Friday, March 29, 2013

Guest spot: The Sacred Bond

The first political blog I read regularly was by Tom Tomorrow, starting because I love his cartoons, but continuing for his delicious sensitivity to political irony. This just came in on his weekly mailout to subscribers, and I think it really deserves a (slightly) wider audience. It references his cartoon coming out on Monday, but you don't need to see it to get the point.

by Dan Perkins (aka Tom Tomorrow), author of This Modern World

I grew up in the midwest and the south, and often traveled between those regions as we'd go to visit relatives here and there. I have a very clear memory of stopping at a gas station in rural Alabama, which had three restrooms: MEN, WOMEN and LADIES. I was maybe 11 or 12, and found this both indecipherable and hilarious: what was the difference between WOMEN and LADIES, I asked loudly. I remember my dad looking around uncomfortably, and only after we were back in the car explaining that the redundant restroom was a leftover from the days of segregation, at which point it would have been labeled COLOREDS.

When I lived in Iowa City, in the early 1980s, I had a friend who had to hide from his landlord the fact that he lived with his same-sex partner. They kept an extra bedroom made up to look as if someone were living in it, so they could maintain the pretense that they were just roommates. He had stories of narrow escapes on weekend mornings when the landlord would drop by unexpectedly, that sort of thing.

My friend's Potemkin spare bedroom seems like an artifact of a distant age now, as much as the extra restroom in that Alabama gas station. For several years now, when someone has asked me, more or less -- what's the point? what can we change? -- I've been using the turnaround on gay marriage as Example A for the argument that people's minds CAN be changed, and politicians can be pushed to do the right thing. It's also evidence that Obama, specifically, should not be given the blank check his more ardent supporters would prefer. He "evolved" on gay marriage because he was criticized and pushed and prodded. That's how change happens, not through blind faith that a politician will choose to do the right thing without external pressure.

When you boil it down, the main argument against gay marriage is essentially that "gays are icky," which is basically more about people's own discomfort with sex in general than anything else. The thing is, "gays are icky" just isn't a very compelling legal argument. And so gay marriage opponents have reverted to the fallback argument, that the purpose of marriage is for child-raising. This, however, puts them in the same bind that abortion opponents have with rape, i.e. that the exceptions undermine your entire argument. If you concede that abortion is necessary in the case of rape, then you have lost the moral high ground that all abortions are murder -- which is why there's this odd strain of thought on the anti-abortion extreme, that women who are raped don't get pregnant. It's the deus ex machina, the magic plot device that resolves your narrative dilemma.

Opponents of marriage equality have a similar problem: if straight marriage is superior due to the inherent possibility of procreation, what about the infertile? or the aged? or those who remain childless by choice? A Princeton professor named Robert George rides to the rescue with the theory of "dynamism toward reproduction" -- that penis-in-vagina sex is necessary to "real" marriage because at the very least it simulates the act which COULD result in pregnancy, even when it does not.

I am not making this up.

So, as Proposition 8 and DOMA wound their way through the courts, gay marriage opponents lit upon a more durable argument, seemingly grounded in science rather than animus or religion. Their case, presented most comprehensively by Princeton professor Robert P. George, is that only sex acts with a “dynamism toward reproduction”—that is, penile to vaginal intercourse—create true marriages and lead to legitimate child-rearing. Same-sex marriages, by this theory, are not “real” marriages, because they do not involve “organic bodily union.”

This argument puts gay marriage opponents in an awkward position. For years, they said gays were too libidinous and licentious to create stable marriages. Now, as proponents of gay marriage emphasize love, fidelity, and commitment, the right is fetishizing coitus.

The debate between marriage-as-love and marriage-as-coital-vehicle permeates the amici briefs that have flooded the court. George’s amicus — an abridged version of his book — pits the hallowed “conjugal” view of marriage against the destructive “revisionist” view. According to George, the revisionist view sees marriage as “essentially an emotional union, accompanied by consensual sexual activity.” The conjugal view, on the other hand, sees marriage as “begun by commitment and sealed by sexual intercourse" ....

Ostensibly, copulation is crucial because it leads to procreation. But that pretense collapses when George gets to the problem of straight couples who can’t procreate. He writes that “an infertile man and woman can together still form a true marriage” because “an act of sexual intercourse is organic bodily union whether or not it causes conception.” The couple’s “bodies are still united in coitus,” he reasons, and “the behavioral part” of their coupling “remains ordered to reproduction even when nonbehavioral factors ... prevent conception.” In other words, you should copulate with your opposite-sex spouse not to make a baby, but to behave in a way that would make a baby if you were fertile. Coitus is sacred not as a means, but as a performance.

As the article notes, the irony of it all is that the allegedly sex-obsessed gay community is now the standard-bearer of love and commitment, while traditionalists argue that marriage is primarily about the fucking.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Muggs: Tarbabies

Pop Rocket, March 2013

Benghazi. Illegal immigrants. Obama's birth certificate. Saddam Hussein. Sharia law. Gun confiscation. Agenda 21. Nullification. The New World Order. Blah, blah,blah.
     What these and so many others all have in common is that they are or were, in objective reality, non-issues, topics that look like important public problems but have no rational basis as such. People get hung up on them and can't let go. That's why I call them tarbabies.
     Tarbaby issues litter our history, and widespread online access has made them even stickier. It's a lot easier now to live inside an information bubble that reflects and reinforces a point of view, making it harder to let conflicting information in. People are easily fascinated, and once in that state are lulled into "knowing" comfort even as the assertions grow steadily more outrageous to counter impinging reality.
     In the version of the tarbaby story current in our culture, Br'er Fox used the tarbaby to trap Br'er Rabbit, a situation clearly evoking the life lessons of Aesop. Traditional cultures tell similar versions of this story worldwide. There's a lesson for us here, and it's about propaganda, a subject I know a little about, since I've been doing it as a living for decades. Goering called this tactic the Big Lie.
     We can build our own tarbabies, as any addict will testify, but the kind I'm thinking of are more often built as traps. When an unscrupulous operator wants to distract you from something, relieve you of your money or keep you from getting in his way, setting up a tarbaby is a standard ploy. And we fall for it in droves.
     Say you want to impede international cooperation on a social-justice issue, like land mines. Spreading shrill and unfounded rumors that the United Nations is out to take over your military is bound to peel off a large number people who might be otherwise inclined toward progress. Worried that your industry might have to change because it's killing the planet? Spend heavily to plant fake science stories that make it easier for people to ignore the huge, flashing warning signs and sink back into their Barcaloungers. Afraid that voters will do something sensible that will cost you money or power? Focus on governmental inefficiences or political venality (there are always a few), and tell people that the pols are all crooks and voting is for suckers. To some degree it always works.
     The bigger the lie, the more effective and long-lasting it can be. The idea that the founders of our nation designed the Second Amendment to support uprisings against the government -- otherwise known as treason -- a patently ridiculous concept, is left over from the secessionist rhetoric of the Civil War, and circulating more widely today than ever. The idea that contrails, the wispy clouds of condensation that high-flying planes stir up, are laden with mind-control chemicals, or that a secret government cabal conspired to blow up the World Trade Center, just will not die the ignominious death they deserve under the "um, that doesn't make sense" test. As a species we've proved endlessly that any investment in a tarbaby can pay off.
     Tobacco lobbyists and racists got together in the 1920s to create the "marihuana" tarbaby. Self-serving political sharps and oil interests used doctored "intelligence" to build the Saddam tarbaby. Flim-flam artists in the insurance industry counter sensible progress on national health care with the 'Socialism!' tarbaby. Get a mind stuck to one of these little beasties, and useful thinking processes cease, zip-zop.
     But you may notice that there's an easy defense against the tarbaby, one that works every time and takes practically no effort. Just don't touch it.
     Br'er Rabbit's mistake was that he got emotional, tearing into the tarbaby for a supposed slight before looking closely at what he faced. He managed to maneuver the fox into giving him the tools he needed to escape, but the people using this tactic now are a lot smarter than that. Better to simply take a good look before we invest anything in an idea, and keep looking as it evolves. The briar patch that will free you is more and better information.
     So when you hear over and over that "Social Security is insolvent" or "Obama wants to take your guns away" or "Donald Trump is a credible presidential contender," you have choices: you can take a little time to look, investigate and learn, or you can walk away. Just be warned that if you bite without thinking, you're likely to be hooked.
     Above all we must not let sticky tarbabies distract us from watching and working on the problems that really matter.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

You heard it here first

Today we read that the City Council is calling single-stream recycling, including glass, a "no-brainer." Apparently this eureka moment comes at the urging of angry Prescottonians. Good going, we-the-people. Just let me remind you that this fruit has been hanging low the whole time, as I noted over two years ago:

Rethinking the Glass Problem
Pop Rocket, February 2011
An awful lot of Prescottonians, including yours truly, were dismayed when the City "suspended" its glass recycling program in September. Some were outraged. Of the myriad materials we send to the landfill, glass is arguably the most durable and among the simplest to recycle. It simply should not be in the waste stream.
     When The Daily Courier quoted City staff saying that there was "no market" for recycled glass and that "manufacturers found it cheaper to start from scratch to make new glass products," my internal BS alarm went off.
     Among the outraged is my partner Lesley, recently moved to Prescott from Sedona, a much smaller municipality that manages to maintain regular glass recycling through a private-sector arrangement. She dug into the issue and turned up some illuminating facts.
     It turns out that yes, prices for used glass are down, but it's not quite true that there is no market. A look at how the big kids do it shows that a lot depends on how you design your program.
     Prescott contracts with Norton Environmental in Flagstaff to pick up our recyclables at the Sundog transfer station, and we pay $10 per ton for the privilege, a savings compared to paying Waste Management to entomb the stuff out at the Grey Wolf landfill.
      But Norton has never been able to handle our glass. The City's glass effort has been a separate stream involving local crushing and direct marketing. In the mid-aughts, prices for glass fell below the costs (including transport, a big piece) of this relatively small operation, creating the sort of fluctuation squeeze any commodity manager can see coming when margins and efficiency are low. 
     Efficiency comes with scale. Phoenix, Mesa, Scottsdale, several smaller Valley cities and a bunch of large corporations like Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola and the US Postal Service concentrate their recyclables on the huge Hudson Baylor facility in West Phoenix. This New York-based company does single-stream recycling, meaning all recyclables, including glass, go into the same bin and large machinery does most of the sorting. HB pays the cities for their materials, and it sells the sorted products to reprocessors. A YouTube search for "Hudson Baylor Avondale" will get you a look at how it works.
     Currently the most valuable materials in the recycle stream are aluminum and cardboard. (A large proportion of the cardboard winds up sold to Chinese concerns, an interesting foreign-trade angle. We may not be leading the world in manufacturing anymore, but our consumer culture does pump out a lot of salable waste.) With a diversified income stream, the more profitable materials compensate for lower-yielding materials, like glass is right now. The simplicity of single-streamingencourages people to recycle more, bringing in more profitable materials, and its processing efficiency reduces cost.
     Asked whether HB would be interested in taking on Prescott's recycle stream, Marketing Director Will Herzog is quite positive: "I would be more than happy to come up and meet with your City Council to discuss possible solutions." Herzog tells us that HB has never received an inquiry from Prescott. 
     So where's the catch? A couple of factors stand out.
     One is practical. Prescott would have to truck its recyclables to Phoenix, adding some cost. But rather than pay Norton $30,000 a year, HB would be paying us, and we'd be saving some tonnage cost on additional recyclables not sent to Grey Wolf. We'd have to work the numbers there, but the problem doesn't look insurmountable.
     The other catch is more about vision. We would have to think a little bigger to build an integrated system more in line with the economics of the industry. Recycling isn't just a feel-good perk, it is already a major money-saver for many cities and industries, growing more economically essential every day. It's unwise to hold off acting until the need becomes acute and obvious.
     A partnership with HB is a strong possibility, but clearly it will take a lot more research to determine what would be the best fit for Prescott or perhaps the region more generally. Many cities apply federal and state grants for this purpose, and the opportunities there require careful, expert scrutiny. Here I just hope to restart the conversation.
     The central question is not whether we can find a way to recycle our glass or anything else, it's clear that we can, but rather whether we care enough to deal responsibly and conservatively with our ever-growing piles of waste.