Bloom Briefing 35: SHUTDOWN; Sex and Morality in an Age of Liberty; Russian Money

Welcome to the first (and hopefully last) SHUTDOWN edition of the Bloom Briefing. After a few brief words on the shutdown, I spend the bulk of this briefing discussing the various responses to the Aziz Ansari story, and how we ought to think about sex and morality in an age of sexual liberty.

A Republican Shutdown

The government is closed. The Senate couldn’t pass a budget bill or a stopgap measure to keep the government open for another short period of time. This is, more or less, because Democrats insisted upon the inclusion of two things: funding for CHIP, a program that provides health insurance to needy children, and adhering to the government’s own promises on DACA, a program that allows children brought here without documentation when they were minors (i.e., Dreamers) to remain. Mitch McConnell has insisted that the budget deal include only one of these.

Republicans have claimed that Democrats would rather help illegal immigrants than provide healthcare for low-income children, which is laughable when you consider that it was Republicans who let CHIP expire months ago in the first place.

Democrats have argued that Republicans control both houses of congress and the presidency and they should be able to work out a deal that appeals to enough of the center to get the votes necessary to pass a budget. Furthermore, many Republican officials have said that they support CHIP and DACA. Evidently, Chuck Schumer was close to negotiating a deal with Trump on Friday, but John Kelly nixed it, telling Schumer the tentative deal agreed with Trump was too liberal.

Senators announced late this evening that progress was being made but that no deal will be done tonight. The question is whether a group of bipartisan senators can get together and pass a budget deal that will get enough support on each side. Both sides have packed themselves into a corner. The Democrats can’t vote for a deal that doesn’t have funding for both CHIP and protections for Dreamers. If Republicans do vote for such a bill, they would then appear to be the ones who had caved.

Sex and Morality in an Age of Liberty

The week began with a furor over an article written by a woman who had an objectively bad sexual encounter with comedian (and, importantly, supporter of the #Time'sUp movement) Aziz Ansari. You can read (pseudonymed) Grace’s account of the encounter here, but the broad consensus seems to be that the behavior she attributed to Ansari is appalling, but not illegal.

The reaction from the left has been mixed. Some are upset that Grace has put this encounter in the context of the #MeToo movement. In the New York Times, Bari Weiss called it “the worst thing to happen to the #MeToo movement.” At the Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan calls it “3,000 words of revenge porn” designed to “destroy Ansari’s career, which is now the punishment for every kind of male sexual misconduct, from the grotesque to the disappointing.”

Others are understanding, but unmoved. Also at the Times, Michelle Goldberg argued that these types of encounters are the consequence of sexual liberation without new social norms and moral codes around sex. This is true and provides a good historical perspective, but seems incomplete.

Still others are supportive. Also, also at the Times, Lindy West stops just short of calling Ansari’s behavior assault (though she might believe it is), but blames the self-identified feminist for not staying abreast of what the movement has to say about sexual relations and power dynamics.

A somewhat different take by Anna North at Vox suggested that the benefit of this story coming to light is that it gives an opportunity to talk about far too common instances of situations like the one described by Grace – not illegal, but definitely wrong. I agree, particularly with North’s conclusion that:

“Creating a culture in which fewer people experience what Grace describes will require better sex ed, that teaches more than just consent, challenges gender roles, and encourages people to put their desires and those of their partners above social expectations. This education should start much earlier than today’s sex ed usually begins, with lessons on topics like empathy and respecting others’ boundaries.”

The challenge for the left is that it has become reliant upon a language of consent to describe what it wants improved about sexual relations. Preventing rape and sexual violence is essential, and the left has helped raise the issue to the forefront of many people’s political attention, but there is also much to be gained from improving the uncomfortable but far more common encounters that may never be addressed in a court of law.

While I’m more equivocal on what sex ed can accomplish than North is, I do believe she’s right that the solution exists in teaching empathy and equality. The more we recognize that people have a range of sexual desires and that this range varies among men and among women, we realize that the empathetic good that gives virtue to all our relations – a focus on the comforts and rights of others – applies to our sexual relations as well.

This is, in part, the thrust of a smart David Brooks column, which also incorporates the significance, perhaps sacredness, of intimate physical touch. The challenge for contemporary secularists, both on this topic specifically and when it comes to broader ethical questions, is how to find the sacred without religion.

Additional Reading:

Russian money remains at the center of investigative journalism this week as two pieces look at its influence on the election. BuzzFeed News reported on transfers and payments from the Russian Embassy that are under scrutiny. McClatchy DC, meanwhile, is focused on Russian money that may have gone directly to the NRA to help Trump.

An excerpt of Steven Levitsky’s and Daniel Ziblatt’s new book, How Democracies Die, is printed in The Guardian.

At the New York Review of Books, James Mann has written an assessment of how Donald Trump’s first year in office has caused significant harm to the country.