Thinking [about] kink.

What follows are my poorly organized thoughts on Catherine Scott’s Thinking Kink. I enjoyed the book immensely, but I also took issue with a number of passages.

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There are various points in the book where Scott’s analysis stops short & is replaced by frustration, at best, or subtle manipulation of the reader, at worst.

While discussing music videos in her introduction, for instance:

It saddens me that in a medium with such potential for originality, shaking female buttocks still seems to constitute the majority of what music video producers think viewers want to see. (6)

I don’t think the racist undertones of this passage are intentional. Elsewhere in her book, Scott is cognizant of racism in kink culture. But “shaking female buttocks” is quite obviously a reference to black women and twerking. The passage ostensibly points the finger at unimaginative producers (fair enough), but black women’s sexual and artistic agency ends up collateral damage — a phenomenon the author later critiques. The passage is jarring in context; it reads like unexamined white discomfort with black women’s self-expression.

Later (55-56), Scott celebrates Madonna as an empowered, authoritative figure whose music videos are sex-positive, kink-positive, and woman-centred. Meanwhile, Rihanna’s video for “S&M” is written off as a tasteless gimmick. The author discusses Madonna’s creative control, but only the creative control of Rihanna’s director, not Rihanna herself.

Yes, Madonna’s and Rihanna’s videos approach BDSM from different angles, and carry different messages as a result, but that contrast can only be discussed equitably if we start off with a level playing field. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, we should probably assume that both of these powerful, talented women have a say in the production of their music videos.

To be fair to Scott, she makes this point in a later chapter, but without calling on/out her earlier examples:

To assume Ciara was merely told what to do by white men in suits when she walked into a studio betrays a perception of black women far more racist or sexist than any scenes of white male top / black female sub race play (188-89)

There’s that hint of frustration again. That moment when the analysis stops in a huff. Yes, it’s racist to assume a black pop star has no creative control. And yes, it would be racist to assume a biracial couple’s private BDSM play is fundamentally messed up / oppressive / racist. But it’s also kinda sloppily, casually racist to say BDSM comes out ahead here. I take the author’s point, but BDSM has a race problem. So does the music industry. So does white, western culture, as a whole. I don’t know if there’s anything to be gained by carefully ranking the “slightly more racist” and “slightly less racist.” Seems more likely to be a potential distraction from the work of attending to racism, organizing against it, etc.

I was looking forward to the chapter on race & BDSM because it is a problem for the scene and because I hoped Scott would clarify some of the puzzling and potentially problematic statements I mentioned above. It did so, but not without at times succumbing to the defensive tone of so much of white people’s writing about racism (my own included, no doubt):

Why should we worry that someone is going to use this sculpture as an excuse for sexism or racism, unless we are already looking to do so ourselves? (192)

Why? Well:

  • Because we are all swimming in the same racist, sexist water.
  • Because it’s not racist to notice racism.
  • Because colour blindness has gotten us nowhere. (Which is an idea finally gaining traction, and which I hope is a fair answer to the question the author implies about the reason for increased cultural / discursive sensitivity now versus 25-30 years ago.)

On a related note, the author does go on to say that she thinks Grace Jones avoids some forms of criticism due to her physical power/presence. (*starstruck sigh*) But I think Jones’ unique station cannot be reduced to her physicality. Really, I think her physicality simply changes the focus of the criticism leveled against her.

Jones makes her artistic and creative agency crystal clear — jarringly clear. That approach is part of her aesthetic. Women performers with other (no less valid!) aesthetic approaches and quieter/softer personalities will not be given the same benefit of the doubt. It’s that much easier to make sexist assumptions about their lack of creativity or decisiveness, however false — and especially if they are non-white.

In her introduction to the chapter on racism & BDSM, Scott shares an anecdote from her work with Bitch magazine. She was asked by her editors to preface her blog post on race & BDSM with a note about her race & white privilege:

I found it odd the way Bitch only wanted me to apologize for this in one particular instance, and irritating that the commenter hadn’t bothered to see my post in the context of a holistic exploration of kink. (181)

A disclaimer/acknowledgement isn’t an apology. Conflating the two betrays immense unexamined privilege.

Yes, perhaps the editors should have asked the writer to be more upfront about her identity and social position throughout the series. Perhaps that would have benefited people with other marginalized / minority identities who participate in the scene, and led a few more folks in the majority to reflect on their station.

But what I wish Scott had come to terms with is the singularity of racism and dialogues about racism especially in countries marked by the transatlantic industrial slave trade. Especially in the US, due to the role of cotton plantations and slave labour in the country’s wealth and success. But likewise throughout the Americas, as well as in the UK (where the author is from).

There is no equivalent to racism and the history of racially justified slavery. Well-intended, deliberately anti-racist white folks come at the issue hand-wringing and bewildered much of the time, but that’s because white supremacy and racism are so powerful and so seductive that we can’t even see them clearly. The author’s irritation at her editors’ and readers’ attempt to cut through the fog show the extent to which she is mired in it as well.

I was heartened to see the extent to which the author championed black participants as the appropriate arbiters and brokers of their own fantasies (to hell with white discomfort), but the opening anecdote about the disclaimer shows her own lingering discomfort: understandable, in the face of such a huge, inhumane, brutal system such as racism. But something that must be confronted by white folks everywhere if we’re to be of any use at all to the cause of anti-racism.

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Now, a few poorly articulated thoughts on sex positivity, the male gaze, etc.

“I’m a goddess to my slaves; I wouldn’t stoop to having sex with them.” (17)

This is a quote from a pro domme. Scott uses it to illustrate the [fairly common, kinda complicated] assumption that being physically intimate with a man is a kind of surrender — power relinquished.

But what I read in that comment isn’t a domme threatened by the possibility of losing power through touch or embrace. I read this as a window into the type of scenes she likes to run with her subs: a comment on her status, their [willing] humiliation, their worship of her.

A few paragraphs later, Scott acknowledges that the top/bottom dynamic is more of an exchange than it appears to be, but she extends this analysis only to aesthetics; she doesn’t really loop it back around to include physical distance.

And even extended to aesthetics, the analysis comes up short. Describing a domme:

Her clothes still seem intended for the pleasure of the male voyeur. (23)

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the male gaze is our assumption that for a woman, it is utterly inescapable — that all her aesthetic choices must pass through it / be subject to it — that she can’t possibly enjoy traditionally feminine styles or fetish ware — that by wearing anything that straight or bi men happen to enjoy seeing on women, a domme couldn’t possibly be exercising her autonomy or domination over her own physical self; she must be deliberately appealing to her male submissives through aesthetics.

Just by existing, lesbian femmes do a pretty efficient job of toppling this mess of assumptions about the infinite reach of the male gaze. Yes, we all live in the shadow of patriarchy and sexism; so, too, are we complex subjects.

Later in the book, I continued to have trouble with the author’s use of the male gaze. Scott continues to paint any aesthetics that happen to resemble the feminine ideals of the patriarchal status quo as of / for / serving the patriarchal status quo, This erases the sexual and aesthetic agency of the women making these apparel / style choices.

Later still, Scott states quite clearly that “femme-phobia is not a solution to the erasure of butch women” (153). True, but femme /= male gaze. That false equivalence is what’s frustrating me here.

Further, feminine /= femme. Lesbians should continue to be stewards of this term, since it originated in their communities. Analytical convenience is not an excuse for lesbian erasure.

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Chapter 6 makes some really strong points regarding objectification and consent:

The dogma that all instances of objectification are wrong and misogynistic appears to demand that sexual desire always be cerebral, profound, and pure. In her essay “A Cock of One’s Own: Getting a Firm Grip on Feminist Sexual power,” Sarah Smith bemoans the idea “that there must be a way to have sex that is ‘feminist,'” feeling that it results in a “laundry list of must-nots that would hold our libidos hostage.” (113)

The language of choice will only take any of us so far, when we are aware that a level playing field (pun perhaps intended) is impossible to find in a society still a long way from dismantling the hierarchy that places the straight, white, cisgender male at the top. As “Paul,” a white male top said to Margot Weiss, “I think people in the scene are much too fast to… say ‘Well, you know as long as everybody consents… then it’s all OK….’ I think it’s just crazy for people to try and pretend that sexuality is this magical realm that is somehow natural and is unaffected by anything social, economic, or political.” The neoliberal belief that choice renders any scenario unproblematic often functions to reinforce a status quo which keeps the privileged in their position. (121)

The above quotes nicely reinforce the discussion of consent from Chapter 5:

Taking the line that the absence of a safe word = blanket consent seemed unnervingly close to the standard excuse for vanilla sexual coercion, i.e., the belief that the absence of a no = a yes. In her essay “Beyond Yes or No: Consent as Sexual Process,” Rachel Kramer Bussel writes, “It’s not enough to just assume that if she (or he) doesn’t say no, they want it…. The burden is not on the woman to say no, but on the person pursuing the sexual act to get an active yes.” Bussell was referring to the tiresome concept of “grey rape,” where sexual violence is excused via the apparent failure of the victim to make their resistance clear, but her rebuttal applies to BDSM too. (91)

Choice is a problematic word in this book. But how could it not be? There are plenty of folks out there who continue to believe that kink is coercion, full stop. And even in this book, even for the sake of defending both women and safe/consensual BDSM, choice is re-formed and re-framed according to the needs of the argument in question.

Yes, choice is complicated by racism, capitalism, sexism — not extinguished. The idea that choice is unassailable is criticized in the book a slippery neoliberal construct (indeed!), but the sacrosanct unassailableness of choice is also trotted out to excuse complicity, especially re: racism. On many occasions, the author suggests (ironically, without intending to do so) that the only racism that warrants critique is conscious, malicious racism — even though so much of it is unconscious and / or systemic. (Much like the origins of our individual kinks and fetishes. And the beat goes on….)

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One last thing:

This one’s on the publisher, not the author. This is one of the most poorly proofed books I’ve read in a long time — so many typos and editing flubs.

On 25, the author calls Stalinism a type of fascism. No, it’s not. That’s impossible, actually.

Uncle Sam and Uncle Tom get mixed up on 193. (Good grief.)

 

The particulars of your pleasure and your consolation.

My local classic hits station plays a ’70s Top 40 countdown show Sunday mornings. Any time my partner and I listen to an episode, we have the same reaction: Good grief, the melodrama, the schmaltz! It’s one sappy ballad after another — a phenomenon that spans genres. Pop & rock ballads, disco ballads, soul ballads, girded by the DJ’s personalized dedications to long-lost loves and ailing grandparents. No wonder punk had to happen, my partner said one day. All I did was nod in agreement.

Mitchell Morris’ The Persistence of Sentiment: Display and Feeling in Popular Music of the 1970s is helping to alleviate my bafflement and see 1970s pop in a new light — and that’s just the introduction. The section “Kitsch, or the Economically Abject” (22-29) introduces social change (& arguably social justice) as a dominant force that shaped the 1970s pop aesthetic, and discusses the role that privilege and power play in the critical dismissal (mea culpa) of these popular forms.

First, he unpacks kitsch to ensure his readers are on the same page:

We think of the kitsch artifact as “too pretty”; it has been described as “beauty with the ugly taken out.” The world it portrays has only positive moments, and the glib idealization of the content represented through the object allow those of us who appreciate the object to pretend that everything is, simply, “nice.” (23)

Morris then narrows in on the way kitsch is deployed (or carelessly lobbed) within rock-centric music criticism:

[A music writer critical of Barry Manilow for his safe, soothing, nostalgic music] is devoted to pop music ideals of high seriousness, so he cannot entertain the possibility that “safe” might be a worthwhile musical quality in some situations, for some audiences. (23)

So what’s the opposite of safe, in musical terms? What makes “safe” pejorative? For a bit of perspective on this, Morris widens his frame to discuss mass production and originality (though, strangely [to me], without referring to Walter Benjamin):

It is worth noting that the frameworks within which these notions of kitsch can function are profoundly structured by the specific problems of modernity, especially the troublesome centrality of mass production and conventionality. If we suppose that “high art” is that which is one-of-a-kind and embodies some kind of extraordinary labour (such as talent) that is to be apprehended in an aesthetically fastidious manner, then the proliferation of inexpensive copies of such high art is kitsch. (24)

The philosophy of rock holds that [prescribed types of] originality = challenging = not safe = rebellious = good. So, as far as these critics are concerned, safety & salve are anathema to good music. Safety is bad because originality is good, and originality is not safe. (Feeling dizzy yet?) It’s at this point in Morris’ intro that I began to reflect on how I may be complicit in — and indeed perpetuate — this narrow, circuitous critical lens; I carry a bit of this challenging originality = good ethos into my evaluation of all the musical genres I enjoy.

Rock and its various descendants are supposed to be the eternal, earnest cri de coeur of disenfranchised youth, but of course, by the 1970s, rock had become hugely expensive to produce and promote. Enter the socioeconomic angle, stage left:

Why would someone buy a copy, though? The blindingly obvious answer would be that they like the object but cannot afford the original. The modernist detestation of kitsch depends upon an enormous investment in the concepts of originality, difficulty, and truth, to be sure. But since not everyone can afford the same kinds or degrees of investment, questions of class cannot be disentangled from these values. (24)

By the 1970s, originality became a mighty costly aim in rock. This wasn’t the decade that spawned prog rock by accident:

With music, the problem of original versus copy is also articulated through technological developments of modernism. [A] significant aspect of the threat comes from the possibility of a relentlessly leveling superabundance. (24)

The music industry in the 1970s was expensive, but utterly huge all the same, in terms of pervasiveness: radio, records, concerts, you name it. With hugely profitable music conglomerates looking to deploy lush production and an endless stream of technically talented musicians in order to cash in on their version of the next big thing (whatever that happened to be)… whither the scrappy, the rebellious, the hardscrabble, the unencumbered original?

[Kitsch] rapidly became domesticated for widespread use by writers who were less interested in condemning popular culture wholesale than in making qualitative distinctions among its materials. (25)

This is where the circuitous original = rebellious = good critical lens of rock winds itself literally in knots, because by and large, it wasn’t really willing to look outward to other genres, or when it did, it did so without sufficiently reading for context. Other types of fans want & need other types of things (besides originality / rebellion & the resulting moral superiority) from their preferred music:

Perhaps this set of values works well enough when dealing with rock musicians and their audiences. But what of artists and audiences for whom music serves other purposes? Most of the artists I discuss came from or performed on behalf of audiences who occupied marginal social positions before the 1970s: African Americans; women; gay men and lesbians; poor; mostly rural (and especially southern) white people. The rock paradigm has rarely served such groups well because they historically have found authenticity too expensive to maintain and, in any case, lived lives in which there were perhaps greater need of consolation. But it is the peculiar property of the 1970s as a historical decade that such groups began to think of themselves as able to insist that their social positions be renegotiated. (25)

Whew.

See, there’s the other thing about rock: it was born from poor black folks’ blues tradition and poor white folks’ country & folk, but it was very quickly claimed by middle-class white guys. And for the most part, in their quest for originality and rebellion, they’d do anything but actually venture off this (ironically very safe!) territory they’d claimed for themselves. It’s probably just as well, as that left other genres open to the desires, needs, and tastes of other demographics. And when did many marginalized groups’ struggles for agency and rights come to bear fruit simultaneously? Why, in the 1970s, of course:

What matters in the context of kitsch is that all these groups favoured music that was not a part of rock. They liked older styles. Softer styles. More sentimental styles. (26)

I have often said, “I want music to leave me feeling damaged.” How safe I must be, really, to have it as a personal goal to seek out music that is emotionally devastating & unsettling. This same music offers me catharsis and empathy in trying times, but those difficulties are still the difficulties of a middle-income white woman raised to hold up rock’s originality imperative as a kind of scripture.

Whew.

I wasn’t surprised to see Morris pull in good ol’ Adorno, whose views on music I recall resenting in school:

Kitsch offers consolation, not so as to change anything but to make the anything of the here and now slightly more tolerable. (Adorno, qtd. in Morris 28)

My first reaction to that Adorno quotation was to defend Morris’ aforementioned marginalized demographics, the ones that began to command a bit more attention from the music industry in the 1970s. But then the clouds parted: this only looks to be the kin of  rock’s originality ethos / criticism — it ain’t. Adorno probably would have spun the mirror around on rock critics who deigned to make discursive moves similar to his own. Who do you think you are, safe within your culturally sanctioned decades-old temple of guitars, drum kits, and power chords, to point to disco and cry “kitsch”? Bit the pot calling the kettle black, ain’t it?

Morris beat me to it, of course, with eloquence and empathy for the material & social realities of the marginalized demographics whose tastes come to the fore in 1970s Top 40:

Surely Adorno thought that it is necessary to insist upon such an ascetic goal, however, because musical pleasure seems, if not self-evident, at least more immediate. But if you occupy a social position in which the shape and the very nature of pleasure (in consequence, desire– and in consequence, agency) are precisely what is in question, then the particulars of your pleasure and your consolation are not trivial at all. (29)

No wonder punk had to happen, right? Not so fast. For all the marvelously sardonic, saucy gifts that punk and its descendants have bestowed on popular music since the late 1970s, we can’t pretend that its popularity was not, to some extent, the means by which white guys — a more politically powerful demographic than disco’s fanbase, certainly — could reclaim the narrative of popular music. Like rock before it, punk was born of a rebellious ethos and very quickly co-opted to re-entrench the status quo.

It is the rare introduction that leaves me feeling primed to take on a new and challenging scholarly text in a field I have never studied. Morris succeeds here in spades.

Whew.

Living with us instead of living against us.

We [musicologists] have rarely known how to account for music that loves the quotidian because our methods have been based on aesthetic and moral preferences for the extraordinary, the original, and the convention-breaking inspiration. Our commitments as music scholars have been strongest, historically, to music that was never meant to be heard every day. (Listeners with strong constitutions may test this observation for themselves by trying to listen to something like the St. Matthew Passion or Gotterdammerung every morning, but I predict their endurance will fade rather quickly.) The heroic gestures that fill out most of the “great works” in virtually any kind of canon are the ones that modest songs usually refuse– they must forgo too much “greatness” if they are to accomplish their principal goal of living with us instead of living against us in moral-aesthetic agon. (19)

From Morris, Mitchell. The Persistence of Sentiment. Berkeley: U California P, 2013. Print.

Full-blooded acknowledgement.

Where the hell was this idea when I was dropping out of an MA in the humanities?

For [Dave] Hickey, writing near the beginning of the nineties, only a full-blooded acknowledgement of the pleasure and sociality that intersect in disputatious experiences of beauty could rescue the academic art world from its arid purism. (2)

From Morris, Mitchell. The Persistence of Sentiment. Berkeley: U California P, 2013. Print.

The nasty but unavoidable truth.

The nasty but unavoidable truth is that political outrage and the good old-fashioned desire to punish “bad” women are not disconnected. That field for one has been fertilized (or, if you prefer, salted) by the other. Complex, deep, and necessary critiqes– like the feminist critique of mainstream beauty standards, in Jenner’s or Beyonce’s case, or the anti-racist critique of [Miley] Cyrus’s appropriation of black aesthetics and the industry’s simultaneous dismissal of black artists (Nicki Minaj wound up having to make a few)– are appropriated and imitated by the mainstream to rationalize our culture’s underlying pattern of demolishing sexually unruly women. (34)

From Doyle, Sady. Trainwreck. Brooklyn: Melville House, 2016. Print. 

Class power talking.

I’m just going to let an inspired moment on Twitter speak for itself:

  • The opening paragraph gets better each time I read it. Thank you, @second_sailing https://t.co/iNSFZIQarb
  • “There’s s’thing really terrifying in just how obsessively he dwelt on this objective truth, before an audience who didn’t need convincing.”
  • Re: public intellectuals, we can do better than a gaggle of Captain Obviousi subjecting us to their Well, Actually repetition compulsion.
  • “A bad world can be redeemed. The dogma that it’s good is rarely anything but evil.” MARRY ME.
  • “Every irrational social order has declared itself to be in some way isomorphic with reality itself.” SAY YES.
  • W/ever you hear a rapturous defense of the natural world, you shd be on yr guard: this is class power talking, & it’s trying to kill you.
  • I’LL MAKE YOU HAPPY.
  • Realizing the irony of what I’m about to say: holy god. What a satisfying read. Begging to be the lyrics for an ambient drone doom album.
  • I’m an atheist (imprecise ID, but I’ll spare you) who realized at a fairly young age that I was not welcome in the dominant conversation.
  • Dominant conversation being the OK’ness of capitalism, its rationality, the eminent evolutionary necessity of sexism, racism, xenophobia.
  • I had fun staying up late to watch Politically Incorrect w/ Bill M…. until I didn’t.
  • I thought I wanted to read Hitchens, Dawkins… until I did.
  • I got the same quicksand feeling from their superficial, unimaginative, inhumane atheism +
  • + as I did from the strident born-again boy who rejected me in high school.
  • 15+ years later, and this is still mostly a conversation I keep up alone, +
  • + pulling along the empirical & non-empirical with an attempt at equal & adequate care.

Identity is not a t-shirt.

You can’t just pull it out of your pal’s closet & try it on for size. It is social, resonant, emergent. It is lived and lived through. I’ve been thinking about this more than usual today, thanks to The Queer Poor Aesthetic, a helpful article by Shak’ar Mujukian.

I am not queer, and I was not raised in poverty, so I will do my best here not to co-opt Mujukian’s points on those particular identities. What I do want to highlight and engage with are some of the author’s broader points about class identity:

Class is different from other identities: it’s invisible, nuanced, relative, and people generally don’t like to talk about it. This is because class is also powerful. It divides real people into the categories of “worthy” and “unworthy” of basic necessities. Poor people are socially motivated to be too ashamed—not proud—to identify as poor because of the many ramifications that accompany it, and wealthy people are uncomfortable with their desirable comfort.

Class is powerful for another reason: it shapes how we view and in turn treat groups of people. Class structurally disenfranchises and criminalizes marginalized communities: it’s how anti-Black and anti-Latinx racism, transphobia, misogyny, and nearly every other kind of oppression legally operate and take real form.

Mujukian’s article describes his well-off roommates/housemates who “put on” or “perform” poverty in order to fulfill certain aspects of what they see as their rightful identity. But identity (perhaps especially socioeconomic class identity) is social; it is as much about how the world sees/treats us as it is the opposite. It’s as much about the embrace of particular communities as it is our embrace of those communities. If you’re lucky enough to be able to be bored by your comfortable station– if it’s not provocative or challenging enough for you– what to do? Grab a t-shirt that was reviled in its original incarnation? What does that mean for the people who’ve nothing else to wear? (It’s a sloppy metaphor, I know.)

Perhaps this type of behaviour is to be expected from classes of people who’ve been nurtured to consider themselves uniquely vital– to see identity atomistically & acquisitively, even as they [quite fairly and humanly] yearn for acknowledgement,  community, and to be seen as “good” by others.

A key text for my graduate work is Etienne Wenger’s Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. As if by magic, I began reading his section on identity this morning:

The experience of identity in practice is a way of being in the world. It is not equivalent to a self-image; it is not, in its essence, discursive or reflective. We often think about our identities as self-images because we talk about ourselves and each other– and even think about ourselves and each other– in words. These words are important, no doubt, but they are not the full, lived experience of engagement in practice. I am not trying to belittle the importance of categories, self-images, and narratives of the self as constitutive of identity, but neither do I want to equate identity with those reifications. Who we are lies in the way we live day to day, not just in what we think or say about ourselves, though that too is part of the way we live. Identity in practice is defined socially not merely because it is reified in a social discourse of the self and of social categories, but also because it is produced as a lived experience of participation in specific communities. What narratives, categories, roles, and positions come to mean as an experience of participation is something that must be worked out in practice. (151)

You can’t just put it on– or can you? If I stop there, I’m closing my mind to the [infuriatingly tangled] irony of the situation: these restless atomistic seekers of marginalized aesthetics-as-identity are, inevitably, their own strange social class– just not the one they think they are. So they do put it on– likewise, they’re not wearing what they think they are. Neither are they making quaint personal “wardrobe” decisions free of social repercussions for classes of people who have less mobility & choice at their disposal.

From Wenger, Etienne. Communities of Practice. New York: Cambridge, 1998.

Evolution heads down the memory hole.

Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s Merchants of Doubt is a brilliant piece of science history equally well suited for the bedside tables of journalists, scientists, and politicians. Each chapter traces the influential work of handful of paranoid anti-communist, anti-regulation Cold War physics proteges through critical public health and science issues such as acid rain mitigation and the effects of secondhand smoke. Their frustrating stance is easily (and chillingly) summarized:

If you believed in capitalism, you had to attack science, because science had revealed the hazards that capitalism had brought in its wake. (167)

Each chapter is critical of disinformation and distortion, as you might expect. But Oreskes & Conway’s chapter defending Rachel Carson’s legacy is downright excoriating:

Was Carson wrong? What does real science– and real history– tell us? It tells us that Carson– and the President’s Science Advisory Committee and the [EPA] and President Richard Nixon– were not wrong about DDT.

After DDT’s demonstrated success in [WWII], the United States and the World Health Assembly launched a Global Malaria Eradication Campaign (1955-1969). It was not based on large outdoor spraying campaigns– the principal target of Carson’s indictment– but primarily on indoor spraying of household walls and surfaces with DDT (and dieldrin). The US Centers for Disease Control summarizes the results: “The campaign did not achieve its stated objective.” Endemic malaria was eliminated in developed nations, mainly in Europe and Australia, and sharply reduced in India and parts of Latin America, but the campaign failed in many less developed areas, especially sub-Saharan Africa. It was halted in 1969– four years before the US DDT ban– so whatever happened could not have been the result of the US ban. What did happen? 

Malaria eradication failed in less developed nations because spraying alone didn’t work. Spraying along with good nutrition, resuction of insect breeding grounds, education, and health care did work, which explains why malaria was eradicated in developed nations like Italy and Australia, but not in sub-Saharan Africa. […]

But the most important reason that eradication was only partially successful was that mosquitoes were developing resistance. In the United States, DDT use peaked in 1959– thirteen years before the ban– because it was already beginning to fail. (223-24)

The painstaking work of scientists, the reasoned deliberations of [PSAC], and the bipartisan American agreement to ban DDT have been flushed down [Orwell’s] memory hole, along with the well-documented and easily found (but extremely inconvenient) fact that the most important reason that DDT failed to eliminate malaria was because insects evolved. That is the truth– a truth that those with blind faith in free markets and blind trust in technology simply refuse to see. (236)

From Oreskes, Naomi and Erik M. Conway. Merchants of Doubt. New York: Bloomsbury, 2010. Print. 

Fairness and balance.

The appeal to journalistic balance (as well as perhaps the [tobacco] industry’s large advertising budget) evidently resonated with writers and editors, perhaps because of the influence of the Fairness Doctrine. Under this doctrine, established in 1949 (in conjunction with the rise of television), broadcast journalists were required to dedicate airtime to controversial issuesof public concern in a balanced manner. (The logic was that broadcast licenses were a scarce resource, and therefore a public trust.) While the doctrine did not formally apply to print journalism, many writers and editors seem to have applies it to tobacco questions, because throughout the 1950s and well into the 1960s, newspapers and magazines presented the smoking issue as a great debate rather than as a scientific problem in which evidence was rapidly accumulating, a clear picture was coming into focus, and the trajectory of knowledge was clearly against tobacco’s safety. Balance was interpreted, it seems, as giving equal weight to both sides, rather than giving accurate weight to both sides.(19)

From Oreskes, Naomi and Erik M. Conway. Merchants of Doubt. New York: Bloomsbury, 2010. Print.