Category Archives: conceptual analysis

Brooks on the Snowden leak; aka, What a twit


The banality of evil, indeed

What an infinite boob is David Brooks. His argument against Snowden is that the NSA leak (a) betrayed the trust of those who were party to the secret, and (b) invites the state to crack down on security further.

Note, the logic here rules out not just Snowden’s leak but the entire business of leaking categorically. It would equally rule out someone in Hitler’s inner circle’s leaking plans of the gas chambers (a ridiculous example, yes, but fitting for a ridiculous argument).

Granted, Brooks admits the possibility (and how could he not?) that a leaker could possess information so momentous it morally overrides these concerns. But he just rumps this onto the original argument, never integrating it into the line of thought. This is just cheating: You can’t make an argument with absurd implications (e.g., “nobody should leak anything, ever”) and save it with, “but of course this implication is so absurd it can’t always hold.” (No, Brooks, that’s what I’m saying.)

Rather, you have to specify the conditions under which the exception holds or doesn’t hold. Brooks only hints at a line without actually drawing it; but then, he can’t be sure Snowden falls afoul of it. He is like a meteorologist getting on TV, day after day, and telling us what causes rain, but never getting around to whether or not it is actually going to rain today.

So yeah, leaking state secrets risks serious repercussions. We knew that. The question is, just how does NSA fail to justify the risk? What exactly would need to be added to it to qualify as leak-worthy? In other words, just why was Snowden wrong and under what conditions would he have been right? Isn’t that the whole fucking issue?

Do the work, man. Make the case. Or go the fuck home.

Tax Day Special: Tea Partiers, et al, and the conceptual poverty of “lower taxes”

(Also see this video, which is more to the target demographic.)

* * *

Among Tea Party types, “lower taxes” is a hallmark demand. I would call this a unifying thread, but that would falsely suggest there is much more to many of the participants; often, “lower taxes” is about it. There is of course “reduced spending,” but this marks a difference which makes no difference. And there is a reason Tea Baggers choose Tax Day to protest spending (and immigration, and Muslims, and all the rest).

Bad history from the getup

“Tea Party,” then, is probably a misnomer. At bottom the Boston Tea Party had little to do with “high taxes.” First, it was as much a protest against tax relief against taxation of any kind. The colonists were aggrieved that King George had granted his tea-merchant cohorts a tax exemption—a tax cut, if you will, recalling our own would-be King George of late—among other favors having nothing to do with taxation at all. Second, the revolt couldn’t have been about “high taxes” because the colonists’ taxes weren’t high.

British citizens in the homeland were being taxed up to fifty times what the colonists were, to artificially fund the lifestyles of the latter. Of course, the colonists were upset about the ”without representation” part of being taxed. But the Tea Bag folks are represented—at least, in the sense that the colonists were on about.

The incoherence of “lower taxes”

It is fair to ask: But what’s in a name? We must look at the substance of the protest.

With other conservatives, Tea Baggers are notoriously poor at naming just what they would cut from the federal budget (i.e., just which “taxes” they would “lower.”) But their demand means absolutely nothing without this content. The failure to specify becomes worse when you consider that they intend “lower taxes” as a virtue, a general recommendation: It is not just low taxes for this or that budget, but for budgeting; thus, the details can’t be spelled out in advance. I argue that this abstractness makes the “lower taxes” mantra worse than incomplete; it is incoherent.

* * *

Bear with me. I could see if somebody wanted no taxes whatsoever. This isn’t my position, but it is clear and coherent.

Likewise, I could see if they wanted taxes to fund only certain things and not others. This would not be so far from the first position; instead of “no taxes for anything,” it would be “no taxes for this thing.” Again, this is clear and coherent. And formally speaking, this does describe the Tea Bag position; for instance, they want taxes for defense, but not for (certain) health care.

But then, why their focus on “lower,” plain and simple? I mean, lower for health care, OK; but then what for defense, and all the other things they want to tax for? Once they drop the health care budget, can we, say, jack up every other region of taxable spending by more than the “liberals” ever dreamed of paying for health care alone?—Or jointly depress them to less than health care was before the drop?

I just don’t know what to do with “lower taxes.” It gives us only slightly more direction on budgeting a nation as “no live tigers” gives us on decorating a home.

Economic versus moral arguments for “lower taxes”

There is more than one kind of argument against (high) taxation emerging from this camp. Some ground the position in rights and justice—people have a right not to be taxed, or a right to their taxable income. Here, however, I’m interested in a different argument: The idea that taxation should be kept low so that people can “keep more of their money in their pockets.”

This is the argument you hear first and oftenest from Tea Party types. And one expects that; these “bread and butter” concerns (or “materialist” ones, for the Marxists present) are, I think, a necessary condition for mobilizing large groups of people in protest. Sure, there will always be some who march and shout on bare principle; but I imagine if Obama pounded through a bill that raised everyone’s taxes by 5%, but raised their wages by 200%, the “Tea Parties” would dry up post-haste, “principles” clunking in tow.

Yes: In theory, taxes could contribute to, even create, financial insecurity for taxpayers. But just how does “needing more money” relate to “lower taxes”? I mean, if the issue is simply “having,” why make a fetish of “keeping my money” versus “making more in the first place”? For an increase in either will result in an increase in “having.” In theory, TP’ers could talk about taxes, or wages, or both—right?

What’s more, “earning” or “making” occupies a kind of intuitive, quasi-logical priority over ”keeping”: To use an analogy, if I am a farmer who is vastly underproducing her crops, I am probably not going to focus the bulk of my complaints on the carrots the rabbits steal after the harvest. My point is, unless the issue is pure, distinterested procedural justice, bitching about taxes only makes sense if you are getting “enough” in the very first place.

Why the real problem is (and must always be) wages

Some considerations

It is true that, by some measures, the tax burden for most non-wealthy sorts has increased over the last, say, thirty years. (I don’t intend to argue that here.) But other facts suggest that the economic problems affecting most rank-and-file Tea Baggers (and other lower and middle earners) are due primarily to wage and benefit deficits, rather than taxes taken out after the fact:

(1) During the same 30-year period, consumption levels have been maintained by this group only because of an explosion in consumer debt. In turn, this reflects a decrease in real wages across the same period.

(This, in relative and absolute senses, e.g., the share going to low and middle earners, as well as the per- dollar spending power of this share.)

(2) This decrease in real wages has outpaced any rise in taxes.

And most importantly,

(3) The gap between the value of what this group of wage earners produce at their jobs, and what they are paid for it, is far greater than the gap between what they make and what they would make if they kept what is presently taxed.

(Note: Any alternative to this (3)-scenario—that is, any reversal in the relative sizes of the two “gaps” in question—is utterly unthinkable. The net worth of the entire working class is less than the dollar-value of their collective alienated production; long before they could be taxed enough to rival the latter, they would run out of money, stop buying the products they make, and the economy collapse.)

A “tax relief dividend” versus a “productivity dividend”

To illustrate the enormous import of this last point, consider economist Juliet Schor’s observation that “since the 1970’s, labor productivity has roughly doubled.” This means that today, we can reproduce a 1970s standard of living (measured in ”marketed goods and services”) in half the time it took then.

Schor’s main emphasis is on the extra free time this could mean for workers. But the productivity dividend can be viewed in ‘material’ terms as well. It means, conversely, that across the period in question, we could have doubled the standard of living for each worker without increasing the work day. Needless to say, recalling point (1), nothing even close to this has happened. The dividend has been reinvested back into the productive apparatus itself (and luxury consumption for the capitalists) rather than the pockets of workers.

Clearly, there is simply no way any parallel “tax relief dividend” could compete with this “productivity dividend.” The added standard of living which could have accrued if workers kept everything they earned since the 70s comes nowhere close to what they could have earned in the first place.

All of which suggests that the employer class, rather than the state, is the proper primary target when it comes to materialist grievances.


A possible Tea Party response is to say that the state is a fairer target than the owning class. The state is “unjust” in (over)taxing, as it lacks any claim to the contested funds in the first place. Employers, on the other hand, have property rights to the productive yield; while it might be nice if they gave workers more, they are not under the same moral obligation as the state. As employees, we are only in a position to ask; as citizens, we can make demands.

This moves us from the economic-materialist realm of argument to a moral, rights-and-justice based one. Though we’ve focused on the former, most Tea Partiers will in reality appeal to both. But this dual approach suggests an incoherence of its own.

Appealing to rights at this point seems to invalidate the ‘material’ complaint we began with—and the same could be said of most formulations (or formulators) of “laissez-faire.” They are asking us to believe: “Yes, it is morally wrong to violate property rights in order to enhance human welfare; and it would remain so even if heaven fell blazing to earth as a result of maintaining this principle. (For how could a mere want override a right?) But hey, whew, wonder of wonders: Gratefully, it only so happens that respecting these rights is the best way to maximize human welfare anyway! (If it weren’t, though, we’d still have to bite the bullet and respect them.”)

(I for one find this counterintuitive in the highest. I mean, holy shit, what are the chances?)

Final thoughts

A scalpel not a cave-club

What a person “has” is determined by a complex of earnings, benefits, expenditures, taxes, waste, and so forth. Each of these could be sub-typed as you wish; there are different sorts of earnings, expenditures, etc. Opposing “high taxes” amounts to arbitrarily opposing a certain “type” of expenditure rather than the net, balanced outcome of credits-versus-debits. This approach is like that of someone who had gotten lost by making a wrong left turn, and so began opposing all left turns, rather than just working to combine left and right turns in such a pattern as to best get from A to B. It is not so much left turns, but the specific “mixture” of left and right turns which gets one lost (or indeed, which gets one to her destination when the journey is a success).

Two riffs on homophobia

(1) “Enlightened homophobia” and straight privilege

Everyone has heard some version of, “I don’t mind gays so long as they don’t bother me.” This is somewhat like saying, “I don’t mind grocery clerks so long as they don’t throw canned goods at me when I enter the store.” Even if the statement were acceptable on its own, the fact that one would bother making it at all calls even his qualified acceptance of grocery workers into question. The fact that he isn’t saying it about other groups of workers assumes some special propensity on the part of these groups to misbehave.

What these vaguely enlightened types mean by “gays bothering them” is most often: approaching them romantically, making out in front of their children, etc. Once we plug in this variable, the comparison to grocery store workers is less apt. Of course we blame grocery workers for hurling stock at patrons; but on what grounds do we blame, say, gay men for approaching straight men? (I target straight men here because they are the demographic from which the argument tend to emerge.) Why must gay men bear the burden of making absolutely 100% sure in advance that whomever they are approaching is receptive to the approach? It is quite possible that the target of a cold straight approach could be a lesbian; yet straight men hold themselves to no such standard. (And holding different social groups to different standards is, in a word, discrimination.)

And why limit mandatory advance knowledge to knowledge of sexual orientation? When I equated matching orientation with “receptivity,” this was a pretty cavalier simplifying device. Any number of straight women are unreceptive to any number of straight men, too; and sexual orientation is just one of many factors that would make them so. Men concerned to “not bother” an unreceptive woman would have to deal with this entire catalogue. The whole enterprise of flirtation would be fatally hampered by an attempt to obtain all the requisite information beforehand. A clinical demographic survey is quite the turn-off for an opener.

Nor would it be enough; receptivity to a romantic approach is at least in part determined by how the approach itself goes, and thus logically cannot be determined in advance no matter what “facts” we know about the parties. (My wife and I are damned compatible, but we’d never have gotten off the ground if on our first meeting I’d shat my pants and addressed her only through a ventriloquist’s dummy.) We simply cannot know if we are open until we see a bit more of what we are opening ourselves to.

(2) The “incomprehensibility argument” against homosexuality

Years ago, I thought I had heard a certain “argument” against homosexuality. It was so absurd that in time, I figured this was misremembering. But sure enough, I heard it again a few times lately. This prompted some light internet research which yielded many more references (including this recent invocation by Mike Huckabee). I talked to some of my coworkers about gay marriage and it was the first thing two of them said about it.

One might call this the “incomprehensibility” argument—insofar as it can be called an argument at all. It consists entirely in the homophobe’s sheer inability to understand why, for instance, a man would want to be with another man. (I hear this argument from both sexes, but mostly of gay men.) It is not entirely clear what this even means. This can’t be like not “understanding” a math problem or a foreign language. It is some kind of failure to “project,” to imagine or picture oneself in the position of having this attraction—and of course the conclusion that the attraction must then be wrong.

So much can be said here. Is the homophobe saying, because he can’t imagine these feelings, he doubts that gay men actually have them for one another? Surely not. But then, if it is true that someone can “imagine” this, the argument wouldn’t apply to those persons’ behavior, right? Homosexuality wouldn’t be wrong for them. Surely it is not the case that, if not everyone is gay, then no one can be. The strongest mandate the logic permits is: Don’t be gay if you can’t imagine what it is like. (And I imagine you wouldnt if you cant.)

By the same token, the homophobe can’t “understand” so many other things—why his friends enjoy cigarettes, or Indian food, and soforth. There are even straight sexual acts, no less—some underworld kink, if nothing else—which he doesn’t “get.” This is, I think, almost exactly what it means to have different interests; and everyone’s interests differ at least somewhat from everyone else’s. In such cases, we don’t work up our lack of imaginative projection into a norm against these activities. Another’s interests could be wrong, yes, but we demand other kinds of evidence to make the case. Nobody says, “I don’t get 70’s music, so it is immoral.” And nobody would listen if they did.

Conversely, many homosexuals will fail to “get” the homophobe’s attraction to women. They can’t imagine themselves wanting that. Should it not follow that the homophobe’s orientation is also wrong? For him to maintain that his own lack of understanding “counts” here, and the homosexuals’ does not, simply begs the question: His argument is supposed to show that homosexuality is spurious; that same argument cannot simply assume that conclusion when it gets in trouble.

Finally—and I consider this the kicker—even the most rabid gay-basher already accepts sexual ‘orientations’ he doesn’t “understand”: He is no more able to “picture” his wife’s or lover’s attraction for men, or for him in particular. He (we’ll assume) is not turned on to look at himself in the mirror, or at other men. But this inability does not lead him to doubt the reality nor the moral legitimacy of his lover’s attraction to him, or to males. He cannot have it both ways; if the “incomprehensibility argument” is rational, then, his lover’s behavior is not.

What would it mean to “preserve the white race”?

[Parts I and II here. Part III later.]

This past weekend the white power people came to town. This has prompted me to get a handle on what makes these assholes tick.

Part I

“White power” has any number of meanings, not all of them compatible. There is white supremacy, white nationalism/separatism, “mere” white pride, and so forth. The most basic corollary can be termed “white preservation” (WP). The brief 14 Words manifesto (probably the one thing every white power group agrees on) begins, “We must secure the existence of our people….” In a debate with Tim Wise, WP advocate Jared Taylor expresses the fear that “…whites, who are perhaps 7% of the population of the world now, will disappear in a flood of miscegenation; is that what you would like to see happen?”

WP means ensuring the conditions for whites to reproduce into the future. It is the tenet upon which all the others depend; if it fails, so do the rest. (No whites, no “white-anything.”) This makes it a natural starting point for examining white power “theory.”

Who is it being preserved for?

It is obvious that white preservationists (WPs) view WP not as a nice thing to have happen, but a mandate. That is, the numerical decrease in the white population (real or perceived, present or pending, by human or natural causes) is something “happening to them,” a bad circumstance that warrants self-defense.

The difficulty rests in trying to locate a victim in this process. Just who is it happening (or would it happen) to? Suppose that multiculturalism, immigration, and miscegenation actually brought about the “extinction” of the white race. Just who is harmed by this? The fear is not that whites are directly endangered, being “killed off.” (If anyone claims this, they’re crazy.) So whites’ “preserving themselves” cannot mean “saving we particular here-now individuals from death.” It could only mean “ensuring future white generations.” Fine, but in what sense is this a self-defense?—as “the existence of our people” would suggest. How would ensuring future whites serve the self-interests of present-day whites? To say “both groups are white” only begs the question; the whole issue is why the fact that they are both white makes them “ourselves.”

The seduction of grammar

WPs speak in terms of a “loss” that they themselves “suffer.” “Whiteness” is a quantity they have, and must hold onto. The whites of today must preserve their whiteness. Indeed, they could speak no other way; a self-defensive imperative always takes this form. This way of speaking is inspired, or reinforced, by the formal structures of language: Grammatically, “whiteness,” like “being married,” is a transient property, one which can be lost and gained by the self-same underlying subject. But WPs seem to have forgotten that it isn’t transient in real life; unlike marriage, if you ever had “whiteness,” you still do, and vice-versa.

Thus, to say that whites have failed to preserve, have “lost their” whiteness must really mean: Some whites died; and later, some non-whites were born. This describes two distinct events, with two corresponding subjects. The first event in no sense “happens to” the second subject. Indeed, if the relevant event is “the extinction of the white race,” it didn’t “happen to” the first group either! (An individual can’t “go extinct”—any more than running out of jellybeans means this particular jellybean ran out.)

Indeed, a numerical decrease is the very sort of thing that “happens to” no one in particular. For whites to suffer a “loss of whiteness” just means that there are no whites left to suffer any kind of loss at all. What “they” have “lost” is precisely their status as a “they.” (And if there is no “they” to be harmed, then, from a self-defensive point of view, there is no harm.)

* * *

In conclusion: The “extinct” whites can hardly be victims of “extinction”; they simply died out naturally, as they would have without any process of “white loss.” Their position is precisely the same either way. The only possible victims are the future survivors of this “tragedy.” But this is a miscegenated future; the survivors are (at best) biracial. The implicit logic of WP would have us view these persons as “potential” or “supposed-to-be” whites who missed out on “their” whiteness. One imagines them sitting and lamenting to themselves: “We” have been robbed of “our” proper racial inheritance. The absurdity is (hopefully) manifest.

I conclude the “self-defense” argument for WP is simply incoherent.

Part II

Arguments from analogy: ”But we preserve so many other things”

At times, WPs set aside the negative consequences of failing to preserve the race (i.e., those “harms” to be “defended against”) in favor of the positive virtues of preservation. One argument is that those features associated with whites—say, “white culture” or Caucasian physical anthropology—are unique and valuable, and thus should, all things being equal, be kept around. (For now, we set aside questions as to whether a “white culture” exists, and is preservable by moral means.)

For example, an alternate 14 Words with wide currency in white power circles demands, “Because the beauty of the White Aryan woman must not perish from the earth.” This aesthetic sentiment is matched by those which exploit the discourse of multiculturalism. These are typically heard at those “cultural celebrations” held by WP groups, e.g. Irish, Scottish, or Southern (US) “heritage events”: “If they (Mexicans, etc.) can celebrate (promote, “preserve”) their culture, why can’t we?”

Notwithstanding the near coextension of ‘those who make these statements’ with ‘racist whites,’ by themselves the statements are not necessarily noxious. That is, to say they often indicate racist beliefs is not to say they are themselves racist (any more than a weather vane is a southerly wind). And the analogy of whites to other groups holds a surface plausibility; every culture has folkways, coping mechanisms and other specialized knowledge borne of a particular social housing, which in principle can inspire, enrich, entertain, or aid anyone.

A more advanced argument from analogy is heard as well: Parsing the words alone, the concept “white preservation” seems to resemble other kinds of morally benign “preservations.” Consider the ecological impulse to “preserve” endangered species. By this I do not mean the desire to preserve as a means to some end “beyond” the species (or beyond biodiversity) itself, e.g. ecosystem balance. Nor do I intend anything having to do with protecting species members from pain and harm per se. Rather, I mean the “moral” impulse to save a biological group for its own worth.)

The idea is that each animal group contributes a unique layer of novelty and interest to the world, and this is (all things being equal) a value to be preserved. For instance, we wish to “save the Great Apes” because apes are beautiful, interesting, and so forth; that is, a world in which apes exist is a more interesting, beautiful, etc. world than one in which they are absent.) In short, if a species is worth saving, why not a race? (This could even rescue the earlier “self-defense” argument: If neither extinct whites nor the miscegenated generations of the future would be harmed by white extinction, maybe it is the whole group of survivors, of all racial complexions, that are harmed in being denied that cultural or aesthetic inheritance associated with whites.)

When it “doesn’t” it doesn’t matter whether it “can’t”

Even if this argument can be defended, it is not clear it can be defended from a white power perspective. The WP project as we know it is not simply concerned to endow a unique value to the world. If it were, we could expect to hear from WPs—in parallel with other “multicultural” affections—that WP will benefit and enrich other racial groups. Indeed, one could expect other racial groups themselves to make these arguments alongside the WPs.

The WPs attribute their exclusion from the multicultural catalogue to anti-white discrimination; but this hardly explains why they welcome and foster the “exclusivity” themselves: Whatever benefit they believe “white culture” has conferred upon the world, this benefaction forms no part of their motivation. They don’t give a damn about how this legacy benefits non-whites. (In fact, they probably resent it.)

The point (here) is not whether this racial exclusivity is wrong or right. The point is that it cannot be deduced from the bare preservationist impulse—any more than an impulse to “save the whales” for their beautiful songs and mating rituals implies that whalewatch trips and aquariums should be limited to white patronage. Such delimitations must be “grafted on” from outside, and their merits independently argued.

I don’t doubt that the disanalogies between WP and ecological-preservationism (EP) reflect something sinister; to the extent the WPs use the “us too” argument, it is disingenuous, a mere tactic, a wedge issue to make palatable some other agenda. For present purposes, though, the disanalogy just means: We cannot take the benign character of EP as support for the benign character of WP—as the white power folks actually conceive it. (More on the “multicultural” comparisons in the concluding Part III, soon to come.)

Murfreesboro Mosque redux: More proof this is about bigotry and not security

Those protesting the mosque plan like to claim they are merely “investigating” the Muslims for security purposes—given the reality of Muslim terror, the war, etc.: “We don’t hate anyone, we just want some answers first; we aren’t saying the mosque can’t be built, we just don’t like that the legal process to determine this was shunted.’

In my last post, I argued that the generally negative tenor of the protest contradicted this claim. Let me add to my earlier examples.

Consider the presence of Israeli flags at the rally. First, Israelis and Muslims probably shouldn’t be viewed as natural “sides,” whereby in supporting one, you automatically go against the other; for there is a third option in the interests of both. But that isn’t the point. The point is that the protester who waves this flag clearly intends it to antagonize neighboring Muslims.

I don’t have a problem with “negative tenor” in principle. I’m not calling for “civility” in political action; that is a tactical, not a moral question. I’m all for antagonizing “the enemy.”

But that’s the problem: Antagonizing local Muslims only makes sense if they are the enemy, when the whole point of “investigating” was to determine that very question. Waving the Israeli flag means the “investigation” is complete in the minds of the wavers.

In fairness, fearing all Muslims isn’t enough to make you a bigot—if all Muslims are in fact dangerous. In that case, your “prejudice” just happens to be an astute observation. (The same logic applies in the saying, “it ain’t really braggin’ if you got it.”)

Obviously, it is empirically false that all Muslims are dangerous. But we don’t even need to prove that because the protesters don’t deny it—at least, not openly. They will each acknowledge that there are, or could be, some peaceful Muslims in the world. They just don’t like the “bad ones.”

But here’s where they slip up. As soon as you admit the possibility that a Muslim, some Muslim, could be un-dangerous, the question emerges: What makes these Muslims dangerous? What specifically are they doing that those “good ones” aren’t?

The protesters can’t answer this question because there isn’t an answer. The Murfreesboro congregants haven’t done anything to warrant being taunted with Israeli flags, etc., besides be Muslim. Logically, any other Muslim in their position “would do”—would warrant the same level of antagonism. The antagonism precedes and is detached from a determination of “danger.”

So the protesters’ claim to “respect all faiths” is bullshit. This is about opposing Islam because it is Islam. This is religious persecution, by definition. Either (a) the protesters are lying about not believing all Muslims are “bad,” or (b) they are prepared to mistreat a Muslim whether they think them to be “bad” or not. There are no other options.

Homophobic gospel gets back to “nature” (revised)

[I discovered this video on Joshua Stewart’s fb. Thanks, man!]

This song is meant to be humorous, but not merely so. People really do make this kind of argument all the time: “You don’t see animals mating with the same sex.” (Ergo, it would be “unnatural” for us to do so.)

One problem is the premise is wrong; the same broad spectrum of sexuality—going from strict heterosexuality, to all permutations of bisexuality, to strict homosexuality—is found in the animal and human kingdoms alike. Using “nature” as our standard, then, does not tell us which segment of nature to mimic—whether “the farm,” as the song says, or maybe the Congolese forests where the pan-sexual bonobo ape dwells. Simply put, “nature” supplies no unambiguous prescription for human behavior. Anything we pick is arbitrary. (If we go for genetic similarity, the bonobo beats the chicken by a long shot.)

[Update: Homosexuality has been documented in chickens! You can “see two roosters walking hand in hand!” See this book, page 83.]

A more pressing problem is what impersonating animals should have to do with ethical behavior anyhow. Act like chicken, they are telling us? Who came up with this shit? The most the Mystery Men (and other homophobes) give us is is the argument that homosexual sex is “unnatural” because it can’t produce offspring:

Two mares can’t make a stallion/And two bulls can’t make a cow/It takes a male and female for the species to go on/[T]here’ll be no reproduction if the plumbing is all wrong

First, it isn’t clear what the farm analogy illuminates here; they may as well have said, “It takes a male and female human for the species to go on.” But no matter.

I can only repeat: Why is non-reproductive sex “unnatural”? The vast uncountable majority of elective human activities (e.g., baseball, fishing, shopping) are non-reproductive; if we can accept these as “natural,” despite this limitation, why do we balk at sexual behavior that lacks a reproductive component? (And do we oppose all the heterosexual sex that is non-reproductive?–Oral sex? Contraception? If the lead singer’s wife became sterile, would they be wrong to keep sleeping together?)

Even if we assume a moral imperative to ensure the “species to go on,” the world’s millions of homosexuals have yet to threaten population growth; and it is unlikely everyone will become homosexual. (Even if they do, this is unlikely to knock off the species; plenty of homosexuals have biological children, who in turn have children, etc.)

This whole business of using “natural” as a normative term—as in, “natural” behavior is good, and “unnatural” behavior is wrong—is screwy. Humans are every bit as “natural” as animals. (What else could we be—supernatural?) Homosexuality could be dead fucking wrong, but it would be as “natural” as any other orientation. Indeed, there is no conceivable human behavior which isn’t “natural.” It makes as much sense to judge animal behavior by our own as the reverse.

Finally, if we can’t be homosexual because chickens aren’t, then we can’t be monogamous, much less get married, because chickens don’t do that either. (Roosters mate with as many as 20 hens at once.) Much less do they wear clothes, build hospitals, or sing gospel music. On the other hand, there is no vile thing which some animals do not routinely do to others, or to each other. (The term “pecking order” is inspired by the propensity of chickens to bite and stab weaker specimens.) If we get our morals from this realm, we are subject to become rapists, baby-killers, and cannibals.[1]

* * *

If you want religious music in a country vein, try this instead (hats off to Eric Fields for turning me on to this):

* * *


[1] By animals doing “vile things” I mean “things which would be vile if a human did them to another human.” I am not sure it is “vile” when animals do it.

The worst argument against reparations for slavery (and a qualification on arguments in its favor)

It is argued that contemporary whites—the ostensible “reparators” for black slavery—were “not there,” didn’t hold or trade slaves or otherwise commit the associated wrongs, thus it would be unjust to hold them accountable for another’s crimes.

The argument fails in supposing the only way to be responsible for something is to be “at fault.” Human experience is replete with counterexamples: There is, for one, a sense that a parent should pay when his child’s baseball breaks a window. One could, of course, answer that this “responsibility” amounts to merely a useful legal fiction, just a scheme for ensuring windows get paid for in view of the likelihood that the average child is penniless. But a person of this view shouldn’t be opposed to some other arbitrary scheme, whereby, say, the victim of the broken window, or the nearest adult to his left, or sharing his initials or taste is television comedies, is legally responsible for the window. Instead, we have some sense that the legal arrangement reflects, or ratifies, some real, underlying norm that would remain in effect with or without the law’s recognition.

There is the further sense that a person can be responsible when nobody is at fault: The baseball player might not have been able to prevent the ball from hitting the glass. Maybe no one could have. The child remains “at fault” in some sense—a causal and (again) legal one—but not in the moral sense invoked by those opponents of reparations. Strictly speaking, no real “fault” has occurred. But a responsibility remains.

Finally, there is the sense that persons sometimes have a responsibility to act in some way when sheer dumb luck places them between another person, or persons, and some undesirable outcome. An island castaway with survival skills may be morally responsible to step up and lead the group, whether or not he wishes to; and someone at an intersection of railroad crossings may be responsible to throw the switch that diverts the crosswise passenger trains from colliding. In such cases there is no implication that either person, or any person, is “at fault” for the shipwreck or the train mix up.

In these ways, the scope of moral responsibility exceeds the scope of “fault.” The reparations opponent must give us more.

* * *

But the problem runs deeper. For it is arguable that nobody is ever strictly “at fault” for anything at all—that is, that “fault” is a pretty sketchy concept in the end. The point is “philosophical” and like many such points, counterintuitive. (Thankfully, this doesn’t make it false.)

Common sense tells us that when we hold another responsible, the self at “fault” is the same entity as the self which committed the transgression; anything else would be unfair. However, as the Buddhists and process philosophers show, this identification cannot be made. Those things which give the self its character—that make it the self that it is—are in a state of restless change. One’s field of experience or mind-state alters from moment to moment.[1] It follows that a new self replaces its predecessor with each change. “Me” at time t is not the same as “me” at time t+1. I do not get sick; rather, a new, sick self succeeds a healthy one.[2] What common sense thinks of as the self—for example, what we call “John”—is an abstraction from the processive “chain” of one-instantaneous-John-after- another.[3]

Thus, it does no good to plead that modern whites “weren’t there” for slavery. Nobody who is ever responsible for anything “was there” either. Accountability is always “for another’s crimes.” The transgressing self, by metaphysical necessity, never sticks around long enough for sentencing.

It does not follow from this that nobody is ever responsible—any more than it follows from the common sense view that no parents are ever responsible for their children’s actions. (It does follow that our metaethics is due for a reconception.[4])

* * *

All the above being said, I suspect that reparations concedes too much to bourgeois procedural justice: Slavery stole something that belonged to black slaves, and contemporary blacks, as their ostensible heirs, are owed what was due them from the white heirs of slaveowners.[5] In my view, such things as “natural rights” to property (in one’s labor or anything else) simply don’t exist, and thinking of them as existing is one of many ideological girders of capitalism.

I do support a radical redistribution of wealth in favor of American blacks; I would support a distributional outcome which is more generous than what most reparations proponents envision. But I support this because blacks need it, not because their or their ancestors’ property rights were violated.

At the same time, I understand the strategic value of speaking to “power”—in this case, bourgeois power—in its own language, of demanding that it be consistent with its own rules, even if these rules are not our own. In this way, Marxists use the theory of worker exploitation to show that capitalism is unjust according to its own laws of “equal exchange.” However, while Marxists are quite open that the goal is not merely a more consistent system of “equal exchange,” I don’t see a parallel qualification emerging much from the reparations camp. This could be because that camp, unlike the Marxist one, includes bourgeois-minded persons—but still.

Finally, I am compelled to solidarize with those black comrades who are directly affected by the debate and who in my experience are largely wedded to the reparations framework. By no means am I prepared to break common cause with the program. But I have my ‘druthers.

* * *

[Postscript: I just read a transcript where Chris Matthews accuses Al Sharpton of “wanting us to pay reparations because we happen to be white.” This is like saying we wanted O.J. to go to jail because he happened to wear Bruno Magli shoes.]


[1] This is not to identify the self with a “field of experience” or “mind-state”; only to say that if these things change, so does the self.

[2] Even this simplifies, as both the healthy and the sick selves are composed respectively of many sick and healthy, momentary selves.

[3] Social intercourse is possible because each “John” closely resembles its predecessors; they are not “the same,” but are similar enough for identification in practice.

[4] At the least, holding people responsible becomes (or becomes consistently) a matter of managing behavior rather than punishment. It is about treating present selves in such a way that later selves are influenced in a certain direction. This could include treating them as if they are “at fault” for the behaviors of earlier ones; but this would be merely a corrective device, a useful fiction.

[5] Granted, there are other arguments for reparations. But these are either (a) less coherent; (b) reducible (I argue) to a bourgeois property rights schema in the end; or (c) simply not the ones I’m talking about here.