Privilege is real, and we need to stop talking about it so much.

Louis C.K. shows up several times in Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s The Perils of Privilege — not as villain exactly, but as an undeserving beneficiary: A white man who, through, through self-awareness and linguistic finesse, reaps admiration from a culture that values performative “privilege checking.”  Her choice of example aged almost unbelievably well; six months after the book was published, Louis C.K.’s wokeness was revealed to be not just a profitable performance, but a facade for a serial dick-whipper-outter.

Bovy’s critique of privilege comes from the political left; she has no doubt that the kinds of inequalities described as “privilege” exist; rather, she believes the concept of “privilege” is a counterproductive way to describe and analyze those inequalities. And while I imagine Bovy takes no joy in what Louis C.K. turned out to be, it does put her in a great position to say “I told you so.”

(Because Bovy writes from the left, her book probably won’t be of much interest to conservatives, except for the schadenfreude of dozens of examples of liberals own-goaling themselves and treating each other horribly.  If you don’t believe there is much unfair, group-based inequality in the United States today, but you still want to follow along with my reasoning, feel free to imagine you’re reading this in 1964 or 1862.)

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Pluralism, Power, Mistakes, and Conflict.

The political theory of pluralism holds that power in liberal democracies is distributed among many different groups, whose interests conflict or align in ways that shift over time. It’s partially a descriptive theory, meant to explain how liberal democracies actually work, but also a prescriptive theory, in that most people who believe that pluralism is how things work also believe that pluralism is a good way for things to work.

Pluralists are often accused of ignoring the fact that some groups are consistently more powerful than others – in particular, Marxists believe that Capital is significantly more powerful than all other groups, and that Labor is the only other group powerful enough to challenge it. While not all Leftists are Marxists, most nevertheless believe in some similar “bipolar” model of power (in some specific cases called a “Power Elite” model): Corporations versus the People, the Kyriarchy versus the Oppressed, and so on. Far-right theorists don’t participate much in mainstream political science, but if they did, they would probably criticize pluralism using similar models – Secular Humanism versus Christianity, Jews versus Aryans, the Cathedral versus whoever neoreactionaries think the good guys are, the West versus the Caliphate, the Caliphate versus the West, and so on.

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The subtext behind affirmative action debates.

There’s a fundamental absurdity lurking behind all affirmative action debates in the United States: The official justification for affirmative action is “diversity”, but the more reasonable moral justification is giving a leg up to disadvantaged groups. These two goals kind of mean the same thing for blacks and Hispanics, but not necessarily for any other groups.

Hence the Harvard admissions case.

The “text” of the case is that a court is trying to figure out whether Harvard discriminates against Asian Americans. Harvard says it doesn’t; the plaintiff says it does. The subtext is that everyone knows Harvard discriminates like hell against Asian Americans, but political coalitions make it inconvenient to address the issue.
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Is spinning poi cultural appropriation?

One way I can fool people in the real world into thinking I’m cool is by spinning fire.

The man in the above video – who is not me – is spinning props called poi, which is the Maori term for a traditional performance art that involves balls on strings.  Every once in a while, you’ll get someone who’ll tell you that white people shouldn’t spin poi, because it’s “cultural appropriation.” This is not a big deal, and it never goes anywhere because there is no substantial movement among the Maori themselves to stop white people from spinning poi.

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Conspiracies without theories, theories without conspiracies, and theories about conspiracies.

A post last month on /r/slatestarcodex asked whether professors who believe in conspiracy theories should get to keep their jobs. That question seems pretty easy to me – if their beliefs interfere with their teaching, then firing or some other kind of discipline is appropriate, otherwise not. What’s more interesting to me is one of the follow-up comments:

“MKUltra, the Gulf of Tonkin, Bohemian Grove, CIA involvement with the Dalai Lama, Cigarettes causing cancer, the testomony of ‘Nayirah’ before the Gulf War, Operation Mockingbird, CIA involvement in the importation of Cocaine, The Iran-Contra affair, even the Chernobyl nuclear disaster all started as conspiracy theories.”

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Extremely late-breaking thoughts on the Lewinsky scandal.

  1. Committing sexual harassment, under its legal definition, should be an impeachable offense. Conduct that falls just short of the legal definition by not being “severe” or “pervasive” enough should often be an impeachable offense, especially if there’s a pattern of it.
  2. Having an exploitative-but-consensual relationship with someone should definitely not be an impeachable offense, and I do not believe it’s possible to argue otherwise while taking consent seriously and without infantilizing forty-four-year-old Monica Lewinsky, who has been telling us a consistent story for twenty years. Sexual harassment is by definition “unwanted,” so anyone who says this was “textbook sexual harassment” is using the wrong textbook.
  3. Creating the appearance or risk of sexual harassment, by having a relationship that’s unethical and makes it difficult (at the time) for outsiders to know whether consent is genuine, should probably not be an impeachable offense; however this is a closer call, and I don’t think it’s illiberal or infantilizing to argue otherwise.
  4. The actual crime Bill Clinton was impeached for, and that no one seems to be talking about currently, was lying under oath in a sexual harassment case. That case was initially dismissed because the judge felt Clinton’s alleged behavior was not severe enough to count as sexual harassment, a decision that looks dubious in retrospect (at very least, there should have been no summary judgement.) That decision was appealed and the case was later settled. In retrospect, I think lying under oath in a sexual harassment case should be an impeachable offense, given that the behavior he was lying about – a pattern of having affairs with subordinates – was clearly relevant to the case.
  5. I don’t think most people should beat themselves too much over not realizing this at the time, because the credible allegations of sexual harassment and assault were mixed in with a deluge of blatantly false accusations and conspiracy theories about other things; it simply wasn’t possible, back then, for the average person to pull up a bunch of documents about the accusations on the newfangled interwebs and realize they credibly pointed to a pattern of abuse. I feel differently about journalists who covered the case, activists who made public statements, or politicians who voted on impeachment; they had a greater responsibility to weigh all the available evidence.