Thursday, May 31, 2007

Predatory Men, Predatory Women

Chani's use of the phrase "predatory sex," referring to propositions of admittedly questionable taste, brought to mind recent comments in a post-marriage support group in which I serve as a discussion facilitator.

We were talking about dating and three women told of similar approaches by men. "I have never been asked for a date [since the marriage breakup]," said the one who expressed it best, "but I have been asked for sex several times."

What I found most appalling about this was the manner in which the approach was made. One man told the woman he was approaching that she was "so hot" he was already masturbating about her!

In what barn have these guys learned their etiquette?

Of course, men and women alike are drawn to sex with one another. Both fantasize about it and now and then do something about fantasies privately. (See here if you don't believe that, yes, Virginia, women do, too.) But there's an invisible boundary between what is private and public.

Many American men have given the rest of us a bad name by stepping over that line.

Similarly, less talked about because ... I don't know why, women are perfectly capable of stepping over boundaries in ways that are predatory, sometimes even over the felony line. Trust me on this.

Granted, most women do not mix up violence with sex, most women derive power more surreptitiously than men (millennia on the slave side of the master-slave relationship, Hegel might have said), but just like men, women can objectify, exploit, use and abuse other people in relation to sex.

The same three women who complained about being asked for sex, for example, did not think it even necessary to offer to pay half for dinner (even though refusal is almost certainly guaranteed). They assumed that -- by virtue of what, other than their sex? --they had an automatic entry to a man's wallet. Yet all of them would have assumed that they had the right to decide if and when they would kiss the man.

Let's take this off the table so there is no confusion: I am not proposing for an instant that a dinner buys sex (kissing to whatever).

However, anyone who thinks that the mere act of dressing up tantalizingly and putting on cosmetics (many purchased for their romantically suggestive brand names) deserves a free meal needs to think about what kind of reasoning would justify such a conclusion. It looks to me like sex buying dinner, although I'm open to alternatives.

The point is that both men and women are predatory in that we search for mates like hawks.

Traditionally, men have taken the active part of the hunt and women have tried to draw circles and arrows around themselves to be "found." The distinction between active and passive roles does not erase the mutual desire to find one another and mate.

Of course, there remain boundaries that neither one should cross. Some of these boundaries are clear and spelled out in codes of law, others are unwritten (yet not immutable) social norms.

Less explicit customary limits attach to groups within society (caste, class, ethnicity, etc.). In a society with such a large variety of subgroups and such ease of travel from one to the other, inevitably some misunderstandings will arise.

If the people of the opposite sex you encounter are all crossing your boundaries, I would suggest that you are simply in the wrong circles.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Sex as a Language

In the last half century or so, it seems, our society has swung from utter abandon in pursuit of sex of every tawdry, extreme and bizarre form, to outright rejection of sex, either with tablets of law from a mountain top or in expressions of sexual indigestion.

Chani, aka Thailand Gal, had this to say in response to my post yesterday:
I am incapable of being a slave to other people's needs, especially someone's sexual needs.
By all means, give up being a slave to someone's sexual needs. But must we forget that sex is a language -- like Thai or English or French?

A better analogy might be a special purpose computer language. Xbase. (I'm not really a techie, I just can do a reasonable imitation.) Few people still program in Xbase, although it's very sturdy and useful to handle databases.

Theoretically, you could write a compiler (a program to make programs) in Xbase and you could create a computer game. But why would you want to?

Xbase, originally dBase later Clipper and other variants, was invented in 1978 to go directly and intimately to the core of the information in a database, to build relations between sets of data, to link up what is often not obvious or easy in a deceptively simple way.

Like sex.

Technically, you could have sex with goats or design a robot to fulfill your every fantasy, but why would you want to?

Sex is a special purpose language that involves seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling. (And, let's not forget, that off chance of reproduction.)

The combination of thought, word, mime and physical contact meld into a whole new dimension of contact with the core of another person. At the same time, we shed the layers of our selves. Then, at a powerful ego-barrier-destroying instant we all associate with intense pleasure, we have an exchange of being occurring that defies logical comprehension or comparison.

Sex is the language of love between two peers.

How to speak such a powerful language? In window shopping for love, look but don't touch, wrote Snoskred a few days ago. Touch and listen to the soul, responded Genevieve.

Chani reminded me that I've already expressed my dislike the idea of shopping for love (here), when I attempted to speak about love as an absolute value.

Yet my original question a week or so ago was whether love occurred one at a time, whether two or more might be touched by love. All in light of the idea that "The One" is largely a chimera (on this Chani's observations seem to match mine, although I have not quite abandoned the possibility).

One answer is to keep a certain distance. Another is to take a little nibble, as of a canape.

Yet another is the approach Leonard Cohen expressed in an interview aeons ago, in which he compared sex to a form of communication. Might we not be able to have several sexual conversations going? This would not be window shopping at all.

One is not intending to "buy" anything, but to share something of oneself and to receive from another, to practice the phrases, the verbs, the syntax of the complex language of love. If all of us could experience an all-connecting orgasm together, wouldn't wars cease, dog-eat-dog competition end, hatred dissipate?

This is not an invitation to a worldwide orgy. (Although ... what are you doing next Saturday?) No, seriously.

I repeat: Sex is the language of love between peers. We are not all peers. Sex should be an expression of equality, of similarity or complementary polarity, of abandonment and trust in another. It is often an instrument of oppression, a stand-in for power, a soft-touch leash.

In the end, sex between everyone and everyone else is not appropriate. But neither is no sex between anyone.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Slouching Toward Craziness

Why is it that when you begin to slouch toward partnering things get crazy and all you want to do is head for the hills?

OK, I almost saw myself on "Sex in the City" typing on Sarah Jessica Parker's laptop. (Except I'm a guy who can't stop wondering why she uses a Mac, fer cryin' out loud.)

I'm told this is obvious and true and inevitable. Why am I the only person in the universe who doesn't know this? And don't tell me RTFM. This wasn't in the manual!

Why is it that even when you get along with someone, have great sex, enjoy similar movies, generally "get" one another, you still have rip-roaring arguments of the type you've had before with someone else who can't possibly live with you?

Why do people drive each other crazy? Why did I feel impelled to comment at the wedding I attended "If they think the wedding is difficult, wait till they get to the divorce part"? (Note: I did not say this to the couple.)

Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?

Oh, and did I say "why"?

Monday, May 21, 2007

When a Door is not a Door

You remember the grade school riddle: When is a door not a door? When it's ajar. The same could be said about the immigration bill now on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

Crafted as a compromise, the bill would
  • legalize foreigners who entered the USA without authorization prior to Jan. 1, 2007;
  • increase border barriers;
  • alter the family unification visa system to favor those with skills or assets.
Some people say this is too generous, as 12 million people would be legalized. Other people point out that each person has to come up with a $1,500 processing fee and a $5,000 fine, which for a family of four would mean $26,000.

Some say the border barriers will make the country more secure. Others point out that the open border, Canada, has been the gateway for would-be terrorists, whereas the patrolled border with Mexico has not coughed up one single such operative.

Some say that it's high time we stopped (other people's) family chain migrations. Other point out that changes will separate families.

Still, the politics being what they are, this is probably the best bet -- unless the Senate amends it beyond recognition.

The problem in this country are the millions of hypocritical and downright mean people who love to make life difficult for others and evade responsibilities themselves. They are easily recognizable as conservatives and Republicans.

They shout about "family values" but get caught with affairs and multiple, messy divorces -- some even with minors. They tut-tut about abortion, but they only impede the choice for poor women, who don't vote Republican if they vote at all, while leaving the possibility open for middle class and wealthy women, some of whom do vote Republican.

That's the hypocrisy part. Now comes the meanness part.

It is amply clear that the immigrants unauthorized to work hold jobs employers are happy to hire them for and that the loss of these people would be an economic setback. See, for example, this study for a snapshot of the situation in California that is representative of the national picture.

Despite the popular misconception, immigrants do not steal jobs from native workers. See here.

Yet nonetheless, there are burgeoning groups of chauvinist nativists who harass immigrants with vigilante tactics and are the backbone of the anti-immigrant movement.

There's no rhyme or reason here. It's just pure meanness. (Mixed with a generous dose of racism, which is also plain mean.)

Solutions that occur to me -- expelling the South from the Union or deporting nativists back to their beloved white, European homelands -- are either impractical or unworkable for the present.

The only solution is to give the irrational segment of our society, which unfortunately is much too large for a nation that stakes a claim to lead the world, some emotional satisfaction in exchange for a saner immigration policy.

That's what Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass) and John Kyl (R-Ariz) did last Thursday when they cobbled the present bill before the Senate.

It's time to move this nation toward a more reasonable and open policy, as open to the immigrants we will increasingly need in the future, as we were in the past to those who came before.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The One?

A correspondent asks whether it is possible to love two people at once. My response is to wonder whether it is possible to love just one, famously "The One."

Let's set aside the various kinds of love: for family, for friends, erotic or romantic, and altruistic or self-giving -- in Greek: storge, philia, eros, and agape. I wrote about this here.

Defining love, classifying it, moralizing about it, are all distractions.

We all know what love is, most prominently we notice its absence from our lives, our communities, our world. The question about loving two need not be circumscribed to romantic love, although it most often is.

Still, I wonder whether it is possible to love just one person.

Might there not be one person with whom it is a joy to discourse about the economy, politics, literature? Another with whom a shared meal, perhaps cooking for or being cooked for by that person, is a sheer delight? Could not another offer a storybook home, replete with children? Yet another share an interest in tennis or boardgames?

Why must these affinities and shared pleasures lead to the bed, or merely the sofa, or skinny dipping, in only one instance?

All right, we carry the Judaeo-Christian monkey on our backs. Adultery is wrong because ... it muddied up paternity for the purposes of inheritance during the period in which property was almost exclusively held by men. That's not what God allegedly told Moses, nor what the rabbis and priests want you to take home with you after you've helped fill the collection plate.

But it happens to be the best explanation for a moral imperative so widely contravened.

Yes, surely, there's also pregnancy and disease, but there's also birth control, safe sex and medicine. Besides, didn't I just finish pointing to the sofa (or the back seat of a Dodge), the quintessential locale for making out of a non-penetrational nature?

Must every expression of intimacy, desire, pleasure in another necessarily end up with an exchange of genital fluids? Isn't kissing and embracing just as necessary for the sanity of mammals?

Might there not, then, be two or three bed partners, five or six sofa partners and ten or eleven merely hugging and hand-holding partners, each with a different set of emotional, intellectual and activity affinities?

Admittedly, this is a question more often raised by a man. Just as my correspondent's question is most often raised by a woman.

Yet even the most Puritan of women experience a range of physical intimacy -- from sex to kissing, embracing and even just touching -- with a very large set of concentric circles of people. In contrast, the serially monogamous male usually is physically intimate with one adult at a time, perhaps a few children.

Women will often admit that they wished they could be lesbian, as they share so much with other women, even though for sex they desire a man, preferably one man. Why couldn't a community of women sexually share a man? Or why couldn't a community of women share a community of men?

Why couldn't a community of men share a woman? The woman would be too lonely; a community of men is an unsentimental, competitive, relatively Spartan environment.

With the divorce rate what it is, with relationships in general so ephemeral, with the reality that it is unlikely that one person -- The One -- will amply satisfy another emotionally, intellectually, physically and so forth, shouldn't we rethink the couple paradigm?

Yes, Virginia, it is possible to love two people at once, intensely, honorably, lovingly. Indeed, I doubt that it is possible to love just one, happily ever after.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Look Who Won the War

The offloading of red-ink bleeding Chrysler by Mercedes-Benz automaker Daimler at a gigantic loss, on the heels of Toyota's displacement of General Motors as the top auto seller in the USA, is an odd outcome for an industry that was once indisputably American-led. Did Germany and Japan ultimately win World War II?

Halting my own German-made car at a stop light, I count the vehicles around me by provenance and it's not hard to reach that conclusion.

The least mysterious element is how this situation came to be. It could not be expected that Europe and Japan would wallow in ruins for generations, nor that American-made cars would continue to make up 69 percent of all autos made worldwide -- as was true in 1968 -- forever.

The underpinnings of the lifestyle that permitted someone who did no more than apply bolts to a machine all day to send children to the very expensive higher education in the United States was bound to end. Indeed, American automakers went from making the best cars to making the cars most predictably doomed to fall apart.

"Planned obsolescence" was popularized starting in 1954 by American industrial designer Brook Stevens, the idea being that goods could be made in such a way that they would need to be replaced within a certain span of time, thus forcing the consumer to buy it again and again. The idea came from British economist Bernard London, who in 1932 proposed that planned obsolescence would be a way to stimulate consumption and end the Great Depression, which devastated the UK as much as the USA.

Planned obsolescence works best with a monopoly (Microsoft and its treatment of users with what it deems to be "old" software). It also works with an oligopoly, a market or industry dominated by a few sellers.

The oligopoly was the prevailing structure of American industry from the 1950s to the 1980s, when the Reagan Administration deregulated everything. Autos? Chrysler, Ford, GM. TV? ABC, NBC, CBS. Cereals? Kellogg, General Foods, Post. And so on ...

Are we better off having to buy our own telephones from companies that obfuscate the options, having to choose between competing local and long distance companies? Wasn't there a certain stability and certainty in knowing that when we moved the phone would be there before the furniture?

What's next: brands of oxygen? I was going to say water, but that is now sold, expensively and anti-ecologically.

And what about Germany and Japan? They have oligopolies, too. Autos? Bundes Motor Werke (BMW), Daimler and Volkswagen. (Himself rode in Benzes and VW bugs, just check the pictures from the 1930s.) Or Toyota, Mitsubishi and Nissan.

The Germans and Japanese had two comparative advantages. Both stem from what Leon Trotsky called, in another context, the relative advantage of underdevelopment. First, their industrial base was wiped out by 1945 so that for the past half-century, they've been working in plants that are 30 or 40 years newer than ours. Secondly, and this is truer of the Japan than Germany, their small internal market meant focusing outward -- and, until Europe fully unifies or China emerges, there is no larger single internal market than that of the United States.

They set out to conquer by listening to consumer demand, while American auto executives turned a deaf ear to the market. All German and Japanese businessmen learned to speak English, not just in translation, but the American cultural idiom. You would be hard-pressed to find Japanese-speaking U.S. executives and few speak even German.

American companies export products with the Americanizing idea. Blue-jeans sell youths U.S. hipness in France. Toyota does the reverse. They Americanized to suit the market. They even put plants here.

That's how German and Japanese automakers beat American competitors, both in timeliness and intensity of response, when Americans switched from the showboats with fins to low-gas-mileage compacts. Today, even the South Koreans (KIA) are first in the U.S. market with hybrids and high-mileage cars.

Buying an American car today is a singular act of stupidity. In a couple of years it will need huge repairs, in four or five it will need to be discarded.

I have a 17-year-old German car that may well last another 17; yet it draws oohs and ahhs from men and women alike. Although I really purchased it for its sturdiness and solid engineering. Could you say the same for anything coming out of Detroit?

Yet even German carmakers are Americanizing. The most recent model Mercedes will display, alongside the oil pressure gauge, the song a plugged-in iPod is playing. From what I hear on e-mail lists, all these electronics are making Benzes subject to the sort of recurrent breakdowns that plague American cars.

Are the Japanese next?

I suspect redemption, or at least an entirely new paradigm, will come with the next great global battle: against the effects of industrial depredation of the environment. Collective survival will force redesign of the combustion engine and a massive shift to a cleaner, probably still unknown, fuel.

Are we Americans capable of rising to the challenge? Or have we, like the Romans once had, become too comfortable to be able to change?

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

After the Deluge

Just as in baseball, in which three strikes at bat renders the player "out," the third consecutive defeat of the Socialist Party in France suggests that some rethinking is in order. This has been true for the entire worldwide Left since the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which the mass megamedia proclaimed as the global victory of capitalism.

The first bit of rethinking is conceptual and historical.

Socialism is not identical to Communism, nor is the reverse true. Both spring from the impulse to democratize economic decision-making, thought by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to involve a process shifting economic control -- ownership -- from the possessing few to the wage-slave many.

Socialists recognize the errors of the 1917 Revolution, launched by the misnamed "Bolsheviki" (which means "majority"), later consolidated as Communists. Lenin read Marx too mechanistically in order to justify authoritarian and violent change and a materialist dogmatism having more to do with Russian culture than Marxian political economy. Stalin transmogrified it into a system of permanent tyranny.

Still, even the half-baked socialism of the USSR and its satellites achieved many economic advances still unseen elsewhere, such as the abolition of inflation and the massive reduction of poverty.

A truer, more democratic Socialism was beginning to obtain modest triumphs in Western Europe by 1912. Even the Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had been forced by socialists' victories at the ballot box to lay the foundations of social insurance programs and mass education that have ever since been a hallmark of Germany.

When a Chapinesque figure emerged in the 1920s at the head of an anti-Semitic right-wing group, even he used the word "socialist" in the name of his party, even though the real socialists were the first people he threw in jail once he was in power in 1933. "Socialist" was and remained a vote-getting word in Germany throughout the 20th century.

Socialism also swept Western Europe after World War II.

Britain's Labour hegemony, the Spanish PSOE, the Italian PSI, the German SPD and the French Party, became partners in postwar rebuilding and repeatedly won elections in which voters pushed for ever more benefits and shorter working hours and longer vacations. And let's not forget the socialist electoral dynasties in Sweden, Denmark and the Low Countries.

The application to the United States is thin. Anything Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Baines Johnson did in the United States pales by comparison to the European systems. Today, the Democratic Party has a loose "caucus" that rarely dares even to whisper the S-word and publicly disclaims the L-word.

In Western Europe, however, all was achieved through open, free elections, side by side with private property and large corporations.

The Thatcherite-Reaganite refrain today is that all this largesse has bankrupted Europe and that the entire socialist project for society is to blame. Like George W. Bush, the spokespersons for this view yearn for history to advance toward 1908 rather than 2008.

Yet such people deserve the Left's thanks. Their excesses are undoing confidence in the myth of capitalism as an economic perpetual motion machine. Capitalism has high social and human (not to mention ecological) costs.

The question Marx posed about a century and a half ago was not how to destroy capitalism by blunt means (aka Lenin, Mao, Castro, etc.) but how to develop capitalism to the point that it transcends itself through its inherent internal contradictions.

This means socialists must accept first that capitalism is here to stay -- until it fully develops into something else.

German 19th century theoretician and politician Eduard Bernstein suggested in 1899 something of the sort in Evolutionary Socialism. Rosa Luxembourg's Reform or Revolution? was the radical reply in 1900, although she, too, later saw the error of her ways as she watched Lenin descend to the tactics of terror.

Perhaps the telling quote I could offer from Bernstein for the present moment is this:
[...] the present social order has not been created for all eternity but is subject to the law of change, and [...] a catastrophic development with all its horrors and devastation can only be avoided if in legislation consideration is paid to changes in the conditions of production and commerce and to the evolution of the classes. And the number of those who recognise this is steadily increasing. Their influence would be much greater than it is to-day if the social democracy could find the courage to emancipate itself from a phraseology which is actually outworn and if it would make up its mind to appear what it is in reality to-day: a democratic, socialistic party of reform.
My point, and Bernstein's, is that the planks that socialists support -- among them, fair and livable wages for all, economic and social equality of the sexes and races, shared decision-making concerning the use and distribution of vital resources, elimination of all degrading conditions of living -- are widely shared by most modern citizens of the world.

The ideas of socialism do not need selling. They need to be presented in modern, simple terms, without multisyllabic dogmatisms from the mouths of St. Karl or St. Fidel.

Socialism has to
  • stop allowing itself to be easily portrayed as the party of equally doled out bare necessities to become the party of shared prosperity, a prosperity that leaves no one too far behind;
  • learn to demand work from workers while demanding justice from the holders of capital;
  • consider revolutionary changes that are purely economic, such as employee ownership arrangements that blur class distinctions -- and ultimately promise to transcend the present quagmire of a yawning inequality through perfectly capitalist means;
  • care about economic growth, productivity and profits (assuming an ever more democratic economy);
  • care about winning through political means in open debate, not the force of arms;
  • offer criticism of socialists who are antidemocratic.
Even Marx saw socialism as the child of capitalism. There is no reason the child can't learn from the parent.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

What War?

According to the major news media, President Bush has vetoed a bill passed by the Democratic-led Congress that would put a deadline to end the Iraq War. Ladies and gentlemen, what war?

In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq on pretexts that were merely more elaborate fabrication than the staged "Polish attack" on a German border post in the late summer of 1939. Just as the invasion of Poland ushered in war, the invasion of Iraq was unquestionably an act of war.

As with 1939, in 2003 there was much hand-wringing over it in Europe. The pope pointedly said it did not meet the criteria for a "just war," a dubious concept in any case.

Just as the invasion was clearly warlike, so was the war's ending. Even Bush proclaimed "mission accomplished."

The war ended four years ago.

What the U.S. government is engaged in now is a military occupation, the justification for which is even more questionable than that for the invasion.

Using the parallel I launched at the outset here, it might be argued that Germany was, after all, formally occupied for nearly 50 years.

True, the invasions of Poland in 1939 and Iraq in 2003 were remarkably similar:

-- a major military power attacked a nation that had no reasonable chance of defending itself;

-- the victim was a minor state of recent composition (Poland had not existed for centuries prior to 1918, just as Iraq was invented by the British Foreign Office in 1931);

-- neither attacked country presented a realistic threat to the attacker;

-- the real reasons for the attacks -- other than brutish megalomania -- have remained murky and likely to be debated by historians for years to come;

-- the heads of state of each attacker had come to power through flimsy, pseudo-electoral means;

-- both heads of state embroiled their nation in a pointless "crusades" using rhetoric worthy only of the legend of Nicholas Chauvin.

Yet World War II was vastly dissimilar to the splendid little war of 2003.

There was scarcely a corner of the globe left unaffected by the six-year World War II and by its end the attacker had shed the flower of its leadership on the battlefield. By comparison, the Iraq conflict lasted months, the rest of the world managed to ignore the misdeed and the U.S. Republican elite was too busy trading oil futures to shed a drop of blood to seize Baghdad.

A new elected government has been constituted. No matter how much they may hate one another, Iraqis have demonstrated their near-unanimous desire to see U.S. troops leave.

Besides, the war is over. It has been over for four years.