The Great Feminist Smackdown: Rape Allegations against Julian Assange

I want to begin by quoting in full a letter to the Guardian, written by Katrin Axelsson of Women Against Rape:

Many women in both Sweden and Britain will wonder at the unusual zeal with which Julian Assange is being pursued for rape allegations (Report, 8 December). Women in Sweden don’t fare better than we do in Britain when it comes to rape. Though Sweden has the highest per capita number of reported rapes in Europe and these have quadrupled in the last 20 years, conviction rates have decreased. On 23 April 2010 Carina Hägg and Nalin Pekgul (respectively MP and chairwoman of Social Democratic Women in Sweden) wrote in the Göteborgs-Posten that “up to 90% of all reported rapes never get to court. In 2006 six people were convicted of rape though almost 4,000 people were reported”. They endorsed Amnesty International’s call for an independent inquiry to examine the rape cases that had been closed and the quality of the original investigations.

Assange, who it seems has no criminal convictions, was refused bail in England despite sureties of more than £120,000. Yet bail following rape allegations is routine. For two years we have been supporting a woman who suffered rape and domestic violence from a man previously convicted after attempting to murder an ex-partner and her children – he was granted bail while police investigated.

There is a long tradition of the use of rape and sexual assault for political agendas that have nothing to do with women’s safety. In the south of the US, the lynching of black men was often justified on grounds that they had raped or even looked at a white woman. Women don’t take kindly to our demand for safety being misused, while rape continues to be neglected at best or protected at worst.

Katrin Axelsson

Women Against Rape1

Since Axelsson wrote that letter, Swedish police documents have leaked—again to the Guardian and there has been a highly emotional debate about the allegations—still not made into actual charges—against Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. Michael Moore, who in a defense of Assange cited the above letter and an Amnesty International report on rape enforcement in Nordic countries,2 has been attacked vociferously for slandering Assange’s accusers despite having written only of them two things, first that he doesn’t “pretend to know what happened between Mr. Assange and the two women complainants (all I know is what I’ve heard in the media, so I’m as confused as the next person)”3 and:

For those of you who think it’s wrong to support Julian Assange because of the sexual assault allegations he’s being held for, all I ask is that you not be naive about how the government works when it decides to go after its prey. Please — never, ever believe the “official story.” And regardless of Assange’s guilt or innocence (see the strange nature of the allegations here), this man has the right to have bail posted and to defend himself.4

Moore, along with a lot of other people, has noticed the elephant in the room, namely an infuriated United States government that is determined to prosecute Assange and seems to be torturing Bradley Manning—a young Army private who allegedly leaked the documents to WikiLeaks—in order to coerce Manning into testifying against Assange.5 6 Yet somehow, according to many on Twitter7 and elsewhere, that translates into an attack on Assange’s accusers.

That’s not to say these women have nothing to fear. A Counterpunch story is much less restrained, mocking the accusations and naming both of Assange’s accusers.8 I’d go into hiding, too.

More interesting yesterday was a debate on Democracy Now! between Jaclyn Friedman, co-author of Yes means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World without Rape9 and Naomi Wolf.10 Both of these women’s feminist credentials are in order. But according to Mary Elizabeth Williams, Wolf is now “bananas”:

It’s not that the rush to arrest WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on “one count of unlawful coercion, two counts of sexual molestation and one count of rape” wasn’t mighty questionable. After all, it’s pretty funny how often individuals accused of sex offenses gallivant around the globe with relative impunity — until they start publishing classified documents. And since the allegations first arose back in August, there have been several conflicting accounts, massive mishandlings and plenty of speculation over whether this is a case of abuse or just of a man who doesn’t like to wear condoms.

But just because a story smells a little off, that doesn’t make it completely rotten. It shouldn’t anyway — unless you’re Wolf, who, in a snippy open letter to Interpol this week, decided Assange had been a victim of “the dating police,” because he’d been “accused of having consensual sex with two women.” Actually, among other things, one of the alleged victims accused him of having decidedly nonconsensual sex with her while she was asleep, and the other has accused him of “using his body weight to hold [her] down in a sexual manner.”11

By my standards, and if these allegations are true, Assange was quite a jerk. But the trouble I’m seeing comes in two different visions of consent. One casts women in a traditional gender role as sexual gatekeepers. While all feminists insist that “no means no,” this view understands ambiguity to be just that. It effectively casts women as passive receivers of men’s advances and allows them to not take the initiative in sexual or in romantic matters. It allows women to mean yes without seeming aggressive or “forward.”

Wolf seemed to me to fare better in the debate on Democracy Now!, but in her book, Friedman articulated a vision where women could take the initiative with an understanding that sex would only occur when all concerned explicitly said yes.

In her match-up with Wolf, Friedman argued from a standpoint that the vision she advocated in her book was already in effect. Wolf never even acknowledged this but relied on the more traditional understanding.

To be frank, I would prefer that Friedman’s vision were in force and widely understood and accepted. It would eliminate a lot of misunderstandings and I agree with Friedman that it would put men and women on a more equal footing. But I also see how some people—of both genders—who indulge in various games of dominance and submission, perhaps without labeling it as such and practicing the forms of consent that such communities demand, might see it as limiting. And it is quite clear to me that the traditional view remains in effect across the wider portion of our culture.

And judging from the Amnesty International report, while Sweden has made considerable advances in promoting women’s rights in the public sphere, these advances do not extend within the home or to police investigations of rape allegations. That’s why Axelsson’s and Moore’s writings on the allegations against Assange carry so much force.

Secession hysteria

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. Please leave any comments there.

Writing for Salon, Glenn W. LaFantasie takes on the issue of secession at length. Length, however, does not qualify as coherence.

It does not take deep insight to observe that the polarization in this country has reached a fever pitch. It does not take deep insight to recognize that many of, for example, Alabama’s fundamentalist and evangelical Christians are inalterable in their view that anyone with other than a heterosexual orientation is doomed to an afterlife of fire and brimstone. Nor does it require deep insight to recognize that many fundamentalists will never accept the notion of separation of Church and State in the way the rest of us do or the simple fact that teenagers need something besides abstinence-only education to reduce high teen pregnancy rates. It does not take deep insight to recognize that had John McCain won the presidency in 2008, “birthers” would not be questioning his right to serve—even though McCain was born in what is now Panamanian territory, which like Hawaii, only became part of the United States as part of an exercise in manifest destiny. And it does not take deep insight to see there is little common ground between those who insist that the U.S. must be in Afghanistan to protect our “way of life” and those who see our support of Israel as part of the problem.

We on the left, with our embrace of multiculturalism and of diversity, must also recognize that in the United States, we are living with people who would never allow us the freedom we allow them. And we must also recognize that our mainstream politicians are united in accommodating conservatives who believe that it must be their way or the highway while dismissing progressive views and either dismissing our votes entirely or taking them for granted.

As presently constructed, the United States offers only an intensifying polarization between what is seen on one side as a tyranny of socialism (so called only because a Democrat does it rather than a Republican) and on the other as a tyranny of fundamentalism and warmongering. It is possible to trace this polarization to the Industrial Revolution and the first attempts to introduce sex education in public schools—it isn’t going away and I fear that it can only lead to physical violence on a mass scale.

If I’m right, then people on the left have as great an interest in secession as do people on the right. This logic is what led me to acquire the domain some years ago. And indeed, LaFantasie seems utterly unaware of the Second Vermont Republic movement.

A break-up of the U.S. would not be without problems. Undoubtedly, the conservative country or countries that emerge from a break-up will pursue more environmentally destructive policies and they will be crueler to people in subaltern categories—the poor, people of color, and anyone else who isn’t white, well off, and male. But Clinton’s welfare reform illustrates that our attempts to make them do otherwise are counterproductive. Preservation of the United States has led not to world peace but to a world hegemon and we are spending money badly needed at home to fight wars in places where we are increasingly despised to maintain that hegemony.

I, for one, simply want to live in a country without war, in a country that respects all the rights of all its citizens, that is not hysterical about controlling people through sexual repression, that is not adamant about toughening a system of criminal injustice that only makes things worse, and that seeks to live in harmony with the earth. I don’t think that’s unreasonable. But I know that my quest for harmony cannot be fulfilled by imposing my values upon others.

So LaFantasie’s argument is one I must tackle head on. He writes:

If by defeating the Confederacy during the Civil War, the Union did not prove conclusively that secession could not be legally sustained, the point was made emphatically clear in the 1869 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Texas v. White. In the majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase (a Republican appointed by Lincoln), the court ruled that under the Articles of Confederation, adopted by the states during the American Revolution, “the Union was solemnly declared to ‘be perpetual.’ And when these Articles were found to be inadequate to the exigencies of the country, the Constitution was ordained ‘to form a more perfect Union.’ It is difficult to convey the idea of indissoluble unity more clearly than by these words. What can be indissoluble if a perpetual Union, made more perfect, is not?”

He also denies that the tenth amendment, which reserves “powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, . . . to the States respectively, or to the people,” allows secession, absurdly claiming that “if one is to be a consistent Jeffersonian in these matters, then a strict construction of the Tenth Amendment does not allow for any reading between the lines.” I was unaware that being a “consistent Jeffersonian” was at issue here. And it seems to me that both the ninth—allowing unenumerated rights—and tenth amendments are all about “reading between the lines,” specifically covering what the authors of the Constitution failed or could not possibly be expected to anticipate. LaFantasie’s thinking here is simply fantasy.

LaFantasie further appeals to the Articles of Confederation which were replaced with a far more centralist Constitution but is slow to consider the opening language of the Declaration of Independence:

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Surely, if we can appeal to the Articles of Confederation, we can appeal to the founding language of the nation. Of this, LaFantasie writes, “The Founders fully understood that they were revolutionaries. They also famously grasped the reality that if their revolution failed, they would all be hanged.” In other words, that in the revolution against Britain as in the South’s uprising against the North, might makes right—not exactly what I would call a progressive argument.

Finally, in equating secession with treason, LaFantasie invokes a false dichotomy. Towards the end of his screed, he writes:

Nor does the right of revolution — enshrined in the words of the Declaration of Independence — allow you to foment rebellion without paying the consequences. You have every right to rise up in revolution. But when you do so, you become an enemy of the United States. There is no gray area, no wiggle room, that allows you to claim that because the Constitution does not mention secession, it therefore must be legal, and, oh, by the way, beginning on Tuesday Texas will henceforth be an independent republic. If Texas desires to leave the Union, then the president and Congress are duty-bound to prevent it from doing so.

This logic is nothing short of George W. Bush’s language in the wake of the 9/11 attacks that countries around the world are either with us or against us in an ill-defined “war on terror.” In his construction, Bush also allowed for “no gray area, no wiggle room.” LaFantasie sees any federal acquiescence to a secession movement—allowing parts of the country to secede peacefully—not merely as a betrayal of duty but as a slippery slope leading to the destruction of the entire Union. And his claim that “anarchy” would be the result reveals only that he does not know what anarchism is.

Hoping for Reality, for a Change

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. Please leave any comments there.

One might suppose that a “shellacking” in the November elections might compel Barack Obama to face up to reality. And I suppose in response, one would have to ask, which reality?

It’s certainly not the reality of a frightened and angry electorate. Whether you choose a hard line on the budget deficit or a Keynesian approach to the U.S. economic depression, the extension of Bush tax cuts—which predominantly benefited the rich—should be enough to make any sane—whatever that means—person cry.

The rich are not lacking for money. If giving them more is expected to reduce unemployment, one must ask just what big corporations are already doing with nearly $2 trillion in cash reserves and what has changed for small businesses that tax cuts that have already been in effect for years will suddenly spur hiring? Detractors call this strategy “pushing on a wet noodle.”

And the reality that Obama should face up to apparently doesn’t include the ongoing fiasco—though that’s far too trite a word when people are being killed—in Afghanistan. Whatever one might think of the discrepancy between the National Intelligence Estimates and the National Security Council’s claim of progress, the Washington Post‘s Eugene Robinson points out that the United States’ putative allies in the region, Afghanistan and Pakistan, are both undermining NATO efforts. His assessment?

The good news is that President Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan is “on track.” The bad news is that the track runs in a circle.

And the reality that Obama should face up to apparently doesn’t include climate change. According to Laura Carlsen at the America’s Program,

Todd Stern, U.S. representative to the [Cancun] talks, expressed his pleasure at the agreement, saying, “This result was fundamentally consistent with U.S. objectives.” The U.S. came in with a clear agenda to block any mandatory emissions controls. Responsibilities of historical polluters to pay up on the “climate debt” were successfully relegated to unspecified funds, which will likely include private market offset mechanisms and also could be offered as loans rather than grants. U.S. objectives were amply achieved in Cancun, placing the entire planet in serious jeopardy.

In other news, the U.S. government’s fury at the WikiLeaks releases means that suspected leaker Bradley Manning is being held in conditions that amount to torture in the hope that he will agree to testify against Julian Assange. As Glenn Greenwald notes, neither man has yet been convicted of any crime; Assange has yet to be charged.

Though all this sure sounds like it, this is not the George W. Bush administration. It is the Obama administration. It is a creature of the mainstream of the Democratic Party, the same mainstream of the same party that collaborated in all the abuses of the Bush administration. Everyone who voted for “hope” and for “change” was hoodwinked.

And they know it. As recently as a month ago, I was still seeing plenty of Obama bumper stickers as I drove around Sebastopol. I’m seeing a lot fewer now. Obama has embarrassed and shamed everyone who voted for him.

Post-modernism that isn’t. But it is. But it isn’t.

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. Please leave any comments there.

I’m gradually making my way through Walter Truett Anderson, The Future of the Self: Exploring the Post-Identity Society (New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1997). Essentially, his argument takes the form of trying to conflate enough ideas about identity, social roles, the complexity of our bodies, and even personality, with self to suggest that the most common notions of self are inadequate. It’s the kind of argument that appeals for a judgment call. If you think this conflation is sufficiently compelling, you’ll accept his ideas about the self. I don’t, but that’s not my point with this posting.

I’m remembering something called the ecological fallacy. This actually has nothing to do with environmentalism or our relationship with the earth or even how we fit into systems. Basically, if you have a finding about individuals, and you apply that finding to groups, or vice versa, you have committed an ecological fallacy. The way this might most obviously take shape is to observe that within a certain population the average couple has 2.3 kids; with an ecological fallacy, you might say that a particular couple is a member of that population, therefore they will have 2.3 kids—not zero kids or one kid or two kids or three kids or maybe even more, but exactly 2.3 kids. We don’t usually have fractions of kids and in fact you’ll find quite a range of variation in the data that leads to the average of 2.3 kids, so this is an obviously absurd statement. But it reflects an inappropriate generalization that researchers have to watch out for, which is why (I hope) every introduction to research methods class warns about it.

I recently completed a term paper for one of my classes in what will hopefully be my last semester in the Transformative Studies program. This was an interesting class, entitled Goodness, Evil, and Politics. But for a topic that is obviously about groups of people, I read three books by psychologists. Anderson is yet another psychologist. And in fact, I’ve been reading a lot of psychologists.

Psychology is a social science but its unit of analysis is individuals. Most other social sciences have groups of people as their unit of analysis. Yet in Transformative Studies, we are generalizing from a study of individuals to claims about groups of people. Hence my recollection of the ecological fallacy.

To be fair, I’ve actually found some legitimate use of this, like in that term paper, where I draw from the WikiLeaks revelations a need not only for the government but the people to confront a dark side that we generally don’t acknowledge.

But at some point, Anderson starts writing about morality as an organizing process. The best way I can be careful about this is to let him speak for himself:

In saying that we are moral animals I don’t mean that we are naturally disposed to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, kind, or any of the other virtues on the Boy Scout list. We obviously have strong abilities in the opposite direction on all of the above counts. I mean that we moralize. We operate by principles of right and wrong, and those principles are part of our continuing effort to make sense of the world, to organize the raw material of experience—the “blooming, buzzing confusion” that William James famously described—into some kind of coherence. (p. 163)

This operation of organizing our experience—on moral terms of good and evil—is what he’s referring to as an organizing process.

Because this organizing process involves such complexity, and because it can be hard work, people have historically made it easier by participating in the lie of self. They pretend to be less complex than they are, less changeable, less multidimensional. (p. 164)

Anderson’s on thin ice here. He tries to skate around it by writing that “people have historically” done this. Within the rules of classic Aristotelian logic, he might only be referring to a single individual, but the way most people will interpret this phrasing is that many of us do this. And he might be right. But it also might be a hasty generalization.

Here’s the catch. When I write about generalization or about ecological fallacies, I’m inherently referring to statistical, i.e. quantitative processes. This is thoroughly the stuff of positivism which, as Bruce Mazlish explained in The Uncertain Sciences (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2007) attempted to find a single methodology as a scientific means of finding all truth. The quest for that methodology dismissed qualitative approaches and ignored any nuances. It in fact attempted to adjust the data to the method, which is one way that positivism fails even by its own standards.

Positivism only seeks truth at an aggregate superficial level based on a statistical sample. As such, in the social sciences, it really only tells us what it failed to disprove about the class of people known in that paradigm as research subjects. Along the way, it assumes a great many variables that make those subjects different from the rest of us aren’t really relevant, that in all of the complexity that makes a living being, only the factors researchers choose to control for make any difference. And then it generalizes that “truth” to all of us.

But Anderson advocates post-modernism—or, as I’m tempted to call it based on my reading of Pauline Marie Rosenau, Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences: Insights, Inroads, and Intrusions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1992), anti-modernism, because it seemingly rejects much of modernism (including positivism) simply because it is modern. Anderson’s book was recommended to me in the hope that it would increase my sympathy for post-modernism. I think that thin ice just broke and Anderson has fallen through. Because in making the kind of claims that Anderson makes, he’s appealing to a positivist sensibility, that what applies to some people applies to many of us. That’s simply not a very post-modern approach.

There are other problems. Anderson relies on a dubious definition of progressivism from James Davison Hunter. Here’s how he does it:

Hunter calls orthodoxy “the commitment on the part of adherents to an external, definable, and transcendent authority,” and progressivism “the tendency to resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life.” (p. 158)

Probably most people would go along with Hunter’s description of orthodoxy. It’s at least close. And on the strength of that authority, Anderson expects us to go along with his description of progressivism. But my definition of progressivism is different: I think progressivism has to do with an embrace of the diversity of humanity, a concern that we all should share in our common inheritance from the earth, and that we should preserve and protect the earth for future generations. Anderson not only obscures a richer definition of progressivism, he uses the incomplete definition to equate progressivism with post-modernism. And then, I have to quote this because you won’t believe me otherwise:

Orthodoxy, at least in its grumpier and more militant forms, becomes what we usually call fundamentalism these days. (p. 159)

It doesn’t take very long for Anderson to drop the word, usually. Either you are post-modernist and progressive or you are fundamentalist and modern. To get around this obvious absurdity, he writes,

Most people in the West do not succeed in achieving anything like the secure identity and moral certainty of the young Taliban soldier. Some do reasonably well without either. They improvise, borrow from here and there, shop around, adjust to the situations in which they find themselves. (p. 161)

In other words, they’re post-modernists!

What’s really going on here is that Anderson is drawing a dichotomy between old fuddy-duddies, presumably including myself, and everything that’s hip, and cool, and—oh, I can’t use the word modern here, can I? Anyway, if you’re in that latter category, in Anderson’s light, you’re a post-modernist.

If you think that might be overreaching, I think you’re right. But it’s basically the same as Anderson’s entire strategy for blurring the boundaries of the self throughout his book. And that’s why, ultimately, I don’t find him persuasive. The dichotomous thinking doesn’t help either.

What will I do with a PhD from California Institute of Integral Studies? (revised)

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. Please leave any comments there.

As part of my request for a change of program from Transformative
Studies to Social and Cultural Anthropology, I am revisiting this
purpose statement. My concerns are largely the same.

When I first wrote this in 2008, I cited Allan Combs for seeing as a
starting place that “the world needs saving.” He cited
“unsustainable growth, ecological depletion, rampant consumerism
and market instability, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,
diseases, water shortages, . . . [and] global
I wrote that sociologists point to endemic social inequality and the
terrible prices paid in so many ways by the poor,2
and that political scientists question the value of the state, seeing
it as an obstruction to world peace.3
And I wrote that there were grave uncertainties affecting the world
economy, some of which stem from environmental concerns such as
global warming and the depletion of oil reserves, but many of which
stem from a sheer greed in the financial sector that have now cost
many people their jobs and driven countless homeowners into

All of these problems can be connected in some way to hierarchy. We
face existential threats due to our relationships with each other,
too often expressed in war conducted against a backdrop of nuclear
proliferation; our relationships with animals, resulting in
environmental degradation;4
and our relationship with the earth, resulting in pollution and
climate change leading to freshwater and food shortages. So in
entering the Transformative Studies program, I was looking for
something like what Riane Eisler argued, when she argued that too
much was at stake and quoted Erwin
Laszlo writing that we
“cannot leave the selection of the next step in the evolution of
human society and culture to chance.”5
And when in the Self, Society, and Transformation class, I read
Philip Slater arguing for an Integral society and against a
Controller society,6
I was convinced I was in the right place. But what I have learned of
complexity theory is that when Slater’s caterpillar—his analogy for
the present order—undergoes metamorphosis, we can have no certainty
as to what will emerge from the chrysalis, that a new system will

have unpredictable emergent properties.7
And I see any attempt to direct “the next step in the evolution of
human society and culture” as certain to produce a backlash.
Slater sees that backlash as the caterpillar’s immune system,
eventually overcome by imaginal cells that eventually liquefy the old
body and construct a butterfly.8
I am not so sure.

That uncertainty leads me in the
current direction of my scholarship, a direction better suited to
anthropology, in which I explore hierarchy and its embeddedness in
human life. For instance, climate change, arguably the consequence
of humans asserting dominance over the earth, is generally considered
a bad thing. But for Greenland, glacial melt may expose resources
that pave the way for independence from Denmark, ending another
manifestation of hierarchy.9
Among the many horrors in Angana Chatterji’s Violent Gods,
for example, she explains how a law to protect cows in India, a law
that ostensibly recognizes the sentience of non-human life, is used
selectively to persecute subaltern groups.10
In these cases—and I suspect many others—even the mitigation of
one hierarchical relationship imposes it even more harshly on other
people. To say I know where this leads seems like folly. But I hope
that the Social and Cultural Anthropology program will better support
this avenue of inquiry.


Allan, “Integral Conversations for a Better World,” (accessed
September 11, 2008).

Scott, Worlds Apart: Social Inequalities in a Global Economy,
Ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2006); Shapiro, Thomas M., Ed.,
Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United
, 3rd
Ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005).

David P. and Charles P. Webel, Peace and Conflict Studies
(Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2002), 204-205.

Riane, The Real Wealth of Nations
(San Francisco: Barrett-Koehler, 2007), 134-136; Food and
Agriculture Organization, Livestock’s Long Shadow:
Environmental Issues and Options
, (accessed December
12, 2008).

Riane, The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future
(New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), 187.

Philip, The Chrysalis Effect: The Metamorphosis of Global Culture
(Brighton: Sussex, 2009).

Bruce, The Uncertain Sciences,
Transaction Ed. (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2007).

The Chrysalis Effect.

News, "Self-rule introduced in Greenland," June 21, 2009, (accessed October 19, 2010);
Ertel, Manfred, “Untapped Riches,” Spiegel,
November 12, 2008,,1518,590078,00.html
(accessed October 19, 2010).

Angana P., Violent Gods: Hindu nationalism in India’s Present:
Narratives from Orissa

(Gurgaon, India: Three Essays Collective, 2009).

Post-modernism and the pretense of understanding complexity theory

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. Please leave any comments there.

It’s near the end of the Fall semester, and I have one more paper to write, one that demands I pay a little more attention to issues of the self than I normally would. There’s a certain narcissism in a lot of what I’m seeing of the scholarship that relates to the self and when it comes to topics of good and evil (the class for which I still have to write this paper is entitled, “Goodness, Evil, and Politics”), I tend to look much more to the existential threats to human existence: climate change, war, famine, etc.

But the assignment is the assignment. So I’m reading an additional book by Walter Truett Anderson, The Future of the Self: Exploring the Post-Identity Society (New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1997). The first chapter is actually useful, among other things connecting the notion of human rights to the notion of a self (if there is no self, then who has human rights?).

More troubling is the perception of a contradiction that I don’t see as a contradiction, yet which is taken for granted as a contradiction across a considerable portion of philosophical thought. Anderson points to David Hume:

In [Hume’s] view the self is the mind and its contents, and since these are always changing it hardly makes sense to think of a permanent identity. “What then,” he asked, “gives us so great a propensity . . . to suppose ourselves possest of an invariable and uninterrupted existence thro’ the whole course of our lives?” He conclude that “the identity, which we ascribe to the mind of man, is only a fictitious one.” (p. 19)

I’ve encountered this before, shrugged and glossed over it. I don’t see this as problematic at all. But post-modernists pick up the theme:

[Kenneth] Gergen said, “Emerging technologies saturate us with the voices of humankind—both harmonious and alien. As we absorb their varied rhymes and reasons, they become part of us and we of them. Social saturation furnishes us with a multiplicity of incoherent and unrelated languages of the self. For everything that we ‘know to be true’ about ourselves, other voices within respond with doubt and even derision. This fragmentation of self-conceptions corresponds to a multiplicity of incoherent and disconnected relationships. These relationships pull us in myriad directions, inviting us to play such a variety of roles that the very concept of an ‘authentic self’ with knowable characteristics recedes from view.” (p. 38)

What’s curious here is that post-modernists seem to acknowledge and accept complexity theory. Yet their references to it are so fleeting that one can’t be entirely sure. Anderson writes that post-modern psychology “moves us toward an understanding of people as open systems—ever seeking new contacts, prepared to take in new information, willing to move boundaries, unafraid of change” (p. 34).

The term open systems is a precise reference to systems theory (a predecessor of complexity theory). Perhaps the easiest example of an open system and one of many used by Fritjof Capra in The Web of Life (New York: Anchor, 1996) is of an eddy current in a river, a pattern which forms spontaneously in water flowing downstream. The water in the current isn’t the same water from one moment to the next, yet the eddy current remains. And we view it as the same eddy current. Because the identity of the system rests in the pattern rather than in the substance.

Yet, in the case of the self, post-modernists would have us view the self as a different self because of a bombardment of ideas. They’re confusing the substance for the system and investing identity in ideas rather than the pattern of those ideas. It’s a rookie mistake that reflects a failure to grasp complexity. And it looks like this error lies at the heart of post-modernism.

Reminiscences of the cab business

When I saw the headline, I had to read the story. Not because I read lots of stories anyway, but because I had a hunch.

It’s a funny thing in the cab business. It’s such a scummy business that to learn someone is corrupt isn’t even a surprise. People don’t generally become cab drivers because they have a choice. They do it because they can’t find other work—for whatever reason. That means they’re desperate. That means they’re vulnerable.

I took classes from both the defendants named in that story in the late 1990s on my way to becoming a San Francisco cab driver. And I passed the test(s)—I don’t remember if there was more than one—without paying a bribe. Both seemed like straightforward people. The cop, Paul Makaveckas, explaining that the statute of limitations had expired, regaled us with stories. One was about how he’d hung people out second floor windows by their ankles to get information. “You can go to my boss,” he said. “He’ll just laugh.”

That’s just the story I remember. He told us these stories the way I can imagine a great uncle telling war stories to his nephews (but of course not nieces). It was a way of being friendly, of seeming to take us into his confidence.

It was also a way of letting us know he had power. That he was in control. That what he did was unquestioned.

And so it seems he’s been charged with bribery. Apparently some of my colleagues—perhaps with inadequate English skills or poor map reading skills—had to pay bribes to pass. And apparently, Bill Hancock, who made enough money that he could afford to live in Marin County, funneled the money to him.

It was Hancock who referred me to Luxor where I drove cab until I got sucked into the dot-com boom. When that went bust, I bounced around a couple companies before returning to Luxor as a call taker, answering the phones. Driving cab is hard enough without doing it in a down economy and at that point, it was George W. Bush who was the “job loss president” and, I figured, distinctly not a good time to drive cab. I later got fired from Luxor after protesting an arrangement where a manager took his pay out of our tips.

Other companies were worse. I had eventually bought my own cab from the first company I worked for, Radio Cab in Greenbrae, Marin County. That meant I was responsible for my own insurance, but I had to get it through the company because there are very few brokers who carry the right kind of insurance and I couldn’t find one. I was supposed to carry $1 million in liability insurance to use the stand—a place where cab drivers can wait for fares—at the San Rafael Transit Center. But the money I paid for insurance didn’t go to insurance; I found I had driven for months without coverage.

The reason I’d bought my own cab was that the maintenance on the cars was so poor, and that’s something that really bothers me. One of the few good lessons I learned from my childhood is that if you take care of your equipment, it will take care of you, and as a cab driver, you rely on your cab to not break down and to be comfortable for your passengers. At the second company I worked for, Sausalito Taxi, I drove one that blew oil in my face through the ventilation.

The cab business is itself a kind of a scam. Drivers are technically on the edge between independent contractor and employee status; the companies insist they are contractors and charge them a set fee for each shift. The drivers owe them $80, $100, or more for ten hours regardless of how much money they make in fares. Plus drivers have to buy gas. The economics are lousy—and they’ve gotten worse since—which is why the companies shift most of the business risk to the drivers. My entire cab driving career was spent in sheer financial terror because if I didn’t make my gates and gas, I might not be allowed to drive my next shift.

But drivers will uniformly tell you they’re doing well. I dispatched some at Radio Cab, in a situation where because the vast majority of the business was phoned in, and because drivers were supposed to call in the rest, we could pretty well tell how much money they were making. But I remember one coming in and telling me he’d made three times what I figured he could have made. The difference was in tips, he said.

It also might have been in fares he’d stolen from other drivers. If you ever see someone doing well in the cab business, it’s not because they’re on the up and up. And that’s true at all levels.

Why I’ve decided to leave the Transformative Studies program

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. Please leave any comments there.

In between everything else, I’ve been (see here and here) reading Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1992) by Pauline Marie Rosenau. She does a magnificent job of highlighting the inconsistencies of post-modernism. She mostly waits until her concluding chapter to comment on these and though her critique is devastating, she is charitable towards post-modernism—much more charitable than I am inclined to be. Of course, as she observes, post-modernism is immune to the standards of criticism which its advocates so gleefully apply to modernism.

But one of the highlights both of post-modernism—and of complexity theory—is the recognition that reality differs from individual to individual, that the feminist notions of social location and of partial perspective should in fact be extended to a concept of partial reality. Of course, post-modernists leap from that into sweeping generalizations, because they don’t need to be consistent.

But Rosenau offers this criticism of post-modernism, which I see as needing a fuller consideration in Transformative Studies:

Post-modern views of reality are reproached for some of the same shortcomings as idealist philosophical conceptions of reality. Critics argue that debate over issues such as the existence of an independent reality are of interest only to post-modernists (and other intellectuals) who, insulated from reality, never personally experience the violence, terror, and degradation prevalent in modern society. They point to the brutal presence of an “obviously existing reality” that solidifies around poverty, starvation, AIDS, drugs, and gang warfare. Only if one’s daily life, daily “lived” reality, is not harsh and unpleasant could one conceive of reality as entirely a mental construction. (pp. 111-112)

There is a certain detachment from “obviously existing reality” in much of the focus on the self I see in the discussions I have had in both my classes this semester and in that focus’ attendant assumption that the self “makes” reality. And it is amazing how scholars who theorize about a multi-faceted reality, varying from individual to individual, are often so anxious to generalize from their own experience to everyone else.

This focus on the self is a way of minimizing problems of social inequality that are uncomfortable to deal with—because they challenge our cultural myths and values—and a way to obscure the hypocrisy those scholars who live comfortable lives while pontificating on the ultimate nature of reality. We seem far too anxious to associate difficulty in life with psychological condition and not nearly willing enough to consider “obviously existing reality,” the circumstances in which people find themselves.

This focus on the self reaffirms the individualist bent of the hegemonic Western value system, effectively casting blame on the individual for not having a “positive attitude,” i.e. not thinking the “right” thoughts, while immunizing society from challenge. Rosenau finds that post-modernism can neither be classified as left- or as right-wing, but the project of shielding social values (or anything else) from judgment inevitably upholds them, and thus is complicit in conservative theorist Richard Weaver’s “tyrannizing image,” a postulated central ideology in every culture that is guarded by a coercive hierarchy based on allegiance to that ideology.

I am reminded of a child who offers the refutation that s/he didn’t “mean it,” implying that his or her intentions are being obscured by the consequences of his or her actions. Post-modernism is oblivious to its consequences. And I think that Transformative Studies takes a similar risk.

Sorry, no mitigating changes in labor force size to soften the blow of this month’s unemploymen

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. Please leave any comments there.

For shame. On the Daily Kos, Meteor Bladespresum[es] . . . out-of-work Americans who had dropped out of the labor force have been lured back in by news that the situation is improving.” He could have just looked at the numbers.

Obviously, he didn’t. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers, they included 153,904,000 people in the labor force in October and 154,007,000 in November. The number excluded also rose from 84,626,000 in October to 84,708,000 in November. Those are pretty small changes. But as a changes in percentages, the number included rose 0.067 percent and the number excluded rose 0.097 percent, suggesting the BLS was a little busier excluding people than they were including people.

The hard cold fact is that this month’s unemployment report is simply bad news and there isn’t any way to spin it as positive.

The special pleadings of post-modernists: children who concoct elaborate excuses

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. Please leave any comments there.

I’m still churning through Pauline Marie Rosenau’s book Post-modernism and the Social Sciences: Insights, Inroads, and Intrusions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1992) and I have to say that the overwhelming impression of post-modernists here is of a child who doesn’t want to do something, who expends all kinds of energy and ingenuity coming up with an elaborate excuse for not doing it when if he’d just have gotten to work and done it, it would be done already.

Post-modernists actually have some valid criticisms of positivism. Quantitative analysis is superficial. Statistical analysis does “prove” by its failure to disprove (assuming a false dichotomy between disproof and truth). In human experimentation, it does rely on deception, leading resentful research “subjects” who catch on to mislead researchers in turn. It does assume a single universal reality that can be perceived and represented, when at best, as feminists argue, we have only partial perspectives, determined largely by our social locations and when, in fact, complexity theory suggests a more multifaceted reality—where things really are not for me the same as they are for you.

But the failings of positivism do not prove post-modernism. Post-modernists consistently resort to special pleading, asserting that the logic they skillfully use to show how positivism fails by its own standards should not in turn be applied against post-modernism. Post-modernism immunizes itself from reason and even from reality.

Critics argue that if all norms and values are equal, as many post-modernists claim, then it is impossible to prioritize or compare values, to make choices between moral alternatives. It follows that post-modernism does nothing to prohibit “the ruthless pursuit of wealth and power” (Cantor 1989: 2368-69). (pp. 115-116)

Indeed, if “all norms and values are equal,” then why do post-modernists so often reject theories or methods as a form of guilt by association with modernism? Too often, in Rosenau’s depiction, post-modernists seem to depict modernism (which includes positivism) and post-modernism in a dichotomy of good versus evil, right versus wrong. But because they don’t have to be consistent, that’s okay for them.

Rosenau writes, for example, that “Post-modern architecture revels in constructing buildings that at first glance cannot ‘reasonably’ be expected to stand” (p. 127). In a footnote attached to that sentence, she writes,

It might be assumed that architecture is immune to the extreme forms of post-modernism because buildings must respect the laws of science relating to gravity in order to be viable. But the avant garde of post-modern architecture today takes pride in “knowing nothing about materials” and in being willing to build “with chewing gum.” One is said to have “built an officers’ club, and the roof caved in during the dedication ceremonies.” In other cases post-modern designs are abandoned because “they simply can’t be built” (Seabrook 1991: 127, 129). (p. 127)

On page 128, Rosenau writes that “Post-modernism . . . argues that each situation is different and calls for special understanding.” On the very next page she quotes William Corlett (1989) writing that “[Reason’s] reasonable ways are . . . always brutally unfair to someone or other.” I guess a sweeping generalization is okay when post-modernists do it.

This kind of thing crops up again and again and again in Rosenau’s work. I have to be profoundly grateful to her. She has the patience to wade through all this hypocrisy and hold it up to a light where any reasonable person would simply walk away. The trouble with that, and the reason Rosenau’s work is so important, is that this “walking away” from absurdity is very likely the reason that post-modernists have been able to get as far as they have.