Thursday, November 1, 2012

Against Chickenhawking, or, the Prussianism of the Left

                La guerre! C’est une chose trop grave pour la confier à des militaires.--Georges Clemenceau

If this war is such a good idea, why don't you go enlist? If Bush is so keen to fight Iraq, why doesn't he send Jenna? You're sending other men's children to die, but you won't send your own? Why don't you put your money where your mouth is? How dare Mitt Romney propose sending troops into harm's way when he had four draft deferments, and none of his sons serve?

So goes the favorite rhetorical device of some factions of the modern American left: chickenhawking. Spurred by the rise of neo-conservatism after 9/11, war opponents in this country have often resorted to accusing war proponents of cowardice. The war party, they allege, are chickenhawks, willing to send others to die but unwilling to do so themselves. It is at its core an argumentum ad hominem, or, on occasion, an argumentum ad filium, as the chickenhawker often implies that the target's failure to "send" his children into the military--as if they were their parents chattels--is itself an act of cowardice.

It is an incredibly tempting allegation. After all, many neoconservatives possess a disturbingly cavalier attitude towards the use of military force. At minimum they tend to be unrealistically optimistic about the results of its deployment, and at worst they are pure jingoists. They are willing to take tremendous risks with other people's lives (to say nothing of other people's countries), for an often non-existent reward. Surely it seems galling that many of their most loudest adherents have never served, yet so eagerly clamor to send others to die in the name of dubious causes.

The thing is, neoconservatism stands or falls independently of the service record of its adherents. Whether it is right or wrong for this country has absolutely nothing to do with whether Jenna Bush or Tagg Romney or Timmy Krauthammer serves in the military. Let us remember, after all, that perhaps the most vocal and politically senior neoconservative alive today, Senator John McCain, most certainly does understand the cost of war, and the tremendous suffering that it can bring. Say whatever else you will about him, John McCain is no coward. His hawkish pedigree does not carry any taint of poultry. But that doesn't make his proposed foreign policy any wiser.

If chickenhawking were merely an ad hominem attack, that would be bad enough. The real problem, however, is much, much worse. The taunts to enlist, to put one's money (or one's children's money) where one's mouth is, leads to some very dangerous places, very, very quickly. War, Clausewitz famously pointed out, is the extension of politics by other means. It is in other words fundamentally a political instrument. War and the threat thereof are very important tools for any country's statesmen. It is the "or else", this ultimate stick, that ultimately backs a great deal of diplomacy.

Yet the logic of the chickenhawker insists that only soldiers and veterans are sufficiently acquainted with the horrors of war to be qualified to embrace it as state policy. And yet, if one accepts, as presumably most chickenhawkers do, the premise that war remains an essential tool of statecraft--and indeed, arguably the decision to go to war is the gravest and most important any statesman can make--it must therefore follow that only soldiers and veterans are fully qualified to serve as statesmen. After all, he who would serve as custodian of the dogs of war must be able to release them and be able to credibly threaten to do so; by the chickenhawkers' own logic it follows that any civilian must be unqualified to serve in such a role. Thus, chickenhawking ultimately attacks the principle of civilian control of the military. It places the military on a pedestal and establishes soldiers as a privileged caste, nay, an Elect, possessing wisdom unknowable by and grace inaccessible to civilians. It demands that not only must soldiers decide when and with whom the nation will go to war, they must decide how the nation will go to war.

It is also worth noting the similarity the chickenhawker bears to the Tea Partier who complains that too many Americans "don't have skin in the game" because they do not pay income taxes. This of course is the root of Mitt Romney's disastrous 47% comment, Paul Ryan's starkly Randian declaration that the country can be divided into "makers" and "takers", and the increasing demands on the Right to raise taxes on the poor. There are even dark mutterings in some corners of the Tea Party that the vote should only be open to those who pay a certain amount of taxes, or even own a certain amount of property. It is borne of the idea that participation in the franchise and other democratic institutions is a privilege, not a right, and of the fear that the great unwashed masses will simply decide to vote itself ever greater largesse paid for by taxes imposed on others but not themselves. Democracy, to quote Franklin, would become two wolves and a sheep deciding what's for dinner.

This is doubly true when one realizes that left-wing chickenhawking often goes hand-in-hand with enthusiasm for the draft, whose advocates on the left use similar language. The draft, to them, is a way to get everyone's "skin in the game". Just as the Republican who wants to see income taxes raised on the poor and the Tea Partier who thinks that only property owners should hold the franchise hope to ensure that the nation's treasure is not spent by the unworthy, draft advocates on the left hope that the draft would prevent the nation's blood from being spent by the unworthy. Ultimately, both are expressions of a distrust in democracy, the belief that voters and public officials simply cannot be trusted unless made to directly bear the consequences of their actions. We would not hesitate to call the former anti-democratic; why would we hesitate to so name the latter?

I can think of one country in recent history where military service was a prerequisite for political stature: Prussia. Within Prussian society, the reserve officer's commission became the sine qua non of a gentleman. For a man to reach the highest levels of Prussian society or civil service, that commission was practically a requirement. When Bismarck, in his role as Chancellor of the North German Confederation and President-Minister of Prussia, attempted to control military policy during the Franco-Prussian War, the Prussian generals resisted him tooth and nail. Who was he, a mere major in the reserves, to seek to involve himself in military matters--never mind that he was the head of government and the man who had arranged the war in the first place! Prussian militarists, largely unchecked by civilian authorities once Bismarck was forced from power in 1890 and legally answerable only to the Kaiser, ultimately led their country and the rest of Germany to a string of disasters, culminating in its own complete collapse in the fall of 1918. And every step of the way, they insisted upon their absolute independence from any form of civilian "interference".

Perhaps not coincidentally, Prussia also maintained a complicated three-tiered voting system, wherein the weight of a man's vote was determined by the amount of taxes he paid.

Conversely, consider our two greatest wartime presidents, Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Before becoming President Lincoln had served in the militia, but by his own account never fought anything more frightening than mosquitoes. He sent hundreds of thousands of Americans to their deaths in what was by the end of 1863 a deeply unpopular war. Roosevelt, meanwhile, had promised repeatedly that he would keep America out of the war. Yet even before Pearl Harbor he (rightly) pursued a deeply antagonistic foreign policy vis a vis the Axis powers, helping to provoke the surprise attack that led to our entry into the war. And, despite having served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, he never wore a uniform either.

Of course, the chickenhawkers do not actually believe what they are saying. They do not honestly wish to see a politically independent, Prussianized military, or to see military service become a prerequisite for civil service. The fools who chanted "Send Jenna!" at President Bush for the most part are not chanting "Send Sasha!" at President Obama. But they are part of what Andrew Bacevich has identified as an increasing discourse of militarism within this country. And this is genuinely dangerous, because even in the best case scenario, as Isabel Hull observes in her brilliant study of the Imperial German military, Absolute Destruction, weakening civilian oversight of the military leads to a kind of military myopia that damages national defense and makes wartime atrocities more likely. Worse, it risks weakening the very fabric of democracy.

The European Left fought tooth and nail for civilian control of the military, and the great Democratic President Harry Truman fired one of the most decorated generals and celebrated war heroes of his time for insubordination. They understood from bitter experience that the military cannot be trusted to its own devices, even if with the best of intentions. And yet, too many on the American Left today would throw away the hard earned-controls, the bitterly won victories of their philosophical forebears, in the name of political point scoring. It undermines not only the Left's core values, but democracy itself. It's madness.

Neoconservatism is flawed, but it should be attacked on its many, many demerits, not on where, how, or if its adherents--or their children--have served in the armed forces. If, as Clemenceau said, war is too serious to be left to the soldiers, then we must accept--nay, even celebrate--the fact that our nation's soldiers are ultimately answerable to its people.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Against Niceness

I just finished reading a piece on Slate, linked by one of Andrew Sullivan's intrepid interns, on the oppressive niceness of the writers' scene on Twitter, Tumblr, and other social media:

This article, meanwhile, describes quite well what I find wrong with many of the better online communities. Such communities tend to follow the teaching of the wizened Ta-Nehisi, grandmaster and Sifu of the school of Iron Fist Moderation. This  certainly makes things more pleasant than the troll-filled dungeons of your average online media source.

The problem is, in some cases it seems to make things almost *too* pleasant. Dive in, and you find yourself in a deeply cloying and banal atmosphere, akin to that produced by that damned potpourri your great-aunt insists on pouring over EVERYTHING, or the patchouli the neighborhood hippy uses to hide the smell of weed, or the incense which Holy Mother Church insists on inflicting upon congregants on Holy Days of Obligation. All the <3s, *e-hugs*, loud affirmations, and vigorously synchronized indignation about the injustice of the world form a melody which is simultaneously bland, condescending, and overwhelmingly loud. They grow into something akin to a bougainvillea, flowery, pleasant-smelling, and pretty, but at the same time impenetrable, suffocating, and thorny, with very a keen talent for lacerating intruders and crowding out all other forms of life.

Too much harmony is not in fact a good thing. It produces groupthink. It reinforces people's existing biases. It creates epistemic closure. It vitiates the very important life skill of being able to disagree respectfully while remaining friendly. It makes it difficult to remember that the people who disagree with you are your fellow citizens. It encourages unnecessary ostracism.

That's not to say that the banhammer isn't a useful tool. You write a feminist blog? No, you don't need to permit noxious Men's Rights Activists, let alone even more blatant sexist trolling, in the comments sections. You write a neo-liberal (a term I use neutrally, incidentally) policy blog? No, you do not need to engage with furious Occupiers and Tea Partiers, or let them engage with each other. Ban them, and get on with your life. Your moderation policy should not be guided by maximalist interpretations of the First Amendment, especially since you are not a government. (Indeed, any banned commenters complaining about their ~First Amendment rights~ being violated should be laughed onto the street).

So, by all means feel free to set ideological boundaries. You do not need to permit people with radically different first principles to derail every discussion, though it's probably good form to make clear what your red lines are. The indispensable Captain Awkward has given a couple of good examples of how to do this preemptively:

This blogger is officially, unilaterally, and forever pro-choice. I believe the decision to terminate a pregnancy is morally neutral and should be private, legal & safe. I trust that anyone undertaking that decision has their own reasons that are better than anything I or any outside party could come up with. I will be moderating comments here accordingly. You can disagree with me…privately in your heart. Or on other websites. All anti-choice lobbying & debate will be deleted without warning. Repeat offenders will be banned without warning. This was your warning. If this is a hot-button issue for you and you don’t think you’ll be able to resist internet-fighting what you see as the Good Fight for Tiny Innocent Babies, maybe don’t click further. You will not change my mind, and this is not the place to try out your Ethics 101 arguments. (*
I’m taking the night off from reading the internet, which includes taking a break from moderating comments. If you’re a first time commenter, that means it may take a while for your post to show up. Be patient! However, if you’re a first time commenter and you are one of these people, your comment will show up approximately never. (
But, if you find that everyone within those boundaries are spending a lot of time vigorously agreeing with each other, maybe you need to introduce a little anarchy. Commenters should feel free to disagree with each other. They should feel free to express their views strongly, though respectfully. They should feel free to tear apart each other's arguments, and to dissent from majority opinion. They should not feel like they have to couch this disagreement in warmth and kittens and sunshine and fawning. And people should feel free to disagree in the same fashion with them, too!**

Do so, and I bet you'll find a more vibrant, vigorous comment ecosystem, one more open to outsiders and outside opinions.

*I don't, in point of fact, agree with Captain Awkward's stance on abortion. And you know what? I'm not going to bring that up when I comment on her website, because it's HER WEBSITE, and she gets to make the rules, and besides which arguing about abortion is about the most soul-draining thing in the world anyway. I will, however, appropriate her policy; any comments on this blog arguing about, for, or against abortion will be summarily deleted with extreme prejudice.

**I'm assuming you're not attempting to organize your comments section as a "safe space". If you are, different rules apply, but you should still be on the lookout for groupthink.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Binaries and the Problem of the Gay Best Friend

Recently an acquaintance of mine linked an article on the Bad Catholic blog at Patheos discussing how the media and culture objectifies gay men--what we might call homophilia, as it is a kind of inversion of homophobia. It's worth a read, despite the fact that there's a lot of really problematic stuff here. For instance, the author tediously embraces the "Hate the sin, love the sinner" brand of homophobia-lite, writing, e.g., "To be clear, and as you’ve probably guessed, I don’t think the ultimate good of a man with same-sex attraction can be achieved by the normalization of the actively homoerotic lifestyle via redefined civil marriage." Yes, because how could allowing someone to marry the person they love possibly contribute to their ultimate good?

If you can get past the many blood-pressure-elevating statements in his writing, however, however, the author's main point is very, very important. Essentially, his argument is that the "Media Portrayal", as he phrases it, "is that our super-cool-culture, in its drive to be accepting, tolerant and all the rest, has decided to defend the Gay Man and largely ignore that beautiful, noble piece of work — the actual man."* This is most apparent, he argues, in the Gay Friend:

This Media Portrayal seems to influence the intensely creepy, “I wish I had a gay best friend,” mentality so many girls display. Again, it’s total objectification. The Gay Best Friend Abstraction isn’t just a false category in which to place a person — it is an amputation of the person. When girls want a “gay best friend” they certainly aren’t asking for a unique human being, with all aching, terrifying desires human beings contain, who will work for their ultimate good to the point of death. They want an accessory. The “Gay Best Friend” must — above all things — be safe. He must have all the emotional benefits of being a male, without the emotional threats. He must be supportive, without reminding her of the father-figures in her life. He must provide the emotional affirmation of male, physical touch, without touch ever meaning anything. He must be a girl, provide fashion advice, and — in general — have all the characteristics of a puppy on happy pills.

But he is made for more. He is made for infinite love.**

The point is clear: the Gay Friend and the Media Portrayal ultimately dehumanize gays just as much, though infinitely more subtly and insidiously, than the naked bigotry of a Fred Phelps. That is not to say that bigotry isn't a problem; it needs to be fought tooth and nail. But the way to do so is most certainly not to replace one stereotype with another, and it certainly is not to reduce complex human beings to their sexuality.† It's not enough to talk about how much you love Gay People; you have to actually love gay persons, as multidimensional human beings, warts and all, a task which requires considerably more work, and might not carry quite the same social cachet.‡

However, the author makes one very, very incorrect claim: that "no one demands heterosexuals to 'accept their identity' and define themselves as Straight Men." In fact, in much if not most of the country, men face tremendous pressure to define themselves as Straight Men, to the extent that straightness and masculinity or manhood are treated as not merely inseparable but synonymous--though this may perhaps be harder to see from the rarefied air of our upper-middle class coastal enclaves. In much of the country, to be a man is to be straight; to be other than straight is to not be a man.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Thoughts on Crusader Kings II

Well, I've spent the last couple of weeks playing Paradox Interactive's sprawling new grand strategy title, Crusader Kings II. Built on the Europa Universalis engine, CKII offers the familiar Paradox experience, with a twist: instead of being focused on countries or territories, CKII is focused on people and dynasties. You will spend much more of your time raising children, arranging marriages, and soothing the egos of disgruntled relatives than you will actually, erm, crusading. And you know what? It's surprisingly addictive.

That said, there is one major problem with the game: it's too easy to centralize. Basically, it appears possible for countries to reach a critical mass after which nothing, either internal or external, can threaten them. In fact, this is a fairly common outcome with the Holy Roman Empire, which sprawls from northern Germany to central Italy and from the Rhine to the borders of Poland.

What can Paradox do to fix these issues? I think the first would be to make the penalties for having higher crown authority, tax rates, feudal levies, and so forth scale up as the size of your realm increases. Want to govern the County of Cournouaille with an iron fist? Have at it. Want to govern the whole Holy Roman Empire as an absolute monarch in the year 1100? Your vassals will tear you limb from limb and use your skull as a soccer ball.

Another good idea would be to include some kind of "distance to capital" penalty. Essentially, this means that in a large state, the fringes and the hinterlands will be more likely to rebel and secede, and easier for foreign powers to pick off. This distance penalty should also apply in the form of harsher attrition rates for soldiers--marching an entire deathball army all the way out to the hinterlands should be hard, and it should be expensive. Feudal levies should also regenerate more slowly during peacetime.

This should go triple for exclave territories--i.e., those not connected via land or short sea distances to the capital. In a recent game I was playing as Brythain (basically, Brittany, Cornwall, Wales, and a bunch of territory I'd sniped off France) the HRE somehow got its claws into the duchy of Poitou, on the west coast of France, despite the fact that it was separated from the rest of the HRE by the whole of France. Neither myself nor the French AI nor the occasional local noble rebellion could do the slightest thing to dislodge the German tyrants; any attempt to do so would simply bring down the HRE's giant death armies, which would steamroll all in their paths. This should also mean that the various Mongol hordes should fragment more easily.

In addition, the game allows you to move your units across neutral territory with essentially no penalties. Now obviously the idea of the well-delimited Westphalian state, with its clear borders and internal autonomy, had not yet come into being. But, I still find it difficult to believe that feudal landholders would not object vociferously to thousands of foreign troops marching across their territory, presumably living off the land as they went. One option would be to make attrition for forces in neutral territory much more severe, or risk handing the owner of that territory an opportunity to intervene in the current war if you pillage the land to try and supply your forces. This would also open up some new diplomatic options for attempting to negotiate right of passage and the purchase of supplies.

Finally, the "plot" mechanic is woefully underused, since one can only engage in a very limited number of plots. Instead, plots should be substantially more freeform. For instance, in my game, I should have been able to set up a plot to gain the duchy of Poitou, and attempt to scheme with the HRE's vassals and neighbors to launch a coordinated attack. Quids pro quo should also be allowed--e.g., me offering to trade support for Dutch independence to the Duke of Holland for his support for my claim on Poitou.

All that said, CKII is a fantastic game. If you have any interest at all in grand strategy games, you should buy it without delay.

What the fuck is going on at Fox Orlando??

MyFox Orlando has a segment with headline "Civil rights group patrolling Sanford". The civil rights group in question? The National Socialist Movement, which Fox describes as a "white rights organization". See for yourself. Words fail.

Oh, and just in case they decide to take the page down, here's a screenshot:

EDIT: Looks like I got there just in time; the page has now been taken down. Imagine that.

FINAL EDIT: Nothing escapes Google. I for one welcome our bright, multi-colored, corporate overlords, and hope that their first official act as our new tyrants involves the ceremonial sacking of the My Fox Orlando offices.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Why Pro-Lifers Should Support Free Contraception

The recent debate over, of all things, contraception in this country has reached ridiculous levels. For inexplicable reasons, Republicans seem to have concluded that their path to the White House involves attacking one of the single most popular and widely used medical innovations in history, one that has made both men and women's lives immeasurably better: contraception. Now I am not going to engage with the deeply, nauseatingly sexist rhetoric emanating from some quarters of the Right--plenty of other people are shooting the fish in that particular barrel. Nor am I going to argue about all the reasons why contraception is a great thing, or why a blanket conscience exemption on employer provided health insurance is insane, or why the benefits of providing free contraception far outweigh the costs of unwanted children on the welfare system.

Rather, I'd like to make a very specific argument directed at a very specific audience, backed up by statistics: the pro-life movement. My argument is very simple: contraception prevents abortions. As such, if pro-lifers are serious about stopping abortions, they should absolutely be supporting free access to safe, effective contraception.

To prove my case, I examine teen pregnancies. Now, the overall abortion rate has declined gradually since 1980 (see According to the CDC, the abortion rate for teens aged 15-19 has declined even faster, dropping by 41%, while teen pregnancy fell by nearly a third (See Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Teen Pregnancies and Outcomes by Year (‰)[i]*
Year Births Abortions Pregnancies
1990 60.3 40.5 116.9
1991 61.8 37.4 115.3
1992 60.3 35.2 111
1993 59 33.9 108
1994 58.2 31.6 104.6
1995 56 29.4 99.6
1996 53.5 28.6 95.6
1997 51.3 27.1 91.4
1998 50.3 25.8 88.7
1999 48.8 24.7 85.7
2000 47.7 24 83.6
2001 45.3 22.8 79.5
2002 43 21.7 75.4

As the table shows, from 1990 to 2000, there was a slight decline in the fraction of pregnant teenagers who chose to abort (34.6% in 1990, 28.7% in 2000). But there was a dramatic decline in the number of teen pregnancies (116.9 to 83.6) and teen abortions (40.5  to 24.0). So what we have, then, is a 41% decline in the number of teenage abortions, but only an 18% decline in the number of already pregnant teenagers who choose to have an abortion. Had the number of teenage pregnancies held constant, then, even with the decline in abortion preference, we would have expected an abortion rate of 33.6 teenage girls in 2000, as opposed to the actual abortion rate of 24.0. In other words, instead of the actual 16.5‰ decline in the abortion rate, we would have seen a total decline of only 6.9.

This means that we can attribute 41.8% of the decline in abortions to overall decreased preference for (or availability of) abortion among teenage girls--presumably due to cultural changes, the work of pro-life crisis pregnancy centers, and perhaps also efforts to make it more difficult for teenagers to receive abortions. The other 58.2% of that decline is therefore attributable to the overall decline in pregnancy rates. This means that declining teen pregnancies reduced the teen abortion rate by 23.8% over 20 years--a pretty astonishing number.

What caused this decline? Well, I rather doubt teenagers are becoming substantially more chaste (especially since more anti-abortion, socially conservative "red" states generally show higher teenage pregnancy rates). On the contrary, I suspect it has more to do with increased access to contraception, better sex education, and increasing preference for what might be called "third base" activities, which don't carry the risk of pregnancy. As it is Friday night, however, I am not going to attempt to dig up numbers for these just now. I'm sure, however, that my intrepid readers can find some if they're really interested. So, it appears that reducing pregnancy rates does indeed substantially reduce abortion rates. And increased access to contraception seems like one of the easiest ways to reduce pregnancy rates, especially unwanted pregnancy rates, while the cost to the taxpayer is minimal.

Which brings me to my final point: If you honestly believe that abortion is murder, if you honestly believe that stopping it is an essential moral goal, if you honestly believe that ending it is the great moral cause of our times, then you have no reason whatsoever to oppose free access to contraception and every reason to support it. So what are you waiting for? Write to your congress-critters and to your favorite pro-life organizations, and tell them: guaranteeing everyone access to contraception is one of the simplest, best ways to reduce the number of abortions and unwanted pregnancies.

[i] Ventura SJ, Abma JC, Mosher WD, Henshaw SK. Recent trends in teenage pregnancy in the United States, 1990-2002. Health E-stats. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. Released December 13, 2006. Table 2.

*That odd little ‰ is a per mil sign. Just as the percent sign (%) represents a frequency per 100, the per mil sign represents frequency per thousand.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Debunking the Distortions and Delusions of a DADT Dead-Ender

Recently, I saw a tweet from Matthew Phelps, an openly gay captain in the US Marine Corps, linking to a rather appalling article in the latest issue of Marine Corps Gazette deceptively titled "DADT and Military Effectiveness: Moving Forward" by retired USMC Col. Alan Will. Unfortunately, the article has nothing at all to do with "moving forward". Rather, it is a thinly veiled argument for turning back the clock to the days when queer[i] servicemen were forced to live in the closet for fear of having their careers destroyed. To support this proposition, which he naturally refuses to state openly, Will spends six pages leaping from stereotype to red herring to canard to prevarication, one after another. His arguments range from the ignorant to the inverted to the downright insulting--all shrouded in the cool, seemingly objective, yet oddly foggy language of "leadership." Go and read it for yourself, if only to give yourself a sense of the challenges that still remain in the fight for equality and the mindset that still prevails in too much of this country.

Done? Good. I for one can say that I would have been just as glad never to have read such tripe, and was less than eager to respond to it. However, given his rank, the position of the Marine Corps Gazette, and the fact that the homophobic sentiments he presents remain deeply entrenched among much of the military, Will's article cannot simply be left to rot as it deserves. Though it is unworthy of a reply, it needs to have one, and it needs to be thorough. Unfortunately, his argument is so steeped in sophistry, so utterly filled with pernicious mendacity, that it cannot be done gracefully either. No, the only way to dispatch it is to eschew artistry in favor of thoroughness and simply wade into the muck. Hence I have chosen to attack his argument point by point, titling each section of my response for the corresponding sections in Will's article. While such a "Fisking" is without doubt the least interesting of all rhetorical forms, pace Hercules there is ultimately no elegant way to clean a stable--and that is more or less the task at hand.

God help me.