Saturday, July 10, 2010

Ty Segall - It #1

Boy, did this one make me happy!


Friday, July 09, 2010

More about that Sex Book

Further to that… Dan Savage is promoting that book Love at Dawn pretty hard and, in the process, pushing back against certain attitudes that I’ve actually expressed here. So, in the interest of fairness…

Mr. Savage:

"The point of Sex At Dawn—and my point in drawing your attention to it—isn't that monogamy is unnatural and therefore no one should attempt it and that people have license to break the monogamous commitments they made to their partners. And for the record: I'm happy to acknowledge that there are lots of good reasons to be monogamous or very nearly monogamous.
What the authors of Sex At Dawn believe—what they prove—is that we are a naturally non-monogamous species, despite what we've been told for millennia by preachers and for centuries by scientists, and that is why so many people have such a hard time being and remaining monogamous. I'm not saying that everyone everywhere has to be non-monogamous; the authors of Sex At Dawn don't make that argument either. (Lots of monogamists, however, run around insisting that everyone everywhere should be monogamous—and the monogamists get a pass because, hey, they mean so well and wouldn't it be nice if everyone were?)"
So, okay, I see what they're getting at. It seems to me that, rather than criticizing monogamy as such, Savage and the authors are criticizing the bad reasons that people choose monogamy, or even just the bad ways that they look at monogamy and the lousy expectations they put on themselves as a result. And, okay, I think he’s right on this.

I’ve now read a number of message board comments about this book and it’s pretty clear that we’re in the minority at GSM because we’re all pretty level-headed, open-minded, and somewhat liberal about sex and love, regardless of our relationship status. Many people, evidentially, are not. They believe that love and sex are the same thing, so that, if you are in a committed relationship, it will be monogamous- not only in practice, but even in thought. You simply won’t consider fucking the girl at the coffee shop or the fellow at work. And, if you do, it’s a sign that either something is wrong with you: you’re a “dog”, a “slut”, you don’t respect or love your partner, etc; or it’s a sign that something is wrong with your relationship. Some people have even suggested that, if you’re flirting with or thinking about someone else, “your relationship is already over”.

I think their point is that, if you’re thinking about these things, it probably means you’re Homo sapiens: that members of our species desire sexual novelty, difference, and multiple partners by nature, even if it’s not right for our lifestyle. And so we should be less hard on ourselves for exhibiting the traits of our species. We can stay monogamous without feeling guilt about the fact that monogamy does not always fulfill our needs. I think they’re probably right.

For me, I often felt like I was wearing clothes that didn’t fit me in terms of relationships. It wasn’t that I dislike monogamy; it was more the expectation from males my age that I should be more hung up on my partner’s monogamy than I actually was. I remember having a discussion with a girlfriend, who was struggling with her desire for sex with others, and feeling, inside, completely unthreatened by that, but still socially restricted from saying, “Oh, go ahead. I don’t care” because that might seem ‘self-loathing’, ‘disrespectful’, or like I didn’t love her. And yet, I didn’t care. But I worried that something was “wrong” with me for not caring.

I eventually “came out” about not being jealous or even terribly concerned about what my wife does when she’s not home. But, that was only after we had mused about non-monogamy for six years, and indeed, I still worried that I might sound perverse or masochistic or lacking in self-esteem. It’s really quite the opposite- I don’t get jealous because I have a very high opinion of our relationship and of myself as a partner. I don’t see anyone else threatening that. I’m her man.

And, indeed, since she’s had another partner, jealousy hasn’t reared its ugly head between us at all. Actually, it was considerably easier than I’d expected. She feels closer to me because of my faith in her; and I feel just as secure in the relationship as before, and even a bit more so. And our sex life is the best it’s ever been, perhaps partly because the fact that I’m not the only one having sex with her has stirred her libido and my awareness of her sexual prowess. So far, it’s been a very positive experience and a good decision.

Now I don’t think this would be right for everyone, or even that it will necessarily always be right for us. However, having heard for years that, absolutely, it would not be right for any married couple, I do understand the urge to push back against the "monogamy or splitsville" crowd.


Is Abortion a Class Issue?

Recently, I’ve been reading a number of articles by anti-abortion advocates discussing the “racial genocide” of legalized abortion. I think the argument is that, because abortion rates are higher in the black community, advocates of legal abortion are promoting the genocide of that community. It’s a problematic argument, for both pro-lifers and pro-choicers, for reasons that would seem obvious, but apparently aren’t.

I don’t know if it’s ‘epistemic closure’, but I suspect you have to be a conservative for the argument to resonate; or, more accurately, be anti-liberal, since the underlying message seems to be that liberals are glaringly hypocritical: they’re allegedly concerned about the black community, while accepting higher abortion rates in that community.

But I’m not entirely sure why pro-lifers are making this case, when the data they’ve highlighted suggests instead that both sides of the ‘debate’ are looking at the wrong issue by focusing on the laws. A few points stand out: 1. the black community has a fairly high level of Christian evangelical religiosity; 2. it has a higher poverty rate than the general population; and 3. it has a higher abortion rate than the general population. So it seems a logical inference that abortion is a social issue; that a woman who has very little means to raise a child might be more likely to have an abortion than one with means. This seems logical to the point of being common sense, and suggests that pro-lifers and pro-choicers are mistaken in focusing on the laws.

Curious about this, I looked up the statistics at the CDC and they claim about 73% of women who have abortions are living below the poverty level (earning $9,570 or less per year). According to a study by the Guttmacher Institute, 75% of women who have abortion cite lack of money to raise a child as one of their reasons for having an abortion. So, at the very least, class is an issue here. But, of course, it's not part of the discussion.

The problem I have with the abortion “debate” is that both sides are perfectly right, but discussing two completely different topics. Pro-lifers are right that abortion is tragic and ethically abhorrent. If you believe in a soul, it’s an obvious tragedy; even if you don’t, it is basic biological fact that every individual of our species is unique and unrepeatable. Therefore, deciding that one individual may not exist is clearly fraught with ethical problems that pro-choice people need to acknowledge more openly.

Conversely, you need only be mildly libertarian to think that the state shouldn’t be allowed to intrude into people’s private reproductive decisions. Shouldn’t people who champion individual liberties over state intrusion see Roe V Wade as a victory? More importantly, every study I’ve read on the topic says that abortion rates did not greatly increase after Roe V Wade, and that making abortion illegal does not greatly reduce the number of abortions. Abortions, or induced miscarriages, are very easy procedures to do. Much like setting a broken bone, you wouldn’t want to do it yourself, but if you had to, you probably could. There is a very long and sad history of abortion, induced miscarriage, ‘exposure’, and infanticide; typically correlating to times of material need. So it’s not inconceivable that making abortion illegal would do little to change the overall rate of abortion.

In other words, if you’re pro-life, and focused on the legal issue over the social issue, it seems to me that you’re not addressing abortion as such; just the social imprimatur: you’d rather that society not approve of abortions and they be clandestine- but not necessarily that there actually be less of them.

If you’re simply opposed to abortions as such, you need to focus on the social question: fight for a higher minimum wage, provide free day care and pre-natal care, improve living conditions for lower-class women, promote sex-ed for poor teens, and even think about establishing scholarships for the children born to low-income women who made what you see as the right choice. You need to add incentives to birthing and childrearing, because that’s what will reduce the number of abortions. Otherwise, you’re only addressing the visibility of abortion.

As for pro-choice people, if you’re focused on the legal issue and access, and ignoring the social issue, then you’re really only concerned with the ‘choices’ of one class. There is a difference between choices and options; a lower-income woman facing an unplanned pregnancy has options, but not actual choices. Until there is a much higher base level of income and living standards across society, the poor will lack real choices. And, in general, I think the left needs to focus almost entirely on the social question and drop the neo-liberal idea that doing so is impossible or “anti-capitalist”, when in fact it’s just the opposite.

Finally, here’s something fascinating: if the right addressed abortion as a social issue, they’d find common cause with the left. It is possible then to imagine a time in which abortion was legal, but almost nobody had them.


Saturday, July 03, 2010

Love and Sex

In a lame attempt to spark discussion, I'm linking to this Q&A with the authors of Love at Dawn, which argues that long-term sexual monogamy is not the natural state for human beings:

Biologists distinguish sexual monogamy from social monogamy. As DNA testing has grown cheaper in recent years, we’ve learned that most species formerly classified as “monogamous” (primarily birds) are socially monogamous, but not sexually so. In other words, they form pairs that cooperatively care for that season’s brood of young, but the male may well not be the biological father. Applied to humans, we argue that a more flexible approach to sexual fidelity can increase marital stability and thus lead to greater social and family stability.

The problem I have with this is that there are plenty of things humans do that aren't natural, but are all for the better. Such as not raping or pillaging, or other activities that primates excel at. Also, it's sort of hard to argue for any activity based on the fact that birds do it. Birds are cold. reptilian, beastly things with beautiful plumage. My other quibble is with the term "family stability" which seems to imply "married with children". I suppose I should mention here that my wife and I take a, um, "flexible approach to sexual fidelity", so I'm not really one to talk, but it's hard for me to think that people with children shouldn't be monogamous. Well, or be really good at keeping things from the kids, who likely wouldn't get non-monogamy.

This passage I find a bit irritating, for reasons I can't explain:
Another problem is that most people in the West marry because they’re “in love,” which is a temporary, blissfully delusional state we should enjoy, but not expect to last forever. As the German poet, Goethe put it, “Love is an ideal thing, marriage a real thing. A confusion of the real with the ideal never goes unpunished.”
Okay, well, I'll try to explain. It annoys me when people make the distinction between the initial thrill of falling in love and the day-to-day work of a romantic relationship and suggest the two are diametrically opposed. While that initial rush certainly fades, I find that it comes back in waves that are, let's be honest, much more manageable than the initial swooning and dizziness. Birthdays, weekends, anniversaries, other people's weddings: quite often I am blissfully and delusionally in love. The rest of the time, we're best friends who love each other deeply and like to screw. But I don't get where people get this idea that "love" disappears once you start doing laundry together.


Thursday, July 01, 2010

Textbooks in Texas

Recently, a hue and cry was raised about the bizarre reality that the content of US textbooks is ostensibly decided by a small board in Texas, who as it happens, are Christian fundamentalists. Hence, the Deist Thomas Jefferson is no longer considered a father of the American nation. Personally, I understand the distress; but as a historian-in-training, I tend to look at the controversy differently.

First off, history is quite often controversial. There are controversies about what facts are true, what interpretations of those facts are valid, and what events should be emphasized. History often clashes with tradition, its close relative. An Indian colleague recently commented that an advantage of studying Mughal history in America is that you needn’t fear writing something that leads angry mobs of Hindu nationalists to drag you out into the street. As with individual psychology, nations tend to know who they are by who they’ve been in the past. The need to whitewash is as pressing in terms of the nation, but as with individuals, the repressed always resurfaces; whether or not the second time is farce. We might not repeat the mistakes of the past, but we often approximate them.

Nevertheless, the second point is that, as an aspiring historian, I see historical study as worthwhile in and of itself. Studying the human past gives us a greater understanding of what it means to be human, a way of comparing the different paths taken by societies, and a neutral space to explore our own beliefs, values and ideas. It also provides a sense of the historical and civilizational contexts within which we find ourselves. It expands the ground of our being. It is good for you.

The problem is that straight back to the nineteenth century German schooling model discussions of curriculum have seldom treated history as an end unto itself. And here is the rest of it.Instead, history has usually been instrumentalized as a means to some other end. Instead of studying history to gain historical sense, students are to study history because it provides “critical thinking skills”, or it inculcates certain “values”. Instead of developing a holistic and coherent picture of the historical context of one’s self and society, the goal is to make use of “lessons” from history to demonstrate how to be a good citizen, or an advocate for social justice, or a tolerant individual.

Universities make the same mistake. Read a course catalog and you’ll find that most universities justify their mandatory history courses by the appeal to “skills” instead of appealing to a vision of a good life. The result is an unjustifiable incoherence to their course offerings, and no explanation about why students should study history if they could gain “critical thinking skills” elsewhere. As a student once asked: “Why should I read this dialogue by Plato? It’s not like I’m not going to be a Greek historian.”

High School education, meanwhile, seems to have chosen “values” over a deeper and broadened selfhood. If we hope to offer advertisements for a particular value, in this case Christian faith, then Jefferson should go; if the goal is to gain a richer understanding of the American story and enrich one’s experience as an American, it’s both incomprehensible and abhorrent that this education would exclude the debate between Jefferson and Hamilton in the Federalist Papers.

So, this textbook controversy, while upsetting, is informed by a larger misguided belief that history is only worthwhile as a means to another end. When the Texas mandarins decided to remove Oscar Romero, it was entirely likely that Romero was there in the first place in order to inculcate a belief in social justice and removed to make more room to inculcate Christian and capitalist beliefs. In other words, if you see history as a means to an end, its use as propaganda is to be expected; the question is more about which propagandist will prevail.

Propagandists see all culture as a means to an end, and all knowledge as an instrument of power. Thus, they tend to write off scholars as “so-called experts”, pronouncing the word “expert” as if it was something they stepped in while walking through a public park. Let’s not forget that certain segments of the radical left spent a good part of the early 90s trying to remove the “right wing propaganda about dead white males” from university courses. Nevertheless, if all you see in Shakespeare is “White, Western male propaganda”, or if all you see in Jefferson is “godlessness” you are, to put it bluntly, a goddamned fool.

The argument from the Texas mandarins and the “Western Civ has got to go!” crowd is the same: all scholarship is propaganda, so why not have our propaganda? This is the Foucaultian argument that knowledge doesn’t exist outside of power taken to its logical conclusion. The corollary is that intellectual self-determination is impossible, so selfhood also can’t exist outside of power. When people make this argument, I generally wonder if they’re describing the state of things as existing or as they’d like it to be. And at some point, I think it’s possible to be troubled by all the havoc that “experts” have caused in bureaucratic societies over the last two centuries, while still recognizing that their critics are often really attacking the possibility of a neutral intellectual space outside of power. It’s often a short stride from kicking a scholar to goose stepping.