Superfluous Men and Women

In patriarchal cultures, women and men are required by the political economy to form family units for institutional purposes. This is very difficult on individuals when the sex ratio deviates from parity. Sometimes small communities experience this sex ratio deviance due to economic migrations, where men or women move abroad to find work, but are not able to bring their partners. And as readers of this blog will know, the US African-American community suffers disproportionately from violent policing and incarceration, which produces a kind of sex ratio deviance both from early mortality and by removing men from their communities.

Other times whole countries can experience this: for instance, as Amartya Sen has noted, China’s one child policy produced 50 million surplus men because of sex selective abortion and female infanticide. Foreign wars–which kill many young men and force many more to be absent for years at a time–can have a similar effect in creating circumstances where there are many excess women, as happened in Britain after World War I. (700,000 British men died in WWI, but that left 2 million women unpartnered.)

Marriage is not a market. Yet some basic economics can help us think through two paradigmatic ways that members of surplus sexes have experienced their excessiveness: as a desperation to find and marry one of the dwindling supply of eligible partners, and as a freedom from the demands of traditional gender roles. It’s worth noting that marriage and procreation are generally recognized as key human rights, but they are not necessarily required capabilities for human flourishing.

The disproportionately male casualties of the World Wars have produced–by necessity rather than justice–a recognition of women’s capacities. That is worth celebrating. But the century-long accommodation to those new sex ratios has been devastating to many individuals. Our societies are heteronormative and those norms do not bend to accommodate one’s available partners easily.

Today, Americans and Europeans are getting married later and later. In 1960 in the US, women got married for the first time at 20; men at 23. In 2010, the ages were 27 and 29. In 1960, 72% of adults were married; in 2010 only 51% are. (From Pew’s coverage of the 2010 census.) This is due to many trends: increasing educational attainment for both sexes, women’s labor force participation, youth unemployment, but especially increasing unemployment among prime age working men (that is, men aged 25-54.)

As the White House’s Council of Economic Advisors explained, there is a very simple explanation: reduced demand for unskilled male labor, which leads to a different kind of sex ratio deviation. There are more educated and employed women whose likely matches are unemployed or underemployed men. Our current political economy is increasingly producing a new class of surplus men and women.

I would argue that the current rise of resentful politics–especially in the embrace of Trump–is largely attributable to this feeling of pending superfluousness. It’s worth remembering that one can be surplus without feeling superfluous: all that is required is to find a new purpose. But these causes are not  always liberal or liberating.

Civic Death and the Afterlife of Imprisonment

It’s primary season, and once again I am reminded at just how little the rest of the country cares about the disenfranchisement of the District of Columbia. I usually salve my irritation with the knowledge that individual votes are unlikely to sway an election, so I am largely unharmed personally. The problem, of course, is that the disenfranchisement of a large group of people who share some interests does seem likely to have serious policy effects, as those interests are systematically ignored. (Perhaps a more powerful argument defending the loss of DC’s voting rights in federal matters is that it might force us to attend to local politics where decisions are both consequential and close enough to our lives to be noticed. So far, though, I am unimpressed.)

In any case, my neighbors and I are not alone. Vann Newkirk has a piece in the Atlantic challenging felon and prisoner disenfranchisement:

The origins of disenfranchisement as a vehicle of American punishment are likely traceable to some form of the classical notion of a “civil death.” For the Greeks, the punishment of civil death was akin to capital punishment—a complete extinguishing of the civil rights that Greeks believed constituted personhood, including suffrage, landownership, and the right to file lawsuits. English common law borrowed the Greek concept, and civil death was long viewed as a suitable punishment for felony offenses.

But civil death as a formal punishment in the American colonies differed from the English system on which it was based, and from the punishments that would later evolve. Civil death was initially only adopted in America for a very small number of felonies, the most common of which were violations directly connected to voting—for example, fraud or bribery. This paralleled both an expansion of crimes considered felonies and a decoupling of felony punishment from capital punishment. The use of long-term imprisonment, instead of corporal or capital punishment, only came about in fits and starts.

It doesn’t have to be that way. In Maryland, former felons are regaining their voting rights this year, and that affects some of the graduates of the JCI Prison Scholars Program! It’s pretty great.

For too long, we have begun to imagine that violators of the social contract are somehow unable to participate in its revision. In a world without ungoverned spaces, it’s no longer possible to exile our trangressors into the wastes. But what we do instead is significantly more cruel: exiled to social and civil death, prisoners are meant to continue to live in our midst while occupying as little of our time and energy as possible. They’re invisible men whose future is supposed to hold no future except to be ignored.

Yet the fantasies of social death are pernicious precisely because they imagine no return. The reality is that most of these men must someday rejoin the communities from which they have been exiled. People come back. What’s more, they’re never really that far away.

Their lives and ours are still bound together: at the very least we still pay to keep our fellow citizens incarcerated, we still send some of our fellow citizens inside to guard and “correct” them. But it’s also worth remembering that the prison’s walls are remarkably permeable. Guards and visiting family stream in and out. Gang members inside help their outside colleagues agree to cessation of hostilities.

If we were still able to punish our criminals with exile or death, it would be much easier. Instead ghosts still haunt us long after their social death. Fathers and mothers still parent their daughters and sons from within the prison’s walls. Husbands have long arguments and tender reconciliations with their wives as phone calls and letters go back and forth at great expense. And in most cases, the men and women who go off to prison must eventually shamble back from the social death we’ve wished upon them.

I still don’t know if there’s room for prisons in a just society. Our vengeful impulses seem to require some sort of satisfaction, and imprisonment might just be the fairest one remaining. But I do feel confident that those prisons cannot be premised on social death any longer.

The Two Endings of Brison’s Aftermath

Susan Brison’s Aftermath ends twice: the final chapter discusses her various efforts to retell the story of her brutal rape and attempted murder (she calls it “attempted sexual murder.”) And ends with her final, planned retelling to her son when he is older:

“Tragedy,” Wittgenstein wrote, “is when the tree, instead of bending, breaks.” What I wish most for my son is not the superhuman ability to avoid life-threatening disasters, but, rather, resilience, the capacity to carry on, alive in the present, unbound by dread or regret. Not the hard, flinty brittleness of rock, but the supple tenacity of the wind-rocked bough that bends, the bursting desire of a new-mown field that can’t wait to grow back, the will to say, whatever comes, Let’s see what happens next.

The second ending comes in an afterword where she discusses four murders. The first set of murders is the murder of her friends Susanne and Half Zantop which occurs soon after she submitted the manuscript. The second set is the murder of Trhas Berhe and Selamawit Tsehaye, two of five Black women candidates for PhD in physics at Dartmouth a decade before. Because they were Black international students from Ethiopia–killed by a third Black Ethiopian–the campus treated these murders as non-events, and failed to mourn or respond with what we sometimes think of as the characteristic security theater.

In both cases she struggles with survivor’s guilt, the sense that their deaths and her survival were random, and undeserved. So she finishes the story again:

None of us is supposed to be alive. We’re all here by chance and only for a little while. The wonder is that we’ve managed, once again, to winter through and that our hearts, in spite of everything, survive.

Elections, Partisanship, and the Call for Moderation in Civic Life

One of things I like least about elections is partisanship. This is a strange thing to say, since of course if an election is to occur, it should be about differences in the candidates’ policy preferences and at the national level most voters must use political parties to get a clear sense of how the candidates would act in concert with other elected politicians.

In that sense, we seem to be getting much better at distinguishing our choices. Only a few generations ago, political scientists protested the lack of significant differences between the parties. They could hardly do so today: the last two decades have been a time of serious and growing polarization and enmity. Yet it seems we are rancorous on almost every question, from health care and same sex marriage to climate change policy and gun ownership. No gag rule can prevent the partisan spin that takes new issues and renders them fodder for our passionate disagreements. In that context, the most successful political activism will be sub-national or international: it will ignore the national institutions designated for politics but riven by paralysis.

But one of the things that I think I know is that no matter how much we might disagree about one law or policy, that disagreement should not be allowed to destroy the possibility of a future alliance on a different problem. Citizens tempted by partisanship have to find a way to hold their ideas and convictions loosely. They have to preserve civic friendship and reject permanent divisions. In a society where a few issues become the signal issues of note, our enmity grows until it encompasses every other issue where we might share interests. Thus, deep partisanship is paralyzing not just because it comes from real intractable disagreements, but because those intractable disagreements radiate out into the rest of our civic lives.

Thus a good society will tend to suppress those areas of passionate disagreement in favor of the alliances and collaboration that less contentious matters make possible. The trick is that areas of passionate disagreement tend to be pretty important. Consider Stephen Holmes’ Passions and Constraint: On the Theory of a Liberal Democracywhere Holmes points out how often the liberal order has survived in the US by creating a political system that deliberately ignores the most pressing and passionate politics of the day. After all, the republic was founded to preserve slavery and ignore the very pressing arguments against it. Holmes even recounts the brutal beating of Senator Charles Sumner by the coward Albert Brooks in a discussion of the Senate’s tacit gag rule on discussions of slavery. For this reason, Holmes praises the liberal and undemocratic institutions like the Supreme Court that can dissolve passionate disagreements without invoking the brutal passions of citizens who must find a way to work together the next day.

This is moderation: a position every bit as as compromised at the example of anetebellum Senators standing by the beating of an abolitionist by a slave owner, along with ignoring the enslavement of their fellow human beings. The things we feel most deeply, including the evils in which we reject complicity, are not things we should ignore. Indeed, we should see opponents who support such acts and policies as irredeemable, evil, monstrous; not fellow citizens and sometimes allies but perpetual enemies. We should reject compromise with such people until the battle is won.

But here’s the problem: they think the same thing. And there are systemic facts about our political constitution that will always work to create partisan identities of roughly equal size in our national political life. Most arguments in Congress are tied to changes in spending and taxation that amount to a few points of GDP either way. Most radical conservatives and radical liberals actually hold a group of varied and contradictory beliefs, very few of which fit into this frame of enmity and hatred. So terms like Republican and Democrat and conservative and liberal are free-floating signifiers that don’t really track particular policy preferences or ideologies over time, even as they mark a long-term division among those who ought properly to concern themselves with the co-creation of our shared world.

Almost all of the things we think about politics, especially about the other party, just aren’t true.

Here’s what’s true, to the best of my knowledge:

There are real differences between the parties. But they’re not nearly as big as the parties and their adherents like to pretend, even as the parties have grown a lot more polarized (which is to say, the differences used to be even smaller!) One of these parties is not communist, and the other party is not libertarian. At most, Democrats want to raise federal spending by a few points of GDP. At most, Republicans want to cut federal spending by a few points of GDP.

African-Americans are still killed and incarcerated in large numbers by cops in Democratic cities. Women are still raped and abused in Democratic strongholds. The things that matter most to these groups are very rarely even on the ballot or in front of the relevant politician: the one exception is abortion, and in the states where it’s on the ballot, women (50% of whom think abortion is morally wrong) are voting against it too.

Political radicalism among our representatives is mostly drive by: (1) the way that we have sorted ourselves into partisan enclaves, (2) the way the primary system has changed, (3) and the strong restrictions on “pork” which used to grease the skids of bipartisanship. (4: Campaign Finance issues matter, too.)

There are many questions about whether the electorate has changed as well, but the best evidence suggests that we’re just as mixed up ideologically as we always were: as an empirical matter, ordinary Americans do not use these abstract terms in the same way partisan intellectuals do. Self-classified liberals tend to have liberal views on specific policy issues, but self-classified conservatives are much more heterogeneous; many, even majorities, express liberal views on specific issues, such as abortion rights, gun control and drug law reform.

That is, the supposed polarization of the electorate is just as much a myth as any supposed moderation. It’s probably more sensible to say that we’re all over the place, radically liberal and conservative and sometimes moderate too: citizens often support policies on both sides of the ideological spectrum, but these policies are often not moderate.

What’s more, President Obama has largely left Bush-era foreign policy in place.

The one place where the parties’ policies and practices really diverge is LGBT rights. And that’s only recently: remember that it was Clinton who signed the Defense of Marriage Act, and the divergence is not going to last for long.

On Minority Genius in Philosophy

Is this what genius looks like?

There’s a lot of reasons to worry about “genius” and other evaluations of general intelligence. My own character skepticism militates against the notion of measurable general intelligence, or even field-specific genius. But the report last month that women and racial minorities in the humanities are less likely to be described as geniuses is another such reason: it looks like genius is often merely a way of saying “white male.” Thus perhaps we should give up on genius and cultivate other virtues, especially if we want to create diverse faculty communities.

And yet.

My experience in philosophy has usually been the opposite: women and African-American philosophers have usually struck me as brighter, more insightful, and making a greater contribution to the discipline than their male and white colleagues (including of course myself.) I wrote my dissertation on a woman, Hannah Arendt. I’m frequently struck by the amazing work done by women and Black philosophers like Elizabeth Anderson, Angela Davis, Christine Korsgaard, Elizabeth Anscombe, Kristie Dotson, Karen Stohr, Chris Lebron, Shannon Sullivan, Sharon Meagher, Charles Mills, Noëlle McAfee, Anthony Appiah, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Tommie Shelby, Rebecca Kukla, Elinor Ostrom, and Jacqueline Scott.

And so I wonder if the error is the language and preference for genius or our poor ability to recognize it. That is: is the problem that philosophers and folks in the humanities think that genius exists, and it doesn’t? Or is the problem that philosophers and folks in the humanities think that they can detect genius, and they can’t?

There’s a plausible explanation of the feeling I have of being awed by women and Black philosophers, of course: in a field that values genius but has a bias against believing in the genius of women and Black philosophers, the only women and Black philosophers who survive the gauntlet of graduate school and job market will be those who can project that genius. They’ll be exceptions that prove the rule, tokens that demonstrate that the whole business of evaluating genius can’t be flawed because, after all, we recognized the greatness of these few scholars.

Moreover, the failure of all the mediocre and merely above-average women and Black philosophers will go unmentioned. We’ll rarely ask: why is it that almost every minority scholar is a genius? Why are all the merely-really-good and maybe-slightly-below-average scholars white and male? One possibility is that genius (of the particular sort preferred by humanities scholars) is unevenly distributed to non-white and non-male scholars: they bring a perspective that comes naturally to them (by virtue of their exclusion from the majority) that makes it especially easy to make outsized contributons. Another possibility is that average scholars are ignored when they are women or Black. What’s more, both of these explanations could hold for part of the injustice we observe: we might need to start talking about the comparative effect size of each of these explanations and not an exclusive disjunction between them.

There’s been a lot of work, lately, chipping away at the sense that the university is meritocratic. Far fewer are working on whether merit is even a meaningful characteristic to evaluate. That still seems like an important question to ask, an insightful and bright question. But I’d also like to see more people take genius as a possibility, to be “genius realists” and question whether the current crop of white, male elites just don’t have it or the ability to recognize it. I am suspicious of the effort to withdraw the merit that accrues to great philosophical scholarship just as women and Black philosophers are eligible to claim it in larger numbers. (The solution to unjust distributions of the pie is not always to throw out the pie.)

Perhaps we shouldn’t give up on genius just yet: perhaps we just need to accept that we’re not smart enough to recognize it when we see it. And perhaps, too, we can give up on the innateness of genius in favor of an account of intelligence as plasticity, as the result of environment and treatment: perhaps philosophical geniuses are not born, but trained and prepared.