Tuesday, January 23, 2018

West on Sex, Law, and Consent

I just wanted to flag this outstanding essay by Georgetown Law Professor Robin West: "Sex, Law, and Consent" (published in The Ethics of Consent: Theory and Practice, Franklin Miller & Alan Wertheimer, eds.). It's about a decade old now, but it is incredibly resonant with ongoing debates, and deserves to be recirculated.

The thrust of the piece is a defense of "consent" as a demarcation between criminal and non-criminal sexual acts, coupled with a critique of "consent" as automatically delineating the difference between "good" (non-harmful, valorous, laudatory) and "bad" sex.  West's argument is framed as a critique of certain radical feminist and queer theorists who have attacked the importance of consent -- either because it understates the background coercive conditions and inequalities of power which often render "consent" constructed or empty (RadFem) or because it nullifies the radical transgressive power of sexuality which is hot precisely because it plays upon these inequalities of power (queer theoretics).

West suggests that both of these critiques are ill-advised because they don't take sufficient account of the subjective experience of harm that is distinctive to nonconsensual sex (i.e., rape). There is, West suggests, a difference between agreeing to an exploitative contract and being robbed -- both might be problems, and the former may actually in aggregate contribute more to the broader spectrum of injustice than the latter, but nonetheless the subjective experience of signing a contract under exploitative conditions is not the same as being held up at gunpoint, and people don't experience it as such, and people don't expect the state to respond to them in the same way. The way we stop exploitative contracting isn't by expanding the definition of theft and robbery to encompass it. That they both represent wrongs doesn't mean they should be collapsed into the same category of social injustice.

Yet at the same time, West argues, that sex may be consensual (and therefore, in her view, not properly subjected to criminal sanction) should not exhaust our moral vocabulary when speaking of sex. Sex can be fully consensual and yet still harmful. Sex can be fully consensual and desired and yet still harmful. Ironically, we're more likely to speak of the harms of consensual sex in the case where it is mutually desired, as when we're lecturing a teenager that sure, they might want to have sex, but there's always the risk of an unexpected pregnancy or a disease that can derail a promising career or trap one in a life trajectory one very much does not desire. Yet this all obscures a different but still important case of consensual but undesired sex. Even here, West is appropriately circumspect -- we consent to things we don't desire all the time (West gives the example of consenting to see a movie one does not actually wish to see, because one's partner or children wish to). This isn't necessarily a terrible thing in isolation, but it can be, if it becomes pervasive or occupies the entirety of one's sexual being (if one's entire life of movie-watching is one that is wholly about what others desire, with no regard to what you yourself would like to see, that's a pretty crappy cinematic life irrespective of whether all the choices are "consensual"). In those cases, one is being harmed in a very real way -- internalizing (as West points out, quite literally) the notion that one's body is solely for others pleasure and that one's own desires are immaterial -- even though it's also a very distinctive way from that which comes through nonconsensual sex.

The point, then, is to avoid the Charybdis of calling it all rape, because consent is an effectively meaning concept (or, on the other side, all sexy transgressive power play because consent is a fictive projection of repressed sexual desire) and the Scylla of saying that none of it matters because it was all consensual. As we move from the unambiguously criminal actions of a Harvey Weinstein to the more complex case of an Aziz Ansari, the failure to make these distinctions becomes more and more of an obstacle to pushing the conversation forward. People read about the Ansari case and say "you want to throw him in jail for that?" or "was it really non-consensual?" But that's a product of a crimped imagination whereby a broad range of moral questions get collapsed into a legal (criminal) question which gets collapsed into a "consensual" question -- and there's much more to be said than that. What happened to Grace, in her telling, may not be something that should result in Ansari being incarcerated, but it also isn't the equivalent of Grace agreeing to see a movie she has no interest in because her partner wants to watch it (let alone the equivalent of an actively desired encounter which, in the aftermath, turns out to have negative consequences).

Anyway, when I started writing this post I meant it to be a single paragraph of consisting of "read West's essay", and I've gone on much longer than that. So I'll just let it rest here -- but you should definitely read her piece.

Friday, January 19, 2018

"Like Giving Zizek To a First-Year" Roundup

Next week is the first substantive meeting of the "Intro to Political Theory" class I'm GSIing. It's mostly made up of first- and second-year students. The professor's initial reading assignment includes excerpts from Zizek and Gramsci. I'm prepared to be absolutely despised.

* * *

An LSU professor fired (against the advice of a faculty committee who reviewed her case) for using profanity in the classroom has lost a First Amendment suit against the university. I can't comment on the legal issues involved, but I can say that I fully agree with the AAUP's decision to censure LSU (in part) over the termination (the ruling does not effect the AAUP censuring decision).

The best piece I've read on liberal opposition to Ken Marcus taking up a civil rights position at the Department of Education. Tl;dr: It's not about BDS, it's about him being a conservative who isn't trusted to enforce the priorities of the civil rights community.

Why do Republicans need 60 votes to pass a budget? Because they used reconciliation to slam through a giant tax cut for the rich. Priorities, priorities.

RIP, Julius Lester.

Jewish convert discovers that her conversion means her old leftist buddies assume she's now all-in for apartheid. Welcome to the club!

A bank executive actually will go to prison for fraud (relating to the collapse of Nebraska bank TierOne).

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Not-Bad Takes on Aziz and Grace

You probably missed it -- it didn't exactly get much traction -- but an essay came out the other day where a woman detailed what she termed a "sexual assault" by Aziz Ansari on their first date. It has spawned a legion of takes, many of them terrible. But some of them are pretty good! So in lieu of substantive commentary, I thought I'd just link to the essays I found not-bad (or better!).

KatyKatiKate: "Not That Bad."

Danielle Tcholakian, Nylon"On Aziz Ansari And Rape Culture’s Generation Gap: Why can’t we hear each other?"

Anna North, Vox: "The Aziz Ansari story is ordinary. That’s why we have to talk about it."

Jill Filipovic, The Guardian: "The poorly reported Aziz Ansari exposé was a missed opportunity."

Elizabeth Nolan Brown, Reason: "Aziz Ansari and the Limits of 'He Should Know Better.'"

Hyejin Shim, Medium"Consenting to Normal."

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Taking Rural To School: The Carleton/Minnesota Case

MinnPost has an interesting article detailing the various programs and practices Minnesota private schools (including my beloved Carleton College) use to bring more students from rural communities to campus.

One thing I think the article does a good job of emphasizing is that attracting rural students, specifically, means being attentive to particular range of problems, concerns, or obstacles which transcend a simple, naked, "we're open to everyone" outlook. Obviously, scholarships are helpful -- and some schools have scholarship programs specifically open to students from rural backgrounds.

But another issue that is pointed out in the article goes to recruitment: when sending admissions representatives on recruiting trips around the country, it's obviously more efficient to visit densely populated sub/urban areas (particularly in relatively wealthy high-performing school districts) that are likely to yield more applicants. Hence, rural students may be less likely to hear about (say) Carleton or get information as to why they should attend or how it will be financially possible to attend. This is a structural disadvantage students from rural communities might face, and so it is incumbent on college admissions offices to take proactive steps to counteract it. Likewise, rural school districts may lack the range of extracurricular activities or programs that are found in their suburban counterparts, and so figuring out who are the true "stars" coming out of rural districts may require more work than simply an apples-to-apples comparison of applicant profiles. And for some schools (particularly those which are not themselves nestled in rural communities), there might also be some attention to mitigating the effects of culture shock -- the delicate balancing between wanting to expand horizons while also respecting that adjustment to new and different communities is something that requires work and support.

All of this is to say, to the extent a school like Carleton desires geographic diversity -- and it does, and it should -- it will have to take specific steps to make itself available and accessible to that community. Tailored scholarship programs, extra attention to non-traditional recruiting, and holistic appraisals of applications are just some of the ways Carleton might take these steps.

There's one last thing worth remarking on. Frequently, when talking about "affirmative action" programs, we hear a stock refrain about the "rural White kid from a small town in South Dakota -- what about him?"  As this article makes clear, the myth that colleges don't care about diversity when it comes to rural kids is just that -- a myth. But there's a bigger issue here. The implication of this critique is that concern for rural students is something competitive with, and antagonistic to, affirmative action programs which seek to increase enrollment of underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. In reality, they're two peas in a pod.

The strategies discussed in this article include scholarships that are just "for" rural kids (I wouldn't have been able to access them), specific efforts to recruit from these communities, and even certain types of "weighting" when assessing their application (why should their two extracurricular activities be more impressive than my seven?). These are no different in form than how racial affirmative action works. In neither case is the strategy simply a facial neutrality where we tally up GPAs and standardized test scores and rank accordingly. It isn't even a simple reduction of the entire program to class -- scholarships for people (regardless of race or location) below a certain income. Rather, both the race and the geography case involve taking specific actions that are tailored to, and sometimes restricted to, the particular underrepresented community.

Yet I think this article will elicit very few complaints about "special privileges", or the need for "location-blindness", or odes to the lost meritocracy of yore. I suspect most people will read this article and think these are salutary efforts to improve educational accessibility for a community that is often-overlooked in higher education.

For the record: it's the latter reaction that's the right one. While I myself come from the suburbs, and thus did not receive any of the scholarship money or specialized recruitment or tailored review of my application, I still consider myself a beneficiary of these programs. Why? Well, most obviously, I'm engaged to a fellow Carl who comes from what the article calls "Greater Minnesota" -- that turned out to be a great benefit for me. And of course, one of the many virtues of a truly great liberal arts education is getting to meet and learn from people who hail from a variety of different backgrounds.

My life and learning is better than it otherwise would have been because I got to meet and become friends with people from rural communities. It's also better than it otherwise would have been because I got to meet and become friends with people from lots of other communities, many of which were quite distant (spatially and otherwise) from where I grew up in the DC suburbs. Carleton's efforts to promote this sort of diversity are part of what makes it strong -- in all cases, not just some.

American Political Commentary, in a Nutshell

Here's Scott Lemieux:
The heuristic the typical voter uses to resign responsibility is to assign it to whoever controls the White House. This is often wrong. But it’s better than the heuristic used by the typical political reporter or pundit, “no matter who controls what, the Democratic Party is fully responsible.” And of course, there’s the particularly dumb lefty variant, “when Republicans I spent a year before the election assuring you were basically harmless pass terrible legislation with zero Democratic votes, that proves the Democrat Party secretly favors it.”
Sounds about right.

Friday, January 12, 2018

What's a One Point Dip Among Friends?

Is it just me, or am I rightfully a bit skeeved out by this Erik Loomis post on "which demographic has Trump best held his support"?
Since his inauguration, Trump’s support in every polled demographic has fallen. That includes groups where he had massive support (his own voters, evangelicals) and where he had very low support (Hillary voters, African-Americans). But there is only one group where his approval has fallen by a mere 1 point. What do you think that is? Christians? The wealthy? The South? Nope, nope, and nope.
It’s Jews.
Of course, Trump had low Jewish support initially. But those Jewish voters who care only about an aggressive, expansionist Israel love Donald Trump. If you were Jewish and a Trump supporter in 2016, you are still a Trump supporter. Which says a remarkable amount about a particular type of politics that makes you a stickier Trump supporter than literally every other demographic group in the nation.
And yet, among all religious groups, Jews still have the lowest overall Trump support, at 30 percent, although Trump now has a lower approval rating among atheists/agnostics, which he did not a year ago.
Loomis is drawing from this NYT article detailing how much Trump's approvals have dropped off across various demographic groups between inauguration day and today. These range from a 12 point drop for Democratic men and a 10 point drop amongst Latinos to a 3 point drop amongst Blacks and a 1 point drop with Jews.

One bit of context that is missing is that Jews were one of the few demographic groups that moved left from 2012 to 2016. Obama got 69% of the Jewish vote in 2012, versus 70% for Clinton in 2016. That's not a huge shift, obviously, but given that the country as a whole lurched right (most groups -- including Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and women -- gave Clinton smaller margins than Obama), it stands out. So one way of interpreting this data is that "NeverTrump" GOP or Independent Jews actually walked the walk in 2016 -- they disapproved of Trump and actually voted against Trump when it counted. Put another way, the Jews most likely to have been "soft" Trump supporters were already were turned off on him by election day, whereas other groups' "soft" supporters only turned against him later.

To be clear, there's nothing in Loomis' post that's inaccurate. We could say that writing a whole post on Jewish support for Trump dipping "only" 1 point seems like a weird thing to focus on given the extremely low baseline of support Trump had with Jews to begin with (although, as Loomis notes, some other groups where Trump also began with very low support rates saw those rates dip by much greater amounts). We could also question how much narrative weight should be put upon the difference between a 1 point drop amongst Jews versus a 3 point drop amongst Blacks (if we're comparing groups that began with low baselines of support). Indeed, since the demographic "voted Trump in 2016" also saw only a modest 3 point dip, maybe the real lesson here is "If you were [a Trump voter in 2016], you are probably still a Trump supporter" -- full stop.

But really, my discomfort stems from what to reads as a weirdly triumphant tone, as if Loomis is eager to have proven something particularly diseased about the Jews -- the one group whose Trump flunkies are sticking to Trump more than any other group in the nation.

Maybe I'm reading into it. But Loomis sure sounds excited to put "Jews" and "Trump diehards" in the same conversation, doesn't he?

Things People Blame the Jews For, Part XLI/Rate That Apology, Part 7: Puerto Rican Power Edition

It's a double-header!

As many of you know, Puerto Rico continues to suffer in the wake of a debilitating hurricane last year, with almost half of the island still lacking electricity. Island residents are justifiably angry at the lackluster federal response to their plight.

So why have repair efforts taken so long? Maybe it's because they're basically a colonized territory lacking full voting rights and so equal status as Americans. Maybe it's good old-fashioned racism (maybe explanations #1 and #2 are not mutually exclusive).

Or maybe, as an op-ed published in Puerto Rico's largest paper posited, it's the revenge of "the Jew":
Monday’s column by Wilda Rodriguez in the newspaper El Nuevo Día, titled “What Does ‘The Jew’ Want From The Colony?”, claimed that “Wall Street types” dictate U.S. policy, and that “Congress will do what ‘the Jew’ wants, as the vulgar prototype of true power is called.” 
“No offense to people of that religion,” she added. 
She went on to claim that Wall Street and “the Jew” are punishing Puerto Rico in order to get the island to pay its $70 billion debts.
I'm glad she added the "no offense" caveat. Who knows how it might have been interpreted otherwise?

Anyway, before I got to this Rodriguez issued an ... well, let's decide whether we'll call it an apology:
“I’m profoundly sorry that some have interpreted one of my pieces as anti-Semitism,” she wrote. “My career as a writer has been clear, and prejudice and racial and religious hostility have never been a part of it. I can understand the strong reaction that some of have had to the mere usage of the word ‘Jew.’ My intention was not to offend, but to provoke a public discussion. With that clear, I ask for forgiveness from those of good faith that were hurt by my political allusion. I have not and never will intend to offend them.”
Call me crazy, but I'm not convinced that the "mere usage of the word 'Jew'" was what set people off here. Had she written the sentence "At the age of 13, a Jew undergoes a Bar or Bat Mitzvah and becomes a full adult member of his or her community," I dare say everybody would be cool. I'd say the objection is 25% to the invocation of "the Jew" as a general archetype, and 75% to the content of that archetype being unbridled financial greed and power.

But hey -- public discussion provoked!

Grade: 2.5/10

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Issue is (Jewish) Power

Andrew Mark Bennett has a searing piece in the Forward detailing Jewish Voice for Peace's antisemitic obsession with Jewish power. One striking aspect of it is that it self-consciously does not focus on BDS. JVP has plenty of other sins that can be hung on its head, and Bennett does a good job detailing many of them.

Let me put it this way: reading this article made me want a cigarette. And I don't smoke. That's how good it felt.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Many People Are The Real Threat To Free Speech, Part 2

Last Fall, I noted that while we basically only hear about "threats to free speech" on campus when the alleged perpetrators are liberal, attempts to shut down distasteful speech are quite bipartisan in flavor. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Aaron Hanlon collects some right wing instances of speech suppression on campus -- including the striking statistic (drawn from FIRE) that, while campus liberals are more likely to try to disrupt or shutdown speakers, conservatives are more likely to succeed in doing so. This doesn't really surprise me -- on the one hand, there are more liberals than conservatives on campus, and on the other hand, if there's one thing conservatives are really good at, it's working the refs.

Again, the moral of this story isn't to simply flip things on their heads -- conservatives are the only threat to free speech, and liberals are as pure as driven snow. The right lesson is, to reiterate, that threats to free speech come from all sides of the political spectrum, and that genuine commitment to the principles of free expression -- as opposed to opportunistically crying "free speech!" only to swiftly abandon it once it ceases to be politically convenient -- is actually a rare beast.