Quantifying Social Science Units

17 01 2012

The positional advantage enjoyed by classes of individuals–privilege–is an important factor in operation of social systems. I worry, because particularly on the left, it is considered a very important–often the most important–factor, but I don’t know exactly what it means, or, more to the point, how it works. Reified from an explanatory concept to a concrete concept, it is often little more than a rhetorical cudgel that can have a desultory effect on civic discourse, and thus become trivialized. It should go without saying that exactly because privilege in some sense or another “operates,” its trivialization is a real problem.

Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene was a revelation to me in high school, at least to the degree I could understand it. I re-read it every few years, and so when the 30th Anniversary Edition dropped* I was particularly excited, the added sections and footnotes serving something like hidden bonus tracks. When I got to the short section where Dawkins first suggests the existence of “memes,” the cultural (or social) equivalent of genes–indivisible units of learnable cultural information, I recalled for the first time really disagreeing with it when I first read the book. It was almost viscerally unpleasant. The short excursus on memetics is dissonant from the rest of the book, which while packed with thought experiments and analogies is actually pretty stolidly scientific and meticulous.

A week or so ago a Twerkuffle** broke out between various political writers and journalists on my Twitter timeline. The details of it aren’t important; the relevant portion is that the word “privilege,” as in “racial privilege,” was used a number of times, and I had a reaction similar to that I had when first encountering “memetics”. This got me thinking about what the two concepts–“meme” and “privilege”–have in common and why they strike a resonant tone with each other in my mind.

Social scientists, and the journalists/essayists (I’m just going to call these people “writers” from now on) who synthesize social science for public debate, have always had trouble with this kind of thing. From the Enlightenment until probably around Marx’ time, political philosophers and other intellectuals had a sort of tic where they would reify concepts to explain observable behavior or historical conditions–you know the tic I’m talking about; it was usually expressed by Capitalizing the first letter to make it seem Big and Important and deserving of a Proper Noun. This is actually a kind of logical fallacy, and it makes reading a lot of the early modern philosophers so grating. I don’t believe in an Over-Soul that can actually act on the natural world. It’s like when you meet someone who says they don’t believe in a god but they do believe in an “energy” that we’re all a part of. That’s nice, but it’s also either meaningless or just employing a synonym for god.

Dawkins raises and moves on from the idea of memes in just a handful of sentences, but the “work” on them has been plentiful, and the concept has certainly entered popular consciousness. What bothers me is when they are treated as actual, concrete entities that can be studied somewhat quantitatively, but they haven’t been properly defined. Remember that in The Selfish Gene Dawkins was advocating for the “gene-centered” view of evolution by natural selection. A debate then raging (and still on-going) in evolutionary biology was at what “level” natural selection operated: are “traits” selected? Individual organisms? Groups? Entire species? Dawkins and his fellow travelers were arguing that in fact natural selection is unconcerned with anything of a “higher” level than genes–he famously said that bodies are nothing more than machines meant to ferry genes around. Evolution is the process of differential survival of competing alleles in a genome.
Read the rest of this entry »

Eww! Poors!

25 03 2011

Al Franken relates a story wherein Jesse Jackson said once that he was ashamed to admit that when he walks down a dark street at night and hears footsteps behind him, he’d feel relieved if it were white man. I’ve always thought this was strange; if I was walking down the street and heard footsteps behind me, and saw that it was one of the white men from Deliverance, I would not be relieved. I would much prefer a black man in Brooks Brothers.

This guy?

...Or this guy?

The point being, the class indicators of the person are relevant, if not solely determinative. I don’t think I’d feel differently about a white guy or a black guy in a pink polo shirt with flipped up collar jabbing on a Bluetooth. Now if I had a choice between Paul Wall and apl.de.ap, I’d rather be followed by apl.de.ap,though there is a chance that seeing him out of the corner of my eye would cause me to laugh to death.

This guy?

...Or this guy?

Let’s put it in clearer terms. I used to work at a cafe, the sole person on my shift. This was up on Belmont near Clark, at the tail end of its stretch as a seedy area, when there were still lots of homeless street kids in the alleys, and heroin addicts nodding off on the curb. We also got some of the many homeless folks who still wandered the neighborhoods north of Lakeview, victims of the shutdowns of federal shelters in the 80s.
Read the rest of this entry »

The End of Elections in the Neoliberal Era

17 03 2011

The time for elections as the focal point of activism has expired. Activist participation in elections, and elections as the organizing focus for economic justice movements is finished, and activism inside the Democratic Party is not distinct for the result it produces from activism inside the Republican Party. There are differences between Democrats and Republicans, but is gauged only by degrees of resistance to corporate power, which is not a strategy that can ever make progress. Therefore, the “electoral strategy” of trying to achieve justice through political elections has proven ineffectual, and electoral activism circumscribed in its value.

Neutered Elections

In the city of Deadwood, South Dakota, an intensely rich gold find carved society into wilderness. Men poured into a small gulch in the Black Hills to make their fortune. Miners panned and chiseled for enough of “the color” to drink, gamble, visit brothels, and put a little by for family they’d left back home.

Until that is, the introduction of amalgamation by capital. The gold could not be produced “efficiently” without that process. Wealthy and powerful interests (in the HBO show Deadwood, represented by an unquestionably cariactured George Hearst), moved in to buy up land from panicked homesteaders. What had been a community of small businessmen and free miners slowly transformed into a community or wage earners. Quality of life dipped, and to serve these wage earners, cheaper labor had to be brought in, from China and Europe, to produce what local goods were produced and to work at laundry, food preparation, etc. The labor market got worse–one major employer creates a virtual monopsony. The homesteaders left to go west, and were replaced at the mine by cheap immigrant labor. Deadwood turned into just another American town.

Poor Charlie Utter, who knows what’s coming but can’t quite understand it.

The need for one owner to control so many workers of course created a social strata of managers, foremen, and security, who could enforce Hearsts’ will.

This brings me closer to my point. In David Milch’s Deadwood, Hearst, played maniacally and brilliantly by Gerald McRaney, has a certain cavalier attitude towards coming elections that is instructive to us at this point in American history:

I’m an optimist, so I see a bright future for the American republic; though I see that future coming after some pretty nasty times in the immediate offing. The neoliberal consensus (in its broadest meaning, distinct from the “Washington Consensus”) has won the day. Even supposedly “liberal” political leadership subscribes to the neoliberal consensus.

Corporate power neuters the results of elections by stovepiping elected officials, narrowing their range of movement to within the confines of neoliberalism’s policy consensus. Once we accept this forlorn fact, much follows.

Neoliberal Consensus

Before I use the expression again and test your patience, I can define it for you, first formally and then substantively: Read the rest of this entry »

Jefferson’s “Tree of Liberty” & His Defense of Protesting Rubes

14 03 2011

It’s useful to take the time to look into history sometimes. Particularly when details of that history are shorn of context and held bare in a spotlight as proof of current righteousness.

We get it.

I don’t begrudge the tea party activists their protests; though I get the sense they feel that only their protests “count,” that theirs is true populist rage but nothing else is. If you want to protest taxes you perceive as too high, hey, that’s a long tradition in America. Go buck wild. But don’t then look at the massive protests for immigration reform, labor rights, against the war, and pretend they’re less meaningful because they’re somehow un-American or not “real.”

We get it.

The Tea Party campaign has taken the powerful and expansive ideas of the revolution and dulled their power by limiting them to being “anti-government.” The Founding Father’s weren’t “anti-government.” They were anti- lots of different things. Some were practically monarchists, others French-style Jacobin democrats. There was one thing common to almost all of them, though: they were radicals. By the measure of the time, they were progressives and they were radicals. This is a bald fact. They wanted to engage in social engineering, to undo the entire social, political and economic system and rebuild it according to commonly-held principles. They wanted to form the first republic in the history of civilization to officially forbid government interference in religion and vice versa. It is not at all a debate that within the at-time “modern” world, America’s revolutionary leaders were radicals–revolutionaries, after all.

Guess what we get?

And Jefferson, who provides right-wing activism with some of its most potent rhetoric, was on the radical end of that radical group. Jefferson rested his theory of government on a foundational need to formally limit the power of three classes (said another way, he really fucking hated the following groups of people): aristocrats, clergy, and creditors. He wasn’t a fan of slave traders either, but coming from a slave owner that’s not really compelling.


Aristocrats to Jefferson were not a political class as much as an economic class. They were the landowners. They weren’t powerful because their title was a magic word; their title was powerful because it represented ownership of property that was impossible to dislodge from their grip. As to clergy, he said once there would have never been a single infidel if there had never been a single clergyman. He used the phrase “monkish ignorance.” You get it. That one’s obvious. Creditors–sometimes “bankers,” some times other wacky 18th century nicknames for them, like “stockjobbers,” though that one is specific to London–he loathed probably because he was in debt his whole life. But also he saw the hold of debt by one free person over another as a threat to democracy. Prior to industrial economies of scale, the creditor was most responsible for the economic misery of the working class husbandman or tradesman. It was a vacuous freedom to Jefferson to work all your days for the benefit of another who expends no labor.

Which brings us to his “Tree of Liberty” letter to William Smith, Read the rest of this entry »

Yuppie Crisis: Manchildren!

2 03 2011

A number of times in my life, I’ve been in that situation where you can smell violence an instant away and you have to make a terrifying fight-or-flight decision. Sometimes, when you know that there’s no reasoning with someone, when you can feel the violence about to erupt, you have to make the decision to throw the first punch, or be clobbered. Unless you’ve got ice water in your veins, this is about the worst feeling you can have, and very hard to describe. You’re operating on the reptilian brain. In those true fight-or-flight moments, your bowels loosen. Terror nearly paralyzes you, and you go into a state of near unconsciousness. It’s terrible. Absolutely terrible.

Was I “manning up” when I threw that punch? When I stumbled back to my apartment covered in blood, was I the image of manhood? Is the gnarled bone under my left eye a mark of manly honor? These days, free from the anger of my late teens and early 20s, I see violence as essentially an expression of weakness, not strength. I see being a man as having strength of character, not strength of will.

Now You're a Man

The very memory of those experiences make me furious when people use the phrase “man up.” Do you really want to calibrate “manhood” to toughness and grit? If so, you prepared to settle the question with your hands? If not, you don’t get to tell anyone to “man up.” Why do we want to resurrect a discredited and dangerous conception of “manhood” that celebrates the worst in human nature as a way to goad someone. It insults the millions of people who would give anything to escape from this very condition of violence or even intimidation as conflict resolution.

I moved out of my parents’ house when I was 17. I’m 29. In the 12 years I’ve lived on my own, I’ve basically supported myself, worked jobs that entailed cleaning toilets, sweeping warehouses, stuffing envelopes. I paid my bills, sometimes by hook and crook. I traveled. I got an education, worked myself into a profession that paid me well, returned to school to get a post-graduate degree. That entire time, I pursued individual projects and areas of inquiry. I’m cultured enough to know all the culture I don’t know. My apartment is stuffed with books and movies and art. It’s messy, sure. I dream of a life with a woman who will be my partner-in-crime, whose mind and strength of character I can respect, admire, and adore. I have an occasionally embarrassing weakness for small animals and babies.

I’m also single. I download movies and obsess over stand up comedy. I hate doing dishes. I spent, cumulatively, at least a full two weeks last year beating Super Mario Galaxy and New Super Mario Brothers Wii, and starting Super Mario Galaxy 2. I wear t-shirts and order out more than I cook. I occasionally drink to excess, among other indulgences, and I have no interest in fine clothes or expensive matching furniture. I don’t give much thought to how my apartment is decorated, except to make sure its comfortable for my guests and conducive to rest and relaxation.

Am I a man?

Are We Not Men?

Today, I’m in a bit of a panic over this question because a woman named Kay S. Hymowitz knows what it means to be a man, and she’s very prepared to lecture me about it. Ms. Hymowitz never outright tells me what I need to do stop being a “guy” and start being a “man” but she sure knows what she doesn’t like, and its worth quoting at length:

Not so long ago, the average American man in his 20s had achieved most of the milestones of adulthood: a high-school diploma, financial independence, marriage and children. Today, most men in their 20s hang out in a novel sort of limbo, a hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance. This “pre-adulthood” has much to recommend it, especially for the college-educated. But it’s time to state what has become obvious to legions of frustrated young women: It doesn’t bring out the best in men.

“We are sick of hooking up with guys,” writes the comedian Julie Klausner, author of a touchingly funny 2010 book, “I Don’t Care About Your Band: What I Learned from Indie Rockers, Trust Funders, Pornographers, Felons, Faux-Sensitive Hipsters and Other Guys I’ve Dated.” What Ms. Klausner means by “guys” is males who are not boys or men but something in between. “Guys talk about ‘Star Wars’ like it’s not a movie made for people half their age; a guy’s idea of a perfect night is a hang around the PlayStation with his bandmates, or a trip to Vegas with his college friends…. They are more like the kids we babysat than the dads who drove us home.” One female reviewer of Ms. Kausner’s book wrote, “I had to stop several times while reading and think: Wait, did I date this same guy?”

Because I’m unmarried, I am apparently in a hybrid state of “hormonal adolescence” and “responsible self-reliance.” Ms. Hymowitz doesn’t want to say what she means here, which is that being a man means being married and bourgeois in the yuppie sense. Note that the milestones of manhood she lays out are a high school diploma, financial independence, marriage, and children. The only things missing from this “hybrid state” she invents out of thin air are marriage and children. Of course, what does that mean for me, who fell in love with a woman he would have loved to marry, but that didn’t work out, sadly.

Poor Me.

Why, it would seem that my manhood has more to do with her decision than my personal choice. My manhood has nothing to do with me, the efforts I’ve poured into improving myself, confronting my insecurities and weakness, and bettering my situation in life, but with my relationship to women. Does this mean that girls don’t become women until they’ve been accepted by a man? Well, that doesn’t sound right.

Ms. Hymowitz has nothing on me when it comes to questions of prolonged adolescence–you see, I made a similar general argument months ago, though mine was based on some biology as well as social evolution, and omitted the whole “the stuff you likes determines your gender role” canard:

Judd Apatow has become a wealthy man writing movies about men delaying entry into adulthood, typically paired with that favorite of contemporary pop culture, the lopsidedly hot, infinitely patient and wise woman. The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Funny People, and Knocked Up, not to mention spiritual Apatow movies like Role Models and I Love You Man are packed to the brim with these inevitably pot-smoking, excessively comfortably dressed man-children. That’s well and good for us dudes (we can afford to slack off and grow up when the appropriately hot and patient lady comes along) but, again, it’s not symmetrical. The biological realities of pregnancy and motherhood are incompatible with the social institutions that determine economic and personal security.

Read the rest of this entry »

Are We Religiously Intolerant?

25 01 2011

So, when John Ashcroft got elected governor, he was anointed on the head with oil. I think that’s kind of silly. I mean–it’s silly, right? Using cooking oil to give yourself a blessing to be the governor of Missouri? I also think its silly that Shi’ites cut their heads and bleed all over the place on Ashura. I mean–it’s a bit extreme. Snake-handlers? Weird. That’s a weird thing to do, to run around handling dangerous snakes because of one of thousands of passages in the Bible.

C'mon fellas we're all just trying to have a good time.

Because I have trouble believing in anything supernatural–ghosts, spirits, nebulous “energy” other than those defined by science, etc.–I inherently think they are silly. Meaning in other words I think that these things are literally un-believable. Something not to be believed.

Here’s my thing. If somebody looked at something I held dear and didn’t just say, “I don’t believe that,” but rather, “I think that thing is silly,” I think my feelings would be hurt. So when I say these things are silly, am I being intolerant? Am I belittling and insulting someone for their beliefs? I don’t know the answer to that question. Can expressing an opinion be intolerant? I mean that would require that all non believers were inherently intolerant every time they expressed their lack of belief. That hardly seems fair. Still, I don’t want to be intolerant; I don’t want to make people feel assaulted or ridiculed for what they think is important in their life.

But then again, each member of each of these different faiths must, by definition, think all the other believers believe silly things. Are they intolerant of one another?
Read the rest of this entry »

Of Sex, Gametes, and Judd Apatow.

26 09 2010

Last week after writing about my favorite primate, the bonobo (sorry humans), I got thinking more about the biological basis for how our society is ordered. I also got thinking more about sex. Given the base level amount of thinking I do about that (which is quite a bit), this means I was thinking, really, quite a lot about it. And while this may have been a cause for concern to friends when I happily informed them that I’d been having sex dreams about them, it was nevertheless fairly welcome. There’s no greater freedom, I think, than sex. It wasn’t lasciviousness that moved George Orwell to focus so heavily on Winston and Julia’s sex life in 1984, to have The Party’s secret police working on a way to “abolish the orgasm.”

...but it's all they have

There are a lot of psychological and emotional issues tied up with sex that can add dimensions to it; but in all-things-equal conditions, sex is the highest form of intimate interaction humans have one to another.

Socially, sex is tied to gender roles. Learning to be both an object and agent of lust and taking pleasure in both is not easy (which is very unfortunate). Thinking about sex got me thinking about gender roles, and in outlining this here piece I began to worry that it’d be taken as reducing women’s rights to a question of their sexuality. That’s a dangerous thing, and not at all my intent. But ultimately we are one species with two genders, and those genders are, equally, sexes. Who we are as men and women is derived to a great deal from our sexuality. Our biology determines that much at least. The strong impulse to sexual pleasure and gratification is one of our most animating human urges. It isn’t dirty, it isn’t unfortunate, it isn’t shameful or lewd. It’s beautiful. It’s comes as close to being a “gift” as anything we’ve developed over the course of millions of years of evolution. The combination of self-awareness and sexual pleasure make us so fortunate among all the animal kingdom that, ironically, I’m almost compelled to infer a designer. (Though, I’m totally not ever going to infer a designer).

I’ll never understand why “foodies” can flaunt their gluttony, taking digital pictures of their food at restaurants, shamelessly overpreparing meals they then catalog for the public, but discussing your affection for various kinds of sex play is lewd. Frankly foodies gross me out. Lustiness I adore. Fetishizing food is odd. Passion is inborn.

What biology has determined in us and in our sexuality doesn’t make the social institutions which, over the course of human history, have bonded women to inferior status, segregated them into caregiver labor, and otherwise shackled them to the “household,” natural or morally right.

Women represent 91% of graduates from nursing school. Ninety eight percent of preschool and elementary school teachers are women; 82% of elementary school teachers, too, are women. The majority of workers in elder care are women. Women have always been tasked as caregivers by the division of labor in human societies. At least now they’re getting paid for it–or are more likely to be getting paid for it. But why, in our supposedly egalitarian society, are the high-stress, high-burnout, low-pay, caregiver fields almost exclusively the wheelhouse of females?

I have made no bones about the fact that identity politics is deleterious to human progress. A proper material analysis of the systems of society lead inexorably to the conclusion that only class-based solutions can justly reorder society.

That said, it can’t be doubted that throughout human history, it has rained shit on one gender more than the other. That there has been essentially an uninterrupted chain of uneven exploitation of women since humanity’s social beginnings makes it almost silly to refer to the “plight” of women. At this point it isn’t a plight. It’s the way things are.

While Europeans were exploiting Black and brown people, Islamic expansionism was destroying indigenous cultures, various indigenous American empires were overrunning each other, and the poor were being exploited since…well, basically since the agricultural revolution, within each of those societies, women have been exploited in their labor, denied active liberty and self-determination, been controlled sexually, and otherwise made appendages of their fathers and husbands.

We needn’t even go so far back. According to Gordon Wood (or, as he was referred to in Good Will Hunting, Gwahdan Wood) in his seminal The Radicalism of the American Revolution, many of the court records found in pre-revolutionary America didn’t refer to women by their names, but by their relationship to men, referred only as “Wife to” “sister to” “daughter of.” Like slaves, a woman’s social and civic identity was defined wholly by her relationship to the patriarchal head of the household.


The Gamete Game

Read the rest of this entry »