Friday, February 26, 2010

In which Rachel Simmons fucks up but good.

For a piece that actually has a lot going for it, this still manages to fail pretty epically.

Simmons's primary point is that college "hookup culture" puts a lot of young women in tough spots, because men are given the power to decide whether a hookup is going to lead to a relationship, and women often have to have the sex and then hold their breath for the date. And there's some truth to that.

But throughout the piece, she just takes for granted the fact that what young women want is relationships (with men), and what young men want is sex (with women). By relying on essentialized conceptions of male and female roles in straight sexuality, she not only does damage directly, but also prevents her primary point from being as deep as it could be.

Part of what's really troubling about hookup culture is that it's juxtaposed with the broader trend of slut-shaming throughout patriarchal culture. The background of this is that expectations are constructed that normal, nice young women should want nothing but long-term, monogamous relationships, and should confine their sexuality to that context (Simmons's piece, incidentally, is a great example of how those expectations get constructed). These norms are reinforced by the economic reality that women make less money than men -- and that when relationships do break down, they're saddled with the kids.

It's this context that makes straight hookup culture so fraught, because it denies women the option of securing a commitment before sex -- and the withholding of sex was one of the few bargaining chips women had in securing that commitment (remember that hideous old slogan, "Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?").

But these aren't problems with sexual liberation -- just like the troubles of army moms aren't the result of women being allowed into the army. The stories Simmons tells aren't stories about liberation -- they're stories about coercion. This is a tale of how patriarchal culture (or, perhaps, a patriarchal subculture) accepts the trappings of feminism by picking up the word "empowered," then conflates "empowered sex" with "lots of sex," and pressures women to have lots of sex. It's a story about how you can't have straight sexual empowerment -- how you can't have straight sex on equal footing -- unless you also equally distribute the consequences of that sex.

Women are put into the awkward place where they're supposed to want to have sex only with men in stable relationships (and this conditioned desire is reinforced by economic coercion), but they have to have sex with men outside of stable relationships to get that -- and this is used to justify shaming their "irresponsible" decisions, and saddling them with a disproportionate share of the consequences of those decisions -- which feeds back into the whole "economic coercion" thing.

Add to this the "men ask, women swoon" dynamic, which I haven't even started to get into here.

So yeah, hookup culture is fucked up. But it's not fucked up for its promiscuity -- there's nothing wrong with promiscuity in principle. It's fucked up in its coerced promiscuity, and its unequal distribution of the consequences of promiscuity.

That said, my favorite part of the Simmons piece was a little parenthetical near the end: "(and I, like Bogle, am not discussing the lives of GLTBQ students here)."

Oh, okay. Because not talking about GLBTQ students isn't, you know, a problem or anything. It's not like anyone's, say, invented a word to describe what's wrong with that. No, it's probably fine to use "hookup culture" to mean "straight hookup culture," and assume that everyone knows what you mean.

UPDATE: Other writing on this Simmons piece here, from Amanda Marcotte, and here, from Kate Harding (and more linked from the original post). And a follow-up from me, after reading Marcotte, here.

In which there are so many kinds of wrong I almost don't know where to start.

I could write an entire post about these two paragraphs:

So Glenn Beck, speaking recently at the Conservative Political Action Conference, identified a great enemy of human freedom as . . . Teddy Roosevelt. Beck highlighted this damning Roosevelt quote: "We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used."

Ah, you don't discern the scandal in this statement? Look closer. "This is not our Founders' idea of America," explained Beck. "And this is the cancer that's eating at America. It is big government -- it's a socialist utopia." Evidently, real conservatives defend wealth that is dishonorably gained and then wasted.

But since everyone should know that, as always, I side with Beck, I won't. (But I will express my regret that Teddy would have a point, if such a fortune had ever existed.)

This bit, later in the piece, also deserves some comment:
Lincoln doesn't need defenders against accusations of tyranny -- the mere charge
is enough to diagnose some sad ideological disorder. But the Rough Rider also
does not deserve such roughing up.

No. Just no. No matter how you feel about whether the Civil War was necessary and appropriate, Lincoln's use of power was not what you'd call temperate. He suspended habeas corpus, which it was well-established only Congress could do; ignored the courts' rulings that he couldn't, citing that great abuser of presidential power, Andy Jackson; may have secretly ordered the arrest of the Chief Justice of the United States; and closed papers and arrested editors that criticized him.

But I think this is the most important part:
This I have against the Rough Rider: In the 1912 election, he betrayed his friend William H. Taft and his party by running as a third-party candidate. In his hubris, TR believed that neither party met his own exacting standards of purity. The attitude is familiar today.

What pisses me off here is the assumption that the default is picking one from the list. The expectation that you're going to vote for a major-party candidate has to be pretty strong in order for it to be considered a "betrayal" to refuse to do so.

It seems to me that granting someone presidential power is a gesture of extraordinary trust. Belief that someone is worthy of that degree of control over the lives of hundreds of millions of people (in 1912, roughly a hundred million) shouldn't be assumed. The default should be that we vote for no one -- unless someone makes a really compelling case that they deserve that kind of power. No major-party candidate has made such a case to me so far.

Think about the election of 2000. Liberals tend to think that Nader lost Gore the election, and that people who voted for Nader are responsible for Gore's loss. But this assumes Gore had a right to those votes in the first place -- that the default was them going to Gore, and Nader "took" what should have been Gore's.

Here's another way of thinking about this: presumably, some people who would have preferred Nader voted for Gore. Everyone seems to argue that the ones who voted Nader should feel stupid now. But both groups voted for a losing candidate -- at least the ones who voted for Nader voted for a losing candidate they believed in. Which of those losing votes should be considered stupid, irresponsible or morally suspect?

The only way a vote for Nader looks bad -- other than on the grounds that Nader would have been a bad President -- is if you assume a vote for Nader is taking away a vote that should have been Gore's. It seems just as reasonable -- probably more so -- to say that many of Gore's votes should have been Nader's.

This is also an argument for refusal to vote: the presidency carries the sort of powers I think no one should have (e.g., commanding armies). In order to convince me to vote for a presidential candidate, you have to convince me not only that ze's the best person for the job, but also that someone should have that job.

In which someone else forgets men have children too.

Mary Eberstadt, in a piece at the Washington Post about how sending moms off to war isn't good for the kids, does manage to mention fathers at the end:

These studies mainly concern fathers, not mothers. But do we really think the children with deployed mothers aren't even worse off?

Sending fathers into military zones has been a tragedy for as long as war has been around. Sending mothers along with them -- many of them the only parent a child has -- is simply wrong.

Notice how there's an assumption that we're going to send dads off to war no matter what, and the only question is whether we're going to send mothers "along with them," or give them a chance to stay home and take care of the kids. Once we accept the assumption that it's either going to be moms taking care of kids, or it's going to be no one, we've lost. I also like that we merely accept that mothers are "the only parent a child has" without even suggesting that men might take some responsibility for that.

And Mary, your attempt to save some feminist cred by talking up the courage of women and moms in battle is pathetic. When you're arguing for women to stay home and take care of the kids while the men go off and do men's work, it really doesn't matter if you mention that it's not because they can't do men's work.

None of this, of course, should be taken as saying that the feminist solution is sending moms off to war -- or that the right to go to war is something we should be arguing for. It's devastating when either parent gets killed in battle -- or when either parent comes home a killer. But when we're talking about not sending people off to war, we shouldn't need to rely on sexist arguments about how we're keeping mothers from staying in their place.

Stay tuned for more on the WaPo opinion page later today -- I'm still trying to wrap my head around this.

Thursday, February 25, 2010


I didn't think I could be more ashamed of the Chicago Board of Education.

It's traditional for the Board of Education meetings to start with the Good News Report, where they recognize a few CPS students who have done extraordinary things, and give those students a chance to say a few words. It should've been a nice moment before they got into the hairy business of closing/turning around 16 schools.

This month they recognized Shantell Steve and Kellina Mojica of Julian High School, who won second and third place in the Democracy in Action Awards, which are citizenship awards given to high school students. They also recognized Damani Bolden, a senior at Lindblom and the honorary student member of the Board, who's just been given the Rising Star Award by the DuSable Museum of African American History.

This is what Board VP Clare Munana said to Bolden:
I would like you, as a representative of the three students that we're honoring today -- would you mind saying a few words to represent all of you and the honors that you received?
This might seem a little confusing. Why, one might ask, would a student at Lindblom -- a West Englewood selective-admissions school -- be asked to speak for two students at Julian -- a an underperforming Washington Heights neighborhood school?

The Sun-Times appears to slurp up the official story that Munana didn't know they were supposed to speak -- which might seem a little bit shady given that she's not new to this job.

What the Sun-Times doesn't mention in its coverage of this is that Bolden's gone on record in favor of Renaissance 2010 -- as for Steve and Mojica, according to WBEZ's Linda Lutton, "The board has a pretty good idea of what they're going to say, and they're gonna talk about school closings, because they have before, and I was sitting at the meeting thinking, 'Oh my gosh, we're gonna get off to a fiery start.'"

Yeah. They recognized the winners of a fucking democracy award by muzzling them.

And people wonder why kids hate school.

If I can find a way to do so, I'm going to ask these two young women if I can publish the remarks they would've delivered.

I hope you'll all read them. It's not the audience they deserved.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

In which we need to talk more about working fathers.

The Center for American Progress recently released a report on work-family conflict. It's a troubling read, detailing how American workplaces really haven't done anything to adapt to the changing workforce -- believe it or not, households with two working parents need different kinds of accommodations than households where Mom stays at home all day.

It also talks a little about the classism that pervades media coverage of work-family conflict: media stories about wealthy women who stay home and take care of the kids admire their dedication to family, while media stories about poor women who stay home and take care of the kids talk about how they should get their lazy asses off the couch and get jobs. It does an admirable job of portraying the different kinds of struggles faced by parents in different income brackets, and is fairly sensitive to the reasoning behind poor mothers' decision to stay home (their wages often aren't high enough even to pay for the cost of childcare while they work). I thoroughly recommend reading the whole thing.

One of the things that bugged me about it, though, was that somehow they manage to get through the piece without talking about sexism. There are 31 uses of the word "mothers" and two of the word "fathers" -- it's clear they recognize that women are being saddled with most of this -- but there's no talk about why that might be. And because of that, the policies they propose are entirely about making American workplaces more "family-friendly" -- they're about enabling families to manage the interaction between work and home how they want to. And while I recognize that that's important -- and that working mothers do need the kind of flexibility they're talking about -- we also do need to be thinking about redistributing child-rearing obligations in fairer ways.

We can't keep up this practice of talking about women in the workplace without talking about women at home. That's what got us in this mess: we've generously allowed women to do "men's work," but we havent in the process excused them from any "women's work." So, as women start doing men's work, wages go down to the point where women have to do men's work, but they still have to do women's work too. So now we start realizing that's a problem, and so we have to figure out ways to allow them to do men's work, but still allow them the flexibility to get home and do the women's work when they need to. See how ridiculous this is?

I think, in some ways, it all comes down to the conception of feminism as a "women's issue." Because we think feminism is about women, we think the solutions to the problems pointed out by feminism involve changing the position and options of women in society -- but women are only half the story. We also need to be focused on placing new demands on men -- to cook, clean our houses, take care of our children.

It might be harder to sell this kind of feminism: it all sounds much nicer when you can ignore the fact that someone still needs to do the laundry. But I think it's something we have to be talking about.

And by "we," I mostly mean men need to be talking about this. Let's not make the ladies tell us we have to do our chores -- let's act like fucking grownups and do it. And let's try to do it without whining.

UPDATE: It happened again, this time with army moms.

Monday, February 22, 2010

In which sex-positive feminists have some splainin' to do.

So I've been reading Amber Hollibaugh's My Dangerous Desires. It's brilliant, as an account of the real need women have to feel that their own sexual needs are respected and accepted by the feminist movement. But it's also gotten me thinking about the inadequacy of our ways of talking about the interplay of power and sex.

It seems like the terrain gets divided up too quickly between, on the one hand, "anti-porn" feminists, who think porn is inherently objectifying, BDSM is inherently sexist and women's participation in it is evidence of false consciousness, and sex workers deserve some combination of pity and contempt, and on the other, "sex-positive" feminists, who think porn is hot if it's done right, we should stop worrying about the interplay of power and sex as long as it's consensual, and sex work can be a reasonable and healthy response to economic and sexual repression of women.

All of this, I think, reflects a tendency to see things as either harmless (and therefore private, and something feminists should defend women's right to) or harmful, public, and something we should resist at every turn. But all of these issues demand considerably more nuance than this can afford, and it's a pity we're not giving it to them.

Feminist porn is a huge step. Women in porn need to have some control over what they do and the safe-sex practices they use in the process. Furthermore, images that force us to examine our stereotypes of women's sexuality as essentially passive are important -- especially when they involve sex that focuses on women getting pleasure. And showing women of different body types doesn't hurt, either.

But fundamentally, all porn does allow us to be involved in others' sexuality without having to think of them as human. Viewers aren't challenged in the notion that women are fundamentally for sex, even if in order to get that sex you have to worry about consent and pleasure -- that notion, if anything, is encouraged. And that's something we should be concerned about.

But porn has advantages, too. In particular, it enables people whose sexual agency is denied in mainstream culture to explore different sexual options, to learn about their own sexuality at home and in private. This sort of exploration is really important for developing sexual identities. I think it's probably worth it.

But the point is, it's important to realize that this "pro-porn" stance comes as a result of weighing positive and negative aspects of sex, and finding that what's good about porn is more important than what's wrong with it -- not as a result of a belief that there's nothing wrong with it.

The same goes for BDSM. It can't be as simple as the claim that, as long as it's consensual, there's nothing wrong with BDSM. Should men who like dominating and abusing women -- and who participate in creating and sharing narratives about dominating women -- really feel that this desire is unproblematic? I don't think so.

But I think part of the reason why BDSM gets so much shit is because we, as a society, have long thought of fantasies as real, as more real than actions or beliefs -- at least in terms of what they reveal about our personalities. If a man believes that women are humans deserving of respect, and acts on that belief, but then has sexual fantasies about beating them up, forcing his dick down their throats, and coming on their faces, we take this as a sign that he really hates women, but has learned how to talk feminist-speak and do the feminist-dance to trick us.

This is, of course, bullshit. It's based on the age-old idea that our spontaneous urges come from a pure place that's truly us, and our ideas are simply superstructures that we build over that. But we should have gotten rid of that long ago. Freud was pretty sure that many of those spontaneous urges are developed in early childhood, and it seems pretty clear that he was at least partly right. There's a multi-billion dollar industry devoted to the idea that those spontaneous urges can be profitably influenced by flickering images on a screen. (When was the last time you found an argument in an ad convincing?)

The point is, just because you fantasize about something doesn't mean you secretly believe it's right. We should treat people's actions and beliefs as sufficient to define them, even if they differ from their fantasies.

I think there's a valid analogy to be drawn here to other types of role-playing. Tabletop and computer role-playing games tend to be intensely violent, and there's a real sense in which they contribute to the normalization and valorization of violence. They're also male-dominated, both in terms of their content and in terms of their creators and players. When we play these games, we contribute to a collective fantasy life which centers on violent men and hypersexualized, usually helpless women. That's bad.

But it's also clearly not bad enough to make someone not count as a pacifist or a feminist if they play Baldur's Gate (or even Dante's Inferno).

The same goes for our more explicitly sexual fantasies. We should be uncomfortable about creating narratives about men dominating and exploiting women, and about allowing our fantasy lives to center on these narratives. And in the case of BDSM, there's a real argument to be made that it has a positive role to play, too -- one that, I'd say, outweighs the negative one.

Greta Christina writes about the relief BDSM can provide for women who have been raised to feel that submission is natural, but have been taught to believe that it is unethical. I've also heard at least one man talk about how being a sub in a 24/7 relationship gave him a sort of cover to undermine his own masculinity, and challenge other men's conceptions of what men do.

Also, as I've mentioned before, BDSM gives us a space in which to acknowledge and explore the role that power already has in our sexual lives. Without this space, our only choices would be to normalize acts that express male dominance or to abandon them. The presence of BDSM spaces allows men to acknowledge their desire to express dominance, while acknowledging that this desire can only be ethically expressed in a context that emphasizes consent and allows for other options.

Most importantly, though, if your feminism makes women feel that they have to choose between having the kind of sex they like and being feminists, you're doing feminism wrong. Even if female subs (or, depending on who you ask, all women who like BDSM) are victims of false consciousness, seeking out sexual pleasure is a fundamental human right, and feminism can't be about restricting that.

Lastly, sex work -- and, particularly, prostitution and stripping. And, in particular, let me talk about the non-trafficked, pimp-free side of sex work -- where the only incentives acting on sex workers are financial. Not because I think this is more prevalent, but because I think it's in cases like this that feminists tend to disagree.

To me, it's still impossible to separate the genderedness of sex work from gender inequalities in income. When people face hunger, homelessness, or other hardship if they refuse sex, they are being coerced. And very often, sex workers do face these things. And most of us would agree that coercive sex is bad news.

But, that said, when people face hunger, homelessness, or other hardship if they don't clean your house, or work in your factory, or sell your products, that's coercive and exploitative too. And who am I to tell sex workers that they've chosen the wrong kind of exploitation? We don't treat the other kinds of workers with nearly the same kind of pity -- and sex workers have chosen sex work even though they (at least sometimes) had those other options.

This just gets us to hating johns rather than prostitutes -- and that's a step in the right direction. But I don't think even demonizing johns is appropriate. Let's imagine an oversimplified version of this situation: someone will actually, literally starve to death without your money. It would, clearly, be unethical to tell them you will only give them money if they have sex with you -- which is essentially what johns are doing. But it would be at least as unethical to just not give them any money, and not have sex with them -- which is what most other men are doing.

Even "nonviolent" prostitution and stripping is coercive -- but it's not really fair to put all the blame for that coercion on the people directly involved. The coercion takes place before the john walks into the room, when we tell people they need to find some money in order to survive, and we systematically deprive women of their fair share of the money. And the solution isn't to not pay people to have sex with you -- it's to give poor people money.

So the point is, I don't think we have to believe any of these things are unproblematic in order to believe they're OK. But I think the distinction between "there's nothing wrong with X" and "X is an acceptable thing to do" get's blurred very frequently (linguistically and in a deeper sense), and so we feel more comfortable denying that there's anything wrong with porn, BDSM, or sex work, rather than acknowledging the wrongs and saying it's all right (and sometimes even good) to do them anyway.

It might be a bit of a stretch, but I see this as connected to the "unlockeing" project I embarked on earlier. In both cases, there's a tendency to turn the argument into one about whether our actions have potentially troubling consequences for others, when what we should be talking about is what those consequences are, and what good is being created, and whether it's worth it. I think we're reluctant to have these types of conversations, because they involve talking about values, which makes lefty types uncomfortable -- but I think they're exactly the conversations we need to have.

Friday, February 19, 2010

In which something good might happen in Chicago Public Schools

I'm at Wendell Phillips Academy High School today, one of the worst high schools in Illinois, and one of the schools CPS is proposing to turn around in 2010. This has, of course, been gone about exactly the wrong way: the Phillips community wasn't consulted until the proposal had already been made, there's virtually no opportunity for community input into the process, and it's well established that turnarounds circumvent not only teachers' unions but also Local School Councils.

As a teacher, one of the things that's struck me is that teachers in schools like Phillips are hamstrung by attendance and behavior issues. For one thing, many of the methods that have the best best-case scenarios also involve the worst worst-case scenarios (because they involve increasing student freedom and placing more responsibility on students for their own learning and the learning of others). So if you don't trust your class, you're going to rely on more rigid structures, you're going to make less resources available to your kids, and you're therefore going to provide less opportunities for them to learn. Also, if you only have a third of the class attending regularly, lessons that use multiple days just aren't feasible -- the people who are there the second day won't overlap much with the people who are there the first day. And the best teaching methods require you to emphasize continuity from day to day.

So if you're going to address the failures of teachers, you've got to address the reasons why kids ditch and disrupt classes. But if you talk to kids about why they ditch and disrupt classes (I spent a good amount of time doing this today), the answer, of course, is that they do so because they're not learning anything anyway.

In game theory, this is called an Assurance game: each player has an incentive to cooperate if and only if the other player is cooperating. And the key to Assurance games is in the name: it really matters what you believe the other person is going to do. If you can convince each other and yourselves that cooperation will work, then it will.

This is the big potential advantage of the turnaround process. In normal years, everyone knows Phillips is going to be the same from one year to the next. In a turnaround year, people could come to believe that this year is different -- it sure as hell will feel different, what with none of the faces being familiar. If people do believe this year is different, it will actually be different.

The thing is, no one fucking believes it's going to be different. Talking to students, maybe a quarter of them (the ones that show up, at least) think this is going to spell significant change for the school. They've been given no reason to believe their concerns will be addressed, because no one has even asked them what their concerns are.

In the school business, the community isn't an obstacle to your success, or even just a customer. They're most of the people involved. If they don't feel their perspectives are being taken into account, and that they have the opportunity to change the things they feel need changing, it's not going to work. CPS, increasingly, has been forgetting that.

Which is why it's really exciting that the Hazel Johnson School of Environmental Justice might actually happen.

The backstory here is that Carver High School, which served Riverdale, was closed in 2005 and Carver Military Academy -- a selective, citywide military high school -- was opened in its place. Kids from Carver who either didn't want to wear the uniform or didn't have the grades got sent to Fenger, which is in Roseland (actually, I think at the time everyone was sent to Fenger, and Carver Military accepted only frosh).

The problem is, there are and have been tensions between youth in Riverdale and Roseland -- specifically, between the Altgeld Gardens projects and the Ville -- which erupted into the killing of Derrion Albert a few months ago. This also might have had something to do with the fact that all the Fenger teachers who knew the community had been canned in the turning-around of that school last year.

All of which provides pretty strong support for the idea that people from Riverdale need their own high school. So the community organizations in the area (notably People for Community Recovery) proposed the Hazel Johnson School of Environmental Justice, a new neighborhood school which will take over part of the old Carver building (the military academy is way underutilizing it).

I was sure this wasn't going to happen. It's got the support of the local community (and that community is almost all black), it's a good idea, it's a move toward neighborhood schools with Local School Councils -- all of these are things that tend to doom an idea in the current CPS climate. But when I called People for Community Recovery, they told me that even though it's dropped out of the news, it's still moving forward: they've got some meetings in high places, and they're going before the Board soon.

By the way, it's worth mentioning that if names say anything about what a school is going to be about, this is exactly the right name. Hazel Johnson, one of the founders of the environmental justice movement, is from Altgeld Gardens. At the time, the big problem was air pollution: she discovered in 1982 that 90 percent of the residents suffered from pollution-related ailments, and managed to stop the expansion of toxic waste dumping in the area.

The list goes on (from Chicago Politics, Ward by Ward):
Environmental concerns also seem to affect this ward more than any other. The sprawling Altgeld Gardens CHA project made headlines in 1986 when high levels of asbestos were found in some of the buildings, and residents made vociferous demands that the toxic substance be removed. Those in the southwest portion of the ward faced health tests after five cases of lead poisoning were attributed to a nearby recently closed paint plant. Residents of Maryland Manor, eight homes near 134th Street and the Calumet Expressway, for years drank well water before discovering cyanide, benzene, and toluene in it. Manor residents obtained hookups to Lake Michigan water in 1986.
It's still not over:
Altgeld Gardens is a heavily polluted area, a study by the University of Wisconsin has warned. Dozens of toxic facilities and 90 percent of the city’s landfills are located nearby. There is evidence of exceptionally high rates of miscarriage, stillbirths, and birth defects among residents, along with higher incidence of asthma and skin rashes. Residents say that during Chicago’s hot and humid summers, the smell emanating from the dumps is unbearable.
In a school that is coming about due to community activism among poor black people in housing projects as a way to protect their children from violence, named after an organizer in that community, people might start to believe this is the year. Shit, I might even start believing it.

I'll post more information about this as I find it, but for now, it looks like the places to bear witness are the City Council hearing Monday on the proposed moratorium on school closings, and the School Board meeting Wednesday. I won't be at either, as they (not coincidentally) schedule these things when teachers have to work.

[UPDATE: I recently learned about an innovative strategy for tackling the problem of moving between equilibria in Assurance games like this, taken in Bogota in the late nineties and early oughts.]

In which gay people are dull and suburban.

This is the first time I've heard someone say this explicitly and treat it as a good thing:
This is all part of a slow shift that is transforming gay culture. During the twentieth century, our battle was to find a place of our own where we could be safely different, and recover some shreds of self-esteem. After millennia of being told our difference was a sickness, we needed a moment to celebrate that difference.

But after that was achieved, our goal changed. We started to realise – once we had the space – that we are actually very similar to our straight siblings. We have the same desire for stability and home-building as everyone else. Our tune changed from “I Am What I Am” to “I Am What You Are.” We wanted enough basic equality to have everything straight people have. It started with demands for marriage – and the logical next step is children. We want the chance to show we are as dull and suburban as everybody else.
Wow. I really don't know how to respond. I'm totally disarmed. This is almost exactly what I would have said to criticize this shift.

One of the things this brings out is that it's not fair to expect queer folks to do all the work of cultural change. That shit gets tiring. And in focusing on the importance of having a queer-not-just-gay movement, I've probably often been guilty of setting a double standard, where changing the way we think about gender and sexuality becomes gay people's job, because they've already been doing so much of it.

And it's fucked up for us to say -- or seem to say -- "You, gay people, can't have in on the institutions of compulsory monogamy, the demonization of single parenting and devaluation of single womanhood, and the suburban fortress mentality. That shit is for straight folks only." And I think sometimes we (I) do seem to say that, in that we're more openly contemptuous of queer people who try to claim those institutions, because they should know better.

Let's put it this way. I fully support the right of soldiers to be gay. But no one has a right to be a soldier. Soldiers kill people. But it's important to be just as diligent in attacking straight soldiers as gay soldiers -- far more diligent, actually, because they're far more numerous.

Straight people: Please stop killing people. Please also stop treating entry into a monogamous relationship as a necessary, defining moment in a person's (especially a woman's) life. Please stop making crucial rights contingent on participation in a long-term, two-person sexual relationship with the State as an implicit third partner. Please do not try to escape poor people and minorities by moving to the suburbs (or Lincoln Park, or Lakeview). You also should know better.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Capitalism and Resistance, Part III: In which we consider the issues facing the movement to resist capitalism.

If you haven't read parts 1 and 2 of this series, I recommend reading them first.

It seems to me that the two things that are needed to fight this trend are radical sharing and radical trust.

Sharing, because self-sufficiency just doesn't work, because each of us worrying only about hirself just ties up resources that should be used for the people who need them now. And because some of us have bad luck before we have a chance to prepare for that bad luck, and punishing those people for that just doesn't seem right.

When I say "radical" sharing, what I mean is that (1) we can't just share when it's in our interests to (i.e., with people with whom we have formalized agreements, whom we have reason to trust, etc.); (2) we have to share more than feels comfortable, and be willing to take on real hardship for others' sake; and (3) we aim to displace the very notion of personal responsibility, rather than simply alleviate some of its consequences. This means we must destigmatize asking for help, do it ourselves often and sincerely, and not place any obligation on those who receive aid. It also means that, when it is appropriate and possible, we should share in rebellion rather than in oppression: occupy a house that is being foreclosed rather than simply distributing the payments among other community members, hold vigils outside hospitals that refuse to treat sick poor people, use guerrilla gardening, dumpstering and shoplifting as additional ways of supporting hungry people, etc.

This also needs to involve radical trust: a willingness to legitimately place our futures in one another's hands. The organizations that we use to support one another have to be the very same organizations we rely on to help us when we get sick, when we retire, when we have kids, and when we're short on rent. It's a lot to ask of those of us with middle-class backgrounds and desires -- especially since, at first at least, this can seem like a really uncertain prospect. But it will become possible, and secure even, precisely to the degree we invest in it, and we won't be able to invest fully in it if we don't make that leap of faith.

So I'm proposing the Chicago Radical Sharing Network -- following these principles, with no agenda but that which arises from attempts to meet its participants' actual immediate needs.

What do folks think? If you're interested, send me an email (you can do it from my profile).

Capitalism and Resistance, Part II: In which people find ways to deal with insecurity about the future.

This is an installment in a series begun yesterday, in which I look at why we give the banking industry the power it has, and how we might start trying to take it back. If you haven't read the first installment yet, I recommend reading that first.

Looking back at the example in the last part of this series, in which I was the corn farmer and you were the barley farmer, let's suppose one year I had a bad corn harvest (never mind the fact that bad corn harvests never happen anymore because corn, in the proper sense of the term, doesn't exist in America). Supposing that we've eliminated money from our interactions, what do we do?

Well, there's a chance that you, sweetheart that you are, will simply give me some barley. But there's also a reasonable chance that you won't, and that I'll have to do without both corn and barley for the winter.

I think it's our desire to avoid this that makes us demand that our economy be arranged monetarily. If you want to store something for a rainy day, it makes sense that the value of that thing not depend at all on its freshness, and that that thing have a fairly steady value from year to year. So you need money.

So why banks?

Let's imagine, for a moment, that I have a savings account in a bank, in which I save for, say, retirement -- let's say (optimistically) it pays me one percent interest. Let's also imagine that you have a mortgage from that same bank -- and you're paying the bank six percent interest. And, for the sake of simplicity, that the size of my savings account is exactly the same as the size of your mortgage.

When we discovered this, you would no doubt say to me, "Jeepers, it's too bad we didn't realize this earlier, because I would've happily paid you four percent interest, and we would both have been better off." And I'd say, "Yeah, that would be great." But I wouldn't mean it.

Because the thing is, then you get into that messy business where you might lose your job, or your kid might get sick, or you might even just be a little irresponsible and pay me back late. And then what do I do? Break your kneecaps? I'm not that kinda guy. But I also don't want to just let you not pay me back -- I need that for when I retire.

This, then, is the purpose of banks. We feel morally uncomfortable with making people pay back the money we lend them -- fundamentally, because we think allowances have to be made in this sort of thing. But we're also scared of making allowances with the money that would go to our retirement, or our house, or our health care -- so we put other people in charge of that money, and then act morally outraged when they do the horrible things that need to be done in order to give us that security.

As another example, in a different industry: essentially, the purpose of health insurance is to distribute the costs of health care, so that if one out of every 100 people is sick at any given time, everyone just pays 1% of the cost of being sick all the time, rather than having to cope with the uncertainty of not knowing when you're gonna get sick. In a community without health insurance companies, this would take the form of us actually paying the health care bills of the sick people.

But the problem is, suppose some sick person wandered into our community. I know I wouldn't feel comfortable telling hir we weren't going to support hir sickness. But I wouldn't feel it was fair that we were expected to take care of that person, when ze hadn't taken care of any of us, and we had no reason to believe ze would.

So, in the real world, what we do is have a depersonalized industry tell that person they're going to die (literally). And the thing is, the responsibility is diffused: is it the hospital's fault? What about the health insurance company's? What does it even mean for such an institution to be at fault?

Every time we refuse someone support because it takes away resources we might need later, we are creating the need for such institutions. Every time we refuse someone support because they haven't earned it, haven't "played by the rules," we are legitimizing the mode of thinking that says sometimes people deserve to die for not seeking health insurance until they're 23. It is our insecurity, our unwillingness to trust one another, that creates demand for banking services.

I hope these problems are surmountable. I think they are. Tomorrow I'll talk about how.

Capitalism and Resistance, Part I: In which two farmers encounter an insurmountable problem.

I've found it interesting, in reading coverage of the recession, to notice that while people often use small-scale examples when talking about the banking crisis, they abandon these small-scale examples when it comes to explaining how the banking crisis affects the rest of the economy. I thought I'd give that a shot.

Let's say I'm a corn farmer, and you're a barley farmer. Every year, I grow more corn than I need, and you grow more barley than you need, but fortunately, I want some barley to get me through the winter, and you want some corn. Since neither of us has any money, what happens is this: I go to the bank and get a loan for $100. I meet up with you, buy some barley for $100, and you buy some corn from me for $100. I bring the bank back their $100, and everyone's happy.

But then one year (let's call that year "2009"), when I go to the bank, it's closed! They got suckered into buying some mortgage-backed securities from Goldman Sachs, they made some predatory loans that didn't pay off, their credit rating got downgraded so they had to put some collateral on all their loans, whatever -- point is, they're closed.

So when I show up to our meeting, I tell you about this, and I say, "So that means I don't have any money to buy your barley."

And we're like, "What are we gonna do?"

So you see why no one ever covers this aspect of the financial crisis this way. Because if you shrink the size of the economy, the solution is obvious. Just give me the damn barley, and I'll give you the corn, and we both get the same results we got before (in fact, we get better results, because what I left out in my description was the little bit of interest I'd be paying to the bank).

The thing is, though, in principle the inclusion of more people in our economic picture doesn't really affect the feasibility of this solution. Add another person, it's fine -- we'll just do the same exchange we would have done if we'd all had the loans, everyone gets the same amount of goods they would have gotten otherwise, and we just eliminate the money. Everything's fine.

Seriously -- imagine for a moment that you hadn't been culturally conditioned to believe in things like markets. Imagine that you're a music teacher, and your boss says to you, "You have to stop teaching those kids music, because some people are refusing to pay of completely unreasonable mortgages."

You'd check if hir pupils were dilated. Then you'd sit hir down, offer hir some toast and tea, and remind hir that you're a fucking music teacher, and that has nothing to do with mortgages. Nothing.

So how did we get to the point where we allow these people, the Lloyd Blankfeins of the world, to have so much control over our lives that they affect whether our kids learn music? They don't have our best interests at heart. I'm not even sure they have hearts. They definitely don't listen to music -- except maybe Wagner and Ted Nugent.

More importantly, how do we rearrange our lives so that these people don't have this sort of power?

Tomorrow I'll start answering these questions by looking at what I think is the key reason for the involvement of the banking sector in our economy: insecurity.

In which I propose a new way of thinking about Quaker business process, and consider how this relates to education.

For non-Quakers, Quaker Meeting for Business works about like this: Issues are brought before the Meeting, Friends talk about them, and try to reach unity. That unity is not expressed in a vote, and is considered incomplete when anyone feels they cannot assent to it. Quaker Meeting for Worship is conducted in silence, which is broken only when a person thinks the Holy Spirit is leading hir to speak.

Democracy might be thought of, broadly, as the attempt to design the decision-making structure of a society so that its decisions reflect the will of the society as a whole as accurately as possible. By its very nature, any attempt in this direction must be imperfect: because "the will of the society" is a pretty nebulous concept, and because the will of the society changes over time, the best we can hope for is to approximate the will of the society.

It's also worth noting that the goal of democracy should be to have decisions approximate the will of the people they actually govern. If our only goal was to approximate the will of the people making the decision, the easiest way to create a perfect democracy would be to have all decisions made by a single person, since people tend to be quite good at making decisions that approximate their own wills.

The key aspect of this that I want to draw attention to is that since people change over time, the society to be governed by a particular decision is not necessarily (in fact, is never) identical to the society that made the decision. Even if it contains the same members, those members change over time, and they may change their minds about what they want during the period governed by the decision.

Because of this, when we aim for democratic decisions to represent the will of the society, we should at least partly be aiming for them to represent the future will of the society, in addition to the present will of the society.

With this in mind, I'd like to look at methods of approximation, with a specific focus on ways of approximating the future behavior of things. In mathematics, in trying to approximate the behavior of a curve near a particular point, one of the standard tools is a Taylor polynomial.

The most rudimentary instance of this is the Taylor polynomial of degree zero, which attempts to approximate the future behavior of a curve using a horizontal line. In other words, we look at the current position of the curve, and assume that the curve will remain in that position in the future.

For example, the Taylor polynomial of degree zero for e^x near x=1 looks like this:Even though it's a perfect approximation of the current value of e^x, it's not especially good as an estimate of the value of e^x once you get even a short distance away, because it doesn't reflect the fact that e^x actually changes quite quickly.

Most traditional democratic -- i.e., voting-based -- models can be thought of as analogous to this. Since a vote can only represent an individual's view at a particular moment, the most we can hope for from any system that bases its decision-making on a vote is that it be a perfect approximation of the current will of the society (and usually it's not even that, since most of our methods of taking into account differences in strength of opinion, or of looking at multiple options, are ham-fisted at best).

The next step in the Taylor approximation process -- the Taylor polynomial of degree 1 -- attempts to create an function that not only matches the current position of the curve, but also its rate of change. It creates a tangent line to the curve. In the case of e^x near x=1, the Taylor polynomial of degree 1 looks like this (shown in blue):
It goes without saying that degree-1 Taylor polynomials tend to be much better than degree-0 approximations.

And this, I think, is part of the beauty of Quaker business process. Because the decision is shaped in exactly the same way as the actual will of the society -- through conversation, convincement, careful listening, and synthesis -- our decision-making process provides a better approximation of our future views. Because opinions don't change by voting, but by conversation and synthesis, decisions made through voting will tend to be far less effective at approximating future changes of opinion than decisions made through more organic processes.

Problems within Quaker and Quaker-like processes

Some Quaker readers might find my analysis so far disturbingly secular. Quakers don't tend to think of our business process in secular terms -- I've heard many Quakers adamantly reject the use of terms like "consensus" to describe Quaker process, because these secular terms don't accurately capture the religious aspect of our business process. I've heard Quakers refer to our business process as being about seeking "consensus not just with one another but with God," or that it's important that our decisions capture "the Light in each of us" rather than simply each of our opinions.

And, despite the lack of "God talk" in the above, I do think the religious aspect of Quaker business process has an important place in our understanding of its value. That place, I think, can be seen in looking at the times when Quaker and Quaker-like processes have failed to produce unity.

Radical groups adopting Quaker-like processes have had mixed results. Within the peace and anti-nuclear movement, there are great accounts of the difficulties presented by Quaker-like process. Francesca Polletta, in Freedom is an Endless Meeting, talks about how in a movement whose rhetoric centered around a politics of absolute conscience, Quaker process gave the opportunity for people, based on their individual consciences, to stand in the way of the collective will, unaffected by either the arguments of their opponents or the relative unpopularity of their beliefs.

Murray Bookchin offers a different account, in talking about the Clamshell Alliance, a nonviolent direct action movement opposing the construction of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant:
I can personally attest to the fact that within the Clamshell Alliance, consensus was fostered by often cynical Quakers and by members of a dubiously "anarchic" commune that was located in Montague, Massachusetts. This small, tightly knit faction, unified by its own hidden agendas, was able to manipulate many Clamshell members into subordinating their goodwill and idealistic commitments to those opportunistic agendas. The de facto leaders of the Clamshell overrode the rights and ideals of the innumerable individuals who entered it and undermined their morale and will.

In order for that clique to create full consensus on a decision, minority dissenters were often subtly urged or psychologically coerced to decline to vote on a troubling issue, inasmuch as their dissent would essentially amount to a one-person veto. This practice, called "standing aside" in American consensus processes, all too often involved intimidation of the dissenters, to the point that they completely withdrew from the decision-making process, rather than make an honorable and continuing expression of their dissent by voting, even as a minority, in accordance with their views. Having withdrawn, they ceased to be political beings -- so that a "decision" could be made. More than one "decision" in the Clamshell Alliance was made by pressuring dissenters into silence and, through a chain of such intimidations, "consensus" was ultimately achieved only after dissenting members nullified themselves as participants in the process.
Andrew Cornell also talks about how the focus on consensus within the Movement for a New Society led to a de-radicalization of the movement, as new members arrived who were more interested in the anarchist, countercultural lifestyle MNS offered than in the nonviolent direct action that had been its hallmark early on.

Problems with this decision-making model have occurred within Quaker meetings, as well. In Beyond Majority Rule, Michael Sheeran talks about how birthright Friends (people who were members of Meetings by virtue of having been born to Quaker parents) who did not attend Meeting showed up to Meeting for Business in order to block decisions regarding integration and
anti-racist action.

I think, though, that we can think of all of these negative experiences, not as flaws in the Quaker business process itself, but as stagnation of the general will that the process is supposed to reflect. Quaker process can only work as an approximation of future changes in our opinion if our opinions are actually subject to change -- if we are actually following through on the process of re-examining our opinions by conversation, convincement and synthesis. If not, then even when people can cajole a victory out of the process itself -- in ways like what Bookchin was describing -- this victory is itself doomed to failure, since it doesn't represent actual evolution of will.

It is in the process of persuasion and synthesis that I see the action of God in our meetings. Although secular, cynical methods can be used to manipulate the business process to achieve particular results, those results will be hollow without underlying efforts to hear the Light in one another, and to allow the sense of meeting to emerge from this practice. And it's here that I see the value of the Meeting for Worship -- by learning to listen to one another speak out of the silence, to suppress our initial responses, and to listen to one another's messages as we would the sermon of a priest, we prepare ourselves to be shaped into the sort of unity which can be reflected in our business process.

What This Means for Quaker Education

In thinking about education, it's important to think about who the education process is for. Most of us agree that education must be for the student -- but not for the student as ze is now, but for the student as ze shall be.

How can we best craft a decision-making process that can approximate who the child will be in several years? Looking at the principles we were talking about above, it's important to incorporate knowledge about the direction in which the child is moving, as well as the child's current self.

Teachers are valuable in this process because they see enough children grow to understand how our priorities change as we get older. Their theoretical background in child development may also be useful, although it must continually be questioned, because most of our theories of child development hinge on the fiction of a "normal" child, a concept which inevitably confuses our notions of the way most children do develop with our notions of how all children should develop. They are also the people whose focus is most completely on the development of the child, rather than on the current state of the child.

Parents are also really important, because they ideally have the most complete knowledge of the child's environment, and are best equipped to predict the future shape of that environment.

And, of course, we mustn't leave out the child. The child ideally has the most complete knowledge of who they are now (although the reflection that leads to this knowledge is an important skill in itself) -- and who the child is now is an immensely important component of who the child will become.

It's crucial that none of these components be left out of our decision-making process. When we assess children's current status and plan for their future, we must endeavor to base that decision on the best possible approximation of what the child will want to have happened, when they look back. And none of those parties is equipped to provide that picture independently.

This process of unity-seeking among teacher, parent and child is the most important component of education. Ignoring children can lead us to ignore the need for individuality, and to see children as clay to be shaped rather than as people to be nurtured. Ignoring parents can lead us to ignore the child's social and emotional development by neglecting the importance of developing relationships with others. Ignoring teachers can lead us to a self-absorbed cowardice, which cares only for present well-being and flees from challenge and conflict.

As Quakers, we believe God makes Hir will known through our corporate life, and that each of us has an irreplaceable contribution to make to that Whole. Let's not forget that, when we think about how we teach our children.

Postscript: I had in my mind while I was writing this post the following quote from G.K. Chesterton, which I first found in Dorothy Day's autobiography:
Tradition is democracy extended through time. Tradition means giving the vote to that most obscure of classes, our ancestors. Tradition is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who are walking about.
I couldn't find a way of using it, in particular because I'm talking about the exact opposite conception of "democracy extended through time" -- one which attempts to enfranchise those who do not yet exist, rather than those who no longer exist. I think this is the truer conception of democracy, as I defined it above, but I confess I find something beautiful in Chesterton's conception as well.

For the record, just in case: When I'm dead, don't worry about making sure I'm enfranchised. You fuckers do whatever the hell you want.

Friday, February 12, 2010

In which we all boycott the Olympics together.

Everyone I talked to in Chicago (well, almost everyone) during Daley's infamous, ill-fated Chicago 2016 bid recognized the Olympics were going to be bad for Chicago. Incurring huge amounts of public debt to displace poor people to make way for rich tourists who were going to be mostly confined to a small, tightly-controlled, corporate-dominated area just didn't sound like our vision of economic development.

But then the IOC chooses Rio instead, and we all breathe a sigh of relief, and go about our daily lives. It reminds me of that moment in Catch-22 when the Chaplain hears about a plane crash:
Twelve men killed -- how ghastly, how very, very awful! His feeling of terror grew. He prayed instinctively that Yossarian, Nately, Hungry Joe and his other friends would not be listed among the victims, then berated himself repentantly, for to pray for their safety was to pray for the death of other young men he did not even know.
The Olympics are a terrible phenomenon, no matter what city they're in. They're a giveaway of public funds to have a corporate event that uses amateur athletes to promote merchandise, that inevitably involves the displacement of poor people, the covering-up of visible poverty through police crackdowns on homeless people, and the degradation of the local environment.

Don't watch them. Even if you don't have a Nielsen box, and so your watching doesn't directly give financial support to them, you're still participating a culture that valorizes athletic spectacles even when they destroy communities.

For more on all of this, check out the Olympic Resistance Network, a direct action organization fighting the Winter Olympics.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

In which I talk about unlearning hegemonic masculinity.

Something amazing happened to me yesterday. I was reading an old Feministing post about feminist masculinity, and the ad on the page linked to this. I almost thought it was supposed to be ironic.

I was reading that post because I'd been having a conversation with Jonathan T, who's busy fighting the good fight against the conservative takeover of Shimer College, about feminist masculinity, and about how because most feminist writing is (rightly) directed at an audience of women, there aren't that many resources available for feminist men trying to rethink their masculinity. People talk about the importance of rethinking masculinity, but there are few resources for men who want to unlearn the harmful habits they've picked up.

The problem, I think, is that the patriarchy largely feeds on our subconscious beliefs about women. Our conscious beliefs can change, and we can try to base our actions around these conscious beliefs, but many of the habits of mind we've picked up will persist, and will continue to have effects on our choices of friends and lovers, our use of language, our ways of presenting ourselves, etc., and these effects serve to reinforce the patriarchy. So I think it's important for us to think about how to unlearn those habits of mind.

I'm not sure I think it's appropriate to talk about this project in terms of feminist masculinity. To me, that phrase carries the baggage of implying that we're going to excise the problematic parts of masculinity, and replace them with a new, virtuous masculinity -- which weirds me out because conceptions of masculine virtue (including, I suppose, use of the word "virtue," which is etymologically roughly equivalent to "manliness") are some of the very same problematic parts of masculinity that we're trying to be rid of.

Basically, what I'm saying is, once we've gotten rid of the fucked-up parts of masculinity, we don't need to refer to what's left as "masculinity." Because if we've really gotten rid of the fucked-up parts, the gender binary should cease to matter. So let's just talk about unlearning problematic habits of mind.

I've got a couple of techniques that have worked for me.
1. Shut the fuck up and listen.
As men, we are taught to be assertive/aggressive in social interactions. This is partly problematic in itself, because the counterpart is the expectation that women will be submissive. But it's also fucked up because we don't hear shit that we need to, because we're busy talking. I've found it really useful to actively stop myself from responding to things I'm told -- especially by women, people of color, or queer people, and especially when they're criticizing me or privileged groups I belong to -- until later, when I've taken the time to listen and to think about what they're saying.

This is especially important because it helps you unlearn the defensiveness that's built into us, as men, as a response to criticism. I remember having furious objections to people talking about rape culture, because as I was interpreting it, I was being accused of participating in rape -- which is a pretty heady accusation. Once I got past that defensiveness, though, of course there's a great deal of truth to arguments about rape culture.

Another piece of this that's important is that it gets your subconscious to realize what (hopefully) your conscious mind already knows: that just because someone isn't jumping on the ends of other people's sentences to get a word in, doesn't mean they don't have anything to say. It helps you get around your tendency to monopolize conversations, by helping you to the realization that other people -- even people who haven't been trained to be assertive -- have shit to say too.

Hopefully, this will also help change the way you think about women. By forcing ourselves to listen, to not try to change the subject to something we know about, to view our conversations with women as opportunities to learn, we can hopefully start viewing women in terms of what they think and say, instead of in terms of their bodies. The more experience we have with what women do think and say, by giving them chances to speak, the more opportunity we have to define them that way.
2. Practice absolute nonviolence.
It's really difficult, as a man, to get around the idea of yourself as a protector of "helpless" people (women and, if you have them, children) around you. This casts women as victims who can do nothing to secure their own well-being without you. As long as you're thinking of yourself as their protector and acting as their protector, you're denying them opportunities to prove you wrong.

That, on its face, is just an argument for a reluctance to use violence. But even casting your own violent action as the last resort if someone else is endangered is problematic, because it's still reinforcing the idea that women, in the end, need men for protection. Also, Geoffrey Canada, in Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun, talked about how the willingness to use force in an emergency leads us to create those emergencies for ourselves as ways of demonstrating our masculinity:
At first I continued to avoid the gang of teenagers. I crossed the street or turned down another block when I saw them. But slowly as I carried the gun with me day after day, my attitude began to change. I began to think, "Why should I have to walk an extra block? Why should I feel that I have to cross the street or look down when I pass those kids?" By the end of two weeks I had convinced myself that all the habits I had cultivated to avoid conflict with the gang were unnecessarily conciliatory.

My behavior when I went outside began to change. I stopped going out of my way, or crossing the street, or avoiding eye contact when I passed the gang. In fact, I began to do the opposite. I would choose to go to the grocery store on the side of the street where the gang was gathered. I would walk through them head up, eyes challenging, hand in my coat pocket, finger on the trigger. I was prepared to shoot to kill to defend myself. (source)
Your willingness to fight in an emergency will lead to your broadening of your understanding of emergencies in ways that deny women's ability to defend themselves.

The knowledge that we're not going to end a conflict in violence also changes the way we handle conflicts, and makes us less aggressive and less domineering in our disagreements. This leads to #3:
3. Actively lose face.
A lot of the damaging aspects of our masculinity are reinforced by our unwillingness to look unmanly in front of others. If we actively lose face by refusing to participate in hegemonic masculinity -- even though internally we might be scared shitless of being seen as pussies -- we can deny this mechanism a lot of its power. Over time, others will expect less violent masculinity from you, and so it'll become less scary to back off from that masculinity.

This sounds really hard, but if you start small -- sometimes in ways no one but you consciously notices -- you can make a lot of progress. Sit "like a girl." Wear a dress in public. Refuse to get worked up -- "Yes, I am going to let him do that, because I don't think it's worth fighting over." Start taking pride in emasculating yourself. Eventually, your unmanliness starts to seem like a natural part of your masculinity, and you start to realize that people have stopped bothering to think less of you for it (which you can think of as having nothing left to lose, but either way, it's working for me so far.
4. Stop watching sexist porn.
I've become convinced this is completely necessary. It's fucking terrible for you. It really does shape what you think is hot, in ways that are unacceptable. Not only in the obvious ways -- unreasonable expectations of women's bodies, dehumanizing sex acts, rape and exploitation themes -- but also in that it makes you think sex should be pandering to you rather than challenging you.

Go cold turkey with me. Please. It is as hard as it sounds. Do it anyway.

Unfortunately, for many of us, a great deal of damage has been done already. It's less clear what to do about this, but here are a couple of thoughts:
5. Explore kink.
There are whole worlds of people out there who think all kinds of shit is hot. Looking around the kink scene may or may not change your love for money shots or schoolgirls, but it can make you see it in a new light -- as a fetish, rather than as normative. It gives you a language in which to talk about your desires that doesn't imply that that's just what sex should be about. It also puts you in a framework that very strongly emphasizes the importance of consent, and of valuing your partner's agency even as you subvert it.

Also, there, you'll find a lot of people who have believed their desires for specific acts or styles of sex was wrong, and who haven't been able to completely rid themselves of those desires.

There's also the issue of what categories of women we find hot -- and since I can't do better than fromthetropics's description of it here, I'll just quote it:
What we have here is male desire for women. This is obvious. Specifically, white male desire for white women. This is also obvious. But it is not merely a desire, it is a desire to (sexually) conquer and subjugate (white) women (in order to appear masculine). Still obvious.

What is less obvious is that it invites all men to express their masculinity by conquering, so to speak, white women. Conquering WOC is easy. But to conquer white women? – now that’s the pinnacle of masculinity for all men in a white dominated society. The emphasis is on masculinity and men. It is not about women striving to be on top of the food chain, hence it is not about whether or not WOC feel as though their beauty is being (de)valued. It is about the male struggle to be at the top of the food chain, and whether or not their masculinity is being (de)valued.
There's no doubt that this constitutes a lot of what sexuality is about for many of us. And there's no doubt that the most important first step to remedy this has to be to stop seeing our sexuality in terms of conquest, and therefore viewing women as potential objects of sexual conquest (which has a lot to do with our desire to "protect" them, as well).

But having talked about some steps we can take to remedy our conquest-based sexualities, I still want to address our hierarchies of sexual desire. Extending our conquest-based desire to women of color, fat women, women with disabilities and other women who don't meet our expectations of femininity won't do anyone much good, but reforming other aspects of our thinking and feeling about sexuality without addressing the hierarchy that we create among women based on their bodies seems incomplete.

My one suggestion on the subject is based on fromthetropics's later comment that "it's easier for people (of all colors) to objectify someone who seems very different from them." Here, I'd change the word "different" to "unfamiliar." If you're looking at a body that's unlike any body you've seen before, it can be difficult to remember that there's an actual person, with real opinions and stuff, inside that body. In your curiosity, you can turn the person into a specimen rather than a human -- which renders them fine, if not particularly important, as targets for a conquering sexuality, but completely incomprehensible as partners in a truly human sexuality.
6. Explore different types of bodies.
It should go without saying -- but I'll say it anyway because all too often it doesn't -- that this exploration of bodies should always be done with the utmost respect for the owners of those bodies. After we just got done talking about the turning of real people into specimens, please don't go and do that.

But some people do, voluntarily, put their bodies on display. Take advantage of that. Find out what fat bodies, bodies of color, bodies with disabilities, are like, so that you can get over how weird they are already and see the beauty in them -- both in the bodies themselves and in the people they contain.

This was the scariest post I've written. I'm sure I fucked it up in places, left some things out that were important, said some things I didn't mean to say. I'm sorry. But I think it's important for us to have concrete steps we can take -- in our lives as well as in therapy sessions -- to unmake some of the horrors that masculinity has created in our brains. I think some of these things have worked for me, but I have a long way to go. Please, everyone, share thoughts about what I and other feminist men can do better.

UPDATE: With regard to sexist porn, check out Cindy Gallop being the shit.

In which I begin to unlocke my thinking about queer sexualities

Most of the standard arguments about the legitimacy of queer relationships center on the idea that they're harmless -- that queer relationships are between the two people involved, and everyone else should just butt out of their private business. I worry about this type of argument, and I think it's time that we reexamine it.

In the first place, I think the premise is false. Queer relationships do have an effect on heterosexuals. The presence of openly queer people (and I assume ) transforms our discourse on sexual relationships, and it seems like queer people in particular should be sensitive to the ways that discourses can have very real effects on people's lives. My relationship with a woman is undoubtedly shaped by the queer people in the society around us, and I think we should stop pretending otherwise.

More importantly, though, this style of argument is part of a discourse, stemming, I think, originally from Locke, that there are essentially two types of activities. On the one hand, there are private activities (which for capitalist apologists includes what you do with your property, and for liberals tends to include things like speech, religion and sexuality), which, because they don't affect anyone else, should not be regulated by the state. On the other hand, you have public activities (which for socialists include property relations, and for capitalist apologists mostly only includes the sorts of things that get classified as crimes -- violent acts and acts that affect someone else's property).

Historically, radicals' objections to this kind of framework have mostly been about switching things from one list to another -- sexuality, speech and (sometimes) religion to the "private" list, employment, gun ownership and (at other times) religion to the "public" list, etc. This can be seen as progress because it entails a recognition that employment relations are not always harmless and are often coercive, that no one actually followed the Lockean Proviso, and that diversity of opinions shouldn't be criminalized.

The problem, though, is that the original structure is left intact. This structure is troubling partly because it relies on the false notion that there are actions that have no effect on others. But it's also based on the ethical principle which says you can do whatever you want as long as you're not actively harming anyone else. This allows us to disavow our collective responsibility for others' suffering -- as long as we're not directly causing the harm, it's considered legitimate to allow the harm to continue.

I think it's important that we disavow this type of principle, and focus on actively creating good and alleviating suffering. In the face of the evils that can be created passively through thoughtless self-absorption, I think it's important that we feel a real sense of responsibility for one another. This entails abandoning the individualism which says that some of our actions are private -- all of our actions (and all of our inaction) should be thought of in terms of their potential ramifications on others, and we should be rid of the idea that any piece of us is truly individual, at least in the sense of separate or independent from others.

So, with that in mind, I think it's worthwhile to begin talking about things that have previously been seen as private -- and therefore morally neutral -- from a new perspective, to combat the pervasiveness of that asshole John Locke. I call it "unlockeing." For now, I'd like to address some of the ways I think the existence of queer sexualities creates a positive good, and enriches my life.
  • Queer relationships help to show us what sexual relationships that don't center on men's subjugation of women look like.
  • Queer relationships give women options that don't involve relationships with men, which may give women who do choose relationships with men increased bargaining power.
  • Queer sexualities deepen our understanding of sexual choice, and make us all feel freer to explore our own sexual interests.
  • Queer sex has been instrumental in developing our understandings about sexual pleasure -- especially for women.
  • Queer theory has been an important part of our understanding of the way our categories shape our thinking, and the way discourse shapes our lives.
  • Queer people have rethought gender in ways that allow all of us to more consciously shape our gender presentation.
  • Queer people, perhaps partly because of the lack of acceptance of their relationships, have helped us rethink monogamy and partnering.
  • Gay bars. 'Nuff said.
Beyond the arguments about the distinction between private and public action, as someone who's deeply grateful for the role that queer people and queerness have played in my personal development, it offends me to see queerness reduced to mere neutrality.

Monday, February 8, 2010

In which I announce my candidacy for Lieutenant Governor of Illinois

I appreciate Governor Quinn's willingness to open the position of Lieutenant Governor to applications from the public. The Democratic Party has, yet again, lived up to its name. I value the courage he's shown in tackling the elitism and insider politics that plague Illinois government, and I have faith that my application will be taken seriously, in the spirit in which it is intended.

Here's how Quinn described what he's looking for in a running mate:

I want to run with somebody who's qualified to be governor, who has a record of public service, someone who is able to speak to ordinary, everyday people in plain language about the importance of the economy and someone who also stands up for the progressive values of the Democratic party

I think I meet these criteria.

Additionally, I have experience in many of the policy areas our state government needs to tackle in the next term. As a teacher, I have seen firsthand the improvements our educational system needs, and I have big ideas about how to enable students to succeed. As a displaced teacher, I also have firsthand experience with the effects of shortfalls in educational funding.

The Democratic Party has a proud tradition of representing working people in America. As one of very few candidates who do not earn above the state's median income, I am a part of that tradition. I also have experience balancing a budget, even when things get tight – something I know our state government is having trouble with.

It's also worth mentioning, since it seems like it's something we've been having trouble with lately, that I have never been violent toward any of the women in my life. I have also never been involved in predatory lending.

Here are a few of the things I would try to use this office to do:

  • Abolish legal marriage, and replace it with packages of rights and supports granted on a per-household basis, without regard for sexual orientation, relationship status, or age.

  • Investigate what true equality for all genders would look like, and how it can be achieved.

  • Rethink the way we organize our households to allow more collective responsibility for the healthy development of our children, and distribute the burdens and blessings of child-rearing more equally among genders.

  • Rethink the phrase “healthy development of our children.”

  • Change the Illinois constitution to allow for multiple tax brackets, rather than the flat-tax-with-exemptions system in place now. Use this reformed tax system to drastically raise taxes on all income above $200,000 per year, and a sliding scale for incomes in the upper-middle range.

  • Abolish inheritance. Use the funds this generates to empower all youth to choose their educational and career outcomes.

  • Change the Illinois constitution to create participatory, direct democracy on a local level, and to allow all power to rest in these local governments, except those powers they specifically vest in the state.

  • Abolish corporations. Redistribute all corporate wealth to cooperatives, workers' councils, and local governments.

  • Abolish the sales tax.

  • Dissolve the Illinois National Guard. Replace it with a corps of teachers, community organizers, engineers, doctors, nurses, and other people whose jobs involve generating value.

  • Institute an immediate moratorium on all prison sentences. Reinvent the justice system as a place for the resolution of conflicts – the set of practices Jesus Christ referred to collectively as “binding and loosing.”

  • Immediately begin the reintegration of prisoners into society.

  • Disarm police.

  • Pay massive reparations to black people and American Indians.

  • Abolish tax increment financing.

  • Call for a federal constitutional convention to address some of the same issues on a federal level.

I think I've got a real chance here, folks.

Update: Check out my campaign's official position on the Participatory Socialist International.

Per for Lieutenant Governor: In which I endorse, with reservations, the Proposal for a Participatory Socialist International

Z Communications has released a Proposal for a Participatory Socialist International, presumably in response to Hugo Chávez's call for the creation of a Fifth International at a meeting in Caracas.

I think it's important that the Quinn/Per administration have a position on this. And, while I can't speak for Pat Quinn, I'm sure, given his history of strong support for progressive politics, and his expectation that his running mate have a record of standing up for progressive values, he would not only approve of my issuing this statement, but will freely endorse it once I am selected as the Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Illinois.

First, let me say that I'm skeptical about efforts like these. Even beyond my skepticism about any organization created by Hugo Chávez, I worry about the extent to which an International could be truly democratic. Even if Chávez wasn't running it, the first meeting would be dominated by people who could make it to Caracas -- aside from Venezuelans, that means either relatively rich folks or folks with the backing of powerful institutions such as states. Here's how the ZCom proposal addresses democracy:
“democracy” or perhaps even a more inspiring conception of “people’s power,” “participatory democracy,” or “self management,” to foster participation and equitable influence for all."

member groups would have a wide range of sizes - but since the International’s decisions would not bind groups other than regarding the collective International agenda, a good way to arrive at decisions might be serious discussion and exploration, followed by polls of the whole International membership to see peoples’ leanings, followed by refinements of proposals to seek greater support and to allow dissidents to make their case, culminating in final votes of the membership.
We need more here -- we need specific efforts to combat the dominance of rich white folks from developed countries.

As a prefigurative organization, it's important that the Participatory Socialist International not only refrain from actively undemocratic processes, but that it work to combat existing inequalities of influence and access. As Illinois's Lieutenant Governor, I will work to make sure the Participatory Socialist International lives up to its goals by ensuring equality of access to all decision-making structures, formal and informal.

On a related note, it's important that the Participatory Socialist International work to reach out to people of color, women and queer people, and to make sure these voices are heard prominently In the proposal, women's issues were recognized as significant, but no attention was paid to the needs of women within revolutionary movements, or the importance of fighting sexism within the International itself. If our organization is to be the seed of the future society, it's important that we not allow queers, women and people of color to be marginalized within our ranks, and that we dismantle oppressive structures and habits of mind within our community, even as we seek to reform the world.

As Lieutenant Governor, I will pressure the International to make sure its internal practices are consistent with its vision for a society free of gender-, race-, and sexuality-based oppression.

I will also push the International to do more to prioritize equitable distribution of resources among societies. Here's what the proposal says about the distribution of wealth within societies:
economic production, consumption, and allocation be classless - which includes equitable access for all to quality education, health care, food, water, sanitation, housing, meaningful and dignified work, and the instruments and conditions for personal fulfillment
Here's what it says about the distribution of wealth between societies:
"international trade, communication, and other interactions attain peace and justice while dismantling all vestiges of colonialism and imperialism - which includes canceling the debt of nations of the global south and reconstructing international norms and relations to move toward an equitable and just community of equally endowed nations"
The former is much more radical. If they talked only about canceling debts within a society, and moving towards an equitable and just community of equally endowed individuals, this could very well involve the maintenance of class and, indeed, capitalism -- we could be talking about Scandinavian-style "social democracy."

In addition to these problems, the politics of queer people were drastically underrepresented in the proposal: queer sexualities were mentioned only twice, and then in passing, and issues of gender identity were not discussed at all.

As Lieutenant Governor, I will use my bully pulpit to bring queer issues to the forefront of the International's agenda, and make sure rights of sexual choice and gender identification are an important part of the International's platform. I will make sure the International's vision for the reshaping of our child-rearing and family structures to end oppression of women also explicitly includes welcoming and supporting families of all compositions.

I was also disappointed by the lack of discussion of cultural change in the Participatory Socialist International's proposed platform. I don't believe any incentive system, no matter how well-designed, is impossible to game – and so it's important that we recognize that change can't come only through a change in the incentives, but also through a transition from a culture of self-interest to a culture of sharing.

As Lieutenant Governor, I will push the Fifth International to consider a politics of sharing, and to think about what this means for our internal organization as a prefigurative movement.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure, even if a Participatory Socialist International comes to fruition, that it will meet these key criteria. It seems quite likely that, whether or not I am chosen as Quinn's running mate, the Fifth International will be less radically democratic than I hope, and Illinois will refuse to participate.

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