What I've been reading, featuring sex workers' rights and "Dark Money" by Jane Mayer

Police described the [seven-month investigation in which they secretly installed cameras in massage rooms and made videos of the women as they gave handjobs to their customers] as an anti-trafficking operation, but no trafficking charges have been made. Four women who ran the massage parlors were arrested. Among other crimes, they were all charged with prostitution. All of them have spent more time in jail than any of the men they allegedly serviced.

…Prostitution laws primarily target women of color. Between 2012 and 2015, 85 percent of those booked in New York City under the dubious “loitering for the purpose of prostitution” charge—which encompasses such innocuous behaviors as wearing tight jeans and carrying condoms—were black and Latina women.

…For migrants, the consequences are even more dire: a single arrest may lead to their imprisonment or deportation. “When you are Black, [police] take the Black women and leave the white man,” says Tina, a Nigerian sex worker in Norway… Goaded on by Trump’s zero-tolerance policy, ICE began arresting immigrants at courthouses in 2017—and found an easy hunting ground in the [Human Trafficking Intervention Court] in Queens. Blowin’ Up captures the panic after three women are snatched and two likely deported back to China.

The article touches on something I and I think many others have at some point struggled to reconcile, what it presents as a false choice between whether sex work is degrading or empowering:

Mac and Smith reject this dichotomy from the start. “This book—and the perspective of the contemporary left sex worker movement—is not about enjoying sex work,” they write. Work need not be a good time for workers to deserve autonomy, respect, safety, and better pay. The British coal miners who battled Margaret Thatcher hardly claimed that their coal pits were fun. The question “Is sex work good?” has little to do with “Should sex workers have rights?” But this obvious truth is often ignored by writers who get hung up on the “sex” part, painting sex workers as brainless bimbos or voiceless victims. “Sex workers are associated with sex, and to be associated with sex is to be dismissible,” Mac and Smith write.

This approach feels revolutionary because conversations that people not engaged in sex work have about it tend to involve a stew of unspoken anxieties about not just sex but migration, disease, race, class, and the roles of women.

Just this week, a long-time friend came out as a former dominatrix, a job she’d held for several years originally to finance her education. I imagine the reaction of many learning this for the first time would be to consider her situation coercive. She’d reject that description, at least as applied to her own case, and the following seems to echo much of her perspective:

And for many feminists, [the sex worker] is the ultimate example of female victimhood—in activist Dorchen Leidholdt’s words, a “de-individualized, de-humanized” proxy for “generic woman…. She stands in for all of us, and she takes the abuse that we are beginning to resist.” Once a sex worker becomes a metaphor, her material conditions cease to matter. She is an object for study, ministration, and control…The trope of the stolen innocent has lasted into the twenty-first century.

…Real sex workers are as various as humans in general, united only in the fact that they do this particular job… The minister “observed that we all seemed to have started selling sex in order to get money, in a tone suggesting…that she was slightly incredulous,” Smith reported… Most “work is often pretty awful, especially when it’s low-paid and unprestigious,” Mac and Smith write. This includes sex work. All the more reason to prioritize the well-being of the workers, poor or rich, miserable or happy, men and especially women.

(Note: I took liberties rearranging the sentences excerpted above for thematic organization)

  • “Dark Money” by Jane Mayer. Sadly cannot excerpt anything from this excellent book since I was experimenting with Audible. I think for now I’m quite firmly opposed to audiobooks. Single-tweet review:

 
 

While only briefly alluded to in the book, the Kochs’ turn on criminal justice is covered in more depth here by the same author.

You inevitably pick up pieces about the Koch infrastructure through osmosis, especially spending as much time in academic environments and reading about climate change as I do. The contribution of the book is in threading these into a coherent narrative spanning the personal and political histories of famed billionaire dynasties and their think-tank outlets to the dark-money floodgates opened by the Citizens United ruling. The detached writing style powerfully allows the depth of research to speak for itself, though the author’s personal frustrations remain tangible. This is only fair though given her own targeting by the Koch network.

The Freakonomics podcast’s two episodes interviewing Charles Koch, a series titled “Why Hate the Koch Brothers?”, were an absolute embarrassment of journalism from start to finish.

  • An article on Magnus Carlsen and AlphaZero reminded me of a couple of recent posts here. The following excerpt on chessplay recalls the normative gap paper from the last post which took exception to the appeal to ‘mechanical objectivity’ of using a Roth-style matching algorithm (specifically the deferred acceptance algorithm) to assign students to Boston’s public schools:

…a computer is a monomaniac: it chooses moves that it calculates will help it win, no matter how ugly they are. And they have led to an impoverishment and a homogenisation of style. If such features were replicated in political decision-making, the consequences could be much greater. More to the point, much of our politics today revolves around the perception that decisions are being taken elsewhere, whether in Westminster, Brussels or Washington. Passing off the work of decision-making to the ultimate aloof elite, a computer, is not a serious way of confronting this issue. Sometimes it’s important to decide things for ourselves, and to feel like we’re deciding, even if we often go astray.

The use of computers to train the best chess players to act more mechanically and Carlsen’s compromising between this movement and a more intuition-dependent gameplay recalls the state of the NBA in the data analytics movement.

By this time, Carlsen’s style had evolved into one favouring positional control over dramatic attacks. It is often compared to Anatoly Karpov’s ‘boa-constrictor’ technique; as Kasparov described it to the New Yorker as ‘strangling pressure, not direct hits’. The word most commonly associated with Carlsen’s play is ‘intuitive’, which I take to mean that he doesn’t rely on preparation, particularly computer preparation, as much as his rivals do. He will sometimes pick unusual or apparently poor moves just to complicate the position or knock an opponent out of lines that have been prepared in advance with the assistance of a computer

… I think this is the reason I’m a Carlsen fan. No doubt he does plenty of computer preparation – you can’t survive in professional chess without it – but he seems constantly to be looking for ways to reduce the influence of computers, to pull the game into positions where intuition and judgment come to the fore. ‘When I covered the Kasparov-Deep Blue match,’ Steven Levy has written, ‘I thought the drama came from a battle between computer and human. But it was really a story of people, with brutal capitalist impulse, teaming up with AI to destroy the confidence and dignity of the greatest champion the world had seen.’ Carlsen may not be able to defeat computers at chess, but he keeps finding ways to surprise the people who team up with them.

A maybe-stretched comparison can be made to the Cavaliers in the 2015 NBA Finals. With star players Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love lost to injury, coach Tyronne Lue reverted to an unfashionably slow and isolation-dependent style of play that produced low-percentage shots largely centered on the playmaking genius of LeBron James out of the low post. The upshot was it served to frustrate and throw off rhythm the hyper-optimized Warrior offense, revolutionary at the time for the greenlight it afforded its star shooters. The talent disparity proved too much for the Cavs to overcome, but the competitiveness of the six-game series and James’ historical performance tempered the growing confidence that NBA strategy had been ‘solved’.

  • The New Yorker profile of Mitski makes the same observation I did in a previous post where I wrote “I would venture a guess that at least a third of the crowd were LGBTQ couples, which was surprising because Mitski’s music neither lyrically nor sonically make for an obvious union of indie and queer subcultures.” They write:

A 2018 headline on the NPR Web site named Mitski the “21st Century’s Poet Laureate of Young Adulthood.” But her fan base is more particular than that. Young Asian women and young queer people make up a lot of it. Her L.G.B.T. admirers seem to respond to the way her songs evoke, with theatrical grandeur, the covert emotions of someone outside the mainstream. At her shows, I’ve noticed that an unusually large proportion of the audience is there alone.

The musician Phoebe Bridgers recalled playing a 2016 show with Mitski at which John Doe, from the punk band X, was in attendance. “He was, like, ‘All these kids look like they’re at a fucking church’—it looked like a punk-show crowd, but the kids were rapt with attention,” Bridgers told me. “He was blown away, and so was I. Mitski was playing solo, and the music was like this ethereal music from another dimension.”

Bridgers said that she admires the “weirdness of the creative choices that Mitski seems to make so confidently.” Mitski sings for prickly introverts, or for anyone who has ever wanted a lover to just go home already, so that she can yearn for him in peace. The lyrics in Mitski’s songs often project a paradoxical attitude that I associate with a specific type of millennial-feminist art—Sally Rooney novels come to mind—in which female strength takes the form of defiantly displaying a full range of roiling emotions, including self-abasing or submissive ones.

Good choice of sourcing there since the Bridgers crowd I observed was also pretty distinctive: a significant proportion of the crowd had dyed their hair Bridgers white and had clearly come prepared to cry.

Personally, I’m drawn to Mitski because of her similar international-school background. In her work, I see one person’s answers to some questions I’ve asked myself after graduating from that artificially utopian and cosmopolitan environment, in many ways inaccessible to people who weren’t raised in it. Questions along the lines of What do you do with that experience?, What did it mean?, and Who and what do you have an obligation or the right to represent?

When the people of the future look back at our century of auto life, will they regard it as a useful stage of forward motion or as a wrong turn? Is it possible that, a hundred years from now, the age of gassing up and driving will be seen as just a cul-de-sac in transportation history, a trip we never should have taken?

Also, this comparison of tech culture with Henry Ford is pretty good:

A key factor in the explosion of the market was the release of the Model T, created by Henry Ford, in 1908. Ford was an unmannered, intellectually narrow efficiency nut of the sort that we might now associate with Silicon Valley. Early in his career, he accused milk cows of being underproductive and sought to develop a soy milk to replace them. Later, he joined George Washington Carver in preparing “weed spread” sandwiches from greens he found in his yard, an attempt to maximize nutrition with minimal waste. Ford served the nasty sandwiches to his colleagues, and didn’t understand why they never caught on.

  • Interviewer: “You have in your writing certainly marginalized whites. Why are they of no particular interest to you?… You will maintain this safe place for yourself and your art? You don’t think you will ever change and write books that incorporate white lives into them substantially?”

    Toni Morrison: “You can’t understand how powerfully racist that question is, can you?”

 
 

I find that Morrison’s response here complements the inverse difficulty non-white authors may face being pigeon-holed by their identities. (h/t Helena)

A report from 2015, “Writing the Future,” which surveyed writers of color about their experiences, concluded that the “best chance of publication” for a BAME writer was to write literary fiction conforming to a stereotypical view of their communities, addressing topics such as “racism, colonialism, or post-colonialism as if these were the primary concerns of all BAME people.”

…If you’re a writer of color you’re only supposed to write about what people imagine to be your self. And that self is not an imaginative, creative, artistic, or intellectual self. That self might be labeled as “Asian writer,” or “Bangladeshi writer” or “BAME writer,” but it is never labeled simply “writer”—that would be the true privilege.