McCain Picks Sarah Palin as VP… Analysis

August 29, 2008

Palin has landed? If so, it looks like I was right about McCain’s strategy in VP picks. It only remains to be seen whether or not Obama’s failure to anticipate, or at least pro-actively counter, this move will cost him in the way I expect.

When it comes to message, Palin ironically seems to undercut virtually every major line of criticism the McCain camp has so-far employed against Obama. Palin was a former beauty-pageant contestant: surely the crown jewel of the “vapid celebrity” image. Palin has little political experience (undercutting McCain’s claims of similar worries about Obama) and an abuse-of-power scandal under her belt (playing into the “3rd term for Bush” narrative). But the sort of people who buy into these sorts of character narratives are notoriously immune to hypocrisy, and even if they weren’t, what really McCain needs more than anything else is something that will shake up the race big time and keep the “bitter Hillary supporters” narrative in play. Palin fits the bill.

While Palin isn’t actually the first woman to be a Vice-Presidential nominee, that actually matters far less than the possibility that she could be the first woman to become Vice-President, and with her on the ticket, some measure of Obama’s uniquely historic appeal of a “first” is definitively blunted.

Like I said previously: this is a savvy move, and one that Obama’s camp had every opportunity to strangle in the crib. Either they don’t think it will play out in McCain’s favor, or they think that Biden will have some advantage that I’ve yet to see myself. Palin is also as right-wing as they come on social issues, completing McCain’s own retreat from his former life as a maverick and near-independent.


Obama Must Pick a Woman as VP Before McCain Does!

August 1, 2008

Before I head off for the weekend, let’s play some political “inside baseball!”

Resolved: Republican nominee John McCain would be incredibly silly not to choose a woman as his running mate. One of McCain’s biggest demographic targets this season are disgruntled Hillary voters, still bitter and still grumbling about (largely paranoid and self-serving) allegations of sexism during the primaries. A female running mate not only gives these fence-sitters a reason to vote for McCain, but it could even help to sour and upset them further.

That’s because Democrats are going to have to attack the Republican VP in some fashion. And no matter how fair and above-board these attacks are, they’ll still drudge up every bitter feeling about Hillary’s primary loss (ironically, those most eager to cry “sexism” are generally also those who treat women as so delicate that any attack on their character will be seen as sexist, despite the fact that male politicians rake each other’s character over the coals regularly). It’s a brilliant means of straight jacketing Democrats and dividing them against themselves.

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Breaking: PUMAs May Conceed that Obama was Actually Born, Still Exists Today

July 23, 2008

Over at Reason’s Hit and Run, David Weigel has uncovered shocking side-show developments: the never deterred Hillary Clinton-or-bust PUMAs have, all this time, been continuing in their opposition research efforts into the murky past of Obama’s time as as an embryo. And, much their dismay, they’ve discovered shocking evidence that… Obama was maybe actually sort of born in Hawaii after all.

This too-perfect to be anything but suspicious piece of evidence comes in the form of a birth announcement in a Hawaii paper that just so happens to announce Barack Obama’s birth as occurring on the very same day that he was allegedly born.

Even as a fetus, Obama was plotting to take control of the White House.

And yet, the proud PUMAs still aren’t quite convinced: they have a twelve point list of suspected shiftiness, and a spirited comment thread full of theories and fantasies about this astonishingly irrelevant issue.

Then comes the loopiest sentence of all:

Jackson, I’m not sure that any info on the COLB is fake, but perhaps the document was set up to appear to be fake, so that we would spend hundreds of hours studying it…

Did you get that? Premier PUMA TexasDarlin is actually suggesting that there might have been a vast conspiracy to alter or misrepresent authentic documents such that they appear to be fake, all to throw her off the trail of… something. Something embarrassing about Obama’s mother.

You’d think with all the heated rhetoric about how Hillary’s campaign was was sabotaged by sexism, these people could find something better to do than spending their days trying to dig up dirt on the private relationships of a young woman living in the roaringly sexist 60s.


Obama Against “Mental” Exceptions to Late-Term Abortion Bans

July 4, 2008

Obama’s stance on abortion is pretty much in the mainstream of the Democratic Party, but with one critical difference when it comes to late-term abortions (i.e. abortions post fetal viability). And, luckily, for him, it’s precisely the exception I would make. Obama doesn’t think that “mental distress” should qualify as an exception to bans on late term abortions. This position puts him at odds with pro-abortion rights groups and members of his own party.

Still, I think it’s the right one. Anti-abortion groups have a legitimate fear that sufficiently vague “mental” health exceptions could undermine the point of the ban entirely: any person can develop “tremendous emotional toll” even from a normal pregnancy. But that really doesn’t fall under the same situation as health exceptions in general, and in practice, this exception can basically serve as an end-run around the ban. Groups like NARAL, of course, paint things differently:

The official position of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the abortion rights group that endorsed Obama in May, states: “A health exception must also account for the mental health problems that may occur in pregnancy. Severe fetal anomalies, for example, can exact a tremendous emotional toll on a pregnant woman and her family.”

This is yet another situation in which I wish people on both sides of the abortion divide would just express what they actually mean: what specific conditions is NARAL talking about? Conditions like anencephaly, where the brain essentially has not formed properly, and the baby has no higher brain function and no chance of survival beyond a few weeks? (I’m in favor of allowing abortion in such cases) Or does it mean Down’s Syndrome, a missing arm, or a partially malformed gut? All of the latter could be called “severe anomalies,” but such babies are essentially normal in terms of their capacity to feel and suffer. (I’m against abortion in such cases) The details matter.

In any case, while he’s sure to take fire from liberals on this, Obama has about as much chance of getting any honest credit for his stance as the New York Mets do of winning the Superbowl. Anti-abortion groups are, of course, having none of it:

David N. O’Steen, the executive director of National Right to Life, said Obama’s remarks to the magazine “are either quite disingenuous or they reflect that Obama does not know what he is talking about.”

“You cannot believe that abortion should not be allowed for mental health reasons and support Roe v Wade,” O’Steen said.

O’Steen is technically right here: a companion case to Roe was Doe v. Bolton, which defined “health” exceptions very broadly, including considerations of “emotional, psychological, familial” factors. But O’Steen is still essentially dissembling: the definition, while broad, is also vague enough that someone like Obama could reasonably believe that those other factors could almost never, on their own, justify an exception.

O’Steen, of course, has no reason to be charitable and honest in how he portrays Obama. Even if Obama really is closer to his own stance on this issue (which he already has a decent reason to doubt), Obama’s party taking power in the White House is far far more important to his chosen issue (outlawing abortion) than giving him credit for a minor agreement and risking rank-n-file anti-abortion voters potentially seeing Obama more favorably.


More Sex Meant Safer Sex in Thailand: Counterintuitive Economic Theory

June 19, 2008

Steven Landsburg has to be one of my favorite authors: contrarian in all the right ways, ruggedly skeptical, utterly unafraid to buck conventional wisdom. There’s never guarantee that you’ll agree with what he argues (at least at first), but you will be entertained, engaged, and forced think of issues from entirely new angles.

His most recent book (sadly not that recent) was More Sex Is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics, in which he argued (among many other things) that there were social situations in which increased promiscuity amongst the sexually prude could actually reduce the transmission of disease. Indeed, he argued that prudishness was, in some cases, as much a socially harmful vice as sleeping around.

His argument was essentially theoretical, but it wasn’t entirely out of the blue: it was based on research by another economist, Michael Kremer and some pretty solid models of sexual behavior and disease transmission.

And now, it seems like it’s no longer even just hypothetical.

That’s because, according to Marginal Revolution blogger Alex Tabarrok, the recent history of Thailand provides a real world example of more total sex leading to a reduction in disease transmission. A drastic, culturally driven increase in normally chaste women engaging in premarital sex coupled with a (not causally unconnected) drop in the number of men going to prostitutes cratered the rates of HIV transmission: even in sex workers.

And to top it all off, the place where Alex Tabarrok discovered this little gem? Elizabeth Pisani’s new book called “The Wisdom of Whores.” It’s all enough to make social conservatives scream.

Of course, in all seriousness, those conservatives have plenty of worthwhile concerns. And just as a disclaimer before you run out and lose your virginity in the service of public safety: the particular effect here relies on a particular sort of sexual situation that may or may not have any relevance to your society. And in any case, it still unavoidably involves the former prudes taking on more risk to their own health in order improve the lives of others. So, please, read the books instead of rushing out to do anything foolish and frisky just on my word.

Elizabeth Pisani explains it all herself here:

Isn’t counter-intuitiveness grand?


In Defense of Pornography, In Revulsion of Jesus’ Redefinition of Adultery, In Minor Defense of Douthat

June 19, 2008

Here’s how it starts:

A Fox News sexpert declares that many spouses view “using porn, at least beyond a magazine like Playboy, [as] the equivalent of having an actual affair.”

Reason journalist Julian Sanchez can’t quite wrap his head around this comment:

This is tossed off as though it ought to be obvious to the ordinary reader. It strikes me as obviously insane. I can think of any number of valid concerns one might have about what sort of porn one’s partner is consuming, or the extent of it. But the proposition that one of them is any similarity between porn viewing and “having an actual affair” would not have occurred to me. Is this view held by any significant number of sane people?

But over at Atlantic Monthly, the often laudably contrarian conservative blogger Ross Douthat points out that, well, yes, plenty of spouses do see things that way:

Then consider: Is there any similarity between having sex with a prostitute while you’re married and paying to watch a prostitute perform sexual acts for your voyeuristic gratification? Again, I think a lot of people would say yes: There’s a distinction, obviously, but I don’t think all that many spouses would be inclined to forgive their husbands (or wives) if they explained that they only liked to watch the prostitute they’d hired. And hard-core porn, in turn, is nothing more than an indirect way of paying someone to fulfill the same sort of voyeuristic fantasies: It’s prostitution in all but name, filtered through middlemen, magazine editors, and high-speed internet connections. Is it as grave a betrayal as cheating on your spouse with a co-worker? Not at all. But is it on a moral continuum with adultery? I don’t think it’s insane to say yes.

(Heck, even Dan Dan Savage, sex-adviser extraordinaire, agrees with Ross that “porn as cheating” is quite a common idea.)

Next, quite a lot of Douthat’s commenters seem to lose track of the discussion entirely: they think that Douthat is trying to make an argument that pornography really is perfectly equivalent to having an extra-marital affair, when in fact he’s only trying to illustrate that there are reasonable similarities that might lead some quite sane spouses to consider porn a form of cheating. Much confusion ensues.

Finally, the discussion turns to the issue of the morality of pornography in general. Some people raise the issue of Jesus’ famous pronouncement that to look upon a woman with lust is to commit adultery in your heart. And then, Douthat regular Hector, who seems to believe that pornography is immoral by its “essential nature,” pops in to say that he’s “not sure what any of you would maintain are the good things that porn brings into this world.”

Well, allow me to re-introduce myself.

What’s good about porn? It’s hard to even know where to start: it’s the question an alien visitor the the earth might ask, like “what good is baseball?” It’s a question that must seem obvious to some, utterly bizarre to others.

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Muslim Women Surgically Pose as Virgins to Avoid Disgrace and Death

June 11, 2008

When I first heard about Hymenorrhaphy (a form of plastic surgery on the to restore the appearance of an intact hymen) I wasn’t quite sure what to think. When it was first developed and promoted, the procedure was billed as a benefit to the healing process of some rape survivors, who felt they needed a physical healing to coincide with the rest of their recovery. Fair enough.

But however you feel about that purpose, articles like this, detailing the rise of hymenorrhaphy as a means to deal with a culture clash, surely put a far more disturbing spin on things.

“If you’re a Muslim woman growing up in more open societies in Europe, you can easily end up having sex before marriage,” said Hicham Mouallem, a doctor in London who performs the surgery. “So if you’re looking to marry a Muslim and don’t want to have problems, you’ll try to recapture your virginity.”

The essential point of the surgery, when you think about it, is grotesque: to install a flap of skin whose sole purpose is to be painfully torn apart in later intercourse… all to give a man the satisfaction of a bloody first coupling. In some cases, even to give him evidence of blood to show to his waiting friends and family. Never mind that hymens can be broken for all sorts of other reasons other than sex (medical problems, physical activity, injury): many men and their families are now demanding an official “certificate of virginity” from gynecologists before they’ll even consider taking a marital “test-drive.”

The article highlights one such case in particular: a woman whose hymen was torn from horseback riding as a child who had to take out a loan to even afford the surgery.

“In my culture, not to be a virgin is to be dirt,” said the student, perched on a hospital bed as she awaited surgery Thursday. “Right now, virginity is more important to me than life.”

Unfortunately, for far too many women, virginity and life are often the same thing: the specter of so-called “honor killings” awaits woman that stray beyond the approved sexual traditions of various cultures in the Middle East and Africa.

One of the most gruesome cases in recent memory involved an Iraqi girl who befriended (without any evidence of actual physical romance) a British soldier… and had her throat crushed underfoot and body stabbed and mutilated by her own father. The father was arrested, but then let free.

At the police station where the father was held Sergeant Ali Jabbar told The Observer last week: ‘Not much can be done when we have an “honour killing” case. You are in a Muslim society and women should live under religious laws.

The young woman’s mother, a distraught witness to the crime, eventually fled the family… only to be gunned down in the street. Sadly, this story is far from an isolated incident (as the refusal of Iraqi authorities to prosecute a confessed killer might have already indicated). And it is not only men at fault. This “tradition” has even seen mothers restrain and slit the wrists of their own struggling daughters… for the crime of failing to commit suicide after being raped by their own brothers.

Given these sorts of bloodbaths as a backdrop, it’s hard to fault women for seeking the surgery.

But there’s little room for cultural relativism here. The cultural demands driving women to go under the knife, to fear for their lives and safety, or simply to hate and fear sex and their sexual pasts in general, are not quaint little cultural differences. They are backward and morally vile. They are a practice and an attitude that needs to be opposed, denigrated, and ended. It’s defenders should ultimately come to feel shame and remorse. It’s executioners should end up with the same punishments as any murderers or abusers.

Our own culture is hardly free from pernicious influences on women: including even those that lead women to breast implants and other cosmetic surgery. But there’s a world of difference between the stressful notions of physical attractiveness and the idea that women are “dirt,” fit to be beaten, humiliated, or even killed if they have had sex (or have even been raped) outside of marriage.

Let’s hope that more members of the relevant cultures and religious traditions at least take the attitude of this guy (reacting to a French case in which a recently man humiliated and dumped his wife on her family’s doorstep, accusing her of being impure, and then demanded an immediate annulment):

“The man is the biggest of all the donkeys,” said Abdelkibir Errami, [the Islamic Center of Roubaix's] vice president. “Even if the woman was no longer a virgin, he had no right to expose her honor. This is not what Islam teaches. It teaches forgiveness.”


Greek Man is Proud to Be a Lesbian, Will Sue Anyone Who Says Otherwise

June 10, 2008

And, in fact, he’s 100% correct: he is a total lesbian. No, really (best part is at about one minute in).

HT: Gene Expression.


New Study: “Abstinence Only” Education Fails Again? Or Not.

June 8, 2008

Ed Brayton is making the case that a new study of high school students provides even more evidence that abstinence-only education has failed in its primary purpose: the reduction or delay in teen sex and disease transmission. The study, which looks to be quite good in terms of dataset and design, basically shows that the steady decline in teen sexual activity and the steady increase in condom use have both leveled off, and both changes came during the time in which abstinence-only education came into its heyday (the early and mid 2000s).

I’m no fan of abstinence-only policies, which are essentially a “pro-ignorance” approach to education. But I’m not so sure we really can take any clear policy conclusions away from this data.

The main reason is that, in the social sciences, we’d expect just about ANY trend to level off naturally whether there were other policy effects or not. Whatever the cause for the decline in teen sex since 1991, there’s only so much you can reduce teenage sexual activity in the first place before diminishing returns set in. The more you reduce teenage sexual experimentation, the harder and harder further decreases become.

This especially makes sense in terms of teens and sex. If we imagine that there is a sort of standard cohort of teens with a natural range of character traits and attitudes towards sex in each generation, then any external effect (like the AIDS scare) which reduces sexual activity is going to be more effective on some students, less effective on others. As this effect increases its influence on each cohort of kids, you’ll effect all the low hanging fruit first (the kids most scared of disease and ambivalent about sex to begin with), and the trend will be fairly large. But as you proceed, you’ve already dropped the sexual activity of many of the prudes down to 0 (and can’t go any further with them), and now what you have left to work on are the kids that are amongst the hardest to convince not to have sex in the first place. Even if the original effect increases dramatically (i.e. AIDS gets more and more scary), it still might not be enough to effect enough of the horniest kids fast enough to keep up the overall trend, year after year.

For all we know, this could be what’s going on here: major social changes in the early 1990s (AIDS, widespread contraception knowledge and availability) spent a decade spreading through the population, and now they’ve pretty much done as much as they can do. Buried underneath these larger trends, abstinence education could have had a positive effect, negative effect, or no effect at all.

All we really can say for certain, from this data, is that abstinence-only education hasn’t sparked any sort of dramatic or obvious revolution in teen prudishness. Other studies, which more directly compare the effects of abstinence-only education to other programs or no program at all, are far more relevant to the debate than this one.


Gay Marriage Today: Why Not Polygamy Tommorow? …Here’s Why

May 20, 2008

Advocates of gay marriage are often far too glib about their institutional goals. Myself included. We dismiss all sorts of slippery-slope and social fears as simply being based on bigotry (and perhaps we luck out there, because we often turn out to be right, even if it was just a knee-jerk accusation). But many of those fears do make logical sense, particularly when social changes are made by judicial rulings based on distressingly broad and unmoderated principles.

One of the most legitimate of these fears has always been that judicial rulings about gay marriage that are based on bare notions of equality and fairness would carve a path towards the legal recognition of, well, polygamy. And with a polygamist cult controversy still driving news cycles, and HBO’s Big Love back for another season, polygamy can no longer be casually dismissed as an esoteric issue.

That doesn’t mean, that it can’t be dismissed though. It just means that it’s going to take a lot of serious work and argument to do it.

And so, over at Volokh Conspiracy, Dale Carpenter has penned a must-read “Cliff’s Notes” version of some of the best arguments against the “gay marriage/polygamy” connection. Personally, I find them convincing. I’d appreciate any arguments concerning why I should not.

As to the recent California gay-marriage decision itself, I’m of two minds. It should come as no surprise that I like the result. But I also have very strong sympathies with the view that the judges in this case (most of whom were Republicans, by the way) are using methods that overstep important boundaries in our system of government.

On the other hand (again!), I have slightly less sympathy given the fact that people often write constitutional and legal language that claims to be based on lofty moral principles and language… but then whine when someone actually goes and takes those principles seriously, rather than merely conventionally. If you don’t want constitutions to be treated any differently than literal regulations and craven contracts of social convention, then don’t write them as if they were shining beacons of truth and justice.

For all the gay couples who will finally be able to codify their partnerships in the law of our society, there’s little to offer aside from congratulations.

Update: Over at Dean’s World, Dean links to law prof John Witte Jr. and his take on the issue. Among other things, though, Witte notes that one of the traditional reasons that polygamy has been verbotten in the West is that is “routinizes patriarchy.” I’m no women’s studies stooge, but that particular reason strikes me as a little implausible except as a very, very recent development.


Eight Year Old Requests a Divorce. Seriously. And It Only Gets Worse

April 14, 2008

I’m not now and never have been a cultural relativist. When you measure the success of a society by the degree and wide availability of human happiness and liberty, as well as the avoidance of screwupedness, some cultural, political, and ethical structures fail to measure up.

And arranged marriages, particularly those that involve promising children (almost always girls) to adults… they just aren’t a good idea. In addition to the simple tragedy of coercing and constraining your children’s future and choices, there’s also just the deeply creepy aspect of it… something which recently found its most horrible expression in Yemen recently.

Simply put, some guy, allegedly with mental problems, forced his eight-year old daughter to “marry” a 30 year old man. Yemeni law apparently allows the arranged marriage of underage girls, but restricts sex “until she is ready or mature.” This restriction, unfortunately, didn’t stop her unrepentant “husband”:

Thamer is in jail now. “Yes I was intimate with her, but I have done nothing wrong, as she is my wife and I have the right and no one can stop me,” he said. “But if the judge or other people insist that I divorce her, I will do it, it’s ok.”

What a gracious concession!

While Yemeni prosecutors are trying to line up charges against the two men involved in this scheme, the local laws on arranged marriage clearly demand some further examination.

Shatha Ali Nasser confirmed that item number 15 in Yemeni civil law reads that “no girl or boy can get married before the age of 15.” However, this item was amended in 1998 so parents could make a contract of marriage between their children even if they are under the age of 15. But the husband cannot be intimate with her until she is ready or mature,” said Nasser.“This law is highly dangerous because it brings an end to a young girl’s happiness and future fruitful life. Nojoud did not get married, but she was raped by a 30-year old man.”

And there’s nothing much more to say than that.


Roving Bands of Eunuchs Seek to Steal Your Johnson: We Thought We Had it Bad With “Gay Panic”

March 31, 2008

I didn’t understand half the cultural concepts mentioned when I first read this article: why there are roving bands of eunuchs in India at all, what a “male issue” is (an elaborate term for baby boy?), and why, exactly a group of eunuchs would forcibly chop off some poor kids’ private parts. To be honest, it sounded much like yet another element of the so-called “penis panics” that have from time to time erupted in some Asian cultures.

But from this news of the weird tidbit I stumbled onto yet another intriguing wrinkle in culture and sexuality I’d been completely ignorant of.

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