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Over the past 24 hours, we in Louisiana (and – oh goody! – the rest of the world, because internet) have been treated to both the proposal of a sophomoric “joke amendment” legislating weight and age limits for strippers and a massive smackdown of the Senate’s equal pay bill by a House labor committee comprised of 14 men and one woman. Specifically, 10 committee members voted to reject a bill (Senate Bill 254) that would have required private businesses to pay the same wages to men and women who perform the same work.
I’ve read lots of Facebook posts and tweets today referencing the terrible irony and/or weird coincidence of these two legislative “events” happening in such close proximity to one another. Meanwhile, amendment author Rep. Kenny Havard, R- Jackson, has staked out a privileged position of regret without apology over his “joke,” and opponents of Senate Bill 254 are congratulating themselves on saving private businesses in the state from “frivolous” lawsuits demanding pay equality.
But there’s nothing weird or ironic going on here – just a very common, very old, very tiresome story – something so well baked into the fabric of our culture that it often escapes notice:
“Asked whether he was sympathetic to other legislators who said his joke was indicative of a boy’s club culture that sidelines women, Havard said, ‘I haven’t observed that.’”
Where “women’s issues” are concerned, the old boy’s club is too often just what we saw this week: a comedy club. If something’s not treated as an outright joke, like the amendment, it’s maybe just “frivolous,” like the notion that we might want to close the nation’s highest gender pay gap and stop being at the bottom of everything. Sideline, sideshow – whatever diminishing vocabulary you use, the connecting narrative thread is that issues and legislation that are perceived to primarily affect women, or the concerns that women might raise about legislation that affects everyone, are deemed less important and less worthy of careful study and serious debate (unless it’s about what women do with their own bodies, of course – then it’s very serious).
Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, pushed back against the circus atmosphere today – uncharacteristically gently, thinks Melinda Deslatte – describing the amendment debacle as “a teaching moment for all of us.” What all our elected officials could learn about, apparently, is “appreciating the important work that we do first of all, and always taking it seriously.”
That’s a great idea, really. But I suspect that part of what made Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, storm up to that microphone on the House floor yesterday is the kind of disgust and frustration that boils over particularly hotly when you know that you’ve done all the “serious” stuff – maybe you’ve taken the serious classes, read the serious books, had the serious conversations with the serious people, worn the serious clothes (that’s a must), and gotten the serious job to do the serious work – and it doesn’t matter. This infuriating situation isn’t unique to sexism, of course – it’s a general dilemma that arises whenever individual initiative runs up against usually arbitrary but stubbornly tenacious power structures protecting one privilege or another.
In this case, it’s the privilege to publicly snicker at objectifying innuendos one day and abdicate the responsibility of ensuring economic justice and dignity for Louisiana women the next.
I certainly hope that all of our elected officials learn something from this “teaching moment” and approach their jobs with renewed seriousness and renewed respect for all their constituents, especially given the gravity of the issues we all face. Because Louisiana will continue to provide the material that makes it the punchline to so many jokes if we don’t call out the worst parts of our collective personality (it seems @stephgracenola agrees!) and pledge to do better.
You know that thing that everyone knows you’re not supposed to do when you read stuff on the internet? I did it recently. First, I read a short but really thought-provoking article from The Atlantic‘s CityLab online mag that a grad school friend shared on her Facebook page. But I didn’t stop there…I read the comments.
As it turns out, that was a useful exercise – I’ll get to that in a minute.
The article, “How ‘Maintainers,’ Not ‘Innovators,’ Make the World Turn,” alerted me to the fact that a group of historians, social scientists, artists, activists, and engineers assembled for a conference in early April at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey to start a critical conversation about our sometimes blind celebration of “innovation” and “innovators,” especially as drivers of economic and technological change. Think Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and buzzwords like “disruption” and “visionary.” The novelty created by innovation is intoxicating and seductive, full of the promise that we have the power to constantly refashion the world to more easily and efficiently deliver whatever it is we’re searching for in that moment: wealth, health, happiness. And the heroes of this story are often larger than life – the independent, “self-made” men and women who bring about change through the force of their own brilliance and personality, without assistance and often to the amazement of naysayers and critics.
There are lots of ways to interrogate the dominant innovation narrative, but one of the most important is by exposing how this story excludes and obscures the lives and work of people that the conference organizers call “the maintainers:” those whose labor sustains our society but is so often “unnamed, unseen, and underpaid.” As Lee Vinsel, assistant professor of science and technology at the Stevens Institute, puts it, “In a culture where we forget about things like crumbling infrastructure* and wage inequality, those narratives about technological change can be really dangerous.”
We assert a simple proposition: that fundamental shifts in popular understanding of how the world works necessarily produce fundamental shifts in our conception of self-interest, which in turn necessarily produce fundamental shifts in how we think to order our societies.
Ok. This is going deep. Go on.
Today, most of the public is unaware that we are in the midst of a moment of new understanding. In recent decades, a revolution has taken place in our scientific and mathematical understanding of the systemic nature of the world we inhabit. …
In traditional economic theory, as in politics, we Americans are taught to believe that selfishness is next to godliness. We are taught that the market is at its most efficient when individuals act rationally to maximize their own self-interest without regard to the effects on anyone else. We are taught that democracy is at its most functional when individuals and factions pursue their own self-interest aggressively. In both instances, we are taught that an invisible hand converts this relentless clash and competition of self-seekers into a greater good.
Now diving into our outdated understanding of self-interest:
Over time, the rational self-seeking of the American has been elevated into an ideology now as strong and totalizing as the divine right of kings once was in medieval Europe. Homo economicus, the rationalist self-seeker of orthodox economics, along with his cousin Homo politicus, gradually came to define what is considered normal in the market and politics. We’ve convinced ourselves that a million individual acts of selfishness magically add up to a common good. And we’ve paid a great price for such arrogance. We have today a dominant legal and economic doctrine that treats people as disconnected automatons and treats the mess we leave behind as someone else’s problem. We also have, in the Great Recession, painful evidence of the limits of this doctrine’s usefulness.
But now a new story is unfolding.
Is this vision of self-interest overly aspirational?
True self-interest is mutual interest. The best way to improve your likelihood of surviving and thriving is to make sure those around you survive and thrive. Notwithstanding American mythology about selfishness making the world go round, humans have in fact evolved—have been selected—to look out for others in their group and, in so doing, to look out for self. We exist today because this is how our ancestors behaved. We evolve today by ensuring that our definition of “our group” is wide enough to take advantage of diversity and narrow enough to be actionable.
This is a story, in short, about self-interest that is smart, or “self-interest properly understood,” as Tocqueville put it. …
The contract between the new and old stories of self-interest —like any paradigmatic shift in the public imagination—is not just a philosophical curiosity. It plays out in how we interpret and understand—and therefore, prepare for or prevent—calamities like global financial meltdowns or catastrophic climate change or political gridlock. And it will transform the way we think about three basic elements of a democratic society: citizenship, economy, government.
Lamar White is known throughout Louisiana and even in national circles for his tenacity, intellectual acuity, and sharp wit. He’s the guy who has held our leaders’ feet to the fire and expertly exposed political shenanigans since he started the CenLamar blog back in 2006. Just as he changed the landscape through his writing, he is now shifting the paradigm of professional, progressive politics in Louisiana with the launch of a new communications firm – Imagine Louisiana Communications.
Together with a moderate Republican friend and former law school classmate, Lamar is fully entering the fray of Louisiana politics to deliver consulting services and communications savvy to what will most certainly be a diverse set of important clients. Read the rest of this entry