On Marlon James’s “A Brief History of Seven Killings.”

On Marlon James’s “A Brief History of Seven Killings.”

bobmarley_exclusive_49Bob Marley had such towering celebrity that, even today, he hoovers up attention & can make the world around him appear flat and undifferentiated.  When many Americans think of Jamaica, they think of Marley and little else.  When many Americans see somebody with dreadlocks, they think of Marley and little else (I’ve had countless Marley lyrics shouted at me while running, even though our similarities end at dreadlocks & a little beard).  When many Americans talk about reggae, they often mean Bob Marley’s music, not the entire musical tradition.

Even in Jamaica, Bob Marley seems to command an outsize percentage of everybody’s brainspace.  In Alan Greenberg’s vibrant documentary Land of Look Behind, many of the interviewees speak voluminously about Marley, about being like Marley, about the country needing a new Marley, at the cost of expressing their own personalities (although, two caveats here: I have no idea what Greenberg’s aims were when he was cutting his film, so maybe his interviewees would’ve come across as more unique individuals if he hadn’t selected only their thoughts about Marley, and the film was made shortly after Marley’s funeral, which might’ve put the dude in the forefront of people’s minds).

9781594633942In A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James brings into crisp focus the Jamaican populace that many people overlook because they’re so busy ogling Marley.  Yes, Marley is there, and most of the action in the book is still pulled toward “the Singer” as though by a massive gravitational field, but James explores the lives, loves & losses of numerous (extremely numerous) others nearby.  Addled cokeheads whose thoughts pulse in stream of consciousness with choppy linebreak layout like it was poetry.  Ghosts who ooze through their killers’ homes hoping but failing to affect the world they’re cursed to observe.  Poor kids speaking & thinking in slang, hoping for little more than a bit of safety, maybe a place to shower indoors so cops won’t roll up and toss ’em naked into a lineup in the middle of the street, forced to hump the road till their genitals are raw.  And many arrogant white men from the United States, sure they’re the country’s saviors.

James wants his readers to hear more Jamaican voices, to know about the bustling world so often papered over by cartoon imagery of Bob Marley’s face and marijuana plants and lion-emblazoned flags.  You get a sense of that from his interviews after winning the Man Booker prize:

_86105473_marlon-james“There’s this whole universe of really spunky creativity that’s happening.  I hope [the prize] brings more attention to what’s coming out of Jamaica and the Caribbean.”

… and from ironic passages in his book, especially when there are CIA agents thinking things like

You have to get to the point where you know how the country works better than the people who live here.  Then you leave.  The Company suggested I read a book from V. S. Naipaul before coming here, The Middle Passage.  It amazed me how he could land in some country, be there for mere days and nail exactly what was wrong with it.

James wants for readers to experience a more genuine version of his country.  He doesn’t want for the only literature that people read about the place to be stuff written by outsiders who spent mere days there.

But, if you’re going to read it, I should warn you.  The language is very gruff.  Much of the book is written in stream of consciousness, and his characters think awful stuff about women, and even more viciously awful stuff about homosexuals.  Homosexuality, the chance that others are engaging in it, the risk of other men (or dogs, or Satan) sodomizing males as punishment, seems always to be on the characters’ minds.

CaptureWhich is, as far as I know, an accurate representation of Jamaican culture.  Homosexuals are subject to horrific violence and persecution in Jamaica, much of it aided and abetted by the police.  In the Human Rights Watch article “Jamaica: Unchecked Homophobic Violence,” you can read about several such incidents, including one in which a victim was unable to sign a subsequent police report because the officers told him, “You are a battyman.  We don’t want battyman to use our pen.”

And the awful stuff about women in A Brief History of Seven Killings also seems highly representative of the real Jamaica.  Modern music especially is rife with misogynistic lyrics.  Young girls are targeted for sexual violence in huge numbers.  So, yes, it’s good that James draws attention to this, that he delves into the thoughts of a woman being driven to the middle of nowhere by the police, sure she’s going to be assaulted & abandoned somewhere far from home… but it makes the book hard to read, so I thought I should warn you.  And, to me, even grim passages from the victims go down far easier than stream-of-conscious writing from the perspective of the assailants.  It can be very unpleasant to inhabit their minds, even for just a short chapter at a time.

So I’d like to end this post by recommending a piece of music: Spice, “Like a Man.”  Feminist dancehall reggae?  That seems like a good follow-up to some of the more vicious passages in James’s book.  Her song is great, even though I wish she lived in a world where she hadn’t felt compelled to write it.

On Eka Kurniawan’s ‘Beauty Is a Wound,’ mythology, and misogyny.

On Eka Kurniawan’s ‘Beauty Is a Wound,’ mythology, and misogyny.

9781925240238I assumed I was the ideal audience for Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty Is a Wound.  It’s an epic work of magic realism, and there are bountiful parallels to Gabriel Garcia Marquez — just like everybody else, I love Garcia Marquez (some friends once used iron-on lettering to make me a shirt reading, “Almonds: The Official Scent of Unrequited Love”).  Kurniawan alludes frequently to The Mahabharata, which is like the bigger, badder, beastlier younger sibling of The Ramayana.  And a major theme of Beauty Is a Wound is the tragedy of pervasive violence against women.

Kurniawan’s interests mirror my own — why wouldn’t I love his book?  Why wouldn’t I tell you, dear reader, that you should read it too?

Well, some stylistic parallels to ancient mythology affect how enthusiastically I’d be able to recommend his book.  From The Iliad to The Bible to The Mahabharata, one common characteristic of epic mythology is repetition.  Stories are told over and over again by and to different characters, the same turns of phrases recur throughout.  This is reasonable for a work composed orally, but can seem excessive to contemporary readers: consider this passage from Mark Leyner’s egregiously-titled sendup of epic mythology:

T.S.F.N. : If we were to ask you to pick the one thing you liked most about the performance of The Sugar Frosted Nutsack you just listened to, what would it be?

REAL HUSBAND: The sheer mind-numbing repetitiveness of it.  And the almost unendurable length.

Repetition makes the parallel between Beauty Is a Wound and The Mahabharata more explicit, and even though that choice improves the work from the perspective of someone who understands why he’s doing it, I fear it might also make the book seem less accessible to the average reader.

CaptureIt reminds me of stylistic choices made for David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King (although this is dicier to write about, because Wallace did not have the chance to compile a final version).  In The Pale King, Wallace approached boredom with the same multifaceted concern he’d devoted to desire in Infinite Jest ... so it’s natural that some passages in The Pale King needed to be boring.  I understand why he did it.  At the same time, I worry that the choice may have turned away some readers, and that’s a shame because there are some beautiful ideas in the book (here’s an essay about my favorite passage).

A reader unfamiliar with the incessant repetitiveness of traditional mythology might be puzzled why so many phrases in Beauty Is a Wound recur.  This is especially noticeable with the more striking imagery in the book, like,

bananaThe other [murdered communists] had been left to rot on the side of the road, until those who couldn’t stand them anymore finally buried them, but even then it was more like burying some shit after defecating in the banana orchard.

followed, less than a hundred pages later, by,

But it wasn’t like burying a corpse — it was more like burying a turd after taking a shit in the banana orchard.

That’s a choice I wouldn’t make, but that’s fine — fans of traditional mythology are accustomed to, in Leyner’s words, “mind-numbing repetitiveness.”  So, yes, characters’ histories are recounted anew several chapters in a row, imagery recurs, linguistic tics crop up again and again.

(I’m culpable of this last one too, it seems.  I never grew accustomed to Kurniawan’s / translator Annie Tucker’s use of way where I’d say much, like “way better,” “way more modest,” “way more frightening,” but during a Skype chat about my novel with an overseas draft reader he expressed befuddlement why I’d written couple instead of few so many times, “a couple batteries,” “couple beers,” “couple hours,” etc.  All I could say was, “Whoops.”  I guess we speak worse English here in Indiana than they do in Tehran.)

The thing I found most off-putting in Beauty Is a Wound, that makes me hesitant to recommend it, is that, despite Kurniawan clearly caring deeply about the plight of women, the book still felt vaguely misogynistic.

This probably is not Kurniawan’s fault, entirely.  He seems like he might well be a feminist, protesting the callous mistreatment of women in traditional mythology — in The Mahabharata, for instance, the heroes gamble away their wife, who is then forcibly stripped in the middle of an assembly hall. That the vast majority of female characters in Beauty Is a Wound are raped, with their violations described so cavalierly, seems like a valid commentary to make.  Even that victims are then portrayed as falling in love with their rapists seems valid — in the United States, victims of sexual assault often have subsequent consensual relations with their attackers, and the Bible instructs for victims to be married to their assailants.

At the same time, it made me sad that the women in Beauty Is a Wound are so uniformly depicted as irrational and cruel.  I was reminded again and again of Scott Aaronson’s blog comment describing the way that geek culture often fears and reviles women for being sufficiently beautiful to invoke desire:

scott6-smHere’s the thing: I spent my formative years — basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s — feeling not “entitled,” not “privileged,” but terrified.  I was terrified that one of my female classmates would somehow find out that I sexually desired her, and that the instant she did, I would be scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison.

Aaronson’s case might be extreme because he began college so young, but I think the general psychological progression is pretty common amongst geeky, nervous males: desire women, fear women, dislike women.  The misogyny of geek culture seems to be rooted in the expectation that women will be cruel.

Kurniawan depicts that same feared cruelty.  This wouldn’t have seemed so odd had it come from a single character — some people are cruelbut almost every female character seems beset by similar motivations.  It’s stated most explicitly when Almanda is crushing geek dreams:

kapowEach would grow more confident, feeling like the handsomest guy on earth, like the kindest man in the universe with the best hair on the planet, and convinced by all of this at the first opportunity that arose they would speak up or send a letter spewing their prehistoric pent-up desires: Alamanda, I love you.  That was the best time to destroy a man, to shake him up, to tear his heart to pieces, the best opportunity to show a woman’s superiority, so Alamanda would say, I do not love you.

“I like men,” Alamanda said once, “but I like to see them cry from heartbreak even more.”

(It’s also unsettling that she is later “tamed” by methods prescribed by jerktastic pick-up guides like Neil Strauss’s The Game.  Alamanda rejects everyone until a character “negs” her, then she finds him irresistible.)

While I appreciate that Kurniawan is so passionate about the dire straights of women, it’s a shame that misogyny is so pervasive that it inflects even books written in defense of women.  I just began reading Franzen’s Purity, for instance, and it already bothers me how frequently Pip, a twenty-something year old woman, is referred to as “girl.”  Again, this isn’t necessarily Franzen’s fault, it’s pervasive — consider Flo, the Progressive Insurance “girl.”

Calling an adult male “boy” is noticed to be demeaning by most people, but “girl” is (still!) used so routinely that it can slip by unnoticed.  Even though it shouldn’t.  That sort of language helps perpetuate our misogynistic culture.

I don’t know much about how woman are treated in Indonesia, but judging from Kurniawan’s book the situation seems to be just as bad as here, or worse.  Which obviously saddens me from the perspective of someone who cares about social justice.  But it affects me as a reader, too.  If Kurniawan had been immersed in a culture that talked about & treated women respectfully, I bet he’d have written something I’d really enjoy.

On David Lancy’s The Anthropology of Childhood, and violence against women (again!), and proscriptive parenting advice.

On David Lancy’s The Anthropology of Childhood, and violence against women (again!), and proscriptive parenting advice.

Despite being my family’s primary daytime parent, I’ve read extremely few parenting guides.  Zero, as it happens, unless you count Everywhere Babies (if you’re interested, here is a previous post where I discussed this baby-wrangling treasure) or Far from the Tree.

51E2pM00dFLPersonally, I count Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree as a parenting guide.  I was very nervous about the prospect of having a kid.  I worried that I’d be a rubbish parent.  I worried that I’d have an unmanageable kid.  Then I read Far from the Tree, and I stopped worrying.  K & I decided to forgo prenatal genetic testing; Solomon had convinced me that we could love whomever we received.  And he taught me the one essential lesson I needed to set me on my journey to becoming at least a tolerable (I hope!) parent: relax.

I’d recommend that any parent-to-be (or parent, or person, honestly … it’s a lovely book) read Far from the Tree.  But for the moment, here’s my favorite passage from the book, one that both stresses the importance of accepting what happens and accepting people, including your own children, for who they are:

People of higher socioeconomic status tend toward perfectionism and have a harder time living with perceived defects.  One French study said baldly, “The lower classes show a higher tolerance for severely handicapped children.”  An American study bears out that conclusion, inasmuch as higher-income families are “more apt to stress independence and self-development,” while lower-income families emphasize “interdependence among family members.”  Better-educated more-affluent families are more likely to seek placement for their children, and white families do so more often than minority families, though disturbingly high numbers of minority parents lose children to foster care.  I did back-to-back interviews with a white woman who had a low-functioning autistic son, and an impoverished African-American woman whose autistic son had many of the same symptoms.  The more privileged woman had spent years futilely trying to make her son better.  The less advantaged woman never thought she could make her son better because she’d never been able to make her own life better, and she was not afflicted with feelings of failure.  The first woman found it extremely difficult to deal with her son.  “He breaks everything,” she said unhappily.  The other woman had a relatively happy life with her son.  “Whatever could be broken got broken a long time ago,” she said.  Fixing is the illness model; acceptance is the identity model; which way any family goes reflects their assumptions and resources.

A child may interpret even well-intentioned efforts to fix him as sinister.  Jim Sinclair, an intersex autistic person, wrote “When parents say, ‘I wish my child did not have autism,’ what they’re really saying is, ‘I wish the autistic child I have did not exist, and I had a different (non-autistic) child instead.’  Read that again.  This is what we hear when you mourn over our existence.  This is what we hear when you pray for a cure.  This is what we know, when you tell us of your fondest hopes and dreams for us: that your greatest wish is that one day we will cease to be, and strangers you can love will move in behind our faces.”

Once I had Solomon’s advice in hand (& re-typed & ready to share with you, dear reader!), why would I bother reading another parenting guide?  Any time I come to a situation that Solomon didn’t address, I simply close my eyes and imagine what a cave person attempting to raise a daughter to participate in our technologically-magical information-based economy would do.  Most of the time that imagined cave person (me, in fact) would simply feel perplexed (you’re telling me that your telephone is also a camera??), but sometimes cave dad would probably coo & pat his daughter’s belly, or else read her another book.

I love learning, though.  If I had access to a good book on parenting, I’d read it!  I simply assumed that I wouldn’t like most of the ones I could find at the bookstore.

onlybabybookThat’s why I was so excited when I read Michael Erand’s New York Times article earlier this year, titled “The Only Baby Book You’ll Ever Need.”  Here, let me quote a few lines from the introduction:

Professor Lancy, who teaches at Utah State University, has pored over the anthropology literature to collect insights from a range of culture types, along with primate studies, history and his own fieldwork in seven countries.  He’s not explicitly writing for parents.  Yet through factoids and analysis, he demonstrates something that American parents desperately need to hear: Children are raised in all sorts of ways, and they all turn out just fine.

That sounds exactly like what I’d enjoy reading!  A book about parenting that’s descriptive, not proscriptive.  And I’ve loved reading pop anthropology books ever since paying a quarter for a lovely hardcover edition of Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape at a library book sale in Evanston, Illinois.

CaptureI have to assume that the first edition of the recommended book, David Lancy’s The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelingswas very different from the current second edition, which was published in February of this year.  Because the book I read was intensely proscriptive.  Yes, Lancy documents a wide variety of parenting strategies.  But he also makes abundantly clear his opinion that those parenting strategies would not be appropriate in our culture.

I didn’t mind.  Lancy’s book is quite good, and his ideas about what makes good parenting align closely with my own.  But someone who’d read the Times article might expect the book to be very different from what it is.

As with Dorothy Dinnerstein’s The Mermaid and the Minotaur (would you count a work of feminist philosophy as a parenting guide?  If so, perhaps I’d read one after all.  My previous post about Dinnerstein’s book and parenting is here), Lancy’s foremost prescription is equality — most conspicuously, since not all cultures have multiple races, castes, or tiers of wealth, he’s referring to gender equality:

There is a world in which children almost always feel “wanted” and where “there is no cultural preference for babies of either sex.”  Infants are suckled on demand by their mothers and by other women in her absence.  They are indulged and cosseted by their fathers, grandparents, and siblings.  Children wean themselves over a long period and are given nutritious foods.  They are subject to little or no restraint or coercion.  Infants and toddlers are carried on long journeys and comforted when distressed.  If they die in infancy, they may be mourned.  They are rarely or never physically punished or even scolded.  They are not expected to make a significant contribution to the household economy and are free to play until the mid to late teens.  Their experience of adolescence is relatively stress free.  This paradise exists among a globally dispersed group of isolated societies — all of which depend heavily on foraging for their subsistence.  They are also characterized by relatively egalitarian and close social relations, including relative parity between men and women.**

  ** Thinking of Malinowki’s ethnography of the Trobriand Islanders, I’m tempted to argue that any society with conspicuous gender parity is likely to be a paradise for children.

And shortly thereafter, Lancy makes explicit that many of the parenting practices he’s documenting are horrible.  For instance, misogyny is rampant throughout the world, to such an extent that a significant fraction of female children are never even born.  This is rotten, & if enough parents choose to do this they’re even dooming their own (male, presumed heterosexual) children.  There parallels between this behavior and choosing not to vaccinate a child with a healthy immune system — in both cases, children are doomed if all parents make the same selfish choice, either because there won’t be enough women for the next generation to form families, or because the herd immunity relied upon to protect freeloaders will be lost.

Both China & India, where sex-selection of unborn children is rampant, are attempting legislative correctives.  In China, they’ve outlawed the practice, and in India they’ve instituted monetary incentives for female progeny… although that is conceptually problematic as well.  Here’s Jean Dreze & Amartya Sen from their book An Uncertain Glory:

j10175To illustrate, consider the recent introduction, in many Indian states, of schemes of cash incentives to curb sex-selective abortion.  The schemes typically involve cash rewards for the registered birth of a girl child, and further rewards if the girl is vaccinated, sent to school, and so on, as she gets older.  These schemes can undoubtedly tilt economic incentives in favour of girl children.  But a cash reward for the birth of a girl could also reinforce people’s tendency to think about family planning in economic terms, and also their perception, in the economic calculus of family planning, that girls are a burden (for which cash rewards are supposed to compensate).  Further, cash rewards are likely to affect people’s non-economic motives.  For instance, they could reduce the social stigma attached to sex-selective abortion, by making it look like some sort of ‘fair deal’ — no girl, no cash.  The fact that the cash incentives are typically lower for a second girl child, and nil for higher-order births, also sends confusing signals.  In short, it is not quite clear what sort of message these cash incentives are supposed to convey about the status and value of the girl child, and how they are supposed to affect social attitudes towards sex-selective abortion.  As mentioned earlier, the workings of social norms is critically important in this kind of area of values and actions, and it is important to think about the possible effects of cash transfers on social norms and their role, and not just about economic self-interest.

Paying parents for their misfortune of raising a girl still perpetuates misogyny.  And setting minimum standards on her care (you receive money if she’s vaccinated, if she attends school) likely results in that bare minimum being given.

And now, let me get back to Lancy’s horror:

More commonly, we find that the infant’s sex is highly salient in determining its fate.  Some years ago, I came across a United Nations report, on the cover of which was a picture of a mother holding on her lap a boy and a girl of about the same age, possibly twins.  The girl was skeletal, obviously in an advanced state of malnutrition, the boy robust and healthy.  He sat erect, eyes intent on the camera; she sprawled, like a rag doll, her eyes staring into space.  That picture and what it represented has haunted me ever since.

That’s not a value-less scientific description.  Which is fine.  I’m happy that Lancy’s book (the current edition, at least) is proscriptive.  Because Erand’s article, which included lines such as, “The book does not render judgments, like other parenting books we know,” also mentioned tidbits like, “In Gapun, an isolated village in Papua New Guinea, children are encouraged to hit dogs and chickens, and to raise knives at siblings.

Really?  David Lancy doesn’t judge parents who give their children unsupervised access to knives?

Oh, wait.  He does.  He thinks that letting kids play with knives is bad.  From The Anthropology of Childhood:

On Vanatinai Island in the South Pacific, “children … manipulate firebrands and sharp knives without remonstrance … one four year old girl had accidentally amputated parts of several fingers on her right hand by playing with a bush knife.”

And, later, Lancy is even more explicit.  Yes, different cultures use different parenting strategies.  To prepare a child for relatively simple life in an agrarian village — especially if you give birth to eight children and will be happy if only four of them survive — it’s fine to ignore them and expect them to learn what they need to know by watching their elders.  But attempting equivalent parenting strategies in our culture would, in Lancy’s opinion, invite disaster:

At the outset of this chapter, I set up a juxtaposition.  One view holds that, to succeed in life, children require the near-full-time attention of a mother who treats childrearing as a vocation and prepares herself assiduously.  A contrary view is that this is a task best shared among a variety of individuals, a village.  What can we conclude?  I would argue that, to prepare a child for life in the village, it is neither necessary nor an efficient use of scarce resources to put the burden on any one individual.  However, to prepare a child for the modern world, spreading the responsibility among a variety of individuals — none of whom is in charge — invites disaster.  Hillary Clinton, in It Takes a Village, tries to apply the village model to the modern situation.  She argues for improvements in schools and social service agencies, an increase in library and playground facilities, and after-school programs — among other things.  All these proposals are helpful, but all these agents — teachers, librarians, playground supervisors, Boys & Girls Club volunteers — cannot, collectively, substitute for a dedicated, resourceful parent.  They are not related to the child and, in our society, the village is not responsible.  The parent is.  At best, these agents can only assist the parent in fulfilling their plan for the child.

Having said that much, I want immediately to disavow any claim that this task requires the full-time ministrations of the child’s biological mother.  There is overwhelming evidence — not reviewed here — that fathers, adoptive parents, lesbian partners of the biological mothers, and grandparents can all do a fine job.  Any of them, or the child’s mother, can and usually do avail themselves of an array of supplementary caretakers.  A working mother, in particular, may well bring home cultural, intellectual, and, certainly, economic resources that a non-working mother cannot provide.

So parenting in contemporary society is at least somewhat like physics, as it is tough to insure the child’s future success and a close, lasting filial relationship.  But, ultimately, we come full circle in that, as long as a reasonably competent and caring individual is in charge, the more loving, intelligent, and dedicated helpers surrounding the nest, the better off the twenty-first-century child will be.

Lancy writes that those village children’s lives are often bad, and that imported practices from Western nations have made them even worse:

Numerous studies have shown the deleterious effects on children’s health in the agriculturalist’s pursuit of the “production” strategy.  However, as the land is brought fully into cultivation, population-limiting mechanisms (such as the post-partum sex taboo) should develop to curtail further growth.  And this seems to have happened in many, many cases.  However, Western influence in the past hundred years seems to have dismantled these mechanisms, including, especially, abortion and infanticide.  Improved nutrition and healthcare for mothers has no doubt brought benefits.  But missionary efforts to stamp out “pagan” practices like polygyny also undermined the post-partum taboo on intercourse, even while they simultaneously blocked the introduction of modern contraceptives.  Additionally, “fashion” and commercial interests pushing infant “formula” have drastically reduced the number of infants being breastfed [breastfeeding is often an effective contraceptive.  Also, my computer marks “breastfed” and “breastfeeding” as spelling errors.  Yeah paternalistic misogyny!].  The result has been, in many parts of the world, population growth outstripping opportunities for either employment or improved food production.

Lancy even ends The Anthropology of Childhood with a powerful statement about economic & medical ethics.  Indeed, it’s difficult to read this as being anything but proscriptive:

Even though we recoil from discussions of children as chattel, our current policies, in fact, turn children into commodities with a precise dollar value.  Effectively, we embrace the notions that anyone can have a child, everyone can have as many children as they want, infertility can be circumvented, and the fetus is human and deserves whatever measures are available to keep it alive, regardless of any handicaps or defects it may harbor.  The net result of our mindset is that the marketplace decides the fate of children.  In poor countries, food shortages mean many potentially sound children will suffer malnutrition and neglect.  Wealth in the “North” that might be sent “South” to vaccinate, educate, and feed these children is, instead, spent at home on expensive technologies and caretakers to keep alive children whose quality of life is non-existent.  While sick, premature babies born to the well-off will survive through “miracles” of modern medicine, the poor will lose their otherwise healthy children to preventable diseases.

To me, this is a sensible proscription to make — it is similar to my own reasoning for abandoning a career in biomedical research.  Medical spending will continue to spiral out of control if we focus on preserving life at all costs with no concern for quality of life, and by wasting that money we perpetuate egregious harm through economic hardship.

So, I was thrilled to read David Lancy’s book.  I assume you’d like it too, given that you still seem to be reading my post about it.

Just, don’t go into it expecting a descriptive work devoid of value claims.  Because that’s not what you’re getting, at least not if you read the current edition.

And I’m still trying to figure out why Erand had such a different impression.  Because, sure, it’s possible that the first edition was extremely different.  But I think the confusion is more likely related to a point I made at the beginning of this essay: when I imagine myself as a cave person trying to raise his daughter, I have to imagine that cave dad raising his daughter for our world.  Not his world.

It’s a common mistake when people discuss human evolution.  Like, paleo diets?  Seems like a reasonable idea, trying to eat what humans evolved to eat.  But humans also evolved for constant motion & early death.  If that’s the way you’re planning to live, then, sure, you’ve got a valid argument for eating that way.  If not, the argument seems much less compelling.

Here’s where the problem comes from in Erand’s piece.  He writes:

caIn the ‘pick when ripe’ culture, babies and toddlers are largely ignored by adults, and may not be named until they’re weaned.  They undergo what he calls a ‘village curriculum’: running errands, delivering messages and doing small-scale versions of adult tasks.  Only later are they ‘picked,’ or fully recognized as individuals.  In contrast, in ‘pick when green’ cultures, including our own, it’s never too early to socialize babies or recognize their personhood.

But, Lancy makes clear why “pick when ripe” cultures made the choices they did.  As in, huge infant mortality meant that high-investment parenting would probably be wasted: why should that parent care that a kid was on track for greatness if the kid then dies at three?  And the potential “greatness” that was perceived to be within reach was pretty meager anyway — even a neglected child could eventually catch up and learn to farm well enough.

Whereas a parent who expects his or her children to survive, and who will only attempt to raise one to three (instead of seven to ten, with 60% of them dying young), should invest a lot of time.  Especially if you’re hoping for some complex, modern version of “success,” something involving happiness, for instance, and money.

And, yes, Lancy also thinks you should teach your children to do chores.

On sex work, reparations, a global wealth tax, and the connection between the three.

On sex work, reparations, a global wealth tax, and the connection between the three.

CaptureMany people are upset that Amnesty International finally came out in favor of decriminalizing sex work.

Not me.  I think decriminalizing sex work is a step in the right direction.  Sex workers’ lives are often miserable.  Their underground status denies them police protection; instead, they are often actively abused by the police.

The philosophical rationale for outlawing sex work is at least more sound than the equivalent rationale for outlawing the drug trade, though.  I’m in favor of decriminalization for both, but in the case of sex work I acknowledge that there are extremely valid reasons to feel squeamish about the tacit approval conferred by decriminalization.

Laws are just only insofar as they protect people.  Driving laws are imminently just — letting people drive however they wanted would endanger the lives of everyone else on or near roadways.  Whereas drug laws appear at first glance to be imminently unjust — if a burnout decides to loaf around his apartment, smoke a jay, watch some television, it would seem that no one else is harmed.

Only two arguments I’ve seen for outlawing drug use have any merit.  One is that a person under the influence of a particular compound cannot be trusted to peacefully loaf in his apartment.  Amphetamine use, for instance, both confers extra energy and impairs judgement (the latter effect is due mostly to lack of sleep, not a pharmacological effect of amphetamines themselves, but I think it’s fair to make this approximation since amphetamines impede sleep.  This is especially true for the methylated analogues because that methylation slows drug metabolism; the half-life is so long that a single dose can prevent someone from sleeping for a day or two).

It’s reasonable to guess that people given free access to amphetamines would become unlawful.

CaptureOf course, we outlawed amphetamines poorly.  They are all scheduled, meaning they are all illegal to purchase or possess without a prescription… but many flavors can be purchased in large quantities with a valid prescription.

In practice, this means that amphetamines are outlawed for poor people.  Wealthy college students and medical doctors and tenure-track professors all have ready access.  So the way amphetamines are outlawed in this country is clearly unjust, and rampant abuse among wealthy populations belies the notion that amphetamines lead to lawless behavior… but as long as you ignore the empirical evidence and just focus on the theory, the philosophical rationale makes sense.

The other argument for outlawing drug use is that compounds are so addictive, and so dangerous, that we should accept some harm to adults (imprisonment, the danger of participating in underground markets) in order to prevent children from ever trying drugs.  Children, knowing that the laws make users’ lives awful, might consider that extra cost and decide that a first taste isn’t worth it.  Additionally, the laws might reduce access, so there’d be less risk that a child ever has an opportunity to choose poorly.

Personally, I think this is a rotten strategy.  There are viable alternatives that allow adult access while still keeping a good or service out of the hands of children.  These strategies also tend to break down in markets for illegal goods or services.  In many regions of our country it is easier for children to buy marijuana than alcohol.  And we now have nearly a half-century’s worth of evidence that harm caused by the War on Drugs outweighs the potential paternalistic protection afforded to children.

The War on Drugs has led to heroin overdoses because illegal goods have limited quality control.  Brutality & murder in impoverished urban areas because people without access to police protection depend upon reprisal to maintain order.  Brutality, murder, rape, kidnapping, terror & more in huge swaths of Mexico, all clearly the result of U.S. drug policy.  And millions of harmless people denied their freedom in U.S. prisons, effectively state-sponsored partial murders because those people forfeit the bulk of their adult lives.

But, again, that’s merely empirical evidence.  None of that contradicts the theoretical justification for outlawing drug use, the idea that some harm to adults is acceptable in order to protect children.  Perhaps our legislators simply care about children’s well-being much more than I do.

(Except, right, they don’t care about children in Mexico.  Or those living in our nation’s dangerous inner cities.  Or those who grow up without access to their incarcerated parents.  But, give our legislators a break!  Empathy fatigue is real!  They can’t be expected to maintain the same degree of concern for everyone.  Shouldn’t they be commended that they at least care deeply about the well-being of privileged suburban children?)

It felt necessary to detail those arguments because they also provide the motivation for outlawing sex work.

The feminist argument resembles the supposition that people allowed to buy drugs will then behave unacceptably.  The idea is that men who are allowed to purchase women’s bodies will devalue women in general.  I’m skeptical, though.  After decriminalization, most bodies will still not be for sale.  No one would be forced to participate in the sex trade.  And just because you can walk into a sparring gym and pay a boxing instructor to let you take some swings at him does not mean that people think it’s fair game to throw down some bills and punch whomever they like.

shutterstock_128676716-800x430It’s true that we live in a very misogynistic culture.  Some misogynists might feel empowered to talk & act even more crudely if they were legally allowed to purchase sex.  But it’s not as though misogynists are currently unable to purchase sex.  And our current system denies sex workers protection against bad actors — decriminalization would confer dignity and allow them to demand more respectful treatment from their clientele.

And there is a serious problem with the “increase the cost of participation in the sex trade to protect people from it” argument.  A major reason why people need to be protected from joining the trade is that it is illegal.  Decriminalization would reduce the dangers.  And even though current laws against sex work increase the cost of participation, there are still many people willing to pay that cost.  There are individuals who want to buy sex.  There are desperate people who need money.  Ironically, the laws against sex work even reduce the amount of money that the latter group can earn.

(Some economics in brief: demand for most goods is based on price.  If price increases, demand goes down.  For purchasers of illegal sex, the risk of being caught is an additional cost.  Which means that in every transaction they are paying in both dollars and risk.  If the legal risk were instead zero, the amount of dollars that buyers would be willing to pay for identical services would increase.)

This is where my personal qualms come in, by the way.  I’m willing to believe that some people are genuinely willing to sell sex.  I’ve spoken with several people who enjoy working as massage therapists, and to my mind some types of sex work differ in degree, not in kind, from massage.  A professional uses practiced touch to confer physiological and psychological wellness.

The problem is that people who did not want to but had no other options might also sell sex.

Lydia_Cacho_en_entrevistaI’m in favor of decriminalizing sex work, but I think that if we do decriminalize sex work but make no other changes to the world, the result will be evil.  Women will continue to be hurt in ways resembling those documented by Lydia Cacho in her book Slavery, Inc.  (The book is great — if you care about these issues, it’s well worth a read.  Also, if somebody ever starts printing heroic human rights worker trading cards, I’d definitely nominate Cacho to appear in the first set.)

Without a concurrent effort to address poverty, decriminalizing sex work could reasonably be construed as coercive.  The impoverished might well feel compelled to participate in order to survive.  If people have extremely limited options, making one option more attractive does funnel people into participation.  It wouldn’t be entirely against their will, but survival impetus means it wouldn’t be entirely voluntary either.  Ironically, their near-forced participation would also reduce the amount that all those desperate people could earn from each unwanted act.

(The other side of price equilibrium is based on supply — if supply of a good is high, like if many hungry people have to sell sex to have enough money to eat, the price has to be lowered to move the whole quantity.  Poverty-impelled participants would undermine each other’s wages.)

Part of why this is so crummy is that we have sufficient resources to fix this.  The productivity gains from modern automation and agriculture mean we could probably provide all people with food, shelter, and basic utilities (water will get trickier as time goes on) for free.  The rudiments of survival don’t cost that much relative to modern production capacity.

And a guarantee of subsistence would make the idea of decriminalized sex work much more palatable.  The idea of sex being traded as commerce isn’t so problematic in and of itself — as I mentioned, I see it as being on the same continuum as legal massage… or mosh pits, which also provide paid access to human contact.  The horrors come from people feeling pressured to sell sex in order to survive.

In my opinion, a guaranteed minimum standard of living is also the most practical form for reparations to take.

320px-Ta-Nehisi_CoatesI really enjoyed Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article about reparations (“The Case for Reparations”).  It wasn’t at all pedantic or abstract — which means that I was clearly not the intended audience — but I enjoyed it all the same.  One of his main aims is to show that people alive today have been victimized by the long legacy of racially-motivated abuse in the United States.  Which means reparations would be not only an acknowledgement of long-past wrongs, but would also serve to ameliorate very recent & ongoing harm.

In his article, however, Coates did not address who would pay or how reparations might be fairly distributed.  To my mind those practical considerations are of utmost importance in deciding whether the idea is at all viable.

I think it is.  I think that a global wealth tax used to fund a minimum standard of living for all people is plausible, philosophically justifiable, and would have meaningful economic & psychological consequences for the decedents of oppressed peoples.

I wrote about some of the underlying principles in my previous post about the creepy parallel between gene duplication and oppression — the idea that our cultural & technological heritage is the product of exploitation because subjugation of the world’s many allowed a free-riding few to pursue goals other than subsistence.  This has rough equivalence to the way advancement comes about in evolution — gene duplication produces free-riding DNA sequences that are allowed to drift because the original copy takes care of required function.

But the basic idea behind using a wealth tax to fund reparations is even simpler: wealth begets wealth.  Initial inequalities in distribution (which probably even existed amongst “egalitarian” hunter gatherers) will, over time, magnify into dramatic unfairness.  Wealthy heirs earn far more by renting their property than our hardest workers possibly could via effort alone.

I’m not sure anyone still thinks that communism is a reasonable fix for this, though.  As much as I dislike Ayn Rand’s writing (although it’s fascinating to me that many feminists and conservative Christians both like her books… this despite repeated depictions of Rand’s ideal men sexually assaulting her ideal women and Rand’s clear disdain for Christianity), I agree with some of her arguments against communism.  Knowing that you can’t profit from your efforts saps motivation.  Absolute equality undermines personal value.  And it seems just plain strange to have your net worth instantly decrease whenever a stranger has a child.

345829246_a7434a76dcMore reasonable, to my mind, is a tax on total wealth.  This would not devalue effort because it ignores income; the tax would be based on current holdings.  Taxation at any amount less than the rental income rate would still leave that maxim “wealth begets wealth” untouched… the only change would be that wealth would beget slightly less wealth.  (A reasonable rate of return on wealth right now, like if you buy some certificates of deposit, is about 3%.  Historically 5% is standard, and the largest property holders are often able to attain rates of 8% – 12%.  If you’d like to read a little more about this, you could check out my previous post on wealth tax, automation, & human trafficking.)

A global wealth tax would be philosophically justifiable as an acknowledgement that all current holdings can be traced back through time to violence and oppression.  For instance, no one created land (this isn’t entirely true — China has been constructing islands, and you could argue that draining the weather-buffering swamps in Florida and Louisiana was akin to creating land — but for most places, though most of history, it’s true enough).

It’s pretty easy to see land entitlement as having resulted from violence.  Humans migrated into new territory, killed off the dangerous animals that were there, then were murdered in turn by a new wave of human migrants, who were then murdered by new migrants, over and over until the conquerors were sufficiently powerful to defend their property and stop the cycle of theft.

Or there’s the case of the United States.  Our current wealth reflects our long history as a global superpower, but that history began somewhere.  First European settlers massacred the Native Americans.  Our meteoric rise was then propelled by cotton.  And how was the United States able to dominate the world’s cotton market?

Oh, right.

353181520_92b6b4a831

Our nation’s rise as an economic superpower was due to the brutal exploitation of black laborers.

Murder of those who resisted their enslavement.  Rape to propagate an imprisoned people.

Because wealth begets wealth, and because economic reparations were never paid, all current wealth in this country can be traced back to that initial evil.  Our nation’s initial prosperity came from sin.  Everyone who enjoys good fortune here today benefits from & is thereby marked by crimes whose reverberations have not ended & will not end on their own.

I’m not saying that no one did honest work later.  Obviously hundreds of millions did.  Your parents presumably did not oppress anyone in order to purchase their house.

But that doesn’t change the legacy.  If they were lucky, your parents received a decent education — their schools’ funding did not materialize wholesale from the aether.  They presumably received a loan to be able to purchase a home (the Coates reparations article has some excellent documentation for historic and contemporary harm perpetuated by both our nation’s banks & federal lending policies).  The original inhabitants of the land on which that home was built were murdered.  The national prosperity that makes that land more valuable than an equivalent parcel elsewhere was bled out of generations of slaves.

It’s too late to seek forgiveness for sins perpetuated against those who are now dead, but economic reparations could serve to make current wealth clean.

There is, of course, the question of who should benefit from reparations.  History is sufficiently tangled that I don’t think any attempt at strict accounting of whose ancestors were harmed & how much would be fruitful.  Nor do I think an accounting of that sort is necessary.  In contemporary times, the most egregious harms result from our failure to provide for the children of the poor — in our country, not only does wealth perpetuate itself, we have policies that go a long way toward guaranteeing that poverty will perpetuate itself as well.

This could be ameliorated by providing all people with a minimum standard of living.  Children can’t learn when they’re hungry. It wouldn’t cost much to offer all students a peanut butter & jelly sandwich (or a calorically-equivalent hypoallergenic meal) at the beginning of each school day.  Instead we let them sit in classrooms with rumbling stomachs & agitated minds and chastise their teachers when they fail.

Children who work long hours to help their parents pay rent (please scroll to the bottom of this article and read the final 10 paragraphs — the rest is good too, but I’ve picked out the most heartbreaking section for you) can’t learn well either.  Even children who simply stay awake worrying what’ll happen to their families are at a major disadvantage.  If you’re worried about having enough money to survive, you can’t really think about anything else (feel free to check out Mani et al.’s “Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function” if you haven’t seen it yet, or see this recent post).

If food & shelter & basic utilities were guaranteed, we’d cut down on those worries.  Poor people would be given room to breathe and think and plan.

(Are you one of those people who likes numbers?  Here is a tiny bit of math to support my claim that this is feasible.  I’d say $500 per month per person is reasonable to provide food, shelter, and utilities — honestly, this amount comes close to cutting it in Bloomington IN, and that’s without any dedicated infrastructure for the project.  For most of the globe, $500 might be a vast overestimate.  With a world population of seven billion, that puts us at needing $3.5 trillion per year if all people wanted to take advantage of the crappy minimum offerings.  Under a twentieth of the gross world product.  And, regarding a wealth tax, it would take approximately a 1.5% tax on wealth holdings to fund that full amount.  That’s well below the historical 5% rate of return for capital.)

This implementation wouldn’t explicitly target blacks.  Maybe that’s a bad thing, because it wouldn’t make the apology aspect of reparations explicit.  This nation, as a collective, has done wrong and should atone for it.  But our nation’s blacks do suffer the slings of poverty more severely than other citizens (largely because we still have policies in place that ensure that they will), so a serious program to address poverty would benefit many who’ve inherited that legacy of mistreatment.  And the impoverished masses in other countries generally reside in areas that were once (or are still) exploited by our world’s now-wealthy nations.  Their plight reflects past theft of their resources.

And, getting back to sex work — many of the problems that will come from decriminalized sex work would not arise in a world with guaranteed subsistence.

People might feel compelled to sell sex against their wishes if the practice is decriminalized and they need money to survive but have no other way of obtaining it.  Many of the current ails of sex workers result from their criminal status.  But without addressing poverty, it is likely that sex workers will still be denied police protection because they’ll still be considered criminals.  Instead of being criminals by virtue of being sex workers, they’ll be considered criminals because of immigration status.  Impoverished people have long been trafficked to regions with decriminalized sex work and held hostage by the threat of fines, deportation, and reprisal against their families.

5611594783_8e9a533564_bWhich obviously sounds grim.  But I don’t think those are inherent consequences of decriminalized sex work.  Those are the consequences of impoverished desperation amongst people with few options.  Similar economic motivations underlie participation in unethical organ markets (which I wrote about for my first post to this website).

Still, I’d like to thank Amnesty International.  Their advocacy for decriminalization is sorely needed.  But I expect to hear many more horror stories akin to those documented in Cacho’s book unless we make a sincere effort to combat poverty.  Micro-loans or not-quite-enough-to-live-on food allotments are not going to cut it.  People need to know that they’ll at least survive if something goes wrong.

Also, how did I type up this whole post without including the Balzac epigraph from Mario Puzo’s The Godfather?  I’ll include it here — please pretend you read it earlier, to punctuate any of the above paragraphs where it would’ve been appropriate.

“Behind every great fortune there is a crime.”