A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Bad History Hits a Red Light

Syphilis, medieval style
In my previous post, I took historian Michael Bliss to task for committing a certain type of error I chose to call the “Has been-Ought” fallacy, or the fallacy of deriving an “ought” claim from a statement about how things were in the past. In this post I’d like to present some more shoddy argument by another who makes her living in the historian’s trade.

It begins with a story that has been in the news here in Canada for the past couple of days. It involved a court challenge to our criminal laws surrounding prostitution and the sex trade. Prostitution per se is not illegal in Canada, but many of the surroundings of the trade are. The challenge to the current laws insists that since having sex for money is not an illegal activity, the other legal prohibitions surrounding it create harmful working conditions which pose a threat to women, and are therefore unconstitutional. The challenge made it through Ontario’s highest court, so now it will presumably make its way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Although I have my own opinions on this case, I shall not try your patience with them here. Suffice to say, I believe the decision was a bad one, on much the same grounds as I believe the earlier Insite decision was a bad one — both cases make pronouncements on issues of public policy (not within the court’s mandate), and because they uphold victim culture and further erode the notion that persons are responsible for their own behavior. But enough about my unpopular and possibly mistaken opinion on the matter.

In any case, no sooner had the decision come down, than we were entertained with a flurry of excited articles extolling the economic and social benefits of an industry in legalized brothels in Canada, most of them written in a tone of lurid speculation and hushed excitement. One thing these enthusiastic articles have in common is that they are all written by men. Men, it seems, or at least male journalists, cannot wait to have legalized brothels. The opinions of women, including prostitutes themselves, on the subject are considerably more mixed.

I should say that there was at least one article, written by a female historian, which offered an unusual defense of legalized and regulated brothels. Penned by Professor Jacqueline Murray, and cleverly titled “The Whores of Yore”, it made the argument that the people of the Middle Ages had it right in their attitude towards the sex industry. Prof. Murray seems to be a historian of a rather revisionist bent. According to her, in the Middle Ages legalized brothels were the norm. She further contends that they provided legitimate career options for women who had fallen through the cracks of a society devoid of social safety nets. She also argues that they provided two further benefits. First, they made prostitution healthier, by enabling authorities to conduct health inspections, and by giving prostitutes access to medical care. Second, legalized brothels provided men with an outlet for their sexual urges, which would otherwise find expression in the accosting and potential rape of respectable wives and daughters.

In each of these claims, Professor Murray is dead wrong, and laughably so. Let’s examine each claim in turn.

Legalized Brothels:

Prof. Murray claims that legalized brothels were the norm in medieval times. As an example, she cites the case of the Bishop of Winchester’s ownership of London’s Southwark “stews”. She is right in claiming that brothels were commonplace. But to claim they were legal is quite a stretch. And with regard to the canard about the Bishops of Winchester, sadly, it seems the learned professor has fallen for the historical equivalent of an urban legend.

First off, we are in no doubt of the Church’s official position: prostitution is a sin, for both buyer and seller. This means that, as far as canon law was concerned, prostitution was illegal.

As for Southwark, yes, the land formed part of the manorial lands of the Bishops of Winchester (or more appropriately, the corporation of the Bishopric of Winchester). There would have been a variety of businesses situated on those lands, all of them paying some rent to the bishop. Some of these businesses were “stews” — taverns in which prostitutes customarily plied their trade. The bishop would not have been a pimp or procurer of women, as those who reproduce this story seem to imply. He would merely be a landlord, a receiver of rents from the many tenant businesses, stews included. I suppose this technically means the bishops lived off the avails of prostitution, but they had no direct hand in running brothels. Therefore, Prof. Murray’s claim that “the ‘stews’ of Southwark, now the South Bank of London, were owned and operated by the Bishop of Winchester” is misleading, to say the least.

For a fascinating and thorough history of the Southwark stews, I cannot recommend highly enough Henry Ansgar Kelly’s article, “Bishop, Prioress, and Bawd in the Stews of Southwark,” Speculum 75 (2000), 342-388. You will quickly learn that there is no basis, in medieval London at least, for the claim that brothels were legally-sanctioned operations. They were illegal, notwithstanding that the local authorities often turned a blind eye to them. If that makes them legal, then by that definition an underground dogfighting league is legal so long as it keeps paying off the cops. And in fact the stews of Southwark were shut down by the authorities from time to time. And whores were punished, much more severely than they are in our society. Then, as now, there were occasional moral panics interspersed among periods of official indifference.

In short, Prof. Murray’s high claims of legal prostitution in the Middle Ages are essentially rubbish. At best we can say that in some areas, for some periods, prostitution was de facto legal, but it was never so de iure.

Economic Opportunities for Women:

This argument can be hastily disposed of. I’m sure prostitution did provide incomes to women who were outcast. I suppose if such a woman had cut off an arm or a leg and begged in the streets, then that too would have provided her with an income. Does that make it good social policy to encourage it, or to tax it? Can we really not do better for our women than the medievals did (or rather didn’t) for theirs? Let me ask you this: If you had a daughter who had fallen on hard times, would you prefer she had the “option” of prostituting herself, or would you prefer a proper social safety net to help her get back on her feet? (I know, I’m suddenly raving like a socialist. Chalk it up to my inner Red Tory.)

Part of what makes destitution a bad thing is that it limits freedom by compelling people to do degrading things against their preferences and better judgment. Prof. Murray seems to speak of prostitution as a solution to poverty, when it should be viewed as a symptom of it. She doesn’t seem to realize it, but her views betray a chilling lack of empathy for the poor that makes even a cold soul like mine shudder. This is truly “let them eat cake” thinking at its worst. And yet, ironically, I imagine she prides herself on her liberality, tolerance, and kindness.

Sexual Outlets for Men:

Professor Murray is far from the first person to make this claim. This has been argued since time immemorial. Some medieval theologians thought prostitution was a necessary evil, and a minority claimed that it deterred homosexuality. In short, this line of argument says that men — or some indeterminate subset of them — are lecherous by nature, and that if it weren’t for the sexual outlet that prostitutes provide, they would be busy raping respectable women, or else having sexual congress with men or animals or ripe fruit. This argument is more than a little dubious. What’s more, it manages to be degrading both to men and women at the same time.

Supposedly, a certain proportion of men who visit prostitutes would rape women if prostitutes were unavailable. This is an empirical claim, and to my knowledge it has never been empirically verified. But even if it could be verified, I doubt very much that it can support an argument for legalized prostitution. It implies a reductive view of men as utter slaves to their sexual drives. Furthermore, these sexual drives cannot be controlled, trained or sublimated. If this were true, then it seems to me a more natural answer would be castration, not legalized prostitution. Instead, we’re told by people like Prof. Murray that the only way of dealing with these men is to provide poor women for them to use as sexual “outlets”.

And they must be poor women, mind you, fallen women. After all, we don’t want these men touching the daughters of decent people, respectable people. And here methinks I spot the latent schizophrenia in much “progressive” philosophizing about prostitution: On the one hand, we are to believe that there is nothing wrong with prostitution, and that we should legalize it, tax it, and make it safe for women. Women who engage in it are to be called “sex workers” and are to be treated as if they are skilled tradespeople who have freely made a valid career choice. On the other hand, of course, you would be hard pressed to find people who would approve of their own daughters entering this supposedly respectable trade. What would be your feeling if your daughter's high school guidance counselor suggested she take up this trade, or that she had an aptitude for it? In other words, it seems to be implied by the ruling progressivism on the subject that prostitution is a valid career choice only for the daughters of others, preferably for the poor, or for the daughters of the poor. These are the appropriate outlets for potential rapists to let off a little steam with.

It’s Healthier:

Professor Murray makes the claim that prostitution in the Middle Ages was rendered healthier through legalization. Prostitutes working in brothels were subject to medical inspection, or so she claims. Given the prevailing state of medical science and practice at the time, I can only imagine what these “inspections” consisted of. We can safely assume that they were invasive, degrading, and open to abuse.

We are also told by Prof. Murray that the brothels brought prostitution into the open, and made medical services available to the women. Again, given the state of medieval medical science, I can only wonder what sort of help they could expect to receive from a medieval doctor.

I once wrote an article on the history of syphilis. It was a fascinating subject to research. The mainstream consensus is that syphilis arrived in Europe from America in the 1490s; in other words, it arrived at the tail end of those sexually enlightened Middle Ages that Prof. Murray extols. It is hard to overestimate how the arrival of syphilis ravaged a society that was unprepared for its onslaughts, and one of the main vectors of transmission was through baths and brothels. Read up on the arrival and initial spread of AIDS in North America and you will find the parallels are eerie; many cities in the early 1980s shut down their bathhouses. And much like AIDS in 1980, for the late medieval syphilitic there was no effective medical help to speak of, other than quack cures like mercury. The syphilitic would have mercury baths, causing her teeth and hair to fall out and making her drool uncontrollably. The “cure” was a form of poisoning that was as likely to kill as the disease itself.

(Incidentally, we get our word “quack” from the Dutch kwakzalver, a hawker of salves. The Dutch word became popular in English because it sounded much like “quicksilver”, the most popular quack treatment for syphilis. But I digress.)

The fact is, throughout pre-modern literature, the whore is a byword for short life, as it still is today. Medieval history provides no support for the notion that prostitution ought to be legalized.


It is often argued (for example, by feminist intervenors and amici curiae in the famous Canadian case of R. v. Butler) that the availability of pornography causes men to rape and should therefore be banned. Others argue that pornography provides an outlet for men, and therefore makes women safer. In the absence of any sound empirical evidence, it seems one can make unverified empirical claims either for or against a thesis.

Might not a similar phenomenon be happening with the back and forth regarding prostitution? One side, as exemplified by people like Prof. Murray, will argue that prostitution provides an outlet for men’s sexual urges. But since there is no evidence one way or the other, it can just as easily be argued that access to prostitutes might actually irritate and enflame those aberrant sexual urges and actually cause more men to rape. And after all, if society takes a winking attitude towards using women as sexual outlets, perhaps pushing the envelope a bit is not such a terrible crime? Or at least that is what such lowlifes might be led to think to themselves.

Of course, there is a relevant sense in which much prostitution is akin to a kind of indirect rape. If the typical prostitute is driven to the sex trade through poverty or addiction or literal slavery, then she suffers from a compromised will. Therefore, perhaps the sex she engages in cannot be characterized as entirely consensual. The man who pays to have sex with her perhaps does not physically overpower her and pin her down. Rather, her life circumstances do that dirty work for him.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Malaise of the Intellectuals

Do we dare to dream?
Warning: This post is short on argument and long on venom. And I think I could technically get arrested for it. And it's so full of earnestness that I almost sicken myself. But I don’t care, because I’m really pissed off.

A Mirror for Princes

Here’s some advice that Machiavelli could add to The Prince were he alive today: When a prince is opposed by the disaffection or animosity of the learned, there are two ways to neutralize the threat. The first way is simple liquidation. If well-executed, this method has the benefit of disposing of the threat quickly and thoroughly. It has the drawback of creating fear in those who are not purged, and fear can easily become the focus around which further opposition will coalesce. It can make secret enemies of those who were once well-disposed or indifferent to the prince.

Much better is the second method: Give each disaffected intellectual a tenured university post and a six-figure salary. This has the proven effect of dulling the intellectual’s common sense; it cuts him off from the real concerns of common life, and in time it may transform him into the prince’s loudest partisan. More importantly, the intellectual will be generally ignored by the people at large, since the common run of people rarely care about what eggheads have to say. The sinecure will offer him just enough prestige to stroke his ego (intellectuals are among the vainest of creatures), while also, somewhat paradoxically, tenure will offer him the kind of security that it would be sheer folly for him to jeopardize. Once the intellectual is so placed, it is left to the prince to wait for time and age and rich food to naturally take their course. Another enemy is eliminated — but humanely, of course.

If there are not enough professorships to go around, or if the intellectual in question is rather less clever or has a drinking problem, the prince can achieve the same goal on the cheap by somehow arranging for said intellectual to be placed as an armchair op-ed columnist in a prestigious large-circulation newspaper (newspapers are a valuable tool — every prince should control the editorial board of at least one). The newspaper should preferably be a daily; that way the intellectual will be too oppressed by frequent deadlines to have either the brains or the energy to offer any incisive criticism of the prince’s rule. He must be kept as busy as a bitch in a puppy mill, churning out diseased and inbred prose that strikes the double-plus-good balance between sententiousness and meaninglessness.

The intellectual-cum-journalist will in due course become too tired and jaded to believe that any real change is possible, or that any change could possibly be in his personal interests. And his salary should make him just comfortable enough that he will not wish to endanger his position by advocating for a substantial alteration of the status quo. As the journalist ages, he may become a sighing and ineffectual cynic. He will also be little-regarded. Or else, akin to a sort of Stockholm syndrome, he will eventually come to love the prince’s regime and his special place within it. The erstwhile enemy then becomes a trusty retainer. But a prince should remember that retainers must always be rewarded: after doing faithful service to his prince, the superannuated journalist should find himself the recipient of a seat in the Senate, where he may doze away his remaining days, his aged head pillowed upon the perfumed lap of a generous public pension. And thus, another enemy of the prince is eased out of this bustling world with nary an eyebrow raised.

So much for advice to princes.

Blowing out the Moral Lights

I am led to these ruminations by my observation of the reaction of Canada’s kept intellectuals and chatterers to the latest tale of scandal and criminality by Canada’s ruling junta (a.k.a. The Harper Government™). For non-Canadian readers, and for those Canadian readers too apathetic to care anymore, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his ruling Conservative Party have managed to get themselves implicated in a voter suppression scam in the last election that used automatic phone messages (and in some cases live callers) to direct voters to the wrong polling stations. In some cases these calls purported to be from Elections Canada. Elections Canada is adamant that they never phone voters; they are currently investigating the allegations. New details emerge by the day, and none of them are particularly flattering to the Glorious Leader and his Star Chamber cabal.

To be fair, no watertight case has yet been built to implicate the Tories in the scam, at least not one that will hold up in a court of law. So far. However, given past history (they have already been found guilty of electoral fraud in the 2006 election), and given the uncomfortable-looking contortions the Prime Minister’s communications people have spun themselves into, no self-respecting Tory can cast his unflinching gaze upon the evidence and call it good. Of course, at this point there remain precious few Tories who can be called “self-respecting”. Or “honourable”. The fact is, “Prime Minister” Harper (for I do not recognize him as such) is a known liar, and on multiple occasions he has shown an absence of integrity that makes me shudder. If he were to walk in front of my moving car, I would not brake. And I would consider it my duty as a citizen to back up over him again, just to be sure. I have all the evidence I need, and every passing day gives me more. I am convinced that his party is guilty and that the conspiracy is more widespread than currently indicated. There was fraud committed, no doubt. Harper is guilty of enough else that we may as well throw this charge into the mix. After all, when you’re looking at several consecutive life terms, what’s one more murder in the indictment, right?

If most Canadians’ well-founded suspicions are true, then Canadian politics will have plumbed new depths. The allegations are serious. They strike at the very core of our democratic institutions. As far as I am concerned, what we are hearing about is what in a more honest age would have been called TREASON. I can think of no more serious or fundamental crime against the state, aside perhaps from an outright palace coup by an armed military junta. I will say of The Harper Government™ what Abraham Lincoln once said of the slave interest in America: 

They are blowing out the moral lights around us.

When faced with the prospect of such utter Cimmerian darkness, to await more evidence is folly. After all, why should decent and generally law-abiding citizens put up with being told to wait for the evidence and presume that the junta is innocent until proven guilty, when that junta has itself shown staggering contempt for the rule of law over the past six years?

Innocent until proven guilty? No, because Harper has never once extended the same benefit of the doubt to his enemies. Since he has decided that politics is a form of war, that there is no such thing as a loyal opposition, and that dissent is treason and deserves no quarter, I am no longer willing to play by the rules that he flouts. If Harperian politics is war by other means, then fuck it, let’s rumble. Let’s take the war to his doorstep, to his family, and to whatever other things such a reptile might be capable of loving besides power. He would do no differently if given the chance. Whoever would rid us of this despot is deserving of a statue, a public feast day, and the undying gratitude of generations of Canadians yet unborn.

The Malaise of the Intellectuals

I apologize for my unmeasured and uncouth language in the previous paragraph. I moved myself into a paroxysm of sputtering rage, and I allowed myself to get off track. That tends to happen when I try to describe the obscene moral abyss that is Stephen Harper.

Returning to the topic of kept intellectuals, both academic and journalistic. Our nation’s most noble and ignoble brainboxes insist on referring to the voter suppression activities in winking terms as “dirty tricks” or political “shenanigans”. Again, I firmly believe that the appropriate word is “treason”. Let us first discuss the academics. Then we shall turn to the journalists.

A couple of days ago I had the dubious opportunity to attend an academic panel discussion on the scandal at the university in which I work. This university is about as leftist as such an institution can get — no mean feat! There were two learned professors of political science and one professor of philosophy (the last happens to be a personal friend). The depressing upshot of the whole conversation was that nothing will come of this scandal, that all parties play dirty tricks, and that we’ll just have to wait four years to vote the bastards out, so that we can elect a new set of bastards. This is the sighing and ineffectual cynicism to which I referred earlier.

Their views were in keeping with those of famous (by Canadian standards at least) historian Michael Bliss, as expressed on a CBC radio program this past Sunday evening. Professor Bliss, it is now painfully evident, has become a silly old hack. He has declined into that contemptible sort of character whose sole remaining purpose in the public sphere is to be trotted out to clothe indefensible viewpoints in academic gowns. He usually pontificates on subjects well beyond his professorial magisterium, and in any case his intellect has long since turned into a sort of vanilla pudding in abstract form. Sadly, all that remains of him are his titles and a well-regarded book on the discovery of insulin. The Senate and the grave both yawn before him. I pray the latter take him first.

The learned Professor Doctor Bliss made much of the fact that there had been other scandals in Canadian history. I found this observation not very profound. The general drift of all his vapourings was that, since there have been many scandals in Canadian political history before, we should not be alarmed at this one. However, there are at least three things wrong with this reasoning (I use “reasoning” very loosely).

First, just because something happened in the past doesn’t make it acceptable today. If we can agree that certain past practices were wrong, then we should be able to agree that they’re wrong when they occur today. Put another way, Bliss commits a fallacy of deriving a claim that a state of affairs is reasonable or acceptable, from an antecedent claim that the same or similar state of affairs occurred in the past. The fallacy confuses the descriptive with the normative. This is a fallacy so common among second- or third-rate historians that there ought to be a special name for it. I humbly submit that it should be called the “Has Been-Ought” fallacy, in honour of Hume’s famous “Is-Ought” fallacy, which it resembles, and also in honour of Professor Bliss’ “has-been” status as an intellectual.

(Full hypocrisy disclosure: Perceptive readers of this blog will note that I have myself been guilty of the “Has Been-Ought” fallacy on more than one occasion. Fair enough. I am after all a third-rate historian. It is a trap that we antiquarians often step into. I suppose that when appealing to historical facts, it’s best to remember that the past can teach us much about the limits of what can be done, but that it is the present that must teach us what is worthwhile doing. Or something like that. But I digress.)

The commission of the “Has Been-Ought” fallacy by public intellectuals like Bliss contributes much to a corrosive passivity that filters down from our “thought leaders” to the rest of us. It must stop. Almost nothing will aid and abet a criminal like Harper so much as the knowing wink, nod, and chuckle of the learned in the face of blatant criminality.

Second, Professor Bliss disingenuously ignores the fact that the nature of this scandal is different from past ones. Yes, there was good old John A. Macdonald and the CPR scandal, and innumerable Canadian political scandals that followed (anyone remember the “tainted tuna” scandal?). But very few if any of them consisted of calculated and systematic subversions of the entire democratic process. Most of them were examples of straightforward money grubbing or influence peddling. Quaint stuff really, at least in comparison to systematic electoral fraud. Thankfully, Canadians have a venerable history of using the electoral system to “boot the bastards out of office” when politicians overreach in their corruption. In some cases, powerful parties have been annihilated at the polls, reduced to mere shadows of their former selves. I think this is healthy. But will we be able to rely on this method in the future, after the electoral process has been rotted out by the termites currently in power? No, Professor Bliss, this scandal is very different. Shame on you for being too stupid or dishonest or cowardly to realize it.

Third, as a once-respectable historian, Professor Bliss should have plenty of historical examples at hand showing how fragile a thing democracy is. Within the space of a century the Roman Republic went from possessing admirable governing institutions that were the envy of the Greeks, to having battling gangs of political partisans literally clubbing each other to death in the Forum, followed by a long nighttime of imperial tyranny and decline. Democracy is not history’s default position; to assume so is to take it for granted. For most of history, most of the people that have ever existed at any given time have lived and died under the misrule of tyrants. Democracies are rare and precious things. Again, Professor Bliss, shame on you.

Moving down — far down — the intellectual evolutionary scale, from the groves of academe to the Augean stables of the yellow journalists, let us turn to Exhibit A: John Ibbitson, professional lickspittle and resident oxygen thief at the Globe and Mail, who has, as I write — and doubtless after much straining — broken wind with his seventh column in almost as many days telling us that either there was no conspiracy to defraud the electorate, or that there was one but it was limited to one or two ridings, or that anyone and everyone other than Harper and his Tory banditti were responsible for it. Methinks the shill doth protest too much. His columns are a kind of linguistic flatus: they make a sound and they stink up a room, but they serve little other purpose. To mix my metaphors, the fact is that the Conservative Party of Canada has its collective hand lodged so far up Ibbitson’s posterior that it seems to be working his mouth like a puppet.

What all of Ibbitson’s columns on the subject have in common so far, besides their bad odour, and besides his shameless toadying for a Senate seat, is that they are completely devoid of facts. They do contain plenty of… hmmm… what’s the word I’m looking for… you know, the one that means the opposite of “fact”? Anyway, his columns are larded generously with whatever those are. Actually, don’t bother looking for facts in any Globe and Mail article, since facts have to be dug up and, well, research is not something Globe writers do. It’s not what they’re paid for. Their only job is to chew the cud in the stable and spew something resembling language into a corporate bucket every Monday through Saturday at deadline time.

It has become painfully clear that substantive change will never come from a university or a press, and that if we wait for the intellectuals to do our thinking for us, we will continue our slide into tyranny. We seem to be in the unenviable position of living in an age in which the figures who set themselves up for intellectuals, for our leaders in thought, possess moral qualities inferior to those of the general run of citizens.

We must save ourselves, out on the street. Maybe if we start the parade, they’ll get in front of it, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. In any case, I plan to be at Yonge and Dundas Square in Toronto at 2:30pm this Sunday and I hope to see you there. If you don’t like protesting alone, then send me a message and perhaps we can meet up and protest together.

Manus haec inimica tyrannis.