The New Cultivators of the Earth

Over the past twenty years or so, rural America has supplanted the urban ghetto as the premiere nexus of profound social dysfunction in this country. You can still find plenty of people who believe that the great pathologies of illegitimacy, drug use, crime and illness are sui generis to poor inner-city black communities, and to be fair those communities still have those problems to significant degrees. But it is the bucolic countryside where you increasingly see these miserable stories play out; the Wall Street Journal (via the Daily Caller), for instance, notes that

Rural areas and small towns now lead the nation in teenage birth rates, divorce rates, adults without a college degree, males 16 and older without jobs, median age, cardiovascular disease mortality, and cancer mortality. The report also noted that in 2013 deaths outnumbered births in a majority of rural counties, something that hasn’t occurred since the 1930s.

The Wall Street Journal article focused on Kenton, Ohio the seat of Hardin County.

Since 1980, the poverty rate of county residents has increased by 45 percent and the area is now inundated with crime. Brad Bailey, a prosecutor in the county, told the Journal that drug cases now account for 80 percent of criminal cases. They used to only account for less than 20 percent of cases…

This all represents a downturn for a region of the country that had good job opportunities and low crime throughout the middle and later portion of 20th century. Many expected that with the advent of the internet people could work from small towns, but this hasn’t occurred. Rhonda Vannoster of Independence, Kansas told the Journal that “there just aren’t a lot of good jobs.”

I have very little patience for the country folk who, having remained in an area where “there just aren’t a lot of good jobs,” decided for some reason that heroin and petty criminality were useful alternatives to, you know, moving. A great deal of intellectual effort was expended upon this demographic during the 2016 election, with intrepid journalists venturing deep into western Kentucky and southern Alabama to figure out why so many white people had taken to Codeine and welfare and single motherhood and early death. The uncomfortable but obvious explanation—that a breakdown in traditional families, religious institutions and general public morality, coupled with a stubborn resistance to leave the place where your family has lived for generations, is responsible for most of this rural misery—inspired many a deep and thoughtful thinkpiece, and also the presidency of Donald J. Trump, who promised to fix this problem but who is quite obviously incapable of doing anything about it.

There is not much that public policy can proactively do to fix these chronic problems, which are so often issues of character wedded to a stupidly permissive and indulgent public relief apparatus. Yet there is one possible solution that, if adopted en masse, would likely go a long way towards solving the mare’s nest of modern rural American life, and that is: farming, specifically small-farm local farming. Indeed, of all the theoretical ways to fix the breakdown of social, economic and spiritual life in America’s dead-end counties, this type of farming is the absolute most practical: it requires the least and lowest-cost capital, the least government investment, and offers the most readily adoptable option for putting people back not just to work but to meaningful work, the kind that gratifies the soul as well as the pocketbook.

I’m afraid there is some resistance to this proposal, both from the right and the left, many of whom see farming as a queer relic of 19th century American life, something best relegated to a few mega-farms in Iowa and Nebraska: sure, everyone loves a little rustic farm-to-table experience, but it’s too antiquated, and anyway you can’t possibly “feed the world” using rotational pasture-based operations and direct marketing sales. Yet aside from missing the point entirely (we’re not trying to “feed the world” using local food, we’re trying to feed the local community), this assessment underestimates both the rigorous efficiencies of well-managed small farms and—most importantly—the consumer desire for the food they produce. Cities have a lot of things and a lot of advantages, but the one thing they have very little of is land. The local food revolution currently underway in the American economy is driven in large part by urbanite demand; the upper hand of the rural economy is that it has the one thing indispensable to satisfying that demand: lots of dirt and grass and trees. This is an advantage.

Were America’s counties to return to a good agricultural model—one that is, quite literally, waiting around to be picked up—it would go a long way towards solving the unemployment problem (local farms need plenty of hands), the economic problem (well-run farms can make considerable amounts of money), the emotional and spiritual breakdown of rural life (farming is hard work, but—because it is hard and because it produces things of real value—it is also emotionally and spiritually satisfying), and it would very likely do a lot to repair the paradigm of broken and dysfunctional families across the rural landscape (the backbone of a good farm is a good and intact family). Farming is surely not a panacea for what ails rural America—but it might be close to one, and in any event as a solution it is far more practical and possible than recalling tens of thousands of jobs from Mexico and Bangladesh, or moving tens of thousands of people who don’t want to move, or pumping billions of dollars of useless welfare into a social landscape the is already awash in useless welfare.

This is seen by most Big Thinkers as a largely impractical solution, chiefly because most Big Thinkers assume that any kind of agricultural work is inefficient drudge work better outsourced to an Oklahoma combine or a Chinese corporation. But there is great promise in the revitalization of American farming, not as a throwback to colonial tallow-candle days but as a thriving and vibrant economy that provides real products of genuine worth. Rural American communities are dying a slow, painful death; if we wish to bring them back and have them flourish as they used to, we’re likely going to have to stop assuming that “there just aren’t a lot of good jobs” and start recognizing the near-limitless creative and economic potential sitting just beneath the topsoil.

Big Brother Is Not Watching You

Our society—modern Western civilization in general—is weirdly deferential towards Muslims and Islam, said deference driven in large part, I think, because people see Muslims in our society as put-upon and aggrieved minorities who deserve special consideration. Progressives in particular are extremely sensitive to the plight, real or imagined, of Muslims in American society. It leads to some strange rhetorical bedfellows within the Left: the people who might normally snicker and sneer at the denim full skirt dress codes of fundamentalist Christians are also hyper-quick to defend and even celebrate the hijab, an article of clothing that literally has no function other than reactionary moral self-deprecation.

Now this odd accession has apparently come to Minnesota, the legislature of which recently tried to pass an anti-female-genital-mutilation bill that ran up against some opposition in transit:

The Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage, a nonprofit called Isuroon and other groups argue that the legislation carries overly harsh punishment and unintended consequences, including the possibility that newcomers from countries where genital cutting is widespread would not seek medical care and other services for their children. They call for a less punitive approach focused on educating parents.

Now, the author of the Senate version is voicing second thoughts about approving the legislation yet this session, though Senate GOP leadership have not committed to a course of action. “We all agree this practice is absolutely horrible, and something needs to be done,” said the author, Sen. Karin Housley. “How can we empower communities to address this practice from within rather than having Big Brother come down and say, ‘This is wrong?’”

Rep. Mary Franson, who introduced the House bill, said the Senate is bowing to pressure from groups “more concerned with perception than doing the right thing and protecting girls.”

It is worth pointing out that Franson herself initially worried that the legislation would be seen as “Islamophobic” before deciding to go ahead with it. In any event, it is really something to witness: the author of a bill that would have cracked down on the barbaric practice of butchering little girls’ genitals has been publicly chastened over her absolutely commendable aspirations. Instead of laughing off the demands for a “less punitive” approach to preventing human butchery, Sen. Housley has instead been reduced to talking about “empowering communities” to “address” “this practice.” It seems not to have occurred to her that the “communities” in question aren’t actually interested in “empowerment,” aside from the kind of “empowerment” that allows them to slice their five-year-old girls’ clitorises and cut off their labia. I hate to break it to Sen. Housley, but if someone doesn’t already know that it’s wrong to cut up a little girl’s sexual and reproductive organs, then “empowering” them to “address” the problem isn’t going to do much good.

Just how bad are the “punitive” aspects of this bill? Well, it “makes it a felony for parents to subject their daughters to the procedure and calls for loss of custody and prison terms from five to 20 years, depending on the extent of the injuries.” Five to twenty years might seem a little steep, except when you consider the fact that the little girls who are subject to this practice can suffer for it throughout their entire lives. Even with the maximum sentence under this proposed law, a perp would walk in a couple of decades. His victim might suffer chronic physical and emotional pain for four times as long. You might consider this to be “overly harsh punishment” only if you think that slicing up a little girl’s private parts and possibly ruining her life is, in the grand scheme of things, not that big of a deal, or at least something that a person shouldn’t have to pay for in any really consequential way.

An activist also takes issue with the law’s “separating girls from their families, which they argue victimizes them a second time.” It is hard to imagine how sending a girl back to a family that mutilated her is somehow beneficial for that girl; it is, in any case, difficult to believe that a similar argument would be proffered if, say, a mother and father had their daughter’s feet cut off above the ankles because of some primitive barbaric impulse. “Well, sure, they mutilated their little girl and made her life vastly more difficult for the most savage and indefensible of reasons. But imagine what will happen if they aren’t allowed to retain custody!”

You can see the double standard at work here. In fact, you can see it at work in the existing Minnesota code, in which anyone (parents included) who subjects minors to sexual abuse may be sent to prison for up to thirty years. You don’t seem to see anyone kicking up much of a fuss about such a stiff penalty; when it comes to female genital mutilation, suddenly people worried about “Big Brother.” Call me crazy, but if one one of “Big Brother’s” functions is to (a) stop people from slicing up prepubescent girls’ bodies, and (b) throw into prison the people who do it—well, I’m just fine with that. And if you take issue with such a law, you should quite honestly ask yourself why.

The Slow Knife Cuts the Deepest

It is a profoundly reckless and inadvisable thing to ignore just how much our government spends every year, which is probably why so many people choose to ignore it. It is far easier to just look away from just to much the government takes from the people—around one-fifth of everything we make, all told—because addressing this problem (and it is a problem), and dealing with it, is difficult, and people do not like difficult things. Better to just keep your head down.

It does not help that, every time someone even mentions the possibility of the government’s spending a little less on this or that, a chorus of angry shrieks arises from the pundit and the media classes, like a swarm of hornets from an irritated nest. As a thought experiment, try running for national office, getting elected, and, once on Capitol Hill, suggesting that the government reduce outlays for pig / Venus fly trap cross-breeding insemination research by 8% over a thirty year period. Instantly a cadre of wonks—very smart people, plenty of diplomas to their names, well-salaried and able to think cogently enough—will descend upon you and explain to you that your budget proposal literally slits the throats of poor trans minority children, or something. In Washington there is only one way to spend, and it isn’t down.

Case in point: consider the New York Times, which recently reported on President Trump’s proposed budget, which—according to the Times—“Cuts Deeply Into Medicaid:”

[T]he package contains deep cuts in entitlement programs that would hit hardest many of the economically strained voters who propelled the president into office. Over the next decade, it calls for slashing more than $800 billion from Medicaid, the federal health program for the poor[.]

Note, of course, the ubiquitous, ever-present refrain that Trump’s policies are going to fall hardest on the rubes who voted for him in the first place. Isn’t it, like, poetic? You can almost hear the chortles, the snorts of derision, the low murmurs that, once again, those soda-guzzling red state rednecks “voted against their own interests,” thanks to, I don’t know, the Koch Brothers. This has been the refrain of Democrats for the past thirty years or so, incapable as they are of imagining that somebody, somewhere might disagree in good faith with the platform of the DNC.

Anyway, perhaps you noticed what is so glaringly absent from the Times‘s assessment of Trump’s proposed medicaid policy, and it is this: context. Specifically: when the Times claims that $800 billion in cuts over a decade is “deep,” the relevant question is: relative to what? $800 billion in cuts over a decade would certainly be a deep cut for my budget—it would put me about $800 billion in the red, give or take a decimal point—but I am not the federal government. So what gives?

Well, based on the CBO’s predictions, assuming a standard spending increase of about 5% per year, over the next decade Medicaid will shell out just under six trillion dollars in benefits and administrative costs. Using this number, we learn that a ten-year $800 billion cut in Medicaid outlays would represent about a 13% decrease in projected Medicaid budgets. Thirteen percent over a decade, ten years, 3,650 days—this is the relativity we’re looking for: this is what the New York Times (and ABC and the Washington Post and Bloomberg and) calls “deep cuts.”

But wait: relativity goes both ways. Consider that, in 2010, say, the Medicaid budget was around $210 billion. If the CBO predictions are accurate (always a big if, and always in the same way), then by 2027 the Medicaid budget will have increased over 200% from 2010 levels. So when you take 13% away from Medicaid outlays over a decade, you must also factor in the fact that the Medicaid budget itself is grossly expanded from earlier years, enormously so compared to the budget reduction that everyone claims is—what was that word?—“deep.”

This is worth thinking about the next time you see someone claim that a government budget cut is going to cause widows and orphans to starve to death while fat cat one percenters light their cigars with million-dollar bills. There is a reason that the American federal budget only goes up over time, never down; it’s because Americans are not really prepared—intellectually, emotionally, politically—to deal with a reduction in spending, even if the reduction is in fact just a slower rate of growth. If the government ever really tried to slash spending, a civil war would probably break out. And since spending always goes up during wartimes, the problem would compound on itself. We are stuck.

Suppose They Gay a War and Nobody Came?

Regular readers will forgive me for my extended vacation last week. Trial of the Century resumes its regular publishing schedule today. 

A new Gallup poll made waves a couple of weeks ago proclaiming that “US support for gay marriage edges to new high,” a high of 64%. That’s up from 27% a couple of decades ago. The upward trend is striking even among Republicans, 16% of whom supported homosexual marriage rights in 1996 and 42% of whom do now. Well over sixty percent of Catholics, meanwhile, are in favor of this redefinition of marriage, which is to say that more Catholics believe in “gay marriage” (which is unquestionably antithetical to church teaching) than they do the Real Presence in the Eucharist (which is, you know, a bit of a core tenet of the faith).

So it goes. There is good reason to think that this trend is an inexorable one, i.e. that it’s not just a gay rights boomlet that will soon settle down but is part of our national political fabric, like gun rights or Patrick Leahy. Part of that likely comes from the turning of the generational tide: a lot of people who opposed gay marriage in 1997 have probably passed away, and a lot of people who supported it back then have probably had kids who have grown up to support it in turn. But that can’t really explain all of it; what is evident is that, since the late 90s, a lot of Americans have simply changed their minds when it comes to homosexual marriage.

This has come about in large part because gay marriage activists are both clever and disingenuous at the same time. The campaign to legalize same-sex marriages was often styled explicitly as a hearkening back to the glory days of the Civil Rights movement, which was a remarkably effective tactic (nobody, if he can help it, wants to be equated to Leon Bazile), as well as a great and momentous checkmark on the Right Side of History (nobody, if it can be avoided, wants to be on the Wrong Side!). I once overheard a friend say that a “ban” on “gay marriage” was “exactly the same” as the Democrat-led black code bans on interracial marriage in the postbellum South; there is nothing that so galvanizes the liberal base as imagining that they’re marching on an Alabama macadam in 1964. Against this inexorable tide of moral preening and genuine honest-to-goodness social peer pressure, it is hardly surprising that the polls have turned as they have.

What is most surprising, I think, is the ways in which the activist “traditional marriage” contingency appears to have more or less given up, at least publicly, retreating into an inner bailey from which a much more narrow and much more transactional set of arguments is proffered. Where once we might have seen arguments pointing out that “gay marriage” is (a) a fundamentally absurdist proposition and/or (b) a fundamentally destabilizing concept that will weaken society and bring demonstrable harm to vulnerable children—rather than these arguable propositions, the debate seems now to have largely coalesced around religious freedom grounds, namely whether or not Catholic parishes should be forced to host gay wedding receptions and whether or not bakers and photographers should be forced to participate in gay wedding ceremonies. All valuable and important questions, to be sure, and undoubtedly I’ll take the relative protection of a RFRA any day of the week…but just the same, as I watch the poll numbers creep up throughout the years, I can’t help but wonder where everyone went.

On the one hand it’s somewhat understandable. We’re all busy, there is a lot going on these days, and it can seem daunting to speak out against something like gay marriage, to which standing in opposition can get you ostracized from much of polite society and shunned from family and friends (if there’s one thing more than Freedom Riders that progressives love pretending to be, it’s angry Mennonites). Add to the mix the fact that the Supreme Court has ruled on the subject—in an astonishingly tortured and senseless opinion, to be sure, but it’s still there—and I guess it’s not hard to grasp why even Catholic bishops are advising us to drop the whole fight.

Just the same, the relative silence is odd.  I suppose it’s possible that traditional marriage advocates have accepted Obergefell’s ruling in a practical sense while still working on the sidelines to spread the truth about conjugal marriage. That’s to be commended, of course, but it also strikes me as defeatist in an unpleasantly sneaky way. If you’ve conceded the monumental legal question, and with it a great deal of the cultural one, it seems to me that you’re fighting an uphill battle on both fronts. To their credit, gay marriage advocates understood this, which is why we ended up with Kennedy’s hack scrub-brush justification for turning marriage on its head across the country. They got it—they knew what they had to do to change the law and rework the country in a way they saw fit. Do we know? Or do we just not care?

Night of the Living Gotcha

There is a persistent abortion meme that regularly makes the rounds on the Left, particularly the Internet Left, which subsists primarily on memes at the expense of rigorous thinking and logical arguments. That meme is this: “Pro-lifers are really only pro-birth. Once the baby is born, they don’t want it to have access to health care, welfare and high-quality public education. They don’t care if the baby dies so long as the mother is forced to give birth to it. Pro-lifers are not actually pro-life!”

I addressed this objection earlier this year at the Federalist, though admittedly I’m not sure how many liberals actually read it. I guess maybe not that many, given that this meme is still quite popular, most recently in the wake of the American Health Care Act’s slow passage through Congress. At the Huffington Post, Elizabeth Baker writes: “If You Support The AHCA, Then You Are Not Pro-Life:”

If you clutch your pearls at the mention of comprehensive sex education or get riled up about “paying for someone else’s birth control” because your moral code is abstinence, you are part of the abortion problem. It has been shown over and over again that abstinence-only programs do not work in preventing unwanted pregnancies. Contraception works. You are not pro-life.

If you support the latest version of the AHCA, you are literally incentivizing abortion. There are women who will now abort for fear of themselves or their child being considered a “preexisting condition” and unable to get insurance. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t call yourself pro-life and stand by idly while millions of people are stripped of their health care benefits. If you think the right to be born is a basic human right, but access to health care is not, you are not pro-life.

As an aside, there is plenty of reason to believe that an abstinence-only approach to sexual intercourse education works just fine, at least insofar as we acknowledge that human beings are not simply sexualized robots who are pre-programmed to bang with no agency whatsoever. “Abstinence doesn’t work” is a rallying cry you encounter most often in people who believe extramarital sex is a dazzling virtue and something to be encouraged more or less from adolescence onward. Go figure.

In any event, Elizabeth Baker—who has a son with Leigh Syndrome and who thus deserves a great deal of our sympathy and prayers—gets the pro-life position wrong in a way that suggests she has never seriously studied it before. Yes, pro-lifers believe that “the right to be born” is “a basic human right,” but only insofar as we believe that not being killed is “a basic human right.” Birth being an eventual and necessary function of preborn human beings, any coherent pro-life ethic must acknowledge that, if you’re not allowed to kill an unborn human, you’re eventually going to have to give birth to it (try getting it to stay up in there otherwise). “The right to be born” is simply another way of classifying the right to breath, to eat, drink, to sleep, to wake—to live. “Pro-life” is exactly that: pro-life, pro-the-right-to-life, and anti-a-legal-system-that-denies-anyone-that-right.

That’s not to say that people don’t have other needs aside from the fundamentals to which they have a right, and indeed health care is frequently one of those needs. But “access to health care” is itself not actually a right, and simply declaring it so does not make it so, nor does it mean that the “access” will magically materialize. Health care, like any consumer good, is a scarce good, and even the nominally “universal” systems spread across the British Commonwealth and Western Europe cannot successfully satisfy everyone’s demands (talk to the Swedes, a great many of whom have fled to private insurance to avoid crippling wait times, or the Canadians, many of whom flee to the United States to seek faster, higher-quality care).

Heath care policy is thus best understood not a question of rights but of practical outcomes: how to satisfy the most people to the greatest degree and with the most efficiency? People like myself believe that it’s a bad idea to hand our health care economy over to the idiot children who have already screwed it up so badly. People like Elizabeth Baker, on the other hand, believe it’s perfectly reasonable to surrender our most intimate and critical health care decisions over to the same people who run the DMV. One of these is right and the other is wrong—but neither option implicates the pro-life position, which is a separate concern altogether, and it would be helpful if Internet commentators stopped advancing this dumb argument.

From HHS, With Love

We all have to live with the consequences of our own actions, but it is deeply frustrating and irritating when we have to live with the consequences of other peoples’ actions—particularly when those actions are deeply stupid, and the negative consequences that arise from them are so foreseeable and indeed in many cases were foreseen. I think about this now:

[A]ssuming all of the numbers below are accurate and that I’m not missing any major data points, it looks to me as though Virginia insurance carriers are initially requesting an unsubsidized, full-price, weighted average rate hike of roughly 30.6% on the individual market.

Got that? Insurance premiums on Virginia’s individual market are slated to increase on average more thirty percent next year. If you have a job with employer-sponsored insurance, or you’re old enough to qualify for Medicare, or you’re simply a billionaire, then I suppose that doesn’t sound like that big of a deal to you. For the rest of us, however—and my family is among the rest—a thirty percent hike is a big deal indeed, like sit-down-and-think-about it kind of big, like three-extra-mortgage-payments-a-year big. Again, if you’ve got a lot of money to spend, you’re not sweating. If you’re a mere mortal, you might end up sweating quite a bit.

The premise of Obamacare was always profoundly moronic to begin with: the smartest, most Ivy League-credentialed Big Thinkers in the country got together to design a political road map to the ideal health care system, and the best they could come up with—the absolute golden cream-of-the-crop brainchild of all of that thinking and all of those Ivy League credentials—was an idiot piece of legislation the chief ambitions of which were (a) free birth control and (b) “minimum essential coverage.” The chief practical effect of the former was that a bunch of elderly charity nuns were sued by the government to provide abortifacients; the practical effect of the latter was that a bunch of perfectly acceptable insurance plans (my own included) were cancelled (after we were promised they wouldn’t be). In the midst of all of that, we have the price hikes: you know, the things that weren’t supposed to happen, the dastardly capitalist rate increases that Obamacare was supposed to pin to the mat.

Remember when a bunch of people pointed out that Obamacare was essentially guaranteed to make health insurance more expensive, and then a bunch of really super-duper whip-smart English majors and self-described nerd-wonks over at Slate dot com responded, “Um, well, actually, facts?” I remember that too, but I bet you I’ll remember it even more clearly next year, if and when my family’s insurance gets more expensive by a full third.

The standard progressive refrain in the face of these spiraling prices and this demonstrable failure of President Obama’s greatest domestic achievement is as such: “Well, gee, Obamacare would be working great if not for the fact that Republicans keep messing with it.” Leave aside the nursery-school-simplistic assessment of the situation and assume arguendo that this is true, that Obamacare would be farting unicorns and rainbows and low deductibles and free Pap smears for every Trans* man from sea to shining sea if it weren’t for the dastardly meddling of Old White Men. Okay: the Highly Intelligent People who designed Obamacare never even stopped to think about this for a single moment—they honestly and sincerely never gave it even two seconds’ thought: when you design a highly and aggressively politicized health insurance system, it is going to be subject to politics. This, too, was foreseeable and predicted with absolute clarity: if you surrender 1/6th of the economy to the government, then—now here’s an insane idea—the government might one day be in the hands of people who don’t like the way you designed things. Never a thought, never a moment: just surrender away. Everything will work out.

Remember what they promised you; remember what the eventual result was. And, when they promise something else in the future—more government, more plans, more assurances that Everything Will Work Out Fine If You Just Believe—remember how that worked out before. I will.

The Truth, If You’ll Have It

Miley Cyrus may be a weird, capering hot mess these days, but there are actually some positive indicators that, underneath the greasy glitter-smeared exterior, she is both smart and shrewd (chief among those indicators is the fact that she’s worth nearly a quarter of a billion dollars). Most recently she had some smart things to say about the state of rap music, and—predictably, oh so very predictably—people were not happy about it:

Miley Cyrus took to social media Saturday to clarify controversial comments she made about rap and hip-hop music in a recent Billboard cover interview.

After talking to the magazine about her new music and her rekindled love for Liam Hemsworth, Cyrus said she “can’t listen to” rap music anymore.

“That’s what pushed me out of the hip-hop scene a little,” she continued. “It was too much ‘Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my cock’ — I am so not that.”

People quickly responded online, criticizing Cyrus for the ease with which she could discard a genre that had demonstrably influenced and propelled her previous public persona…

As HuffPost’s Zeba Blay pointed out, “What’s incredibly telling is how, once she achieved that success, it seemed like the plan was always to discard hip-hop music and black culture like the costume that it was,” also noting “how convenient it is for her to call out hip-hop’s misogyny” after trafficking in those same tropes for earlier iterations of her act.

Now, that’s actually a fair cop—Cyrus has made a great deal of money and headlines off of the “girl on my cock” genre of performance art—but that largely seems to miss the point, which is that she is right. Rap music in general is awash in both misogynistic tropes and ultra-materialistic fixations. The number one rap song on Billboard right now (Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble”) includes lyrics like “Girl, I can buy yo’ ass the world with my paystub /
Ooh, that pussy good, won’t you sit it on my taste bloods?” and “Show me somethin’ natural like ass with some stretch marks / Still will take you down right on your mama’s couch in Polo socks, ayy.” An honest assessment of modern rap simply cannot ignore these themes, which are shot throughout the genre and are almost inextricable from it; nor can you begrudge a woman for being turned off by such things. And while Cyrus’s disgust is certainly marked by that element of hypocrisy, it’s worth considering the possibility that she herself has simply recognized the unpleasantness of it all, and simply doesn’t want anything to do with it anymore.

It is queer to see where the chips will fall on this issue. Some time ago there was a bit of a backlash to Beyoncé’s song “Partition,” in which the singer explains how she “just [wants to] be the girl you like:” more than a few critics saw the song as sexist and objectifying. A feminist friend of mine, however, believed this criticism was misplaced and unfair, particularly coming from white women: “Partition,” in her eyes, was actually reflective of black American culture’s hyper-sexualization of black women, and therefore it was necessary to see the song as a cultural artifact that should be shielded from (white) denigration. In this case, progressive racial politics trumped feminism. These things happen from time to time.

It is doubtful that Miley Cyrus genuinely had a “plan” to “discard hip-hop music and black culture” once she achieved “success” (she was, in fact, famous long before she turned into a twerking arctophile). What is more likely—hopefully, anyway—is that she has simply recognized how worthless and enervating so much of rap music really is. Better late than never, I guess, though after you’ve grinded up against Robin Thicke’s crotch while dressed up like some kind of teddy bear demon, you’re probably going to have trouble living your past down. Best of luck to her.

Abortion on a LARC

I have argued before that one of the main impediments that abortion activists face is science itself: the obvious scientific conclusion, I mean, that human beings are human beings from the moment of conception onward. To get around the rather thorny moral implications of this fact—i.e., that abortion deliberately kills living human beings—activists have crafted a clever argument that turns on the question of “personhood,” namely that unborn humans are not “persons” and it is thus okay to kill them. “Personhood,” in this case, is usually defined as a status one obtains after having met certain criterial benchmarks: consciousness, conscience, motor function, speech, ability to love, ability to think abstractly, ability to live outside of a uterus, etc. Many pro-abortionists believe that once you achieve some or all of these abilities then it’s wrong to kill you, and if you haven’t then it’s not. The people who advance the personhood argument generally look upon human beings in the same way an automobile factory line foreman might look at a robot that assembles Mazda widgets: if you can’t satisfy certain behavioral standards, then you are worthless and it’s okay to toss you into a garbage can.

At Slate, Chavi Eve Karkowsky writes about counseling a young woman over a potential abortion. The woman (who “already had several kids”), was using a LARC, a Long-Acting Reversible Contraception, which Dr. Karkowsky calls “one of the newest and best forms of contraception” (except in this case, I guess). Dr. Karkowsky wants to advise this young woman on her options regarding her pregnancy, and she finds a “revelation” in the rhetoric of Dr. Willie Parker, a “believing and active Christian” who kills humans for a living. Dr. Karkowsky is prepared, you see. This young woman with the bogus LARC, nineteen weeks pregnant, has already felt her unborn child kick inside of her, and as a result she doesn’t want to “terminate.” How will Dr. Karkowsky address this thorny problem? Well, she “[thinks] back to Dr. Parker’s work,” and then she says to this expectant mother:

Here’s what I really think. I see a woman in front of me, and she is suffering. She has a pregnancy in her uterus, and that pregnancy is alive, but so were the sperm and eggs that made it. So life is not the real question. For right now, that pregnancy is, for most of us, and most of science, and for the current law, alive but not a person. You—YOU—are a person, and you are suffering. And if this procedure, a termination, would reduce your suffering, then I think you need to know it’s available. And if you want to continue this pregnancy, I will offer you the best prenatal care in the world, and we will help you have the healthiest pregnancy and baby you can have. What do I think? That this is your choice. No more, no less. No judgement, no shame.

“She has a pregnancy in her uterus, and that pregnancy is alive, but so were the sperm and eggs that made it.” Whether or not you are pro-life, pro-choice, or just pro-ambivalence, I want you to consider the hollow ideological absurdity of such a soliloquy. It is grammatical and scientific nonsense to refer to “a pregnancy in [the] uterus;” though we do often speak idiomatically of pregnancy in the nounal sense (“a healthy pregnancy,” for instance) the word itself denotes a state, not an entity: you would never, after all, say something like, “She gave birth to a pregnancy.” And it beggars belief that a doctor—a person with actual medical responsibilities and access to actual patients who depend upon her for actual medical treatment—cannot tell the difference between (a) the gametes that fuse together to create a distinct human organism and (b) the distinct human organism that arises from the fusion of those two gametes. A medical professional who is unable to differentiate between these two radically qualitatively different phenomenon is unfit to hold a medical license or even so much as a tongue depressor.

I am not sure what compels people to frame this rather simple and uncomplicated issue in such a way. It might be tactical dishonesty: perhaps Dr. Karkowsky honestly believed it was better for the woman to “terminate” her “pregnancy,” and thus framed the issue in the most medically illiterate and irresponsible way she could. Or maybe abortion doctors recognize the deeply horrifying moral implications of abortion and have simply doublethinked themselves into believing what they tell their scared and desperate patients.  I do not know

But there is one more lie that Dr. Karkowsky told her patient, and maybe you didn’t spot it because it’s subtle enough to just barely ping the subconscious: “For right now,” she says, “that pregnancy is, [for] most of science…alive but not a person.”

This is false. “Science,” properly understood, does not, and can never, quantify what it means to be a “person.” Personhood is strictly a philosophical question, not a scientific one: science can tell you a lot about human biology and human development, but will never be able to tell you when it is acceptable to kill a human being and when it’s not. That is a question we reserve to the moral sphere of inquiry.

Dr. Karkowsky, of course, has already answered that question for herself: she considers it acceptable to kill a human being even as it moves and squirms inside of the mother who carries it. Thankfully, the patient in this case decided not to abort her child. But don’t worry: Dr. Karkowsky is still gainfully employed. So maybe next time.

The Ring Machine Springs to Life!

It’s May, and you know what that means: it’s almost time the latest season of the Bachelorette, which premieres some time this month—I’m not sure when, I don’t really care, I have no intention to watch it. I tuned in about a year ago, when JoJo Fletcher smooched her way through a battalion of identical men before she finally picked one of the identical men out from the rest of them and asked for his identical hand in marriage. It was very stupid, and I have no interest in reliving that again, because—and we all know this—it’s going to be exactly the same this year.

Nevertheless, this show continues to fascinate me, not as an entertainment product (it is ultimately a very dull show) but as a sociological barometer of sorts, or maybe a kind of giggly Rorschach test for the hoi polloi. Consider what we’re in for this season:

Accomplished Texas attorney Rachel Lindsay takes a recess from the courtroom to start her search for happily ever after in the 13th edition of ABC’s hit series, THE BACHLORETTE, premiering at a special time, MONDAY, MAY 22 (9:01-11:00 p.m. EDT), on The ABC Television Network. After opening herself up to finding love with Nick Viall last season on “The Bachelor,” this hopeful, down-to-earth woman will embark on her own journey to find her soul mate, meeting a record 31 bachelors who are all eager to win her heart and the final rose. (Note: “The Bachelorette” will return to its regular time slot on Monday, May 29 (8:00-10:01 p.m. EDT).

In “Episode 1301,” Rachel turns to her close friends from last season on “The Bachelor” – Alexis, Astrid, Corinne, Jasmine, Kristina, Raven and Whitney – to discuss her hopes and dreams for her upcoming adventure. After her gal squad offers some good advice, she is ready to meet her men.

As an aside, Trial of the Century is now accepting bets for how many, and what kind of, courtroom-inspired puns will be deployed during the upcoming season. For my money, I foresee the phrase “I plead guilty to loving you” being uttered at least two hundred times.

Anyway, it is interesting to witness the commodification of love, which is more or less exactly what is going on here. The Bachelorette‘s nominal realism is supposed to at least trick us into believing that Rachel is indeed looking to “find her soul mate.” But that old-fashioned romantic image has been married to a cold corporate structure of technical and financial interests: Rachel’s “journey” has “special time slots” and “regular time slots,” it is divided into numerical “episodes,” it has its own time zone reference point, it is based on self-referential “seasons.” Other reality shows do this, of course—think Survivor—but there is something distinctly uncomfortable and almost absence when it comes to the Bachelor series. Survivor, after all, mostly involves people stumbling around on beaches and stabbing each other in the back and climbing up walls; the Bachelor series involves love and marriage, which is—or at least used to be, and in any case should be—serious business, not the kind of thing you can or should cram into a “time slot.”

The commodification of love, of course, is not new: pornography has been doing it for years. But pornography has never had any pretensions about what it is and what it is trying to do: it is a perversion of real love and intimacy, and it’s just fine with that, thank you. The Bachelor and the Bachelorette are not pornography as it is typically defined, but nevertheless the shows accomplish, in a roundabout way, much of what pornography does: they deal in highly choreographed faux-love, they present a naive and unhelpful approximation of what real relationships are supposed to look like, and they do so as part of a megalithic cash cow the likes of which it is difficult to comprehend. And of course, lest we forget, the last few contestants generally do indeed end up banging each other in the “Fantasy Suite.” Ultimately the Bachelor series can be looked on as ultra-soft-core pornography in slow form, a scripted and unpleasant endeavor leading up to meaningless paid sex. And people love it!

Reality TV in general is very stupid and useless, though there are exceptions (like the Great British Bake Off, perhaps the finest competition show ever created). Yet there is something specially disquieting about shows like the Bachelor, which—like strip clubs—take something that should be special and secret and make it into something listless, boring and aggressively public. Twenty-one seasons ago I might have scoffed and said, “This show will never last.” I would have been completely wrong. And I’m not sure what to make of that.

The Science Witch Trials

If “Science” is the religion of modern-day progressivism—and it surely is—then climate change hysteria has to be its greatest sacrament, a visible sign of the invisible ideology underlying progressive political and social thought. Aside from abortion, can you think of an issue that animates the Left more these days than climate change? It is, in many cases, the source and the summit of liberal political engagement. They take it very seriously.

Case in point: Bret Stephens’s introductory column at the New York Times.  Stephens is fresh off the boat from the Wall Street Journal, from which he was hired—I assume—to offer some ideological balance to the Times‘s op/ed section (and presumably some air support to poor old Ross Douthat). His first column deals with the flawed “climate of complete certainty” surrounding climate science. As he points out, given the gap between actual climate science and popular climate change rhetoric, as well as history’s dismal record of “scientific errors married to political power,” then maybe “if there were less certitude about our climate future, more Americans would be interested in having a reasoned conversation about it.”

Well, perhaps! But probably not. Actually, lots of people kind of lost their minds:

Stephens’ column evoked a swift and angry response from many of the paper’s subscribers, who promptly canceled their subscriptions and bashed the Times’ decision to hire Stephens as a writer.

Stephens’ column also prompted backlash from those within the scientific community, like Stefan Rahmstorf, the head of Earth System Analysis at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Rahmstorf sharply criticized the Times’ decision to hire Stephens, as well as Stephens’ column, in a letter to the executive editor.

“I enjoy reading different opinions from my own, but this is not a matter of different opinions,” Rahmstorf wrote. He added that in its defense of Stephens, “The Times argued that ‘millions agree with Stephens.’ It made me wonder what’s next — when are you hiring a columnist claiming that the sun and stars revolve around the Earth, because millions agree with that?”

Now, you might be under the impression that Stephens wrote something really bad—that he said something along the lines of “Climate change is fake,” or “Climate change is a hoax,” or “Climate scientists are all frauds.” Indeed, what could lead a smart man like Professor Rahmstorf to compare Stephens’s rhetoric to the long-debunked and plainly false geocentric model of astronomy? What could compel climate scientist Michael Mann to lead a public subscription cancellation campaign against the Times?  Stephens must have really stepped in it.

Well, let’s look at some excerpts from his column: “Anyone who has read the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change knows that, while the modest (0.85 degrees Celsius, or about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit) warming of the Northern Hemisphere since 1880 is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming, much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities…To say this isn’t to deny science. It’s to acknowledge it honestly…None of this is to deny climate change or the possible severity of its consequences…” (Emphasis added.)

Now, Stephens actually appears to commit some basic data errors in his summary of the state of global temperature increase over the past near-century-and-a-half. That being said, the basic gist of his point remains. In other words, Stephens acknowledges a warming climate—specifically a warming climate influenced by human beings—and he also concedes that such warming may produce disastrous effects in the future. Nevertheless, a climate scientist still believes it is reasonable to compare Stephens to the cranks who might believe that “the sun and stars revolve around the Earth!” Does this seem reasonable to you? Of course not. But there is no room for dissent among climate mavens, not even half-dissent; only lockstep  conformity, imposed by a ruthless and unbending public outrage machine. And it probably works, too: in an era of declining print news fortunes, how long will a newspaper continue to publish climate change heterodoxy if every instance of such means a wave of cancelled subscriptions?

There are a number of reasons that people are mistrustful of the pop-science consensus on global warming. Part of it is that, for decades and decades, hysterical environmentalists have been completely wrong about their doomsday predictions. It gets harder and harder as time goes by to trust the oracles whose basic repeated message is, “Well, okay, today didn’t pan out, but tomorrow the world will definitely end!” But I suspect another, larger part of the public’s apathy towards climate change orthodoxy is this: people recognize an overwrought and irrational witch hunt when they see it. If your response to a man’s reasonable dissent in a respected newspaper is “YOU’RE A FLAT EARTHER AND I’M CANCELLING MY SUBSCRIPTION,” then maybe—just maybe—people aren’t going to take you very seriously. Nor should they.