History of the vibrator

Alexis Madrigal had an exhaustive history of the vibrator in the Atlantic a couple months ago. There is a lot of information in here.

Everyone in the sex toy business whom I spoke with credits “Sex and the City” with profoundly changing the way Americans now talk about sex toys. The Rabbit Pearl became an overnight sensation — “Talk about product placement,” the vibrator’s manufacturer, Dan Martin of Vibratex, told me. With clean, well-lit stores like Good Vibrations and Babeland; the Tupperware-inspired, sex-toy house gatherings for women known as Pleasure Parties (“Where Every Day is Valentine’s Day”); and the Internet — which opened all kinds of new avenues for sexual adventure — women now had safe and discreet places to buy it. The Rabbit Pearl is still the top-selling sex toy, although the original from Vibratex has been knocked off so many times that “the rabbit” has become generic.

And then a couple months later, LA Magazine profiled Chad and Ron Braverman, the father-son team which runs Doc Johnson, the country’s biggest sex toy manufacturer. If you’re a porn star, getting a dildo made that looks like your junk isn’t worth as much as it used to be.

In the past a casting like Deen’s was worth serious money for a star. Doc Johnson molds few male performers, but when the actor Jeff Stryker was casted 20 years ago, his contract guaranteed a fee of $200,000 up front plus royalties. These days that figure is closer to $20,000—the market is saturated with performers—though there are ways to bump a fee.

History of the vibrator


Oh, my. Given the complaint, one naturally must conclude that this poor family underwent a terrible hardship:

“The emotional distress suffered by the plaintiffs is so severe that no reasonable person could be expected to endure it, and the emotional distress has resulted in physical symptomatology of emotional distress,” the suit claims.

The plaintiffs say they “have incurred and wil continue to incur expenses for hospital care, medical care and attention, medications, other materials and supplies.”

Medical malpractice? Defective product? Environmental contamination? Stalking and harassment? Nope: free porn.

Robert Bourne, Denise Roy, and their minor daughters, Elise Roy and Danielle Bourne, say Verizon, their cable provider, failed to stop “unauthorized transmissions” of the Playboy Channel despite being notified multiple times between March and August 2008.

There are obvious comments to make here: couldn’t they just turn the TV off or change the channel? They don’t seem to be claiming that Verizon gave them only the Playboy Channel. I suppose this could just be another example of litigious American society, yet another “frivolous” lawsuit to be held up as evidence that we need “tort reform” in this country.

But: hospital and medical care? Who in the family had to seek medical attention after seeing the Playboy Channel? Which member of the household has such a fragile constitution and such a terrified perspective on sexuality that the mere availability of naked women brought on physical distress?


True Blood

We may not get HBO, but that hasn’t stopped me from watching the first two episodes of True Blood. (I won’t say how, but it rhymes with Schmitt Schmorrent.) Here are my thoughts so far:

  • Vampires! Neat!
  • HBO seems to have contracted out the costume design for Anna Paquin’s character to Maxim.
  • The show definitely seems to be taking advantage of the fact that it’s on HBO for some gratuitous nudity—except for the main characters, of course. In fact, I think the only female character to get topless so far is dead. Nice slut shaming, Alan Ball.
  • The main characters, Sookie and Bill, are both very strange personalities, which makes all of their pipe-laying exposition dialogue less awkward, but still awkward.
  • True Blood vampires “vamp out” much more delicately than Buffy vampires. After being used to the Buffy game faces, the little fang “snikt!” is kind of hilarious.
  • Come to think of it, I’m choosing to interpret the introductory fake-out scene as a Buffy homage.
  • Sookie’s brother is such an over-the-top douchebag, it’s hilarious. His self-congratulatory mirror-point while having sex with his girlfriend was laugh-out-loud funny. (I LOL’d!)
  • This show picks up in the middle of the story in a kind of unusual way. It’s really refreshing to watch a vampire story that doesn’t start with several weeks of the characters all running around in denial about the fact that vampires exist, or having to keep the existence of vampires a secret. In fact, none of the supernatural elements are kept secret, and the discovery of the supernatural isn’t part of the plot at all. Bill’s the first vampire in town, but everyone knows what to expect. Sookie’s friends all know she’s psychic. Saves a lot of time.

The two episodes I’ve seen have been pretty enjoyable. I’m looking forward to seeing how they spell out all of the abilities and weaknesses of the vampires, the history of their going public, and so on. I’ll watch more!

True Blood

The Arc of the Moral Universe

Justin Katz of Anchor Rising is a very interesting person to argue with. He’s eloquent and clearly passionate in his support of the issues that are important to him, and his sensitivity and decorum are to be lauded. Even though I disagree with him on every point of substance we’ve raised, I salute and respect his commitment to having these difficult and important conversations.

Plus, the dude used the word “especial” non-ironically. Got to give it up.

The core of Justin’s argument against legalizing same-sex marriage has to do with procreation. He asserts the primacy of procreation in marriage over and over in his posts and comments. In our most recent exchange in the comments section, I think I got as close as I’ve ever come to understanding what Justin means when he links marriage to procreation. Marriage, he says, “is primarily intended to encourage that expectation that procreation happens within its boundaries. Men and women should marry because what men and women do can create children, and children, as often as possible, ought to be raised in the stable marital homes of their biological parents.”

Let’s investigate further the expectation that procreation should happen with the boundaries of marriage. Where does this expectation come from? If it comes from a religious conviction that a marriage is the only legitimate context for having a child, then I have to grant Justin his right to that belief, and still ask for a secular explanation.

I assume that he has one. He might point out that studies have shown that outcomes are better for children that are raised by their married biological parents. This research is extremely interesting, but misleading. This paper from the Center for Law and Social Policy is very instructive:

This research has been cited as justification for recent public policy initiatives to promote and strengthen marriages. However, findings from the research are often oversimplified, leading to exaggeration by proponents of marriage initiatives and to skepticism from critics. While the increased risks faced by children raised without both parents are certainly reason for concern, the majority of children in single-parent families grow up without serious problems. In addition, there continues to be debate about how much of the disadvantages to children are attributable to poverty versus family structure, as well as about whether it is marriage itself that makes a difference or the type of people who get married.

In other words, correlation does not imply causation. Further investigation suggests that many of the negative outcomes (in terms of behavioral problems, education achievement, etc) are also correlated with low family income and social status, which is not surprising. (Here is another report that indicates that the outcomes associated with single-parenthood may well vary by race.)

It’s intuitive that a child living with both of his or her parents would benefit from that situation, but does it matter if the two parents are married or simply cohabitating? My intuition is that it shouldn’t matter, and the admittedly thin data seems to bear this out.

Research suggests the importance of distinguishing between cohabiting families with two biological parents and those with a biological parent and another partner. Some evidence indicates that school achievement and behavioral problems are similar among children living with both biological parents—regardless of marital status—and that children in both formal and informal step-families also fare similarly in these areas.

All this to say that I’m unconvinced that the state has a specific interest in encouraging that marriage be the appropriate context for having and raising children, and that I am convinced that the state has an interest in providing support and assistance for families with children.

But let’s set this aside. Even stipulating that, as a society, we have an interest in promoting procreation within marriage, I’m struggling to understand why allowing same-sex marriage undermines this interest. No rational heterosexual couple would be discouraged from marriage just because homosexual couples can do it too.

A same-sex couple that wants to have children can’t (barring biological innovation) have a biological child together, so there’s no mechanism for them to create the “ideal” family unit — children living with their married biological parents. Same-sex couples that want children will find ways to have them whether they can marry or not; if marriages promote stable family structures, wouldn’t we (if the welfare of children was our primary concern) want to encourage same-sex couples to marry, not prevent it?

By Justin’s logic, allowing same-sex couples to marry undermines the link between marriage and procreation, and this link must be protected. I counter that allowing same-sex couples to marry would have the opposite effect: it would expand the incentive to have children within marriage to all couples that want children, not just straight couples.

In fact, and I’ve said this before, there’s no argument from procreation against same-sex marriage that isn’t, at its core, an argument against homosexuality itself. If the problem with a same-sex couple is that they can’t procreate, this problem exists whether they marry or not. A prohibition on same-sex marriage won’t drive gay people into heterosexual relationships, and allowing same-sex marriage won’t drive straight people into homosexual relationships. Some married couples will have kids, some won’t. Some unmarried people will have kids, others won’t. I’m simply unable to draw a connection between same-sex marriage and the behavior of straight people.

Here’s Justin: “We can balance the principle of procreative marriage with minimizing government involvement in our lives simply by saying that marriage is an opposite-sex relationship. To include homosexuals in the definition would undermine that tacit understanding.” I admit it: I don’t get it. How does expanding the definition of marriage constitute more government involvement in the lives of, for instance, married people? And how does saying that marriage is an opposite-sex relationship minimize government involvement? I’m stumped here.

But all of this social policy argumentation is just a pantomime, isn’t it? I know that no matter how sharp and scintillating my arguments, no matter how precise and persuasive my data, the chances that I will convince Justin (or someone like him) to embrace same-sex marriage are slim. The chances that he will convince me are just as slim. Why? Because at the core, our positions aren’t based on dispassionate analysis of the implications of either policy; they’re based on deeper, more emotional convictions. For Justin, I imagine, his position stems from his religious beliefs. For me, I’m persuaded by my innate sense of morality and fair play, and by my love for my family. So is this a hopeless conversation?

Far from it, I hope. I don’t want to try to convince Justin that same-sex marriage is the best thing since they started making Peeps for holidays other than Easter. I just want to convince him that he’s entitled to his personal convictions on the subject, but that he’s not entitled to enshrine them in law. Justin, and others, have said that marriage is “fundamentally procreative,” but I don’t know how to understand that statement, in light of Justin’s own arguments, unless we are to interpret “fundamentally” as meaning something like “usually” or “traditionally.” That’s a perfectly reasonable opinion, but it’s not a convincing argument.

Finally, I have to acknowledge preemptively that, yes: proponents of same-sex marriage are indeed trying to change the definition of marriage. This is explicitly, unashamedly, my goal. I think that such a change would be a change for the better. The civil rights history of country involves this kind of definitional change. In this century alone we’ve changed the definition of “voter” from “white man” to “man” to “adult.” This was a change that was not accomplished without difficulty and resistance, but it was a change that resulted in a more just society.

Marriage has changed in meaning, too. Marriage started out as a transaction between two men, involving the transfer of property (a woman) from one to the other. In modern times, marriage became a legal instrument between a man and a woman to unite their assets and liabilities. It’s time for marriage to take the next step: the benefits of civil marriage must be opened to any pair of eligible adults.

This is a cause that I’m passionate about. It’s one that I believe in strongly as a matter of conviction. The injustice of our current system of legal marriage is more than just an abstract wrong to me and my family and friends: it’s real, it’s unfair, and it has to end. That said, I’m ultimately optimistic that I’m on the right side of history here. Demographics are moving us inexorably towards a society that favors equal rights for homosexuals, and I’m completely confident that in a generation or two we’ll look back on this period with the same distaste and confusion with which we look back on Jim Crow. In the meantime, it’s up to us to fight the fight now.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Arc of the Moral Universe

Shortbus, 2006

If you’ve got only a small kernel about what you want your next movie to be about, you should get a collection of unknown actors and actresses and allow them to improvise storyline and dialogue in between scenes of them having sex with each other. This will get people to discuss the fact that there aren’t many feature length films that aren’t porno where the sex on the screen is really people having sex with each other as opposed to people pretending to have sex with each other. It’s possible that the resulting noise will cause people to overlook that your movie isn’t very good, and is, in fact, not much more than a feature length film about and featuring people having sex with each other.

Shortbus, 2006

Not All Discrimination Is Equal

Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s… The Ostensible Champion of Liberty and Tolerance! Or at least that’s what fellow Rhode Islander Justin Katz has dubbed me in his gracious response to some comments I left over at Anchor Rising. Before I have myself fitted for the cape and tights, it seems right and proper to address the challenges Justin has laid down in his post.

I’m struck, first of all, by Justin’s framing of the subject of our conversation as the “inevitable collision of the gay rights movement with certain fundamental freedoms, such as that of religion.” It’s hard for me to see how seeking to expand the civil rights of gay Americans impinges the religious freedoms of other Americans (or how the right to marry isn’t as fundamental as freedom of religion), but his lengthy response urges me to try.

Firstly, I must correct a seeming misapprehension. Justin says:

For me to have a lack of sympathy for those whose conclusions I oppose would require me to believe that they are all lying about their motives and are, in fact, consciously striving for the downfall of our society. It is disheartening to think that the courteous and discoursive [sic] MRH might believe something equivalent from the other side.

Flattery will get you everywhere, you handsome and articulate fellow! Of course, there’s no need to ascribe to me such a negative view of opponents of same-sex marriage, just as there’s no need to assume that supporters of same-sex marriage believe that gay people and their supporters want to bring about the downfall of society. We can certainly disagree – and even disagree without sympathy — without believing that the other’s motivations are so base. Take heart, Justin, that my courtesy does not merely cover disdain.

Our mutual good intentions thus assured, let us move to the actual matter at hand.

I view the denial of the right of same-sex couples to marry as a form of discrimination. And yet, if that right were granted, might there not be a new “reverse” discrimination against those who oppose it? Here’s Justin:

I offer you the not-so-hypothetical examples of a Christian organization that places adoptive children only with married couples and the business that only prints invitations for marriage ceremonies. In either case, with the civil-rights argument, that religion or that business has a definition of marriage — one that relates directly to their beliefs about the relationships that they are encouraging — that would, overnight, be invidious discrimination.

I’ll grant that, in a world where same-sex marriage is legal and discrimination based on sexual orientation is illegal, the invitation company might not be free to refuse to print invitations to same-sex marriages. Let’s also grant that, if they take public funds, the Christian agency might not be free to decline to place children into households where both parents are of the same sex. Their definitions of marriage would suddenly come into conflict with that of the state and, indeed, they would be guilty of legal discrimination.

Should our sympathy for this printing company and this adoption agency weigh more or less heavily than our sympathy for a gay couple that wants to marry? My initial answer was that, of course, we feel more for the latter, because I tend to sympathize with victims of discrimination, not agents of discrimination. Justin’s riposte was as follows:

My response to the expression of sympathy for “the victims of discrimination,” rather than “agents of discrimination,” is to wonder whether Matt’s sympathies are applied on the basis of individual cases or he’s speaking of victims and agents as class distinctions. If the former, one would expect his sympathies to cycle: The Catholics who are rebuffed for discriminating against homosexuals for purposes of adoption (to keep with the prior example) are, in turn, being discriminated against by the government in relation to the their ability to take private initiative in keeping with their beliefs about the most beneficial homes for children. If the latter, the application of sympathy — presumptuous in its assignment of roles — amounts to declaring a moral preference for homosexuals versus traditional Christians.

My sympathies apply to victims of discrimination both as individuals and as a class. Let’s address the challenge to the latter lemma first. In the spirit of cordiality and charity, I’ll interpret this as a rhetorical maneuver rather than as a genuine claim, but will respond with a rhetorical maneuver of my own: does sympathizing with the victims of racial discrimination, as a class, amount to a moral preference for blacks over whites? Of course, it does not. Rather, it amounts to a moral preference for equality and justice over inequality and injustice.

In the case of individual victims of discrimination, would my sympathies cycle, as Justin suggests, to Christians who are unable to deny service to homosexuals? I suspect it would not, because I don’t consider the imposition of equality to be discrimination. Was the decision in Brown v. Board of Education discrimination against segregationists? Surely not. Of course, the two cases are not entirely parallel. The distinguishing factor seems to be that the objections are motivated by religion rather than some other value system. I’m not sure that this should make a difference. Justin seems to think it does, however, and maybe some of you do as well, so let’s consider it so and proceed.

We are confronted with a choice, then. We either discriminate against same-sex couples by denying them the right to marry, or we discriminate against “traditional Christians” by forcing them to recognize same-sex marriages. Are we at an impasse? Faced with discrimination on either side, are we unable to judge between them? Of course not. Not all instances of discrimination are equal, and there is no moral obligation to tolerate intolerance. We must have a rubric to decide which is worse, and mine works by evaluating the harm done to the class or individual discriminated against. It seems clear enough to me that more harm is done by denying same-sex couples the right to marry than by granting it.

Justin said something else very interesting:

It oughtn’t take but so much intellectual distance to realize that the struggle isn’t between religious dogma and objective civil rights, but between two competing ideological worldviews with different understandings of what marriage, in its essence, is.

I don’t agree, unsurprisingly. I think extending marriage rights to same-sex couples is a simple question of civil rights. But Justin is right that there are competing ideas of what marriage is. And here is where we stop dancing around the real point. We’re arguing a point of public policy. We know what the traditional religious view of same-sex marriage is, but if we are to make it the law, we need another basis. Our secular democracy demands extra-Biblical justification for its law-making. So what is the secular, social argument against same-sex marriage?

Unfortunately, it’s not a very good one. Justin bases his opposition to same-sex marriage on:

… the utility of marriage to bind the genders in biologically affirmed union and to tie generations in an historical thread of ancestry and progeny, often with religious underpinnings. If this is the vision of marriage that one holds, then homosexual relationships, whether they inspire approval or disapprobation, are simply not marriage, and to redefine marriage to include them would inevitably erode the institution’s utility.

As loath as I am, in general, to argue from marginal cases, surely defining marriage as a procreative pair cannot be sustained in the face of some simple counter-examples. Can a heterosexual couple who are (independently or mutually) infertile be said to be truly married under this definition? What about a married couple that abstains from sex? And do we want the state to invalidate marriages that do not produce progeny, or require fertility and genetic testing before validating a marriage certificate? Do we want the state to compel married couples to attempt to conceive? No, we do not.

The other side will counter, lamely I think, that it is not actual fertility, but rather some kind of potential, Platonic fertility that matters: a marriage must include male and female genitalia, whether they are joined in sexual congress or not. This is, of course, absurd.

How, practically, would redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships “erode the institution’s utility?” This is the question that has never been answered to my satisfaction. Marriage, as Justin points out, has many benefits to society. These include the strengthening of familial and societal ties, the establishment of persistent kin groups and affinities, and the financial stability of combining households, benefits, and assets. Where, in any of this, should gender matter? Is there a fear that, should the option of same-sex marriage become available, men and women that would otherwise marry each other and produce offspring will be tempted to instead marry members of the same sex? If this is Justin’s argument, I think he drastically overestimates the number of closeted homosexuals in our society.

Besides, any of the arguments that society depends on “traditional marriage” for its procreative potential apply just as well to same-sex marriage as they do to homosexuality simpliciter. Homosexuals are, by and large, going to refrain from marrying members of the opposite sex and reproducing with them whether same-sex marriage is legal or not. Do opponents of same-sex marriage also want to outlaw homosexual behavior? Do they want to compel heterosexual behavior?

Advocates of the right to same-sex marriage draw a clear distinction between religious marriage – marriage as defined to any particular religious group that offers it as a rite – and civil marriage – marriage as defined by the regulations and structures of legal statute. I have never seen an argument against same-sex marriage that was not grounded in religious belief. I believe strongly that any religious person should be free to decline to officiate at, attend, or acknowledge any marriage that offends his or her beliefs. I believe just as strongly that he or she should not have the right to enshrine those beliefs in law.

Not All Discrimination Is Equal

Fear Of The Unknown

I work about an hour from my house, which sucks out loud for any number of reasons. For many months, I rode with a carpool to try to mitigate the financial and environmental downsides of the commute. I found two guys who also lived in the general area, and after some initial hurdles relating to how ridiculously early they liked to get to work in the morning, we settled into a fine little carpool.

That’s not to say it was perfect. For one thing, our compromise departure time still had me leaving the house at 6:45 a.m., which is not my favorite time of day. If that wasn’t enough, while they’re both very, very nice people, the three of us have different pain thresholds when it comes to more-or-less inane small talk before 8:00 a.m. They like football; I only follow baseball. They enjoy talking about work on the drive there and back; I want to forget about work the minute I leave the building. And so on.

The biggest difference between them and me, though, is this: they’re extremely politically and socially conservative Christian Republicans. I’m none of the above. Our carpool boasted a fundamentalist Evangelical (whom I’ll call “Mark”), an extremely observant Catholic (whom I’ll call “Dan”), and me.

Our political and religious differences really were not, on their own, a problem. I think there’s real value in confronting oneself with people who think differently. It’s healthy to talk, debate, and even argue with people who believe things that you don’t. Most of the time, I really enjoyed talking about religion, politics, and morality with people on “the other side.” I got to hone my arguments, understand the other position, and maybe even start to make inroads towards convincing them of my way of seeing things.

I wasn’t surprised to find that we had different perspectives on the war, on abortion, contraception, on stem-cell research, or on gay marriage. On the other hand, I was (perhaps naively) stunned to find that I shared a carpool with two college-educated software engineers who didn’t believe in evolution. We spent several car rides talking about evolution and I like to think that I made some small amount of headway against their knee-jerk opposition. I don’t think I changed any minds, but I might have planted the tiniest seed of doubt. I even lent Mark my copy of Ken Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God, hoping that he might get something out of it and maybe even learn a little.

A few weeks ago, Mark came by my office to say that he was dropping out of the carpool. I wasn’t heartbroken to see it come to an end. I’d been thinking about leaving the carpool myself. The opportunity to sleep an hour later in the morning was, I’m ashamed to say, worth more to me than the opportunity to save a tank of gas a week, and I had some angst about associating so closely with people who opposed what I believe to be fundamental principles of fairness. What was shocking to me was the reason he chose to leave the carpool. It wasn’t that he could no longer stand to associate with heathens such as myself; rather, he wanted to spend more time praying in the mornings, and to use the hour-long ride to and from work to work on “Scripture memorization.”

A few days later, I found my copy of Finding Darwin’s God in my mailbox at work. A year after I’d lent it to him, Mark had returned it with a post-it saying, “I didn’t quite get through it, but it was very interesting. Thanks.” I wrote him the following email: “Didn’t finish? What happened, man?” He wrote back saying that he just “didn’t have time” to finish it, but that he’d read another book instead. It was a book on “Intelligent Design,” a concept I thought we’d thoroughly dispatched with in the carpool.

I find the entire saga somewhat dismaying. It points out what I think is one of the most damaging and depressing aspects of the fundamentalist community (of any fundamentalist community) – its insularity. Mark passed up the opportunity to associate with two people with different beliefs (because let’s not forget, I might be Jewish, but Dan’s Catholic, and apparently Catholics and Protestants really don’t get along that well, theologically speaking) in favor of spending more time by himself. How many other people in his life, do you think, would argue with him about whether English should be the national language, or whether condoms lead to promiscuity, or whatever other half-thought-out opinion he holds?

About a year ago, Mark was very proud to have delivered the (hour-long) sermon at his church, and he sent the other two of us a link to his church’s website, where MP3s of each sermon could be downloaded. I confess that I didn’t actually listen to much of his particular piece, but I did look at the titles of the various “messages” from the weeks around his. At a time when the news was full of stories about the war in Iraq and torture at Abu Ghraib at Guantanamo, Mark’s church was talking about personal repentance, sexual purity, and about a deepening personal relationship with Jesus. These religious communities, of which American Evangelicals are a notable example, are failing themselves and their society by their insularity.

I don’t mean to indict all religious activity here, but I think there is something deeply irresponsible – something willfully blind – about turning so far away from the world. It is, I believe, fundamentally immoral to elevate one’s personal spiritual concerns above an awareness of what is going on in the world. An insistent, solipsistic focus on the ritualistic repetition of unchallenged beliefs, and the masturbatory pre-occupation with the familiar and internal over the external, represents an inexcusable abdication of moral, ethical, and intellectual responsibility.

It has practical consequences. There are facts about the world that these people don’t know and aren’t learning because they are reading the Bible (for the twentieth time) instead of the newspaper. They perpetuate a cycle of intolerance and ignorance because their children are educated at home, and aren’t exposed to the inevitable diversity of opinion and experience that public or private schooling provide. They put aside books that would challenge their preconceptions in favor of books that reinforce them. And they deprive themselves of the opportunity to broaden their minds by interacting with people they disagree with.

I recognize that some of these charges could be leveled at me. I talk a good game when it comes to diversity, but how much time do I really spend exposing myself to opinions I disagree with? One of the reasons I enjoyed the carpool so much was that it kept my argument “muscles” from atrophying: there are few things more stimulating than mounting a stirring defense of the right to sexual privacy, and few things more entertaining than telling a Catholic that, really, you don’t care if he thinks you’re going to Hell.

But aside from these occasional skirmishes, how often do I face thinking that’s really different from my own? I only skim conservative political blogs, and I’m not going to waste my time reading a book arguing that evolution can’t account for “irreducibly complex” biological structures and processes, or that purports to give the “politically incorrect” truth about the evils of Islam, or that claims that I, and those who agree with me, are liars, traitors, and worse.

So what’s the difference? Why do I think Mark needs to read Ken Miller while I’m excused from reading Ann Coulter? One obvious and facile answer is that Miller is right while Coulter is an idiot. Even so, my own bookshelf isn’t above rebuke: I don’t read anywhere near enough sensible conservative writing, and I should fix that. I like to that I’m a leg up on people like Mark because I have the tools to distinguish what’s worth reading from what’s not – but he’d probably claim that he has as much right to dismiss Richard Dawkins as I do to dismiss Bill Bennett.

So, am I just as blinkered and small-minded as poor Mark, whom I’m raking over the coals here? I don’t think so; a discussion of why will have to wait for the next essay.

Fear Of The Unknown

Abstraction and Empathy

A prominent libertarian blogger, who goes by the nom de plume “Jane Galt,” wrote recently about the notion of “redistribution of wealth:”

While I am much more sanguine than most libertarians about redistributing material wealth from the richer to the poorer … I cannot believe in this sort of redistribution—“cutting down the tall poppies,” as I believe the Australians call it. Perhaps a little thought experiment will explain why.

Beauty, like wealth, is relative—it benefits its possessor only insofar as they are lovelier than the women, or handsomer than the men, around them. Presumably, if we disfigured all the good-looking actors in Hollywood, and the models in New York, and … well, heck, let’s slash the faces of everyone who’s better looking than I am. I am younger and slimmer than the average American, and have good teeth, long thick hair, and all the other accoutrements of an upper–middle–class upbringing. So we know that this would bring happiness to far more Americans than it would distress. We don’t have to turn them into Quasimodo—just make them no more good looking than I am. Just think how happy America could be made if Cindy Crawford had saddlebags and a squint.

But wait! Americans could be made even happier if Cindy Crawford and her ilk had acid poured on their faces to turn them into a twisted mass of scars, and were inflated a hundred pounds or so apiece through gavage. Physical pain could be alleviated by judicious application of modern painkilling technology, providing a huge psychic boost to everyone else at only a mild psychic cost … to the pulchritudinous elites.

Can you imagine a more blindly privileged position than that the value of wealth is solely relative, that the wealthy are happy only because there are those with less and that the poor are unhappy only because there are those with more? Leaving aside the risible opinion that for the wealthy to lose some of their money would be akin to a woman being violently disfigured, one is left to wonder that it has never occurred to Ms. “Galt” that maybe the poor are unhappy not only because they see that there are those that have more money than they do. Maybe the fact that they can’t afford food and a decent place to live has something to do with it. Maybe the inability to provide one’s children with all they need or want would weigh more heavily than the sight of a Lexus driving down the street. Maybe, just maybe, there are objective downsides to poverty.

This particular bit of nonsense is just one example of a phenomenon I’ve seen quite a bit of: a noted lack of empathy from conservative and libertarian thinkers. This isn’t a particularly novel insight—after all, the stereotype is that the hearts of us liberal types simply bleed empathy—but I’ve noticed one particular strain of empathy failure has to do with what I consider to be an error in levels of abstraction.

Abstraction is important. It is by generalizing that we turn experience into prediction, examples into rules. The ability to see beyond one’s own circumstances is, itself, a kind of abstraction, and one that can lead to more, not less, empathy. And of course dealing only with specifics bogs debate down with anecdotes, and fails to address principles.

But discourse that occurs only at the level of abstraction runs the risk of ignoring that which was abstracted. When talking about unemployment numbers or casualty rates it’s important to remember that there are real people behind these numbers. Taxation, for example, is fairly universally unpopular, but it’s also widely acknowledged to be essential for funding the services on which citizens rely. In a discussion about a criminally under-funded social program, is it not a failure of empathy to gloss over pleas on the behalf of those who are not served to argue instead about the justness of taxation at all? Is staking out an abstract principle nothing more than avoiding the unpleasant reality?

When considering the merits of a proposition like universal health care, what do you consider? Do you believe that millions of children and adults without the ability to pay for doctor’s visits and medicine is a tragedy that we, as a society have a duty to confront? Or is your primary concern “moral hazard” – the idea that if a person has access to health care they might use it “wastefully,” getting tests and treatments that they don’t need. (Even if such a proposition isn’t ludicrous to you on its face, that is, even if you accept that it reflects a likely or even possible outcome of universal insurance coverage, do you consider this to be a worse outcome than the status quo?)

When a group of women tells you about their experiences in a decidedly male-dominated society, and about how their experiences have affected their relationships with family, lovers, and even their own bodies, and when they insist that there is a pernicious sexism even in today’s enlightened society, and that even well-intentioned comments can sometimes cause hurt, what do you say? Do you apologize for giving offense, if you have done so? Do you keep silent if you have nothing constructive to say? Or do you muse aloud that it’s an interesting proposition and wonder how such a hypothesis might be tested, as if we were talking about a thought experiment and not real people and their lives?

Political philosophy and economic theory are important tools. Debates about abstract concepts are often helpful and nearly always enjoyable, but a refusal to engage with those who are concerned about the concrete realities that underlie the abstractions is, to at least some extent, and abrogation of one’s moral duties. When debating the issues of our time we must not, in our zeal to see the forest, overlook the trees.

Abstraction and Empathy