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The Crooked Heart


Friday, April 18, 2003

Sara at Diotima is upset over Matthew Yglesias' disregard for the great books of philosophy. Now, I have read Aristotle, Descartes, and Mill (as well as Plato, Cicero, Augustine, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, Marx, Nietzsche, and probably some others I'm forgetting), and on the whole I have to agree that he hasn't missed that much. This may seem like a paradoxical position for an historian to take, but most of the historical texts I've read have been irrelevant to me in forming my opinions about present events, what I have gotten from them could probably be summarized in a few paragraphs per thinker.

I like to read the great books of philosophy because I care about what people used to think about politics, and because I enjoy the pleasures of an elegant turn of phrase, or a particularly apt example. Reading Machiavelli is a pleasure, figuring out what he meant is a worthy challenge, but having done the first and made a stab at the second, I have to say that I could have gotten everything I needed to know about The Prince as it applies to contemporary politics from reading the Introduction. It's not that the great works have nothing to do with anything--they just don't have a whole lot to do with life as we live it today.
As you doubtless noticed, I have a new template. Like the Baudes, I wanted more width for my posts, unlike them I wasn't willing to settle for kinda boring. Hopefully the result is still clean and readable. Let me know what you think.
Mahwige...That Dweam Wivin a Dweam

Amanda has proposed that the government ought to get out of the business of recognizing marriage. I'm no law student, or future law student, but it seems to me that marriage is recognized by the government because whatever else it is, it is also a legal contract between two individuals, and the government is deeply, irreversibly, and properly in the business of enforcing contracts. It's not just taxes and insurance benefits--there are genuine advantages to publicly entering into a partnership that takes court action to dissolve.

However, I also agree with Will that lack of government recognition of marriage would not lead to its abolition. In many of its fundamentals, marriage is already privatized. No-fault divorce makes individuals free to define it as a temporary institution, the repeal or non-enforcement of adultery laws makes them free to define it as sexually exclusive or open, and birth control combined with a greater acceptance of illegitimacy have done much to loosen (though not dissolve) the link between marriage and family. Nevertheless, this has not stopped people from publicly promising to marry until death do them part.

The distinction that I think needs to be made here is between the government recognizing marriages--that is, registering as legally valid a certain type of contract between two individuals--and the government encouraging marriages, or encouraging a specific sort of marriage. It is the second, I think, that most irritates Amanda. A government registering a contract of a commonly understood type is a neutral, useful action. A government defining what such a contract entails is also a useful (though somewhat less neutral) action. A government telling people that they ought to enter into one of these contracts, or that they can only enter into one of these contracts if its terms fit a certain moral standard is something else entirely. (Perhaps the government has a public policy interest to encourage marriage to form stable families for raising children. Perhaps. I am, however, dubious.) Marriage is not just a legal contract. It's also a social institution, and a deeply personal relationship between two people, and insofar as it is these things, its operation is none of the government's business. The optimal position for government, I believe, is to regulate the legal arrangement without imposing its vision on the personal one.

Also, in answer to Will's question, I would say that governments have recognized marriage as an institution as long as they have been around, by recognizing the right of a man to redress should his wife be taken from him.

UPDATE: Will wants to know about homosexual marriage. I think it is a fairly obvious corollary of what I said above that the government should not be in the business of telling people who, or what gender, their spouse should be. If they must be called "domestic partnerships" instead of marriage to pass popular muster, so be it, but the legal status of the two arrangements should be identical.

UPDATE II: Amanda has responded to my post. Again, because marriage is more than a religious institution, I think the government has a legitimate interest in limiting arrangements that it is willing to call marriages. It's interest is more than just recording contracts, but recording said contract as one of a standard type. If individuals can give the term whatever meaning they want, it becomes essentially meaningless. Thus, I think it is reasonable for the government to say, for instance, that you can only be married to one person at a time, or that ending a marriage requires initiating divorce proceedings (essentially--not allowing sunset clauses). I'm not willing to say that all of these sort of limitations as they currently exist are correct, but I think that making them is a job for government.

Thursday, April 17, 2003

Slate has the more damning critique of the Bush administration's inaction in the face of the looting of Baghdad's library and Museum of Antiquities, but Matt has the Indiana Jones reference. If I really wanted to, I might be able to argue that it is really the responsibility of the Iraqi people to preserve their cultural heritage, or that some looting is unavoidable, or that everyone makes mistakes, but in point of fact, I don't want to make any of those arguments. It's this sort of gross insensitivity for me to ever admire or like Bush, no matter how much I think the world has been improved by the removal of Saddam from power.

It's spring, when a young man's fancy turns to love, or something related. At any rate, whether it's the skimpier outfits, the more time spent outdoors, or the inspiration inspired by blossoming nature, the honking, whistling, catcalling season has started, and I'm not the only one who has noticed.

Jess wants to know why men catcall, given that their chances of scoring with the potentially annoyed recipient of the catcall are virtually nil. I don't actually know any men who catcall (or who will, at any rate, admit to it) so I can't confirm my theory, but I think that the goal here is not sex but merely attention. They want the woman who caught their eye to acknowledge that they exist. A smile and a nod is usually enough to satisfy catcallers, and ignoring them (despite my mother's advice) I've found to be the best way to encourage the persisent ones to continue.

Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Science and Morality:

Forthcoming will be several posts dealing with issues involving science and morality that have been up for debate lately. My first post will be about abstinence-only sex education, and I'm also planning to write about the teaching of evolution versus creationism, and the ban on cloning. Please email me with additional topics, or articles pertaining to any of these issues.

Sunday, April 13, 2003


Eugene Volokh recently asked why it is that more people are bothered by a man using a vibrating vagina than are bothered by a woman using a vibrating penis. I think this double standard actually has a somewhat reasonable physiological basis. The impression I get (and the testimony of my male friends) is that it is rare for a man to need more than his hand, some lubricant, and maybe a Playboy in order to have an orgasm in reasonably short order. The same thing, however, just isn't true for a lot of women. Given the vagaries of the female sexual response, there are times when a finger and a fantasy just aren't going to do it. If a woman wants to enjoy what men take for granted--dependable orgasms--she may need a vibrator. And since people of the "coastal, relatively socially liberal professional set" generally think this is a reasonable thing for people to want, they also generally think vibrators are ok.

The problem with vibrating vaginas is one not of kind, but of degree. A man who uses one is clearly looking for something more than basic satisfaction out of his masturbation. Whether this is icky due to the mechanization, the amount of dedication it suggests, or the ridiculousness of the image I'm not sure. But I think it's the same sort of reaction that would lead us to conclude that a man with a few porn films in the back of his closet is normal, but a man with every video Vivid has released in the past five years is troubled, or a woman with a vibrator is normal, but a woman with an anatomically correct blow-up man is weird. We've become liberated enough to recognize that a woman should be able to have as much fun as a man, but still remain prudish enough that we're bothered by either of them having too much fun, or doing so in a way that's too different from what we perceive as normal.

UPDATE: Eugene Volokh has posted his response, and he (along with Will) believe male vibrator use is disreputable because it differentially signals lack of sexual success. I am unconvinced. First, if masturbation alone is enough to signal lack of sexual success, why doesn't porn viewing (also a masturbatory aid) draw forth the same gut reaction? Second, the perception that women can get as much sex as they want automatically while men have to work for it is flawed. It involves applying male selection standards (willing, preferably attractive) to females, and ignoring the existence of higher selection standards among females, which is what is responsible for the perceived difference in the first place. The relevant group of men to consider when assessing female options is not men who would sleep with her, but men she would sleep with, and this latter group may well contain no one who will sleep with her, making her as much a sexual reject as the celibate man. If there is a genuine difference here, it is rather that when a woman says she doesn't want partner sex, she is belived, a man saying the same thing is assumed to be making pathetic excuses for his celibacy. Finally, imagine an attracive, successful professional man with a similarly attractive, successful girlfriend that he sometimes masturbates with an artifical vagina. Is this image really any less disturbing?

Musings on a transient world.

Amy Lamboley
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