Tuesday, February 28, 2006

It's not worth doing well...

Holiday from the Enlightenment: "Features � Science and Humanities2006-02-27Holiday from the Enlightenment
God is back in fashion among intellectuals. But even spiritual movements today are motivated by Western fundamentalism: the Enlightenment. By Heinz Schlaffer"

Notwithstanding that, the recurrence of religious needs in the Western world is among the conditions for the Enlightenment. What all new religious converts wish for is nothing other than a comfortable Christianity that has been cheered up by the Enlightenment... Today's religious fantasies focus solely on Christianity's positive side: the promise of a meaning to life, the dear ego's continuation after death (in Heaven, of course, and not in Hell), the feeling of emotional security and personal distinction, the consolation offered by pretty ceremonies. When the new Pope and the writers Martin Mosebach and Hans-Josef Ortheil extol the latter as an advantage of the Catholic faith, they fail to see that the ceremony of Hinduism on Bali far surpasses the Christian competition as far as beauty goes. Wouldn't they do better to become Balinese Hindus?

This new yet old Christianity of the intellectuals is a wellness religion, one which has inherited from the Enlightenment the right to a maximisation of happiness..Followers of this cosy religion reap its benefits without foregoing a thing: neither pre-marital nor extra-marital affairs, neither whoring nor sodomy (as past generations of Christians called such deadly sins). What people are after is a religion that serves up gratifications rather than bans.

Sounds good to me. Very good in fact--and so good that I buy it.

In this remarkable screed, reminiscent of Kierkegaard's Attack Upon Christendomin which K. expressed horror at Professor Martensen's characterization of the genial Bishop Mynster as a "witness" for the Christian faith, a retired German professor rages about cheerful, Laodicean Christians who enjoy the comfort and "pretty cermonies" without taking the tough stuff, the sin and salvation story, the restrictions and penitential practices, seriously. Both agree that if Christianity isn't worth doing well then it isn't worth doing at all. But whereas Kierkegaard argued, modus tollenswise that Christianity was worth doing and, therefore, that it was worth doing will, the German professor suggests, modus ponenswise, that it is not worth doing well--"The Christians of the Middle Age" he writes,"... performed heavy penances and suffered privations to cleanse themselves of sin. Who has time today for such tortuous ideas and painful mortifications?"--and so is not worth doing at all.One man's modus ponens is another man's modus tollens.

I don't see why Christianity should be worth doing well--but I don't buy the conditional either. Most of us, including me, are second-rate at best and make a half-assed job of most of what we do. It's better than nothing. In fact, as Barry Schwartz cited in an earlier post suggests, the the Royal Road to the Good Life is satisficing. As far as Balinese Hinduism goes there is a very good reason why we aren't Balinese Hindus: we don't live in Bali and it isn't feasible to move there. Bali is an expensive tourist island in Indonesia and I doubt that most of us could even afford to retire there. Moreover, Hindu myths are not our myths and the history of South Asia is not our history: Hinduism isn't our culture religion. The best we can do is to make the best of Christianity--jettison the penances and privations, repudiate the Biblical literalism, intollerance and superstition, and enjoy the good things it has to offer: the art, architecture, music, liturgy, and mysticism, the romance of it.

What is this business of religion really all about? At bottom the fact that we think, or at the very least hope, that there's something beyond the brute facts of the material world and the mechanical principles according to which it operates--even if we do not believe that that Beyond intervenes and only hope that we can catch a few glipses of it here and now, in the experience of art, natural beauty and religious practice, and hope against hope that we may be able to contemplate it in another life. This hope is in any case tenuous.

As for religions, they're the packaging--they provide the art, myth and ceremony for facilitating that contact with the Beyond, if there is a Beyond, or at the very least producing desirable, lovely and intense experiences. Some religions are richer in those good things and better at doing this job than others: Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism, and Christianity in its Orthodox, and to a lesser extent, Catholic and Anglican, incarnations are rich and good at this; Islam, Judaism, low-church Protestantism and other aniconic, moralistic, preachy religions are not very good at delivering, though all religions can be tweaked to get the job done. We do the best we can with what we've got.

We're culturally and geographically constrained. We can't be Hindus or Buddhists because there are no Hindu or Buddhist temples on the ground. Adopting their "philosophies" is nothing. It's always seemed surprising to me that while quite a few Americans take up Buddhism to the extent of adopting the "philosophy" and meditating, they don't build temples: without temples and cult there is no religion. We can't, most of us, be Orthodox: even with temples on the ground, that history isn't our history. Without radical enculturation, and probably conversion at an early age, it isn't a real possibility for us. Like it or not, we are Latin Christians--that is our culture religion.

Kierkegaard would be horrified, and lots of people, both believers and unbelievers, follow him in this. There is a gut feeling they share--you shouldn't be pragmatic or self-indulgent when it comes to religion. But why? We don't have this idea when it comes to other departments of life. We aren't shocked if people say they took up a particular profession because it was available, because they were good at it and because they enjoy that line of work. Why do we expect more or different when it comes to religious practice?

Monday, February 27, 2006

What Women Want

<The Happiest Wives - New York Times

In a more egalitarian world, there would be more wives mining coal and driving trucks, and more husbands cooking dinners and taking children to doctor's appointments. But that wouldn't be a fairer world, as Nock and Wilcox found...The happiest wives in their study were the ones who said that housework was divided fairly between them and their husbands. But those same happy wives also did more of the work at home while their husbands did more work outside home.

Here's why this article is b.s.: Tierney fudges the distinction between hedonism and the desire-satisfaction account of wellbeing. According to hedonism what makes us well off is getting pleasure or "happiness" which is something like that though not clear exactly what it is. According to the desire-satisfaction account or "preferentism" what makes us well off is getting satisfying our [rational, informed] preferences. Preferentism is the orthodox view and, without producing arguments for it suffice it to say, the view that I think is the more plausible. So let's for the sake of the argument assume preferentism.

Since most people prefer happiness to unhappiness there's not actually that much difference in practice when we consider individual cases. But differences show up in the aggregate. Suppose lots of people prefer pistachio ice cream to chocolate, but that pistachio is harder to get (true!) and more expensive. In these circumstances there are likely to be more happy chocolate-lovers than pistachio-lovers. Chocolate-lovers will find it easy and cheap to satisfy their preferences so there will be lots of happy chocolate-lovers pigging out. Pistachio lovers by contrast will find it hard and expensive to get their preferred dessert. They may be able to get what they want but the hassle and other costs associated with that will be high and so undermine their happiness, so in the aggregate there will be fewer happy pistachio consumers than chocolate-consumers: the costs of pistachio consumption undermine happiness. You cannot infer from the fact that most chocolate-consumers are happier than most pistachio-consumers that most people prefer chocolate to pistachio.

Now let's consider wives. There are some women who prefer traditional arrangements, where men bring in most of the income and women do most of the housework; there are others who prefer non-traditional, equalitarian arrangements. The traditional arrangement, like chocolate ice cream, is easy to get and cheap. Wives who prefer the traditional arrangement will find it easy and hassle free to get it: their preference will be satisfied and they will be happy. Wives who want to mine coal or drive trucks, or hate cooking and taking children to doctor's appointments, are going to find it hard to to get what they want and, if they get it, the costs will be high. If you work in the mines or on the trucks you are going to get hassled at work, face discrimination and have to deal with co-workers who hate your guts; if you don't like to cook, don't want to take your kids to the doctor, and would prefer to trade off leisure and domestic concerns for longer hours and harder work outside the home you are going to pay heavily to satisfy your preferences. You'll be hasseled by your colleagues in the mine and wrangle continually with your husband about household responsibilities. You are not going to be very happy--at least it is unlikely that you will be as happy as women with traditional aspirations who get what they want.

Consequently, given the high costs of egalitarian arrangements, it is likely that even if most women strongly prefer them to traditional arrangements, more women in the aggregate will be happier with traditional arrangements. It does not follow that ceteris paribus women prefer traditional marriages--ceteris are not paribus.

Tierney is, as usual, responding to a straw man: the idea that women's traditional role in marriage is somehow inherently demeaning and that no one could rationally prefer it. This is not what serious feminists claim nor do we claim that, as a matter of empirical fact most women would prefer truck-driving or mining to traditional pink-collar work. What we claim is that women have a damned hard time getting those truck-driving and mining jobs, and avoiding pink-collar work--and that this should be fixed. The data cited does not show that women don't want those jobs or that they prefer to play traditional roles: it shows that women who go with the flow have an easier time of it.

What do women want? Data showing that women who get x are by and large happier than women who get y doesn't show that more women want x than y.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Paradox of Choice?

Is Freedom Just Another Word for Many Things to Buy? - New York Times

[P]eople who frame freedom in terms of choice are usually the ones who get to make a lot of choices — that is, middle- and upper-class white Americans (most of our study participants are white; we can't make any claims about other racial and ethnic groups). The education, income and upbringing of these Americans grant them choices about how to live their lives and also encourage them to express their preferences and personalities through the choices they make. Most Americans, however, are not from the college-educated middle and upper classes. Working-class Americans often have fewer resources and experience greater uncertainty and insecurity. For them, being free is less about making choices that reflect their uniqueness and mastery and more about being left alone, with their personality, integrity and well-being intact.

This is a superb article co-authored by Barry Schwartz, who argues in The Paradox of Choice that, contrary to the received wisdom, having the widest possible range of choices may not be a good thing. Citing empirical research, he notes that presented with a wide range of options many consumers either become stymied and incapable of making any choice or invest so much in search and deliberation that any additional utility they squeeze out by getting their ceteris paribus most preferred product is swamped by the costs of search and deliberation.

Does this show, as Schwartz suggests, that having "too many" choices is a bad thing? No. What it shows is that people should adopt satisficing rather than maximizing strategies--go for good enough rather then best. And this is just the old time religion: you should behave rationally--and that means recognizing the costs of search in utility calculations. Of course further search is always a temptation so to do this you may want to adopt procedures to restrict your options, like Ulysses bound to the mast. But that is itself a choice.

The interesting feature of this article, not in the book, is the class issue--which hadn't occurred to me but which, in retrospect, should have been obvious. Middle class people have a taste for choice as such--lower class people don't have that taste and, according to Schwartz, may actually regard choice as a threat:

In a recent study with Nicole Stephens at Stanford University, we asked college students to pick "three adjectives that best capture what the word 'choice' means to you." A higher percentage of those who had parents with a college education said "freedom," "action" and "control," while more of those whose parents had only a high-school education responded with "fear," "doubt" and "difficulty."...[W]hen we analyzed country music, preferred over rock by less-educated Americans in every region, we heard more mentions of self-protection and defense, as in Darryl Worley's observation, "We didn't get to keep [our freedom] by backin' down." When choice was mentioned, it was often as a prelude or coda to tragedy, as in George Jones's lament "Now I'm living and dying with the choices I've made."

Not surprising. If you have relatively few options, most of which aren't so hot, and you aren't very good at rational decision-making or used to making long-term plans, the best you can do is "walk the line." (Paul was playing a Johnny Cash song in the car about this). The best you can do is follow the social conventions for good behavior, military discipline or the rules set by your church. Choice means deviation from the rules--and for you, break the rules and you end up living in squalor, impoverished, strung out on drugs, wasted. The political ramifications aren't surprising either. Loosen up on the rules, go soft on punishment, and people will run amok. No surprise either that, when it comes to abortion, the working class aren't impressed by rhetoric about "choice"--that's precisely what they don't want their daughters to have.

Maybe the fundamental difference is about internal vs. external constraints. In some online discussion I remember a woman from the middle east saying that young men simply haven't got the idea that they can, much less should, check their impulses: if they see a woman dressed provocatively it's an invitation to rape. And they don't see it as their fault: how can they be expected to refrain from doing what they feel like doing? At bottom this is a special case of the assumption that people can't be expected to behave rationally--that they can't be either prudent or moral on their own steam, that they can't figure out what to do without socially imposed rules and can't control their impulses without external constraints--without cops, locks and the fear of hell. Choice leads to bad consequences in the long run--"living and dying with the choices I've made"--but people can't be expected to consider long-term consequences when they make decisions.

I don't buy Schwartz's conclusion:

What conception of freedom should Americans pursue? While the upper and middle classes define freedom as choice, working-class Americans emphasize freedom from instability...Similarly, many of the freedoms endorsed and advocated by U.S. foreign policy may not always resemble those desired by the people whom we hope to help. To govern well, both at home and abroad, Americans would be wise to listen to how freedom rings in different cultural contexts

Granted, the US shouldn't invade countries on the pretext of spreading "freedom." But I don't buy the idea that societies that restrict choice are ok because their citizens don't want choice. The question is whether their preference for limiting options is rational and informed. And it isn't. It's a consequence of the mistaken idea that people can't be expected to behave rationally--that they can't either make good, informed choices or control their impulses. Consider this remarkable piece of data from the article:

people...employed in middle-class jobs got upset when a friend or neighbor bought the same car as theirs because they felt that the uniqueness of their choice had been undercut. But those in working-class jobs liked it when others chose the same car because it affirmed that they had made a good choice.

The assumption these working-class people make is that they can't trust their own judgment, that there is simply no way of researching the respective merits of cars and making a purchase decision accordingly--the best you can do is conform. Incredibly they make this assumption when it comes to a decision that involves hard data and is relatively straight-forward--where all you need to do to make a rational decision is to buy the annual used car issue of Consumer Reports and look at the data. Think of how this assumption plays out in where there isn't hard data and where decisions aren't that straight-forward. Non-conformity is dangerous. Why? Because the only way you can figure out what to do is by following the conventions and doing what most other people do. There just isn't anything else to go on. Again, not surprising: one of the most obnoxious features of working class culture is the utter dread of non-conformity--in dress, behavior, ideas, everything.

Now trusting to The Wisdom of Crowds isn't always an irrational strategy. Sometimes it's the best you can do. But the idea that there's nothing else you can trust, that even where you have access to data and are in an excellent position to make a decision on the basis of your own interests and preferences, you should trust the crowd and follow the conventions.

The conservative strategy that working-class people and members of traditional societies choose has high costs. Maybe this is one of those cases though where it's worth it for individuals but creates an overall situation that's not so hot--a suboptimal equilibrium. If you're a woman in a society where the sight of a woman's bare legs drives young men mad you'd better wear a burqa and if you're a young man in a society where all the women are wearing burqas the sight of women's bare legs will drive you mad. If you're working class, and inclined to drink away your paycheck, beat your wife and run up credit card debt, the best you can do is bind yourself to the mast: buy into Fundamentalism, vote for more cops, more prisons and harsher punishments, support strictness and constraint, walk the line. Where everyone walks the line and supports policies that enforce the rules, seeing no other reason to behave themselves, then people will run amok if the rules are relaxed and get into trouble if they get to make choices--and the system is locked in forever.

Not in Schwartz, but there was an experimental program for young offenders where, as an alternative to conventional prison time, boys were put into a program modeled after Marine boot camp (without the guns). They were yelled at, made to do forced marches with heavy backpacks and innumerable pushups--and loved every minute of it. They cleaned up their acts but, predictably, most ran amok as soon as they got out on the street. The moral of this is if you're a social planner or demiurge you can make some people better off by imposing discipline and restricting choice--but you had better be prepared to keep the lid on in perpetuity. If however you're a social planner, or at least if you're a demiurge you can, alternatively, teach people how to control their impulses, plan ahead, reflect on their options and make rational choices for themselves. This goes not only for working class conservatives who believe, wrongly, that too much choice is bad but middle class liberals who, Schwartz claims are overwhelmed by choices.

Maybe this issue is grabby to me--and I'm writing on it, the whole thing on preference including Schwartz's book--because on the one hand this claim is so counterintuitive and remote from my experience and on the other hand because I'm chronically angry at not having enough choices. I want x and I can't get it--that is the fundamental problem of the human condition. I not only get angry about the things I want but can't get--like terra cotta tiles for my bathroom floor: I stew about things I don't want but couldn't have gotten if I had wanted them. This business of anxiety and indecision, and the cliche of getting what you want and finding it as ashes in your mouth, just seems like more baloney by people who've been reinforced for whining and self-dramatization. The fix is easy: satisfice. Choose whatever suits and don't worry about what you missed. Reflect on what you want, do the research, and go for it. If you're indifferent, flip a coin, adopt a procedure for narrowing options or ask someone else to choose. Or bind yourself to the mast if you must--just don't bind me. Why is this so hard?

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Dennett Breaking the Spell

Guardian Unlimited Books | Review | Beyond belief

In his preface, Dennett remarks that every foreign reader who saw drafts of the book complained of its American bias. His defence is that it is aimed at an American audience, since it is American fundamentalism that most threatens what he values about his own society. So, after the preliminary pep-talk to the choir, he gives a very forceful and lucid account of the reasons why we need to study religious behaviour as a human phenomenon: apparently this programme comes as a tremendous shock to those Americans who have never heard of Hume, William James, or even Terry Pratchett.

I haven't read Dennett's book yet though I will--but I read quite a number of reviews. Apparently one of his themes is that it has been taboo to subject the phenomenon of religious belief to critical scrutiny and that he is out to fix that.

This is a very American thing, reflecting the current culture war between Fundamentalists promoting their agenda and the rest of the American public who are not on board. But it isn't new. Even when I was in high school, quite a long time ago, I learnt that you could score instant points as an "intellectual" by making anti-religious remarks. All you had to do to impress teachers was to say, "God doesn't exist" and they would write flattering comments in the margin of your papers: "Good!" or "I can see you're really thinking!" It didn't seem to matter whether you gave reasons or not: there was the just the idea that atheism was a smart, intellectual idea while religious believe was a dumb, naive idea.

Being an "intellectual" wasn't just a matter of having the right views about religious matters either. We got the idea early on that there was a short list of intellectual ideas, about politics, ethics, social organization and a number of other matters. Being smart was a matter of trotting out the smart ideas. I have a strong suspicion that this is largely a consequence of the American obsession with objective type tests, in particular the role of the SATs, the multiple choice tests that determine college admission. In my high school English classes we got vocabulary lists every week to memorize for the SATs. Oedipus and Hamlet were all very well but we knew that our academic and professional prospects depended on memorizing those lists. Getting the right answers determined whether we would work in management (or marry men who did) and live in leafy suburbs or live in three room apartments and drive trucks (or marry men who did).

Judging from students' blue books and papers I don't think much has changed. Like all members of my tribe I continually write "evidence for this?," "where's the argument?" and simply "why?" in the margins. And students invariably complain that they have given me the right answers and don't understand why they got adverse grades, that they studied with other students who got higher grades, came up with the same answers, and don't understand why their grades were different.

So it was with religion. I lived a sheltered life and never actually met any real Fundamentalists--to me, and to many other Americans they were mythical beasts. But we inherited a ready-made rhetoric from H. L. Mencken reporting on the Scopes "Monkey Trial" who coined the term "Bible Belt" and referred to the citizens of Dayton, Tennessee where the trial was held as "yokels," "morons" and "hillbillies" and from Sinclair Lewis' portrait of Elmer Gantry, the quintessential Fundamentalist preacher. They provided the canonical critique of religious belief, the right answers and the right noises, and the picture of American-style Fundamentalism as the religious paradigm--bigoted, uncritical, unreflective, dogmatic, money-grubbing and hypocritical. Even when I was growing up, when religious practice was still the norm, Mencken and Lewis provided the socially correct take on religion and the correct SAT-style answers: even though nominal religious affiliation and church weddings were de rigeur they still provided the right answers, the smart ideas, that you got points for giving--there are all these fundamentalist yokels out there who are hypocritical, unreflective and uneducated, who beat up on people that have honest doubts (like Frank Shallard in Elmer Gantry) and who taboo the scientific or critical study of religion. I'm not exactly sure how church-goers during the 1950s reconciled this with their religious practice but they did. I think it was something like, "Well, we go to church because we don't rule out the possibility that There's Something There, and because the family that prays together stays together, but of course we're not like those despicable, hypocritical fundamentalist yokels in Gopher Prairie."

Whatever. Dennett is a very smart guy. His piece Where Am I?" is probably the funniest piece of real philosophy ever written. (The funniest parody is Paul Jennings' Report on Resistentialism). Dennett's book is probably pretty good. The thing is that in the US you can always get a hearing by bashing Fundamentalists, claiming that there's a taboo against the the scientific or critical examination of religion and representing atheism as a shocking, radical new idea. And you can still pass yourself off as an intellectual on the cutting edge by replaying Mencken's reportage on the Scopes trial in 1925.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Kids' Music

I hate it--I hate it. On Monday, a holiday, I spent the entire day driving around my No. 2 son, whose motorcycle was in the shop after another crack-up, and my daughter, home from college on a mini-vacation.

As soon as each of them got into the car they plugged their iPods into the dashboard (I don't even understand how this works). Paul goes for rap, including a rapper who is apparently an Orthodox Jew but sounds for all the world like a West Indian, as well as more eclectic contemporary fare; Elizabeth favors music she describes as "techno-ey."

I hate it all and after a day of driving them around--and spending lots of money on Van's shoes, expensive underwear and groceries for Elizabeth to stock the mini-fridge I bought for her dorm room--I was exhausted. Yes, I can recognize the difference in styles, but all this music occurs within a range of 3 notes with heavy precussion in the instrumental. Most of it seems to be modal. I tried extrapolating from the 3 notes and some of the passages could be construed as minor, but there really wasn't enough to extrapolate from and most of the time after about 3 bars they would throw in alien tones or modulate in crazy ways. Nothing was even by a stretch major. The lyrics, insofar as I could catch them, were largely surreal and depressing. The only lyrics I liked were in the chorus of one of Paul's songs which was a litany of random noun phrases followed by "fuck, yeah!" Most of the singers were out of tune by conventional standards and, at best, only slipped into key (what key?) after mini-glissandos and waffling.

It struck me that I must be getting old. But then it struck me that I didn't even like popular music from the time that I was in college--though it wasn't nearly this awful. I also don't like the contemporary high art music my husband likes either--he's just gotten some CD by some Arlo Pert. I am shallow. I like Vivaldi--as I child in musical training I participated in about 30 performances of his Gloria, singing soprano, alto and tenor parts, and playing violin, viola, cello and flute at one time or another. And I can listen to the Four Seasons over and over and over again without getting sick. Vivaldi--fuck, yeah! Mozart--fuck, yeah! Haydn--I kind of like his string quartets even better: he created the form--fuck, yeah. Bach--fuck, yeah, yeah, yeah!!! I once tried to have sex while listening to the Bach b minor mass but couldn't because I understand the Latin without trying to translate and it was distracting.

Maybe part of it is just a preference for tone color. I like every string quartet. The real yummy kick is Dvorak New World--lush, self-indulgent and melodious. What I don't get is that "classical" music--the 500 greatest hits of the last 500 years that XLNC plays is yummy, obvious and pleasing--it's easy. It feels good. Why would anyone want to listen to music that's stressful and makes you angry or depressed? More grandly, I don't get the interest in the dark side of life: we run 2 sections of one of my colleague's courses on Death and Dying. Why on earth would anyone want to take a course on such a depressing topic? Elizabeth is taking a course in biomedical ethics. Again, why? I hate the dark side: "choose life." Truth is I don't believe that there's anything deep about darkness--or that sweetness and light are superficial. Vivaldi is good.

Anyway, I hate this bad, mad, rough, dark, kid music. Hate, hate, hate. I don't have much of a CD collection (and what I have consists entirely in string quartets and Russian church music) but by Christ I'm going to get one of these iPods and download every fucking string quartet I can find, also the Schubert quintet that isn't the Trout and the Brahms Triple, and plug this thing into my dashboard and blast it out next time these kids want to to out to get shoes.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Liberalism is good for women...so who's surprised?

Children, the Littlest Politicians - New York Times

IT was not so long ago that men and women voted along similar lines. Both sexes went overwhelmingly for Richard Nixon in 1972 and narrowly for Jimmy Carter in 1976. Today, though, the gender gap — that men lean right and women lean left — has become a political truism, and a series of new studies suggests that gender plays an even bigger role in politics than many believed. Having a son tends to make parents more conservative, it appears, while a daughter makes them more liberal.

Here's some data--and conjectures about the explanation, including the usual guff about women being soft and social while men are hard and individualistic: "Men...tend to prefer that individuals make decisions, a view that fits with Republican beliefs, while women prefer community solutions."

That hypothesis however doesn't explain why the gender gap is a relative novelty: biology doesn't change (at least not that fast) and if anything this hypothesis would predict abigger gender gap 30 years ago before feminism took hold, when women were socialized to be more "feminine."

The explanation, as most of the quotes suggest, is economic--but deeper than they suggest and not merely a matter of concerns about health care and safety nets as such. Women, like members of visible minorities, know that the race is not to the swift and that they are constrained because of accidents of birth that are visible and immutable. They recognize that the constraints are informal and social rather than formal and political--that their options for getting jobs and promotions, houses, mortgages and car loans are constrained because they're female or black. For us, government is the liberator that loosens those constraints and provides us with more options by prohibiting discriminatory practices. For white males those policies impose constraints, narrow options and pull away safety nets. There's an irreconcilable conflict of interests which, for men, is only diminished when they start to think about their daughters' prospects.

30 years ago women didn't have to worry about jobs, mortgages or car loans--or at least most didn't think they had to worry. Men would support them--work outside the home was optional--and men would qualify for the mortgages and car loans. Men's jobs would provide the health insurance and men would be their safety nets. Subsequently most women discovered that they were wrong. Marriage wouldn't provide security, men wouldn't commit to lifelong marriage or lifelong financial support, and even if they stayed married they would be forced out of the home and into the labor force. One way or the other they would have to compete for jobs and qualify for loans and the only way to see to it that they got a fair shake was to support government intervention to loosen the constraints on their getting these options on their own steam.

This hypothesis has the virtues of simplicity and power, and confirms the fundamental doctrine that people, male or female, respond to incentives. Everyone wants the greatest possible scope for desire satisfaction, the widest possible range of options. For white males the way to get is by minimizing the role of government; for the rest of us the way to get it is by maximizing the role of government. Everyone wants the same thing, viz. the greatest possible range of opportunities to get what they want.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

War against boys--my foot

Salon.com Life | The campus crusade for guys

[Y]oung women might be more motivated to pursue higher education because, consciously or unconsciously, they sense that there are real economic advantages at stake. Her examination of a Department of Education sample of more than 9,000 high school students, interviewed over a period of eight years, revealed that women with bachelor's degrees earn 24 percent more than women without, while young men with bachelor's degrees experience no significant economic gains. For practical proof of her hypothesis, one need only consider that most well-paid, skilled, blue-collar professions continue to be dominated by men -- while minimum-wage jobs in hospitality and service remain the province of women.

If I were a guy I would never have gone to college, much less gotten a Ph.D. I went to college for exactly one reason: to avoid being a secretary. If I could have been a mechanic I would never have bothered. I wasn't motivated by the carrot--I was driven by the stick.

Forget about affirmative action for boys in college admissions. Why should they go? They don't need the credentials women need to avoid boring shit work. If you want to create a more even gender balance in colleges try affirmative action for blue collar trades and provide more opportunities for women who don't have academic credentials.

Let them eat cartoons

3 More Die in Pakistan Cartoon Protests

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Feb. 15 — Three more people were killed today, as tens of thousands of protesters, incensed at cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, took to the streets in Pakistani cities for a third straight day, clashing with police and torching western businesses, media reports and officials said.

How stupid and irresponsible it was for that conservative Danish newspaper to publish those cartoons--anyone could have predicted what the likely consequences would be. Here are 3 more people dead--over cartoons.

Of course journalists will make a fuss about Freedom of the Press. They're the Press and that's their job. But is it really such a monumental matter of principle? Why? Obviously, ceteris paribus the more freedom the better but ceteris are not paribus and it is pretty clear that the bad consequences of exercising freedom of the press in this case outweigh the benefits of grandstanding.

It's all more of the conservative let-them-eat-cake policy. Here are hordes of desperate people who don't have the time or money to buy newspapers and sit around reading them, most of whom couldn't read them anyway because they're illiterate, and these irresponsible, grandstanding fools are crusading for freedom of the press--let the eat newspapers. As far as Freedom and Democracy what does the current administration mean? Let's see, "freedom" means laissez faire capitalism, policies to benefit multinationals and the abolition of trade barriers. It also means eliminating free schooling, subsidized food, and other programs that benefit the very poor in poor countries--part of the Washington Consensus on how to discipline poor countries and stop their irresponsible, spendthrift behavior. And "democracy" means voting in pro-American politicians--not, e.g. Hamas.

It's pretty obvious why they hate us. We live in paradise and they live in shit. Our foreign policy is obviously geared to getting more power and more wealth at their expense--while we make hypocritical noises about Freedom and Democracy. Adding insult to injury we mock their primary cultural icon and then read their anger as religious fanaticism, confirming the Clash of Civilizations hypothesis, just showing that they aren't people like us and wouldn't appreciate the good life we have even if they got it. So no point in soft diplomacy or aid--they don't want reliable electricity, clean streets, or basic economic security. No siree--it would all be wasted. They just want to riot in the streets, memorize the Koran and beat up women.

I don't think the rage about these cartoons is in any way religious. If the cartoons didn't depict Mohammed but just showed racist representations of Arabs and South Asians or lampooned other features of their culture you would get the same result--possibly worse. They simply read these cartoons as saying "You people are scum--we laugh at you; we're going to beat you up, enslave you and wipe you out to further enrich ourselves."

Thursday, February 09, 2006

No Free Ride

Facing up to Islam in the Netherlands Markha Valenta - openDemocracy

One million of Holland's sixteen million citizens are Muslim, roughly six percent...Of these million, only a handful of women, fifty or so, wear a burka. That is, fewer than a dozen per major city. Probably less.

In light of this, the legislation constitutes little more than a bit of symbolic politics...while ethnically Dutch opponents of the ban oppose it on the grounds of freedom of expression and freedom of religion, many and perhaps most Muslims, whatever their dress, see in the ban yet one more expression of a Dutch aversion to Islam. It is not so much the ban itself troubles them, since so few of them cover their faces or have mothers and wives who do so, but rather the way it would seem to confirm and strengthen the Dutch rejection of Islam and, by extension, of Dutch Muslims.

In this sense, while specifically targeting only a minute proportion of Dutch Muslims, the legislation actually touches the whole of Dutch Muslim citizenry. Women with veils wonder if they will be next; women without are reminded that however integrated they are, however "modern" they may look, the Dutch will not let them forget that they are not quite Dutch; and all Muslims recognize in this legislation the assumption of Islamic inferiority.

But what should they infer: that this ban is symbolic of a program to lock them out, to classify them as "not quite Dutch" regardless of how they dress or behave--or that it is intended to wipe out ethnic distinctiveness so that immigrants from Muslim countries, their children and children's children can be completely Dutch.

That's an empirical question and I don't know enough about how things are in Holland to know what the intention of this ban is or what the result will be. But I believe that governments should impose bans on behaviors and practices that make ethnic identity more salient. There is no free ride: one way of the other some people's interests will be thwarted. If I live in a society where there are Muslim women wearing burkas, where Muslims are, because of this and other practices that are visible in the public square, an identifiable ethnic group, then if I am brown-skinned or for whatever other reason identified as Muslim, I will be identified as an outsider who is "not quite Dutch." If my aim is to assimilate, to be completely Dutch, to be completely identified with the country where I was born, the country whose language I speak, whose culture is my culture and whose history is my history, then the visible persistence of visible, distinct ethnic groups sets back my interests.

There is no free ride and no reason to privilege the minority who want to remain culturally distinct over the majority who want to assimilate.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

It's the hair, stupid

West Beginning to See Islamic Protests as Sign of Deep Gulf - New York Times

For decades European nations have wrestled with an influx of immigrants who came for economic and political reasons, primarily from lands where Islam is the dominant faith — from Bosnia and Turkey, from Iraq, Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East, from North Africa and Somalia. But many feel they have never been fully welcome. The catalog of Islamic terrorism — from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, to the March 2004 bombings in Madrid and the July 2005 attacks in London — has challenged governments and societies to distinguish between moderates and extremists, like the four British-born Muslims who killed themselves and 52 other people in London.

Ostensibly, said Timothy Garton Ash, an Oxford professor of European history, the clash has pitted two sets of values — freedom of expression and multiculturalism — against each other. Muslim immigrants, initially seen in the 1960's as temporary laborers, have formed permanent and expanding communities. But beyond that, there is a seething resentment among some Muslims that they are treated as second-class citizens and potential terrorists in lands that deny the importance of their faith, even though the number of Muslims in Europe totals 20 million, and possibly many more.

"If you have black hair, it is really difficult to find a job," said Muhammad Elzjahim

Some Europeans claim to worry that Muslim immigrants are out to proselytize and impose their way of life on others. "In America, few people fear that they will have to live according to the norms of Islam," an editorial in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad read. "In European countries, with a large or growing Muslim minority, there is a real fear that behind the demand for respect hides another agenda: the threat that everyone must adjust to the rules of Islam."

This doesn't seem plausible. I've read quite an enormous number of interviews with disgruntled Muslims now for the book that I seem to be writing (it just crept up on me--but I do seem to be writing a book on multiculturalism) and none of them seem to have any interest in converting anyone to Islam or making all women wear headscarves--most don't even seem particularly interested in having their own daughters wear headscarves. The major theme seems to be that they're treated as outsiders and face substantial discrimination. And a minor theme is intergenerational conflict, between the immigrant generation and their assimilated children, particularly daughters who they believe are being corrupted by the permissive sexual mores of European societies.

Europeans I suspect just don't get it because they aren't accustomed to dealing with mass immigration or the presence of visible minorities. To Americans though all this is old hat. Parents want to protect, and control, their children--particularly daughters and when that's exacerbated by a cultural divide between immigrant parents from traditional societies and children who don't want to put up with traditional rules there's trouble. Here is a charming article from The Guardian describing the activities of a team of pistol-packing diplomats that rescue British-Asian girls forced into arranged marriages:

Almost free, Yasmin Rehman darts breathlessly through the sleepy Punjabi village. Running down a sandy lane, the 21-year-old from Bradford heads for the main road, her green shalwar kameez streaming in her wake. Behind her, clutching a hastily packed suitcase, is a British diplomat and, by his side, a Pakistani bodyguard, a pistol concealed under his clothes. A Land Rover is waiting at the end of the path. Rehman leaps in and the jeep roars off, weaving around donkeys, tractors and a gaggle of curious kids. ... "I'm so embarrassed, I'm really scared, I've never done anything like this before. But I had no choice," she babbles nervously in a strong northern accent...Caught between cultures and pressured by their families, hundreds of young British-Pakistani women are trapped in forced marriages in Pakistan every year.

Americans get this because it's a classic American story--it's My Big Fat Greek Wedding Usually things don't get this far out of hand either, with girls spirited away to Pakistan and beaten up. Usually fathers run around shouting and mothers fall on the floor threatening to have heart attacks. The encouraging thing about the story, even though it was about cases where family feuds went seriously bad, was that it was played as the rescue of our good British girls--girls from Luton, girls from Bradford babbling in northern accents, girls "pining for burgers, chips and jeans." Americans in any case know this story--and know that however crazy and dangerous these immigrant parents are, they have no interest in holy war, proselytizing or imposing Shari'a law on European countries.

Americans also know that immigrants aren't a Fifth Column and that the majority don't have any ideological interests. Interestingly, even in interviews with the most disgruntled Muslims they complain that the US is out to destroy "the Muslim people"--not that it's waging a war on Islam. And this is the take I think: it's tribal warfare, not a "clash of civilizations" as they see it. Certainly Mohammed is a cultural ikon but I have the sense that they see attacks on Islam as symbols and symptoms of a program to humiliate them, enslave them or wipe them out.

We're used to thinking of war and cultural conflict as ideologically motivated, or at least principled--or at least to pretend that it is. We claim to fight for freedom, democracy and human rights just as we once claimed that we were in the business of colonizing in order to Christianize and civilize the natives. But until very recently in human history no one even made that pretense: wars were simply tribal without even the excuse of principle or ideology. Everybody takes care of their own because they're their own and occasionally goes out and beats up on other tribes just because they're other tribes. That's the way it worked amongst the working class "white ethnics" where I grew up, and that, I suspect, is the way in which those Muslims who are seriously angry see it. No amount of happy talk about the virtues of Islam will fix that because the issue isn't religion, ideology or culture--it's people with black hair who are marked as an alien tribe and who imagine that tribal warfare is in the offing.

Americans get that because we know all about visible minorities and the pervasiveness of racism. We know, "it's not the bus, it's us." We may not know how to fix it but at least we know what it is, and know that it's not holy war or the clash of civilizations but poverty, discrimination and exclusion. It's the hair.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Free Speech and Bad Taste

BBC NEWS | Middle East | Iran paper seeks cartoon revenge

An Iranian paper is holding a contest for cartoons about the Holocaust, to retaliate against the publication of images of the Prophet Muhammad. Hamshahri says it wants to test the boundaries of free speech, echoing the reasons European papers gave for publishing the caricatures.

I'm on board. I haven't seen the cartoons depicting Mohammad published in the Danish Jyllands-Posten newspaper but I have no doubt that they were both lame and in bad taste. I don't think they should have been published because they are offensive without any redeeming social value and the publishers knew that publishing them was likely to have had very bad consequences. But it's quite another thing to say that the Danish government should have stopped them from publishing such tasteless crap. And it's still another thing to say that Muslims who were offended by such bigoted junk had a moral right to go on a rampage in protest.

Civilized people understand the difference between harm and offense, between genocide and bad taste.

The Iranian newspaper running this contest is making an appropriate response to the tasteless behavior of its Danish counterpart. It's testing the limits of free speech, which is what the Jyllands-Posten newspaper claimed it was doing and, unsaid, it's also testing a perceived double standard: the idea that you can trash brown people but you can't trash white people and more particularly, that Muslims are fair game but Jews are always sacrosanct.

OK let's test it and see how civilized we are. Let's see if Western countries cut trade ties or break off relations with Muslim countries where these cartoons appear in the media and whether Jews or other white people in these countries take to the streets, burn flags, trash buildings or beat in people's heads to protest. I doubt that that will happen and I'm sure that it shouldn't happen.