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Posts from March 2005

Anarquistas por La Causa

Today, 31 March 2005, is César Chávez Day–the 78th anniversary of Chávez’s birth near Yuma, Arizona, and a state holiday (I’m told it’s officially celebrated in California, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, and Michigan) commemorating his lifelong work as an union organizer, agitator, and Chicano activist in the Southwestern United States. Chávez, together with Dolores Huerta, co-founded the ground-breaking United Farm Workers, and organized and inspired a generation of organized labor and Chicano community activists. Hugo Schwyzer has some more thoughts on Chávez’s legacy today; and of course you can find plenty to read from the United Farm Workers’ website.

As far as commemorating Chávez goes, they’ve said it better than I could. I’ll be commemorating the day by talking some more about libertarianism, organized labor, and the struggle of farmworkers in southern Florida–the workers organized by Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Taco Bell Boycott they launched and, just a few days ago, won–a campaign that was directly inspired by the UFW grape boycott that Chávez helped craft and win, and a campaign that was thrilled to receive the UFW’s endorsement in August 2001.

A few days ago, I prodded Daniel D’Amico in this space and in commentary on his blog over his criticisms of the Taco Bell boycott. He’s since come back with a reply to my prodding and to some similar concerns raised by other commentators. And since we have a nice convergence between the date and a question that might be of some interest–that is, libertarianism and labor, and the compatibility of principled anti-statism and a fighting labor movement–I figured that now is as good a time as any to offer a response to the response.

Before we begin, though, let’s hop onto a long tangent about terminology. Daniel leads off his argument by saying:

The Austrian school and libertarianism alike are against government control of market transactions, but the CIW appears to be refraining from such tactics, so what’s my problem anyway? Simply put I believe, there are more ways to be anti-capitalist than just using government. Mainly promoting ideas that capitalism is evil or claiming it resorts to rampant market failure are, in my view, anti-capitalist.

Some of Daniel’s other commentators had asked him what he thought made the boycott anti-capitalist, but I didn’t and I’m not going to. I don’t have any strong opinions on whether or not the Taco Bell boycott is anti-capitalist because I haven’t got any strong opinions about what capitalism (or, a fortiori, anti-capitalism) means. It seems to me that has been used to describe at least three different things, two of which are mutually exclusive and one of which is independent of those two. These are:

  1. The free market: capitalism has been used, mostly (but not exclusively) by its defenders to just mean a free market, i.e., an economic order that emerges from voluntary exchanges of property and labor without government intervention (or any other form of systemic coercion).

  2. The corporate State: capitalism has also been used, sometimes by its opponents and sometimes by the beneficiaries of the system, to mean a corporate State–that is, active government support for big businesses through instruments such as subsidies, central banking, tax-funded infrastructure, development grants and loans, special tax exemptions, funding plants, acquiring land through eminent domain, government union-busting, and so on down the line. Since government intervention is always, by nature, either services funded by expropriated tax dollars or regulations enforced from the barrel of a gun, it’s worth noting that being capitalist in the sense of a free marketeer requires being anti-capitalist in the sense of opposing the corporate State, and vice versa. The fact that state socialists and the anti-communist Right have spent the past century systematically running these two distinct senses of capitalism together (in order to make it seem that you had to swallow the corporate State if you believed in the free market–which the Marxists used for a modus tollens and the Rightists used for a modus ponens) doesn’t make these two any less distinct, or any less antagonistic.

  3. Boss-directed labor: third, capitalism has been used (by for example, Marxians and socialists who are careful about their use of language) to refer to a specific form of labor market–that is, one where the dominant form of economic activity is the production of goods in workplaces that are strictly divided by class. Under capitalism in the third sense, most workers are working for a boss, in return for a wage; they are renting out their labor to someone else, in order to survive, and it is the boss and not the workers who holds the title to the business, the shop, and the tools and facilities that make the business run. (Or, as the Marxists would have it, the means of production.) It’s worth noting that capitalism in this third sense is a category independent of capitalism in either of the first two senses: there are lots of different ways that a free labor market could turn out (it could be organized in traditional employer-employee relationships, or into worker co-ops, or into community workers’ councils, or into a diffuse network of shopkeeps and independent contractors) and someone who is an unflinching free marketeer might plump for any of these, or might be completely indifferent as to which one wins out; whereas an interventionist statist might also favor traditional employer-employee relationships (as in Fascism) or any number of different arrangements (as in various forms of state socialism).

With these distinctions on the table, it’s worth pointing out that many 19th century libertarians–Benjamin Tucker chief among them–who considered themselves both radical free marketeers and radical critics of capitalism; what they meant was that they attacked capitalism in senses (2) and (3)–holding that state intervention on behalf of big business was unjust and at the root of most social evils, including the exploitation and impoverishment of workers which they identified as being part and parcel of capitalism in the third sense. (They also believed that exploitative and impoverishing practices would collapse in a free market; although many of the practices of landlords, bankers, bosses, etc. were not coercive in themselves, Tucker and his circle argued, they were evils that workers would not put up with if it weren’t for a background of systemic coercion and restriction of competition. So they were worth railing against, even if they were not themselves forms of aggression.)

I point all this out because I don’t think there’s actually anything about being a libertarian, or an Austrian about economics, that requires you to plump for capitalism in the second or third senses. Both Austrian economics and libertarian theories of justice require you to be a free marketeer, of course, but whether that makes you capitalist, anti-capitalist, or just doesn’t decide the matter one way or another depends on how you pin down the term capitalism. Part of my worry is that the way that statists have jammed together three completely different concepts under the chimerical term capitalism has tended to blind libertarians, in the 20th century, to some of the insights that their forbearers in the 19th century had. The idea is usually that if something is anti-capitalist, it is therefore anti-libertarian. But that only follows if it’s anti-capitalist in the sense of wanting to use violence to intervene in the free market. My worry is that Daniel has probably got a good argument for showing that CIW’s actions are anti-capitalist in senses two and three, and mistakenly figured that undermining capitalism in those senses tends to undermine capitalism in the first sense, and therefore destructive. In order to try to avoid confusion on the matter, I’m going to be sticking to the term free market when I talk about what Austro-libertarians are committed to defending.

With that out of the way, let’s look at what Daniel objects to in the rhetoric of the Taco Bell boycott and its supporters. Here’s one objection:

Simply put I believe, there are more ways to be anti-capitalist than just using government. Mainly promoting ideas that capitalism is evil or claiming it resorts to rampant market failure are, in my view, anti-capitalist.

There are two things that this might mean.

  1. It might mean that you can undermine capitalism in the sense of the bosses’ labor market without going for government intervention. That’s certainly true, but it’s not yet clear that this is a vice. If you think (as I do) that there are serious economic problems with the sort of bureaucratic, boss-controlled, centralized, top-down corporate commerce that rose to dominance in the 20th century, then undermining that–by pointing out, for example, that it typically involves crippling knowledge problems, fosters a culture of petulant entitlement among the decision-makers, exploits the workers and systematically shuts them out of important channels for autonomous and rewarding labor, and so on–then undermining capitalism in that sense can only be counted as a good thing. If you also think that the cultural and material conditions created by boss-directed labor profits from and tends to promote the growth of corporate statism that expropriates wealth in order to support the bosses, then that gives you even stronger libertarian reasons to support anti-capitalist agitation in this sense. And indeed there are good reasons for Austrians and their fellow-travelers to think these charges against boss-centric are solid–the knowledge problems that Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard pointed out in central planning also apply when that central planning is done by bureaucratic corporations; the potential of free market competition ameliorates the problem but doesn’t eliminate it, and if decisions are being made on the margin in a market that is already dominated by centralized interlocking bureau-corps, which are supported not only by their existing market share but also by a network of cultural attitudes towards work and jobs, it looks like it is going to be a long, hard struggle to undermine those structures and make the threat of serious competition into a practicable reality. The sort of long, hard struggle, in fact, that groups like the CIW are, at their best, engaged in.

  2. On the other hand, this might mean that there are ways to undermine the free market other than calling down the government. That’s true, I guess, but it’s unclear that the things Daniel cites are examples of it. It’s true that spreading economic fallacies is dangerous, and undermines people’s willingness to stand up for economic freedom even if the person spreading the fallacies isn’t personally calling for government intervention. But whether saying capitalism is evil or that capitalism involves frequent and systemic market failures does that or not depends on whether the critic is using capitalism in the first sense, the second sense, the third sense, or an unstable congerie of different senses. If it’s in the first sense, then clearly it involves an economic fallacies–liberty as such is always an economic (and moral) good, and the Austrians have shown that, while the utopia of neo-classical equilibrium is just that–utopian nonsense–liberty doesn’t create systemic market failures, but rather creates the opportunities and incentives to overcome them. But if capitalism is being used in the sense of the corporate State, then both the condemnation and the accusation of systemic market failure are obviously right. If it’s being used in the sense of boss-directed labor, then the charges involve economic fallacies and undermine the free market only if you think that boss-directed labor is a necessary condition for a free market (which it obviously isn’t), or a necessary condition for a flourishing free market (which is a premise that has not yet been convincingly argued). In fact, I’d say that the history of big business support for stifling Progressive regulation–cf., for example, Gabriel Kolko’s The Triumph of Conservatism–the economic record of big corporations over the past century, and the considerations about bureaucratic planning that I mentioned above are all very good reasons for saying that the link doesn’t exist, that if anything boss-directed labor is corrosive to the free market, and that if it takes a fighting union to weaken or supplant it, then that’s as good an argument as any for vibrant, agitating, government-free union organizing.

    Now, it’s true that most labor organizers and labor activists today are hardly consistent libertarians, and it’s likely that their rhetoric is going to jostle back and forth between different meanings as they go along just as much as when anyone else uses the terms. But that’s not a reason to issue a blanket criticism of the action as anti-market; it’s a reason to call for a clarification of the argument, and an attempt to grasp the dominant principle in the particular case–as stated in their talk and as manifest in their actions. Coming back to the CIW and their supporters specifically, it would be a lot easier to convict them of being swayed mainly by anti-market maxims if they were, for example, a State-protected union, or if they were calling for State action against Taco Bell or its contractors, or if they were proposing that the free market in farm work is the problem, rather than the practices of specific farm employers. But they aren’t; they are making a point specifically about the common labor practices of farm employers in southern Florida, as far as I know aren’t attributing their evils to the free market (maybe their supporters in JVC were making this claim; I don’t know), and they did a lot of really quite fascinating and groundbreaking work in doing labor organizing and achieving goals without the suffocating help of the federal labor bureaucracy. All of these facts are well worth noting when we try to piece out what we should think of as the dominant trends in CIW’s campaign.

The other strand of Daniel’s objection I find a lot more puzzling: he objects that their means (boycotting) are not efficient in obtaining their ends (higher real wages and living conditions for the Immokalee workers), that this is so because the boycott strategy ignores the effects that a drop in demand for tacos will have on wages related to the production of tacos, and so that alternative means would be more effective at obtaining the ends of higher wages and living conditions for the Immokalee workers.

It seems to me that the question of obtaining the end has already been settled now that the boycott has been won. Taco Bell established a pass-through program, the workers will be getting more money, and whatever effects the slow-down in Taco Bell sales might have had on the workers have now ended with the boycott. Workers will be getting about $100 more or so per year, and the amount will increase if CIW can leverage their success in the Taco Bell campaign to convince other companies to adopt a similar policy. So I’m especially puzzled by Daniel’s argument that the drop in demand for tacos (and thus tomatoes) hurts the CIW workers rather than helping them. Sure, the boycott may have hurt their income for the three years of the boycott–although my suspicion is that the change on the margin per worker was probably pretty negligible. But people make decisions that will result in less income for the short term in order to get a better result in the long term all the time. Boycotts and strikes are an example; so are school, investment, and quitting your job in order to become an entrepreneur. One thing you have to keep in mind here is that it was the workers themselves who decided that the trade-off of potential present losses for future gains was worth it; that doesn’t guarantee that the decision was a wise one, but it’s certainly not a bizarre sort of decision to make and here, at least, it seems to have begun to pay off.

Daniel’s right to point out that the Taco Bell boycott didn’t encourage consumers to patronize competing tomato-purchasing industries (in order to keep tomato prices steady or raise them by increasing demand for substitute uses of tomatoes, while encouraging Taco Bell to change its ways in order to recapture some of the lost business). But surely here he has misunderstood the strategy behind the boycott. Tomato-pickers aren’t paid directly by the tomato-using industry that consumers buy from; they’re paid by big tomato farmers, who put sell their tomatoes to Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Heinz, Pace, et al. as contractors. Since none of those competing tomato-users has a pass-through system either, there’s no reason why the boycott should want to funnel business to them; that would merely be shifting business from one sharp dealer to another; and while it might give Taco Bell an incentive to change its ways, it would reward other tomato-using companies for engaging in exactly the same practices as Taco Bell.

Further, Daniel’s too uncharitable to the CIW when he suggests the following as an alternative, higher-valued use of resources that the CIW could have employed:

Any form of productivity. Allegedly the housing prices in the Immokalee area are exorbitant, and contribute to the poverty conditions of those who live there. So this is an entrepreneurial area that could host the energy of riled activists that is instead being diverted by this boycott. If these activists were instead producing houses, clothes, and consumable goods to be exchanged with the Immokalee workers they would be more successful in improving their quality of life.

But look, these are things that the CIW is already working on. They have already established, among other things a (tremendously successful) grocery store in Immokalee (run on a co-op model, providing goods at near-wholesale prices) and a multilingual community radio station (which helps keep workers communicating and up-to-date on community news). CIW isn’t just a fighting labor organization–although it is that; it’s a community organization and they’ve put a lot of resources into improving living conditions in Imokalee on the ground. They’ve done this in a lot of ways: by putting money into producing community resources, by organizing general strikes and boycotts to negotiate higher wages, by exposing slavery rings, fraud, and violence in the fields (sometimes through the government, sometimes through the press, and sometimes through direct action by workers). The workers have made their decisions about when and how to apply their resources by developing strategies over time to prioritize their needs, and when they launched the Taco Bell boycott it was because they decided it would be worth it to use some resources in the boycott in order to gain better pay and conditions later using a public education and pressure campaign. Now, the mere fact that they decided that this would be best doesn’t mean that they were right; but it’s important to see that their decision wasn’t different in kind from any number of other decisions in the free market, such as: quitting your job, going back to school, starting your own business, investing your money in what you think will be a winning stock, buying a tool, etc. There are plenty of cases where each of these decisions would be wise and plenty where each would be foolish; that depends a lot on the specifics of the case at hand. In this particular case, it looks like the boycott has paid off nicely for the workers–both in direct results and in precedent for future campaigns–and unless you can come up with some pretty specific plans and give some pretty strong reasons in favor of thinking that they would have been a better way to improve farmworkers’ quality of life, I think the presumption is going to be in favor of chalking this campaign up as a good move for the workers.

Of course, you might instead argue that it benefitted the workers, but only at the expense of either Taco Bell, or consumers, or both. That’s a separate argument, but it’s one worth worrying about when we talk about campaigns in which part of the outcome is raising the price of a consumer good. But of course here we need to keep a couple of things in mind. First, the marginal increase in price of the tomatos for Taco Bell is $0.01 per pound of tomatos; in total it will cost Taco Bell about $100,000 / year more than they spent before. If Taco Bell eats that cost it will hardly be noticed, and if the fraction of that cost on the margin is passed on to Taco Bell patrons, it will hardly make a difference. But also, second, that even if the change were likely to make a difference on the margin, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the change in price comes at the expense of the people buying the tacos. One way to look at CIW’s strategy in the Taco Bell boycott is that they were working to earn more money for themselves by changing consumer preferences; what they aimed to do, and succeeded in doing enough to win the boycott, was to educate Taco Bell consumers and get them to recognize the worth of a decent standard of living for farmworkers, and to take that value into account when they deliberate over purchasing a taco. Of course, once they take that into account, they will be willing to pay more for the taco in order to secure the decent standard of living for farmworkers. But it’s not at all clear that this is an loss to them. Sure, it means more money going out, but it’s money being exchanged for something they now value. You could argue that they only ought to value the pleasure of eating the taco, and drop the sentimental concerns about farmworkers; but Jesus, why would you argue that? The market isn’t an arena for machines to maximize their store of precious metals or for hedonic calculators to maximize their bodily pleasures; it’s a process that emerges from the deliberations that free human beings make about what they want and how they can achieve it. People have every right to value tasty food, of course, but they have just as much right to value solidarity with fellow workers, concern for fellow human beings, charity for people suffering, and a lot of other things that come into play when we think about the labor practices of the people we do business with.

Finally, Daniel is again too uncharitable when he worries that the CIW’s practices and demands aren’t as free of government meddling as I’ve made them out to be. Let me be clear–as far as I know, CIW aren’t principled anarchists; while I’m excited about the model of organizing that they’ve developed, and I think their successes have a lot to do with the fact that they are free from both the worm of government union protections and the hook of government union controls, I don’t claim that they’re any kind of infallible resource. My point here has been to draw out the aspects of them that have something to teach libertarians. But it’s not fair to accuse them of grabbing for government backing based on this line from their press release:

The Company indicated that it believes other restaurant chains and supermarkets, along with the Florida Tomato Committee, should join in seeking legislative reform, because human rights are universal and we hope others will follow our company’s lead.

It’s not fair because (1) the statement about seeking legislative reform came from Taco Bell, not from the CIW; and because (2) it’s not specified what sort of legislative reform they mean. There are two different things that CIW has objected to in southern Florida: (1) the prevalent low wages and harsh working conditions; and (2) the use of fraud, coercion, and outright slavery against immigrant farm workers. Both of the complaints were part of the Taco Bell boycott campaign, and if the legislative reform is aimed at dealing with enslavement of farmworkers or making local law enforcement more responsive to issues of slavery and trafficking, then there’s no reason at all why an anarchist should object. If Taco Bell is proposing some kind of bureaucratic labor regulation by the Florida legislature, then yes, we’ll have to oppose that when the time comes. But that suggestion came from Taco Bell, not CIW, and if CIW were to come out in support of it, I wouldn’t be terribly shocked, but it would represent a substantial break from the strategy and tactics behind all of their successful organizing and activism so far.

So enjoy César Chávez Day, and wish the Coalition of Immokalee Workers well on their recent victory. It’s OK. In fact, if you care about workers bettering their lives without coercion and in organizations autonomous from the State, it’s pretty exciting. Even if you’re a libertarian. Really. I promise.

Feminist Bloggers on the Air

A fist in the air today for Feminist Blogs contributors DED Space and media girl, who had selections from their posts And the show goes on and Spam for life read on the air on national television (!), as part of the Inside the Blogs segment on CNN’s Inside Politics. Rock on.

Check it out. Other than having to hear the word blogosphere–probably the most wince-worthy neologism in the world today–pronounced aloud for the first time, I had a blast listening to it.

I don’t have a teevee these days, so I don’t get much of a chance to follow the ins and outs at CNN or Fox News. But I gather this is a short segment run on one of CNN’s daily commentary shows. Yeah, that’s only a couple of minutes a day, but it is and ought to be exciting. Tom Tomorrow was exactly right just about this time two years ago when he smacked blog-triumphalists upside the head and pointed out that the relationship of bloggers to the mainstream media is roughly that of wood tick to deer. That’s still mostly true now, but we are seeing the first creaks and whispers of a change in front of our eyes. CNN is beginning to pull material from blogs because that’s just as easy, or even easier to do than churn out more of the same commentary from the same set of blowhard usual suspects. Thus two feminist bloggers got some recognition that they deserve as much as anyone, and a lot more than the blowhard set that usually gets air time on CNN.

The more DIY media that people produce, and make freely available for re-use, the more that turning to grassroots media will become the path of least resistence. This is not about to revolutionize media; it’s unlikely to even reform it much in the immediate future. But it is a step in the right direction and it is exciting to see writing that used to exist strictly as marginalia on mainstream media discussions begin to enter, step by step, into the conversation.

Become the media.

Sex and the Single Superheroine

I’ve never seen Catwoman, but I’m sure it’s a wretched film. It looked bad enough from the previews, and critical consensus seems to have placed it somewhere between Robocop 3 and An Allan Smithee Film Burn Hollywood Burn in the annals of catastrophically bad films.

In fact, I think it’s quite right to point out that Catwoman is only part of a series of lame, derivative superheroine-exploitation flicks that have been coming out lately, and that Hollywood has been pumping trash into the cinemas on the completely mistaken assumption that formulaic flicks about sexy superheroines are just as guaranteed to produce box office smashes as past hits such as Charlie’s Angels and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. So I find it hard to disagree with Christina Larson at the Washington Monthly when she points out that after the success of a few films featuring women with superpowers, Hollywood overreached. Studios didn’t pause to figure out why audiences loved action heroines. Instead, they rolled out a formula that pandered to all of the wrong instincts. True that. But I find it a lot easier to disagree when Larson goes on, apparently, to inform us that the problem isn’t that the flops were formulaic and derivative–it’s that they used the wrong formula. The mistake, you see, was for Hollywood to give the anonymous gendered masses plots and characters limited by the narrow criteria of sexual titillation and choreographed fight scenes–when they should have been aiming to give them plots and characters limited by the narrow criteria of self-confident sex appeal to men, immense worldly success, and a distinct lack of inner conflict.

So, also, we are told that Hollywood needs to realize that the first crop of warrior women won a following because they were strong, smart, and successful in addition to being sexy. Men wanted them, and women wanted to be them. Who needs a a richer selection of superheroine films that deal with the many different ways complicated women in extraordinary circumstances might relate to the world? Why not just kvetch about Catwoman’s contempt for men or Elektra’s grim life: her personal magnetism doesn’t measure up: She’s a gloomy assassin who suffers from nightmares, insomnia, and OCD. Plus she hates her job but can’t–or won’t–figure out what else to do with her life.

Now, Peter Parker, of course, was an angsty teenaged boy who hated his life and couldn’t–or wouldn’t–figure out what else to do with it for quite a while in Spider-Man 2. Sure, the film also included a lot of glorious spectacle and comic-book battle scenes. But its real narrative arc was a pretty somber, inward-directed reflection on loss, duty, and sacrifice featuring a geeky boy whose life as a superhero was steadily destroying his friendships, job, studies, and, oh yes, his aborted love life. The hero is nervous, moody, socially isolated, and filled to the brim with male teen angst. The movie worked, really worked, and it was fantastically successful at the box office to boot.

On the other hand, The Punisher tried to adapt a notoriously dark comic featuring a sociopathic antihero whose survives as an empty shell, living only on a consuming lust for vengeance, which fills scene after scene with remorseless death and suffering. The Punisher was a box-office flop, and by most accounts a pretty bad film.

Of course, neither of these films is mentioned, either as a point of comparison or of contrast. Nor do we hear anything in particular about whether superhero movies smash box office records or disappear without a trace when they are about the psychological journey of afflicted heroes. But of course that’s because they involved boys, and since boys’ gender is invisible, there’s no need to try and piece out what the particular successes of Spider-Man 2 or failings of The Punisher mean for the prospects of any and all films that happen to feature a male superhero. Ah, but throw a pair of breasts into the mix and suddenly we have a Gender Issue to sort out. And what better way to sort out a Gender Issue than to make up a list of arbitrary rules for women’s conduct? Take this oneplease!

  1. Do fight demons. Don’t fight only inner demons.
  2. Do play well with others. Don’t shun human society.
  3. Do exhibit self-control. Don’t exhibit mental disorders.
  4. Do wear trendy clothes. Don’t wear fetish clothes.
  5. Do embrace girl power. Don’t cling to man hatred.
  6. Do help hapless men. Don’t try to kill your boyfriend.
  7. Do toss off witty remarks. Don’t look perpetually sullen.

— Christina Larson, The Washington Monthly (March 2005): Seven Mistakes Superheroines Make

So let’s review. (1) Whatever the conditions of your life, stay bright-eyed and confident all the time. (3) Don’t weird out on us. (4) Dress sexily, but don’t be a slut. (5) Embrace something that vaguely resembles feminism, unless it vaguely resembles the kind that makes boys squirm in their seats. (2), (6)-(7) Good God woman, whatever you do, ensure that you are both sexually available and unthreatening to men at all times. And so there you have it: an advice column for superheroines, straight from the pages of Cosmo, passed off by the Washington Monthly as a piece of cultural criticism.

It’s not that I mind articles which seriously explore the double-standards that men and women are held to in our culture. There are lots; sometimes they occur in weird places; and it’s worth spelling them out. But it’s worth spelling them out critically; if there is such a narrow formula that Hollywood priorities are forcing superheroine flicks into then that’s as good a reason as any to demand better, richer films about women with extraordinary powers.

But no; that would require thinking that audience tastes when it comes to gender and sexuality are complex, or–horribile dictu!–that it’s possible for them to change over time and acquire a taste for something more than the standard formulaic fare that you and I have been fed so far. But the worst thing you could possibly suggest about gender and sexuality in the mainstream culture is that they might be complicated or changeable.

So what matters is not that Catwoman was a wretchedly-written film or that Tomb Raider 2, like most sequels (not to mention most video game flicks), was derivative hackwork. It’s that they involved women who weren’t pleasing to the gaze of an anonymous, immutable, and male-defined audience. Any possibility of criticism must be stifled as quickly as possible, and the best way to do it is to present yet another manual for the sexy single superheroine to achieve success by resorting to every simplistic gender cue available. In other words, we have another opportunity to give a lecture–not to filmmakers to stop producing sleazy, also-ran hackwork, of course, but rather to fictional women, to ensure that they remain young, pleasant, and sexually available to the male gaze. Because that’s all the anonymous mass of boys can stand and all the anonymous mass of women want. Or something.

God only knows what they would do with a superheroine who happens to be a homicidal lesbian terrorist.

A thousand feared dead in Indonesian earthquake

GUNUNGSITOLI, Indonesia (Reuters) – More than 1,000 people were feared killed in a massive earthquake which hit a remote Indonesian island famed as a surfing paradise, reducing large parts of its main town to rubble.

The Indian Ocean epicenter of Monday night’s 8.7 magnitude quake was just about 100 miles southeast of the upheaval three months ago which triggered a tsunami that left nearly 300,000 people dead or missing across Asia.

— Reuters 2005-03-29: Death Toll Could Top 1,000 in Indonesia Quake

What is there to say? Ours is an old world, and full of suffering–some of it new and raw, some of it ancient and worn down into the sands, the sea, the stones. Thoughts like that may bring numbing or they may make the pain worse, but either way they are not to the point, anyway: the people who died in countries around the Indian ocean, the 1,000 or so who died yesterday in Indonesia, in another earthquake, are each and every one of them an individual person, with lives as valuable as yours or mine, and they deserve to be remembered, each of them, as they were–not as generic symbols of a fallen world. Take some time today to be still, to be silent, to give them your thoughts, to wish them peace and to do what you can to help the survivors.

Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee…

— John Donne (1624)

Beltway Baiting

Hey, you Beltway liberal types? Look, I’m bored silly by obsessively tracking every little move in the gladiatorial arena of DC, and I even think it’s destructive of serious politics. But I was with you on this whole weird Jeff Gannon / James Guckert story. Republican red herrings to one side, there was a real story here. The story was about how Gannon–a man who had no journalistic qualifications whatsoever and who engaged in some pretty transparent deceptions to try to cover over his life as a gay prostitute–was nevertheless clearly maneuvered, through immense administration favoritism, into the inner circle of the White House Press Corps, because he served as a useful administration-designated plant in the audience at press briefings. The story wasn’t about prostitution, much less homosexuality; it was about yet another glaring example of the Bush Administration’s willingness to institute the mechanisms of an overt propaganda machine–including using tax resources to exert control over the press corps through pay-offs and privileges to useful reporters and commentators. Or, here, creating a useful reporter out of thin air.

That’s an interesting (and depressing) story about the shamelessness of this administration. That’s why I was willing to get your back on it. But, hey, folks? This?

(Update: The reward is now $20k as of 03-02-05)

Have you seen this man?

A wealthy Washington socialite is offering a $10,000 reward for proof that Jeff Gannon (pictured), an allegedly gay kinky-sex prostitute / escort / white house reporter / GOP operative, has had any type of sexual, or romantic, relationship with any top-ranking Washington official(s) — or proof that he engaged in any illegal sexual activities or favors.

A local socialite, who wishes to remain anonymous, has teamed up with this site to offer a $10,000 reward to anyone that can provide hard proof.

We are looking for evidence (photos, phone pictures, locks of hair, DNA on a suit) that Jeff Gannon had any type of sexual, or romantic, relationship with any top-ranking Washington official(s) — or proof that he engaged in any illegal sexual activities or favors.

— Reward: Jeff Gannon information. Washington Socialites 2005-02-23

This is not an interesting story. This is gay-baiting. You are trying to dig up dirt on prominent officials’ sexuality and you are aiming to out them against their will–in order to destroy their political careers. That’s fucked up.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t object to destroying some dumb jerk’s political career. If I had my way, everybody’s political career would be destroyed. What I do object to–and what any one who claims to take homophobia seriously as a social problem should object to–is the fact that the tactic being used for destruction here is to out men who’ve been having sex with men before they are ready to come out, and the reason for outing them is to pander to the homophobia of hard Right voters. If that homophobia didn’t exist, and if the homophobes weren’t willing to ruin people’s lives over the gender of their sex partner(s), the plan wouldn’t work. But it does, and they are, and you’re willing to make use of it to try to score political points. That’s fucked up.

You might claim that the issue here is prostitution, not gay prostitution specifically. Horsepucky. It’s an open secret that powerful men, including some powerful Republican officials, have made a habit of patronizing women in prostitution. But there isn’t a bounty out for information on proof that some Administration official somewhere paid for heterosexual sex, is there? And you’re not musing on your blogs about it, are you? That’s because you’re not concerned about any of the ethical questions involved in the many different kinds of prostitution in the world; you’re concerned about political leverage, and you’re more likely to score a clean kill if you can out someone as gay. And that’s fucked up.

Get your heads out of the Beltway. Just stop it.

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