Thursday, June 30, 2011

Why I Hate "Travel"

I just watched an episode of The Bachelorette.  Not something I would normally do, but I just happened to be in one of those moods where I was willing to watch whatever recommended to me.  One thing I noticed:  a couple of times, a male contestant tried to impress the bachelorette by mentioning that he liked to travel.

Everyone likes to travel. Everyone puts that down as a hobby. People think it makes them look so sophisticated, worldly, and wise. There are a number of reasons why this annoys me, the first being that I see it as a form of elitism. Who doesn't like to go to new places? People who say they enjoy traveling think it makes them unique (it doesn't). But not everyone can afford to travel. To emphasize the frequency with which one travels is both to highlight that one has the financial privilege to do so, as well as to suggest that one is somehow a better, more knowledgeable, or more "well-rounded" person for it. (This follows the general rule of only holding those experiences that are exclusively open to well-off people as valuable to human enlightenment and "cultural awareness.")

This elitism/classism has historical precedent and, in fact, the typical attitude toward travel smacks of residual colonial mentality.  First, there is the practice of exploiting other people (the Other) for a sense of personal edification and fulfillment.  In the Colonial Era, merchants, missionaries, anthropologists, and adventurers treated the non-European world as their personal zoo, in which they could study all of the human specimens in their natural habitat and use the knowledge they obtained to understand their own past (note: non-European societies did not, in fact, live in a "state of nature" equivalent to some stage of Europeans' past). Similarly, particularly on these reality shows (those which, like The Bachelorette, film in "exotic" locations), one hears people talk about how they like to "learn the culture" and "experience local traditions" (only for the sake of their own edification of course).  Almost always the reference to "culture" and "traditions" presumes that the "locals" are disconnected from the rest of the world, that they have no history of their own, that they basically inhabit some strange, isolated and timeless realm wherein they are stuck repeating the same habits and practices for all of eternity.  World Travelers presume that the lives of other people can be reduced to a motley collection of foods, clothing styles, rituals, random landmarks, bizarre behaviors, and odd beliefs. By sampling all of these strange and new things, World Travelers hope to get in touch with some inner, primitive humanity that they share.

However, when World Travelers visit other countries, they rarely stray too far from the luxurious resort areas and tourist zones (they may make their token trip to a market or something so that they can "experience local culture"). They don't learn about how colonialism unfolded in that particular part of the world; how neo-colonialism continues to shape the political and economic conditions; what different "local" people think about their position in the world, about the role of tourism, about the hardships and joys that they experience on a daily basis. The purpose of travel is not to build relationships, to bridge gaps, to better understand other people and the big picture that unites all of us. It is to sample things, to have new experiences, to say that one went to this country and ate this food and knows this list of facts about the Culture (assuming such a Culture exists).

"The only way to know is through trials of strength. 'Knowledge' is the state of this battlefront." - Bruno Latour (The Pasteurization of France)

Travel is a form of conquest. It entails a perception of "knowledge" and "understanding" as a collection of discrete, disembodied "facts." To become an educated person, one must master as many of these facts as one can (essentially cramming as many of them into one's brain as possible). Travel aids mastery by bringing a person closer to the material embodiment of "fact," to a more "authentic" manifestation (the same purpose served by museums - and perhaps not a coincidence that travel so often involves museum visits). Hence, Travelers learn about a land and its people by visiting all the key landmarks and historical sites, not by sharing mundane experiences with the people who live there.  Often planning for a trip involves picking out all the attractions from a book or guide that will allow one to feel like one has seen everything "important."

Furthermore, by ignoring global structures of inequality and current conditions of poverty (particularly the case in the Caribbean and Southeast Asia), whilst staying in fancy hotels and eating at expensive restaurants, Travelers are participating in direct relations of domination with those who serve them. I have heard a number of people from the Caribbean express unfavorable attitudes toward tourists. To them, it feels like a continuation of slavery when they have no economic option other than to wait upon rich white people, for a pittance. The tourism industry impoverishes local populations (in part by causing price increases), hinders self-sufficiency and promotes further neo-colonial dependence upon the industrial core. It causes crowding during peak seasons and degrades the environment in myriad ways. And often, it forces people to portray themselves in the unflattering way that tourists imagine them.

[And then, of course, there is the even more directly physical dominance that occurs when U.S. and European tourists use young women and children for sex...]

Rather than serving as a means to heighten understanding of other peoples' experiences of oppression, travel commodifies oppression and rebrands poverty as something "exotic" or "quaint."

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Woman Head of the IMF and Other "Tokens"

I saw yesterday that a replacement was named to head the IMF. The first thing I noticed as I looked at the picture accompanying the headline was that they had chosen a woman. My response: I chuckled. What better way to smooth over a sex scandal and dissociate from the "old boys club" image than to choose a woman as the replacement?

That is most frequently how members of oppressed groups "break ceilings" and rise up in the ranks of elite organizations: on account of their symbolic value. If a few prominent women, blacks, latinos, etc. are allowed to hold important positions, it helps to sustain the illusion of an equal playing field, a system that just needs a few "tweaks" (affirmative action?) in order to be fair, a social structure that exists to protect the general welfare and ensure equal rights, rather than to exploit large groups of people for the benefit of a few. It sends the message (or at least attempts to) to members of marginalized communities that if they just work hard enough, take advantage of opportunities, play their cards right, they too can be successful.

Now, I do support affirmative action, mostly because it seems like allowing greater opportunities to some people is better than doing nothing, and perhaps some of the educational opportunities may help stir the pot of real social change. More often, though, the lucky few just become absorbed into the middle class and reorient their identities and allegiances away from the marginalized communities they may have previously belonged to.

Similarly, I can't deny feeling excitement over the election of the United States' first African American president, even though, ultimately, it just means that there is one more highly visible black man helping to sustain a political-economic system that degrades and abuses black people in general, as a rule.

On the one hand, I don't think that people should not have hope; that consistently enforced and unmitigated cruelty is better than a mixed and falsley interpreted reality. On the other hand, if "token" successes and the illusions that they enable prevent the oppressed people of the world from truly challenging structures of domination and working for a better, necessarily different world order, then I think it can be severely damaging as well.

One of my favorite comments regarding the Strauss-Kahn debacle appeared on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He said something to the effect of, "Not only is the IMF symbolically raping Africans, it is literally raping Africans." (The victim was African.) Sex abuse and patriarchy are not independent from the system of domination associated with (neo)colonialism and racism. One of the reasons I love Jon's joke is because it unwittingly highlights this connection. A woman may head the IMF, but the IMF is still one of the foremost institutions perpetuating global power structures, including, by necessity, that of patriarchy.

The woman is a token.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Pharmaceutical Industry and Intellectual Property

Going along with the HIV/AIDS theme, I read an article in the New York Post* that discussed, in part, how HIV drug costs remain high despite (that is the tone of the article; I would say in order to sustain) an enormous amount of profit from their sale:

"HIV drug profits are exceptionally high, as indicated by the 37 percent earned on sales in 2010 Gilead, the leading HIV drugmaker.  This is twice the general profit level in the pharmaceutical industry, which is itself substantially higher than in most industries."

One sentence, in particular, contained one nail-on-the-head truth, and one falllatious myth of neoliberalism:

"Federal and state governments can no longer afford to subsidize the lofty profits that were useful when new HIV drugs needed robust incentives for quick development."

First, it is absolutely true that by sponsoring programs to make HIV treatments more affordable for low income individuals, the government is essentially subsidizing the massive profits of the pharmaceutical companies. That is why this "charity" approach is far inferior to a more systemic challenge of the legitimacy of intellectual property laws.

But that brings me to the myth. The idea that large monetary incentives are necessary to promote innovation has reached the level of taken-for-granted, common-sense hegemony.

Of course creativity requires guaranteed monetary incentives. That is why human beings created nothing at all until the concept of intellectual property was developed a century or so ago.

The problem is, the notion of "intellectual property" rests on premises that are not compatable with the actual nature of cultural production. The best way to illustrate this nature is through a linguistic metaphor. Literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin famously described the way in which every linguistic utterance mimics a pre-existing pattern of speech (associated with a particular group of people and related to the group's other socio-cultural attributes). Although each individual in theory possesses infinite creative capacity in terms of what she or he can say (language is infinite), in practice people almost always repeat bits of speech (sentences, phrases, grammatical stylings etc.) that they have already heard in their particular social milieu. The true nature of innovation and change lies in the way in which people take the words of others and (in the words of Bakhtin) populate them with their own intentions, as well as bring them into new combinations with the words of others.

Following Bakhtin, other cultural theorists have argued that innovation of any kind occurs through novel melding of material from other individuals.  Thus, creativity is not an individual endeavor.  In fact, creativity requires "plagiarism."  I am reminded of an excellent quote by Chris Martin, the frontman of the band Coldplay:

"Well, you know, I think as we go further and further from just being influenced by Radiohead to being influenced by lots more people... It's just blatant plagiarism.  I mean, all that we've done, really, is expanded our plagiaristic palate."

If creativity requires a free flow of ideas, then the existence of intellectual property actually inhibits, rather than promotes, creativity.

Where did this concept come from then? Very simply, it is a quite effective way of legitimizing monopolies. That is the only purpose the concept of "intellectual property" has ever served, and the pharmaceutical industry is an exemplar, not an aberration.

Furthermore, pharmaceutical companies patent genetic material (obviously something they can't "create"!); often they solicit indigenous communities around the world to share information regarding local plants and herbs. Once the genetic material is patented, these groups no longer have the free access they enjoyed before! There is no way to argue that this practice encourages innovation. The pharmaceutical companies employed no intellectual effort of their own to obtain this knowledge (except, perhaps, for preparing the necessary legal conditions that allow them to do this). It is much more akin to "stealing" than innovation.

Intellectual property does not protect artists, writers, or inventors.   It protects the corporate oligarchy.   If we want to fight this oligarchy, we must challenge the notion of intellectual property.

*"We can change the reality of AIDS" by James Driscoll

Monday, June 27, 2011

AIDS and the World System

In honor of National HIV Testing Day...

I mentioned before that there is a strong connection between disease and political economic processes.  For one thing, disease often follows lines of marginalization and exploitation.  Not only does it tend to appear within conditions of poverty (which, let us not forget, is always caused by exploitation), but also among stigmatized populations, in areas where infrastructure has been weakened, where the environment has been degraded due to industrial development, etc.  The situation is magnified when certain groups of people become solely associated with a particular disease and attributed all the blame, as a result of their "primitive," "backward," or "sinful" behavior.  (AIDS has been branded as a gay disease and a black disease, for example.)

It is also interesting to consider the extent to which patterns of disease are correlated with large-scale economic cycles.  For example, it seems more than pure coincidence that the Black Death, one of the largest multi-regional epidemics of disease in history, occurred on the heels of an economic downturn that was the prelude to the one of the greatest periods of economic stagnation the world has yet seen.

It is reasonable to suppose that we are currently headed for a comparable phase of stagnation.  (It is more than a simple "recession" or "downturn" or blip on the radar.)  So, it is also interesting to consider that the AIDS epidemic came to light near the beginning of this latest period of economic stagnation, which started in the 1970s.  Coincidence?

At any rate, it's an interesting thought.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Corporations and Individual Rights

The recent court ruling to give pharmaceutical companies the same rights to free speech that pertain to individual citizens makes me feel like it might be time for another series of discussions on health. For now, however, I will just make a few comments in response to this case.

Before getting to my first real point, I will start off by saying that, of course, I think pharmaceutical companies have sacrificed the general welfare for personal profit. The privileges that they retain (with support of the federal government), including monopolies and price-fixing, have rendered drugs unaffordable for many people in the world. In underdeveloped nations, in particular, populations are subject to epidemics of diseases like AIDS, while life-saving drugs remain out of reach solely due to prohibitive costs.

I think that it is also true that, in circumstances where people can afford to pay, pharmaceutical companies promote the use of drugs far beyond what is necessary. The rise of antiobiotic resistant bacteria stands as a good example of how detrimental this practice can be.

However, all those considerations aside, does it stand to reason that, as is argued in this particular case against the pharmaceutical companies, they are solely responsible for the promotion and use of unnecessary drugs? Certainly pharmaceutical companies bear a lot of the responsibility. But what about the doctors? I can think of multiple cases from personal experience alone (and I am a generally "healthy" person who stays away from doctors) in which doctors have encouraged me to take an expensive name-brand drug even when much cheaper generics were available. I do not believe any of these doctors were directly persuaded to do so by pharmaceutical advertising (explaining what seems to be the more plausible reasons, however, would require divulging too much unnecessary information about my health).  One doctor even tried to set my mind at ease by telling me there was a good discount and the insurance company would be bearing most of the cost anyway.  I also bet there are also people out there who would choose to get name-brand over generic even without doctor/pharmaceutical encouragement just because part of them still believes that a more expensive name brand must be better.

This whole situation kind of reminds me of the controversy over cigarette ads put out by the tobacco industry.  True, advertising and marketing may exacerbate the ills of late capitalism and certainly promote gratuitous consumption of products.  However, these practices are not the root cause of the problem; they are mere symptoms (to use a popular metaphor).  Attacking corporations for advertising is like treating pneumonia with aspirin.  Overproduction and overconsumption (which drives advertising/marketing) are fundamental characteristics of the development of capitalism and the contradictions which this development tries to overcome.

The other and perhaps more important issue, then, is the granting of individual rights to corporations. This, too, does not concern me. Corporations already enjoy "rights" and privileges far exceding that which is granted to ordinary citizens. To enshrine this state of affairs in the law is to simply be transparent. If anything, this is beneficial, because blindness leads to complacency.

The concept of individual rights is nothing more than rhetoric.  True, it has social implications and it is useful but in and of itself, it has no social referent.   It is empty.  The concept of rights was born in the realm of the hypothetical/philosophical and migrated into the domain of the political, where its primary use is to fabricate the illusion of democracy (an issue I have already discussed at length).  Thus, "rights" is a word used to make arguments, but not a social reality.  Occasionally the "rights" concept is used to challenge structures of domination by those who are oppressed; however, the challenge could easily be made without any such concept of "rights." Furthermore, the very concept of "rights" used to challenge the oppressors may be also used by the oppressors in return to coopt resistance movements, calm hostilities, and divert actions toward activities that maintain the status quo. Therefore, while the concept of "rights" may be used in power strugges, the concept itself is merely incidental to these struggles - the material with which these wars are waged, but not their driving force.

In the end, it does not matter what sorts of symbolic "rights" are granted to corporations.  The fact of the matter is that corporate interests (not necessarily unified) are the state, are the legislator, are the justice system.  Since the framework of "human rights" holds these very institutions responsible for the enforcement of rights (in fact, the only rights that can exist are those that can be protected by state and trans-statal legal apparatus), then "rights" can only exist in so far as they are guaranteed by dominant corporate interests - the very forces that exploit, alienate, and de-humanize a broad swath of humanity.

So that is why I say "who cares?" to the issue of corporations being granted individual rights:  because they are the guarantors of individual rights, and in that sense, already above individual rights, at a systemic level.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


It only took a week or two after my posts on evolution and racism and evolution and gender to see eugenics pop up in the news.  As you can see from this article, the problem of eugenics is real and it is still present.  Thus, the fact that eugenics derives from an evolutionary framework to understanding race underscores the point that the concept of "evolution" must be treated with care.  Science must not be viewed as a neutral enterprise.

Monday, June 20, 2011

More On Ideology

In order to respond to the question posed at the end of my last post, it is necessary to look at the topic of ideology in a little more depth.

I noted in my first post on this subject that the word "ideology" need not always be inflected with the quality of being "false" or "distorted." Rather, I use the term in the more general sense of being a "point of view" - albeit with a distinct relationship to particular human institutions and social structures (therefore, not just any random opinion that a person happens to have).

That being said, I recognized before, and I think it is important to emphasize again, that ideology very well can be a purposeful distortion of a perceived reality, for the express aim of encouraging desirable attitudes and behaviors. This strategy is often pursued through the creation of ideal types, in order to obscure the nature of reality.

Thus, we hear:

-monopolistic entities extolling the virtues of the "free market" and competition.  Capitalists desire open competition only when they, individually, are exempt.   In other words, they all wish to monopolize monopolies.   Furthermore, the idea of the "free market" and the illusion of an equal playing field are useful to sustain the inequalities that are necessary for (as well as a consequence of) capitalist gain.  Hence, while capitalists do not abide by "free market" values in principle or in actual fact (profit would be minimal and unsustainable), they find it useful to promote neoliberal rhetoric and policies in order to sustain conditions that actually defy neoliberal principles.  The "free market" has never existed, but it is very useful to pretend it does.

-imperial powers invoking "democracy" to justify unilateral military action.  Once again, "democracy" is merely a strategy that some dominant groups can afford to employ in order to channel potential resistance to their rule into activities that support it.  The state has never existed for the purpose of keeping peace or protecting individual rights.   It has always been a tool for dominant groups to maintain inequalities and control the distribution of resources.  The concept of "democracy" conceals global and national power structures.  The equation of "democracy" with the ability to vote and express dissenting views is an ingenious way of creating the illusion that democracy actually exists.   Furthermore, the strength of people's emotional attachment to the idea renders it an easy way to justify all sorts actions (including the death of civilians in wars that further capitalist aims).  The United States' efforts to support democracy around the world only appears sporatic and inconsistent if one accepts the surface explanation for these acts.

-those in control of repressive state machinery celebrating "liberty."  The concept of "liberty" works in much the same way as "democracy."  The emotional attachment to "liberty" may even be a bit stronger.  If one really thinks about it, though, the concept of "liberty" becomes nonsensical.  What does it mean?  It is empty, vapid.  Clearly complete and absolute freedom is undesirable (we conceive of this hypothetical situation as the epitome of chaos).   Submission to rules is a requisite for the existence of society.   Is the issue then which rules and how many rules we should have to follow? These are complex questions, and the concept of "liberty" does not even begin to address them.   If anything, the concept prevents us from asking these questions, diverting our attention elsewhere so that we never fully examine the foundations of our society.

When ideology is viewed in this light, the United States' cultivation of Islamophobia and the inconsistency of this action with actual U.S. relations with Middle Eastern, Muslim, and Islamist groups, may become more understandable.

The creation of "enemies," internal and external, is widely useful.   It is obvious how this tactic diverts attention, responsibility, and blame... in addition to the fact that fear is a wonderful motivator.  Islamophobia is only the latest incarnation of this longstanding tradition.  Since some Islamist groups are questioning the basis of U.S./Western hegemony, turning the tables and portraying Arabs/Middle Easterners/Muslims/Islamists (usually undifferentiated) as irrational, unpredictable, uncivilized enemies of "modernity" undermines valid critiques of global political/economic structures of dominance. Therefore, as one would expect, Islamophobia serves a dual purpose.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Religion and Colonialism in MENA

In a previous post, I mentioned that there are two general responses to colonialism - nationalism and socialism - and one particular to the MENA reigion - Islamism (a political movement based on religious fundamentalism). I also suggested that Islamism may be viewed as a type of nationalism.

Of these three responses to colonialism, socialism poses the most radical challenge to the global power structure. Although socialism is a form of capitalism, the practice of nationalizing industries serves as a means of blocking the control of resources, enterprises, and markets from the most powerful competitors - the ones who maintain neocolonial control over the entire globe.

In contrast to socialism, nationalism and Islamism can be (and have been) coopted by the industrial powers to suit their own purposes. This fact is most fundamentally demonstrated by the way in which countries like the United States promote Islamophobia and denounce "Islamic extremism" on the one hand, while using their other hand to covertly aid and support Islamist groups. While the support for nationalist groups has been used primarily to destabilize other colonial powers, the capitalist powers are most likely to court Islamist groups when they can be pitted against socialist forces (in this sense, then, Islamism becomes "the lesser of two evils").

Islamist groups are remarkably varied in terms of the scope of their goals and the methods that they employ. It is by no means a single movement. Rather "Islamism" describes a heterogenous group of movements. (This is one reason it is misguided to speak generically of "Islamic fundamentalism," "terrorism," or "religious extremism" as a unified force, when these groups and movements are so often working at cross purposes.) Some Islamist groups are so narrowly concerned with consolidating political power within a single nation that they do not hesitate to coorporate with the industrial powers to promote a neoliberal agenda (e.g. "open markets") or whatever else these powers want in return for covert funding and support.

It is fairly well known that the United States armed the Mujahideen in Agfhanistan in order to thwart the socialist forces that had taken root there (including Soviet involvement). People seem less aware that both the British and the United States have supported the Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt. For this reason the Brotherhood is currently lauded for being "moderate" and friendly to Israel, despite the fact that they constituted an important part of the power structure of the previous despotic regimes. The aims of the world powers are, in fact, served by keeping in place as much of the governing apparatus from Mubarak's regime as possible, as it had been carefully constructed to protect foreign capitalist interests via covert interventions (including raising the Islamic Brotherhood into a significant political force).

Under what circumstances, then, do Islamists become "the enemy"?  Some Islamists do not have such narrow political pursuits.  Some are more broadly anti-colonial and seek to undermine foreign influence in the region.   This may include opposition to the perceived proxy of European and U.S. interests in the Middle East: Israel.

This, like socialism, is too much of a challenge.

But why would the U.S. promote a generalized Islamophobia within its borders, when this does not represent the actual geopolitical relationship with Muslim or even Islamist forces?  I will try to tackle this question perhaps in the next post.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


One strategy that imperial and neocolonial powers have employed to legitimize their actions, as well as the general global political-economic order, is to portray their subjects as culturally and developmentally backward. This tactic has taken multiple forms throughout the past couple of centuries or so. One recent manifestation is the invocation of the concept of "tribalism" when describing conditions in the Middle East and Africa. In the post I will focus specifically on the Middle East, in light of recent military involvements and current political interests.

The term "tribe," as it is currently used, has its roots in anthropology.   Here is another great example of the way in which science has served as a tool of colonialism.  For anthropology, in its origin as an academic discipline, was oriented toward elaborating an evolutionary (oh yes, we're back to evolution) framework of human history, which used certain living human populations to represent the past evolutionary stages of the more developed European civilization.  One aspect of this model of "cultural evolution" was a progression of social organization from bands and tribes to the eventual emergence of a state apparatus.  The former acheived social cohesion not "rationally" through laws and systems of justice, but "emotionally" (once again, the contradistinction between "emotional" and "rational") through bonds of kinship and patriarchal authority.

The cultural backwardness of non-European populations was used to justify the "civilizing" mission of colonialism. Europeans congratulated themselves on their attempts to liberate their subjects from the bonds of patriarchal tyranny, even while women in their own countries were denied fundamental rights.

It is obvious how the salience of kinship and partriarchy continues to dominate characterizations of Middle Eastern societies. The use of the word "tribalism" bears witness to the lasting influence of cultural evolutionism, and implies a less "civilized" form of existence for those to whom the term is applied.

In particular, "tribalism" is invoked to suggest that a situation is unpredictable, that the people with whom one is engaging are apt to act irrationally, that loyalties of kinship will frustrate efforts to enact compromises and create peace. It is a way of saying that persistant violence and chaos is "their" fault and not "ours." Conflict is the result, not of systematic exploitation by the industrial powers, but of ethnic/sectarian differences that have existed before the dawn of time ("tribal" people do not possess a history either of their own or in relation to the rest of the world). Conflict persists, not because of foreign intervention and provokation, but because "tribal" people are not able to act any differently.

However, let's consider the facts.  First, it is a property of human identities that they are malleable and changing while appearing as fixed or "natural" categories. Thus, every sort of ethnic/racial/sectarian identity, in the form that it currently exists, is necessarily new and responsive to the particular conditions at hand.  No feature of human social life is truly ancient.  Second, the Middle East was, during one of the most affluent and fastest-growing periods of human history (11th-13th centuries), the most developed region in the Old World. Localities that are now supposedly stuck in a primitive, tribal past, were home to some of the most advanced state structures, the most sophisticated economic institutions, and the most cosmopolitan and learned cities in the world. The stage of social evolution that is currently attributed to regions such as Afghanistan was far surpassed even 10 centuries ago!! Clearly, the current state of these locales cannot be a function merely of internal characteristics or enduring "tribal" loyalties. Rather, current conditions in the Middle East must, as with current conditions anywhere in the world, have arisen as a result of recent geopolitical/economic processes. Specifically, those processes include: colonialism, more colonialism, neocolonialism (i.e. foreign meddling), economic marginalization, etc. etc.

It is both inaccurate and racist to impute conditions in the Middle East and Africa to "tribalism."

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

U.S. Political Debates

Just a brief interlude from recent topics, because I want to make a comment about political debates in the U.S.

Since now it is not possible to accommodate any diversity of opinion within either political party, debates no longer serve the purpose of setting forth candidates' positions on the issues.  However, as I watched the Republican debate last night, I thought about how well debates function as a means of consolidating and propagating ideology.  When the same ideas are expressed repeatedly by all candidates, and in nearly identical terms, those ideas are more likely to seem right and common sensical.  Even the most intelligent people are more apt to draw on the discourses that already surround them rather than create their own anew.  Thus, just by sheer repetition these political soundbites become embedded in the popular conscious and dominate the way people think and talk about the social order.  We hear the politicians stress over and over that government is not able to create and innovate as well as the "private sector" and consequently we take this "truth" for granted.  We don't consider how this distinction is tautological, as "private sector" is defined merely as that which is not "government," even if differences in substance do not apply.  We do not think about how corporations run the government, and how government has only ever existed as a tool of the dominant/wealthy.  And as a result, we accept an explanation of social problems that is based on nonsensical categories and nonexistent relationships.

Of course, it is clear that the moderators are totally in on the game, as the quality of their questions only encourage these prefabricated, thoughtless answers.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Does Evolution Explain Everything?

Because of the relation of evolutionary theory to the Ideology of Progress (see also last few posts), it has become the dominant paradigm of analysis within the human sciences. Virtually every aspect of human life - physical, mental, and social - is explained within an evolutionary framework. Take, for example, this recent headline.

Evolution is so hegemonic to modern thought that even the most respected scientists hardly bat an eye when these studies employ contradictory or nonsensical logic. Further proof that science is a human activity that proceeds according to dominant ideological frameworks that are deeply embedded in the social order.

Evolutionary studies are quite formulaic:

1. Take any "trait."
2. Assume that it was adaptive at "the time" when humans evolved.
3. Come up with a reason why it would be adaptive.
4. Voila. Said "trait" is hardwired into our physical makeup via evolution.

Here are some of the many reasons why the formula contradicts the espoused principles of Darwinian evolution and defies logical thought (I will respond specifically according to each numbered step above):

1. The objects that are defined as "traits" are heterogenous in nature: some are simple, discrete physical properties (i.e. attached earlobes); some are slightly more complex, non-discrete, and environmentally-influenced physical characteristics (height); some are abstract concepts that generalize variable behavior (personality); and some are social constructs (race). The problem is, many of the "traits" to which are attributed evolutionary causes do not exist as discrete, bounded objects (see post on disease), have more social reality than physical reality, and, even if one assumed they were coded in the genes (a dubious assumptions based on the previous point), would be governed by so many different genes interacting in complex ways with each other and the environment, that it would be impossible for natural selection to act upon them in any coherent way in such a short span of time (the period of human existence is relatively short).

2. There are two fundamental problems in assuming that an existent trait must have been adaptive at the time humans evolved. First, just because something exists does not imply that it is adaptive. Genes and traits are able to survive among a population if they do not affect individual's reproductive capacities in any way (after all, why would they "die out" if the individuals who possess them are still able to pass them on to their offspring?). An evolutionary perspective that considers adaptability independently of reproductive capacity is more Lamarckian than Darwinian.

Second, "the time" that humans evolved does not exist. Evolution, at least as it is conceived by Darwin, is a continuous process. There was not one single moment or discrete period of time at which humans suddenly appeared.** And humans should not have stopped evolving. There is no reason to assume that the adaptability of any given trait is less pertitent to conditions today or in the recent past than a million years ago. There was nothing magical about that period of time.

**There is some debate about how exactly homo sapiens should be categorized (for example, should Neaderthals be considered a sub-species?) and from which population they emerged. Regardless, whether homo sapiens evolved from a local African population, or from the global population of predecessors, this would have occured via a gradual process of speciation (a gradual accumulation of differences, without a distinct "dividing line.") A species is typically defined as a population that can interbreed. Thus, if the population remains intact, speciation may not occur so much like forking branches on a tree, but result from a gradual accumulation of changes that would prevent an earlier member of the population from breeding with a current member, if this were possible. However, any line of demarkation that is made is purely arbitrary.

3. It is possible to come up with some reason why nearly any trait could have possibility been adapative at a given point of time. It is kind of like playing 7 degrees of Kevin Bacon. It is also circular logic. There is virtually no way to verify any of these claims. What passes for rigorous scientific inquiry are essentially unverifiable, sophmoric manipulations of thought.

4. While the first three steps contradict principles of evolution ostensibly espoused by the scientists who manufacture these types of studies, it poses no conflict with Darwinian theory to suppose that any trait is hardwired into humans' genetic makeup. In this case, it is more a suspension of generic scientific protocol that is at play (much like step 3). Many of the phenomena studied by evolutionary scientists are much too complex and socially determined to ever ascertain which components are genetic. The fact that one is able to come up with some hypothetical reason why a trait could be adaptive does not constitute proof of its genetic basis. Furthermore, the types of tests that are devised to assess whether a phenomenon is physically determined are undertaken by selecting precisely those aspects that are physically manifested in order to define the trait - thus using what one is aiming to prove as the basis of the proof itself. That is why scientists so often find exactly what they sought to find in the first place.

Take the previous example (linked to in the first paragraph) about gossip.

-First, the concept of "gossip" itself is a social construction. It is culturally-specific, not universal. In this study, the word "gossip" is used to label the phenomenon: unflattering information about another person. In common parlance, however, the word "gossip" often coveys something about the mode of tranmission as well: for example, news reports about Congressman Weiner sending inappropriate pictures and text messages are not considered "gossip," while a water-cooler conversation about a coworker's rumored affair is. This study, then, is stripping the word "gossip" of much of its rich social meaning. Furthermore, even in its more narrowly defined form, as used by the study, the concept still contains some ambiguities. For what purpose is the information being shared? What is the relationship between giver and receiver and the person who is its subject? Sharing information about a person that neither giver nor receiver have actually met, just because it is entertaining (a pop star was flashing her crotch), is different than sharing information about a person with whom the receiver is intimately familiar, for the purpose of avoiding some undesired event (your girlfriend cheated on all of her past boyfriends).

-Second, these researchers fallaciously equate the length at which a person looked at a picture with "how they feel" and "how they see" the person. The internal states of the participants are not being measured. All the researchers know is how long the participants looked at various pictures. It is wrong to infer interal states based on that information alone.

-Third, the fact that the participants happened to spend more time looking at the pictures to whom negative information had been attributed does not prove that anything in particular is "hardwired" into the brain. Perhaps the negative information happened to be more interesting. This appears to be the case from the examples given in the article: "threw a chair at his classmate" versus "passed a man on the street." What would have been the outcome if "had a bad day" was pitted against "won the Nobel Peace prize"? Moreover, did the researchers control for gender, race, or other physical features of the pictures? What kinds of people took part in this study, and under what conditions? One should be very careful about making grand pronouncements about the innate characteristics of all human beings based on such flimsy and potentially socially determined evidence.

-Fourth, the fact (if true) that negative information about other individuals catches people's attention today does not mean that such an interest need to have been adaptive in the past, or is adaptive now. It is obvious that gossip can have beneficial as well as harmful effects, often simultaneously. Why would the harmful effects have been absent thousands of years ago?

-Fifth, assuming gossip actually were some discrete, non-culturally-constructed entity, how many genes would it take to code for such a complex phenomenon?  Could it have such a profound effect on reproductive capacity that this whole constellation of genes was affected within the span of ... what... (how long do they consider "the time that humans evolved"?) ... say, a million years?

The moral of the story is: scientists are people. They are no more intelligent than, and just as fallible as, everyone else. View scientific research with caution.

View scientific research with caution because it is not produced by "neutral" minds, and neither are its effects socially insignificant. For instance, when a "trait" is explained within an evolutionary framework, this serves to naturalize the phenomenon and erase its social determinations. The ultimate result is that social processes and the artifacts of social action are pushed beyond the realm of criticism and challenge.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Evolution and Social Class

There is one more obvious type of inequality supported by the concept of evolution that I would like to discuss. I think I may be rather brief with my remarks because the connection between evolutionary theory and social class is more well known and can be summed up in two words: Social Darwinism.

Quite simply, Social Darwinism is the idea that class inequalities exist because of natural differences in characteristics such as intelligence and discipline. Thus, class inequalities are right and just, and to attempt to question income disparities is to subvert the natural order by which the strong survive and the weak perish. In fact, some have argued that charity is dangerous as it prevents the "survival of the fittest" mechanism from weeding out the weaker human beings.

Now, of course, Social Darwinism does not follow from the principles of actual Darwinism for multiple reasons (for example, the definition of "fitness" in the Darwinian scheme being more tautologically definied as the ability to survive - i.e. reproduce - and containing no implications about any other sort of "value"). However, this does not mean, as some people suggest, that Social Darwinism is simply a distortion or perversion of a valid scientific concept. For one thing, Social Darwinism is certainly in line with other paradigms of evolution that have held more sway over general consciousness, including among contemporary scientists.

More importantly - and this is the point I would like to emphasize with this post - the Ideology of Progress, of which evolutionary theories are a component, is, at its essence, a mechanism of naturalizing inequalities of all forms and thus upholding the social order. This fact, along with the relationship between evolutionary theory and inequalities of race, gender, and sexuality, all seem to suggest that Social Darwinism is less a distortion of the concept of evolution, and more one specific manifestation of the general inherent nature of evolutionary theory and the Ideology of Progress.

Social Darwinism reveals the true nature of evolutionary theory more than it distorts it.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Evolution and Gender

The inequalities and forms of oppression that exist in this world are multiple and varied, yet they are not unrelated. In particular, although people's experiences of marginalization due to race, gender, sexuality, social class, and the like are far from identical (there is even diversity of experience within each of these non-homogenous categories), evolution is the linchpin that holds together all of these forms oppression.

Following from the ideology of white supremacy, the key to the progress and development of the human race is the survival of the white race (the fittest) combined with the natural extinction of all the inferior races. However, for the white race to survive, the white race has to reproduce. One pressing concern among the inherently white supremacist intelligencia of the 19th and early 20th century was that the white population was not reproducing at the same rate as other populations (particularly the black population). Consequently, attempts to limit the reproductive capacity of women of color have continued even to the present. These attempts have included the forced use of potentially dangerous contraceptives. As a side note, it is for this reason that the framing of "reproductive rights" solely in terms of abortion is seen as a specifically white, middle class approach to feminism. For women of color, "reproductive rights" very significantly includes the right to be able to reproduce.

In addition to curbing the reproductive rates of people of color, ensuring the survival of the white race has also entailed the promotion of reproduction among the white population. For this reason, gender (like race, a social construct rather than a biological fact) was redefined in such a way that women were encouraged to stay home and take care of their children. While the social division of labor along gender lines and the subordination of women has more less always existed, historically and geographically women have had economic roles that extended beyond their reproductive capacity.

Related to these reformed gender roles were new attitudes toward sexuality. The concepts of "homosexuality" and "heterosexuality" emerged at this time. Within the framework of white supremacy, homosexuality is threatening because of its potential to subvert gender roles and sustain relationships that do not encourage white reproduction.

In this way, modern conceptions of race, gender, and sexuality were constructed at the same time and as part of the same project of white supremacy - itself only an effect of the overarching Ideology of Progress that sustains the social order.

It might seem that I am grasping at straws in order to make these connections among race, gender, and sexuality. However, my arguments are based on solid evidence. The same scientists who were writing about race at the time these ideas emerged were also writing about gender and sexuality, and doing so in almost exactly the same terms as presented above. I am merely repeating a discourse that was quite explicit. In the course of the 20th century, this reasoning may have become muddled and less obvious, but that has only helped to sustain its effects as the concomitant definitions of race, gender, and sexuality have become naturalized as their true raison d'etre becomes more obscured.

For further reading on this topic:

-The Heart of Whiteness:  Normal Sexuality and Race in America by Julian Carter
-Sex, Race & Science:  Eugenics in the Deep South by Edward Larson
-Killing the Black Body:  Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty by Dorothy Roberts
-Building a Better Race:  Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom by Wendy Kline
-Embodying Race:  Gender, Sex, and the Sciences of Difference (edited volume)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Evolution and Racism

Ideas about evolution are elemental to the fabric of modern thought. As previously noted, evolution has provided an authoritative framework for the Ideology of Progress. In fact, notions of evolution are not particular to the field of biology: they have structured analysis in a variety of other disciplines, from linguistics to psychology. Models and discourses are most powerful when they can be applied to a number of distinct domains, as it allows the ideas to circulate more widely and quickly, and enables them to appear more obvious and "natural." For example, the "tree of life" model has been effective in mapping family ancestry, biological evolution, and the relations of human languages, among other things. Consequently, it constitutes an important component of the framework within which we understand relationships, history, and time.

But let's be clear about what the Ideology of Progress, and by extension, evolution, entails. I argued in my post about "normality" and health that in order to naturalize Progress (that is, for the idea to be taken for granted rather than questioned) it is necessary to create a visual artifact of Progress in some way. This has been done through the development of concepts of the "modern" and the "primitive," and the concomitant mapping of these concepts onto the existent human population. This is the way that inequalities become naturalized via the Ideology of Progress. Inequalities appear to be the natural result of different rates or stages of development.

It is no coincidence, then, that women, blacks, other people of color, lower classes, and gay men have all been characterized as "emotional" in contrast to the rationality of white, straight, upper and middle class men. It is these men who bear the mantel of Progress and modernity.

And once again, inequalities serve the economic functions of maintaining the social division of labor and the accumulation of wealth via exploitation. Thus, the Ideology of Progress and all that it entails ultimately serves to uphold the political economic order.

As the concept of evolution is inseparable from the Ideology of Progress, theories of evolution have played a very significant role in the naturalization of inequalities of all kind, most particularly those pertaining to race. For more detailed information on the history of evolution and scientific racism, please consult the following works (just a few of many):

-The Emperor's New Clothes:  Biological Theories of Race at the New Millennium by Joseph Graves
-Outcasts from Evolution:  Scientific Attitudes of Racial Inferiority by John Haller, Jr.
-Sex, Race & Science:  Eugenics in the Deep South by Edward Larson
-From Savage to Negro:  Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896-1954 by Lee Savage
-Nature's Body:  Gender in the Making of Modern Science by Londa Schiebinger

It should suffice for my purposes here to simply say that evolution allowed for the social construction of race. (According to anthropologists, there is no biological basis for race; it is a social construction.) Evolution fueled the project of eugenics, both in Europe and the United States. The eugenics movement in Europe was founded by some of Darwin's compadres, and that is also no coincidence. Evolution bears some responsibility for the Holocaust. Evolution continues to incite the infringement upon the reproductive rights of women of color throughout the world.

Like any product of science, evolution is not a neutral concept.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

History of Two Evolutionary Paradigms

Many people are not aware that ideas about evolution were widespread prior to Charles Darwin. In fact, the concept of evolution is the most important building block of the Ideology of Progress.

Before Darwin, evolution was viewed as a teleological process: that is, it was directional, it had an endpoint (human beings). Evolution fit within a Biblical historical framework, in which world history proceeded according to a series of discrete stages, following a divine salvation narrative. In this model of evolution, "more evolved" necessarily meant "better" in an absolute sense.

One of the most controversial aspects of Darwin's writings was not the idea of evolution itself, but the argument that evolution was random and non-directional, driven by arbitrary forces of nature rather than divine plan. According to Darwin, traits that inhibited reproduction in any given environment would gradually die out, while those that did not would survive. This is a fairly tautological statement. Within Darwin's model, any particular organism can only be adapted to a particular environment, and thus cannot be "more evolved" or "better" in any absolute sense, as environmental conditions are constantly changing.

Darwin's conception of evolution drew, in part, on notions of "survival of the fittest" from population studies, although Darwin himself did not use this phrase (it is falsely attributed to him). It should be emphasized, once again, that "fit" only means able to reproduce in a given environment.

However, with the "survival of the fittest" notion in the popular conscious, a hybrid paradigm of evolution emerged that retained characteristics of both Darwinian and pre-Darwinian evolutionary paradigms:

-evolution proceeds according to arbitrary forces of nature rather than divine plan
-yet evolution is teleological: it results in the development of "better" or more "complex" organisms.

Thus, for example, the popular idea that "humans came from monkeys." First, humans are more biologically related to apes than monkeys (there is a big difference). More importantly, any organism that exists today cannot have evolved from another organism that exists contemporaneously, as both would have evolved to the same extent since the time of divergence: thus, it is not possible that humans came from apes, because apes have evolved just as much as humans in the same time period. It would be more consistent with the principles of Darwinian evolution to say that humans and apes share a common ancestor.

Yet, it would be wrong to suppose that the hybrid concept of evolution is merely a popular misunderstanding. This paradigm of evolution has continued to shape the thinking of many esteemed scientists up to the present. It seems that a teleological model of evolution is irresistable, even to those who espouse a contradictory model in principle.

This is a perfect example to demonstrate that scientific thought is more strongly driven by worldview than logical deductions from first principles.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Science and Capitalism

Science is a human institution. Like any institution, it is composed of human and material networks; specialized jargon, equipment, and norms of practice; buildings, bureaucracies, texts, and capital flows. Also like any institution, its practices are shaped by the perspectives and agendas of specific people, and it is integrated, both materially and ideologically, with other human institutions, such as the global economy and political organizations of various nation-states.

Yet that is not how we typically conceive of science. In popular discourse, science is characterized by neutrality, objectivity, and the gradual, systematic accumulation of a truth surpassing all human limitations. This, however, is ideology. The ideology of scientific objectivity and scientific progress may be held as a foundational element of the Ideology of Progress. Science is seen as the ultimate mechanism of progress, and it is an important symbol of "modernity."

Even Karl Marx, who conducted his historical-economic analyses within an evolutionary paradigm, maintained an ardent faith in science. He believed that the primary virtue of capitalism was the level of technological innovation that it enabled. He imagined that this innovation would someday reach a point at which all menial and degrading labor would be performed by machines, thus freeing humanity from the drudgery of dehumanizing work and providing everyone with the opportunity to engage in more intellectually fulfilling pursuits.

Starting in the 20th century, critiques of the ideology of scientific objectivity and scientific progress have abounded, particularly in the fields of history, philosophy and sociology of science. Some classic analyses include:

-The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn
-The Order of Things and Madness and Civilization by Michel Foucault
-The Pasteurization of France by Bruno Latour
-The Mismeasure of Man by Steven J. Gould

When one looks more closely at the processes associated with common scientific practice, it becomes quite clear that science is a human activity. The questions that a scientist chooses to ask, the concepts that he (science has historically been a white, male enterprise) decides to use, and the range of possible interpretations that are allowed derive from a number of assumptions that reflect a particular point of view - a particular way of actually seeing the world - as well as the tools and equipment that are available by pure historical accident. Science is not a process of gradual accumulation: it is subject to politics and shifting alignments that do not move in any particular direction.

Furthermore, it is no coicidence that science acquired its contemporary institutional form at the same time, and in tandem, with the development of capitalism, the modern nation-state, governmental power, and colonialism. All of these human institutions are intertwined and mutually reinforcing.

How does science serve a capitalist agenda?

First, the fruits of scientific activity sustain the technological innovation that is necessary for the internal rhythms of capitalist accumulation. In this sense, science is the handmaiden of capitalist profitability. Second, as the results of scientific research are determined by the perspectives and agendas of those conducting the research, and because the ideology of scientific objectivity allows the authority of scientists to remain unquestioned, science is an extremely crucial means of maintaining the status quo. In particular, science has been very effective at naturalizing inequalities along lines of class, race, gender, and sexual orientation.

All of this can be seen to some extent in my series of discussions on the capitalist approach to health. However, in the next post or two, I will be looking specifically at the case of evolution.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Economy Will Not Recover

People keep talking about "economic recovery," and economists of all stripes have been monitoring micro-level indicators of growth to forecast when or how this will occur.

Stories like this seem to lend more credence to the view that we are at a point of deep structural crisis, and eventual long-term transformation.