Principle Over Idealization

I wrote recently about the need to avoid the “twin temptations of idealization and fear—naïve idealization of groups with whom we readily sympathize (e.g., immigrants, ethnic/religious minorities, police) and a sensationalized fear of those with whom we don’t (e.g., immigrants, ethnic/religious minorities, police).”

Constance Grady penned a piece in Vox a few days ago highlighting an example of the idealization of women. In that piece, Grady criticizes remarks by comedian Louis C.K., which can be seen in the video below:

Louis C.K. is supporting Hillary Clinton in next week’s presidential election, and it’s not just because she’s a woman. It’s because she’s a mom.

“A mother’s just got it,” C.K. told Conan O’Brien on Conan Tuesday night. “She feeds you and teaches you, she protects you, she takes care of shit.”

Mothers, C.K. says, make better presidents than fathers. We’ve had fathers as presidents for the past 240 years, but “a great father can give a kid 40 percent of his needs, tops. Tops out at 40 percent. Any mother, just a shitty mother, a not-even-trying mother? Two hundred percent.”

While Grady concedes that C.K. is well-intentioned, she finds his idealization of women ultimately misguided:

he’s playing into a very old and unpleasant narrative that’s become weirdly popular among liberal men this election cycle: the idea that we need women in government because they are intrinsically morally superior to men. Women should be represented in our government, this story goes, not because they are people, but because they are better than people: They are angelic; they are virtuous; they are pure.

Back in September, Quartz’s Annalisa Merelli interviewed Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek about his new book Refugees, Terror and other Troubles with the Neighbors. Merelli tells us that Žižek

looks at the current migrant and refugee crises in Europe, and identifies what he sees as its uncomfortable aspects: the contrasts between Western values and those of the thousands arriving in Europe from Africa and the Middle East; the threat of terrorism by migrants; and the inevitable tensions generated by the competition for jobs and resources.

“The left tries to ignore the problem—for example they try to underreport problems with immigrants,” Žižek told Quartz. “My book is simply a great, desperate call for not keeping silent about this.”

Sensationalized fear of immigrants or the recent flow of refugees is a real problem that must be confronted and corrected, but so too:

is a dangerous tendency to mythologize refugees as especially noble because of their suffering: “I don’t like this romantic false idea that suffering purifies you, that it makes you a noble person. It does not!” On the contrary, he says, “it makes you do anything to survive.”

This doesn’t mean Europe should be less committed to taking care of desperate people seeking shelter, he says—but Europeans should be more realistic about the kind of effort it takes to do so. “It’s easy to be humanitarian if your principle is that the others whom we are helping are good warm guys, friendly,” he says. “What if they are not? My point is that even in that case we should be helping them.”

How we advocate matters. As an African-American and a military veteran, I am often put off by attempts to advocate for African-Americans and military service members in ways that posit facile narratives about the superior virtue of these two groups. We are people. We deserve respect because we are people. We need not be especially great to be valued as people. Spinning grandiose narratives about groups to elevate them is sloppy thinking, disingenuous as a form of public discourse, and patronizing to the group in question. We don’t need to idealize a disparaged or disadvantaged group in order to advocate for its equal treatment, political representation, or aid in a time of crisis.

It can also prove counterproductive. What happens when the narrative is belied by daily experience? When we find that African-Americans, military service members, women, immigrants, etc. are just as frail and error-prone as the rest of us? Specifically, in the case of refugees, what if we find that there are genuine differences, leading to social friction and discomfort? Do we then lose the conviction that they are to be valued as people? Do we turn our backs? The advocacy must be grounded in principle rather than unrealistic appraisals of the superior worth of the relevant group.

Likewise, C.K.’s advocacy on behalf of women in a culture where women have long been regarded as somehow less fit for leadership in general and public office in particular is laudable. However, the rights of women should be safeguarded because they are people. The contributions of women are valuable and speak for themselves. We need not substitute one narrow prejudice—that men are better—with its opposite. How hard is it to say women are equal–neither worse or better, but equal?

As Grady concluded: “We should not have a woman as president because women are pure and virtuous and angelic. We should have a woman as president because women are people who make up more than half of the US population, and because women deserve to see themselves represented in our representative government.” That is a compelling argument whether you like the particular woman on the ballot this year or not.


Politics and Righteous Fury

Any person attempting to mobilize a group to achieve a collective goal soon finds a simple logic at work: People can be hard to motivate, especially where the individual costs are certain and the benefits are remote and speculative. How can a politician help to overcome this logic? A healthy dose of righteous zeal goes a long way. This, of course, is easier to cultivate where the problem is dire but simple, and the cause is clearly traceable to a recognizable enemy.

Bloomberg View columnist Megan McArdle gets this. In a recent article she responds to Warren Buffet’s claim that Senator Elizabeth Warren’s anger makes her less effective. McArdle disagrees:

Warren has a pretty clear agenda for American society, and she thinks that the best way to get that agenda enacted is to stir anger in the hearts of voters who see a lot of things gone wrong and figure that, well, someone must have done it to them, probably those folks over there who don’t seem to be suffering as much as the rest of us. I think her agenda is oversimplified paternalism combined with a touching naivete about the effects of regulation, but on tactics, I think she’s probably mostly right….

We want simple narratives, ones with clear villains and heroes and an obvious moral. We want clear solutions that can be described in no more than one minute, just right for a sound bite on the evening news. We want someone to hate, along with the reassurance that once those people are removed or controlled, all will be right with the world. And we happily pull the lever in the ballot box for the people who will deliver these things….

Which is not to say that Warren’s anger is strategic; I think she sincerely believes that she’s fighting some fearsome dragons. I think politics selects for people who see the world in black and white, then rage at all the darkness. I wish that weren’t the case, of course. But if you want to change it, don’t look to the politicians — look to the voters who elect them.

The article is short and worth reading in its entirety here. See also my discussion of one scholar’s seminal work on the nature and origins of mass opinion.



Ferguson and Political Symbolism

I am a black man. I am also a human being. I like to think of myself as a reasonable and humane human being. As such, I was deeply disturbed when I first learned of an incident involving the death of an unarmed teenager at the hands of a police officer. I was yet further disturbed upon hearing initial reports that the officer acted without apparent justification. Stories poured forth about a young black man who was a gentle giant, who could not possibly have done anything to warrant or provoke such an action from law enforcement. For the white officer, initially nameless, the implication was that this man was either a racist scoundrel with an itching trigger-finger or, at the very least, callously indifferent to the consequences of his unnecessary use of deadly force. The calls came immediately and insistently “What is the name of this monster who would so heartlessly snuff out the life of the gentle giant?” Darren Wilson. Darren Wilson was not just white, but a blank canvas against which a community could paint its historical grievances. Darren Wilson became a symbol, and Michael Brown, the gentle giant, was also a symbol.

I am not going to debate the facts or even give my interpretation of them. That would be easy. The point I want to make is broader. It is this: once the events of August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, MO took on transcendent significance, once the two chief actors became symbols—mere images to be invoked—the facts became irrelevant. The particulars became mere particulars—they could be shaped to suit the larger narrative into which they had been taken up. When a white cop shoots a black man in a black town with a white police force, the facts no longer matter—whatever truly happened that day in Ferguson is truly epiphenomenal. The players may change, there are countless insignificant variations of time and place, but the tragedy goes on…

Opportunity and Choice

Bonnie Ghosh-Dastidar and Tamara Dubowitz of the RAND Corporation posted an article yesterday examining how well the theorized link between obesity and so-called ‘food deserts’ holds up to empirical scrutiny. Though the link between obesity and distance to full-service grocers has taken on the status of stylized fact in much of the public policy literature, Ghosh-Dastidar and Dubowitz observe that “there is little rigorous evidence to support the notion that food deserts are driving the obesity epidemic.” Having grown up in low-income urban communities, I have often been at a loss for why ‘choice’ is the only explanation for eating habits not worthy of serious consideration. Sure, choice does not tell the whole story. But surely it tells us more than the literature allows. If we were examining patterns of dress for this same demographic, we might sensibly conclude that the choice of apparel—while by no means independent of income, education, age, etc.—is essentially a function of a set of aesthetic norms embedded within the cultural community which informs (but does not strictly constrain) the tastes and choices of individuals nested within the community. Let’s refer to such modes of dress as urban fashion.

Like all analogies, this one is limited. We, for example, would classify obesity as a public health problem; the same cannot be said for urban fashion. Yet urban fashion is not without consequence for an individual’s life chances. I recall as a young man learning that I would have to abandon many norms of dress to which I was accustomed and adopt sartorial norms which I found foreign. Such was required if I was to be taken seriously in the job market and in other social contexts. Adaptation is not without psychic costs, and many of my peers chose to forego these costs, considering the associated benefits remote and speculative. My point here is that while the choice of my peers adhere to their preferred patterns of dress might have hindered the achievement of other goals, we needn’t contrive a complex theoretical framework to understand the phenomena in question. It is not that hard to understand. In my case, my eating habits changed for the same reasons my style of dress changed: my values changed, and I chose.

A while back, in a critical review of the book Place Matters: Metropolitics for the Twenty-first Century, I took issue with what I viewed as a central bias of that collection of scholarly essays. I said that the authors seemed to require that the reader

be willing to discuss issues of urban decay without reference to any agency in urban dwellers themselves—urban residents come across as flat characters in a narrative that only contemplates victims and villains. The authors are dismissive of arguments or evidence that counterproductive norms and dysfunctional behavior within inner city communities contributes to the environment. They make clear that their focus is on opportunity structures and not behaviors (66). Examining structural causes is needful; declining to give way to condescending moralizing is admirable. But the authors err on the opposite extreme by romanticizing urban dwellers and leave no room for individual agency in the account of their lives. Hence, high rates of obesity are the results of parents being afraid to let their children play outside in dangerous areas and the lack of healthy food options in inner city food deserts…One wonders what the authors do with studies in the food insecurity literature which suggests that unhealthy eating habits persist even when more nutritious foods are available and even when such foods are subsidized.

Ghosh-Dastidar and Dubowitz’s research

published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, shows that factors other than location may have greater sway over how and where consumers shop. Store choice may reflect individual factors, such as personal food preference and income, as well as store characteristics, such as availability, quality, pricing, and point-of-sale advertising of food.

After accounting for prices of items offered at food retail outlets, distance to where residents shopped was not associated with obesity.

Imagine that: personal food preference might actually be a factor in eating habits and obesity. Opportunity matters but so do choices. It is not an either/or proposition.


What passes for news these days…

I am amazed at what comes out of the mouths of news commentators sometimes. I guess I should not be amazed that there is an audience for it. Check out this video in which Fox News psychiatrist Keith Ablow calls Michelle Obama fat and hypocritical for advocating fitness and healthy eating:

 Politico reports that, after receiving some criticism for his remarks, Ablow responded in part with:

“I’m not taking food advice from an American who dislikes America, who in many photographs during her tenure as first lady is obviously not fit, and who has a record of saying things that show that she’s two-faced,” Ablow said Wednesday. “This should be obvious; I don’t know why it isn’t.”

Not exactly the height of political discourse in this country when those with whom one disagrees is fat, hypocritical, and hates America. Sounds more like the playground. I know that Fox News is playing to an audience. With the popularity of trashy reality TV programs, it is scary that news programming is similarly playing to our basest instincts. Not long from now the calls to “get out the vote” and “make your voices heard” will ring out in a new round of elections. Some voices will distinctly be heard to say “Michelle Obama has too much junk in her trunk!” to loud and thunderous applause.

Unintended Consequences…In Porn?

Los Angeles has long been dubbed the king of the porn industry where many X-rated productions are shot. However, last year  film permits were down 90% (40 permits compared to 485) and this year only 20 permits have been issued. This is all a result of a measure that was put up to a vote by L.A. County voters in November 2012 titled Measure B.  This measure was passed and mandated that all male performers must wear a condom. Advocates believed that using a condom would prevent the spread of AIDS, but actors, production companies and fans have responded a bit differently than voters may have intended.

“We’re not shooting in L.A. anymore,” said Steven Hirsch, founder and co-chairman of Vivid Entertainment. “We’d like to stay here. This is our home, where we’ve produced for the last 30 years. But if we’re forced to move, we will.”

Actors are not wearing protection, because fans do not want to see it. Production companies are moving outside of L.A. County to places as far as Europe. In many cases, companies are filming without permits so the potential spread of diseases is not actually decreasing, rather it has just moved elsewhere. (As a general note, porn performers are tested every 2 weeks for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. 2004 was the last known case for an actor to contract HIV on set.) L.A. County voters, who may have thought they were acting morally by voting for Measure B, not only took away the right for companies to operate as a way they best see fit, but they also are hurting a $7 billion dollar a year industry…and all the tax dollars that come from it.