Pornography: An imminent threat to women or not?

Catharine MacKinnon constructs her arguments against men based on a frame of patriarchy; based on violent pornography, she believes that sex–any sex, even lesbian sex–supports patriarchy. And she explicitly refuses to excuse “soft” pornography, often utterly non-violent images, often of women solo or in consensual acts with no overtones of violence except those that radical feminists read into them. For MacKinnon, sex simply is violence.

An article posted on Alternet repeats a portion of this mistake, failing to distinguish between violent and non-violent images, in an assessment debated by two psychologists, a man who sees violent and degrading images as catharsis for men who need women to desire them as strong and masculine, and a woman who understands that, “Perversity — by which I mean getting aroused by degrading or dehumanizing another person — exists. Sadism — sexual sadism — exists. People make tragic and terrible sexual mistakes. (Read On Chesil Beach if you have any doubts.)”

At core, this article fails to advance the argument. The argument–and we see this with violence as well as with pornography–has always been between those who see content as cathartic–supporting a fantasy that relieves a need to act out in reality–or as material for imitation. While considerably less extreme than MacKinnon, this article fails to settle the question. Because even when “people make tragic and terrible sexual mistakes,” we still don’t know what role pornography played in those mistakes; many people of multiple genders enjoy pornography but only a few turn violent.

The Dark Side of Academic Specialization

As I have progressed in my academic studies–I am now about half way through a Master’s program–I have become increasingly perturbed by scholarship that references a narrow circle of people and is answerable only to that narrow circle. Scholars too often lose sight of a wider world outside their reference group and the result is shoddy scholarship, irrationality that passes for critical thinking because no one within their reference group challenges it. Ironically, I now face this with a cabal of four professors who have taken over the program that I am enrolled in, professors who think it sufficient to be critical of empiricism, but fail to recognize a false dichotomy. Because the positivist-empiricist model has severe flaws, they accept post-positivism as immune from a requirement for proof and thus place post-positivism beyond critical examination. And they are enamored with a hodge-podge of theories–insights, rather–that are not nearly so compelling as they imagine. For them, context and interpretation do not exist before hermeneutics. Semiotics might fail entirely to account for manipulative interactions, such as propaganda, such as the games some lovers play, but for them, it is still a complete theory. For them, the realization that cognition precedes action is sufficient to rationalize an arcane approach to theory that redefines reality so as to insulate themselves from reality.

The program I am in is not the program I signed up for. It is no longer my scholarly “home.” Many professors I respected and admired have now left. My fellow students–on the whole, a better group than those who dominated the program when I entered–will share my alienation. Due to a timing that means I cannot enter a Ph.D. program before Fall 2009, I will be witness to much more trouble ahead.

Uprising in Pakistan

One of the things I’ve been noticing in Dawn, an e-mail newsletter I’ve been receiving from Pakistan, is how often it reports U.S. government attitudes towards the country. We certainly aren’t as worried about what Pakistan’s government thinks of us.

Pakistan joined Bush’s war on liberty shortly after the 9/11 attacks in part to avoid becoming a target itself. Attitudes amongst the people themselves, however, vary. Afghan officials suspect that Osama bin Laden “is hiding in the urban warrens of one of Pakistan’s major cities.” There is a vocal Islamist minority that seeks to impose Sharia law, and the country is subject to the occasional anti-democratic “state of emergency.”

Another such “state of emergency” was declared over the weekend, drawing back out the lawyers whose protests had previously succeeded in restoring Pakistan’s Supreme Court Chief Justice to his position after being sacked by Pakistan’s President General Pervez Musharraf. This time it wasn’t just the Chief Justice who was sacked but a great many of the country’s judges. After some brief hesitation, politicians around the world, including George Bush, have criticized the move.

The Supreme Court was due to rule on Musharraf’s eligibility to serve as president despite his military role and there has been much speculation that this was behind the state of emergency.

We have already seen one uprising in Myanmar (Burma) brutally suppressed this year. The regime in Pakistan seems set to do the same. I always wonder, how successful such a suppression can truly be.

Now what?

I remember, as a child, and it must have been because I was really young (this would have been in the late 1960s while the hippies were finding out what a real good time was) and I had a fascination with Canadian money, that I was standing in line at a Canadian bank on one of our rare trips north. I noticed that everyone–and I mean everyone–knew the exchange rate with the U.S. dollar. It was a topic of conversation amongst strangers in line.

In a way, it makes sense. Much of what Canadians buy comes from south of the border. Cross-border trade has tripled since adoption of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and while exports to the United Kingdom have been rising dramatically, as of 2006, these run a distant second, to those to the United States, which amount to something like 35 times more. The U.S. trade deficit with Canada runs over $70 billion per year. The relative value of currency has a big effect both on Canadians’ abilities to purchase goods from and to sell goods and services to the U.S. and thus a major impact on Canadians’ everyday lives.

Recently, the Canadian dollar–known there as the “loonie”–has been increasing dramatically in value, “passing 106 cents US in after-hours trading yesterday — a modern-era high.” But the U.S. dollar has been tanking. The Wall Street Journal‘s daily Foreign Exchange closing e-mail newsletter put the cost of a euro at $1.4486 U.S. Both currencies were far lower against the U.S. currency not very long ago. Saudi Arabia has pegged its currency to the dollar, and prices oil in dollars. According to a story in the Financial Times:

If Saudi Arabia de-pegs and does nothing else, it will be sitting on two rapidly depreciating assets: $20,000bn in oil reserves and $800bn in US dollar reserves. . . . If it were to diversify its currency reserves or oil pricing regime, then it is almost certain that the dollar would weaken. As a result, oil prices in dollar terms would have to jump to keep oil demand growth from Asia in check. For speculators with this mindset, oil at almost any price looks cheap, especially when the market is pricing in another dollar-weakening Fed cut this month. . . .

Inflation remains modest in comparison to Saudi Arabia’s neighbours, most of which have inflation in the vicinity of 10 per cent. Additionally, the components driving the jump in inflation – food and rents – are unlikely to be significantly affected by a shift in exchange rate regime, the former driven by global agricultural demand and the latter by the influx of foreign workers into the country.

The Federal Reserve has indeed cut “the federal funds rate by one-quarter percentage point to 4.50 percent at the end of a two-day meeting.” Adam Robinson, who wrote the Financial Times article, believes the Saudis will remain “focused on protecting a buoyant outlook for the global economy, as much to assure itself of a buyer as to preserve its political alliance with the US” and thus avoid doing anything precipitous while quietly taking advantage of its increased leverage over the U.S.

Certainly the Saudis feel little financial pressure to take action. According to the Telegraph:

Mohammed bin Dhaen al-Hamli, president of Opec, told a conference in London yesterday that record oil prices are the result of speculative investment and international political tensions. “We are of course concerned about high oil prices,” he said. But “the market is increasingly driven by forces beyond Opec’s control”. . . .

Another oil minister, Qatar’s Abdullah al-Attiyah, pleaded: “Please don’t blame us for $93 oil… The market is out of control.” He said that the oil market is “very confused”, but added that this had nothing to do with an imbalance between supply and demand, but to factors outside Opec’s control.

And as long as the dollar continues to slide precipitously, the impact of higher oil prices–mostly set in U.S. dollars–is diminished for that portion of the rest of the world that has not pegged their currencies to the U.S. dollar. The impact of all this is largely on U.S. consumers, who, due to the subprime crisis, are also less able to use the value of their homes as ATM machines. “Consumer credit grew in September at its highest rate in nearly two years, according to official data showing that the dislocation in financial markets has yet to put credit card-wielding shoppers off their stride,” according to the Financial Times, but interest rates on unsecured credit are higher and there is some speculation that “people were using their credit cards to pay their bills rather than fuel consumption. Whilst credit card delinquencies have remained relatively stable, it does seem to indicate that people are going to slowly max out their credit cards and then fall behind on payments.”

Increased U.S. consumer debt needs to be financed overseas just like government debt. As interest rates go down, dollar-denominated assets thus become less attractive, and as the value of the dollar decreases, investors face growing losses. So the speculation in some quarters that I’m now seeing on a regular basis that investors will dump the dollar makes sense. That they continue to hold these assets and continue to claim they will “act responsibly” makes less sense.

And I can only think of the dot-com bust, when it seemed like all the venture capitalists folded up their checkbooks at once, acting–I felt–irresponsibly, and precipitating a crash that even as we head into another recession, I (and I presume others) have not recovered from. For me, it has been an educational experience; I returned to school and have increased my understanding of these events. Politically, I’ve moved far to the left as I have come to understand the devastating impacts of sheer greed and irresponsibility at an international corporate (beyond the ability of any national government to effectively regulate) level.

We have unleashed monsters who act according to their own perceived interests rather than out of any wider perception of “responsibility.” It is unreasonable to believe that they will continue to suffer losses out of any apparent sense of altruism. A lesson of my life has been that if it doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t make sense, and it will end. The situation I see now does not make sense.