Best blog post I’ve read today

From Tyler Cowen:

I would not say that “we are now at war with the terrorists” but our situation has some war-like elements. Any persistent war has required major social changes, if only temporary ones, in how the body is viewed and handled. If we are so unwilling to even consider these changes in body viewing norms, I wonder how we will respond when scarier events happen, as they likely will.

The funny thing is this: when Americans insist on total liberty against external molestation, it motivates both good responses and bad ones. It supports a libertarian desire for freedom against government abuse, but the same sentiments generate a lot of anti-liberal policies when it comes to immigration, foreign policy, torture, rendition, attitudes toward Muslims, executive power, and most generally treatment of “others.” An insistence on zero molestation, zero risk, isn’t as pro-liberty as it appears in the isolated context of pat-downs. It leads us to impose a lot of costs on others, usually without thinking much about their rights.

The whole post is worth reading. I’m of two minds on this: it’s difficult to *feel* the outrage and horror of the violation of another person’s bodily inviolability, so it’s understandable that most people would ignore invasive security measures until they find themselves subjected to it. So we ought not to be too harsh with folks who didn’t realize the extent of the invasion until now, and we can hope that now that it’s personal they’ll rethink their earlier indifference. Plus, I like the suggestion that we ought to adopt more European attitudes to the body, such that the back-scatter “porno-scans” become a non-event: “So what if you saw me naked?”

But I don’t think it’s quite so simple. Cowen likens it to the King allowing his servants to see him naked while dressing him. But if high status folks are willing to appear naked, what are they willing to allow to happen to low-status folks? Why wouldn’t they prescribe supposedly non-shameful nakedness plus other indignities? Isn’t it more likely that widespread acceptance of this level of violation for middle-class white folks will lead to even more extreme violations for “Others”? Historically, the King’s lack of modesty reflected a general coarseness about the body, and such cultures were even coarser with low-status bodies:

On 1 March 1757 Damiens the regicide was condemned “to make the amende honorable before the main door of the Church of Paris”, where he was to be “taken and conveyed in a cart, wearing nothing but a shirt, holding a torch of burning wax weighing two pounds”; then, “in the said cart, to the Place de Grève, where, on a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and claves with red-hot pincers, his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, burnt with sulphur, and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes and his ashes thrown to the winds” (Pièces originales…, 372-4).

Finally, he was quartered,” recounts the Gazette d’Amsterdam of 1 April 1757. “This last operation was very long, because the horses used were not accustomed to drawing; consequently, instead of four, six were needed; and when that did not suffice, they were forced, in order to cut off the wretch’s thighs, to sever the sinews and hack at the joints…

I agree with Cowen that our current treatments of low-status bodies needs much improvement. I’m just not sure that that improvement can be achieved by treating high status bodies with less care or dignity. It seems equally likely that our attitudes with high-status bodies are a source of potential egalitarian norms, such that unequal deference becomes equal respect. Cowen’s claim seems like a kind of magical thinking, akin to the argument that since we’ll always be tempted to treat people like objects, the only solution is to improve our relationship with objects.

As an American philosopher put it to me once, the “real” problem with the objectification of women or the other “Others” is how badly we treat objects: ersatz, replaceable and disposable, rather than limited, precious resources. Supposedly, if we treat objects better and embrace our shared embodiment or objecthood, the least advantaged will be better off as well. Unfortunately, I’m not yet certain that status engages in this kind of pneumatic operation.

2 thoughts on “Best blog post I’ve read today”

  1. I like both your post and his, but I think that the issue has as much to do with perceived ineffectiveness as it does with intrusiveness. I don't think he really addresses that. Another way to put my concern is that I think people would be willing to give up a lot if it seemed like more than cheap security theater. Instead, it seems like the erosion of comfort in the name of the erosion of comfort. I'm not sure people perceive a payoff.

  2. Well, as "security theater" goes, it's hardly cheap at $200,000 a pop for these machines.

    I don't know how to evaluate efficacy, though. Obviously, most people are not terrorists, but if backscatter technologies prevent one terrorist attack per 20 million people inconvenienced, is that "effective" or "ineffective"? What's the metric?

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