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God, Mother Nature Hate You

Two celebrities on opposite ends of the political spectrum had incredibly insensitive things to say this week about the earthquake in Haiti.

Pat Robertson:

"Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it," he said on Christian Broadcasting Network's "The 700 Club." "They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, we will serve you if you'll get us free from the French. True story. And so, the devil said, okay it's a deal."

Cool true story, bro. I don't know what sort of strange version of original sin Robertson believes in, but any theology that views God as a vengeful deity interested in punishing the descendants of alleged sinners many generations after the fact is not merely a God I could never believe in, but a God I would actively hate were it anything more than a figment of pathetic human imagination. Hail Satan!

Danny Glover brings us the leftist version of apocalyptic theology:

"What happened in Haiti could happen to anywhere in the Caribbean because all these island nations are in peril because of global warming," Glover said. "When we see what we did at the climate summit in Copenhagen, this is the response, this is what happens, you know what I'm sayin'?"

As Roderick Long observed in reference to an proposed environmentalist ad:

What I’ve yet to see anyone point out is how counterproductive the ad’s caption is:

THE TSUNAMI KILLED 100 TIMES MORE PEOPLE THAN 9/11.
The planet is brutally powerful. Respect it. Preserve it. www.wwf.org

(a.k.a. “Kneel before Zod!”) When you hear that “the planet” has killed 100 times more people than 9/11, is your natural response to respect and preserve it, let alone to donate money to its support? I’d think the natural response would be “I guess the planet is our enemy! We’d better declare war upon it!”

I feel more sympathy for Robertson than Glover. Robertson has to deal with the problem of evil for theological reasons: if God is an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good deity, then why does God allow evil to exist? The obvious answer is that the existence of free will is even more valuable than the existence of evil is undesirable, but this only helps explain evil that results from human actions, not natural disasters like earthquakes in Haiti.

So Robertson invokes convenient patsies - the devil, the sinning ancestors of contemporary Haitians - to explain away the tragedy and get his God off the hook. But what is Glover's excuse? Worshipers of Gaia have no need to address the problem of evil, unless they maintain that mother nature is omnibenevolent - which a cursory examination of, well, nature, would be quick to disprove. Nature, as Alfred Lord Tennyson reminded us, is red in tooth and claw.


Quote of the Day

Kerry Howley on the not unracist U.S. immigration policy toward Haitians:

The disparity between the treatment of Haitians and the treatment of similarly positioned, non-Haitian migrants was glaring even before the earthquake. Both the first Bush administration and the Clinton administration tried to craft a more humane refugee policy with regard to Haitians, only to revert back to the initial repatriation policy for fear of triggering an unsightly wave of migrants. You can only read this history through that particular fear; anything less than large-scale repatriation will bring black, poor, unskilled immigrants to American shores in numbers no politician wants to deal with.

The Obama administration has at least agreed to stop deporting Haitians for the time being, which is a start, though it’s worth noting that Canada didn’t require an earthquake to stop sending Haitians back to the poorest country in the hemisphere. I’m of the opinion that a country that can afford to vagazzle itself can afford to allow refugees from a small country in ruins to work on its shores. And when disaster cash dries up—when Americans stop texting their $5 pledges—remittances remain.


Tom Palmer Throws Down The Gauntlet

Tom Palmer, one of my intellectual heroes, throws down the gauntlet in his defense of David Boaz from dishonest smears posted on Lew Rockwell's blog by Walter Block and Tom DiLorenzo.

I still agree with the general thrust of Bryan Caplan's foundational essay, Purges and Schisms, though I might quibble with some of his arguments regarding marketing. When two or more sellers offer the same or similar ideological products, sharing the same name, they are in a sense fighting a zero-sum reputational game for the ownership of that label - what that label represents in the public's mind. So there is good reason to fight over what one believes to be the "best" version of libertarianism and the best way to communicate that vision.


Conservatism: An Ideology of Imaginary Childhoods

John Oliver of The Daily Show nails it:


Ensiferum Will Rock Your Face Off

New music genre discovery this week! Folk metal: speed metal mixed with folk music. Best band discovered so far: Finnish group Ensiferum. Favorite song: Into Battle. Here is a version appropriately set to scenes from Lord of the Rings:


If You're a Libertarian, How Come Everyone Else Is So Wrong ?

Timothy Sandefur gives the standard libertarian response to the view that in the 19th Century, the U.S. was a deregulated laissez-faire free-market capitalist utopia, leading to the emergence of robber barons and other undesireables, in need of much restraint by government. Writes Sandefur, in response to a prompt from a reader,

It's not "[historical] revisionism," accurately speaking, because that is the prevailing interpretation. But I believe it is wrong, politically biased, and reflects economic and historical ignorance.

I agree entirely with Sandefur's analysis. But this presents a problem. If the prevailing interpretation is wrong, that makes the libertarian interpretation a case of historical revisionism. And historical revisionism is a dangerous place to be.

There are two possibilities that immediately spring to mind when faced with political disagreement. Those who disagree with you must be evil or stupid.

There are lots of problems with this way of thinking, as laid out by Loren Lomasky in "Libertarianism as if (the other 99% of) People Mattered." (This paper really needs to be put online in HTML form, or at least a complete .PDF)

David Friedman offers a possible explanation here:

I have been arguing politics for a long time. In arguing with people on the left, I find it is very hard to come to an agreement on the assumed facts surrounding the situations we are judging. My imaginary capitalist has capital because he worked hard clearing part of the boundless forest while his employee to be was being lazy and living on what he could gather--so it is entirely just that the capitalist gets part of the output of his land and his employee's labor. But the leftist doesn't like that hypothetical. His imaginary capitalist inherited his capital from a father who stole it. I don't like that hypothetical. I conclude that our moral intuitions are similar enough so that the same assumed facts push both of us in the same direction--and since we want to go in opposite directions we want so assume different facts.

Yet, I remained puzzled, especially by something which appears like it should be fairly straightforward: the economic history of the 19th century. Shouldn't these facts be relatively easy to establish? Who are the culprits here? The economic historians? The legal historians? The regular historians?

And if the prevailing interpretation of history on this subject is wrong, why is it wrong? How did it get to be wrong? Was it always wrong? Why hasn't it been fixed yet? Are libertarian historians just not doing a good enough job letting other historians know about their discoveries? Or are non-libertarian historians actively resisting the truth? If so, why? Political bias?

Consistent political bias among professional historians strong enough to keep the revisionist truth from getting out there and replacing mainstream myth sounds awfully like a conspiracy theory to me. And I don't like conspiracy theories. As I wrote a while back,

The academic study of cults and conspiracy theories has interested me for a while, primarily because, when traveling in political circles considered slightly out of the mainstream, you tend to run into cranks who embrace other minority viewpoints, not so much out of any reasoned deliberation, but precisely because those viewpoints are shared by only a small (and [self]-assumed priveledged) segment of the population. I've been reading Syracuse poly sci professor Michael Barkun's book on the subject, A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, in which he attempts to explain why groups as seemingly distant from each other as UFO believers, Christian millennialists, and right-wing conspiracy theorists have becomes linked, with many believers in each distinct conspiracy theory cross-pollinating with other conspiracy theorists outside their original domain. Barkun argues that stigmitized knowledge is often accepted as true by conspiracy theorists just by virtue of it being stigmatized. Stigmitized knowledge, as Barkun defines it, means "claims to truth that the claiments regard as verified despite the marginalization of those claims by the institutions that conventionally distinguish between knowledge and error - universities, communities of scientific researchers, and the like." Barkun goes on to explain the various mechanisms by which this process occurs - put simply, conspiracy theories all rest, not only on the stigmatized knowledge claims themselves, but on the common and necessary belief that this knowledge became stigmatized for a reason, by a self-interested or otherwise nefarious organization or group of organizations in control of the orthodoxy.

Has the whole world gone crazy? Am I the only one around here who gives a shit about the rules? Mark it zero!


Shomer F*cking Negiah

Gene Callahan finds this Jonathan Rosenblum column in the Jerusalem Post to be "a great demolition of one of Randy Cohen's shallow and utterly conventional bits of 'ethical' analysis." While I don't disagree with Gene's "general impression...that Cohen equates ethics with 'what will make you liked at a Manhattan cocktail party'", in this particular case, Randy Cohen is correct that the Orthodox Jewish prohibition of Negiah is sexist.

Full disclosure: I was raised as an Orthodox Jew from birth, and adhered to this particular prohibition against physical contact between genders (with some notable exceptions) until adulthood, when I became a raving atheist with an axe to grind.

Interestingly, the Wikipedia entry on Negiah references a listserve post written by my parents' former Rabbi, Michael Broyde, discussing this very same Randy Cohen controversy. (I say former because he has since stepped down from his clergy position to focus on his academic position as law professor at Emory, though he is still considered an ordained Orthodox Rabbi.) Broyde agrees that "in the case discussed by Cohen, the values of gender equality and of religious freedom are in conflict." Broyde asks us to consider the following hypothetical:

Imagine a person who came to your house to paint your house, and at the end of the deal [he agreed to paint your house for $2,000, and you agreed to pay him] he turned to you and said "Thank you for the work, and when it is over, I will give you a bill". You stuck out your hand to shake (finalizing the deal, according to social convention), and he looked at you and said, "I am sorry, but I am Christian, and I do not shake the hands of Jews."

Would you continue to hire this person as a painter? I think the answer is "no" -- I certainly would not. While a person has religious freedom to do anything they want privately, others have the right to be insulted, and refuse to do business with you. Now I know that you will scream out that my case is different, but deep down inside, I at least do not see how it is different TO A PERSON WHO IS DEEPLY MORALLY COMITTED TO GENDER EQUALITY.

Cohen's analogy to "separate but equal" racial segregation apologetics is spot on, as should be obvious from this paragraph by Rosenblum:

By contrast, the agent made no statement, either implicit or explicit, showing any disrespect for the letter writer in particular or women in general. Strictly observant Jewish women also do not touch men so the prohibition clearly does not confer "untouchable" status on one sex or another. Rather it proscribes physical contact between sexes equally.

This is separate but equal logic. It's like the claim that "it's not racist to say that whites shouldn't date blacks, so long as the prohibition is reciprocally enforced, and the speaker also agrees that blacks shouldn't date whites."

Orthodox Judaism (and, I suspect, many other fundamentalist religions) has a built in ratchet effect of progressively increasing social conservativism, with each additional stringency acting as a barrier against the potential violation of a previous stringency.

An example of this tendency from Rosenblum's article:

True, shaking hands is a pretty innocuous form of contact, and for that reason some Orthodox religious authorities permit shaking hands in the business context. But the same claim of innocuousness is made for kissing and hugging in many circles. Rather than stepping on to a slippery slope and leaving the matter to subjective determinations about the erotic content of any particular act, many Orthodox Jews choose to simply avoid any physical contact.

So while some modern Orthodox Jews follow a sort of NAP principle with regard to shaking opposite-gender hands - don't initiate the hand shake, but do reciprocate if a hand shake is offered so as not the embarrass the other person - some of the more stringent Orthodox Jews "take extreme measures to avoid even accidental contact, such as refusal to sit next to a member of the opposite sex on a bus, airplane, or other similar seating situation."

What does this amount to in practice? In Israel, gender-segregated busing, where (of course) women are expected to sit in the back of the bus, men in the front.

As the Wikipedia entry explains, the original prohibition is derived from two verses in Leviticus:

"Any man shall not approach his close relative to uncover nakedness; I am God" (18:6), and: "You shall not approach a woman in her time of unclean separation, to uncover her nakedness" (18:19).

Notice that both of these phrasings are gendered, though they are interpreted rabbinically to apply to both men and women. Of course, God found it necessary to write "His" scriptures as if the reader "He" is addressing is necessarily male. And God similarly shares with "His" male audience a strange (for a deity) disgust of female menstruation, and the spiritual uncleanliness it entails.

To see that Rosenblum is engaging in post-hoc apologetics, in a failed attempt to make fundamentalist Orthodox Judaism seem more palatable to modern sensibilities, consider this abortion of logic:

A ban on touching acknowledges the natural physical attraction between men and women and serves as a warning. Those who observe the ban convey the message that "the erotic element is excluded from our relationship." Far from showing a lack of "dignity and respect" for those of the opposite gender, observance of the ban reflects a determination to treat members of the opposite sex with the utmost respect – i.e., as everything but objects of sexual desire.

Orthodox Judaism, of course, does not look too kindly on homosexuality, yet men are allowed to touch each other in non-sexual ways, presumably because Orthodox Judaism denies any "natural" physical attraction between men, and thus no message need be sent between two men that "the erotic element is excluded from our relationship." Yet the very act (through a non-act) of sending a message, the need that a message be sent, is a glaring reminder to both parties that the erotic element is very much present, and must be actively ignored, lest wanton acts of seed spilling and other forms of licentiousness ensue.

All of this conveniently ignores the fact that a handshake is not considered in any way erotic in modern society. A handshake between two men in a business deal is considered a form of respect, and since homosexuality is presumed to be unnatural, the issue doesn't even arise that men need to treat other men "as everything but objects of sexual desire."

Randy Cohen is indeed a terrible ethicist, as Jacob Levy demonstrated a decade ago, but in this particular case Cohen is on the side of the (imaginary) angels.

In (mostly) unrelated news, Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog recently appeared at the Chabad Telethon:

Notice the gender-segregated seating in the audience, and the lack of women on stage - ostensibly for reasons of "modesty".


Dragon*Con Breakdance Battle

The highlight of Dragon*Con 2009 was the 3 AM Saturday night breakdance battle between Doctor Manhattan, black-costumed Spider-Man, random rocker dude, and Mario Kart Yoshi. Yoshi won the battle hands down, with a spectacular wall jump flip. Hundreds of people in the lobby quickly gathered around the breakdancers, chanting "Yoshi, Yoshi", until security came to break it up, presumably for fire safety reasons. My friend and I had one of the best views, sitting in the neon-blue lit raised platform bar visible in the background in some of the shots in this video:


And A Pony

This has been making the rounds on Facebook lately:

No one should die because they cannot afford health care, and no one should go broke because they get sick. If you agree, please post this as your status for the rest of the day.

I prefer alternative versions.

The Zombie version (via Noah Galang):

No one should die because of a zombie infestation, and no one should become one of the walking dead because they get infected. If you agree, please post this as your status for the rest of the day.

The Star Wars version (via Elizabeth Cohen):

No one should be frozen in carbonite, or be slowly digested for a thousand years in the bowels of a sarlaac, just because they couldn't pay Jabba the Hutt what they owe him. If you agree, please post this as your status for the rest of the day.

The Beer version:

No one should go thirsty because they cannot afford beer, and no one should go broke because good beer is so expensive. If you agree, please post this as your status for the rest of the day.

The transhumanist version of the original would be more concise and to the point:

No one should die. If you agree, please post this as your status for the rest of the day.


Cheating In The Context Of Marriage And Coase

Bryan Caplan graciously describes my critique of the norm of monogamy as "eloquent", but I fear he misses the point I was trying to make. Bryan writes:

I'm not a principled advocate of monogamy; it's not for everyone, and I am after all a fan of Big Love. I am however a principled advocate of honoring your contracts and promises. If you don't want to practice monogamy, here's an idea: Don't agree to it. If you want a non-traditional marriage, write a contract for it. Don't accept the standard-issue version, then pretend that you didn't have a choice.

I agree with Bryan: Once you make a promise, you should keep it. Dan Savage also agrees with Bryan; I quoted Savage qualifying his argument against the norm of monogamy: "Which is not to say that people shouldn't honor their commitments."

So Dan, Bryan, and I are all in agreement: People should honor their commitments. But what Dan and I are questioning, and Bryan seems to miss, is whether the default rule of a life-long commitment to a single partner is a wise commitment to make, or a wise commitment to reinforce through social pressure. As Tom points out in the comment thread to Bryan's post:

[P]rivate contract theory doesn't help justify Bryan's simple judgments about cheating. They make more sense in the context of people who choose to make strong public commitments of fidelity, as in covenant marriages. And they might make sense if Bryan wants to start putting some great value on the boilerplate statements about 'sickness and health' made during the wedding, or if he was was approaching it from some religious or ethical system that was premised on fidelity or on a conservative idea that a stable society requires that all publicly-recognized unions include a commitment to monogamy. But he isn't.

Private contracts have lots of terms, express and implied, and they are subject to modification. So it's very hard for the public to know the terms of the contracts and say who is in breach.

One of the things the Coase theorem teaches us is that in a world of positive transaction costs (which is in fact the world we inhabit), initial property allocations can be very important. And so too, in a world of positive transaction costs, default rules in contracts can be very important. And so too, in a world of positive transaction costs, default assumptions implicit in social norms can be very important.

And surely, for many people, signing a prenuptial agreement different from the standard default option represents a significant transaction cost. As Bryan himself argues in one of the posts he links to:

If you think that Nudge doesn't matter, take a look at marriage. Only 5-10% of marriages have prenups; everyone else goes with the "default option" - the family law of the state in which they reside.

Why do people go with state law? You could say, "State laws are so wisely crafted that no one would want anything else," but that's laughable. The real reasons, as Heather Mahar explains, are (a) people underestimate their probability of divorce, so they barely plan for a likely event, and (b) asking for anything other than the default option is a bad signal...

Bryan goes on to argue for his preferred policy outcome: Eliminate default rules entirely by getting state governments out of the business of writing default rules for marriage.

There are a few problems with this. First, even if the government got out of the marriage business, people would still be just as bad at estimating their probability of divorce. Well, maybe not just as bad. Perhaps if people were forced to think more about the possibility of divorce in the process of writing a prenup, they might better estimate the correct probability of their own relationship's demise. But the optimistic bias would still exist.

Second, getting the government out of the marriage business wouldn't necessarily eliminate default rules. People may just prefer not having to think about unhappy things like possible divorce, and therefore favor whatever boilerplate marriage contract the market is most likely to offer. And the market is most likely to offer those contracts that reflect existing social norms. But these social norms are precisely what Dan Savage and I are questioning! A social norm in favor of monogamy in marriage would still exist, all else being equal other than removal of government from the marriage business - just as a social norm in favor of monogamy in dating relationships still exists, even though in dating relationships, the government does not play (as) noticeable a role in shaping expectations.

Leaving the norm of monogamy unchallenged assumes that it is the most efficient one for resolving social conflict. But Bryan doesn't make this assumption and neither do I. As Dan Savage pointed out, "Elevating monogamy over all else—insisting that it, and it alone, is the sole measure of love and devotion—destroys countless marriages, families, and careers." Were it not for the expectation of monogamy, seeking other sexual or emotional partners would not be considered an act of cheating, infidelity, unfaithfulness, or disloyalty. Were it not for the expectation of monogamy, there would be no conflict, and thus no reason to feel lied to, get a divorce, and disintegrate the family structure.

There might still be conflict involving issues of jealousy, and as I said in my post, it is an open question whether jealousy can be overcome, or if jealousy is so deeply ingrained (biologically and/or culturally) that it would be a futile task to try. But surely the social norm in favor of monogamy reinforces this feeling of jealousy; if people didn't expect their partners to be monogamous, partly because society expects partners to expect this of each other, people wouldn't feel as jealous when their partners failed to conform to a non-existent social expectation.

By analogy, our society does not have a social norm against having more than one child (fortuitously, given Bryan's pro-natalist position). Yet even without this social norm, children are often jealous of the attention their parents give to their siblings (attention being a scarce resource). Imagine how much more jealous these same children would be of their siblings (and how much angrier these children would be at their parents) if their parents violated the social norm in a society with a norm against having more than one child.


I'm Kind Of A Big Deal (in a footnote)

Earlier today, while digging up the link for an article I wrote five years ago about the political economy of Diablo II, I discovered that I'm referenced in a book! Published by a reputable university press! Written by a professor!

Alas, my 15 minutes of fame came and went long before I realized my short lived glory. But it's still heartwarming in retrospect. Those many hours I spent playing Diablo II all throughout undergrad were not a complete waste.

Here is some additional background on the article I wrote. And here is a description of the book, Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames, by Mia Consalvo, an Associate Professor of Telecommunications at Ohio University:

The widely varying experiences of players of digital games challenge the notions that there is only one correct way to play a game. Some players routinely use cheat codes, consult strategy guides, or buy and sell in-game accounts, while others consider any or all of these practices off limits. Meanwhile, the game industry works to constrain certain readings or activities and promote certain ways of playing. In Cheating, Mia Consalvo investigates how players choose to play games and what happens when they can't always play the way they'd like. She explores a broad range of player behavior, including cheating (alone and in groups), examines the varying ways that players and industry define cheating, describes how the game industry itself has helped systematize cheating, and studies online cheating in context in an online ethnography of Final Fantasy XI. She develops the concept of "gaming capital" as a key way to understand individuals' interaction with games, information about games, the game industry, and other players.

Consalvo provides a cultural history of cheating in videogames, looking at how the packaging and selling of such cheat-enablers as cheat books, GameSharks, and mod chips created a cheat industry. She investigates how players themselves define cheating and how their playing choices can be understood, with particular attention to online cheating. Finally, she examines the growth of the peripheral game industries that produce information about games rather than actual games. Digital games are spaces for play and experimentation; the way we use and think about digital games, Consalvo argues, is crucially important and reflects ethical choices in gameplay and elsewhere.

Cheating is a contested term in gaming (and in real life!), for a variety of reasons. I like to distinguish between internal and external forms of cheating. Almost everyone frowns upon external cheating (even cheaters themselves); the classic example being the sleazy poker player with an Ace up his sleeve. External cheating involves an explicit violation of the rules, by bringing something forbidden from outside the game into the game environment, whether it be an object (such as an additional card), or an idea (such as knowledge of another player's hand). The only exception people usually make for external forms of cheating is for solo games, such as solitaire or single-player video games. Even in solo games, however, people often frown upon external cheating, on the grounds that in most cases one is merely cheating oneself out of a enjoyable and lasting gaming experience; game designers are usually (but not always) smarter than the casual player when it comes to determining the best rules by which to play.

Internal cheating, on the other hand, is much more implicit and subjective. Sometimes internal cheating is a result of a player exploiting a bug, design flaw, or power imbalance unintentionally left inside the game by the designers themselves. Other times, the accusation of internal cheating arises from the conflicting motivations different kinds of gamers bring to the games they play. Mark Rosewater made a classic distinction between three different types of gamers who play Magic: The Gathering: Timmy, Johnny, and Spike.

A psychographic profile separates players into categories based on their psychological make-up. What motivates that player to play? What kind of cards do they like? What kind of things encourages that player to keep on playing?

Because R&D loves naming things, we have given each of these three category types a name: Timmy, Johnny, and Spike.

  • Timmy wants to experience something. Timmy plays Magic because he enjoys the feeling he gets when he plays. What that feeling is will vary from Timmy to Timmy, but what all Timmies have in common is that they enjoy the visceral experience of playing. As you will see, Johnny and Spike have a destination in mind when they play. Timmy is in it for the journey.
  • Johnny wants to express something. To Johnny, Magic is an opportunity to show the world something about himself, be it how creative he is or how clever he is or how offbeat he is. As such, Johnny is very focused on the customizability of the game. Deck building isn't an aspect of the game to Johnny; it's the aspect.
  • Spike wants to prove something, primarily to prove how good he is. You see, Spike sees the game as a mental challenge by which he can define and demonstrate his abilities. Spike gets his greatest joy from winning because his motivation is using the game to show what he is capable of. Anything less than success is a failure, because that is the yardstick he is judging himself against.

Spike plays to win. But Spike is often accused of a kind of internal cheating, or at least poor form or lack of style. Spike doesn't care about creativity like Johnny does, nor the experience of the journey like Timmy does; Spike is willing to copy whatever seems to be the dominant strategy, and will exploit whatever weaknesses in game design that may have been overlooked.

The conflict between these players arises because of different expectations about how the game should be played. And whenever an economist starts talking about conflict and differing expectations, you know that a discussion of the Coase theorem is probably right around the corner...

Which is why my next post will deal with objections raised by fellow gaming geek and economist Bryan Caplan to my previous post on cheating in the context of marriage.


Savagely Exploding Monogamy

I meant to quote this Dan Savage comment when he first wrote it on his blog in response to the Mark Sanford and Jon and Kate scandals, and then he ended up putting it in his column, so I missed out on the timeliness factor, but it's still quite good and relevant:

A new euphemism: When someone cheats on a spouse, that should be known as "hiking the Appalachian Trail" in honor of South Carolina governor Mark Sanford.

But I have to say that Adultery Confessional Theater is getting tired. Can our culture start to deflate the drama on extramarital affairs a little? Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer, Larry Craig, Jon and Kate, John Ensign, Mark Sanford: Yes, it sucks if kids are involved and it often leads to divorce. But I wonder if setting the panic bar a bit lower wouldn't save more marriages. Maybe we should embrace the fact that few of us will remain monogamous over the long life of a marriage.

Anne In NJ

I'm with you, AINJ: At the bottom of all these sex scandals—Sanford, Ensign, Spitzer, et al.—is our unnatural fixation on monogamy. Human beings, male or female, aren't wired to be sexually monogamous, and the feigned shock with which we're required to greet each new revelation of infidelity on the part of an elected official, a reality-show star, or a sports figure would be comical if the costs weren't so great. Elevating monogamy over all else—insisting that it, and it alone, is the sole measure of love and devotion—destroys countless marriages, families, and careers.

Which is not to say that people shouldn't honor their commitments or that there aren't folks out there capable of remaining monogamous over the five-decade course of a marriage or that the hypocrisy of assholes like Sanford—who called on President Clinton to resign during Monicagate—isn't worthy of censure. But think of all the people who've cheated and gotten caught. Now think about all the people who've cheated and gotten away with it. Our idealized notions about sex—within marriage and without—are at war with who and what we are. Sex is powerful; relationships are fragile. Why on earth do we insist on pitting them against each other?

The only part I'd push back against is his claim that humans aren't wired to be sexually monogamous. I have no idea how we are wired, if we are all wired the same, or if there are a significant number of outliers (and if these outliers are the consistently monogamous ones or the polyamorous ones), but there is clearly something wrong with the social expectation of life-long monogamy. It is totally unrealistic to the point of being laughable, and seems to lead to more frustration and family disintegration than if the expectation didn't exist at all. I understand some people have trouble dealing with their petty jealousies, but maybe they should try a little Don't Ask, Don't Tell instead of the nuclear option?


Mad Menaissance

Will Wilkinson has a smart take-down of Kay Hymowitz' 1950's nostalgia porn, granting the essential point that, yes, social change causes anxiety until people learn to adjust and create new norms to live by, but the changes are generally worth it. I would just add the somewhat obvious point that even if the cost-benefit analysis didn't turn out positive, it's not like we can reverse the hands of time and go back to an era that never really was, so conservatives like Hymowitz can stop whining already. Yes, feminism came and saw and conquered, for better or for worse (mostly for the better), till death do us part, and we are now living in the "postfeminist era", whatever the hell that means, while clueless libertarians sit on the sidelines with their thumbs up their asses continually wondering "where all the wimmenz at?"

Also, if you're looking for new norms to live by, don't look to the creepy, repulsive "seduction community" when there are perfectly wholesome, flamingly gay advice columnists like Dan Savage dispensing commonsense weekly wisdom for free. More on that in the next post.

One part of Will's response that sticks out like a...sore thumb, though, is his interpretation of Mad Men:

I think Hymowitz’s story gives too small a part to resentment at the loss of male privilege. Many men aren’t angry and confused because they don’t know what women want. They’re angry because they want what their fathers or grandfathers had, and they can’t get it. They’re confused because they can’t quite grasp why not. I think part of the fascination for many white guys with the show Mad Men is that it is a window into an attractive (to them) world of white male dominance and privilege that has largely disappeared. It is still possible to create a traditional patriarchal household, but it’s harder than ever for men to find women who will happily play along. And, in any case, there is little assurance of the stability of this sort of arrangement, since the social esteem that was once accorded to it — which helped reinforce men’s and women’s confidence in their traditional roles within it — has largely dissipated.

I don't know what Will was thinking of when he wrote this. Maybe he just hasn't watched enough episodes yet? The overall point he is trying to make is a fine one, but Mad Men displays exactly the opposite of what he is trying to express.

What I see when I watch Mad Men is a bunch of privileged dominant white males - and their trophy wives - who are absolutely miserable, partly ( largely?) because they can see their privilege and dominance cracking under the weight of inexorable social change.

That's why Peggy seems to creep everyone out except Don, who is too busy trying to juggle all of the various lies he has made to his wife, kids, coworkers, mistresses, and clients to care that Peggy is breaking the glass ceiling, getting impregnated out of wedlock, and doing all of the things a woman of her station in life shouldn't be doing. Don sees himself reflected in Peggy, as a rule breaker and successful social status climber who has to navigate a new, false identity.

No one is truly happy in the show, and we the audience, with the advantage of 50 years of hindsight, know that things are only going to get worse for those characters desperately trying to clutch onto some romanticized, illusory past.

Notice the title sequence of a businessman falling from the top of a skyscraper, eliciting a sense of vertigo? It's not that subtle Will, and you were an art major!

The action begins as he enters his office in black silhouette, puts down his briefcase, and watches as his furniture begins to implode, almost melting. A small rotating fan spins in an open window, but we never see how the silhouetted man ends up outside the building; we just see him in a graceful freefall for over half of the sequence tumbling past seductive images of women, a glass of whiskey, advertising slogans (“Enjoy the Best America Has to Offer”; “It’s the Gift That Never Fails”), two hands wearing wedding rings, a couple kissing, a smiling nuclear family, and four old vintage photographs.

This is why Mad Men is such a great liberal response to conservative 50's ideal worship of the Kay Hymowitz variety; it's definitely not an attractive example of the reactionary ideal. If that's what viewers are seeing when they watch it, they're doing it wrong.


Battered Voter-Wife Syndrome

A great quote from Sonia Johnson by way of Roderick Long:

I have heard women involved in male politics say about our political system almost the same words I have heard battered women use about their abusers: ‘Of course our government isn’t perfect, but where is there a better one? With all its faults, it is still the best system (husband) in the world.’ Like a battered wife, they never think to ask the really relevant questions: who said we needed a husband, or a husband-state, at all?

For more on the ominous parallels between patriarchy and statism, see Roderick Long and Charles Johnson's essay on libertarian feminism. They make a similar analogy:

Just as, under patriarchy, forced sex is not recognized as real or fully serious rape unless the perpetrator is a stranger rather than one’s husband or boyfriend, so, under statism, governmental coercion is not recognized as real or fully serious tyranny unless it happens under a non-democratic government, a “dictatorship.” The marriage vow, as a rape license, has its parallel in the electoral ballot, as a tyranny license. Those who seek to withhold consent from their country’s governmental apparatus altogether get asked the same question that battered women get asked: “If you don’t like it, why don’t you leave?” — the man’s rightful jurisdiction over the home, and the state’s over the country, being taken for granted. It’s always the woman, not the abusive man, who needs to vacate the home (to go where?); it’s likewise the citizen, not the abusive state, that needs to vacate the territory (to go where?).


Mind = Blown

I'm Pita Griffin

- Gratuitously stolen from /b/