Aug 272009
 

It is often stated, particularly on libertarian blogs, that the ‘social contract’ is a pile of utter bullshit, an ‘agreement’ to be bound by laws, customs, and a system of government to which none of us has consented, all of us having been born well after said laws, customs, and systems were consented to by our ancestors, or putative representatives thereof. By what right did our ancestors and their representatives bind their posterity?

None.

But if there really were a social contract, one we could enter into or not enter into as we chose, what might it look like?

I, (name in full), hereby affirm my agreement that all human beings are endowed with certain absolute rights; that these rights are to life, liberty, and property; that all human beings should be equal under the law with respect to these rights; that individuals cooperate among themselves to secure them; and that they do so freely and of their own accord.

Therefore, as a mentally competent adult over the age of 18, I hereby agree to the terms of this contract for citizenship in the Free Territory of __________ on my own behalf as well as that of my minor dependents—consenting to be guided in my affairs by the Ethic of Reciprocity, which I state as follows: I will not do to any other citizens of _______ what I would not want them to do to me. Beyond so restricting my actions, it is agreed by my fellow members of _______ that I am free to conduct my affairs as I please, engaging in such activities with my fellow members as may be mutually agreed upon, either formally or informally.

Furthermore, insofar as I might accuse others members of violating my absolute rights or others might accuse me of violating theirs, I agree to conflict resolution under the auspices of a firm chosen by lot from a list of at least three such firms, each of which must be approved by the Association for Conflict Resolution. I also agree that should the parties enter into arbitration, the loser must pay the legal fees of both parties; that insofar as either party refuses arbitration, the protections afforded that party by his citizenship are forfeit; that the forfeiting party is thereby placed in a state of nature vis-à-vis the citizens of _________, who are thereby entitled to take such actions as they deem necessary to resolve the dispute.

Lastly, it is understood by all citizens of _________ that I have the absolute right to cancel my citizenship at any time for any reason and that, should I in fact choose to do so, I will submit my cancellation in writing, recording it so as
to be available for examination and verification by the citizens of _________.

Signed this _____ day of ___________, in the year ______ of the Common Era, as witnessed below by (name in full), who, as a citizen in good standing of ________, has signed a replica of this document, both of which are available for
examination and verification by any other citizen of _________.

Signature of witness _____________________________

From an excellent essay by DG White called, ‘Gold, the Golden Rule, and government: civil society and the end of the state’ in Libertarian Papers Vol. 1, No. 32 (2009).

I have only two problems with it, really. One is academic navel-gazing: if this journal purports to be in any way scholarly, the authors of its articles have to stop citing Wikipedia pages. I know that sources with a URL are the most ideal for journals that publish online, so I can understand the necessity for this, but even assertions linked only tangentially to the primary argument of an essay need to be supported by authoritative citations.

The second is more philosophical, and related to something I’ve been pondering for a while now. This article doesn’t make its argument from first principles. And nor do many libertarians. In my own Adventures in Political Discourse (i.e. arguing with statists), I’ve discovered that, more often than not, we cannot reach agreement because we are arguing from wildly different given premises. For example, the essay begins,

Without money, there can be little in the way of economic specialization, or what is commonly known as the division of labor. And without the division of labor, there can be little in the way of civilization.

Other libertarians, who are presumably the readership of this journal, are not going to take issue with these statements. In a reductio ad absurdum, economic specialisation is good, and division of labour is good, and civilisation is good, because we can live like kings in stupendously cheap luxury unknown throughout most of human history, thus freeing up our own time, labour, and resources to continue production that allows us to continue living like even better kings, or to pursue pleasure and leisure as we choose. All well and good.

But not everybody holds those views. Perhaps they don’t value living like kings, or having time to pursue leisure and pleasure; then specialisation and division of labour will not be a priori goods, and therefore neither will money.

To convince those who disagree with us, we must argue from first principles: either by proving to opponents that our first principles are the correct ones, or demonstrating that even from the first principles they hold to be true that our way is still the better way. We are doing neither.

More on this later…

H/T HrothgarOfHeorot

Jul 052009
 

Last Sunday, Madeleine Bunting wrote a piece for the Guardian that is simultaneously the most vicious and most thought-provoking essay I’ve read these many years. Tim Worstall, as usual, tipped me off, taking issue as he did with Bunting’s aside that neoliberalism and fascism have been destructive in contradistinction to communism and socialism, and while he is right to point up the hilarity of that assertion, it is but small beans in comparison to the rest of what she says.

She begins:

The certainties that have dominated the last quarter of a century – that the market knew best, achieved efficiency and produced wealth – have collapsed. Few would disagree with him, but the clarity of that conclusion is matched by the confusion about what comes next.

There is, within this statement, an apparent confusion about what, exactly, a market is. There shouldn’t be, because Bunting could reference a cosy view of life in the pre-modern era, where a market was a place where exchange occurred (village square, local goods stalls, bescarfed women with basketsful of eggs, etc.), but she doesn’t do this. And she is wrong not to, because that is what a market is even today: a space where information about exchange takes place. A market is a tool, an amorality: a perfectly-operating market is efficient, because it permits potential exchangers to learn the value of what they wish to exchange, and it does produce wealth, because that free information allows the parties to an exchange to maximise their mutual benefit. A perfectly-operating market, however, does not know best, because a market is a tool, not a party to exchange itself.

What has collapsed, and Bunting could have pointed this out easily, is the informative value of the imperfect market in which exchange has recently been taking place. This is, by and large, a corporate, capitalist market heavily interfered with by the state in the form of regulation, taxation, and subsidy (amongst other things). Such a market does not convey correct information – its worth as a means of conveying value is approaches nil, because true costs (in particular) are obscured by strictures outwith the market itself. This is not necessarily a bad thing – even the most strident advocates of free markets often admit the need for certain external strictures, especially in pricing externalities, QED – but more often than not, interference in the functioning of the market is performed imperfectly in the pursuit of goals many of us disapprove (public money being used to bail out corporate institutions being one, whether it’s the automobile companies or the banks or the shareholders of both; asymmetrical information in the operation of the banking system; etc.). It is the failure of this type of market that has given the lie to whatever ‘certainties’ we might have cherished for the last quarter of a century; but this is no more an intrinsic flaw in markets per se than the existence of greed is an intrinsic flaw of money (which is simply another tool in the process of exchange).

Bunting is right to ask, ‘What comes next?’, even though this question is a non-sequitur in the case of market fundamentalism, since what she goes on to explore has very little to do with the collapse of the politico-corporate market. But never mind that; what does come next?

In his last Reith lecture, on Tuesday, Sandel will call for a remoralisation of politics – that we must correct a generation of abdication to the market of all measures of value. Most political questions are at their core moral or spiritual, Sandel declares, they are about our vision of the common good; bring religion and other value systems back into the public sphere for a civic renewal.

So, in the absence of certainties about ‘the market,’ we need a new certainty, a new way of measuring value, though Bunting never addresses the obvious question: ‘Measuring the value of what, exactly?’ It becomes clear throughout the rest of her piece that ‘value’ is being used as a positive abstraction, standing in for some nebulous idea of satisfaction + happiness + equality + prosperity. ‘The market’ has failed to deliver that mixture; what, in its place, can do so?

But never mind that, either, because she’s not going to explore it. Instead, we return to the tired memes of ‘the common good’ and ‘civic renewal.’ There is an a priori assumption here that questions of politics, whether it be government or simple collective action, must have an answer that is geared toward achieving a common good. This assumption may not be such a mistaken one; I’m sure many people share the view that collective action exists exclusively to achieve collective good. What constitutes ‘the common good,’ however, is highly debatable, and is probably at the root of all political differences. If there were a set of easily-identifiable and self-evident commonweals, we would not need so much variety of political choice. (Whether or not we really have, at least in the UK of today, such a huge variety of choice is another question I’ll leave others to explore.)

The same objection applies to the belief that political questions are moral or spiritual. No one has yet, despite centuries of philosophers’ attempts, managed to identify a universal morality or spirituality, any more than we’ve identified a universal ‘common good.’ Morality – the distinction between right acts and wrong acts – is not absolute, even if we think it ought to be – even if some of us think there are absolutes – because there will always be intelligent minds who disagree, and whose reasoning contains no obvious flaw that can be corrected.

Bunting does seem to recognise this problem, at least on some level, because she focuses the rest of her argument on civic renewal; and it is easy to see why, since ‘few indeed’ disagree that civic engagement has ossified:

The problem is a near sense of desperation as to how this is to come about, as current prescriptions offered by all political parties are emptied of meaning and credibility. Meanwhile, politics is in danger of becoming a subject purely for a small technocratic coterie dominated by highly complex financial regulation and arcane detail of parliamentary reform. It’s a politics of credit derivatives and standing committees, which is a foreign language to 90% of the electorate.

The sense of the end of an era is even more pressing in the UK than in Sandel’s America because it has coincided with the final discrediting of a form of professionalised, careerist politics. But to general bewilderment, even twin crises of this magnitude are not prompting political engagement; the paradox is that they may generate anger but are not generating action. The possibility of change – of radically reforming the institutions that have so betrayed trust – is slipping between our fingers. Bankers resume banking their bonuses, politicians revert to party rivalries to elect a Speaker unlikely to command the crossbench support necessary for reform. And we are left pondering what it is that brings about change – crises are not enough, outrage is not enough.

This is a fairly good summation of the problems facing the demos. Crises have occurred; comfortable systems have been discredited; there is outrage but no action. I commend the author.

She does not, then, do what I would do, which is to ask, ‘Why is there no action, when there is obviously such a need for it, and a fertile ground in which it can take root?’

The reason she ignores this is because, in asking why no action is taking place, we encounter a new, and much more troubling, set of problems.

There is a perception that systems for acting do not work. We live in a democracy, and the legitmate mechanism for action in a democratic society is the vote, by which the demos choose their proxies in government on the basis of specific platforms; the proxies are expected to carry out these platforms or be replaced by new proxies. The demos is the master of its government; between elections, it can direct policy through petition, protest, and (though this is itself a problem) lobbying.

In this particular democracy, most of those avenues for acting have been closed. The demos has been ignored: government has taken action without its approval, from bailing out banks to nationalising rail lines to giving Fred Goodwin a pension (if you like) to setting up unelected quangos to regulate government behaviour (IPSA) to creating a surveillance state to cracking down on protestors… and the list goes on. Much of what the government (and remember, it is supposed to respond to the demands of the demos) has done in the past let’s say quarter of a century (since that is where Bunting starts) has shifted power away from the demos, and this is one of the factors that has so depressed civic engagement. The legitimate avenues for action are closed: action in the face of these developments would be akin to beating one’s skull against a brick wall.

To give Bunting a bit of credit, she does not suggest that democracy itself is an unassailable system of governance; as the Devil’s Kitchen has pointed out, democracy has many faults.

A necessary (but not sufficient) condition for change to occur, one might argue, is the belief that change can happen. There appears to be, instead, a desultory fatalism here which Bunting does not address, summed up in part by the uniquely democratic aphorism, ‘No matter who you vote for, the government always wins.’ As long as the entrenched institutions, whether government or corporate capitalism or what you will, continue to barricade the legitimate mechanisms by which change can occur, they grow ever more monolithic and unchallengeable. In such circumstances, righteous outrage at crises and failures will turn inward, because short of fomenting a destabilising revolution, ways of reducing the unaccountable power of such institutions are not truly present.

There are many who would claim that it is the complacency of the demos itself that has allowed this situation to come about: for even unaccountable monoliths are not entirely maleficent, and there will always be those who benefit more than they would do in the absence of such institutions. Unanswerable corporate capitalism has permitted many people to enrich themselves tremendously, often at the expense of others; a powerful and paternalist government has protected many people from the consequences of their own failures, often at the expense of others. There are also people who have enriched themselves without exploitation, and people who have been protected by the state from the consequences of others’ failures. It is the complacency of those who have benefited that has put a cork in mechanisms for change; appeals to self-interest have worked, and I would guess many people who have no experience of any of what I have just said still gamble that, one day, they might do. They don’t want to reduce the monoliths because they judge the possible future benefits of them to be greater than the actual present costs.

But the safety, comfort, and benefit that monolithic institutions provide comes at the price of being unable to alter them easily or indeed limit their acquisition of further power, even when they turn against you.

Having omitted the why of civic disengagement, Bunting still tries to present a solution, and this is where we discover (a) that her omission was deliberate, and (b) the true viciousness of her argument.

Battening on to some documentary-maker’s assertion that ‘what is paralysing the collective will’ is ‘the dominance of individualism,’ she says:

“What we have is a cacophony of individual narratives, everyone wants to be the author of their own lives, no one wants to be relegated to a part in a bigger story; everyone wants to give their opinion, no one wants to listen. It’s enchanting, it’s liberating, but ultimately it’s disempowering because you need a collective, not individual, narrative to achieve change,” explains Curtis.

His analysis is that power uses stories which shape our understanding of the world and of who we are, and how we make sense and order experience. Powerful, grand narratives legitimise power, win our allegiance and frame our private understandings of how to measure value and create meaning. They also structure time – they fit the present into a continuum of how the past will become the future. This is what all the grand narratives of communism, socialism, even neoliberalism and fascism offered; as did the grand narratives of religion. Now, all have foundered and fragmented into a mosaic of millions of personal stories. It is a Tower of Babel in which we have lost the capacity to generate the common narratives – of idealism, morality and hope such as Sandel talks about – that might bring about civic renewal and a reinvigorated political purpose.

The solution to disengagement, apparently, is a collective grand narrative. In her own words, then, let’s explore what a grand narrative might have to offer.

(1) Grand narratives legitimise power.
Rather than reducing the power of monolithic institutions, they entrench it. This is precisely the opposite of what the demos appear to desire, which is a return of power to the civic level, not a legitimisation of the transfer of power away from it.

(2) Grand narratives win allegiance.
They put a high gloss on failed, unaccountable systems in order to provide the illusion that those systems are both palatable and good. The allegiance here is an adherence to someone else’s vision, an abdication of self-determination in favour of a purpose imposed from the outside that may suit neither the individual nor the collective will.

(3) Grand narratives frame our understanding of value and meaning.
In other words, they change what we desire, rather than fulfill it. This is not changing the systems to suit the demos; this is changing the demos to suit the systems.

(4) Grand narratives structure time, fitting the present into a continuum of how the past will become the future.
They provide a comforting but impossibly teleological illusion of human development. As Bunting points out, this is what religions and modern political systems do. Historians (and I know whereof I speak) are fond of imposing teleological interpretations on the past: Marxist historiographers are particularly prone. Overlaying a narrative on the past implies that there is, or has been, an end toward which all human action has tended. Religions, similarly, overlay a narrative on the future, assuming a state of perfection or enlightenment toward which religious principles are the most perfect route. Although many religions place a great premium on the perfection of the individual soul, reaching the end state requires a collective effort, just as modern political systems do. But do we really want our political systems to share common characteristics with religion? In many major religions, those individuals who do not work in service to the collective goal, or do not achieve perfection individually, suffer punitive judgment; should our politics operate in this same way? Or should they instead operate according to mutual benefit, common agreement, and compromise? The religious edifice is built upon the idea of revealed truth, and access to that truth is controlled by the spiritual elite. Do we want our political edifice to be built upon revealed, unchallengeable truths, access to which is controlled by the political elite?

Throughout history, the mechanism whereby religion has maintained social control and its grand narrative is the restriction of information. Do we really want to emulate this in the political sphere? Ignorance may indeed be bliss, but to impose ignorance on the demos for any purpose whatever, no matter how noble it may appear to be, must be one of the summits of evil.

Bunting’s desire for a grand narrative is not about ‘civic renewal and a reinvigorated political purpose'; it is about retaining the monoliths whilst finding a way to ensure that the demos happily accepts, and even supports, their power. This is the insidious reason for why she does not address the root of disengagement and inaction: she does not want action, she wants acquiescence.

Curtis argues that we are still enchanted by the possibilities of our personal narratives although they leave us isolated, disconnected, and at their worst, they are simply solipsistic performances desperate for an audience. But we are in a bizarre hiatus because the economic systems that sustained and amplified this model of individualism have collapsed. It was cheap credit and a housing boom that made possible the private pursuit of experience, self-expression and self-gratification as the content of a good life. As this disintegrates and youth unemployment soars, this good life will be a cruel myth.

There are plenty of people around trying to redefine the good life – happiness economists and environmentalists, among others – and Sandel’s authority adds useful weight to their beleaguered struggle against the instrumentalist values of the market that have crept into every aspect of our lives. But Sandel’s call for remoralisation seems only to expose how bare the cupboard is – what would it look like? What reserves of moral imagination could it draw on for a shared vision, given that the old shared moral narratives such as religious belief and political ideology have so little traction?

Individualism, contrary to what Bunting seems to present here, is neither fragmentary nor dependent on consumerism. She is right in presenting it as a struggle for ‘experience, self-expression, and self-gratification,’ but this must be as defined by the individual him- or herself, often without regard for the much-vaunted ‘common good.’ And indeed, no attempt at ‘the good life’ succeeds completely, but the ability to make the attempt, and define ‘the good life’ for oneself, must exist; that, for most people, it does not is but another aspect of that fatalism that has muted the outrage.

And shared visions, shared moral narratives, are bad, not least because nobody has yet found one that can be shared by everybody. A shared vision is an illusion held in common that works only for those willing to be directed (or deceived) by it, and there are many. Understanding this is what led to Nietzsche’s philosophy of perspectivism. He was writing in the context of the grand narrative of Christianity, but the essence of perspectivism is that there is no universal truth, no universal reality: instead, there is only the personal perception of reality, and individually unique epistemologies as numerous as the number of individuals themselves. Many people have criticised this view as relativist, and indeed it is, but Nietzsche also allowed for ‘formal’ truths, which are developed organically through the intergration of many individual perspectives. Perspectivism is perhaps the closest we have come toward the repudiation of the grand narrative as a concept; grand narratives are possible, but only in the presence of wilful or imposed ignorance and the denial of the discrete, individual consciousness.

Bunting goes so far as to identify a possible grand narrative, which she does not like:

A new grand narrative will emerge, Curtis believes, admitting he is an optimist. But perhaps there is another aspect to our predicament. That the new grand narrative has already emerged and it is one of environmental catastrophe. Perhaps this reinforces the sense of political paralysis. That the only grand narrative on offer is so terrifying – of a world rapidly running out of the natural resources required to sustain extravagant lifestyles and burgeoning population – that it disables rather than empowers us to achieve political change. Terrified, we retreat into private stories of transformation – cosmetic surgery, makeovers of home and person – because we see no collective story of transformation we can believe in.

Fatalism rears its head again in the idea of a coming catastrophe that paralyses the will to change. I argue that this is merely an effect, not a cause, of civic disempowerment; it is again the belief that the changes we try to achieve are but minute struggles against the overarching immovability of monolithic institutions.

She finishes:

Every other modern narrative – communism, socialism, even those that were destructive, such as neoliberalism and fascism – laid claim to a version of the kingdom of God, a better world that would nurture a better human being. They were all narratives of redemption and salvation. All that we have now is apocalypse, and it is paralysing. How then can we build hope?

The kingdom of God, a better world and a better human being – what place have these ideas in political discourse? They are entwined with the desire for a grand narrative. This teleological view of human progress is the most paralysing of all views. Even if the goal is unknown, or not yet understood, it imparts a sense of finality and destiny that petrifies the individual and the collective mentality. We are moving toward x, perhaps diverging down erroneous paths, but the desire to reach x exists, and we must all surrender to it. If there is a goal, and we do not share it, what hope can there be for the dissenters? ‘Better human being’ returns us to the world of the moral absolute, a non-reality, and ‘narratives of redemption and salvation’ are especially frightening. Redemption is for those who have transgressed; salvation is in the gift of a higher power. Will we set up human arbiters of sin and human judges of righteousness in our new narrative? I repeat, what place have these ideas in political discourse?

It is a funny thing that ‘apocalypse’ does not mean what Bunting thinks it means. She infers from it chaos, destruction, collapse; but at its root, it is αποκαλυψις, an uncovering, an unhiding, a revelation. And perhaps what she hates about apocalypse is that is has uncovered mutable truths; it has removed certainties and replaced them with the understanding that certainty itself paralyses. The absence of a grand narrative is a state of being to be celebrated; it is both energising and liberating, bringing as it does the knowledge that we are not bound to a shared reality, a vision imposed on us by others. We as individuals can create our own meaning and give our own existence its purpose – and that purpose is whatever we choose, based upon whatever values we wish to hold. We can fight for self-determination even in a society that ritually denigrates the individual, ascribing its success only to the existence of the collective, and demanding gratitude and service in return. The paralysis is proof that that society is dying.This apocalypse is good, and recognition of our own paralysis is a vital step toward freeing ourselves from the tyranny of those who would make us pawns in their ‘narrative’ of social transgression and secular salvation.

Jun 152009
 

As a comment on this article about rape prosecutions, I find this:

As a lawyer, it disturbs me that a politically correct state is seeking to tell jurors what they are permitted to think about human behaviour. The insoluble problem with prosecuting rape is that the act is not unlawful in itself, but is made unlawful purely by the state of mind of the participants.
Feliks Kwiatkowski, Haywards Heath, England

Now, rape is obviously one of those difficult issues, but logic is generally not, so here we go:

First, juries are always told what to think about human behaviour, at least while they are in the jury box. They are always instructed to decide their verdict on the basis of the admissible evidence. All this article is saying is that the rape victim’s dress, level of physical resistance to the rapist, and the time elapsed between the rape and the formal accusation are no longer admissible evidence on which the jury can base their verdict. This is already the case with most other crimes: how one looks, whether one resists, and how long one takes to report it when one is the victim of theft are not considered evidence either.

Second, of course the act – penetrative sex – is not unlawful in itself. Nor is the transfer of cash from one individual to another. It is the state of mind of the participants that makes the actions a crime – namely, it is the absence of willingness or choice on the part of one party that makes the sex rape, and makes the receipt of cash theft. This is not an ‘insoluble problem’ in the case of theft, nor is it a problem in the case of rape.

The difficulty with rape, which this commenter, being a lawyer, ought to be able to articulate more clearly, is not that it is classified as a crime for bizarre reasons, or that the judges in rape cases can instruct the jury how to arrive at a verdict.

If we think in terms of theft: I cannot actually prove that a mugger has robbed me at gunpoint if nobody saw it happen. It’s my word against his that I didn’t give the money to him willingly and of my own choice. My mugger may have been accused or convicted of theft before, which supports my claim a bit, but then again he may not. My mugger may be a total stranger to me, which supports my claim a bit, but then again he may not.

With rape, again, if there are no witnesses, it’s the victim’s word against the alleged rapist’s, and the victim cannot prove the sex was not willing and done out of choice. The alleged rapist may have a record, but he (or she) may not; the alleged rapist may be a stranger to the victim, but he (or she) may not.

The difficulty with rape, therefore, is not in the act of sex itself, or the legal obligations of judge and jury, or even in the nature of the evidence when considered in comparison to other roughly analogous criminal situations. The difficulty is in perception, both of the victim and the accused, and of rape itself as a crime.

Most people are willing to take the word of a victim of theft. The punishment for theft is lighter as well. But many people, whether they will admit this or not, are innately sceptical of a rape victim’s claim, especially if the person they claim has raped them is a friend, family member, or other acquaintance. ‘Maybe it was a misunderstanding,’ they think. ‘Maybe the unwillingness wasn’t made clear enough at the time.’ The punishment for rape is harsh. There may also be an awareness that there is no recompense for rape; victims of theft can get their money back, but what is it exactly that a victim of rape has lost? One can argue that they have lost a sense of personal sovereignty and safety, but this is true of mugging victims also, and is equally intangible in that case. There is, too, the perception that thieves will continue to be thieves, but that rapes are unique to their situations. And so many people will give the accused the benefit of the doubt – not entirely unreasonably – in a way they wouldn’t do if the crime were theft – because conviction does very little to help the victim and does enormous damage to the convicted.

One person I’ve discussed this with has suggested that the problem is in the nature of consent: society (and the legal system) views all sex as consensual unless otherwise clearly stated at the time. Remaining silent is presumed to be consent as well. The solution: all sex should be presumed to be non-consensual unless otherwise stated. This is, after all, how we treat other issues of bodily sovereignty, for example organ donation. (Although I’m aware there’s a move afoot in the UK to change that.) This is also how we treat theft: if I agree to the exchange of that money, all I have to do is not call the police and make an accusation of theft. If a person agrees to have sex, all they would have to do is not call the police and make an accusation of rape. Then, if a rape occurs and goes to court, the various attorneys can get into the problem of thorny evidence, etc, but at least the victim will be spared the necessity of having to prove a negative.

May 272009
 

I am not a fundamentalist homobigot,’ says author, ‘but gay marriage will ruin society.’

As kinship fails to be relevant to gays, it will become fashionable to discredit it for everyone. The irrelevance of marriage to gay people will create a series of perfectly reasonable, perfectly unanswerable questions: If gays can aim at marriage, yet do without it equally well, who are we to demand it of one another? Who are women to demand it of men? Who are parents to demand it of their children’s lovers–or to prohibit their children from taking lovers until parents decide arbitrarily they are “mature” or “ready”? By what right can government demand that citizens obey arbitrary and culturally specific kinship rules–rules about incest and the age of consent, rules that limit marriage to twosomes? Mediocre lawyers can create a fiction called gay marriage, but their idealism can’t compel gay lovers to find it useful. But talented lawyers will be very efficient at challenging the complicated, incoherent, culturally relative survival from our most primitive social organization we call kinship. The whole set of fundamental, irrational assumptions that make marriage such a burden and such a civilizing force can easily be undone.

Sounds good to me. Bring on teh gays! So where’s the problem, then?

Oh. Right:

There is no doubt that women and children have suffered throughout human history from being over-protected and controlled. The consequences of under-protection and indifference will be immeasurably worse. In a world without kinship, women will lose their hard-earned status as sexual beings with personal autonomy and physical security. Children will lose their status as nonsexual beings.

Women are sexual beings first, personally autonomous second, and physically secure third. This is our hard-earned status, achieved for us by the institution of marriage. Tell me, Mr Reasonable Not-Bigot: where is the institution that places women as personally autonomous beings first and, I might add, only, leaving the sexual nature and physical safety up to the individual decisions of the woman herself? And your view of children is decidedly weird, too: far from being autonomous human individuals, they are mere ‘nonsexual beings’ only, tiny mobile It-objects running around, the protection of whose genitals is a matter for society to enforce through the rigid kinship system marriage imposes.

I particularly enjoy this facet of his disquisition:

But without social disapproval of unmarried sex–what kind of madman would seek marriage?…Few men would ever bother to enter into a romantic heterosexual marriage–much less three, as I have done–were it not for the iron grip of necessity that falls upon us when we are unwise enough to fall in love with a woman other than our mom.

That’s right. After stating that ‘Marriage, whatever its particular manifestation in a particular culture or epoch, is essentially about who may and who may not have sexual access to a woman when she becomes an adult, and is also about how her adulthood–and sexual accessibility–is defined,’ he then shows us that, actually, marriage is a nice check, too, on the out-of-control humping men would engage in if there were no sanctions for doing so.

The author’s view of humanity is loathsome. Women are not sex toys, children are not objects, and men are not mindless dick-pistons. Jesus.

This article is the best argument in favour of gay marriage I have ever encountered. I say again, bring on teh gays. They’re a hell of a lot pleasanter than this knob.

May 182009
 

I do so love parables. What is this one about, do you think?

Indulge me this little fable of our times…

There once was a man, a young man, a man afflicted with a passionate desire. He wanted nothing more in all the world than to play music on the violin. He never had much time for music as a child, but as he grew up and hit his teenage years he found himself seized by a powerful and unsettling urge to play the violin. Nothing but a violin would do. This was not like him, so he thought, and he worried about how others would react to him should they find out that he harboured this forbidden desire.

The society he lived in did not much care for music, and treated it rather strictly – as something to be played only by chartered professionals who owned their own instruments. It was not despised, by and large, though some fringe lunatics certainly did despise it, and when kept within certain bounds it was generally accepted. It was certainly not something to be discussed outside the auditorium or the concert hall, however, especially with those too junior to acquire an instrument or seek accreditation. Furthermore, in a cruel twist of fate, the violin in particular was deeply frowned upon, especially for boys. Nobody wanted their son to grow up to be a violinist, though daughters were actively encouraged to take up the instrument. Boys were not allowed to seek accreditation for a violin charter, though many who wanted to kept playing on the fringes of society, outside the official remit of the state musicians’ guild. There was prejudice, but it seemed to be getting more tolerable…

I’d provide a link, but…meh. Not going to happen.

Apr 222009
 

Opposition to the death penalty is discriminatory, when there are differential benefits from its application, between different groups in society. The obvious example is the possible introduction of the death penalty for discrimination. Discrimination by ethnic origin is well-evidenced on the labour and housing market in western societies, for instance. Existing anti-discrimination laws have made no impact: enforcement is minimal and limited to extreme cases. Introduction of the death penalty would, through its strong deterrent effect, reduce discrimination – and therefore benefit minorities.

If there is a case of discrimination, and if the death penalty can be applied, then there is a conflict of interest between the victim and opponents of the death penalty, including Amnesty. Some victims may also reject the death penalty, and some may even prefer to suffer discrimination, rather than see someone executed as a result of their complaint. But suppose the victim is a Somali woman refugee in a western European state, discriminated by a racist employer. What if she does approve the death penalty? What if she did complain, and what if she wants the perpetrator to be executed, in order to deter similar discrimination in future?

Can a successful white middle-class lawyer (a typical supporter of Amnesty International) legitimately deny the woman the implementation of her preferences? Isn’t that simply another discrimination – “white middle-class lawyers count for more than Somali women”? Amnesty’s answer would presumably be, that they are not appealing to individual preference, but to universal rights. However, that’s simply another way of saying “Our views are superior”. The rights can’t be shown to exist, they are simply claimed to be universal and binding. The value preference of the privileged group (non-immigrant ethnic majority) is imposed on the weaker minority, using this appeal to universality.*

Now, as any fule kno, there is a very good argument for limiting capital sentences, if you are going to have them at all, only to the most destructive and physically damaging of crimes. There are very good reasons, as chappie claims elsewhere in the post, for believing the death penalty to be a deterrent to crime, but a simple thought experiment flags up his error:

You are a bigot who lives in a country where discriminators, rapists, murderers, etc., can be executed. One day, a dark-skinned lady applies for a job you have advertised. So incensed are you at her presumption that, momentarily unable to control yourself, you call her a filthy name and assure her that you would die before you gave a job to a pathetic dark-skinned specimen like her. As she stares at you, affronted, you realise that you have now opened yourself up to prosecution for discrimination with a possibility of capital sentence. In your panic, an idea blossoms: you can silence her! After all, the state can only kill you once; and if she’s not around to inform on you, maybe you’ll never get caught at all. What have you got to lose? So you throttle her and bury the remains in a landfill. Problem solved.

The moral of the story is: the death penalty, if applied to minor crimes, will deter neither those nor the more serious ones. It is only an effective deterrent when applied to the most serious of crimes, and then only because they can’t be covered up using worse ones.

I leave you with the words of a far greater mind than mine:

One day when I was dining with him there happened to be at the table one of the English lawyers, who took occasion to run out in a high commendation of the severe execution of justice upon thieves, who, as he said, were then hanged so fast, that there were sometimes twenty on one gibbet; and upon that he said he could not wonder enough how it came to pass, that since so few escaped, there were yet so many thieves left who were still robbing in all places. Upon this, I who took the boldness to speak freely before the Cardinal, said, there was no reason to wonder at the matter, since this way of punishing thieves was neither just in itself nor good for the public; for as the severity was too great, so the remedy was not effectual…

St Thomas More, Utopia.

*[For further context, this is the same chappie who petitioned the Dutch government to censor the websites of LPUK and the Adam Smith Institute on the grounds that both groups seek to subject others, against their will, to freedom – as well as to exclude Drs. Madsen Pirie and Eamonn Butler from the country (ha! not possible under EU law) because ‘they obstruct the work of the financial regulatory authorities.’ In the case of lpuk.org, at least, he was unsuccessful.]

Mar 302009
 

It is an oft-cited fact that, in the United States, one is completely free to say whatever one pleases with two exceptions: one may be prosecuted for shouting ‘Fire!’ in an enclosed space – if there is no fire and if damage to person or property results; one may be prosecuted for stating one’s intent to harm the President – but only if credible evidence is uncovered that suggests one’s intent was in earnest (otherwise, those wish-fulfilling fantasists who made that documentary about the assassination of George W. Bush would have been thrown in prison for the duration of his presidency).

My understanding of freedom of speech in Britain is a bit different. Lacking a codified Constitution like the United States’, this whole freedom-of-expression thing has long been a part of tradition, common law, and more recently, human rights legislation. But the caveats on it seem to come thicker and faster than those in the US. For example, one is not permitted to advocate the abolition of the monarchy in print.

(Or so I’m told. I never would have known this had, several years ago, I not encountered a leaflet taped to a bus stop that did exactly that; a nearby genuine British person shook his head sorrowfully and opined that it really ought to be taken down before it got somebody into trouble.)

One is also not permitted any speech which is an incitement to violence. Nor, it seems, any speech which is an incitement to hatred. I quote this article in full because, although it is from The Sun, it is clear, concise, and fascinating:

A BID to halt legislation banning gay jokes which stir up hatred was defeated yesterday.

MPs from all parties tried to include a defence of “free speech” into the Bill which makes it a criminal offence to incite hatred over sexual orientation.

But their attempt was defeated in a Commons vote by 328 to 174.

Campaigners had said the Bill would limit freedom of expression. Some comedians even claimed it could lead to them being prosecuted.

Critics of the Government’s move included Blackadder star Rowan Atkinson, who said it could stifle creativity for writers and comedians.

But ministers said if the “free speech” amendment was accepted it could provide a loophole for people wishing to incite hatred.

Now, a ban on speech that incites violence is possibly understandable, though I don’t agree with it. But there is a material difference between violence – initiation of force against another’s bodily integrity – and hatred, which is an emotion or state of mind. I grant that hatred may lead to violence; I grant that there are certainly crimes motivated by hatred. But to outlaw speech that incites hatred is equivalent to outlawing speech that incites boredom, or frustration, or joy – these are states of mind, and those who hold them can never be proven guilty of doing so, for how does one prove the possession of an emotion or state of mind except through the actions that betray it? And the action of initiating force against another person’s bodily integrity is already illegal.

It was already a crime to incite violence, regardless of whether the speaker participated in the violence himself; now it is a crime to incite an emotion, regardless of whether the speaker holds it himself. These laws make the speaker, regardless of intent or participation, responsible for the feelings and actions of others.

And, giving the situation some thought, I begin to realise that there is no better way, really, to force the citizenry to change, if not its views, then at least its expression of them. In the glory days, when we were free to say what we thought as long as we did not act on it, we relied on social ostracism to eradicate the airing of distasteful views. Social ostracism is a powerful tool, but not, it seems, powerful enough, for there were still some eccentrics wandering round spouting bigotry in contravention of all behavioural norms. Caring nothing for the opinions of society, therefore, they must be made to fear legal sanction for their unpleasantness instead. And this has been done very cleverly indeed. If the law were made against expression one’s own hatred, well, there would be martyrs to it everywhere, for to take on oneself the penalty of an unjust law has in it something of nobility, however repugnant the views for which one is willing to accept punishment. But because the law censures you for what others do, it is much more sinister, and much more nebulous, and much more difficult to stand against bravely.

And so we shut our mouths and keep our opinions to ourselves, not because we dislike the idea of going to prison for our own actions, but because we fear the prospect of going to prison for the actions of others.

How is this justice? How is this freedom? How is it possible that, in a civilised society, we are answerable at law for the opinions and behaviours of individuals not ourselves, over whom we have no provable influence and certainly no control? Each of us has, if not legally, at least morally a responsibility to avoid sins of omission; if I witness a mugging, I have a duty, it can be argued, to try to stop it, or to assist the victim. But if a mugging happens out of my sight and hearing and knowledge, I cannot be held accountable for omitting to help. On the other hand, it seems that if the mugger overheard me on the Tube telling a joke about homosexuals, or saying wistfully that Jews deserve to be robbed, I am as responsible for that crime as the mugger himself, if he can finger me as the one who incited his behaviour. Even if he doesn’t mug his victim, but merely spits and calls the victim an unkind name, I am made a criminal, even if the action that damns me happened out of my sight and hearing and knowledge.

Who knows what our stray remarks may lead others to do? And while most of us recognise the justice of being imprisoned for our own behaviour, very few of us see it in being punished for someone else’s. Therefore we remain silent.

But ministers said if the “free speech” amendment was accepted it could provide a loophole for people wishing to incite hatred.

Free speech is a loophole in the minds of our ministers. Rather than being a right which the government must not infringe, it is a loose end to be sewn up. We are only free to speak that which is not prohibited at the whim of each successive Parliament. We are made criminals not only by what others do, but by what others might do. This government has achieved what enemies of freedom have advocated for decades: each man is truly his brother’s keeper, and will pay the price for his brother’s folly.

Mar 252009
 

…if you will, a piece of legislation that contains the following provisions:

(a) Prohibited Activities- A participant in an approved national service position under this subtitle may not engage in the following activities:

‘(1) Attempting to influence legislation.

‘(2) Organizing or engaging in protests, petitions, boycotts, or strikes.

‘(3) Assisting, promoting, or deterring union organizing.

‘(4) Impairing existing contracts for services or collective bargaining agreements.

‘(5) Engaging in partisan political activities, or other activities designed to influence the outcome of an election to any public office.

‘(6) Participating in, or endorsing, events or activities that are likely to include advocacy for or against political parties, political platforms, political candidates, proposed legislation, or elected officials.

‘(7) Engaging in religious instruction, conducting worship services, providing instruction as part of a program that includes mandatory religious instruction or worship, constructing or operating facilities devoted to religious instruction or worship, maintaining facilities primarily or inherently devoted to religious instruction or worship, or engaging in any form of religious proselytization.

Pretty fucking horrifying, no? What on earth, I can hear you wondering, is an ‘approved national service position,’ and what about it makes it necessary for law-makers to remove from its holders freedom of association, the right to petition the government, the franchise, and the right to practise a religion?

Well, my dears, I shall tell you: it’s our old friend Compulsory Volunteering, passed in the US House yesterday in a bill called Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education Act, or, cutely, simply GIVE.

The text of this bill is, like all the pieces of loo roll that pass for legislation in Washington DC, so abstruse that in my current germ-weakened state, I can make neither head nor tail of most of it. The bit quoted above, however, seems pretty straightforward. How, in the name of all that is holy, can Congress justify denying FOUR fundamental, Constitutional rights from people who are taking part in national ‘service’?

And please, no bombarding me with reasonableness. I’m sure that ‘activities designed to influence the outcome of an election to any public office’ isn’t intended to mean voting, but fuck me if I can think of a more archetypal example of an activity designed to influence the outcome of an election.

As it happens, the GIVE Act (what a stupid fucking name) is something of an amendment to other national ‘service’ acts passed in other decades by other asshat Congresses, and there is already an organisation, the Corporation for National and Community Service (its website has a .gov domain and everything!) that administers this crap. They’ve been really quick on the ball to express an opinion of GIVE (something the MSM, I note, have largely overlooked):

The U.S. House of Representatives today passed the most significant overhaul and expansion of national service programs in 16 years, acting on President Obama’s call to increase service opportunities for Americans of all ages to help address the economic crisis and usher in a new era of service and responsibility for our nation.

“Service is a fundamental American value, in every neighborhood and every community,” said U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-CA), Chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee and a co-sponsor of the bill. “With President Obama’s leadership and support, today the House took a key step toward launching a new era of service that will rebuild and strengthen our country for years to come.”

“The American spirit is one of giving back – to our neighbors, our communities, and our nation. All across this country, citizens are devoting their time, skills, and resources to make our country a better place. And through the GIVE Act, we can nurture that spirit of selflessness, leveraging both individuals and organizations to achieve national goals,” said Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, the House Education Committee’s Ranking Republican member.

“At this time of economic crisis, there is a convergence of a great need to help our neighbors and a great appetite by Americans to serve,” said the Corporation’s Board Chair Alan Solomont. “Service can be a solution to many of our nation’s toughest challenges. We are grateful to the House for passing this bipartisan legislation to expand high-quality service opportunities for Americans of all ages.”

Is this some kind of bad prank? On the one hand, we’ve got Reps. George Miller and ‘Buck’ McKeon (may their loins rot) claiming service as a fundamental American value (since when?); on the other, we’ve got Alan Solomont praising the House for offering Americans more ‘high-quality service opportunities.’ What the fuck? Replace the words ‘service opportunities’ with the word ‘toaster’ and you get a sentence that makes a hell of a lot more sense.

I suppose my main points are these: (1) this Act has a stupid name, (2) this Act cancels out fundamental freedoms in the name of service to the common good, (3) this never would have passed if it weren’t for the fucking joke of a community organiser running the nation these days, and most importantly (4) what the US does, Britain quickly imitates. We go to war in Iraq – you go to war in Iraq. We pass illiberal laws to ‘deal with’ the ‘terrorist threat’ – you pass illiberal laws to deal with the terrorist threat. We stimulate our economy with fuckloads of debt – you stimulate your economy with fuckloads of debt. Our mad leader thinks he’s the Second Coming – your mad leader thinks he’s the Second Coming. We press our citizens into rightless compulsory voluntary servitude… you get the idea.

I shouldn’t wonder if there’s not something similar knocking around in Parliament right now, waiting for its five minutes’ worth of debate before being rammed into law by a maniacal, overpowerful, unelected, self-important, self-destructive executive.

Mar 152009
 

Atlas Shrugged is all over the blogs and the news recently, and with good reason. The authoritarians, statists, and socialists among us appear to clutch at every possible opportunity to ridicule the novel, and Rand herself, with the sort of viciousness that suggests they derive pleasure from being overtly nasty about a dead woman and her philosophy.

Their viciousness also suggests fear, or at the very least resentment, that Atlas Shrugged exposes the flaws in their ideology. Why else would they need to insult its author, misrepresent its message, and claim that it is poorly written? (Because, let’s face it – it’s not poorly written. Have these people ever cast a judgmental eye over, for example, Dan Brown? Jesus.)

The Guardian leapt upon the stick-pins-in-the-effigy-of-Rand bandwagon yesterday:

Of all the scary things you can get a graph to show, surely the most terrifying is a surge in sales of Ayn Rand novels.

Could this be because Rand’s wordy masterwork foretells the collapse of capitalism? That is indeed what happens in the book: machines break, production dwindles, society collapses into riot. And the novel knows exactly where to point the finger: it’s all the fault of big government, which is choking the free market under layers of anti-business law. Rand’s novel is also clear as to who can save us. Its hero, John Galt, is handsome and virile, a brilliant inventor, and the leader of a revolutionary vanguard composed of all the world’s great talents in industry and science, finance and the arts; eventually he will be joined by the beautiful Dagny Taggart, her body “slender”, her daddy’s railroad the biggest the world has ever known. Soon, more and more of these “superior minds” abandon the “second-handers” – also known as “mediocrities”, “parasites” and “mindless hordes” – to join Galt in his mountain hideaway. When Galt and Dagny at long last get together, the sign of the almighty dollar is traced upon the earth.

Ha! That crazy Rand and her anti-government paranoia. We all know that big-government regulation is what saves us from the collapse of society – I mean, if there had been more regulation, we wouldn’t be in this banking crisis right now… And good grief, her characters? Handsome, beautiful, brilliant? Physical beauty is an accident of birth, and brilliance and success are the products of society, of course. Or one’s daddy. How dare such people withdraw their productive genius from the very society, however composed of mediocrities, to which it is owed?

(I begin to believe that Jenny Turner has not, in fact, read the novel.)

Crazy and, it seems, the recipient of her just desserts:

Atlas Shrugged was Rand’s fourth and final novel. After it, she devoted herself to what her fans consider her “philosophy”, and to building the movement she called objectivism, which was, briefly, a presence in 50s American culture before imploding in feuds. Rand was, at her height, quite a figure – bob-haired, Russian-accented, dressed in a cape with a dollar-sign brooch, smoking a cigarette in a long holder – “When a man thinks, there is a spot of fire alive in his mind – and it is proper that he should have the burning point of a cigarette as his one expression,” she wrote in Atlas Shrugged.

Since Rand’s death in 1982 – from lung cancer – her heirs have carried the movement forward, with a growing presence in academia…

You see, not only was her ‘philosophy’ not a real philosophy (thus the derisive quotation marks around it), she was also one of those icky smokers. Ugh.

According to Noam Chomsky, Rand was “one of the most evil figures of modern intellectual history”. But this is surely an overstatement, given that during Rand’s lifetime, personal muddle and inherent ridiculousness limited her capacity to do harm. Slavoj Zizek gets closer to it when he writes that, though artistically “worthless”, her work has a lastingly “subversive dimension”. By taking “capitalist ideology” to extreme conclusions, Rand shows up its “fantasmatic kernel” – the babyish fantasies of power without consequence that, one could argue, caused the banks to sink themselves in the sub-prime mess in the first place.

The question, then, isn’t so much why Rand now? It’s more whether Randianism can have a long-term future, now that capitalism no longer seems to need any help when making a fool of itself.

Aha, yes – I thought we’d get around to this. Unbridled free markets of the sort Rand advocated have failed; capitalism has made a fool of itself; her ideas are inherently ridiculous.

Would somebody mind please explaining to me why, after the disasters that were Soviet Russia and Maoist China, and the on-going jokes that are Cuba and Venezuela, people refuse to admit that the unfree, centrally planned market is ‘inherently ridiculous’ and ‘no longer seems to need any help when making a fool of itself’? Why do criticisms of failure apply to free markets at the merest hint of an economic downturn, but not to bizarre socialist experiments that result in actual, devastating economic collapse?

Here’s the odd thing: the Guardian published an article about Atlas Shrugged last Tuesday as well. A very different article indeed, entitled ‘Greed is good: a guide to radical individualism‘:

Rand and her books were the embodiment of right-wing libertarianism and laissez-faire capitalism, which advocated the complete deregulation of business and finance and opposed any form of state welfare. She described her philosophy as “objectivism” or “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute”.

At its heart is a mystery story: about why so many of the world’s most brilliant brains are disappearing and about who invented a new kind of motor. It tells the tale of Dagny Taggart, a railroad executive, and Hank Rearden, a steel magnate, and their struggles as society collapses at the hands of an oppressive government and its parasitical bureaucrats. In the book, the best minds in terms of business, science and the arts are, in effect, on strike – the book was originally called The Strike. It espoused the essential Rand philosophy of “rational self-interest”.

Throughout her writing life, she promoted the idea expressed in the book: “Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of other men. Blood, whips and guns or dollars. Take your choice – there is no other.”

That is a vastly more realistic summary. Anybody have phone numbers for Jenny Turner and Duncan Campbell? Perhaps we should introduce them to one another.

Maybe the discrepancy is more to do with the section of the paper in which they are writing. Campbell’s article is filed under News->World News->United States, while Turner’s appears in Culture->Books->The week in books. And as we all know, Rand’s novel as a piece of literature is ‘artistically worthless’. Why, even ‘very distinguished old butch dykes‘ who teach literature in the universities don’t acknowledge it! And so, because literature students, those paragons of intellect and utility, have not read it, it must be a fad.

Rand never pretended that her beliefs were easy ones to swallow; much of the novel revolves around the difficulty the two main characters, Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden, have accepting it. They fight until they last possible second to succeed in a world which punishes them for their success, which demands the products of their success whilst at the same time requiring their self-sacrifice and destruction.

And to many people, I think, that is what the world seems to want these days. People rabbit on about social responsibility, reducing inequality, and eradicating poverty without ever acknowledging that the productivity and profit-motive they condemn are the very things which make global prosperity possible. And that’s not even taking into account those occasional types who seem to loathe the idea of prosperity! The human race has spent the last three thousand years fighting its way out of the filth and misery into which it was born to reach a state of being in which literally anything is possible. We had the minds to do it three thousand years ago; what we didn’t have, until the last couple of centuries, was the leisure to think. And people condemn thinking as bad, and progress as evil, because it leaves others behind. Sacrifice is preferable to gain; a low quality of life for all is preferable to a shitty quality of life for some.

And because ambition cannot be stopped – because the Dagny Taggarts and Hank Reardens of the world have not yet learned to withdraw their sanction – it must be stifled, through regulation and legislation, and everyone must be made to believe that freedom and movement and reckless, momentous change are frightening.

Left-leaning friends of mine have often asked how, as a Christian, I can approve of selfishness and dislike the concept of sacrifice. Did not Christ sacrifice himself? Did he not say that, if you have two coats, you should give one to the man who has none?

I could embark here upon an exegesis of how I interpret Christian philosophy, but I’m not going to, because it’s not necessary. Even Christ, whose understanding of economics was pretty meagre, never demanded sacrifice without the promise of reward. The right acts and charity he advocated are, in one way, their own reward, because performing them makes us feel good. But he also promised the reward of paradise which, if you believe in such a thing, is a pretty good incentive, no?

What these socialist murderers of their own posterity desire is for us all to sacrifice without reward, metaphorically to throw ourselves in front of a bus because it might save a stranger, to produce without incentive and achieve without reward, to see the good of our fellow man as better than and separate from our own good, to give without enjoyment and receive without gratitude, and to continue doing so until we reach the only possible state of equality that exists: death.

And in a way, Atlas Shrugged is the most depressing book ever written, because we will all keep fighting – none of us can withdraw sanction – and there is no Galt’s Gulch. And so we struggle on and watch as human achievement collapses around our ears, and on every side the blame is entirely our own.

‘If the things I said are true, who is the guiltiest man in this room tonight?’
‘I suppose–James Taggart?’
‘No, Mr Rearden, it is not James Taggart. But you must define the guilt and choose the man for yourself.’

Mar 102009
 

Because I cannot be arsed to read the news while there is work to be done, I find that a lot of what alerts my ‘blog-post dammit’ sensors comes from other blogs, and today is no exception. By David Davis (no, not that one) at the Libertarian Alliance, I was entirely brought up short by a singular piece of commentary:

And, to round off, what a load of feminazi crap from Rowenna Davis at the Grauniad, about the “bloke-o-sphere.” Thanks to “And there was me thinking” for hat-tipping me off to this fem***z* august woman journalist. Perhaps it’s that males are just more intellectually and literarily creative? We can’t fabricate babies, you lot have to do that for us (and yourselves, don’t forget that, ever): so we write more, and harder, and faster, and with more exquisitely crafted anger feeling instead. The pen is mightier than the p**** I guess.

Many eons ago (a couple of years in reality), I was fortunate enough to be introduced to the wonders of University Challenge, that exquisitely British quiz programme hosted by the even-more-exquisite Jeremy Paxman. During the course of several rounds of filming and, later, numerous Monday evenings spent shouting trivia at the television set in tandem with some of the brightest young minds in the country (‘Wadham-Harris!’), it became apparent to me that females made up rather less than 50% of the contestant pool. On our own team (of which I was not a member, lest you accuse me of delusions of grandeur), there was one female, who answered precisely two starters-for-ten in the entire course of the team’s progress. I remember asking my then-boyfriend, the captain of our team, why women were so under-represented in the competition.

To give him his due, he considered the question carefully rather than, a la David Davis, leaping to the defence with accusations of feminazism. Eventually, he said something along the lines of: ‘To be successful on University Challenge, one has to be aggressive and take risks. If you don’t know the answer, you have to come up with a plausible guess and run with it. Those tend to be male traits, I suppose.’

Much later, or perhaps it was around the same time, I asked him why it is that females, on average, perform much better in school, but males perform better at university. His response was similar: ‘When you think about the university examination system, you know that most of it consists of writing rather long essays in answer to rather vague questions. What achieves good marks doesn’t seem to be simple repetition of facts. Instead, errors of fact are overlooked if an answer is bold enough or has enough flair. Men, I suppose, tend to be rather bolder and more given to flashes of insight.’

My own experience as a teacher would seem to support his conclusions. When I taught history in the US (in a mixed school), my best students were male. Even when they misreported the circumstances of historical events, their essays often displayed a deeper understanding of the material and a more rigorous level of analysis than those of the females.

What does this mean for women in the blogosphere, then?

A quick survey of my own blogroll (which is rather more extensive than what you will find in the right-hand sidebar), reveals that there are two women on it: one, Megan McArdle, is an MBA who writes for the Atlantic, and the other is a feminist. This is not to say that I’m not aware of other female bloggers: David Davis tips his hat to one, Dennis often features another, and who hasn’t heard of the lovely Trixy? And yet those five women represent the sum total of my conversance with the female side of the interweb-commentariat. Of the two on my blogroll, I read Megan McArdle to keep up with the American libertarian world, and I read the feminist because she is angry and sweary and uses neologisms like ’empornulate.’

Rowenna Davis (no relation to David) says:

Second, it’s worrying because – like any forum – virtual spaces develop institutional cultures over time. The House of Commons building might be gender neutral, but fill its chambers with mainly men for hundreds of years and sexism begins to looks like part of the furniture. So too with cyberspace. Unlike parliament, the internet was not made exclusively for men, but mainstream political blogs are starting to become defined as such.

In such a context, it’s hard to stay true to yourself online. When editing LabourList, I felt the need to turn up the aggression, to be more cutting than I would like to be and less willing to compromise. Online, I felt a similar pressure that Thatcher may have felt in the Commons – the need to compensate for my femininity in a world dominated by aggressive masculinity.

Her choice of the words ‘aggression’ and ‘aggressive’ certainly hearkens back to my ex’s remarks and suggests that the blogosphere, like University Challenge and university exams, is a realm in which success is achieved by having the loudest, most insistent, most incisive voice.

Rowenna Davis goes on:

But facing that world alongside other female bloggers gave me hope. I was lucky enough to have commentators like Sadie Smith tweeting alongside me, and blog-readers like Grace Fletcher-Hackwood questioning the male-dominated blogroll. While editing, I saw first-hand that – given a critical mass – the internet can work for women as well as against them.

But changing the content for one day is not enough. If women don’t keep up a lively presence online, the “blokeosphere” will rule. Ultimately, the internet is what we make it. This poses a challenge to mainstream political blogs – who have a responsibility to make space for female voices – and to women, who have a duty to fill them.

It’s rather heartening to know that ‘mainstream’ political blogs, of which I read precisely none according to what this woman’s definition probably is, suffer the same dearth of oestrogen as the libertarian blogs I frequent. Whilst I don’t support the idea that any internet community has ‘a responsibility to make space for female voices,’ I do agree that women, if they want their voices heard, need to enter the space and start making waves.

The delightful Tim Worstall mentioned a related problem recently when he ridiculed Mary Honeyball MEP for contradicting her own argument about gender quotas, and let’s be fair, the woman is a stupid ass:

It took all-women shortlists to raise the number of Labour women MPs to 27% of the parliamentary Labour party. Compare this with the Tories – who, incidentally, oppose quotas – of whom only 9% are female. Quotas do work, and I do not believe we will get significantly more women elected representatives without them.

Only 26% of MPs are female, meaning that Westminster does not have enough women for them to form a critical mass – estimated to be around 30% – where they can bring about changes.

Only by getting more women into parliament will some of the structural barriers that prevent more women from being elected be removed. Female MPs are role models who raise women’s and girls’ aspirations. Quotas are a short-term measure that will ensure long lasting democracy and equal representation.

Although women comprise, as is often cited, half of the population, women do not comprise half the population’s representatives. I don’t want to get into the issue of quotas, which are a silly idea in any situation (vide Tim, supra) and already discredited more than ably over at Musings on Liberty, but it’s interesting to see how Honeyball attacks democracy in the name of…democracy. Democracy is not only choosing for whom one wishes to vote, but choosing whether or not one wishes to stand for office. When more men than women wish to stand, and more people prefer to vote for men over women, that is democracy, however much it might offend the sensibilities of equality-seekers.

And why do we have this confluence of more men running and more people voting for men? Perhaps it is because politics, like University Challenge, university exams, and the blogosphere, is a realm in which success is achieved by having the loudest, most insistent, most incisive voice. If a majority of men and women believe that women possess those traits in insufficient quantities, then women will neither stand for office nor receive votes.

The question, is seems to me, is: why are aggression and flair considered primarily masculine, rather than feminine, traits? We all know women who possess them, and we all know men who don’t. Are women employing these characteristics in other spheres of their lives? Is David Davis right in suggesting that women divert their strenuous efforts into the creation of babies?

I don’t know the answer. I know that I am not a person who is much given to flair. I am rarely loud. I do not craft my anger into exquisite, invective-filled blog posts, and other people’s pens are indeed mightier, as David Davis says, than my pussy. I am not aggressive. So maybe this blog is doomed to fail, I will never have a career in politics, and Gail Trimble truly is the man.

What I do know, however, is that whinging on about what women are entitled to, whether it be space in the great political debate, seats in Parliament, or exams tailored to fit their character traits, is a counter-productive waste of time. Women are entitled to be treated as human beings, with all attendant rights and liberties. No more, no less. And the more we focus on dragging down men to pull ourselves up, the more harm we do to our primary, legitimate, and above all imperative goal.