Tuesday, August 31, 2010

What she said

Megan McCardle punctures the " humans are naturally polyamorous" balloon.

I would only add that not only does this new pseudo-science rely overly much on Bonobo research, that Bonobo research itself is highly dubious stuff.

In any case, stop dreaming, science is not going to back up anyone's playboy fantasies. And this for exactly the reason McCardle identifies:
Besides, as Jesse Bering points out, jealousy ('heartbreak") "throws a monster of a monkey wrench into the evolutionists' otherwise practical polyamory".  If we're evolved to be polyamorous, why do we also seem to be evolved to be extraordinarily possessive?  This seems like an evolutionary maladaptation. 
It's a lot like these people who run around arguing that laws forbidding women from going around topless are discriminatory. Here in Ontario, these laws were  ruled unconstitutional and do you what? You could walk around Ontario all day long and never see a bare-breasted woman. There are some, of course (a very tiny number), just as there are some people who want to be polyamorous but the genetic evidence is overwhelming that most women will cover their breasts in public given the chance and most men and women want only one sexual partner.

This isn't some nasty rule imposed on us by puritans in government or in the church. It's what most people naturally want.

Are beliefs private?

I've never read W.K. Clifford's essay "The Ethics of Belief". I'd never heard of it before reading of it on James McGrath's blog, I will have to read it now because this paragraph that McGrath cites is absolutely true and right:
And no one man's belief is in any case a private matter which concerns himself alone. Our lives our guided by that general conception of the course of things which has been created by society for social purposes. Our words, our phrases, our forms and processes and modes of thought, are common property, fashioned and perfected from age to age; an heirloom which every succeeding generation inherits as a precious deposit and a sacred trust to be handled on to the next one, not unchanged but enlarged and purified, with some clear marks of its proper handiwork. Into this, for good or ill, is woven every belief of every man who has speech of his fellows. An awful privilege, and an awful responsibility, that we should help to create the world in which posterity will live.
By the way, read the comments on McGrath's original blog post (the link is below) and note how nervous this makes his readers. It's odd that we live in an era where it is perfectly acceptable to go over our political enemies' words with a  fine tooth comb looking for that tell-tale line that can be quoted (usually out of context) to make them look like a racist and yet, at the very same time, we get nervous at the thought that our own beliefs might be public property. We are hypocrites on this issue.

(McGrath also gives a link to a PDF of the Clifford essay.)

H/T: Exploring Our Matrix: Clifford on Language as Social Heirloom

PS: Here is a thought experiment.  The next time you are on the bus or walking downtown or sitting in a coffee shop, pick out an attractive person. Study her for a while. Don't be conspicuous about it but just study her and the things she says and does and think of what makes her (or him) attractive and interesting to you. Write them down on a pad. How long can you go with this exercise before her beliefs enter the equation is a significant way?

The auld Scots tongue

Some unfinished business from Chapter 6 before moving on
Blogging Rob Roy

The first bit of unfinished business is Andrew Fairservice and, more importantly, the way he talks. If there is one overwhelming reason why (almost) nobody reads Sir Walter Scott anymore its all the dialect writing.

Although it is hard to believe now, dialect was once hugely popular and people sought out books for the dialect. Why? I think two reasons. The first was that in the era before electronic media, there were all sorts of different accents and dialects floating about. You didn't have to travel far from home to run across several.

The second reason was that while different dialects were familiar, they were also frightening. A friend of ours who lives in California was here recently and he was describing what it was like to take the wrong exit and end up in Oakland. What he saw at the bottom of the exit ramp was familiar in that he wasn't surprised to see groups of men standing around metal cans with fires in them but he was a fish out of water and he knew it.

We drive by odd subcultures and we wonder what it is like and we want to find out. That is one service Scott provided for his readers. He did something very like anthropology, digging into the language, accents and cultural traits of what were exotic peoples. Did you ever drive by a group of Hassidic Jews or Goths or Mennonites and wonder what it's really like in that culture? Even today there are novels that claim to take us inside these subcultures to see what it is like. Scott did that and it was incredibly popular with his readers.

Andrew Fairservice is the first Scotsman (Update; someone across the room has pointed out that we have met "Mr. Campbell" but I would argue we haven't really met him just yet).  The Andrew we meet is a caricature. That isn't a prejudice or incompetence on Sir Walter's part. He takes it as a given that the culture he represents—the post Enlightenment culture of educated men—is a superior culture and the caricature we see here is what he believed to be true.

Is that wrong? I don't think so. The other night the Serpentine One and I were in a seedy bar. If I were to write honestly about the people I saw there it would be a caricature of a culture that I genuinely believe to be inferior to the one I believe in. Today, we regard that sort of thing—even though we all believe it—to be a form of hatred.

Sir Walter's intention here is to make us love Andrew Fairservice even as he presents us with a caricature because he genuinely believes that people fit caricatures.

That brings me to another bit of unfinished business: Rashleigh Osbaldistone. Rashleigh is described as physically unattractive but that ugliness is more a function of his character than his actual physical characteristics.

He is also described as being short whereas Sir Walter Scott was more than six feet tall. But, wait a minute, why am I contrasting him with his author? Well because he shared one important characteristic with Sir Walter. Here it is:
... and, from some early injury in his youth, had an imperfection in his gait, that many alleged that it formed an obstacle to his taking orders ...
Sir Walter limped as consequence of childhood polio. It had a huge impact on his life and we can never see it as just an accident when he gives another character a limp. He spent his entire life compensating for this injury and was very sensitive about it.

He goes in the paragraph I cite above  to take a slur at the Catholic church for supposedly not accepting men as priests if they had deformities. There may be some truth to that but what Sir Walter is leaving out here is that prejudice against his sort of affliction was common in his society (as it is in ours). As I say, Sir Walter himself spent his lifetime performing physical feats to compensate and, not incidentally, this was a characteristic he shared with his rival Lord Byron who had a club foot.

The other quality Rashleigh shares in common with Sir Walter and Lord Byron is the ability to express himself beautifully. And it is important that the very first thing Rashleigh's beautiful voice is linked to is its potential power to seduce women. The abuse of the power to seduce is a constant subtext of this novel.

There is something very dark happening here. Is Rashleigh a projection of what Sir Walter himself might have become? Is a he a sort of counterfactual of himself?  Did Sir Walter see anything like Rashleigh in Lord Byron?

And how does religion fit into this? Not just Catholicism but Calvinism and perhaps even Anglicanism. We'll see some Calvinism in the upcoming chapters.

Blogging Rob Roy begins here.

Next post will be here

Monday, August 30, 2010

Oh yeah: one more Mad Men thought

I think she should have kept humming with her mouth full.

Not just because I'm a typical disgusting man—although that is clearly part of it—but also because it would have made better television.

Embarrassments at the Waldorf

The virtues of mad men
Waldorf Stories

Well, I have to eat some crow. I predicted the show would not do well this year and so far I have been very wrong. Mad Men has gone from strength to strength this season. Every episode has been brilliant and every episode has been a bit better than the one before it. There has not been a weak episode all season.

"I'm going to tell everyone in the comments that you were squealing like a girl during the scary parts."
That threat came from the Serpentine One sitting behind me doing real work while I watched "Waldorf Stories".

The scary bits, by the way, was that horrible scene in the boardroom when Don started tossing off possible slogans for Life cereal while drunk. Not horrible as in bad but horrible as in inspiring horror. "Make it stop, make him stop," was what I squealed.

Fans of the Beats will recognize the technique of embarrassment. Someone would stand up at a reading—someone who was supposed to be great like Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg—and instead of reading great literature, they'd read a list of intimate details that would make everyone cringe with embarrassment. And just when you think you can't stand it anymore, you realize that this irritation is the point.

Here is a musical example. You've walked into a club to await a show to see someone you've been told a is great jazz musician, an inspired genius. And then he sits down to play and he starts playing like a first year piano student. He only does it for 45 seconds by the stopwatch but it feels like an eternity. You just want it to stop.

And then he shifts gears and you realize that irritating motif is the basis of something much deeper. It's as if embarrassments are really the foundation of everything important. And they are in a sense. Everyone, even the very greatest, starts off being embarrassing and no matter how far we get, that embarrassing jerk is still inside us, waiting to get out. That embarrassing jerk isn't someone we used to be, it's who we still are and virtue, real virtue, is a matter of making that embarrassing jerk do impressive things.

We hate to be reminded of this.

That's why I was squealing like a girl during the scary bits. And I was.

Two exceptions
There was just one embarrassment after another this episode. The first is the no-talent jerk being interviewed by Don and Peggy in the opening scene. He had this complete lack of talent and chutzpah going for him. Oh, that an a tendency to try and pull silly power stunts. And then we watched as Roger, Don, Pete, Duck, Peggy and others did exactly the same thing over and over again.

That is another brilliant literary technique. Whoops, I forgot to start at the beginning. This episode uses, shat shall I call them, "parallel lives" maybe, yeah, this episode uses parallel lives over and over again. We've seen the parallel between Roger and Don before. But we probably weren't ready to find out how closely the most embarrassing character in the episode would be a parallel to Don.

(Notice, BTW, that we are, as I said before, no longer getting flashbacks to Dick Whitman. The flashbacks are now to early Don Draper.)

Anyway, there were two exceptions this episode in that these characters worked through the embarrassments. I mean Peggy and Pete. They did not rise above them. Rather they plowed right into the embarrassments and out the other side.

There was interesting sexual undertones to both. The way Peggy cuts Stan Rizzo down to size in the hotel room is obviously sexual but something similar happens in the boardroom between Pete and Ken Cosgrove. Watch it again and look at how Pete seals his victory by leaning back in the chair. It seems too smug in a sense because it is so transparent but that is the whole point. The only reason Pete doesn't conclude the interview by saying "now blow me," is because he doesn't have to.

Two more thoughts about Peggy. The Serpentine One regularly talk about our conflicted feelings about feminism. Speaking only for myself, I would love to be able to declare myself a  feminist but feminism keeps getting bogged down in a lot of radical left wing crap that undermines the real issue.

We saw another kind of feminism in Peggy this episode. A feminism that has much more to do with real life and it's embarrassments. When Peggy says to Stan Rizzo that he is staring at women who can't stare back when he reads Playboy that's something really important. And we can see what a knife edge she is walking. If Stan had, if you'll pardon this, risen to the challenge morally, instead of just physically, that scene would have played out very differently. Peggy is vulnerable and she knows it—everything Stan says to mock her cuts right to the bone—and she is counting on Stan being too embarrassed himself to see it.

The lost weekend
There was so much brilliant about this episode I couldn't begin to comment on it so I'll hit just one more. It was this episode that really showed us how Don is going to fall in a believable way. It isn't alcoholism. That would be dramatically boring as alcoholism is a disease and no alcoholic is morally responsible for a disease.

Drama and literature avoids this by dodging the truth and acting as if addiction is caused by moral challenges. That is bogus science but good drama. Anyway, the real issue is the thing Don is trying to escape from.

By the way, I love the way the writers are using their own embarrassments  as strengths. One of the really stupid bits in the show has been the repeated use of Don's various conquests not as dramatic advancements but as voyeuristic distractions to keep the groundlings amused. Here they turn that into a strength by letting the meaningless of it all wear us down.

The really revealing moment, meanwhile had already happened back at the bar before the last weekend. I mean the bit where Don tries to pick up Faye Miller and she turns him down. What he doesn't see is that Faye really cares about him. She doesn't love him just yet but she cares about him and he cannot see that what he really needs is love and to stop drinking.

Peggy, of course, loves Don but we see the nature of that love changing. She is slowly becoming the one with the upper hand. Don's attempts to be the senior partner with her increasingly come across as bluster. Her confrontation with him had her clearly assume the adult role in a  way that I'm not certain he can do anymore.

Peggy and Pete
Everyone and his dog has recognized that the show is headed towards a new generation. If Bert and Roger are Samuel and  Kind David and Don is Solomon, who gets to be Isaiah and who gets to be Jeremiah? My guess is Peggy and Pete respectively. But we'll see.

Okay, I'm off to read what others have said about this episode.

By the way, that great jazz musician playing like a beginner with no potential on purpose just to make us cringe? For a whole forty five seconds? I wasn't making that up. Here he is:

Season 4 blogging begins here.
The post on the next episode will be here.

For anyone crazy enough to go even further :

Season three blogging begins here.

Season two, if you are interested, begins here.

Season one begins here.

Mad Men's Waldorf Stories

Is downloading right now. Given my usual pace for doing things, that means I'll have a post up this afternoon.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Shakesperian heroine

Blogging Rob Roy  chapters 5 and 6
One thing Scott and Austen have in common is their love of creating a Shakespearean array of characters. You raise an issue—in the case of this book a society based on values of credit versus one based on shame and honour—and then you people your drama with people who stand at various points of the spectrum between these two ends.

A sometimes essential element in the Shakespearean version is the transgressive feminine heroine. This the fast-talking, wise-cracking woman who cannot be held within traditional feminine bounds and who is smarter than everyone, including the man who will fall in love with her. She can be serious like Portia and like Elinor in Austen. Or she can be playful like Beatrice whose correspondent in Austen is Elizabeth Bennett. Here in Rob Roy we get Die Vernon.

But lets do some foundation work on the spectrum of values first. Our spectrum runs from credit values or shame-honour values.

A credit society is a variation on a guilt-innocence society. Although we might not think so at first glance, it is a more nuanced version of guilt-innocence. Like a guilt-innocence society, you can be either guilty or innocent but you can also have a kind of honour for your reputation as a person who always pays your debts will earn you credit even if you don't have the money to pay your debt right now. Read even a cursory biography of Sir Walter and you will see how important this last notion was to him.

We might keep in the back of our minds the possibility of redemption for the Christain notion of Forgive us our debts as we forgive those who have debts against us."

Okay, where do the other characters sit on the spectrum? I'll be honest. I'm not entirely sure for some. We can be certain that Owen is far on the credit end for he reduces the Golden Rule to a mathematical equation. We know that Frank ends up on the credit end and that he started off on the shame-honour end. But Frank is not always a reliable narrator, and Sir Walter has made him so intentionally. That brings us to his father and that is a tricky issue.

As a loving son and especially as a son who crossed his father and feels shame about this, Frank is very much determined that we should see his father as a well-balanced man.

Now enter Diana Vernon. That name Diana is not an accident. We meet her on a fox hunt, she is at home in the woods and we will see that she is the embodiment of chastity (although I think Scott raises some doubts on that last matter for those willing to see).

How to get at her character? Here is the question if you ask me: Why are a Shakespeare influenced heroines like Die Vernon not feminist characters? They are strong, independent, not bound by traditional female roles or values and are moral leaders not followers. At first glance, you might think those impeccable feminist credentials but they aren't. Why not?

Well the sheer moral and emotional strength is part of the problem. One of the apparent paradoxes of feminist literature then and now is that it tends to focus on characters who struggle and are overcome by the society around them. When a feminist novel features an unbridled romantic heroine you can sure her end will be tragic or spectacularly dishonest like the end of Thelma and Louise where suicide is presented as some sort of victory.

Diana Vernon is an unbridled romantic whose life is over-brimming with possibilities for tragedy but she is not like that. A big part of the difference is that feminism is always and everywhere a political movement. Even an impractical selfish jerk like Mary Wollstonecraft ostensibly wants to change the lives of women as a class rather than just herself. The actual facts of her life show this to be untrue but she at least pretended to care about improving the position of women in general.

Diana Vernon is an individualist through and through. She seeks her own happiness and although she does not accept the social limitations on women as applying to herself, she has no desire to reform society. Is she just a male fantasy of what men wish women were like? I don't think so. Scott only wrote about people he knew and he knew women like Diana and Flora from Waverley. He knew them and loved them. We'll have to watch closely to see how her story develops.

On the other hand, Sir Walter hated his brothers and they are the source for much of the character of Frank's cousins here. And that is unfortunate because they are one-dimensional and boring. So we won't linger on them.

But there is an interesting hint here worth keeping in the back of our minds as we read on. I said last time that Frank is lying when he presents his situation as bleak. We get more evidence of that here when Frank describes his entry into the border country of England:
I approached my native north, for such I esteemed it, with that enthusiasm which romantic and wild scenery inspires in lovers of nature.
Hmmm, the poor boy cast off by his father is actually cast off into what he considers his spiritual homeland. Mind you, it has to be spiritual as he has never been there before. In any case, the first few pages of Chapter 5 are filled with beautiful writing about the countryside and worth the price of the novel all by themselves.

They are, of course, also good stage setting for the woodland goddess Die Vernon about to appear.

While one brother does show up in the scene, we have to wait 'til we get to the hall to meet the Uncle and cousins. And we really only meet two of these, the others may as well be cardboard cutouts for all the character we see. One exception is Rashleigh. If this were one of the awful Bronte sisters writing, anyone with a name like "Rashleigh" would be the hero. In almost any other novel, a guy named Rashleigh shows up and you want to lock up your soul and keep him away from the women. What's he like in this story? Well we have lots of foreboding hints but he isn't Rob Roy.

The only other character of note is the uncle Sir Hildebrand Osbaldistone and he seems like a  stock character at first. He was Jacobean who rose to prominence under James II and he has been relegated to a life of decadence on his estate ever since. His hunting jacket is a picture of something once elegant and refined now worn and tattered by life.

The question then is, Is he everything the cilché would have him be or does Scott just want us to think of him that way? He spends much more time on the Uncle than anyone but Rashleigh. But before you decide this question is rhetorical, let em assure yout that Sir Walter is a writer who could go either way on this.

The first post in this thread is here.

Next post will be here.

Saint Augustine

Today is the feast of Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo.

Although I have been critical of his views on sexuality here lately I have to say that Augustine is one of the greatest thinkers in the history of Christianity. I would put only Anselm and Aquinas above him.

And his sexual teachings, although now largely discarded, were actually quite an improvement over what some others, particularly Jerome, offered at the time. There was an inherent moderation and justice in what Augustine taught even when he was in error.

His Confessions are one of the few books that everyone should read. Wittgenstein once called this book, "The most serious book ever written." He was right.

Augustine is the patron saint of brewers. Hoist a cold one in his honour.

Friday, August 27, 2010

It's been a full day here

We had a new mattress set delivered and were out last night and had little sleep. Anyway, I will get the Sir Walter post up tomorrow.

And the Church, what should it do?

In response to something in the comments, here is what I think. I stress the "I think" because I don't know.

George Weigel reports that John Paul II thought Humane Vitae was "a catechetical failure". I'd be more inclined to say a catechetical catastrophe but I think the Pope was substantially right. I think that a little honest self examination would reveal that the catechetical failure extends to the church's teaching on sexuality in general during the twentieth century. The teaching isn't wrong so much that the methods used to package it and present it have failed utterly. And I think that an honest assessment by the hierarchy would convince them of this. Even the majority of those Catholics who go to Mass every Sunday treat Church teaching on sexuality as advisory only.

In that regard, I am firmly on Christopher West's  side of the issue: it is time for the Church to do a  new thing rather than stressing continuity with the past. I think it is particularly important to recognize that Paul VI, although a good man, was not a successful Pope and that his approach to promoting the church's teaching on sexuality was an abject failure (as was much else that was introduced during his pontificate). Add to that the loss of credibility the Church has suffered through the sex-abuse scandals and I think there is no reason at all to think that we can simple tweak past approaches and keep going. It is time for a new thing

I think the good news is that both John Paul II and Benedict XVI  realize this and have begun the slow moves that are going to be required to fix this. And while others would have the Church move more quickly I think the current pace is appropriate—it's going to take decades to put things right. 

I think the Church has done a good job of beginning to counteract the anti-sex culture that haunted it for so long and I give John Paul II and Benedict XVI top marks to in that regard. Yes, there is work to be done but things are moving in the right direction and that is a huge achievement.

The primary thing the remains to be confronted now is a Church bureaucracy that, like all bureaucracies, has long been too fond of a command and control approach. And I think the Church leaders can do that by spending more time promoting public virtue instead of relying so heavily on rules and prohibitions.

Alice von Hildebrand (5)

The chocolate cake argument
Have a look at the following argument and see if you see what I see  (my emphasis added):
Another mistake West makes is to assume that pornography is an understandable—if sinful and misguided—effort to quench the sexual impulse: “God gave us that desire,” he told an interviewer. “When we go to pornography to satisfy that desire, its like eating junk food. It’s not going to satisfy the legitimate hunger and need of the human heart.” But here, West ignores an obvious fact, all too prevalent throughout human history: many people like “junk food”—in this case, pornography and illicit sex (this is why brothels will never go out of business)—and often prefer it, even when a healthy alternative—in this case, authentic Catholic teaching—is presented to them. That is because Catholic orthodoxy-as enriching as it is, and even within the context of a loving, sacramental marriage—entails sacrifice and self-control, rather than the “hunger” of self-indulgence.
My friend Thomas first drew my attention to an interesting aspect of the way some Catholics think about sexuality thirty years ago when we were both at university. You can see it here: Hildebrand honestly believes that given the choice between sex in line with Catholic teaching and the alternative as offered by the larger culture that people will choose the latter. Not because they want to sin but because they believe that sex will be better.

That is quite an admission.

If our arguments is that the junk food sex is actually more pleasureful than loving sex between a married couple we may as well give up.  Does anyone arguing for quality food over cheeseburgers believe that cheeseburgers taste better but argue that we should eat quality food because it presents us with an opportunity for sacrifice? Dump that cheeseburger and eat this wheat germ sandwich. That is Hildebrand's argument for her kind of sex.

And it isn't true in any case! Married sex is wonderful.

So why is Hildebrand tying herself in knots here? Years ago one of my sisters called it the chocolate cake argument. It goes like this. If we believe that the primary purpose of eating is nutrition and that all other purposes should be subservient to this primary purpose then it follows that eating chocolate cake is wrong. There is some nutritional value in chocolate cake but there is a lot more in other foods so throw away the cake and bring out the oatmeal.

But suppose we say some other purpose is not subservient to but equal to nutrition? Suppose we say that in addition to nutrition eating must (not "can" but "must") serve the purpose of bringing people together so they can bond as friends, families and communities.  That it is our blessed duty to use our shared desire for the pleasure of eating delicious food prepared with love as an occasion for us to come together. After Sally moves out of the house she shows her love for her parents by inviting them to her new apartment and serving them a  delicious meal with wine and chocolate cake she baked herself for dessert.

Well, although you'd never guess it from reading Alice von Hildebrand, the official position of the Catholic church is that bringing the couple closer together is just as much the legitimate end of sex as procreation. That husbands and wives are to do the metaphorical equivalent of cooking and serving each other delicious meals by giving one another sexual pleasure. That's right. Pleasure!

Hildebrand knows this but wants to somehow neuter the impact of this aspect of Catholic teaching so she can keep all the hard-line strictures anyway. You can see this in the circuitous way she approaches the subject. The lone paragraph where she talks about the "unitive" aspect of sexuality is her way of acknowledging this blessing before moving back to the dangerous aspects of sex. 

Now there is a legitimate point to be made that this pleasuring of one another should involve self control and that we should make sacrifices for one another.  The pursuit of instant gratification is not a good way to do anything. But sacrifice and self-control are not ends in themselves and they are certainly not the end of married sex. The reason to practice self control and sacrifice in marriage is to make sex even better for both you and your spouse. It is not to impose pain and denial on yourself as if pain and denial are good things in themselves.

Try as I can to read her in a charitable way, I don't get that from reading Hildebrand. To the contrary I read someone who is constantly trying to scare people away from sex. She says that sexual pleasure is a  trap, an "extreme danger", to be approached with great caution. She's wrong. It should be approached with prudence, with reverence for the person you are doing this with who is God's special creation and your spouse and both this person and sex itself should be seen as gifts from God. Most importantly, sex should be an occasion for you to give your spouse pleasure and for you to surrender to their efforts to give you pleasure (and your surrendering to their giving by enjoying their efforts to pleasure you is not optional).

And here is the  thing that no one tells you. Sex is an aggressive physical activity. Your pulse increases, all the get-ready-for-action hormones fire, your awareness of pain goes down and everything builds to a convulsive climax. No one thinks of cuddling, kittens, peace, love, understanding or about self denial in the seconds before orgasm. They are thinking about feeling, touching, staring at and possessing their spouse's body with an increasingly aggressive desire. And the thing to do is to keep doing that until you have satisfied her by quenching her desire and she has satisfied you by quenching yours. That is not some aberration or disorder but the way it is supposed to be.

It's not just a matter of self indulgence (although there is legitimate self indulgence in loving sex), it's also a matter  of indulging one another and that is way of loving one another. It's a gift from God and not a horrible trap created by Satan to trip you up.

This series starts here.

Alice von Hildebrand (4)

Natural Law
I lied when I said this will be the last post on the subject. There is one coming later today.

The time has come to talk of natural law. As others have pointed out, natural law remains a powerful moral force in our lives. You can see it most clearly in food issues. When people argue against junk food or in favour of eating"organically" all sorts of natural law arguments surface almost by instinct.

There is a legitimate and an illegitimate use of natural law arguments however. The illegitimate use isn't really a natural law argument at all but a consequentialist argument. In it's most naked form: "Eat junk food and you'll get cancer." You can also see this in the hopes many Catholic moralists obviously nurse that there will be some scientific discovery proving birth control pills cause breast cancer.

Before going into how this misguided consequentialist view shows up in Alice von Hildebrand, let me explain the distinction a bit. Natural law is an argument based on the belief that there is a moral purpose visible in nature when rationally considered. Food tastes good but, if we step back and consider it in a rational way, the real end of eating is to supply nutrition for our bodies and we shouldn't eat just anything we feel like eating.

Most people, I think, instinctively agree with that position.

But, and this is important, there is a positive end here and that is nutrition and nutrition is ultimately desirable because it leads to health and health leads to a happy and balanced life.

Consequentialist arguments, on the other hand, say do X because it will produce good results or don't do X because it will produce bad results. These good and bad results are not defined in terms of some overall end. And that distinction is important because under natural law it is often required of us to do something that will produce bad results.

A consequentlialist argument can be used to reinforce a legitimate natural law argument but it should never be mistaken for something that it isn't. To take the example of birth control. Suppose someone did prove that the pill causes some side effect negative enough to justify everyone stopping using the pill. If you are a pill opponent that may sound like a good thing. But imagine that immediately this hypothetical bad news comes through, scientists set to work on some other form of birth control that does not have these negative side effects and they succeed. Now what's the argument against the pill?

And the pill is a good example in a sense because pill opponents (and not all are Catholics) have been raising side-effect objections for decades now and none of these have panned out. The health news related to the pill have been very positive. There is even a credible argument to be made that younger women who take the pill will actually be healthier as a result.

Hildebrand's essay is littered with bad consequentialist arguments. Most telling, are her comments on pornography.
In the sexual sphere, pornography, not puritanism, is the cancer destroying our society. It is so widespread that it is practically impossible to protect one's children from its venom; it is on the internet, on television, at malls, in department stores, in book stores, at the A&P. Serial rapists often confess that they have been fed on Playboy since they were teenagers. This is where our main concern; should be focused. 
The whole issue would be very simple if it turned out to be the case that  pornography could easily be linked to crimes such as rape but it cannot be. Moralists (both Christian and feminist) have been trying and trying to make such a link for decades now and no one has come up with anything that looks like a connection. And I sometimes wish it were so myself when I see some of the very angry porn out there but not only is there no provable link, sexual crimes have actually declined as porn has become more prevalent and even as porn has become more degrading towards women.

But even if there were a link between degrading porn and violence, it's hard to see how Playboy, which consisted of pictures of naked women and little of the sort degradation of women so common today might reasonably be said to have such an effect. We might also wonder how there aren't a lot more serial rapists about given that Playboy sold some seven million copies a month at its height.

Before moving on, let me note how common this sort of glib argument based on no apparent evidence or logic is with Hildebrand. Earlier I dealt with her shallow handling of the story of David and Bathsheba but lets return now to one fascinating line she tosses off in the course of making that argument: "Adulteries lead to murder." They do? Then why aren't the streets piled deep with bodies? There is a lot of adultery out there. Walk down any street and at least 40 percent of the married men and women you will walk by have committed adultery at some point.

The way Hildebrand argues is the way children argue not the way mature adults such as  university professors should be expected to argue (well, actually, a disturbingly large number of university professors argue like that but that is a subject for another day).

This series starts here.

Last post up later today.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

"Stop being a hypocrite like me."

Dilbert creator Scott Adams has written a  brilliant article on the challenges of building a green house.

A very similar article could be written on the challenges of being a Catholic.

Alice von Hildebrand (3)

A few words in defense of Christopher West
I don't do this with any great enthusiasm but it has to be done if we are to get at what is wrong with Alice von Hildebrand's critique of West. In line with my earlier comments about the two Catholic churches, it is important to recognize that there are ideal Catholic cultures that are at odds with what actually exists.

And here Christopher West is one of the good guys. He recognizes that actual Catholics know very little of actual Church teaching and they don't want to know more because they are scared to find out.

And to see why, we only need to look at this paragraph from Hildebrand:
I cannot describe what Dietrich thought of pornography: the very  word triggered an expression of horror on his noble face. The same thing is true of sodomy.  He had such a sense for the dignity of human persons that any posture, which sins against this dignity, was repulsive to him. It is in this context, that we should judge Popcak’s shocking suggestion (p. 248) that “as Christopher West has noted in his book, Good News About Sex and Marriage, there is nothing technically forbidding a couple from engaging” in sodomy (provided the husband culminates the normal sex act within his wife); and that, while he discourages the practice of marital sodomy, “nevertheless, following Augustine’s dictum and in the absence of greater clarification from the Church, couples are free to exercise prudential judgment” in this regard.
To get a deeper grasp on what is at issue here, simply replace "sodomy" in the above paragraph with "oral sex".  I know, most people see the word "sodomy" and read "anal sex"* but "sodomy" has a broader meaning of prohibited sexual practice. That is the issue and, as West likes to tell groups of young Catholics he is speaking to, he knows this is the first thing they look up. They want to know, "Am I still allowed to do this."  There are other issues such as Can I continue to use vibrators and other sex toys? Can we tie each other up? Is it okay to wear  lingerie and other special sexy clothes?

And it is not easy to answer these questions from most Catholic writing on sexuality because this writing does not say much about specific practices. And because it does not, it is easy to imagine that the answer is going to be "No!". A fear that is not much relieved by Hildebrand when she says things such as the following:
Furthermore, the fact that an act is not formally condemned does not entitle us to believe that it is right or good.
I, like Hildebrand, have no idea what the provenance of "Augustine's dictum" above is but it surely is the correct answer. Treat married adults like adults. Not because we can be sure that they will be good but because the decision of how to go about their intimate lives is intimate. It is not a public issue that will cause scandal. It is something they decide on their own.

What West is trying to do is to guide young couples who currently have every reason to simply ignore Catholic teaching on sexuality to see it as offering good things to them. I think he would do well to spend a little less time getting worked up about it—there are times when he acts a little like Tom Cruise jumping up and down on the couch—but he is more on the right here than Hildebrand.

This series starts here.

The last entry will be up tomorrow.

* Is anal sex an issue? For that is the practice most people think of when they hear the word "sodomy". I would say only in a tiny way. The best research currently available says that a majority of couples will try it at some point. A very significant number never will, however. Research also tells us that the vast majority of those couples who try anal sex will conclude that they do not like it and abandon the practice. Quite frankly, if the Church banned the practice outright tomorrow, it would probably have zero impact on most people's actual practice. (Although it would create a wave of publicity.)

Two Catholic churches

One of the things that I think is really hurting the Catholic Church is that devoted Catholics of all stripes like to imagine a real Church that is separate from the actual Church. Both in the clergy and the laity, the people who are most enthusiastic are committed to a "Church as they would have Her become" that they paradoxically consider more real than the actual Catholic Church that exists in the world.

Casual Catholics make no such mistake as anyone who has seen what has happened to the weekly collections since the most recent round of sex-abuse scandals will know. They read about this in the media and then they punish the people running the actual building in their community by giving less.

Committed traditionalists look at the actual practices of most parishes and most Catholics and even most bishops and they see a temporary aberration. They say to themselves and others, this is an appalling thing that has been done to the Church by various reformers but there is a true core that will re-establish itself.

Committed liberals make the same distinction going the other way. They say, there are catechetical limits on what the Church can do. There are certain things that will come but there are reactionaries in the pews and even in the hierarchy who are not ready to accept this just yet and so we don't proclaim the real Church until the time is ready.

In neither case is the actual Catholic Church accepted as the real Catholic Church.

The sex -abuse scandals have really underlined this problem. Both sides blame not the Church but  elements within it (and often they blame the opposing camp) for what has happened. No one sees these crimes for what they are—that is, no one sees that they are  crimes committed by Holy Mother Church. They see only certain priests and bishops as having done it.

Perhaps we all should go to a blackboard like Bart Simpson and write 100 times:
My Catholic church committed horrible crimes.
My Catholic church committed horrible crimes.
My Catholic church committed horrible crimes.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

How much sex?

Marina Adshade writes about sex and happiness over at a blog called Big Think. What she has to say on the subject is fascinating but the think I think really worth noting is a paragraph where she distills the best statistics on how much sex people really have down to a few pithy lines:
First, you should know that everyone else is having less sex than you think. The median adult American has sex (with another person) 2 to 3 times a month. Even younger people, under forty, only have sex once a week, on average. Only 7% have sex more than 4 times a month and 18% have none at all.  Students have less sex than others of the same age (except my students, who have assured me that is impossible) and married people have more.
She is right here. I've been reading the research on this obsessively for decades now and well-designed studies always come up with numbers very close to what is given above. The press is statistically illiterate so they never get this*. Yes, there was a real sexual revolution and most people now have sex before marriage but any suggestion that sexual activity is exploding is nonsense. For all the talk about our hyper-sexualized society, the numbers just aren't there to justify the alarm.

Read the whole thing it's worth your time and trouble.

The following is also true: "Research suggests that promiscuity is not associated with increased happiness and, in fact, that the number of sexual partners needed to maximize happiness is exactly one."

Yup, that agrees with my experience but I would add that it matters a whole lot who that "one" is.

* The other thing about press reports of course is that they are usually written by prurient minded thirty somethings who desperately want to believe that the girls they see when they drive by the local college campus are servicing five guys a night.

What the David story does resemble

Picking up from the post immediately preceding this one, if we are looking for a modern parallel to apply the David story to, we have one that fits far better in the sex-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. The analogy is almost exact. There were people in authority sexually exploiting those they were supposed to be responsible for. Worse, when there was danger of the scandal coming to light and shaming Church authorities, those authorities, like David, thought only of preserving their own honour-status and acted with complete disregard for the victims; in fact, our Church used them like pawns in a game just as David does with Uriah.

Does that seem unfair? Does it feel like I'm piling on? If it does, I'm not surprised. I once felt that way myself following the breaking of the Mount Cashel scandal here in Canada fifteen, twenty-one years ago. Since then there have been two more waves of scandals and it is now clear that the vile cover-up was not a few bad apples here and there but a systemic problem across the church. (And let's be honest, there are probably more scandals to come.)

Last round of scandals I read a commentary in a Catholic publication that argued that some people were exploiting the scandals to destroy the Catholic Church's authority to teach sexual morality. It is no doubt true that some enemies of the Church are relishing the advantage the Church has handed them but the Church did hand it to them.

The Catholic Church's authority to teach on matters of sexual morality has indeed been severely undermined but almost all that damage was done by the Church herself. 

It's going to take decades to earn that authority back. And it is worth underlining here that the blame lies entirely with the hierarchy and it is overwhelmingly their responsibility to fix it. A good start would be to stop thinking of this as something that happened to the Church—it is something the Church did to herself.  I think Benedict gets this. I'm not so sure about a lot of others.

The first post in this series is here.

The next post in the series is here

Alice von Hildebrand (2)

Note: This post has been corrected to repair a mistaken attribution from an earlier version. There is some explanation in the comments.

Time to get back to Alice von Hildebrand's essay criticizing Christopher West.

She now turns to the Bible to back up her position. What happens is rather curious:
Man easily becomes prey to his feelings. The Bible is rich in such examples. Clearly, King David—a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14)—totally lost control of himself when he saw Bathsheba who was very beautiful.  He was defeated by her attraction, and committed adultery, followed by murder.
If we go back and look at the actual story of David and Bathsheba where we find absolutely nothing to justify Hildebrand's suggestion that this is a story about a man losing control of himself. The problem is rather the opposite. What we see is a story of a king abusing his power in a very cold, calculated way.

The story opens with David rising in the late afternoon (where he has been napping miles from the front while his army is fighting to further David's glory by the way) and seeing Bathsheba bathing and he sends to find out who she is. Then he sends for her. Note how pre-meditated all this is. And note also that no resistance is recorded on Bathsheba's part.

The only way you could read that scene as David losing control is if you projected it onto the events yourself. Which, of course, is exactly what Hildebrand has done here.

And it gets worse. Hildebrand writes as if the murder of Bathsheba's rightful husband follows hot on the heels of the adultery but this is hardly the case. The Bible gives us a very important clue in that it tells us that when David and Bathsheba have sex she had just purified herself after her period. This tells us two things. First that she is not pregnant before going to David and second that, at a bare minimum, she has to go through her cycle before she will discover that she is pregnant. This has to be a number of weeks at the very least. The Bible is, as if it often does, telling us a story in a very compact way but the actual events are spread out over time.

When she does learn she pregnant, she sends David a note. This is a powerful hint that the relationship between the two is more amicable than Hildebrand's version would allow. (A point reinforced by their later marriage.) David now constructs an elaborate scheme to get Uriah (husband of Bathsheba) back from the front where he has been fighting and get him to go home to his wife so that he will mistakenly think he is the father. When this fails. he constructs another scheme to get Uriah killed in battle and this succeeds.

Not only does this belie Hildebrand's claim that David is out of control, it tells us that his primary motive here is not sexual but a matter of shame and honour. David has acted in a most shameful way while Uriah has always behaved with honour. David acts so as to prevent his shame from becoming public. It is fear of shame and not sexuality that is the cause of this murder.

Alice von Hildebrand, as I said in my first post on the subject, is writing in good faith. She really believes what she is saying. The problem when it comes to her reading of the Bible is that it is clear that she has a very poor grasp on the issues she is raising. She is just not credible here.

The first post in this series is here.

The next post in the series is here.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

"That's not sexy" revisited

I was having tea with a good friend today and she raised an objection to my earlier post on the womanly experience of dressing sexily.

The gist of her complaint was that I made it look like women say other women's dress is not sexy because they are threatened by those other women. She argued that that often is clearly not the case. I think she has a point.

What often happens is that we are all, not just women,  caught on the horns of a dilemma.

The first horn is that it is no longer appropriate in our society to say that a woman's personal choices, including dress are inappropriate. This is sacrosanct and therefore no one—and especially no woman conscious of the recently hard-won freedoms women have attained—wants to reopen a mode of criticism that was so often used to oppress women (and it was used to oppress women in ways that we would not want back under any circumstances).

The other horn of the dilemma is that some dressing choices clearly are inappropriate and we feel that even if we can't say it.

But we have to say something so we resort to pretending to ourselves and others that it isn't sexy when we know darn well it is.

Highway robbery and political sedition ahead, what fun!

Rob Roy chapters 3 and 4
The action resumes with our narrator explaining the purpose of the epigraphs he has stuck at the top of each chapter. This is odd because the use of epigraphs was well-established by the time Scott writes this. He certainly makes heavy use of them but he is not an innovator in this regard.

So why the explanation? I can think of two explanations, which isn't to say there may not be others. First it seems to me that young Frank might be still so deeply attached to poetry and the heroic values therein that he continues to frame this account of his experience with poetry.

The second explanation, which doesn't necessarily exclude the first, is that he is simply lying to us and himself. Huh? Well, look at the epigraph from Chapter III:
The slack sail shifts from side to side,
The boat, untrimm'd, admits the tide,
Borne down, adrift, at random tost,
The oar breaks short, the rudder lost.
Gay's Fables                                                                                        
Sounds pretty bleak wouldn't you say? And yet, after a  few gestures in the direction of his lostness, our narrator quickly gets swept up in the romance of the voyage he is about to undertake. The old man cannot forget how good it felt to be the young man off to the north country. Off to a land he already knew to be rife with highwaymen and political sedition and he can't wait to get there.

On the way he finds himself in the company of a man named Morris who is steeped in the same tales but not to romantic effect. Poor Morris lives in constant fear of being robbed. My Grandmother used to say "Are you bragging or complaining?" And this charge fits Morris like a glove. He both brags of his greater experience with danger and complains of the risks and both aspects are more the product of his imagination than anything he has really experienced. Frank, against his better judgment, teases the man mercilessly.

Then he gets to a pub where the landlord is entertaining for the Sabbath and he and Morris are joined by other guests one of whom is particularly notable.

Okay, what I am going to tell you next may seem like a spoiler but it is not. I am going to tell you something that every red-blooded boy of the early 19th century already knew when he sat down to read this book.

Let me give you a modern example first. If you approach were to approach a boy in North America today and read him story and at one point is introduced, without any explanation, the millionaire Bruce Wayne who lives in Gotham City. You would do so being absolutely confident that this boy would know instantly that this is Batman you are talking about. Okay, the cattleman Mr. Campbell, a Scotsman traveling in the border country is Rob Roy. Everyone knew that. And I'm not spoiling it for you because and the clever irony Sir Walter is indulging in for quite a few chapters to come is letting us see how people around Mr. Campbell innocently interact with the man with no idea of who he really is. In chapter 4 we see how poor Morris, scared by Frank, throws himself in the arms of the Scotch Robin Hood asking him to protect him on his voyage north.

Mr. Campbell is canny lad. In front of witness he very harshly rebuffs Morris. Later he ..., well, what happens after that we will learn in later chapter.

Meanwhile our Hero is about to meet his heroine. He is going to meet her when he encounters a fox hunt that she is taking part in. Okay, I bet you can close your eyes and conjure up an image to go with that can't you?

Well, that image is partly correct. The setting of Rob Roy has been stolen over and over again. I remember seeing episode of The Monkees that borrowed liberally from the image of Obaldistone Hall and its occupants. Anyone who remembers the series Flambards, which was one the first if not the very first big hit for Masterpiece Theater will see so many similarities between the setting and set up for that novel and this one as to wonder why KM Peyton wasn't required to pay royalties to the estate of Sir Walter Scott. Even my favourite Brideshead Revisited owes a huge debt to Rob Roy.

But there is also one huge difference that may surprise you. All those other authors saw the fox hunting nobility as a genteel and sophisticated class. They might have been decadent, and morally bankrupt but they were very well-spoken, beautifully dressed, and their houses beautifully decorated as they walked and rode about them being morally bankrupt. Sir Walter doesn't see things quite that way. Fox hunting holds no romance for him.

I'll talk about that on Friday Saturday.

The first post in this thread is here

Why isn't it a problem that most Christians don't read the Bible

First of all, let me note that the notion that anyone should read the Bible is a deeply Protestant notion. It is only when you take the Bible as authority that it becomes really important to know the thing.

Second, the notion of the Bible as a whole is something that would come as a surprise to anyone of Christ's time or Saint Paul's time. It just never was intended to be a single authoritative document that told you everything you needed to be a Christian. I've written about this before.

Isaiah Berlin made a famous distinction between foxes and hedgehogs based on an old folk proverb: "The Fox knows many things but the Hedgehog knows one big thing". People who insist that we read the Bible are hedgehogs and they imagine that the Bible itself is a Hedgehog with one big truth just like them. Luther with his sola fide is a good example of this. The Deuteronomist historian is also a hedgehog trying to establish that the Bible events fit into the same pattern over and over again.

The Bible, however, stubbornly resists Hedgehog interpretations. It is the work of so many authors in so many situations that it could not help but be. And Jesus himself is a Fox. He comes to preach good news to sinners and he does so in a variety of ways and situations. And, if you agree with me that the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit, the message is definitely not a coherent whole. We have four different perspectives in the Gospels and several others in the letters.

Is there one big idea? Yes, I believe there is but it's not the Bible. to paraphrase Anselm, if you believe in God the Bible will help you understand. If, on the other hand, you seek to understand the Bible in order to be able to believe you will most probably fail.

So how would I advise people to read the Bible? Read the bits that speak to you. Don't close your mind as to what they might be—I was surprised and pleased by how much positive inspiration I found in Leviticus which, despite its reputation, is one of the most beautiful and inspiring books in the Bible. I read Isaiah because it is so important to later biblical authors but I have to confess that it has never been anything but pure drudgery for me to read it. I read some books—Leviticus, Ruth, Proverbs, Mark, Matthew, Corinthians, Ephesians, James—over and over again. Others—Deuteronomy, many of the prophets, Romans, Revelation—I read only when it feels absolutely necessary to do so (typically when I am looking to check on some claim I've read somewhere about what is in these books).

Monday, August 23, 2010

Further Bible thoughts

Do Christians not know the Bible?

In a sense yes but also no.

The yes is fairly obvious. Ask your average Christian if Jesus was born in a  stable with cattle and sheep present and the vast majority will say yes. In fact there isn't a scrap of evidence for this in the Bible. The "manger" where Jesus is laid in Luke 2: 7 refers only to the feeder that Mary uses as an impromptu cradle. There is no mention at all of where this manger is located.

The rest of the story is just romantic gloss that has been piled on by generations of Christian fantasy.

This is just one example of many.

On the other hand, there is no doubt that Christians know quite a bit of what is in the Bible. It is read in churches and people do hear it. Many of the big stories are repeated over and over again.

What scholars like James McGrath worry about is that Christians have not sat down and read the thing in a thorough-going way doing a detailed analysis of the different parts and how they do or do not fit in together.

Is this a problem? I don't think so and I'll explain why tomorrow.

Some follow ups

One crucial detail about Roger that doesn't seem to have elicited much comment is that right at the beginning, Roger shows himself to be on the right side of the civil rights debate. That is important is that it tells us that his later resistance is not driven by racism but by his own harrowing experience. This is an important historical detail: you simply cannot relativize the horrific abuses committed by the Japanese in WW2 away. There really were bad guys in that war and there is no reasonable way to suggest that the bad guys were anybody but the Japanese and the Germans.

I also think it is very important that Don's subterfuge  is used to shame the Japanese. When he tells Peggy, Joan and Pete about it, heys says. "Don't worry about the rules," forcefully and then adds, sotto voce. "For now". The whole thing is a ruse and not tied to anyone's genuine guilt. What Don does to his rival Shaw in fooling him into bankrupting himself on a commercial is good old-fashioned American flim flam. What he does to the Japanese is to shame them according to their rules.

It's a nice touch, BTW, that he writes them a personal cheque rather than a cheque against the business.

Don seems to be the only one who understands this. Except, maybe, for Roger. One of the reasons I keep bringing up the fight club interpretation is that these two never seem so deeply opposed as they might appear on the surface.

I know I said, it wasn't worth listing all the deceptions but there is one more I think worth noting. Don takes Bethany on a "date" that is really just an excuse to go to a Japanese restaurant and see the culture. He's using her and that should leave a bitter after taste in the mouths of those gloating about these young, feminist women getting the upper hand on Don. Apparently that is only for a while.

Assuming we get to see Bethany again, I wonder how she will respond to being ignored. She was clearly chafing at the lack of romance last night. Will she offer sex in attempt to get romance or would that be too depressingly like real life?

Update: One more, Dr. Edna  quickly figures out that Sally is probably just fine and the only real problem is her whacked out mother. So she pulls a trick on Betty and asks here to meet regularly with her as a way of furthering her ability to help Sally when she obviously intends to try and help Betty.

I would have done the same thing

The virtues of mad men
The Chrysanthemum and the Sword

It's one of those nice bits of irony you have to love. Sally's mother's friend has brought her home after catching her masturbating on the couch watching, I love this, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Anyway, Betty apologizes:
Betty: I am very sorry for this behaviour. And so is Sally. I would have done the same thing.
Other woman: Well, I'm sorry about that.
Betty means, of course, that she would have responded the same way this other woman has done (although we might doubt that given her tolerance of Glen Bishop's inappropriate behaviour). But the immediate antecedent in the sentence actually makes the plainest meaning that Betty would have done exactly what Sally did.

Of course we know that Betty doesn't mean that so we brush over it. Why do we know that? Because we understand the larger context of the conversation.

But if we were visiting a strange culture, we wouldn't know the larger context. And we'd make mistakes.

Or would we? Okay, let's add a twist.

Betty talks to Don and says that she never did such a thing and that the girls who did do such a thing grew up to be fast. Later, Betty will be talking to the psychiatrist who is going to see Sally and the subject of masturbation comes up. Betty admits here, very obliquely,  that she did do that sort of thing but that she "grew out of it".

But that's a lie as we all know from the infamous washing machine incident of a few seasons ago.

Secrecy, lies and deception
As I said in my post yesterday, that is what shame-honour societies engender.
Life is lived out in the open, in the public eye, and privacy is practically nonexistent. It would be impossible to live in such a world if one could not keep at least part of one's personal life hidden from others.
This is where secrecy, deception, and lying come into play.... Deception and lies are stratagems regularly used to keep information from others.
And boy did we see that in spades last night. Everyone has secrets they need to cover to maintain their honour.  Except Pete. He is so unaware of himself that he cannot see it. I'd list examples here but it would go one forever because there is the fake commercial, the fake wedding ring, the lunch to get Roger out of the office, the lies Betty tells and so on and on ....

What interests me more is that this raises one of my favourite questions about Mad Men: is this really about then or is it about now? When we comes up against a culture that is overtly a shame and honour culture, it pushes the shame and honour that underlies our presumption that we are about something higher aside. To pick up just one example: Note that when Betty is alone with Henry after Sally has been sent home, the first thing that she worries about is the shame she will now feel. I'm no Betty fan, as anyone who reads here will know, but isn't just the way we'd all react?

The obvious parallel—and although I haven't checked any one else's commentary this morning I'm sure only one million others noticed this—is with the Ground Zero Mosque. I don't do contemporary politics here so I won't go into it except to notice one politically incorrect subtext. Note that two things happen: 1) Roger rises above his personal feelings and 2) Don out plays the Japanese suitors from Honda at the shame-honour game. The underlying message here is clearly very pro-American* even if it seems dressed up as something else: secrecy, lies and deception, Matt Weiner knows how to play the game.

*And, as a Canadian, let me add that it damn well should be pro-American. You guys have a great country and a great culture and you spend far too much time running yourselves down. The world is a much better place because the USA is in it than it would have been otherwise.

Speaking of which
One of the things I am dreading about reading other's commentary this morning is that I know that all sorts of people will be gloating over the possibility of Don nailing Dr. Faye Miller. "Roving those hills" seems to be the favourite euphemism. It's a sort of guilty pleasure wherein they get to criticize the behaviour while getting the pornographic pleasure of watching it happen. (A common human trait, I know, but really: grow up guys. Be like me, I praise the behaviour and get the pornographic pleasure of watching it happen. Much better ;-))

Anyway, I think one of the really interesting bits of subterfuge Weiner and Co. pulled last night was to slip a pro-marriage subtext into the story. Henry Francis is helping Betty to finally grow up. And I think we could see that Dr. Faye is offering Don a chance at a real loving relationship with another woman. So far we have seen that he can have a loving relationship with Anna, provided it's non-sexual. With Suzanne we saw hints of his growing to have a sexual relationship with someone who is also good.

We'll have to see what happens here.

Anna (or Hannah), as Matt Weiner well knows, is the mother of Samuel, she who prayed for a son and then, in gratitude for having her honour restored by having a son, gave him to the Lord. Samuel became a great prophet and the key figure in the transition between two eras.

Any of this starting to feel familiar?

Anyway, what strikes me about it, however, is the extent to which "the past" has disappeared this season. We have not had a single flashback to Dick Whitman's childhood. With Roger giving up—with considerable moral effort—his attachment to past struggles, I think we are seeing the show move from the era of Prophets and Kings to the era of the writings (that is from Nevi'im to Ketuvim). I'll have to keep an eye out for references.

I'm not sure I feel comfortable with seeing Sally's sexual awakening on screen. Even though we see nothing it strikes me as exploitative. And what effect does this sort of plot have on the child actress playing the part. If she were my daughter and I was shown the script for last night's show I would have put a stop to it right away.

BTW: there is considerable overlap here with themes in Rob Roy which is coming tomorrow.

Season 4 blogging begins here.
The post on the next episode will be here.

For anyone crazy enough to go even further :

Season three blogging begins here.

Season two, if you are interested, begins here.

Season one begins here.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

A rare political comment

A linguist I read quite a while ago made a suggestion to grammarians. He suggested that they get a needlepoint image of the word "ain't" and frame it and hang it on their wall. The reason he suggested that they do this is because the battle against ain't is probably the only battle linguists have ever won. Reminding themselves of this would be an appropriate lesson in humility.

For similar reasons, I think that American liberals would do well to frame a needlepoint of the figure "20%" on their walls. Why? Because that is the proportion of the population that reliably self identifies as liberal. That's it. Four out of five Americans disagree with liberalism some or all the time.

In that regard (and I'm thinking of things like this), could I humbly suggest that liberals are ill-advised to be insulting the people who disagree with them? As a controversial Catholic saint once said, you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

Exploring Our Matrix: Best Analogy Ever? The Bible is like a Software Li...

James McGrath over at Exploring Our Matrix says that the following may be the Best Analogy Ever? 

I'm sorry but all I can see here is arrogance.

And I think we might be forgiven for thinking that the real problem some Biblical scholars have is not that people don't read the Bible but that they don't read it the way Biblical scholars would have them read it. That, despite a lot of effort, secular biblical scholars have very little influence on our culture. And what little they have seems to be declining.

And I think these biblical scholars might wonder if perhaps they have not played a role somewhat analogous to that of litigation lawyers in making the Bible unreadable. That the readings of the Bible they propose are so fraught with qualifications and legalisms that most people conclude it just isn't worth their trouble to bother.

The significance of the title?

NB: The post below has been updated to reflect me changing my mind about something.

The title of tonight's upcoming Mad Men episode is the Chrysanthemum and the Sword. The reference is to this book.

It's a fascinating choice and I'll be interested to see what, if anything, it has to do with the action on screen tonight. I say, "if anything" because Weiner has come up with titles that applied retrospectively in the past. "The Mountain King" told us more about what had happened in the previous episode than the next one and was the set up for a discussion about guilt and judgment.

What might the title The Chrysanthemum and the Sword be hinting at here? I can think of two possibilities beginning with my favourite and going down from there:

1. The most enduring impact of Benedict's book has been the contrast between shame and honour cultures like pre-war Japan and guilt and innocence cultures that exists in most western nations. In a shame-honour culture you are motivated primarily by what others think of you. In a guilt-innocence culture you are motivated by fear of the consequences of your sins whether they are known or not.(There is some interesting detail here, the two colour charts are particularly interesting.)

The two are not exclusive. There will always be some shame-honour aspects to any human society.  Anyone who has spent in high school will have an instinctive grasp of how easily our society could lapse into a shame-honour culture. And we are all familiar with the way that people who have a lot of honour confered on them—think politicians and celebrities—tend to think that they can do whatever they want so long as they don't get caught.

An aside, you might think that Jesus would be an all guilt innocence guy but a careful reading of the gospels reveals him to be very much a shame and honour guy too. The crucial differences being 1) that Jesus says that honour with God, who sees all, is more important than honour within our society and 2) that our sins can be forgiven. Both these ideas are, of course, already present in Judaic religion and are recurring themes in Mad Men.

And what do I think that might have to do with episode 5? One thing about Pete Campbell and Peggy Olson, although both born into guilt-innocence sub-cultures, is that they have become more shame-honour under Don's influence. The key shift for Peggy was season 2. Pet's shift came at the end oflast Season and is continuing under our noses this year.

Why does all this matter? Because one of the most important values in a shame-honour culture is privacy. Here is how John Pilch puts it in discussing the shame-honour culture of the the Mediterranean:
Life is lived out in the open, in the public eye, and privacy is practically nonexistent (see Luke 4: 42). It would be impossible to live in such a world if one could not keep at least part of one's personal life hidden from others.
This is where secrecy, deception, and lying come into play.... Deception and lies are stratagems regularly used to keep information from others (see John7: 1-10).
This, of course, is the value system that Don has brought with him and that Peggy and Pete have bought into to some extent under his influence. Where do they go now that it seems to be crumbling.

2. The huge impact of the Benedict book was that it convinced FDR that the emperor would have to be an important part of a demilitarized Japan. The Chrysanthemum, of course, is a symbol closely associated with the emperor and Japanese culture is closely associated with Bertram Cooper. The teaser for tonight's episode says. "Don and Pete go against Roger in efforts to get a new account." Perhaps the title is hinting at the ongoing importance of Bert Cooper even though he has seemingly little to do.

PS: Say whatever you want in the comments. I won't see the episode until tomorrow AM but I can resist looking until then.

An interesting link

There was a link to the article below on the Mad Men main site. The article is an evisceration of Elizabeth Gilbert. Someone at Mad Men thought it might spur people to make comparison's with Betty and Don Draper.

Is it fair? I say no. Not because it has it's facts wrong but because of the tone. Everything the post says about Gilbert is spot on but the author could have turned the anger down a notch.

On the other hand, it is an accurate representation of the way a lot of men now feel about women and divorce. If someone ran a poll of men on whether they agree with the paragraph below I suspect the numbers would be enough to give most women the chills.
In fact, divorce stats paint a clear picture to the contrary. In marriage, it is women who go stone-cold at the drop of a hat, turn off their empathy with no effort, and do extraordinarily cruel things to a spouse without a trace of remorse. Sure, men sometimes screw around, but they are usually conflicted and sorry when they do so. In my entire life, I have never – not even once – heard a woman express regret or contrition for betraying her husband or boyfriend, but I have heard many men do so.
(Read the whole thing here.)
Just recently I was writing about the perils of telling girls and women that they are morally superior beings. Elizabeth Gilbert's angry little book is a good example of this.

By the way, Elizabeth Gilbert's idea isn't even original. A few years earlier a woman named Laura Fraser wrote a book about a voyage of discovery after her divorce called An Italian Affair. She, however, actually deals with so profound ideas instead of lot of touchy-feely nonsense and, for the most part, does not trash her ex. And she didn't make nearly as much money out of it as Gilbert.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

One of my favourite subjects ...

... was introduced by my very favourite person. In the comments on the manly experience of being shaved post, the Serpentine One writes:

The womanly experience of dressing sexily

Note: this is a companion piece to The manly experience of being shaved and, like it, is incorrect in some ways.

American Apparel is no no more. Well, probably. Their debts greatly exceed their ability to pay.

Let's all stop for a split second of silence.

Okay, the only real issue if you are a man is that we will no longer get those pornographic ads. These were shot in a way that suggested amateurishness. There is a picture of a girl wearing a body suit on a billboard near the pub down the street, for example, that looks more like something a girl took of herself for her boyfriend than the work of a professional photographer.

And there we have, I think, one of the reasons for the failure of American Apparel*.

Abercrombie and Fitch used to run a similar ad campaign and so did Calvin Klein. Both have dropped these. You get pornographic images of young men from Abercrombie and Fitch nowadays that are obviously aimed at the gay market. Calvin Klein have a great little voyeuristic film on their website but, and this is important, that film makes it clear that you  are the vulnerable voyeur peaking and model you are peaking at is the one with the power. You get quick little peeks at her and never the chance to hold her in your gaze.

The young women in the American Apparel ads, on the other hand, looked distinctly nailable. Those ads weren't about the sexual power of women but about the sexual power of men looking at them. It's not that women don't sometimes crave that experience of seeing a guy looking at them knowing he can do ... I don't have to actually explain this do I? It's just that women don't dress sexily to get that experience. When a woman dresses sexily, she gets a mixture of power and vulnerability and you have to do understand both to sell them clothing. The American Apparel look has been all vulnerability and no power.

The manly experience of being shaved

Warning: Some will consider the following incorrect not that I care but I'm giving warning anyway.

I saw some pictures taken of wolves interacting a few years ago. They were not art shots but the work of a field biologist and they were intended to demonstrate one of those phenomena that are initially surprising but make profound sense when you think about it.

The thing that the photo shows you is that one of the ways the dominant wolf demonstrates its dominance is by leaving its throat vulnerable to others. "Demonstrates" is the wrong word because he doesn't think about it. He doesn't think, I'll show these whippersnappers that I'm the boss by leaving my throat vulnerable thereby demonstrating that I'm alpha here. No, the thing is that he knows he isn't vulnerable so he doesn't adopt a defensive posture the way all the other wolves around him do.

That psychology is an important part of getting a shave and it was an important cinematic ritual in an era when all men knew what it felt like to get a shave. The hero rides into Tombstone, Arizona after a few days or weeks on the range. He sees a town in uproar. Drunken brawls and crooked poker games in the tavern and shootouts on the street. He ignores all these and goes to the barbershop, pulls, the cowering barber out of the back room where he has been hiding from the violence and gets him to give him a shave.

The iconic moment is when the hero lying back in the chair arches his neck back to expose his throat to the barber, who is so nervous at the noise outside that he is shaking. Our hero, however, is fully confident that his manly social status alone will establish him as a non-victim. Henry Fonda was especially good at enacting this. We know he will triumph, we just don't know how.

I felt that Henry Fonda feeling today.

Friday, August 20, 2010

How Rob Roy is like Mad Men

I was off on a pastoral visit this AM and thinking about how to frame the
blog post that no one will read. And then I walked into a grocery store and
saw the covers of all the magazines at the checkout and it suddenly was
obvious: I should frame it in a crass pop-culture way.

And the comparison is not insane. Rob Roy is an historical drama in prose by
the guy who invented the genre. And it's about an era that was famous for
its revolutionary attitudes and romantic rebellions being looked back on
from a more sober era. Both feature heroes who represent the virtues of an
era that has been usurped and we go to both admiring the hero but knowing
that he ultimately has to go.

A barbershop shave

I'm off to get one. It reportedly takes 45 minutes to an hour.

If it all works out as I hope, I will sit up to find myself wearing a nice Brooks Brothers' suit and it will be late 1959 and I'll be on my way to work at an advertising agency on Madison Avenue.

Of course, if that happens, you'll never hear from me again because there is no way for me to get internet access in 1959.

If it doesn't work out as hoped, I'll be back at the keyboard with an oldfashioned in hand to report on the experience.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Early puberty?

There have been a number of pieces lately questioning the widespread claims that puberty has been getting earlier due to chemicals such as Bisphenol A. I suspect these critics are correct.

There is a an easy to read piece about the issue here.

No one disputes, by the way, that the age of first period, or menarche, declined from about ages 14-15 to 12-13 between 1900 and 1960. Some critics, and again, I suspect they are right, suggest that the sexual revolution was largely driven by this earlier decline in the age of puberty and not by the social factors often given the credit.

More Rob Roy tomorrow by the way.

Alice von Hildebrand (1)

The Augustinian argument
One thing I need to be clear about right from the outset is that Alice von Hildebrand is arguing in good faith. It's always tempting to accuse someone who comes along with an argument that seems to tell us that we cannot do what we want to do of arguing in bad faith. This is not just because we get childish and churlish when we are being denied. It's also simply true that arguments like hers are often made by people who simply like running other people's lives.

That is not the case with Hildebrand. She is making an argument she holds deeply. An argument she loves and she obviously spent many years loving this argument as personified by her husband the late Dietrich von Hildebrand. She is not malicious, she is only wrong.

I also should say that I hold no brief for Christopher West. I've long thought, to put it crudely, that Christopher West should just shut up and I think Hildebrand puts her finger right on the problem when she identifies West as being wrapped up in a kind of religious enthusiasm. We might even say he is "raptured" up by it.

What Hildebrand is doing, and doing quite consciously and openly, and doing wrong in this essay is to maintain an Augustinian position on sexual ethics. The Augustinian position is one that she feels a deep attachment to. There is nothing wrong with that. We all do things like that. I feel a deep attachment to arguments of Aquinas, MacIntyre  and Wittgenstein that I use over and over again.

But the Augustinian argument on sexuality comes with a special problem. Augustine argued that Original Sin is transmitted through sex and he was wrong. This is not just something I say, it is a view that the Catholic Church has firmly and unequivocally condemned as false.

Hildebrand knows this. What she hopes is that much of the rest of what Augustine says about sexuality can be salvaged. She hopes that his claim about sexuality and Original Sin is more like a headlight than a steering wheel—because you can still drive a car with a missing headlight but you can't go anywhere at all with a missing steering wheel.

Not surprisingly, then, one of the first things she wants to establish is that there is some sort of special connection between Original Sin and sex. Not the specific connection that Augustine makes but a special connection.
Because the intimate sphere differs radically from other bodily instincts, it was bound to be deeply affected by Original Sin. Corruptio optimi , pessima. The ugly harvest of sins committed in this sphere is large.  We need not go into details, but no one can deny that it is a domain in which the Devil (the master of ceremonies) has had a field day since the onset of Original Sin, and still does.
For those of you wondering,  Corruptio optimi , pessima, is one of those lovely and indispensable Latin phrases meaning roughly "the corruption of the best is worst of all." It's a lovely phrase but we might wonder what it is doing here. In the context here the only thing the "best" that is corrupted here can mean is sex but that is precisely the move the church has condemned. The thing that is corrupted by Original Sin is me and that affects everything I do not just sex or even especially sex.

And you can see the sort of moves here that we all make when we don't really have an argument but want to go to the place an argument would take us if we did have one. She assumes the thing she wants to prove. She asserts sex is radically different when that is the thing she needs to convince us of.

Yes, the ugly harvest of sins committed in the sexual sphere is large. But so is the ugly harvest of sins committed in classrooms, kitchens, on the highways and on blogs. Yes, sexuality is a domain in which the devil has a field day. He certainly had a field day with me once upon a time. But the devil has a field day everywhere he goes on earth and he also faces defeats everywhere he goes and that includes the bedroom. Sex is something you can do without sinning it's not a game of Snakes and Ladders with hidden booby traps that were put there just to trip you up.

One of the consequences of the Augustinian view is to make sexuality into a minefield. It becomes a special area that we should never go into or only go into if absolutely necessary because there be monsters here. And from this comes the odd view that one could avoid sinning by never having sex. This is patent nonsense. Virginity is not chastity. I could never have sex even once and still live a monstrously unchaste life.

In closing, I'd like to note an odd strategy that Hildebrand and West share: Corruptio optima. They both have a tendency to elevate sexuality in order to tear it down. As if it were a sacrament and needs to be elevated just as the priest elevates the host. It isn't a sacrament. Marriage is the sacrament and while sex is a part of marriage it is only part.

And here we get the odd contradiction that runs through Augustine's thought to both Hildebrand and West. Sex is both elevated to make it a  sacred thing and yet is so totally invested with the presence of sin as to make it the Diabolus musica of life. It is good in the abstract but seemingly always a sin in reality.

The next post in this series is here.

*The Diabolus musica is the only five note interval in music that is perfectly symmetrical (in all the others the central tone, or the third, is either closer to the root note or the top note) and yet it is not "perfect" because it is a dissonant tone and all the other possible five note intervals are harmonic. In the C scale, this is the interval between B and F. In solfege, the easiest example is from to to fa.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

i've found something really good

la nouvelle théologie: The Assumption of Mary:

I could not recommend the link above more enthusiastically. Of the various things I have seen about Mary over the years, this is the probably the only one that really gave me a sense of why Mary is inspiring. I’ve always been able to follow the logic but never got anything more than that out of it before.

While your there, look around and be especially careful not to miss this follow up post.

Agape versus Eros

How different are agape and eros? I believe the definitive answer has been given by Pope Benedict in Deus Caritas Est a bit of which I cite below, but, as they say on the 'net, read the whole thing; there has been no other encyclical published in my lifetime as good and beautiful and true as this one.

Anyway, here is the section I want to highlight:
In philosophical and theological debate, these distinctions [between agape and eros] have often been radicalized to the point of establishing a clear antithesis between them: descending, oblative love—agape—would be typically Christian, while on the other hand ascending, possessive or covetous love —eros—would be typical of non-Christian, and particularly Greek culture. Were this antithesis to be taken to extremes, the essence of Christianity would be detached from the vital relations fundamental to human existence, and would become a world apart, admirable perhaps, but decisively cut off from the complex fabric of human life. Yet eros and agape—ascending love and descending love—can never be completely separated. The more the two, in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realized.
As someone remarked soon after this came out, Benedict just called out CS Lewis and said, "you're wrong."

To put it another way, while eros  is not necessarily agape it can and should be. And to draw an exclusionary line between them would be to detach Christianity "from the vital relations fundamental to human existence." And the most important of these fundamental relations is marriage.

I've said this over and over—and I'll stop for a while after this time, honest—if I'm married and the eros has gone out of my marriage then I am obliged to do everything I can to rekindle it. This isn't voluntary. Finding and maintaining a proper unity between agape and eros is what I promised in a sacred vow to God in the presence of God's priest and in front of the community. If I don't do everything I can* I have betrayed that vow and betrayed my spouse in a  way that is at least as bad, and potentially worse, than if I had an affair.

* Which isn't to say that there might not be physical reasons preventing me from succeeding. In that case, the to-have-and-to-hold vow is succeeded by the in-sickness-and-in-health vow.