In 1890, the United States Census Bureau announced the end of the Western frontier. Yet the frontier spirit has surfaced intermittently in America’s cultural history well beyond this concrete date. Today, amid the United States’ hard economic fall in 2008 and its ungainly recovery, sill underway, fracking seems to be a new entry in the long tradition of economic forces generating new frontiers for Americans.  Despite considerable controversy, proven ecological impact, and public disfavor, fracking is flourishing. Notably, Williston North Dakota has flourished as a significant fracking region, but Williston is not just notable for strip mining. It has also seen a notable increase in stripping. However, framing these two phenomena together, tempting as it may be for its simplicity and many puns, is inaccurate and full of dangerous implications.

North Dakota defies the stubbornly high national unemployment rate of 7.3% with an unemployment rate of 3%. This is generally attributed to the fact that it sits on the Bakken oil field, which is ripe for extraction of natural gases. With their high employment rates, fracking regions draw what the National Geographic calls “refugees from the recession” – itinerant, predominantly male populations who abandon meager local prospects for the promise of steady work.

In her piece for Buzzfeed, stripper and blogger Susan Elizabeth Shepard, describes how within the stripper community, Williston, North Dakota was whispered about as “a secret stripper gold mine”. Far from glamorizing the phenomenon, she emphasizes the exhausting nature of the work, dispelling inflated myths of the per-night earnings, and draws a bleak portrait of oil boomtown life. With dust settling into her skin and the local Walmart completely selling out of bread, the town has a frontier atmosphere. Although she only works as a stripper, she notes it is an “open secret that some of the traveling dancers were working after hours.” Still, she avoids ascribing the popularity of the town’s two strip clubs to any sort of cultural phenomenon. She rationalizes that “[e]very Super Bowl/Olympics/national political party convention brings stories about sex workers coming to town” and ultimately follows the rationale that more men simply means a demand for more strippers.

The New York Times employs the same argument, arguing “what the oil boom has not brought […] are enough single women.” Describing the phenomenon as a simple function of gender ratio is tempting but too reductive. The confluent phenomena of large gatherings of men and high demand in the sex industry is not unique to fracking sites. In the summer of 2012, sources ranging from tabloids to fairly reputable news organizations gleefully reported that sex workers flocked to Tampa for the Republican National Convention. And the Cannes film festival is known to be a veritable hot-bed of prostitution as producers and show business insiders descend.  The examples listed above certainly involve large groups of men coming to a spot and the sex work spiking, so in that respect, they seem similar to Williston. However, they are not situations in which men are stranded in a new place with a skewed gender ration, and yet sex workers are still clearly in high demand. So is it fair to attribute that explanation to the Williston oil workers when it clearly is not a factor in the virtually identical activities of their more elite counterparts?

Inherent in the gender-ratio argument is an assumption that men are “grossly sexual beings, defined by aggressive desires for release and horniness that they can’t control”, as Kevin Carty put in his column for this publication. Carty’s sarcasm encapsulates some fairly sophisticated and complex arguments in the study of gender and sexuality. Roxana Galusca, an associate professor at the University of Chicago, summarizes the ideas of Judith Butler, the preeminent queer theory scholar, in the context of sex work. Basically, Galusca paraphrases Butler’s model wherein “gender works through a process of normalization, producing […] sexual regulations”. Galusca extends this to assert that approaching “sex as violence is itself a symptom and a normative discourse produced by the regulatory apparatus of gender”. That is, establishing men as libidinal subjects who feel themselves unable to contain their sexual impulses is the obverse of establishing women as sexual objects who must either be protected or prevented from exercising their sexuality. In Williston, this discourse plays out insofar as the justification for a sort of supply-and-demand reasoning for sex work implies that men are beholden to certain sexual impulses; if not enough women are present, they must “vent” their sexual frustration on sex workers.

It would feel more accurate to conclude that the demand for sex workers reflects a societal institution of gender disparity rather than an inevitable biological behavior arising from given demographic conditions. However, the narrative that surrounds the phenomenon in North Dakota supports a simple supply-demand model for sex work: The Huffington Post reported that “the law of supply and demand apply to everything – even stripper salaries”; Slate concurs that “[a]n inflow of oilmen […] pushes stripper wages up”; Maya Rao writes for The Awl that “woman here is in high demand” and drives the metaphor as woman-as-commodity further when she concludes that women are “in demand as much as the oil”. Cute as these sorts of similes may seem, they sublimate the cultural contortions that turns women into widgets in the first place. By using the language of capitalism to critique the treatment of women, they do more to bolster that discourse than break it down.

On top of these semantic issues, the sex industry isn’t the only thing that has seen an increase since the oil boom began in Williston; sexual assault has also spiked. The New York Times reports that women claim to feel unsafe in the area, and both The New York Times’ piece and Shepard’s Buzzfeed story contain separate anecdotes where a woman is nearly abducted by a male assailant. Here lies the major issue with the discourse that news sources have chosen to describe the sex work boom in Williston: even though there is some justification for describing sex work like any other industry, those justifications implicitly encompass the increased sexual violence that is also taking place in Williston. Thus sexual assault and intimidation are essentially justified in terms of market forces.

This is callous enough, but The New York Times goe
s even further and concludes its story by reporting that one Williston woman’s parents advised her to “stop wearing the skirts and heels”. The implication is that with the insufficient “supply” of women, tempting men with a hint of sexuality is too dangerous. This is almost a textbook example of victim-blaming, in which victims of sexual assault or aggression are construed to have been asking for it based on non-verbal cues, such as clothing, demeanor or profession. This sort of rhetoric flares up in large-scale rape cases. While covering the alleged rape of 14-year-old Daisy Coleman, known in the media as the Maryville case, an expert witness on Fox News said, “What did she expect to happen at 1am in the morning after sneaking out?” The example in the New York Times article is a variation on the same concept; the woman is cautioned that she should adjust her behavior because this will either tempt or invite sexual aggression from men. It is not the man’s responsibility to not rape women; it is the woman’s responsibility to not ‘ask for it’.

It may seem redundant to point out the commodification of female flesh in the industry of sex work. However, the issue at hand is specifically the rationalization that it is a simple function of the influx of men that creates conditions fertile for exploitation and predation. Critically absent from this discourse is a question as to why the men in Williston engage in this behavior. Ara Wilson, an associate professor of women’s studies at Duke University, points out that the definition of capitalist markets as “benign vehicles” that merely channel “wants, needs, and desires” overlooks the fact that “desires can be fostered and created.” Anybody can see how a sense of necessity did not precede the existence of consumer goods like smart phones, jewelry, or the millions of toys produced each year. However, with sex work, it’s taken as a given that desire precedes the market, and Wilson notes that a discussion of the creation of desire for sex work “remain[s] surprisingly unexamined”.

To begin to work against the deeply-entrenched rhetoric, it would be necessary to further examine the construction of consumer desire in this context, and this discussion would necessitate commentary far outside the realm of economics. Daunting as this is, the discussion is necessary given how news sources across the board invariably echo the same argument. It’s as if they are so swept away by the concurrent economic story that they cannot bear to move to far from that framework. Or maybe they too are so struck by the ancient cultural referents available to this specific narrative that they forget to update their discussion of sexual politics to the standards of the 21st century.

On October 29th there were two events.

At one, a New York City police commissioner was shouted down. The lecture hall in which he had been invited to speak and the street outside were crowded with angry, offended, frustrated people who did not share his views and were there to let him know it. Their story has been told, and they’ve been criticized and defended plenty already, but theirs wasn’t the only story in the room.

In the annex outside the lecture hall were other people who did not share the police commissioner’s views, but who wanted to hear what he had to say and how he would respond to their questions. As the shouting in the lecture hall continued, the organizers of the event asked the audience to vote on whether Kelly should be allowed to speak. The shouting did not subside, but in the seats beside the shouting people, and in the annex, hands quietly went up.

Across campus was another event, and hands were also going up. Another room was filled with disagreeing people, but after two hours of intense debate those same people reached a consensus. They voted unanimously, from all points on the political spectrum, to ask UCS to speak out against the influence of money in politics.

Brown is an angry place right now. Students are angry with President Paxson for ignoring their voice on coal divestment, and they are angry at an administration that seems to be rubbing salt in that fresh wound by giving a microphone to a man whose views they detest. President Paxson is angry that a vocal minority would have the gall to shut down what could have been an intense but informative discussion. Some are just angry because it’s been a hard couple of weeks. Every person at Brown right now seems to have an extremely good reason for their frustration. And many have taken the effort to express it, with extreme eloquence in a lot of cases.

To want to hear a dissenting voice is not the same as agreeing with it.

But the fact is that a lot of people don’t align themselves totally with the protestors. The people in the annex raised their hands to hear Kelly speak, and it’s important for them—and everyone else—to know that the alternative to anger, anger so strong that it turns people out in droves, isn’t just compliance. There is room for discussion and debate even in circumstances as polarizing as this, maybe not to resolve differences between factions, but at the very least to give those who are still undecided the chance to form their own conclusions. They deserve that right. To want to hear a dissenting voice is not the same as agreeing with it.

Those who protested feel alienated and ignored by the administration, and in their response they have alienated and ignored others. But that is not the only way this story has to go; an alternative was presenting itself at the same time that things on campus came to a head. Even on the angriest day in a long time on campus, members of a small group of people were listening to each other. And they’re going to keep going to, in meetings and personal conversations. Those shouted down in the annex, and all those on campus who feel perpetually ignored by the administration or by their peers, should take heart in that.

While the anger that charged the events leading to the premature end of Ray Kelly’s lecture yesterday was justified, holding the intellectual rights of fellow students hostage was not. Wrestling Commissioner Kelly from the stage stripped other attendees of their right to listen and moreover, undermined the goals outlined by the protestors themselves. The demonstration was a profound misunderstanding of the lecture’s purpose, and by extension, an oversight of more powerful alternative responses to racial profiling. It puts thousands of Brown students in a box without their consent. A coalition largely outnumbered by the student population – bolstered by activists completely unaffiliated with Brown – should not be able to limit the right of everyone else to hear political viewpoints, even problematic ones. To do so is to cast doubt on the intellectual capability of one’s peers to further understand the reasoning behind these policing strategies, and then to decry their injustice.

The disruption empowered a few voices at the expense of silencing many, and unnecessarily so, because the voices of the protestors certainly could have been heard on terms respectful to the free speech of other students attending the lecture. Such an outcome is unacceptable in any intellectual ecosystem that values collective growth. The school’s reputation as a bastion for open-mindedness now appears sullied, but it’s important to recognize that this action is by no means indicative of the university as a whole.

Marian Orr, the director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy, has devoted the entirety of his twenty-year academic career to researching the plight of marginalized communities in urban politics. According to Jamelle Watson-Daniels ’16, who spoke to Professor Orr shortly after the lecture was cancelled, “As a black man, and also as an intellectual specifically studying strategies of political change, his hope was that Commissioner Kelly would be challenged by the intellectual capacity of individuals who are at this school.”

Though the Taubman Center framed the event poorly and failed to explain in concrete terms their motives for bringing Kelly to Campus, it was clearly not Orr’s intention to offer the Commissioner a one-sided platform to condone systemic racism.

The director’s introductory words alluded to the philosophy of Alexander Meiklejohn, an alumnus, former dean, and the namesake for Brown’s first-year advising program. Meiklejohn espoused the right of everyone to hear all viewpoints, believing that change arises through informed intellectual discourse, not through stifling offensive or ignorant opinions. Even if Commissioner Kelly’s “proactive” policing strategies are implicitly racist, outwardly suppressing bigotry breeds the most inwardly stubborn form of obstinacy. When racism is not publicly confronted, it doesn’t disappear, it festers within. Therefore, to compel change requires adopting the bigot’s terms for debate: listening to his logic, even if it may be perverse. Without that understanding, both parties harden in their respective corners, looking down on one another, refusing to search for common ground. Discourse with Commissioner Kelly does not lend legitimacy to his racism; it’s the only tool that can aptly fight it. Democratic mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio cannot simply refuse to engage his opponents on stop and frisk, however unreasonable their stance. His campaign staff knows that without dialogue, a more humane policing policy will never come to fruition.

While challenging Ray Kelly in a Brown lecture hall is unlikely to engender change in the NYPD’s policing strategies, silencing his side of the story nonetheless impedes the evolution of public discourse.

While challenging Ray Kelly in a Brown lecture hall is unlikely to engender change in the NYPD’s policing strategies, silencing his side of the story nonetheless impedes the evolution of public discourse. Offering Commissioner Kelly a public forum with a designated space for questions would have assured the audience exposure to the best arguments for his policies, and just as importantly, the best refutations thereof. The demonstrators directly hindered their own cause by robbing attendees of the opportunity to fully inform their opinions and thus become better advocates for minorities oppressed by systemic targeting. Instead, driving him out of town empowered Ray Kelly with further ammunition to label the community ignorant.

Protesting racially motivated policing strategies deserves admiration. So does a candlelight vigil expressing solidarity with minorities victimized by discrimination. But infringing upon the intellectual rights of others by drowning out a speaker in the midst of expressing gratitude to the family of a deceased alumnus is unacceptable. Of equal concern, the protestors’ incendiary chant branding the entire NYPD as racist, sexist, and anti-gay verged on slander, and conflated the police force’s orders with their personal morality. For the same reasons that we reject Kelly’s policy of generalizing people of color, we should not generalize the work his staff does for the city of New York. This is not a black and white issue, and the police force is not black and white either. Not long ago officers wearing that uniform plunged into the smoke of burning towers felled by terrorists to save the lives of helpless New Yorkers – men and women, white and of color, gay and straight alike.

Demonstrators justified their behavior on the premise that Ray Kelly’s policing practices don’t even merit debate. Why is that value judgment theirs to make on behalf of Brown as a whole? How is it remotely possible to draw a clear standard for when it is or is not legitimate to suppress speech, if indeed some viewpoints are offensive enough to warrant such extreme retaliation? And what exactly did shouting down Ray Kelly accomplish, beyond fostering a widespread discussion of this community’s values?

During the anti-apartheid movement, beloved former president Ruth Simmons faced a comparable predicament. As the fiercest of advocates for marginalized communities, she initially refused to listen to a fellow student’s argument for apartheid. Her 2001 inaugural speech expressed remorse: “I have never forgotten these simple words spoken in opposition to my own. They taught me more about the need for discourse in the learning process than all the books I subsequently read. And I have regretted for 30 years that I did not engage this woman’s assertions instead of dismissing her as racist.”

Brunonians, we can do better.

A new BPR media video captures the moment that protestors shouted down NYPD Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, inside the amphitheater at Brown University where Kelly had taken the stage to speak. Hundreds turned out to protest Kelly for what many view as racially charged police tactics. University officials have not yet released the official video of the public event, titled “Proactive Policing In America’s Biggest City.”

Lately, the degree to which discourses of “objectivity” have dominated our political theatre is astounding. Everywhere one turns, he or she is confronted by a variety of appeals to some qualification outside the bound of “politics” and “partisanship”. Importantly, however, facts are hardly an apolitical realm. They are inert and must have life breathed into them. This is precisely what the name I have given this column is meant to suggest.

Facts are simple and facts are straight
Facts are lazy and facts are late
Facts all come with points of view
Facts don’t do what I want them to…

 – David Byrne

Crucially, and somewhat perversely, due to the constant appeal to the transcendent terrain of facts and reality and “the real stuff “and “the way it is”, etc… we have now ended up with a bigger problem than we started with: a quasi-ontological division between political groups.

There is now  a world of “lefty-facts” and “righty-facts” each fed by entire discursive apparatuses whose complexity would give Foucault a real run for his post-structuralist money. Sure there will be those who object to this, pointing out the heroic efforts put forth in the recent “fact-checking” craze. Nonetheless, we must recognize that both the recent “fact-checking” craze and the constant partisan appeal to “bipartisanship” are essentially expressions of the same belief. This belief holds that there exists a realm of truth in politics unadorned by partisan distortion that must both reside outside of contention (hence, according to this logic, in compromise) and within the realm of scientific-empirical verities.

Of course, in response to this, we have to keep in mind that though the New York Times printing a “fact-check” report may bring to light certain manipulative prevarications it does very little to stunt the metastasizing of nonsense. “Fact-Checking” doesn’t make an utterance go unsaid. Furthermore, even if it did, people could always claim biased fact-checking.

It is quite possible that sorting this epistemological divide out might be the principal intellectual ambition of our time. Perhaps what is necessary is a casting off of the “objective” pretense and instead a focus on self-reflexive criticism, agonist respect, and a irenic ethos of pluralism. This all is, of course, fodder for a future column. For now, however, it suffices to say that perhaps what Weber didn’t predict was that though rationality may be an iron cage, we aren’t all in the same zoo.

Anyway, let me bring this opening salvo into the “real world”  of campaign politics.

While Obama and the Democrats are certainly guilty of discursive trickery, Mitt and his advisers have been giving whole new meaning to this kind of activity  (please don’t get the impression that I am suggesting some sort of a priori equivalence between political camps. This presumption is precisely part of the problem.) Outside his standard policy prevarications, Mitt’s far more sly maneuverings regard his false appeals to objectivity.  I want to focus on one of these in particular.

A well-known, indispensable part of Mitt’s stump speech is his spending-cut shtick.

In it he makes an appeal to budget-minded concerns, painting the deficit as hammering economic growth (just consult the 1950’s to see if this was the case in the past) and therefore a problem needing to be redressed by a stern but fair executive/father-figure.

So how does this routine go?

He starts with a classic “I’m getting serious” line to appease the critics :

“Listen, guys, there are programs I like but I have this test. It’s called the China test!”

Then here comes the meat of the line:

“We have to ask ourselves if the sort of expenditure is worthwhile its worth borrowing from CHINA to pay for!?”

Obviously, there is a LOT to unpack here already. Beyond the paternalistic grace of this austerity formulation, there are some huge problems. Though clearly Romney is trying to appeal to a non-partisan principle he ends up doing more damage than he would have otherwise.

First, we must ask ourselves who is making this decision?  Under what matrices or supposedly objective, pre-political schematics is this “decider” making these tests (a good question unless Romney is a closet Schmittian)?

It’s imperative here to recognize that pretending that budget concerns enter the arena of “the experts” and not the politicians is not only inaccurate but also morally objectionable, and, I will argue (not in this column) fundamentally anti-democratic.

Furthermore, what’s the deal with the powerful undertone of anti-China sentiment? Is this statement as masterful a pronunciation of the meeting point between Neoliberalism and Neo-Conservatism that I suspect it is? Is there something in this cheap appeal to a presumed Anti-China bias a marker of Romney’s lame estimation of the American public’s  foreign policy sentiments?

At this point, Romney attempts to drive his point home with a real, live example:

“I believe that we have to let things compete by themselves. If they cannot float, then so be it. The first of these things will be Amtrak”


All of a sudden, despite being deliriously roped in on a pseudo-objective line of argument, we area suddenly faced with the very partisan, substantive policy assertion that Amtrak should lose its public subsidies.

Now, according to Romney’s particular economic creed, this should work just great. Yet even a cursory understanding of economics, let alone transportation economics, can throw a cast of doubt onto this suggestion.

To begin with, there is the problem that the great majority of large-scale railways across the world receive government subsidizing. Even if we concede that in doing so they are running monopolies, there is no necessary conclusion stemming from this that a more cost-friendly version would otherwise be more forthcoming.

For the last 11 months, Amtrak has put up record passenger number. This is nothing to sneeze at. This points clearly towards the sign that Americans are using their trains. And should they not be?

Surely, Mitt “I’m a car guy” Romney might not be that enthused about the idea of trains. But that does not change one last thing: trains are a social good whose operation may simply not lend itself to profit.

Ultimately, this inability to conceive of social goods as deriving value from values distinct from the profit incentive is Romney’s economistic problem (think Sesame Street). This dire gap is fully on display in the rest of the spending cut portion of the stump speech.