But Is It Good for The Aspies?

Loyal readers will remember a post I did back in April, when the trailer for Adam first came out, in which I was hopeful about its potential effect on public perceptions of Asperger’s:

I’ll reserve full judgment until I see the movie, but I’m cautiously optimistic that viewers will leave the theater thinking “Asperger’s can be a blessing, not a curse” instead of “people with Asperger’s are really weird.”

Well, the movie has been in limited release for a few weeks now, and is opening wide today. I have a review up at the Prospect and, suffice it so say, I was disappointed:

For all his attention to detail, [writer-director Max] Mayer completely missed this larger, and more dangerous misrepresentation of Asperger’s. Even a performance as nuanced as [Hugh] Dancy’s and a script as careful as Mayer’s cannot prevent the film from delivering a blunt message: Asperger’s may not be all bad, but those with it are certainly not worth dating. Our social awkwardness, it suggests, is not a legitimate difference but an insurmountable obstacle to intimacy. Our occasional inability to express affection is equated with an inability to have affection. A woman in [Adam’s girlfriend] Beth’s position, beginning a relationship with a man with Asperger’s but uncertain where it will lead, will leave the theater determined to break things off. Adam, then, is a funny little beast, a romantic comedy about Asperger’s that leaves no room for romance in the lives of Aspies. Even as it gets our symptoms right, it does not appear to think we deserve love.

Read the rest here. I would add that, while I don’t get into it in the review for obvious reasons, the film’s ending only exacerbates this problem, making Adam more of a child, and his desire for love less worthy of reciprocation.

Taking Toffee With Your Vicodin

This, from Tom Schaller, seems unduly dismissive of the policy substance involved:

With all due respect to the late senator, I think it’s a bad idea to suddenly change the law, even if the motives are to honor a long-serving senator and also to ensure that the state is not underrepresented in the Senate. Given that the current–and in my opinion, stupid–procedure was enacted by state Democrats with partisan motives to thwart then-Gov. Mitt Romney were he to have the power to appoint a successor in 2004 to John Kerry had Kerry won the presidential election, the calls for altering it again so soon after it was changed (and again with at least a partially partisan intent) would set, or rather continue, a dangerous precedent.

Tom’s certainly right that both steps here – moving from a gubernatorial appointment until the next midterm or general election to a special election, and from a special election without an interim to a special election preceded by an interim appointment – are being / were taken for the most crass political reasons possible. And perhaps validating those motives sets a bad precedent.

But the end result is also the best policy. Special elections are more democratic than long-term interims, and special elections with a short-term interim allow states to not go unrepresented. There are some more regulations I’d add, such as Wyoming’s requirement that the interim be from the same party as the incumbent, or a requirement that the interim not run in the special election. But the basic structure is better than the alternatives, enough so that the process through which it came to be does not particularly bother me.

In a way, it is somewhat fitting that Kennedy’s passing resulted in this kind of policy improvement. His whole career was built around finding ways to exploit the political selfishness and cynicism of other actors and institutions to push through legislation that benefits a greater good. While that does not appear to be a conscious strategy in this case, it is the overall effect, and I’d like to think that Teddy would respect that.

In Nature of a Substitute

Let me just repeat my earlier support for Barney Frank if he chooses to seek Kennedy’s seat. It would be a wonderful capstone for a tremendous career, and a huge step forward for America’s LGBT community. The fact that people like Glenn Thrush are calling him “hard to oppose” is encouraging.

P.S. Scratch that – Frank is saying he’s not interested. In that case, I’m a big Martha Coakley fan, Aqua Teen Hunger Force hilarity aside, and so I hope she runs and the eleven non-Frank Massachusetts House members will step aside to let her crush Mitt Romney, or whatever other sadsack the GOP puts up, more efficiently.

Ted Kennedy

The public perception of the Kennedy brothers has always puzzled me. Their level of public regard has always been in inverse proportion to the amount of good they have done for the world. Robert Kennedy comes the closest of them to being a secular saint, and yet beyond a mixed record on civil rights as Attorney General and a not particularly notable stint in the Senate, he left remarkably little behind him. John F. Kennedy is beloved with caveats, and while that whole “preventing the Eastern Seaboard from being nuked out of existence” thing was impressive, his slow progress on integration and welfare state expansion was disappointing, as, of course, were the Bay of Pigs and his steps toward escalation in Vietnam.

Ted Kennedy, however, gets labeled a drunken philanderer, despite having spent the past forty years pushing through every piece of progressive legislation that really mattered. The 1965 immigration reforms, the post-watergate campaign finance reforms, COBRA, ADA, Family and Medical Leave, SCHIP: you name it, he helped pass it. He almost single-handedly saved us from Associate Justice Robert Bork, was perhaps the first major national Democrat to support marriage equality, and had the balls to call for a nuclear freeze and oppose the invasion of Iraq when few others did. But, you know, there was that Chappaquiddick thing, so screw him.

This, suffice it to say, is bullshit. Kennedy had his personal demons. I lived underneath his freshman dorm room in Wigglesworth Hall last year, and the floorboards in his old common room are still loose from when he would hide his hard liquor under them. His alcoholism, womanizing, and, in at least one case, disregard for another human life were not particularly attractive qualities. But damned if he didn’t do more to improve the lives of America’s poor than anyone else in government. And damned if most of the too-few positive aspects of our nation’s health care system can’t be laid squarely at his feet.

This is not to say that Kennedy was politically blameless either. He should not have rejected Nixon’s health care plan so brazenly (which he has acknowledged). He should not have challenged Carter in 1980. He definitely should not have supported Northern Irish secessionist terrorism with the vigor he did. But politics is an imperfect business. Compared to his colleagues, Kennedy’s sins were minimal, and his accomplishments enormous. The lived experience of the American people has improved more due to his actions than due to those of any politician since Roosevelt. There is a lot I am willing to forgive for such a record, far more than needs to be forgiven of Teddy.

He wasn’t the purest Kennedy, to be sure. He was not the president, and he was not the idealist. But he was the best Kennedy. He was the Kennedy who actually brought the country closer to one dreamed of in the rhetoric of his brothers, who made American liberalism implemented policy, rather than a pleasant dream. Some of this is due to longevity, of course, but it is mostly due to his very imperfection, to his willingness to wade into the mud, play dirty, cut deals, and staunch losses if it means some small progress. Senate maneuvering is an ugly business, but as Teddy showed like few others, it can a tool of the angels.

If there is any lesson to be drawn from his career to the current fight, to his final fight, it is that there is no shame in manipulating procedure, no shame in out-Roberts Rule-ing your opponent, if it means a better life for the American people. I harbor no illusions that Senate Republicans will have any desire to “pass it for Kennedy”, but I hope that Senate Democrats will use the occasion to conclude, finally, that it need not matter what those forty bastards think. Expanding Medicare to 133%, and ensuring 20 million more Americans in the process, is worthy upsetting Senate niceties. Banning discrimination on preexisting conditions is worth making Chuck Grassley uncomfortable. And establishing an affordable market for individuals is worth jettisoning the silly “Gang of Six” concept altogether. Every Democrat in the Senate should be informed that voting against cloture on Kennedy’s last bill is not just a shameful act of cowardice and perfidy, but cause for loss of committee memberships, of voting status within the caucus, and of DSCC support. Break skulls, Harry Reid. Break them for Teddy.

On the Non-Existence of Objectivist Historical Analysis

Matt and I have been responding to Will Wilkinson’s rather silly post on the relative respectability of Marxism and Objectivism in academia on Twitter, so I thought I’d bring it here as well. Attempts to shut down Marxist writing through repeated shouts of “Kulaks!” are juvenile and a clear indication that the person in question has never actually read Marx, and Matt does a typically excellent job of showing that Marxism has, indeed, produced great scholarship through people like Eric Hobsbawm and E.P. Thompson.

That said, Wilkinson’s comment on Matt’s post deserves further examination:

Perhaps Hobsbawm, Thompson, etc. were smart imaginative people and would have made even more useful contributions outside a Marxian framework. My guess is that, body counts aside, Marxism led to a huge amount of intellectual wasted effort and had an overall retarding effect on intellectual progress. I’m not sure how to argue this (maybe the possible world in which Marx never caught on gets hijacked by an even more fruitless ideology), but the combination of the endurance and falsity of the core Marxist tenets seem to me likely to have had a rather massive downside.

Yeah, no. Obviously, not all of Marx’s ideas hold up. The labor theory of value isn’t exactly riding high these days. But a lot – I’d say more – still have relevance. Marxist alienation is a tremendously useful tool for studying work and workers, and the applicability of commodity fetishism today should be clear enough. I even think Marx’s theory of history has a lot going for it, an argument into which the late G.A. Cohen put a lot of intellectual muscle. I’m not up enough on his exploitation theory, but it has serious people defending it.

Two broader points can be drawn from this. First, Marx is divisible. A historian or social theorist can draw upon certain parts of his critique of capitalism without agreeing with all of Capital, let alone with Marx’s political program. For example, I wrote an essay for a sociology of work class last spring drawing upon Marx’s theory of alienation in order to analyze drive-through window workers at McDonald’s franchises. This does not – or at least should not – imply that I accept every theory the man has promulgated. It does mean that I dubbed one of them to have value, and used it as a way to critique low-wage labor conditions. The paper was certainly Marxist in character, but that doesn’t make me a Marxist, let alone a Communist.

Second, Marx’s primary intellectual value is as critic, not as a promulgator of particular policy planks. One needs not draw the same normative conclusions about the need to overthrow capitalism in its entirety as Marx to agree that capitalism is a deeply flawed system and that he had some decent criticisms of it. When E.P. Thompson uses Marx to analyze the development of the English working classes, that need not imply support for Communist nations or policies, but that Marx has interesting and useful things to say about class relations (which should be an uncontroversial point). Of course, Thompson, Hobsbawm, and others did belong to the Communist Party of Great Britain while using Marxist analysis, but while connected, their political activism was not inextricably linked with their academic work. It is completely possible – and indeed ideal – to use Marxist analysis while rejecting his political platform.

Neither of these two points hold for Rand. Her theory does not have unique components that do not turn up in other places. Its metaphysical claims – that there is independently existing reality that is knowable through logic and reason – have been made by many others before and since. Her real innovation was putting a philosophical sheen on her knee-jerk hatred for basic human decency. That’s not really a critique, or at least a sophisticated one from which interesting claims can be made. A historical analysis through an Objectivist lens would be cartoonishly simple, and not particularly interesting. As people like Thompson and Hobsbawm have proved, nothing could be further from the truth with Marxist analysis.

Wilkinson’s claim seems to be that Thompson and Hobsbawm would have been equally good historians without Marx’s assistance. But to make that argument, he needs to prove that Marx’s assistance was not really worth much. When even vocal critics like Jon Elster concede that there is real value in his work on alienation, exploitation, and class conflict, that’s a hard point to establish.

P.S. See also new TNR webtern Noah Kristula-Green’s take.

Harlan County, U.S.A.

This is the only thing I can think of that can even begin to put what we’re seeing on the ground into context:

Obviously, we’re not seeing people pulling guns out of bras or activists like Lawrence Jones killed, but the central lesson applies, namely that corporations and their defenders have always used violence when they fear a social reform enough. There are differences in severity, of course–the tea party organizers are putting together hecklers who they should damn well know will turn violent, whereas Duke Energy used straight-up hired gunmen–but if the stakes are high enough, people will start carrying.

But in any case, I know what I’m raiding Videostop for this weekend.

Progressivism and the Nation-State

Tyler Cowen’s characteristically generous description of progressivism describes me pretty well, especially point three (“Determinism holds and tales of capitalist meritocracy are an illusion”). But I would be interested in seeing more discussion among liberals of point eight:

We should support free trade, more immigration, and more foreign aid, but the nation-state will remain the fundamental locus for redistribution. That means helping the poor at home more than abroad; a decision to do otherwise would destroy political equilibrium and make everyone worse off.

See, I agree with this as far as it goes. If instead of proposing spending one trillion dollars over ten years on universal health care for Americans, Congressional Democrats were debating spending that money on foreign aid, they would have no hope as a viable political movement. I’ve accepted that putting together a domestic welfare state is the most utility-enhancing thing we can do within current political constraints, and so onward we charge.

But I’m also convinced that this is a far from ideal situation. What would be ideal is a world sovereign with the power to redistribute globally. Obviously, a federal system wherein nation-states retained some power akin to that of American states would be required as a check against tyranny, but if some institution were able to redistribute massive amounts of American, European, Japanese, etc. money to development projects Africa, Southeast Asia, etc., we’d be doing a whole lot better. Sure, a lot of it would go to corrupt local regimes, but (1) a federal sovereign with its own ability to prosecute criminals would be able to keep that in check better than the current regime and (2) surely if one redistributes a truly huge amount of money, enough of it will get to the impoverished to substantially improve their welfare, get them spending and thus get the economy growing, even if corruption gobbles up a decent chunk of it. Of course, having a global sovereign would have all kinds of other salutary impacts (easier international coordination, fewer wars, global unionization, etc.) but redistribution is enough reason for a world state on its own.

Now, this is somewhat similar to a debate that has occurred within academic global justice circles, with Peter Singer taking something close to my view and Thomas Scanlon, among others, responding, and David Miller and John Rawls have defended varying levels of national bias in redistribution. That debate was slightly different, in that Singer was arguing that in our presently existing world it’s morally incumbent to donate to Oxfam or UNICEF, which I’m considerably more skeptical of than he is, and there are fewer references to a world state than I’d like. But regardless, there’s a pretty good literature that’s very relevant to the question of what the ideal level global economic redistribution would be.

In any case, there really ought to be more debate on this within non-academic circles. While a world state isn’t politically viable now, I could see it happening (and certainly hope it happens) before the century is out, and there are concrete things we should be doing (coalescing current institutions, making them more democratically accountable, giving them real sovereign powers, creating a UN standing army, etc.), which have real support around the world, that would help lead to one. If we’re going to have any energy behind those steps, people need to start at least talking about this as a pathway we can embark upon.