So Tell Me ... What's The Weather Like on YOUR Planet?

03 November, 2008

Election Special

In honor of tomorrow's US elections, I give you:

Ten political positions that some people probably want to throw things at me for.

1) A foreign policy that does not acknowledge that people around the world have genuine grievances with the colonizing West in general and the United States in particular is doomed to horrible failure. Acknowledging that other people might possibly be pissed about American exceptionalism, imperialism, and meddling in their internal affairs is not unpatriotic, it's not being a damned fool.

2) Corporations are not people. As they cannot fulfil the obligations of citizenship or face the consequences that actual people do for their actions, due to not being people and all, they do not merit the same access to choice that people get. In other words: I'll start to care about corporate "free speech" when a corporation can do time for negligent homicide.

3) Neo-Prohibition does not work; those who do not learn from history, doomed to repeat, etc. It funds organised crime and terrorism; it ruins lives; it is fundamentally racist. And if that wasn't bad enough, the "War on Drugs" is fucking expensive, and even if we really want to waste our money on increasing crime, destroying families, locking up nonviolent drug users, and other idiocies, we can't afford to be that stupid right now.

4) Prevention is cheaper than crisis response. Harm reduction works better than wishing problems just wouldn't happen. Education and opening access to options improve things in the long run. This applies to health care access, sex work, sex education, drug use, juvenile delinquency, same-sex marriage rights, and approximately everything else in the political universe.

5) The question of "when does life begin" is totally irrelevant to the political discussions it appears in. The answer is "probably somewhere around four billion years ago", give or take half a billion, and if you think otherwise you need to be locked in a small room with a biology textbook that includes a section on the refutation of spontaneous generation and the development of omne vivum ex ovo. When it matters that there's life there may be an interesting question, but that's a completely different field.

6) Anyone who says "get the government out of the business of marriage" needs to be slapped, and then have explained to them in very small words about the whole fact that we have an entire branch of government there to sort out people's legal contracts, and what makes marriage such a sooper-speshul legal contract that it should get excepted from that? (Oh, you think marriage is religious? Enshrining that in the law's a violation of the Establishment Clause.)

7) While I'm on the subject, marriage should be gotten the hell out of the tax business. The sensible filing for taxation purposes is at the household level, and marriage is simply one way of establishing a household relationship -- one that is both the only one effectively recognised and woefully inadequate for addressing the variety of households extant. Households are not now, and never have been, all single people and marrieds-and-their-offspring. Some people have extended families, unrelated dependents, or other broader setups. Some people have untraditional family structures. Make it as annoying to establish and dissolve a household unit as it is to establish and dissolve a marriage if you have to, but fucking sheesh.

8) The US economy is structured in a manner that is fundamentally anti-family. The evidence is overwhelming: hours in our work week, vacation time typically available, health care costs, access to parental leave time for births/adoptions, and that's just stuff I can think of official statistics for off the top of my head. Not things for which there are statistics that I can't think of off top of head, or the pervasiveness of culture of overwork to replace self-value, or the tendency to work people double-time rather than hire more workers, or the fact that large numbers of people have to work two or three part-time jobs to bring in enough to care for their families and still don't have any goddamn health care.

9) Political name-calling makes people look like they're stuck in a rather petulant childhood. I don't care if it's Nobama or McSame, Democraps or Rethuglicans, or any of the other oh-so-grade-school variations. "Libtard" is one that's been going around my sports group a lot, and I'm sure there's an equivalent conservative one but I've probably killfiled whoever uses it. All the cries of "commie" are like the schoolyard braying of "gay"; if they are, who fucking cares? Liberal, conservative, progressive, socialist, and so on are not Bad Words to throw at the other children after pulling their hair and then run away tittering in the corner with your little clique of puerile delinquents. (Neither is "Muslim".) It doesn't reveal you as clever, it reveals you as an uncreative brat who needs a time-out and possibly a nap. Stomp your little velcro-sneakered feet all you like, but as long as you continue with that tantrum you're going to have to sit in the corner.

10) Formulating things in terms of "rights" is a defective way of arranging policy. Speaking of petulance, how often does one hear a sullen, "Well, I gotta right," in response to some critique? Operating in a rights-based framework feeds an attitude of entitlement that, frankly, the US doesn't really need. Too many absolutes in the picture, and too many mistaking a right to one thing for a right to something only peripherally related -- how many times have you wanted to say, "Your right to free speech does not obligate me to listen to your idiocy"? Frame things in terms of what people can do, not what they have a right to do, and you start to actually have some nuance.


Trinity said...

I agree with you on everything but what you say about "rights." I don't think there's any sensible way to structure what government does *other* than protecting citizens' rights.

Trinity said...

On that note, can you tell me how *you'd* set things up, if "right" is a defective concept?

Dw3t-Hthr said...

As I said, what can people do?

Consider the example I used, 'cause it's relatively easy to see: "right to free speech".

First of all, huge number of people have no damn idea what that really means. There's this big abstract RIGHT out there, and we get a range of stuff from Sarah Palin's saying criticism impairs her free speech rights (which is of course not anything I haven't heard from fifty thousand internet loonies before) through to people who insist that their "right to free speech" means that other people have to host their comments or listen to them.

But if you look at reality, what does it mean?

Whole bunches of different things. Including things that get really tangled, not the "fire in a crowded theater" thing, but more akin to "Will nobody rid me of that troublesome priest?"

So anyone with internet access and a bit of knowledge can start up the modern equivalent of a ha'penny broadsheet, a blog. Yay right to free speech! But what about the people who don't have that access, or don't know how to get it at the library, say, or don't have the knowledge to find Wordpress or Blogspot.

Well, they still in theory have the right, but they're not getting so much in practice. That "right", in its majestic equality, is available to the internettified and the netless both, but somehow only one group can get anywhere with it. In short, "rights" are concealers of privileged status - so long as the right is not actively denied, it doesn't matter to the rhetoric if people can't actually do anything with it.

Access to the ability to do things is a measure that actually applies to the real world including differentials based on circumstances.

And when you have this concept of rights, there's no resolution mechanism for what to do when they conflict. Free speech vs. incitement to riot - where's the line? Clearly in practice there's a "You can do this thing" and "If you do that thing, the consequences may include incarceration" that isn't compatible with a pedantic usage of the word "right", and gods know I'm a pedant.

"I have a right to do this" is slippery; it's argument by assertion. This is where we get some of the logjam around access to marriage for same-sex couples: "right to marry". And people go around and around about where one can find that right, rather than going back to what people can do. Het people and bisexuals in opposite-sex relationships can marry one partner of their preference; people in same-sex relationships cannot, in most states, marry one partner of their preference. This doesn't have to come down to who has a "right" to marry; it can simply be correcting the fact that some people have access to an option that other people do not.

... that was really quite rambly.

gelfling said...

Further on the rights thing (if I'm understanding dw3t-hthr properly) - "everyone" (over the age of 18, etc.) has the right to vote. But what state you live in, how rich your district is, how much free time you have to stand in line, and other factors can influence whether you can exercise that right.

So it's not enough that the right exists - there needs to be the ability to *do* the right as well. Or something like that. :)

This is a little different than the discussion over free speech, but at the same time, what good is a right to vote when in practice, some people can't afford to stand for 6 hours in line (due to work, health, whatever) while others can walk right up or mail in a ballot without an issue?

I guess what I'm trying to say is that having the right is great, but you have to be able to exercise the right to have it mean something more than symbolism...

(At the same time, I do believe that rights can have limits - such as not allowing every gun ever created to be owned by people under the Second Amendment, or the whole shouting Fire thing for the First Amendment, etc. But that's a bit different than my main point. But on the free speech thing - Palin's right to say whatever she wants doesn't mean that other people can't call her out when she's completely wrong. :} )


Trinity said...

"So it's not enough that the right exists - there needs to be the ability to *do* the right as well. Or something like that. :)"

Which is exactly why I think seeing politics in terms of anything other than rights is wrong. Because if you look at rights as something that should be universal, then you

1) know what needs fixing

and 2) are less tempted to only fix the problem for people who are like you.

It's a guard against corruption to think of rights as universal. The minute you think of something else, you start "well, men have oppressed women, so we need a system that protects women and de-emphasizes men"... or however you see it.

I can't figure out how any system other than one designed to best protect rights eliminates bias better than a rights-based system. And yeah, I've done my time in the "rights are a straight white man concept" groups myself.

So my question still remains: what sort of legal and social system are you going to set up in place of a system of rights, and how is it going to work?

Particularly when you get to eliminating the concept known currently as "human rights" -- how are you going to ensure that world governments don't get any worse at protecting people against state violence, oppression, etc. when your new concept takes hold?

Revolutions, I r suspishus ov dem.

suzimoses said...

Here's me, not wanting to throw anything at you.

Well, maybe a pillow. But that's normal.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

Don't play with "rights".

Play with "access to options".

What can we do to make it more possible for people to be free to choose to do things?

One of the standard homophobic anti-marriage arguments is "They do have a right to marry a person of the opposite sex just like anyone else." For some reason, that's not satisfying, even if it's "equal rights".

Of all the options of people I might marry, I actually have one that works for me. Thus, I work to make sure that other people have the option to choose what works for them.

Trinity said...

Again, my major concern is not whether you're correct, but how you're going to make a new social order take root and work. It's Ren's question: What's the plan?

I see you explaining why you don't like the concept of "rights," and I even agree with some of your reasons. But I don't see the plan. So -- no throwing things at you, but still: until I see the plan, I can't agree.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

I'm sort of deeply baffled by the idea that this is something that requires a plan, but hey, whatever.

1) stop thinking in terms of rights and entitlement (this is hard)

2) stop using language that favors rights and entitlement even when conversations are dominated by it and it's default political shorthand (this is extremely hard)

3) come up with ways of referring to the stuff that references what people can actually do in practice, not what they're in theory entitled to, and use those.


Trinity said...

Okay, but... how are you going to get people on board with, say, editing the Constitution to reflect all that?

When you re-word something like the right to privacy (okay, that one's a penumbral right anyway so it gets weird, but), how are you going to make sure that people's privacy is protected as much or more than it was?

When you change the system this much, what is that going to do to legal precedent? If there's a rocky transition, what are you going to do to guard against corrupt people who no longer have to worry about violating the "rights" of the citizens taking advantage of the confusion in the transition period?

If you're serious about this and don't just mean "I'm tired of the word 'right' in campaign ads," it's going to be a tremendously radical change. Re-wording the Bill of, well, Rights, is huge.

gelfling said...

"3) come up with ways of referring to the stuff that references what people can actually do in practice, not what they're in theory entitled to, and use those."

Trying to see if I understand what you're saying - is it that you see rights as giving people things they can do (starting at the limited case and working outwards), whereas you're suggesting looking at it the opposite way (starting at the wide-open case and limiting from there)?

So in the case of marriage, as the pertinent example - the "rights" case would start with the limited case of no one being able to marry and add the rights on from there (thus you add the right to heterosexual marriage, then homosexual marriage, and onwards). Alternatively, the, um, "ability" case would start with the general case of anyone being able to marry / create legally recognized household and limit from there (no incest, no minors, etc.)?

The second case probably needs a better term. :)

So basically, it matters less whether or not people have the "right" to setup homosexual households, or criticize the government, but whether they're doing it already, so you'd have to take specific action to stop it?

If I am understanding it correctly, I'm trying to figure out how that would work with something like the right to protection from unreasonable search and seizure, or due process - where it's not people doing something themselves but rather protecting their right not to have things done to them by others...

This is not the way I would have thought, but I'm finding it rather fascinating considering it. :)

(Also, I'm pretty much in agreement with you on most of the other things, so people can throw stuff at me too. *mutters about corporations*)

Dw3t-Hthr said...


Changing the Constitution has nothing to do with what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the formulation of discourse, primarily; the legal language is ossified, and adjusting it is beyond any plausible scope if it's even necessary.

What's necessary is addressing the framework by which the arguments get made. And I am serious about this, and not in the trivialising "Well, I'm tired of this word overusage"; the word usage itself does not function for what it is intended to do.

I'm for functional word usage. This is actually a religious argument as much as anything else, setting aside being a fucking pedant; when we define the world in our language we are creating it.

It's subtler than you appear to want it to be, but that subtle layer is where I work.

If I said "I write worms" I don't think it would translate well. Another Cherryh reference.

gelfling --

That's almost right.

"Rights" are bestowed externally and absolute. ("... they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights".) Absolute doesn't work in a functional reality, even if one limits it to "right to swing your fist ends at my nose"; the world isn't black and white like that. And bestowed externally is ... problematic.

Also, there's no obvious recourse. "I have a right to X, and I don't have it." Uh, okay... now what? "You have to give it to me?" And here's where I go, heh, "What's the plan?" If the social inertia doesn't want to grant those 'rights', welp, it doesn't fucking happen.

To take the example of marriage -- the ability to marry is intrinsic. People will form socially recognised bonds and families unless actively prevented from doing so, and while people have been actively prevented from doing so at times, we as a nation are trying to get better at it. It's not a "right", not a legal or moral entitlement (to snag a definition from a quick google:define), it's a property of humans as social animals.

The problem comes in where one set of people has the ability to choose something that others do not have access to. The problem of lack of access to legal marriage for same-sex couples is not fundamentally different in this framework from, say, a hypothetical area where only Baptists have "real" marriages; one group (mixed-sex couples, Baptists) has access to more options than another (same-sex couples, everyone else).

Protecting people from having things done to them arbitrarily has a similar framework. Protection from rape is protecting people's ability to select their own sexual partners; search and seizure protections are frameable as giving people the space to live their own lives and have their own property unless there is active reason to restrict those options.

As for terminology, Graydon, who got me thinking along these lines originally, uses "access to choice". This is also clunky.

Trinity said...

Okay, I think it's about time I bowed out of this one.

I still maintain: When we are aiming for a massive cultural sea change, such as the one you're proposing, we need a plan. I'm honestly not likely to budge on this -- not having a plan is how we get all the really creepy radicals out there.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

And I repeat that I'm not proposing anything but making the language usage both accurate and useful, when currently it's neither.

I acknowledge that this is a major cultural shift, but I don't see how it requires more than I said it requires, y'know, the thinking about words and changing the usage.

Aqua, of the Questioners said...

Sign me up as a fellow Jovian or whatever, because I sat there reading your list and nodding and wondering when you were going to say something I didn't agree with.

Graydon said...

Trinity --

The core problem with rights is that they don't exist.

In one sense, rights are what you can get a court to enforce, which is (at best) highly variable; in another sense, the "granted by the creator" sense in the actual language of the Declaration, they're this nakedly theistic appeal to authority.

In either case, there sure isn't anything there that people didn't put there, so the argument does better when it acknowledges that.

There's no reason you can't treat the ur-law (constitutional, effectively but not exclusively in the US) as defining the edges of the box, rather than the permissible actions of individuals.

The US has had this great tension between nominal common-law (everything not forbidden is permitted) and code-law (everything not permitted is forbidden) constructions of rights, too.

Consider a construction of free speech that says, this is a core obligation and duty of citizenship, to go down to the agora and argue politics, for whatever agora is of particular concern. So it is the bounden duty of the mechanisms of government to ensure that every single citizen is fully literate and numerate, because otherwise that citizen will suffer an undue burden in their efforts to fulfill this duty of their citizenship.

(I used to argue women in combat arms by pointing that they'd had the vote for generations and it was a republic. This was seldom helpful, alas.)

Trinity said...


I don't think the appeal needs to be to theistic authority. Traditionally it has been, but I don't think it needs to be. You could look at it in a neo-Kantian way: that as creatures with a certain kind of intellectual potential, we have a certain kind of inherent worth. That worth means that we have to be respected in particular ways that follow from the kind of being we are. And that respect, in turn, does sometimes mean we also get to do things that foster our flourishing, such as marry beloved partners, etc.

The religion-worry here makes no sense to me. Just because that's how the Declaration is worded, it's the only possible ground for why certain legal statuses follow from basic respect?

That's just dumb.

And a lot of things "don't exist," if you're looking for them not to be abstract concepts. Race, for one.

Graydon said...

Race exists. It's all over biology, under various names; you can get geographical origin correlating with population characteristics even in a species as homogeneous as H. sapiens.

What race isn't is deterministic (on its own, anyway); you can't go from a race label to an expectation of ability in individuals. This is one of the great problems with normative (this is normal, other things diverge from it) thinking; it's wrong. We've got populations of individuals, and the statistical characteristics of the population are not generally predictive for the individuals.

Anyway, the problem with rights and their deistic origins is that the Rights of Man are wrong in the same way Linnean nomenclature is wrong; it's not a map of what's actually there, and it got made up as a sort of first brave try at something really useful.

"Basic respect" relies on the axioms individuals hold; this is terribly unwise as a source of political founding principles because the net population opinion changes. One of the ideas behind writing laws down (and writing down the ur-law, as a thing beyond regular mutability) is to get to a state where things are based on stuff outside of any particular individual's head.

Once the argument is about basic respect or anything axiomatic, rather than factual, you get holy wars.

Compare Women's suffrage to the American Civil War; the first managed to (mostly) stay argued on facts, rather than axioms. This is politically important.

Or, to try this another way, religion is inherently personal; it doesn't scale to a functional basis for public life.