Monday, May 27, 2013

"Scandal" Makes Me Uncomfortable

A friend recently waxed rhapsodic about how awesome the show Scandal is, so when it popped up on Netflix, I decided to give it a try.

The very first thing I noticed was that the show has an awesome cast. I mean, even before you know anything about them, the simple fact is that of the six main characters, half are people of color and half are women (two white women, a white man, a black woman, a black man, and a latin man). That's just ridiculously awesome. Consider Friends, which spent ten years convincing America that New York City is all white and half Jewish1.

But then over the course of a few episodes, I was made a little uncomfortable. In the first episode alone, "main" character Olivia Pope goes from being an awesome badass lawyer whose name makes New Girl Lawyer stop in her tracks and immediately accept a job to having women's intuition and being sexually assaulted in the oval office. Women's intuition? That just means, "Women aren't actually expert at anything, they just get lucky". And how on earth is President Rapist!Bill Clinton supposed to be a sympathetic character who's apparently still in the show in the second season? After that incident, how is he not the Big Bad that Olivia's supposed to realize was her greatest failure who she's supposed to drive out of office with her awesomeness? He continues his policy of sleazy harassment in the episodes that follow and Olivia continues her policy of putting up with it for some reason.

Then there's the problem that we don't seem to learn anything about Olivia. She has no family, no life, nothing but her job. Every episode seems to routinely fail to actually involve her as a character, and instead revolve around some white guy. In the first, the Greatest Hero Ever gets to come out as gay. In the second, Olivia totally saves the career of a potential Supreme Court Justice. At least by the third a white guy is allowed to be a villain, even as Olivia gets called a whore and is escorted from the White House because a white guy wants to save another white guy from the dangerous black woman.

Meanwhile, New Girl Lawyer gets to be totally excited and flustered about dating Pretty White Reporter Guy, with some help from Ambiguously Dressed Latin Guy (because women can't do things?). British Guy gets to propose to his fiance, and Castle's Ex-Wife gets totally upset about his having consorted with prostitutes because she's secretly in love with him. Three episodes in and her staff all get characterization, but Olivia's just a two-faced cipher. Outside the White House she's the unapproachable, unflappable awesomeness, but inside the White House she's The President's Whore, hence why the sexual assault was apparently not a problem.

Not wanting to base judgment of the show entirely on those three episodes, I did some digging. Apparently President Sleazetastic is still in office (and a Republican) and on the show through the second season, and we've met his entire family, even the in-laws, but still know nothing about Olivia Pope, the alleged main character.

So, yeah. The fact that network television has a show starring a black woman is a massive victory for feminism and antiracism, but the fact that she's not actually the main character is troubling. Also the fact, and I'm going to keep harping on this, that the Leader of the Free World (apparently he loves that title) gets to commit sexual assault and that's totally fine. I'm gonna call this two steps forward, one step back, and elect not to watch the show.

1 - In reality NYC is less than half white and less than one fifth Jewish. Wikipedia for the win.

Monday, May 20, 2013

WTF is a Seahorse?

I realized I didn't know much about seahorses, so I decided to look them up. Turns out they are fishes. They're a heavily modified kind of pipefish, which are a genus of fish that ... well, they're basically straightened seahorses. They're called pipefish because they have tiny little mouths.

I was a little confused because seahorses really don't look like fish. In fact, they look kind of like tiny little horses, only in the sea. Hence the name. Seahorses. They're bony fish, but they don't have scales. Also, they swim upright, unlike most fish. Also, they have flexible necks, unlike most fish. Frankly, the seahorse is one twisted little dinkus. They suck at swimming, so mostly they sit in one place with their tails wrapped around something to hold them there. They're tiny, carnivorous, ambush horses. Of the sea. They eat shrimps and stuff.

Oh, and the males get pregnant, which is pretty cool. And their genus name is hippocampus. From the Greek. For Horse + Seamonster. They're horsey seamonsters. Literally.

Here's a picture I drew of a seahorse.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Is Capitalism Evil?

Alternative titles: Corporate Calumny, Evils of Industry, Venture Villainy. I like alliteration alot.

Or: Why You Shouldn't Be Surprised When a System Designed to Act Like a Sociopath In Fact Acts Like a Sociopath

A few things happened recently to spark my thoughts on this. One was that I shared this pithy piece by Avicenna over at Freethought Blogs which rightly derides alternative medicine. Why is it at all acceptable to tout alternative medicine? No one would go to an alternative dentist. An alternative dentist wouldn't be sticking it to Big Teeth; he'd just be some jackass who pulls out his own teeth.

A friend of mine responded not so much defending alternative medicine as attacking the business of medicine. I may have misinterpreted (and if so I'm sorry; you know where to find me, dude), but his argument seemed to boil down to the conclusion that "Doctors medicate too much and this is bad." I tentatively agree with part of this. Overmedication is bad, particularly with antibiotics, however I don't know that doctors do routinely over medicate or "throw medicine at the problem". If they do, that's certainly bad. A quick google search indicates this is a fairly popular view, but it's not actually what I want to talk about today, so I don't care to wade into it.

Another portion of his argument was that doctors are under pressure from Big Pharma to prescribe medication, thus explaining why it's happening (assuming that it is). That's certainly a reasonable position and presents an excellent prima facie case for investigating whether that's happening. I and many others agree with my friend that the commercialization of medicine has harmed the profession and its standards as a whole. The profit motive doesn't mix well with the health industry.

The other item that sparked this line of thought was this youtube video by jordanowen421, in which he takes a look at some presentations by Gale Dines, an anti-pornography feminist. FYI, he disagrees with Dines and thinks her anti-porn stance is bad for feminism. I agree; porn is pretty awesome when done right. A lot of it isn't, though. At one point he expresses some confusion by some arguments/points she makes regarding pornography's for-profit status, and specifically draws from trade magazines to attack them. The gist is that pornographers are in it for the money, they're making profit, and that's all very bad2. Now, anything drawn from a trade magazine has strong potential to sound skeevy, because it's going to be discussing the business of business, and maximizing profits, which will always sound fairly manipulative on supply side, production side, or both. However, structuring business for greater efficiency and profit isn't necessarily bad in itself. For that matter, profit isn't necessarily bad in itself. And that's really the point I want to hit on.

It has long been a central thesis on the left that corporatism, capitalism, the profit motive degrade and dehumanize, that capitalism and profit are necessarily evil. Hence those apparent non sequiturs by Dines. And that's the question I want to try and address. Is capitalism evil?

Short answer: No.

Long answer: Yes.

What does capitalism do? It allocates manpower, intellect, resources in order to solve a problem. In return for solving the problem the people involved get money (another resource, an external indication of value). That's not a bad thing. It's also not a good thing. Capitalism is explicitly amoral. All it does is identify a hurdle and the resources necessary to solve it (A) and compares that to the value to be gained thereby (B). If B - A > 0, then capitalism ho! This hurdle could be the problem of finding cars that don't use fossil fuels, or it could be how to murder your inconvenient wife and dispose of the body. Entirely and explicitly amoral.

So, no, capitalism isn't necessarily evil. In short term theory. In practice, we find that it is, and exploring theory in greater depth explains why.

The Sins of Abuse
You don't need high-process theory to realize that capitalism is, far more often than not, monstrous in practice. Whether you're talking about the crude barter/slave systems of the pre-industrial world, extending back through feudalistic Europe to Imperial Rome to Ancient Egypt and beyond (in both time and space), or the early era of industrialism of the early 19th-century US, the result is quite negative. People exploit inequalities of wealth, power, and information (almost always all found in a single set of hands) to take serious advantage of others, harming them financially, emotionally, and physically. This results in explicit and implicit slavery; people seriously injured, maimed, or worked to death; entire communities suffering over generations from a degrading and dehumanizing system that values them not at all and discards them when no more can be wrung from them. The systematic effects of such are still felt in the poorest areas of the United States today, and I have no doubt the same is true and will continue to be true for centuries across the world.

The Sin of Poullution
There's an additional problem in negative externalities. In a word, pollution. Large businesses, producers, manufacturers whenever possible produce as much as they can and deal with as little waste as they can. This led for centuries to the communities surrounding various businesses suffering from the air, water, and noise pollution those businesses produced, from the chemical spill-off of metal refineries and tanneries to the choking smog of coal-powered mills, to carcinogens and toxins from modern plants. These were spewed carelessly into the environment, the cost born by those who had to live with them rather than those who made them. Why should your neighbor have to put up with your stink? Why should he die from it?

The Sins of Fraud and Perjury
Then there are acts of deliberate fraud. The toxic and addictive nature of tobacco was known as early as the 1890s, yet the tobacco industry fought long and hard, and lied, to prevent the public from knowing that; it took more than a century to bring them to heel. The DuPont corporation a decade fighting standards to control CFCs (aka, the ozone-destroyer). The Ethel Corporation and the Oil Industry spent decades lying about the effects of lead on the human body, beginning a few months after tetraethyl lead began being produced and added to gasoline3, not stopping until the Clean Air Act forced lead out of gasoline, more than half a century after it was first added. These are just three examples of corporate malfeasance. All of them in the name of profit.

Is this not enough to prove it's the industry standard? How many more do you need? Enron? Madoff? Subprime mortgages?

The Failure in Feedback
And then there's the fact that capitalism is necessarily unstable. It's a system governed by positive feedback. Any engineer will tell you that a system with positive feedback is doomed to crash, that negative feedback is the proper control mechanism. Negative feedback is like a marble at the bottom of a bowl: if you push the marble (perturb the system), then gravity will pull the marble back down (feedback opposite the perturbation). Positive feedback is like a marble on top of an upside-down bowl: if you push the marble (perturbation), then gravity will continue to pull the marble away from the top of the bowl (feedback in the same direction as perturbation). Like a microphone too close to the speakers, a system governed by positive feedback will spiral out of control until it breaks. The history of the US economy is one of boom and bust, boom and bust4.

Assuming some business manages, through luck or shrewd practice, to escape this cycle of destruction, it finds itself in the enviable position of attempting to end the cycle by destroying capitalism. The end goal of any participant in the free market is to become a monopoly and destroy the market. The end goal of competition is to destroy all competitors, end competition, and set prices not by some measure of value, but simply by what will make the monopolist the most profit. Where monopolies can't be forced into existence, oligopolies and cartels will suffice.

But Why?
I'll give you one minute to come up with ten hypothetical scenarios where a business could increase profit by behaving immorally. I'll give you an additional minute to come up with one scenario to increase profit by behaving morally. Go.

An Injection of Morality
Nowhere will you find morality in a corporate mission statement. At no point does capitalism stop and ask, "Setting profit aside, does this achieve greater human welfare?" Profit is the beginning and end of capitalism. This is, in fact, the law of the land, going back to 1919 at least when the Supreme Court held that shareholder shareholder profits must be placed above the good of the community or of the employees. By law, the best you can expect of a company is that it will be amoral. The best you can expect is that it won't be evil. As my examples showed above, that is literally the best you can expect. And you shouldn't expect it. Centuries of history should prime you to expect corporate villainy as the default. Every business will try to duck responsibilities, to force in all ways the cost of its operations onto other people, to squeeze money from the market regardless of value, to eliminate competition by any means necessary.

And that's where we come in. That's where government comes in. Our laws, our regulations, our courts, and our press5 are our defense against immoral corporate practice. They are the means by which we force morality and conscience into a system that is deliberately designed to have neither. They are the only we to prevent a monstrous tyranny, a terrible, sickening (literally) system of abuse and exploitation. It's the only way to prevent tragedies and create a modicum of justice. Even the mildest of honest history lessons will expose centuries of evil, ameliorated only by hard-won battles, in the face of well-funded and often violent opposition, instituting systems of oversight and regulation. Only government can save society from the economy.

1 - I bet his name's actually Bob.[/fatuous]

2 - I get the feeling that, as far as Dines was concerned, pornography would have been damned either way. Either they're in it for the money, which is bad because they're exploiting women for profit, or they're in it for the sex, which is bad because they're deliberately with malice aforethought exploiting women! Maybe I'm being uncharitable, though. Perhaps she'd really appreciate organic, free-trade porn, or a pornographer who enthuses "I'm just in it for the sex!"

3 - Tetraethyl lead reduces engine knock, a problem of multiple detonations in an automobile's combustion chambers. It causes damage to the engine and results in a characteristic "Ping!" noise. Interestingly, the man who discovered this, Thomas Midgely, also developed CFCs, chlorofluorocarbons, for use as a refrigerant. Fuckin' a, dude.

4 - Too make things worse, even that part of the game is rigged. The rich make money building the system, they default on their debts when the system crashes, then they gather the pieces and start over. Meanwhile the poor get poorer and are locked in a pattern of debt and ill health from which they, unlike the rich, cannot escape when the system crashes.

5 - Until the press becomes a corporate monopoly. Yay. "Liberal media" my ass.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Suffer the Little Children

Remember what Focus on the Family says: True Love means hitting her until she listens.

Found here

A few issues have come up lately that I think highlight a divide and a problem that should be getting more attention, that being the difference between the liberal and conservative view of children. As I've said before, Jon Haidt's work is incredibly useful for understanding these differences and how they lead to entirely different politics and philosophies. Here I'll just be focusing on a small part.

The liberal view of society is atomic; the basic unit of society is the individual, which individuals come together in free association to form communities and groups. The conservative view is molecular; the basic unit is the family, which form the smallest of a nested set of authoritarian hierarchies. Father is at the head of the family, then the family is part of a church with a priest at the head, then state/governor, then country/president, then Christian Commonwealth/God. Authority descends from god in heaven, to each level of the hierarchy below.

Found here, but common elsewhere.

This is important for two reasons. The first is that it grants the father with god-given authority over the lives of his family, and that any outside interference is an abrogation of god's will, Christian duty, etc. The second is that this isn't interpreted merely as authority or hierarchy, but as ownership. By any reading, the Christian bible says that children are property (sons until they're grown, women until title is transferred to her new owner, her husband). Thus interfering with parental authority is in fact abrogating the most sacred of American rights; property rights. This finds expression in a number of harmful ways, not least of which is simple and straightforward physical abuse, but also emotional abuse.

This conflict has a history going back decades, as when conservatives attacked Dr. Seuss's objecting to spanking as "permissiveness", which epithet is still popular today. Because, obviously, if you're not hitting your child then you're letting it do whatever it wants, yes? They still find outlet by attacking, for example, that most wondrously uppity of bitches, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who wrote the book It Takes a Village, and who is still attacked for trying to steal children1.

Take two examples that cropped up in my RSS feed recently. Both are from Christian fundamentalists: Ken Ham and Mark Driscoll. Ham was upset that mean atheists were attacking a poor, defenseless Christian school (notwithstanding that no one was certain which school it was until Ham put its name into the public discourse) for the most painfully ignorant and vile of indoctrination. Children learned to spew creationist talking points (behemoth=dinosaur, sharp teeth <> carnivore, "Were you there?") and atheists were appalled. Ham defended the school and said it was just another part of evil atheism's recent growth in attacks. He included a list of bullet points that PZ Myers took apart quite handily. However, Myers was mystified at number five and didn't know what to make of it (except to say "Citation needed"). Number five was "Many atheists claim that children belong to the community, not to their parents."

Meanwhile, Hemant Mehta was appalled by a recent sermon by Driscoll, which included the following gem.

One of the dumbest conversations I’ve ever had on this topic was with a pastor. He asked me to pray for his teenage daughter, who claimed to be a Christian but was dating and having sex with a non-Christian teenage boy. I asked him what specifically i should pray for — that God would give him a steady trigger finger? He told me that he had never told her not to have sex because she was an adult, and he did not want to pry into her personal life. I told the man that I would not pray that god would give his daughter wisdom, because God had already given that wisdom to her father, who did not lovingly dispense it to his daughter, and that he was a wicked man who apparently hated his daughter and was a coward unfit for the pastorate.

Emphasis mine

How clearly do you think it needs to be stated? Driscoll obviously denies the woman any agency, laying all blame for her actions at her father's feet, as if she were a dog who broke the leash rather than an actual human being. And then Driscoll thinks the only proper thing for the other pastor to do is to kill someone. My guess? The heathen who vandalized his property (the man who had sex to his daughter. Not with, because that implies she's human something can be done with).

This is all rather disgusting, and part of a larger conservative Christian worldview that posits that children aren't human, but property, and only men truly escape the status of being property and graduate to humanity.

On the other side, we have the progressive view that posits parents as limited caretakers of their children, who have a positive duty to see their children happy, healthy, and well-prepared for adulthood, and who have limited rights stemming only and necessarily from their obligations as parents. All obligation flows from parent to child and not, as a conservative might have it, the other way around.

1 - Ironically, that's exactly the sort of shit fundies pull with the Good News Club, an after-school program that indoctrinates children into fundamentalism. Their parents think "Oh, it'll be like Sunday School but with their friends" and instead they end up wetting the bed in terror thinking they're going to burn in hell for not cleaning their room. Be careful following that link; you might end up infuriated. Remember what Eusebius said, "If you're doing it for Jesus, anything goes."

Friday, May 03, 2013

Why I Stopped Following Sinfest

I found Sinfest back in college. It's a webcomic by Tatsuya Ishida, a very talented artist. At the time the comic was, well, the sort of thing an immature college guy would like. A little T&A (PG stuff), jokes about drinking or porn or weed, irreverent toward religion and so on. It was funny, not particularly deep. Still, I followed it for about a decade because it was consistently humorous and the artwork is consistently high quality.

But I've recently stopped following the comic.

If anything, Ishida's work has only improved over the years. It can often be described as Wattersonesque, with long, gorgeous strips that tell a story without any dialogue, allowing the art to stand on its own. He's a phenomenally talented artist and writer, so there are absolutely no complaints there.

Ishida has matured along with his work and, hopefully, his readers. He's started tackling more serious issues. Like feminism.

I'm a feminist. Or an ally, or whatever you want to call me. Women are fully equal to men and must be treated that way by anyone who wishes to have any claim to moral standing. Ours will not be a just society until male privilege is a thing of our barbaric past. I absolutely cannot fault Ishida for espousing feminism in his comic.

It appears Ishida came to his feminism recently, as the comic made a dramatic turn in tone and subject matter a few months back. I only wish Ishida had discovered intersectionality and sex-positive feminism, rather than the harsh second-wave feminism he seems to be espousing. Intersectionality is the understanding that there are different kinds of privilege, different ways for life to suck. For example, that wonderful moment in Scrubs when Turk and Elliot start to argue over whether it's harder to be black or a woman in medicine... and both shut up when a black woman walks by.

A black woman went to college and wanted the focus of her academic career to be black women's issues. She found she couldn't just double major in Black Studies and Women's Studies because the first was focused on black men and the second on white women (significant problems in both areas). She had to create her own field. Being a black woman isn't simply a matter of being black and being a woman; it's about being black and a woman and a black woman.

Intersectionality is about all of that. It's about recognizing that there are different ways to be disadvantaged within a cultural context, and that combining those disadvantages creates a situation that is different from either independently, and that those disadvantages change depending on the situation. Being a black man is a disadvantage in white America, but when that black man goes home, suddenly he's just a man and the field has changed.

I've seen no real evidence of an understanding or appreciation of intersectionality in Ishida's work. That's not to say he doesn't agree with it, but if he did I believe his work would have certain nuances that are lacking. I think he'd be tackling a broader range of topics, for one thing. And he wouldn't be focusing quite so much effort on porn.

In a nutshell, I'd describe sex positivity as embracing any and all sex acts and sexualities within the broad umbrella of "enthusiastic consent". Whereas the Abrahamic religions feed on human sexuality by demonizing it, sex positivity recognizes sexuality as simply another facet of human nature, and its expression as a positive and healthy act. Sex positive feminism got its start in the early 80s in response to an anti-pornography current in feminism, and it has evolved since then. The views and beliefs among sex-positive feminists are wide ranging and complex, and I'll certainly not try to summarize them here. Suffice it to say that Ishida's blanket condemnation of pornography isn't in keeping with the majority.

Take for example these two comics. Here, a woman walks in on her boyfriend watching porn and condemns him to the sofa. In the next, she complains to someone who urges her to dump him. Ignore the fact that he's Uncle Sam and she's Lady Liberty, that's largely irrelevant. Just focus for the moment on the fact that Sam's watching of porn receives blanket condemnation. That's absolutely wrong. But the last bit is right; Sam pressuring Liberty to do things she doesn't want to do? Also wrong. Remember, enthusiastic consent.

Some porn may be questionable, a lot of it certainly isn't to your taste (unless you're an onmniphile, in which case more power to ya, I guess). But condemning someone for their masturbatory habits? No. I'll try and stave off a quick criticism, here; this is just the most recent of Ishida's attacks on porn and, apparently, male sexuality, not the only one1. I agree it's more ambiguous than I'd like, but I didn't want to do an archive trawl. I feel confident using it, however, because Sam receives a blanket condemnation even before his pressuring of Liberty is attested.

So that's a big problem with Ishida's latest work. He's become something of a one-note musician and I disagree with the note. But that's not the biggest problem.

He's not bringing the funny. You can be wrong, and you can be unfunny, but if you're both I'm not going to stick around.

1 - Sex positive feminism does address issues of pornography only focusing on male fantasies, male pleasure, etc, which is as much of a problem in pornography as it is in video games and comic books. And movies. And television. And newspapers. And politics. Anyway, there actually is feminist porn out there and, no, it's not men doing housework in tight clothes. It's people fucking, and her orgasms are believable.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Mad Men, Sexism, and Irony

For those who don't know, Mad Men is a show about ... stuff. Okay, it's a character study and a demonstration about life in the sixties. Also, Jon Hamm's Wang. In addition to the fascinating life of the characters, the show adores slapping you in the face with the things that have changed in the last sixty years. Like when the Draper family has a fun afternoon at the park and, when they're done, they clean up by throwing all their trash on the ground, folding their picnic blanket, and driving away. Also, rampant racism, and sexism, and drunk driving (the legal limit was .15!)

The character of Peggy Olson is just nifty, played by the phenomenal Elisabeth Moss. You might remember her from The West Wing. Peggy's a bit different. She goes from being a naive suburban Catholic girl to, well, a wicked awesome icon of second-wave feminism. A woman working to have it all, a satisfying personal life and accepted as an equal in the workplace.

I started watching Mad Men when the local Blockbuster folded. They sold off their stock at cut-rate prices and I, like the rest of the town, descended and picked over the carcass. Among other things, I got the first season of the show and watched it with my mom. Then I got the second and third seasons. Simply phenomenal television. Mom's not nearly as into that sort of thing, so I watched the commentaries by myself and I noticed something. When discussing the male actors, the actors, writers, directors simply talk about the writing, the deeper significance, and the craft. When discussing the female actors, they talk about how beautiful they are.

In a show that likes to slap you in the face with, among other things, how sexist things used to be, they continue to embody sexism behind the scenes. Is that ironic? Or just meta?