Marc Stier at Large

Reflections on Philosophy and politics in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Beyond

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For City Commissioner: Carol Jenkins and Lisa Deeley

Two candidates for City Commissioner stand far above all the others. Carol Jenkins and Lisa Deeley.

City Commissioner is one of those row offices that carries out a really important function that is utterly unknown to most people. The City Commissioners are responsible for making sure that the machinery of our elections—from the books that contain the names of registered voters to the voting machines that record our votes—work and work fairly. When that machinery doesn’t work, as it nearly didn’t in 2012, people can be denied the basic right central to democratic politics. When the machinery of our elections is used to help one party or one faction or one candidate rather another—when polling places are moved to help some candidates or you have to know someone on the inside to even get the results of previous elections—then our elections are fundamentally unfair.

When the Commissioners do their basic job well, and especially when they look for creative ways to encourage voting, they can play an important role in increasing turnout. And all of us—and especially we progressive Democrats—have a stake in doing that.

After years of tension in the office, with one Commissioner rarely showing up at the office or the polling place and another creating havoc, and only one, Republican Al Schmidt, who seems both committed and capable of doing the job as it needs to be done, it’s time for us to elect Commissioners who willing to work together to make the office what it should be, both the honest broker of our elections and the champion of high voter turnout.

So it’s important to elect City Commissioners whose commitment to political fairness is unquestioned and whose knowledge of politics is deep. And that’s why my first vote for City Commissioner goes to Carol Jenkins. Carol has the perfect qualification for this position. She’s been involved in politics for years and is now the Leader of the 27th Ward. She’s taught politics at Temple University. She’s studied and written about politics.

Carol has the heart of a reformer and the head of a ward leader. She not only knows the proper direction to take the office of City Commissioner, she know how to get there.

I’ll also cast a vote for Lisa Deely for City Commissioner. Lisa has deep and varied experience in politics. She’s worked in the offices of some of the political leaders I most respect in Philadelphia. She knows her way around our elections. She’s smart and effective and would work well with Al Schmidt and Carol Jenkins to give us the most effective group of Commissioners we have had in years.

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Sat, May 16 2015 » Philadelphia, Progressive Politics » No Comments

Jim Kenney, with pleasure.

I’m going to vote for Jim Kenney for Mayor next week. One reason, as I wrote earlier in the week, is to stop the Four Billionaires from electing a Mayor. But there is another reason as well. I think he could be a really good mayor.

That he’s even running tells you a lot about why.

Kenney got into the race late when the most likely candidate to take up the labor / progressive mantel against Tony Williams, Darrell Clarke and Alan Butkovtiz declined to run. Clarke and Butkovitz had their own reasons not to run, but certainly one consideration was that Williams had broad support and the promise, which turned into reality, of getting a huge amount of funding from the Three Billionaires.

Kenney had that reason to not run, as well. But, when the possibility of getting in late opened up when Ken Trujillo dropped out and Butkovtiz and Clarke declined to do so, Kenney decided to give it a shot.

No one who is successful in politics is a gambler. Perhaps my biggest frustration with politicians is that most of them are incredibly cautious. But, having run and lost in two long shot races, I certainly understand why people for whom politics is, as it was not for me, a career, are cautious.

Jim Kenney is no different. He’s been cautious, too. But if you look at his career, he’s always been willing to take at least some risks and to move outside his comfort zone. And he’s done that because he really, truly cares not just about holding office but about doing good in office.

The Jim Kenney I’ve known since I started doing political advocacy has been one of the bright lights on Council. He’s one of the Council members one could go to with a new, different idea and get a hearing. And if he thought it was a good idea, he would try to see if he could do something with it. It didn’t matter if doing so meant that some of his allies or constituents look cross-eyed at him. Kenney was willing to go a bit out on a limb and take some heat in order to do something right.

That’s why Kenney became the champion of LGBT rights and legalizing marijuana. It’s why he’s supportive creative, and often little know initiatives, on many issues over the years, from immigration to zoning reform.

More often than not, Kenney’s actions have allowed him to broaden his base of support in the city. They have been good policy and good politics. A good mayor needs both. A mayor has needs to build a broad base of support and use it, outside and inside Council, to push for clear policy goals. Kenney will not only wants to do that, he knows how to do it.

I don’t expect I’ll always agree with Mayor Kenney. Over the years he’s found the arguments of the business community a little more attractive than I have. But he hears the other side as well. And unlike some half-progressives who are dismayed whenever labor supports their candidate, I am really glad that he’s got strong labor support in this election. That will make him a better mayor.

I also expect that at times Mayor Kenney will show parts of himself that worry that some folks. There’s the side of Jim Kenney that led him a long time ago to make a pissed-off phone call to me after I encouraged 600 or so Philadelphians to email him on some issue.

Jim joined me in laughing it off the next time I saw him. But the passion that led to his call, and much else that he does, is not only appealing, it’s what makes Jim the guy who was ready to take a chance, give up his Council seat, and make a tough run for Mayor. And it will make him a good mayor as well.

So next Tuesday, I’m not only voting for Jim, I’m going to be very pleased to do so.

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Fri, May 15 2015 » Philadelphia, Progressive Politics » No Comments

Council at Large Choices

Here’s why I’m voting for Sherrie Cohen, Helen Gym, Bill Greenlee, Wilson Goode, and Derek Green for City Council at Large

We have, it seems, almost an embarrassment of good candidates for Council at Large this year including both challengers and incumbents. But look closely and a few stand out above the others, not just because they have good characters and good ideas but because they have the potential to bring something to Philadelphia politics that we have long needed—a connection and commitment to engaging the public, and especially the progressive / labor community,  in politics.

When I ran myself for this position in 2007 I said, repeatedly, that politics was broken in Philadelphia. That’s a little less so today in large because of some new voices, and reinvigorated old voices in Council and because of the efforts of Council President Darrel Clarke to make Council more assertive. But one glaring problem remains: Council members are still too disengaged from the issue and community activists in Philadelphia. And when the ideas and voices of issue and community activists are not heard, our politics both stagnate and comes to be dominated by the voices that never go away, those of wealthy businesspeople and their hired lobbyists.

We’ve seen how effective community voices can be when Council stood up to the Nutter Administration’s rush to implement AVI before it was ready and to the administration, the energy companies, and the newspapers when it said no to selling PGW. There are, however, other cases where business interests have gotten what they have wanted simply because Council didn’t hear opposing voices. And on one of the most important issues facing Philadelphia—how to sustain economic growth and make it work for everyone—Council only hears one voice, those who say cut taxes and all will be well. Unfortunately it is not at all clear that this is true. If we cut taxes, and especially the wrong ones, we may find ourselves with less money to spend on those things, such as improved schools and investments in commercial corridors, that actually do bring new individuals and businesses to Philadelphia. (I’ll be saying more about progressive economic development strategies soon.)

So what we really need in Council at this moment is members who hear the voices of community and issue activists, and especially who hear progressive and labor voices that have an alternative to the business communities’ vision of how to create economic growth that benefits all of us. And, even more, we need Council members who are committed to helping build that progressive / labor movement—who dedicate some of their ample staff to create and sustain a force that can help move Council and our city in the right direction.

And that’s why my top two votes for Council at Large will go to Sherrie Cohen and Helen Gym, who have a long history of progressive / labor activism in Philadelphia. Everyone knows Helen as the premiere advocate for public schools in Philadelphia. Her passion, tenacity, and knowledge are exemplary. Even when I disagree with her—and I do sometimes—I find that her point of view is always well-reasoned and based on clear thinking and evidence. And that goes for Sherrie as well. I’ve worked with her on so many projects over the years—from saving the libraries from Nutter administration cuts to fighting for essential services to raising the minimum wage to securing quality, affordable health care for all. Time and again, I’ve been struck by her energy and commitment.

Helen and Sherrie are not independent candidates, they are connected ones. And, contrary to what a lot middle class progressives think, we need connected candidates not independents in Philadelphia. We need political officials connected to the progressive / labor movement who see themselves as advocates and champions for our ideals of economic justice and inclusion, who search for public policies that might realize those ideals, and who are willing to build coalitions outside and inside council in favor of legislation that embodies those ideals. And we need to support political candidates who have proven to us, again and again, that they are those kind of leaders. Those are our candidates, not the shiny new kids on the block who have the right resume, degree, and lineage but who have never marched with us, planned with us, organized with us, rallied with us, or gotten arrested with us.

Sherrie Cohen and Helen Gym are those kinds of candidates and that’s why I’m going to push the buttons for them first.

And then I’m going to push the button for two incumbents, Bill Greenlee and Wilson Goode, Jr. who have long records of supporting progressive ideals. For three terms now, Councilman Goode has been asking hard questions and proposing tough legislation that would address the plight of working people and the poor. No one else in Council is as engaged, knowledgeable and passionate about these issue. The one who comes closest, and who has other virtues besides, is Bill Greenlee. Bill was the dogged and relentless sponsor of the earned sick day legislation. He kept pushing and built a coalition in Council that got the bill pass twice and finally worked out an arrangement with the administration to get Mayor Nutter to sign, it making it law. Bill’s been a champion for black Philadelphians, those who are disabled, and members of the LGBT community. And he as strong a supporter of labor as anyone on Council.

Wilson Goode and Bill Greenlee also are among the members of Council who are most willing to work with and help build support outside Council for progressive legislation.

The last slot on Council raises the questions about whether we should just not cast the fifth vote in order to benefit the top four choice. But if you choose to cast that vote, the ones I’m considering the following:

Blondell Reynolds-Brown was an effective champion of education and the arts in the past. She’s also had some serious ethical lapses which concern me.

Ed Nielson is a pretty new member of Council. I’ve gotten to know him a little and I have to say I’m impressed with how savvy he is. He was a good State Representative and could be a really good Council Member.

But I’m most likely going to vote for Derek Green. He was President of East Mt. Airy Neighbors when I was President of West Mt. Airy Neighbors. We worked very closely together then and I go to know him well. He’s incredibly well informed about public policy and has really good political judgment. He stands with progressives on most issues. I’m a little troubled by his endorsement by Philly 3.0, which is more supportive of business than progressive concerns. But I understand practical politics and know that Council candidates need to take support where they can get it.

There are a bunch of other Council at large candidates who have gotten some attention and run strong campaigns, especially Paul Steinke and Tom Wyatt. They both impress me with their commitment and ideas and work. But they don’t have the connections to the progressive / labor movements that we really need in our politics. And I’m afraid they will be voices for the usual ideas about economic growth in Philadelphia that play too large a role in our politics as it is.

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Thu, May 14 2015 » Philadelphia, Progressive Politics » No Comments

What Has to Change and What Doesn’t: A First Look at Klein


I’d been planning to read “This Changes Everything (TCE)” for a few months, both because I want to learn more about the climate change issue and because I want to learn more about Naomi Klein’s take on the world. I’ve doing preliminary work on a project of my own on progressive political and policy strategy. (I’m also finishing another book now about sexuality and politics but I always work on two projects at once.)

I finally started the book a week or so ago because my friend Cate Poe invited to join an on-line reading group. I’m only about half way through at the moment so this is a preliminary report, some of my initial thoughts on the book. I normally wouldn’t write anything until I was done with a book and spent a good deal of time thinking about it, but I feel some obligation to Cate to say something sooner rather than later.

I’ve enjoyed the book to this point. Klein is a vigorous and clear writer who has a talent for both analysis and reportage. And she’s also ambitious—her book aims at a comprehensive account of the political circumstances we find ourselves in at the moment and gives us a strategy for both saving the planet from global warming and transformation our lives in a progressive direction. I fully agree with her view that we can’t understand any particular political or policy issue without some grasp of our circumstances as a whole, so it’s enormously helpful to tackle a big sprawling work that really does attempt to survey the state of politics, especially but not only in the advanced world, in this comprehensive way.

Klein’s Achievement

It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a while and one I encourage everyone to read, both because the global warming issue is so absolutely critical and because the book is so good. And I say this even though I already think the book is also dramatically wrong in how it looks at our world and in the political and political strategy it recommends—and I suspect I’m going to come to disagree with it even more the more I think about it.

That I think it is very much wrong doesn’t detract from Klein’s achievement. For one, thing, someone needs to be thinking comprehensively about our world, and there is so much I agree with in this book, that the next, hopefully better, attempt to give us a comprehensive view will either owe a great deal to this book or will be the worse for not owing anything to it.

Dualism vs Dialectics

I’m not going to detail all of the disagreements I have with TCE now, in part because doing so would take too long and in part because I suspect that on some issues I’ll change my mind as I get deeper into the book and her argument.

But I can already see one fundamental way in which I think the book goes wrong and can give a full enough account of why I think that it goes wrong in this way, even in a brief essay.

The basic problem with Klein’s approach, I believe, is that she is a dualistic rather than a dialectical thinker. There are about eight to ten major ways in which Klein thinks everything needs to change. And while I pretty much agree that the world and our lives would be more secure, more humane, more just, and happier if we changed in each of those directions, I can’t agree that our goal should be to shift entirely in the direction she proposes. Rather, I think that a good polity and society—one that not only prevents the potential devastation of global warming but make life better for all of us—would correct the imbalance in our lives and in our political and social institutions. It would try to find a median between the two extremes Klein identifies in each of these areas instead of swinging from one extreme to another. And just as Marx held that the achievements of capitalism as well as the devastation it created was necessary to attain a better world, a more dialectical account of the issues Klein addresses would show us, I believe, that the dangerous extreme we are at in this present moment was, at least in some cases, a necessary outcome of a historical process that can helps us attain the balance we need in the next fifty to one hundred years.

And my disagreement is not just about ends but about means. If we understand our current situation dialectally rather than dualistically, we will have a better grasp on the political and policy strategy that can both save the planet and attain justice and the good for human beings. Klein’s dualism leads to a political strategy that is so wildly optimistic and implausible that, if she were right, I’d be in despair.

Our Relationship to Nature

I recognize that my critique is, to this point, almost impossibly vague. So let me immediately make it a lot more concrete, although I’ll do so by looking at the most general way in which Klein things everything must change—our relationship to nature.

Domination in Western Civilization

Klein points out, quite accurately, that Western civilization has long held that nature is a resource for human beings, something to be dominated by us and used for our purposes. That approach to the natural world goes back, at least, to the Biblical notion that human beings are made in the image of God and thus, like God, stand above nature and that God has appointed us to rule over the natural world and use to server our purpose (Genesis 1:26)).

We are, of course, also told in the Bible that we must care for nature as a shepherd cares for his sheep (Ezekiel 34:2–3). And the beneficence of nature is a sign of God’s love, for which the appropriate response is gratitude (Psalm 19:1, 33:5)). The notion that we should dominate over nature is, however, given a different twist in the modern world which emphasizes not the richness but the penury of God or nature’s provision and the necessity of human labor to bring forth the potential in nature (Locke, Second Treatise, ch. 5). And while knowledge in antiquity and medieval times is inseparable from grasping the goodness of the world designed by God for us, the modern understanding of knowledge is reduced to our capacity to transform an indifferent nature for our own purposes. This instrumental understanding of science and technology heightens the centrality of domination in our relationship to nature while diminishing other ways of appreciating nature as well as the claims nature has on us, to preserve and enhance it.

Klein is entirely correct to see hold that this conception of our relationship to nature is one explanation of why we have been so slow as a civilization to understand and appreciate the damage we are doing to natural world—to its beauty, its capacity to guide and inspire us, and ultimately its ability to survive our onslaught. And, as I’ve emphasized in the book on sexuality I’m writing, Western civilization’s urge to dominate nature is inseparable from both patriarchy and colonialism. So she is very much right to say need to temper the urge to activity and domination and emphasize, instead, the urge to receptivity and gratitude in human beings (and especially men) if we want to truly save the earth, reduce violence, and embrace equality between men and women, the West and the rest of the world, and rich and poor.

And yet while I agree with this Klein’s analysis to this large extent, I’m troubled by the one-sided way in which she present it. For many reasons, we simply cannot give up the urge to activity and domination. Rather we have to find a balance between these two tendencies in human beings and in our political communities.

Dominating Nature and Saving Ourselves from Global Warming

Why can’t we just give up the urge to activity and domination of nature? Well, for one thing, it will take a great deal of scientific and technological development if we are going to replace fossil fuel energy with renewable energy. Huge efforts to master nature must continue if solar and wind energy are to become as efficient we need them to be to replace coal, oil, and natural gas. And it’s not just a matter of science and technology—the huge solar arrays and the massive number of wind mills we will needed to generate the energy we need will require huge engineering projects of the kind that are utterly unthinkable without not just modern science and technology but the large enterprises, whether private or public, that can mobilize capital and human labor on a great scale. Similarly, rebuilding our habitations and cities so as to reduce our energy needs will also require both modern science and technology and a huge organizational capacity. And even then, it’s not clear whether we can move quite as rapidly toward a world without fossil fuels if we don’t make use of hydro and nuclear power, at least for the next fifty to one hundred years, and these, too, are not conceivable without the human urge to activity and domination.

That’s not to say that our efforts to move towards radically reduce carbon emissions only requires that side of human beings. We won’t use our technology wisely if we are not motivated by receptivity and gratitude as well. And, indeed, some of the scientific, technological, and organizational innovations we need require us to understand both the natural and human world in a far more holistic and far less domineering way than we have proceeded in the past, one that is attuned to the dangers as well as the benefits of domination and that recognizes that how the natural and human worlds can come undone because of unintended consequences of our actions. New forms of agriculture, for example, are only possible when we try to learn from what nature teaches us instead of just transforming nature as we see it.

But, again, what we need, I believe is not a wild swing from one way of approaching nature to another, but a balanced approach that finds its way between activity and receptivity, domination and gratitude.

Dominating Nature and the Achievements of Humankind

It is not just in our effort to reduce carbon emissions that we need to balance the two tendencies in our nature, but in our whole approach to understanding the relationship between human well-being and the natural world. And it is striking that Klein at no point acknowledges how important the urge to activity and domination has been in elevating and improving not only human life but the natural world. If we want to understand our situation correctly, we simply cannot fail to recognize that the rise of modern natural science and technology as well as capitalism has made possible the extraordinary increase in human productivity that for the first time since the introduction of agriculture, made it possible for human beings to live without any kind of unfree labor, whether slavery or serfdom and that has also gradually reduced the burdens of wage labor. The rise of human productivity and trade has also reduced violence within and between political communities far below levels found in the pre-modern world. And it has made possible the freedom and representative democracy of liberal regimes which, however limited, are a vast improvement over the autocratic, repressive regimes which they replaced. And, of course, the effort to liberate women from millennia of patriarchy is simply unthinkable without either the freedom and equality of liberalism or safe and effective contraception and abortion made possible by modern technology.

And please don’t tell me that we didn’t need modernity because humanity took a wrong turn when we stopped hunting and gathering and adopted agriculture. I don’t think there is much question that, for many human beings, life took a turn for the worse. We don’t really know whether hunter-gatherers were pacific or violent, egalitarian or hierarchical, patriarchal or matriarchal or something in between. My strong suspicion, based on the little reading I’ve done in the literature, is that just like the hunter-gatherers that remain today, human groups were enormously diverse in our pre-history. But whatever the answer, how many of us are ready to say, even knowing the suffering of human beings due to war, oppressive regimes, slavery and serfdom, and the satanic mills of early capitalism, that we are sorry that humanity took this turn? How many of us ready to say that the human self-consciousness that comes with the political, moral, and scientific knowledge we’ve generated in the last two thousand years is not of transcendent importance? How many of us would prefer to live in a small hunter-gather communities with no Mozart and Beethoven, Beatles and Miles Davis, Shakespeare and Beckett, Plato, Aristotle, and Wittgenstein, Rembrandt and Picasso, Darwin and Einstein?

A More Dialectical Approach

What we need, then, is to find the right balance between the two tendencies in human beings, not the replacement of one by another. We need, in other words, not dualism but dialectics, not a Manichean view that sees one tendency in human nature as good and the other as bad, but a nuanced, sophisticated understanding of how the two tendencies in human nature and political communities have costs and benefits, and a dialectical view that enables us to understand both how we have benefitted by the urge to domination and why, because of it, we not only must, but have the capacity to elevate the other side of our nature and temper the urge to master the world with the compassion and wisdom that comes from gratitude for all that we have been given.

Dialectical Approach and Political Strategy

And this balanced, dialectical view is not only necessary to devise the institutions, practices, and policies that will save the planet and improve human life but also to build the political power to create them. Perhaps Klein thinks that a Manichean, dualistic approach is necessary to build the political support that addresses the dangers of CO2 accumulation, unfettered capitalism, inside politics, and the urge to dominate the natural world. Perhaps she thinks that only a one-sided presentation of our situation can generate the commitment on the part of the activists we need to create the kind of movement(s) equal to the challenge of the moment. But my fear is that for every activist this approach creates we lose ten potential supporters who might who join us if the activists didn’t tell them that everything needs to change. I simply do not see how a mass movement can be built that totally rejects the institutions and practices, and assumptions about how we relate to nature and each other, that are a product of a thousand years of human civilization. If there is anything I’ve learned as a political activist over the years it is that one mobilizes people by a clear goal that they can see is immediately important, by a policy approach that does not threaten to upend their lives, by a political strategy that they can see makes sense, and by a vision of step by step progress that leads from victory to victory. A political program that calls for total transformation of how we live meets none of those criteria and has no chance of building a large, effective movement. A political program that calls for rebalancing our lives, one that points to the one sided way in which our civilization has developed, has the potential to resonate with millions of us who understand in our deepest experience that we have too often ignored the costs as well as the benefits of our technological civilization.

Indeed there is no reason why we can’t appeal to people who don’t totally share our concern with the costs of technological civilization by pointing out that a program to save the earth relies on, and seeks to reconcile, both tendencies in human life. Solar energy and wind energy is, as I’ve pointed out both a huge technological achievement and a way to reconcile with nature. Do we really want to limit the appeal of a program to deal with global warming by only appealing to one side of our culture and nature? And do we want to turn so much against technology that we empower people who object to the necessary scale of solar and wind projects or who will not even consider the nuclear and hydro power projects that might well be necessary to help us transition to a world without fossil fuel?

Dualism and Dialectics: Policy

Klein’s argument is not just one-sided with regard to the global issue of our relationship to nature. The same dualism affects almost every part of her argument, both with regard to policy and politics.

Government vs Markets

Klein rightly points to the disastrous impact of free-market ideology, which tells us that there is no good that can’t be better delivered better through an unfettered market than any kind of government program, whether it is government provision, regulation, tax, or subsidy. There simply is no question that this ideology endangers the earth, undermines community and exacerbate inequality. But to go from that extreme to the other and criticize any use of the market in pursuit of progressive political and social ideals is crazy. Do we really have to re-fight the battles of the twentieth century in our efforts to save the planet? Do we have to forget all we have learned about the circumstances in which government provision of goods and regulation don’t work and some judicious combination of taxation, subsidy, and regulation can make markets work for all of us?

Klein acknowledges that that market-based effort to reduce the impact of acid rain in the United States worked well. So why, when she criticize carbon taxes or cap and trade, does she reject these approaches entirely, as opposed to the problematic ways in which they have been implemented? Her complaint that cap and trade offers businesses a “license to pollute” is just a tired rhetorical complaint against a program that can, more efficiently than others, reduce CO2 emissions while, as she insists we must, making the polluters pay.

Decentralization vs Centralization

What’s even more problematic is that Klein’s preference for decentralized rather than centralized solutions conflicts with her abhorrence of markets. Those of us who called for participatory democracy in the 1960s came to recognize that the most effective way to coordinate the decentralized, workers controlled enterprises that we believe can provide both public and private goods is through well regulated markets, not through bureaucratic regulations that stifle innovation and undermine local and worker initiative. And, of course, we also recognized that while there is much wrong with centralized approaches, there were some problems that could not be solved at the local or regional level but need national or international coordination. Once again, Klein’s Manichean approach encourages us on the one hand to move from our overly-centralized world to a much more decentralized world while, on the other hand she points out that some of our goals can only be met with national and international coordination.

Dualism and Dialectics: Politics

Inside and Outside Politics

Similarly, when it comes to politics, Klein’s dualism leads to implausible political recommendations. I am a practioners of outside politics. There is no question that without a strong public movement or advocacy campaign, the decisions made by government officials are far more likely to benefit special interests and corporate concerns (which are not, pace, Klein the same thing). But outsides politics is far more effective if it is allied with sympathetic insiders and there are many of them in the Democratic Party. It is simply wrong to hold that the Democratic Party or left-liberal parties in other developed countries are so captured by corporate interests that we can’t work effectively within it. Like most leftists, Klein fails to recognize that the weakness of the left in America has much more to do with our anti-majoritarian political system and the difficulties that race and feminism have created for Democrats in winning the vote of working class white males, than with the influence of the corporate elite on the Democratic Party.

Finding Allies

It’s also a problem to say that we face a stark choice between working in opposition to or with capitalists. There is no doubt that the energy industry will fundamentally oppose any serious effort to reduce CO2 emissions. But corporations don’t die and the long term interests of those who own them is tied to the survival of the planet. And that’s especially true for the financial elite who, more than any other capitalists, are inclined to think ahead—and who led the business organizations in the 1920s that recognized that their long term interest required some compromise with ends of labor. In recent years, as the center of gravity of the business community, and even more the Republican Party, has moved from finance capital to extractive capital (and from the Northeast to the Southwest), both of them have adopted a far more radical right wing program than they did in the fifties and sixties. But if the danger of global warming—and effective political leadership—can change anything, one would think it could concentrate the minds of the sectors of the capitalist class that don’t share the narrow interests of the fossil fuel energy industry. They are capable of recognizing that, like the rest of us, their long interest lies in avoiding catastrophic climate change. Despite the growing political and ideological sophistication of the business community in the last twenty years, class solidarity usually takes second place to the self-interest. And unless one is an energy company, it is hard to see how the self-interest of most businesses are served by the dangers we face from unchecked global warming. Just as we split the drug companies from insurance companies in the fight for the Affordable Care Act, effective political leadership can find ways to exploit differences within the capitalist class.

Why Klein Goes Astray

Given all we have seen is problematic with Klein’s analysis, I’ve wondered how can we account for the strangely one-sided approach she takes

An Uncritical Leftism

Sometimes it seems to me that Klein simply wants to embrace every leftist cause no matter how much they contradict one another. Like the good social democrats who wrote the Gotha Programme that Marx roundly criticized, Klein can’t resist a good left-wing aspiration, slogan or talking point, even at the cost of leaving her argument vulnerable to kinds of rigorous critique that Marx gave to the program of the nascent German SDP. And I say this even though many of Klein’s aspirations are my own. In my academic writing one can find not only a call for overcoming the role of domination in our lives, but arguments freedom, radical democracy, decentralization, and economic and sexual egalitarianism far beyond anything called by even those on the left today. But unlike Klein, I recognize that these aspirations can’t all be met immediately and, moreover that given the difficulties of political and social life, even a radical turn to the left must find a balance between these aspirations and their opposites. Klein’s Manicheanism leads her to such a one-sided account that at many points in her book I find her undermining my confidence in the ideas we share.

Looking for the Proletariat

But it may be that something deeper is involved. Klein seems to be looking, as so many have done in the last fifty years, for the new proletariat. Much of the appeal of Marxism, after all, was that its prediction about the ultimate success of socialism did not rest on any confidence about the moral appeal of socialism or the effectiveness of socialist parties. Rather it was the naked self-interest of the proletariat that, Marx believed, would lead it out of sheer necessity to play its appointed role in the revolutionary movement. Ever since it became clear that the proletariat would only develop what Lein called “trade-union consciousness” not “revolutionary consciousness”—and even more since working class whites have begun to vote at ever higher rates for right wing parties—leftists have been looking for another group on which to pin its hopes. Klein seems to think that the necessity of saving the world from the destruction of climate change will generate the revolutionary movement that can not only save the planet but attain the broader political goals of the left. She herself tells us that she only became interested in the global warming issue when she recognized that it demanded changing “everything.” So it is no wonder that Klein not only thinks that we have to change everything but that we can build a movement on the basis of the ide she shares with the far right—that it will in effect take a radical transformation of our lives, that is socialism, to deal with the consequences of CO2 pollution. Klein, like Marx, believes that a specter is haunting capitalism and that describing it in the scariest detail not only won’t generate opposition and repression but, because of the sheer necessity of change, will help the left overcome any opposition on its march to victory.

This may be Klein’s biggest fantasy. For the dangers of global warming, unlike the immiseration of the working class in Marx’s theory, is so far in the future and so difficult to see, that there is no reason to believe that any movement can arise powerful enough to overcome the opposition to the changes we must have, as well as those to which Klein aspires. We do need a strong outside advocacy movement. But we need it to be organized and clever enough not only to build a base of public support but to win elections. And we need it to the outside strategy with an inside one that builds a broad coalition for change. Doing that is only possible if, as I’ve suggested, our movement doesn’t aim at a complete—and frightening—shift from one pole to another but, rather, aims to dialectally combine the extremes between domination and gratitude, government and market, centralization and decentralization, and inside and outside political strategies.

The Struggle Ahead

Of course, I find that an attractive prospect because the kind of political community I think we need, not only to deal with global warming but to realize justice and the common good, is one that seeks such a balance. I also recognize that on my view there is no guarantee that the kind of advocacy movement we need will develop. I can’t share the wild optimism that ultimately underlies Klein’s work. Instead, I’m concerned that what, contra the Marxists, has always changed politics and society—moral energy, strategic analysis, and effective organizing and advocacy—may not arise in time to avoid some of the worst outcomes of global warming.

And that is why we all have to join that effort now. And instead of reaching immediately for utopia, we have to the intensely difficult work of reaching for the next achievement and then the one after that, and then the next one, all the while being guided by a strategy that puts the struggle to avoid climatological disaster at the center of our efforts. We have to count, that is, not on the faux idealism that imagines a great leap into another kind of life, but on the real idealism that enables men and women to work together in the long hard slog to a better world.

Perhaps Klein’s book can help create that idealism. But I’m also afraid that it can undermine it unless we develop her many insights in a more dialectical and less dualistic fashion.

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Thu, January 29 2015 » Environment, Philosophy, Political Organizing, Politics, Progressive Politics, Public Policy » No Comments

The Best and Worst in Biblical Religion: An Open Letter to Christine Flowers


You have asked me to apologize to your friend, who called Islam evil, for calling her ignorant and bigoted. And you have threatened to block me on Facebook if I don’t do so.

I have no intention of apologizing and instead I’m going to explain why I think you need to apologize for betraying the best in the religious tradition of which you claim to be so proud. If you don’t like what I have to say and you block me, that’s fine. I frankly think I’ve learned all anyone can from reading you.

Let me take a moment to explain how I look at the political, moral, and religious traditions that animate our country.

I grew up in an orthodox Jewish synagogue, though I moved away from orthodoxy pretty soon after my Bar Mitzvah. I’ve spent most of the last forty years studying the history of political and moral philosophy and that, of course, includes religious philosophy. I’ve taught the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Qur’an over many years and have read and taught not only contemporary commentaries on them but the biblical interpretations and theology of the great Christian, Jewish, and Muslim philosophers from Augustine to Al-Farabi to Maimonides to Aquinas to Luther and Calvin. And I’ve studied the intellectual and political and social sources of Islamic radicalism.

Like many people brought up and knowledgeable about the history of biblical religion, which to my mind, includes Islam, but also aware of the evidence of critical history and the implications of modern natural science, I long ago stopped believing in the literal truth of any of the Holy Books. Unlike some people with this background, I remain inspired by the core of the teaching found in those books. However, I’ve come to recognize that in each of the biblical religions there are two competing understandings of the role and place of biblical religion in our lives.

One of those understandings, I believe, contains a set of important universal truths, truths that are found in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam but are also available to those who study the non-biblical philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics and Kant. The core of the teaching found in these works is the golden rule and the commandment to love one another. In their own way these works teach us that we are all made in the image of God: We are rational and self-conscious beings who, in virtue of our unique nature, deserve the respect of all. And, as the Enlightenment built on this tradition, we came to understand that respecting others not only means being tolerant of our differences and working peacefully to resolve our disagreements but also granting each of us certain fundamental civil and political rights. On that view, the role of government is limited to serving secular this-worldly ends.

The core of biblical thought also teaches us to respect ourselves and become the kind of people who care and are able to serve not just our personal goals or our families, but our people, our country, and ultimately all of mankind, giving each one of these larger communities their due as fits our unique talents and vocation.

Those of us who follow this teaching may remain attached, by sentiment and out of concern for our own people, to the religious tradition within which we grew up. But we know that each of the biblical traditions and secular philosophies combine universal truths with particular claims to a unique revelation or teaching that goes beyond reason. And each of those traditions gives us only a partial truth. So we remain determined not only to learn from all of these religious and secular traditions but to eschew any claim that one is superior to another.

This universal religion enjoins peace but it doesn’t tell us to avoid war at all costs, especially when going to war is necessary to serve the fundamental moral truths we uphold. But it does tell us only to fight when necessary and against those who seek to harm us, to make peace when we can, and, most importantly, to fight only for the universal ideals that all our traditions share. It teaches us not to respond to hatred and evil in a way that encourages them. And it warns us not to be partisan or self-seeking under the guise of serving universal goals. Indeed, we are taught that the evil that too often makes our world chaotic is not only done by people who abjure all of these traditions but also by those who act in their name while serving the interests of one people, one country, one group, and one party rather than all human kind.
Those are the religious ideals I deeply believe in, the ideals that represent the best that is found in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions and, also, in the secular political and moral philosophy of liberalism as well.
But there is another set of religious ideas that comes out of the three biblical traditions. This second approach to biblical religion sets one religion or one sect of one religion above others and claim that only it knows the absolute truth and the way of God. This second approach to biblical religion holds that government has authority not only to protect our bodies but to save our souls, which means giving priority to one set of teachings and, in some cases, to banning all others. And since those who work within this second tradition often teach that there is a fundamental conflict between the partisans of light—who accept the one true religion—and the partisans of darkness—that is, all others, those ideas can even justify the harshest and most violent actions to oppress those who practice religions other than the “true” one.
Every biblical religion—Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Shiite, and Sunni, has clerics and teachers who defend this second kind of biblical thought. And there are secular variants of this kind of thought, Marxism-Leninism and Fascism, that make the same claim to absolute truth and then justify oppression and violence in its name.

I’ve spend most of my life trying to understand, defend philosophically, and teach the first tradition that comes from biblical religion, Greek philosophy and the Enlightenment. And even when I’ve been engaged in political activism, I’ve worked within that tradition, while trying as best I can—and no doubt sometimes failing—not to see my political opponents as children of darkness.
So when I see people, like your friend, make claims about the evil of Islam and the innocence of any Christian tradition or practice, my instinct is to explain, as best I can, given my knowledge of history, philosophy, and religion, why she is mistaken. Even though we have much to fear from Islamic radicalism, I believe we should try to understand where that form of thought and practice comes from and that we can best do that by understanding how similar, radically intolerant, and violent forms of thought and practice have grown up in Christianity and Judaism and in the secular Western cultures they helped create. As I pointed out more than once, understanding the sources of Islamic radicalism does not mean excusing or failing to combat the evil done in its name. But it might mean combatting that evil in a way that is both more effective and in keeping with the best in our own tradition.

When you friend responds to me by saying I’m mistaken and an apologist for Islamic radicalism then I think I’m entirely within my rights to tell her she is both ignorant and a bigot, because that is what she is. That she then responds with thinly veiled anti-Semitism only proves my point.

So I’m not going to apologize to her, or to your claim that I am anti-Catholic. (And considering how much of my philosophical work draws on Catholic political and social thought, that is a bizarre criticism.) Instead, I’m going to make clear, again, that I was not criticizing Catholicism two weeks ago when I called you out for preaching a fundamentalism that draws on the second, intolerant tradition of biblical thought. I was criticizing you.

For you Christine are, no less than the Islamic fundamentalists, a sectarian teacher of hate. Every column I’ve read of yours in the last three months has one purposes and one purpose only, to teach some Americans to hate other Americans. When Bill Cosby is accused of abusing women, your response is to tell us how often women lie about being raped and to encourage those who love Cosby to hate the liberals who put these women up to lying. When two black men are killed by police officers under questionable circumstances, your response is to encourage those who defend the police to hate liberals for raising questions about those deaths. When two police officers are brutally murdered, you call on Americans to hate the liberals who you, insanely, blame for their deaths. When Charlie Hebdo is attacked by terrorists in Paris, your response to is call on Americans to hate not only Islam but the Americans who call that hate into question.

My problem with you is not that you disagree with liberals. Sometimes I do as well. It’s that you don’t really make arguments and present evidence for us to consider. Instead, your whole approach as a columnist is to poke and prod your readers, stoking their anger, and then directing it at liberals. Is it any wonder that the readers who like you most are those whose bigotry you support and encourage and sometime even create?

And you do this in a moment when we should stand united. Think of it: at a time when we need our wits about us to figure out how to respond more effectively to the terrible threat of Islamic radicalism, when Americans need to come together and think clearly and talk honestly about the dangers we face and how to meet them, your most important concern is to try to divide us ever more deeply.

The sectarian, partisan, fundamentalist version of Christianity you espouse is based, like all sectarian, partisan, fundamentalist versions of biblical religion, on fear and hatred for others. The fundamentalists win by ratcheting up the hatred and directing it at their enemies. American traditions may make you cautious about claiming absolute knowledge and the superiority of your own sect. But your constant effort to teach us to hate one another and to damn all thought but your own—and your sly attacks on the present Pope who is the most effective contemporary spokesperson for the best in the tradition of biblical religion—makes your alliance with fundamentalism crystal clear.

And no wonder you are so insistent that the hands of Christians are clean because you yourself operate in the authoritarian, anti-liberal, anti-humanist, intolerant tradition of de Maistre, Franco, Father Coughlin, Joe McCarthy, and Pat Buchanan. It’s no surprise you don’t want to talk about that tradition. And, of course, the other Catholic tradition, that of Dorothy Day and Pope Francis and so many others, is one that you have nothing to do with.

So, no Christine, I’m not going to apologize to you or your friends. I’m going to condemn both of you for being exemplars of the worst in every biblical religion including your own.

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Mon, January 19 2015 » International politics, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Religious fundamentalism » No Comments

PGW, Darrell Clarke, and the Papers

In a city that, despite its recent growth, has a poverty rate of 30.2% and schools that have been devastated by deep budget cuts, our two daily newspapers are now crusading to….sell the gas works. In a city that has suffered from a governor who demanded those education cuts and a mayor who was ineffective in blocking them, our two daily papers are now crusading…to make City Council President Darrell Clarke, public enemy number one.

This crusade is, fortunately for Philadelphia, not working. Unless I missed a protest at Council or sit-in at Dilworth Park, the city is not rallying to the cause of selling PGW or tarring and feathering Darrell Clarke. Nor should they. The sale of PGW proposed by Mayor Nutter remains a bad deal. And outside of a couple of blocks in Center City and a few pages on Facebook, most Philadelphians know it.

I explained the basic reasons for opposing the sale in a Newsworks column a few weeks ago. And since the newspaper editorials have done nothing but repeat the same tired arguments that I and other answered when we testified at the City Council hearing on the future of PGW, there is no reason to repeat them in detail. But it comes down to this: The whole deal is predicated on higher gas rates and lower pay for gas workers paying for the costs of city pensions. And that’s not a progressive way of funding pension costs. Moreover the Mayor has consistently overstated the benefits to the city and his numbers have been repeated, without question by the newspaper editorialists. And the additional revenues that can be generated from PGW’s assets can be secured through public-private partnership as well as a sale.

The most recent Daily News editorial questions the public private partnership (PPP) strategy by pointing to some recent failures of this kind of strategy noted in a recent Inquirer article. But if one reads to that article carefully, instead of the DN’s one-sided editorial summary of it, it’s clear that there have been successes as well and that there are paths for using this approach to take advantage of PGW’s resources. And, if one looks beyond the few examples in the article to the thousands of PPPs in Europe and the US, there are many examples of success as well as failure, just as there is for privatization of municipal assets. The trick is to do it right. And that takes a little time. The DN’s editorial And if one wants to blame someone for the delay in figuring it out how to do it right, your finger should be pointed at the Mayor who was focused from the very beginning on selling PGW and never considered or evaluated alternatives to a sale.

Don’t expect the Inquirer or Daily News to blame the Mayor, however. They are entirely focused on Darrell Clarke. Their attacks on him, however, give us a caricature of both Clarke and Philadelphia government. Clarke is the President, not the Dictator, of City Council. He serves at the pleasure of Council. Any member of Council could have introduced a bill to sell PGW. But there was so little support for the sale that no one did so.

Darrell Clarke’s effectiveness as City Council President rests not on dictatorial authority but on his ability to bring the diverse group of Council members to a rough consensus. The newspapers didn’t call him a dictator when he used that skill to move controversial measures they approved, such as zoning reform, AVI or land bank legislation through Council, achievements for which Clarke deserved, but did not receive, as much or more praise as Mayor Nutter.

And that makes the criticisms of Clarke’s on the PGW issue, whether you agree with him or not, totally unfair. Far from acting in secret, City Council held hearings on the PGW issue and far more people opposed the sale than supported it. And far from being devious about his role, Clarke explained quite explicitly—and at one point in the hearing, quite eloquently—why he opposed the PGW sale.

Despite the best efforts of our crusading editorialists, my sense is that citizens of Philadelphia have heard what Clarke is saying and agree with him.

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Wed, December 17 2014 » Uncategorized » No Comments

Why Women Don’t Report Rape

Defending Cosby

Many people have long loved Bill Cosby, for his abilities as an entertainer, his attractive persona or, in some cases, his penchant for blaming young black people for their difficulties. And many—although fewer each week—of these people have been so deeply troubled by the multiple accusations of sexual violence against Cosby that they have rushed to his defense. Their responses to the accusations have echoed two themes that are quite common when women accuse men of rape.

First, many of the accusers have themselves been accused of lying, of making up stories about Cosby. The motives attributed to these women are varied—some have been said to be gold diggers who either hope for an out of court financial settlement of the kind Cosby gave to Andrea Constand or who hope to parlay their accusation into a magazine or book deal. (The statute of limitations for both criminal and civil actions have in almost most cases long past so an out of court settlement is an unlikely motive. There have, so far, been no reports of anyone getting rich through magazine articles or books.) Some have been accused of seeking revenge on Cosby after their hopes for a romantic relationship were dashed. And some have been accused of just being attention seekers.

This first line of attack has been supplemented by a second. Critics of the accusers have repeatedly asked why we should believe them since many of them have waited 20, 30, or even 40 years to accuse Cosby. For the defenders of Cosby, this means that the accusers must be lying because if Cosby had attacked them they would have reported it to the police or some other authority. (What is rarely mentioned is that most of Cosby’s accusers did tell friends about the attacks years ago.) And it also means that these women are only coming forward, one after another, in order to get their share of the money and attention that is now available to them given the new and old new media’s growing interest in the charges.

Those of us who have educated ourselves about rape and the personal, legal, and political circumstances that surround it are not surprised that these women did not make their accusations when the attacks happened. We know that the best estimate is that only 20% of women who are raped report their experience to the police and that many of them don’t tell anyone, not even their friends and families about what happened to them. And we also know that it is commonplace for accusations of rape to be doubted, far more than other accusations of crime or malfeasance. And, for that reason, we are not only far more inclined to believe the accusers but are horrified as once again, female victims of sexual violence are having their veracity and motives challenged, sometimes in vicious ways.

Is there anything more to be said about this conflict between those whose intuitions about this case are shaped by both some affection or respect for Bill Cosby and the ready availability of these standards ways of dismissing accusations of rape, on the one hand, and those of us whose intuitions about this case are shaped by a concern about both the prevalence of rape and the continued failure if communities, institutions and the legal system to protect women or punish rapists?

On the question of Cosby’s guilt or innocence, there probably is little more to be said until further evidence accumulates—and as the number of accusations increase by a few a week, this might continue for some time. But we have no reason to believe that 22 or 23 women are now all lying about Bill Cosby. There is no plausible explanation for their repeated and similar accusations other than that he is a serial sexual criminal. One can find reports that cast doubt on the stories of some of the women. And one can find reasons to challenge some of their motives. But it is impossible to discredit or challenge all of them or the stories coming out about people who had an inkling, or more, about Cosby’s proclivities all along and chose to look away.

What interests me more is a second question: why so many women don’t report rapes to the police or, if they are in college, to the college authorities. I don’t have a great deal to add on this subject for those who have thought about it. And, for those who haven’t the best way to understand the answer to this question is to do what I’ve been doing over the last few weeks, reading as many personal testimonies I could find of people who have been raped and who explain why they did not report the crime. (I’ve also talked to a couple of friends who have been raped to get their perspective as well.) Particularly good examples are this post by Liz Spikol or this anonymous one by or this one by a woman known only as Elizabeth or this one by Emily Yellin. But there are many, many others one could choose from.

For those who learn more by reading analyses than narratives, I want to summarize what I’ve learned from those stories, and also to put this issue in a little broader context by drawing on some research I’ve been doing to point to how traditional ideas about sexuality shape the way many women today experience not only rape but the aftermath of rape and why, as a result, it difficult for women to talk about and report rape.

Traditional Ideas of Sexuality and the Double Standard

Among all the discussions of why women don’t report rape—and in particular, why those women who Cosby drugged and violated didn’t report him—I’ve seen a number of people¸ including those attacked by Cosby, say that they were ashamed of what happened.

What exactly does that mean, however? Perhaps the answer to this question is obvious to many of you reading this. But I’ve certainly seen enough people for whom it’s not obvious that perhaps what women who say this need to be listened to more closely and what they say understood in the context of what sexuality is and has been in our culture.

Sexual asceticism has been part of Western Civilization for our entire history and it was intensified in the early modern period when a new kind of sexual double standard came into existence. Nor, fifty years after the sexual revolution and the second wave of feminism, is it entirely gone.

Outside of Christian teaching and communities, men have always been encouraged to pursue pre-marital sex without romantic and emotional commitment. And women were condemned for doing so. And even at a time when pre-marital sexuality was beginning to be commonplace, as it was forty year ago, or when it is entirely commonplace, as it is now, the double standard lives on in how the sexuality of women is examined and evaluated, and not just by men. Women are still slut-shamed if, in the eyes of their critics, they show too much interest in sex, have sex too often, or with the wrong person or for the wrong reason or of the wrong kind. The reasons women are slut shamed may differ from one group to another but the practice remains in place. Even if women are not always expected to be sexually reticent, to keep their distance from men or from potentially “compromising” situations, they can still criticized when they don’t live up to that whatever standard some individual or group uses to determine appropriate female sexual behavior. And much of the time slut-shamers don’t even need reasons. They condemn women for their sexuality just because that’s one of the ways in which one puts women in their place.

Men, it goes without saying, never are condemned in that way—and if we are, many of us take it as a compliment.

This double standard is deeply embedded in our culture in some part because it is rooted in an understanding of sexuality that goes back to ancient times but that was intensified in early modernity, where it was held not only by Protestant theologians but secular theorists like Smith and Rousseau (and much later Freud, at least in some of his moods.). This view holds that female chastity is the necessary means by which anarchic male sexuality is channeled into marriage. Men, on the traditional conception, pretty much can’t help pursuing all women all the time. Thus they only will marry and stay married if women deny them sex before and outside of marriage. This theory is ultimately what stands behind the right wing attack on contraception, abortion, and homosexuality. The right fears unfettered female sexuality because it believes that no man will marry and support his family if he can have sex outside of marriage. Sex without the consequences of pregnancy makes that more likely. From this point of view it is ultimately up to women to create the fetters on male sexuality that are critical to the survival of marriage and the family.

Condemnation of female sexual freedom, then, is thus not a weird tick of contemporary right wing zealots. It’s at the core of their worldview. And their worldview is ours—it is the view held by most of the religious and secular philosophers who helped bring our modern world into existence.

This theory has a lot of pernicious consequences besides the political ones. It’s one of the reasons that women, and to a lesser degree, men feel guilty about their sexuality. It’s why women and men both have difficulty talking about sex. It’s one of the reasons that alcohol plays an inordinate role in the sexual lives of young people. It would not as necessary to sexual exploration if men and women, were willing to acknowledge and express their sexual desires and respect those desires in others, and especially women. It’s a main reason that men are still more likely to pursue sex and women are more hesitant.

And it’s one reason that men sometimes act out their role in the traditional narrative by pressing women, sometimes to the point of violence, for sex. The notion that male sexuality is so powerful a force that men cannot resist it legitimates men in the aggressive pursuit of sex. And it encourages men—and women—to think that it is role of women to resist. Indeed, on the traditional theory, the aggressive pursuit of sex by men is essentially a test of the virtue of women.

This theory also explains why slut shaming is so common. When men (and women) engage in slut shaming they are not just putting individual women down, they are drawing on a long tradition of thought to do so. And in doing so, they are reinforcing the implicit ideas and ideals about female sexuality that continue to do so much damage today.

The Double Standard and the Experience of Rape

And so when a woman is attacked sexually, the voices of traditional morality in her head lead her to blame herself for what has happened to her. Even if she has more or less freed herself from that traditional view of sexuality, she can’t help but hearing its voice. The voice of authority always rings louder in our ears when we are hurt and vulnerable. And it inclines women who are raped to wonder and worry whether their own sexual inclinations and behavior led to their being attacked.

And even if a woman doesn’t blame herself when she is raped, she knows that the voice of traditional morality in her head is one that is widely shared. She knows that in accusing a man of raping her, she is going to suffer from slut-shaming attacks on her actions and character. She knows she is going to be blamed by someone—and possibly by friends and family members—for putting herself in a dangerous situation or for leading a man on or for changing her mind or for acting in some other supposedly dubious way. And that blame will draw on traditional ideas about female sexuality. When it is believe that the virtue of women is found in their ability to resist the aggressive sexuality of men—as it still is implicitly understood by too many of us—women who charge that they have been raped are always suspected of trying to cover up their own lack of virtue.

Given this background it would be difficult for a woman who is raped not to feel ashamed of what has happened to her. She might not feel guilt—we feel guilty when we fail to live up to our own ideals. But shame is about living up to the ideals of our culture and a woman who has been sexually attacked is likely to worry that those ideals, in their traditional form, will condemn her for the very simple reason that will.

Other Difficulties Reporting Rape and Traditional Sexual Ideas

Of course, feeling ashamed of being raped isn’t the only barrier to a woman reporting to the police or other authorities that she has been raped.

There is also the widely known disinterest of the police in pursuing rape cases; the unpleasant medical tests one women have to undergo; the hours of painful questions they have to answer from the police (and here is a good first person account that shows why this can be so difficult), other authorities, friends, and family; the possibly hazy memories they have of the attack because of the trauma of the attack itself, alcohol or drug consumption or simple exhaustion; and the fear of retaliation, especially but not only when the rapist is a friend or spouse. And don’t forget that Cosby’s M.O. is not that uncommon. Men often use drugs or alcohol as a way of overpowering women. And that not only can make it difficult for women to know exactly what has happened to them, but can create doubts that reinforce their sense of shame.

These barriers are very well known. Read any of the memoir literature of women who have been raped and they mention them all.

And note that many of these barriers to reporting a sexual attack are made more powerful by traditional ideas about female sexuality. For it partly explains why not only the police and the courts but friends and family are distrustful of women who report rapes.

Rape and Powerful Men and Institutions

All these reasons partly explain why women so rarely report rape—and why challenging and transforming the sexual culture that makes women ashamed of being sexually violated is an absolutely critical task today.

And there is one other reason women don’t report rape, one that is especially important when it comes to the women attacked by Bill Cosby.

Bill Cosby was protected by his fame and his power. The sterling, avuncular reputation created by the characters he played protected him from being reported for his crimes. Even today, after more than twenty women have accused him, people who should know better don’t want to think of Bill Cosby as a serial rapist. Others understand the overwhelming nature of the evidence against him but don’t want to admit it publicly.

Imagine how Cosby’s reputation it would have affected the perception of the police and the public if a woman had accused him of rape ten, twenty, and thirty years ago, when he was at top of his career and we were even more unwilling to listen to accusations of rape than we are today. Imagine if she were the first one to do so. Well, we don’t really have to imagine. The accusations of the women who came forward seven years ago were not believed by most of the people who heard them. The one case that went to court was quickly settled and then the matter was swept under the table. Cosby’s money enabled him to make a quick settlement and his position and status enabled him to quash a number of newspaper and magazine accounts of his behavior.

And it wasn’t just his reputation that stood in the way, it was his power in the entertainment industry. The entire industry was smitten with Cosby. Everyone wanted to work with him and be his friend. He was the golden goose for executives and producers and co-stars and sponsors. There is some reason to suspect that many of those them who were close to Cosby knew something about what he was doing. But they all looked away.

Most of the women he attacked wanted a career in show business. Think about the costs to their career of publicly accusing Cosby then. How easy would it have been for Cosby to just call a producer or executive and tell them to just delete some young women out of their address book? How many casting directors, directors, producers, and executives would have done that without even being asked, just so as to avoid offending Cosby?

And they were not just protecting this one golden goose. They were also protecting their institutions. Suppose Cosby had been raped a woman on the premises of NBC and she went to the human relations department of the network? If the women were listened to at all, she might have been hand over to a nice, well-meaning counselor who would dollop out a great deal of sympathy, would be offered the no doubt sensible advice not to make waves and to accept a transfer to somewhere she could escape from Cosby’s attention. That would be the best possible outcome. It’s just as likely that she would lose her position and much hope of further employment in the field. Either way, NBC would act first and foremost with the aim of protecting its reputation and that of its biggest star.

How do we know that this would have been the result? Because that’s what the institutions that actually have a clear responsibility for taking care of those within them—American colleges—have been doing year after year for decades to the students whose well-being they are supposed to protect..

Cosby is a special case. He had an almost unique kind of fame and fortune. But there are powerful men everywhere in every walks of life, men who head law firms or accounting firms or hospitals or who hold political office or hold tenured chairs at great universities. They, too, are widely respected. They, too, have within their own worlds a great deal of power. They, too, can rely on rely that power, exercised under their direction or by others who want to curry favor with them, to make life difficult for a woman who accuses them of rape or other sexual violence. Thus they, too, often act with impunity, harassing and assaulting women with whom they interact in their spheres of life. And if a woman does object, these men are also protected by functionaries whose main concern is to protect the institutions and those who hold important positions in them from scandal.

Acting to Stop Rape

So for all these reason, women are very reluctant to turn either to the police or to authorities at work or school when they are reaped. And while putting rapist in jail is not the only way to punish them, we can’t punish or reeducate rapists—and stop them from raping again which is their usual pattern, unless they are brought to justice in some way.

That’s why it so imperative that we act together to change the calculation for women who are raped. We—friends, families, the police, work and school authorities—need to stop the slut shaming and the victim blaming. We need to provide both real support and a real investigation of their charges. Institutions need to focus on stopping and punishing rape not protecting their reputation.

And that is true, whether one is concerned with the over-extension of the criminal justice system or not. Even though I am concerned the horrible consequences of the drug war in leading to mass over-incarceration, that doesn’t excuse the inability and unwillingness of our criminal justice system to investigate and prosecute rape in a way that encourages women to come forward. Even if you think that community based punishment for rapists is much preferable to incarceration, we still have to actually investigate rape and catch rapists for that kind of response to rape to be effective.

None of this will happen, however, if don’t keep challenging the traditional assumptions about men, women, and sexuality that underlie slut-shaming and victim-blaming.

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Wed, December 17 2014 » Criminal Justice, Feminism, Love and Sex, Sexual and gender equality » No Comments

Beyond cameras and training — here are 5 more ways to improve police oversight

First published in NewsWorks December 8, 2014

Even if I were not a political scientist who understood both the importance of what police officers do every day and the dangers they face in their job, I would have a very personal reason for appreciating their work. Years ago, police officers put their bodies on the line to protect my father, when he was a justice of the peace in upstate New York.

So like most Americans, I’m not inclined to criticize police officers who use force to protect themselves and others.

At the same time, the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner remind us that sometimes police officers use deadly force in questionable circumstances. And there is dramatic statistical evidence that institutional racism plays a role in who is killed by the police — black men die at disproportionate rates. But very rarely are police officers held accountable for what they do.

They should be.

We need a criminal trial

I reach that conclusion not because I know all the details of these three cases — but, rather, because I do not. None of us does, for the very simple reason that the evidence in these cases has not been brought forward and tested in public, by the process we believe best enables us to get the truth, a criminal trial. In the Brown and Garner deaths, a grand jury declined to indict the police officers involved. We are still waiting to see what happens in the Rice case.

I don’t think police officers should be indicted in these cases because I think they are guilty. I don’t know if they’re guilty. An indictment is not a judgment of guilt. Someone indicted is still innocent until proven guilty in a trial. I think they should be indicted both so that justice is done in the individual cases and because it is critically important to hold the police accountable for their actions, both for the public that relies on the police, and for the overwhelming majority of police officers who do their job well and want the rest to be held to the same standard.

There are a number of ways to reduce unwarranted police shootings. It appears that new training programs in Philadelphia have reduced them dramatically. Such programs should be broadly adopted.

And putting video cameras on police officers is an idea that has merit as well — even if, as we saw in the Garner case, the meaning of a video is subject to dispute.

But neither training the police to do well nor watching what they do is enough. It’s a settled principle of American Constitutionalism, and implicit in our practices — not just in politics but in business, medicine, education and other fields — that the best way to insure that people do the right thing to institute some form of oversight or check on their misbehavior.

The criminal justice system is the appropriate oversight when people are killed. It is for civilians. It should be for the police. But it is not today.

How can we make it effective? Here are five suggestions

1. Appoint special prosecutors to investigate police killings.

We have ample evidence that even the best district attorneys need to be concerned about protecting their relationship with the police, without whom they cannot do their jobs. They are thus very much disinclined to do what they usually do before a grand jury, which is to make a case for an indictment. So let’s take them out of this difficult situation and let a specially appointed attorney investigate deaths at the hands of the police.

I would suggest that judges — say the president judge of Common Pleas Court in Philadelphia — be empowered to recruit a pool of lawyers with extensive experience to serve as special prosecutors and that they then be chosen at random to investigate particular cases as they arise.

2. Give special prosecutors adequate resources.

Special prosecutors need a guarantee that they will have the resources and tools needed to carry out a thorough investigation. Perhaps the state police should be empowered to take the place of local police forces.

3. Make the grand jury proceedings public.

All of these cases should come before a specially empaneled grand jury that holds its sessions in public. Private grand juries allow selected and unbalanced evidence to be leaked. Unlike most criminal cases, the names of the police officers under investigation are already public. So there is no reason to hold these sessions in private, except in the rare situation when this is the only way to secure testimony. Public sessions will enable the media and public to evaluate whether the DA is making a proper case.

4. Empower the families of the deceased.

Resources should be provided to the family of those killed by the police sothey can make some kind of legal pleading at the grand jury.

5. The public should pay for the proceedings.

The legal fees of those police officers investigated by the special prosecutor and brought to trial should be paid by the public. And while they should not be allowed to act as police officers during their trial, they should continue to be paid until it is over.

The point of these new procedures is not to create an investigation or trial biased against the police. That would be as unfair to the police and as dangerous to the public as the current situation. The point is to create the oversight that, along with better training and video recordings, can restore confidence in the police among a public that very much needs to work with law enforcement in order to keep our communities safe.

Marc Stier is a writer and political activist from Mt. Airy. He’s finishing a book titled “Civilization and Its Contents: Reflections on Sexuality and the Culture Wars.”

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Mon, December 8 2014 » Criminal Justice » No Comments

Publish Grassroots Advocacy and Health Care Reform in Paper!

Publish Grassroots Advocacy and Health Care Reform in Paper!


I want to purchase and read Marc Stier's book, Grassroots Advocacy and Health Care Reform. Please publish it in an affordable paperback edition.


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Mon, December 16 2013 » About me, Health Care » No Comments

Civilization and its Contents: Platonic Reflections on Sex and the Culture Wars

A précis of the book I’m hoping to finish in the next nine months or so. I’m going to start linking from this page to posts of of draft chapters soon. Comments always welcome!

Civilization and its Contents: Platonic Reflections on Sex and the Culture Wars critiques the conception of human sexuality that underlie both left and right in the contemporary culture wars. It presents a radically new  account of sexuality and its place in human life, one that encourages various good ways of pursuing sex that bring pleasure and a connection to other people and in a way that recognizes and supports the fundamental equality of  men and women.

The three philosophical essays of part one of Civilization and Its Contents set out the traditional view of sexuality in some detail and contrasts it with a very different view, inspired by Plato and Aristotle.  I show that extremes of left and right share a picture of sexuality as a powerful, anarchic, uncontrollable force that come from the lower, animal-like part of our selves. The right holds that civilization is only possible if sexuality, especially female sexuality, is limited and controlled. The far left holds that sexuality must be utterly unconstrained if human beings are to be fulfilled. Following some suggestions of Plato, as well as contemporary evidence about the varieties of sexual expression, I show that while human sexual desire is expressed in our bodies it is given shape and power by our souls. It is neither anarchic nor uncontrollable. It is far stronger in human beings than in other creatures not because of the intrinsic power of lower animal-like desires but because the desire for sex is not just bodily but rather is intrinsically relational, shaped by our self-understandings, and powered by deeper human desires including what Freud called our erotic and aggressive desires, which for Plato are two sides of a single human aspiration.  Sexuality, on this view, is not a chaotic force that needs either restraint or unfettered freedom, but rather is a way in which we can both secure physical pleasure and express and create a  variety of connections with other people. Sexuality only becomes a source of division between human beings when it becomes allied to extreme forms of the drive for mastery and control, as it has been for much of Western history since the ancient Greeks. It becomes a source of profound connection between human beings when allied to the erotic desire to unite with others.

The three essays of part two of the book trace the development of ideas of sexuality from ancient Athens and Jerusalem to today in a way that reveals how sexuality has been too often allied with  what I call dominator sexuality. These essays show how Christian asceticism evolved from the confrontation of Greek Philosophy and Jewish thought with the dominator sexuality of the Greeks and Romans and how in the transition to modernity asceticism was transformed from a way to escape the burdens of everyday life to a way to succeed in everyday life. The modern transformation of asceticism also reversed the ancient notion that women are far more sexual than men and instead led to the idea that the incentives created by the chastity of women is the critical means by the dangerous and powerful sexual desires of men can be kept in check. (The same transformation in thought leads to the first real condemnation of masturbation as a terrible sin rather than a somewhat humorous and harmless practice.) Contemporary right wing views of sexuality as well as the tendency of modern political communities to oscillate between periods of sexual freedom and sexual restraint are the result of this the modern transformation of asceticism.

The essays of part three of the Civilization and Its Discontents address a number of  contemporary issues in sexuality. “Having Sex and Making Love” looks at how sexuality is expressed in different kinds of relationships and why those various relationships are valuable in different ways. “Why I Don’t Chase Women” critiques the account of sexuality presented by contemporary evolutionary psychologists, explores the good of sexuality in marriage, and looks at some possible futures for marriage. “The Culture of Viagra” looks at what the popularity of this drug—and its frequent failure to solve sexual problems—tells us about how we think (wrongly) about sexuality today. “Why We Don’t It” looks at contemporary concerns about low libido in both men and women and suggests this problem primarily arises because we misunderstand sexual desire. “Rape and Dominator Sexuality” shows how rape—and the culture that encourages it—is connected to the understanding of sexuality that has for too long dominated Western culture. Despite its ironic title, “The Myth of Male Orgasm” explores the nature of orgasm in order to argue that differences between the sexuality of men and women are far overstated and concludes that while men and women may both suffer from less than optimal orgasms given contemporary sexual practices, there is no specifically female orgasm problem.

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Sat, December 14 2013 » Love and Sex, Philosophy » No Comments