Thursday, May 28, 2009

Fire engines and emergency rooms

If your house is on fire in the United States, firefighters come to put it out and save your life.

You don't receive any bills. You don't have to purchase a monthly fire protection service whose prices fluctuate according to market conditions and the demands of profitability.

You just get the service you need, when you need it. No red tape. No fees. No needless bureaucracy. Things are simple.

That's what happens if your house is on fire. But if you have a medical emergency, its a completely different story.

This is how things might go assuming you are not one of the 50 million Americans who has no health insurance at all. Imagine you break your arm and go to the emergency room. You get the immediate care you need and get released the next day. On your way out, you stop by a department of the hospital where you're to pay and fill out the appropriate insurance information (in the U.K., for example, such departments do not exist).

That wasn't so bad, right? I mean, even though you may be paying costly premiums, deductibles and co-pays, at least you're covered, right?

Until 5 months later you get a call from the hospital (or a debt collection agency paid by the hospital) demanding that you pay for your visit. You owe some ridiculous sum of money, they claim. Say, $10,000. "But I'm insured" you say to yourself. You check into things and find out that your insurance company doesn't want to cover the treatment because it was 'experimental' or because it derived from a 'pre-existing condition'. So they claim that they aren't going to pay. You press them, and they claim that they aren't going to budge.

Somehow, things get straightened out and it appears that the insurance company is going to pay for some of it. Whew. Glad that's over.

Until a year later you get a bill from the hospital demanding some smaller sum of cash that you still 'owe' them. It turns out, that the insurance company has refused to pay for 2 bandaids and a cotton swab totalling $100. The hospital, it seems, didn't send the bill in the correct format in the correct time window to the insurance company, so the insurnace company said they refuse to pay it. Since the insurance company is a huge, powerful, and attorney-fortified institution, the hospital has decided to pass the buck along to you. If the big insurance giant wont pay or will force a trial in order to cough up the cash for your bandaids, the hospital figures they might as well harass you to pay it. After all, you're not very scary and you aren't so likely to have a team of corporate atorneys at your disposal to dispatch such requests.

So the hopsital takes this outstanding balance that they're owed and sells it to a debt-collection shark. They sell it to the shark for 75% of what its 'worth', so the hospital recoups some of the cash they're owed and is absolved of having to deal with getting the money. So now you get calls from some shark demanding that you pay for the cotton swabs that your insurance company has refused to pay.

You complain to your insurance company that they should just pay this thing, but they don't listen. After persistent calling, faxing, letter-mailing, and emailing, they explain to you that they aren't paying because of 'company policy'. The company policy, after all, was drawn up in the interests of making the company maximally profitable. If you were to aggregate the amount of 'small sums' of this nature that they refuse to pay in a single year alone, it adds up to a decent chunk of money. This is how capitalist entreprises function: the bottom line is that they try to minimize costs and maximize returns.

Meanwhile you've got some jerk-off claiming that you haven't paid for cotton swabs used at a visit to the doctor that occured 3 years ago at a time when you were fully covered by what most people would consider "really good health coverage".

Invovled in this tragic comedy, are: two different health care providers (the hopsital and the contractors) who each have their own bone to pick with you, a massive insurance institution that is not 'on your side' but rather on the side of the investors who own the company, and a handful of seperate institutions that make their money by collecting debts and harassing people. If things get really bad, you can also throw your attorney and any other legal counsels fighting against you in a legal battle that might subsequently ensue, not to mention the court system, judges, etc.

Now in the United Kingdom health care works like fire departments work here.

When you get sick, you go to a hospital. You get the care you need. You leave feeling better. 3 years later you do not receive 5 different bills from 6 different bureaucracies. In fact, you never receive any goddamn bills. As a citizen and a taxpayer of the United Kingdom, you've already paid your dues. And what's more, whatever dues you did pay were proportional to how much money you made: the amount you pay for your health care isn't a 'one size fits all affair', but takes into account your ability to pay. It doesn't much matter whether you have a job when you go to the hospital, whether you're old and frequently ill, whether you are poor. You can come and get the health care you need all the same.

The United States Congress has been holding 'health care forums' recently in which they are claiming to be putting 'all options on the table' in considering ways to reform the unbelievably moronic health insurance system that the US currently has. But nothing remotely approximating the example above is being mentioned, let alone seriously considered.

The problem, after all, isn't that we have twelve different bloated bureacracies doing sixteen different tasks that have nothing to do with insuring people, but rather firguring out how not to insure the people that already paid for their insurance. The problem isn't that our system is inefficient and has too many different institutions doing the same thing poorly. The problem isnt that profiteers are in firm control of all the relevant institutions and run them according to the criteria of "let's make me as rich as possible". The problem isn't that these assholes made billions in profits last year while millions more Americans lost their insurnace coverage.

The problem, says Obama et. al, is just that 'health care costs are too high'. Right.


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Change we won't get from the Obama Administration:

...anything worthy of the name 'universal health care'.

The discourse of 'lowering health care costs' is preposterous. The question is whether we should have commodified insurance policies sold primarily for profit, or universally-guaranteed insurance based on citizenship. As many have argued, while the existence of nearly 50 million uninsured Americans is a travesty, this shouldn't obscure the fact that the moral bankruptcy of our profit-driven health insurance industry extends to those who currently have insurance as well. As long as health insurance is a multi-billion dollar industry where denied claims mean higher profits, we can expect that 'pre-existing conditions', 'experimental treatments' and other loop-holes will be continually exploited by insurance firms with the result that no one can rest assured that they really will have access to health care in their moment of need.

This is what universal health care looks like:

"The National Health Service Act of 1946 provides a complete medical service free of charge at the time it is required for every citizen. It will provide you with all your medical, dental and nursing care. Everyone rich or poor, man, woman or child can use it or any part of it. There are no charges, except for a few special items; there are no insurance qualifications. But it is not a charity. You are all paying for it, mainly as taxpayers, and it will relieve your money worries in time of illness."

excerpted from the Introduction to the NHS Act 1946"


Monday, May 25, 2009

More hackery on the NYTimes OpEd page

I suppose it wouldn't be a Roger Cohen column if it wasn't hackery, but his most recent effort is especially bad.

First of all, 'peaceful evolution' as such, doesn't necessarily mean 'peace' or 'puppy dogs and ice cream' is at the end of the rainbow. Imagine a tyrannical regime coming to power peacefully. Or, to take a leaf from Cohen's neocon red-baiting book, surely he can conjure up a (nightmare) scenario in which the US 'peacefully evolves' into a socialist society. Isn't that supposed to be the reason, according to the American Right, that we should 'oppose Big Government' in the meantime? So that we can halt the 'peaceful slide toward socialism' or whatever cynical bullshit these people tell themselves?

So much for the rhetorical bite of 'peaceful evolution'.

Someone should pinch ol' Roge and tell him its not 1991 anymore. Nobody's reading Francis Fukuyama these days. All that 'triumphalist' bullshit went out of style long before the 'triumphant' neoliberalism of the Washington Consensus hit the fan recently causing the biggest financial downturn since the Great Depression.

Here's a gem from the column:

"For a brief moment, after the Berlin Wall fell, free-market, multiparty liberal systems seemed set to sweep everything in their triumphant path. But from Moscow to Beijing to Hanoi, reaction came. Markets and nationalism trumped freedom and the vote; the noble spirit of Tienanmen and Berlin faded...America, born as a liberating idea, must be true to that and promote its values. But, sobered and broke, it must be patient."
Excuse me while I puke. The "noble spirit of Tienanmen"? Way to co-opt a social movement into a perverse narrative about the singular march of the "free market" and all its history-ending glories. (Btw: this blog had a nice recent post on the topic of Tienanmen recently).

I don't know enough about Hanoi to say whether Cohen's tendency to paint the regime there with the same brush as Beijing is precise. But in Moscow, "reaction came"? Um, if he knew shit about recent history Cohen should have said that the "triumphant path" of "free markets" in Russia caused widespread social upheaval, economic turmoil, poverty, sharp decreases in standards of living, and the rise of a new oligarchy emerging from the 'sale' (read 'give-away') of a host of public institutions and enterprises. Even the neoliberal zealots had the honesty to call their program 'shock therapy'. Now I don't want to say that the current regime in Moscow isn't a kind of reaction, but let's be clear on what kind of reaction it is. When you have people's lives being shattered by instability and economic calamity created by a clique of neoliberal zealots touting 'free market' fundamentalism with religious fervor, its unsurprising that a nationalist regime took up shop and decided to stand firm against the opportunism of Washington neoliberals.

And about the fact of China's vibrant capitalism in the absence of democracy or a system of rights... what does Cohen add to this 'surprising anomaly' except some vague teleological faith that soon enough consumer capitalism truly will "create consumers who want democracy" as well? It seems that all Cohen is upset about is a few words written on paper. He would be happy, no doubt, if the Chinese had certain rights on some paper constitution somewhere, even if the citizens nonetheless lacked the ability to surmount institutional obstacles to actually realizing those rights. Why, then, is he so upset about capitalist China? It's clear that he certainly can't stand democracy when it bucks capitalism and the "free market" (see: everything he's ever written on Latin America).

Doesn't Roger Cohen ever bother to ask himself if it would even be worth coming up with his own triumphalist tripe, rather than just recycling and regurgitating? I can't think of anyone who adds less to existing discourse, bringing no nuanced or critical thought to bear on anything he writes about. Repetition is not thinking. Thinking has something to do with being able to imagine otherwise.


Right-wing Chicago blog advocates BNP message

When you have to actually make a point of explicitly saying "now I don't condone this fascist stuff, but...", there's a serious problem. Over at the self-styled Right-wing "Chicago News Bench" which aims to serve up "conservative commentary when its needed most" (um... never?), there is a recent post advocating that readers take up a BNP (the fascist British National Party) text message and forward it widely. Apparently the author either checks the BNP website regularly or is on some sort of mailing list for ultra-Right politics.

The post title reads: "BNP Wants Gordon Brown To Fall Down on June 4th". Can anyone say 'fucking duh'? I'm sure the BNP also wants anyone with brown skin to fall down on that day as well.

Despite the anodyne treatment of the BNP in the post, the author claims "now I don't endorse the BNP, but...", and then goes on to speculate that "parliament would squelch any weirdness from the BNP" were the fascists elected to government. Guess that means he's okay if people vote for the BNP? Maybe this is what he means by 'weirdness'. Most people call it racist hatred.

You know, I'm sure there were sympathizers on the German Right in 1930s, not necessarily full-fledged brownshirts mind you, but good ol' fashioned reactionaries who thought the same thing about the Nazis (e.g.: "Oh I'm sure they won't be so 'weird' once they are in government"). If you think I'm exaggerating with this analogy, take a look at the neo-Nazi presence in the BNP throughout its history. They are fascist scum. There's nothing about what they stand for that should even be tolerated, let alone disseminated!

It's worth recalling here (via wikipedia) that according to "its constitution, the BNP is "committed to stemming and reversing the tide of non-white immigration and to restoring, by legal changes, negotiation and consent the overwhelmingly white makeup of the British population that existed in Britain prior to 1948."[21] The BNP also proposes "firm but voluntary incentives for immigrants and their descendants to return home."


I guess this is a rather good indication of how worthless everything else on the Chicago News Bench blog is?


My alter ego did it: letting Eminem off the hook

I've never been much of an Eminem fan. But thanks to my younger sister's absolute worship of him throughout 1999, I've got a lot the Slim Shady LP pretty well memorized. His unforgettably pointed, nasal voice still goes straight to my bones. His voice, after all, is inseparable from his words: those dark, skillful raps were some of my first experiences with real misogyny in music. And that was before I would have named it as such.

The media blitz surrounding Eminem's return to the scene and his new album, Relapse, is as much about the artist as the art. It appears that Marshall Mathers (his given name) is rediscovering his creativity and talent, while recovering from some serious drug addictions.

But reviewers can't avoid mentioning -- and in many cases, rationalizing away -- the misogynistic violence that fills Eminem's songs. On National Public Radio, reviewer Robert Christgau points out Relapse's indebtedness to an obscure hip-hop genre called horror-core.

Horror-core songs are so outrageous, they're impossible to mistake for acts of advocacy. No one will think Eminem plans to lynch Lindsay Lohan with 66 inches of extension cord in "Same Song & Dance."

Whether these images of strangling Lindsay Lohan -- a young woman who has been the punch line of so many misogynistic jokes, it's a wonder she can leave the house -- are "acts of advocacy" is, for me, irrelevant. These descriptions of violence against women are the air we breathe. They make it easier to publicize -- and then dismiss -- the image of a pop diva's battered face. They change the entire context in which violence against women occurs.

The New York Time's piece on Eminem's return to the scene focuses on his "multiple-personality" schtick: at any point in the rap, the voice we're hearing could be Marshall Mathews, Eminem, or Slim Shady -- his particularly virulent alter ego. Slim Shady is the one who abducts, abuses and murders women, including Mathers' ex-wife Kim. And somehow, that ought to make these lyrics easier to swallow?

These folks seem eager to point out that Eminem's probably not really a bad guy: he's just playing a role. His songs are "exposing" male jealousy and rage. He's not advocating that anybody be abducted and strangled in a car. Lohan's name just happened to be the rhyme he needed.

I don't want to sound like Andrea Dworkin here, and I don't claim that violence has no place in art. But why is nobody talking about what happens to a society that can actually process this kind of violence ... and call it a joke?


Eva Golinger: USAID gave millions to anti-Morales Bolivian Right

From Golinger's Blog:

"Recently declassified documents obtained by investigators Eva Golinger and Jeremy Bigwood reveal that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has invested more than $97 million in “decentralization” and “regional autonomy” projects and opposition political parties in Bolivia since 2002. The documents, requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), evidence that USAID in Bolivia was the “first donor to support departmental governments” and “decentralization programs” in the country, proving that the US agency has been one of the principal funders and fomentors of the separatist projects promoted by regional governments in Eastern Bolivia."
Hardly surprising. If there is ever another attempt on Morales's life or a Right-led coup against his government, we can expect that US dollars will be involved somehow.

Despite the wave of change and hope moving through Washington, I'm sure we can expect this time-honored tradition to continue unabated.


Friday, May 22, 2009

Why cars suck REDUX

Apropos of George F. Will's moronic column extolling as virtues the ravages cars cause to our social landscape and planet, I thought I'd point out that he clearly didn't read my post on why cars suck:

In no particular order, here is an elaboration of why cars suck:

1. Cars magnify the worst aspects of capitalist social relations by alienating drivers from lived interaction with fellow human beings. Cut off from immediate contact with others, and enclosed in a climate-controlled, steel/glass bubble, many drivers behave as though the world outside them is at best decoration, at worst a series of conspiring inconveniences plotting to sabotage their delusional mission to proceed unhampered by anything. Drivers treat other people in ways that they would never treat them if they were walking next to them on the street.

2. Following closely on the heels of #1: cars are selfish. It's all "me, me, me" with cars. Cars, in effect, habituate and encourage this kind of behavior. Moreover, the entire idea of a "personal automobile" is selfish in that it hogs up resources, space, etc. in a way that is unsustainable and unrealistic. For example, moving down a major thoroughfare in a city, a car with one passenger takes up roughly 1/4 of the space of a city bus (which can hold up to 100 or more people), uses a disproportionate share of fuel resources, and on top of that exacerbates the problems of congestion. Cars also crowd streets that would otherwise be excellent bike routes. Although it's hard to see from the point of view of the drivers seat, the reality is that city-life is a profound testament to the sense in which everyone is bound up in relations of dependency. A city is a space in which lots of people cohabitate on terms that no individual sets themselves. Yet, the unrealistic point of view encouraged by the car is something like the following: "I am free to the extent that I can drive my care where I want when I want however fast I want and not have to live by train schedules or interact with other city dwellers." It is undeniable that this mindset has been produced after many years of having infrastructure devoted exclusively to car-travel, pitting drivers against each other in a free-for-all traffic jam they are stuck navigating through every day of their lives. So it stands to reason that car drivers aren't inherently bad people; on the contrary they can be educated and habituated into new habits if we were to change to a car-free system of infrastructure and transportation.

3. Cars make cities less safe. Especially if you are a biker or a pedestrian (God forbid, right?). Some drivers get so caught up in their own quest to quickly make an unprotected left turn at an intersection (or quickly sneak in front of pedestrians to make a right on red) that they simply forget that they are inside of a climate controlled, metal/glass bubble which moves at the touch of a button on the floor of the car cockpit. Meanwhile, the people they almost mow down or intimidate or whiz in front of are walking on their own two feet. Nonetheless, the distorted relation that drivers stand with respect to the outside world causes them to miss a lot of the facts, thus they tend to focus intensely on whether they might have to wait either 0.5 seconds or 5 seconds to turn left (as the case may be). In such a case, the person trying to walk down the street becomes the enemy. "Must turn before this jerk pedestrian makes me wait for 2 more seconds than I have to", we can imagine drivers thinking to themselves. This is barbaric.

4. Cars are (f)ugly. Sorry, but they are. Particularly in salty, snowy conditions where they are all covered with dirty crud. There are strong aesthetic grounds, it seems to me, to purge the heavy presence of cars from the urban landscape. Let them be garnish at most, rather than the main course. At the very least, I think we can all agree that the hideousness of parking lots (and everything they represent) is the perfect exemplification of this problem. The most beautiful urban spaces in our country were almost all constructed and planned before the manufactured obsession with the personal car became pervasive. If we're talking only aesthetics here, in the narrow sense of how 'attractive' or 'scenic' an urban space is, should we go in for the walkable leafy streets of Greenwich Village or the prosaic, washed-out, lifelessness of suburban areas designed for maximum car-commuter ease? Rather than going on the defensive and merely trying to impede the creation of new parking lots, we should instead push for the immediate expropriation of all parking lots in dense urban areas, in order that the public might re-develop the space for affordable housing, urban agricultural efforts and other worthwhile activities that counteract the social/environmental ravages of cars.

5. Cars pollute city air and water. Set aside their role in climate change for the moment. From a more local perspective, the heavy use of cars by individuals in cities creates unnecessary smog and air pollution that is something you can smell, taste and sense on days when its particularly bad. Why should we put up with this when just about everything else about cars sucks?

6. Cars are a serious misallocation of resources. This is true from the perspective of production as well as of consumption. In terms of consumption, cars are a terrible investment: they require maintenance and upkeep costs, insurance costs, financing/payment costs, repair costs (when things inevitably break), parking costs, fuel costs, ticket-costs (for when you inevitably park in the wrong spot or get caught going 5 over). Moreover, cars do not hold their value (which, btw, is totally untrue of bikes; quite the opposite in fact). So, cars also represent a misallocation in the sense that consumer resources could be put into something that yields a more worthwhile return for their cash. From the perspective of production, cars are not what our society should be building: cars are not necessary since there are tons of alternative, more efficient, more egalitarian, progressive, environmentally sustainable and practical ways for people to get around. Now it is a unfortunate fact of the infrastructural design of much of the USA that cars are in some sense all but required. But three things must be said here: first of all, buses and bikes are in many ways more of an option than people in these places realize. Surely there are options for reducing car-use even where people are forced to use cars as a primary means of transport. Second, the inability to avoid heavy car-use in a certain area should not be a reason to condone cars as such, but should instead be a reason to change and re-think the way that the particular space in question is physically set up. Third, this unfortunate fact about much of America is not true of major cities at all (one thinks of Chicago, New York, Boston, Philly, DC, San Fran, etc.). In Chicago cars are not required at all; on the contrary they are more of a nuisance than a benefit even for convenience-minded, self-interested folks. To take a Chicago example, who can argue with 2 all-day all-night 24/7 rails (the 'blue line' and the 'red line') that let you stay out and play as long as you like on weekends without having to bother with designated drivers or pricey cab debacles? So with these three things in mind, bringing the conversation back to production, we should point out that manufacturing personal cars is a waste of labor power, capital and energy resources. They should never be built in the first place; there are, however, a lot of vehicles that society does need: A shit-ton more buses that we currently have, trucks and vans appropriate to certain tasks of building infrastructure, etc. One need not be anti-worker (or anti-UAW) just because they oppose the production of automobiles. Those workers have a ton of know-how about how to build all kinds of things we do in fact need, and a just society would hardly put them out of work simply because capitalists have been investing in the production of something we don't need.

7. Car horns and alarms are noise pollution.

8. As a friend of mine astutely points out in the comments, "cars make gyms make sense". There's a lot of wisdom packed into that short quip. Kind of reminds me of a guy I knew in college who would drive 0.25 miles from his apartment to the university gym to work out for two hours and then would drive back to his place. In the Spring, no less.

9. Oh yea... and have you ever heard of this thing called CLIMATE CHANGE? Either cars are on their way out or we're on our way out as a planet.

10. etc.


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Samhita writes about Malcom X, Feministing commenters show how majorly they fail

Samhita wrote a fantastic post about Malcom X and his vision of equality, whether it had to do with representation and race relations or if it was about something bigger that included material equality. She continues to show she wipes the floor with her co-bloggers. Here's an excerpt:

As an up and coming activist there were few books that influenced me as much as the Autobiography of Malcolm X. Not only was his life inspiring and continues to inspire myself and others committed to the movement for social change world-wide, his voice of dissent to mediocrity masked as social welfare to benefit the black community, as opposed to full self-determination and self-actualization, has yet to be replaced. His voice maintains in the background always motivating us for true equality, for basic human rights, and to demand a better world, "by any means necessary" for those that have survived a brutal history of colonization, racism and slavery.
What was a fantastic post quickly spirals into a shouting match between a bunch of ignorant commenters accusing Malcom X of being a bad guy, essentially, and Renee and a few other sensible women who understand history is complicated and expect the feminist movement to know about black history.

It just wouldn't be a Samhita Wednesday if it didn't include a seriously great post, bogged down by seriously ignorant comments that generally display more than a little fear of POC.


WaPo makes shocking discovery: Being poor costs money and time!

Poor? Pay up. Having Little Money Often Means No Car, No Washing Machine, No Checking Account And No Break From Fees and High Prices.

It seems like this fact should be common knowledge, but it isn't, apparently, or it wouldn't be in the Washington Post. Until it is common knowledge, I have no problem with articles like this being in major national newspapers.


Monday, May 18, 2009

God's Army roundup

NYTimes reports that "biblical quotes adorn Pentagon Reports".

US military looks into Bible verse on coins in Iraq, according to Reuters. (UPDATE: whoops, this is kinda old news).

Military officials in Iraq urge soldiers to evangelize in Afghanistan. They're being told to "hunt people for Jesus" evidently.

In the May Harper's there was a cover story called "Jesus killed Mohammed: The Crusade for a Christian military".

Probably coming from the mouth of some Right-wing talk radio host at this very moment: "Gee, I can't understand why all those 'crazed people', 'over there' in that whole, uh, other part of the world or whatever, can't just let us, like, liberate them and everything already."


Should I be less cynical about Obama?

At present the following things are on my mind.

It appears that the EFCA is dead in the water, and the White House did literally nothing (of which I'm aware) after the election to push for it.

In recent Congressional health-care 'forums' in which 'all options are [supposed to be] on the table', advocates of Single-Payer have been barred from participation and were recently arrested for showing up to the public committee hearing.

Civilians are dying in droves in Afghanistan, including children, as bombing raids and troop levels increase.

The promise to close Guantanamo and everything that it represents has miscarried. Apparently military commissions are the new "change".

Social Security looks to be in more trouble than some may have thought, and this comes after the Administration tried early in its tenure to have hearings about 'reforming' (read 'privatizing') Social Security to make it more in line with 'fiscal responsibility'.

Wait, remind me again why voting for Democrats is supposed to be the be-all-end-all of 'progressive' politics in our country? ... Guess we'll just have to wait until 2010 to put on our electioneering hats and table our anger at the democrats by getting all excited that the 'balance of power' might shift in the Congress... after that we'll only have to wait 2 more years for another round of Presidential debates and elections... yeah, wait, wasn't there something for the sake of which elections are only a means, rather than an end in themselves?


Sunday, May 17, 2009

If That's Feminism, F*ck Feminism

So, love-to-position-ourselves-as-the-pragmatic-liberals-which-often-means-fundamentally-conservative has launched its official women's website DoubleX this week, and boy, oh boy, did they know how to set things off, by inviting enemy of the third-wave, Linda Hirshman to contribute regularly. She kicked her contribution off by ripping down a pro-feminist blog. Ah, sisterhood.

If the women of Jezebel had at any point said they hoped to define feminism for the 21st century and hoped all their readers would follow their actions and adopt their implied ideologies, there would be plenty to criticize them for. I don't read the comments often, but when I do, I'm usually struck by how damn smart Jezebel commenters are. They're grown women, mostly feminist, with opinions of their very own. The Jezebel writers are not their role models and not their models for feminism.

Does Hirshman (and Wolf, Bindel, Leveque, Winstead) really have nothing better to do with her pulpit than accuse other women of being self-indulgent? That's the idea of the blog. It's a blog about indulgence (sex, fashion, drinking, etc.). That's why I don't go there for serious social critique when what I seek is serious social critique. But Jezebel still manages to convey every day that the ideals of feminism are desirable and being worked at, even if readers might sometimes point out when they contradict themselves. There are plenty of indulgent blogs directed at women without any hint of a social conscience, so I really have to know why Hirshman is so upset about the ones who do show their feminist stripes on a regular basis.

What are her biggest examples of their failings? Well, two of them were date raped and didn't report it. Oh, you mean they're like more than 90% of rape victims in this country? You mean, you're actually going to call these women indulgent because they didn't report their attacks? You mean, you actually said this?

Given the high level of risk the Jezebel life involves, it is surprising that the offense that arouses the liberated Jezebels to real political fury is the suggestion that women like them might be made responsible for the consequences of their own acts, or that there might be general standards that define basic feminist behavior. Suggest that women report the men who rape them for the sake of future victims, say, or that women should be asked why they stay with the men who abuse them, or urged to leave them, and the Jezebels go ballistic. Judgmental, judgmental!

Doing what feels good to you is the only standard that is allowed. The problem is that no one really wants to admit that some things feel bad, because that admission would threaten the whole system of unlimited individual action.


How can writers who justify not reporting rape criticize the military for not controlling…rape? It’s incoherent.

Right. Because I'm sure the only reason these women didn't report their rapes (when they were teenagers mind you(!)), was because doing so would threaten their ability to live in a system of unlimited individualism. Feminists can't criticize rape culture unless they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and did what The Movement needed them to do after they were raped? WHAT?!

Hirshman's idea of sexual politics and liberation is sort of frightening. Part of what she hates about Jezebel is clearly that they show that being sexually free is not safe for women. They talk a lot of about fucking and they've been abused in the past. Why is this so problematic? It's reality.

As a generation of young women is discovering, and as polemicists from Camille Paglia to Ariel Levy have pointed out, there’s something missing in both points of view. Women can pretend they’re female chauvinist pigs, but it’s still women who are more sexually vulnerable to stronger men, due to the possibilities of physical abuse and pregnancy. These Jezebel writers are a symptom of the weaknesses in the model of perfect egalitarian sexual freedom; in fact, it’s the supposed concern with feminism that makes the site so problematic.
So what's the alternative for her? We never have sex the way we want to have sex because it puts us at risk for rape? Shouldn't it be up to individual women to decide whether they want to be sexually expressive in spite of their vulnerability?

I really never wanted to be the type of feminist who told other feminists they needed to chill out and worry about more important things, but in this case, I can't help it. If your greatest concern about a feminist fashion blog is it promotes indulgence and individualism (and her only example of this is that they didn't report date rapes), please find something else to work on protecting our daughters from. We aren't your daughters, Linda, and you really don't need to be lecturing us about indulgence. Feminism is not a contest in flagellation, and women should not have to be super heroes to be considered good feminists.


In defense of ideology critique

In many recent interactions I've encountered some resistance to the idea of ideology, and hence to its critique. To put it as briefly as possible, the thought motivating ideology-critique is that "there is nothing radical about common sense." Theories of ideology typically claim that there is widespread deception and/or unfreedom in society at large, wherein many common understandings of the social field tend to be preservative (rather than critical or illuminating) of the existing order.

Many feel that theories of ideology are inherently elitist, anti-democratic, 'top down', patronizing, and unfair to the oppressed. According to this objection, nobody (least of all theoreticians) 'has the right' to claim to know how other people's affects, desires, preferences, interpretive frameworks, conceptual repertoire or understandings of history get shaped. Ideology, according to this faux-populist line of criticism, is usually nothing more than the musings of an elitist theorist claiming to know the 'true interests' of the masses, whose critical capacities are allegedly suffocated by 'false consciousness'. Refrains like following are not uncommon: Who are they to tell the oppressed that they don't understand what's really going on in society? How dare they claim to know what motivates people!

Now I want to defend the project of ideology critique, so I clearly do not agree with the lines of objection elaborated above. Nonetheless, I think this kind of objection is founded on some legitimate worries and it often issues from political convictions that I am sympathetic to.

The worries that motivate the objection, it seems to me, have to do with a healthy skepticism about any social theory which makes sweeping claims about motivations and desires opaque to the immediate consciousness of social actors. I mean, if someone told you they had a psychoanalytic social theory that explained all of your motivations and actions by reference entirely to things that you've no awareness of at all, you would be rightly be skeptical. When functionalist social explanations get out of control, when they end up with no relevance whatsoever to the actual lived experience of people as they themselves understand it, we ought to be skeptical. (It's also worth noting here the obvious problem with any extremely strong theory of mass deception: it forecloses the possibility of having a critical theory that could explain it by claiming beforehand that deception all pervasive).

Now the political convictions motivating this worry (which I'm sympathetic to) often issue from a concern to resist what Jacques Ranciere has called "hatred of democracy". This tendency toward 'hatred of democracy' is exemplified in many traditional sociological theories about social movements, which explained the actions of protesters/activists as nothing more than the 'eruption of emotion' and the spilling-over of affect. According to these conservative ways of thinking about protests the participants in social movements were irrational, responding to gut-level affective emotions (i.e. rage, fear, etc.), and were not to be thought about as fully autonomous agents. In other words, 'hatred of democracy' here goes hand in hand with elitist slanders against democratic upswells as 'mob rule' or 'populist rage', etc.

Now it is not a stretch for a shoddy theory of ideology, even one issuing from genuine Leftist concern for emancipation, to morph into versions of the conservative views above. There is a risk in undertaking the project of ideology critique, since many radical social theories can begin to have similar tendencies to systematically explain away people's actions in terms of external manipulations of their affects, desires, etc.

The trouble, however, is that things here are very complicated. While I share the worries listed above as well as the politics underlying a rejection of conservative 'hatred of democracy', if we take these admissions as grounds for completely throwing out any theory of ideology full stop, I believe we are making a very serious political error.

This is why. Let me borrow from Raymond Geuss's clear and concise (from his recent book Philosophy and Real Politics) account of ideologiekritik to make the point.

I think anyone on the Left would agree that "power, in various forms, is an important feature of human societies".

Now what I'd like to add is that "power can be used indirectly to shape opinions, attitudes, desires, and thus to manufacture what looks like 'consent', and in this form, power is not so easily visible."

For example, consider the arms or oil industries who can use their "financial power to influence newspapers in the direction of generating a climate of fear that will be conducive to higher governmental expenditures on weapons, or oil companies can fund research directed at showing that climate change is not caused by the burning of fossil fuels".

Now, "in a society in which powerful social agencies have a strong interest in commercializing as many aspects of human life as possible, it would not be surprising if people came to think that the existence of a 'free market' in health care, education, organ transplanting, or the adoption of children was 'natural' and required no further comment, scrutiny or explanation. This belief would be a reflection of how things appeared to be in this particular society".

The really nice point that Geuss makes here is that "the effects of power are less visible because they operate on amorphous initial states rather than against a distinctly constituted opposition: after all, who 'initially' would have any view whatever about the connection between global warming and fossil fuels?" In other words, that people do not see certain features of the social order as contingent, potentially being different, as an 'open question'... is due to the operation of power.

The example he gives to make this point is health care:

"If I claim that all human societies have a free market in health care services, this is an empirical claim that can easily be shown to be false".

"But on the other hand, if I focus your attention on the various different tariffs and pricing schema that doctors or hospitals or drug companies impose for their products or services, and I become morally outraged by “excessive” costs some drug companies charge, it is not at all obvious that anything I say is straightforwardly false; after all, who knows what “excessive” means? However, by proceeding in just this way I focus your attention on narrow issues of ‘just’ pricing, turning it away from more pressing issues about the acceptance in some societies of the very existence of a free market for drugs and medical services. The more outraged I become about the prices the more I obscure the underlying issue."

The upshot of this example is that we can clearly see that ideology functions at its strongest when it forecloses certain questions, and thus obscures the contingent features of social life in a way that causes them to appear natural or inevitable.

In bringing his discussion of the issue to a close, Geuss claims that "there is probably little to be said in general about how power relations operate, since their influence on the formation of beliefs, desires and attitudes is a complex question". In other words, any adequate theory of ideology must be sensitive to the complexity and contingency of specific conjunctures.

Notice that while Geuss has only offered examples that appear to rely upon the purposive actions of individuals seeking to actively maintain the existing order, this need not always be the case about ideology. This goes back to the issues raised in my previous post on Marxism and 'conspiracy theory'.

Chanthal Mouffe has made a similar argument that is helpful here, precisely because it makes clear that ideology need not be defined in terms of the purposive actions of individuals. She argues that "the social is the realm of sedimented practices, that is, practices that conceal the originary acts of their contingent political institution and which are taken for granted, as if they were self-grounded". Moreover, she claims that "what is at a given moment considered as the ‘natural’ order –jointly with the ‘common sense’ which accompanies it –is the result of sedimented practices; it is never the manifestation of a deeper objectivity exterior to the practices that bring it into being.” To be sure, more needs to be said here, but I think this makes the point sufficiently clear that the faux-populist objections raised at the onset do not hold.

The upshot of all of this, then, is that if there is such a thing as ideology, we cannot uncritically hoist up and valorize the spontaneous beliefs and preferences of individuals in contemporary societies. It won't help that the attempt to do this under the banner of 'democracy'. We cannot simply assume that ideology critique is elitist, and that 'each person knows what's best' and leave political theory at at that. Any emancipatory politics must critically engage the way society functions, and that means critically engaging why certain beliefs are widespread and why certain political questions are foreclosed by the very language and vocabulary that prevails in dominant discourse. If pursuing these questions risks telling people that their means of interpreting themselves and the social field are mistaken, this is a risk that any critical political theory must take.

To sum up, any critical politics must begin from the thought that "there is nothing radical about common sense".


Saturday, May 16, 2009

Is Marxism a "conspiracy theory of history"?

I often hear this accusation leveled at Marxists of various stripes, but it is also thrown around to discredit non-Marxist radicals as well. Noam Chomsky is a good example of the latter case, whose radical critiques of current social/political conditions have been mocked by the likes of conservative writer Tom Wolfe, who once said of Chomsky's politics: "I know Chomsky seems to think that somewhere, there is this control room where a bunch of capitalists are conspiring to deceive and dominate everyone... I hate to be the one to tell him, but that room doesn't exist".

Of course, this is not what Chomsky or any serious Marxist would claim at all. Most of their claims have to do with ways that systemic social/economic features impact the circulation of certain ideas and why certain groups are empowered by the economic organization of contemporary societies while others are systematically disadvantaged.

As Marxist G.A. Cohen points out, many radicals have responded to the 'conspiracy theory' charge by emphasizing the aspects of their social theory that do not turn at all on the potentially conspiratorial actions of individuals. But going too much on the defensive here is also a kind of mistake, for as Cohen points out "there is more collective design in history than an inflexible rejection of 'conspiracy theories' would allow." Moreover, there must be a "richer scope" for the elaboration of purposive-actions by individuals when explaining history than any 'anti-conspiracy theory' posture allows. The mistake of forgetting the need for this 'richer scope' has been made by some 20th century Marxists (Louis Althusser is a prominent example) who wanted to eliminate the actions of individuals entirely from social theory/historiography, preferring instead to critically focus on the explanatory power of processes and structure. But subscribing to the need for 'richer scope' here hardly commits us to the crackpot-logic of conspiracy theorists. The move I'm advocating here is that those on the radical Left (i.e. the folks who speak of 'ruling classes', dominant groups, etc.) should resist throwing out the baby with the bathwater when they reject the logic of 'conspiracy theories'.

OK, what do I mean by this? Well, it would be pretty implausible if I told you that certain widespread beliefs and values in society were only prevalent because individual members of the ruling class had actively brought it about that they were widespread and had also created them (out of whole cloth). There's really no evidence for this kind of claim and it sounds wildly implausible in the sense that you'd need a "Matrix"-like story to make it sound possible. For even in the most authoritarian societies we can point to in history, we've never seen a range of direct ideological coercion as totalizing the above example would have it. Simple physical coercion and domination by force does not generally mean that people actually believe in, or mentally submit to the imperatives of the regime, even though they may cynically repeat the 'Official ideology' in order to survive and operate on a daily basis.

Stalinism is a good example of this phenomenon (although Nazism doesn't fit this mold... it was a kind of collective insanity of a much different, and far more horrifying sort... come to think of it I don't really think its helpful at all to try to understand Stalinism and Nazism together at all, for they were extremely different disasters). For although there were harsh physical sanctions under Stalin for any explicit public deviation from Official ideology, the regime had no way of ensuring that people actually believed the Official ideology, indeed, it often appeared as though it was already understood in many day-to-day proceedings that lip-service to the Official doctrine was nothing other than a mere formality. Notice, however, that in the implausible example of "total ruling-class domination" I mentioned above, the claim is that what people actually believe has been manipulated and sustained through and through by the conspiracy of a small group of elites. There is no way to make this story even sound possible without some "Matrix-like" (brain-in-a-vat) narrative, which takes us out of the realm of critical social theory and into Science Fiction.

Nonetheless, although dominant beliefs in society are not usually themeselves created and instilled by the actions of elites, it has often been the case throughout history that dominant groups have sought to maintain or protect (or, alternatively, resist and subvert) certain widespread beliefs in order to maintain their power. As Cohen points out, "while many ideologies are not normally invented to fit the purposes they serve, a fairly deliberate and quite concerted effort to maintain and protect and existing ideology is not unusual".

Cohen points us here to Marxist British Historian Christopher Hill's work on 17th century nobility in England as an example. According to Hill, the gentry and nobility "doubted that they would still be able to control the State without the help of the church" and therefore "rallied to the defense of the episcopacy in 1641...for explicitly social reasons". In other words "ruling class persons with not special devotion to an Anglican God frankly professed that the established church was required to ensure political obedience, and acted on that inspiration".

This kind of 'conspiracy' is an indisputable fact of history. As Cohen notes, "conspiracy is a natural effect when men of like insight into the requirements of continued class domination get together, and such men do get together." And they typically are men. (btw: here's a recent example).

But, and this is a great point about how Marxism and other critical social theories are not founded on an aggregation of the 'purposive actions of individual actors, "sentences beginning 'the ruling class have decided...' do not necessarily entail the convocation of an assembly. Ruling class persons meet and instruct one another in an overlapping milieux of government, recreation, and practical affairs, and a collective policy emerges even when they were never all in one place at a time".

Addendum: It also seems pretty clear that this 'conspiracy theory' accusation is something that many different stripes of feminism confront quite often as well. This is very much true of feminist historiography and the typical conservative responses to it. I can't remember how many times I've heard some moron complain that any feminist claim about widespread oppression of women really just means that there is some "conpiratorial clique of men who want to dominate them just for the fun of it". Or, they say something like: "feminism means that every man secretly enjoys being an oppressor", or more crudely that "all men are evil". I suppose what these conservative folks really want is for people to stop critically questioning culture, gender roles, the sexual division of labor, the family, marriage, heterosexuality, etc. So I would want to respond to these anti-feminist claims in ways that are similar to the Marxist responses above (i.e. by arguing for more structural, historical and cultural forms of oppression without leaving out entirely the intentionally-oppressive actions of individuals as well).


A few more jottings about Class

In previous posts I've focused in on one (Marxian) way of understanding class that I've argued has a certain critical potential and relative precision lacking in more commonplace or colloquial deployments of the concept.

According to the Marxist way of thinking about class that interests me, class is defined with reference to the position of people in the economic structure, to their relative holdings of power based on this position.

G.A. Cohen puts this nicely: "A person's class is established by nothing but her objective place in the network of ownership relations, however difficult it may be to identify such places neatly. Her consciousness, culture, and politics do not enter the definition of her class position."

In other words, class ought not be defined as necessarily including certain consumption habits, culture, consciousness, political conviction, etc. (even though it may turn out to be the case in many circumstances where we do, in fact, find a contingent correlation between class (defined structurally) and these other features).

One prominent objector (on the Marxist Left) to this way of conceiving of class is the important historian (of "The Making of the English Working Class" fame) E.P. Thompson. He has argued against structural definitions of class in many places, but most notably in the preface to the book I named above as his major claim to fame.

G.A. Cohen summarizes Thompson's argument neatly as follows.

Premise: "The connection between production relations on the one hand and consciousness, politics and culture on the other is not simple. There is logic in it but not law"

Conclusion: "Class is not a matter of production relations alone, but involves the culture and politics growing out of them. Class embraces a process of self-creation on the part of the production-relations-defined groups."

In the premise listed above, Thompson is worried about austerely "mathematical" definitions of class in which it might (wrongly) appear possible to "deduce the class consciousness which 'it' [i.e. the working-class defined as a 'thing'] ought to have (but seldom does have) if 'it' was properly aware of 'its' own real interests". Now the worry is well founded. Thompson recoils at some Marxist accounts (one thinks of Eastern-bloc 'diamat' and Stalinist orthodoxy) which reify the members of the working-class such that they can be manipulated mathematically and expected to be mechanically determined by certain economic features of society. This is a worry any sane person should share.

Nonetheless, Thompson's worries do not entail his conclusion that we shouldn't define class structurally. Again, Cohen puts this succinctly:

Thompson has it that: "production relations do not mechanically determine class consciousness" (call this p). He concludes, therefore, that "class may not be defined purely in terms of production relations" (call this q).

As Cohen (correctly, in my view) points out, p is true, but q simply doesn't follow from it. "We are at liberty", Cohen argues, "to define class with more ore less (if not, perhaps, 'mathematical') precision, by reference to production relations, without inferring, as Thompson says we are then bound to do, that the culture and consciousness of a class may be readily deduced from its objective position within production relations." One analytic reason why not is that, typically, Marxist conceptions of class are supposed to be deployed in order to aid in explaining some features of social consciousness and culture. This would not be possible if certain ossified features of consciousness and culture were written into the definition of class itself.

So class is a rather precise matter if we understand it in this way, that is if we understand it as a critical/analytic tool that enables us to talk about the relationship that people in societies stand with respect to the economic organization of production in those societies. What's not so precise (and I think being able to say so is an advantage of thinking about class in this way), is how class interacts with many other political considerations, with culture, with consciousness, etc. The precision of thinking about class structurally, in part derives from the fact that we have severed any necessary, a priori, connection between someone's class and their consciousness, politics, etc.

It seems to me that this way of thinking about class cuts down on the possible megalomania of the class-designator as a way of explaining all other political/social phenomena that sometimes arises in vulgar-Marxist arguments. Understanding class structurally makes clear what the relative advantages of class analysis are, while also being totally unambiguous about where the concept has nothing to say. In other words, this conception of class is ripe for intersectionality theses, rather than being shaped beforehand to resist such attempts at uncovering ways in which different modes of domination interact.


Monday, May 11, 2009

The Wounded Knee Incident: "We Shall Remain"

Tonight I was finally able to catch the documentary, "We Shall Remain" on PBS, a documentary chock full of actual footage from the occupation and subsequent standoff with the federal government at Wounded Knee, South Dakota by the American Indian Movement in 1973. Watch it here online if you missed it. It's one of these mind blowing stories that make you go, "Why the HELL didn't I learn about this in high school?"

Please at least watch this clip right now. It's horrifying.

A friend of mine, watching it with me, remarked that the fact that we didn't know about this is a sign of just how marginalized native histories are in the United States, even among other racial minorities. We had a discussion about the place of indigenous movements within other progressive social movements here, how centralizing them transforms the scope of any other movement. Say, the feminist movement.

I stumbled upon this article in my reflection on the film. It's by Andrea Smith, one of the incredible founders of Incite! Women Of Color Against Violence. Great summary of what indigenous feminism does to broaden the overall picture of feminism. Here's a taste:

Progressive activists and scholars, while prepared to make critiques of the US and Canadian governments, are often not prepared to question their legitimacy. A case in point is the strategy of many racial justice organizations in the US or Canada, who have rallied against the increase in hate crimes since 9/11 under the banner, “We’re American [or Canadian] too.”

This allegiance to “America” or “Canada” legitimizes the genocide and colonization of Native peoples upon which these nation-states are founded. By making anti-colonial struggle central to feminist politics, Native women place in question the appropriate form of governance for the world in general.

In questioning the nation-state, we can begin to imagine a world that we would actually want to live in. Such a political project is particularly important for colonized peoples seeking national liberation outside the nation-state.

Whereas nation-states are governed through domination and coercion, indigenous sovereignty and nationhood is predicated on interrelatedness and responsibility.

Why isn't native history, with all this horror in it, a part of our Civil Rights curriculum? Why don't we know about AIM at all, let alone as much as we know about the SCLC and SNCC.

Obviously, I can understand why native histories and stories like the Wounded Knee incident are more threatening to current institutions of power, since they've been less resolved than those of the black civil rights movement. But I can't understand why social activists aren't more prone to make these stories known themselves, in alternative forums, if they're so neglected in mainstream pedagogy. I guess, documentaries like this one are the first step...


Monday, May 4, 2009

France's Leftist Movement

Fantastic piece from The Nation:

"Sarkozy is playing for time and is betting that people will get tired of the social protests, just like Maggie Thatcher did in the 1980s," says Isabelle Sommier, a sociology professor at the Sorbonne. "But this is a very risky strategy, because we are sitting on a volcano."


Friday, May 1, 2009

May Day!

"There exists widespread propaganda which asserts that socialism is dead. But if to be a socialist is to be a person convinced that the words "the common good" and "social justice" actually mean something; if to be a socialist is to be outraged at the contempt in which millions and millions of people are held by those in power, by 'market forces', by international financial institutions; if to be a socialist is to be a person determined to do everything in her power to alleviate these unforgivably degraded lives then socialism can never be dead because these aspirations will never die". -Harold Pinter


What the Democrats are really made of

Read about it here (via Huffington Post). I imagine that bankers are probably gorging themselves on caviar and champagne celebrating their victorious trouncing of a bill that would have helped people facing foreclosure. Its been a victorious last couple of months for them when dealing with the Federal Government. I expect they must be applauding themselves for having triumphed over all of those "losers", to use one financial analyst's take on people losing their homes. It's not like the banks are getting massive 'handouts', or anything. No sir, they believe in those good ol' merican values of "hard work", "honesty" and.... [substitute some other meaningless hackneyed cliche that has nothing to do with American capitalism].

PS: What the fuck is Jim Webb (D-VA) worried about? Not that it would be a justification anyway, but he isn't up for relection until 2012. When he ran in 2006 against racist bonehead George Allen, everything I heard from the 'liberal blogosphere' was about how populist and salt of the earth the guy was. What's his problem?

PPS: "Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) was wheeled into the chamber and pointed his finger in the air, signaling a yes vote, then dramatically swung it down, as if taunting the backers of the bill." Uh, when will this doddering old former-KKK finally do us all a favor and... retire?