.

[Mansfield] All right, okay -- I agree with that.  But it’s not a moral standard.

[Kipnis]  We probably disagree about that.

[Mansfield]  All right.  But once you play the man’s game, aren’t you pretty likely to lose? You’re going onto their ground when you try to compete with men in brashness.  I think it’s still the case that women like to be asked out, rather than asking out [113-4].
When men “play the man’s game,” they’re pretty likely to lose too.  Mansfield's kind of manliness is competitive, with men climbing toward the top of the heap over the bodies of those they've defeated, and since no one stays young and strong forever, even the winner ultimately is defeated and replaced.  And no matter how long he stays on top, he always must be ready to defend his place against the next challenger.  That would be pathetic (that is, not tragic) if it were the only way to be a man, but it's not.  The trouble lies with men like Mansfield, who keep insisting that the way of the Warrior is the only way, and any male who doesn't want to compete isn't really a man.

But, and this is more important I think, for women the double standard and patriarchal marriage are playing "the man’s game." Since Mansfield believes that males are naturally promiscuous and females aren't, he must accept the existence of "public women," women who have no one owner but can be rented or ravished.  He must also pretend that even women who play the man's game by accepting the double standard can never really escape it, even when married; remember that until recently, because of feminism, married women had no recourse if their husbands forced sex on them.  Once a woman had given her consent, she could never take it back, and a woman once polluted by even marital penetration was polluted forever.

Let me back up what I'm saying about marriage and "the man's game."   Well over thirty years ago, the radical feminist Joanna Russ wrote:
Every women’s studies teacher, for example, knows the female student who comes into her office and announces defiantly that she’s going to get married – the world is still full of girls who think that heterosexual alliances with men represent a form of rebellion against sexless Mommy. How do these young women imagine their mothers ended up where they were? Yet the hope persists that heterosexual activity (a little wilder than stuffy Mom’s) will provide access to the men’s freer, wider world. Mother’s function as the forewoman who polices Daughter’s sexuality, in many American families, gives some color to this notion – that an alliance with men is an alliance against Mother – and yet these girls must have at least the suspicion that Mom made the same bargain. And surely they know that heterosexual alliance can’t confer membership in the men’s world but only a place (Mother’s place, in fact) on the sidelines. But they don’t. And so they end up married, leading the same life as Mother, or – if unlucky – a worse one with less bargaining power. And their daughters repeat the process.*
Mansfield adds, after the passage I quoted above, that "Women and men are just happier married," but even if that were true (which it isn't), it would only prove that married women were less unhappy because they're not out in the jungle of untrammeled male violence.  It's true that married men are happier than unmarried men, but I've never felt that anyone has the right to demand service from another, at the expense of her happiness, in order to gain his own.  That's not complementarity or symbiosis, it's parasitism.

Those who want to justify the ownership of women by men try to cast it as "men taking care of women", but as one writer noted, "Mostly I see women bumping buggies down the steps at train stations while no one helps," and in reality it is men who demand that women take care of them, providing material and emotional and sexual service in return for their dubious "protection."  Mansfield is delusional, and if he weren't saying what so many men want to hear, it would be hard to believe that he gets a platform for his babbling.  Kipnis goes far too easily on him; I wonder if she bothered to prepare for this appearance by acquainting herself with Mansfield's ideas -- reading Nussbaum's review would have been sufficient.

But I've written about this before.  What I want to do now is bring in what I've been saying about human nature.  Mansfield presumably believes that his standards of morality and manhood are based in the nature of the human species as a whole.  But as he admits, human nature is various:
How I define manliness is “confidence in a situation of risk.”  Women have confidence, too, but they don’t seek out risk the way men do.  Or, better to say, the way some men do [112].
This is absurd.  Women "seek out risk" every time they allow a pregnancy to continue to term -- and, I'd add, when they enter into relationships with men who are manly by Mansfield's criterion.  The fantasy that "real" men don't hit women is just that, a fantasy; it had to be bolstered for centuries by covering up male violence against women, and by explaining it away when it couldn't be covered up.  Mansfield might try to evade this by calling such violence "a corrupt or perverted manliness" (119), but that won't work.  As long as men conspire not merely to cover up their violence against women but to justify it (look at the role it plays in the Hebrew Bible, for example, ascribed to Yahweh himself), it must be recognized as part of official Manliness.

Mansfield has to do some fancy footwork to explain away more general male violence:
So you look at the manliness of the Islamic hijackers, it takes a certain manliness – a corrupt or perverted manliness – to fly airplanes into buildings and kill people.  Versus the manliness of the New York Police and firefighters who went up the stairs of those buildings, knowing that they probably wouldn’t come back down (119).
This is a desperately false comparison: the real counterpart to the 9/11 hijackers would not be police and firefighters but US troops invading, bombing, and looting Iraq and Afghanistan, or American helicopter crews gleefully massacring civilians from the air.  Mansfield knows this, too, for he speaks of "the decline or decadence of Europe," which he ascribes to "all the womanliness in their policies" (119)  He doesn't expand on which policies he means, but I think it's clear in context that Europe isn't warlike enough to suit him.  War fever has to be cultivated, however, usually dishonestly; most people aren't normally that eager to go to war. A few ideally manly leaders must work hard to get them to go along with it.

Since Mansfield concedes that not all males meet his standards, we're in Mary Midgley's world where "human nature" refers to the supposed natures of individuals.  Men like Mansfield tend to worry that Homo sapiens may not be up to evolutionary snuff, because the species isn't manly enough anymore.  If men don't go to war, cultivate blood sports, and keep women barefoot and pregnant, the human race will die out.  But this misunderstands natural selection.  If the violence of certain men becomes an evolutionary liability, they have no claim, no natural right, to demand that they escape culling by Mom Nature.  Yet they do, presenting themselves as the "fittest" who must survive -- according to their fantasy of what evolution means -- and whine that "men" are an endangered species.  They don't own the future of the species, however; no one does.  And no doubt there are also women whose natures are compatible with theirs, so they won't really have to do without mates.  If there aren't enough of them, too bad.  Nor is the majority obligated to help them reproduce themselves.  Mansfield just wants his pet conceptions to be the platonic ideal of humanity and manliness. There's no reason to let him have his way.

It's debatable whether humanity's evolutionary success so far has much if anything to do with "manliness" as Mansfield conceives it.  It's likely that cooperation and the use of intelligence rather than brute force are the chief reason why vast numbers of human beings infest this planet.  Or maybe not; no one really knows.  But just because any given trait was successful in the past doesn't mean it will be successful tomorrow.  Noam Chomsky says that Ernst Mayr, "the grand old man of American biology ... basically argued ... that intelligence is a lethal mutation."  Even if our intelligence enabled us to spread like a radioactive virus all over the earth, there's no guarantee it won't kill us off, and sooner rather than later.  It might be a trait that Natural Selection is going to weed out. The same could be true of Mansfield's "manliness," if it did play any role in human evolution.  It wouldn't be a great loss.  It might even be the real lethal mutation.

* From her review of Dorothy Dinnerstein's The Mermaid and the Minotaur (Harper, 1976), reprinted in The Country You Have Never Seen (University of Liverpool Press, 2007), page 162

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Doing What Comes Naturally

I considered adding this to yesterday's post, but decided I might as well start a new one.  Midgley also wrote in Heart and Mind:
Now it is exactly this variety, this obstinate innate uniqueness of each human being, that gives real force to the demands for political freedom.  Mill, in his Essay on Liberty, emphasized it constantly and correctly with organic metaphors.  People, he said, are like trees which should have their full shape and not be pollarded; like human feet, which should have their natural growth and not be bound.  
Like human hair, which should have its natural growth and not be cut or bound or dyed?  Like the human body, which should go naked and not be covered by clothing?  “Nature” in this sense starts to stretch too much, and those organic metaphors bump up against real practice, such as longstanding human manipulation of the breeding and culture of non-human species.  Is it bad to trim a tree, to mow your lawn, to domesticate plants or animals for food and other purposes?  We expect a more hands-off approach to human beings (though some of us fantasize about breeding people as we breed dogs or cattle), but the organic metaphors Midgley approves break down there.

But stick to people: I wonder what that Victorian gentleman John Stuart Mill thought about contraception?  Abortion?  Homosexuality?  Celibacy?  Chastity?  For his time he was a very advanced supporter of women's autonomy, but I haven't yet read The Subjection of Women and don't know the details of his opinions.  Sex-reassignment surgery didn't exist then, and it's interesting to speculate what he would have thought of it.  Transsexuals don't think they are going against their natural growth, of course: they insist that they're expressing it.  And who can say?  But human intervention in nature, our own or other organisms', is too widespread and general to be dismissed as lightly as Mill did according to Midgley.

In the real world, “nature” is limited not by innate gifts but by the environment.  But then, "the environment" is often just another word for "nature": a drought for example, or a plague, or a fire, or an asteroid strike.  Or, as in Mill's case, a driving father who was determined to make him into a genius.  As the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it, "His childhood was not unhappy, but it was a strain on his constitution and he suffered from the lack of natural, unforced development."  I wondered when I read this passage if Mill didn't have his own experience in mind when he said these things.  But that raises another point about "nature": Mill would not have been the person he became if not for his controlling father, and would not have written what he did in the way he did.  If he'd been born in England with the identical "nature" a thousand years earlier, he'd have turned out very differently.
They shouldn’t have a single stereotype, he insisted – and that is why we need a rich, varied, hospitable, enterprising society.  But if they were not innately unique, if they were naturally indeterminate, there would be no objection to pouring the lot of them into standard moulds.  It is quite time that the radical Left got rid of this confusion, this dead beetle which is poisoning its concept of freedom [42].
I'm not sure I can disentangle Mill from Midgley here, but I think this passage confirms my impression that when she wrote that "each person is different in kind" from birth, that by "human nature" she meant individual human nature.  That's all well and good, but I don't think it's the usual commonsense meaning of the term; people may say "that's his nature" of an individual's quirks, but "human nature" usually refers to the species.

And what if one's nature drives one to do terrible things?  People have often tried to find a way around this problem, by postulating that the terrible things are not the result of nature but of being carefully taught the wrong way to behave.  I don't think so.  Nature isn't as red in tooth and claw as some romantics like to think, but it's not all sunshine, rainbows and lollipops either.  Hyenas are part of nature as surely as butterflies are.  This only means that we needn't be, mustn't be nonjudgmental about nature either.  It may not be pleasant, but some natures must be bound, pollarded, and even extinguished; and we must take responsibility for our judgments and how we act on them.  (I think this was roughly what Sartre had in mind with his denials of human nature and the necessity of choice.  If I'm wrong about that, no matter: it's what I have in mind.)

What made this passage stick with me, though, was Midgley's apparent assumption that "unique" is the opposite of "indeterminate", and that those unique individual natures are somehow fixed from birth.  That may very well be so, but it needs to be argued, not asserted.  It seems to me that human nature, both at the species and the individual level is indeterminate.  That's not to say it's unbounded, or infinitely malleable, but everything we know about the interaction of genetic endowment and experience / environment, to say nothing of human beings' capacity for learning, tells us that organisms are both unique and indeterminate.

As an example of the uniqueness and determinacy she has in mind, Midgley declares:
The fascinating thing here is not just the capacity, but the interest which goes with it.  Our faculties demand use; we need to do what we are fitted for.  That delightful wood-engraver, Thomas Bewick [1753-1828] was the son of a small farmer in a lonely part of Northumberland.  He tells in his Memoir how from his earliest years he used to draw pictures, with anything he could get and on any surface he could find, although nobody suggested this to him and on the whole people discouraged him.  ‘At that time’, he goes on, ‘I had never heard of the word “drawing”, nor did I know of any other paintings besides the king’s arms in the church, and the signs in Ovingham of the Black Bull and other inns.’

Bewick, in fact, was a born draughtsman ...  Such people exist.  Therefore, there has to be something wrong with a concept of freedom which can’t accommodate them.  Certainly, they show that freedom has its limits.  Nobody is free to have somebody else’s gifts as well as his own, or instead of them [41]. 
This is true of certain individuals, but not of all.  Not everyone has the kind of early-onset vocation that someone like Bewick exhibited.  I'm not sure what I myself was born "fitted for"; it's hard to see how either reading or writing could be inborn, since these abilities are human inventions.  Drawing, we know, is older, but what kind of innate endowment would produce a "born draughtsman"?  I have a good ear for music, a decent voice and the dexterity to play guitar adequately, but no driving need to make music above all else.  I can also draw fairly well but never worked at it.  I sometimes liked to tease people I knew by saying that I was born to be a dishwasher, since I fit so well into that job for thirty years.

In the communitarian society she imagined for her 1976 science-fiction novel Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy addressed questions like this.  Of one character we are told that she "does not switch jobs but is permanent head of this house of children" because:
Sometimes a gift expresses itself so strongly, like Jackrabbit's need to create color and form, like Magdalena's need to work with children, that it shapes a life.  Person must not do what person cannot do -- you have heard us say that a hundred times; but likewise, person must do what person has to do.
Most people, however, are expected to work at certain service jobs rather than identify themselves with one office.  Even Jackrabbit, the artist also mentioned, must work on food and other production, cleaning and so on; he must also go on defense against the mega-corporations that menace his community.  Connie, the novel's protagonist from the 1970s, is shocked to learn this: he's an artist, shouldn't he be free to commune with his muse?  Why risk such a talented person on defense?

Most of the characters in Woman on the Edge of Time are doubled, in the 1970s present of Connie, the protagonist, and the 2130s of Mouth-of-Mattapoisett.  One reason for this is to suggest how the environment shapes whatever innate characteristics a person has.  Jackrabbit's 1970s counterpart is Skip, a young gay man committed for to a mental hospital for electroshock by his parents in an effort to "cure" him; if he has a "need to create color and form," he never gets a chance to express it.

Luciente, Connie's guide in Mattapoisett, says of her daughter:
"At four, Dawn was timid.  We worried.  Me, my [co-mothers].  We all struggled to bring per out."

[Connie] "But you say you respect difference." 

"Different strengths we respect.  Not weakness.  What is the use in not actively engaging life?  It passes anyhow."
I'm sure that Midgley, who's a mother herself, knows this: respecting each child's individuality doesn't mean that one never intervenes to encourage growth in what seems a desirable direction.  Contrary to her paraphrase of Mill, some interference and shaping, conscious or not, is inevitable in the raising of human children, because of their long period of dependency and their great capacity for learning. What is desirable, though, is not determined by "nature" but by ideological preconceptions, and decided by judgment.  Somewhere I read that in 'the West' babies are seen as dependent beings who must learn to be independent and take care of themselves, while in Japan (and perhaps elsewhere in 'the East') babies are seen a little egoists who must learn to be connected to, and interdependent with other people.  This is probably an overgeneralization, like most generalizations about cultures, but the point is that babies aren't different in Japan and the United States, but the way they are seen and the expectations for them are.  Both of these ways of thinking about babies seem true to me at the same time: they are dependent, but they're also little egoists who must learn to co-exist with others.  "Human nature," whether we're speaking of individuals or of the species, is self-contradictory at its root. Woman on the Edge of Time is, among other things, a book about human nature, but I suspect it would annoy Midgley for dealing with questions she doesn't care to engage.  (A couple of years after Heart and Mind, Midgley co-wrote an awful book on feminism that I hope to dissect here one of these days.)

Another reason why talk about nature, human or otherwise, runs into fatal difficulties is that nature has history -- that is, a sequence of changes that can't be predicted though they can, with luck, be described in hindsight.  The pitfall of doing so is that, no doubt also as part of human nature, the historian is tempted to find a story in the sequence: an ordered, causal narrative, which implies that with a bit more wisdom one could have predicted how it would turn out.  Darwinian evolution is the anti-story of change in Nature.  Not only do languages and other cultural features change over time and from place to place, but the biology of organisms changes too.  It's indeterminate -- not infinitely malleable but not fixed in place either.

Monday, September 28, 2015

You've Got to Be Sloppily Taught

It's not enough to reject biological reductionism: you must also offer a better alternative to it.  Mary Midgley is properly critical of "blank slate" (or, as she calls them, "blank paper") conceptions of human nature.  I began to wonder, though, how many people actually, consistently believe that human beings are blank slates.  I've noticed that many who are accused of that belief don't actually hold it; often they are professionals in biology and related fields, like Stephen Jay Gould, Richard C. Lewontin, Hilary Rose, and Anne Fausto-Sterling.  It's a typical reaction to criticism of a belief to accuse the critic of holding an absolutely opposed stance: if you criticize a given case of biological reductionism, you will be accused of believing that biology is totally irrelevant, just as someone who criticizes a given US policy will be accused of hating America and wanting to see it destroyed, or a woman who criticizes a man's behavior will be accused of hating men and wanting them all castrated.

Case in point: I just read Paul Shankman's The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy (Wisconsin, 2009), an account of Derek Freeman's trashing of Margaret Mead at the end of the twentieth century.  Among much else, Freeman accused Mead and her teacher Franz Boas of believing that human beings were blank slates and that biology played no role in numan nature or culture.  Numerous evolutionary psychology types, including Steven Pinker, David Buss, and Matt Ridley, were happy to parrot Freeman's claim without bothering to determine how accurate it was.  Shankman shows that this accusation was utterly false.  Ironically, Freeman himself rejected sociobiology (though not, it seems, evolutionary psychology) and adhered to an approach he called interactionist; but he could have been accused of rejecting biology for blank-slate cultural determinism if anyone had cared to misrepresent him by dishonest selective quotation.

Shankman quotes Ridley as noting that "For fifty years Mead's Samoans stood as definite proof of the perfectibility of man" and that Boas, Ruth Benedict and Mead had argued that "human nature must be infinitely malleable by culture because (they thought, wrongly) the alternative is fatalism, which is unacceptable" (Shankman, 207-8).  These are also common accusations, but there's no reason why a real blank slate position should imply "the perfectibility of man," and Mead seems not to have believed in such perfectibility: arguing that some cultures are better than others suggests improvement at most.  And ironically, nowadays it's biological determinists and Artificial Intelligence propagandists who talk as though they believe and hope that "man" is perfectible and "infinitely malleable" by genetic manipulation and by turning us into cyborgs.

Midgley does discuss a couple of positions that might plausibly be called "blank slate," such as Skinnerian behaviorism and Sartrean existentialism.  Certainly both approaches seem to encourage people to make extreme and not very well thought-through statements about human nature.  It's not clear to me that Skinner, as wrong as he was, actually thought human beings are blank slates.  Often people will make such extreme statements but if they're challenged, they'll backtrack quickly and qualify them.  I haven't read enough Sartre to be sure about him, but even leaving aside the many changes in his philosophy and politics during his career, I suspect that his reduction of human nature to pure will was a rhetorical move he wouldn't have cared to defend very far.

I've found this to be true of laypeople, who are perfectly capable of saying that human beings are effectively blank slates. and then almost immediately make equally wild, concrete, and unfounded generations about our real human nature.  They may not root that real nature in biology -- often they think it consists of "spirit," "soul," or some other non-material essence -- but they are sure it's real.  So, for example, I've become very tired of the "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" meme, such as this one:
Someday I must make a meme in which a baby reminds us that it knows nothing of language, clothing, taking out the trash, or bowel control.  But when people say things like this -- there's a DJ on the community radio station who regularly plays "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" and similar, less well-known songs -- I want to ask them where they think hatred, intolerance, racism, etc. come from if they must be "taught" to us.  Who invented them, and first taught them?  Someone bad, I betcha.  Maybe it was "religion," conceived as an independently existing autonomous malevolent being rather than a human invention. Someone who sees other people as Them, no doubt -- but that certainly includes many people who believe that Someone Bad taught innocent little babies to be intolerant.  A photo circulated recently on Facebook of a very young bobcat and a very young deer cuddled together, with the caption "Why can't we humans do this?"  Well, first, of course, we humans can, and we do.  We are not always at each other's throats, and a meme like this does nothing to explain why we sometimes engage in violent conflict.  But second, do the people who made, shared, and like this image believe seriously that bobcats and other predators kill for their food because some bad person "carefully taught them"?  This isn't a blank-slate position, it's thoughtlessness.

Midgley talks about the human "heart" and the "soul," which doesn't really get her very far.  Both of these are metaphors, and extremely vague ones at that.  If "heart" means something like core or center, fine, but in fact neither our blood-pumping hearts nor our chest cavities more generally are organs of moral reflection and judgment.  As for the "soul," it's even vaguer.  People talk about it in various ways, sometimes equating it with "spirit" and sometimes distinguishing the two; since neither term refers to any entity in the real world, it doesn't matter where you draw the line, but it doesn't settle anything either.

At one point Midgley declares: "For Christianity, the true self is indeed the soul, but the body is a necessary and suitable expression for it; the resurrection of the body will ensure that whole people, not just ghosts, inhabit Heaven" (10).  As usual, when Midgley talks about religion she gets it wrong.  Christianity has never quite sorted out the nature of the "true self."  The Bible is no help, and later theologians have had to fall back on Aristotelian and Platonic philosophy.  The apostle Paul, whose discussion of the Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 is often referred to, distinguished between the body and flesh, declaring ex cathedra that in the resurrection of the body, the flesh will be replaced with a body of spirit.  The gospels present Jesus' resurrection as a body of flesh, so most people who quote Paul equate the body and the flesh.  If the new body will be "spirit," what is the difference between that and the soul?  "Ghost" comes from the old German for "spirit," so that's no help to Midgley either.

She even falls back on "common sense," which she defines as "not some special na├»ve set of beliefs, but any sort of practical assumption compatible with the business of everyday living" (38).  The trouble with this is that any number of irrational and harmful assumptions are "practical" and "compatible with the business of everyday living."
The notion of human nature is wide and indispensable to political thought.  Thinkers of all colours have always used it, and it is still presupposed by those who officially deny it.  (For instance, those who deny that man is naturally aggressive on the ground that he is naturally friendly are not dispensing with the notion of human nature.)  The real disputes are about what human nature is like [39].
The trouble is that "human nature," like "common sense," is always used from the wrong end: rather than point to evidence of "what human nature is like", people tend to rationalize their prejudices and wishes as "common sense" and "human nature."  In an important sense, they're right.  A popular slogan from the 60s and 70s claimed that the only unnatural sexual act is one you can't perform -- that is, because it's physically impossible.  Anything that human beings do is "natural" -- if it weren't, we couldn't do it.  This applies to traits and behavior we don't like as well as to those we do.  If "thinkers of all colors have always used" the concept of human nature, that suggests to me that it doesn't have much content: it's what I call a totem-word, invoked to shut off debate and to obscure the issues rather than introduce any real information into the discussion.

There's a curious divide in the way people use words like "nature" and "natural."  People "oscillate," to use Midgley's word, between descriptive and prescriptive means of important abstractions.  "Normal," for instance, can describe what most people do -- or it can prescribe what people should do, though the thought process  (such as it is) is circular: we should do this because it's what most people do, but if most people don't do it, they should.  Other such words are "culture" (used descriptively for the constellation of practices and norms and so on typical of a group of people, and prescriptively for good practices and norms which demonstrate that you're a "cultured" person.), "art," and "nature."  ("Nature" especially exhibits this oscillation in Christian use, where "nature" is both the voice of God and the voice of sin.  In Secrets of Life, Secrets of Death [Routledge, 1992], Evelyn Fox Keller shows how and why this oscillation came about.)  Just because something is natural doesn't mean it's good, as the most dogmatic champion of human nature will concede; but he or she will flipflop to the normative sense of "nature" when it's expedient.

Another important concept that gets used in such conflicting ways is "evolution."  People commonly use it as a moralizing term: an "evolved" person is mature, wise, learned, an "unevolved" person is not.  But any trait that human beings exhibit has survived the trial-by-ordeal of Darwinian natural selection.  Midgley herself falls into this error when she says that "In going up the evolutionary scale, we find a quite steady increase in the openness of programs" (154); but there is no evolutionary scale to go up and down.  She's referring to the pre-Darwinian, and actually anti-Darwinian Great Chain of Being, which ranks organisms from less "complex" to more "complex" -- the latter of course assumed to be better.  And every organism, human beings not excluded, embodies old and new, "primitive" and "advanced," traits.

So it seems to me that "human nature" is a vacuous, circular term that is not of any help in the discussion of moral issues or any other.  You can debate whether a given trait is innate or not, but particularly in human behavior, it's hard to settle the question.  As Midgley also says,
Right from birth, people are individuals; each person is different in kind. I think this is in part what makes the concentration on IQ seem so unsuitable and offensive.  What happens in heredity certainly is not that we are born with a definite quantity of a standard stuff called intelligence, or even cleverness, entitling us to a particular place in the social hierarchy, a pre-programmed degree in some monstrous cosmic examination.  Instead, we each have our own peculiarly formed set of capacities and incapacities, our own personal repertoire [40-41].
If it were true that "each person is different in kind", then each individual would have his or her own nature (which is what "kind" means in this context) and it would be meaningless to talk about human nature as a trait of the species.

Still, Midgley is on to something here: most reductionist talk about human nature overlooks the variety among individuals, assuming that all men are alike, and all women are alike, all blacks, Hispanics, and so on, even though if "science" can be said to have shown everything, it is that we are all different from each other in important ways, and that the variation within groups often exceeds the average variation between them.  It may well be "human nature" to ignore such differences -- but if it is, so much the worse for human nature.

So, for a hot-button contemporary example, there's been a fuss over the women who passed Army Ranger camp recentlyCan women meet the exacting standards of this elite terrorist group? the media asked.  Well, not all women can, any more than all men can; but it's not obvious a priori that no women can.  It would be surprising if none could, given a fair chance to do so.  The same goes for any discussion of race, sex, etc., as it affects ability to do science, math, music, or any other human endeavor.  Every few years somebody, usually a sports journalist, tries to argue a scientific case that people of African descent are innately better at sports than white people, which explains why there are so many blacks in elite sports nowadays.  This project is touted as a bold defiance of Political Correctness, of course.  Whatever the validity of the science involved, there always seems to lurk the assumption that if you're good at sports, you're not good at anything else, and shouldn't be allowed to do anything else.  Analogously, there's no doubt that human females "evolved" to bear young, but that doesn't imply that all women must bear children or that they can't also do art, science, sports, or anything else.  The same illogic would dictate that, since males evolved to supply spermatazoa, we are good for nothing else.  But whatever ideas about "human nature" can be used to bolster the status quo qualify as "common sense."

The problem then is not "human nature" -- which doesn't settle anything -- but how we think about it.  And while I'm mostly on Midgley's side, she seems to miss most of what's important about how we think about it.  If I want to study mathematics or nuclear physics or basketball or poetry or the violin, it doesn't matter whether males or whites or any other group does better on average at those tasks.  Regardless of who I am, the odds are overwhelmingly against my excelling compared to the very best individuals in the field.  There's no way to know in advance how well I'll do, and there's no reason why I must be the best anyway.  One of the reasons why the concept of "meritocracy" is so malign is that it tends to devalue everyone who isn't in the top rank of achievement.  It seems to me that "human nature" only functions negatively, to tell certain people they can't do what they'd like to do, that they must do what they don't particularly want to do, or to excuse bad behavior by the privileged on the grounds that it's just human nature.  I can't think of any positive uses the concept could have.  I'm not denying, mind you, that there is such a thing as human nature; only that we don't seem to be able to say anything useful about it.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

I'm Not the First Guy to Observe This

Someone posted a link to this video clip by Bill Nye the Science Guy, allegedly "bring[ing] science to bear on the abortion debate."

This reminds me of a cartoon I once saw of a business meeting, all men in suits except for one woman. The leader of the meeting is saying, "That's a very interesting suggestion, Miss Jones. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it." Nye isn't saying anything that women haven't said many times, but of course, being science-based, a male statement counts for more.  His bowtie alone inspires absolute confidence!  Science has been brought to bear on the abortion debate before, but of course Nye's fans are historically illiterate, so they can't be expected to know that.

I like the "He tends to prefer facts" bit. Well, let's look at some facts. Nye alludes to "'men of European descent' having their own interpretation of 'a book written 5,000 years ago' and then deciding that abortion should be illegal." What book could he be talking about? The Bible was written less than 3,000 years ago, parts of it less than 2,000, by men of West Asian descent; many of its present-day fans are of African and East Asian descent. Further, the Bible doesn't say anything about abortion. So, those -- whatever their descent may be -- who oppose abortion aren't basing it on the Bible.

Another science-based writer who sought to shed scientific light on reproductive issues reported that "among women between the age of fifteen and forty-nine in the United States, 70 percent of Catholic women were using some form of contraception in 1995, about the same percentage of all women in that age group. ... The data are quite clear: the Catholic Church has very limited moral authority with Catholic laity in matters of sexual behavior and reproductive health."  In fact, Catholic women are more likely to get an abortion than Protestants. So, even people who officially accept the authority of that five-thousand-year-old book nevertheless do what they want to do.  That's at least partly because the Church no longer has the power to punish them; as the composer Hector Berlioz observed of the Roman Catholic Church more than a century ago, "Since she has ceased to inculcate the burning of heretics, her creeds are charming."

The "science" Nye cites has little, maybe nothing to do with the issue. One could accept his every claim yet still oppose abortion, perhaps out of a desire to control women that doesn't come from religion but uses religion to give more authority to policies that wouldn't otherwise have any. Many atheist, pro-science males still want to control women. Religion has no inherent moral content: people put their wishes and prejudices into the religons they invent. But then science has no inherent moral content either, apart from the professional ethics that govern scientists' work internally.  And alas, when scientists who don't know very much outside their specialties try to address social or political issues, they generally make fools of themselves. Well-intentioned fools, often, but fools nonetheless.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

I'm Not a Racist But My Brain Is

A sidebar to the matter of biological reductionism: An old acquaintance of mine posted a link to this article today, and commented:
When I've argued that the tendencies which create biases (but not specific biases) are hardwired in us because our brains try to be efficient and use heuristics when only incomplete information is available (and complete information is never available), so elimination of this or that -ism probably isn't a likely goal to strive toward, but diminution of it's impacts is, I've encountered understandable resistance. This item does a much better job than I've done of explaining this perspective and more.
My acquaintance is now a diversity manager at a state university somewhere, so he often posts material like this, a tendency which is no doubt part of his own brain trying to be efficient.  I realize it's just his DNA talking, but my DNA felt that a few remarks were in order.

First, organisms, including human beings, are not "hardwired."  Metaphors like this aren't necessarily harmful -- metaphors are unavoidable when talking about the world -- but using a machine-based metaphor to describe organisms usually leads to confusion.  The usual defense, used by Richard Dawkins among others, is to claim that "machine" refers not to the simple metal and plastic machines Man has so far created, but to idealized machines that don't yet exist.  If people would bear these nonexistent but superior machines in mind when they encounter the "machine" metaphor, there would be no confusion.  Alas, in the real world, people seem to prefer to fall back on the machines they know when they parse this metaphor.  A hardwired machine cannot strive toward any goal, cannot transcend its programming, cannot exert any agency at all.  Human beings can, because we aren't machines in the sense that a Cuisinart or a Mercedes is.  (True, we often suspect that machines have minds of their own when they fail at inconvenient times.  The tendency to anthroporphize the inanimate is also a common, possibly innate human trait.)

Second, to move to the article, it doesn't actually use the word "hardwired," which is good.  And the research it discusses may be suggestive.  Suppose for the moment that it actually points to innate human tendencies, which seems likely to me too.  It would be just as true, in that case, to title the article "If You're Black [or Asian, or Jewish, or Native American], Science Says You're Probably a Racist," because those tendencies are more or less universal to human beings.  Not quite universal, though: according to the article, "In a 2007 study of over 2.5 million IAT [Implicit Association Test] responses, University of Virginia psychology professor Brian Nosek and colleagues reported that 68% of participants demonstrated negative implicit attitudes toward black people, dark skin, and black children. A 2010 follow-up study headed by Nosek revealed that despite the US election of its first black president, little had changed."  Why the election of the first black US president would have changed supposedly innate brain responses is not clear, but it's worth stressing that 32 percent of the participants did not demonstrate these negative responses, so not everybody's brain is racist, at least not to the same degree.  The article doesn't attempt to explain this, nor how the researchers know that the implicit associations are innate -- after all, the respondents had presumably been alive long enough to soak up social cues on skin color in a historically racist society.  I supposely they simply assumed that whatever the majority does is inborn.

There are good PR reasons why the article has the title it does, and I doubt my acquaintance would have recommended it if it had ascribed racism to people of color.  There's at least anecdotal evidence that prejudice against darker skin is widespread in populations of color, whether they are minorities (as in the US) or majorities (as in Asia, for example).  As a diversity manager, my acquaintance also works within the paradigm that defines racism not as a matter of individual bias or prejudice but a structural feature of institutions and societies.  From what I've seen, there's a strong tension in university residential counseling departments between biological determinism and cultural determinism.  Biological determinism is applied to sexual orientation, for example, while cultural determinism governs discussions of culture, prejudice and stratification.  Gender is a topic where the two tendencies would clash, but so far they're just juxtaposed and harmonized; I don't think that will last.

Third, the article shows a rather crude understanding of "race."  Race is not just a matter of skin color, or even of any visible traits at all.  Perhaps the writer simply wanted to simpify a complex issue, but it still comes out as though race were a real-world, pre-cultural quality of human beings, instead of a messy social construct full of contradictions.  So, for example, "Studies have found that the human brain shows heightened responses in sensory and emotional areas when we observe others in pain (a likely marker of empathy), but not so much when the person in pain is a different race. We literally do not feel the pain of others."  This even though the writer goes on to cite a case which proves that race is ascribed: "Last year, sociology researchers Aliya Saperstein, Andrew Penner, and Jessica Kizer published a longitudinal analysis showing that that once someone is arrested, even once, that person is more likely to be classified as black rather than white or Asian."

"Blackness," then, is not necessarily an innate trait of a person to which the observer reacts, but a classification applied by the observer for reasons that have nothing to do with skin color.  And while it does appear that "race" and "racism" as means of defining people as fully human or not are relatively recent developments, historically people have classified others as Other for all sorts of reasons, from the language they speak to the gods they worship to the land they live on.  And that leaves out body configuration, or "sex," now called "gender."  This may mean that Othering is an innate trait, but by focusing on race the article oversimplifies the issues involved, by implying that "race" is the paradigm case of difference that inspires bias.

Finally, the article uses another problematic metaphor, that of a radical dualism in the human self:  "Our brains love to form and use stereotypes," even though "we want not to be racist."  Our brains do the wanting, after all, and it's arguable that "we" do want to be racist, thanks to the stereotyping mechanisms that Science has found according to the article, and depending on what you think "we" refers to.  Wanting not to be racist is also the product of tendencies in the brain, such as wanting not to be shamed in our communities.  Apparently the "bad," disapproved parts of ourselves are Othered by blaming them on our brains and our genes, while the "good," approved parts float free, struggling against the baser impulses of our biology.  It was my diversity-manager acquaintance whom I told, when he was a student at IU, that I'd love not to believe in Free Will, but unfortunately my genes programmed my brain to believe in it, and so I can't help myself.  It can be useful for some purposes, and certainly it's easy, to divide oneself into "I" and "me," Brother Spirit and Brother Ass.  But it's possible, and necessary, to put the pieces back together and see them as a whole, however complex and conflicted; otherwise we just chase our own tails endlessly.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Just Our DNA Talking; or, Why Do They Hate Our Science?

Human nature has been Mary Midgley's primary philosophical topic since her first book, Beast and Man, was published in 1978.  She always does a good job of criticizing scientific pretension and confusion, but as I know very well, criticism is much easier than constructing a better alternative.  As I reread Heart and Mind, her second book, I began having reservations about a lot that she said about human nature.

It's fun to take apart the absurdities peddled by biological imperialists, of course.  Midgley gives us these gems from Edward O. Wilson, who "with endearing abandon ... shows his flag:"
The time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized (Sociobiology p. 562).  Having cannibalized psychology, the new neurobiology will yield an enduring set of first principles for sociology (p. 573).  We must shift from automatic control based on our biological properties to precise steering based on biological knowledge (On Human Nature p. 6).  Neurobiology cannot be learnt at the feet of a guru ... Ethical philosophy must not be left in the hands of the merely wise (p. 7) [Heart and Mind, 19].
Ethical philosophy must not be left in the hands of the merely stupid either.  Oh well, that's just his DNA talking.  I recall how many defenders of sociobiology's newer avatar, evolutionary psychology, lament that social scientists, leftists, and feminists simply dismissed Wilson's scientific truth out of hand, attacking him personally because they Hate Science.  If Wilson wanted his ideas to be taken seriously, he should have come up with something other than these simple-minded Village Atheist cliches.

It appears that Wilson shared Richard Dawkins's fantasy that human beings, especially scientists, are somehow able to "transcend" our genes.  As the molecular biologist Gunther S. Stent wrote of Dawkins at about the same time Midgley published Heart and Mind,
The notion of transcendence of our evolutionary genetic heritage has, in fact, been a characteristic, essentially apologist, stance taken by many ethologists that have made claims for the moral relevance of animal studies. Such ethologists usually first show why evolution has endowed us with a selfish, aggressive, and on the whole, rather nasty set of genes. They then reject the seemingly justified accusation that they are providing a naturalistic justification for an immoral society. To make this rejection, they claim that, on the contrary, they are paving the way for the City of God by pinpointing those beastly aspects of our human genetic heritage that we must struggle to “transcend.”  But the idea of any organism, including man, transcending its genes is a biological absurdity. Within the context of biology as a branch of natural science, and upon proper consideration of any conceivably scientifically valid relation between the genome and phenome, transcendence of genes is no more possible than natural selection of the unfit.*
But Midgley also quotes Wilson walking back from the precipice of genetic transcendence (page 22):
If the brain is a machine of 10 billion nerve cells and the mind can somehow be explained as the summed activity of a finite number of chemical and electrical reactions, boundaries limit the human prospect -- we are biological and our souls cannot fly free (On Human Nature, p. 1).  [Italics Midgley's.]
The other thing to notice is that Wilson demands that biologists be allowed to steer society when they have not (not then and not since) come up with any findings that would justify their doing so. This is like someone with no flight training experience -- or indeed, someone who has already crashed several planes -- demanding to pilot an airliner.  As Richard Lewontin wrote in his introduction to Genetic Explanations: Sense and Nonsense,** "Despite its recurring failure, the ideology of genetic reductionism persists."

If the mind could be explained -- the "somehow" acknowledges that it hasn't been, yet, and (more important) that Wilson has no idea how it might be done in the first place -- as the summed activity of a finite number of chemical and electrical reactions then, maybe, neurobiologists might have something to contribute to ethical discourse.  (Probably not, though, since it would then follow that neurobiology is the summed activity of a finite number of chemical and electrical reactions, and control by neurobiologists would be merely automatic control based on our biological properties.) That will have to be seen if they ever actually produce their explanation.  But Wilson merely postulates that it can be done, and as Bertrand Russell said, postulating has all the advantages of theft over honest toil.

Midgley generously allows that Wilson coudn't possibly believe that, "as his language constantly suggests, genes or DNA were conscious agents, sitting in some inner Kremlin and masterminding events."  She concludes that he must mean that "the essential or real self is the biological self, that what biology tells us about ourselves matters supremely, and is the only sort of psychology that does matter" (23-4).  But she stresses that "Wilson has no idea at all of the scale on which conceptual analysis is needed, or the enormous part it plays in life" (20), and concludes that "Not to mince words, Wilson's impression that no special methods of thought are used or needed in this area is a monstrous piece of ignorance, as bad as the ignorance of science which he rightly deplores in humanists" (21).

I completely agree that human beings are "biological" and our brains are "biological," but we are biological in a way that current biology has not yet begun to grasp fully.  It would be different if Wilson had a fully-worked out biology for human beings that could explain everything that the social sciences and humanities try to work with now; but he doesn't, and no one does, so he's laying claim to a territory he doesn't even know how to map, and trying to deny other explorers access to it.  This is a scientific dog-in-the-manger attitude, which needn't be respected.

It would be as churlish to declare dogmatically that biologists never will be able to explain human society purely in terms of brain function, as it would be to say that Christ will never return on clouds of glory, seated at the right hand of power.  But it's not churlish, and in fact it's obligatory, to stress that contrary to their hints and suggestions and sometimes explicit claims, they haven't yet explained it.

To be continued.

* From his introduction to Gunther Stent (editor), Morality as a Biological Phenomenon (Berkeley: University of California Press, rev. ed. 1980), p. 12.
** Edited by Sheldon Krimsky and Gregory Gruber (Harvard, 2013).

Monday, September 21, 2015

When Absolutists Collide

The fuss over Ben Carson's remarks against the prospect of a Muslim President, following on the reaction to a frothing Birther bigot at a Donald Trump rally, made me think that people might benefit by knowing -- or remembering -- some history. When John F. Kennedy was running for President in 1960, he had to contend with bigots who claimed that as a Catholic, he would be loyal to the Vatican first, and to America second -- and probably a distant second at that. The only previous Catholic presidential candidate, Alfred Smith, who ran in 1928, "was dogged by claims that he would build a tunnel connecting the White House and the Vatican and would amend the Constitution to make Catholicism the nation’s established religion."  According to this writer:
On Nov. 22, 1963, my home state of Mississippi was, like every other state in the South, solidly Democratic. And yet, according to my American History teacher, who was standing before a class in Columbus that day, when the intercom blared that President John F. Kennedy, a Democrat, had been assassinated in Dallas, her students responded with applause.

Imagine: Americans cheering the death of their own leader. Students whose parents almost certainly identified themselves as Democrats whooping it up that the leader of that party had been killed. My teacher, Judy Morris, was telling that story to another Mississippi classroom nearly 30 years later to illustrate the virulent anti-Catholic hatred that pervaded the South. She said her own grandmother, who given Ms. Morris' age must have been born in the late 1800s, had eventually reached a point where she could be cordial to black people. But the Catholics? No, sir. She could never stand the Catholics. And didn't mind saying it.
This knowledge might be enlightening to Democrats who insist that no President before Obama ever had his patriotism, his religion, or his nationality questioned -- in fact, numerous Presidents have been denounced on those grounds; Franklin Roosevelt, for one.  And impugning the patriotism of one's political opponent is as American as cherry pie.

Some historical knowledge might be also be useful to Americans who are upset by the prospect of Muslim refugees being allowed into the US. Their claims that such refugees will not assimilate are exactly what was said in the United States about Catholics in the 19th century, and about Jews before and after that.  That great advocate of liberty, Thomas Jefferson,
... looking at the Catholic Church in France, wrote, "History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government", and "In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own."
I doubt that the Founders would have welcomed -- or even that they foresaw the possibility of -- a Muslim President, or a Catholic one, let alone a black or female one.  Most probably didn't think about the logical outcome of some of the principles they wrote into the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  Historically, it's true, the Roman Catholic hierarchy has generally been hostile to modernity, and has been politically active to suppress reforms, but it was ironic for the slaveowner Jefferson to single out Catholicism as the foe of liberty.

Since the 1980s, of course, the most reactionary American Protestants have made common cause with the most reactionary Catholics; no one can say Catholics haven't assimilated.  But there's a problem here, namely the widespread belief that (one's own) religious beliefs must not be criticized, and indeed don't say anything about one: that they are trivial details like skin color, beyond one's control, unchosen and virtually innate.  Other people's beliefs are fair game, of course.  So, for example, as he denounces the fundamental Constitutional principle of religious liberty, Ben Carson stresses the importance of protecting the religious liberty of Christians.

As Daniel Larison wrote about Carson today,
It’s a mistake to view Muslims as a monolithic bloc, and it’s simply wrong–and contrary to the principles of our political system–to insist on subjecting Muslims to a harsher and more demanding standard than that applied to the adherents of any other religion. On top of that, it is self-defeating to insist on the great importance of protecting religious liberty for Christians while declaring in the next breath that members of a religious minority cannot be considered fully American. That is essentially what the Carson campaign has been saying to defend the candidate’s remarks, and that’s a deplorable thing to say.
Christians aren't a monolithic bloc either, though they often like to pretend otherwise.  A Roman Catholic priest, writing at the National Review site last year, complained about remarks by New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who "blithely declared that anyone who is pro-life on the issue of abortion or who is opposed to gay marriage is 'not welcome' in his state of New York."  Father Robert Barron saw this as anti-Catholic rhetoric.  But first, while antigay bigory has long been fostered by Roman Catholic leaders in New York, it isn't exclusive or specific to them: Cuomo was also rhetorically showing the door to all bigots, regardless of their sectarian affiliation.  If Barron felt singled out as a Catholic, maybe he should examine his own prejudices.  Second, Catholics are not monolithic either: many Catholics are pro-choice and pro-gay, indeed many are gay themselves.  As usual in such controversies, Barron hoped his readers would believe that the doctrines and practices of the uppermost levels of the Catholic hierarchy equal Catholicism, and forget that most Catholics neither agree with nor follow them.  Barron himself wants critics to believe that all Catholics have the same beliefs and values, and that they have no choice but to follow them; which is false.  Catholicism, like any other religion, is a lifestyle choice.  Third, it's entertaining to see this protest against religious prejudice published at the website of a mangazine which fosters and defends anti-Muslim bigotry.  But that's different, isn't it?  It's always different.

A commenter on Larison's post argued, probably with some accuracy, that Carson "was suggesting a belief widely held among evangelicals that they won’t vote for Muslim candidates, won’t vote for atheists or agnostics, won’t vote for LGBT people, won’t vote for Hindus or Buddhists."  That, of course, is every voter's right, though I think that Carson -- like his fans -- is vague on the distinction, given their inability or refusal to understand what "freedom of religion" means.  They make it pretty clear that they don't believe freedom of religion extends to non-Christians: not only would they not vote for a Muslim, they don't believe a Muslim should be permitted to hold office.  Many Americans believe that it's wrong (for other people) to decline to vote for a candidate because of his or her expressed beliefs, be they religious or political.  (I'm not sure what the valid reasons to vote for someone are.)

People who make the link themselves -- e.g., I'm opposed to same-sex civil marriage because I'm a Christian -- would like you to believe that disagreeing with them constitutes prejudice and persecution.  What is prejudice is assuming that all Christians, or Muslims, or Jews believe the same things.  I've been trying to find something Walter Kaufmann once wrote, that it isn't the advocate of equality who believes that everybody is the same, it's the bigot who believes that all Jews, Muslims, women, gays, blacks are the same.  And this needn't be because of the bigot's religion: he or she chooses to highlight accept and practice those teachings which support his or her bigotry, and to try to drive out co-religionists who don't.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Having Her Canuck-ance

I finished reading Ruth Moore's Speak to the Wind today, and enjoyed it thoroughly.  The title is a bit misleading, it seems to me; it sounds sentimental and melodramatic, in the tradition of Gone with the Wind and Written on the Wind, not to mention "Dust in the Wind."  I can't see how it connects to the book I read.

When I wrote the previous post I didn't know where the narrative was going; soon afterwards I learned that the Chin Island community was going to be divided by a self-destructive feud that hastens the decline of the already fading old ways.  But Moore doesn't indulge in nostalgia.  Her character Eliseo MacGimsey, when told that if he and his partner sell out their struggling business, it will be the end of the town, replies:
"No.  It wouldn't.  Things'd be different, change hands, be owned by different people.  All these places here could be sold like a shot, if old Wynn bought the wharf and breakwater, made them into a yacht club and swimmingpool, whatever, the way he wants to.  At least, he'd repair the old buildings, save them from rotting down, which is more in the living God's world than you and I can do. It wouldn't end the town at all.  It'd just mean different people owning it" [270].
A number of passages struck me funny, even made me laugh aloud; too many to quote here.  Moore wasn't sentimental about her Maine islanders, and Elbridge Gilman, whose viewpoint dominates the book, is, along with his wife Jess, critical and even cynical about the stubborn truculence and pride of their neighbors -- while recognizing that they share those traits, Elbridge more than Jess.

I was particularly moved by the long section at the end where Miss Greenwood, a "summer person" who'd settled on the island year-round with her elderly mother, reflects on her efforts at self-sufficiency.
From the first, she had found to her astonishment that the simplest of practical tasks, as, for example, putting up a stovepipe, involved complicated technical procedures which took the men who did it a long time, and seemed to be secrets as closely guarded as the secrets of a guild.

She had, at first, asked for simple information,. and had found that any such information received would be either unusuable to embellished with detail indubitably incorrect.  Such as Mr. Luther MacGimsey's arguments against putting her cottage out on the point, or Mr. Willard Lowden's on cow-dressing.  Mr. Lowden had told her that cow-dressing, hauled in small quantities in a wheelbarrow, lost all its virtue in transportation.

"To get the good," he said, "you have got to haul it by the wagon-load.  You expose it to sun and air, and all the virtue passes right out of it.  Don't ask me why.  Cow-dressing's chancy stuff, my grandfather always told me." 

... Over in the village, she saw again and again, people wheeling manure in barrows, when it seemed to be the thing to do for a small garden ... While it was wonderful to have help, still, she and Mama had to be most economical ...

There were other things -- the stovepipe which Mr. Bill Lessaro replaced in her kitchen cost a good deal and took a full day to put up.  Mr. Lessaro said an elbow was hard to find, and once you found one, most difficult to fit.

Yet, later on, she had been calling on Mrs. Gilman, and Mr. Gilman had been putting up her sitting room stove for the winter.  He had a new pipe, with an elbow that looked exactly like the one in her own kitchen, and when she had congratulated him on being able to find one, he had said absently, "Oh, an elbow's an elbow, Miss Greenwood.  Buy 'em by the dozen, anywhere."  At the same time, he put up the stovepipe in about ten minutes.

So she had gone home and had climbed on a chair, had dismantled her kitchen stovepipe and put it back up again.  She decided she would not need help for this particular job again -- Mr. Lessaro's bill had been twenty dollars, the cost of the pipe, plus, he said, five dollars for his labor.  It seemed too much to be paying, paricularly since she knew now she she could have done the work herself.  She had, of course, asked Mr. Lessaro if he thought she could.

"Oh, mercy, good grief, dear lady, no!" he had said.  "It will take me all day, likely, and I know the ins and outs of it.  Not to speak of it's an awful dirty job.  Don't make no difference if I get smut all over me."

They were so gallant, such nice manners [296-8].
This was published in 1956, remember, before the feminist Second Wave encouraged women to learn to do for themselves, learning carpentry, plumbing, auto repair and other unladylike skills.   Women had acquired those skills before, of course, and during World War II had made inroads into industry that are celebrated now.  After that war, they were driven out so that their jobs could be given to returning male veterans, but that rationale wasn't enough: the expulsion had to be justified with propaganda about women's incapacity and the necessity of separate spheres.  Ruth Moore was writing against the tide here.

Beyond that, I remembered something that had made me uneasy when I read David F. Noble's Forces of Production, as much as I love that book.  Labor resistance to automation was justified, but Noble tended to ignore how organized labor had worked to exclude women, along with men from various ethnic / racial groups.  (Though I also remembered the experimental filmmaker Maya Deren, who reportedly complained that in making a film about his wife giving birth, Stan Brakhage had "permitted men to see what they're not supposed to see."  Many men agreed with her; I've often heard about men who fled screenings of "Window Water Baby Moving" or other films that showed childbirth.)  Often it's difficult to distinguish between defense of one's interests and aggressive blocking of others' interests.

Friday, September 18, 2015

A Good Fight'll Help Us Get Through the Winter

I've begun reading another novel by Ruth Moore, whose The Walk Down Main Street I liked so much.  Speak to the Winds, originally published in 1956, takes its time getting started.  I'm only a hundred pages in (out of 300 or so), and I'm not sure yet where the story is headed, but I'm still glad to be back in Moore's world.

The book is set on rocky Chin Island off the coast of Maine, which was colonized in the early 1800s by a couple of stonecutters.  Their business flourished against all expectations, given the lack of a harbor and other features that would have made their job easier; but if such features had been present, someone else probably would have beaten them to the place.  By the end of the century hundreds of people lived and worked there:
Schooners hauling granite down the coast had crews who might be Yankee, or Greek or Negro or Portuguese.  Some stayed, brought families, or married on the island.  The children had strange combinations of names: Eliseo MacGimsey, Nikolaides Pumlow -- not strange at all when it was shorted, as it soon was, to Nick [12].
Eventually the decline of the stone industry and the deaths of the founders whose vision had made Chin Island work led to an exodus of most of the population.  By the time the novel properly opens, the island's economy is sustained mainly by "summer people."  The main character is Elbridge Gilman, the grandson of one of the founders, who keeps reflecting critically not only on his neighbors' foibles, but on his own.

Speak to the Wind is also a philosophical novel, with reflections on common sense and human nature.  Some of the summer people have decided to live on Chin Island all year round, notably Miss Roxinda Greenwood and her elderly mother.  Even after eighteen years, the Greenwoods are still "foreigners."
Elbridge grinned a little to himself, thinking of this anomaly.  Except for [his wife] Jess, Miss Greenwood was the best cook he ever saw in his life -- maybe, with some things, she was even a little better than Jess.  She could put a brown on a pair of chickens or a turkey that a man would fairly leave home for.  At her Christmas and Easter parties, the ladies had a chance to sample this cooking and they liked it, judging by the way they stuffed it down.  But let the subject come up at any time, and the thought was automatic -- someone would be sure to express it, too -- the summer people were helpless, they didn't know how to wash or clean or any of those things that really capable people knew how to do.  Like anything said over and over often enough, people would believe it, no matter how much proof to the contrary stared them in the face.  Like still thinking of Miss Roxinda as summer people, an ousider.  You did, and she was, and would be, if she stayed forever [60-1].
Moore also touches on religion:
In those days of mighty trees, no one thought it remarkable that these planks [for the church pews] should be an inch-and-a-half thick, fourteen feet long and twenty-five and thirty-five inches wide, all clear pine.  They were, merely, what was practical.  They did not have to be joined to make the seat wide enough or the back high; they wouldn't sag under the weight of a tall man, his substantial wife, and eight or nine children.  They were probably the most uncomfortable seats ever devised anywhere, the planks at stiff right angles to each other.

"But people went to church not to be comfortable but to hear the good rewarded and the sinners fry," said [Grandfather Robert] MacKechnie.

The walls were whitewashed between the tall, narrow windows, which were clear glass below the meeting rails and arched at the top, with small, colored, leaded panes.  The pulpit was a tall box, like a coffin, of black walnut; and behind it, two Sundays in the month, oftener if he could get over from the mainland and spare the time, the Reverent Archie Snow gave forth a remarkably blazing brand of hell-fire and brimstone.  It was said of him that when he really himself go, his breath would light the kerosene lamps across the church under the gallery [14].
This led me to reflect on the widespread fantasy that hellfire religion was in some way imposed by unscrupulous priests in order to control We the People. That may be true sometimes, but it seems to me, looking at the history of religion, that many people want theirs to be harsh, unforgiving, and punitive.  (Many people who reject religion are also harsh, unforgiving, and punitive, but that's another issue.)  The least flexible believers especially enjoy forcing their mores on their fellows, and the priests are their creatures, the product rather than the source of the harhsness.  Reactionary religion doesn't come from nowhere: people invent it, embrace it, and impose it on their children when they can.  The fanatical streak of Christianity that swept the Roman Empire, for example, was not imposed by the imperium; the Christians who promulgated it had no political power and no cultural prestige, and they continued to enact holy violence even after Christianity had been recognized as the official religion of the Empire.  Their version of Christianity survived and spread because it appealed to significant numbers of people.  Dismissing them as dupes, while surely comforting to many liberals and non-believers, doesn't explain anything.

Moore also explores deep questions of identity, as when Elbridge Gilman's partner Eliseo MacGimsey frets over the necessity of killing his pig Uncle Sylvester.  "They went through this every year.  Liseo liked a pig, personally.  After he'd raised one, he had trouble bringing himself to kill it" (65).  Elbridge, who's already done with his butchering for the year, offers to do the job for his friend.  Then he goes farther:
"How'd it be if you and I was to swap pigs, anyway?  Elbridge asked.  "Let Uncle Sylvester hang till Jess can't tell the difference in the meat, then I'll harness up the team and we'll shift pigs.  Our folks'll eat Uncle Sylvester, seeing we haven't got any sentiment about him, and you folks eat mine.  No difference in pigs to me, Liseo" [67]
Liseo agrees, though he's nervous about being found out and being made fun of if the switch is found out.

So, like, who are we really? What's the difference between one pig and another, one man and another?  Are we alike or are we different?  Mary Midgley, who likes to draw on literary examples for her philosophical writing, should read some Ruth Moore; she's deep.  And fun.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Holden Caulfield Goes to Yale

One way I try to get around my procrastination is to read books that cross my path unexpectedly.  The piles of books around the apartment don't get any shorter, but at least I'm reading some fairly substantial things and I explore some byways I might otherwise have missed.

The other day I happened on a paperback copy of A Paragon by John Knowles, published by Bantam Books in 1972.  Knowles is a reasonably renowned American writer I always feel I should read more.  He's like Harper Lee in being known for just one book, A Separate Peace, originally published in 1959, which like To Kill a Mockingbird (published just a year later) quickly became assigned reading in schools and colleges everywhere.  It was also made into a movie, but without the success of the film of Mockingbird.  Unlike Lee, Knowles continued writing and publishing until his death in 2001, but while his succeeding books were respectfully reviewed none of them really stuck, either with teachers or the reading public.  None of the others seem to be in print today.

I read A Separate Peace as an adult, which may have been a mistake.  It made no impression on me.  It's the story, based on Knowles's experience as a prep school student, of a friendship between two boys, one of those conflicted boarding-school bromances that may or may not have an erotic element.  One reason I read it, in fact, was that I'd been hearing about its homoeroticism, as well as its general greatness.  Gore Vidal, who attended Phillips Exeter Academy at the same time as Knowles and later became friends with him (although or because one of the characters was based on him), admired the book.  The only reason I'd consider rereading it would be to see how it looks to me now, given what I now think about homoeroticism and the confusion (and frequently, obfuscation) surrounding it.

But I also feel obscurely guilty for not having read more by Knowles, given his reputation.  So when I saw The Paragon in the Free Books section at the public library bookshop, I thought, Why not? and picked it up.

It turned out to be mildly interesting, unevenly written, quite heterosexual, and often confusing.  Since it was originally published in 1971, I expected it to take place at least in the 1960s, and it was possible most of the time to read it as if it were set in that era.  But from time to time there were references to events like the Korean War, and later to Senator Joseph McCarthy, that indicated it was set in the Fifties, and finally, toward the end, Knowles had his protagonist tear "yesterday's page off the calendar, revealing today's page, Tuesday, November 21, 1953" (page 178).  Okay, that settled that!  I suppose the cover painting threw me too -- the young man's haircut is very Sixties.  I should know better.

Maybe I've gotten ahead of myself.  The protagonist, Louis Colfax, returns to Yale after an abortive eight-month stint in the Marine Corps.  He comes from a formerly well-to-do New England family that has fallen on hard times, producing more than its share of eccentrics and dysfunctional types.  He's very good-looking, Knowles tells us repeatedly, but has many inner conflicts.  Before he joined the Marines he had a long affair with Charlotte Mills, a young English co-ed who aspires to be an actress, which, we learn, didn't work out.  The novel is about his struggle to come to terms with his family, Yale, his various neuroses, and the breakup of his relationship with Charlotte.  What makes it interesting along the way is the variety of people he knows and meets, from an Afro-Brazilian graduate student who's his best friend, to the obnoxiously snobbish old-money roommate he's assigned, to the roommate's Greek ex-stepmother.  All are somewhat stereotyped but Knowles manages to give them some life, and some of the set-pieces along the way are entertaining.

As I get older I find I'm less interested in tales of troubled youth.  I loved The Catcher in the Rye in junior high, for example, but I got older I came more to agree with Sutherland in Andrew Holleran's Dancer from The Dance, who "turned frosty at the slightest sign of complaint, self-pity or sentimentality ... '[I]f Helen Keller could get through life, we surely can.'"  Luckily, Knowles narrates The Paragon in the third person, for when Louis must explain himself at any length he falls into Holden Caulfield's manner, with plenty of "If you want to know the truth" and "If you really want to know" tacked on to his sentences.  If Knowles had used the first person, Louis would have been too obviously a Holden knockoff.

I give Knowles credit, though: he gives Louis / Holden a remarkably generous but still credible happy ending.  And though Louis tries for awhile to cast Charlotte that way, Knowles makes it clear that she's not the Bitch Goddess who tried to emasculate him (a common trope in masculist literature of this period) but a sensible young woman who genuinely loved him; it was Louis who failed her.  My copy of The Paragon is going to return to the Free Books section, now that I've read it, but if you happen to find a copy yourself, it might be worth your time.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Business of America is Marriage

Jacob Bacharach, also known here as The Blogger Formerly Known As IOZ, posted a good piece last week on the fuss about Kim Davis and same-sex marriage in Kentucky.
Now, your regional sob story and hopelessly convoluted sexual ethics don’t entitle you to discriminate from your elected office, but I have the inescapable feeling that by holding her in contempt and tossing her in the clink, Judge Bunning did precisely the wrong thing. He was correct to observe that a pecuniary penalty would have had no impact; political allies of her lawyers would have made fines immaterial to her. And yes, courts do need a mechanism for enforcing compliance with their orders. But it strikes me that if Bunning could just wave his federal wand and allow others to issue the permits, then I see no reason why he couldn’t do the same without the cell. Despite her protestations to the contrary—that these certificates are somehow invalid without her signature—no one believes that the boys down at the Social Security Office are going to take her word over the order of a federal judge. I’ve seen some commentary on the convoluted authority to issue these permits in Kentucky, but state permitting statutes don’t trump the constitution, and their misapplication doesn’t invalidate gays’ right to marry.
The first thing I thought of when I heard that Davis had been jailed was an anecdote about the Roman Emperor Julian, called The Apostate because he renounced Christianity and tried to re-paganize the Empire.  He tried to take away the privileges that Christians had been given under Constantine and his successors, but without overt persecution of the cult.  He didn't have much success, but supposedly some bishop angrily said to him, "You will not even let us be martyrs!"  I can't find this episode online, but I still think it's a good principle: don't cater to the Christian paranoid delight in persecution or even the fantasy thereof.  I've been really bothered by many liberals' glee when Davis was jailed.  Yes, she deserved it, you might even say she asked for it -- but that's all the more reason not to give it to her.  (Martyr me, said the Christian; No, said the State.)

What prompted my post today, though, was a comment under JB's post:
It’s a more salient issue to me that the state is uses a religious institution as a social engineering tool. It’s a direct line from the feudal lord having to give his consent. I’m not even a libertarian and I think a country with an Establishment Clause in its constitution should not be involved in sanctioning marriages. There are other ways to collect fees from people…
I misread this slightly, as a call for the government to get out of the marriage business -- probably because the commenter referred to libertarians, who've made that call.  But, to begin, I don't agree that marriage is essentially a religious institution (and I don't see the connection to "the feudal lord," if only because marriage is a lot older and widespread than the feudal system).  Marriage hasn't always been a religious institution even in Christendom, and there's no reason I can see to regard religious marriage rites as anything but a wishful adhesive intended to help keep couples together.  What, for example, is specifically religious about Jacob's purchase of Rachel from his uncle?  If the Bible contains regulation of business practices, which it does, is commerce essentially a religious institution?  Government allied itself with religion very early on, for obvious political reasons; is government therefore a religious institution?

Reading this comment reminded me of an op-ed written by Rand Paul for Time magazine soon after the Supreme Court ruled on Obergefell v. Hodges in June.  I remember writing at some length about Paul's piece, but it must have been in comments somewhere that I can't find now.  I meant to post about it here, and thought I had, but evidently I didn't.  So here goes.

Paul begins by complaining about the Court's "redefinition of marriage," which is of course nonsense, and goes on to suggest, "Perhaps the time has come to examine whether or not governmental recognition of marriage is a good idea, for either party."
Since government has been involved in marriage, they have done what they always do — taxed it, regulated it, and now redefined it. It is hard to argue that government’s involvement in marriage has made it better, a fact also not surprising to those who believe government does little right.

So now, states such as Alabama are beginning to understand this as they begin to get out of the marriage licensing business altogether. Will others follow?
His remark about Alabama was premature: the legislature briefly considered a bill that would have stopped government issuance of marriage licenses there, but the bill died in committee.  His general argument is dishonest, as shown by his remark that "our founding fathers went to the local courthouse to be married, not to Washington, D.C."  If Paul was correct about this, he undercut his claim: The courthouse is a government office, which indicates that the Founders saw marriage as the domain of government as well as of religion.

From the context it appears that by "government" Paul really meant only "the Federal government."  He seems to have no objection to state governments regulating marriage by passing laws and constitutional amendments which refused to recognize same-sex marriage.  Certainly all the conservatives who supported those laws and amendments can hardly claim that they "believe government does little right," or that government shouldn't overrule religious definitions of marriage, since those amendments generally forbade any religious recognition of same-sex unions.  The basic legal issue in Obergefell was whether the states -- i.e., government -- should be empowered to regulate and define marriage as they pleased.

While a few Libertarians had argued for privatizing marriage before, the idea only got any traction when conservatives, who are traditionally sore losers, decided that their best next move was try to get rid of legal marriage altogether.  As Amanda Marcotte pointed out at Slate, Paul's plan
is reminiscent of how segregationists reacted to Brown v. Board of Education. Rather than allow their children to go to school with black students, white people throughout the South started private, often religious schools, nicknamed “segregation academies.” It wasn’t just schools, either. As my colleague Jamelle Bouie explained recently, the decline of the public pool is also a symptom of this reactionary urge to privatize an institution rather than share it with people who conservatives consider undesirable. That the same logic is being whipped out by Paul is no big surprise. This is a man who famously opposed the Civil Rights Act that made the “privatize instead of share” goal harder to achieve.
I would only add that Christian racists' resort to "private" segregation academies didn't go as far as renouncing government subsidies or tax exemption for them.  Oh, no indeed.

I doubt marriage privatization will get very far, partly because its advocates are still largely comfortable with state or local interference in marriage, but mainly because the religious opponents of same-sex civil marriage want heterosexual marriages to be recognized by government at all levels for purposes of the "entitlements" that Justice Thomas sneered at in his dissent.  They want their spouses to share their Social Security benefits, they want spousal and widows' benefits for the military, and so on.  In order for that to happen, the government will have to have criteria for deciding who is married and who isn't.  Paul says he wants marriage, insofar as it's a legal bond at all, to be a purely private contract, which would presumably mean that any two -- or more -- people who've contracted marriage would be eligible for such benefits.  That will not appease, let alone satisfy the religious opponents of same-sex couples: they don't want such couples to be eligible for those benefits or any other.

Another disadvantage to privatizing marriage is that it would undermine Justice Roberts' warning in his dissent that the ruling would open the door to legal polygamy.  Privatizing civil marriage, reducing it to a contract between consenting adults, would in Roberts's words offer "no reason at all why the two-person element of the core definition of marriage may be preserved while the man-woman element may not."  Roberts tiptoed around the fact that plural marriage is a biblical value, and offered no reason why government -- which according to Rand Paul "does little right" -- should prohibit polygamy if a religion permits it.  Another issue Obergefell was meant to settle was whether a couple can be married in one state and not in another.  In principle there's no reason why heterosexual marriages, including Paul's and a fortiori Justice Thomas's interracial one, should be valid in every jurisdiction, and DOMA (another instance of the Federal government meddling in marriage) as well as the state-level bans on same-sex marriage were meant to create a crazy quilt of definitions.  Since Paul and other privatizers are comfortable with state governments defining marriage for their jurisdictions, they should remember that there are states and municipalities where plural marriage might be acceptable, and Paul's contractual proposal doesn't seem to offer any obstacles to more than two people contracting a marriage-like relationship.

Calls for government to get out of the marriage business are really just a transparent move in the direction of theocracy.  Paul didn't bother to hide his religious agenda: "The Constitution was written by wise men who were raised up by God for that very purpose. There is a reason ours was the first where rights came from our creator and therefore could not be taken away by government. Government was instituted to protect them."  But only to protect the rights of heterosexuals, and especially Christian heterosexuals, to run American society.