Saturday, January 27, 2007

state of the union

No, not the address, the undress.

If you don't care to click the link, here's what happens: it is a PETA-produced video of a young woman stripping from a business suit to full frontal nudity while explaining the current animal rights situation. After she's done, there are scenes of animal cruelty from a variety of industries.

I am for animal rights. I am for animal liberation. I don't think nonhuman animals are property, and if they can't consent then using them is no less unethical than using human animals against their will. I don't eat them or things that come from them, and I don't buy things made from them or tested on them. I absolutely, without hesitation agree with PETA's stated goals. But PETA drives me nuts.

A video like this doesn’t even have the (weak) justification that some of PETA’s other sexist campaigns do. For example, at least PETA can argue that when they put women in cages, or wrap them in cellophane, it’s not that they are saying women are equivalent to animals, but rather drawing attention to the idea that animals are just as worthy of fair treatment as women. The problem, of course, is that in a culture in which women are often actually treated as proverbial animals, the campaign is utterly counterproductive. Not only is it perpetuating the idea that women are things to be ogled, but it makes people who might actually agree with PETA’s point think of the animal rights movement as silly and frivolous at best — and actively harmful at worst. It’s the flip-side of the ALF, which makes people think of the animal rights movement as radical and dangerous.

If people really don’t think animals are property to be used for our benefit, skip all the stunts and do the thing that will actually help them: stop buying, using, and eating them, and encourage others to do the same.

I did notice that they managed to get a not-stick-figure-model-type woman to strip, which in it’s small way was kind of refreshing. Granted, she’s still pretty in the conventional sense, but at least she’s not emaciated. I guess it’s pretty sad that the best to be said for the objectification of a woman is that they didn’t pick the most stereotypical one around.… It's not that I'm against nudity, or stripping, or porn. But get naked for nakedness's sake, or art's sake, or for sex's sake. Sex shouldn't sell anything but sex, even metaphorically.

The worst thing about PETA is that if it weren't for these self-serving pranks, they might be a fairly awesome organization. Their websites are some of the more informative and accessible sources of information for new vegans or curious animal-rights-friendly people. If I were someone new to animal rights and I visited their website I would think they were completely respectable and right on the money, and I'd probably want to join and get involved. Hell, even as someone who knows better they've tempted me from time to time. The bullshit they put out totally overshadows the potential for good, and they don't seem to realize that dropping the bullshit would only make the good that much better.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Why I am pro-choice

Blog for Choice Day - January 22, 2007

Today is the 34th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and as part of the celebration -- and it should be a celebration -- bloggers are posting about why they are pro-choice. My reasons are simple: decisions should be made by whomever is affected by them in direct proportion to the amount they are so affected. The decision of whether or not to gestate a fetus for nine months affects a pregnant woman far more than anybody else involved, including the source of the sperm, and certainly including the state. Therefore, there is no person with such an overwhelming interest in the outcome of that decision that their opinion should have any influence on the ability and right of the woman herself to make it.

The question is not, to me, why women should have the right to do with their bodies as they please, but why shouldn't they? What argument can forced-pregnancy advocates provide that justifies stripping a person of such a right? They all amount to enacting undue control over women's private lives, with the sole exception of the argument that a fetus has rights. If a fetus has a right to life, then obviously this would conflict with a woman's right to control her body, and there would be room for a healthy debate on the matter.

There is no such room.

Rights are the tools we use as societies to protect the interests of individuals. The key word in that sentence is interests. Something must have interests before it can have them protected by a right. The minimum necessary for something to have interests is the ability to feel pain, the ability to suffer. If a being cannot suffer it cannot be harmed, as harm is the infliction of suffering. Therefore all things with the ability to suffer have an interest in not suffering. How this relates to fetuses is not a question that must be left to speculation; there is ample scientific research into the matter. Pain receptors in fetuses are not connected to the brain until roughly 30 weeks, a time frame supported by electroencephalography. More than 99% of all abortions are performed before the fetus has the ability to feel pain, making such arguments entirely moot. Even after the 30th week, the evidence suggests that fetuses are not conscious. Almost every abortion performed at this point, and they are rare, is done for medical rather than personal reasons. How many women would carry a fetus for eight months if they didn't have to? Even in the event that fetuses could suffer from these abortions, their interest must be weighed against that of the woman -- and a conscious adult with dreams and desires has far more interests to be frustrated than a fetus.

I am pro-choice because only pregnant women have a compelling claim on making choices that affect themselves more than any other person. I am pro-choice because abortion is good for a woman who wants one, and I want good for women.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

My future

I'm feeling utopian.

I know the likelihood of anyone caring to take the time to read what I write is in inverse proportion to the length of it, but I'm just going to ramble on again. Nobody's got a gun to your head, after all, dear reader. So let's pretend that the good guys win, and I get the future I'm pulling for. What will the world of 2057 look like to your average person, after the revolution?

First of all, there is a certain technological base that I think will exist in 50 years pretty much regardless of what happens otherwise, provided "what happens" doesn't include the collapse of civilization or human extinction.

For starters, pervasive internet access and ubiquitous computing will be the standard. People won't have a home computer and an iPod and a phone and a home stereo and a TV, synchronizing their files between them. No, wireless internet access will be fast and it will be everywhere. You'll store your music and movies and documents on a server or servers somewhere (maybe at home, maybe you'll have what old-timers might still quaintly call "Web space") and access them from whatever output device you've got handy. If you're sitting on the couch, you can watch Spider-Man 12 on the screen on your wall, but when you're taking the train to work, you can watch your same movie on your phone, or on a sheet of digital paper, or on the screen on the back of the seat in front of you. While you take an automated cab to the airport, you can browse your vacation photos on those same display devices, not because you synched them before you left home, but because you have access to them everywhere. Your sneakers have as much processing power as a desktop computer did at the turn of the century, and if you lose them, you can use google to find them.

Another major change will be in biotechnology. From a health standpoint, pretty much any genetic disorder caused by a single gene or interactions between a few will be long forgotten. More complicated problems, including some cancers, will still occur, but will be treatable to the extent that few people still die from them. Genetic engineering will be banal, rarely even worthy of debate and discussion except when expanded to new domains. While genetic screening and prenatal repair of genetic disorders will be standard, here won't be a flood of "superbabies," because anything that could be modified in such a baby can be done later in life reversibly and consensually through the more powerful tools at our disposal. An adult could voluntarily choose to, say, give themselves "intelligence genes" through artificial chromosomes; but for anything as complex as intelligence, there are no simple miracles with guarantees. The real heroes of the biotech future will be the modified descendants of bacteria and viruses, functioning much as the nanobots of science fiction for purposes as diverse as curing disease to cleaning industrial spills to producing plastics.

The third change will be the decentralization of production. Fabbers will be a standard household appliance. Whether the molecular nanotechnology breakthroughs suggested by some proponents occur or not, a vast variety of products will no longer be manufactured in a factory, shipped to a store, purchased and brought home. What will be purchased are raw materials and three-dimensional blujeprints; the product will be manufactured in your home fabber, or if it's too large for that appliance, perhaps at the corner fabbing shop. Think of a fabber as a 3D printer; it gets data and prints out the object. At the very least, most consumer goods other than food and extremely complex electronics will be capable of home fabbing. If the nanotech boom does hit, essentially everything will be available from your desktop.

Technology is value neutral. It is only as emancipatory as the society that wields it. The three central values of the society I want for 2057 are liberty, equality, and solidarity.

There is a government in this world of the future, but it doesn't really resemble the one we have today. Oh, it is democratic, and there are regional delegates, but beyond that it shares few features with the present system. The most dramatic change is that every citizen is a part of the government. There is no state that exists separate from the population as a whole. We are the government, because every building, neighborhood, or region (depending on population density) has an assembly that makes decisions for that building, neighborhood, or region. People are as involved or uninvolved with this assembly as they wish, but if they choose to participate, they always have a seat and a vote. Each assembly can make whatever rules it sees fit to make for its own domain, and people are free to choose which assembly they want to be a part of by simply moving there, if there's room. Those that do not choose to participate in the assembly are still obligated to abide by its decisions; if they didn't want this society, they're welcome to take their fabber and live apart from it, but they will not receive any of its benefits.

These local assemblies cannot make all decisions, however, because there are decisions that affect more than one locality. For these decisions there are confederations of local assemblies. For ever larger groups of people, there are more confederations, until we reach the national (and potentially, in the ultimate utopia, global) level. These are roughly analogous to city, state, and national legislatures, though they would likely not correspond directly to those administrative divisions that exist today because they would be more unified in scale. The most important difference between these assemblies of elected delegates and those that exist today is that, because every citizen is a member of the assembly that elects them upward, decisions are made from the bottom up rather than the top down. All assembly delegates would be subject to recall if they made decisions the next lower assembly disagreed with. These delegates would be regular people, selected for relatively brief terms from the ranks of their neighbors, not career politicians -- a class that does not exist in this future.

Work and economics are remarkably similar to politics in 2057. There are no bad jobs that nobody wants to do for two reasons. First, automation has eliminated a large number of them. Second, and more importantly, there isn't heirarchy in the workplace. Why should a hospital have surgeons and janitors? If they had more surgeons, each could spend a certain portion of their day doing the janitorial work. In the average household, chores such as cleaning are typically divided among the people that live there. Why not, then, divide chores at the workplace among the people that work there? In other words, jobs would be much more fairly balanced than they are today, and combined with automation there are few if any jobs that nobody wants to do; or rather, the things that nobody wants to do everybody has to do, briefly.

If a job involves unskilled labor or rote, repetitive tasks, it probably doesn't exist. Pay is according to effort and sacrifice, the things people have control over, not things they don't, like intelligence or strength. Workplaces are democratic. Any administrative or "managerial" tasks are done by people elected from within that workplace to do them, subject to the same sorts of qualifications as in the political assemblies above. There are no economic or social classes in this society, including on the job.

The economy still works on supply and demand, but there are no markets. Workplaces and industries are confederated much like regions are in the political system. The economy is socialist, but it doesn't function through central planning -- in functions through decentralized planning. At periodic intervals, and with the power of ubiquitious supercomputing available for simulation and advice if needed, people estimate what they would like to buy for the next interval based on the amount of income they expect to have. At the same time, the production federation estimates what they can produce. These estimates are all combined and iterated until a best fit plan is produced. If unexpected changes occur, they can be incorporated into the plan on the fly. Supply is actually based on demand, rather than based on expected profit.

But recall that every home has a fabber, and access to larger fabbers. "Manufacturing" is an obsolete industry, so there are really only five major divisions in the production side of the economy: raw materials, food, services, information, and design. Obviously design specifications are a subset of information, but I am here distinguishing it from things like the content of books. It doesn't much matter what specific, say, chair or t-shirt someone wants to buy when they estimate their demand, all that matters is how much material it will require for their fabber and how many designs they want to buy. People are really estimating how much generic stuff they expect to produce themselves, whether the stuff is divided between thirty t-shirts or one chair.

Decisions which affect nobody but the decision maker are made exclusively by that decision maker. There are no victimless crimes in this society. People have been granted explicit rights to do with themselves as they please. People have full cognitive and morphological freedom; they can change their minds and bodies as they see fit, whether through drugs or genetic engineering or prosthetics or surgery. Along with this comes reproductive freedom for contraception and abortion. People also have romantic and sexual freedom, to have relationships of any kind with any person or people in any combination and number, provided they are all capable and have given consent.

The environment is recovering and managed. We are actively terraforming Terra to restore the things we cause the planet to lose. Animals are not used, killed, or kept as property. If anybody still cares to eat meat, it comes from a vat, though it is indistinguishable in taste and is healthier than natural meat ever was. Our energy is mostly provided by the Sun, though other renewable sources have their roles in certain places as well. Solar power may have been more expensive for a time than fossil fuels, but in a society not driven by profit, the benefits were well worth the cost. The vast majority of people live in clean, efficient cities, leaving most of the planet free for nature, even as that nature is being remedied. The cities are vibrant and green and organic, they are alive and colorful. People live there because they want to be around other people, connected and tied in and social.

So, that's my utopia.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


The older I get, the more radical I become.

This is, apparently, in contrast to much of the population, who retreat to the safety and warmth of an ever-growing conservatism in the face of accelerating social and technological change. People who were fired up and active against the status quo in college get jobs for Boeing when they graduate. Is it simply a decline in virulent, youthful energy? Is it making peace with the establishment, resigning yourself to complacency that things can never change?

There is very little about which my opinion has not steadily and unremittingly shifted ever leftward over time, away from nearly all tradition and normalcy.

In high school, I was fairly apolitical. I thought of myself as a Democrat because I remembered my parents saying they preferred Michael Dukakis to George Bush in the 1988 presidential election. My eight-year-old memory might have been imperfect, as my parents now say they have no recollection of saying such a thing. But I felt a general sense that the Democrats were better than the Republicans.

Somehow, in my first few years of college, I decided I was a libertarian. I don't really know why that happened; I think I liked the libertarian social positions and didn't know enough about their economic positions to care. I had no reason to think that capitalism couldn't solve the world's problems. I think I may have been foolish enough to think of the libertarians as super-Democrats, extending the principles of personal liberty to all aspects of life. I never thought to consider that the libertarian conception of liberty amounted to having the freedom to choose who to sell yourself to.

Interestingly, it was around this time that I found myself defending communism to people as an ideal, while I apparently seemed to think that it was a utopian ideal and that the best-case scenario in the real world was market capitalism. I think I might have been a nascent neocon.

I followed the 2000 presidential campaign, but I didn't vote in the election. I favored John McCain initially. I was unsophisticated in my political analysis; he said things I liked and so I liked him. In the final election, I would have voted for Gore had I cared enough to vote. After all, he was a Democrat so he was probably better than Bush -- and as a Texas resident, I wasn't enamored with Bush's performance as governor.

But that 2000 campaign inspired me to pay attention to politics. I minored in political science and I became active in some groups on campus. I started to consider myself a liberal and even a progressive, but in retrospect I'm not sure just what progress I was in favor of. I had come to determine that on the whole the government was more useful than harmful, and that there were many things that markets could not provide but government could. On social issues, sure, I was progressive. I was in favor of gay rights, I was a member of feminist groups. But that was borne of a general sense that people should be treated equally and fairly. I supported the invasion of Afghanistan, though I had the sense to know that the already-percolating invasion of Iraq was bullshit.

It was around the time of the invasion and occupation of Iraq that I stopped thinking of myself as a liberal. I opposed the war, but in the course of my investigation into anti-war philosophy and activism I learned that most of the people who opposed war also opposed a host of other things I took for granted. And so I read, and I learned.

One can almost trace my path along a political spectrum as I slid from liberalism into progressivism on to social democracy and democratic socialism. I fell in love with the Scandinavian model: a market with a strong safety-net to catch those who fell through the cracks. There were many important things that could not make a profit that could be provided by a government. I strongly supported welfare programs, and I grew enamored with the idea of a basic income guarantee. I thought of socialism as an inspirational goal, but a distant one. All we could do was aspire to reform our institutions in increasingly beneficial ways.

I voted for Ralph Nader in 2004.

I continued referring to myself as a progressive, because I wasn't entirely convinced of the socialist program. I think it was my lack of true concern for economic issues. I didn't really understand the point of all that talk about "ownership of the means of production." I was interested in people having the necessities they needed to live, universal health care, and social equality. Whether corporations existed or not wasn't that important to me, though I did try to be conscientious about sweatshops. But I thought such things were the problem of individual companies, not a problem with the system itself.

By 2006, I had started calling myself a socialist, though I did retreat to "progressive" in mixed company. But even then, I was a market socialist. I understood how private ownership of the means of production and unfair bargaining power in labor markets resulted in some people working for a fraction of the wealth they generate, while others keep the remaining wealth without working at all. Private investors and the pursuit of profit ensure that the employees will always receive the least the employers can get away with giving them. So by giving workers ownership of the means of production through economic democracy, we could ensure that exploitation was impossible.

In the second half of 2006, I started thinking that this still might not be enough. So all Nike employees are equal partners in Nike, and share in the profits their company earns. What does this do to solve the issues of monopoly and inter-company coercion? How does Wal-Mart fairly distributing profits among its workers end the problem of Wal-Mart destroying local culture and small businesses? If there is still competition in the marketplace, there is still inequity. Some people collectively get ahead at the expense of others who collectively fall behind. It's better than capitalism, but that's a low bar to clear.

Market socialism also doesn't do anything about an increasingly unrepresentative government. I have long favored electoral reforms such as instant runoff voting and proportional representation, initiative and recall. Such things would go a long way to mitigate the problems with our governmental system, by giving people more control over their representatives. But it doesn't do anything about the fact that decision-making on every level is still reserved for a minority, even if that minority is chosen by the majority. Furthermore, each level of government is more powerful than the one below it. The national government can make decisions binding on states, and states on cities. While this can be good in cases of civil rights, it means that power is as far from everyday people as possible.

I think I'm an anarchist*.

If somebody asked me today, I believe I'd describe myself as a libertarian socialist. Anybody who knows anything about libertarian socialism knows it's just a way of saying anarchism with a different emphasis. I want a society that has a government, but doesn't have a State. I want a society full of diversity and participatory decision-making in both politics and economics. I don't want a society of cut-throat competition as in capitalism, but I don't want centralized planning as in state socialism. I want decisions of all kinds to be made as closely to those affected by them as possible, in proportion to the agree that they are affected. When decisions affect ever-larging numbers of people, whatever confederation makes them had better be accountable to those who deal with the benefits and consequences.

This is my political thought, but my opinions on other matters have followed the same spiraling trajectory from typical to liberal to eccentric to radical. I was an omnivore, then I became a vegetarian, and now I'm a vegan. I laughed at gay jokes, then I merely supported gay rights, and now I want the concept of sexual orientation to be meaningless in light of freedom to love and fuck as one chooses. I was raised Catholic, then I was agnostic in high school, and now I am an outspoken atheist. I was apathetic to women's issues, then I was a feminist ally, and now I am a patriarchy-smashing feminist myself.

Liberty! Equality! Solidarity!

I'm glad I'm growing up.

* Of course I refer here to anarchism as the opposition to heirarchy in politics and economics and the history of political thought examining and elaborating on that opposition, presently espoused by the likes of Noam Chomsky, Michael Albert, and Howard Zinn. I definitely oppose pop-cultural "anarchy," the implementation of which consists primarily of randomly fucking shit up.

Back again

Ice Storm '07 ("the worst smattering of freezing rain since 1998!") has struck central Texas, marooning me at home and inspiring me to return to the world of blogging. Seriously, though, icy roads and Texas drivers is not a good combination. People are dying.

I have been too lazy to properly format this blog, so I am using a generic Blogger template for now. I will try to get back on track with that soon.