I note this video:

And this fact-rich reply by Cathy Reisenwitz. Excerpt:

It’s not that marriage makes people richer. Instead, wealth makes people get married. In fact, marriage actually cuts a woman’s earnings. In her book All the Single Ladies, Rebecca Traister cites sociologist Michelle Budig, who found that the average man sees a 6% wage increase after having kids. The average woman sees her wages decrease 4% for each child she has. Traister found that unmarried, childless women in cities between 22-30 earn 8% more than their male counterparts. Nationwide, the wage gap is almost nonexistent for childless, unmarried women, who earn $.96 to that average man’s dollar. Married mothers make $.76 for every dollar a man makes in the same job. Women who marry in their thirties earn an average of $18,000 more per year than women who marry in their twenties. Early marriage is associated with bigger paycheck for men.

The facts speak for themselves. But that video stuck with me.

It apostrophizes “family, vocation, community, and faith” as “tradition.” (2:41) Untraditional as I am, I would say that I have at least the first three of those. This though is contested: By conservative lights, I perhaps have at best one of them – the weird, sad, just-this-side-of-despairing vocation of being a guy who writes stuff on the Internet. If you’re being properly conservative, I have neither family, nor community, nor faith in any authentic sense at all. I may have facsimiles of each, but that’s more like an admission of guilt, isn’t it?

So am I unhappy? That’s an interesting question, but not one I find seemly to dwell on in public. (Are the people who do dwell on it in public the target audience? Are they appealed to more easily, owing to what they’ve already declared?) I have to wonder whether the video is really meant as a conservative-punk guide to being happy – or is it more like a reassuring pat on the back to the people who were already living the lifestyle it describes, and who were wondering whether this was as good as it gets? If so, Cathy’s sure being a bummer to a whole lot of people right now.

It seems clear, at least, that the prescriptions in the video would be unlikely to help me. Here is this perky, disarmingly confident young woman telling me how much happier I would be if only I had a woman to boss around. Benevolently of course. I try to imagine myself as a conventional heterosexual patriarch, and I have to laugh.

Meanwhile I look at her and I think: the Maoists were never such social engineers as this. What freakish self-assurance. What hubris, like the sent-down youth teaching farmers how to farm, except a lot of them didn’t do it voluntarily.

Occasional Notes No. 1

  • Above is my first tattoo; here is its Kantian inspiration. And Foucault’s commentary on Kant:

    It seems to me we may recognize a point of departure: the outline of what one might call the attitude of modernity…

    Thinking back on Kant’s text, I wonder whether we may not envisage modernity rather as an attitude than as a period of history. And by “attitude,” I mean a mode of relating to contemporary reality; a voluntary choice made by certain people; in the end, a way of thinking and feeling; a way, too, of acting and behaving that at one and the same time marks a relation of belonging and presents itself as a task. A bit, no doubt, like what the Greeks called an ethos. And consequently, rather than seeking to distinguish the “modern era” from the “premodern” or “postmodern,” I think it would be more useful to try to find out how the attitude of modernity, ever since its formation, has found itself struggling with attitudes of “countermodernity.”

  • I blogged at Ordinary Times. “Games Without Fairness” looks at why people go into a knowingly unfair MMO scenario, and what that might or might not say about political theory.
  • I blogged twice at my real job. First I looked at the political landscape of marijuana legalization, particularly in this November’s elections; next I considered how and to what degree legalizing all drugs is likely to help with our mass incarceration problem.
  • If anyone is still unaware, I’m on Instagram, where I scrupulously avoid anything having to do with work.

“A Robin Redbreast in a Cage”

Margaret Atwood in the Guardian:

“A Robin Redbreast in a cage, Puts all Heaven in a Rage,” wrote William Blake. “Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall,” wrote John Milton, channelling God’s musings about mankind and free will in the third book of Paradise Lost. “Freedom, high-day, high-day, freedom … !” chants Caliban in The Tempest. Mind you, he is drunk at the time, and overly optimistic: the choice he is making is not freedom, but subjection to a tyrant.

We’re always talking about it, this “freedom”. But what do we mean by it? “There is more than one kind of freedom,” Aunt Lydia lectures the captive Handmaids in my 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. “Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.” […]

Governments know our desire for safety all too well, and like to play on our fears. How often have we been told that this or that new rule or law or snooping activity on the part of officialdom is to keep us “safe”? We aren’t safe, anyway: many of us die in weather events – tornados, floods, blizzards – but governments, in those cases, limit their roles to finger-pointing, blame-dodging, expressions of sympathy or a dribble of emergency aid. Many more of us die in car accidents or from slipping in the bathtub than are likely to be done in by enemy agents, but those kinds of deaths are not easy to leverage into panic…

Minus our freedom, we may find ourselves no safer; indeed we may be double-plus unfree, having handed the keys to those who promised to be our defenders but who have become, perforce, our jailers. A prison might be defined as any place you’ve been put into against your will and can’t get out of, and where you are entirely at the mercy of the authorities, whoever they may be. Are we turning our entire society into a prison? If so, who are the inmates and who are the guards? And who decides?

…but all of that may seem a little old-fashioned. It harks back to the mid-20th century, with its brutalism, its strutting dictators, its mass military spectacles, its crude in-your-face uniforms. The citizen-control methods of modern western governments are much more low-profile: less jackboot than gumboot. Our leaders are applying the methods of agribusiness cattle-raising to us: ear-tag, barcode, number, sort, record. And cull, of course.

All done by thoughtful, reasonable, well-educated people. By people like ourselves – which makes it seem morally permissible. By people who are not Stalinists or fascists, but who are good, right-thinking progressives, who have only the humanest of faces. And besides, we are comfortable. So, so comfortable.

It can’t be that bad, can it? They’re as far from Robin Redbreast as one could imagine, but are naked mole-rats not satisfied with their lot in life? Are they not less anxious than we twitching primates? Guided appropriately by information technology – and by our unfortunate tendency to panic – might the naked mole-rat not be our future?

What would we lose if it were?

Two Deepities from Martin Heidegger

Daniel Dennett defines a deepity as “a proposition that seems both important and true – and profound – but that achieves this effect by being ambiguous. On one reading it is manifestly false, but it would be earth-shaking if it were true; on the other reading it is true but trivial.”[1] I might add that deepities are most likely to arise when we already expect the profound, and when we might be embarrassed if we did not actually find it.

Dennett cites the sentence “Love is just a word” as a short, sweet, and totally preposterous example: “Love” may be just a word, and a four-letter word at that, but what the word denotes is clearly no such thing. Or if it is, the claim is entirely unsupported.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Martin Heidegger:

Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it.[2]

On the literal reading, the statement is manifestly false. On the figurative reading – reading it to say, rather, that we all make use of technology somehow, and that we would be greatly inconvenienced without it – one is inclined to shrug. Or perhaps cheer. It is in no sense a calamity or even a profundity.

And for an encore, not one paragraph later:

We ask the question concerning technology when we ask what it is.

That’s one question we might ask. Which is trivial. But is it the question? And if so, what would that mean? That all other questions aren’t questions? That would be false.

I begin to wonder, after the first page of “The Question Concerning Technology,” whether I need to go on or not.


[1] Daniel Dennett, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. New York: W. W. Norton, 2013, p 56.

[2] Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology.”

A Parallel.

“[T]he most acute forms of the modern existential crisis are appearing today at the margin of a civilization of prosperity… One sees there rebellion, disgust, and anger manifesting not in a wretched and oppressed subproletariat but often in young people who lack nothing, even in millionaires’ children. .. Blank despair can occur right up to the finishing-post of socio-economic messianism [accompanied by] the sense that something is still missing.” – Julius Evola, Ride the Tiger (1961)

“Some ten years ago, in the midst of the rebellion on our campuses, an article appeared in the New York Times Magazine. It was written by a Yale psychologist, and it title was a quotation from one of the student leaders. That title was ‘You Don’t Know What Hell Is Like Unless You Were Raised in Scarsdale.’ Now, Scarsdale is one of our most affluent and sophisticated suburbs. It is also, so far as young people are concerned, one of the most tolerant and ‘permissive’ places in America. Nothing is too good or too expensive for the children of Scarsdale.” – Irving Kristol, The Neoconservative Persuasion (1975)

In Which I Am a Raging Feminist

I’m sorry, McDonald’s, but this is bullshit.

My husband took our daughter to a McDonald’s the other day and got her a Happy Meal.[1]

“Boy or girl?” the cashier asked.

Now, for our daughter, age five, there can only be one answer to this question: She’s a girly girly girl GIRL GIRL GIRL GIRL!!!

And don’t you ever forget it.

Our daughter has trouble wearing shorts — because they aren’t skirts. Anything that’s not a skirt or a dress simply must be for boys. Therefore it simply must be wrong for her. As in kicking and screaming and crying wrong.

The same goes for all kinds of things. Some of them have a modicum of conventional wisdom about them, while others do not. In recent weeks she’s said no, on gendered grounds, to chess, to playing drums, to being a racecar driver… and also to shirts with buttons. And to having a dog.

“Dogs are for boys,” she informed me, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. “Cats are for girls.”

We have done nothing to promote this tendency. On the contrary, we both consider ourselves feminists, and we have told her, again and again, that most things aren’t for boys or girls. They just exist, and then boys and girls can choose them, whichever way they like. We don’t condemn her for any of her choices simply on the basis of gender. We paint her nails. We let her grow her hair long. Outside of her school uniform, her play clothes are as girly as one could possibly imagine. (“School uniforms are like the girliest thing in the world!” I told her. “No they’re not!” she answered.)

“Sometimes it’s fun to be girly,” I’ve told her. And she readily agrees. But then: “It’s not fun to be a boy.”

So back to McDonald’s, where the answer to the question — “Boy or girl?” — gets you either this:


Or this:


For boys? Coding, robots, and vocabulary words. For girls? Just say these nonsense names, and worry a little more about your looks. Leave the brainy stuff for the boys. They can handle it.

My husband wasn’t having it. “Boy,” he told the cashier, knowing full well a tantrum was on the way. And it came. We’re going to make an attempt tonight to actually play with the robot toy that we got, because hope springs eternal. And then we’re going to play chess.

Say what you will about the innateness of gender, but there isn’t a good goddamn thing that’s innate about Monster High. It’s all artifice, from start to finish. So too are robots, of course, but at least robots do something. The problem is that our culture attaches various things to to gender, and then passes them along to kids who haven’t realized that these things can become choices, and that not all choices are equal, and that when one chooses often enough, a choice becomes second nature. And, finally, the line between second nature and just-plain-old-nature is for us humans always a tad bit blurred.

Is gender innate? I suspect it’s a question mal posée. Simply trying to answer it will always put you a false position: You either end up naturalizing Monster High — or arguing that the penis and the vagina are social constructs. Or some other precisely analogous nonsense. Much better questions exist, starting with a very simple one: “What does gender do?

I’m a feminist because I don’t like what gender does.


[1] Yeah, I know, junk food. I’m willing to bet that on average my daughter eats healthier than you do, so she gets a pass once in a while. And you would too, if you ate like she does.

Greedy Reductionism in the Social Sciences and Humanities

Robin Hanson writes:

I’m an economic theorist, and the sociology theorists I’ve read just don’t seem very good at thinking about what theory can or should be. If you see a social pattern your first hypothesis to explain it should not be that this is the one and only thing anyone really wants, with all else being practical constraints. Instead you might consider that it is one of many things people fundamentally want, and then try to study the tradeoffs people make to sometimes get more of this thing, and sometimes get more of other things.

I think this is true of a good deal of the social sciences outside of economics, and it’s almost always true of the humanities. Frequently someone in these fields finds something truly interesting – and then immediately they or their followers seek to boil all of human life down to it. Marxism comes to mind as the most glaring example, but I also knew quite a few in grad school who were so addicted to Foucault that they hardly thought along with any other thinkers. And this story is a great parody of the tendency, as found in structural anthropology. Daniel Dennett has dubbed it greedy reductionism:

[B.F.] Skinner proclaimed that one simple iteration of… operant conditioning… could account for all mentality, all learning, not just in pigeons but in human beings. When critics insisted that thinking and learning were much, much more complicated than that, he (and his followers)… wrote off the critics of behaviorism as dualists, mentalists, antiscientific know-nothings. This was a misperception; the critics – at least the best of them – were simply insisting that the mind was composed of a lot more… than Skinner imagined.

Skinner was a greedy reductionist, trying to explain all the design (and design power) in a single stroke. The proper response to him should have been: “Nice try – but it turns out to be much more complicated than you think!” And one should have said it without sarcasm, for Skinner’s was a nice try. It was a great idea, which inspired (or provoked) a half-century of hardheaded experimentation and model-building from which a great deal was learned. (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, p 395.)

A better way to think about ideas in the social sciences and humanities is that they are part of a toolkit – an armamentarium, to use a lovely word. We should add tools to our armamentarium with wild abandon, and we should discard them very rarely. The cost of maintaining such tools is very low. The benefits are unknown, but they may be high.

It’s certainly tempting to think of a new discovery – a mental process, a behavior pattern, or a conceptualized social practice – as the only tool you will ever need to understand all of human life. It would be amazing if we had a tool like that. It would be even more amazing if you, personally, had found it. (G.W.F. Hegel, I’m looking at you.) But it’s almost certainly not the case, and the probability that it isn’t the case grows with each new discovery.