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Archive for August, 2011

Ah, the notorious QRG. I never quite know with her which way things are going to go, but this time she’s got a point.

The idea of “privilege” in discussions about inequality, of any kind, is a prickly one, best handled delicately if at all.

In theory, it’s trying to describe a thing that does exist and is worth being aware of. There are issues which are of a direct and personal concern to some people more than others; there are things I don’t have to worry about but which are a big deal for you, and vice versa.

For instance, I’m a straight white guy, and this is not irrelevant to the way I live my life. It doesn’t generally occur to me, for instance, to be wary of who I’m honest with about my sexuality, or to worry that my capacity to do my job on any given day might be judged on how I got dressed that morning.

If I were not straight or male, then it’s more likely (though not certain) that these things would be more common concerns of mine. There are situations where other people have legitimate concerns that wouldn’t even occur to me if I were in their shoes, and this is what they’re generally talking about when pointing out that I have “privilege”.

But it’s one of those words which can be used to stifle any significantly deep discussion of a complex issue.

Say I’m talking to somebody female, about a time she felt uncomfortable – perhaps in an elevator – in which gender was a pertinent issue, and I, as a man, probably wouldn’t have had any similar problem. The correct thing for me to do here is to listen to what she’s saying with compassion and try to understand her feelings – but that’s not because I’m the privileged one in this conversation and she’s not. It’s because listening to other people and trying to understand them is a fairly basic part of interacting with other humans in general, if you have any interest in being a decent person.

Sure, it’s worth understanding the gender politics behind why I might not react the same way to the situation that this hypothetical woman did. (It’s also worth considering that individual differences might play a large role, and there might not be any conclusions to draw about gender after all.) But to put me in the role of “privileged male”, in this situation, doesn’t credit me with much capacity for empathy. I’m never likely to know what it’s like specifically to be a 5′ girl being openly leered at by a 6’3″ guy in an enclosed space, but the general concepts of fear, discomfort, and helplessness are not unfamiliar to me.

In fact, I might be more familiar with them than the label “privileged” can admit. Maybe I’ve got serious financial problems, and am struggling to keep up with the bills and not get thrown out of my one-bed studio flat, while my conversational partner is very comfortably off. I might not feel very privileged then, even if my own areas of disadvantage don’t seem immediately relevant to the matter at hand.

But maybe I do have problems or insecurities which relate to gender, or sexuality, or race, even though I’m a hetero white male. Again, assuming that I’m “privileged” implies closing off that whole avenue of possibility. Maybe I get called a fag because I’m not as interested in sports as the other boys at school. Maybe nobody takes me seriously when I complain that my boss is trying to bully me into having sex with her, because they say I should consider myself lucky.

In short, maybe I’m a straight white male with legitimate problems that don’t deserve to be dismissed just because my lot are assumed to be the privileged kind. There’s a fair few straight white males around, and everything’s not always rosy for us. It’s true that some of us can get whiny at times, and don’t always seem to care about the problems of those who generally are at a disadvantage to us, and can be distinctly insensitive about steamrolling other people’s problems with our own. I’m not saying that my problems are necessarily more important, or even as important, as those of someone I’m having this conversation with, like the totally hypothetical elevator woman from earlier.

But if I’m talking about a legitimate problem I’ve faced, it’d be nice if you tried to listen to what I’m saying with some compassion, and did your best to understand my feelings. You can do this without giving up the right to make legitimate complaints of your own.

And actually, as a post-script, there’s one part of the post that QRG quoted and highlighted which has become more niggling the more I’ve thought about it:

Being told you have privilege, or that you’re privileged, isn’t an insult. It’s a reminder!

If the “privilege” were reversed, and this were a man telling a woman, or a white guy telling a black guy, that something “wasn’t an insult” which has been taken as such, then I suspect the people fond of identifying and labelling privilege would find this an extreme case of privilege in action.

“What? I said you had nice tits! It’s not an insult! You should be flattered! Why are you so upset?”

“Pointing out that your racial background makes you statistically more likely to be involved in gang violence and drug dealing isn’t an insult. It’s a reminder! I just think you should be aware of what this means for you and the people around you.”

Maybe if other people find it insulting when you say things about them, you should try to find something else to say.

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It’s another anarchistastic day here at Cubik’s Rube.

Here’s an excerpt of a book by a guy called Larken Rose, in which he makes some interesting points about government as a religious belief. Here’s a video in which he argues against the US Constitution.

He makes a case worth considering. Specifically, he sets out to highlight the inherent ridiculousness and injustice of the bit of the Constitution which says that “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes“, by comparing it to a document he’s drawn up himself declaring his right to come and take your stuff.

It’s a striking analogy, but what’s frustrating is quite how much stock he seems to place in it. It’s very interesting to look at what his own manufactured documentation has in common with the US constitution. It’s less interesting to just insist “look, they’re exactly the same” and not examine why people might tend to think that one has more validity than the other.

The idea that some guy you don’t know can give himself permission to rob your house and take your stuff, and justify it with some fancy fonts and a few irrelevant signatures, is obviously ludicrous. That’s his whole point. But most people will be able to list what seem, at least superficially, like some pretty compelling reasons why it’s not the same when the government does it. People justify taxation by pointing to all the public services it’s used to pay for, for example.

You might not think any of these justifications hold water; I guess an anarchist would assert that there’s nothing of importance currently done by the government which couldn’t be achieved instead through other, cooperative, voluntary means. But if you have a rebuttal to what most people would consider the obvious place to take the argument next, then let’s focus on that. It might be more useful than simply marvelling at how almost every single person on the planet must be some kind of mindless sheep to believe something so idiotic.

Give the statists a little credit, is my point.

While I’m at it, let’s look at the opposite end of the spectrum of attempted anarchist proselytising.

In my sporadic and episodic reading of An Anarchist FAQ, I’ve waded through a fair few pages of talk about “neo-classicism” and “post-Keynesian economics” and “marginal productivity theory” and the like. Now, I’m certainly glad that someone’s analysing these things from an informed economic view, but for most people starting to feel disillusioned by capitalism, government, or the world in general, these seem like secondary and rather esoteric concerns.

The main, burning question about anarchism for me, which I suspect would be shared by a lot of the uninitiated, and for which I’m still yet to reach an answer, would be something like: “You know, the government does, like, quite a lot of shit, and so, like, if there was no government, then, like, how would any of this shit get done?”

Be honest: something like that is what goes through your mind whenever I start blathering on about this stuff again as if it were remotely practical, right?

If anarchists actually have a coherent plan in response to this obvious line of questioning, I think they should really make that more of a front-line argument. Most people won’t really even consider anarchy as a plausible option, no matter how many texts you publish demonstrating capitalism to be totally fucked up in principle. And if you want to insist that’s because we’ve been brainwashed by the manipulative oligarchs into thinking that things have to be this way, then fine – just be aware that it doesn’t actually change anything, no matter how many times you point that out to us.

Okay? Good. Well, off you go. Back to smashing the system.

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So, you know how Occam’s Razor says that, all other things being equal, you should place more trust in the simpler explanation to some unknown problem?

Atheists often use this to highlight the untenability of the God hypothesis. The origins of God are at least as mysterious and enigmatic as those of the Universe, and his very existence is a massive, unfounded assumption which can just as easily be done away with.

Some theists, however, try to claim that “God did it” is itself the most parsimonious explanation for everything, and therefore the preferred explanation. But just because it can be enunciated in fewer syllables that any grand unifying theory of physics, doesn’t make it simpler in any important sense.

It seems like there’s a corresponding misunderstanding in politics, in this discussion of a group of political protestors opposing the government’s decision “to cut social benefits and slash public payrolls”. The media described these people getting angry at government cuts as “anarchists”.

David Boaz notes an obvious objection:

“Odd anarchists,” I harrumphed, who “object to the state reducing its size, scope, and power.”

His point might seem obvious on the face of it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the media was being overly casual here in throwing the label around, as it often seems to in the case of any kinds of protests. But I would suggest that there’s a similar misunderstanding going on here as in the case of the “God did it” theists.

A simple explanation for the universe isn’t just a matter of cramming it into as short a sentence as possible, and anarchism isn’t always in favour of stripping away any aspect of government at any given moment.

More than just being opposed to government, anarchists are opposed to authority in all forms, and in particular the oppression of the poor and disenfranchised by the rich and powerful. If the government is going to be there, taxing its citizens and upholding capitalism and the rule of law, then cutting back on the social programs that benefit the poor is not necessarily a step toward decreasing government power and levelling class inequality. It may even make things worse.

Yes, in an ideal system, anarchists would not want these state welfare programmes to exist, because they wouldn’t want there to be a state. But given the system that continues to impose itself, and the lack of other options available to the working classes who are still being taxed and having their state provisions taking away, I don’t think most anarchists would herald these kinds of austerity measures as an important step toward equality. (Or, if they do, I’m decidedly less likely to join them in their political philosophy anytime soon.)

A shorter sentence doesn’t necessarily make for a more parsimonious explanation, and the government doing less to help people doesn’t always mean that the imposition of authority is any less.

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Yes, what Holly said. Relationships Ed.

She’s talked in previous posts about how relationships can often hold more potential pitfalls for young people than sex itself. Understanding your feelings and those of other people is certainly tied in with the physical safety side of sex ed, and I’ve tended to support them both under the same general educational heading. But maybe it deserves a separate category of its own.

I’m not sure how far it would go. I don’t think it’s entirely the place of schools to be drilling their charges with a fixed schedule of Interacting With Other Humans 101. I wouldn’t trust them with that any more than I’d trust most stupid kids to figure things out on their own eventually. But if it was done well, and not too rigid, and focused on the right things, and had enough flexibility to allow for an inevitable variation of opinions, then some sort of class like this might do a lot to combat the general screwed-up-ness of people.

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And while we’re talking about taxes and whatnot, there’s an excellent post at Skeptic Money that looks at the popular claim that half of Americans “don’t pay taxes”.

That’s how Rick Warren put it in a tweet recently, expressing his annoyance that so many of his countryfolk have so little income that the law currently doesn’t consider it justified to claim any tax from them whatsoever. It’s the poor who should contribute more.

Of course, this is complete bullshit.

Significantly less bullshit is the original claim, before it got mangled and distorted into an ideology that someone found more comfortable: nearly half of American households pay no income tax.

That’s an approximation of the Tax Policy Center’s findings a couple of years ago, and although it’s a very different thing from what Rick Warren said, it still sounds rather shocking at first. It seems to imply that a lot of people are getting away with making no significant financial contribution to the welfare of the country as a whole, which seems a bit much, given that many of these people are surely making a liveable wage.

But that only seems like a problem until you consider the other kinds of tax people pay, beyond the federal income tax.

America’s got a lot of different kinds of taxes.

Sales tax means that buying goods – your average day-to-day stuff – often requires you to throw money the government’s way. Gasoline tax means you’re getting taxed by the government every time you fill up your car. Property tax hits homeowners and renters alike. And even people who don’t pay federal income tax get lumped with something called a FICA tax, which pays for things like Social Security.

Skeptic Money uses a hypothetical example and some estimated numbers, to show just how wrong it is to describe the poorest half of Americans as paying “no tax”, and how misleading it is to declare that they pay “no income tax” without providing any context. When all the above deductions are considered, as the blog post describes: “So… no income tax; just 30% of their income paid in taxes.”

This is what billionaire Warren Buffett is talking about when he says that his last tax bill, as a percentage of his taxable income, was lower than that of anyone else working in his office.

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You may recall that yesterday I explained to some five-year-olds how the economy works.

Today, the over-simplified political discourse continues.

The opposition to raising taxes on the extremely wealthy generally comes down the value of their status as “job creators”. People and corporations with incomes well into the millions or billions of dollars provide employment for numerous workers across the country, the argument goes, and raising their taxes will cripple their ability to stimulate the economy in this vital way.

The implicit claim, then, is that making sure super-rich people don’t pay too much tax is good for everyone. The country as a whole benefits from their existence, and it will actually hurt more than just the fat cats at the top if you stifle their growth by raising their taxes.

Whether this is true in any given situation depends on too many factors for me to competently consider. But here’s one thought that should maybe temper our concern for the billionaires and all the good they do us:

With a debt of, as I keep hearing, around $14,000,000,000,000 to be paid off, some decisions may come down to either adding to the burden of the mega-rich – which, by the reasoning mentioned earlier, could possibly have negative repercussions for even the most socially disadvantaged Americans down the line – or simply placing the burden directly on those most socially disadvantaged by cutting welfare programs and the like.

This isn’t to say there are no savings to be made in the realm of social welfare spending. But telling us that not raising income tax on billionaires is the best thing for society as a whole is going to ring hollow when you have to take away people’s food stamps to do it.

The people who’d love the chance to work a 40-hour week at minimum wage to stop their family going hungry are society. For all that politicians claim to want what’s best for them, I worry about how they’re actually doing.

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So, Reason magazine. Any thoughts?

I’ve been following their online presence for a while. For some reason, I had the preconception that they were mostly focused on religion, secularism, and rationality, but I may have been thinking of someone else. Reason predominantly cover politics, and they’re an interesting crowd. Even when I’m not entirely on board with their message, disagreeing with them tends to feel more worthwhile than it does with a lot of other commentators, who are often just boringly wrong.

Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of Reason.com who may or may not be played by Bill Hader, was recently on Bill Maher’s talk show:

I take issue with a number of things he said, but in a way that’s more fun to unravel than when someone like Rush Limbaugh says something obviously stupid and cruel.

Among the generally liberal panel on liberal Bill Maher’s liberal show, Nick seems to be kind of on his own in suggesting that America’s economic problems should be primarily solved through spending cuts. Here’s something he said that was received with particular agitation:

We don’t have a revenue problem; we have a spending problem.

I’m not so interested in whether this statement instantly proves Nick Gillespie to be a Republican, as Bill Maher reckons it does. But I do think it misstates the problem.

Actually, I suppose it’s possible that the problem only lies in one area, but the situation of “being in debt” depends on the relationship between two factors: how much money you acquire, and how much money you spend. (Stop me if the Micawber-esque economics is getting too technical.) Given only that the US is spending more money than it makes, there are clearly two methods available for getting out of the red:

  1. Increase the amount of money made (while avoiding a corresponding increase in money spent),
  2. Decrease the amount of money spent (while avoiding a corresponding decrease in money made).

America doesn’t just have a spending problem. It has a problem with the money, and the money both comes and goes.

If we’re spending money in ways that aren’t worth the trouble of raising the funds, we should cut that spending. But if we’re spending money on things important enough that raising more funds (which generally seems to mean taxes) is the less harmful option, we should do that.

Given just how many $1,000,000,000,000s are being talked about, it seems unlikely that enough spending can be cut to clear the debt, without increasing revenues at all. Nick Gillespie does actually have some suggestions that would make this a more practical idea, such as ending America’s engagement in the wars with Iraq, Afghanistan, and Drugs (the scariest foreign land of all), but none of this seems to be remotely on the table for any of the country’s actual politicians, even the purportedly “small government” supporters on the right.

So it doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable, given this massive amount of money that’s already been spent which needs to actually be paid, to wonder whether the super-duper rich folks could be chipping in any more than they are now. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for supporting enterprise. I don’t want to punish people for working hard and becoming wealthy. I’m not saying we go crazy with this.

But I’m pretty sure the US economy was coping with income tax rates being what they were in the 1990s, before the Bush tax cuts came into play in 2001 and 2003. Those cuts were set to expire in 2010, but were extended. Business wasn’t being crippled and major corporations weren’t moving daily overseas to more liberal climes. And, presumably, tax revenues were significantly higher than they are now. So, maybe we could look at some things going back to how they were before?

I’m not saying that’s definitely the way to go. Someone who actually understands economics would surely see many ramifications to something like this which would never occur to me. But shouldn’t it at least be on the table? Or am I a socialist line-toeing democrat for even bringing it up?

So, that was a bit of a ramble which rather got caught up on one particular point made during the above clip. A lot of interesting stuff comes out in the rest of it, though, so have a look if you’ve got time.

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SCIENCE! It’s not just for white-coated nerds.

In particular, there was a recent experiment carried out on the Unequally Yoked blog, with a certain degree of scientific rigour, referred to as an Ideological Turing Test.

In this case, instead of trying to figure out whether they were conversing with a human or a computer program, people were invited to guess whether a set of answers to religious questions were given by an atheist or a Christian.

One set of answers came either from atheists, or from Christians giving as convincingly atheish answers as they could come up with. In another round, it went the other way, with Christians and atheists competing to seem more believably godly.

Both sets of results are now in. And very prettily graphed they are, too.

There’s probably not a tremendous amount to take away from it overall, but it’s certainly notable that the three most convincing “atheists” interviewed here were actually Christians. It seems likely that, at least in this self-selected group, the misunderstandings and straw-mannery characteristic of some religious discussions clearly aren’t as universal a factor as we might like to think. I’ve talked to some Christians who still misrepresent what I believe, no matter how many times I explain it. But sometimes people on both sides really do get the point the other lot are making, and just don’t buy it.

Adam at Daylight Atheism has some thoughts on why this might be the case.

(h/t Friendly Atheist)

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You can add this to the list of things which substantially boost my sympathies toward anarchism, even while I don’t understand the politics well enough to full subscribe to them.

The City Of Westminster Counter Terrorist Focus Desk put out a recent notification containing this important advice on public safety:

Anarchism is a political philosophy which considers the state undesirable, unnecessary, and harmful, and instead promotes a stateless society, or anarchy. Any information relating to anarchists should be reported to your local Police.

Yeah, because that’s definitely relevant to terrorism and won’t waste the police’s time at all. It’s not like you’d expect them to be busy focusing on people who are actually breaking the law in some way, right? Maybe arresting some people who are actually breaking things and causing genuine trouble, who keep getting called anarchists in the media but who probably couldn’t explain the political philosophy behind it without doing more than mumble something about John Lydon?

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The US government’s throwing money at religious symbolism again, and the American Atheists have launched a lawsuit against it.

For once, though, I’m not really on the atheists’ side.

In the rubble left by the destruction of the twin towers by terrorist-hijacked planes on 9/11, a couple of steel beams were found, maybe 15 feet high or so, which had been part of the building, and which roughly formed the shape of a cross. This symbol of Christianity, found at a time when many of that faith were suffering and terrified and in need of something to galvanise their shattered spirits, has become profoundly meaningful to some people.

Let’s not get into the issue of a loving God leaving this cross as a sign of hope for those New Yorkers who’d just seen Him let thousands of their friends and relatives be slaughtered. You’re too smart to need that spelled out for you.

What’s pertinent is the suggested inclusion of this “9/11 cross” in the 9/11 Memorial Museum, which is being planned to commemorate the lives lost in the attacks.

American Atheists think this is an unconstitutional endorsement of one specific religion by the government.

I’m not convinced. I think it’s just a museum piece going on display.

The museum director, on the memorial’s website, says:

The Museum will be about each of us, about what it means to be a human being, and what it means to live in a complex, global community at the start of the 21st century.

And a big part of that meaning for many people, and of their place in the community, is their religion. To memorialise the events of 9/11 without mentioning both the religious fanaticism that motivated the attacks, and the role that religion played in the way people faced the aftermath, would be to omit a crucial part of the story.

It’s a museum. It’s meant to document historical things. And this cross was a real thing, which really came to mean something important to a number of people, among many other artefacts which will be exhibited there.

The argument’s also been made that a lawsuit like this is terrible PR for atheists in general. I’m not sure where I stand on that, but given how much atheists are already hated by much of the American public, and how rarely many Americans are probably even prompted to think about atheists at all except when they’re hearing some news story about how we’re trying to ban all crosses or make Korans part of all school dinners or some such, it’s a non-trivial point to consider. Maybe even if we’re right, we should just leave this one, because we’re inevitably going to sound like hope-crushing buzzkills and nobody’s going to be on our side.

On the other hand, maybe we should just fight for what’s right and not worry about people disapproving of us every time we open our mouths. Because we’re never going to get anything done if we insist on trying to mollify the hate for atheists that’s already out there by stepping lightly and not doing anything provocative.

That link illustrates just a few of the violent death threats made against atheists on Fox News’s Facebook page after this story was reported. Hundreds of Christians were very publicly suggesting or offering to murder people who think differently from them, as the most simple and obvious solution to the problem that some people think differently from them.

Actually my favourite comment from that list wasn’t just directed at atheists:

I love Jesus, and the cross and if you dont, I hope someone rapes you!

Two people “liked” that one.

This isn’t a reason to back down and not make a fuss. People like that aren’t going to hate any less if they realise that hating works. We absolutely need to keep fighting, but it needs to be a worthwhile fight. And keeping this steel cross from being presented as a significant part of American history doesn’t seem worth it to me.

(h/t PZ, and Stef McGraw at Friendly Atheist)

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