Wednesday, May 02, 2018


Even before it gets to the main topic, Ross Douthat's latest column goes off the rails:
One lesson to be drawn from recent Western history might be this: Sometimes the extremists and radicals and weirdos see the world more clearly than the respectable and moderate and sane. All kinds of phenomena, starting as far back as the Iraq War and the crisis of the euro but accelerating in the age of populism, have made more sense in the light of analysis by reactionaries and radicals than as portrayed in the organs of establishment opinion.
You didn't have to be one of "the extremists and radicals and weirdos" to get the Iraq War right -- Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder weren't radical or weird, nor were the likes of Ted Kennedy and Barbara Boxer in the Senate, or Charlie Rangel and Barney Frank in the House. As for the euro crisis, is Douthat calling his Times op-ed colleague Paul Krugman a fringe weirdo? I'm pretty sure they don't give you the Nobel Prize in economics if you're a half-mad extremist.

Soon we get to Douthat's main point, which is that radicals and weirdos are telling us to take seriously the notion of compelled redistribution of sex.
... one useful path ... is to look at areas where extremists and eccentrics from very different worlds are talking about the same subject. Such overlap is no guarantee of wisdom, but it’s often a sign that there’s something interesting going on.

Which brings me to the sex robots.
Only one of the people Douthat includes in the category of "extremists and eccentrics" actually belongs there. That's this guy:
Well, actually, first it brings me to the case of Robin Hanson, a George Mason economist, libertarian and noted brilliant weirdo. Commenting on the recent terrorist violence in Toronto, in which a self-identified “incel” — that is, involuntary celibate — man sought retribution against women and society for denying him the fornication he felt that he deserved, Hanson offered this provocation: If we are concerned about the just distribution of property and money, why do we assume that the desire for some sort of sexual redistribution is inherently ridiculous?
The other "eccentric" or "extremist" is this woman:
But Hanson’s post made me immediately think of a recent essay in The London Review of Books by Amia Srinivasan, “Does Anyone Have the Right To Sex?” Srinivasan, an Oxford philosophy professor, covered similar ground (starting with an earlier “incel” killer) but expanded the argument well beyond the realm of male chauvinists to consider groups with whom The London Review’s left-leaning and feminist readers would have more natural sympathy — the overweight and disabled, minority groups treated as unattractive by the majority, trans women unable to find partners and other victims, in her narrative, of a society that still makes us prisoners of patriarchal and also racist-sexist-homophobic rules of sexual desire.

Srinivasan ultimately answered her title question in the negative: “There is no entitlement to sex, and everyone is entitled to want what they want.” But her negative answer was a qualified one. While “no one has a right to be desired,” at the same time “who is desired and who isn’t is a political question,” which left-wing and feminist politics might help society answer differently someday. This wouldn’t instantiate a formal right to sex, exactly, but if the new order worked as its revolutionary architects intended, sex would be more justly distributed than it is today.
Yes, Srinavasan (who's so radical she's written for The New York Times) does believe that there could be a more just distribution of sex, but all she wants us to do is examine our blind spots. Do we reject fat people or trans people as objects of desire? Maybe if we took a critical look at our own preferences, they might change. She writes:
To take this question seriously requires that we recognise that the very idea of fixed sexual preference is political, not metaphysical.... the fact is that our sexual preferences can and do alter, sometimes under the operation of our own wills – not automatically, but not impossibly either. What’s more, sexual desire doesn’t always neatly conform to our own sense of it, as generations of gay men and women can attest. Desire can take us by surprise, leading us somewhere we hadn’t imagined we would ever go, or towards someone we never thought we would lust after, or love. In the very best cases, the cases that perhaps ground our best hope, desire can cut against what politics has chosen for us, and choose for itself.
Is that "revolutionary"? It seems humane. What it doesn't seem is coercive.

But Douthat knows that change is coming, dammit, and it will be forced on people like him whether they want it or not:
... I expect the logic of commerce and technology will be consciously harnessed, as already in pornography, to address the unhappiness of incels, be they angry and dangerous or simply depressed and despairing. The left’s increasing zeal to transform prostitution into legalized and regulated “sex work” will have this end implicitly in mind, the libertarian (and general male) fascination with virtual-reality porn and sex robots will increase as those technologies improve — and at a certain point, without anyone formally debating the idea of a right to sex, right-thinking people will simply come to agree that some such right exists, and that it makes sense to look to some combination of changed laws, new technologies and evolved mores to fulfill it.
There's a range of left-wing opinions on sex work, but the common ground is that we want to protect sex workers from harm and from societal contempt; compelling these workers to engage in sex redistribution runs counter to the notion that sex work is fine as long as the workers can choose their clients, and to those who think sex work is exploitation by definition, redistributive sex would seem abhorrent.

Douthat -- who wishes we were "reviving or adapting older ideas about the virtues of monogamy and chastity and permanence and the special respect owed to the celibate" -- obviously thinks we'll make sex a human right because we overvalue it. Well, yes, we like sex. But we also like drugs and online shopping and recorded music and video games and late-model iPhones and bingeable prestige-cable TV series, and there have been no mass movements to make weed or Amazon Prime a human right. We fought for LGBT marriage rights, and for cross-race marriage rights before that, but we never argued that society should intervene in selecting marriage partners. Why would we? How does that fit and widespread form of liberalism or leftism (or libertarianism or libertinism, for that matter)?

Douthat is falling into an obvious trap for anyone who comments on politics and society, one I've succumbed to several times myself: He's leaping to the conclusion that his political opponents want something he abhors just so he can chastise them for wanting it. Sorry, Ross, this isn't something any rational person wants.

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