The Courage to See, the Courage to Kill

Featured image’s source is NASA.

The struggle between enlightenment and spirit, detached reason and emotionally embedded life, is one of the characteristic conflicts of modernity. It has played out in arguments and in art, in politics and policy. Charles Taylor has traced the contours of this and related conflicts with remarkable skill and subtlety.

The 1954 science fiction story “The Cold Equations” is a useful example. A middling midcentury parable that is long on exposition and short on plot, it sets up a stark scenario in which fellow feeling and detached reason are at odds, but the latter must necessarily triumph.

Author Tom Godwin describes a future in which resource constraints on the frontier of space allow for almost no margin of error. They give ships just enough fuel for the exact amount of mass they are carrying. So any stowaway must be tossed out into the void immediately, or there won’t be enough fuel to decelerate, and everyone aboard will die.

Continue reading “The Courage to See, the Courage to Kill”

Is Marriage Worth It? For Poor Women, No.

I scratched my head (figuratively) as I scanned Laurie Penny’s latest for sufficient class consciousness. Known for being a fighter for those at the bottom, her latest essay, Is marriage worth it? has an odd focus on well-to-do women. Odd first because of its author, but second because rich women are by-and-large still saying “yes” to that question. Middle-class women are getting married, though at later ages than previous decades.

Her points about the pros and cons of modern marriage are well-articulated (as per usual for Penny) and salient. But while she shines light on the unfair, gendered division of the mostly unnoticed and seldom-discussed “emotional labor” required to run a household, I am not buying that the question of who has to remember the birthdays has much impact on when and whether low-income, low-education women marry.

“It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that, realising how terrible their working conditions are and have always been, women everywhere are simply going on strike.”

It is beyond the bounds of possibility though. Maybe not the bounds of possibility, but certainly the math doesn’t point to that conclusion. The math says that the demographic group going on strike against marriage at the highest rates are poor women. (Despite conservative handwringing and fringe movements such as MGTOW, the majority of men at all income levels report the same desire to get married they always have.)

Poor women are opting out of marriage entirely, while rich women only delay it. And they’re doing so not because it’s a bad deal emotionally, not because they want their freedom, not because they don’t need no man.

As Penny points out, “Over half of Americans earning minimum wage or below are single women – and single mothers are five times as likely to live in poverty as married ones.”

Conservatives have long exhorted poor women to get married before having kids. In a speech he gave on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, Marco Rubio called marriage “the greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty.”

Later at an Atlantic summit on female poverty Nickel and Dimed author Barbara Ehrenreich had a retort to this idea. “When you say to women, to get out of poverty you should get married, my question to them is, how many men you have to marry? Marrying a 10-dollar-an-hour man gets you nowhere, so you’d really have to marry three or four.”

The idea that putting a ring on it will lift women out of poverty shows that conservatives fundamentally misunderstand cause-and-effect. Women aren’t poor because they don’t get married. They’re unmarried because they’re poor.

Poor women don’t reject marriage as an institution. They simply can’t find men to marry.

“It isn’t that having a lasting and successful marriage is a cure for living in poverty,” says Kristi Williams of Ohio State University. “Living in poverty is a barrier to having a lasting and successful marriage.”

The average woman wants to marry a man who earns more than she does. Even women who graduate from Harvard. “Being the breadwinner has been a linchpin of U.S. men’s masculinity for decades,” Dan Cassino wrote for HBR.

Most marriages today are between two people who earn almost the same amount, but with a slightly higher salary for the man. Assortative mating is the norm at all income levels.

Here’s the math problem that both neoconservatives and Laurie Penny fail to grapple with. At the lower end of the income scale, women outearn men on average. That means if every low-income woman married every low-income man, the majority of those marriages would have a woman breadwinner.

When they’re not telling black and Latino women to get married, neoconservatives are responding to the economic reality that soon the average childless woman will outearn the average childless man with attempts to “bully, threaten and cajole wealthy white women back to the kitchen and nursery,” according to Penny. These attempts “are as much about racist panic as they are about reinstituting a social order which only ever worked for men.”

Rather than telling men to step up and follow women’s lead in figuring out how to contribute profitably to the modern information-and-service-based economy (and this despite sexism), conservatives are instead telling women to step back to give men a chance to catch up.

None of this is going to work, of course. Poor women aren’t going to stop having kids, and rich women aren’t going to sacrifice their earning potential to soothe male egos indefinitely.

But the reason poor women aren’t going to stop having kids before they get married is that there’s no one for them to marry profitably. There simply aren’t enough men who make more money than women at the bottom to go around. The average poor woman can’t marry a middle-class man because he’s married to a middle-class women, of which there are plenty. In fact, there are currently more college educated women than there are men.

Four times as many black people have never married today than in 1960. This correlates with the fact that, according to Pew, “There are 51 employed, never-married young black men between the ages of 25 to 34 for every 100 black women in the same boat.”

Katherine Boo followed two black women African-American enrolled in a marriage promotion antipoverty program based in their Oklahoma City housing project for “The Marriage Cure.”

What she found should surprise no one with a passing familiarity with both demographic data and any sense of how poverty works on the ground. There was no one for these women to marry. All the men around them who were single were both unemployed and unemployable due to their criminal convictions.

“For these women of modest means, it seemed that finding a partner meant looking for someone who wasn’t an economic drag on them, which was a tall order. In other words, instead of poor folks being poor because they’re not married — they might not be married because they’re poor.”

And it’s not like he’s not going to help around the house.

Husbands, on average, do not do as much domestic work as wives do. This isn’t news. What’s interesting is that this holds true regardless of income or employment. That is, even when wives work more hours outside the home than their husbands, wives still do the majority of the domestic work.

There’s actually evidence that as wives who outearn their husbands’ income increases, men decrease the amount of time they spend on domestic work. As Cassino put it, “Even the potential of making less than one’s spouse threatens accepted gender roles.” These wives seem to be reassuring their spouses. By cooking the meal they also bought, they seem to be saying to their husbands, “Don’t worry. You’re still a man.”

The irony is that the backwards gender roles that conservatives keep trying to shove down people’s throats make marriage a horrible deal for poor women.

Fragile masculinity means marrying just creates more work for poor women. It’s the reason that the less educated a man is, the less likely he is to marry.

Penny writes, “If women reject marriage and partnership en masse, the economic and social functioning of modern society will be shaken to its core. It has already been shaken.”

I predict women won’t reject marriage and partnership en masse. Marriage still works for middle- and upper-class women, which makes Penny’s focus on them all the more ironic. Women at the bottom have already rejected marriage en masse (though not partnership, many live with partners to whom they are not married). But they’ve done so for reasons completely separate from the calculus of rich women. They’ve done so because there’s no one for them to marry, and that problem is likely to get worse. Right now only about 15% of U.S. men make less than their spouses. But younger men are far more likely than older men to earn the same or less than their spouses.

Penny: “The question of how households will be formed and children raised is still unsolved.”

Correct. Until and unless low-education, low-income men figure out how to either outearn low-education, low-income women or figure out how to do the majority of domestic labor, single parenthood will continue to be the norm for low-education, low-income people.

Near the end, Penny speaks of enjoying going to her friends’ weddings. “It’s just that I also happen to believe in dismantling the social and economic institutions of marriage and family.”

Similarly, I might like to remarry as well. As a college-educated woman, if I marry a college-educated man, we enter the cohort most likely to get and stay married. And as a college-educated woman, I’m much more likely to be able to find a college-educated man to marry than I would be without one. Mrs. degree FTW.

“I’m a romantic,” Penny writes. “I think love needs to be freed from the confines of the traditional, monogamous, nuclear family – and so do women. I think wrapping up the most intimate, exhausting aspects of human labour in a saccharine slip of hearts and flowers, calling it love and expecting women to do it thanklessly and for free is a profoundly unromantic idea.”

I’m a romantic as well. And while love needs to be freed from the confines of the traditional, monogamous, nuclear family, property doesn’t. The practical benefits of marriage are considerable, at the individual and societal level.

Even after controlling for income, compared to their peers children raised in a home with both biological parents have fewer behavioral problems, less asthma, less hunger, and better grades. A recent study by Economist Raj Chetty showed that nothing, not neighborhood segregation or school quality, impacts income mobility more for a low-income child than the family structures she sees in her community.

All else equal, I’d love to take advantage of the proven benefits of marriage. Middle-class families protect and grow their wealth by taking advantage of marriage’s economies of scale and division of labor.

But even more importantly, I’d like to extend those benefits downward to the poor.

The fundamental problem is not that we’ve wrapped up the most intimate, exhausting aspects of human labour in a saccharine slip of hearts and flowers, called it love and expected women to do it thanklessly and for free. It’s that we’ve wrapped up the most intimate, exhausting aspects of human labour in a saccharine slip of hearts and flowers, called it love and told men in no uncertain terms that to do it thanklessly and for free as women have always done they are acting womanlike and that to be womanlike is the more humiliating thing you could possibly do.

There are many reasons men at the bottom of the food chain don’t earn as much as women, including the degree gap, eroding demand for low-skill labor, and overincarceration.

But there’s only one reason low-earning men aren’t worthwhile husbands, and it’s misogyny.

If we want low-income families to be able to take advantage of marriage’s tremendous benefits, we will have to convince men that domestic labor is real work and that real work is honorable, even if it’s work women used to do.

Radicalism as a virtue


As any Intro Ethics final will note, Aristotle’s describes the virtues as “the middle state” between extremes of excess and deficiency. The paradigm case is courage, the virtue that sits between rashness and cowardice, respectively. This conception of virtue is labeled “The doctrine of the mean”, or simply “the golden mean”, and has its precursors in the Delphic Oracle’s imperative “Nothing in excess” and the Analects of Confucius.

The Doctrine of the Mean seems to oppose radicalism on its face. The very term “radicalism” connotes an extremism of views; if the virtue lies in the middle, then no radical view can be virtuous. As Paul and Adam suggested in a recent discussion, a virtue ethics seems to preclude compatibility with radical feminism by its very formal structure. Liberal feminism, as the more moderate view, seems prima facie the more virtuous position.

But this prima facie argument fails to appreciate the subtleties of the Golden Mean. For both Aristotle and his predecessors, the virtuous mean must be understood in relation to the extremes it avoids. A central motivation of these views is that the virtues can’t be known by any absolute criterion, but must be reckoned through reflection on the relationships we observe around us. To find the courageous mean, we must have models of not just courageous persons, but also of cowardly and rash persons. Not that we should be like the extremists, but we should watch them carefully because they set the boundaries, and it is in terms of these boundaries that I can hope to chart the virtues.

This argument has not yet established radicalism as a virtue. So far, I have only argued that the extremes have instrumental value to the virtuous. At most, this implies that the extremists cannot be eliminated from the discourse without moving where the middle lies. Indeed, the Overton window is moved not by negotiating the virtues, but by policing the extremes.

To go farther and see radicalism as a virtue, one must show that pursuing a radical or extremist beliefs is the most reasonable way to arrive at a virtuous or “middle” position. This may sound incoherent, but hopefully can be made intuitive with a few examples. First, consider orbital mechanics (more fun than archery). To get a probe to Pluto, it’s not enough to launch the probe at Pluto (and cross one’s fingers). Since Pluto is also a moving target, one must also anticipate where Pluto will be when you arrive (ten years later!), and adjust your launch path accordingly. This means that at the start, you’ll be launching a probe in a direction quite radically (!!) other than where you intend to go. But if you calculate carefully, in order to hit your target it’s precisely this radical direction you ought to aim. In this case, the radical solution just is the virtuous solution.

The point is that *aiming* at extremist views can be the most effective way to *arrive* at the correct (‘middle’) views. And, by extension, aiming at moderate views might land you on a view that isn’t virtuous at all. For a normative example that doesn’t involve space ships, consider Paul’s recent defense of liberal feminism against radical feminism.

Paul’s criticism of radical feminism (that it fails to respect the particular stories of individuals) seems lame in the face of the radical response he cites in the article (“that it doesn’t much matter how women construe their sexual choices as these choices are formed within and inextricable from male supremacy”). Indeed, at several points Paul remarks on how much of the radical feminist position is reasonably taken up by the liberal feminist view, and how hard it is to find solid ground to critique the radical.

Well, then, why think there must be a critique at all? Why can’t the radical feminist simply be correct? Paul responds by appeal to the golden mean: the extremist simply can’t be correct!

But look again at the case: Liberal (ie, moderate, “virtuous”) feminists hold views that are clearly grounded in and consistent with (if less radically articulated than) the radical feminists. This seems to exactly be a case where aiming at the radical position CAN leave one on the correct trajectory to a virtuous view. The radical is there to set the bounds of the discussion, and thereby shift the middle towards their preferred views. By articulating strongly radical views, it brings many of those positions into the mainstream where they can be sensibly adopted by the moderates, reinforcing these new norms *as* the norm. The moderates legitimize the work of the radicals at the edges (or discard what cannot be tolerated from the middle) until all the minis have been maxed. And behold, a virtue is born.

The point here is not that the radical is “correct”, or that the liberal is “correct”. The point is that both positions play a dynamical role in the discourse, both simultaneously serving to locate and reinforce the middle where they see fit, and both work together to accomplish this task even where they disagree. That the liberal and radical feminist overlap so strongly in the present is evidence that the destinations they’re tracking are so far away as to converge at the horizon. If anything, the overlap of these views is evidence of the distance we have yet to cover; given where we are, their disagreements are effectively irrelevant.

But while this doesn’t let us decide between the radical and moderate views, it does suggest that any simple-minded aim at a moderate position will likely fail to appreciate the dynamics involved. One ought to advocate for radical views in situations where radicalism helps move the discourse towards the virtuous center; often, advocating for the center is not such a view. One ought to advocate for the center in a way that helps to locate and reinforce it, but when moderate views appeal to the center-as-default, it can be counterproductive to any actual moderation precisely because it obscures the effort to find it.

Thus, and absent any deep paradox with virtue theory, the radical can indeed behave with more virtue than the moderate. The radical might not only help others better find virtue, but might herself stand as a model of virtue.

Be radical, kids.

Adam Knew His Wife Eve

And she acquired not the Lord, as she hoped, but a murderer.

It is an odd euphemism, isn’t it, for sex. “To know” someone has for millennia elicited stifled giggles from the adolescent male, “in the biblical sense,” knowwudimean? It is doubly strange because the Bible, especially the Christian Old Testament, blushes not to describe sexual activity in ways that would make Chaucer blush. The story of Onan and his brothers is so explicit that it is simply off-limits in mixed company (Genesis 38). Translators of the prophets often notoriously smooth over certain images to prevent hyperventilation among the Ladies Aid set, whose fundraisers pay translator salaries (Isaiah 64:6). And some images are untouchable (Ezekiel 16).

So why to know as a euphemism?

It’s not a euphemism: it’s the story of sexual dominance. The bible is describing exactly what Radical Feminists are expressing, as Paul Crider reports in his latest post. The bible is describing the fall from a graceful relationship, in which the woman came out of man to help him have dominion over the earth, a relationship which seems best to describe as a willing partnership, unfettered by coveting, which is the sin of the self which drives all the other sins. Now, instead of a willing partnership, which was to have dominion over the earth, in part, by filling it up, multiplying, the primary relationship of a man to a woman is that of sexual dominance: Adam knew his wife Eve.

God had set them in a garden, where he gave them leave to eat the fruit of any of the trees of that garden, even the Tree of Life, but they were forbidden to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Except the translation is difficult, and can’t express what this tree is for.

A little Hebrew: the noun knowledge might be a verb (I hereby make the case that it is), which changes the nouns following, i.e., “good and evil” from a genitive relationship into the direct objects of the verb. Thus, we would render the phrase as “You may not eat of the Tree of Knowing Good and Evil.”

It becomes, therefore, parallel to Adam knowing his wife Eve.

But first, why would God not want his creatures to know good and evil? I think a second question helps answer this one, and also furthers us into understanding just what in the hell happened at that tree: how would they know what good and evil are, so that they could choose between right and wrong?

Ah, but it’s not about intellectual information: they would first trust God to teach them, then they would learn information as they set themselves to the task of having dominion over the earth, also known as wisdom, reasoning with each other, and their many and varied offspring, as to the best course for developing the resources of the earth for the good of all. Instead, knowing good and evil is about acquisition. It is a rare usage, which makes this entire post tenuous, at best, but it is a usage nonetheless that when one acquires property, one knows it, to the effect that one has control over it and exercises authority over it. That is what this tree is for: to exercise authority over good and evil.

With application to sexual activity, a counterexample is helpful. The Son of God became flesh, John says, and made his dwelling among us, not by the will of a man, but by the will of God (John 1:12-14), a reference to Jesus’ origins which are much discussed through the heart of John’s Gospel, the Jews of whom called Jesus a Samaritan, which is equivalent to calling Mother Mary a whore.

And so, to know someone sexually is for the male to overcome the female (no furtive giggling, you there in the back row), for him to acquire her for the sake of begetting. The story of Jacob acquiring his two wives, the daughters of Laban, through fourteen years of labor, exemplifies this, and their desire to acquire him, one over the other, is made plain when, in the etiological Sadie Hawkins dance, after purchasing the rights to Jacob from Rachel by means of mandrakes, Leah runs up to Jacob, saying, “You must come into me tonight, for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes!” (Ah! The romance of youth!) (Genesis 30:14ff).

At the beginning, Eve was certainly aware of this relationship change, seeing it as plain as day that her husband had acquired her in a relationship of domination, thinking that she was due her own acquisition in the process: “I have acquired a man, Yahweh (the Lord)!” And she called him Acquisition (Cain), the progenitor of human culture, starting with murder.

Human culture has its primeval foundation in sexual domination, which the Lord pronounced against them, either as part of the curse for reaching out to acquire domination over good and evil, or as a mere description of the consequences of the same. He says, “You, Woman, shall desire to be over your husband [in a dominating relationship], but he shall lord it over you.” Yes, the willing partnership is now dissolved, and a grappling of domination has taken its place.

All respect is due, then, to the Radical Feminists, who have seen and named the sexual relationship as it is, agreeing in whole with the picture presented in the first part of the Christian Bible, especially when they condemn pornography and prostitution as vehicles to perpetuate the domination of the man over his woman. We shall see, having progressed so far as to produce the Radical Feminists, whether our society can unloose what our mother and father wrought.

Radical feminism: hermeneutically sealed

Radical feminism—and this is a technical term, to be contrasted with liberal feminism, socialist feminism, etc—is often dismissed for some positions that seem facially outrageous, even to other feminists. Heterosexual sex is inherently a manifestation of violent dominance of men over women. “Pornography reveals that male pleasure is inextricably tied to victimizing, hurting, exploiting. Rape is the paradigm of sexuality.” ‘Innocent until proven guilty’ in rape cases just protects male rapists by privileging their point of view over that of victims. Freedom of speech and the right to privacy likewise act to shield men in their oppression and exploitation of women. Women cannot truly consent to sex work (they can only be “prostituted”). Women who dispute the claims of radical feminism suffer from “false consciousness”. You get the idea.

radfem1I’m a liberal feminist, and so ultimately I conclude radical feminists overextend themselves, bite off more than it’s a good idea to chew. But in reading Catharine MacKinnon’s Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, I was surprised at the overlap of MacKinnon’s radical feminism with some of the liberal feminism I’ve read. The overlap isn’t unity, for sure, but many of MacKinnon’s criticisms of liberalism have been pretty successfully ingested by and incorporated into the best exponents of liberal feminism, and many of the seemingly outrageous bits are less so when viewed within the radical feminist paradigm. I want to give radical feminism à la MacKinnon the best representation I can before I impugn it. I’ll speak with my own voice again in the final section.

Continue reading “Radical feminism: hermeneutically sealed”

The Hermeneutic Situation

Featured image is Scenes from the Nakamura Kabuki Theater, by Hishikawa Moronobu.

Imagine the first American to see kabuki theater.

Did it seem completely unintelligible to him?

Or did that American mistake it for something like the performing arts he already knew? A play, or an opera, or even a dance. Did he miss what made it idiosyncratic?

What the American already knows, what he’s capable of understanding as, constitutes what Martin Heidegger calls his hermeneutic situation. It is not knowledge in the sense that we know arithmetic, but something we have that is prior to understanding and provides the necessary conditions for intelligibility.

Imagine in time this American began to see what sets kabuki apart from other performing arts; what is particular to it. He did not just add one more type of performing art to a mental list; his understanding of the performing arts he already knew about is changed by his having understood kabuki. In seeing how they are different from kabuki, he can see their particularity more clearly, and seeing what they have in common is similarly transformative.

This process is what Hans-Georg Gadamer referred to as a fusion of horizons, which in reality constitutes a transformation of both. It is akin to when an English speaker is learning Spanish, and reaches the moment in which they stop trying to mentally translate English sentences word by word.

Once you can formulate what you’re trying to say in Spanish from the start, you’ve broadened your horizons in a meaningful way. Your hermeneutic situation has been transformed; you have not merely added Spanish to English because your understanding of the latter is changed. Things you took for granted about language construction you are now capable of seeing as one possibility among others.

Continue reading “The Hermeneutic Situation”

The Rainbow Ruse

Featured image is “The Fortune Teller,” by Simon Vouet.

The “rainbow ruse” is a cold reading technique in which the reader first assigns the subject a personality trait, and then assigns its opposite. For example, one might say, “You can be a spontaneous person, but in your private life you tend to stick to a routine that works.” Or, “You see yourself as an open-minded person, but you tend to dispense with bad arguments quickly.”

Crude examples of the rainbow ruse are easy to spot as nonsense, but the more skilled a person is in cold reading, the better that person can craft tailor-made rainbow ruse statements to gain the subject’s confidence and leave him or her with the impression of having been deeply and profoundly understood. Continue reading “The Rainbow Ruse”