Saturday, August 27, 2011

fantasy, feminism, and a Song of Ice and Fire

I was halfway through E.D. Kain's post defending George RR Martin and his Song of Ice and Fire against charges of sexism, when I thought I should read the post where the charges were actually presented, by Sady Doyle on the Tiger Beatdown. I found most of the arguments wanting, and I was put off by the number of cheap shots from what I thought was a willful misreading of the books. Good points brought up were drowned out by bad points. (Minor spoilers throughout.)

For example, she blows off Danaerys as a potential strong female character because she represents western domination over brown people with funny names and customs. Good point: Dany takes on a White Savior role, and that's a racist cliche. But the point is muddied (though certainly not invalidated): Yes she is white, but she never even knew Westeros. And, while Westeros doesn't have slavery, it is not exactly presented as civilised itself. If Dany ever makes it to Westeros, she's going to heartily disapprove of what she finds there as well, and her bleeding heart that I love will compel her to try to reform Westerosi civilization, to which she is thus far a stranger. Another thing, she's not exactly successful in her savior role, which may or may not mitigate the criticism. And then I'm just befuddled as to what Doyle thinks is an appropriate ethical response to slavery:
Daenerys: Oh, here we fucking go. Daenerys, you see, has discovered that the mystical, barbaric cities of the Orient have one particularly barbaric custom of which she disapproves heartily. That custom? Is slavery. And so, Daenerys must save these other cultures from themselves, by going city to city and systematically destroying them, imposing her own standards upon them all. Here’s a problem, though: We, the European and/or American readers, also know slavery to be a bad thing. And here is how we know this: White people enslaved people of color. For generations. We brutalized people of color, we institutionalized the rape of people of color, we committed genocide against people of color, we devastated the cultures of people of color. And here is how we white people rationalized that: We told ourselves that these people of color were barbaric, that they were savages, that European standards should be universal, and that we were saving these people from themselves. So, for those keeping track: The rationale behind Daenerys’s campaign to abolish slavery? IS THE RATIONALE THAT CREATED SLAVERY. Daenerys: Mystic Dragon Land’s leading producer of UGH.
A couple more examples. Catelyn is also blown off as a strong female character despite her considerable agency because she is overwhelmingly concerned about protecting her children. Is it feminist to be unconcerned about the safety of your children? Ned was also concerned about his children, and forsook his valued and annoying honor to protect them.

Very good point: Cersei is the most explicitly feminist character in the books and she is portrayed as evil and entirely unsympathetic. Not so good point: Martin is sexist because Catelyn and Cersei, female characters with strong agency, continually fail in their endeavors. But this is in the context of a story where all the characters, males included, often catastrophically fail. Jon and Dany appear especially blessed in this regard through the end of book four, where Doyle stops her analysis. But in book five it's not clear at all that even they are winning the future.

Then there was this from Doyle in the comment section,
@Trolls, people explaining why George R.R. Martin isn’t sexist. Your names, thus far, have been:

John G. [deleted for rudeness]
John D.
E.D., who runs a blog on “Gentlemen” [deleted for blog spam]
Jake [deleted for starting off with "Sady=cunt"]

I’m noticing a theme here, but what can I say? I am but a young girl who knows little of blog war. And tends to think women are in a better position to explain What Is Sexist than men are.
This is undoubtedly true (she does after all write on a well-trafficked feminist blog and, as a woman, can grok  patriarchal biases better than I ever possibly could). But this is a shortcut that shuts down the conversation. I certainly didn't feel welcome commenting after that. If a male is intrinsically incapable of contributing valid criticism of a feminist critique, then what is the point of a male trying to understand the critique at all? And does this not also invalidate the contribution of males who concurred with the feminist critique? Yes, I recognize that I am inviting ridicule here. "Aw, the privileged white male feels invalidated!" And to be fair, I checked back later and there was a pretty reasonable discussion going on in the comment thread, with men and women on both sides of the issue. The fact that she has to deal with real trolls hurling epithets casts a dark cloud over this whole conversation.

This is all sad because I think a feminist critique of GRRM's books is perfectly warranted. Here are some thoughts after reading a couple other posts found by googling "feminist critique song of ice and fire".

As mentioned, I think Cersei is a really strong female character. But she's painted as completely unsympathetic. This would be fine, indeed it would count as a net plus to have a strong female villain, if there was another explicitly feminist character who was more sympathetic. She still appears to be evolving somewhat in the series, so maybe this will all change.

Martin missed an opportunity with Asha's sex scene in book five. SPOILER The scene is early on portrayed as rape, but it turns out he is her boyfriend, so it's "okay". My complaint is that if he wanted to write an attempted rape scene, why not allow her to fight off an actual and uncontroversial villain? Better yet, why not take the opportunity to show a strong female character engaging in and enjoying transparently consensual sex? She is a pretty strong female character over all, as a woman captain in a man's world, complete with men who seem to really respect her.

The lesbianism in the series is bullshit. First, Dany and her servant girl get in on occasionally, so she's bisexual, which is just fine. But she clearly is most attracted to men. This is all well and good, as bona fide bisexuals absolutely exist in the real world. But this falls flat if there is no example of bona fide lesbians in a story that spans several thousand pages. This is probably said better by Prickly Woman:
Two lesbian interactions. Dany and her handmaid...for Dany it was portrayed as happening because she needed a man but didn't have one. Lesbianism as temporary, not serious, to be replaced by heterosexual interactions. Cersei and Taena was all about Cersei wishing she were a man. Lesbianism again as poor substitute for someone who just really wants a penis, whether to possess it or to be penetrated by it. Not cool, my man.
The male homosexuality is at least apparent, though not as developed as it could be, between Renly and the Knight of Flowers. And of course, the Red Viper, my very favorite character, was a bisexual male.

That's all I've got for now, but I am very interested in reading more feminist (and other literary) critiques of Martin's books.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

on the need for a cosmotarianism

Michael Clemens has reviewed the available literature and estimated the potential economic gains from removing barriers to international migration in a working paper titled "Economics and Emigration: Trillion Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk?" The money quote:
The gains from eliminating migration barriers dwarf—by an order of magnitude or two—the gains from eliminating other types of barriers. For the elimination of trade policy barriers and capital flow barriers, the estimated gains amount to less than a few percent of world GDP. For labor mobility barriers, the estimated gains are often in the range of 50–150 percent of world GDP.
This is a stupendous amount of wealth generated merely for doing the right thing and removing coercive barriers to freedom of movement. If a technical invention had similar effects, it would be lauded as revolutionary and the inventors would earn a page in the history books.

But the world lacks an adequate framework for receiving this big effing idea. Simply put, who cares? Which ideological group will take this information and bear its message in large fonts on their banners while chanting an annoying but difficult to forget rhyming couplet? Now, there are organizations, including the Center for Global Development, which employs Dr. Clem, and proud we are of all of them. But there are no movements.

This comes to mind perhaps because I'm currently reading a history of Communism by Archie Brown. Communism got many things catastrophically wrong but also got one thing right. Brown describes the "existence of, and sense of belonging to, an international Communist movement" to be a defining feature of Communism. The familiar motto was "Workers of the world, unite!" Communist doctrine did not do away with tribalism altogether, but it reoriented tribalism from the usual ties of blood and race and nation to the abstract economic concept of class. Class transcended ethnicity and national identity. Communists thought a worldwide utopia was possible (inevitable, actually) and worked toward it in their own misguided way. Seeing how powerful feelings of national loyalty often are, that's quite something. Communism had people out in the streets for global justice.

I lie awake at night fantasizing about a popular movement that combines the universalism of Communism with actual good ideas. My biases as they are, I think most of the good ideas are liberaltarian ideas. I think it's really important to realize all the nice things we've got here in the democratic, developed world, including massive wealth and health (by historical standards), civil quiet (the occasional London riot is something I think we can live with) and an ever-expanding plenitude of enriching options for our private lives. I say liberaltarian because the developed world is one largely designed by modern liberals and progressives, one of social safety nets, democratic government, and equal rights for women and minorities (in principle if not yet in fact). Libertarianism can provide necessary tweaks in the form of market-savvy solutions, a greater awareness of the public choice limitations of democracy, and civil liberties absolutism.

But the good ideas of liberals and libertarians too often stop at the border. At present, most discussions of policy pay attention to the effects on our neighbors only insofar as there will be repercussions back on us. To be America-centric for a moment, consider the 34,000 Mexicans who have died in the drug war, much (not all) of which can be laid at the feet of America's illiberal drug laws. The number gets very little traction in public discourse because they are dead Mexicans and not dead Americans. But Mexicans are human beings with passions, hopes, hobbies, and families who grieve at the loss of loved ones just as much as we do; this number should evoke roughly ten times the shock and horror of the 9/11 tragedy. Something similar can be said for the fatality statistics of our current wars. One hears the number of American soldiers slain more often than the number of Iraqis or Afghans, despite the latter being at least an order of magnitude more gruesome. Most of the gains Michael Clem has estimated will accrue to the migrants themselves and all by itself that is a powerful reason to get out of the way of their migration and their gains.

We should extend our awareness, our ethical considerations, and our utilitarian calculations to the globe. We should be not just liberaltarians but cosmotarians, and ask not What is good for our country? but instead What is good for humanity? Unfortunately this doesn't lend itself to catchy slogans. People of the world, unite!