31 December 2014

Why I insist that I am a feminist

To explain my commitment to being a proponent of feminism in the face of a number of objections, I need to offer a distinction I make between feminism and what I refer to as “feminist culture”.

Feminism can be tricky to define, but it refers to a bundle of political and intellectual approaches to understanding and objecting to injustices faced by women. Feminism is an outlook, a toolkit, a history.

Feminist culture is the range of things that feminists do.

When people complain about “feminism”, very often they are objecting to a particular thing that some feminists have done. They are criticizing feminist culture, not feminism itself.

I can respectfully disagree with a range of different responses to feminist culture, including criticisms harsher than I would make. So when one objects to, say, the unmeasured rhetoric of “Tumblr feminism”, one may be criticizing a part feminist culture without rejecting feminism. And I have objections of my own to feminist culture.

That is not to say that everyone who “rejects feminism” is really just making fair critiques of feminist culture. There are a great many people who really do reject feminism. They may say that women face no inequities, which is factually untrue. They may say that the inequities women experience are just, which is morally wrong.

With that distinction made, I can be clear about why I insist that I am a feminist. I am not a “feminist sort-of”. I am not a “feminist but”. I am a feminist, period. I may have my criticisms of feminist culture, but I support feminism itself 100%.

I say that despite my position as a cis man, which I recognize disqualifies me as a feminist in some eyes. I say that despite social justice objections to parts of the feminist tradition that have failed lesbians, women of color, trans women, sex workers, and others. And I say that despite disagreement with some ideas from the feminist tradition. (Feminism has offered so many ideas that of course a few of them are dumb.) And naturally I have my own criticisms of feminist culture.

But to let those deterrents prevent me from calling myself a feminist would not just be mistaken, it would be dishonest. I have a deep commitment to the feminist outlook: women face terrible injustices, and they can and must be corrected. I employ the feminist toolkit: I grew up reading feminist theory and I apply its intellectual toolkit to everything, as I think any responsible citizen should. I am heir to the history of feminism: the person I am and the way I see the world owe an incalculable debt to the work of over a century of feminist thinkers and activists. Feminism is integral to how I see the world, to how I try to operate in the world. I cannot not call myself a feminist.

This post has been reproduced at The Isocracy Network

In another forum, a commenter challenged this post, saying:

The question that needs to be answered is: what is the need for men to identify using the word “feminist”, when many women feminists object to the usage and other less contentious usages are available?

The only successful feminist movement will be one led by women.

There are two questions there. Why is it desirable for men to call themselves feminists? And why should those reasons outweigh the objections of some women?

I've answered the first question. So the question on the table is whether the objections of some women should negate other arguments.

A comparison to the taboo against Whites using The N Word is instructive. I respect the spirit of the prohibition, but I also have reasons why I ardently believe that it's actively bad for society that I should have to use asterisks to say, “It is offensive for White people to say ‘n****r’.” I could present a whole argument about why. But there is a strong (if not quite universal) consensus among Black commentators that the rule has to be that absolute, and I think it is so important to signal my respect for them that it does negate my arguments. So I do this rhetorical thing which I think is silly and counterproductive because in the White position, signaling respect to Black people is more important.

But with the word “feminist”, there is no such strong consensus. There is lively disagreement among feminist women (and women in general). One cannot simply follow the lead of women in this as one can follow the lead of Black people in the use of The N Word.

So how am I to decide?

Defaulting to not using the word is not just making the cautious choice. It is taking sides in a dispute within feminist culture. This makes the comment that “the only successful feminist movement will be one led by women” false in its implication that if I don't follow the lead of women who this commenter agrees with, I am arrogating leadership of the feminist movement to myself. I call shenanigans. That is a non-sequitur at best and disingenuous at worst. But it presents a clue that answers an important question.

Who these women are who object to men calling themselves feminists? I know them well, and recognize their rhetoric in my critic's comment. They come from what I would call the “identity politics school” of feminism. In alluding to the need for the feminist movement to be “led by women”, I find a hint pointing to what I would call the totalizing identity politics school: the strain which thinks that the identity politics toolkit is the only valid approach to feminism, dismissing all others.

The identity politics school looks to understand sexism (and other social injustices) in terms of the power relationships between the socially-imposed identity categories of men and women (and other categories like race and sexual orientation and so forth). A proper discussion of this school and the toolkit it offers will have to wait for another blog post. (I'm working on it!) In brief, I think that every citizen needs to know and use the analytical tools of identity politics, but I vigorously disagree with the totalizing form of the school which rejects all other kinds of analysis.

I can point to a key example which should inform the question at hand.

Identity politics tells us that the identity group membership of a speaker informs how we should read their comments, and a corollary to that is that we should regard privileged speakers comments about injustices with a certain wariness. We are all familiar with men who will loudly proclaim, “Let me tell you who's really sexist. Look at these sexist women!” This pattern presents some obvious problems, so we do well to resist it.

The totalizing identity politics school says that identity positioning doesn't just inform the meaning of a commenter's statements, it actually is the only thing meaningful about them. I have had a totalizing identity politics feminist tell me that I should not have called Cathy Guisewite's newspaper comic Cathy sexist, because I am a man and Guisewite is a woman, which means that I am placing myself over all women as the arbiter of what is sexist. This casts the content of her strip as irrelevant to whether I am justified in my comment on it.

I think this is stupid and counterproductive.

If I avoid calling myself a feminist and instead use some clumsy language saying that I am “pro-feminist” or “working to be an ally to feminists” or whatever, I implicitly declare my allegiance to that school in the discussion taking place within feminist culture. So no, I won't be doing that.

Update: Mark Ruffalo agrees with me.

29 December 2014

Not a source of information

I've been meaning for some time to write about an important form of informational hygiene one must practice when reading things on the Web: learning to recognize untrustworthy sources. There are websites that I file in my mind as Not A Source Of Information because I once saw an article on that site that was false or deceptive.

Yes, just one bogus article disqualified the source. On the face of it, that seems a little unfair. One is tempted to say that sure, maybe that article was bad, but one should evaluate each article on its own merits. But that's a serious mistake. You don't have time to properly vet everything you read. You have to rely on the trustworthiness of your sources. If the source is either deceitful enough to deliberately serve up BS or sloppy enough to do it accidentally, then everything offered by that source is suspect.

You may say, “Well, even if I cannot trust that source, this article is interesting, and might be worth following up.” But one must be wary even of that. Something one follows up from an untrusted source is research starting not from a useful clue but from zero; it doesn't become a real lead until you find something from a trustworthy source ... in which case you should link the trustworthy source rather than imply that an untrustworthy source is credible by linking it.

If you take “reported lots of places” as a positive indicator you'll end up believing BS re-reported by lots of BS sources and accept “Elvis' UFO alien love child” stuff eventually. We live in an environment conducive to the spread of BS, where deceiving us has become an industrial process. (That last link is possibly my favorite thing on the internet: it makes clear how smart, motivated people with lots of time and resources are out there working hard to confuse you.)

So good hygiene is important.

RationalWiki maintains a pretty good index of websites with credibility questions examining their credibility. Here's my own little index, which I hope to build out over time. Links, where I have them, lead to demonstrations of why the site is not credible.

These sites purport to publish news, but they are sources of BS:

Here's a list of untrustworthy sites commonly shared by lefties like me, taken from another blogger's site:

  • Occupy Democrats
  • Bipartisan Report
  • Winning Democrats
  • PoliticusUSA
  • Blue Nation Review
  • IfYouOnlyNews
  • USUncut
  • The Freethought Project
  • Addicting Info
  • LiberalAmerica
  • Newslo
  • Politicalo
  • (almost anything that ends on lo; these sites specialize in taking accurate statements from politicians and then adding false quotes to them that are much worse than what they actually said)
  • DailyNewsBin
  • American News X
  • Being Liberal
  • The Other 98%

It turns out we need a section just for health-related pseudoscience:

These sites are aggregators which take no responsibility for the sources they republish:

  • Huffington Post
  • Forbes
  • Business Insider

These sites are publishing platforms which take no responsibility for the people who publish on them:

  • dKos diaries

A friend points out that we have a proliferation of parodic fake-news sites in the style of The Onion, some of which are so deadpan that their less clever efforts are sometimes mistaken for real news:

Special mention: Cracked is a humor site which often reports on facts with the addition of joking commentary. I like Cracked a lot, but their fact checking cannot be trusted.

Note also that it's important to distinguish reporting of fact from commentary. On this blog I have several posts linking to dKos diary entries with analysis about politics which I have found instructive or at least interesting. But I would not trust dKos with news; if a credible-looking news item shows up there, I confirm it elsewhere before taking it seriously.

Update: Other indices of bogus sources: 1 2

Update: Discussion over on Facebook brings up the trickiness of the comparison to more respectable news media. On points of fact, the mainstream media are not as bad as most of the sources I've pointed to here, but their failings can be severe.

The New York Times provided very misleading reporting in the run-up to the Iraq war, often acts as apologist for US government interests, and has expressed some bizarre ideas about their responsibility to report the truth. A friend offers an example of the kind of misleading reporting he has seen at the UK Guardian. And the Wall Street Journal trades on its deserved good reputation for journalism to lend credence to lies and deceit on the editorial page.

04 December 2014

Oath Keepers

In the last few days, I have noticed some puzzled people on social media circulating the story about “Oath Keepers” in Ferguson standing on rooftops, “protecting businesses against looters”. The story has been picked up by major news media. (And yes, in case you're wondering, it really is them: the OathKeepers.org website says so.)

Who are these guys?

Lefties like me have been looking at them a fair bit lately, and I have been watching related movements for quite some time. They are a loose organization of people in (and retired from) government service as military, police, and first responders who take their name from the oath government employees take to “protect and defend the Constitution”.

To understand what they are about, consider one of their key founding documents, a list of Orders We Will Not Obey:

10. We will NOT obey any orders which infringe on the right of the people to free speech, to peaceably assemble, and to petition their government for a redress of grievances.

As someone who has reposted on this blog a reminder that it is a soldier's duty to refuse an illegal order, I confess that this is a seductive rallying point. It is thus tempting to read them as at least theoretically allied with Ferguson protestors.

But that would be a terrible misunderstanding. Dig this other item on the list:

8. We will NOT obey orders to assist or support the use of any foreign troops on U.S. soil against the American people to “keep the peace” or to “maintain control” during any emergency, or under any other pretext. We will consider such use of foreign troops against our people to be an invasion and an act of war.

Wait, whaaaat? Foreign troops?

This strange statement reflects where these guys are coming from. They sincerely believe that the Federal government is gearing up to suspend the Constitution, disarm the American people, hand over control of the government to the evil forces of the United Nations, and put people who object into FEMA concentration camps. They are conspiracy-theory crackpots, direct descendents of the Clinton-era militia movement which Timothy McVeigh conceived of himself as being a part of when he murdered hundreds of people in a strike against the “oppressive Federal government”. Similar movements crop up whenever there's a Democrat in the White House. (I notice that the list of orders is dated March 2009. What new signs of encroaching government tyranny moved them to write it at that time, I wonder. What could it be?)

These guys expect that within the next few years, they will be fighting in a bloody domestic insurrection against the evil Federal government conspiracy. Consider this post from them last year:

Oath Keepers is Going “Operational” by Forming Special “Civilization Preservation” Teams


Like SF [Special Forces], all Oath Keepers will be expected to learn light infantry skills. They will all be encouraged to attend an Appleseed Rifle Program and shoot to “Rifleman” standards. Just as the Marines say that every Marine is a Rifleman (even the cooks) so will every Oath Keeper be a rifleman. After learning solid rifle marksmanship, they will learn individual movement and tactics, then buddy team, fire-team, and squad movement and tactics (shoot, move, communicate). All of you infantry veterans need to step up and teach these skills to everyone else.


It starts with you, your family, your small circle of most trusted friends, then your neighborhood, your church, your veterans halls in your town, the Sheriff’s posse, the local search and rescue, volunteer fire, etc., and then out to your county and state.

Why we are doing this:

In addition to this being part of our mission anyway, we feel like we are flat running out of time and we need to get as prepared as possible as fast as possible. The Oath Keepers national Board of Directors war-gamed what we think is the most likely move by our enemies to scrap the Constitution.

Their wariness of Federal government power, which they frame as “strict adherence to the Constitution”, can look a lot like a kind of libertarianism. But like other folks on the far right, the appearance of libertarianism is illusory: their problem is with the Federal government, not with government. These are guys who come from government service, and talk a lot about supporting state, county, and city government power against the Federal government.

5. We will NOT obey orders to invade and subjugate any state that asserts its sovereignty.

You are reading that right. Their unorthodox anti-Federalist reading of the Constitution has them siding with the Confederacy against the Union.

That doesn't make these guys Klansmen by another name. Racial bigotry is not foundational to their project, and I am confident that most Oath Keepers would be disgusted to hear that kind of overt racism expressed in their ranks. It's my understanding that they have more than a few people of color among them.

But. This tradition of radical “Constitutionalism” is most relevant to us today for reasons that students of the Civil Rights Era will recognize.

'The Problem We All Live With' by Norman Rockwell

In that struggle, it was Federal authorities which (eventually) stood up for the rights of Black citizens when local Whites and local authorities lined up against them, and it was that fight during that era which revived the school of anti-Federalism found on the American right today which is characteristic of the Oath Keepers. So the Oath Keepers' conception of “proper Constitutional authority” points toward support for institutional racism.

It's not hard to see how that rhymes with the local authorities' unaccountability to the Black population of Ferguson.

So while one might be tempted to imagine from their rhetoric that they would be in Ferguson to protect protestors from harassment by the oppression of government cops ...

10. We will NOT obey any orders which infringe on the right of the people to free speech, to peaceably assemble, and to petition their government for a redress of grievances.
... it turns out that no, they are in Ferguson to protect property from “looters”. Reading the events in Ferguson as “rioting” and “looting” which presents a threat to people's safety and property connects to a credulousness about racist conservative media lies about the Ferguson protests.

Having already developed some familiarity with the Oath Keepers, I was not surprised to learn that a contingent of them had showed up there. I read it as representing a confluence of several aspects of their worldview. They lean toward supporting government, even authoritarian government, when it's local. They are preparing for fighting in the streets of the US, so for them the “rioting” in the streets of Ferguson is a bellwether of the crisis they were founded to handle. Their pseudo-libertarianism is enthusiastic about government as the guarantor of property rights ... but they don't see government as the only agent protecting property, which connects to their gun nut logic justifying vigilante-ism.

Now when I say “gun nut logic” I want to be careful not to tar all gun owners and gun rights advocates as “nuts”. (While I'm generally unpersuaded by those folks' arguments I'm also wary of being too dismissive of them.) I want, instead, to connect the Oath Keepers to a particular strain of pseudo-libertarian pro-gun thought which holds that private gun ownership is not just a right but vitally important to society because “the police cannot be everywhere”, and so the primary means by which one's safety and property is secured is not through government policing but through an armed citizenry. That argument drifts from gun rights advocacy to nuttiness in ultimately endorsing vigilantes.

Vigilante-ism in the US is entangled in our history of racism. Remember who the biggest vigilante organization in American history were. Remember the lynchings of the Jim Crow era. That should give us pause when we hear citizens claiming a responsibility to take up arms to keep the peace. Again, I do not read the Oath Keepers as committed to racial bigotry, but they are engaging in vigilante-ism in Ferguson, which carries the weight of history with it.

David Neiwert, the best journalist working the far-right beat, calls them “Potentially The Most Lethal And Dangerous Of All The New ‘Patriot’ Groups”. Which brings me to the point that my distaste for the Oath Keepers is just from their implicit support for some of the machinery of institutional racism, though that is bad enough. It is that they are a movement who believe that the democratically-elected government is illiegitimate because it has been corrupted by a conspiracy of foreigners and traitors, that the true spirit of the nation needs to be revived through inevitable bloody conflict, which calls for a vigilante movement inspired by martial virtue. As I said about Cliven Bundy, whose cause the Oath Keepers supported, students of history recognize why we should be wary of that kind of politics.


Oath Keeper founder Stewart Rhodes describes wanting to convene a kangaroo court to convict and hang John McCain for unspecified acts of “treason”.

Oath Keepers, asking for trouble, return to Ferguson.

So here's some weirdness:

Oath Keepers to Arm 50 Black Protesters in Ferguson with AR-15’s for an Epic Rights Flexing March


Andrews explained that he and members of his group spent almost an entire night speaking with black protestors about the events in Ferguson and the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms.

“Every person we talked to said if they carried they’d be shot by police. That’s the reason we’re going to hold this event and it will be a legal demonstration,” Andrews said. “I’m sick and tired of law enforcement who doesn’t think they have to abide by the law. They’re narcissistic and that guy [the police chief] discredited my men.”