Why I dismiss “evolutionary” explanations out of hand

During a Twitter discussion about the widely-cited study showing that men profess to be most attracted to 20- and 21-year olds well into their fifties while women prefer men approximately their own age throughout their lives, the inevitable happened: someone trotted out the “evolutionary” “fact” that of course men prefer younger women, given that they’re at their reproductive peak. Weirdly, though, my interlocutor’s own stated range for this peak was 14-24, and yet most men I know would find the idea of having sex with a 14-year-old repulsive. He also didn’t have any explanation for why women would prefer men their own age, rather than always prefering the presumably more resource-rich older men at all ages. And never mind the fact that stereotypically rail-thin “hot” physiques for women actively militate against reproduction. No, no — it was evolution that did it! It’s not changeable! We must bravely and grimly accept the cruel biological reality that coincidentally supports an ugly and much-contested aspect of existing power structures.

This exchange led me to declare a universal policy of rejecting out of hand any “evolutionary” explanation for contemporary behavior and social structures. This claim has been much misunderstood, as though I was denying any influence of biology at all. I don’t deny such an influence, but I do deny that we can know where social construction ends and the supposedly “hard-wired” biological impulse begins. We know from every day experience that even the most urgent biological impulses can be put off more or less indefinitely. In the battle between social norms and the need to urinate, for instance, social norms win essentially every time for healthy adults. All the evidence of human history seems to indicate that we evolved to be hugely pliable to social construction.

Obviously I’d be willing to accept an evolutionary explanation for a purely involuntary human response such as the gag reflex or the physical symptoms of stress and anxiety. But any feature of human society that is the subject of considerable debate and struggle — that’s on us. And here we can count debates not only over sex and reproduction, but over eating habits. Saying we evolved to eat meat doesn’t answer anything. If we can call that into question and debate it, we’re responsible for deciding, individually and collectively, how to proceed.

The attempt to reduce some actual-existing position within that debate to a sheer biological fact is always a more or less transparent and conscious attempt to shut down that debate or at least tilt it in favor of one particular outcome. As Schmitt says (and I often remind us), the claim to be taking a non-political position is actually a particularly forceful political move.

A completely practical reform for the Senate

I have written before about the constitutional problems arising from attempts to either abolish the Senate or create proportional representation. I now believe that I have developed a flawless scheme to achieve proportional representation with only minimal constitutional amendments. My model is the effort on the state level to make an end-run around the Electoral College. The scheme stipulates that once a number of states with a majority of electoral votes agrees to this measure, all those states would award their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. The Electoral College would remain formally in place, but it would be functionally irrelevant, with no possibility of a mismatch between the Electoral College and the popular vote (which has happened a disturbing number of times in US history).

My Senate scheme would be more complex. First, it would require the agreement of all 50 states in order to work. Second, it would require eliminating the constitutional amendment stipulating that senators be directly elected, reverting to the previous model where state legislatures appointed them (which weirdly happens to be a Tea Party demand, so maybe we could slip this in). The twist is that state legislatures would bind themselves to appoint their senators on the basis of a new nationwide senatorial election scheme, with proportional districts drawn either within or across state lines. (Let’s just stipulate that we could find a nonpartisan body that could be trusted to draw these districts.) Two new senate districts would be formally assigned to each state, which would automatically provide for staggered elections as in the current system. Ideally, all senators would resign en masse so that the new proportional system would come online all at once, but if not, it would only take six years (three election cycles) to clean house.

This system wouldn’t technically run afoul of the constitutional provision that no state be deprived of equal representation, because each senator would still be “officially” appointed by one of the states — they would just be doing so on the basis of the election results from the new nationwide senate districts. In a deeper sense, the convolution and indirection of the system seem to me to be profoundly in the spirit of the US Constitution itself. If we implemented this plan, the Founders would surely be smiling down on us, pleased that we developed a Rube Goldberg machine to get us out of the corner they painted us into.

Anger and privilege

In a recent post that I can’t find for some reason, Corey Robin pointed out that the Salaita affair — in which the University of Illinois rescinded a job offer upon learning of heated pro-Palestinian tweets written by the professor in question — is a great example of a general trend: the subaltern may perhaps speak, but he or she must never be angry. The angry feminist and the angry black man alike are figures of belittling ridicule, as though the expression of normal human frustration was a total disqualification in public debate.

This is strange when we realize that a willingness to freely express anger and frustration is considered a key requirement for effective leadership, at least when that leader is a white man. Indeed, white men’s anger is frequently presented as a charming or entertaining character trait on television — think of the success of the rageaholic chef Gordon Ramsay, who brutally castigates people for the crime of running a mediocre restaurant. Even in real life, the general public is likely to try to calm an angry white man down or placate him in some way, or else pity him for embarrassing himself with his pathetic acting-out. By contrast, if a black man behaved in the same way, people would be calling the police, and if a white woman did, people would be rolling their eyes and muttering insults under their breath.

We see a similar dynamic geopolitically. In my Islam class, someone brought up the fiasco with the cartoons of Muhammad, which caused rioting in the streets, death threats, etc. The sentiment seemed to be: “How strange that those scary Muslims would get so mad about a stupid stunt that was calculated to make them mad! When will they ever learn to be good liberal-democratic subjects like us?” What we forget in that context, however, is that white dudes regularly send all manner of threats (murder, rape, assault, etc.) to people who commit such horrific crimes as criticizing a video game they like. When that happens, of course, everyone rushes in to make sure we understand that #NotAllMen behave that way — while the lesson we’re supposed to draw from the response to an immeasurably more serious insult to Islam, an insult that was indeed intended as such, is that we must bravely set aside political correctness and admit that Islam and liberal democracy will never be compatible.

Hence I propose that, roughly speaking, one’s privilege level correlates with the likelihood that expressing anger will make people take your concerns more seriously rather than less — or at the very least, that it will prompt a reaction to you as an individual rather than triggering an immediate generalization about your demographic profile. This is one of the most intimate and insidious things about privilege dynamics: even the right to express perfectly natural and justified human emotions can’t be taken for granted.

Show your support! Agamben and empty political gestures

There is a quote from Varro that Agamben uses in the essay “Notes on Gesture” (included in both Infancy and History and Means Without End):

“For a person can make [facere] something and not act [agere] it, as a poet makes [facit] a play and does not act it [agere also means ‘to recite’], and on the other hand the actor acts [agit] it and does not make it, and so a play is made [fit] by the poet, not acted, and is acted [agitur] by the actor, not made. On the other hand, the imperator [the magistrate invested with supreme power] in that he is said to carry on [gerere] affairs, in this neither makes [facit] nor acts [agit] but carries on [gerit], that is, assumes and supports [sustinet], a meaning transferred from those who carry burdens [onera gerunt], because they support them” (Varro, 6.77)

In this early essay, what is at stake is finding some third kind of human action beyond the Aristotelian dichotomy of poiesis and praxis. For Agamben, what both of these modes of action share is their reference to some end or goal — the produced object in poiesis and the action itself in praxis — and the sphere of gerere or “gesture” seems, by contrast, to be a “pure means” without any reference to an end or goal.

In Opus Dei, the exact same quote appears with a completely different valence. Instead of pointing toward something hopeful or redemptive, it forms a part of the “archeology of office or duty” that separates the subject from his or her actions, rendering anything like ethical experience radically impossible. This is part of a broader pattern where figures and concepts that appeared to be the “good guys” in earlier writings take on a sinister edge in the Homo Sacer series (the most striking example being potentiality) — a trend that I don’t know quite what to do with.

What interests me here is the connection between the sphere of gesture and the notion of “supporting” something. In contemporary political circles, “support” has emerged as a key category — we “support” troops, politicians, parties, policies, causes. When we are asked to take some concrete action (donating money, signing a petition, voting), it is sometimes directly equated with “supporting” the political entity in question, but more often it is a means of showing one’s “support.” Taken in itself, “support” does not issue in any external action or result, and any such action or result is merely a way of demonstrating or pointing toward “support.”

In other words, the central political act of “supporting” belongs to the sphere of pure gesture, divorced from poiesis or praxis. Indeed, it seems to colonize the spheres of political poiesis and praxis themselves. Legislation is crafted in order to signal support for a key priority or constituency, even and especially when it has no chance of becoming law. The House of Representatives in recent years has reduced the act of legislation to an empty gesture, signalling again and again their “support” for a repeal of Obamacare. And is there not a sense that even in activist circles, one engages in activism primarily to show “support” for a cause, or even “support” for the very idea of activism itself? It’s not unimaginable that someone could view themselves as “supporting” true activism to such an extent that they refuse to participate in any activity that falls short of that lofty ideal.

Our moral standing is reduced to what we “support.” We are good or bad people, in the eyes of whichever circle we choose, based on whether we hold the correct opinions or not, “support” the appropriate causes or not. When we seek to create moral and political change, we are always working on the level of opinions — using persuasion to get someone to switch their “support” over to our cause. We often make vague reference to the idea that changing hearts and minds will lead to some concrete change, but that’s not really where our passionate engagement is. In any case, such persuasion is of course very rare, so that engagement with other viewpoints seems to function primarily to confirm the rightness of the causes we “support,” to affirm our political and moral rectitude.

Our actions — or rather, our lack thereof — show that we believe very deeply in this sphere of “support,” of pure, empty gesture.

Did Obama get played in 2008?

[NOTE: Earlier this summer, The Girlfriend and I watched a lot of House of Cards and Scandal, so that must be kept in mind in reading this post.]

It’s easy to forget now, but in the summer of 2008, it really looked like John McCain would win. Only after the financial crisis really began in September — an event that apparently none of our political elites foresaw — did Obama’s victory become a fait accompli. It’s also easy to forget that when it comes to delegates elected by the people who voted in primaries, Obama and Clinton were pretty much in a dead heat. The deciding factor was the Democratic “superdelegates,” i.e., the party leaders who get to vote for the candidate of their choice at the convention regardless of primary results. Clinton could have won if the superdelegates fell in line behind her, but as the convention approached, more and more broke in favor of Obama.

With all these facts in mind, I’ve begun to wonder if Clinton, facing the prospect of an uphill battle against one of the most respected politicians in America (another thing that’s easy to forget!), calculated that it was better to let Obama be the sacrificial lamb against McCain and live to fight another day — either 2012, if McCain reaped the whirlwind from the Bush disaster, or else 2016 — and so “released” her superdelegates to Obama. This might also explain why she didn’t insist on the VP slot, not wanting to be tarnished by a defeat.

As it turns out, though, the whirlwind came more quickly than anticipated, resulting in Obama accidentally getting elected.

On the toxic nostalgia for Christian hegemony

Adrian Pabst has a column up at ABC Religion and Ethics on the challenges facing the West — a situation that may even, God forbid, lead the West to split! What we need, it turns out, is a reinvigorated West united on the basis of Christianity (along with “other people of good will”), presumably to turn the tide of Islam (and Chinese communism, though that’s more of a footnote to his argument than the main thrust).

The notion that Christianity is the solution to modern problems is laughable. The Westphalian nation-state, which religious critics of modernity almost always single out as virtually demonic, arose as a way of quelling the hugely destructive religious conflicts that followed the Reformation. The Christian roots of capitalism are well-known, and the majority of mainstream Christian groups are either actively proud of capitalism or calling for moderate reforms at best. Christian moral formation did nothing to teach the majority of Western subjects to resist nationalistic wars, imperialism, or the slave trade. In fact, Christianity was used to legitimate both colonialism and slavery. Christians in Germany were generally supportive of or silent about literally the worst regime in human history and, as a group, did nothing to stop or even impede an unprecedented systematic genocide.

In short, if you were to rack up the greatest crimes of modernity, Christianity was deeply implicated in nearly all of them. The minority of Christians who resisted those crimes were marginalized and at times even actively persecuted by Christian leaders. The notion that we should overlook all this and return to some form of Christian hegemony repeats the signature move that makes Christian moral formation such a complete world-historical failure — the emphasis on forgiveness to the exclusion of almost anything else. Dan Barber has thoroughly documented this structure, wherein we are all sinners, but Christians are “better” because at least they acknowledge they are sinners. Indeed, in the current instance, I can already anticipate Christian apologists claiming that Christianity’s very complicity will ensure that Christians, as opposed to the self-righteous Muslims, are properly chastened and humble in their hegemonic role. It’s utter nihilism.

On belief

The standard liberal objection to religious motivations for political action is that they are unquestionable and not susceptible of disproof, so that they cannot form a part of the ongoing rational dialogue that should ideally characterize the political process. Indeed, the “special relationship” that secular liberalism posits between religion and violence is based precisely on the fact that religiously-motivated actions are not motivated by reason and hence are arbitrary and unpredictable — i.e., violent.

In one of Zizek’s weakest books, On Belief, he claims that liberals are actually the “believers” in this sense. He doesn’t back up this claim very effectively, choosing instead to indulge in misleading, “provocative” violations of liberal pieties, yet I think we can see that the core insight is there when we notice that the signature gesture of our ruling classes is to present themselves as the mere vessel of impersonal, ineluctable forces. Powerful, impossibly wealthy businessmen have no freedom of choice, as the market determines everything they do. Politicians are similarly guided by what is “politically possible,” irrespective of the range of options their office should theoretically give them.

Obviously it is human to try to beg off responsibility by pointing to forces beyond one’s control — but surely never before in history has a ruling class so thoroughly legitimated itself as constrained by forces beyond its control. It’s as though the one qualification for political or economic power is the ability to divine the messages coming from these powerful occult forces that guide our lives. Any actual deliberation about what should happen is radically foreclosed by this stance: indeed, proposing to debate openly about the shape of our shared life is painted with the same brush of fanaticism as in the liberal critique of religion, except this time the label is “populism” (a catch-all term that completely ignores the unmistakable differences between right- and left-wing principles and priorities).

I would venture to say that back when societies were structured according to religious principles and everyone basically believed in God, a political or business leader who claimed to be a direct channel for God’s will would’ve been regarded as either insane or dangerously disingenuous. Re-label “God’s will” as “the market” or “the politically feasible,” however, and no one bats an eye.

I’d further claim that in settings where religious authority factored significantly in the political process, debate was actually much more vigorous — just compare the Talmud to the editorial pages in a mainstream newspaper, for example. That’s because everyone recognized that the sources of religious authority, as was fitting for something from a divine source, were difficult for us mere humans to understand, so that our conclusions about God’s intent were almost always subject to error and reinterpretation.

Not so with the contemporary impersonal deity who inspires our ruling elites! It’s always right there in the numbers, in black and white. There’s no room for interpretation or debate, unless that means using more sophisticated (and hence reliable!) mathematical tools — at the end of the day, all you need is a literal interpretation and you’re good to go. No religious fundamentalist can possibly be as closed off to alternatives as the secular liberal fundamentalist armed with absolute mathematical necessity.


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