NPF: BIG SHOT

Posted in No Politics Friday on March 29th, 2013 by Ed

About a year ago I was in a bar with a friend and a bunch of his friends, who were strangers to me. One of them immediately struck me as the kind of person I would not associate with voluntarily. He was nice enough to broadcast the fact that he was an an insufferable asshead by being incredibly rude to the bar staff. If you're in any kind of social setting with someone who is a dick toward service industry employees, you may safely leap to the conclusion that this person is terrible. In every way. Without fail.

Let's call him Chad. Chad was the typical ex-fratboy in his late twenties, all spray tanner and tacky Ed Hardy shirts covering his now-ample gut. A few years out of some undoubtedly expensive MBA program, Chad carried himself like a Very Important Person. But he clearly wasn't one. The conversation (he loved talking about himself, naturally) indicated that he had some sort of low-level, demeaning job that he considered beneath him. His manner of speaking to the bartender and waitress was a combination of how you'd picture Mitt Romney speaking to his lawn maintenance workers and how Maxim magazine would recommend sizing up one's next rape victim. When the bartender suggested he knock it off, does anyone care to guess what Chad did next?

Yes, he loudly demanded to see "the manager."

He complained to this gentleman for several minutes about the staff's failure to meet his high personal standards, and the manager, clearly used to this sort of thing, politely mollified him with soothing words that made him feel important. He turned to our group, many of whom he did not even know, and said, "You see? That's how you get the kind of service you deserve."

Mind you, we're just in some hotel bar. This isn't the Waldorf-Astoria or Windsor Castle or any other place where one might expect, however unfairly, hand-and-foot service from staff. This was just a bar/restaurant with a bartender and a couple of servers who probably had day jobs and a hundred other things going on in their life of more significance than Chad's drink order.

I've never worked in the service industry. I got a job doing janitorial work at the park district when I was 15 and skipped the McDonald's/Chili's/Fast Food rite of passage. Accordingly, I have no first hand experience with how awful people can be in that environment. Watching Chad was an important revelation for me. I saw him and understood immediately all of the stories I've heard from service industry employees over the years. I realized how many Chads there are in this country – self-styled Important people who aren't important at all. He's spent his whole life envisioning himself as one of the big shots, one of the people who hires and fires and takes orders from no one. But now that he has entered the real world he's not hiring or firing anyone, and he takes orders from everyone. He's nobody and nothing.

The service industry becomes the outlet for his own frustration and impotence; here are some people he can boss around for a while. Here are some people who are beneath him, whom he expects to be kissing his ass. There certainly isn't anyone else doing it. He even gets to reward and punish them with a tip. It's almost like he's the boss! But not really at all. He's just a supreme d-bag basking in the momentary thrill of bossing someone around.

Every time I have been in a tipping situation since then I've thought about Chad. Putting up with people like that is worth at least 17%.

MEGAN McARDLE HAS A COMPLETE MENTAL BREAKDOWN AND RECEIVES LIFE-SAVING FJM TREATMENT

Posted in Rants on March 28th, 2013 by Ed

At some point Megan McArdle has to get fired. We're accustomed to reading her arguments and thinking, gee, that makes no sense whatsoever – "no sense" as in, her logic is faulty. Apparently she has moved on to writing things that make no sense in the most literal meaning of the term. She is stringing together words that do not belong together to construct confusing sentences that appear to be arranged in no particular order. With "Why Gay Marriage Will Win, and Sexual Freedom Will Lose", we get the rare opportunity to watch a human being completely disintegrate into incomprehensible gibberish right before our eyes. It is not pretty, my friends.

Here but for the grace of god go we all.

In some sense, it doesn't really matter how the Supreme Court rules on the gay marriage case it's hearing today. The culture war is over on this front, and gay marriage has won. Even if it loses at the Supreme Court this term, it will win in the legislatures . . . because it is already winning in popular opinion. Few people much under the age of sixty see a compelling reason that straights should marry and gays should not. For that matter, my Republican grandfather is rumored to have said, at the age of 86, "I think gays should marry! We'll see how much they like it, though."

Hmm. This is remarkably sane. It's what we would expect from someone who calls herself a "libertarian conservative" and it appears to grasp reality – namely that the tide has turned and the legalization of SSM is imminent.

At this point, it's just a matter of time. In some sense, the sexual revolution is over . . . and the forces of bourgeois repression have won.

….buh?

That's right, I said it: this is a landmark victory for the forces of staid, bourgeois sexual morality. Once gays can marry, they'll be expected to marry. And to buy sensible, boring cars that are good for car seats.

Welp, given that this is only "expected" of straight people who think it's 1950 – not a huge share of the population – I hardly see why it would be expected of The Gays.

I believe we're witnessing the high water mark for "People should be able to do whatever they want, and it's none of my business." You thought the fifties were conformist? Wait until all those fabulous "confirmed bachelors" and maiden schoolteachers are expected to ditch their cute little one-bedrooms and join the rest of America in whining about crab grass, HOA restrictions, and the outrageous fees that schools want to charge for overnight soccer trips.

I believe we're witnessing a bad writer vomiting words and writing a column in one take before submitting it without proofreading.

Three questions. 1) What in the hell are you talking about? 2) "Expected" by whom? 3) No seriously I will give you one American dollar to tell me what you're talking about.

Is this, like, a cry for help? McMegan is trapped in this nightmarishly banal life and she thought everyone else must be too, but then she realized that a lot of us don't do any of that and now she wants us to rescue her?

I know, it feels like we're riding an exciting wave away from the moral dark ages and into the bright, judgement free future. But moral history is not a long road down which we're all marching; it's more like a track. Maybe you change lanes a bit, but you generally end up back where you started. Sometimes you're on the licentious, "anything goes" portion near the bleachers, and sometimes you're on the straight-and-narrow prudish bit in front of the press box. Most of the time you're in between. But you're still going in circles. Victorian morality was an overreaction to the rather freewheeling period which proceeded it, which was itself an overreaction to Oliver Cromwell's puritanism. (Cromwell actually did declare a War on Christmas, which he deemed to be sensuous paganism.)

That track metaphor is stretched so awkwardly that it may be walking funny for the rest of its life. This is the essence of McMegan's shtick; her expensive upbringing taught her how to make the Right highbrow references, which make her appear intelligent (particularly to dumb people or anyone easily impressed by modestly arcane historical references). This is intended to disguise the fact that what she is saying is incredibly stupid. It doesn't work.

We've been moving away from the Victorian view of marriage for a long time, which means that we're probably due to circle back around the prudish front that drove Charles Dickens to lie when he left his wife for another woman.

Nope. It does not mean that at all. Not even a little.

The 1970s were an open revolt against the idea of the dutiful pair bond, in favor of a life of perpetual infatuation. The elites led the way–and now they're leading it back. Compare Newt Gingrich or John McCain to the new generation of Republican hopefuls. Jindal, Ryan, Christie, Rubio . . . all of them are married to their first wives. Jindal met his wife in high school, Christie in college. By their age, McCain was preparing for his first divorce, and Gingrich was just a few years from his second.

Oh, give the younger guys some time before we start applauding their commitment to dutiful betrothal. I'm sure more than a few of them will be trading up for Calista Gingrich types before too long.

Meanwhile, it's becoming increasingly impossible to ignore the disastrous collapse of marriage outside the elite.

Wait.

I thought gays were going to be expected/pressured to marry. But…now…you're saying that marriage is less popular as an institution than ever before? So…why exactly…will they be pressured to re-enact Leave it To Beaver like the article just stated, like, three paragraphs ago?

If any readers out there can concoct an answer to that question please share it in the comments and be sure to let Megan know as well.

It turns out that there aren't a diverse array of good ways to raise a child, as the progressive academics of the 1970s had suggested. Or at least, if there are, they don't include having children with an array of men you're not willing to marry, and who will subsequently drift in and out of your life. And that, in post-sexual revolution America, is increasingly the norm in many areas.

mmhmm. mmhmm.

*DISCREETLY MOVES TOWARD EXIT*

Yes, I see.

*POSITIONS FURNITURE BETWEEN McARDLE AND SELF*

So…this would be an argument in favor of marriage as opposed to other ways to raise a child, yes?

Even as we're understanding it, we're losing the reasons to be suspicious of the old marital norms. When traditional marriage, with its expectations of monogamy and longevity, no longer means excluding gays, expect it to get more popular among affluent urbanites.

Seriously, is any of this making sense to anyone out there? This is like a rudderless ship careening from one unrelated idea to another. Is she in favor of gay marriage? Is she against it? Does she think marriage is a positive thing? A negative one? Irrelevant? Does she think anything at all, or is she just barfing out her contractually obligated word count for the week?

To be sure, it's already popular–affluent urbanites are now quite conservative in their personal marital habits. They've just been reluctant to shame those who don't follow suit. But with marriage freed from the culture-war baggage, we now have an opening for change. Think it can't happen? Consider the cigarette. It was shocking for a woman to smoke on in public in 1880, nearly mandatory in 1940, and increasingly shocking in 2013 (for either gender). I wouldn't be surprised to see out-of-wedlock childbearing follow a similar course.

The neo-Victorian morality will protect who you want to marry–male or female, or maybe even something in between. But the wider open marriage is, the less necessary it becomes to defend the right to carefree sex–or children–outside of marriage. One can imagine a Republican politician fifty years hence ruining his career when he throws over his husband and children for a younger man.

Ah, yes. Affluent urbanites are good examples of people who respect the institution of marriage. They're quite conservative about it, as evidenced by the analysis and survey data published in recent issues of Science and the American Journal of Sociology.

HAHAHAHAHAHA NOT REALLY. I'M KIDDING. MEGAN JUST MAKES SHIT UP.

If I had to guess, I'd also put late marriage on the endangered list. I married at 37 myself, so I'm not judging, here. But if we want childbearing to take place inside marriage (and I think we do), then the average age of first marriage can't get higher; it probably shouldn't even stay so high. As that average age rises, you get two unwanted phenomenon on the tails of the distribution: babies born to unmarried parents at the low end, and couples who want children but can't have them on the high side. So the current upper-middle-class tendency to push marriage later and later while people finish their educations and get settled doesn't seem very stable to me–even before we consider the difficulty of finding a mate to match your settled life, which Keith Humphreys has dubbed The Problem of Grandma's Lamp.

About ten years ago I was on the phone with an older gentleman – a client of my then-employer – as he began to suffer a stroke. He began to slur words and say things that were comprehensible but made no sense. Immediately I knew something was wrong. I was glad to be on the phone with him so I could contact an ambulance. Luckily, he would go on to recover.

It rattled me. It was a scary moment.

This paragraph is a pretty good representation of what he sounded like.

Of course, predictions are hard, especially about the future.

Ladies and gentlemen, Megan McArdle: Professional Writer. She gets paid to write this, people. She makes more money than you or I, too. Most of us would recognize her job and her lifestyle as something out of our dreams – get paid a lot to work very little and hobnob with famous and important people.

To write things like this.

Predictions are hard. Especially about the future.

There is no god.

Nonetheless, here is mine: whatever the Supreme Court decides, gay marriage will soon be legal throughout the land. But this will not mean that we drive ever onwards towards greater sexual freedom–rather, it will mean quite the reverse. The sexual revolution is over. And the revolutionaries lost.

The way this sounds, I imagine her hitting "send" to her editor, turning slowly away from the desk in the well-appointed office of her opulent Georgetown home, and looking wistfully out a window for a moment before jamming a Cato Institute letter opener into her abdomen to begin the ritual of seppuku.

She seems like a terrible person, but I'm worried about her well-being nonetheless. Someone should give her a call. Check on her. Otherwise we might have to wait a week until the neighbors notice a funny smell coming from the ol' Suderman mansion.

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THE HERO'S JOURNEY

Posted in Rants on March 27th, 2013 by Ed

Public opinion research tells us that individuals' partisan identity crystallizes in early adulthood and is resistant to change as we age. The same is generally true of our attitudes on political issues, albeit with more wiggle room. As the political environment changes and as our views and priorities change (I believe sociologists still use the term "life course effects" to reflect the evolution of outlook that comes with major life events like college, entering the workforce, marriage, parenthood, home ownership, retirement, and so on) we are more willing to change our tune. If the bottom suddenly falls out of the economy, we become a bit more favorable toward things like unemployment benefits. When we buy a home we start to care about property taxes. When we're retired or about to retire we become much more pro-Social Security/Medicare. We do, in short, shuffle our priorities and change our minds in a systematic way.

As long as they're not doing it at apparent random, it's never a sign of weakness for political figures (or ordinary people, for that matter) to change their opinions over time. Thoughtful people tend to do that. It's not a sign of intellectual weakness. I used to be in favor of capital punishment; as I learned more about, and gave more thought to, the issue I changed my mind. Please don't think less of me.

There are bonus points to be won for entertaining these changes of heart and mind when it is politically unpopular to do so. No one gets a round of applause for coming out against Jim Crow-era segregation in 2013. Once opposing segregation became overwhelmingly popular, taking that position skirted the fine line between Evolving Opinions and political opportunism. Coming out against segregation in the 1920s – now that would be worthy of a hat tip. That involved some risk. That meant accepting the risk of taking an unpopular stance.

As all of the data from the last 20 years show, there has been a dramatic change in Americans' attitudes toward gay marriage over time. It has gone from a political third rail (Remember when gay marriage referendums used to be put on ballots because the right knew that people would come to the polls just to vote against it?) to a rapidly moving bandwagon in an astonishingly short period of time. Whereas people used to be hesitant to speak out for it, people are becoming more hesitant to oppose it for fear of being perceived as backward, bigoted, and behind the times.

Politically, being pro-gay marriage is a relatively easy thing to do now. For Democrats, it's downright popular. For Republicans, it has majority support among the younger generations and the Unspeakable is being spoken now even among the older ones. Gays now serve openly in bastions of macho-hetero symbolism like the military, major corporations, all levels of government, and throughout the media. Even in the bone-headed culture of professional sports, gay-bashing is met with immediate rebuke these days (remember Chris Culliver, or Kobe Bryant scolding homophobic fans on Twitter?)

All of this is a lead-up to the question of why Hillary Clinton came out in support of gay marriage in March of 2013, and whether this is supposed to impress anyone. For all her strengths, HRC has been remarkably risk-averse in her political career and has come up woefully short on this issue time and again. It's the reason that many people, myself included, have criticized her as a political opportunist, a party insider who advances into new territory only after it has been made safe by others. It's not exactly a heroic move at this point, and it's difficult to believe that there was no point before now – just months before the Supreme Court may be about to resolve the issue and after almost every Democratic elected official of any note has already endorsed it – at which she could muster the courage to take a stand.

A key criticism from the left of both Clintons and their DLC-type followers within the party is and has been that they adopt issue positions based on popularity rather than taking positions and explaining why people should support them. What Hillary Clinton has done with the gay marriage issue is a perfect example of that. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad she has come around or "evolved" to what I believe is the correct position on the issue. That said, her unwillingness to support it before it was declared Politically Safe to do so is a good example of why she couldn't rally Democrats behind her in 2008 and will have trouble doing so in 2016. Fortune may not always favor the boldest, but it certainly does not favor the least bold.

THE DIVIDE

Posted in Rants on March 26th, 2013 by Ed

It should come as no surprise that political scientists are quite agitated, not to mention displeased, by the Senate vote to eliminate National Science Foundation funding for political science. I would be remiss if I didn't say something here, so I'll do one better and say two things about it.

First, the way I might be expected to frame this is by telling you how this decision will impact me. Honestly, however, the internal dynamics of academia ensure that it won't affect me at all. Our professional organization, the American Political Science Association, spent weeks exhorting its members to contact elected officials on behalf of our NSF funding. This is logical but problematic in that the NSF treats the vast majority of political scientists (and presumably people in other fields as well) with a mixture of contempt and indifference. If they get an application that comes from any university outside of the top 10 or so research universities in the country, I'm fairly certain it gets thrown directly in the trash unless they decide to take a few moments to laugh at it. This map shows where all of the NSF money in political science goes. This profession mirrors the rest of our society, in which the top 1% have 90% of the resources and the rest of us get the shaft. Several people have suggested that I should be more supportive because I might use data from, or assign books based on, NSF-funded research. This is true, but it is little more than a Trickle Down economics argument – the vast majority of us who have nothing should lobby the government to improve the lot of our social betters so eventually a few crumbs will fall to us. Or maybe we'll Make It Big someday and join the 1% at Stanford and Princeton! (Note: we won't.)

So this is what it feels like to be part of the Republican base.

Second, the older I get the more I believe that the real divide in this country (I won't speak for the whole world, although I have my suspicions) is not between liberals and conservatives, the old and young, black and white, or any of the most common tropes. The divide in modern America is between people who think facts and knowledge are based on evidence and those who think that whatever one believes is true. The media is liberal because I think it is. Climate change and evolution are myths because I don't believe them. Tax cuts grow the economy because I think they do. This is what attacks on the NSF, and academia more broadly, are about. It's an easy target because a substantial portion of this country doesn't believe that science is a thing. To them, the scientific method begins with a conclusion and research is the process of manufacturing some kind of evidence to support it. The ice caps aren't melting because I say they aren't, and some oil companies wrote a paper proving it. What do we need the NSF or fancy-pants colleges for?

Together, those two points don't fit well together. On one hand I'm not inclined to weep for the people at the top of the caste system in my field. On the other, it's clearly a ridiculous, politically-motivated decision that underscores the driving force behind so many of our current social problems: the inability and/or unwillingness of half of Americans to distinguish between fact and opinion.

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DATA ABUSE

Posted in Quick Hits on March 25th, 2013 by Ed

I know that most people suck at logic, statistics, and a bunch of other things without which they are easy marks for bad arguments and misleading numbers. It would be nice, however, if major media outlets and publications had at least a basic grasp of how to interpret data like non-morons.

In "Ladies Last", National Geographic presents a map of the gender gap in life expectancy in the United States. Interesting and interactive map. Well done. And here's the analysis:

How long do you have? It depends on gender and geography. In the U.S., women live longer—81 years on average, 76 for men—but a recent study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation reveals a troubling trend. Though men's life spans have increased by 4.6 years since 1989, women have gained only 2.7 years, perhaps because a larger percentage of women have lacked adequate treatment for high blood pressure and cholesterol. "This is a wake-up call," says study co-author Ali Mokdad.

Wait, what? That's the dumbest thing I've ever seen, and I've seen Rick Perry.

To recap, female life expectancy has increased to 81 while men lag behind at 76, but we should be alarmed that women only gained 2.7 years to 4.6 for men since 1989. So the only thing that has decreased is the female advantage in life expectancy. While they used to outlive men by eight years, now it's only five. Absolute life expectancy for both genders has grown.

Using the magic of inductive reasoning, there appear to be some fairly obvious explanations.

1. In 1989, most of the WWII age cohort was alive and made up a substantial portion of the total population. Now many of them have died and subsequent generations – ones in which 500,000 men did not die young due to war – have outnumbered them. In 1940, women outlived men by 1 year. By 1989 that had grown to nearly 8 years. HMMM.

2. There has been a staggering decline since 1989 in highly dangerous, male-dominated, and historically common types of work. Coal mining and logging come to mind immediately, given how the gap has shrunken precipitously in the Pacific Northwest and Appalachia on the interactive map. Not only are those industries in decline, but productivity and mechanization allow fewer people to do more work.

3. There are mountains of evidence that American men are far more reluctant to get medical attention than women, making them easy victims for otherwise preventable or treatable problems.

4. Men are far more likely to die from "unnatural" causes like violence, road accidents, and suicide than women.

5. Math. Life expectancy is roughly bounded at the high end. In other words, it can't just increase infinitely and the marginal cost of increasing it once we reach the 80s is quite high. Imagine that I run the 100m in 15 seconds but you run it in 10. If we both work our asses off for a year, I'll probably improve to 12.5 seconds, while you'll be lucky to trim down to 9.9 seconds. By starting out closer to the theoretical upper limit of how fast a human can run, of course you're going to show less of a "gain" compared to someone who is lagging far behind.

But faced with all of these really, really obvious potential explanations and data that shows women still outlive men by a sizable margin, the writer (and the author of the damn study) conclude that the best explanation is women getting too few prescriptions for Lipitor.

Cool.

NPF: THERE IS NO NEWS TODAY

Posted in No Politics Friday on March 22nd, 2013 by Ed

On April 18, 1930 the BBC opened its radio broadcast by stating, "There is no news today" followed by piano music for a few hours.

Sometimes silence is better than adding to the cacophony.

SHORT END OF THE STICK

Posted in Rants on March 21st, 2013 by Ed

One thing I never do in the classroom, despite it being fairly common in my field, is to have students debate political issues. That's not the point of political science. I'm far more interested in evaluating their level of knowledge than in letting them talk about what they think. They spend enough time talking about what they think. No one cares. Opinions are for the internet.

Yes, there is some value in the point-counterpoint format. But in the classroom it strikes me as more of a time-killing tactic than legitimate pedagogy. It's one step short of showing episodes of The West Wing because Prof has a hangover. I assign papers in which the students get to practice defending a viewpoint by constructing a logical argument based on evidence. In my opinion that's more useful.

The other reason I don't like debate-style exercises is that there are surprisingly few issues in politics have two relatively equally balanced sides to the argument. I mean, modern American politics is basically the Democrats mumbling something quasi-logical while the Republicans scream something that makes no sense whatsoever. What am I supposed to say, "OK class, today we're going to debate de-funding the National Science Foundation. This group will be the 'pro' side…." We'd get more accomplished if we played Candyland. Defending ridiculous viewpoints is going to teach them one of two things. They will learn to make nonsensical arguments unabashedly, or they will learn how to say a bunch of bullshit that sounds like a persuasive argument but isn't. The former is Sean Hannity, the latter, George Will.

Regular NY Times readers among you may know where I'm going with this, assuming you laughed as hard as I did when reading the recent story about young conservatives defending "Traditional" Marriage ("Young Opponents of Gay Marriage Undaunted by Battle Ahead") If these young people had not freely chosen to do this for a living – and presumably they're getting paid pretty well from the right-wing slush fund, especially for people with no particular skills – I might feel a little sorry for them. For people defending an ideology based on individual freedom and minimal government, constructing an anti-gay marriage argument involves willful ignorance or staggeringly complex mental gymnastics.

And the other side of the issue – the case for what proponents call traditional marriage – is simple, they say.

"In redefining marriage to include same-sex couples, what you’re doing is you’re excluding the norm of sexual complementarity," said Mr. Anderson, the Heritage Foundation fellow. "Once you exclude that norm, the three other norms – which are monogamy, sexual exclusivity and permanency – become optional as well."

The result, proponents of traditional marriage say, would be further rises in divorce rates and out-of-wedlock births.

OK, sure, this argument makes no sense, being essentially an "It's bad for society!" argument from people who purport to be against what they call the Nanny State telling us what to do. But at the same time, wow, that is some epic bullshitting! Well done, Mr. Anderson. Made it sound all fancy 'n stuff!

I've never been one to read nobility into the idea of fighting a lost cause. To me it seems sad rather than some sort of victory of the human spirit against unfavorable odds. The reader gets a sense, based on their comments, that they see themselves as the protagonists in 300, fighting a lost cause in a way that will be remembered forever for its heroism, fidelity, and bravery. All I see is reasonably bright young people who could be doing something useful with their lives but instead have chosen to be the Washington Generals of the gay marriage debate.

SCORECARD

Posted in Quick Hits on March 20th, 2013 by Ed

Just a quick news item for today.

As the U.S. military deploys an increasing number of surveillance drones in the Mideast, Iran is stepping up efforts to shoot them down. According to The Aviationist:

(T)he last close encounter was unsuccessful because the fighter jets scrambled to intercept the unarmed U.S. drone were discouraged from accomplishing the mission: at least one of the two F-4 Phantom jets came to about 16 miles from the UAV but broke off pursuit after they were broadcast a warning message by two American (F-22) planes escorting the Predator.

If you're keeping score at home, that's an American drone trying spying on Iran being chased by American jets we sold to Iran in the 1970s until they were scared away by the new, obscenely expensive jets we developed to make the old jets obsolete after they proliferated. Why do we want to spy on Iran? Because of the Iranian nuclear program that was started when American built them a reactor back in the 1950s under Atoms for Peace (Pakistan too!)

You know. The usual.

WE ALL LIVE THERE

Posted in Rants on March 19th, 2013 by Ed

One of the interesting things about the study of public opinion is that Americans all have basically the same values. The difference is in how we prioritize them and how consistently we adhere to them. Politically, most people consider the concept of equality and our constitutional rights to be core values, but we often abandon them when we feel sufficiently threatened by scary brown people. Whenever I read this type of research I think about my own priorities. I value things like logic and consistency more than anything. It displeases me when things are unpredictable, especially in personal interactions. I don't like emotional reasoning – although like everyone, I do it myself sometimes – or people who have a million exceptions for every principle in which they claim to believe.

So, let me pose a question: If those two sixteen year old boys in Steubenville were charged with armed robbery rather than sexual assault, would you feel bad for them? In a way, I would.

Please remain calm and keep reading.

I would feel bad for them insasmuch as I think crime is a social problem with social causes; people do not fall from the womb with their switch turned to Evil and, as adults, decide to sell drugs or steal cars because it's thrilling. I think people react to the way they're raised and they generally choose the best of the options available to them. For many people living in the typical post-industrial shit hole like Steubenville, selling drugs is the most lucrative profession available to them by far. So if these guys were two common street criminals ("juvenile delinquents", if we're making an After School Special) conservatives would argue personal responsibility and punishment while the rest of us would argue mitigating circumstances and rehabilitation.

I don't feel bad for those guys because they had good grades or played football or were Nice Boys or anything else of the sort. In fact "Feel bad for" is the wrong phrase altogether. My point is simply this: We cannot believe that our justice system is fundamentally fucked up, which it most certainly is, and that crime has environmental causes and then suddenly become throw-the-book-at-'em Personal Responsibility chanting right-wingers if the crime they committed is especially offensive to us. Searching the archives I'm estimating that I've written 75-100 posts over the years about prison, law enforcement, miscarriages of justice, and the like. I don't think prison makes anyone better, ever, unless we count becoming a better criminal. And I think that we, as Americans, often scream for tougher sentences and harsh punishments to project our own sense of responsibility onto whichever sacrificial lambs were too poor to buy their way out of court.

In the context of the juvenile justice system, the sentence handed out to those rapists – and they will now be labeled so for life, as they should be – seems appropriate and unexceptional. If you were expecting or wanted more (drawing and quartering has been proposed, pending the availability of horses) I'd encourage you to examine your own motives. Why? Do you suddenly believe that the purpose of the justice system is to punish? Do you believe that incarceration fixes people?

Replace the phrase "feel bad for" with pity. I pity those boys because they are products of a society that has told them for their entire lives that what they did to the victim (of which there is only one here) is acceptable behavior. When I say "society" I don't mean Steubenville; I mean the whole country. We all live in Steubenville when it comes to creating…I'm not fond of the term "rape culture", but…creating a society that excuses, condones, victim-blames, shames, and does everything else except tell boys and men don't drug people and fuck them while they're unconscious. Read that part again. That's what they did. They hatched a plan to drug the victim and then have sex with her repeatedly while she was essentially inert. We live in a society so messed up that it is not immediately apparent to two 16 year old boys that this is wrong, or a thing they should not do. Instead they believed it was a thing Boys do while Being Boys, that the victim deserved or earned it, and that no harm could or should come to them for doing it.

That, my friends, is our fault. My fault. Yours too. That is our collective responsibility. Ultimately the perpetrators are responsible for their actions. But the rest of us bear some responsibility for what they believed. It's acceptable, she deserves it, we shouldn't be punished. They believed that so completely that they videotaped it and posted it on the internet, for Christ's sake. Most people – though not all people – don't take video of themselves committing crimes, and they're certainly not stupid enough to show all and sundry afterward if they do. Neither the attackers nor their friends and community thought that – pardon me for being emphatic – drugging a girl and having sex with her while she was unconscious was a crime. It was some sort of prank. Ha ha. You know, like that time you recorded your friend getting hit in the face with a pie.

You can take the Bill Bennett point of view if you want and conclude that these boys did not understand that what they did was a crime because The Evil lurks within them and they are Bad Apples and without morality or whatever. Or you can ask, How bad must the messages we send to, and examples we set for, young men be if by the time they reach near-adulthood they think it's acceptable to drug people and rape them? That they would in any way be surprised or confused to be arrested and prosecuted for doing so?

I believe they should be punished, but that we focus on them and on the punishment to avoid addressing our own contributions to this culture of acceptance, of victim-blaming, of excuse-making, and of misinformation? It's easy to say "Hang 'em high" or "The bitch wanted it" and then walk away. The difficult part is reflecting on our own contributions to a system that sends men into adulthood with such a warped set of beliefs about women, sex, and the boundaries of their own behavior.

ONE EASY STEP

Posted in Quick Hits on March 18th, 2013 by Ed

I have to put myself on Injured Reserve for the evening; I worked for about 12 hours on Sunday (woo! Spring Breaaaaaaaak!) and my eyes cannot handle the additional hour it would take to make a proper post. You will have to do most of the heavy lifting today.

A friend of mine went to Steubenville this weekend to see the verdict (I don't think terms like "verdict" and "guilty" apply to juvenile court, but for simplicity's sake we should feel free to use them). I suspect that she went prepared to flip out over the two accused boys being let off with a slap on the wrist. Shockingly, they appear to have received an actual punishment. Foremost, even more serious than the time they will spend incarcerated, is that they are registered sex offenders for life. Good. For reference, people who do not wish to be registered sex offenders can follow the easy step of not committing sex crimes.

How screwed up is it that the verdict still surprised a lot of us, given that there was an absolute mountain of evidence against them?

In case you missed it, CNN was pretty broken up about those poor boys and the verdict against them. While I doubt any of us want to have the rest of our lives defined by the worst decision we made at age 16, the media might bother to remember that the "real victim" is the victim and the brazenness of everyone involved in committing this crime is shocking enough to preclude sympathy.