You can’t figure out the bag I’m in

21 05 2014

[Updated below]

Race is a social construct.

1. This does not mean race is not real. This is always the problem with any mention of social construction—you’re saying it’s not real!—but there is no reason to conclude that that which is constructed is not real.

The United States is a social construction, and it is real. Language is a social construction, and it is real. Political parties, political movements, constitutions: all socially constructed, all real.

(Are all social constructions fictions? And what is the relationship of fiction to reality? More complicated question, more complicated answer, but the short version to both is: Depends on how you define fiction. But that’s another post.)

2. This does mean it has a history, one which varies across time and space. In 19th century Europe one could speak of German and Slavic and English (etc.) races, and further distinguish Jews as a race.

That broadly ethnic version of race was transported across the Atlantic, but was overcome—due in no small part to the necessities of settlement and slave society—by an understanding of white, black, and ‘the savage’ races.

Black was always clear: those of African origin; savage would be understood as Indian; and white was reserved for northern and western European Christians. These lines could be blurred and stretched—whites would eventually include southern Europeans, the Irish, and Jews, and today some Hispanics are crossing into white—as well as added to, as with ‘asiatic’, ‘oriental’, or Asian peoples, as well as the aforementioned Hispanic.

Current US census categories include “White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander”. The Census sites notes “The racial categories included in the census questionnaire generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country and not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically, or genetically.”

Further, and in late recognition of interracial reproduction, “[p]eople may choose to report more than one race to indicate their racial mixture,” . . .

The Census is hardly the last word on the issue, but that categories have changed and, with the allowance of multi-racial reporting, become more fluid indicates that race is largely what we say it is.

3. To state that something is a social construct is not to deny any material contribution to that construct.

Are differences in skin color influenced by genetics? Yes. Hair color and texture? Yes. Bone structures? Yes.

4. Does this mean race is biological?

Long breath in and out.

Both the long and short answers are “yes and no”. Phenotypic differences are influenced by biology and in some cases determined by genetics, but the sorting of these biologically- and genetically-influenced/determined phenotypic differences into races tends to elide the complexity of the mechanisms involved in those influences/determinations.

Thus, if one wants to speak of genetic differences among humans, one is much better off referring to “populations” (or, perhaps, “ethnicities”): the term is anchored in geography, and allows for understanding of such terms as gene  or allele frequencies and genetic drift. Some genes are more likely to appear in some populations and not others (for both evolutionary and non-evolutionary, i.e., “drift” reasons); in some cases those variations will be visible in appearance.

In other words, there are many genetic populations and there are differences between those populations; in some cases those differences which are visible are assigned a racial character.

As Agustin Fuentes has pointed out, the assignment of certain characteristics, and those with x number of those characteristics to a race, ignores the fact that “race” encompasses many genetic populations. To state that “there are racial differences between Africans and Asians” is false not because there are no genetic differences between Africans and Asians but because the use of the term “race” erases the genetic differences among Africans and Asians: again, there are many genetic populations within each “race”.

So, again, the determination of race is at least as much about what we say it is than with genetics.

4 5. This is not even to get into breeding across populations, and the determination of the race of cross-population offspring.

5 6. This is also not even to get into complex (multiple genetic and other contributions) traits such as personality, intelligence, temperament, and behavior.

It is possible, perhaps even likely, that there are variations in the allele frequencies contributing to these complex traits across populations. The identification and characterization of these alleles (and their possible interactions among the alleles and with other factors) is only beginning, however, which means any conclusions about these variations are grossly premature.

6 7. I will not be reading Nicholas Wade’s book.

Perhaps a nice book on population genetics, instead.

~~~

*Update: Criminy, can I not even count? Should I blame my Irish or my German genes for the lack? Or maybe it was a stray Danish or French allele.

Anyway, the real reason for the update: Anne Fausto-Sterling reviewed a number of books on race, genetics, and epigenetics which both overlaps with and extends my argument—and with fewer typos!





What if God was one of us

5 11 2013

I’m one of those don’t-hate-religion non-religious types. Most of the time.

And then I read smug shit like this:

To a person, the new atheists hold that God is some being in the world, the maximum instance, if you want, of the category of “being.” But this is precisely what Aquinas and serious thinkers in all of the great theistic traditions hold that God is not. Thomas explicitly states that God is not in any genus, including that most generic genus of all, namely being. He is not one thing or individual — however supreme — among many. Rather, God is, in Aquinas’s pithy Latin phrase, esse ipsum subsistens, the sheer act of being itself.

I’m all about being, so you’d think I’d be all over this. You’d be wrong.

Hell, I’ve read Heidegger, and even if I can’t stop myself from muttering “Nazi gasbag” every time I pick him up, I do think he is worth picking up. It’s tough to talk being without talking nonsense, and while ol’ Martin (that “Nazi gasbag”) peddles his share of nonsense, he does also manage to make sense. Unlike Robert Barron.

God is not a supreme item within the universe or alongside of it; rather, God is the sheer ocean of being from whose fullness the universe in its entirety exists.

Actually, this does make a kind of sense: God is everything, such that without God, there is nothing. It’s a handy bit of sleight-o-hand: How does one know God exist? Because without God, there would be nothing. Easy-peasy.

It’s not a bad tautology, as tautologies go, but, like Pascal’s wager or Lewis’s trilemma, it seeks to lock down not just the answer to a question, but the questions themselves. This is THE question, one is told, and no follow-ups and no other possible interpretations, which might lead to other possible responses, are allowed. No questioning the question.

Barron allows that science allows us to learn a great deal about our material reality. The problem, he says, is that these materials are themselves “contingent”, i.e., dependent upon another reality rather than being real in and of themselves. How does he know this? God-is-everything!

We are surrounded on all sides by things that exist but that don’t have to exist.

[...]

Now a moment’s meditation reveals that all of the conditioning elements that I mentioned are themselves, in similar ways, contingent. They don’t explain their existence any more than the computer does. Therefore, unless we permanently postpone the explanation, we have to come, by logical deduction, to some reality which is not contingent and whose very nature is to exist.

Um, no. Perhaps the explanation is that everything is contingent, nothing is necessary, and existence itself a kind of chance, nothing more.

Barron accuses skeptics of incurosity and irrationality for not bothering with the question of why is there something rather than nothing, but not having an answer doesn’t mean the question isn’t asked; not all questions are contingent upon an answer.

As for Why should the universe exist at all? Who says anything about “should”? It does, for now, and for awhile longer. If it someday ends, it doesn’t mean it never existed at all.

Same goes for us. We don’t have to be here, and yet we are, for now. So what are we to do with this chance?

That, to me, is the real question, and wonder, of being.





And they were turning into butterflies

11 06 2013

1. Politics is anti-utopian; utopia is anti-politics.

We spent this evening’s class going over Bernard Crick’s “A defence of politics against technology” and talking about scientism and technocracy and George Packer’s May 27th New Yorker piece on Silicon Valley and the dream of the frictionless and I, as ever, joined Crick in defending politics against against the plans of the smooth and predictable, against that frictionless dream of techno-utopia.

What would we do, a student asked? I noted we should be so lucky to have such problems as utopia, then shrugged and quoted David Byrne that Heaven is a place. . . where nothing ever happens and let it hang as we packed to leave.

I am political, not utopian.

2. Dreams of utopia are lovely and heartbreaking in ways dreams of politics never will be.

Once home I listened to Jian Ghomeshi’s wonderfully strange and spiky interview with the wonderfully strange and spiky Joni Mitchell as I played spider solitaire on my computer. In the intro to the segment on Mitchell’s recollection of missing Woodstuck, Ghomeshi played her slow, thoughtful lament on what might have been.

And sitting here alone I paused in my solitaire as my throat closed and eyes teared as she sidled her way through the opening lyrics.

What was that? Why did this happen? How could that song do that to me?

Mitchell noted that had she actually gone to Woodstock she couldn’t have written the song, that the bullshit and backbiting of what really was would have torn up an undreamt garden.

I am anti-utopian because utopias are not possible; if I thought they were possible, would I be utopian? Could we really have a dreamt-of garden?

. . . and thus the lovely heartbreak.





Is this the real life

22 05 2013

I’m so late.

With the edits on Home Away Home, that is. Some time ago K. had expressed interest in the manuscript—she’d liked  The Unexpected Neighbor*—and I said, Ah, yeah, okay, as soon as I give it one last go around.

And then I did nothing.

K. bugged me, and I said Yeah yeah—I know, how awful that someone wants to read your work!—and did nothing. Repeat. And then I thought, Huh, I should get this done.

I made it easier by editing it section by section and sending those off to K. Some sections required sanding, others, sawing, but edits for one through five went pretty well.

And then I got busy with ghosting and grading and in the meantime K. was reading what I’d sent and then she finished and said, Hey. . . and I said Two weeks. And then did nothing.

Well, not exactly nothing: I started with the edits and again with the sanding and sawing and then I hit a point at which I realized Oh, crap, I’m gonna need a bigger saw, and stepped off.

I’ve stepped back up, proceeding bit by bit, but MAN do I have to dial it back. Both The Unexpected Neighbor and Home Away Home are dialogue-heavy and both suffer from the same defect: my tendency to make the characters too knowing.

Actually, it’s not just that they’re too knowing; it’s that this knowingness gets in the way of realistic dialogue. Now, were I writing a mannered piece, this wouldn’t be an issue, but the characters of both of these novels inhabit worlds I’d like readers to recognize; thus, they have to sound like real people.

I don’t mind that I over-write on the first draft; what I do mind is that it’s not until many drafts later that I manage to pare it back. I don’t know what I’m doing on those other drafts—it’s not as if these two works are plot-heavy—but apparently I can’t see the over-knowing dialogue until after I’ve worked everything else out.

Presuming, that is, that I’ve worked everything else out. . . .

~~~

*Click on that link and it’ll take you to Smashwords, where you can buy the novel for the princely sum of 3 bucks! Half the cost of a pint of Guinness! Less than a latte! Totally worth it!





Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before

18 03 2013

Oh that Rand Paul, champion of liberty! Look how he’s standing up for freedom now:

“The Life at Conception Act legislatively declares what most Americans believe and what science has long known – that human life begins at the moment of conception, and therefore is entitled to legal protection from that point forward,” Paul said in a statement. “ The right to life is guaranteed to all Americans in the Declaration of Independence and ensuring this is upheld is the Constitutional duty of all Members of Congress.”

Ahh, conceptional personhood: An idea utterly lacking in biological sense.

Charlie Pierce has the right idea regarding the Paul family: His Five Minute Rule  states that, for five minutes, both the son and the father, Crazy Uncle Liberty (!), make perfect sense on many issues. At the 5:00:01 mark, however, the trolley inevitably departs the tracks.

As Pierce notes, with this we are at the 5:00: 07 mark: The trolley has jumped the tracks, tipped over on its side, and is skidding down the boulevard.

I believe I have covered this before, but let’s go over this again, shall we?

There is no such thing as the “moment of conception”.

As Moore and Persaud note in the 6th edition of The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology:

Fertilization is a complex series of “coordinated molecular events (see Acosta, 1994 for details) that begins with the contact between the sperm and a oocyte and ends with the intermingling of maternal and paternal chromosomes at metaphase of the first mitotic division of the zygote, a unicellular embryo. Defects at any stage in the sequence of these events might cause the zygote to die (Asch et al, 1995). . . . The fertilization process takes about 24 hours. [p. 34, emph added]

“Process”, Senator Paul, not “moment”. Shall we break it down even further?

  • Passage of sperm through corona radiata surrounding the the zona pellucida of an oocyte.
  • Penetration of the zona pellucida surrounding the oocyte
  • Fusion of plasma membranes of the oocyte and sperm
  • Completion of the second meiotic division of oocyte and formation of female pronucleus
  • Formation of male pronucleus
  • Membranes of pronuclei break down, the chromosomes condense and become arranged for a mitotic cell division—the first cleavage division [pp. 34-36]

There are many more details involved in those stages, but the highlights ought to be enough.

At this point, the zygote is still in the ampulla [middle portion] of the fallopian tube, ambling its way toward the uterus. Beginning around 30 hours post-fertilization, it undergoes a series of mitotic or cleavage divisions, in which the internal cells (blastomeres) divide and become successively smaller. “After the nine-cell stage, the blastomeres change their shape and tightly align themselves against each other to form a compact ball of cells. . . . When there are 12 to 14 blastomeres, the developing human is called a morula (L. morus, mulberry).”  The morula forms about 3 days post-fert, and enters the uterus 3-4 days post-fert. [p. 41]

Okay, 4 days in and the mulberry is still wandering around, unattached, developing away. A fluid filled space called the blastocyst cavity or blastocoel forms, which separates the blastomeres into two parts:

  • a thin outer cell layer called the trophoblast, which gives rise to the embryonic part of the placenta
  • a group of centrally located blastomeres known as the inner cell mass, which gives rise to the embryo [p. 41]

At this point the berry becomes a blastocyst. (FYI: If you are an embryonic stem cell researcher, this is when you’d harvest the inner cell mass in order to cultivate stem cell lines. The blastocyst would, of course, be destroyed in the process.)

The blastocyst continues to float around in “uterine secretions” for a couple of days as “the zona pellucida gradually degenerates and disappears”. [p. 41] With the dissolution of the zona pellucida, the blastocyst is free to bulk up on those tasty secretions, until around day 6 post-fert, when it attaches itself to the endometrial epithelium.

All hell breaks loose now, as the trohoblast differentiates itself and its outer layer, the syncytiotrophoblast, insinuates itself into the endometrial epithelium and into the connective tissue, or stroma. “The highly invasive syncytiotrophoblast expands quickly adjacent to the inner cell mass, the area known as the embryonic pole. The syncytiotrophoblast produces enzymes that erode the maternal tissues, enabling the blastocyst to burrow into the endometrium.” [p. 42]

Although it takes another week for the embryo to implant itself fully into the endometrium and stroma—which further details I will spare you—this is the stage at which one could say a pregnancy begins.

Got it? One day for the process of fertilization, 6 days for sufficient development to begin a pregnancy, for a grand total of 7 days or one week.

Oh, and one more thing: Of all the zygote-morula-blastocysts formed, 25 percent wash out before implantation, and another 35-55 percent miscarry before birth. Only 20-40 percent of those berries results in a baby.

Anyway, if I wanted to be kind to the momentary conceptional folks, I could say that “conception” is achieved after 24 hours; if I wanted to be strict, I could say 7 days, and if I wanted to be a real bitch, I could argue that not until 14 days has the embryo done anything worth considering a “conception”. Even granting a kindness, it’s clear that the moment is, at its shortest, a day.

Why does this matter? After all, for many people who are pro-life, the issue is less the biology than the morality; that the conceptus takes awhile to get itself together does not obviate the fact that the process begins—that human life begins—when the sperm drills itself into the egg. The biology matters only because it is a trigger for something more, not in and of itself.

This, of course, is how you get bullshit proposals like personhood bills and amendments: by treating biology as a chit in the culture war rather than a reality on its own terms.

Human development is an amazing, complicated, and fraught process, one which does not comport itself easily to our moral preconceptions (sorry) about it. By all means, make a moral argument, but don’t pretend that biology tucks up neatly into it.

Senator Paul is free to believe all he wants “that human life begins at the moment of conception, and therefore is entitled to legal protection from that point forward”, but I am also free to point out it is a belief untethered to biological reality.

That trolley done run into nonsense.





We might as well try: You make the best of what’s still around

15 07 2012

We’re a mess.

You want to know why social scientists like models and abstractions and formalisms? It’s because we’re a mess, and it’s tough to know where and how to begin in a mess; impose order, and all of a sudden those messes reveal a clean kind of meaning, shorn of stray bits of paper and belly lint and someone suddenly slamming on the brakes for no apparent reason.

This isn’t a knock on modeling, and I’m a big fan of models precisely because they bring clarity, allow us to see patterns where, before, there was only mess. But when using models you can never forget that they are, in fact, models, a cleaned-up and edited version of reality, not reality itself.* Models are great for understanding a particular thing about a general phenomenon or a number of things about a particular phenomenon, but they can be both stretched out of shape trying to explain too much or so stingy in what they take in they explain nothing at all.**

Anyway, I don’t want to get too bogged down*** in measurement or even conscious interpretation, especially since I’m trying to figure out what comes before said measurement or conscious interpretation.

Which is to say, the mess.

If I don’t have a theory or a model for this mess, I do have a direction—find damned-near-indisputably necessary bits to human being.

Damned-near-indisputably-necessary bit 1: We are mortal beings.

We’re born, we live, we die. No one enters life without having been born****, and no one stays forever. Whether there is something before or after life is disputed, as is the significance of that extra-life existence, but, today, every yesterday, and for the foreseeable future, our mortality is sufficiently indisputable as to be called a fact.

D-n-i-n bit 2: We are biological beings.

This goes along with our mortality: as far as is known, everything biological is of necessity mortal. But this has a particular meaning beyond our mortality, since as biological beings we have particular needs required to keep that biology working. We need food and water and protection from both the elements and predators. We can become ill, get better; we break, we mend; we live as physical beings within a particular environment and if we are not able to meet our biological needs within that environment, we either move or die.

D-n-i-n bit 3: We are social beings.

Some people dispute this; those people should be ignored.

This is not about a kumbaya vision of cooperative harmony, but a recognition that we are all helpless at the beginning of life (and many at the end); if we are not cared for during that extended period of helplessness, we die.

Furthermore, given that that period is so extended—ten years, minimum—the process of said care results in the child learning the basics of species-being, that is, language, which in turn allows one to interact with others of our kind.

I want to say more about the centrality of language to human sociality, but that would take me into less-than-indisputably-necessary bits, and the point in this post, at least, is to try to nail down something about us which any model or theory has to take into account if it is worth considering at all.

Do you remember my bit on epistemology-ontology-the practical? Of course you do! Well, I’ve hopped over the epistemological and landed us in the ontological, or, er, the proto-ontological(?!): If I won’t rely on FOUNDATIONS, then I have to at least tack a few boards together before we swing out over the abyss or float down the river or whatever metaphor doesn’t give you vertigo or make you seasick.

Where was I? Yes, the basics: We’re mortal, we’re biological, we’re social.

We’re also other things—important other things, which I’ll tack on in later posts—but I wanted to reiterate those basics on which I not only build my interpretations and theories, but upon which all interpretations and theories about human being should be built. Other people will legitimately tack on other things (that mess gives us a LOT to choose from) and swing or float in different directions, but if they start with such nonsense as “assume a can opener”, well, then they’re engaging in social-science fiction.

I got nothin’ against science fiction—I’m a fan, actually—but if you want to claim you’re saying something “real” about the world, then you better damned well deal with the damned-near-indisputable realities of this world, and our being human in it.

________

*Well, okay, this gets epistemologically tricky, insofar as the view through which one views a phenomenon affects the phenomenon itself. Reality is never just “there”; it’s always and unavoidably worked on. But there is a distinction between unavoidable oft-unconscious interpretation and the conscious imposition of a schema, which is what I’m trying get at, here. The distinction itself matters, and deserves further investigation—but not in this post.

**This goes for theory, as well, although theory tends to err on the side of trying to do too much than too little; a theory which does too little tends to lose its status as ‘theory’.

***That’s why this stuff is in the notes rather than the body. I’m one of those who thinks you ought to be able to skip the footnotes without missing anything important—notes are for sources and elaborations on basic points, not the introduction of novel material—so imma gonna just drop the whole shebang for now.

****What if we ever manage to figure out how to hatch a person or otherwise build one in a lab? What if we figure out how to live forever? Well, then the conditions of existence would have changed and we’d have to figure out what those new conditions mean. But we ain’t there yet.





American idiot

16 02 2012

This just passed the Virginia House of Delegates by a vote of 66-32:

HOUSE BILL NO. 1 Offered January 11, 2012Prefiled November 21, 2011A BILL to construe the word “person” under Virginia law, including but not limited to § 8.01-50 of the Code of Virginia, to include unborn children.

———-Patrons– Marshall, R.G. and Cline; Senators: Colgan and Garrett———-Referred to Committee for Courts of Justice———-Be it enacted by the General Assembly of Virginia:

1.  § 1. The life of each human being begins at conception.

§ 2. Unborn children have protectable interests in life, health, and well-being.

§ 3. The natural parents of unborn children have protectable interests in the life, health, and well-being of their unborn child.

§ 4. The laws of this Commonwealth shall be interpreted and construed to acknowledge on behalf of the unborn child at every stage of development all the rights, privileges, and immunities available to other persons, citizens, and residents of this Commonwealth, subject only to the Constitution of the United States and decisional interpretations thereof by the United States Supreme Court and specific provisions to the contrary in the statutes and constitution of this Commonwealth.

§ 5. As used in this section, the term “unborn children” or “unborn child” shall include any unborn child or children or the offspring of human beings from the moment of conception until birth at every stage of biological development.

§ 6. Nothing in this section shall be interpreted as creating a cause of action against a woman for indirectly harming her unborn child by failing to properly care for herself or by failing to follow any particular program of prenatal care.

§ 7. Nothing in this section shall be interpreted as affecting lawful assisted conception.

§ 8. Nothing in this section shall be interpreted as affecting lawful contraception.

That’s right: the proposed amendment protecting contraception was stripped out of the final bill.

As for “affecting lawful assisted conception”, does Delegate Robert G. Marshall know that the process of culturing, testing, freezing, and thawing embryos carries the non-negligible risk of embryo death? Or that this bill would require those who created the embryos in vitro either to transfer said embryos to a willing woman or to keep them in a deep freeze forever?

Does he know that as of 2009 Virginia contained 12 fertility clinics, which performed over 2000 cycles using fresh non-donor eggs? Is he aware that many, many more than 2000 fertilized eggs were transferred which never took? Is he aware that during these IVF cycles that many eggs were fertilized that never developed beyond a few cleavage stages—that is, that these eggs died in the dish?

Maybe he does, and he just doesn’t care.

But no, let’s not give him the benefit of the doubt—especially since he couldn’t be bothered to agree to the contraception-protection amendment—and let’s denounce his double-idiocy. Why double?

1. He does not understand conception.

To begin with, fertilization is a process, not a single event. The zygote is not formed until the last stage of fertilization, that is, after the sperm has penetrated into the ooplasm it takes some time before the 23 pairs of chromosomes are sorted and arranged. Furthermore, the early pregnancy factor protein—the presence of which in the first 10 days after fertilization indicates a pregnancy—is not secreted into the woman’s bloodstream until 24-48 hours post-fertilization.

And of course, pregnancy is not considered to have begun until 6 days or so post-fertilization, when the blastocyst attaches itself to the endometrium epithelium of the uterine wall.

Given that neither Marshall nor any of the rest of the 65 delegates could be bothered even to define what is “conception”—is it that magic moment when a single sperm pushes its way through the zona pellucida surrounded the ooplasm? after the formation of the two pronuclei? the fusion of said pronuclei?—-it’s easy to conclude they don’t give a damn about biological reality.

Which matters because it is the biological reality that 60-80 percent of all fertilized eggs will never result in a live birth, which in turn would indicate that “nature” or “biology” doesn’t give a damn about Marshall’s definition of personhood.

2. This biological reality also matters because these majority of failed fertilizations could potential open a woman up to legal liability.

Yes, the bill states that “Nothing in this section shall be interpreted as creating a cause of action against a woman for indirectly harming her unborn child by failing to properly care for herself or by failing to follow any particular program of prenatal care” —but it doesn’t prevent such creation, either. In other words, the legislators, in attempting to get around the legal reality that it would be impossible to investigate every single instance of failed fertilization, nonetheless leave open the possibility (via § 4) that a woman could be held liable.

Admittedly, I could be reaching here, but it does seem as if sections 4 and 6 are in potential conflict with one another, and it is by no means certain how a court would resolve such a conflict.

More to the point, this is a piece of bullshit boilerplate designed both to get the state off the hook for not providing adequate prenatal care to poor and uninsured women and to reinforce the notion that women aren’t responsible enough to make decisions about their own health.

And, of course, this bill leaves the status of in vitro-created zygotes in limbo: what happens if they don’t develop? Could clinicians be held liable?

Who knows. Answers to these questions would require some recognition of the messiness and complexity of human life, something which these reality-challenged delegates are clearly unable to do.

The bill now goes to the Senate.





You can’t always get what you want

28 07 2011

Completely irresponsible.

Yes, I disagree with the Republican agenda in general and the Tea Party agenda in particular. No surprise there.

And I’m not particularly happy with the Democrats, either—see my various Bam! posts—and their apparent inability even to generate an agenda (which is likely related to their lack of overall purpose).

But there are certain realities which are indifferent to ideologies and agendas, realities which include a high unemployment rate, divided government, and a wary global economy. There are, in other words, constraints on one’s aspirations, constraints which ought to discipline one’s behavior.

And yet they do not. Or, to put this another way, “limits” are apparently to be used only as an ideological battering ram by the TeaPers, rather than marking out the boundaries of a difficult debate.

Difficulty? What difficulty? We’ll simply wave our “don’t-tread-on-me-flag” and declare that our will is what is.

Why deal with reality when you are the Master of Your Own Universe?

It must be admitted, of course, that life in the real world is a little less heady, a little more complicated, and contains more than its share of frustrations. The notion of living within one’s means requires that we nail down just what we mean by “living with” and “one’s means”, and that the old Rolling Stone lyric is wrong only in that, honestly, you don’t always get even what you need.

We can change the world (the universe? not so much), but not by declaring the world changed. We have to do the work.

So, members of the House of Representatives, put down the flag and do the fucking work.

If you don’t like how and how much the government spends, you deal with that in the budget process. Want less spending? Then allocate fewer funds. Lower taxes? Ditto.

If, however, you want to increase defense spending, maintain agricultural price supports, protect subsidies for oil companies, fatten up the transportation/highway spending budget, fence out all illegal immigration, give money to survivors of tornadoes, hurricanes, drought, and fire, well, then, you have to make some decisions about those taxes.

You don’t get to say “no deficit spending” and then vote for deficit spending.

You want a balanced budget? Then produce a FUCKING BALANCED BUDGET.

And after you’ve produced an unbalanced budget, don’t pretend to have been victimized by your own actions.

Don’t say “hey, spend money on this,” and then refuse to hand over the credit card.

I’d prefer more spending: on multiple high-speed rail routes, a single-payer health plan, scientific and medical research, aggressive development of green technologies, elder care, day care, welfare, environmental protection, job (re)training, mixed- and low-income housing, education—the whole social welfarist shebang. Higher taxes, more and better services.

You want more, you have to pay more, full stop.

But maybe you don’t want to pay more. I think the anorectic approach to governance is wrong, but legitimate—or it is only legitimate if you actually lower your spending levels to match your revenues (and, frankly, if you don’t off-load any costs on to other entities). If you’re willing to tell people that they’ll receive precious little in return for the precious little they pay, then, okay.

But you don’t get say “I’ll cut—and there will be no blood.” And then double-back and proclaim your courage in dealing in “hard truths”.

Don’t paint yourself as a martyr—“I’m willing to risk my seat over this!”—for doing your fucking job, especially when you’re not doing your fucking job.

You took a job in government, a government which has obligations which predate your arrival and will incur obligations after you’re gone. Whether you like it or not, you’re responsible for those obligations.

So start acting like it.





I will follow

10 07 2011

How can a political freak not have fun with a fellow political freak—oh she of the Goth eyeliner (which only serves to accentuate her cheerful bats-in-the-belfry look) and psycholbin-inflected understanding of American history, someone given to hiding behind bushes to spy on an open protest and screaming about lesbian bathroom-kidnap plots—like Michele Bachmann?

I’ve had a lot of fun with the Republican representative from the sixth district  of Minnesota, and, frankly, I expect to continue doing so. She may be an ideological menace who would make a terrible, terrible president, but she’s so manifestly unsuited to the job that I have no real worries about her delivering an inaugural address in January 2013.

So I feel free to mock her at will.

There is, however, one (semi-? sur-?) real issue that her candidacy brings to the political debate, that of the influence of her husband, Marcus. Ms. Bachmann, you see, proclaims adherence to the “wifely submission” model of marriage.

How she and her hub run their home is, in the main, not my business, and the practice of a spouse influencing a politician’s decisions is hardly new (if only John had listened to Abigail’s admonition to “remember the ladies”. . .).  But outside of Edith Wilson’s alleged takeover of the presidency during husband Woodrow’s stroke-induced decline, it’s generally conceded that whatever the influence, the president is still is charge.

If, however, that politician states outright that she is not in charge, then what are constituents and voters to decide?

Marcus Bachmann, after all, isn’t the one taking the oath of office. He makes no promises to “uphold and defend the Constitution”, nor does he hold any responsibility to his wife’s constituents. He is in charge without being accountable.

Now, given that Rep. Bachmann stated in 2006 that “The Lord says be submissive. Wives, you are to be submissive to your husbands” a month before she was elected for the first time to the House, and has been re-elected twice, it’s entirely possible that her constituents decided they were just fine with voting for someone who answered to her husband before she answered to them. Maybe that they both claimed to answer to God was sufficient assurance that even if this greater accountability to the Lord translated into a lesser accountability to the people, the greater was for the better.

The issue of authority in marriage is a big issue in conservative Christian circles. The “complementarian” versus “egalitarian” models of marriage each (apparently) finds support in scripture, and even those marriages which claim the husband as head can look awfully equal. And with or without any scripto-ideological positioning, marriage can be a bugger.

Given these complexities, it’s possible that those who hear “submissiveness” translate the term  into “agreement”, and are thus unbothered by any notion that Mr. Bachmann might tell Mrs. Bachmann what to do; they’re simply a married couple, like any other, trying to keep it together.

That’s one end of the interpretive spectrum, anyway. At the other end, however, is the possibility that the Mister is in charge, and that what he says, goes, period. No oaths of office, no promises to constituents, matters as much as the God-infused authority of the Man of the House.

I’ll take the cynical middle course: Rep. Bachmann may see no conflict in choosing amongst her various accountabilities—her God, her husband, the Constitution, the citizens in her district—because these constituencies all line up. That is, because she doesn’t recognize that there might be other legitimate interests, because she doesn’t acknowledge the existence of those who legitimately (i.e., are motivated by something other than hatred or ignorance or some sort of anti-American bias) oppose her, she doesn’t have to reckon with the mess of pluralism—which is to say, the mess of American and global politics today.

Nope, she’s just able serenely to float above it all, hand-in-hand with her hubby, utterly unable and unwilling to engage in the realities of life as Other people live it.

We’re not real to her, and thus not to be taken seriously.

Which I guess frees us not to take her seriously, either.

_____

h/t Jill Lawrence, The Daily Beast; Jason Horowitz, The Washington Post; Molly Worthen, New York Times Magazine





Not touching ground at all

6 11 2010

Sarah Palin in 2012?

Oh no, no. No no no.

Some commentators think that a Sarah Palin candidacy would guarantee an Obama win, which, given her current low approval ratings, is not an unreasonable conclusion.

But ohp, there’s that word: unreasonable.

Sarah Palin is not much concerned with reason. Evidence, experience, coherence—no thank you. So how do you fight against someone concerned only with her own creation of the truth?

Did you ever watch the show, NewsRadio? In one episode, Joe and Lisa co-host a news program, and Joe responds to Lisa’s wonky queries with a stream of bullshit. I finally managed to track down the episode (it’s ‘The Fiftieth Episode’, the one in which Bill is sent to a psych ward, thus necessitating the fill-in hosts of Joe and Lisa), and to view the clip, skip ahead to around 9:20 or so:

This exchange has stayed with me ever since I first watched it. How do you counter such cheerful lies?

Hence the half-guv dilemma: How do you counter such chipper mendacity?

As is evident from my previous posts, I’m unsurprised by manipulation and trickery in politics, and in fact am critical of the Dems for their flusterment in the face of such flim-flammery. Fight! Fight! Fight! I say.

But. But the legislative manueverings of the GOP, while accompanied by all variety of obfuscation, was nonetheless grounded in the practical reality of Congressional procedure. Senators could filibuster and hold and delay and deny because the rules allowed them to do so; reps could attach earmarks or poison pills or call for vote after vote because, again, the rules allowed them to do so. They may have used and abused the rules, but they did not question the reality of those rules.

But the reality star who is able to conjure death panels out of thin air? How do you counter someone who ignores the laws of gravity?

You can deal with a reality-manipulator, because the manipulator has to have some sense of that reality before she warps it to her own ends. And even that Bush staffer who sniffed to the NYTimes reporter about those stuck in the ‘reality-based community’ and the ability of the Bush admin to create its own reality nonetheless still gestured to reality. They did, in their own baleful way, seek to create new facts on the ground.

But La Palin? What are facts and who cares about the ground?

The Bushers did not succeed in their quest to reshape reality: there were no roses in Iraq and a heckuva job was done to and not on behalf of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. The Photoshop of the first six years failed, and Rove et. al. lost control of the negatives.

So how does someone avoid the physics of politics, the inevitable grinding down and peeling back and failure associated with all political action? You don’t accept that there are any rules, any downs on the other side of up, any nulls to one’s hypotheses; there is only the rabbit pulled out of the hat and the declaration that this is, indeed, magic. And that magic is real.

Does Sarah Palin really believe all she says? Does it matter? She is constructing her own universe and has little use for those of us (left, right, and otherwise) who, however disgruntled with this one, nonetheless understand that this is where we live. We don’t matter in the Palinverse, have no mass or weight or anything which would identify us as real; we are figments in her imagination.

Given her low approval ratings, I’d like to think that this means most voters share my distrust of Palin. I’d like to think that most of us, when asked, ‘Who you gonna believe (gosh darn it!), me or your lyin’ eyes?’, will respond, Uh, my eyes are just fine, thankyouverymuch.

That may be, in fact, the only way to deal with a serial fantasist—to disengage, to walk away.

But if she is the candidate, Obama can’t simply walk away, he will have to engage her. Maybe it would be enough to play to the refs—us—and point out that 2 + 2 does not equal oranges.

But if there are enough of us who think 2 + 2 should equal oranges?

I’d rather not find out.








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