February 16, 2007

Living on the Inside...and Living on the Outside

[I originally published this essay a little more than two years ago, on January 29, 2005. I offer it again now, and place it here out of date order so that more people might read it, for two reasons: first, many of the issues I discussed are relevant to a recent, comparatively minor (although disturbing) fracas, see here and here; and second, certain aspects of the deeply entrenched white, straight male power structure that I describe are directly relevant to the broader issue of the West's, and of America's, "exceptionalism." In that connection, see my Dominion Over the World series, including the second installment: Why the Stories We Tell Matter So Much. The essay below addresses the narrower, more personal aspect of these issues, while the Dominion series explores the more general cultural-political manifestations. But in many crucial respects, the issues are the same.

Some earlier posts that I reference haven't been republished yet. If a link is not provided, it means there isn't one. I've linked to related articles when I can. The essay appears as originally written, with the exception of several paragraphs I've deleted and that dealt with a tangential issue, one I was still working through two years ago. Readers who have been following my efforts for some time will recall that I once offered some praise for Ayn Rand, particularly for a certain aspect of the methodology she brought to her nonfiction writing (although my earlier praise was also limited by some serious reservations). As I have understood more about the numerous basic flaws and errors in Rand's thought, and as I have watched with growing astonishment and even revulsion the mental contortions engaged in by Rand's most dedicated admirers, my admiration for Rand in any respect at all has plummeted into negative territory. With regard to her nonfiction work, I have almost nothing good to say -- and a great deal that is harshly critical. I consider her work to be notably dangerous in many respects, and often lethal in its psychological effects on her most zealous followers.

At some point, if I have time and interest, I may explain all this further as part of my "Systems of Obedience" series. But what I had said about Rand's methodology two years ago I now view as significantly inaccurate and misleading. It would take me much too far afield and require a great deal of time to explain the changes in my thought in any detail. I hope to return to the "Systems of Obedience" series in a few months, after completing some other writing. And Rand's "philosophy," such as it is, fits perfectly into that series: despite the protestations of her followers and of Rand herself that her philosophy reveres reason and independence above all else, the opposite is true. With regard to how her ideas actually work in the lives and thought of her admirers and, I would submit, the only way those ideas can work, Rand's notions ultimately and inevitably reduce to a demand for obedience to principles that are often defended very poorly or barely at all, that are frequently incoherent and contradictory, and that are extraordinarily damaging, in ways both small and tragically large. In many respects, her ideas are remarkably bad, and often exceedingly dangerous. But another time for all that.]

Several days ago, I wrote a brief post in response to one from Keith Halderman over at Liberty & Power. Those entries concerned Lawrence Summers' recent remarks about men and women, and what might explain certain purported differences in their successes in math and science. I had written a lengthier essay on the same subject the day before; that first piece sets out the substantive reasons for my deep disagreements with what Summers said.

In the comments to my post, several issues came up which merit further discussion. In one of my comments, I said:
[L]et me mention one other thing, while I'm at it. I generally admire [Jacob] Sullum's work a great deal. However...the opening in particular of his [Washington Times] article simply *drips* with male condescension, with his reference to Hopkins' "medical excuse."

Furthermore, let me be very, very blunt (and undoubtedly ruffle more than a few feathers): unless they work very, very hard to capture a profoundly different perspective, one informed by a lifetime of experience in a culture which is largely hostile to them -- the kind of experience felt by women, blacks and gays for example -- white, heterosexual men simply *do not get it.* It's as simple as that. No, I am not endorsing subjectivism or saying that it is not possible to ascertain the truth. I am saying only what I *did* say: unless they try very hard, white, straight men just are unable to understand the perspectives and reactions often experienced by those who are *not* white, straight men. And that is absolutely true.
In response to this, Jeanine Ring quoted that last paragraph of mine, and then wrote:
I, with much sadness, must agree entirely with the above. And for less than the most honourable reasons: as a transgender woman, I lived my previous life as a straight white male. Enlightenment libertarianism and formal individualism did little to overcome a thousand subtle habits of mental privile[]ge; one year living as transgendered woman has made an an awareness of oppressions I once dismissed simply an inescapable part of the daily occurence of life.

I now consider myself a comitted radical feminist, and I know I can become quite angry about sex and gender issues. But it's not because I think I possess some special insight- I don't; I've just happened to have the 'luck' to see things from a couple of angles. In my previous life, I quite easily and honestly thought of America as a "more-or-less" post-racist and post-sexist society in which prejudice barely existed except among rednecks and in the minds of grievance comittees. I now look back at the world I once believed in and wonder what universe I was living in.
The issue that I identified in my comment -- that it is only with extraordinary difficulty that straight white men can grasp the profoundly different life experiences of many (and probably most) of those who are not straight white men -- is one that I have mentioned a number of times before. In particular, in an essay from almost two years ago which described my experiences as a teenager attempting to come to terms with being gay in the 1960s, I said in introducing my subject:
I realize, once again, that many people simply do not seem to have any comprehension what it means to grow up as a gay man or lesbian in a culture which is largely hostile to your own sense of self and, in many ways, to your very existence. This is not surprising, or unexpected; it takes some effort to fully understand the experiences of those who are different from you in some fundamental way. For most people, such understanding comes through personal interaction with people belonging to different groups; for some, it comes through reading extensively about it. In either case, though, I don't think people who are not gay can fully understand what it feels like to be gay in this culture. Please do not misunderstand what I am saying. I am certainly not endorsing a version of multiculturalism, or saying that reality changes depending on our personal contexts. And I am not saying that people who are not gay cannot understand what it means to be gay in this culture. But what I said, and what I do believe, is that heterosexuals cannot grasp fully what it feels like to be gay in this culture. And I think that is undeniably true.
I then went on to describe some of my experiences during that period in my life, the kind of culture in which I lived, the messages that culture gave me and the effect they had on me.

I discussed a number of related issues in another essay, "In Praise of Contextual Libertarianism." In that entry (written in November 2003), I discussed an important and often unnoticed similarity between the analytic approach utilized by what I call "contextual libertarians" (of whom Chris Sciabarra is the best and most provocative example) and certain people on the liberal/left side of the political spectrum. These excerpts summarize the central argument I made:
It's also been widely remarked that those opposed to the Iraq war, and to our current foreign policy in general, also constitute an unusual combination: certain libertarians now find themselves much more comfortable with many liberals than with Republicans or conservatives, at least with regard to this issue. Aside from their general opposition to our foreign policy, what has been interesting to me is that these opponents of the Iraq war have often focused on the same elements. One of those major elements is the crony capitalism that lies at the heart of many aspects of our foreign policy, the crony capitalism that is now one of the most important factors influencing how the occupation of Iraq is playing out.


But the question I have been wrestling with is this: why exactly are certain libertarians and liberals focused on certain issues -- while many other libertarians and most conservatives are seemingly oblivious to them? What is the mechanism involved? What is the process or method that explains it?


These issues are very complex, so I will state the main point very briefly to begin with: there are two basic methods of thinking that we can often see in the way people approach any given issue. One is what we might call a contextual approach: people who use this method look at any particular issue in the overall context in which it arises, or the system in which it is embedded. Liberals are often associated with this approach. They will analyze racism or the “power differential" between women and men in terms of the entire system in which those issues arise. And in a similar manner, their proposed solutions will often be systemic solutions, aimed at eradicating what they consider to be the ultimate causes of the particular problem that concerns them.

The other fundamental approach is to focus on the basic principles involved, but with scant (or no) attention paid to the overall context in which the principles are being analyzed. In this manner, this approach treats principles like Plato's Forms, as will become clearer shortly. I will use an example from a discussion here to illustrate the point, a discussion about certain cultural aspects related to homosexuality. ...

Nothing that I have written can possibly be reasonably construed as a denial of individual responsibility. But it is not a denial of that responsibility to acknowledge the simple, uncontestable reality that culture matters. It matters a lot. But for many libertarians, none of this is to be discussed.

And libertarians wonder why they aren't more successful. With the opportunity for this fuller explanation, I will say something I have only mentioned to a few friends until now. If my choice were only between a fully free society -- but a society populated solely by “atomist libertarians" with sensibilities of the kind exhibited in the comments above about Marilyn Monroe -- and the world we live in today, I'll take this world any day. It's not even close. On the most fundamental level imaginable, these “atomist libertarians" are not my kind of people at all. Fortunately, that is not the choice. I can live in this world, and continue to fight for the kind of world I would like to see.

To return to the more general point: many libertarians espouse this “atomist" view of society. For them, it is as if the society in which one lives is completely irrelevant to an analysis of any problem at all. For them, all one must understand are the fundamental political principles involved. For them, that is the entirety of the discussion.

In only one, extremely narrow sense, I would agree: certainly, I remain opposed to "central planning" efforts at eradicating mistaken views, or private discrimination. For example, while I view a private employer's refusal to hire gays or blacks simply on the basis of that fact as irrational and immoral, I also consider that to be his right in a free society. As I have said before, being free must necessarily include the right to be irrational and mistaken. When we seek to impose our own views of "proper" and "moral" behavior on others, using the force of government to do so, we proceed down the road to dictatorship, if such views were carried to their logical conclusion.

But that does not mean that the cultural aspects of these problems are irrelevant and not worthy of attention. Far from it. Those cultural issues are profoundly important. We do not grow up or live in a vacuum; we grow up and live in a particular society at a particular time. All of us are influenced in countless ways by the world in which we live. To maintain otherwise, one would have to advocate a psychologically untenable degree of repression or denial. I further think this point is so obvious that it doesn't even merit a lengthier defense or explanation.

For many libertarians, however, it appears that these cultural dimensions are not worthy of attention -- and more than that, they appear to think that paying any attention to them constitutes a positive danger. They could not be more wrong in my view. While these cultural aspects may not alter the basic political principles one advocates -- which they do not for me, despite my attention to them -- they are crucial to understanding the world in which we live. If one wants to understand the specific manner in which policy debates are being conducted, and if one wants to understand why people think and act as they do in this or any other society, one has to understand the overall cultural context in which these issues arise.

The failure of many (if not most) libertarians to do this consistently is, I think, one of libertarian's greatest failings -- and one of the key reasons that libertarian ideas have not had greater success in appealing to many people. Many libertarians treat political principles in the manner of Plato's Forms: as abstractions floating in the ether, unconnected to the particulars of this world. But that is not the manner in which anyone lives, despite the protestations of many libertarians to the contrary. As a result, many people write off many libertarian ideas as "impractical," or "idealistic," or "unworkable." That is a mistake in my view, but given libertarianism's failing in this regard (speaking generally), it is a very understandable mistake.

Leave aside for this discussion the fact that liberals and libertarians have very different views about the causes and solutions to many of today's problems. I am not focused here on the specific content of these groups' ideas, but on their methods of analysis. Liberals generally employ a contextual, systemic approach: they focus on the overall society in which problems arise, and propose society-wide solutions. Libertarians generally focus only on the political ideas that are implicated -- with virtually no attention at all paid to the cultural context in which those ideas are to be applied, or in which opposing ideas have arisen. (Interestingly, many conservatives might argue that they, too, focus on cultural, systemic issues -- with their emphasis on the "culture war," and on issues such as homosexuality and school prayer. My answer in brief is that, yes, they may be focused on systemic issues, but they are fighting for the completely wrong culture. And what they want, in fact, is a theocracy.)

My own solution is clear at this point: I think both approaches are necessary and required. For me, the discussion begins with an identification of the principles involved -- but once those have been identified, one must analyze the context in which those principles are to be applied, including the relevant cultural context. After all, the point of identifying the principles involved is to apply them to this world -- to apply them to particular people in particular situations. Individuals are the ultimate components of reality; there are no others. Political principles, as such, do not exist in the world as tangible objects.

Thus, a libertarian who approaches policy debates in the manner I do is likely to feel much more comfortable in a certain way with liberals, than with libertarians who utilize the "Plato's Forms" approach. It is not that I agree with liberals about the specific content of the policies they propose. I almost always do not. But my methodology is much more similar to theirs than to that of many libertarians. ...

And that is, in fact, the way the world works. We are always applying a principle in a particular context, and that context influences the manner in which the principle is utilized. It cannot be otherwise.

And thus, as another example, the alliance between libertarians who use an approach like mine to liberals with regard to the war on terrorism. We tend to focus on the complex systemic issues involved, on the corporate statism, on the unlikely success of any effort to "plan" the development of other countries. Many pro-war libertarians focus only on our right of self-defense, and on our need to destroy our enemies -- without considering the system in which those principles will be applied, the nature of the players involved, and how that system itself may render all such efforts unsuccessful, and will likely hasten the growth of an even more destructive and powerful central government here in the United States.


To sum up, then: we can see two very different methods of approaching any problem. We have a method which focuses on contextual, systemic concerns, and always keeps those issues in mind when analyzing any problem and proposing solutions to it. And we also have a method which focuses almost exclusively on principles, but employs principles in the manner of Plato's Forms, unconnected and unmoored to a specific context or culture. As I said, my solution is to employ both methods, separately and together, constantly going back and forth -- and to endeavor never to forget either.

All of which brings me to a new term which I think I will use in the future to describe my own political convictions. I am a contextual libertarian. The libertarian part is obvious: I base my political convictions on the supremacy of individual rights, and think that government should be concerned solely with protecting those rights, on both the domestic and foreign fronts. But the contextual element is just as important for me: the principles I advocate can only be applied in a specific context at a specific time. The overall context, including significant cultural factors, must always be kept in mind as well.
To return to my earlier points about Larry Summers and the comments quoted above: I can echo one significant part of what Ms. Ring said. I only came to certain realizations myself because I am a white, gay male. Not all of those characteristics are relevant all of the time -- and that fact has permitted me to appreciate certain perspectives that might escape others. As Ms. Ring indicated, it is not so much an issue of having "special insight": it is being in a position to appreciate enormously different perspectives, and the underlying dynamics that accompany them -- provided, of course, one is willing to be open to what one experiences and observes.

When I said that unless they work very hard at capturing a profoundly different perspective, white, straight men simply do not get it, I was referring primarily to the power structures that exist in our culture -- and to the very complex power dynamics that flow from those structures. As the briefest indication of what I mean, consider the political establishment in this country: it is one dominated by white, heterosexual males. Or consider the upper echelons of corporate America: it is dominated by white, heterosexual males. In America today -- and in most, if not all, of the Western world -- straight, white men call the shots. They have almost all the power, and they set the terms. They determine most of the ways in which we live, if you only take the time and effort to trace the myriad ways in which power flows from the primary cultural structures which embody and disperse that power.

This simple and inescapable fact has consequences that reverberate in countless ways through the lives we all lead. It affects the jobs we have, the jobs we believe we can hope to get, where we live, how well we are paid, how we socialize, the people whom we befriend, those whom we marry, and almost everything else. Let me be very clear: I am not endorsing some form of cultural determinism, nor am I saying that we all must inevitably be constrained by these choices. But our choices are not infinite, either; they are limited to a very significant degree by the particular culture in which we live at this particular time. When we seek to transcend the limitations imposed by our culture, such efforts require daunting work over a prolonged period of time -- and the costs, in numerous ways, can be enormous. For many people, those costs are prohibitively high.

And again, I am aware of the many and very significant differences between the white, straight male perspective and that which everyone else experiences because of one simple fact: I am a white, gay male. In certain situations, the fact that I am gay is completely irrelevant, and it doesn't come up at all. And as I look back at those experiences, I know this: I felt that I was part of the "in" crowd, I was on the inside of power, I was in the game. I was part of the group that made things work, and that also determined exactly how things worked.

But whenever the fact that I was gay suddenly became known -- and when it was important, to whatever degree and for whatever reason -- suddenly I wasn't in the game any longer. Here's just one example of the many occasions on which I became aware of this in an important way, a way which affected the course of my life. It happened when I interviewed for a job as an associate lawyer during my last year of law school. I had an exceptionally good record: near the top of my class, on the school law review, top grade in a couple of courses, and several other honors. But I also worked full-time when I went through law school -- and here's the kicker: I worked as a legal secretary. A man working as a legal secretary. That meant one thing, and only one thing: I was gay. (In fact, it is an entirely accurate generalization: most men who work as legal secretaries are gay, certainly in my not inconsiderable experience.) I couldn't understand why I wasn't getting more job offers given my qualifications. Finally, I asked a few friends what the hell was going on. They looked at me with great sympathy, and when I quietly wondered if it might be because people thought I was gay, they regarded me with gentle exasperation. "Oh, Arthur," they said as one, "of course they know you're gay! You're a man, and you're working as a secretary! You're gay! And some of them don't want to hire a gay man as an associate."

It sounds almost funny in retrospect, but it was devastating then. I had worked so hard -- getting up at 6 AM every morning, at the office by 8 or 8:30, working incredibly hard until 5 (litigation, the particular area in which I worked, is very, very stressful), then driving to classes, at school until 9 or 10 at night, then home...then five or six hours of sleep...and then the same routine the next day. And studying for endless hours every weekend. For four and a half years. I compiled an exceptional record. And a lot of people didn't want to hire me because I had worked as a secretary, and that meant I was gay. And they didn't want to hire a gay man.

Let me tell you something: unless you've been there, you do not know what it's like. You just don't. And don't tell me you do. Yes, you can understand it, and you can offer genuine and meaningful sympathy. But you don't know what it's like to feel that, and to experience that to the very core of your being -- to realize that no matter what you do, no matter how good you are, no matter how hard you work, some people just won't give a damn. And they won't give you a chance -- when they would give the same chance, and much more, to someone who wasn't gay, or who wasn't a woman, or who wasn't black, and who deserved it much less than you did.

(This was one instance where someone in my position would have been much better off being a woman. And it wouldn't even have mattered if she were a lesbian. First of all, women are "expected" to be secretaries; it's more than acceptable in the male power structure to have women in subservient roles. Hell, it's often demanded. Second, there is obviously no automatic assumption that women secretaries are lesbians. But even if a prospective employer had that thought, it wouldn't matter. Why do you think so many of the same straight men who would be likely to beat the crap out of any man who made a sexual advance, no matter how subtle and unobtrusive, are turned on by thoughts of lesbian sex? Male homosexuals are experienced as a profound threat to a certain kind of insecure man. But lesbians? Women are "less" than men to begin with, and therefore no threat. And lesbians are even "less" than straight women, and are therefore completely inconsequential to this type of straight man. Lesbians could not conceivably be a threat -- so they become a turn-on.)

I've also experienced the same dynamic in countless other situations, including the major national law firm I worked for. I did exceptional work at that firm, too -- but I also was co-president of the local gay and lesbian bar association. In connection with certain work I did with the gay lawyers, I was interviewed for a front-page story in the major Los Angeles legal newspaper. In that interview, I talked about how major law firms didn't make life easy for gay and lesbian associates. (This was about 12 years ago, and I'm happy to say things are somewhat better now.)

That didn't go over too well with my employers. They never actually said anything about it, and I couldn't prove that it made a difference. But I know that it did. Things were never the same after that. (There were some other factors as well, but this was a major one.) I did a few other things that "caused trouble," complaining about actions that I considered cruel and discriminatory. I wasn't willing to play the game with them, and I finally decided to leave. One additional interesting phenomenon that I observed was this: the women who succeed at medium and big law firms (not just the one I worked at, I saw the same thing at a number of other law firms, too) are usually women who identify completely with the white, straight male power structure. They fit right in, and work very hard at it. If any of you know female law partners at medium or large law firms, you'll know what I'm talking about: such female partners are usually among the coldest fish you will ever find -- and they have none of the qualities most people associate with women, such as compassion and empathy. They've made themselves exactly like the male law partners and, as a result, they've done very well for themselves in one sense. And like many of the male partners, they're "tough," largely devoid of empathy, and dead emotionally.


I also want to repeat something I've said before when discussing what it's like being gay (or a woman or black, to the extent I can grasp the experiences of others in light of my own) in a culture which is hostile in many ways to your very existence: I'm not so much interested in sympathy about any of this. In my own view, my purpose and my goal are much more crucial than that. And hell, I've had it easy compared to a lot of other people. What I want is for those who are part of the power structure that dominates and runs our world at present, or who identify with it in large part, to understand what it is that they're a part of -- and also to realize how profoundly different the life experiences of so many other people are.

During certain periods of my life, I was able to "pass" and be part of the power structure myself. It's a heady experience; as I said, you know you're in the game -- and that can be a great feeling while you have it. You feel that the entire world is open to you. But after coming out as a gay man at the age of 30, and especially after beginning to write about all these issues over the last few years -- and also carving out a very different path in terms of my own views, especially about foreign policy ... from what I (and many others) had originally expected -- I haven't been able to recapture that feeling. And now I don't want to. When I think back to the times when I felt that I was on the inside looking out -- and when I contrast that with how I have felt more and more over the last few years -- the psychological remnants of having been part of that power structure feel like a bad hangover. I feel as if I had had too much drink, and ended up doing things I now regret very deeply.

For people who are on the inside, it is only with extraordinary effort that they can truly grasp what it feels like to be on the outside. When you're on the outside, your choices are much more limited, the views of the majority crowd in on you in ways large and small every day -- and you know that, no matter what your intelligence, what your achievements, what your character, there are many people for whom you will never be good enough. You simply don't measure up. You're not one of them.

I'm not even sure any longer that government involvement in so many areas of our lives where it doesn't belong is the worst price many of us pay. Certainly, government oppression under the guise of law is probably the most obvious form of injustice -- and often the worst, as when it involves imprisonment for "consensual crimes," for example. But culture itself can be the most oppressive force of all -- particularly when commonly accepted cultural views are tied to a power structure which excludes entire classes of people.

And that brings us back to Lawrence Summers and his profoundly regrettable remarks. His defenders can slice it any way they wish, but in the end Summers had one primary message: "A lot of women just aren't as good at math and science as us men. That doesn't mean we should discriminate against women. Of course we shouldn't. And a number of women are just as good as men in these fields. But generally speaking, women just aren't as smart in these areas. Now, don't get angry about it. It's just science. It's the truth and if we're good scientists, we must recognize that."

Besides having nothing to do with "science" at all (as discussed in my earlier post about Summers), this entire attitude reeks with condescension and superiority -- and it oozes the kind of psychology which believes it is properly endowed with enormous power by right, and that such power should be acknowledged and accepted by everyone else. And it is precisely the kind of psychology that one finds all too often with...yes: white, straight men.

At this point, I only ask that people recognize it for what it is, and then seek by small steps to overcome it and get beyond it. There is absolutely nothing inherently just or right about it at all.

As I say, despite the fact that this was quite lengthy, I still have much more to say about all these issues. But this is a start.