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Our Own Little Worlds

Sometimes I read something shockingly close to something I’ve thought about writing for months, turning it over in my mind, thinking up new arguments, gathering data points, but never writing it, because it seems like so much work.

This is such a piece. It’s written by a conservative, for a conservative audience, which is how I’d do it, were I capable of writing anything about conservatism without letting some rage and bile slip in. So there are some laugh lines, such as “Conservatives have a natural antipathy towards propping up things that don’t work.” I can’t breathe.

One big problem that the piece addresses is that men, specifically low-education, low-skill men, are adrift. Under and unemployed, but also less happy than better-educated men as primary caregivers. If they can get that job, they also have a much harder time getting married.

I’m fascinated by these men, and how outdated gender role determinism fucks them.

But I realized, thanks to a Twitter retort to the piece, that I don’t know shit about them. @markyzaguirre remarked to the contention that “many men find it difficult to adapt to modern office culture” “Yeah, air conditioning and comfy chairs are rough.” And, I mean, right?

I think the author means young men don’t realize they’ll need education and internships to get those office jobs, or feel that these things are out of reach for them. So it’s less that they don’t want the jobs and more that they can’t get them.

But I don’t know. Literally the last time I spent any real time around anyone, male or female, without a degree, white collar work, or both, was high school. At least in Alabama I had friends with professional jobs but not degrees. In dc, I run into about as many grad degreed motherfuckers as Dunkin Donuts stores.

It was hard super strange to go from plain but smart to cute but dumb.

The problems with this kind of class stratification are obvious. But it’s something we don’t really ever think about. And I think it helps explain why truly stupid ideas proliferate among the less educated. I mean, besides having less and lesser-quality information to compare new information to, I think one reason more-educated people fail when speaking to and about lesser-educated people is their clear and utter ignorance of their audience.

I mean even I, snotty and ungrateful as I am, bristle when my well-meaning but ignorant friends mock Southerners. There’s this sense of, why? Why would you beat your kids, not pay for them to go to college, get fat, etc.

It’s never a question of understanding and empathizing with an essentially alien culture. It’s more a distant and disdainful examination of some pathetic cautionary tale.

And I get it. Of course peaceful parenting, less superstition, more education and rationality and empiricism and egalitarianism are better. I left the south, after all.

But I have to remember that I left because I couldn’t make it work for me. If I could have, how much easier would it have been to concede to my culture, with its “traditional marriage,” homemaking, church, gender roles. These were all an ill-fitting garment for me. As all cultures have turned out to be for me. I’m a weirdo, and I need to be where those are well-tolerated.

But for some, those things worked. Some people were super happy in their mindless jobs, ferrying their kids to church and soccer practice, fat as fuck and fucking happy as clams. I didn’t understand them then, and I don’t get it now. But I’ve seen it. I know it’s a thing.

That’s all part of the challenge for a first-class thinker, to keep in mind that people who are different from you aren’t people you’re bumping up against on the regular. They’re living lives you can scarcely imagine. Making choices which are incomprehensible to you. And it’s your job, first, to try to understand them before making any prescriptions. It’s hard work. We all want to skip it. But it’s something humility requires.

Maybe that’s why I didn’t write the piece. Who am I to tell low-education men what’s best for them? I don’t even know any.

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Postmodernism and Libertarianism’s Juvenile Understanding of Privilege, Identity, and Liberty

We’ve got another awesome Sex and the State guest post! If you would like to submit a guest post, please fill out my contact form with an brief outline of what you want to write about.

In libertarian and even conservative circles, the phrase “check your privilege” seems to have become the ultimate symbol of all things politically correct. Utter it, or even just the elided two syllables of “privilege,” without the requisite eye-rolling and cynical-realist scorn, and you may find yourself cast out of this vanguard of ever-vigilant secessionists and Cliven Bundy drag impersonators. Even left-sympathetic libertarian intellectuals have found privilege-talk otiose at best, and, at worst, indicative of a decay hiding just below the surface of the otherwise sunny smile of contemporary activist discourse. That decay is “identity politics” – just one more bugbear in the right-wing imaginary.

The fact of the matter is that libertarians writing about privilege and identity are often completely unaware of most of the literature on these topics. As such, they tend to be speaking within a vacuum. And maybe this is because libertarians fear arguments which may contradict their closely held beliefs. After all, postmodern philosophy appears to be all about demolishing liberal humanist notions of a rational individual capable of making choices within a free market. But an unfortunate result of this resistance to engaging with theorists “across the aisle” is that libertarians have entirely missed the boat on contemporary discourse about identity, the self, and freedom.

What libertarian and conservative activists, academics, intellectuals, and Kokesh/Borowski/Molyneux fanboys and girls all fail to comprehend is that identity politics on the left is passé if not outright archaic. When libertarians do write well about privilege, they appear to miss the fact that feminist and left-wing writing on the subject has already done much of the groundwork. This is how thinkers as different as, say, Sarah Skwire and Fox News anchors can arrive at much the same conclusions. Skwire, for instance, insightfully notes that the “privilege I have…as a well-educated, upper-middle-class, middle-aged white woman is quite an asset when I want to window shop in a pricey store or talk an airport gate agent into giving me an upgrade. But it is decidedly less useful—and is perhaps even a serious disadvantage—if I’m thinking about walking alone at night to a restaurant in an unfamiliar city. The set of characteristics that is privileged in each of these cases is different.” And Tucker Carlson said in his interview with Kurt Schlichter, “Some white people are privileged, some aren’t. Some black people are, some aren’t. It’s [sic] strikes me as, by definition, a racist attack in that it’s making a generalization — a negative one — based on skin color.”

But discourse on “privilege” is more nuanced than both Fox and Skwire seem to believe. (We’ll get back to Skwire’s FEE article on privilege and context, which I found eloquent but misguided. We will hopefully not be getting back to Fox’s breathless, hand-wringing coverage of “white privilege activism.”) To understand what left-wing rhetoric around “identity” actually says, it might be useful to read that rhetoric itself.

But, then again, libertarians have never been known for being able to read anything outside of their own intellectual circles – cue clip of Stefan Molyneux trashing Simone de Beauvoir without mentioning anything she ever actually wrote. But if libertarian theory is going to progress beyond the sacred tomes of Friedman, Hayek, Mises, et al, libertarian theoreticians are going to have to confront their prized nemesis, that monolith we call “the left,” and the ruins of its supposedly most enduring edifice, “identity politics” – to see if there is anything of use to plunder.

It’s unnecessary to refute right-wing and libertarian misunderstandings. It has been done already – in fact, long before Sarah Skwire pointed out that “context matters” in matters of privilege, or a Fox anchor deftly observed that white people can be underprivileged, too. Peggy McIntosh’s groundbreaking “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” spoke more cogently on the nature of white privilege in 1988 than right-wingers seem capable of doing today. One of the central tenets of Third Wave feminism, “intersectionality,” holds that oppressions along different axes of human categorization – economic class, gender, race, etc. – intersect, and so a poor white person is not privileged in the same way as a rich white person. A laundry list of studies show that otherwise kind and tolerant people discriminate each and every day, largely because of prejudices they don’t even know they hold.

It’s exhausting, really, to argue with libertarians and conservatives who can’t do their own reading. To squabble over questions such as “Do leftists think white people should be punished for being white?” or “Do feminists believe that all men are rapists?” – whose answers – “No” and “No” – can be found by consulting Great Mother Google, the gentle nursemaid of all questions which can be resolved monosyllabically. None of these endeavors will productively pierce the heart of the issue: the neoliberal misapprehension of just what it is about politics that does – or doesn’t – have to do with that nebulous notion, “identity.”

Privilege and context

What is “privilege,” and what does it have to do with identity and identity politics? A common misunderstanding of the term “privilege” seems to be that it is primarily economic and material – an inheritance of wealth from previous generations. But in many instances, this may be a conflation of cause and effect. Studies have shown that oftentimes merely having a white- or masculine-sounding name can be enough to tip the scales when waiting for callbacks for resumes. Sexism and racism, in these cases, do not directly confer and are not directly based upon any sort of material wealth. But they do influence the ways in which we move through the world – often without our knowledge. As a result, we can conclude that privilege itself is intangible. It is difficult for an individual to be aware of the possibilities they have missed out on because of, say, their birth name, gender, education, or sexuality. If your name has always been Ted Walters, you will never have an immediate understanding of what it would have been like to be named Jamal.

If privilege is not entirely tangible or material, then what is it? It is a matrix of social relations which determines how we are free (or not) to move about in the world, hindered (or not) by unnecessary obstacles, like prejudice.

How do you quantify privilege? It is the air one breathes, the position from which she perceives the world around her. As such, it is not so much something one can have and wield, as it is something which forms and molds the “one” which is presumed to “wield” the material wealth or social capital we think of when we hear “privilege.” In other words, a “privilege” is a characteristic which helps a person move freely through the world. And these characteristics are not necessarily material, tangible, or even unitary. We might benefit from thinking about how systems of power impact the movements of individuals in a society, rather than thinking of privileges as things one “has” or “doesn’t have.”

But how does the notion of “identity politics” creep into the conversation? Identity, in this context, is not what libertarians seem to think it is. Your identity, in feminist parlance, usually has to do with your relation to power: how much you wield, over what bodies (your own? others’?), and in what contexts. Ultimately, it comes down to regulation of bodies: how regulated is your body by social and political norms and laws?

We have no widespread social identity category for people who drink light beer over dark beer – but we do for people who have lighter skin and people who have darker skin. Why? Because historically certain privileges have been granted to people with lighter skin, at least in this country. No such privilege has been extended to Bud Light drinkers, or to gardeners, or to avid stamp collectors. Those things may be integral parts of your self-perceived identity, but – and here’s the key – they aren’t important to the rest of society. (Or at least beyond your beer Pinterest.) You are not regularly interpellated as a beer-drinker, but as (if you’re gay or gender non-conforming) a “fag,” or as (if you’re a woman or a feminine man) a “bitch,” or etc. (Interpellation is a rather libertarian concept in 20th century Marxist philosophy, which holds that individuals are turned into proper subjects of the state, or other institutions, through the constant “hailing” – or interpellating – performed by the agents of those institutions.)

If you don’t “belong” in certain ways, and if your body or behavior signals that you are not a member of a class of people historically afforded close relationships with societal power, then you are constantly reminded of that fact in the most degrading ways possible. Systems of privilege give rise to social identity categories, which further help to mark certain populations as deserving fewer privileges.

Yes, as Skwire notes, context matters. Not all gay people are threatened with the term “fag” – that depends on your gender presentation, your region, your race, even your job and whom you associate with. But all those factors just further reinforce the existence of privilege – and its pervasive, complex forms. (I will note, however, that even if a gay man is never himself called “a fag,” he is well aware of the term and that it applies to “people like him.” You yourself do not need to be directly interpellated in order to recognize yourself within the abject social position to which you “belong.”)

The hyper-contextuality of privilege

If privilege is so pervasive and complex, then how do we chart its paths? How do we determine who is the “most privileged” in any given circumstance? This appears to be the common libertarian question, and one of the issues faced by theorists of identity in the 1990s. Yet one of the primary insights of these 90s theorists, which even someone as erudite as Skwire has missed, is that playing the “Oppression Olympics” helps nobody. Privilege is not quantifiable, at least not in all its forms. Most current feminist writers on the left have grasped this and incorporated it into their work.

Yet Skwire’s piece on privilege and context seems to be rather representative of the (decent) libertarian writing about the subject. As such, it remains limited in its engagement with postmodern, leftist thought on the nature of identity and its corollary, privilege, because it does not confront this intellectual legacy on its own terms. This is, of course, partly due to the fact that Skwire uses literary examples from within a white, Anglo-American canon to complicate (rather than merely refute) certain simplistic notions of privilege. And she’s right to do so. This is the great thing about her article, actually. Most libertarians seek to merely dismiss leftist insights about privilege. Skwire wants to complicate them and engage with them.

But it is difficult to consider and contest leftist theorizing on privilege when you are using texts from within a liberal humanist tradition to understand ideas which come from another tradition altogether. And she is perhaps guilty of collapsing and oversimplifying the very concept she attempts to critique, problematize, and expand. What does it mean for some people to be “privileged” in one context, but “not privileged” in another? One example Skwire gives is of a class-privileged woman who finds herself disadvantaged in her interactions with lower-class women who have more knowledge of their own conditions than she does. In this instance, the wealthier woman is contextually underprivileged compared to the other women, due to what we might call a knowledge differential.

Through some careful maneuvering, Skwire performs a peculiar elision here between two levels of privilege, and/or between two senses of the word itself. Privileged knowledge of a subculture is quickly conflated with political or economic privilege – i.e. the privilege of wealthier women who choose to interfere in working class women’s personal lives. Are these levels of privilege truly identical – or even comparable? The gay Latino writer Gil Cuadros writes in “My Aztlan: White Place” about the experience of dating a white man: “My lover never understood why I hated to be tickled, why I liked to be tied up. AIDS killed him before I could say a word…. When he was alive, he made it easy to leave my folks behind. I became white, too, uncolored by age in his over-forty crowd. For our sake, I kept Sleepy Lagoon, Indian massacres, and insecticides taboo subjects to avoid arguments and misunderstandings. My lover played no part in these atrocities. I believed that the color of our skin didn’t matter, there was only he and I in this affair.”

Who is the privileged interlocutor, here? We might speak of Cuadros’ privileged knowledge position: as a Latino man, he is likelier to be attuned to certain tragedies and atrocities in American history, like the Sleepy Lagoon murder. We could also talk of his lover’s privileged political position as a white man in a crowd of white men, none of whom want to hear anything from a lone Latino boy about his life or hardships. (This kind of social pressure actually serves to reinforce that knowledge differential. If the lover had expressed any kind of interest in Cuadros’s experiences, they might have leveled the knowledge differential.) In terms of his sex life, Cuadros holds a privileged knowledge position about his own sexual desires and dark secrets – which he chooses not to reveal to his lover. Or, considering the fact that Cuadros was, at the time of writing, alive, while his former lover was not, we could say that Cuadros is a “privileged speaker,” in that he wields the power to recall memories of conversations without being called into question. Might we even call AIDS a “privileged” figure in this story – considering it is the agent which prevents any revelation or reconciliation between the two from occurring?

But it is typically political privilege feminists and leftists care about. These other examples, though they may correctly involve some kind of “privilege,” are not what we mean when we are talking about systemic privilege – or that matrix of social relations I mentioned earlier. Skwire’s point (that some people may, contextually, be more knowledgeable about something and therefore more “privileged”) is well taken, but not entirely relevant. Cuadros may have some “privileged” access to information about Latino culture – but his political position as a Latino man in the United States remains more or less abject.

In a different example, a straight man may feel uncomfortable and even harassed in a gay bar, if he is objectified by other men – but as soon as he leaves the confines of that particular space, he will be safe and protected, back in the “straight world.” No gay person has that same privilege. In fact, the notion of a privileged space for politically underprivileged people is a bit misleading. Gay bars, for instance, are themselves still subject to all of the laws and norms of a dominant, heteronormative culture. They are not somehow separate from the “straight world.”

So, yes, privileges are contextual. But not necessarily in the way Skwire believes. Ditto identity, which whites and non-queers alike seem to willfully misunderstand as having entirely to do with self-identification, and not at all to do with a social matrix of privileged relations. When Skwire cites herself as an example (a white lady who is privileged in some circumstances and not others), she is, in fact, “discovering” a feminist concept at least 30 years old: intersectionality. White women may be privileged as white and underprivileged as women – and so the peculiar intersection of those axes of oppression creates this strange creature, “the white woman,” who may be treated as a delicate flower in some situations, and threatened with violence in others. This is not a new idea. In fact, it’s practically old hat in the intellectual circles from which the idea emerged.

The decentered self – a libertarian nightmare

Skwire further highlights the problems latent in libertarian conceptions of identity when she writes, “The set of characteristics that add up to ‘Sarah’ is always the same.” What are we to make of this? If context “matters” to Skwire, then why such an insistence on an unchanging, unitary self, with interlocking but nevertheless holistically assembled parts? Why is the self not also a contextual thing, depending as much on sociocultural situation as on, say, biology? And even if we grant “biology” more weight than “society” in the construction of the self, would we not have to recognize that the body is also not an enduring object, but instead a process of constant metamorphosis? Is Skwire the same woman as she was 10 years ago – 20 years ago – as a little girl – or in the womb?

Leftist theorists have long discounted any essential truth to that thing we call “identity.” Ever since (to select an arbitrary but nevertheless watershed moment in Western philosophy) the translation of Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology into English in 1976, Anglophone thinkers have gleefully interrogated the delusion of the sovereign subject.

Derrida’s work was in direct response to the dominant French school of thought known as “structuralism.” Structuralism rests upon the claim that all human existence is mediated by interrelated and interdetermining signs. In other words, to think is to think in signs, whether visual, linguistic, or otherwise – and to think in signs is to think within the signs already provided for you by your social universe. Structuralists, to oversimplify, divided signs into signifiers and signifieds – or words and concepts, to speak in terms of linguistics. And most structuralists believed that we are in many ways formed unconsciously by these systems of signs. We associate the word “tree” with its respective concept, not because of some objective linkage between the two, or because at some point in our childhoods we all just decided “tree” was a good-sounding word for that thing-that-grows-in-the-yard, but because Anglophone cultures have arbitrarily made that link. And that link is up to no one’s individual choice – it is merely there.

Likewise, certain cultural value systems are arbitrarily developed and not consciously or rationally chosen. The fact that our culture associates certain substances in certain contexts with the adjective “unhygienic” is not necessarily due to an objective understanding of chemicals and their “cleanness” or “uncleanness.” What, after all, is the objective difference between drinking your partner’s spit out of a cup, and French kissing them? One action is coded as unhygienic (and, to be blunt, gross), while the other is coded as acceptable, even romantic and erotic. Impurity and purity are two lenses of perceiving substances and persons – but these lenses are themselves constituted by other lenses, other signs, other arbitrary linkages. There are certainly good reasons for not liking certain things, for having certain standards of purity and impurity. But many of those “good” reasons are not necessarily also “empirically verifiable” reasons. They are, in many instances, arbitrary, and entirely predicated on cultural norms, which are themselves always in flux, because abstract concepts like “purity” do not have distinct referents in reality, and so can be stretched to encompass referents they had not previously denoted.

Martha Nussbaum’s work on the affective force of disgust in ethical debates about cloning, abortion, and homosexuality indicates as much. The attribution of dirtiness to certain sexual practices (like “sodomy”) or medical procedures (abortion, cloning) is rarely predicated on any verifiable, empirical, distinctive filth inhering in the practices or procedures themselves. In fifty years, the notion of anal sex being intrinsically “dirtier” than penile-vaginal sex may be entirely voided – and another practice may take its place.

This last phenomenon – the flux of signs – is the central problem posed by so-called “identity politics.” Where some structuralists believed that it was possible to chart the sign system of a culture, finding the determinant and determinable “meanings” of each sign (e.g. a cross is a symbol of Christian faith), post-structuralist theorists pursued a different line of thinking. If a signifier refers to a signified – if a word refers to a concept – then to what does the concept refer? Is the concept itself the end-all-be-all of the word, or does the concept itself refer to other concepts as well? The concept “tree” does not make any sense on its own. It must be contextualized with reference to other concepts. So, of course, even the concept to which the word “tree” refers must itself refer to other concepts. There is no sign – no signifier/signified coupling – which is self-sufficient, which does not require other signs in order to be cogent. You must reach outside of the concept itself in order to explain it, making it, in fact, not entirely its (own) self. In Yeats’ words, “The center cannot hold” – or, perhaps, was never there to begin with.

Now apply this to “the self” – the McGuffin of all natural rights defenses of liberty. Since (once again, to select a useful but arbitrary historical moment) Descartes wrote “I think, therefore I am,” Western philosophy has assumed the sovereignty of the cogito, the ego, the self, the “I.” The free agent who can make fully independent decisions, and be held responsible for those decisions. The rational, free-willed person fully equipped with pull-up-able bootstraps. Sure, you might come from a disadvantaged background, but “the system” is fair and will reward your hard work – if only you have the will to work hard. And, hey, didn’t we just go over “free will” – and how we all have it – and how we all have the same free willy capacity for bootstrap up-pulling?

But where do we find the center of that self? Is the self, its-self, self-evident? Or is the free-willed self always a problematic, contested site? Are all acts equally voluntary – or might there be degrees of voluntarity, and, therefore, degrees of sovereignty? Are there, as authoritarians have argued throughout the 20th century, certain types of people who just can’t help themselves? (Read: women, people of color, LGBT folks.)

On the rather modern conception of “addiction,” Eve Sedgwick writes, “Some of the current self-help literature is explicit by now in saying that every extant form of behavior, desire, relationship, and consumption in our culture can accurately be described as addictive. Such a formulation does not, however, seem to lead these analysts to the perception that ‘addiction’ names a counter-structure always internal to the ethicizing hypostatization of ‘voluntarity’; instead, it drives ever more blindly their compulsion to isolate some new space of the purely voluntary” (173).

In other words, discourse on addiction perpetuates certain notions of a Will which is “real” and without any history or dependence on factors external to the self. What is the space of the voluntary within human consciousness? Is it untouchable? Is it, as Sedgwick contends, more of a useful fiction than anything else – or is it like a muscle, one which could hypothetically be located within the body? (And if so, does it need exercise? What antagonistic muscle do you need in order to exercise the Will Muscle – and wouldn’t that prior muscle itself then be superior to the Will?)

Is “Will” capable of being infected, corrupted, decayed? And is that “infection” always something external to the core self, like a substance (opium, in the 19th century), or a practice (homosexuality, in the 20th century)? Do those external, addictive influences affect/infect all selves equally? Or are there some superior selves which are immune to those influences, or which can even use addictive substances and practices to their benefit – using narcotics to dull pain in military combat, for instance, or engaging in vaguely homoerotic bonding(/hazing) activities with your frat-mates? Again, per Sedgwick, “The ability to use a potentially addictive stimulus without surrendering to it is attributed to a laudable strength” (176). And to prove it, she provides us with a quotation from that great theorizer of the Will-with-a-capital-W, Nietzsche: “I think I know better than anyone what tremendous things Wagner was capable of…and as I am strong enough to turn even the most questionable and perilous things to my own advantage and thus to become stronger, I call Wagner the great benefactor of my life” (61). A liking for Wagner being representative, in late 19th century Germany, of a pathologically homosexual predisposition, Nietzsche’s statement here suggests that some bootstraps are perhaps bigger than others.

All of this, of course, poses some questions for libertarians, like: If free will is itself an historically contingent capacity – one which doesn’t inhere in all individuals equally, or at least one which governments have not historically recognized as inhering in all individuals equally (see: eugenics, drug laws, sodomy laws, coverture laws) – then what do we mean when we advocate “liberty”? This isn’t to say that all choices are determined in advance, but rather that the conscious self that chooses does not have an unmediated lens into the external world, and is not itself free of non-rational influences. As a result, libertarians have quite a long road ahead of them if they want to provide a conception of freedom for philosophers of the 21st century.

Identity, politics, and metaphor-phobia

Yet, as I’ve shown, libertarians haven’t done a very good job of responding to these critiques of liberal humanism. While they’ve been absent from the conversation, leftist theorists have largely moved on from questions of identity. As you might have guessed, identity politics carries a certain terminal impossibility: what does it “truly mean” to be a woman, black, gay, or any combination of all identity categories? As Judith Butler asked in her 1990 work Gender Trouble, who “counts” as a woman within a larger feminist discourse about women-as-victims? Feminism claims to speak for the interests of all women – but any claim to the universal applicability of an identity term is necessarily also grounded in the positions of the claimants. In other words, whoever acts as the representative of other people’s interests is likely to be only representing themselves, not necessarily out of malice, but instead due to the fact that we often generalize about the human condition from our own (limited) experiences.

In the 1950s, for example, the mainstream feminist movement saw white middle-class women as the true victims of a patriarchal power structure. Black women and working-class women had “jobs,” however menial – and therefore were not subjects of any feminist liberatory discourse. Then in the 1970s, black women and other women of color began to claim their places publicly, in the mainstream, as women-who-deserved-breathing-room. Audre Lorde could protest that she as a black lesbian had historically been denied any presence within humanist and feminist discourses. And in the 1990s, trans women could lay more claim to their place, not just within the queer rights movement, but as women worthy of recognition in women’s spaces; and trans men could speak more publicly about their experiences of marginalization by lesbians (for “betraying” lesbian sisterhood) and gay men (for trying to “deceive” other men).

And where was “identity politics” in all of this? The very women who claimed they were “taking back” the category of women, the quality of femininity, from the dominant patriarchy, were themselves becoming the gender and sexuality police, determining who counted as a “proper” feminist, a “proper” woman.

As Butler noted the use of “identity” to push for political change is fundamentally flawed as both a strategy and a principle. In fact, and quite ironically, the assumption that one can only proceed toward political change from some kind of solid, unchanging identity position resembles the libertarian reliance on natural law discourse: it’s the return of the Cartesian cogito, the self-present self that is fully aware of its identity and need only doubt the external world. I say “ironic,” both because libertarianism and feminism start to sound like they’ve got awfully similar theoretical problems – and because early notions of “identity politics” had always been about questioning one’s identity position, recognizing the limitations of individual experience, and trying to better understand others’ experiences through their own perspectives. (Indeed, Lorde famously criticized the cowardice of white feminists who expressed fear of teaching black women’s literature because they themselves were not black and could not understand “the black experience.” After all, to paraphrase Lorde’s point, teachers of literature still teach Shakespeare – and as far as we know, none of our teachers are themselves Shakespeare or his contemporaries.)

But regardless of its roots in seeking out and celebrating difference, an emphasis upon unbreachable differences can of course lead to sequestration and “ghettoization” of movements along identity lines. Why bother seeking out knowledge of the Other if that knowledge will never be definitive – and if our civilization is based upon the notion that values and knowledges should be enduring and not tentative or provisional?

Eventually, it must come out that identity is a pretty useless category in many circumstances. Even the feminist insight that oppressions (and, consequently, identities) are formed intersectionally fails to capture every potential human experience. For to be able to foreground the multifacetedness of your identity – e.g. “I’m black and a lesbian!” – society must give a good goddamn about your voice. But as the anthropologist Smadar Lavie noted in her recent study on Mizrahi (i.e. dark-skinned and Arab-descended) Jewish single mothers in Israel, the most abject members of society do not have the luxury of having any but the most superficial aspects of their identity recognized. When Lavie was trapped in Israel from 1999 to 2007 (due to a revoked passport), it did not matter that her father was Ashkenazi (i.e. light-skinned and European-descended) – no matter how much she protested, she was treated as she looked, i.e. Mizrahi, thanks to her mother’s genes. “Even though [the Mizrahi single mother] moves through time and space,” Lavie writes, “she can only move through the time and space allotted by the regime” (81). And so, for Lavie, the notion of “agency” proffered by identity politics is impotent unless one’s identity is already rooted in economic and political privilege – and is not already defined in advance and in its totality by the dominant regime.

As a result, context, per Skwire, does come to mean a great deal – though perhaps more so than she anticipates in her article on the subject. Just as the decontextualized and decontextualizing universalism of libertarian natural law discourse falls flat when confronted with the de-centered self, the (eerily similar) decontextualized and decontextualizing anti-universalism of an abused and theoretically deracinated identity politics dissolves in the face of (you guessed it) the self-un-same de-centered self.

Pursuing the other end of a faulty binary usually produces as many problems as ever before: reject universalizing propositions in favor of particularity, and, ironically, you end up assuming quite a bit on what constitutes the “particular.” Whose issues are “truly” gay issues, when literally anyone of any identity category could potentially be gay? Why isn’t immigration a gay issue? Why not drug laws? Prostitution? Estate taxes? None of these issues is particular to gay people – and yet all of them are, and in highly particular ways. An identitarian understanding of “gay issues” as opposed to “black issues” would fail to understand what Cathy Cohen pointed out in the early 90s: that people may have many of the same issues, and may need to work together on solving their problems…but none of their problems, however similar, are exactly identical.

We would do well to recall Eve Sedgwick’s first axiom of queer inquiry: “People are different from each other.” For, as Sedgwick notes:

It is astonishing how few respectable conceptual tools we have for dealing with this self-evident fact. A tiny number of inconceivably coarse axes of categorization have been painstakingly inscribed in current critical and political thought: gender, race, class, nationality, sexual orientation are pretty much the available distinctions. They, with the associated demonstrations of the mechanisms by which they are constructed and reproduced, are indispensable, and they may indeed override all or some other forms of difference and similarity. But…even people who share all or most of our own positionings along these crude axes may still be different enough from us, and from each other, to seem like all but different species (22).

Or as Emily Dickinson wrote of her own sister, “If we had come up for the first time from two wells where we had hitherto been bred[,] her astonishment would not be greater at some things I say” (qtd. in Sewall 70). I am sure we have all felt this about people with whom we are supposed to share much in common. Even belonging to the same privileged intersection of an identitarian political map is not enough to ensure “sameness.” All individuals, however formed by the social worlds through which they walk, are never formed in the same way – and do not cease to form themselves in and through that very matrix which supposedly “determines” them. Once again, what irony in finding that radical left-wing queer theory – the love-child of poststructuralist and feminist theories – appears to be arriving at much the same problems and questions as libertarianism.

The rift between libertarians and left-wing intellectuals appears to arise out of libertarians’ almost visceral rejection of any kind structural analysis, which takes into consideration the accumulating and constraining conditions of a history which has always been a history of power relations. Many libertarians find it anathema to think of human beings as occupying positions within systems of power – power which extends beyond simple violations of the Non-Aggression Principle.

Yet the irony is that many postmodern or poststructuralist intellectuals have much in common with libertarian theorists. Isabel Paterson conceived of society as a machine which converts energy across certain power lines – i.e. chains of commerce. Likewise, the metaphor of society-as-machine figures into much of Herbert Marcuse’s work on the socialist machine of postwar Western Europe. But, as Stephen Cox points out in his “Merely Metaphorical?”, Paterson and many other libertarians have actively resisted the employment of metaphors in writing about liberty, even as they shame-facedly engage in it. Paterson herself insisted that the machine image she used throughout her God of the Machine was, in fact, a literal description of the functioning of society – and not a metaphor or figure of speech.

Why this resistance to figuration and metaphor? Perhaps because libertarians, in reaction against the “subjectivism” of a New Left which embraces the poetry (and hyperbole) of Marx and Freud, seek to return to (what they think is) a more classical, traditional model of mimesis, where concepts directly and perfectly represent referents in reality. After all, the danger (and fun) of metaphors is that they can be expanded upon, perverted, and shown to mean things which the original author of the metaphor did not at first intend. On the other hand, direct perceptions and technical precision (so the story goes) cannot lead to any confusion or leftist philosophizing.

Perhaps this is why there have been few great libertarian artists in the 20th century – or why the few who achieved any canonical success (e.g. Willa Cather) have yet to be claimed by young libertarians today. If we could get over this anxious resistance to metaphorizing, libertarians might find something useful in engaging with the free play of language, meaning, and signification. Leftists do it all the time, when they reappropriate liberal humanist thinkers in the service of anti-humanist critical projects. We might find some commonalities between Foucault’s conception of the unintentionally “productive” consequences of legal repression in History of Sexuality, vol. 1, and Frederic Bastiat’s injunction to pay attention to the invisible, unseen effects of laws. We could compare Voltairine de Cleyre’s argument that if you “[t]rain any animal, or any plant, as you train your girls…it won’t be able to rough it either,” and Simone de Beauvoir’s truism that “[o]ne is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

We could bring libertarian theory in productive conversation with current theorists of identity, the self, and agency – rather than maintaining that not only should the liberal humanist canons of literature and philosophy continue to be taught, but that they should always be taught in the same ways and with the same interpretations. Doing so would not mean that libertarians would magically become Marxists, or that they would have to give up non-aggression as a political principle. But they would need to be willing to engage with issues of privilege without resorting to juvenile and sophomoric rhetoric. They would have to be capable of approaching intellectual traditions whose terms exist apart from the language of Newtonian-inflected “individual rights.” But these continue to be my hopes for a postmodern libertarianism of the 21st century. We’ll see if it can be managed.

Brendan Moore is an undergrad studying English and French. He lives all over the place. He enjoys a good beer and subversive feminist stand-up. Both at the same time.

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Texts Cited

Cox, Stephen. “Merely Metaphorical? Ayn Rand, Isabel Paterson, and the Language of Theory.” Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 8.2 (2007): 237-260.

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Trans. H.M. Parshley. New York: Knopf, 1953.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Cuadros, Gil. “My Aztlan: White Place.” In City of God. San Francisco: City Light Books, 1994.

de Cleyre, Voltairine. “Sex Slavery.” 1890. <http://praxeology.net/VC-SS.htm>.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978-1986.

Lavie, Smadar. Wrapped in the Flag of Israel: Mizrahi Single Mothers and Bureaucratic Torture. New York: Bergahn Books, 2014.

Lorde, Audre. “Poetry Is Not a Luxury.” 1977. In Sister Outsider, 1983.

—. “Uses of the Erotic.” 1978. In Sister Outsider, 1983.

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. London: Sphere Books, 1968.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Ecce Homo. Trans. R.J. Hollingdale. New York: Penguin, 1979.

Nussbaum, Martha. From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Paterson, Isabel. The God of the Machine. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1943.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. 1990. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

Sewall, Richard B. The Lyman Letters: New Light on Emily Dickinson and Her Family. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1965.

An Anti-Rape Measure Too Far–in California no Less?

We’ve got another awesome Sex and the State guest post! If you would like to submit a guest post, please fill out my contact form with an brief outline of what you want to write about.

A man and a woman are bantering with increasing verve in an art studio. While perhaps twelve feet apart, the man suddenly announces his intent to walk over to his interlocutor and kiss her–unless she unmistakably says “No.” She is silent and motionless as he follows through on his “threat.” Is there anything wrong with this picture? Should the long arm of the university intervene?

The movie “Words and Pictures,” from which the hypothetical derives, suggests no: This is contemporary romance, and the parties indeed proceed to a torrid affair. And yet, influenced by a pronouncement by the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S Department of Education and by disturbing reports that one in five women will be sexually assaulted while in college– and that such behavior often arises out of insufficient attention by men to their partners’ words and signals– the California State Senate recently passed a bill (#967) which, as now amended, would require that “sexual activity” in colleges be preceded by “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary” agreement. The consent, not necessarily verbal, must be “ongoing throughout,” and any “lack of resistance” or “silence” will not constitute such consent. The burden of proof is on both parties. Violators would be subject to sanctions, including presumably, expulsion.

Supporters of legislating “affirmative consent” believe that the change will enhance female safety and perhaps autonomy; and, indeed, there is every reason to think that it will produce less unwanted sex.

Opponents argue that: 1) affirmative consent is not how sexual partners have historically joined together; 2) proving what conversations and actions are taking place behind closed doors is already a serious administrative headache, and universities have neither the financial resources, the expertise, nor the inclination to police “ordinary” sexual intercourse between students; and; 3) contract sex cannot be as satisfying because, the affective aspects of sex notwithstanding, copulation is at the core an animal act, and animals do not enter into contracts. The bill, in this light, can best be seen as overreach.

Precedent and theories of creatureliness will not dispose fairly of the problem that legal affirmative consent is designed to address. Big problems may require big changes. Fortunately, data are available to help us. In a classic study, Professor Charlene Muelenhard asked men and women how they showed that they were consenting to sex. The options were “direct verbal,” “indirect verbal,” “direct nonverbal,” “indirect nonverbal,” and “no response.” “No response” was modal for both men and women; that is, no direct or indirect method garnered a majority of the vote. When it comes down to it, we talk about all aspects of our lives except for doing the nasty. Unless we are inclined against sex, moreover, many of us just give in. Not the most exalted picture of self-consciousness and sexuality, perhaps, but there you have it.

The finding with respect to women may be understandable. When asked by the same researcher about their hesitation to say saying “yes” when that is what they meant, women cited fear of “appearing promiscuous,” “religious or moral reasons,” “uncertainty about a partner’s feelings,” and “self-consciousness/embarrassment about their bodies.” Consenting obliquely—i.e., not explicitly—might be a way of getting pleasure while simultaneously dissociating from the psychological implications. It is perhaps for this same reason that the men in the study also preferred not to refer directly to anticipated sex. If a man wants to guarantee failure in the mating game, advises a well-known law professor, he should go up to a woman and ask, “Do you want to [have sex]?”

In yet another study, Professor Muelenhard distinguished between consent to sex and desire for it. The concerns of women discussed above may block real desire. She reports, moreover, that desire for sex is not either-or, as we may think; women may want sex, but again not its ramifications. Because, especially for women, consent and desire may point in opposite directions, she wants us to understand rape as including undesired sex. Communicative sex under Bill 967 would presumably help identify unqualified desire.

The problem for the law is not so much to determine the level of women’s desire, although that is no easy task. It is, more, to determine the extent to which that desire should be given legal effect when it cuts against consent, as currently understood. Like all decisions we make, sexual decisions are the product of a cost/benefit analysis. The costs will take the form of lingering private reservations even after an affirmative decision is made. If the law says that only whole-hearted agreement qualifies as consent, if a woman is presumed not to know or to be able to speak her own mind in a sexual setting—if she cannot say no sexually and be held to it— is she able to make big decisions in a managerial or a political environment? An atmosphere free of threats and fear is, of course, assumed throughout this discussion.

Far from increasing women’s autonomy most of the time, then, “communicative sex” would likely decrease it. Most relevant for our purpose here, it would operate to drive out sex that is more desired than not. This suggests that men’s desires may not be important in evaluating Bill 967. If Muelenhard is on the mark, women will not accept being forced to say yes. A code that does not honor college women’s views is no honor code.

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Dan Subotnik, a professor at Touro Law School, has written several law review articles on affirmative consent. These are cited on the school’s website (Tourolaw.edu). 

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Why I’m Leaving the Movement

Ha! Got you with one last click-baity headline. Freal tho, I’m leaving full-time liberty-movement work to do sales at a software directory company.

Before I go into the why and such, I just want to first say a massive THANK YOU.

I want to thank first the Charles Koch Institute, then Reason, and last Students For Liberty. Y’all are why I got to come do liberty full-time in the nation’s capital. You helped me escape from Alabama, and live in the big city, and sell the product I’m most passionate about for going on three years and I’m so, so grateful.

Next I want to thank the individual people who reached out to me with comfort, opportunities, encouragement, debate and kindness. I want to thank everyone who ever read me, and especially the people who did so on a regular basis. I want to thank everyone who went out of their way to be in my corner every time internet libertarianism had a meltdown over some minor diversion from libertarian orthodoxy. I want to thank the people who shared my work. I want to thank the people who gave me a shot. And I especially want to thank the kick-ass girls who have told me that I’m part of why they’re involved in libertarianism. Y’all have made it all worthwhile. Yes, libertarians can be the worst, but on the whole, this movement has treated me very, very well. Far better than my level of talent and charisma deserves.

I mean, in the past year I got to go on national TV twice, get quoted in the New York Times Magazine, make David Frum cry, create another web show, get published in The Week, the Daily Beast, the Huffington Post, VICE Motherboard and other places. I set up my second weekly column, after Thoughts on Liberty, at Townhall.com. I spoke at tons of conferences, and appeared on tons of podcasts and radio shows. I got in a million online arguments about some really interesting topics. I have fans! How fucking insane is that? (very)

So, why leave all that?

I’ve been selling free-market ideas because their adoption makes creating the conditions necessary to innovation easier. And innovation begets prosperity. It’s easier to sell respect for private property, etc. when people understand how it’s helpful. If more people understand why fewer regulations make people more prosperous, hopefully we’ll get fewer regulations.

So those are the necessary conditions for innovation. But we still need innovation. It is what advances human prosperity. It’s the only way to get more out of the same amount, to grow the pie, as it were.

Basically, I’m leaving one side, creating the conditions, to work on the other side, the actual innovation. I’m not an innovator, but innovators need sales to disrupt markets. That’s where I want to come in.

I’m learning sales skills in the tech space to eventually grow disruptive innovators like Uber, or SpaceX, or peer-to-peer, decentralized payments systems, or encryption.

In addition, that side is certainly more lucrative. The market has spoken, and the demand relative to supply of libertarian commentators is low. I’m so incredibly blessed to have been able to make opining about markets and editing and placing others’ opinions about markets my full-time work, and to make enough to live in the most expensive city in the country and very occasionally even eat out or go to a happy hour. SFL kept me in drugs for a whole year as a professional libertarian, and I’m so very grateful.

But, at some point you want more than the occasional happy hour. You want some security. And all the paths to becoming any kind of decently-paid pundit or public intellectual require partisanship or going to grad school, or both. I think we all know my feels on the two major parties, and I’d rather make money than spend it.

All I wanted to do when I started out was sell liberty. I’ve done some of that. There are a few, at least, amazing people who are in the liberty movement, in part, because of my scribblings.

I have to admit that it’s been hard, psychologically. I’ve not been able to always stay positive in the face of negativity. I’ve been quick to get combative. To forget to assume good intentions. While I’ve thrown off parts of my ideological past, I find certain parts of that old skin are still sticky, and I wrestle with them, in public. And with anyone who seems to embody what I hate about who I was.

I’ve thought about getting into sales for years, since before coming to DC to start work at Reason. Truth be told, my media work, as well as pitching editors, has done an enormous amount toward making me ready for this job. I think sales, in a lot of ways, is life. Learning to meet needs, to build trust, and relationships, quickly, to mirror and empathize and be positive and friendly, these are all things I want to learn. I get my meaning, as I think most people do, through human connection. I want to learn to connect better. And getting successful at sales will require humility and constant feedback, and self-improvement is so incredibly important to building a happy life.

So I’m going to continue writing, a little, at least. Probably just on this blog, unless someone wants to give me a paid column. And then I’ll repub here. Hell, I might start writing about sales. Lord knows libertarians need to learn how to sell their ideas.

I hope if you’ve been reading me, you continue to. I hope to keep having really interesting conversations, if for fewer hours a day. I hope the people who are good at it continue their work in this movement. I hope the ideas of a free society continue to flourish and grab hold of young minds.

I’ll still be grinding away at building prosperity for everyone, but now I can include myself. I’m really excited.

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Unveiled: A Support Group For Ex-Hijabis

Marwa was eight-years-old when her parents began covering her head. She was 23 years-old when she stopped, soon after arriving in the United States. She recently began the Ex-Hijabi Photo Fashion Journal to tell the stories of women who have also uncovered. The self-described “ex-Muslim Atheist” runs the site, along with her blog Between a Veil and a Dark Place.

I spoke to Marwa about what gave her the idea, what she hopes to accomplish, and the themes the submissions share.


Marwa got the idea for the Photo Fashion Journal while talking about her first summer without the hijab. She and a fellow ex-Muslim and asylum seeker discussed the beauty of being “able to be out and feel the sun and the sand and the wind all over your body.” Yet that bliss was also marked by new pains. She found “easing into” displaying her body for the first time difficult, as well as dealing with the self-consciousness of bikini season.

But, eventually she grew more comfortable with her newfound freedom. “We started taking selfies of ourselves in our bikinis,” Marwa said. Which led her to an idea.

“Wouldn’t it be great if there were a space for everyone to do this? A space to celebrate?” And so the fashion journal was born.

Marwa clearly tries to be fair when discussing the hijab. When discussing some of the cultural baggage, issues surrounding it include modesty requirements, objectification, female agency, she is careful to note there’s more to the story. “A lot of the modesty doctrines and the limitations on interactions, I do believe that these things are evolving,” she states. “I actually know a lot of people who wear the hijab that they consciously claim has nothing to do with the male gaze and has nothing to do with modesty.”

“I do believe that more and more women who choose to wear the veil or even were socialized to wear the veil, it’s acceptable for them to interact and to get an education and to have jobs and to be public speakers and doctors and authority figures,” she says. “And so they’re moving away from the traditional understanding of what modesty ought to be. But unfortunately, in many places in the world, it’s still a big thing. You can’t have lunch with your male colleagues because that’s considered sinful. You can’t have friendships with men. You can’t go to places where there will be a lot of mixing and gender segregation is still a radically enforced norm.”

For her, being uncovered wasn’t really a choice. She grew up in Lebanon, which she describes as “arguable the most liberal Arab country.”

“When people think of Beirut, my hometown, they often think of sex and booze and nightclubs,” she says. “And that’s one subsection of it. But I grew up in Hezbollah culture. And over there it was just as unthinkable. Even though there was no legal apparatus, it was just as unthinkable to try to do that as if I had been in Saudi Arabia. And I was, I grew up there, before moving back to Lebanon.”

People often say, ‘It’s not like you live in Saudi Arabia. There are very few countries that actually enforce the veil by law.’ That tends to be a cop-out because in so many Muslim-majority countries and societies, even insular communities within the West, you face a lot of stigma and ostracization, you’ll become poor if you try to defy these norms. It’s not as simple and as clear cut as it might seem.”

The thing about a choice is, you look at, even people who say, ‘I choose to wear the veil,’ you have to ask, “Well what would happen if you chose otherwise?’

And there are implications of covering eight year old girls beyond just the choice argument which disturb her. “What are you saying about their bodies?” with the veil, she asks. “You’re saying their bodies are sexual objects. And sexual objects of discord that need to be covered up. That’s really where a lot of the stigma and shame set in for me. Before I even knew what sex was, I knew that it was dangerous and harmful for people to look at certain part of my body.”

What bothers her in addition is that “attempts to avoid objectification end up reinforcing it,” she says. “Like, we see all the rhetoric surrounding the hijab often couches it in terms of protecting, and then there are all these dehumanizing analogies used. Like a woman is a pearl that’s protected by her oyster. Or, a piece of candy. Would you prefer a piece of candy that was unwrapped and passed around or one that was wrapped? And they are literally comparing women to objects! And objects that you own and consume!”

“Fundamentally what that is it’s viewing women and their bodies as for other people rather than for themselves. It’s considered that you as a woman are even oppressing men by exposing them to your body. There are arguments along these lines. And all of them are dehumanizing. And speaking of trying to prevent sexual objectification in particular, they end up tending to hypersexualize the body instead. If the cloth would slip from my wrist there would be moral outrage.“

Having come through this, Marwa sees the journal as a place for people with a common experience to find healing. Where, “not only are their words welcome, but they’re understood.”

She describes the journal as “a space of healing,” the focus is on inclusivity. Marwa wants the project to be a welcoming place for people of all sizes, genders, and backgrounds. The project doesn’t even require that participants wore the hijab. Anyone who’s thrown off “modesty requirements” is welcome to participate. She welcomes women who have been “shamed and stigmatized” for showing their arms or legs. “It’s really about acceptance.”

Survivors speak about how their oppression and restriction affected them. How their families reacted. They describe shame and denigration. “I don’t think that focusing on that is a bad thing,” she says. “I think it helps dealing with it.”

Throughout this project, however, Marwa is concerned that none of her work feed into anti-Muslim bigotry. The focus, she says, is on bodily autonomy.

“Even if we believe that the veil plays into patriarchal values, people are allowed to make bad choices with their bodies,” she says. “By talking about the very real detriment that forced hijab poses, and how it happens to real people, real people who you know and whose stories you can become intimate with, real people you aren’t othering as some foreign culture that’s stuck in the Middle Ages as if we don’t have Enlightenment and modernities, as if the Middle East is stuck in a marsh of backwards values, and you give voice to the women who actually have experience with these things, I think that serves to humanize it. And once it’s humanized, it’s very hard for it to be misused in bigoted ways.”

“Because it’s personal, because it happened to us, we have the right to talk about it,” she says. “Because it’s our bodies and our bodily history.”

Interestingly for a project seemingly about the hijab, with “hijab” in the name even, that’s not actually the point for Marwa. It doesn’t matter if you choose to wear the hijab or not,” she says. “The focus is on bodily autonomy.” And a beautiful focus it is.

This post originally appeared at Townhall.com.

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Privilege Is a Plastic Spork

Mutual Exchange is the Center’s goal in two senses — we favor a society rooted in peaceful, voluntary cooperation, and we seek to foster understanding through ongoing dialogue. Mutual Exchange will provide opportunities for conversation about issues that matter to the Center’s audience.

A lead essay, deliberately provocative, will be followed by responses from inside and outside of C4SS. Contributions and comments from readers are enthusiastically encouraged. The following Mutual Exchange will begin as a feature by Casey Given’s, “What’s the Point of Checking Your Privilege?”. Nathan Goodman, Kevin Carson, Casey Given and Cathy Reisenwitz have prepared a series of articles challenging, exploring and responding to the themes presented in Given’s original article. Over the next week, C4SS will publish all of their responses. The final series can be followed under the categories: Mutual Exchange or The Point of Privilege.

* * *
The critiques of privilege theory, here and elsewhere, mostly boil down to the responses it often elicits from the very people it’s meant to educate. And I’ll agree that one, especially if she’s a libertarian, must look at the actual effects of any proposal, and not just its intentions. Indeed, it’s hard to find a theory as poorly understood, and as thoroughly and pervasively straw-manned, as privilege theory.

So one might take Casey Given’s route and discard the theory as on-net unhelpful. But I believe there are entrenched biases which make people predisposed to seek to ignore oppression and resent any framework, phrase, or person who brings it up. And to blame the clumsy, and clumsily applied, phrase or framework behind “check your privilege” – for the existence and continuation of this problem seems shortsighted at best. We’re shoveling mountains of snow with a plastic spork, it’s true. But it’s the best tool we’ve got.

The problems with privilege theory are real. It makes white folks feel guilty. It collectivizes and categorizes people. It, alone, isn’t enough to create change. But, actually, those are all problems with any acknowledgement of the continued existence of bigotry, regardless of how we frame it or the vocabulary we use. There simply isn’t a way to point out oppression on arbitrary bases without making people feel guilty (at least some of them, some of the time), or collectivizing or categorizing people (otherwise known as recognizing the identities bigots use as a basis for oppression). And no, whether you call it privilege or oppression or whatever, calling it out alone won’t end it.

Oppression is fucking uncomfortable. Realizing that you began the race a few steps ahead of the guy on the corner begging for change is really unpleasant. Anything which threatens the certainty that “everything you have, you earned,” isn’t something most people lean into or enjoy. Everyone is most intimately familiar with their own oppression, and is naturally most sympathetic to it.

That privilege checking would be violently misunderstood and maligned isn’t evidence that it’s not useful. But it is evidence that it’s really hard work.

The question is, then, do the benefits of acknowledging bigotry justify the discomfort it creates?

Well, it obviously depends on what you value. If recognizing truth is your thing, then it has utility there. As Kevin Carson eloquently put it:

Privilege is an important concept to understand because it has a useful explanatory function, and correctly perceiving the world we operate in is necessary for operating effectively. Those who say “I don’t see race” and “I’m color-blind” have just as dysfunctional a perception of the world as literally color-blind people who can’t tell a red traffic light from a green one.

So privilege helps us correctly identify and acknowledge identity-based oppression. And like most problems, bigotry isn’t fixed by being ignored. Ignoring bigotry has never worked in the past, and it’s not likely to work in the future. For better or worse, fixing problems usually requires some work. And the first step is generally admitting that you have a problem.

So, I’ll admit that the privilege framework is the spork to the flurries of institutional, personal, and governmental asshattery we find ourselves constantly enveloped by, whether we admit or acknowledge or not. But before we throw the spork away and just pretend it’s all just niceness, I’d ask, do you have a better way?

This post originally appeared at C4SS.org.

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No Time to Fact Check, the NY Times Has Moral Panic to Cover

Another day, another sex trafficking victim story falls apart.

What’s sexier than a young girl forced into prostitution, after all? But perhaps the New York Times could take a second away from ginning up moral panic to fact check its stories on the issue.

First Nicholas Kristof was caught with his pants down when it came out that his human trafficking poster girl Somaly Mam was pretty much making it all up. Instead of being violently abducted into sex slavery and later watching the Cambodian army kill eight girls, she was actually a happy, pig-tailed schoolgirl who’s never seen anyone killed.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Kristof wrote story after story about Mam’s brave fight against sex trafficking in Cambodia. In one, he asked “If This Isn’t Slavery, What Is?” Well, the millions of people trafficked into this country to do domestic and agricultural work are enslaved, and they dwarf the number of people brought in to do sex work. But that just doesn’t get the same number of clicks.

And now we have another deluded trafficking “victim” — this one named Chong Kim. She was the “true story” behind Eden, a tale of “underage women conscripted into sexual slavery by a criminal enterprise from which there is seemingly no escape,” as described by the New York Times book review.

Her journey to the United States supposedly involved handcuffs, gunpoint, passport confiscation, and forced sex work. But as it turns out, the story may not be true. An organization which worked with her, called Breaking Out, has indicated that their investigation into her story has yielded some major inconsistencies, and has made a public statement to that effect.

It looks likely that Kim made up her story and used it to defraud donors out of money, and it took a non-profit aid organization, and not the national news media who covered her, to do actual reporting to find out the truth.

This is par for the course for the media, however. The white slavery moral panic has been around for at least a hundred years, starting with 1910’s White-Slave Traffic Act, also known as the Mann Act. What it refers to is prostitution, under the supposition that no one enters it willingly.

The Mann Act clamped down on prostitution by making it illegal to help women cross state lines “for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.” Campaigners boosted support for the act by peddling lurid tales of innocent girls drugged and kidnapped right off of city streets and sold into sexual servitude. This sounds exactly like the reporting on “sex trafficking” seen today. Kristof isn’t even original.

And like today, authorities looking for sex slaves found them pretty difficult to locate. Nationwide, the Department of Justice only convicted 138 human traffickers of any kind in 2012. And I’ve never seen a US case where it was clear that the women were held against their will.

The vast majority of humans trafficked are sold into domestic and agricultural work. For those that are in the sex trade, the best way to help find and rescue them is to legalize sex work, according to both Amnesty International and the United Nations. Not only does the moral panic around sex work blind reporters to errors in women’s stories, but it is also aimed at further pushing sex work underground through law enforcement and further criminalization. Punishing sex workers, who are already far more likely to be abused by police than by clients, just alienates aid workers from the men and women on the front lines who can help identify the slaves who need help.

The white slavery moral panic has been cropping up regularly for the last hundred years. And in that time, nothing has changed. Panic is still opposed to critical thinking. Reporters need to stop buying exaggerated stories wholesale without investigating them, so we don’t end up with more pernicious legislation with no hope of solving the problem.

This post originally appeared at Mediaite.

rape

Why Legislating Consent Won’t Prevent Rape

We’ve got another awesome Sex and the State guest post! If you would like to submit a guest post, please fill out my contact form with an brief outline of what you want to write about.

I’ve been mulling over a new bill in California, SB967, that would mandate colleges and universities receiving state funds use the following definition of “affirmative consent” for evaluating sexual assault and rape in the campus justice system:

“Affirmative consent” means affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity. It is the responsibility of each person involved in the sexual activity to ensure that he or she has the affirmative consent of the other or others to engage in the sexual activity. Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent. Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time. The existence of a dating relationship between the persons involved, or the fact of past sexual relations between them, should never by itself be assumed to be an indicator of consent.

I myself have appealed to affirmative consent as a step for reducing sexual assault and rape, particularly among collegiate populations, where casual hookups are prevalent. Yet while I’m a staunch believer in teaching affirmative consent — what it is, how to get it, why it matters — I fear this bill would could be interpreted by our “justice” system in very dangerous ways.

Like most/many bills, this one has good intentions, but I fear the unintended consequences could make a mockery of consent for sexual activity, something feminists like myself have fought very hard to legitimize.

On the one hand, enshrining the definition of affirmative consent in law and mandating that colleges abide by it would provide a framework for prosecuting rapists, too many of which walk free. However, a law like this could make criminals out of those who are not, and it would not change the culture that’s at the root of sexual assault.

Hands up if you’ve had voluntary sex with someone without verbally agreeing to it. I have!

The problem with SB967 is that many partners rely on nonverbal cues to initiate sexual activity. I’ll concede that verbal consent is particularly important if you’re with a new partner, but I’ll be the first to admit my boyfriend and I very rarely obtain verbal consent before engaging in sexual activity. This law could make our actions worthy of prosecution.

The intricacies of intimacy (try saying that three times fast) make it such that we must be very, very careful when defining consent in law.

For what it’s worth, the bill has positive aspects – including the creation of “prevention and outreach programs addressing sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking.” I’d love to see this implemented on campuses across the U.S. of their own accord, without the state forcing them to do so (provided those programs focus more on what consent is and how to obtain it, rather than advice for avoiding rape, i.e. watch your drink, don’t walk home alone, etc, which often paves the way for victim-blaming).

In short, education is key, not forceful legislation. I disagree with this bill’s means for dealing with sexual assault (the force of the state), not its ends. If we want to truly end sexual assault at its roots, we have to start by changing culture first.

Julie Mastrine is a writer and feminist. She is the Activism Marketing and Social Media Manager at Care2 and is a social media volunteer for Stop Street Harassment. Follow Julie on Twitter and check out her e-book.

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Rahm

Chicago’s Gun Violence Victims Deserve Better

Six people were shot in Chicagoland Monday night where an unconstitutional handgun ban has somehow failed to stop gun violence. In April of this year, 36 people were shot in the city in 36 hours. It’s hard to find a day when the Chicago Tribune doesn’t have a shooting to report on.

What if we tried something new? Whether it’s drugs, alcohol, guns or the word “bossy,” somehow when we ban things people keep buying, drinking, using and saying them anyway.

Perhaps Chicago could think about getting its gun laws in line with the Constitution. District of Columbia v. Heller established that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to possess a firearm for “traditionally lawful purposes,” such as self-defense within the home. It also established that handguns are “arms” for the purposes of the Second Amendment. While the decision did not address the question of whether the Second Amendment extends beyond federal enclaves to the states, McDonald v. Chicago did.

It’s certain that Chicago residents cannot trust the police to protect them from gun violence. And it’s not because there aren’t enough of them. Chicago has more police officers per capita than New York or Los Angeles.

Instead, it appears that, especially if they’re non-white, they can expect violence from the police. Jianqing “Jessica” Klyzek has video footage from her tanning salon showing Chicago police striking her while handcuffed and kneeling while another officer shouted racial slurs and threatening to have her and her family killed. Then in a cover-up attempt, police falsified information in investigation reports to charge her with a crime for which a judge found no probable cause, and dismissed.

That’s when they’re not busy citing women for Facebook comments. Apparently Will County forest preserve police thought the woman had admitted to violating park rules in her Facebook post and fined her for illegal use of a park.

In a stunning show of missing the point, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is blaming illegal guns for the shootings. Which is like blaming the roads for car accidents.

“This report shows the extent to which illegal guns are the leading factor in driving violence,” Emanuel said in a statement to the press about a new report showing that most of the guns connected with shooting in the city were obtained illegally. Maybe that’s because you cannot legally have a handgun in the city, so every handgun the police find out about is, gasp, illegal. The stupid, it burns.

He suggested taking “simple, reasonable steps to curb the flow of illegal guns onto our streets.” Well, you’ve already banned them, contra the Constitution. So I’m not sure what exactly your plan is.

“Every family, every child, every person in Chicago deserves to enjoy the same sense of freedom and safety,” he said. Well ya damn right about that. But gun laws don’t get us there. Instead, research indicates that whether it’s Chicago or New York or Los Angeles violent crime results from poverty and police resources.

Violence happens when police are violent, racist thugs. Violence happens when people operate in black markets without property rights protection. Violence happens when public schools are worthless dropout factories. Violence happens when unemployment and prison are facts of life. Blaming guns for violence is asinine. And it’s an insult to the victims of violence to be so intellectually dishonest as to try to pass that idea off as plausible.

This post originally appeared at Libertychat.com.