The Freeloader Argument

Hurray for the Supreme Court's decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act, but now there will be increased zeal to strike down Obama himself and elect Romney, who wants to repeal it.  President Obama really needs to get out there and sell Obamacare, and especially the individual mandate, in a way that speaks to conservatives, not just liberals. It's all wrong to think the individual mandate is a nanny-state provision that forces rugged individualists to take care of themselves.  Quite the opposite--it reins in freeloaders who are poised to take advantage of emergency rooms, but don't want to pay for the safety net until they actually land in it. This is like refusing to pay for the fire department until you have a fire, or refusing to pay for the safety net at the circus, until you actually fall off the high wire.  It's also like not having your kids vaccinated, because all the other kids at school are vaccinated. As it stands, people without insurance are ripping off the rest of us, and they shouldn't be allowed to continue.  See? It's an argument that appeals to a sense of fairness, not to the compassion that the anti-Obama conservatives are so evidently missing.   It could easily be done--Republicans against the ACA could be cast as letting freeloaders get away with continuing to rip us all off.  Compassion is part of the argument for other provisions in the ACA, but Obama needs to make the freeloader argument to get conservatives to shut-up about the individual mandate, and its alleged assault on our freedoms. We shouldn't have the freedom to be freeloaders.  That's what Obama needs to say ... over, and over, and over again.

The American Atheists' Harassment Policy

While we all wait to find out what the Supremes think of the Affordable Care Act, let's have a look at the Harassment Policy hammered out by American Atheists in the wake of the recent online brouhaha about such things.  Here's the core of the policy--
That all sounds exactly right. [Update10:10 am:  Is there stuff to quibble with? I just read this, and maybe so, but it strikes me as being mostly on the right track.]

Another part of the policy really ought to be removed. This is just plain silly:
You are encouraged to ask for unequivocal consent for all activities during the conference. No touching other people without asking. This includes hands on knees, backs, shoulders—and hugs (ask first!). There are folks who do not like to be touched and will respect and like you more if you respect their personal space.
What exactly is wrong with negotiating these things as we do the rest of the time--by paying attention to non-verbal cues?  It's better that way, most of us think.  We don't go through life constantly asking "I haven't seen you for a long time--may I hug you?"  Or "I'd like to show solidarity and sympathy--may I touch your arm as I say this next sentence?"  We don't, because (let us count the problems)--

(1) If we explicitly asked, then we'd put the person we want to touch/hug in the awkward position of having to say "no" if they don't want to be touched/hugged.  It would have been so much more thoughtful to notice the cues and not call attention to their sensitivity.

(2) If we had to explicitly ask, we'd ruin spontaneity--so most of us would just do less touching and hugging.

(3) If we asked, it would highlight what is better left subterranean--that touching has some mild sexual undertones, touching is ever so slightly intimate, touching can be gross to some people, some people may find me in particular gross.

If I were thinking of going to an American Atheists convention (to be honest, I am not), I'd find it off-putting to be told how to negotiate touching ("no touching other people without asking") or even just be "encouraged to ask for unequivocal consent." This crosses the line from what's the conference's business (all the stuff in the box above) to what's not.  It's up to me, I think, how I handle the vast number of decisions that are in the realm of etiquette, not law or even ethics.  I'd be appalled if a conference organizer issued instructions about what to say after belching, whether and when to hold doors for other people, when to address someone by their first name, etc.  It's paternalistic and infantilizing -- suitable for managing a bunch of 10 year olds, but not for running a conference attended by adults.

And no, it doesn't help that David Silverman has added that he wants people to have sex at American Atheist conferences.  There's something a little weird going on when it's seen as GRRRREAT!!!! for people to have casual hook-ups, but a serious infraction (worthy of being addressed in a conference policy) to touch someone without first asking permission. Yes, sexual touching without permission is a serious infraction (the boxed policy is all to the good), but mere casual touching and hugging between acquaintances?

I'm struck by the contrast with religious communities.  In a religious community, there is constant touching between acquaintances.  For example, the reform Jewish temple I attend (infrequently) is an extremely touchy place.  Before, during, and after the service you see constant physical interaction.  Ask permission? You've got to be kidding.  There is also a lot of synchronization--people stand up and sit down at the same times during the service. All this synching and touching is part of feeling collective joy, sorrow, etc.--all feelings evoked at times by a religious service. But sex? Well, it's kind of a special thing, reserved (at least ideally) for special relationships. It's a strange inversion to make a big deal of casual touching, putting it on a verbal-permission-only basis, while encouraging casual sex.  That sounds like a recipe for killing off solidarity in a community while ramping up private titillation.  With rules like that, I should think, "things fall apart, the center cannot hold."


Supreme court decision is now out.  It looks like ... YESSSSS!  Good news. More on that later.


Mothers at Work

On a recent trip I had a chance to read Anne-Marie Slaughter's much-discussed Atlantic article on working mothers. She says many things that need to be said. For example: we must acknowledge the importance children have for women (and men) and accommodate the demands of parenthood in the workplace.  One nice new point Slaughter makes is that this is no different from accommodating the schedule of a marathon runner or an orthodox sabbath observer. Lots of things prevent people from constantly being "on call" at work, and parenthood is no less respectable than other things competing for our energy and attention. 

I'm baffled why the article has (apparently) drawn a lot of fire. It strikes me as being thoughtful and commendable, if just a bit "safe" -- as if written by a committee and carefully polished by a public relations firm.  But major criticisms?  I don't have any, but do think there's something facile about the reasoning in this one passage--
Ultimately, it is society that must change, coming to value choices to put family ahead of work just as much as those to put work ahead of family. If we really valued those choices, we would value the people who make them; if we valued the people who make them, we would do everything possible to hire and retain them; if we did everything possible to allow them to combine work and family equally over time, then the choices would get a lot easier.

It's a lovely thought, but I think Slaughter is overlooking the fact that sometimes putting X ahead of Y means really not having the time and energy to be fully committed to Y. It would be the same with a marathon runner who is constantly training, so only able to work very limited hours. Or someone who chooses novel-writing over lawyering, so rarely shows up in the office.  A choice can be praiseworthy without necessarily being compatible with hiring and retention. This is the cruel and tragic truth.  I don't think there's always a societal solution ("Ultimately, it is society that must change...") to the sort of quandaries people face when they greatly value both X and Y, and there's no practical way to choose them both.  Some of our problems are really our problems, not "society's" (duh).

Maybe it's a noble lie that society must change, that it's always a question of workplaces needing to do more to accommodate choosing family over work.  If we go around telling that lie, workplaces will do more, and at least more women will be able to continue to work. I want that to happen because I'm thrilled when I see more women in top positions. But if you're interested in the whole truth and nothing but the truth, I think you have to admit that the parenting urge can sometimes take you so far from full time work that retention is basically impossible.

A more plausible point here would be that choices to focus on family not work don't usually last forever.  Employers could do a lot more to welcome back people who have temporarily decided to be full-time parents.


The Dark at the End of the Tunnel

I've been meaning to read James Atlas's book My Life in the Middle Ages for a long time.   I'm finally reading it (well, listening) because  a lot of things are conspiring to make me think about aging, the passage of time, and ... death.  Amazon reviewers complain that Atlas does a lot of moaning, whining, and wallowing. He's self-indulgent in the face of things that everyone has to go through.  But then again, if you start thinking about "life in the middle ages" you just do wind up in a whiny, wallowing state. What else would you want in a book on this subject?  With any luck, he'll whine and wallow in some interesting way.  Or he'll be just 2-3% more whiny and self-indulgent than me, so I'll get a chance to feel superior. This cannot help but go reasonably well, I think.  Anyhow, I'm 2/3 of the way through and find the guy good pretty good company. 

Speaking of time and aging and kids growing up and resentment and all that ... another book about these things, but more upbeat (ultimately) is Jennifer Egan's book A Visit from the Goon Squad. In her picture, much really bad crap in life gets redeemed, whereas in Atlas's memoir, crap is just crap.  Goon Squad is an ingenious "puzzle" book -- as in, it's a book that reader has to figure out, and the figuring out is very satisfying. 


Tree Notes

Addenda to my recent post about trees.

1.  There's an amusing and alarming chapter on naming rights in Michael Sandel's generally amusing and alarming book What Money Can't Buy.  I thought of it when I kept on seeing signs like the one below in redwood groves in Jedediah Smith State Park. 

2.   Here Russell Blackford segues from my recent tree post to an interesting (and sympatico) thing he wrote about respect. By the way, the petite person in the sequoia picture is my daughter.

3.  Everyone seems to be talking about plant ethics.  Gary Francione and Gary Marder debate plant ethics here.  Marder makes some pretty wild claims about plant "awareness"--
As I have pointed out, contemporary research in botany gives us ample reasons to believe that plants are aware of their environment in a nonconscious way—for instance, thanks to the roots that are capable of altering their growth pattern in moving toward resource-rich soil or away from nearby roots of other members of the same species. To ignore such evidence in favor of a stereotypical view of plants as thing-like is counterproductive, both for ethics and for our understanding of what they are.

Plants are "aware in a non-conscious way," Marder claims.  How's plant "awareness" different from plants simply being responsive?  Plants are certainly highly responsive to their environments.  The book I'm reading about trees (The Trees in My Forest, by Bernd Heinrich) makes it clear they're much, much more responsive than you would imagine.  Still, why speak of "awareness"?  "Aware in a non-conscious way" may be a concept with some application, but arguably only to things that can also be aware in a conscious way.  For example, it might be okay to say that someone seeing a red spot on the wall via blindsight is aware of the spot's color in a non-conscious way.  I don't see anything but confusion arising from talking about the non-conscious awareness of trees.

4.  Big, big, big mystery: for some reason trees can achieve all the responsiveness they need without any consciousness (or awareness).  It's only when an organism starts being able to move around from one environment to another that (evidently) mere responsiveness is not enough, and it's more adaptive to have a brain with conscious awareness.  Locomotion and consciousness go hand in hand.  That's not something you would have expected, a priori, but seems pretty likely to be true.

5.  The search for plant consciousness. Evidently it has a long history.

6.  I wrote a paper recently about whether experimentation on the great apes should be prohibited (it will appear in Current Debates in Bioethics, to be published by Wiley-Blackwell). One of my arguments is that we can value something over saving human lives, even without attributing rights to that thing.  My example was that trees along French boulevards are preserved, even though it's well known that they cause fatal traffic accidents.  On my trip through redwood country, I discovered a better example.

Along the roads in Jedediah Smith State Park there are colossally big, thousand year old redwoods protruding right into the road. There are warning reflectors affixed to them, and they probably cause some number of fatalities every decade.  It's defensible that we should keep these trees, even at that cost.  Obviously we do so because we value redwoods, not because the trees have rights.  Likewise it's possible to mount an argument for ending the use of chimpanzees in biomedical research without having to get into any perplexing talk of their having rights.  Of course chimapanzees, unlike trees, do have feelings like pleasure and pain, so we have further reasons to be concerned about how we treat them.  But the mandate to spare their lives doesn't have to rest on a rights argument.

Blaming the Victim?

What is it with the atheist online community in the summertime?  Last summer "elevatorgate" was endlessly discussed. This summer there's another brouhaha, also involving the treatment of women. Three years ago there was another interminable debate about very, very little.  You might be forgiven for suspecting that the no-God hypothesis leaves atheists with not enough "meat" on their plates, though it should be said that some atheists do manage to write on real topics, day in and day out.  I periodically criticize Jerry Coyne for some position or other, but he's always writing about something interesting.

Anyhow, I'm paying attention to the latest scandal for only one reason: because it's about the alleged sins of DJ Grothe, and listening to him on Point of Inquiry for a couple of years made me think the world of him.  His alleged crime, in a nutshell, is making this argument (I will number the steps for clarity):
 (1) Some people in the online atheist community have been talking about the mistreatment of women at atheist meetings out of proportion with how frequently mistreatment occurs.  It doesn't occur frequently at all, if you go by a survey of 800+ attendees conducted by DJ at The Amazing Meeting (TAM) last summer.
(2) This disproportionate talk of mistreatment may be scaring women away from further meetings (like this summer's TAM), and gratuitously so, given how frequently mistreatment actually occurs (see (1)).  Thus, the way people are trying to reduce mistreatment is interfering with the separate goal of increasing female representation at meetings.

Now, you could criticize this argument.  About (1), you might say that the survey measured mistreatment at just one meeting, and that it was a singular meeting, coming (as it did) so soon after the elevatorgate controversy. About (2), you could say that it's only possible that all the talk is reducing attendance at this summer's TAM.  That's speculative, and DJ doesn't have proof.

Fine, criticisms like that wouldn't be untoward (which is not to say I find them conclusive). But instead what we see is piles and piles of ... horse excrement.  I don't really want to spend too much time wading through it, so will just pluck out a few examples.  One is the accusation that, by making claims (1) and (2), DJ is guilty of the sin of "blaming the victim."

This is just weird.  Surely it does sometimes happen that people talk about mistreatment of Xs out of proportion to how often it occurs, and this can scare away Xs.  Worrying about this -- and speaking out about it -- can't possibly be out of the question.  If that does sometimes occur, could it possibly be taboo to try to tamp down the excessive talk, to make a plea for proportionality?  No, it really can't.

And when you do point out disproportionality and worry about possible negative consequences, no, you're not "blaming the victim" within the usual meaning of that phrase. You're not blaming victims for being victims.  The blame has got to be about overgeneralization or extrapolation or spurious inferences.  Or perhaps the complaint is about other people, people who are not victims at all, who make it seem as if there are far more victims than there really are.  This worry about disproportional talk and overgeneralization is perfectly consistent with taking injustice to individual victims very, very seriously. All signs are that DJ Grothe does (and I certainly do).

Saying (1) and (2) should have been possible in a community of so-called "skeptics".  People who claim to care about reasoning and data should have taken notice of the survey data that was the foundation of DJ's argument. But no, it's seldom mentioned in the endless discussions at blogs. A rational debate about (1) and (2) could have taken place, but was instead pre-empted by all sorts of histrionics, like demands for DJ's resignation, accusations that he doesn't care about harassment, ludicrous charges about his being gay and being out of sympathy with women, etc. etc.

Good heavens. If I were a religious person, I'd keep close track of what passes for reasonable discussion at atheist blogs and I'd be laughing my head off.  As it is, I'm doing some laughing, but also shaking my head in disbelief. OK, back to trees ....


Thinking About Trees

I'm back from two weeks in northern California, which I spent thinking about two things--(1) trees, and (2) why (on earth) I don't live in northern California.  What a fantastic place.

We started in San Francisco and then drove over the Golden Gate bridge to Sausalito and up the coast to Point Reyes seashore and then to the redwood state and national parks near Oregon, with a couple of nights of camping in Jedediah Smith State Park. OK, I confess -- a couple went from 3 to 2 because we couldn't face putting up a tent in the pouring rain on the first night.  Anyhow, trees.  Wow, redwoods are big!

I got really fascinated with these trees, so acquired a nice little library of books about trees on the road.  First came Coast Redwoods: A Natural and Cultural History, from which I learned about "burls" and "fairy rings."  A redwood deals with the threat of destruction by developing this growth called a "burl" (do other trees do this too?).  This is a big protrusion that looks sort of like tree ooze, or even a tumor. Inside the burl there are thousands of dormant buds.  When the "stem tip" (not sure what that means) of a tree is severely damaged, the buds "wake up" and send shoots down to the base of the tree.  A group of trees then grow in a circle around the original tree, all clones of the original.  This is known as a "fairy ring" or "sprouting ring."  Once I learned about fairy rings I got just a big obsessed with finding them, and they seemed to be all over the place.  Lots and lots of redwoods grow in circles.

Having fallen in love with redwoods, I wanted to test my fidelity by seeing some sequoias too, but that's jumping ahead.  From Jedediah we headed south through wine country (where we discovered not more trees, and not wine, but perfect cappuccino in towns like Calistoga).  We headed further south to Monterrey and then over to Salinas to visit the John Steinbeck museum and e.b. ("eyeball") the vast vegetable farms.  Picking up an armload of Steinbeck books in the museum bookstore (to be exact: one for me, one for my daughter, three for my husband, none for my son), I read this wonderful paragraph by Steinbeck in Travels with Charley:
"Respect--that's the word."  Interesting thought, much in line with Paul Taylor's well-known book Respect for Nature.  Taylor thinks living things have a "good of their own" and this entitles them to our respect.  If you're steeped in Kantian talk about the prerequisites of respect, you might find this very odd.  What?  Respect a tree, when trees lack our self-awareness?

But wait--even Kant respected things without self-awareness. “Two things fill me with wonder,” he famously said, “the starry sky above and the moral law within.” OK, he just said "wonder" here, but I have the feeling "wonder" means something like "awe" and "awe" means something like "respect".  Note how Steinbeck puts these things in one package--"The vainest, most slap-happy and irreverent of men, in the presence of redwoods, goes under a spell of wonder and respect."

My loyalty was rigorouly tested by the sequoias.  After e.b.-ing lots of vegetables in Salinas, we headed back to the coast and drove down to Morro Bay.  Suitably awed by the large rock in the bay (and the unexpected but also sort of awesome power plant), we headed west to Yosemite National Park, stopping to enjoy the avocado orchards and assorted dramatic landscapes on the way. Sequoias are -- humongous, ginormous ... you seem to need new words to describe them.  But burls and fairy rings? No!  There is also something singular about the height of redwoods, their completely erect posture, and how far you have to look to find their branches.  "One feels the need to bow to unquestioned sovereigns" ...

I'm going with the idea that respecting trees does make sense, but we've got to reject one idea about respect if we're going to apply the concept this way.  Kant and Taylor both see respect as an equalizer. If you respect X and respect Y, then you've got to respect them equally. If your respect dictates you have to protect X, then you have to protect Y to the same degree.  In my book about respect for animals, I reject that sort of egalitarianism as it applies to members of different animal species, and you're going to be even more obliged to reject it if you think trees and other plants are owed respect.

Speaking of the trees in my backyard, Steinbeck says something very funny about Texas.

Yes, some people never make it out.  Or rather, they make it out, but then they return.  I shouldn't complain.  There's actually a creek behind our house, lined with trees. I have never bothered to take a close look at them, but there are some cottonwoods that blow tufts all over the place.  Once back in San Francisco, we went to the famous City Lights book store and I got a very lovely book by super-nature-writer Bernd Heinrich called The Trees in My Forest.  Turns out ordinary trees (as well as vines, bushes, and little ground plants) do some pretty extraordinary things.  I also learned more about redwoods from him -- like how one can speculate that they got so big to avoid the rapacious appetites of dinosaurs. Cool.

Last but not least, and not on a tree-ish subject, some "bests" and "worsts":  best restaurants on our trip were Greens and Lulu Restaurant, both in San Francisco, Good Harvest Cafe in Crescent Bay, and The Galley in Morro Bay. Most dubious accommodations: Curry Village, the refugee camp-like tent city in Yosemite.  Better to book as early as possible and grab yourself a campsite or room at the lodge. Best avocado orchard: near Morro Bay. Coolest coast walk: Point Lobos near Monterrey.  Most insanely rich but picturesque town: Carmel.  Best family-style restaurant chain with great pie: The Black Bear. Best spooky location for trying to watch the transit of Venus (but the clouds got in the way): the lighthouse near Crescent City.

Just a few more trees and we'll be done:


Brief Reviews

This blog's soon going to go silent for a little while, but first a few book notes --

What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, by Michael Sandel, is really a terrific book, despite the fact that it's almost all "data", with very little "theory".  Most of the book is a journalistic account of what all we can now buy.  It's is stuffed with amazing examples.  Sandel thinks we should be troubled on grounds that commodification leads to unfairness and corrosion of values.  A key concept running through the book is that market values crowd out other values. Lots and lots of food for thought here.

Last Man on Tower, by Aravind Adiga.  The White Tiger was fantastic, so I had high hopes for Adiga's latest novel.  Unfortunately, it's a bit slow and too long and linear.  Obscure analogy, which can only be appreciated if you've read all four of these books:  Rohinton Mistry's book A Fine Balance is to his next book Family Matters as White Tiger is to Last Man on Tower.  I just know that's not going to show up on the SATs anytime soon.  After Mistry wrote A Fine Balance, an utterly gripping novel about poverty, he turned to the quieter topic of middle class families and housing.  Adiga made exactly the same transition.