Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Zero-Sum Affair (by Phila)

Kathryn Jean Lopez weeps for the vanished glory of the Global Gag Rule:
The policy presented overseas health organizations with a choice: They could accept federal American cash and discourage abortion or they could refuse the needed funds and do as they wished. That's surely far from draconian.
It's no more draconian than the average act of bribery, or the typical protection racket, I suppose. Lopez also notes that the policy had "nothing to do with jailing or hurting women"; clearly, any woman who feels "hurt" by the policy must be malingering or worse.

All of which is par for the course. What's new to me in Lopez's article is this:
[T]he debate over the Mexico City Policy doesn't have to be a zero-sum affair. As Republican Chris Smith, the most ardent anti-abortion advocate in Congress, put it shortly after Obama issued an executive order overturning the policy: "The Mexico City Policy represents common ground." In fact, Democrat Bart Stupak joined Smith in an attempt to reinstate the policy.
This is one of those paragraphs that makes even the most hardened blogger feel lightheaded and weak in the knees. There's nothing complicated about tearing it apart, in logical terms, and yet I have to pause before it for a moment in almost superstitious awe, as I might before a geyser in the world's largest hog-waste lagoon.

Obviously, "the most ardent anti-abortion advocate in Congress" is not the ideal person to decide what constitutes "common ground" on abortion. Obviously, the fact that a vicious anti-choice stooge like Stupak agrees with a vicious anti-choice stooge like Smith doesn't herald a new era of post-partisan cooperation. But what I like best here is the claim that we can avoid "a zero-sum affair" by allowing Smith and Stupak to model proper negotiating behavior for us. If those on Smith's side can acknowledge that abortion is murder, and those on Stupak's side can agree, surely the rest of us can put aside our partisanship and walk together with these Good Men towards a brighter day?

That's Lopez's hope, and this is her prayer:
The Mexico City Policy doesn't deserve its bad rep. I look forward to the day where it isn't treated as the ball in a partisan ping-pong game and we can have an honest debate about it.
Simple enough. It's just a matter of getting all the players on her side of the net.

The Rap Sheet by Anthony McCarthy

Dedicated to liberal religious leftists who should stop putting up with this stuff.

The criticism of pop materialism I posted here two weeks ago has led one of my habitual carpers to challenge me to state, positively, what I believe by way of religion. Though I could point out that I reluctantly did some of that quite a while ago, that doesn’t satisfy his curiosity. Or is it a desire for me to provide ammunition for me to dodge later? I don’t know. The challenge includes a dare, the assertion that I must be ashamed of or embarrassed about what I believe or I’d confess it. No. Having struggled with Augustine’s psychodrama in my youth and witness to this age of instantly provided, and unrequested, self-analyses by the bucket load, the form isn’t quite my bag. And, as a native New Englander, it’s not part of my cultural heritage to talk about faith to strangers. Not to mention that it was superfluous to the topics I’d posted on. Yet there does seem to be some level of curiosity about it. And it was put in the form of a dare.

What do I really believe, at least as of today? And in particular to the usual, notably uncreative, accusations.

You can start with the skeptical assertions about the limits of “empirical”* knowledge. Very, very little of what the most exigent of thinkers know is held within limits allowing it to go into the category of “empirical knowledge”, as that phrase has developed in recent times. Most of what we know is “known” within tolerances of reliability. Quite frequently, of undefinable tolerances of reliability. Some of it is sound, some of it is unsound. A lot of what was taken to be sound at one time, turns out to have been mistaken. Quite frequently that determination isn’t solely a matter of personal appraisal but depends on what other’s are willing to accept as being sound. Science, the asserted touchstone of my correspondent, clearly depends on that fact or peer review would be a superfluous requirement.

You can also continue with the distinction between knowledge and belief and my assertion that everyone holds ideas as fact which are actually faith. I use the provocative synonym, :”faith” as a motivation for self reflection and as a weapon. We are all, to a person, “faith-heads”. Not a single one of us “knows” most of what we “know”.

OK, so it’s down to brass tacks, what do I believe in the way of “religion”? How did I come to believe it?

I believe what I do based on personal, often extremely personal, experience. I believe in a God, a supernatural God, a God which is not a person, which is not a thing, which is not in any ways comprehensible by human thought or language. How could a God be comprehended by a human being? God is unlimited, I’m not. Are you?

Is this God a “personal god”? God isn’t a person. Even what relationship there might be between a person and God certainly can’t be defined accurately in those terms. And yet, it’s my personal experience that such a God exists. Me being a person, the personal part is my experience of God in so far as I can put it into words. God isn’t limited within that experience any more than the part of the Atlantic Ocean I see from York Beach limits the ocean. And that analogy is only a shadow of the situation. The ocean is a part of the natural universe, in the grand scheme of things, it’s more on the scale of my body and field of vision, than even the Milky Way. Which is tiny in comparison to even the known dimensions of the universe. God isn’t merely bigger than the universe. God doesn’t exist in any scale that can be defined. The idea of “scale” itself doesn’t apply. God, and you’re not probably going to like this, doesn’t merely exist. That’s a point that has been made by religious believers for quite a while now, you might not like it but I believe it to be true.

I don’t believe that anyone really, truly, believes anything except on the basis of their own experience. You can’t “find out what you believe” by consulting any kind of catechism, not the Baltimore Catechism or the scribbles of A. J. Ayers. Heaven help you, you’re definitely not going to find it in the pale imitation of his stuff from today’s Best Sellers list.

The deadender, generally Anglophile, remnants of logical positivism would assert at this point that all of what I am saying here is “meaningless” due to their inability to find a logical foundation in it. That is the point I addressed in the criticism that motivated this piece. There is no logical reason for us to conclude that our human inabilities have a single thing to do with banishing these ideas to non-existence. That humans are unable to deal with the existence of paradox in the universe, fitting it into a tidy logical network isn’t a bar to belief. Even in science there are paradoxes that have yet to be worked out. It is not clear that any paradox presented at any given time will ever be reconciled. Yet those same people have no problem with the existence of those. To each their own form of faith, as long as they don’t bother other people with it.

I am neither a monotheist nor a polytheist because even that most basic distinction of human numeration isn’t reliably applicable. I have no problem with anyone who is either or neither as long as they’re equally unwilling to aggressively impose their limited view on other people**. It is one of the great ideas, found in the Jewish scriptures, in Buddhism and in many mystical writings that God is not definable. Indeed, some of these traditions don't even define the ultimate reality as a god. Assertions that to talk about God is to create an internal idol, a limited creation of our cognitive necessity, seem to be to be wise. It is exactly those limited idols that are the easy marks of people who want to be rude, it is exactly those idols that fail those who cling to them even as they really don’t believe in them. Shaky belief is that belief which elicits the most extreme emotional reaction in the form of fundamentalism. I don’t believe that fundamentalists really believe in the gods they assert so rigidly. I think real belief is marked by tolerance borne of a realization that we aren’t going to have a comprehensive view.

Why the metaphysical inapplicability of the category “knowledge”, which developed in our need to cope with phenomena of the physical universe, bothers some people who can’t accept its limits of our ability to answer these questions, is suggestive of a deeper anxiety. What is it that they just can’t stand about people who believe things they don’t? Why are these self-asserted paragons of rigor and reason so irrational when you point out that their own ideas are based on foundations that are not knowable? In that they remind me of nothing so much as biblical fundamentalists who live in terror of the truth about their touchstone’s contents, history and, in the end, their own subjective choice of authorities.

What’s the experience I’m talking about? I don’t know how to transfer it to you. I can’t accurately describe it. I don’t have any idea why I have it, never mind why someone else might not have. I can tell you that it came in the midst of a very contented and relaxing agnosticism, one which was not atheism only because I’d accepted the conclusion that it isn’t possible to know any of this. Maybe that agnosticism had killed off the last idol in my mind. I don’t know.

Part of that experience is that I am now a universalist, believing in the inexorable reconciliation of all beings with God. At times there is the suspicion of a unity of all of existence, inert matter as well as living beings with God. Sri Aurobindo talks about a similar experience, though I don’t remember if I’d had it before reading him. As a living being, it’s hard enough to concentrate on just that aspect of the question. The rocks are going to have to find their own way.

When questions of religion are asserted by those who are generally reasonable about it and who don’t demonstrate an desire to impose their beliefs on other people, you would think it would be the reasonable and responsible thing to just accept that people can believe different things. That some of us are fed up with the worst of that is a reaction to the aggressive rudeness and dishonest assertions of some people. There is an explicit campaign to stigmatize us as beyond respectability mounted by so0me pop-atheists, most of them pretty threadbare and shoddy thinkers**. Their fundamentalism often has a pretty similar function in our lives to that of the more intolerant of our domestic religious fundamentalists. They might not kill people but they can make real jerks of themselves.

People have individual rights based in the fact that we are all born into the world as individuals. I’ve gone into those rights quite extensively and this piece is going to get very long if I answer every point and the necessary results of those answers. Needless to say, those include all the rights commonly held by liberals and some that don’t.

People have responsibilities that result from their own rights. The foremost of those is to allow people to exercise and enjoy their rights. All of us have the responsibility to not impinge on the necessary rights of other people. That these rights and responsibilities are sometimes in conflict and that there are necessary hierarchies in them, and those hierarchies are not universally agreed on might unfortunate but that’s just how things are. It could present us with learning opportunities in just these same areas. So we need politics and democratic government. We also need a faith neutral government, one that can encompass the entirety of civil disagreement on the questions of personal belief, no matter how small the group holding that belief is. The government being neutral ensures that, in so far as our government is concerned, we all retain that freedom equally. That neutrality isn’t a requirement in our own private lives and speech, the limits on how far you can go in asserting your own belief without it becoming an unwelcome imposition on the unwilling isn’t marked with a bright line that can be found. It is a shifting line and like all of those it is frequently violated. Just a hint, you can object to that imposition without being a jerk. And people will be a lot more receptive of your view point if you’re not one. In the end, only other jerks will voluntarily associate with jerks.

One of our greatest responsibilities is to do as little harm as possible to the living world we in habit, to preserve life so other beings can live out their lives to whatever end they are given. We are not going to be able to do this perfectly, I believe it is our responsibility to try our best.

I believe most fully that we are called out of the bounds of our narrow and limited self and that the most important means of becoming more than our narrow, finite selves is through the free and seldom achieved love of other beings. Love that breaks the bands of selfishness that imprison our souls, the few moments of freedom that we get from the cell we generally languish in. We are called to not settle for just being our self but to break out of our selfishness. That’s not easy. I’m hardly a master of the art. I suspect that the estimate given in a light hearted discussion of the topic put it, I’d need two more incarnations, at least, to master it. .

That’s a general outline of it. I believe with The Rev. King that the arc of the universe is towards justice, I believe that people are born to strive towards that goal. Whether other beings are tasked with that goal is beyond my experience.

Politeness and fairness help, they certainly don’t hurt. Their opposite won’t buy you the admiration of anyone who is reliable in the long run. Jerks might band together out of the sheer desolation of loneliness but the resulting cliques provide them with just another opportunity to practice on each other. As with so much of organized, social scientism, they’re a pretty unattractive, competitive and nasty bunch even among themselves.

There, are you satisfied?

* Today’s “empiricism” fetishists don’t seem to understand that the real definition of the word doesn’t make it a synonym for “scientism”. Experience, not defined as being only that experience that could be analyzed scientifically, was included in that judgement of sound knowledge. What began as a reaction against the faults of medieval scholastic education, has devolved into a kind of silly dogma refusing to be honest that it’s not got much to do with the way people really think and get by in life. Today’s page boys of blog “empiricism” are quite often dumbfounded when you challenge them on these points. There might be something to learn in their automatic accusations in response, which amount to little more than charges of a modern form of heresy. It seems to be a common trait among the Praetorian Guards of the Empire of Empiricism, they’re not so good on the history of philosophy or using the dictionary. You can give that much to the scholastics, though often deficient in their observations, they were often a lot better at defining the terms of their authority based logical discourse.

** The currently fashionable, and already very, very old, rudeness in these matters is an invitation to refutation, retort and derisive humor. Hopefully given out in an appropriate and good natured way, though one is only human.

I think a lot of the worst of that in the United States is due to the activities of those involved with the old CSICOP and other organized, alleged, skeptics. I’ve read quite a bit of their intolerant junk and think on the whole their influence in the culture have been extremely bad for civil discourse and bad for science. Some of the most prominent among them are really, really lousy scholars. Some of the worst are just as much flim-flam men as those they hold up as representing their opponents. A lot of them are just plain jerks of the sort you couldn’t stand in high school.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Shopping (by Suzie)


          There is tremendous pressure on women to shop and spend, to be attractive and fashionable. I would like to say that I have resisted those pressures. But, alas, I have fallen prey to is the first Internet auction site created, owned and operated by a nonprofit organization. It was created and is operated by Goodwill of Orange County (Santa Ana, CA). Participating Goodwill's from across the country offer for auction on the site a wide array of art, antiques and collectibles as well as new and nearly new items pulled from their vast inventories of donated goods. From unique one-of-a-kind items to estate pieces, the depth of resources is enormous. Revenues from these auction sales fund Goodwill's education, training and job placement programs for people with disabilities and other barriers.
          I’ve learned to look at measurements, not sizes, which vary widely among designers. Also, the color can be way off in the photos. Sometimes I see several items in a row, all the same size, and I wonder about the woman who bought them. On the same page with the jewel-tone, brand-new wool skirts, all size 12, is the Cher 2004 Farewell Tour T Shirt Sz 2XL Black, all with the starting bid of $5. You can find classics like Talbot’s or a Vintage 60’s Mod Floral Lounge Maxi Dress. There are bustiers and bridal gowns and furs.
           If you are a better feminist than I am, if you can resist cashmere sweaters for $5, you may still enjoy the site's quirkiness. In an age of slick marketing, the marketing often consists of calling something “lovely” or “neat.” My heart goes out to the El Paso Goodwill, which often offers things for only a dollar, like these black boots that “would look good with a pair of jeans.”
           I don’t understand purse-love. It seems like a chore to change purses all the time. But people must know something about the Cute Plaid Purse that I don’t, because the bidding has gone up to $58.
         If you still have a VCR, there are good bargains on videos. Starting at $4.99, you can get How to Understand Great Music & Cosmic Questions. A little more may buy you the collector’s edition of Babylon 5.
         Some things are lumped together. The 19 Pounds of Jewelry has been bid up to $502, and you've got one more day to bid. The Goodwill stores stuff jewelry, not just in plastic bags, but in hat boxes and vases and baskets and tins and pottery and a vintage glass top hat. There are even jewelry boxes full of jewelry.
         The more I look at all this stuff, the more I wonder why people attach so much importance to it.
         My favorite category is Miscellaneous, whose current items include: One Pound Lot of Mysterious Clear Plastic Swords; Bowman Sphygmomanometer; Metal Horseshoe Stand Thing; Monkey playing the Cymbals - Battery Operated; Papoose Carrying Board; Red Kangaroo Hide; The Swine World Nat'l Poland China Journal 1930's; Decorated Jaw Bone; Rearview Mirror w/ Red-Eyed Skulls; 2 Preserved Scorpions, 1 Beetle; Car made from Coca~Cola Can; 3 Natural Cow Horns 1 Polished; and the Galileo Galilei Thermometer, which is labeled "man gift" for the women who might be baffled why anyone would want this.

Friday critter blogging (by Suzie)

       Fido (a k a the Very Big Striped Cat) and Bear look outside in this photo taken before Fido got adopted. A couple with a big home and yard adopted a Greyhound but wanted a cat who could handle a big dog. Fido was ideal. 
       I won't forget him ... because my car still smells like cat urine. I've tried everything that was suggested, except the bag of charcoal, which will be next. 

Playing at abuse (by Suzie)

        Nothing says feminism to me like photos of bound women.
        The latest Bitch has a review of “Playing” by Melanie Abrams. The book cover shows a woman with her wrists bound and her arms outstretched. 
        Reviewer Jennie Durant says the novel details a grad student who “becomes obsessed with brutal sexual games” to work out abuse in her past. An older doctor “introduces her to the thrilling and dangerous world of sexual domination and submission. … He shows her that sexual games are just that: games. It’s not unhealthy if it’s fun, if you enjoy it.”
        Choice is the heart of the feminist movement, Durant writes.
        I disagree. I don’t see feminism as fulfilling every woman’s desires. If I want to devote my life to painting unicorns on black velvet, that’s my choice, but I don’t see how it advances feminism. If a woman wants to submit to a man for fun or if she wants to submit to a man because she thinks that’s God's plan, that’s her right. It may be liberating for her, but I don’t see how it’s liberating for the rest of us. It’s not like women had to chain themselves to the White House fence to win the right to be abused.
      There are well-known works about women who welcome abuse, such as “Quills,” “Secretary,” “9½ Weeks,” “The Night Porter,” “Swept Away” and “The Story of O.” Are there many (any?) well-known novels or films that focus on men who like to be sexually abused by women?
       I understand that people don't want to be persecuted for their sexual practices, and that they believe they can keep their sexual desires separate from the rest of their lives. But I would not choose to see a doctor who enjoyed inflicting pain on (consenting) women, like the doctor in "Playing." That would require too much trust in a relationship in which the doctor already has power over me. Does this make me a BDSM bigot? Or, is this my right as a woman in a world where too many men dominate, degrade and abuse women? 
       I've had too many medical issues this week to sort it all out. 

Thursday, January 29, 2009

This Would Be Very Good

Talking Points Memo reports that the family planning funds stripped from the stimulus package (cue silly frat boy giggles here) will be put into an upcoming spending bill.

Thrusday's Fluff Post

Because my muse (he of the safety-pin pierced lips and smoky eyes) has gone cavorting again. Instead, I listen to Laura Nyro:

Good writing music, innit? It usually is.

In other news, the Finnish equivalent of 'a blackhead' is 'a skinworm'. Makes you wriggle.

I have not forgotten my promise to blog on the costs of health care. The first post should arrive early next week. Neither have I forgotten my feminism series or my nasty post series. They are in the slow cooker right now. Let me know of any good post ideas.

Let Us Celebrate Lily Ledbetter

This is something all of you did, you know, you who worked the grassroots, you who wrote to your Congress critters, you who cared and argued and worked your nails to the bone. This, and the removal of the Global Gag Rule, yours!

I raise a toast to all of you!

Peanut Butter And Jelly

What could be more American? Sadly, recently this might be:

The Georgia food plant that federal investigators say knowingly shipped contaminated peanut butter also had mold growing on its ceiling and walls, and it has foot-long gaps in its roof, according to results of a federal inspection.

More than 500 people in 43 states have been sickened, and eight have died, after eating crackers and other products made with peanut butter from the plant, which is owned by the Peanut Corporation of America. More than 100 children under the age of 5 are among those who have been sickened.


Officials from the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention traced the outbreak to the Peanut Corporation of America plant in Blakely, Ga. On Jan. 9, investigators descended on the plant for a thorough inspection, which was completed Tuesday.

The report from the inspection, first posted on the Internet by Bill Marler, a lawyer, cites 12 instances in 2007 and 2008 in which the company's own tests of its product found contamination by salmonella.

In each case, the report states, "after the firm retested the product and received a negative status, the product was shipped in interstate commerce."

It is illegal for a company to continue testing a product until it gets a clean test, said Michael Taylor, a food safety expert at George Washington University.

The believers in the free market religion argue that we don't need government regulation of businesses; it just burdens them down with red tape. Instead, if consumers don't like a firm's products the firm goes bankrupt. The free market polices itself!

And it does, in a way. But note that it took eight deaths for us to get to that point, and the firm's self-testing was not used to keep the consumers safe. Self-regulation always has that problem of mixed incentives having to do with costs and revenues when the firm acts one way rather than another way. This particular firm decided that the positive results could be ignored. It has now paid the higher cost of doing so. But someone else paid a far, far higher cost.

This is all related to the way the financial markets were allowed to function, by the way. As I have written before, it helps to think of markets as card games. All such games must have rules and the rules must be enforced. We have decided to do away with most rules and now we are reaping the harvest from that.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A Neat Map On The House Votes

Can be found here. They show who voted for the stimulus package and who didn't. Astonishingly enough, cutting family planning from the bill turned zero Republican heads. Hmmm.

The Inner Dick Armey Comes Out

In a debate with Salon's Joan Walsh. Chris Matthews is supposed to moderate, you know.

In short, Armey tells that he's glad not to be married to Walsh as he doesn't have to listen to her every day.

Why I'm Not A Good Political Blogger

I really don't like the process of politics or the process of how people game with words in politics. Both of those make me want to kick through my garage door (try it sometimes when you feel under stress), because everybody knows what's going on and everybody pretends not to know. And yes, I do like some smart political moves, the kinds Barney Franks excels in. But still. Most of that stuff is like gossip to me.

Take the way you attack something the opposition supports. Here's an example from the stimulus debates:

Most notably, Thrush suggested supporting funding for contraceptives would make Pelosi look like a "Bay area liberal" with a "far left agenda." In fact, backing public funding for contraceptives isn't a "far-left" position, as Thrush later acknowledged. It is a position that enjoys overwhelming public support. So overwhelming that opposing such funding could probably be described as a "far-right" position.

It's silly to argue what Thrush is arguing. Over ninety percent of American women use contraceptives at some point in their lives. But argue that Thrush does, because the trick is to always try to place your opposition far out of the mainstream, with the hope that you might succeed and then you'd win.

How does one respond to something like that? You could give the facts, from opinion surveys and such, but giving facts turns out to sound like distant and boring humming in many people's ears. Or you could turn the tables on Thrush and accuse him of being a far-right weirdo. Where does that get us then, hmh?

Hence my impatience with all this. It's like a choreographed dance, where one party first acts all outraged and then the other party responds. I'd like to fast-forward all this to the end and then discuss what we actually got.

Sad, am I not? It's also annoying to find out that discussing the stimulus package just muddies the waters, on the whole, as most of the discussing consists of the above-described dances. There. That's my rant for the week.

Sorta Interesting

This attempt to bring back the Global Gag Rule in the Senate:

At 12:40pm EST today the U.S. Senate voted 60-37 against the Martinez (R-FL) amendment (PDF) to the SCHIP bill that proposed to reinstate the global gag rule. While Senate Republicans must have known they did not have the votes to pass such an amendment, it is clear that Obama's dropping the family planning provision from the economic stimulus package didn't win him a pass from Republicans' anti-choice shenanigans.

You can find how Senators voted on that amendment here.

What's also interesting is the whole debate about the stimulus package containing anything having to do with sex, even if it is all about health care and disease prevention. These two interesting topics, trying to put the global gag back in place and to remove any STD prevention money from the stimulus package, are undoubtedly related.


John Updike, who died yesterday, was the topic of a radio interview I heard. The interviewer asked a critic about Updike's misogyny and the critic nimble-footedly avoided saying anything much about it. Yet John Updike's writings are misogynistic. That never stopped him from being regarded as a mainstream writer. Neither has misogyny damaged Milan Kundera's reputation, for example, or labeled either writer as an extremist.

But the mainstream certainly sees Andrea Dworkin as a misandrist. This is worth thinking about, because it tells us pretty clearly that some amount of misogyny is acceptable in the mainstream cultures. The same is not true of misandry.

If you are not yet convinced, consider the anti-feminist or anti-woman women who are trotted out in political programs all the time. Then try to imagine all that reversed. We don't have a single strong feminist (and these would be people who are not misandrists at all) in any of the political shows, even though there are several misogynists.

Makes you take notice, doesn't it?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Sex Trafficking. Inside The Business of Modern Slavery.

This is a book written by Siddharth Kara, a former investment banker who is now active in the anti-slavery movement. The book looks at human sex trafficking both from a moral/ethical point of view and as business enterprises or a market for commercial sex. The latter approach at first struck me as callous, but I quickly realized how useful it would be, because it tells us much about the sources of those trafficked, about the motivations of those who trade in slaves and about the lax enforcement of anti-trafficking rules. Put very simply, prostitution in unwilling human beings is extremely profitable: the children and women working in the establishments only need to be fed, disciplined, stopped from escaping and ultimately brain-washed, whereas the police and other authorities (such as border authorities) can usually be bribed to look elsewhere if they are not already among the eager customers of the establishments.

To see how the market model works here, consider that all markets have people willing and able to buy and others willing and able to sell. This particular market is no different, though it might be an illegal one. Illegal markets are harder to study, and Kara ran many risks while trying to interview participants in them. Information is also harder to acquire when markets are illegal: no paperwork needs to be submitted to the tax authorities, no regulators need to be appeased, and workers in brothels may be punished for talking to someone like Kara. All this means that the data the book gives us must be viewed as very preliminary and partly based on extrapolation from very few cases, though some countries he visited have legal prostitution of certain types and more data was available. Note that sexual slavery itself is never legal, though.

To give you an idea of the benefits Kara derives from using the market based model, I will quickly summarize his findings on the two sides of the market: the demand and the supply sides. On the demand side of the final market are the men who are willing and able to pay for commercial sexual services. Kara estimates that the percentage of men who use such services may be as low as between six and nine percent of all men. But this number would be enough to 'employ' the whole number of estimated sexual slaves. When the price of sex drops, more men will frequent prostitutes and more men already frequenting prostitutes will do it more often. One consequence of recent sexual slavery is of course a drop in such prices: sexual slaves don't get a cut in the profits of the establishment and this means that the prices can be lowered while still making a good profit for the owners. Kara found exactly this to have happened in Mombay where now lower caste and poorly paid men can afford commercial sex because prices have dropped as much as fifty percent in the last decade or so.

The final demand side is of course the reason why sexual slavery ultimately exists. If no man was willing to buy commercial sex this particular market would wither away and the basis for trafficking decrease. (Slaves might still be trafficked for other purposes such as working in factories or commercial begging).

The supply of commercial sexual services is the final supply side of these markets. The women and children (and perhaps men, too, though Kara doesn't mention them) who sell commercial sex are not necessarily slaves or ex-slaves. But when they are enslaved, the real seller in those markets is the person or the organization which owns them, not the slave herself. She's more akin to the product that is being sold than an entrepreneur, and she herself has been bought in intermediary markets: the markets of sexual trafficking.

These are the markets which take a child or a young woman from her home, break her if needed, and then deposit her in a brothel area of the final market. A part of this market consists of the physical transportation of the slaves, often across country borders, and sometimes a resale of slaves by those who 'gather' them from their homes to the transporting organizations. The latter sounds a lot like the slave markets of the past, the ones we have all read about.

Where are the slaves initially from? How did they end up as slaves? Kara looks at several areas which provide most of the slaves: Nepal, Thailand, Moldava, Albania and Nigeria.

All these countries share certain characteristics: Extreme poverty in the specific source areas and great contempt for women as a sex, with concomitant sexual and physical abuse of girls and women. In Nepal daughters are often sold to sexual traffickers by poor parents who may or may not believe the stories about a good marriage or a carpet-weaving job in India. In poor Moldava women are entrapped with promises of house-cleaning or waitressing jobs in Western Europe. In Thailand the youngest daughters are traditionally seen as responsible for their parents' old-age security, even though uneducated young women in poor areas have no other relevant career track than prostitution. The story in Nigeria is similar, combined with the fact that most trafficked women there come from certain minority tribes.

Some women know what might be happening to them. Others are taken by complete surprise. But once they are in the hands of a trafficker all hope is lost, because the traffickers use gang rape, withdrawal of food and water, drugs and alcohol and physical violence to make them compliant. Note also that in most cases the women end up in an area where they know nobody, where they don't speak the language and where they probably shouldn't legally be. This makes it almost impossible to seek help. Even if a slave manages to run away and seek help, she usually gets sent back home where her lost virginity makes her unmarriageable, where jobs for women don't exist in any case and where she's set up for retrafficking.

Neither are the authorities usually well equipped to fight trafficking. Many of the source areas really don't care about women's rights and such or if they do care about them there's no money for enforcement. Add to that bribery almost everywhere and you can see why the organizations who fight to abolish slavery really need our money and our voices.

I tried to imagine how being a sexual slave would feel, and how the incentives given to her mean that she'd be most likely to survive if she adopted a certain kind of a Stockholm Syndrome. Note that in most cases the women are told that they owe the pimp or brothel keeper money (a lot of money), and that they will be free once they have worked away that debt. This gives the women an incentive to work hard (not telling you what that means here), because they want to be ultimately free. Some do reach that point of freedom. It means that they get to keep almost half of what they earn or that they can set up as prostitutes on their own. Others get resold to another brothel where they are told that they now owe the new owner a lot of money. Then there's all the alcohol and drugs, available from day one, to entrap you in a new way, and HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases which are rife among the prostitutes in India, for example.

It's a horrible life. Kara mentions that one estimate puts the life expectancy of a sexual slave at around thirty-five years.

How can all this be affected? Where can we begin? Kara points out that making prostitution more expensive for the final customers can help, and that could be achieved by stricter law enforcement and by making the seeking of a prostitute a crime. The trafficking itself could be made less profitable by stricter law enforcement and stiffer penalties for those who get caught. But I wanted to see more about improving the lives of women in the source areas, about better education for girls and a greater valuation of their humanity. So sad that all that is probably harder than a direct attack on sexual trafficking.

It's Raining Condoms

If you have followed the political debate on the new stimulation bill you know that Republican leader John Boehner (heh) expressed his party's dislike of the part of the stimulation bill that has to do with family planning money for women who are poor:

"How you can spend hundreds of millions of dollars on contraceptives how does that stimulate the economy?" House Republican Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio said on Friday after congressional leaders met with Obama at the White House. "You can go through a whole host of issues that have nothing to do with growing jobs in America and helping people keep their jobs."

How does building and repairing bridges affect the economy, John? The paths are not that different, because family planning includes stuff such as doctor visits (for which the doctor gets paid) and the purchase of products (for which the seller gets paid). In any case, avoiding unwanted pregnancies during bad economic times would seem to help with cutting back abortions and stress and such.

But of course the debate is not about any of that at all. It's about what the uninvolved (by luck of their gender, race and income) talk of as 'culture wars'. Digby quotes from some on the extreme right:

This contraceptive thing is turning into the first hissy fit of the New Year and back in pre-post-partisan times, I'm sure we'd be seeing condom denouncements in speeches on the senate floor within days. But now that we've declared the culture war over and reached common ground with the social conservatives on the issue of "reducing unwanted pregnancies," I'm sure we can count on our new conservative allies to step up now and defend government spending for contraceptives.

But they'd better hurry. Some of their friends don't seem to have gotten the memo:

Pelosi's Decision Bigoted, Racist, Elitist and Anti-Child says Christian Defense Coalition
WASHINGTON, January 26 /Christian Newswire/ --

Christian Defense Coalition calls Speaker Pelosi's decision to add contraceptives to the economic stimulus package bigoted, racist, elitist and anti-child.

It is unthinkable that the Speaker of House would try to stimulate the economy by seeking to reduce the number of children.

Our political leaders should do all within their power to protect, support and encourage America's children, not crush and destroy them.

See how contraception (not abortion but contraception) is now something that destroys and crushes America's children? It's always interesting when the real Christian Coalition rises up and speaks, though it does leave me nauseous, because the one group they never care about at all is women. Their idea is that it's good not to let women have any control over their bodies so that those can be used to produce the maximum number of children. Never mind if the children are planned or not.

Digby also tells us this:

Update: Chris Matthews just said that this federal contraceptive money sounds like China's policy to limit the number of children and has no place in an economic package.

Just shoot me now.

Indeed. They can shoot me, too. Now offering contraceptives equals forcing them on the women whether they want that or not. So it goes, I guess.

In any case, the outcome of all this is that the stimulation bill will probably not include cheaper contraception for poor women:

Several Democrats said Monday night that Obama had spoken personally with Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., about removing the provision. Waxman is chairman of the committee with jurisdiction over Medicaid and a close ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

The Democrats who described the likely reversal did so on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to disclose developments not yet made public.

So it goes.
Added later: Lindsay puts all this into a greater context.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Repeat After Me: Correlation Does Not Necessarily Mean Causation

A good example of that is this study about child neglect and breast feeding:

Breast-feeding has well-documented benefits. Studies have shown it nourishes babies while fighting off infections and even boosting IQ. Now a study in Monday's Pediatrics suggests nursing also may protect infants from neglect.

In a study of 6,621 Australian children over 15 years, researchers found that those who were breast-fed were far less likely to be neglected or abused by their mothers. Babies who weren't breast-fed were more than 2½ times as likely to be maltreated by their mothers as those who were nursed for four months or more, the study shows. There was no link between breast-feeding and the risk of maltreatment by fathers or others.

I really think (as does one psychologist also interviewed in the quoted article) that the first sentence in the second paragraph sounds a lot more credible if written like this:

"researchers found that those who were neglected or abused by their mothers were far less likely to be breast-fed"

To find a correlation between two variables doesn't tell us anything about causality. In this case I doubt that we are even talking about causality as such but about two variables that may go together.

This study is also a good example of a whole new generation of studies which determine what 'good mothering' is. There might be nothing wrong with that if we saw equally many interesting studies about what 'good fathering' is, but because we don't see those studies, we assume that only what mothers do matters. Note that breast-feeding had no correlation with neglect or abuse by the children's fathers. But something else may well show such a correlation (alcohol consumption? unemployment? religious affiliation? depression?) and it might be useful to learn about that something else.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sunday Night Sock Blogging

I knitted these socks for someone who takes a very large shoe size and thus had never been able to find striped woolen socks ready made.

Judiciary Republicans Are Blackmailing Holder To Issue The Pardons Bush Didn’t by Anthony McCarthy

As the media start the lie machine going, that President Obama has broken his pledge to reach out to Republicans, the Republicans in the Senate Judiciary Committee have tried to stab that very hand. Their attempt to hold up Eric Holder’s nomination as Attorney General in order to extract a promise that he won’t prosecute Bush regime members who participated in torture is blatantly improper and should put an end to the fiction that they learned anything in their defeat last November.

Arlen Specter, the man who will do anything to get his face on TV, and the others who are participating in this blackmail should be forced to back off. For these guys, who have listened to one Republican nominee after another lie about having prejudged cases in their sworn testimony. to call for a preemptive pardon from the Democratic nominee is the poison that should kill the fiction of bipartisanship. It is clearly improper, clearly blackmail and should get even the placid and lackluster Democrats of the Judiciary Committee to show them that, as President Obama might put it, There was an election in November and we won. Republicans on this most pompous and jumped up of committees acting like common thugs won’t understand anything but exercised power.

Republicans have the media on their side, Democrats have The People on their side. The People will understand that torture is wrong and puts our servicemen and others at greater risk. There should be hearings with figures in the Department of Defense to testify on those points. The People, even those who aren’t greatly bothered by the torture of foreign nationals, will understand the theft and pillage of the Bush regime. The hearings into those matters should go on, if information is developed that leads to criminal indictments, those should be prosecuted as possible, basic justice requires it. Not only justice, but the survival of democracy requires that illegal acts by the highest officials be remedied and punished.

There is a long and developed tradition of letting Republican lawbreakers off the hook. From Nixon, to the purely self-interested Bush I preemptive pardon of Caspar Weinberger to this blackmail by Republicans on the Judiciary Committee. This is the party that spent tens of millions of dollars prosecuting literally nothing in the last Democratic administration, it’s the party that has wasted millions of our dollars on the most trivial attempts to use the Department of Justice and the FBI to do their political dirty work.

The Senate has often been the weak link in democratic government. Its inherently anti-democratic structure might be largely responsible for that. It doesn’t help when the placid and stately drones among the Democratic Senators roll over for the party of Nixon and Cheney. That sickening tradition of clubby comity has got to end. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse gets it, he has said that he doesn’t intend to roll over, he’s going to do his best to hold them accountable. His relative lack of seniority might have given him a better perspective than those who have caught the venerable disease that afflicts too many of our party. He is the most effective questioner of witnesses on the Judiciary Committee and his is the direction that the too frequently somnolent Democrats with greater seniority should be pushed in. The evidence of the past thirty years hasn’t been enough to make them serve us, we are going to have to light a fire under them.